Tag Archives: psychological horror

Such Things Don’t Happen

The Tanzler family were transplants from Germany. They lived on a respectably-sized farm in the American midwest and had a respectable amount of wealth. It was a household of seven: Friederich and Rosemary Tanzler, their grown daughter Annalise and her husband Hubert, their toddler Frederich jr. (affectionately known as Freddie), and the Tanzler’s 12-year-old son Wilbur. Their maid-of-all-work Vera had recently disappeared (absconded with a beau, the Tanzlers suspected.) The mute girl Greta whom they’d fostered as favor to a distant cousin was promoted to maid. Save for Johan, a son from Rosemary’s previous marriage who lived in the next state, and the neighbors who lived over three acres down a dirt road, the Tanzlers had no one to worry after their existence. Said neighbors did worry one day, a day the weak winter sun spilled over their farms and disclosed that no smoke poured from the Tanzler’s chimney.

Greta rose at approximately four-thirty am on the day before that. She laid the fire and boiled water for coffee and farina for young Freddie. She set the table for breakfast and poured coffee into the silver service. After this, she went to the coops to begin her day of alternating between farm and household chores.

Perhaps twenty minutes after Greta woke, Annelise was shaken awake. There was no light from the cold fireplace embers, so she had to discern her assailant by the atonal humming noise the family had become familiar with.

“Greta? What is it, girl?”

The maid kept up her urgent humming as she tugged Annelise from bed. In only her robe and slippers, Annelise followed the girl to the coop. The slatted door lay unbolted, a fully grown goose slaughtered in the middle of the January snow. Annelise stifled her horror with a hand to her mouth and ran back to the house.

“A fox, perhaps? Or someone’s wandering dog?” Friedrich had dressed quickly and accompanied his daughter to the scene. He lifted the goose’s neck with a broken slat. The head was nowhere to be seen. Friederich rose and wagged his finger at Greta, who now hid behind Annelise. “Forgetting to latch the door in such weather? Don’t think I won’t take my belt to a girl.”

“It looks like knife-cuts, papa,” Annelise said, moving between them, “as if someone hacked at the poor creature and left it.”

Friedrich blinked. “Hacked it and left it? And left the rest of the geese untouched? People don’t do such things, Anna.” He sighed and rubbed the place his spectacles sat on his nose. “We’ll have the bird for supper.”

Breakfast went as smoothly as every breakfast that came before. The peace of the house once again closed over their heads. Around noon, Annalise came to her mother with a mahogany pipe.

“Mama,” she said, “I didn’t know papa got a new pipe. Did he mean to leave it by the attic stairs?”

Rosemary took the pipe, frowning. “He hasn’t had a new pipe since christmas. Surely your husband…?”

Annelise looked at her mother with worried eyes. “He uses the one he bought in the city last July. He isn’t one for frivolous purchases.” Her fingers pet the bowl. “It’s still warm. Was papa smoking recently?”

The elder Mrs. Tanzler cocked her head like a chicken listening for the far-off whistle of a hawk.

“I think the pipe must have been left by a guest,” she said slowly, “and perhaps your brother took it to practice smoking tobacco.”

“But mama—”

“Hush, girl.”

Downstairs, her father was having an equally puzzling conversation. Wilbur had left to help his brother-in-law feed the milch cows, but came running back in no time at all. “Papa! Fresh footprints in the snow!”

Friedrich waved him away. “Probably Greta. Go away, child.”

“No, big. Like a man. They go all around the house, stopping at every window.”

Friedrich let his newspaper slide from his hands. Numbly, he followed his son outside. There was indeed a fresh line of footprints leading from the hinterlands to their farmhouse, long and deep with an impressive stride. The trail of a large man. They stopped in clusters at each window, circling the house before stopping at the back door. No tracks leading away.

Friedrich sucked at a gap in his teeth. He paused at the back door. It had been bolted since the previous night. He pressed the door. It held firm.  He pushed harder. The latch gave. Color drained from Friedrich’s face.

“Do you think he came in, papa?” Wilbur was looking innocently at his father’s face. “Perhaps he came in to get away from the cold.”

Friedrich stood and turned, scanning the surrounding hills. All around them, white smothered the land, changed it. It was if the land itself was stranger to him now. He felt watched.

Friedrich sank down until his face was level with his son’s. “Listen now. You mustn’t tell the women of this, it would worry them unnecessarily. It was probably the neighbor come to inquire about this or that. The snowfall merely covered up his tracks going away, that’s all.”

“Why would the snow only cover one kind of track, papa?”

“Hush, child. No more questions.”

After the winter farm chores had been completed, the three women sat in a circle in the parlor and did needlework. Rosemary worked on her husband’s trousers. Greta stitched a burst grain bag. Annelise alone did not have mending, she was working on a cross stitch of flowers and birds. Hubert came in, wiping his hands on an oilcloth.

“Where’s Freddie?” Being an older transplant, he mainly spoke in accented english with his wife.

“I thought he was with you.” Annelise’s needle slowed. “I thought I heard him playing with you, so I let Greta ease up a bit this afternoon.”

“I haven’t seen him since breakfast.”

“What is it?” Rosemary prodded her daughter in German. “What’s the boy saying? He speaks too fast.”

“Freddie wandered off, mama.” Annelise stabbed her needle into the canvas and rose. “He’s probably hanging around papa.”

But no, the elder Tanzler was at his workbench and hadn’t seen the young boy. Now the family paced the house and called for him with a nameless urgency. Annelise told herself it was worry that the boy had gone outside without his snow suit. When she finally heard Freddie’s happy gurgles behind the closed pantry door, in tandem with a deeper man’s voice, she sighed in relief.

“You’ve found him,” she said, pushing open the door to discover her toddler alone.

The boy sat in the middle of the store shelves and happily blew bubbles as Annelise searched for her husband or father. Nothing.

When the door creaked behind her, she jumped. Hubert looked nonplussed. “You found him?”

Annelise, hands to her heart, nodded. She almost said something about the voice, but her husband turned and left abruptly to get back to his chores.

Friedrich was carving a toy for his grandson when Hubert burst in.

“Papa,” he said, “have you seen the mattock? It’s not on its hook.”

Tanzler laid aside his chisel. “Nonsense. Why are you using the mattock? I thought you were splitting some kindling.”

“I was. Then I noticed the mattock was missing.” Hubert lead his father-in-law to the space where it should have been, in between the scythe and the splitting maul. A small hatchet was also gone.

Tanzler swallowed. “I think—Wilbur, perhaps, he took them to play. Yes.” He ignored the fact that the mattock was nearly as tall as the boy, and so heavy even he had to lift it with both hands.

Hubert was looking at him cautiously. “…perhaps it is time for him to apprentice,” he said finally, “a boy shouldn’t be so idle he gets into mischief.”

Friedrich felt the gooseflesh raised on the backs of his hands. “Yes,” he said hollowly.

Greta had dressed the goose as well she could for supper that night, hiding the damage by stuffing the bird with potatoes. The family supped well and let their fullness chase away their tension.

“Wilbur, you’re a naughty boy,” Rosemary scolded, “running behind your mama like that to slam a door! If you do it again, I’ll have papa stripe you with his belt.”

The boy furrowed his brow. “I didn’t do that mama. I was with Hubert all day.”

The table was silent. None of the adults would look at each other.

“Boyhood is a time for japes,” Hubert said, reaching across the table to ruffle the boy’s hair, “but in moderation.”

Wilbur was indignant. “I didn’t do it! I didn’t!”

“Would you like me to mend your pants, papa?” Annelise said, trying to steer the conversation away. “Or would you just like Greta to wash them?”

Friedrich scowled thoughtfully. “What pants?”

“The muddy ones. They were flung over the woodpile, so I thought—”

“Dear, they must have been muddied a while ago,” Rosemary said hurriedly, “and you forgot about them. Greta must have found them and put them there, didn’t you girl?”

Greta, in the middle of feeding Freddie, nodded. Her mute lips pressed together.

Frederich could hear the snow falling again as he ascended the stairs to bed. It was like a series of interminable footsteps by countless little kobolds dancing up and down the shingles. He stopped and looked out the picture window at the white falling on the house, mummifying it. The cover of snow had once brought comfort. Now…

Rosemary was already undressed and in bed. She was frowning as her husband struggled from his britches. “The bed’s cold. And I had to build the fire myself.”

