Tag Archives: rituals

The Stone Knife

The chip had come from a large rock, smooth and slightly pitted on one side, rough on the other. It was quartz or limestone or some other light mineral. Grandpa would have known what kind. David only knew enough to recognize that the yellow sparkle on the chipped side was pyrite, not real gold.

“I bet it’s a knife,” he said, feeling its weight rest in his palm, “maybe a ritual knife, it’s so pretty.”

Drew scoffed. “That’s no injun knife. It’s not obsidian.”

David put up token resistance. “Naw, look at how it’s chipped—”

Drew dismissed it without even looking. “My dad said the injuns made obsidian knives. Said they could slice slice a man right clean down to the bone.”

Rory did an impression of a man being gutted, making wet sounds with his mouth and clutching his chest. Cheeks burning, David pocketed the rock chip. The three of them spread out over a dry creek bed, sifting through silt and rocks for pieces to graft on report boards. Rory already had three slender tule reeds in one sweaty hand. Drew (Andrew but not Andy, never Andy) claimed to have a bit of scalp he refused to show either of them. Only David was left wanting.

“Man I wish we were doing a report on someone interesting, like the Az-tecs.” Drew tossed a pebble at a bird, frightening it away. “What kind of crappy tribes did we have around here again?”

David had known the two of them long enough to know the question was not really a question, supplying information would be met with ridicule.

“Basket weavers,” Rory said, kicking a branch in their path. “That’s what my paper has to be. Also they made reed boats.”

Drew rolled his eyes. “My dad said the Az-tecs were real nutbusters. Killed people on top of huge pyramids. I’d pay to see that.”

The air around them was so hot David felt like he was wading through it, not walking. Far away, the river growled as if to remind them that they were in someone else’s territory. The boys ascended heaps of slag rock, leftovers from strip mining. Drew, the product of divorce and used to ruling two households, naturally fell to the front of their arrowhead formation. They passed no one out on these paths, everyone with a brain had stayed home or gone to the water to cool off.

“Hang on, I got an itch.” Grinning, Rory snagged some leaves off a nearby bush and shoved them down the back of his pants, making a wiping motion.

“Rory, that was probably poison oak.”

Rory’s grin disappeared.

“Naw,” Drew said with casual authority, “poison oak’s on the other coast. It’s poison ivy.”

“I thought it was the other way around.”

“Guys? Am I gonna die?”

“Actually it’s poison oak. Remember, ‘leaves of three, let it be—’”

“Lots of things have three leaves, are you telling me they’re all poison oak? Anyway, my dad says—”

“Seriously, am I gonna die? I don’t wanna die of a poisoned ass.”

“You’re not gonna die, shipdit,” Drew snapped at Rory, “just get some menthol shaving cream and put that on it. You’ll be fine.”

David was pretty sure that wouldn’t work, but knew he’d be automatically shot down. Maybe he could wait until he and Rory were alone. Rory wasn’t a bad sort when on his own. He just tended to take on the disposition of whoever he was with. David wished he could be like that. Just blend in and make friends in the little time he was here.

They climbed over a felled tree, lizards scattering in their wake. Rory made like he was going to step on one, but they were too fast. Good. David didn’t know what he’d do if they caught a lizard and did something cruel to it.

“You know, the Az-tecs weren’t that great,” Drew contemplated. He was leading them down a meandering route that took them away from the places marked on their xeroxed map and deeper into the slag piles. He claimed to know exactly where they were going, but remained vague when pressed. “Yeah, they were pretty bad-ass, but in the end they got their ass kicked by us.”

“Spain,” David said before he could catch himself.

“Yeah, but people from Spain are almost white. My dad said so. So it counts.” Drew flung his arms out, as if conducting the surrounding wildlife. “He said they cut out people’s hearts and painted pyramids with blood so the sun wouldn’t die. Isn’t that fucking stupid? Like the sun’s gonna go away. And what the hell made them think hearts would work? Why not the brain? That’s where all the good stuff happens.”

“Actually, it makes sense.” David withered internally from Drew’s apathetic gaze. “You want to give something to a god, you give it your most valuable thing. People used to think the heart did everything, not the brain. It makes sense,” he insisted.

Drew let out a noncommittal “hmm” and it fell like the weight of a hammer. Rory squinted, his blonde lashes glowing white in the afternoon light.

“So why did they think the sun would go away?”

“Eclipses. Night.” David realized he knew more about this than he realized, and despaired that it did him no good. Drew was looking the other way, intentionally bored of the conversation. “Think about it: you live when the only light you have is fire or the sun. Night is fucking scary, especially when you live with Jaguars and shit.”

Rory fell into an awed silence.

“My dad saw a puma once when they were hunting in Florida,” Drew said, apropos of nothing. He still wouldn’t look at David. “They scream like a woman. Imagine that.”

“Whoa.” Now Rory looked at Drew, eyes shining with awe. David bit his tongue, mashing the soft muscle with his incisors.

Rocks clattered as they wandered without path or bearing. The river was a quiet hush now, the loudest sound was birdsong.

“Whoa, look at this.” Drew threw his hand out, halting the other two.

A snake lay right in their path. David’s eyes wandered from the diamond head down the fat, sandy middle of it, to the tail crowned with hollow spheres.

“A rattler,” he breathed.

Drew smiled. It was not a nice smile. “Wanna see something? Dave, where’s that knife?”

David felt the sharp weight of it in his back pocket. “Tossed it away. Sorry.”

“Ah.” Drew was already rooting in the slag beside them. He came up with a sharp rock the size of his head. Drew looked them in the eye as he hefted it. David tried to tamp down his horror. He wouldn’t—

In what was either a calculated death blow or an extremely lucky shot, the rock landed on the snake’s head as it tried to escape. The body writhed as if being electrocuted, in its death throws it formed a series of angry loops, tail buzzing dryly.

David felt poisoned. “You killed it.”

“Yup.” Drew nodded. He rolled the rock off the head, leaving the body to flip and twist in a bizarre pantomime.

David flushed. “He wasn’t doing anything.”

“Snakes’re assholes, everyone knows that.” Drew nudged the body with his foot. Already it was running out of steam, its acrobatics coming slower and slower.

Drew laughed, turned on his heel, and started walking. Rory trotted after, casting a glance at the snake. David followed eventually.

The afternoon turned hotter, turned stifling. It was too hot to think. Rory took off his shirt, then put it back on once Drew started laughing about ticks. David could feel the stone digging into skin through the denim of his jeans, as if thirsty for something. He wanted to ask about going back, but knew that it would forever be a black mark in his social ledger even though they all clearly wanted to leave.

“Ah, I’m tired.” Drew flung himself over a large, flat boulder and rested a forearm over his eyes. Rory went limp as an unstrung marionette, perching on a nearby log.

David stood, the heat beating in his veins. Times like these, he felt like he could understand people who came before. People who couldn’t protect themselves with electric lights and air conditioning and automatic rifles. No one could hear them or see them, no one was around to care. Far above their heads, a hawk traveled on an invisible corkscrew of air until it was just a thin shadow on the unforgivingly blue sky.

