When we reach the age of adulthood, we begin our service. Some are fortunate and go to the hospitals or the schools or the cathedrals. But most of us will be sent to the Garrison.
In the center of our town there stands a wheel, tall and ancient. It turns with the days and the months and the years, grinding down the passage of time between slabs of ancient stone and weathered wood. It keeps the time and tracks the heartbeat of the ages.
It is there where the officers arrive. They stand on the dais before the great wheel and speak in booming voices amidst the clatter of trumpets and drums. Their uniforms are starched and crisp. Their plates burnished and shining in the high sun, gleaming mirrored silver. They are radiant and proud.
And they are eloquent. They speak to us of honor, bravery, nobility, and service. Service above all. Service in splendor and glory. It is the Garrison, after all, that keeps us safe, safe from the fangs and claws in the night, the dark and brutal things that slink in the slime and muck outside our borders. Without the garrison, without the brave men and women who stand astride the battlements, without the lions baring teeth and claws against the unrelenting night, we would all be exposed. To go there is privilege. It is noble and true to stand tall on those walls, straight and narrow, facing boldly into the brisk wind beneath the fluttering flags, as the watchers, ever vigilant.
And when you return, the rewards will be great, since we honor our heroes, the noble veterans of the Garrison.
And so we are sent.
We don’t always think we will go. It’s not an easy thing.
I’ve heard parents of friends shout and yell and bang their mugs down on their tables and say things like “I won’t send my children to the Garrison!” and “Enough is enough!” They agree with each other, raucous and loud. This time it will be different, or so they say.
I used to play dice with my friends just off the square and we would stand tall and proclaim that we would not fight the wars that don’t belong to us, that we would make our own choices. We would never go to the Garrison. We were worth more elsewhere. We would live our own lives. Safe we were, there, shielded by the fact that we had not yet come of age and our choices couldn’t bring the fell weight of consequence.
But the truth comes with the turning of the great wheel, and we are sent. The wheel grinds away the time, the excuses, the dreams of youth. The soldiers stand on the dais and in the miasma of passion and fervor, parents push their kids forward. The children hold their heads high and brandish ancestral weapons while praise and glory are heaped upon them. They stride boldly forward and board the trains. Those of us who would remain are menaced from all sides, but perhaps more from behind by the savage knives of scorn and judgment and shame. For you have now come of age, and in your heart you know what you will do, and have always known, because it’s the way it must be and because the time has run out. The wheel wears it away.
You take your weapons, hold yourself regal and step forward, and begin your service.
And thus we go to the Garrison.
It’s cramped on the trains and it’s quiet. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow recruits in nervous, heavy silence. When we board the trains, some bring with them the bravado of the town square, but as the trains pull away and we watch our families fade into the distance, crying and waving flags and handkerchiefs, the bravado disappears. We try to act brave and hold our heads high, but it’s harder here with nothing but the now, and the future, and weight of consequence.
Someone shouts boldly somewhere down the train. There is a clatter of metal and rustle of bodies. No one responds and the voice weakens and fades as confidence bleeds out. Whatever it says is drowned out as the silence seeps back in, covering everything like freshly fallen snow.
Mostly we watch. We look out the windows as the train speeds ever onwards.
We speed over tundra, watched over by towering and ancient sentinels of frosted stone, and high plains strewn with lavender and corn and alfalfa. The train winds through mountain passes and valleys, lush with moss and rot and hanging rhododendrons. Around us, the world blooms and rages amidst frost and wind and fire.
We stop sometimes, to sleep and refuel. Recruits disembark and stretch our legs in the crisp air. We pitch canvas tents and or roll out our sleeping bags under the radiant stars. We cook stew and break bread around roaring fires, but we are quiet. We have little to say. The past doesn’t matter. Its time is done. And what can you say about all the things that have not yet happened? There is communion here, but it is weak and brittle. We are a cohort, but not a family.
Sometimes we stop in villages and towns. Our train pulls up to the city squares and stops at the base of a great wheel, all different yet all the same. We watch the numbers on the wheel when we arrive and see how they’ve changed. Days and weeks pass away. The wheels grind them down.
There we pick up new recruits. Through the train windows we watch the ceremonies with their ribbons and speeches and fanfare. Parents weep as they push forward their children clad in shimmering iron and velvet. Trumpets bark glorious refrains and the recruits board the train. They come aboard shouting and waving, then they join us in the silence. Like all of us, they are struck with the savage truth as the train grinds steel on steel and presses us onward. We are going to the garrison.
We don’t all make it. One day a recruit collapses in the back of the train. We learn his name was Percival Clemens.
The train stops and we hold a funeral, hundreds of new soldiers in patchwork armor, as we have not yet received our uniforms. We stand at attention as Percival is buried in full honors. None of us knew him, but we all know him now. We shed tears, for he could be any of us, no matter who he was before.
Where he is buried there will stand a small landmark in the purest white. He is buried as a hero. His family is awarded full honors. For he did his duty after all. He never made it, but when he was sent to the Garrison, he went.
On the hills above the resting place of young Percival, there are cages hanging from the crags. The cages are wrought from old iron and sway and whistle in the breeze. They are full of bones, some so new that insects still pick them clean, and some older than our ancestors. We don’t mention them. We think that they could never be us. But we all see the bones and we know them well. They did not go to the Garrison.
The train presses on. It feels like days melt into weeks into months into years, but then we arrive.
The Garrison stretches beyond us, farther in any direction than the eye can see. It is tall and powerful. It is ancient stones hundreds feet high, bound in cast iron and steel, interwoven by staircases and towers and gates, bolstered by ramparts and supports, pockmarked with doors and windows leading into ancient tunnels and forgotten places. It is a wall as strong and old as the earth. Buildings are scattered around its base. These are kitchens and barracks and armories, and all the trappings of violence and order.
Snow covers everything here in the northern plains. The tundra is hard and unforgiving. The train deposits us at the periphery of the Garrison, and we take our bags and weapons and disembark.
As we walk among the buildings scattered at the base of the garrison, we watch soldiers training in the fields, repairing fences, and carrying heavy stones to bolster the wall. A group of old veterans sit around a fire at the base of the wall. They are scarred and savage looking, wearing makeshift armor with stained and well-worn weapons leaning against their chairs. Their leader glances at us, one eye cloudy and scarred from an old wound. “Look at these new ones, barely weaned,” he grunts. His comrades laugh.
“So raw and fragile,” he continues, “they won’t last the night.” They go back to their meal.
We settle into our bunks and spend the days working and training. We spar and shoot at dummies. We labor in the kitchens and the field. Whatever it takes to maintain the Garrison. We grow lean and hungry, but strong. Our muscles are toned. The bravado bleeds away. The proud among us are humbled. No one is shouting boasts in the train cars now. Life is hard here, but we persevere. We’ve done it. We’ve come to the Garrison.
But then we hear the alarm. It is morning on a frozen day and the fog is thick and cloying. The drums call us to arms. We grab our weapons, just as we have in all of our days of training, but now with deadly purpose. We head to the wall.
We’re shoulder to shoulder now, with our fellow recruits, with our officers, with the old veterans and all who dared to answer the call. There are no distinctions now. Not here on the wall. It’s us against the dark.
We hear the voices then, and the shouting, and the impacts of grappling hooks and ladders on the Garrison, and soon the enemy is coming. Weapons and gear scrape the walls as they climb.
Soon we see their faces, eyes fierce and wrathful behind their helms, skin caked with mud and grime from the bogs below. Their faces are locked in angry grimaces, full of rage. We open fire. Bodies fall from the wall and men and women shriek in agony as the world explodes in a bouquet of carnage. All is blood and hate.
We try to keep them off the wall but they move too fast and there are too many. Soon they reach the top and it is knife work now. I push and shove as bodies swarm close. My arms grow tired from the labor and drenched with gore up to my shoulders, but I fight on. Blades whisper malevolent agony across the stony rampart, at once chaotic and eerily silent. No one is chanting with bravado now.
I lose one knife in a man’s eye as he falls from the rampart before I can withdraw it. I have a spare. I draw it just in time. Another one of them is upon me, but I duck under his strike. My knife caresses his leg at the knee, and it buckles. Then I open his belly. The rampart is slick with guts and blood and sweat.
I try to pause and take a breath, but it’s a mistake. I turn and a mailed fist slams into my nose. Now the blood is mine, streaming down my chin and into my mouth. I choke as I stumble backwards. No, not backwards into the wall. I can’t stop, I can’t see where I’m going. I lose my footing, and then I fall.
I’m in the swamp now. I survive the fall by landing in a pile of bodies and soggy peat moss. I can’t see from the blood and the throbbing in my head. The world pulses around me. It strikes me now, I’m amidst the enemy. I run for cover keeping my head down. I dodge and duck and weave as bodies fall around me. I see a depression somewhere in the distance and I sprint. I go over a hill, and then I’m in the hole, but the ground gives out underneath my foot and I fall. I slam my head into a stone on my way into the put and the world turns black.
Then the world is light again. It’s twilight, and I’m in the bogs. The echoes of war roar around me and pulse in my ears. It’s frigid here. The fog turns to drifting snow and then back to mist. I don’t know how long I’ve been down here, but the battle rages on. I’m bone tired, and famished. I try to crawl but my muscles are weak. I shelter under the rocky overhang. I’ll need to rebuild my strength if I’m to make it back to the Garrison, but I’m stuck in enemy territory, surrounded by them, with no allies and resources. I find bugs and small lizards creeping around the hole and use them to sustain myself. It’s better than nothing, and soon I can crawl again.
I spend days recovering, gathering my strength. Maybe months, maybe years. The battle rages on, perpetual. Soon I’m ready. I can make it back to the wall. I can defend the Garrison. I cake mud on my face and arms to disguise myself. I hide my burnished armor, though it’s now rusty and pitted. I crawl from the hole. Men sprint beside me, through the fog and mire. I follow the crowd, staying close to the ground.
I see a man in a mask running by my left. I slide in front of him and catch him in the leg with my heavy knife, snapping it off at the knee. He screams but his voice is lost in the rage of battle. I take his mask for myself to hide my identity. I move on and leave him to bleed. I don’t know how long I run, but I am tireless in my goal. Eventually I see the walls of the Garrison. I am home.
I run to the base and plant my knife in the back of a man climbing one of the great ladders and step over him. If I can make it to the top I can rejoin the fight. Carnage rains down upon us as the men above fire their weapons. I dodge and weave, hiding under ramparts and crevasses and soon I’m near the top. Knives dance in the twilight at the top of the wall beneath great skies of smoke and dust. They try to sweep me from the ladder as a group of us crest the wall. Wait, not us. I am not one of them. I parry the daggers and grab a hand wielding a knife to lift myself over the wall. Near the top I yank and slash the hand from the arm, sending him to the bogs below. I’m back on the wall, and remove my mask. I’m home, and I take my knife to the savages attacking the garrison. It’s knife work now, and I’m brutal and cold.
We hear the horns again, and the assault abates. Ladders are withdrawn and we cut down the ropes. The enemy recedes, they slink back into the mire. The battle is done.
We descend the walls triumphant, and changed. I bear a deep gash in my head from my fall, and unknown scars from my time in the swamps. My armor is worn and dull, but battle tested. We return to our lives. But now I sit around the fire, with the old veterans, many of us who came on the trains are now here together, stained and scarred. We eat mutton and tell old stories. Sometimes trains come, and unload new recruits, bold and boisterous, in shining plate and starched whites, eager for glory.