Friedrich gestured to the serving bell as he removed his spectacles.

“She won’t answer.” Rosemary pulled the cord to show her husband. “What do you think she could be doing?”

Friedrich undid his shirt slowly. “Perhaps—perhaps we are too hard on her. Maybe that is why Vera left.”

“Vera said she was going to visit Nellie at the next farm,” Rosemary said, “she always came back from visits.”

“Nellie said she never arrived.”

Rosemary did not reply.

Frederich set the candle on a side table while he retrieved his nightshirt from the oak wardrobe. He trotted quickly over the chilly floorboards and dove into bed next to his wife.

“The candle.” Rosemary pointed to where he’d abandoned it.

“Leave it. It’s too damned dark in the winter.” Friedrich struggled to get comfortable. “Too dark and too cold. The house settles.”

As if to prove his point, there was a creak not too far from their room.

Friedrich spoke quickly: “Wilbur found some footprints this morning. Said they lead to but not away from the house.”

“And did they?”

Friedrich squinted, straining to make anything out even in the light from the fireplace and candle. “…yes.”

“Ah.” Rosemary was silent for a moment. “It’s probably some drifter, half mad. Killed the goose but didn’t know how to cook it. If he’d come to the door like a civilized man, we could have fed him.”

Frederich’s spoke to cover the creak of the hallway, which was probably their son getting up to use the privy. “Perhaps he wasn’t after food. The mattock and hatchet were missing. Perhaps he stole them to sell.”

Ah.” Rosemary snuggled deeper in the down quilt, satisfied with this version of events. “Well, I hope he’s found somewhere warm to sleep tonight, as we have.”

Friedrich smiled, watching the shadows dance familiarly along the bedroom wall. The creak he heard was not the door, it was his house that he had built with his own two hands settling. He and his family were snug in their beds, and there was no one up at such an unchristian hour. There was no stranger in his house, with his mattock and his hatchet. Such things just didn’t happen.

On the table, far from any possible winter draft, the candle was snuffed out

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I Cover the Waterfront

Curtis drained the spit valve over a cement planter where a few begonias valiantly held on to life amidst stubbed-out cigarette butts. The saxophone case in front of him had a scant few bills and one quarter. The only other person out at this time of night was the shaved ice vendor across the way. The old man kept up his cry of “ices! Genuine Italian ices!” as his handmade signs swayed from the push-cart. The boardwalk was practically deserted at this hour.

Curtis checked his watch. 8:05. At 8:25 the theater across the way would let out. Crowds. Crowds were good.

The push-cart creaked closer.

“Slow night?” The old man’s accent was unplaceable.

Curis tooted a note. “Not for long, I hope.”

“You stick with it. My son, he has the other cart, he likes to run around a lot. I tell him: ‘stick to one place, they will come to you.’”

“Preach.” Curtis smiled and nodded politely, hoping that was the end of it. He didn’t like talking too much on a job.

The old man decided to take a seat on the lip of the planter instead. He pointed with his chin at the sax case. “So little.”

“Ah.” Curtis shrugged, lighting an unfiltered camel. “Everyone keeps ignoring me.”

“You should come around five. Many people, then.”

Curtis shrugged again. “I’m a night owl myself.”

“Ah.” The old man chuckled and waggled a finger. “You musicians. You drum your own beats. I might give you tip.”

“Oh no, man, that’s really okay.” Curtis held a hand up.

“No, it’s good.” The old man grinned. His dentures were very straight and white. “Tonight will be a good night for me. I must spread fortune around, or it is lost.”

Over Curtis’s protests, the old man undid the brake and went back to lurk around the theater entrance.

8:15

Curtis tapped an ash in the cement planter. A girl walking past with her friend tossed her hair and barked a cruel staccato laugh.

“That’s gotta do great things for your lung capacity.”

Curtis worked his hands over the keys, puffing air soundlessly over the reed. Californians. You could be in deep with the mob  and still get elected to public office, but smoke and you were persona non grata. He would rather be in New York. Or Chicago. He liked Chicago. His skills never went unappreciated in Chicago.

Curtis took a long drag. Patience. If he did well here, he could write his own ticket. That’s what the other guys didn’t get. They got enthusiastic, jumped the gun. Slumming showed your worth. Showed you could put in the hours, whether the job had glamor or not.

Across the way, the cart man filled a cup and dashed syrup over it. The recipient bounced with a childlike joy as her paramour shelled out bills. The old man held out change, but the young man blocked it with his hand. His date saw, cuddling into him as they walked away. The old man saw Curtis watching and held up the bill with a smile. Curtis shot him a thumbs-up.

8:28

The theater door slammed open, and the first of the evening crowd trickled out. Curtis rose and leapt into motion, plunging the reed past his lips and taking a deep breath. He was Coltrane, he was Hawkins, he was Adderly. He eyed the crowds as his fingers danced across the keys. He could pick out some local big players pressing past the crowd to get back to Lincoln town cars and black SUVs. A socialite, three council members. Desmond Morales, the ADA,  ascending the steps with the help of his fourth wife.

Curtis fingered a heretofore unused key. There was a puff of air from his saxophone bell and Morales bent double, clapping a hand to his neck. Curtis improvised a series of hard bop trills to accompany the man’s sudden tremors as he fell to the ground, gasping. He only gave up on playing when the ambulance arrived.

9:30

The cart man approached the saxophone case, where Curtis was sorting through bills. He clicked his tongue.

“Ah. Not nearly enough for such an artist.”

Curtis shrugged. “A job is a job.”

“Tonight was maybe not your night, then.”

Curtis shrugged, scooping bills into his hand. An ice cup was thrust into his face.

“No, I couldn’t—”

“Take.” The old man pressed it forward until Curtis took the cup. It was Piña Colada with a dash of vodka.

“I had a good night. I can spare.” The old man grunted as he sat on the planter. Curtis forgot the bills and joined him. The ice was really quite good.

“You have off nights and you have good nights.” The old man mopped the back of his neck. “This I know from years of work.”

Curtis swallowed a mouthful. “I count success in more than bills.”

The old man snapped his fingers. “That’s the way to think. Where do you go from here?”

Curtis smiled. He dug out a cigarette, brushing the paper envelope bearing more darts hidden in the back of the pack.

“Chicago. Always call for someone like me over there.”

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Dream Journal

July 1st

The falling dream again.

 

July 8th

A flock of roaches took the shape of a man in a trenchcoat and begged me to extend them a line of credit. They would not leave, not even after I threatened them with fire and the lash.

 

July 10th

My brother’s death. In this one I arrived in time to hold him in my arms as he drew his last breath. I am never earlier than that. I suppose part of me will go on blaming myself for it.

 

July 15th

The lake dream again. I’ve decided to give up bathing. The thought of being submerged in anything makes my skin crawl.

 

July 20th

A series of dreams where I woke up and checked behind the door. Each dream ended the second I touched the knob. Each new dream started a second after that.

 

July 27th

Phillips started stocking the violet pastilles again. I dreamed the round I bought was porcelain and an unchecked bite broke my molars. Phillips refuses to special order anything for me.

 

August 1st

I was descending a ladder into the sewers. I did not dream of entering them, and I never reached the bottom. Simply descended, rung after rung. My arms began to shake and my hands tired, but I could not stop myself descending. I think my reasoning was that I had to hit bottom eventually. When I woke, my shoulders were sore from my sleeping position.

 

August 3rd

That girl, Bettina Kane, I had a crush on in grade school. Her skin broken out in spider bites, her hair a nightmare web. She slavered as she told me she was ready to elope. Her mouth was a jagged hole of blackness.

 

August 7th

I was in Phillips’ store, and the lot of them were trying to convince me my name was Bachmann. I’ve never even known a Bachmann. Could this have something to do with my indecisiveness on the new art exhibit?

 

August 10th

I took a long, cold walk to the edge of town. There I stopped and stared at a rock no different than the one either side of it. Then I dreamed the long walk back; every footfall, every dull breath. I had to check my sheets to make sure I hadn’t tracked in dirt.

 

August 13th

I did not get to sleep until after 1 am. My alarm somehow defaulted to the chime it came installed with, and the song crept into my dreams. It was part of a piano recital I could not leave. I woke at 6 and could not lay down again. I cannot nap.