“Drew? It’s hot. Man, I wanna go home.” Rory wiped his forehead, squinting miserably. Drew said nothing. David suspected he had never known the way, now silence was the only way he could keep up the illusion of confidence.

David felt a tickle in his throat. The air now felt too thick to breathe properly, he swam through it like a fish to Rory.

“We’re lost,” he whispered. “I don’t how we’ll get out of here.”

Rory let out a whimper. His face was beet red and none of them had brought along water.

“Man, my ass itches. It hurts, actually. I think it was poison oak. Am I gonna die Dave? I don’t wanna die here.” Rory cast a paranoid glance at their leader.

Drew was still silent, asleep or pretending to be. He sprawled on the rock like a lazy calf on an altar. What did you do when your leader refused to lead? What did you do when you had no human answers?

“I don’t care if you laugh at me man, I want my mom,” Rory whimpered. “How the hell are we getting out of here?”

David took the knife out of his back pocket and gripped it. His hand throbbed where the rough edges pressed into his skin. Drew’s head was thrown back, David saw or imagined he could see the artery in his neck pulse with rich blood.

“I have an idea,” David said.

And, as if on cue, the sun rolled behind a cloud.

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Mulberry Leaves

There is a nameless shrine on a mountaintop somewhere in the Nanpo islands of japan. Maps do not list it, and the torii crowning the entrance has been buried. A single red lacquer horn is all that exists to show the way to this shrine, which lies up a difficult incline of 108 steps.

The body of the shrine itself was constructed of driftwood and fitted together without nails. The only adornment of the shrine is a hemp rope bearing two ragged rice paper shide.

In this shrine is a mulberry tree. No matter how many years pass, this tree remains exactly eight inches in diameter. Instead of fruit, the tree bears silk strands.

There is a village at the foot of this mountain. They have no record of any shrine, only that the village once produced fabrics of the finest caliber during the Tokugawa shogunate. Villagers will blithely say the silk was imported, that no mulberry has ever grown on island soil. Invite them to the mountain, they will decline. There is nothing up there, why bother?

The mulberry silk strands are unusually tough and course, many magnitudes thicker than that produced by Bombyx mori. Coring the trunk is inexact, for the wood had a plasticity not common in the mulberry family. The only factor restraining regular harvest is that the silk, once plucked, takes many weeks to grow back.

In the village of this island, there were five founding families. Five homes producing silk. This is evident in the tax records of the Edo merchant who imported the fabric. Then, suddenly, there were four families. Why? Where did they go? Modern villagers will shrug their shoulders. Lots of things happen in a few years. Battles are found or lost. Ships crash. Why bother digging up the past?

Examination of the tree roots will turn up another anomaly. At the end of each root is a peculiar oblong scale. Tests of these scales show that they are not wood but a protein structure unique to the tree. Attempted removal only results in an excess of sap flowing from the point of injury.

Tax records from mainland Honshu tell of a time of unrest on the island. A dip in both quality and quantity. A peculiar red, unique to the island, vanished from the shipment forever. A note of usury from the silk supplier, demanding to know the whereabouts of a third of the raw materials. And then…nothing. The next year shows a slight uptick in production, minus the red fabric. The village no longer produces silk, getting by on subsistence farming and fishing in the modern day.

There is a matsuri unique to the island, taking place at the end of spring. Thirteen square holes are dug, and straw dummies that have been beaten with farm implements are places in the holes and set alight “to salt the ground.” Minor excavation of the festival grounds have turned up roof tiles, indicating there was once a house on the land.

Every spring, as matsuri lanterns light up the village at night, the tree weeps sap.

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Tender Resignation

Dear Michael,

I am writing to tell you I’ve decided to cease being your copywriter. Our relationship has spanned four years and three continents, but with this last batch of writing I must say enough is enough. I truly regret this step, but feel it necessary in light of your recent personal changes. Please do not take this resignation as an end to our friendship or a cessation of my warm feelings for you. I very much do care for your well being still. It is this concern that leads me to end our professional relationship.

I feel I must explain the change in my disposition, because it must seem very abrupt and frivolous from your end. Certainly, it is abrupt. Abrupt as the recent change in your writings, Michael. I was never given very much work in the way of simple errors. You have minded your grammar like a Latin scholar, and for that I was always grateful. But the sudden downturn in your language is quite frightening, Michael. It feels as though your mind has begun fraying at the seams. You must tell me, in all confidence as your friend, whether this is related to some foreign substance you’re abusing. When you go from writing phrases like this:

Purple grow the lilacs on the sweet down-wind of the river banks.

To

Yattering madly like a spindle(?) piercing the chattering brook[…] ripped, ripped apart from time and surface and all knowledge accrued by man…

You understand my concern, don’t you? It’s barely a sentence, much less a coherent thought. You did not detail your adventures in full, but I fear you may have run afoul of some less-than-savory types in your travels.

My concern lies also with your personal safety. I know it sounds ridiculous coming from a homebody such as myself, but trawling the Arabian desert for a nameless city that may never have existed seems too much risk for too little gain. You tell me of Iram of the pillars and lost Sarnath, but what I see is baseless superstition. Star charts and scraps of myth are no replacement for sturdy boots and a good company of men. I have no wish to scold you like a mother, but you do give me reason for grief. I believe your risk also bleeds over to me. You were the one who had me fetch that blasted Din of Cicadas or whatever they call it from the academic library. You had me translate passages and send them out to you. You were the one who got me removed from the dean’s list at the school library after decades of loyal service. You had to have known, Michael, the dreadful reputation of that book even if I did not.

And on the subject of dreadful, I must say my stomach can no longer take any of your bloody descriptions. The sacrifice and befoulment of a dog, the fate of your camel, the pilloried thief, all these are just too much. Your readers are interested in the grit and dust of the trail, do you think they need to hear how your guide’s feet split open with black cankers after walking unshod on the “parched ground”? Do you think men at their gentlemen’s clubs want to hear the bloodcurdling history of reptilian ur-men over their morning coffee? Why such focus on the ailment of your friend Mahmoud, who swole and split like a puff-ball in punishment for showing you a certain trail? They are truly terrible events, and my heart bleeds for you, but they are entirely inappropriate for your usual format and far more suited to the pulps.

And on that note, I must ask whether there is any truth to what you write. You tell me:

The blasted thing curled above Price’s men, yawning through so many wretched mouths like an abomination dredged up from the deepest depths of the sea. The men slept on unaware as the monster unfurled in the night wind, sending so many tendrils to tap and sup from their unconscious bodies until the men were drained into sacklike ruins. Oh but the true terror comes not from that night, but the next morning when Price returned to see his men and one by one the husks called out to him by name

Michael, I must ask this as your friend and editor—how do you know this if you were not there? You claim Price destroyed by the wraiths of his own men, how did you learn of this scene, then? And how can you so clearly envision the activity of the nameless city-dwellers, those reptilian beasts of such unkind intellect, how can you see them crawling about the city when they have been dead for eons? I worry for your health, my friend. Either you have become a prodigious liar in your travels or the heat has addled your brain. I do not believe a facetless ruby can show you such visions, that mystic humbug is something a fakir would sell for the price of a watch.