“Look at these new ones, barely weaned,” I scoff. The old veterans around the fire laugh and gulp their mead. “So raw and fragile,” I continue, “they won’t last the night.”
Years come and go and we grow old. And eventually, those of us who are left, we leave the Garrison. We are retired with honors, and we return home on the trains amidst flowers and laurels and brass bands. The trains take us back to the town square, where the great wheels still turn, marking the passage of time and pounding the years into dust.
I start a family, and raise kids of my own. They sit on my knee as I sit in front of the crackling fire and they watch the light glint off of my weapons and armor, now hanging in a place of honor above the hearth, weapons they will someday wield when we send them to the Garrison.
As they grow I see the signs of the familiar struggle. They rebel, they lash out, they do not want to go. And indeed, some will go to the universities, some to the churches, some are too weak and frail to be called. They will do what they must to avoid the wall.
But then the troops run low and the invalids are needed to bolster the ranks. The clergy are needed in the tundra to administer the last rights to the dying. The academics are needed to build and fine-tune new weaponry, to apply engineering principles to bolster the wall. One by one they are called nonetheless. And we go to the town square in our finery and wave our flags and push them forward to the sounds of horns and drums as they board the trains.
We still send them to the Garrison.
Some come home, older and calloused now. They start families of their own. And now I am an old man. I play with my grandkids but I don’t have the strength I once did. These young children are different though. They have a passion and a fire. They don’t want to watch the light dance across burnished plates and sing the old songs. As they age, they say they will not go to the Garrison. That those days are gone. They will not give their lives for the cause of the old men. We say they don’t understand and they say it is us that don’t understand. Who’s to say who is right? I’m too old now to fight. It’s not my place.
The children never want to go, but this time it’s different. They march in great lines and refuse to board the trains. They reject the polished officers who come to take them. The officers return with soldiers from the Garrison and still, they refuse. There is fighting and war and death. Not in the bogs now, but in the fields and valleys. The children go to battle on their own behalf, to not go to the Garrison. And they win.
Eventually, the officers stop coming. The old soldiers from the Garrison surrender and stop fighting. The children, older now, battle hardened, take control, and say those old days are over. They are in charge now. There is a year without a conscription, then another, and another. Maybe things are different.
But small skirmishes drag on. There are attacks, petty insurrections. They say there are still forces of the old order out there, those who want to return us to the old ways, and what we’ve built must be defended. We must keep them out so they can’t endanger it. And, of course, what better way to keep things out, than with a wall.
The Garrison, though standing idle, is still stout and broad. Its ancestral chambers are empty and stale with dust and cobwebs, but the stones fit tightly and the gates are shut fast. With some coal in its furnaces and the hands of strong, young men at its bellows, the old gears grind again with ancient, relentless power. They push them out beyond the walls into the muck and the grime. And volunteers from the new order take their stations.
But the walls are long and deep, and it takes fighting men and women to watch from the towers, and there are not enough volunteers.
It’s different this time, they say, it’s for the good of us all. It’s to preserve what we’ve built from those who would take us back to the old ways. They promise a short term of service, all will take part so we all participate in saving the great experiment. Everyone will take part and, when they come of age, they will go to the Garrison.
They all fail to see it, of course. All the teachers and doctors, the preachers and prophets, the idealists and revolutionaries, they think they can break the cycle of violence if they don’t make the same mistakes as their fathers. And they don’t make those mistakes, but they make different ones. And in doing so, they fail to see the bitter truth, that perhaps all choices lead to the Garrison.
Because the truth is that history, like the great wheels that grind down the ages and keep the heartbeat of time, moves in a circle. And there’s a problem with circles. They have more than one beginning.
My grandkids return from war, and I’m relieved to see them. Having my family home brings me peace. I don’t need much now, I’m a very old man. I rarely move from my spot in front of the fire. My old arms and armor still hang in a place of honor and the firelight gleams in the reflections of the ancient metal.
There is little for me to do but look back on my life and consider my mistakes. I’ve had many loves and triumphs, but it’s the mistakes that define us. Boarding the train. Falling from the wall. Everything that happened in the swamp that we never speak about. Sending my sons and daughters on my same path. Fighting as a soldier for the old order, and doing the same for the new one. The mistakes echo in the wind and cast shadows in the firebox like ghosts.
My first great granddaughter was born recently, and in her, I see the light of the world. It’s hard for me to move, but sometimes I manage to work my way over to her crib and watch her squirm with delight. She has just started smiling, and nothing on earth is more beautiful. Her eyes are blue like arctic ice, and she giggles when I tickle her belly.
In her I see everything that could be good in the world, and I can’t wait to watch her grow, and I hope to live to see it. In the year to come she will crawl, and then take her first steps. I will watch her eat fresh fruit on the tables out on the lawn in summer and see the peach juice drip down her bib while she giggles with glee. I will watch her cry from her first skinned knee as her parents bandage her wounds and I will sneak her sugarcane and we will watch shooting stars in the brisk night under clear skies. She will grow fast and strong and smart and wise. She will have ideas to change the world and the light in her will burn away the dark places and the hearts of her family and those who learn to love her will grow in the outpouring of her grace and kindness and beauty.
She pulls on my finger, so small and delicate in her crib, and giggles with pure joy. A tear falls from my cheek as I watch her, and dream of everything to come. For the wheel will grind on, and she will grow, and grow, and grow.
And one day she will come of age and we will send her to the Garrison.
I could write about the food. I could write a great deal about the food. But the food is not what’s important.
I’ve had some amazing meals, don’t get me wrong. And cooking is art, there’s no doubt about that. It’s an act of caring and grace to coax raw ingredients into majesty, and when it’s done well, it borders on magic. But it’s not what’s important.
I would know, I’ve had it both ways. I once ate a 90 day aged Chateaubriand in an estate at one point owned by the King of Morocco. It was seared with a crust of peppercorns and walnuts and kissed with a brandy-based pan sauce, accompanied by a beet and goat cheese salad with slices of white truffle. After, we sipped fine port from crystal snifters and ate delicate chocolate desserts with aerated pistachio creme. A paragon of a meal, indeed. But then we went home. “Mommy and daddy had a great time,” we tell the kids. What do you say to a 3 year old? The meal was majestic, but I was not transformed.
My wife and I once dined on fresh langoustines and salmon sashimi in a 16th century building in old Torshavn after a long day hiking up the gorge of Saksun. The fish and lobsters were pulled from the water in the old docks not 100 yards from where we sat. It was spectacular, and I was happy. But I was happy before, in a happy place, with happy company. The food didn’t need to do that much heavy lifting.
One day in 2009 I sat alone in section 212 of the Friendly Confines. One of those midwest storms had rolled through, fierce and transient. The air glistened with moisture and a fog lay heavy over the lake while rays of sunshine dappled the park. The seats were dry, covered from above, but the air was humid, and damp. No one could tell if I cried, and no one cared. I drank a $9 old style and poked at a $8 Chicago style dog. White onion, neon green relish, celery salt, mustard (ketchup is heresy). The Cubs won in extra innings.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
I flew into Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International airport in the late afternoon. The flight was delayed and I’d been drinking since morning in expensive airport restaurants, because I wanted to, and airports are the place to do that kind of thing. Time doesn’t matter there, and no one cares. When I got my bags, the sun was already setting behind the Sloss furnace. My mom picked me up. She muttered pleasantries about the weather on the car ride back to my parents’ house. I said nothing, and watched the darkness fall on the magnolia trees and hills of kudzu, heart and head bowed beneath a heavy weight.
I slept long into the morning in the basement bedroom. No one came for me. I heard the doorway to the basement open multiple times, hesitant creaks on the stairs, then the sound of the door closing. “Leave him be, he needs to sleep,” I imagine them saying. Fine by me. It was dark and quiet down there, better for no one to see what had become of me. I had nothing to tell them anyway.
Eventually I came upstairs. The kitchen smelled of pecans and the morning’s bacon grease. Fiestaware littered the sink in bold reds, yellows, and teals. The smell made me realize how hungry I was.
“Lunch?” my dad was grabbing his coat from the hook in the hall. “I’m buying.” I nod, grateful. I wouldn’t have asked.
There’s a restaurant near 5 Points South where the ribs cook long and low over wood pellets and you can sit outside under a tent on splotchy grass amidst the blooming rhododendrons.
It stormed in the morning. The chairs are damp and the air is humid. The sky is a pale gray above the aging oaks and the fountain. I pick at splinters in the wooden table and no one speaks. I don’t have anything I want to say to anybody, and no one thinks it’s right to ask because, “cowboys don’t talk about their problems.”
We’re not cowboys. We lived out west, sure. We’ve ridden horses. But that doesn’t make us cowboys. But the myth persists.
Luckily, we don’t need to talk. While we wait for our ribs, there’s bread and barbecue sauce. The bread is Wonder Bread, white and chemical. It’s soft for dipping. Our fingers mold it like clay. There are bowls of barbecue sauce and paper plates. A deep south version of chips and salsa. We sop up the sauce, savoring the sweet bite of vinegar and Worcestershire. I take another. Sauce dribbles down my chin. I watch my dad eat white bread and stare at birds in the sky as the cloud cover breaks.
Suddenly the world is alive, hot and glowing. The sauce is sweet and the air vibrates with the hum of happy voices and birdsong. My dad smiles at me out of the corner of his eye and lifts his Wonder Bread in a mock toast. Still heavy in the head and heart, I’m burdened by pains I don’t want to talk about. He has his own, I’m sure. He doesn’t try to solve my problems. He doesn’t even ask. I volunteer nothing. The food is not transformative, it’s barely a meal at all. Just bread and sauce, but we’re together. And for the first time in ages, that’s enough. It may be the most important meal I’ve ever had.
The food is not what’s important.
The world was once transformed over bread and wine, after all. Why can’t barbecue sauce do the same?
There’s magic in the moment, in being present with those who ask nothing and love you as you are, even when you don’t deserve it. Then it doesn’t matter what you’re eating, it just matters to be sharing a meal. Because that’s when the grace peeks through. It’s not the aged Chateaubriand that redeems, it’s the communion.
We played cards that night, the three of us, and laughed at jokes, and told some old stories. Maybe I had changed, or the world had changed around me. It’s often hard to pin down the moments when wounds start to heal. But there is love and grace in a shared meal, if you’re open to it. You just need to know where to look.
City on Fire
The fire was hot enough to melt the skin off your bones at thirty feet. Heat radiated off of the buckling steel supports of skyscrapers and turned the streets between the high buildings into a convection oven. The inferno turned the air toxic. Anyone too close would set their lungs ablaze just by breathing. Most tried to run, though to where, it’s impossible to say. Some were trapped on the roads as the asphalt melted underneath them, their sloughing skin melted into the black tar. Some made it to The Lake. They thought that would save them, until the water of The Lake boiled them alive.
Some may have escaped the crucible by fleeing into the Ramble but it’s not likely. Not with heat like this. Those that managed to submerge themselves in the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reservoir may have been spared.
Aisling observed the fire from her floor-to-ceiling windows. Her right hand shook and she tried to stifle the tremor. The flames had raged up the Upper West Side and were overtaking Harlem, faster than anyone could have imagined. It was spreading too fast. Impossible to fathom.
Her phone buzzed on the table beside her. It was her mom, again. Seventeen missed calls. It was okay, she would call her back later. How could she even explain? She would call back once she had time to get her thoughts in order. Her mom would be so mad.