 

August 16th

In-between dreams I have a black expanse of nothingness. I like it less than even the worst dream.

 

August 19th

Dreamed I walked to Phillips’ store and bought a pack of saltines and a new pen nib. Woke up to a half-eaten cracker on my pillow. I don’t know what to believe anymore.

 

August 20th

Phillips swears I came by. He also swears my appearance has changed. In my dreams last night I wore a hat as I hunted my doppelganger through the city.

 

August 23rd

My brother died again. He had miraculously resurrected and while out looking for me, he fell from a building. I did not cry in my dream, but my pillow was damp with saltwater this morning.

 

August 24th

Phillips claimed I ate his last round of Gruyere. I think he’s just trying to offload his odds and ends and blame me. I did not dream last night. I don’t even like Gruyere.

 

August 30th

The lake dream again. This time there was no land. I tread water and let the chill steal the feeling from my body. Maybe I’ll die soon.

 

September 2nd

I did it again. It wasn’t until Phillips called me Bachmann that I realized I was in a dream. This morning I have a new pack of cigarettes and some mints he swears he sold me. I will tie my ankle to the bed and get to the bottom of this.

 

September 3rd

My brother came and untied my foot. He explained that it was my job to wander out into the world because I was the last member of our family left alive. Sleep was immaterial. My ankle was still tied when I woke.

 

September 8th

I had a dream of being cognizant through my own funeral. It was very much like an interminable headache.

 

September 14th

I dreamed I sat down at this very desk and wrote all these pages, all these entries, one after one. This morning I turn each crisp page spotted with my handwriting and I just wonder. I can’t prove it one way or the other, can I?

 

September 21st

After weeks of no dreams, Bachmann came. He looked like me, but he was not me. He thanked me for holding this place for him, but now it was my time to go. I denied his agency after seeing how he cast a distorted reflection in my mirror. I took up this journal to write, and he stares at me as I inscribe these pages. We shall see who bends first.

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Corpse Blue

Tanner stood at the basement door, seeing or imagining he could see all the way to the bottom of the unlit basement steps. A damp miasma breathed out at him, bringing the earthy smell of mold and an undertone of something metallic. He tested his weight on a step, feeling it accordion beneath his foot. The oval ceramic doorknob(original to the building) felt firm to his grip. If he were to plunge down into that lightless interior, could the door act as an anchor?

The buzz of the intercom cut into his thoughts. He looked down into the darkness one last time before shutting the door.

Angelika was on the steps. She wore a felt artist’s beret cocked cheekily to the side of her head. Her coat was a tapestry cut up and put back together piecemeal, a batik chicken head peeking up from beneath her lone backpack strap.

“Hey mister Tanner.” Her smile put a dimple in one cheek. “Sorry it’s been a while.”

“It’s no problem, Angie.” He stood to the side of the door. “You’re the only one to humor this old skeleton anymore. Come on in, have a glass of formaldehyde.”

She laughed a laugh that crinkled her nose and squeezed past him, bringing with her the scent of ylang-ylang and citrus.

The entryway of the apartment was taken up by a series of brown-wrapped squares and rectangles that Angelika shamelessly poked at.

“Yours?”

He loosened a corner. “Mine. from my blue period.”

Beneath the paper, the canvas ached blue. A blue sun mourned over a blue chevy parked at a blue honky-tonk in a blue desert. The brushstrokes were thick and loose, running out roughly ¾ down the frame.

Angelika grinned. “It’s so raw. Why don’t you have these up?”

“I ran out of materials. Everything’s so hard to come by, you know?” He scratched the canvas with a nail. The cheap linseed oil flaked beneath his fingertip.

Angelika didn’t notice. She was already through the door and in Tanner’s studio. Doffing her beret and shedding her coat, she marveled at the much smaller canvas currently huddled on the easel.

“Is that one of yours too?”

Tanner laughed. “I wish. That’s a special painting. I actually got on loan in hopes of showing it to you.”

The palette was mostly warm tans with the odd spot of Payne’s grey. Six journeymen worked away in some sort of guild workshop, floor littered with wood shavings as a dog gnawed on a soup bone.

Angelika turned this way and that. “What’s so special about it?”

Tanner was looking at her, not the painting. “Tell me.”

“The composition? No, wait, it’s the dog.” Her finger stabbed at the canvas. “Wait, those tools…is it a freemason thing?”

Tanner burst into his first genuine laugh of the day. “No…it’s the color.”

Angelika bit her lip. “Is it…ochre?”

“No.”

“Umber?”

“Nope.”

“Sinopia?”

“No.” He was watching her so carefully. “It’s called mummy brown.”

The smile dimmed a few notches. “Is that what I think it is?”

Tanner smiled now. “Exactly. Mummies, so cheap and plentiful they burned the limbs as train fuel back in the day. For a time, mummy brown was very popular as a pigment. It’s got a nice, rich tone from the body’s natural iron. But this is really just the tip of the iceberg, Angie. I really wanted to talk to you about anthropigments.”

“Anthropigments?”

“Pigments from the human body.” Tanner gently took the canvas from the easel, unwrapped another and placed it on. “See this? Bone white. Fusili. He actually painted this on Poveglia island as he was dying of consumption. Took midnight trips to the burial pits for supplies. Look—” he brushed the eggshell-and-ecru composition with an owlfeather broom. A pale young priestess was borne along on a palanquin by her retinue. Save for her jewelry and a sliver of sky, the painting was all beiges.

“And here’s Beaufort.” The little pasteboard square barely bigger than a TV tray. “Parade along the Rue de Bac. Iron red pigments. Blood. Not colorfast enough” He dragged a hand sheathed in a white cotton glove down the chocolate-colored brickwork. “It’s livered, you see. At the 1912 Paris salon, I’m told it created quite a stir. Now look at it. Muddy.”

Angelika spoke in a very careful voice. “Sounds like you know a lot about these.”

Tanner looked like a man surfacing from a deep well. “Oh…once I was doing my master’s thesis on them. Once. Still have Heymach’s vial of bilirubin in here, somewhere. He was doing a series on the body’s humors. Never got past bile.”

Angelika was spellbound by the pictures. Her expression stuck halfway between disgust and fascination. Tanner admired her from this angle. He could bust her face down to a series of trapezoidal shapes and match a color to each section. His brush fingers ached with cravings.

“There’s one I don’t have to show you, though,” he said, circling around to fumble through one of the haphazard piles behind the easel, “I’ve never found anyone who worked with it. Even with all the devotees this artform has, it’s never been done.”

He retrieved a small glass vial from beneath a bag of oak galls. The vial contained a few grains of a dusky blue pigment. From the mouth of the vial flew a tag that read “R. Disick, 1956.”

Angelika took in hand. “There’s no blue pigments in the body,” she said, now more curious than horrified. Good.

“Not in,” Tanner said, “but of. This is Vivianite. It grows on corpses.”

Angelika’s eyes lit up with wicked fire. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Not surprised.” He took the vial back. “It only happens in very specific conditions. First, the grave has to be damp. Then you have to have iron present. There was a train engineer, died back in the 1800’s. He had a cast-iron coffin with a viewing window, it was the style at the time. The window leaked. His family watched him turn blue over the decades.”

“Wow.” Angelika followed the vial raptly with her eyes. Tanner felt sure, now.

“I’ve got something else, if you’ll care to follow me,” he said, walking over to the basement door and putting a hand on the knob.

Angelika started to follow, then the smile ran away from her face as she slapped at her back pocket. She ferreted the phone from the depths of her levis and swore when she saw the screen.

“Oh jeez. I am so rude for saying this, but I have to be somewhere else ten minutes ago.”

Tanner felt his hand tighten on the knob. “But—just a quick look?”

“No.” Angelika was tossing on her beret and coat without care to how she looked. “I set an alert for my plein air club meeting and totally missed the first warning. I’m so sorry, trust me, I’ll make it up to you.”

“It’ll just be—”

“I’ll make it up, I promise!” Angelika was already dashing for the door.

“Just make sure and come back!” He called after her. He heard the door slam in the middle of his sentence, but kept talking. “Come back. You’re the only one who does, now.” His hand slid from the knob. A damp breeze from the crack beneath the basement door washed over his ankles. “It’s been so long since the last one. So long…”

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Green Grow the Rushes

“They gave these to me at the EFC office.” Elliott set a white envelope on the table.  The packet had no writing, no images of what might lay within. “Low maintenance. Just water and sun and they’ll do the rest.”