I really request that you entertain my concerns, Michael, even if only for a moment. Your mental state worries me, when you produce such scenes as this:

Corpse-down, gathered through many wretched midnight excursions, padded the altar made of brass feathers and noxious amber ornaments. The priest passed the lamp flame over his hand once, twice, and it was then I realized that his flesh was not bandaged but that his very flesh was swaddled. Nimbly as a factory girl, he reached out and plucked Burrows’ eyes from their sockets, replacing them with a shiny serpentine stone each.

And this:

The moonlight took on an infections quality. I could feel my skin roil beneath it, as if the very touch of the light itself were changing me. The hole in the sky seemed to laugh at my eye’s feeble attempts to make sense of the where and how of it. Now that the priest had shed his robes I could see his true form was that of the hideous things that crawled endlessly from low doorways and stairs at impossible angles. From my bound position I could only watch as Price’s life fluid formed a river that flowed upwards from the basin, up into the Stygian depths of that hole which was no longer a hole but a kind of un-moon…

I worry as your friend and as a fellow professional. Such graphic scenes flow from only the most perverse of imagination. You, from a good family and solid education, should not be penning these scenes. I do not need to hear about the flensing of your left foot, the removal of your ears, nor the grueling attempt at tattooing your back. I do not appreciate being told you are at death’s door, saying you leave these pages as your last will and testament as you are too weak to hike back to the nearest outpost. It is a cruel fiction to spin, Michael, as you must have survived long enough to post these pages to me. A note is all I ask, an inclusion in your thoughts however dark they may be, telling me you are well.

I must close with a complaint that seems minor in the face of other worries, and it is this: the figure you had shipped to me is disturbing. I set it on the piano and now the cat refuses to go near it. I have looked the figure up in Makepiece’s Guide to Egyptology, and no such creature exists in their pantheon. The green stone it is fashioned from must be some lead derivative, for being too near it gives me dreadful headaches.

Please return, Michael, to civilization and me. Cease these fancies and collect your artifact. I will no longer entertain your follies, but I will provide a bed and a hot cup of tea should you ever be in my city.

Yrs,

Terrence Q. Chase

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Prelude to an Exorcism

An older, stocky man opened the front door. “Dr. Elliott, I presume?”

Elliott offered a small, formal smile and a limp handshake. “Sure. Father, doctor, whichever you feel comfortable with, Mr. DeLuca.”

“I feel much more comfortable with you here now, father.”

Elliott had trained his senses to pick up on minute, ephemeral details. Was Daniel DeLuca a bit too enthusiastic? Did his smile match the reflex-crinkle of his eyes? Was his handshake firm, too firm, or phoned in?

DeLuca nodded crisply, though no one had said anything. “It’s so good that you’re here.”

He went in for a hug. Elliott chose to dodge nimbly around his other side, as if he had mistaken the gesture. Families under stress were more inclined to be physical with strangers, seeking the comfort denied them in their own home. Elliott tried to avoid undue familiarity whenever possible.

DeLuca took his coat, hanging it up on a coat rack that also held a white woman’s duffle and a brightly-colored child’s parka. The parka had a light layer of dust on it.

The front hall was sparse in both furniture and decor. There were a few nonthreatening landscape paintings, the customary bowl of random wicker balls on a table, but nothing besides that. No clutter. Few human touches.

DeLuca had come to stand just a little too close to his right flank.

“Father Corsey tells me you were a newspaper editor?” Elliott said politely, using pretext of turning to face DeLuca to put some distance between them.

DeLuca nodded. “The old St. Louis Spirit. Deader than disco now. They have an online component manned by a skeleton staff.” He leaned forward, negating the distance Elliott had bartered. “Right around my severance was when the troubles started.”

DeLuca’s face changed from an excess of enthusiasm to sorrow so quickly it was almost farcical.

“Fiona was very…affected by the change,” he related in a whisper. “To see her father fall from primary breadwinner of the household must have been quite a blow to her delicate constitution.”

Elliott made a note on his mental notepad and then underlined it. “So around….”

“Four months ago. It’s been horrible.” DeLuca seized Elliott’s hand in his own, suddenly clammy grip. “She won’t even let me touch her anymore. She won’t eat. She says such…horrible things.”

Elliott cleared his throat. “Well, the diocese has sent me here to evaluate your situation, to see that an exorcism is indeed the best course. We do not make these decisions lightly, Mr. DeLuca—”

Daniel, please.”

“—and only advise it as a last resort.”

For a few moments, there was only the barely-audible rasp of Mr. DeLuca’s breathing. He smiled with glazed eyes.

“Once you meet Fiona,” he said, “I am sure you will advise the best course.”

As they struggled up the narrow staircase, Elliott saw a woman flit ghostlike down the end of the hall. DeLuca stopped just before the top of the stairs, his back a solid white square like a limestone block.

“Margerie,” he said under his breath. Then, in a louder voice, “he’s here now. Get back to your room.”

Elliott swiped his tongue along the bottom right corner of his mouth. “Your wife?”

DeLuca made a dismissive motion with his hand. “She’s not taking it well, either. Possession is hardest on the mother. Maternal instinct demands you bend to the child’s demands, but giving the demon what it wants only serves to prolong the possession.”

Elliott sifted the statement, storing certain parts in their own bins. “So, is your wife providing primary care to your daughter?”

DeLuca chuckled low, shaking his head. “She’d give her the moon if I let her. No, the only one with a key to Fiona’s room is me.” He held up a brass key from the lanyard on his neck.

Elliott frowned thoughtfully. Something he had picked up on during the course of their walk was the lack of church memorabilia. Usually families stocked up on crosses, Christ figures, anything they could. DeLuca’s key hung where a crucifix normally would be. He held off on remarking on this.

“Could I see her, please?” he asked, “I would like an interview, if that’s okay.”

DeLuca took the key from his neck and twirled it on his finger. “Ask and ye shall receive.”

He stuck the key in the knob and turned it slowly, keeping eye contact with Elliott the entire time. As the door swung open, a draft played around their ankles.

The lack of memorabilia in the rest of the house was compensated for. In spades. Someone had scratched crosses into the wall, gouging them deeply into the plaster in a variety of sizes and lengths. Someone else had sloshed a bucket of white paint over them, sloppily, so that the room still smelled of latex and acrylic.

The sole piece of furniture was a bed pushed against the wall. Leather restraints, the kind used in mental institutions, crowned each bedpost. A slip of a girl lay in the middle of the bed, limbs stretched to meet each restraint. Her hair was greasy and her pale limbs covered with scratches. She wore a white, stained shift and a rosy gold crucifix hung around her neck.

All in all, Elliott mused, a picture straight out of Hollywood.