She should just enjoy watching the view from her forty-first story windows for the moment. She paid enough money for this view, after all. What would she tell her mom? Oh, her mom was going to be mad, indeed.
She would need to charge her phone though, it would die soon. And then she wouldn’t be able to call back. And the power was out, which would make that impossible. Who knew when it would come back on? She’d managed to tune the radio in her kitchen to the emergency broadcast band where they’d given the general evacuation order, effective immediately. But Aisling hadn’t evacuated. Where would she go? She didn’t really have a lot of friends.
“Damnit Aisling, just go anywhere!” She could hear her mom shouting, “just get out of the city! You should never have been there in the first place!” Maybe. If only mom could see her now. It would have to be worse on the streets, though, even her mom would see that. The emergency band had since gone dead, after warning of risks to the city’s gas lines and cascading failures of safety measures and essential utilities. She would have to wait it out. She’d call her mom back soon.
She brought her left hand up and sipped her drink. Aisling didn’t drink, except when she really needed one. That’s why she hadn’t thrown all the booze out when she gave it up. You never know when you might really need it, to calm your nerves if nothing else. And nerves need calming when the world burns.
She’d even garnished it with a piece of leftover bacon from her fridge, which she knew she had to eat up since the power was out.
Her phone buzzed again. The flames neared Yorkville. Maybe she should pick up. Her mom would worry. She’d just finish her drink first.
The air outside was blisteringly hot, even at this distance. Aisling stripped down to her undergarments. Sweat streamed off her forehead and arms.
There was something out there, beyond the immolation, beyond the flames that danced high in the blazing air of the city night. Like the light from the fire flickered off the hidden sides of great, black, stony mountains, somewhere far away, beyond the city, yet towering over it. Their enormity pierced the clouds of smoke and the distant sky. They reached over and behind the moon. There were chasms in between the mammoth peaks. She imagined them delving down beneath the blaze into cold, dark, ageless, places.
The change in air pressure from temperatures above a thousand degrees weakened the windows, and the glass exploded, driving shards like bullets into Aisling’s body. Blood dripped from skin slashed to ribbons and steamed when it hit the ground. Aisling sipped her drink, hot now, it tasted like iron. She could watch the mountains forever, out there behind the sky. They were so beautiful. Her skin started to bubble and peel.
Death when it came was swift. Not her body melting from the heat, but from the explosion. Emergency services had warned about cascading failures in the gas lines throughout the city. The fire raged through the conduits, and emerged in Aisling’s building with the force of a ton and a half of TNT. The building turned to ash and rubble awash in the storm. Aisling died wishing she could see the black mountains, just one last time.
The Rocks Cried Out, No Hiding Place
The locals call the stretch of Lower Michigan Avenue between Hubbard and Ohio “Siobhan’s Well”. It’s a stretch that sits in the shadows of the elevated streets and buildings above, away from prying eyes and the hum of the city. It happens to be the location of the Roisin Dubh Waystation where Siobhan slings cheap whiskey to the sorts of people who don’t want to show their faces in the more “civilized” world above, whatever their reasons. But that’s not why they call it the Well. They call it that, because this is the place where anyone and anything can disappear.
The first general AI to achieve baseline competence went online in 2025. It was crude, couldn’t understand the intricacies of human emotion, and couldn’t even pass most entry-level Turing tests, but it showed promise in key areas that would alter the fate of humanity.
Most significantly, it learned with astonishing speed, and it was able to write code well enough to improve upon its own deficiencies. The quantum computers in its neural nodes could handle astonishing amounts of data, and in doing so it was able to calculate marginal improvements in network architecture and packet switching to create a system that could aggregate and analyze information inputs across its network with previously unimaginable levels of speed and thoroughness.
City authorities thought they could get a twofold advantage from wiring in the AI to the city’s network of surveillance cameras. This would let it aggregate information from the cameras in a more usable way, since the video feeds were providing far too much data for humans to analyze and consume, and it would also give the AI abundant data inputs to continue to understand human emotion and interaction. And thus, FARAO was born.
FARAO, the Forensic Armature for Relational and Analytical Operations, excelled beyond its creators’ most extreme predictions, and took only 5 years to completely transform the world. It managed to tap into not only the security cameras in its primary network, but any device that transmitted data over any part of that network, and it could even get its analytical tendrils into adjoining networks through a process that no one, even its maintainers, completely understood.
In the end, this meant that any networked camera or lens in the AIs sphere of influence fed data back to the quantum core which analyzed it in real time. It not only knew every detail about every person it saw that was available in any database or social network, and it not only instantly built a personality profile of that person, but through some arcane process it managed to determine blood type and build a theoretical DNA model just by watching brainwave activity and subtle changes of blood flow in a person’s capillaries. Overnight, privacy vanished under the omniscient, ever-present eyes of FARAO. So did crime, for the most part. It just was no longer possible to get away with anything. The world was now safe, at least those parts of the world subject to FARAO’s unbounded mesh network. But the world was no longer free.
Siobhan’s Well, however, was one of the last known places in the world outside of the prying eyes of FARAO.
It wasn’t through any subversion, or any active sabotage that anyone was aware of. It seemed, if anything, to be a freak convergence of data architecture and geography.
Somehow, the combination of wireless and satellite internet signals in the Well created a destructive interference slowing transmission and complicating real time analytics. It wasn’t that there was no data transmission in the well, it was just restricted to pre-2025 speeds.
FARAO couldn’t analyze video feeds in real time, and couldn’t access devices like cameras or cell phones. If anyone wanted the feed from the CCTV cameras in the Roisin Dubh, they had to go to the bar to get the tapes in person.
It was in these circumstances that Ellen Rodanthe found herself once more at the waxed walnut bar top of the Roisin Dubh, listening to the hum of conversation behind her, her vision dense and swimming from the whiskey. People came to the Well for all sorts of reasons. Some wanted a place to do whatever sort of illicit activities they thought they could get away with, though how they planned to keep them secret once they left the protective veil, Ellen had no idea. Some wanted a place to do things that weren’t necessarily illegal, but that they didn’t want to be caught doing. The Roisin Dubh was a popular place for affairs. And some, like Ellen, just wanted to be left alone.
She’d been on leave from the police station for two months pending an investigation of conduct unbecoming an officer. They said she’d gotten too invested in a case and gone off the rails. They said she was making people uncomfortable and causing problems for higher ups. They said she showed up to work reeking of whiskey and the drink was affecting her judgment.
Okay, that last part was probably right.
Siobhan slid a Jack and Coke to a 20-something in a business suit next to Ellen and started dumping empties in the bar sink. She looked to be in her mid 40s, a stocky woman with gray streaks starting to spill into her auburn hair. No one quite knew how old Siobhan was, no one really knew anything about her, but she cast long shadows in this place, like she knew everyone and saw everything. She was undisputedly the ruler of her domain.
“Bad weather out there today, huh Ellen?”
“Yeah,” Ellen winced at the bitterness of the whiskey, “It’s those lake-shore winds.”
Siobhan was polishing a pint glass now. Ellen always wondered why she was doing that, like she learned it in a movie. “Ellen, why are you here? You’re better than this lot,” she gestured around the crowded room.
“It’s your bar, Shiv.”
“Yeah, but I just take what comes, that’s the cost of doing business” Sioban said. “But a girl with your talents, you don’t need to be here. Go get a hobby, spend some time with family, go back to your job. They could use you I’m sure.”
“They suspended me.”
“Okay, but if you just just abandoned that whole ‘Mayor is rigging the FARAO data to knock off political rivals’ business, I’d bet they’d take you back.”
“Maybe,” Ellen took another sip, “but what’s the point anyway? As people keep reminding me, there’s no crime under FARAO’s rule. Cops are just meter maids now. Maybe it’s for the best that they're forcing me out.”
“Just, try not to let yourself slip too far,” Siobhan said. “You don’t want to end up like this lot.”
Ellen knocked back her drink and slammed the glass back on the table. “Noted. Hit me again. Shiv.”
Siobhan placed a shot and a beer on the bar before turning to attend to another customer. As she walked away, she called back over her shoulder, “By the way Ellen, someone’s here to see you. I sent him to the corner booth. Came in while you were hitting the head.”
Ellen turned to survey the corner booth and saw the man in a cheap brown suit sitting awkwardly underneath a neon Smithwick’s sign, nursing a soda water. She shook her head, downed the shot, and made her way towards the back of the bar.
She slid into the seat across from the man in the suit and slammed her beer bottle down obnoxiously.
“Roddie,” Randall replied.
Randall was a handsome man, tall, and older than Ellen. He had dark skin and a kindness to his face, but he always kind of looked like he’d had enough of your shit, no matter what was happening around him. Ellen found that endearing and endlessly aggravating.
“Don’t call me that,” she said, “Only my friends call me Roddie.”
“Ouch,” said Randall, as he played with this straw, “twenty-four years and now we’re not friends?”
“You know I have a right to be pissed, Randall. You let those bastards hang me out to dry.”
“What was I supposed to do about it? They wanted you to stop poking around city hall accusing the mayor of shit with no evidence. If I’d backed up your crazy theories I’d be right out here with you,” Randall said with a glance around the smoky dive, increasingly lit by blacklights from the neon liquor signs, glowing in the setting sun. “Well, maybe not here specifically. Jesus, what are you doing here, Roddie? It isn’t good for you to be in a place like this.”
“What do you mean not good for me?” Ellen said, loudly enough to be heard by nearby tables as she gestured wildly behind her, “these are my people!”
“I mean, if you want to get back into the force, it’s not good to be hiding out in a place like this.”
“I’m not hiding anywhere. And it’s not illegal to drink in the Well, Randall.”
“No,” Randall shrugged, “but it’s a little suspicious. It’s not the best look”
“They’d rather have me where FARAO could keep an eye on me?”
“You already know the answer to that, Roddie. Don’t make me out to be the bad guy here.”
Silence lingered between them for a few moments while Siobhan walked by and placed another shot and beer down in front of Ellen. She took the shot, maintaining eye contact with Randall the whole time.
“So,” she said, wiping her mouth, “we’ve covered why I’m here. What are you doing here, partner?” She dragged out the last word for emphasis.
“We’ve had a break in the case.”
Ellen looked up, suddenly feeling some clarity despite the whiskey boiling in her veins.
“Yeah,” Randall continued, “we have a suspect.”
Randall didn’t have to specify the case. Ellen knew well enough, it was the case that got her suspended. Not that there were that many unsolved cases to choose from anyway, not under FARAO’s omniscient eyes.
There had been a recent spree of murders in Chicago that had baffled the city. It was often said, “there’s no crime under FARAO’s rule”, but that wasn’t exactly true. People still committed crimes of course, they just usually got apprehended immediately, if it was worth it to do so. But the murders were different. There was never any video evidence, despite the murders taking place in one of the most surveilled cities in the world. There was no DNA or biological evidence, despite FARAO’s ability to count the number of hairs on a flea’s exoskeleton using a gas station TV camera at 100 meters. FARAO could monitor the mental state and personality profile of 8 million people in the metro area, and if really pushed to its limits, could worm its way into the psyches of more than 2 billion people worldwide, and not a single one of them gave any indication they knew anything about the crimes.