Kelly stared at it. “I wanted peonies.”

“These are engineered to interact harmoniously with the soil here. We can’t plant anything else.” Elliott swept the remains of his eggs into his mouth with a piece of toast. “Gotta fly. Love you.”

He wiped a kiss on the top of her head. Kelly stayed at the table long after the outer door slammed, smoking a cigarette. The envelope lay on the mustard-colored plastic of the kitchen table. The whole house was a variety of plastics in bright, clashing colors. Most of the fixtures and decorations were inbuilt. Vases stuck to counters, ashtrays grew from tabletops. Nothing moved. Kelly regarded the white intruder into her world, mouth curving down like a scar.

The yard was almost insultingly perfect. The grass was a plastic-looking variety that grew to a length of one inch(no mowing!) and every shrub was green and nondescript as a crayon scribble. Kelly left a blue front door exactly like every front door stretching off in either direction from her own.

There was a rectangular patch of bare earth by the front door, a small assent by the architects. You really can’t be satisfied with a perfect yard? Fine, here.

Kelly rolled a few seeds into her palm from the white envelope. They were perfectly spherical and characterless. No germ, no seam where the skin would part for the sprout. They looked like buckshot.

The earth in the rectangle looked packed and lifeless as styrofoam. Kelly plunged a finger into it. It squeaked.

Kelly upended the pack of seeds over the patch, letting them clump haphazardly wherever they fell. Then she retrieved the blue hose from where it sat in a coil and sprayed the patch. She watched the water carry most of the spheres away. Kelly left the hose where she dropped it, turned the water off, and went inside.

“Kindergarten’s getting bigger every day,” Elliott said over soy burgers and lentil fries that night, “I’m sure they could use a teacher.”

“I’m not a teacher,” Kelly said. She was lining the square of her burger with her fries like a barbed fence. “I didn’t go through four years of university to teach.”

“Ah, well.” Elliott shrugged. “Have fun in the garden today?”

“What are those seeds?”

Elliott shrugged again. He did the gesture well. “Dunno. Flowers, I guess.”

Kelly did not water the square patch. In fact, she did all she could not to go outside. The sprinkler must have hit them errantly as they soaked the perfect lawn. The perfectly spherical sun smiled down and nourished them. No human hand needed to guide their birth.

“I’m loving the flowers by the door,” Elliott said, packing a few square stacks of paper into his satchel. He stepped carefully through the nest Kelly had made of the den floor out of blankets, pillows, old paperbacks, dirty plastic dishes, dirty plastic cups, hairbrushes. He stopped, a question written in his hunched shoulders and not-quite-turned-to-go posture. “Maybe they’ll look nice in here.”

Kelly didn’t pick her head up from the stack of clothes she was using as a pillow. She counted to three hundred after she heard the front door slam. Elliott’s car was electric, no growl of the motor to let her know it was safe to emerge from her cocoon.

The things in the flowerbed had grown to three feet tall in their first week. They were not peonies, or roses, or daisies, or any kind of plant she knew of. Those messy celadon ruffles tipped with orange at their peak—were they petals or leaves or modified sepals? There was no stamen or pistil, no recognizable sexual organs. The branches formed a perfect upward spiral, three leaves to each branchlet. The stems were smooth and green and featureless as pipes.

Kelly grasped one by the stem and yanked. Whatever root system they had, it didn’t so much as budge. Sweating and puffing, she finally had to accede defeat. Kelly licked the sweat off her upper lip and looked up and down the street. No one around to witness her struggle. Elliott danced around the question, but only half the houses were occupied after months of pushing. Paradise wasn’t as popular as they planned.

Kelly set to her task with renewed vigor. She cried out in pain and drew her hand away from the plant sharply. The formerly smooth surface was covered in minute bristles that came away in her palm and stung, stung, stung. Kelly looked contemplatively from her hand to the plant.

“I really think this campaign is the one,” Elliott said over brown-rice rotini that night. Did he even notice that he smelled like someone else’s perfume? “People were put off by the deductions they’d get, made the place sound like the projects. But this will class it up.”

“The flowers,” Kelly said, “what are they?”

Elliott frowned over being interrupted. “They’re engineered, I told you. So Sam had the idea that—”

“Engineered how? What are they? Phylum? Kingdom?”

Elliott put on his lecturing smile. “They’re actually a fungi and a plant working together, like lichen. Plant, plants, not entirely sure. The boys who did it were the ones who made the Fire corn, matter of fact. I’d hate to see them take on thistles.” He chuckled as he stabbed his food.

“So—what, do they germinate? Produce fruit?”

Elliott frowned. “That’s not my department, baby.”

The next morning she pretended to sleep as he got ready, shooting pointed glances at her prone form. Her books had been passive-aggressively tidied into a line at her head, dog eared pages straightened so her place was lost. This morning she waited until a count of one thousand before she heard her husband’s angry sigh and footsteps going from the door.

The plants all wore bristle-beards today. She sized them up before selecting the most slender stem. A pair of kitchen scissors, because she had no gardening equipment save for the hose, pincered the plant/fungal hybrid. Kelly squeezed.

Where did the cut come from? She had felt the leaves of the other hybrids brushing against her knee and then suddenly a wet trickle down her leg. Her knee was cut. Not just once, many times from many thin blades. She pressed the hem of her shorts over the bleeding and looked at the hybrids. Their leaves now bore a jagged edge that glistened dangerously in the sun. The stem she had been cutting was now lying crooked, leaking a sap colored the same shade of blue as a robin’s egg.

Kelly limped into the house to find a bandage. In the bathroom was a first-aid kit carrying only a few white squares that vacuum-sealed to her wound once applied. She had set the scissors on the counter to attend to her knee, now she picked them up again. The blades were pitted and eaten away where the blue sap had coated them.

Elliott picked at his bean-and-broccoli stir fry. He was surprisingly taciturn tonight.

“Work go okay?” Kelly took a sip from her water glass.

“Oh yeah. Closed out the south quadrant.” Elliott stabbed at a carrot. “Not that you’d care,” he added under his breath.

“Run into the boys who made the plants again?”

Elliott shook his head. “No. We don’t mix departments.”

“Well, I was going to ask them something, but instead I’ll just ask you.”

“What?”

She set a jug of weed killer beside her knife/fork combo. “I want you to kill the plants.”

Elliott frowned. “Why do you have that?”

“Every house has this in case the lawn care service is out for holidays.” She pointed to the open pamphlet where she’d found such crucial information.

Elliott shrugged. “Seems silly, is all.” He went back to eating.

“I want you to get rid of them. Now-ish.”

Elliott rolled his eyes. “Why, are they too much work to take care of?”

“Just the opposite. They don’t need me. I don’t want to have to live with anything that doesn’t need me.”

Elliott looked at her. She smiled.

“Indulge me.”

“Fine.” He set his water cup down with a bang. He grabbed up the jug and pulled it, sloshing, outside with him.

Kelly rose from her seat and took her plate to the kitchen. She counted to three hundred and two  before the noise started up in the front yard. Then she started up the disposal in the sink and the compactor that lived in a small cupboard beneath it. The food that went in the disposal was ground and cultured until it resembled wet newspaper primed for easy decomposition. The compactor pressed them into perfectly rectangular nuggets. The disposal took the bars apart again, grinding them, tearing them. The compactor made them whole. Together they formed a perfectly closed system that needed only the barest of input. Kelly yoyoed between the two of them, fascinated with their efficiency, as her husband screamed outside.

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The Devil Whale

In Lingit it is called the T’oohchx’é. Pacific northwestern fisherman call it “the devil whale.” It may just be a melanistic Orca lacking the white markings of its brethren, if it exists at all. And it has terrorized a patch of the arctic sea all through recorded history.

The village of [Seal-upon-the-rock] gathered on the ice. When we rose with the sun, we found them at the edge of the floe. A song came that was too terrible to hear. Our men fell to the ground and plugged their ears, for the song compelled their feet to the water. One by one the others flung themselves forward into a hole that formed in the water. When the last child was gone, the hole closed and we saw that it was a mouth. The song fell silent and the beast at the edge sank into the water once more. We did not take our boats that way anymore.