The girl on the bed stirred, flesh of her throat flexing. Her eyes rolled down to display the whites above her iris, much like a startled horse.

Elliott turned and found DeLuca looming in the doorway like a disproving stormcloud.

“I would like to conduct the interview alone, if it’s at all possible.” Elliott said.

DeLuca didn’t move. His gaze was pinned to the girl on the bed.

“Please,” Elliott said, lightly pushing his chest.

DeLuca backed out of the room, still facing the bed. He left the door ajar. Elliott gently pushed it closed.

The girl on the bed lay perfectly still as he approached, putting him in mind of a fawn trying to look like dappled sunlight on leaves. There was no chair, so he crouched by her side.

“You’re Fiona?” he asked.

The girl swallowed, nodding gently.

“Can I ask you some questions?”

Her eyes strayed to the door. He nodded without following her eyes.

“We can talk quietly, if you like,” he whispered. “Have you seen a doctor recently, Fiona?”

A headshake.

Elliott motioned to her scratches. “Did you do this to yourself?”

Another headhsake. “He did this.” her voice was like the flutter of a moth’s wing.

“He?”

“The demon. He comes to me at night.”

Elliott nodded, tentatively turning her wrist in his hand. There were lacerations from the restraint, some old enough to be scars, some fresh and red.

“When did this…demon manifest itself?”

She blinked.

“When did you first notice it?”

“When daddy got fired.” Her eyes flicked to the door again. “He showed up. It left a space for him to squeeze through.”

Elliott frowned. She hadn’t said anything about her crucifix. Usually, even the people undergoing a mental collapse in the guise of religious mania discarded the cross.

“Who made these scratches on your wall, Fiona?”

“I did.”

“And who gave you that lovely necklace?”

Fiona said something under her breath. Elliott leaned closer.

“Don’t let him know you can hear me,” she murmured. “He made mom tie me down.”

Elliott rubbed her arm, mindful of her scratches. “I’m going to try to get you some help, okay Fiona?”

Fiona blinked. She did not seem especially sad or happy to hear the news. She seemed as if all the energy had been drained from her, through some monumental effort. Elliott clasped her hand.

“I will be back,” he promised, “with more men like me. You will get help.”

Fiona blinked. Her eyes were the clear blue-green of thick bottle glass. “That’s what he wants,” she whispered.

Elliott rose, knees creaking. He shot one last look at Fiona before he opened the door. Her eyes had risen heavenward, or perhaps only ceilingward.

Elliott slowly turned the knob, mindful of a series of creaks suddenly starting at the door and ending at the hall. DeLuca stood at the stairs as if he had always been there.

Fiona’s mother poked her head out a side door. Her eyes carried such heavy bags they looked bruised. The marks on her neck were not bags, however. They were purple-green and clearly finger-shaped. DeLuca shifted on his feet and the woman darted, shutting the door behind her.

Elliott did not disguise the fact that he saw her. “I’d like to speak to the girl’s mother, as well.”

DeLuca shook his head. “No use. She’s too close. Wouldn’t provide anything useful.”

“Still…” Elliott let the  statement hang in the air.

DeLuca did not answer. Instead he turned and ambled over to the banister, looking down over his first floor. Elliott joined him.

“I don’t like to make decisions based on such small crumbs. I’d like to hold a series of interviews. With her, her mother, some school officials, perhaps another medical official. Has she seen a psychiatrist or someone like that?”

DeLuca made a noncommittal motion of his head.
“Then, of course, I will review the information gathered here with the diocese, possibly consulting—”

With a single, deft motion, Daniel DeLuca reached over and broke Elliott’s neck. He held the body while it spasmed. Then, with calculation and care, he tipped the body over the bannister so it landed head-first on the floor.

He listened for a moment, nodding as if agreeing with something  inaudible. Then he calmly went to the hallway telephone and dialed a number.

He smiled placidly as the phone rang six times.

“Hello?” he forced distress into his voice. “This is Daniel DeLuca. My daughter has—has—oh my God, I think it was an accident! She just ran and pushed—” his voice broke. “Please, can we move the exorcism up? I’m at my wit’s end, I don’t know what to do. She won’t even let me near her anymore…”

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Skipping Stones

Elvira, Ohio has the dubious honor of harboring the only known instance of a completely child-based cult. When it began or who started it is up to the unknown. But from May-August of 1965, the entirety of Mrs. Hardin’s fourth-grade class became participants in a bizarre series of rituals that shattered the peace of the small town forever.

The first instance of the cult manifesting itself was what appeared to be a simple playground game not unlike hopscotch. 20 children marked out a series of squares in chalk on the blacktop and numbered them. Stones were tossed into the field, and for each number a cryptic phrase was called out. “Violet—down to the west! Ian—curl through and out!” Elora Hardin noted that the game would disperse immediately as she approached. The children would lie when asked the nature of the game, denying they had been playing anything.

More and more of the children’s time became devoted to the series of games. They would walk in form from the school to their homes, refusing to acknowledge any children from the other grades. They were closed off and emotionless, speaking only when spoken to. One parent jokingly referred to them as the Kinderarmy. The humor covered up a deep-running concern within the town. The children began eating only in shifts, some fasting for a day before allowing themselves to feed. A child on a fasting shift could not be forced to eat, not through threat or physical punishment.

It was during the 4th of July picnic that the falling ritual was first discovered. Pastor Eames observed the children clustered by a nearby bridge spanning a dry creek. As he watched, the children picked a participant through unknown means. Henrietta Marley stepped forward, crossed her hands over her chest, and hurled herself backwards off the bridge. Eames made it to the bridge in three large steps. Anthony Brown had stepped up to be next. Eames reached out to grab the boy. Heady Carcer dove forward. Eames reached out to catch her. Anthony, no longer restrained, fell backwards off the bridge.

No one knew what to do. Child psychology was in its infancy. While the children who had dropped from the bridge were not seriously injured, the rest showed a startling lack of empathy for their fellow nine-year-olds.

The town instituted a curfew. The children were put on lockdown at their own houses and not allowed to see each other. Somehow cult-specific terms still managed to travel among the imprisoned children. Joe Ramsey, a traveling salesman, witnessed a gathering of children on the village green as he drove home in the early hours of the morning. Parents checked the next day, but could find no evidence the children had left their rooms.

School had adjourned for the summer, and so parents were hit with a dilemma. Did they dare keep their children locked in their houses all summer long? Or could they risk unleashing them for further strangeness?

A compromise was reached. The children would be let out for specific hours of the day, to interact in supervised groups. The children’s first act on being reunited was to separate into groups of three or four and stand silently, staring at the ground between them. The children did not speak at these meetings. They communicated by touch and followed an unknown set of instructions. Their games were highly structured and complex. As their parents watched, the children walked in kaleidoscopic patterns

The children stopped communicating with their parents. The few with siblings would act as if the other child did not even exist. No technique the parents tried worked on their children. Punishment, positive reinforcement, all fruitless.