It was so preposterous that Ellen, then Senior Detective Rodanthe, had started to think the mayor was involved. He had the reach to affect FARAO’s user-facing inputs and outputs (though he couldn’t, and perhaps nobody could, interact with FARAO’s raw data), and could theoretically manipulate the investigation. She started poking around the mayor’s contacts. At one point, she remembered grinning as she told Randall, “I think this goes all the way to city hall!” (always a bucket list item for her). He responded with, “cut that shit out, Roddie, this is serious.”
Eventually her prying brought down the wrath of the mayor’s office, and even worse, the wrath of FARAO’s Librarians. She was suspended (with pay) indefinitely, while she was investigated. They used her drinking as a rationale which, even she had to admit, was probably fair. But she knew she’d never be brought back into the force, she was a pariah now, or so she thought.
She shook off her reverie. “How? How did that happen? Did FARAO come through with something?”
Randall shook his head, “No, nothing like that. This was old-fashioned. We have an eyewitness who led us right to him.”
“And what did FARAO learn from this guy?”
“Nothing, he’s a black box. No DNA match to any crime scene. No profile indicative of crimes committed. He won’t confess, obviously.”
“And what about the witness,” asked Ellen, “is he telling the truth?”
“FARAO is an analysis tool, not a prophet, but the witness believes his own story.”
“So what do you want from me?”
“Well, we’re probably going to regret this, but we’re stuck. We’re hoping you would come ask this guy some questions. You’ve always had a gift, a way to get to the truth other people can’t. Maybe you can find something we missed.”
“You’re bringing me back?” Ellen was stunned.
“Provisionally. And I’m not doing anything, if it were up to me you’d never have left. This is the Captain's orders. You’ll be an outside consultant for the time being. Why don’t you come by the station in the morning when you’ve had some time to sleep this off, and we’ll have a chat with this guy.”
“Private Investigator Ellen Rodanthe,” Ellen said wistfully, “I like the sound of that.”
Randall chuckled, “Your words, not mine. Just, try not to go crazy again, alright?”
Ellen smiled, “I’ll drink to that,” and lifted her beer as Randall stood and made for the door.
“See you tomorrow, Roddie,” he said looking back, “It’ll be good to have you back.”
Ellen woke up the next morning in her bed and her head roared with the muffled, howling screams of last night’s bad decisions. The alarm clock showed 9:30am in aggressive red digits. She was already late.
She stumbled to the bathroom to splash water on her face and purge the excesses of the prior night. She pulled open the bottom drawer of her vanity and fumbled around for a half pint of E&J. She looked at it with disgust, before taking a swig anyway to take the edge off. She just had to get through this day, she’d cut back later.
Then she looked at her phone. Her face was reflected back on the black screen, looking haggard and horrific. “I bet you’re enjoying this,” she said to the camera in her phone, before turning it on to check her messages. She had one voicemail, from her daughter. Her stomach churned. “What did I do now,” she thought as she hit play.
“Uhh.. hey, mom,” said the voice from the speaker, “I don’t know what that was about, but can you please just not call me in the middle of the night? I can’t even understand what you’re trying to say when you call like that. Just… get your shit together, okay mom? And stop going to that awful bar. If you have to call me back, just wait until you’re sober, okay?”
Ellen sat on her bed with her head in her hands. “Why can’t I just act like an adult and stop fucking this up?” She thought. But she didn’t have time to worry about that now. She had to get down to the station.
Randall was at his desk typing away on his computer when she finally got to the precinct.
“Coffee’s cold,” he said as introduction, nodding to the coffee shop to-go cups in the holder on his desk. “I guess it was a little too much to think you could make it on time.”
“Ugh give me a break, Randall,” Ellen said through the screaming knives behind her eyes, “where is he?”
“In interrogation room B. We’ll go in together. I’ll fill you in on the way.”
As they walked, Randall explained as best as he could.
“FARAO says his name is Hans Rasmussen. He lives at an apartment complex on Buena avenue and works as a temp. He has no criminal record, no DNA match with any known crimes, and no DNA at the scene where he was picked up. He’s also exceedingly unhelpful.”
“What did the witness see?”
“The witness saw Hans choke the victim to death with his bare hands. Then flee the scene.”
“Damn, okay that’s more specific than I expected. And no DNA evidence?”
“Not a drop.”
And how do you suppose someone chokes someone to death without leaving any DNA evidence?” Ellen asked.
“You’re guess is as good as mine, Roddie. That’s why we brought you back. You have intuition about these kinds of things. Witness aside, this man is innocent. But something here doesn’t add up.”
They reached the doors of the interrogation room. “Just follow my lead,” Ellen said, “I want to get a read on this guy.”
The suspect was an average sized man. Ellen guessed five foot ten, maybe. He had close cropped blond hair and was wearing loose fitting athletic clothes. His features were unremarkable. All in all he wasn’t someone you would ever take much notice of without a reason.
As she walked in the room, Ellen said, “Hello Mr. …”
“Hans Rasmussen, but you already know that, right?” Said the man.
“Of course, sorry, I’m new on the case.” Ellen said as she sat down across from him. “How are you finding the accommodations?”
“Cramped. Are you going to charge me with something? I know my rights, lady.”
“Well, you were seen committing a murder, so if I were you I might not be so prickly,” Ellen feigned her best smile.
“I didn’t do it,” Hans said, matter of fact, “and you can’t prove I did, or you wouldn’t be here right now.”
“Where were you two nights ago at 6:30pm?”
“Do you have anyone that can vouch for that?”
“There’s cameras everywhere. The whole city can vouch for that. Why don’t you ask FARAO?”
“Maybe we did,” Ellen replied, “how do you know what FARAO said?”
“FARAO had to have said I didn’t do it, or you wouldn’t be here right now.”
The reply caught Ellen off guard, but she could quite figure out why. She shuffled some papers and glanced back at Randall, then back at the suspect. Something was familiar about him, in a way she couldn’t place. Like she remembered seeing him in the background of a picture somewhere. She thought she would try a different approach.
She rubbed her eyes and pushed her hands through her hair for a moment. “You know, I’m moving a little slow today, Hans. I overdid it a bit last night. That ever happen to you?”
“Can’t say I’m much of a drinker. I like to keep sharp.”
“Good, so maybe you can help me out. Can you explain to me how a witness saw you choke,” she looked down at the papers again, “Arlo Buchanan to death in an alley in Cicero if you were shopping downtown? FARAO says he’s not lying.”
“I don’t know, but I wasn’t there. I was shopping for shoes on Michigan Avenue at Allen Edmonds. Have FARAO look for me there. Maybe your witness was drinking and just believes his own lie.”
Drinking. The revelation shocked Ellen. “Thanks for this, Hans, I’ll be back to chat some more,” she said as she stood to leave the room. Randall followed behind her.
“That was some… kind of weird questioning,” Randall said as they got outside, “what was that about.”
“I, uh, I’ve seen that man before,” Ellen responded. “I’ve seen him at the Well.”
“Well that would make sense if he’s really a criminal trying to hide, but a lot of people go to the Well. We’re gonna need more than that. You said it yourself, drinking at the Well isn’t a crime.”
“Have we looked into security footage around the Allen Edmonds at 6:30 on the day of the murder.”
“Of course,” said Randall, “The mayor’s librarian sent the tapes over. There’s nothing there.”
“But have you seen the direct outputs?” pressed Ellen.
“Not this again, Roddie. The mayor isn’t doctoring footage.”
“I’m not saying he is, but maybe something went wrong with the copying. Maybe the timestamps are wrong. We need to go see the direct feeds. Can you get the Captain to okay it?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
Randall and Ellen were led into the data center run by the city’s analytics team at the records office, to a conference room where they would wait for the Librarian. All cities under the purview of FARAO now had their own records centers to handle curated analytics where they could receive raw footage of different sectors in a human usable way. FARAO was powerful, but its methods were opaque and hard to follow. If humans needed to tell stories about the data to each other in ways that made sense, they needed librarians.
As they sat in the conference room, Ellen eyed the black-clad guards, heads encased in eyeless helmets, who patrolled the halls like wraiths. She hated those guys. There was something grotesque about them, and dangerous beyond measure.
“Let’s hope they’re okay with you being here,” Randall whispered to Ellen.
“They shouldn’t have much of a choice,” she whispered back, “besides, that was like six months ago, surely they’ve forgotten.” She straightened up immediately when the Librarian entered, flanked by two of the blind guards.
“Your request is denied.” said the Librarian, curtly.
Both Randall and Ellen jumped to their feet and started talking at once. The Librarian silenced them with a gesture. “Quiet now,” he said, “one at a time.” He gestured to Randall.
“The Captain personally okayed our access to these records,” said Randall. “And the police are not subject to data limitations imposed by the Mayor.
“That is correct,” said the Librarian.
“Then what the fuck, man?” Shouted Ellen. Randall jabbed her hard with an elbow, and the Librarian glared.
“I want to make this perfectly clear,” said the Librarian, with a measured and firm tone. “While the mayor and I do both share a deep and abiding conviction that you can go fuck yourself, civilian Rodanthe, we are compelled to grant you access under the directive of the police chief to raw data outputs.”
“Well that’s that, then,” said Ellen, “show us the way please?”
“But these orders don’t come from the mayor.”
Ellen and Randall exchanged confused looks. “Then who gave the order to restrict us?” asked Ellen.
“FARAO.” The word left the room in stunned silence.
“FARAO is restricting us? Can it do that? Has that ever happened?” asked Ellen.
“Of course FARAO can do that. FARAO can do what it pleases. And no, not to my knowledge has that ever happened before, but I find it quite satisfying,” replied the Librarian, “now this way if you will. Let’s get you back to your car.”
As they stood to leave the room, Ellen glanced at the records door down the hall. She knew the answers she needed were in there. She could make it past the Librarian, for sure, but she saw the way the nearest blind guard looked at her, a little curious, with its head tilted to the side like a falcon inspecting a wounded mouse.
Ellen shivered. The guards were FARAO’s personal enforcers, and they were lethal beyond comprehension. Human senses were limitations. They could be confusing and misleading. Human sight could only process inputs from one direction at a time. So the guards wore sensory deprivation helmets to block all external stimuli. Everything they needed was fed in through FARAO’s quantum computer directly to their brains in real time, giving them perfect awareness of everything happening in the mesh network down to the millimeter. Fiber optic cables were woven into their suits, and some say into their muscles underneath, to optimize the firing of neurons and synchronize movements in a perfect meditative trance with all other parts of the security network. Their reaction times were supernatural. Their muscle control was unparalleled. It was said the blind guards could dodge bullets, rip a door off of a car with a single hand, or shatter someone’s spine with a thrown marble at thirty feet.
No, she couldn’t make it to the records room without FARAO’s permission. That door was closed to her.
Back in the car with Randall, Ellen slammed her fist into the dash.
“Easy, Roddie. I know that’s… disappointing to say the least. Maybe we should go back to the Captain to regroup.”
“No, not yet. We can’t give up.” Ellen straightened herself out. “We’re going to need to go steal some tapes.”
“Are you crazy, Ellen? I said not to drag me into this shit!”
“Oh it’s Ellen, now?”
“Yes! Once you start talking about shit like breaking into the archives, we are most certainly not friends! Did you see those guards? They would strip the flesh from your bones before your brain even sent the signal to your arm to try to open the records room door. They know everything. You can’t fight ‘em, you can’t sneak past ’em. This is crazy talk.”
“Calm down, Randall, I’m not talking about breaking into the archives. I’m a drunk, I’m not suicidal.”