—unnamed elder, Oral History of the Arctic

The first possible sighting of such a beast was well before 500 BCE, if the oral history of the Tlingit people is to be believed. According to the Xunaa Ḵáawu people, the devil whale was part of the world before raven stole daylight. In those days a great fish swam in the sky and ate whatever fit into its mouth, which included unfortunate villages. When daylight was brought to the people, the fish fell to the water with a great tail of fire and could never rise to the sky again. The beast was far more fearsome than the polar bear or even other whales, so unpredictable was its behavior. Several Tlingit settlements have been discovered over the centuries since European contact, preserved nearly intact by permafrost, abandoned as if the villagers had stood up in the middle of their day and walked off. Corresponding oral history points the finger at the devil whale luring said villages to their doom. As of yet, no scientific explanation for the disappearances has been found.

…soon we were yawing against the wind, the great beastie caught hold of our chain and pulld us in[…] she looked as another wale til she opened her mouth which split most the length of the bodie. Half our ship was down the gullet before we could scream.

—Eustace Gabb, surviving crewmember of the Meritus

With the explorer’s age in full swing and whale oil in high demand, it seems only natural that the next accounts come from the survivors of shipwrecks. While stories of krakens and monster fish were the common feed of broadsheets, tales of “the devil whale” gained a distinction among the collectors of seafaring legends. The SS Jeanne-Marie was chasing a pod of Right whales off the coast of modern-day Yakutat when they noted a heretofore-unseen behavior in the pod. The whales began a frenzied circulation around the ship, churning the water into a torrent which spun the ship clockwise. The calves, once confined to the protected center of their family’s formation, began colliding in panic. A noise the sailors initially attributed to the crack of a glacier calving rose in height and pitch until “…[the whales] floated as lifeless on the surface.” An adult female and three calves were sucked beneath the surface by a whirlpool. The whales remained insensate for a period of half an hour after the incident, at which point the crew reinstated efforts to harvest the remaining pod. As they cut into the skin of an adult female, the rest of the pod woke from their stunned state and began attacking the ship, leading to a 2-meter hole in the starboard hull. The crew ceased their harvesting efforts and attempted emergency repairs, eventually abandoning the ship for the longboats.

I watched it chase a calf it had separated from the pod for the better part of an hour. At one point the calf beached itself in an attempt to reach a barachois, but it wound up being pulled back by this dark mass. I never got a good look at it, but it was faster than any whale of that size should be. Finally, the calf got too tired to run anymore and it got sucked beneath the surface.

—anonymous Kayaker

The marine biology skiff Uriah Heep was trawling the greater Juneau bay when the underwater microphone picked up the song of a pod of Pilot whales. At approximately 35:00 hours, the  recording equipment registered an anomaly: a frequency of 45.6 hertz, well below that of the blue whale. Over the course of ten minutes, the frequency rose until it equaled that of the Pilot whales, overlaying and mimicking the pod’s song. The boat’s radar at this point picked up a solid object traveling directly towards the pod, rivaling in size a humpback or right whale. The whale songs mingled and reached a fever pitch at the same moment the object overtook one of the lead whales. At some point the mass disappeared from the radar and the whale song continued, minus two voices.

…[the boat] circled the bay for two days. Two! At one point I sent up a flare but no one saw it. My provisions ran low, but I kept trying. That thing was far too large, it could swamp either of my lifeboats easily. Finally I got ahold of someone within radio distance and that was the aerial rescue. I think it knew I was leaving, it tried to tip the boat before the pilot reached me. If it was a whale I never saw it breach.

—James la Pierre, yachtsman.

The deep-sea exploration vessel Newton was observing polyp formation on the bed of the Arctic sea when it found a heretofore unmapped crevice in the sea bed. Sensors registered a temperature hike of 30-40 degrees at the mouth of the crevice. The explorer circumscribed the opening, trying to parse whether the temperature indicated a volcanic vent. At a certain point in the journey, the Newton’s light hit an illuminated sphere roughly the size of a soccer ball. The Newton sat attempting to discern whether it was simply a bioluminescent patch of bacteria or something else when a black material slid over the sphere from either direction, met in the middle, and then retracted. Before the crew could truly parse the nature of this movement, the vessel was upset by a sudden current and just barely managed to avoid crashing upon the nearby sea floor. After the sediment settled, the Newton was unable to find the crevice again.

My cousin lived out by himself in a shack. That day I wanted to visit with him for a few hours. I found him out standing on the shoal. There was this whine like I had tinnitus. George didn’t look back at me, just put his arms out and dropped. I ran to where I’d seen him, but there was no body on the waves. The sound stopped.

—Mary Bedard

The fishing village of Temper’s Point in the upper part of the Alexander archipelago was celebrating their Sesquicentennial in December of 2013 when half the village populace(roughly 47 people) went missing around the waterfront. A background noise akin to the more famous Taos hum has been detected periodically since the event.

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The Oolio

This town is a tourist town. Yes, it’s one of those signs you see from the highway when you speed by as fast as humanly possible: “see the great whatsit!” Most towns have something you can find in any state, like bigfoot. Not us, though. We’ve got the Oolio.

Ask any old timer on the high street and he’ll tell you the Oolio is old Choctaw for “man-swallower.” Bunkum, of course. If the name Oolio showed up before 1964, I’ve yet to see it. Still, the town treats it like it’s a real old legend. The tourist center’s full of pioneer gear and daguerreotypes. A sharp eye might gather that the colloidal snaps only record day-to-day business of a mining town, nothing supernatural, but I guess half the fun is fooling yourself by telling yourself you’re not fooled.

There’s a tour, of course. Man they call Skinny runs it, he’s the best. Folks might not be so charmed by his old cowboy act if they knew his nickname came from the surname Skinner and that he really hails from upstate New York. But Skinny’s such a good act it doesn’t matter that he ages his levi’s with a belt sander.

Skinny’s a volunteer, of course. Everyone who works in the tourist center is. Town’s kept afloat on volunteer work, that’s just how it is. Skinny’s not paid in anything but the adoration of his public. The way he sweeps and bows off that stoop from the tourist center, you’d think he was Hamlet. He’s earned it, though. As one performer to another, I have nothing but respect for the man.

Skinny takes them through the logging tracks, where firs barely taller than your kneecaps are trying to replace the great flaming birch that was all cut away. He talks about the town history first, just a little nugget of something dull to whet their appetite. He knows why they’re there. Skinny takes them up to the old logging camp, where the mess hall is the only building left standing. He gets to the pump in the middle of an anecdote about the time McKinley thought about riding through on the railway when suddenly he’ll break off in mid-sentence. I’ve timed him before, he reaches the pump after five minutes on the dot. The man is a consummate professional.

“Say, any of you folks hear about the Gaffey party?” He’ll ask like it’s a complete mystery as to why they’ve come. The name Gaffey is plastered all over the visitor’s center, which squats on Gaffey road. But the folks will go wide-eyed, shake their heads. They’re so hungry for the story they’d drink their own sunblock.

Skinny puts his arm up and lean on the pump. “‘Bout fivescore year ago—that’s a hundred for you city folks—there was a flock of hunters up this way. Fella by the name o’ Gaffey was in it, ‘long with his brother and his cousin, fella name o’ Croot. They were chasin’ a mean elk up to these parts, a big beast who could feed their families for a week. They decided to water in this camp because it was the only game around for miles. They had full run o’ the place so they decided to bunk in separate lodges. After all, they were alone…” he’ll leans forward and drops his voice. “Or were they?”

Skinny keeps a tin can full of gravel on his person, always takes it out right here. He circles the group, rolling it in his leathery hands as he watches them with a sadistic gleam in his eye.

“They put up for the day in the mess lodge. Nathaniel Croot, he started the fire. Only it was smoky, on account of some kind of blockage in the chimney. They put it out and ate by lantern light.”

Abruptly, he shakes the can. Ka-shk. Ka-shk. The hairs on people’s necks rise.

“They hear summat.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Outside.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Sounds a lot like this here rattler.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Only there’s no gravel out here, unnerstan’. Nothing around that would make this sound.”

Once Skinny circles back around to his starting point he palms the can, playing idly with it like it’s a pen he’s just picked up by chance.

“The brothers, they’re too tough to be put off by noises. Caleb Gaffey gets his shooter and creeps up to the winder. There’s a face at the glass.”