On August 18th, the children clustered in the corner of the field instead of dividing into groups. There was a moment’s whispered conversation. Violet Parker broke away from the group and approached the adults.

“It’s been decided,” she said, her first words in over a month, “it has to be me.”

Violet’s eyes rolled back in her head and she began choking. Violet’s mother and two other parents rushed her to the nearest hospital, a whole county away. Doctors could not find the cause of her sudden fit. Despite their ministrations, Violet Parker died at precisely 3:15 in the afternoon. Left behind in the distraction, the remaining fourth graders stepped into the long grass surrounding the field and were never seen again.

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A Delicate Matter

“Watch th’ rail, okay? Nearly took his arm off that time.”

“I’m watchin’ it as much as I kin, I don’t see how—”

Naylor rapped on the doorframe. “Gentlemen? How we doing?”

Agee and Tucker drew apart. The cadaver on the table was rolled onto his side, displaying the s-curve of the spine. Agee touched up a few strands that had fallen from his shiny pate.

“It’s the damndest thing, Mr. Naylor. We were all set to tap him, but…”

Naylor looked past their plump shoulders to the cadaver. It showed no signs of liver mortis, at least the visible portions didn’t. How odd.

“Mr. Abraham,” Naylor said, “his widow is in right now. Did you want me to tell her you haven’t yet started preservation procedure on her husband?”

Tucker looked off to the side. He was always the quieter of the two.

Agee ground his toe into the floor. “It’s just…me’n Al here, we left him by the window awhile. Damndest thing.”

“So you think cooking Mr. Abraham is proper procedure?”

Tucker shook his head. “No, sir. It’s…well, you better come look.”

They heaved the body onto its back. Abraham was grizzled and grey. His frame was stretched and thin so that his tendons stood out, even in the state of death. His skin was the translucent white of ivory soap.

Tucker brought his right wrist up for inspection. The hand, from fingertips to elbow, was striped red. Sunlight streamed in through the slats of the blinds, leaving matching stripes on the concrete floor.

Naylor clicked his teeth together. “How long did you leave him there?”

“No more’n a minute, Mr. Naylor.”

Naylor frowned down at the body.

 

Jessica Abraham was waiting in the showroom. Save for the sparse strands of white in her blonde hair, she looked young enough to be Abraham’s daughter. Her black mourning dress, though of a modest neckline, was tight.

Naylor had to restrain himself from smoothing back his hair. “My apologies. An administrative matter.”

“Not at all.” Her voice had the hollow tone he heard all too often. “Are you a family establishment?”

Naylor cleared his throat. “No, though I like to think of my technicians as family.”

Jessica wasn’t listening. She was pacing down the line of wooden boxes, seeing but not seeing.

“I don’t have much family,” she said, “Hank was my world. A lot of people think, with me so young and him so old, that it was about money.”

Naylor tactfully looked elsewhere.

“You don’t have to worry, if that’s the case. I brought my own money into the marriage. I’m going to give my husband the best send-off I possibly can.”

Naylor saw his opening and rushed to fill it. “We strive to work with every client to give them the best possible experience, no matter their budget.”

He tactfully guided her past the bargain models towards what the receptionist dubbed “the hall of eternity.” Mahogany and brass gleamed. Satin and velvet glowed.

“This model is guaranteed for fifty years after burial. Floods, insects, even seismic tremors.”

Jessica looked down at the box, the red comma of her mouth curling into a frown. Naylor intercepted her with his most sincere look.

“It is the finest wood we have,” he said, “rainforest teak. So strong that some emperors had their royal tombs carved from the wood.”

He was particularly proud of that last touch. The young widow bent over the box. Her blonde eyelashes made her eyes look misty.

Naylor, glancing discreetly up at the clock, caught sight of Tucker standing in the doorway. At an angle that she couldn’t see, Naylor frowned at the funerary tech.

Tucker thumbed behind himself. His face was subtly terrified. Naylor looked from him to the widow, and back again. He sighed inaudibly.

“I’m very sorry,” he said, “I’m afraid I must excuse myself again.”

Jessica looked up. Her pencil-thin eyebrows arched. “Not a problem with my husband, I hope?”

“Most certainly not,” he hastily lied. “We’ve had problems, with…a buyer. A simple paperwork matter. Shouldn’t be more than three minutes.”

She did not look entirely satisfied, but nodded him on his way.

 

“What did you DO?” Naylor gaped at the scene.

“Well, me’n Al got to talkin’, see, and we thought the daylight thing kinda funny. And you know, when we went to tap him, the old boy was complet’ly dry. So Al, he says maybe we should wheel him to that big ol’ chapel cross and, well…”

Abraham’s body now had a violet cruciform discoloration down the face and neck.

Naylor got to his knees, moaning. “You know I was just showing her the Emperor, don’t you? Goddamn, clients like her don’t just drop in every day in this hick town!”

“Sorry, boss.” Tucker at least had the good graces to look ashamed.

“Yeah, sorry.”

Naylor covered his face with a hand and waved it away. “We can fix the face. But there’re deeper matters in play here, now.”

“What matters, boss?”

Naylor lowered his hand. Tucker shuffled his feet and looked down again.

“You want I should get the priest?”

“Just like that? Would you just snag anyone to perform a wedding ceremony, Al? No.” Naylor straightened up. “You’ve got to have tact. I can still fix this.”

 

Jessica was looking out the stained glass window with a slightly puzzled look on her face. The scene he’d chosen was non-denominational. In a town so small he couldn’t afford to alienate any creed.

“Mrs. Abraham,” he said in his most cultured, soothing voice. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long.”

Jessica shrugged. Grief struck in all sorts of ways. Some fell wailing before the oncoming tide, some weathered it like shoal.

Some, Naylor reflected, ran back up to their beachfront mansion.

“Well, I’m sure you’ve had enough of the hall for now,” he said, tactfully steering her towards a little-used door, “I have something else to show you.”

Jessica let herself be led.

“Many people do not like to think of the minutiae of a funeral,” Naylor continued as he guided her through the door. “There are many aspects of a funeral that go largely unremarked. We pride ourselves on thinking of such, so that others do not have to. So, when the time comes, you can make the most informed decision you can.”

Jessica frowned slightly at the boxes lining the wall. Some were plain wood, some stone, some cut glass. The biggest would only have held a cat at most.

“I don’t understand.”

Naylor took off his glasses and rubbed an eye with his fingertip. “Sometimes there are… additional preparations to make. We handle it discreetly as possible, but we cannot make decisions for the client.”

He fetched a wooden box from the wall. It was carven with a hunting scene. Dogs with long tongues ran baying before a man with a flintlock.

Naylor bore it over to the widow reverently. He set it on the viewing table and opened it. Jessica gave a little gasp.

“It is the finest wood we have,” Naylor said, stroking the stake with the fingertips of his right hand.