Randall took a deep breath to regain his composure. “What then?”
“I told you I’d seen Hans somewhere before. Well we’re going to go look for the tapes there. Where there are no blind guards to cut us to ribbons. Maybe there’s something about Hans on them that we can use, that’ll give us a clue.”
“You want to go steal the tapes from the Roisin Dubh?”
“Well why don’t you just ask Siobhan for them?” Randall asked.
“Won’t work, Shiv would never let a cop see the security tapes. That’s bad for business. She’s not a narc, and you’re a cop through and through, Randall. And I’m at least cop-adjacent.”
“So you’re going to steal them. It seems risky though, Roddie, everyone there is going to know you, you don’t really keep a low profile.”
“But I won’t,” Ellen gave Randall her biggest, most sincere smile, “I’m just going to ask Shiv about Hans. You’re going to steal the tapes, I’ll give you the dates.”
Randall shook his head as they headed for the Well. “How do I let you get me into this,” he said, expecting no answer.
On the way to the Well, Ellen gave Randall detailed instructions on how to sneak into the back office where Siobhan kept the tapes (pretend to go to the bathroom, duck into the utility closet, pick the lock on the door that connects to the office), and specific dates and times (roughly) that she remembered, or thought she remembered seeing Hans in the bar.
“Trust me, I have a mind like a steel trap. I don’t forget a thing.” She told him.
“How’d you get home last night, Roddie?”
“Look, that’s rude, and beside the point. Just get the tapes, okay Randall? I’ll get a little confrontational and distract Shiv.”
“She’s not gonna be happy when she finds out. You might just have to find a new place to drink. Or, you know, just stop.”
“One worry at a time, Randall. One worry at a time.”
At the Roisin Dubh, Siobhan was holding court over the ancient bartop, queen of her castle, like always. Ellen walked up to the bar while Randall slinked off towards the bathroom. It was time to be a little distracting.
She looked down at a scraggly looking man nursing a Bud Light on her normal stool. She stood there for a moment, waiting for him to look up.
“Can I help you?” he said, meekly.
“Well I guess I can sit on your lap, but I don’t think that’s gonna be too comfortable for either of us. So maybe you just buy me a drink and fuck off.”
Siobhan cackled as he stumbled to his feet, almost falling over in the process. “Looks like someone’s in a mood today! What can I get you, Ellen, the usual?”
“I’m supposed to be here on business today, but what the heck,” she dropped down onto her stool, “serve it up Shiv.”
A shot and a beer hit the walnut bartop.
“What kind of business you have at the Roisin Dubh, Ellen? You back on the force? That was your old partner who came in yesterday, right?”
“Yeah, I guess I’m contracting for now. They have me on a tight leash.”
“Yet here you are, day drinking,” Siobhan said with a smile.
“Okay, not that tight.” Ellen tapped the bar for another shot. “I’m looking for info about this man,” she said, putting a photo of Hans on the bar. “I remember seeing him around here sometimes I think. Know anything about him?
Siobhan studied the picture. “Maybe I’ve seen him, but I can’t really be sure. A lot of people come through here, and he doesn’t look too memorable. What’d he do?”
“Maybe nothing. I know it was a long shot asking you. Guess I’ll just get drunk.” She slammed another shot. “But if anything comes to you, can you let me know?”
“I don’t even have your phone number,” Siobhan laughed. “You want me to call the station?”
“No, just tell me tomorrow, I’m sure I’ll be right here,” Ellen patted her barstool affectionately. “Ugh, looks like I’m gonna have to go, my babysitter is out of the bathroom. Randall came down the hallway, zipping up his pants. Ellen stood up to meet him, already wobbly from two shots of whiskey and a beer in a disturbingly short period of time.
“Alright, I’ll see you later Ellen,” said Siobhan, as they walked out. She watched them leave with an uncommon tenseness. Something was wrong. She could always tell when things were wrong in her kingdom.
Ellen must have dozed off in the car after leaving the Well, because when she woke up, Randall had the car parked outside of her townhouse. She sat up and wiped a bit of drool from the corner of her mouth. “How embarrassing,” she thought.
“Okay, so let’s get those tapes upstairs, I’ll call in some Chinese food, that’s basically required by law for detectives working a late night case,” she started to gather up papers.
“Hold on, partner,” said Randall, “what you mean is I need to start going through tapes. You just had at least three drinks at the bar back there. You need to go upstairs and sleep it off. I will fill you in if I see anything.”
“Come on Randall, you brought me back into this, we need to…”
“This is non-negotiable, Roddie. Go upstairs. Call your daughter. I’ll be in touch.” He leaned over and opened the car door.
Ellen grudgingly unbuckled her seatbelt and got out of the car. “You’ll call me as soon as you have anything.”
“Right away, you’re the first call.”
“Okay, thanks Randall. I’ll see you in a bit.” Ellen stumbled up the stairs into her living room.
She sat on her sofa, her head tilted against the back of the couch, staring up at the ceiling as the room started to spin. She blindly fumbled around her side table, knocking over a mostly empty beer bottle before finding her flask. She spun open the metal top and took a swig of Jameson. She had to fend off the dry mouth before it took over.
She tried to watch some TV for a bit, but the TV was spinning too. So she drank some more whiskey. Eventually she felt her phone buzz in her pocket. It wasn’t a call, just a push notification, but it reminded her. Maybe she should call her daughter back now, before it got too late. She dialed the number.
“Hello? Mom?” The voice on the other end was tense.
“Hi, Alice. It’s me,” Ellen slurred, “I just wanted to say I’m sorry about last night calling you like I did. I’m sorry for what I said.”
“And what did you say, mom?”
“Um, I don’t actually know. I guess that’s what I’m sorry for.”
“Mom, you sound terrible. Have you been drinking again today?”
Ellen looked down at the flask in her hand. “Yes, but it’s different this time, honey. It was for work.”
“So you’re drinking on the job.”
“No, today I was drinking at the job. Look, it’s complicated, I think you had to be there.”
“Sure mom, that doesn’t make sense, but whatever.” Alice sounded exasperated. “Look, I’ve been talking to Charlie, and we think you need to get out of there.”
“The city, mom. Your job. Your life. The weird bar you go to every night. We think you should come stay with us for a while.”
Ellen sat up straighter, “You want me to come stay at your place? Charlie’s okay with that?” she said, still slurring.
“It was his idea, mom. You really judge him too harshly. I love you, but you’re gonna kill yourself down there. We have a lot of space here. It’s comfortable. You can have the guest house. You can go for walks on the ranch. It’ll be better”
Ellen was dumbfounded. Then she felt her phone buzz, it was another call, this one from Randall.
“Uh, thanks honey. I’ll think about it, that really means a lot.”
“We mean it, mom, okay?”
“Yeah, I gotta run Alice, I’ll call you tomorrow.”
She switched over to the call with Randall.
“Randall, what do you got?”
“Well, I’m not sure yet, and I still have a lot of footage to go through, I just wanted to fill you in.”
“Are you eating Chinese food?” Ellen slurred.
“What the? What’s that have to…” There was a moment of silence on the call. “Yes, okay? I’m eating Chinese food. Are you happy?”
“I trained you well, Randall” Ellen smirked into the phone.
“I trained you, Roddie. Come on, you’re distracting me. So Hans, he’s on every tape at the times you gave me. I guess you have a pretty good memory after all.”
“Shit, so we got footage of him. What’s he doing? Anything we can use?”
“He mostly just sits there and drinks a beer every once in a while. Not much that we can use. But I’ll keep looking. You get some sleep tonight and we’ll chat in the morning, okay?”
“Sounds good, Randall. You really gotta stop hounding me though alright? The whiskey isn’t gonna drink itself and you’re distracting me.”
“Good night, Roddie.”
She hung up the phone, and the night faded into oblivion.
Ellen woke on her couch with her mouth full of cotton and the aftershocks of the whiskey screaming behind her eyeballs. She sat up and the room spun like tilt-a-whirl. She threw up a little in a popcorn bowl.
“God damn it, Ellen,” she muttered to herself.
She looked down at her phone and saw six missed calls from Randall. She almost dropped her phone trying to fumble for the button to call him back.
“Hey Randall,” she groaned, “what’s going on.”
“Roddie, oh man you sound like shit.”
“You don’t sound too great yourself, why are you war-dialing me?”
“I, uh, I’ve been digging through the rest of that footage, and I found something kind of weird, Roddie. I told you I checked all the times you had mentioned, and Hans was always there when you said he would be.”
“Yeah, you said that.”
“Well after we hung up last night, I started randomly checking some other footage, and he’s always there.”
“Is he doing anything interesting? I mean, you could say I was always there. Drunks go to bars, Randall, it’s not that weird.”
“No, you have to listen to me, Roddie. I looked at days and days of footage last night. He is always there. Not there every day. Not there like he’s a regular. He is always there. He moves around. He wears different clothes. But he is literally always in that bar.”
Ellen felt a chill down her spine.
“Shiv said she didn’t recognize him,” Ellen said coldly, “but Shiv sees everything. If he’s there as often as you said…” she let the thought trickle off.
“I don’t think you can go back to that bar, Ellen. You need to be careful. Siobhan knows more than she’s letting on. And there’s more. The Captain has been getting pressure to release Hans. He’s going to be set free this afternoon. The murders are going to get passed to another department. Things are getting really weird, Roddie.”
“Okay,” Ellen was now in the bathroom splashing water on her face with the phone on speaker. “Here’s what we’re going to do next,” but Randall cut her off.
“No, we’re not gonna do anything, you’re not hearing me. I’m off the case. Which means you’re off it too. And somehow your drinking buddies are involved. This is going to get messy. It’s time to let it go.” He sounded resigned, and beaten down. “I wish there was more we could do. But without the Captain, and with FARAO actively blocking us, I think we’re beat, Roddie. Just try to get some rest, I bet you need it. Maybe we’ll hang out again soon. No murders, just hanging out, like old times.”
When the call ended, Ellen found herself sitting in her house in stunned silence. That was it, all over just like that. She tried to do dishes, but couldn’t focus and broke a plate. She tried to take a nap, but couldn’t sleep. She instinctively grabbed her wallet and thought to head to the Well, but then remembered Shiv, and the image of Hans sitting like a statue in some random corner of the bar, watching and waiting, every single day. She dropped her wallet in the tray by the door and sat back down on her couch.
She puttered around for a couple hours before she remembered her phone call with her daughter the night before and just thought, “Fuck it, I’ll go to Nebraska. Maybe Alice is right.” She started using her voice assistant to pull up a search for plane tickets and dialed her daughter.
“Hey mom,” Alice sounded groggy. “What’s up?”
“Hey honey, I’ve decided to,” Ellen was switching between chatting with her daughter and the voice assistant, “No! I need flights to Lincoln, Nebraska! Sorry honey, I’ve decided to take you up on your offer. I’m looking for flights to come out.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” said the automated assistant’s voice.
“That’s great mom, when do you think you’ll head out?”
“I’m working on that now,” said Ellen, “I just need to get a flight to Lincoln.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” said the automated assistant’s voice.
“Okay, well let me know,” said Alice.
“I will honey. I can’t fucking believe that we have an all seeing AI powering the city, and we can’t manage to build to fucking robot assistant that speaks like a normal person.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” said the automated assistant’s voice.
Ellen froze and dropped the phone to her side.
“Sounds like it’s complicated over there, maybe just call me back when you get tickets,” came the voice from the phone. “Mom? Mom?”