Skinny throws the can with a horrible crash. There are always, always gasps.

“The thing he spies is dead white, hairless, pink eyes that glow in the lantern light. It don’t look right. Takes Caleb a while to figger out it’s because the whole damn thing’s upside-down. It’s hanging from the roof to scream through the winder at them. Caleb gets off two shots. Pow! Pow! Nothing.”

Now Skinny puts on a conspiratorial grin. He beckons the group with him, like the Pied Piper calling to a bunch of naughty children. They hesitate, they always do, but they follow him.

Skinny talks as he walks: “There’s no sleep that night. The brothers agree to bunk up in the mess hall. Abraham Gaffey, that’s the older, he takes first watch. But Croot, he thinks it’s all hooey. He calls a lodge all to himself that night, laughing all the way to bed.”

By this time they’re in the camp proper. They can see the old buildings, slate roof caved in by the years but log walls standing firm and strong even now. They can feel a tickle of fear as they put themselves in that dark night so long ago, so far away from any kind of safety.

Skinny turns to rest his back deliberately on a door that has been artfully crafted to look like the one it replaced.

“The brothers pin up an old gunny-sack on the hole. No one sleeps, despite the watches they set up. Abe knows the thing will be back, he’s got the hunter’s instinct. To keep himself awake, he grips a handful of nails.”

Skinny leans forward and drops his voice, so the tourists have to get closer to hear him. “But they watch the wrong place.”

He turns about-face and slaps the door open, so it hits the side of the building and shimmies a little. The large chunk of missing wood that looks like a bite mark winds up pointed right at them. They draw back. Oh, he’s good. He’s very good.

“Whatever-it-is takes a flying bite out of that door. Whatever-it-is screams like a steam engine as it shakes the hall. Whatever-it-is took Abe’s whole pan of powder and every bullet without stopping. Quick as a flash, Caleb upends the old potbellied stove.” Skinny acts it out through mime. His folksy accent gets thicker with every word. “They roll it over, jest the two of them, to the door. Abe sticks his packing rod in the latch, so the door can’t swing free. Cold and hungry and scairt, they wait up against that potbellied stove and that old door til dawn. The thing screamed right up until sunrise.”

Skinny pauses to take a breath, which lets the group take a breath. They have all been through an ordeal.

“The two brothers roll out that stove and come out. Of the trees surrounding the clearing, not a single branch had a leaf left on it. They go to the lodge to find cousin Croot stone dead, throat torn away but not a mark on him otherwise. Not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, they lit a shuck out of there.”

Skinny clasps his hands. “That was the first sighting of the thing they call the Oolio in these parts. Abe Gaffey lived to be ninety-one years old, and I tell this the exact way he told me.”

Everyone’s shaken and laughing, everyone’s got the afterglow of a good performance. Most will wander back to the gift shop or accompany Skinny down to the saloon that serves sarsaparilla and horehound tea. But sometimes, every great once in awhile, there will be a straggler or two. They’re out-of-towners who feel the signs don’t apply to them. Or they’re wannabe explorers ready to cut through the brush. Or they’re looking for the bathroom.

That’s where I come in.

I like to situate myself on a particular path leading away from the camp. There’s a couple of these, actually, but I get people to take this one more often than not. How? I’ve cultivated every intrusive plant in the area at the entrances of the other paths.

They amble along until they’re out of earshot of the logging camp, when suddenly they clear a bend in the path and find me. I’ve got a bike with a bent front wheel and an overstuffed bag. Too many things to carry.

“Hey there, folks,” I say, “could you—whoops!” and an expensive-looking camera falls out of my hands and cracks open. I even put film in it to make it more authentic.

They’ll help of course, they’ll rush over and scramble, all while I apologize and beg them not to fret over little old me. I’m just out here being an idiot, I guess, my wife told me to stay with the group and whoops there went my GPS unit.

After they try long and fruitlessly to assuage my clumsiness, they’ll ask to escort me back to the visitor’s center. Oh gee, would they? It’s not far, it’s just this way.

I point them down another path. Sometimes it throws them off. Surely they should go back the way they came?

It’s got to be this way, I assure them, it’s got the green bands.

Every path in this area is marked “safe” by wooden stakes linked together by green bands. Easily purchasable at any hardware store, nice and mobile so I can uproot them at a moment’s notice.

They look down the path, doubting. Am I sure?

Of course this is the way back, I just came this way.

I talk up a storm as they lug my gear down the path, spinning personal anecdotes that carpet their ears and keep them from worrying. As the branches close in and make the path claustrophobic, I keep pressing them on. Just a little further. Just a leeeeetle further. Did they see it opening up yet?

I’ve got a crank flashlight that I click on as we go further into the brush. As they get uneasy, they ask questions. How long had I walked? What happened to my bike? Was I a townie or a tourist? They don’t want to ask the question that’s simmering in their mind, because that would make it real.

The trail dead ends. They’ve started walking ahead of me in anticipation of fleeing at the first sign of an opening. Now they blink at the remnants of a camp. My camp.

“Where’s the visitor’s center?” they ask.

“It’s back the way you came,” I say, clicking off the flashlight.

Then there will be a news story, some speculating about suspicious wounds, and a fruitless manhunt. The last guy they pulled in was so schizophrenic he couldn’t even work his zipper, much less scoop a throat out. They’ll urge people not to come here, which will make them swarm thicker than flies. And for a while, this little town will be bustling again.  After all, the town’s kept afloat in volunteer work. My only pay is the satisfaction of a job well done.

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Decisions

The double-wide trailer had vinyl siding that buckled and lifted away from the walls at odd points, allowing a joint of Bermuda grass to poke triumphantly out the top. Beside the trailer was the flatbed of an old ford, divorced from the cab and shored up with chicken wire to make a coop. Save for a mess of bleached feathers, the coop was empty.

James took a moment to peer beneath the coop, a space hardly big enough to squeeze a hand through. Only a few fence lizards escaping the heat.

The trailer door hung wide like a broken jaw, displaying the mess of a quick struggle. Someone had put their fist through the paneling a few times. Fixtures were missing, plundered in the time the trailer had sat vulnerable and open. Dishes in the sink grew a thick crop of mold. The trailer clearly had not been lived in for some time.

James rotated in place. The grass along one side of the trailer was flat, pointing towards the lattice that enclosed the trailer bottom elevated by cinderblocks.

James had drawn his sidearm on the walk up to the trailer, now he holstered it. He walked away, deliberately crunching gravel with his steps until he reached the sandy stretch just before the road. He doubled back through the grass, creeping so that the sound of his steps blended into the other incidental noises of the day. Crouching down by the far fender of the coop, James drew his piece again and waited.

Three minutes, not enough time to even boil an egg, there was movement. The lattice pried away from the trailer side and someone came wiggling out of the space. Leonard, his brother Leonard with a camo jacket thrown on over his work shirt, crawled out from under the trailer.

James waited until he was nearly out before rising, training his sights on Leonard’s back. “Hup.”

Leonard thrust his hands up, dropping his stomach to the dirt, before recognizing James. His face relaxed into a comfortable leer.

“Jimmy. Holy hell.”

“Leon. What’re you doing?”

Leonard squinted up at him, sweating on his belly in the dirt. He lowered his hands and pushed up to his knees.

“Sprayin’ for bugs. The hell’s it look like I’m doing?”

“Jessica’s worried.”

“Jess can goddamn well worry, I told her to sit on it until next Monday.” Leonard held out a hand, waiting to be helped up. When no help came, he stood on his own muster. “She whine to the cops?”

“No. Just me.”

“Good.” Leonard swung his hands at his sides, looking at the ground. “S’pose it didn’t take much to find me.”

“Few hours. I asked around: this trailer’s rented out to Ed Brinkley. Ed’s down at his folk’s place for the summer, so I came to poke around and found signs of habitation.”

“Ah.”

James drew in breath. “Leon, if I can find you, the cartel’s men can damn well find you.”

“This is just a stopgap, I’ve got a plan.” Leonard studied his brother’s face, attacking the corner of his mouth with his tongue. “Don’t s’pose I can convince you to give me a lift?”

James holstered the pistol. He ran his hand over his hair. “Don’t have much choice, do I?”

“‘Course you do. You always do.” Leonard beat him to the car, opening the passenger side door.

“No. Backseat, there’s a blanket.”

“I can duck.”