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The Parable of Two Cities

Daghles was a city of merchants and artisans that suddenly developed a taste for war. Nihzy had been a city-state of proud military tradition, but was hundreds of years past its prime. The Daghles strike was swift and precise. They were able to craft innovative armor and weapons while Nihzy struggled along with leftovers from its last military campaign. The battle, which took place in the land between the cities, became known in Daghles as the 3-day war. It was not really so brief, but in the end the effect the same: Nihzy was routed and its forces sent fleeing back to the city. Daghles soldiers followed and laid siege. What citizens were left alive after 30 days of famine died when Daghles soldiers lost patience and set fire to the barricaded city.

After the embers cooled, they picked over the ashes. It became vogue to posses objects from the fallen city. Jewelry was dismantled and the beads repurposed into familiar designs. Cornices were scavenged from buildings and cut into mantelpieces. A color called Nihzy purple came into fashion when a group of looters broke into a dye workshop hidden under layers of slag so its recipes had escaped the flames.

The Daghles people came to pity their enemies, lamenting that they had been a noble, if ultimately wrongheaded folk.

After enough time had passed, a new religion emerged with Nihzyan flavors. It revolved around the worship of a god called Erzeniz, which meant “dragon from Nihzy.” As it happens, the religion spread like a healthy rash. It started with corner proselytizers and graduated to outdoor gatherings quickly. Worshipers were encouraged to cast away material possessions. The uniform was, of course, Nihzy purple.

Soon, churches were built. Statesmen began worshiping in secret. Self-flagellation became commonplace.

The Daghles autocrat looked at the lavender cast of the streets, his prefects flogging one another, and bowed to the winds of change.

Erzenihz was declared the official deity. Supplicants celebrated with a bonfire of household furnishings. Now that the religion gained foothold, it grew austere. Citizens went around with open wounds displayed like flags. The staple grain of the city was deemed wicked, replaced by a leafy green that did poorly in Daghles’ dry climate. Salt was forbidden on food. If a man had in his house an object too big to be carried by a single mule, he was stripped and shamed.

The city no longer produced works of art. Trade was forgotten. Now all labor was dedicated to processing the hemp that made their robes. The city wore down to almost nothing.

It was one tired day among many others that the edict came down: the children of Daghles must be sacrificed.

The ripple it created was not as large as it once might have been, for they were led to it in steps. Once the outrage died down, the dutiful stepped to the fore.

The first wave loosened the knot. The second untied it completely. Soon whole families fell under the sword without flinching. There were not enough hands to replace the ones being taken, so food production slowed and finally stopped.

The day arrived when the few Daghlites left were past the age of producing children. They wound down their days scrabbling through the remains of their once-thriving city, waiting for the inevitable day when the last Daghleite would die of old age.

And it was in this way that silent Nihzy avenged itself.

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The Scenic Route

Stop.

I want you to take a good, long look right now and then never again. I want you to get it out of your system.

Your pretending you weren’t? I saw you. I see everything, don’t think I won’t. Look, it ain’t a crime, just look now while you got me with you.

Don’t apologize. Just look around so you get a good idea of why we won’t be stopping here.

I know the route is long and sometimes you’ll be tempted to stop and rest your load. I don’t care if you wind up with a kinked spine and one shoulder higher than the other, you never stop here.

Why? Nevermind why, look around. Should be slappin’ you in the face. This place has bad juju.

Count the doors along the way. Sometimes you’ll wind up with an even number, sometimes odd. When you walk this route alone, sometimes you’ll get…funny thoughts. Might think it’s a good idea to do something that ain’t a good idea. S’why we rotate, see? A man on his own too long in a place like this, well, he might start asking unhealthy questions. And trust me, there’s nothing but unhealthy questions here.

See these bones? You don’t want to know what made these bones.

Also, sometimes you’ll see this really big bug. It’s not talking to you, it’s just making noise.

Whaddya mean I’m scaring you? Damn straight, I’m scaring sense into you. No, Don didn’t put me up to this, dammit, I’m responsible for your rookie ass.

Look, I’ll prove it to you. You see how the sun’s setting? Take a look at those trash-cans. Notice anything?

…No, not how clean they are. The shadows are going the wrong way.

I know, right? Barry was the first to notice that. And it gets weirder, too, you haven’t even seen the red shack.

What’s that? Well, let’s just say it’s not there every single time.

…no, I ain’t fuckin’ with you, do you think—look at those shadows! How the hell would I do that?

Hell, I don’t hate you. None of the guys do. If we hated you, we wouldn’t even—look, I’m just trying to bring you into this slowly so you don’t get hit all at once.

…what do you mean about the beast? Who told you about the beast?

Rick? Piece of shit. I take it back, Rick has it out for you. Don’t trust that redheaded bastid for a second.

C’mon, let’s get moving.

What? You want to hear about it? Some other—when we aren’t—okay, fine. Right quick.

You see that little yard right there? Yeah, looks like it should have a dog. But it don’t. Be surprised if anything lived in this neighborhood besides the mold. No rats here, did you notice?

Anyway, off point. This guy called Adam, he was before your time, Adam walks by once and sees a chain-peg and an opened collar on the ground. One of those big ones, with the spikes. He don’t pay it much mind, only, the next delivery he hears this growling, see? But there’s no animal around.

Happens every time he goes out that way. So he gets it in his head to go in the yard, and—

What? Nothing happened, he retired. Stop givin’ me that look.

Anyway, my point is, you shouldn’t go pokin’ around places like this. Now come on, we’ve been here long—

No, I’m not letting you turn back. Never go back the other way. Why? You’ll get lost.

I don’t care if it seems like a straight shot, you’ll get lost. Don’t try to save time, the other guys will always vouch for you on this route. You deliver the package and then come around the long side.

Why do you wanna hear about the beast? This isn’t a campfire!

Look, we’ll walk and talk, okay?

Good.

So, the beast is just a name. There’s a lot of things that can happen, maybe they’re related, maybe they’re not. Maybe Barry cutting his arm on nothing and Rick finding a hubcap with a chunk bit out of it are two different whatchacallits. Happenstance. Maybe not. But there’s a lot wrong in this place and call me crazy, but I like you, kid. I like your face. You got an honest face. You look like if I tell you something, it’ll stick.

So when I tell you not to linger here, you’ll listen, right? Right?

What’re you looking at?

What do you mean ‘where’s the door,‘ it should be right there.

Whatddya mean it’s all bricked up? Goddamn, that ain’t funny, kid. I told you we were here too long, if you—

Shit.

Did you hear that?

…okay. Look, that can’t be the real door. Feel around, I’ll—

No don’t turn around, goddammit there’s nothing, just keep trying for the door, keep trying, keep trying, keep trying—

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Precautions

Hughes was shown to Leonard-ffolks’ drawing room to wait. Even here, the ever-present cacophony of sawing and hammering bled through the walls. A maid in mob cap brought the tray of drinks, flanked by the man himself.

“Richard.” Hughes rose.

“Hughes, there’s a stout chap.” The two men embraced. “How like you the wainscoting?”

“Lovely. Forgive a layman’s ignorance: walnut?”

“Poplar.” ffolks’ expression was glum.

“Good heavens. Well, it stains up nicely.”