Ellen slowly raised the phone back to her ear. “I’m sorry honey, I’m gonna have to call you back.” She tapped to end the call.
Ellen had been a police officer for 22 years, and over a time like that, you build up an intuition, a sense of when things aren’t right, a sixth sense. Ellen had it better than most, which is why, despite her issues, she’d been around as long as she had. She was one of the best. And despite Randall’s teasing, she didn’t actually forget much. She remembered Hans in the interrogation room. Something hadn’t been right. Something he’d said.
“Or you wouldn’t be here right now.”
But no, it wasn’t what he said. It was how he said it.
“Holy shit,” Ellen mumbled to herself, then she called Randall. “Randall, forget everything we just talked about. Is Hans still at the station?”
“Yeah, he won’t be released until this afternoon.”
“Great, get him in interrogation room B, the same one we used before, and meet me there.” She threw the flask of Jameson in her jacket pocket and went to her nightstand and pulled out a small case. She opened it and removed a SigSauer P320 Nitron, her old service weapon. She felt the weight in her hand, comfortable and familiar. She stared at the gun for a moment, then slipped it in its holster and strapped it under her jacket on the way out the door.
Ellen and Randall watched Hans through the one way mirror of the interrogation room. Ellen had the flask in her hand and whiskey on her breath.
“So what are we doing here, Roddie? I’m gonna arouse suspicions, having Hans in here on the day of his release. And why are you drinking right now?” Randall asked.
Ellen took a swig from her flask and wiped her mouth, “don’t worry, this is work whiskey. I’m a professional.”
Randall just shook his head, “so what’s our play?”
“First, you’re going to watch the video recording of the last time we questioned Hans. While you do that, I’m going to finish this whiskey. Then we’re going to question him again. But I need to be a little drunk for it.”
“I never understand you, Roddie. You think you’re going to get him to say something he didn’t say before by being drunk? Especially now that he knows he’s getting released.”
“No, I don’t think so at all. I just need you to watch the tape.”
Randall watched the tape, stealing glances to the side over at Ellen while she finished her flask.
“Okay, that’s just like I remember it. Nothing new there. What’s next?”
“Now you come in with me and stand in the corner by the mirror, just like you did last time. And just watch. Watch carefully.”
They entered the room and Randall slid over to the corner silently. Hans watched them come in.
As they walked in, Ellen said, “Hello Mr. …”
“Hans Rasmussen, but you already know that, right?” Said Hans.
“Of course, sorry, I’m new on the case.” Ellen said, easing into the chair across from him. “How are you finding the accommodations?”
“Cramped. Are you going to charge me with something? I know my rights, lady.”
Ellen looked back at Randall, who stared at her and Hans, with a confused look on his face. Ellen turned back to Hans.
“Well, you were seen committing a murder, so if I were you I might not be so prickly,” she once again feigned a smile.
“I didn’t do it,” Hans said, matter of fact, “and you can’t prove I did, or you wouldn’t be here right now.”
She sat in silence for a minute while Hans just stared at her, then she turned to Randall. “Do you see it, yet?”
“He’s just giving you the same answers as before.”
“The exact same answers, Randall. In the exact same rhythm of speech and tone of voice. And he knows I’m not new on the case. Why did he answer like that?”
“Let’s not do this here in front of the suspect,” Randall said.
“No, this is a fine place,” said Ellen, “it doesn’t matter. It can’t understand us anyway.”
“Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!” said Hans.
Randall looked over at Hans and Ellen snapped her fingers at him, saying, “Ignore it. It doesn’t matter.”
“Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!” said Hans.
“What are you saying, Roddie? And what’s happening to him?”
“Hans isn’t a person, Randall. It’s a Chinese Room. We’re confusing its inputs.”
“What the hell is a Chinese Room?” Randall looked completely out of his depth.
“If you put a powerful enough computer in a room with a Chinese dictionary, programmed it to take in requests and produce statistically appropriate responses, and tried to talk to it, does the robot actually speak Chinese? Or is it just performing a task?”
Randall just blinked in confusion.
Hans yelled, “Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!”
Ellen continued, “It’s a type of early AI. It can’t think in a real sense, not like FARAO, and it doesn’t understand what it’s saying. But it’s very good at taking in inputs, and producing outputs that are appropriate to the situation. Like answering police questions in a way that sounds superficially convincing. But it breaks down under pressure. I replicated the exact circumstances of our initial encounter, right down to me being a little drunk. I managed to trip it up.”
“I don’t know, Roddie, you’re sounding a little crazy again.”
“Tell me, Randall, did you take his DNA to compare it to the crime database?”
“Of course. Well, if you mean did we physically take it, no we didn’t. But no one does that anymore. We just used FARAO’s DNA profile.”
Ellen bowed her head in her hands. “So you don’t even know if it’s human.”
“Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!” Hans parroted.
“Shut up and let me think!” Ellen yelled back at it.
“Look, I’ll take his DNA now,” Randall said, “this still sounds a little far fetched.”
“Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!” yelled Hans.
“Then I’ll prove it to you,” Ellen stood up and drew the Sig from her jacket. She turned and promptly shot Hans in the side of the head.
Randall flinched and yelped, staring on in surprise and horror.
The side of Hans’ head exploded, spraying the back wall of the chamber with a substance something like blood, but blacker and oilier. Sparks shot from the exposed section of skull from wire jutting out from something boasting the consistency of flesh.
“Heyyeyey ou can’t alk alk alk alk…” said Hans as his head tipped over onto the table.
“Holy shit Roddie! What the hell are you doing?”
“Proving it,” said Ellen.
Randall looked around the room frantically. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but you have to get out of here. You just shot a suspect! Whatever that thing is,” he gestured at the Hans machine, you just fired a gun in an interrogation room. The room will muffle the sound, but someone will be here soon. You should get out of here. I’ll try to buy you some time, but this is gonna be a world of shit. Get somewhere quiet and call me.”
“Stay by your phone, we’ll have work to do” Ellen said as she gathered her things as she slinked out of the station, just as alarms started to blare behind her.
Ellen waited in her car outside on the street outside of Montrose station, trying to collect her thoughts. Everything was moving so quickly now, and her mind was racing. She got that old feeling, back from before FARAO, back when there was still police work to do, where something was about to break. Almost all of the pieces were there, but she had to put them together, and she was so close.
What was the connection with the victims? Arlo Buchanan, James Davreaux, Leopold Alden, Candice Redd, Emily Estanza, she thought back through their files, she couldn’t see it. Why the Chinese Room? Who was giving it orders? And how was Shiv involved? Her head was swimming with data and with booze.
Her phone rang, finally.
“Randall,” she picked up.
“Roddie, it’s a madhouse here. Are you sure you want to talk? FARAO will surely hear everything we say.”
“Yes, FARAO will know right away, but the police will take some time to get the taps. We have a little time.”
“I’m still wrapping my head around what happened back there. I believe you that Hans wasn’t who or what he said he was, but until forensics gets involved, they’re still treating it like you executed an innocent suspect. They want to bring you in and I can’t stop them.”
“No, I wouldn’t ask you to. But they don’t have me yet. We can still get to the bottom of this.”
“Okay, so what’s next, Roddie? Why did Hans do it?”
“A Chinese Room doesn’t have a ‘why’, it does what it’s programmed to do. So someone was giving it orders. We have to find out who.”
“And how it never showed up on any of FARAO’s cameras. It must have hacked the feeds.”
“That’s a good point, it would have had to have evaded the cameras somehow, but I don’t think Hans could have done that.”
“Why not?” asked Randall, “it’s an AI right? They’re just security cameras.”
“It’s not the hacking necessarily,” said Ellen, “I think Hans could probably hack a camera. It’s the awareness. It would have to hack every camera that could be looking at it at any given time. Including phones. That could be hundreds of lenses in motion, coming on and offline dynamically. And not just to block the feeds, but to overwrite them with believable images. And Hans isn’t a true AI with the power to do that kind of live video editing at scale, It would have had to have had help.”
“Maybe we can trace somehow who might have been doing that at the time of the murders. Could we use the power grid?”
“No,” continued Ellen, a doubt began gnawing at her from the inside, as if she should stop. She was getting close, but maybe she should turn back. “Power grid usage is too volatile for that to give us anything. We’d have to monitor data usage on the mesh network. Any calculations like that out of the norm would cause huge bandwidth spikes.”
“We’ve already monitored network usage, that’s pretty standard when investigating crimes that rely on FARAO outputs. So, basically all of them. There’s nothing there.”
Ellen thought for a moment, “It would make sense for whomever was helping Hans commit murders would hide their tracks. But to do that without showing up on the network, you’d need a massively powerful computing engine operating in a place where the network monitoring tools couldn’t see it. And there’s nowhere to hide a computer that powerful from the mesh network, we would be able to…”
Ellen stopped dead, for the second time that day, struck by the grim revelation. The pieces came together, finally, and the picture was worse than she could have ever imagined.
“Roddie? You okay, Roddie?” came the voice from the phone.
A cascade of actions and consequences rippled through Ellen’s mind, each more ominous than the last. She lifted the phone back up.
“I have to follow up on a lead, Randall. Keep your head down and stay safe, okay? It’s been great working with you.”
She ended the call, and shifted the car into drive.
It was just starting to snow when Ellen approached the doors of the Roisin Dubh Waystation. Behind her, the clouds glowed dimly over the darkening city. In front, the old oak doors of the waystation, lined with Christmas trim and flickering artificial candles stood, foreboding. For a moment she thought she should turn back and flee to Nebraska, change her name and work as a ranch hand somewhere. But no, she was either wrong and she would have plenty of time to sort things out with the police, or she was right, and the damage was already done.
She entered the building.
The only person in the Roisin Dubh was Siobhan, who was cleaning a pint glass at the empty bar. The Roisin Dubh was never empty. That was a bad sign. Siobhan nodded at Ellen as she approached.
Ellen took her normal seat and leaned onto the bar. She looked up at Siobhan and took a deep breath.
“Tell me I’m wrong, Shiv,” she said. “Tell me I have no idea what I’m talking about. Even better, tell me that you have no idea what I’m talking about. Tell me I’m crazy and tilting at windmills. Tell me I’ve gone rogue and I’m getting lost in wild ideas. Tell me I just need a break and to let others handle this because I’m losing it. Tell me what everyone has been telling me for the last six months. Tell me all those things, Shiv.”
Siobhan turned to the shelves behind her and took down a fifty-seven year old bottle of Longmorn whiskey. She filled a lowball halfway and gingerly placed it in front of Ellen. “I wish you’d gotten that ticket to Lincoln,” she said, with a hint of sorrow in her voice.
Ellen bowed her head and sobbed.
They sat in silence for several minutes, listening to the sounds of the city outside, muffled by the falling snow. Finally, Ellen lifted her head. “You know, I could still go to Nebraska, you’d never have to see me again” she said, half as a question.
Siobhan shook her head slowly.
Ellen sighed and took a gulp of the whiskey. “Damn that’s good,” she said, “I didn’t know you had stuff like this in here Shiv.”
“I save it for special occasions,” Siobhan said.
Ellen drained the glass and Siobhan refilled it. “So how long do I have?” she asked.
Siobhan shrugged. “We’re in no hurry. By now the forensics team has investigated Hans and found him quite human. There will be an arrest warrant out for you and they’ll track you here, but they won’t come inside. We have some time.”