“Backseat. I’m not taking chances.”

“Tou-chy,” Leonard said, but obeyed. James made sure to arrange the blanket over him, tucking it in around his ankles.

James piloted the jeep back over the gravel lane to the paved road. A car with two hispanic men, one old and one young, sat on the shoulder of the turn off. James sat, turn signal clicking, sweat plastering his shirt to his neck. He looked. The men in the car looked back. James turned onto the road and drove south. The other car grew small in his rearview mirror. It streaked off just before disappearing from his sight, peeling off in the direction he had just come from.

After a while Leonard said, “pull over.”

“We’ve got a half hour to go.”

“We’re out of the danger zone and I got a cramp. Pull over.”

James turned into a rest stop. Leonard got out and stretched his legs at leisure before getting into the passenger seat.

“Get the blanket.”

“I can duck.”

“Not enough. Get the blanket.”

Leonard retrieved the blanket, folding it neatly before sitting on it with a grin. James stared at him for a good long second before starting the car.

James took the back roads, adding ten minutes on to the journey. Leonard did not even bother sitting low in his seat, pressing his face to the window and squinting.

“We’re going to the train yard, right?”

“You know everything, don’t you?” Leonard dug in a pocket of his camo jacket, peeling the foil off a strip of nicotine gum.

“That’s where you put the money.”

“I can spring for gas, if that’s pressin’ on your bladder.”

James said nothing, clicking on his turn signal.

“S’pose I ask why you needed to scratch a cartel man for cash,” he said at length. “You could have come to me if you had money troubles.”

Leonard laughed. “You, baby brother? I make two more decimals than you, and I’m supposed to drop by, hat in hand?” He stretched out. “It’s not about ‘need’ anyway. You’ll understand someday. I grew that money. That money’s going to keep paying dividends—”

“While the cartel’s shaking down your family?”

Silence in the car.

“They’ll leave Jess alone. She had nothing to do with anything.”

“They won’t care. The wives never know anything. But they’ll do things to her, Leon. They’ll do things to her and Janey.”

Leonard laughed again. “What, you her new daddy or somethin’? You have my blessing, if that’s what you’re angling for.”

James navigated a stretch of broken pavement, wheeling out to the opposite lane and pulling back in just as a truck came by. Leonard didn’t bother to turn his face away from the other driver.

“S’pose you might want to visit Jess after I’m gone. Don’t blame you. You got my blessing. I could never make her happy, she wanted some nine-to-five goon. It ain’t me, babe.” Leonard rooted around in the glove box. James pretended to adjust a mirror and watched him slip a registration card into his pocket. He would probably call in the plates to the cops to create a diversion.

“Train yard’s coming up,” James said, “you’ll have to tell me where to go.”

Leonard peered at him from half-lidded eyes. “Just hit the end of the lane and keep going. I’ll tell you where to stop.”

The asphalt ended suddenly, turning into rutted clay and jimpson grass. James guided the jeep over the ruts, worn shocks screeching in protest at every new bump.

“There.” Leonard pointed suddenly to a gap between disused boxcars. James braked, too late.

“Go back around.”

James engaged the parking brake and got out, matching stares with Leonard. He got out of the passenger’s side, breaking into a brisk walk and shooting a glance behind him every other step. James followed at a distance.

“I can pay for your troubles, don’t worry.”

“Not worried. How you getting out of here?”

“You need to run the bills by Benny, he’ll swap ‘em out for you.”

“I got a plan. How you getting out of here?”

Leonard chewed his bottom lip a bit. “…I got a boat down at the marina. Got a little place south of Mazatlán to go to.”

“Fleeing south o’ the border to escape a cartel? Must be the dumbest gringo around.” James smiled at Leonard. The uneasy laugh they shared was like a breeze in a stagnant room, gone altogether too quickly to be true relief.

A square hole had been dug between the rotted slats of a bit of old railway, into this space had been flung a canvas bag. Nothing, not even a branch to disguise the shape. Leonard jumped into the hole, deliberately keeping the bag beneath him as he counted out bills.

“You know it’s not too late.” James mopped at the sweat on his neck. The gun hung heavy at his belt.

Leonard did not react, coming up with a small wad of bills and pressing it forward. James pushed it back, shaking his head. Leonard smiled sickly. He did not press it, but stashed the bills in a front pocket.

“Can’t thank you enough, lI’l bro.” Leonard turned back to the hole.

“Don’t thank me, we ain’t got out yet.” James paused to listen. Was that the sound of an idling engine? “It’s not too late,” he said again.

This time Leonard really did laugh, a nice deep chortle that was infectious as an itch.

“I can’t worry about that right now.” Leonard rummaged around in a bag. “I got shit on my mind. You can drop me behind the feed store, I’ll leg it from there.”

“You’ll be seen.” James wiped his cheek on his sleeve. “What about pops?”

“Look, just drop me a quarter mile from there, then. Pops is old, they won’t press an old gummer like that.”

“They will after they run through Jess. They won’t stop until they get a body. You have a choice, Leon.”

Leonard was scooping something into the bag. “No anymore, Jimmy. I made it already.”

James sighed. He unholstered the pistol, wiping his hands before doing so. He sighted his brother’s back.

“Yeah,” he said, “I guess so.”

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Another Night in Paradise

Their key slid to the left of the lock, leading to Nick fumbling both with his wife, flung bridal-style over his arms, and the knob. The door gave too easily and the pair nearly fell into the darkened room. Bonnie slid, laughing, down and around his side like she was descending a firefighter’s pole.

“Welcome to paradise,” Nick said sarcastically.

“Hey, at least it’s got a door,” Bonnie said, kicking the scrunched floor-rug with her sandals. “And…a view?”

The porthole that sat just below a decorative coconut-fibre mat was nearly opaque with smeared grease and scratches. Bonnie stepped closer to peer through the muddied glass and yelped, jumping back. Moisture pooled at her feet, seeping from a point roughly at waist-height. “Nick, it’s wet.”

Nick nodded. “Health hazard. Hello, first class.” He peered around the cabin. “None of the outlets are at floor level, though. They’ll probably just send someone to seal it, move us and throw us coupons for the buffet.”

‘Oh, Nick.” The statement had no follow up. Bonnie hung listlessly to her husband’s side as he hung a waterproof coat on the cabin door’s hook. The hook immediately came away, startling laughter from the both of them.

“Remind me,” Nick said, “didn’t we say no more cruises, ever, after the last time?”

Bonnie clicked her tongue. “We also said no pizza after Atkins and no more road trips to your brother’s.”

“Yeah, but last time should have been the capper. Remember that disaster?”

“I try not to,” she said blithely, picking up the coat and hanging it on a drawer knob, “anyway, you don’t know. It could be fun.”

 

The upper deck smelled faintly of feces and spoiled food. Posted signs warned guests about consuming water directly from the boat’s taps and reminded that bottled water was available plentifully and for a modest price in any of the restaurants. Nick wadded up a gum wrapper and flung it at a sign, which unstuck from the wall and slid awkwardly to the ground. Nick grunted and shook his head, using his free arm to gather Bonnie to his side.

“Come on, vacations are supposed to be relaxing.” Bonnie was pushing the last of her stray hairs underneath the bathing cap she insisted on wearing to protect her dye job. “So relax.”

“Sure.” Nick leaned casually on a railing and his hand came away sticky. Bonnie laughed.

“”What gets me is how new this place looks. What possessed me to book a cruise on an untested ship? Nothing ever goes right in a new tourist trap.”

“So? I bet the first people into Disney World don’t regret it.” Bonnie paced to the edge of the non-slip tile surrounding the deck pool, shedding her towel like a cape. “Coming in?”

Nick shook his head. “Stinks too much like chlorine. I’ll sit this one out.” He scooped up her towel and went to claim an empty chaise lounge.

Bonnie set off into the pool to prove him wrong. The chlorine did sting her eyes a bit, no, a lot. Four minutes into her swim, she spotted a lone turd floating past.

“Too cold?” Nick asked airily, towel already out. Bonnie dried herself hastily, trying not to retch.

“Remind me to bring more hand sanitizer to the next cruise.”

“I don’t think there will be a next cruise.”

Someone’s boisterous child ran past, kicking over Nick’s thermal coffee cup and splattering their feet with milky coffee. The couple exchanged looks.