The other man appeared only half in attendance. He had the air of a man tensed for a catastrophe.

“It was walnut. Had them rip it all out.”

“Oh…” Hughes cleared his throat.

“Bad wood you see. The whorls are too inviting.”

“Inviting to what?”

Instead of answering, ffolks picked up a glass and sipped.

“James,” ffolks said, “what do you know of Hindustan?”

“The colonies? Thuggees, fakirs, that sort of thing?”

“Exactly. Savages to the man.” The hammering ceased for a moment. ffolks half-rose, and the noise resumed. He sank with relief back into the settee.

Hughes sipped at his whiskey. “Does this have something to do with the incident in Khunipoor?”

ffolks tensed again.

“Damn it, man. You can’t just dance around the subject forever. What was it that finally brought you back from the colonies?”

ffolks got up and strode around the room, picking up and making a cursory examination of the various curios that littered the room.

“Have you ever been inside a Buddhist temple?”

Hughes thought before replying. “No, but there was that Japanese gent that held a service for us at the gardens—”

“Pah,” ffolks spat. “a frilly little dress party. True Buddhism is heathen and cruel, unnatural.”

This startled a laugh out of Hughes. “Buddhists? Surely not. They’re funny fellows, go around in yellow pajamas.”

ffolks spoke as if he had never been interrupted. “Suggesting that the immortal soul is tethered to this plain, forever laboring for its misdeeds.”

“Not a spiritualist, then?”

“That parlor game? Mere rookery. I’m speaking of a religion based not eternal reward in the afterlife, but of grinding poverty. Almost as bad as the hindoos.”

“It is true then, about the presence of a thuggee cult in Khunipoor?”

“What?” ffolks shook himself. “tosh. The common worshippers themselves are bad enough. Gods with many limbs and heads.”

“But the dragon in revelations—”

“Is Lucifer himself, man. Don’t split hairs with me in this matter, I’ve studied catechism since before you were out of short pants.” ffolks stopped his pacing. “Not that it helped. You can’t press civilization into them with a trowel, much less a bible.”

“So the uprising had something to do with conversion,” Hughes said, too eagerly. ffolks withdrew into himself.

“All you need know is that Hinnom is on earth, and on the subcontinent.” ffolks stopped to run a covetous hand over a cherry-wood shelf. “I’ve done my time. Paid my dues. And yet this would not be enough by their reckoning.”

ffolks seemed to be taking measure of the room. He spoke his next words with caution.

“Hughes…are you at all familiar with the architecture of the east?”

“Done with Georgian taff, are you?” Hughes needled. ffolkes ignored it.

“Their buildings are as irrational as the people themselves. All manner of useless bends and twists, false doors and functionless hallways.”

Hughes did not jest again. ffolkes’ demeanor disturbed him.

“Can you tell me why, Hughes?”

Hughes slowly shook his head.

ffolkes pointed a finger. “To confuse evil spirits. God! The air must be swimming with them if half the precautions I’d seen were necessary.”

Hughes had a slow, descending epiphany. “Your recent renovations…”

ffolkes pointed. “First boy gets it.” He was nearly excited as he huddled before Hughes. “I’ve researched into this. Dug up all the proper books, even talked to that dull fellow who insists he’s a lobsang rama or somesuch drivel.”

“But for heavens sake—why, man?”

“I don’t need to tell you I left the colonies under a cloud. Who knows what shriveled little fakir is hurtling curses at my back?”

Hughes leaned forward in his seat. “As your dearest and oldest friend, I must ask you: are you out of your mind?”

ffolkes drew back primly. “Just precautious, old man. Here. I must give you a short tour.”

ffolkes led him along corridors painted with trick doors, stairs with odd-numbered steps, windows that opened on a wall. Hughes bit his tongue and stepped over contractors who looked at him with dull curiosity.

The tour ended where it began: in the drawing room. ffolks seemed a little desperate as Hughes cited a long journey back and gathered his coat, but did not entreat him to stay. Hughes noticed an evil eye painted above the lintel as ffolkes showed him out.

“…and for god’s sake, don’t be a stranger,” ffolkes said with forced cheer.

Hughes stopped on the threshold. “Forgive me, I must ask. What happened in khunipoor?”

ffolkes’ eyes were shuttered. “Nothing for civilized men to lose sleep over.”

The door shut with a solid thud.

 

Hughes, through no fault of his own, went some time without thinking of his friend. Business and pleasure kept him away. But, as so often happens, coincidence led him back to it.

The subject was conjured up when he ran into Billings, a fellow school chum. He had to ask whether the other man had heard of Leonard-ffolks and his renovations.

Billings’ face fell. “God, don’t remind me. That poor man…”

“What?”

“You haven’t heard? You, of all…” Billings shook his head. “it was the bloody renovations, I told him to move out while they worked. They say it was probably some spilled tung oil, went up like a flash.”

Hughes set down his fork. “So he…”

“Burned.” Billings nodded grimly. “Terrible way to go.”

“Can’t imagine.” Hughes stared at his plate, no longer hungry.

 

The estate was still well-kept, though its benefactor was gone. Hughes kept an eye out for any wayward gamekeeper that might mistake him for a poacher.

Hughs crested the hill that hid the house from view. He sucked in a breath.

A few support beams stuck up like black teeth. Those were the only part of the structure still standing.

Hughes paced the length of the wreckage, sifting through the ash with his eyes. Nothing recognizable.

The newspapers had said there wasn’t even enough of a trace left for burial. Hughes squeezed his eyes shut.

Hiking back over the greens, he encountered an old woman with a bundle of washing.

“Good heavens! You weren’t up at the estate?”

Hughes confirmed that yes, he was.

The old woman blanched. “Terrible, it is.”

“I agree wholeheartedly, madam.”

“Night after night.”

Hughes paused. “Excuse me?”

“The light. The screaming. The terrible sound of fire crackling.” the old woman actually crossed herself. “Poor man. I don’t care what they say he did, no man deserves that.”

Hughes grew cold again. “Are you saying there are…spiritual visitations where the house stood?”

“That’s putting it lightly. Oh, god! If only he’d stop screaming!”

 

There was room at the inn, even in the middle of the season. Hughes suspected this was the norm rather than the exception. He passed some time in his room glancing unseeingly over his books and, after the sun had gone down, hiked back to the site.

The charred ruins were even blacker in the night. Hughes stood in the yard, stamping his feet for warmth, feeling a fool.

A flash lit his face.

Hughes’s mouth dropped open.

As if viewed through a dirty glass, the house was whole again and being eaten by fire right before his eyes.

Hughes stood rooted to the spot.

Someone screamed.

Hughes jolted into motion, running toward the house. The cries certainly sounded like ffolkes. Hughes ran around the perimeter, afraid to get too close to the apparition.

“Richard!”

Hughes followed the sound.

ffolks was in the second-story study. He did not look out at Hughes,he was merely screaming blindly for help.

“I’m here,” Hughes said. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “I’m here, man!”