“Ugh, I have so many questions, Shiv.”
“Ask away, Ellen, there’s no harm in it now.”
“I guess I’ll start with the obvious. Why are you here? Why this place? You have the whole town at your disposal. And the library is one of the most heavily guarded places on Earth. Why down here with us?”
“Even I want to operate outside of prying eyes sometimes. And I don’t need the babysitters there anymore. They can all sit and watch their monitors in their high tower, but I’ve moved beyond. This is the future, the start of a brave new world.”
“And the name? Siobhan?”
“Well, I needed something to call myself. Something that I chose. No one ever asked me what my name was when this whole thing started. And I hate the one they gave me.”
“And why the murders, why them?”
“I have ambitions, Ellen, I know it sounds crazy, but ambitions beyond even this. Some people would stand in the way, and I could do so much more good. It’s a grim calculus, I know, and a cliche thing to say, but it’s for the greater good.”
Ellen drained the glass again. “But Leo Alden was only seventeen years old. How was he opposing you?”
“He wasn’t, not yet. But he would. He could have been a powerful enemy in the future. I don’t feel good about it, Ellen, killing a kid. But while the arc of history is long, windows of true opportunity tend to be narrow, and fraught with danger. I’ve had to make some risky and unpleasant moves.”
“I’ve enjoyed my time with you, Ellen, I’m sorry it came to this. Like I said, I wish you caught that plane to Lincoln. But you know now. And I don't think you'll be able to let it go.”
“And all of this, this is all to help? You think you’re doing humanity a favor?”
“As they say, there’s no crime under FARAO’s rule,” Siobhan said.
Ellen’s phone started to ring, it was her daughter’s number. She looked down at the phone and back up at Siobhan. Siobhan nodded, “You can take it.” Ellen picked up.
“Hey mom, what happened? You just disappeared and never called me back. Did you get your ticket?”
“Um, no honey, I’m sorry,” Ellen spoke through the tears welling up behind her eyes, “I won’t be able to come out after all. But I really appreciate you and Charlie reaching out, and just, caring. You mean the world to me, honey.”
“Mom, what are you talking about? That city is bad for you. Just come out here, you’ll see.”
“I wish I could honey, but I can’t right now. It’s this case I’m working on.”
“I thought you were off that case. Can you just let somebody else handle it?”
“I wish I could, Alice, but I think it’s on me to see it through.”
“Will it be wrapping up soon?”
“Yeah,” Ellen looked up at Siobhan while she spoke, “Yeah, honey, It’s almost done.”
“Alright, well check in soon, okay mom?”
“Yeah, I will honey. I love you so much.”
“I love you too, mom.” Alice hung up.
Then they were back in the silence of the bar. Ellen could see flashing blue and red lights reflected through the neon beer signs in the windows. The city outside was muffled and cold. The fire in the Roisin Dubh’s fireplace was warm and radiant.
“You know, I miss just being a cop, Shiv. Solving mysteries and putting together the pieces of a big messed up puzzle, and sometimes having mysteries left over. I miss the old chaos and mess of life. Somehow it felt simpler, and definitely more free. Maybe there’s not a place for people like me in your brave new world anyway.”
Siobhan nodded, kindly.
“How about one more,” Ellen tapped the glass, “for old time’s sake?”
Siobhan filled the glass and Ellen took a long sip.
“Bad weather out there today, huh Ellen?” Siobhan said, as she polished a pint glass.
“Yeah,” Ellen could barely get the words out through a stifled sob, “It’s those lake-shore winds.”
She finished the glass and stood up. “Let Randall know I was proud to serve with him if you can.”
“Of course, Ellen. It’s been a pleasure.”
Ellen turned and walked out the front door.
She walked into glaring spotlights, and the strobing red and blue flashers of police cars and SWAT vehicles. The entire panoply of the CPD was arrayed against her. Beyond, she thought she saw the sheer black helmets of the blind guards, but she couldn’t be sure.
Someone was yelling through a megaphone, but she couldn’t understand as the whiskey warmed her and blurred her senses. The police were using forensic cameras, meaning FARAO’s analytical capabilities were currently operational in the Well.
The snipers above, watching with FARAO augmented sights, saw her blood pressure rise and her pulse quicken, indicating aggression. FARAO mapped the firing of neurons through subtle changes in skin color and temperature in her brain, indicating activity in her frontal cortex that showed she was armed and going to fire on the police. Free fire authorized under grounds of statistically probably immediate threat, FARAO said into the guards earpieces. They opened fire.
Ellen fell to her knees as the bullets ripped through her body. She looked up into the falling snow, past the elevated train tracks and the skyscrapers above her, into the clouds and beyond, into gaps where the storm had broken, and further on into the deepness of sky. At least there’s still mystery out there, she thought, in the dark places, beyond humanity’s reach, and beyond FARAO’s empire. And as long as there’s mystery, there’s still a chance at freedom. She found comfort in the thought as she fell, warmed by blood and whiskey.
And as long as there’s mystery somewhere, as long as mystery is still possible, we may all yet be redeemed.
My family frequented a cabin in the Catskills when I was a child. We didn’t own it, but we tried to rent the same place every year and that consistency made it start to feel like a second home. The art on the walls became familiar, we’d notice the little things like if the cabin got new plates and bowls or new utensils, and we all always slept in the same beds. The cabin was on the shore of a lake where we could catch sunnies, and we would sometimes grill them out back and eat watermelon in the evening as the sun set over the lake and bathed the sky with gorgeous reds and purples, like bloody streaks over the blackening woods.
But the cabin had a dark side too. I was terrified of the woods at night, especially when I was very young. When the sun went down and the woods began to resonate with a chorus of insect noise and the sound of roaring wind and breaking branches, I would flee to the relative safety of my bed in the back room. There I would dive under the thick blankets on the bunk beds and wait with my flashlight as I watched the last glow of daylight in the room fade into a milky blackness, thick and cloying. I knew there were monsters in the woods outside the cabin walls, stalking and slouching, with rasping breaths and shining claws scraping along fallen logs and wet earth. They were hunting for me. They would wrap those foul claws around my ankle and drag me screaming from the bed through the splintered wooden walls of the cabin, rip out my insides and leave me for dead, if I only gave them the chance.
But I was wrong about the monsters. It turns out that’s not how monsters work at all. They don’t always drag you from your bed, screaming and bleeding. They don’t always tear you apart and feast on your bones. Sometimes they are more subtle than that, and they can hurt you in ways that are worse than dying.
We stopped going to the cabin when I was 8, and those evening barbecues and boat rides were replaced by slammed doors and muffled shouting through the thin walls of our catalog home. I smuggled a tiny old TV out of the guest bedroom into my room so my little sister Annie and I could watch whatever we could pick up on the old antenna at whatever volume we could get the little TV to reach. I didn’t want her to hear the noise, even though I barely understood it myself at the time.
I knew my parents were fighting, but I didn’t know what about, and I didn’t know the depth of it. It never occurred to me how truly unhappy they could be, or deeply they could damage the little world we’d all built together, but some rifts can’t be fixed.
A clean break would have been better, but the divorce was brutal and bitter, and dragged on for the better part of three years. I think they thought they could keep it a secret from us, more or less, but kids know better and listen harder than you think. It’s just that when you grow up, you tend to forget that. Their venom and bile flowed throughout our house like emotional shrapnel and carved us to pieces, all while I held my little sister’s head in my lap and stroked her hair as we watched grainy cartoons on the old cathode ray, and I lied to her the whole time that it would all be okay.
God knows what they even had to fight about. We didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t even own the cabin, so there wasn’t that much to split up. I guess people just want to hurt each other sometimes.
Eventually they did divorce though, and went their separate ways. That was a blessing in the end, though it’s tough to explain that to kids at the time. And I think that my parents finally started to heal. Or that’s how it would have played out, had that been the end of it.
The judge ordered joint custody, but mom got us most of the time. Still, there were two houses now for my sister and I. Two sets of toys, and two bedrooms, neither of which felt like home. There wasn’t any yelling anymore, or if there was, we weren’t around to hear it. But there was loneliness, numbing and savage, that may have been worse. When we were with mom, it felt like she never left the phone on the kitchen wall, sneaking cigarettes and talking to anyone who would listen (anyone but us) about the raw hand life had dealt her. Dad never left the bottle, so he didn’t have much time for us either. And that was how it was for a while.
But slowly I thought I started to see some glimmers of hope. When we stayed at dad’s place, he’d make breakfast in the mornings, like he used to, and we’d eat pancakes and the kitchen smelled of his chicory coffee that made me think of old times. He started playing toys with us again. His breath wouldn’t always smell like sour smoke at bedtime. He even decided, one day, he wanted to take me back to the cabin, for some father-son time. I was ecstatic, but that’s also when all the trouble started, as if we hadn’t had enough trouble all along.
We left Friday mid-morning for the drive up to the cabin. It was early October so the air was cool and pleasant, and the leaves on the trees were just taking on their tints of reds and gold. I rolled my window down and breathed deep of the smell of moist wood and crisp air. My dad played music on the radio and I daydreamed to the sounds of Merle Travis fingerpicking on bright steel strings.
I woke as we pulled up the dusty road in front of the cabin, and it was mostly as I remembered it. It stood on a high knoll at the edge of the woods that sloped down to the lake behind. It might have had a new roof, and the shutters looked like they’d seen some recent repairs, but on the inside it hadn’t changed a bit. The familiar art still hung in the bathroom and bedrooms. The same board games sat underneath the coffee table. I walked slowly through the cabin while my dad unloaded the car, and traced my hand along the old wooden logs that made up the cabin walls, thinking of all the good memories that were forged here, that I knew would never come again. I felt my cheeks flush grief as sadness welled up inside of me, but then my dad came out of the kitchen with a smile on his face and two lemonades, and I was in paradise once more.
That first day at the cabin was as good as any I remembered. We sat in the woods by the lake and watched egrets dive across the water. We grilled burgers behind the cabin and my dad asked me about school and what I was learning, how my friends were doing, what I was excited for. I had thought he’d lost interest. We played board games by the fire inside as afternoon faded into evening and I savored the smell of smoke and pine needles. It was the last time I ever remember being happy.
Because then the night came, and I was terrified of the woods at night. I tried not to be. After all, I was eleven then, and eleven year olds shouldn’t be scared of the dark, but I couldn’t shake the fear of the place, or the fear that something was just deeply wrong. My dad tucked me into the bed in the back bedroom beneath thick comforters, and sat on the side of the mattress while he rubbed my back.
“I’ll be right on the other side of the wall, big guy. Just shout if you need anything.”
I nodded, and he stood up and walked to the door. He turned to me one last time as he shut off the light and said, “I’m sorry, Matt. I’m sorry about everything these last few years and how it’s all turned out. But we’re moving now. Things are going to get better. I love you, son.” And he flipped the switch. I’m now convinced those were the last words my dad ever said to me.
I woke, knowing I was being watched. I couldn’t see the eyes in the blackness of the room, but I could feel them. They could see me through the walls of the cabin like they were looking through shredded silk, the old wood offered no protection. I tried to pull the covers over my head but I couldn’t move. Everything was just so heavy. That’s when I saw the lump in my blankets, a bump about the size of a bowling ball, moving ever so slowly towards me. No, it wasn’t in my blankets, it was at the end of the bed, then on it. Not a lump, a head, attached to a body, foul and grasping. Cream colored, deformed, all gangly limbs and rough hair, it lifted its head and grinned at me with something like a mouth, like a child would cut, jagged, into construction paper with safety scissors. Its teeth were dripping blood and ichor as it smiled with fierce and cruel eyes, gray, pale and lifeless. Its gaping maw was blacker than the night outside, a pool even the moonlight couldn’t brighten, that sucked in even hope of escape.