 

It seemed like every other light installed in the ship’s hallways was set to permanent flicker. Nick could feel a headache welling up deep in his skull. Bonnie’s attempt to purchase painkiller from the drug store only turned up a bland generic which did not dent the pain. As they strolled past yet another out-of-order elevator, Nick squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.

“What even is the point,” he said, “why do we do this? We’ve turned all our control over to this company, all our money, and for what? So we can be in a bubble everywhere we go? Why can’t we just travel like normal people?”

“So we can take part in the class-action suit,” Bonnie joked without conviction. Her corns were beginning to throb.

“But that’s the thing, people never win those. The companies settle out of court, nothing changes. We’re under marine law out here, they could kill us and we wouldn’t have any recourse.”

Bonnie stopped. “Don’t say that. Don’t joke about that.”

“I’m not joking, I’m—” Nick stopped to rub his eyes against the strobing onslaught of an overhead bulb. “God. Can we just go back to our room?”

Maintenance had been by and left a placard on their door, apologizing for not having the proper tools to fix the problem until the next port. Management left another, smaller, finer-print card apologizing for the inability to move them as the ship was booked full and invited them to partake in the complimentary fruit basket left for them.

Nick threw it at the wall. Kiwis and pluots, fruits that they were both allergic to, rained down on the wet floor. The cabin smelled like mold.

 

“First thing when we get to port,” Nick said, struggling on with his shirt in the damp air of the cabin, “first thing we’re doing is catching a plane back. This is ridiculous.”

Bonnie was squinting through the porthole, hands paused in the act of knotting her sarong. “Are you sure we didn’t port last night?”

“Yeah. Why?” Nick looked over at her.

“I just…remember waking and the boat was very still for a few hours in the middle of the night last night.” Bonnie looked over at the full-length mirror hanging beside the bed, petting her collarbone.

“That’s crazy. Why make port in the middle of the night, when no one’s awake?”

Bonnie looked into his eyes, just looked and looked. The question hung in the air between them.

They made their way up to the third deck, where the fire show was supposed to be taking place. Nick sucked air over his teeth when he saw the line. He put a hand on Bonnie’s arm. She huddled over and assumed a look of martyrdom.

“Sorry folks,” Nick called to the queue as they walked past, “MS flare up. I just need to get her sat down.”

They scored a table right up near the stage. Ten minutes passed as the other guests filed in. Twenty minutes. Nick sipped water out of a glass covered with fingerprints. It tasted how the air smelled. Half an hour. Finally a cruise employee came out and apologized for the cancellation of the show, passing out vouchers for the buffet. Nick shot an ‘I-told-you-so’ look to his wife.

The pool was crowded with unruly children. Bonnie watched one launch a snot rocket directly into the water and decided against entering. Nick spotted the blue stripe of an island vanishing into the boat’s wake and hunted down a docking schedule. Yes, they had made port in the middle of the night. The attendant who provided the chart promised to inform him of any future stops, scribbling their surname and cabin number in an illegible hand.

The couple killed a few hours wandering hand in hand, marveling at the various cracks in the cruise’s facade of pefection. Doors stuck. Surfaces were unsanitary. The mixed odor of everything unpleasant had only gotten stronger since the first day. They decided to brave the buffet, splitting their menu to sweeten the odds. Nick went with the chicken tandoori, reasoning that it would have been scorched to a temperature reasonable enough that would kill any hitchhiking E.coli. Bonnie stuck with fruit and the vegetables no one took, heaping her plate with raw broccoli and cauliflower.

As it happened, Nick lost the draw. He spent the rest of the night alternately hunched over or sitting on the toilet, which stopped flushing after the third visit. The card on their cabin door apologized yet again for the lack of repair, but they had attempted to stem the leak and broken the light in their efforts. The door stuck when they went to bed down, Bonnie’s hand slipping and cracking her customized vacation nail tips right through the palm trees.

Stomach subsiding into grumbles, Nick lay beside his wife in total darkness.

“…I mean,” Bonnie said, “if this is all this bad, imagine what the lifeboat are like.”

Nick sat up. Bonnie had put her finger on something that had been bothering him, niggling at the back of his head like a spawning migraine.

“You remember the last cruise,” he said slowly, “remember how we said we’d never go on another one…”

Bonnie laughed in the dark. “Yup. I said ‘if we ever get out of here—’”

“—‘if we ever survive,’” Nick interjected.

Bonnie was silent.

“They were calling us out to the lifeboats. We were listing to port and they were evacuating,” Nick said, worrying the memory like a splinter.

Bonnie gasped. “And we said I had muscular dystrophy, got us on one of the early boats. I remember. The sea was so choppy, there was this old woman wailing every time we went over a wave. Why would we book another cruise after that?”

Nick said grimly, “we wouldn’t.”

The air in the cabin was thick and wet.

“Why doesn’t anything work here?” Nick turned to her, unable though he was to actually look at his wife. “Not a single thing has gone right for us, why is that?”

“Nick,” Bonnie said in a hushed, urgent tone. She sat up and grasped his lapels. “I remember the lifeboat. I remember the water was so cold, we fell off but we kept getting back on. When did they rescue us, Nick? Why don’t I remember being rescued?

There was the groan of thousands of pounds of steel being overtaxed. The cabin, and the couple in it, tilted to one side.

“Nick,” Bonnie said, “Nick. Nick!

 

The door kicked open, and the couple behind it nearly fell into the room.

“Welcome to paradise.”

“Hey, at least it’s got a door. And…a view?” A yelp. “Nick, it’s wet.”

“Health hazard. Hello, first class…”

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The Echo Pipe

The echo pipe stuck straight out of solid bedrock. 3 ¾ inches of rusted iron, it was Hawley’s biggest mystery. Mrs. Strickland’s spontaneous combustion and the meteor shower that made the town smell like spent matches lagged behind in the dust. Those were one-time things. The pipe was ongoing.

The bit of road that curved before it went into a tunnel leading out of town, that was where you found the echo pipe. On the hottest day, you could still feel a cool underground breeze wafting out of the mouth of the pipe. That’s how folk knew it was real, not just a bit of leftover sewer pipe stuck in the mountain by some joker. Maybe once the pipe had been capped, or maybe it continued into the ground and that section had broken off, but now the end was a jagged mess. The legend went, if you put your ear (carefully, those shards were sharp) to the hole, you could hear an echo back before you even said anything.

Hawley kids have been using the pipe as entertainment for decades. It’s a telephone, planchette, almanac, and confessional all in one. Early days, the pipe would only give an echo out after you said something into it. Nowadays, all one has to do is wait and something will come out. Girls will have listening parties, collapsing into giggles the second they hear a man’s voice. Boys will ascribe terrible crimes to the sounds they hear, labeling every conversation as some sort of code. Once in awhile some loner will pretend the echoes coming from that rusted hole are part of a conversation being held with them and only them. They usually give it up after the strain of belief becomes too much, usually two-three days camping out by the pipe. It was one of these loners that was the unwitting instigator of the end, boy by the name of Ethan Madden.

As he described it to the rest of the town, Ethan’s experience went like this: he set up a camping chair by the pipe, intending hours of listening. He caught faint snatches of conversation. Nothing important, some couple arguing about who was to take a mysterious “her” up to the city. There was a flat silence for all of six seconds, and then the scream.

The scream was so loud that Notch Evans, the man with the house closest to the road, could hear it. Ethan swears he’s still deaf in the ear that was facing the pipe. The scream went on for hours. 3 hours 25 minutes to be exact. In the wake of such a noise, the silence seemed to ring. The whole town camped around that thing, even 93-year-old Mrs. Van der Waals struggled up the hill. All eyes trained on that pipe, waiting for the next sound.

What came next was a cacophony, decipherable to no one. Occasionally there were snatches of quiet, leaving orphan phrases to be interpreted. A man called Mark shouted for Melissa to bring the kids. Ten-year-old Mark Drisson blushed and looked at the ground, not at Melissa Eckhart. Men called to each other to patch the hole where Notch’s place stood with parts of the roof. Notch drained of all color. On and on it went like that. Some terrible catastrophe was befalling the town, one they could only partially discern. Was it a flood? Earthquake? On they listened, eager for any information that might help avoid the end.

At 2:14 pm on June 6th, amidst the roar of a crowd in turmoil, the pipe went silent. And silent it has remained ever since.

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