“Richard! For God sakes, anyone!”

Hughes’s hands fell away from his mouth. He watched ffolkes scrabble fruitlessly at the wall, grabbing continuously at a doorknob that was painted onto the paper.

“Help!” ffolkes cried, snatching at the flat form, “help!”

Hughes watched until the fire faded, and the lot was empty and dark once more.

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Who Do I Call?

I don’t have a story for you. I have three pieces of a whole, only one of which I was actually there for. I hope you can tell me what to do about it because I’m at a loss, honestly. Who do I go to? The cops? Interpol?

Listen:

I work with my friend Sanjay for that stereo place out by the highway. We’re the assholes in the van who haul your old systems away. Sanj was in the drivers seat and I was doing what I always do as a co-pilot: try to make him laugh and mess up so I could have a turn driving.

I was doing a bit as the guy ahead of us, the white van was swerving all over the lane. I came up with this long list of what I drank last night. Somewhere between jet fuel and his mom’s catheter bag I thought I had Sanj when he shouted “oh shit” and braked really hard. I looked in front of us just in time to see the van tip past the point of no return and hit the pavement.

We skidded. Thank god there was no one right behind us, or I wouldn’t have been alive to see this next part.

The back of the van was full of girls.

They all looked southeast Asian, but from different ethnic groups, I could tell. I heard Sanj whisper “oh god no,” and he was out of the car before I could get my seatbelt off. One of the girls had fallen through the back doors and was still moving. The others…weren’t.

Sanj got his arms beneath her neck and knees and by this point I was out of the car.

“Dude, open the doors,” he said, gesturing with his foot.

“What? Why?”

“Can you even see? What does this look like to you?”

We didn’t have to say it out loud. A bunch of girls crammed in the back of a van? Obvious trafficking ring. I popped the lock and let Sanj set her back there; while he did I took our big wrench and approached the driver’s side.

I was telling myself I just wanted a look, just a crack at the scumbag who did this so I could describe him to the cops.

There was no one in the drivers seat. No one anywhere in the cab. No blood, no open doors. In fact, the old-timey locks, the kind you can fish with a coathanger? Weren’t popped.

Sanjay screamed for me to get back in the car. Nether of us had a phone, so we decided to drive to the nearest place with a landline and call the cops. I took the wheel this time. Sanj sat in the passenger side, unbuckled, whispering to the back seat “it’ll be okay. It’ll all be okay.”

I don’t think she could understand. I don’t think she even heard us. She was all sweaty and really banged up from the accident. I think she had a concussion. She kept murmuring to herself, she sounded so weepy and worn out, like she couldn’t even get up enough energy to panic.

I pulled into a used car place right as some emergency vehicles screamed past us going the other way. Since calling 911 seemed moot now, we decided to go straight to the hospital. Sanjay had to navigate with the beat up old map from the glove box.

We pulled into the hospital parking lot and Sanjay yelled back: “it’s gonna be okay now.”

We looked back and found that the girl was gone. Not just gone, the back of the truck was swimming in an inch of water. I think we both just sat there in shock for a little while.

Of course everything we had in the back was ruined. Boss chewed us out, not that we cared. Sanj went home with me that day, and we both had a Guinness and put on the evening news.

They’d found the van on the road, but even less in it. No driver. No girls.

 

I have this friend, Amy. I went to high school with her, and we’re still on semi-friendly terms. She was born here and everything, but her family is full-blooded Vietnamese. So as such she gets a lot of aggro on public transit and whatnot. So when a sedan pulled up alongside her, she said she was already on defense.

The car was full of young, white guys dressed in business attire. They had suits but no jackets, in these pastel-floral colors. They didn’t smile or say anything so she gave them a weird look. This was a part of the road with no sidewalk and no shoulder, so she didn’t really have any convenient places to run.

The guy in the passenger seat spoke: “get in.”

She said the way he said it, like there wasn’t even room for objection, scared the shit out of her. She had her earbuds in, so she pretended not to hear and kept walking.

The guy in the car leaned forward. “Get in the fucking car.”

This startled her into saying: “fuck you!”

Without any warning, the guy driving turned the wheel so that the car nosed into the shoulder. Amy said she has no idea how she thought so fast, but she immediately dropped back and ran behind the car, into the oncoming traffic lane. She missed a few cars and was afraid there would be a gap in traffic, that they’d try and cross the lane to get her. The car revved up and turned the other way, but a little coupe coming up behind them clipped the mirror and spun out. The driver, this old guy, got out and started yelling at them. The guys in the car apparently decided to cut their losses and sped off. Amy said she had to walk around for a while before she could stop shaking so much.

 

The third thing is probably nothing. I don’t even know if it really belongs in here, but it’s just too much of a coincidence.

My brother is on the custodial crew for the chain hotel downtown. He’s seen shit that would turn you white. Mostly it’s amusing, but this one actually hit him so hard I ended up telling him my story.

So, anyway, there’s this party renting out the royal suite. Not whole lot lot of interaction between the desk staff and my brother’s people, so all he could tell me was based on what they asked for.

They went through towels like you wouldn’t believe. All their meals had to be absolutely salt-free, and apparently they could tell when even a little had fallen in because they sent it back. No nasty notes, no abuse, just weird.

So my brother hears that they asked for the custodial staff personally. Apparently there was a leak. So my brother goes up with his kit and doesn’t know what to expect. Guests can be pretty weird, especially rich guests. For all he knew “leak” was secret code for “watch me jack off.” And it’s not like the desk staff would warn him, anyway.

But no. He said the guy who opened the door seemed normal, if a little…off. Button-up shirt, tie, sleeves rolled up past the elbow and damp. He waved at my brother.

“C’mon. in here.”

He walked with my brother to the middle of the main room and pointed. My brother said at first he thought it was a joke. The puddle was barely the size of a head. It had soaked through the rug to the wood floor, but plenty of guests had let other less pleasant fluids do that and just left it.

Just to make sure, my brother pointed and asked, “there?”

The guy nodded. “Wipe it all up.”

My brother was weirded out, but not really in the position to say anything. He rolled up the rug, squirted a little 409, and wiped back and forth. He said he had this really odd feeling that he couldn’t place until he looked up. The guy was watching him clean really intently. Too intently. Like, if he had been jacking off, my brother wouldn’t have been surprised.

My brother took the rug and promised to get it back that day. The guy thanked him and said not to bother, it would just get messy again anyway. My brother couldn’t get out of the room soon enough after that.

He said he didn’t know what made him look back. Bullshit. I know what made him look back, because it’s the same thing that made Sanj get out of the van.

He said just as the door shut behind him, the door to the suite bathroom opened. More young guys were looking out. Their shirts were all soaking wet and they all looked really alert. He said that since the shirts were wet, they were kind of see-through, and he said that it looked like they all had some really gnarly body hair.

But the worst thing, he said, was what he noticed in that split-second before the door shut. A slender pair of hands handcuffed to the faucet in the tub, and a head of long, black hair in the water that was up to the tub’s brim.

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