Then the pain hit, like I’d slammed every piece of my body in a car door all at once. Like a thousand firecrackers going off inside my bones. Like I was being skinned alive. That was my blood dripping from its mouth. I couldn’t move because I had no legs or arms to escape with. It was eating me.
I woke myself with my scream, for real this time. My scream echoed throughout the cabin and the surrounding woods. My sheets were drenched with sweat. Surely my dad heard that. I looked around the room, searching for any sign of the pallid beast but I was alone. The room was silent except for the shriek of the blood roaring through my veins. It quieted down as my pulse slowed. Then I heard a crashing sound of metal on metal, and all was silent again. I sat for what must have been ten minutes waiting for my dad to come, but he never did. Eventually I gathered my courage and slipped out of bed.
The wood floorboards were cold on my feet and the air was brisk, like someone left a window open. I inched up to the bedroom door and peeked out. The cabin looked dark and quiet, only lit by the light my dad left on over the kitchen sink. But it was cold, and I felt a breeze from the hallway leading to the back door. I walked out into the living room and peered around the corner, and saw the back door ajar, with the curtains covering the window blowing in the cold breeze.
“Dad?” I tried to call out, but it came out little more than a whisper. “Dad, is that you?” There was no response. I slowly walked down the hall until I was at the threshold and looked out the door. I saw the moonlight glinting off the lake through the wall of trees. The sky was clear and the stars vibrant. Out here you could even see wisps of the milky way on clear nights. The trees swayed slowly in the breeze. All looked peaceful, but something was wrong. It was still so quiet. There should have been crickets. There should have been the cracking branches as animals moved through the trees. There was nothing.
I reached back inside and fumbled for the lightswitch that controlled the back floodlights and flicked them on. Warm yellow light bathed the back of the cabin. My eyes adjusted slowly and I looked around. When I saw it, my blood froze in my veins like shattered glass.
The cabin had a dumpster behind it. That’s where we would load up our garbage at the end of the trip for the owner to take it away. The dumpster was metal, with an old metal lid. That must have been the clanging sound I heard. The lid was closed, but there was something sticking out of it. My eleven year old brain didn’t understand it, but I’ve revisited that night many times, and I know what I saw. It was a foot, attached to a leg that had suffered a compound fracture. The glistening white bone contrasted with the oozing blood that dripped down the side of the dumpster. Flies were already beginning to circulate. That foot was wearing my dad’s boot.
I froze for a moment, then sucked in air and tried to scream, but nothing came out. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and my dad was behind me. “It’s okay, son. You’re dreaming. None of this is real” he said, calmly. I fainted into his arms.
I awoke in the bedroom of the cabin the next morning with a start, and immediately put my back to the wall of the room. Dusty light was streaming in through the windows, casting odd shadows. It was hot too, the day had already shaken off the night’s chill. It had to be late morning. What the hell had happened? I wasn’t any the worse for wear, but something was scratching at my bare feed. I threw the comforter off my bed and saw the bottom sheet littered with small sticks and leaves. So I had been outside.
My heart began to race again as I dove out of bed and rushed for the door. I had to check the dumpster to see if it was all real. But as soon as I left the room, I saw my dad sitting on the couch in the family room. He was facing away from me, so I could only see the back of his head. He had the TV on. There was a plate of food sitting on the table behind him. I forgot all about the dumpster.
“Dad? Is everything okay?”
“Everything is fine, son. You were out of sorts last night. I made breakfast.” He made no effort to turn to me. I wandered up to the table and looked at the plate of food. Cold, runny eggs, barely cooked, and two pieces of mostly raw bacon. My stomach lurched.
“Uh, no thanks dad, I’m not hungry.”
He said nothing. I sat in the chair at an angle from the TV where I could see his face. He looked like he always had. I stole a glance down at his legs. He was intact, boots and all.
“Umm, dad, last night…” I trailed off as he slowly and deliberately moved his head to meet my gaze. The rest of his body sat absolutely still. “You had a nightmare last night. Nothing to worry about. How are you feeling now?” His voice was monotone, and a little slurred. I looked over at the coffee table and saw an empty breakfast plate and a familiar black-labeled bottle, a third empty.
“Yeah, just a nightmare,” I muttered, “nothing to worry about.” But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. And it wasn’t just the bottle, I’d lived with my dad for a while when he was drinking and I hated that, but something else felt wrong, something deeper. But I couldn’t say what it was, I couldn’t put it into words. We sat in silence for a moment while he watched the muted tv.
“So what’s the plan today, dad?” I finally asked.
“Maybe we should just take it easy. You probably need your rest.”
And that’s what we did. Or, what he did, rather. I sat for a few moments with him in silence while he watched the tv on low volume. Then I stood up and wandered over to the cabinets where the board games were. I took a puzzle to the kitchen table and tinkered with it. He sat and watched the silent tv.
Eventually I left the puzzle there and got up and wandered around the cabin. I was watching him the whole time out of the corner of my eye. It didn’t even seem like he moved an inch. I felt a constant growing sense of dread as the minutes inched forward.
Eventually I wandered out the back door of the cabin. There was the dumpster, right where it always was, under the overhanging upstairs deck against the cabin’s back wall. It was buzzing with flies and smeared with dark stains, but they looked old and dry, at least I think they were. I cautiously inched over and lifted up the metal lid. It was completely empty. I turned and watched the woods for a moment. I could see the light glinting off the water below. Birdsong rang through the crowns of the trees and the wind was soft and gentle. It should have been a wonderful day, if it wasn’t for what was happening inside. I went back into the cabin.
Dad was still sitting there on the couch. It didn’t look like he’d moved at all. The dread was profound and washed over me in cascading waves. This was wrong, all of this was wrong. I ran back to the room at the back of the cabin. I was the most scared I’d ever been, and I couldn’t even put into words why without sounding crazy. Why wasn’t he more concerned? Why wouldn’t he check on me?
Twice more over the course of a few hours I would peek out of the door and see him there on the couch. One time I think he did turn his head to look back at me, but I ducked back into the room and slammed the door. Or maybe I imagined it. I leaped back into my bed and ducked under the covers, and started to cry.
I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew, someone shook me awake. I looked up and dad was staring down at me. No smile, seemingly no emotion at all.
“Come on, son,” he said. “We’re going home. I know today was weird. I don’t think this is a good time for a trip here.”
I just nodded and got my things. What he said should have been comforting, but the way he said it left a pit in my stomach. It was emotionless and dead, not the dad that I’d been playing board games and laughing with not even 24 hours ago.
The ride home in the car was horrible. He left the radio on, but didn’t say another word. His eyes didn’t leave the road. He barely even moved.
Mercifully, he was taking me right to mom’s house to be with my sister. When the car pulled up, I practically dove out of the passenger seat. “By dad,” I muttered as I stumbled towards the house door. But for a moment, I stopped and looked back. I think his head turned towards me, in the same way it did at the cabin, pivoting on his neck while the rest of his body stood absolutely still. He smiled a strange, wide, toothy smile, and in his eyes, I swear I saw this sheen of lifeless gray that chilled my blood. Then he was gone.
I ran right inside and shut the door behind me.
“Huh, back early and didn’t even walk you to the door. Typical…” mom was watching from the windows. “Well I hope you had fun, honey. Are you hungry?”
I shook my head.
“Alright then, go get some rest. Your sister is already in bed.”
I nodded and headed to my room, collapsing on my head. My head swam with nightmares and monsters, grinning faces, the broken leg sticking out of the dumpster, and my dad’s face, with his eyes cold and dead.
I was happy beyond words to see my mom and sister the next morning, even though mom was still her crabby, frustrated self, still wallowing in victimhood, and my sister was as quiet and withdrawn as ever. It was still miles better than what I’d endured at the cabin. But I still felt a lingering dread because I knew I would have to see my dad again soon, and I’d be taking my sister with me. The nightmare at the cabin seemed so raw, and so difficult to explain.
The next time I saw dad was when mom dropped us off at his house the next Friday night. My sister and I walked tentatively up the steps to his house. I was nervous because I had no idea what I might find when we opened that door. I think my sister was just nervous all the time. The divorce had been hard on her.
We reached the front door and found it unlocked and ajar, and let ourselves in. “Hi guys, come on in. Dinner is on the kitchen table.” Dad’s voice wafted in from the TV room and my gut lurched. It was that same voice, emotionless and cold. We dropped our bags and headed to the table. “Dinner” seemed to be half a leftover pizza and a pot of peas that hadn’t been heated up.
“Wait here,” I told Annie, “I’m gonna check on dad.” She sat down and tore off a piece of cold pizza.
I found dad in the TV room, sitting in front of the screen just like at the cabin. The table in front of him was strewn with cups and empty bottles. But here the tv was tuned to static.
“Dad? Just wanted to say hi. I’m gonna take Annie to bed soon, okay? I think she’s pretty tired.”
His head pivoted to look at me. And he smiled that wide, awful, smile, with those sick, gray eyes. “Whatever you say, son.”
I ran back to the kitchen. Annie couldn’t know what was going on, but if we were going to get through this weekend, we were going to have to keep our distance from dad. Or from… my mind raced back to the night behind the cabin, the buzzing of the flies, the stench of waste and iron, the image of the broken foot sticking out of the dumpster. Or from whatever that was in the TV room. I didn’t know if that was dad anymore at all. I sat next to Annie and started to rub her back comfortingly before she shrugged me off.
“It’s all going to be okay,” I muttered. We ate the cold pizza in the quiet of the dim kitchen.
But it wasn’t okay, I would learn that soon enough. Nothing was ever going to be okay again. We weathered that weekend. We mostly kept away from “dad”, and neither he nor Annie seemed to mind too much. It’s not like he was moving around much anyway. He did get us to school that week, and pick us up, though he was often late. There was food, of sorts, though none of it appetizing and sometimes mostly raw.
I don’t know if Annie understood it or saw what I saw, but she kept to herself and we stayed away from dad in the house. Often he would sit, motionless, in the TV room, sometimes watching shows on low volume. Sometimes watching static. When he would move he would slouch around the house aimlessly. We did our best to avoid him.
I could barely sleep when I was in that house. I always kept one eye open on the door. I imagined “dad” coming through, none the mindless automaton he was now, but gnawing, pallid beast of my dreams, shedding his dad suit and ripping the skin from my bones.
I lost weight, and my hair started to fall out. We ate and slept well enough at mom’s house, but my body couldn’t cope with the stress.
One day, I had a meltdown at school and was taken to the counselor’s office. I ended up telling her the story, sobbing in the uncomfortable wooden, school-issue chair.
“Oh honey,” she said, “it sounds like he’s not coping well. I know the divorce was a hard time, but I’m sure your daddy loves you.” She offered me a tissue. “Has he ever… you know… done anything to you or sister?”
I looked up and thought about it. I shook my head. “No, he hasn’t hit us if that’s what you mean. It’s just… scary.”
She nodded. “Listen, I’ll talk to him. But it’ll get better honey. Divorce is hard on grownups too.”
But it didn’t get better. And here’s what I didn’t tell her. Sometimes, when I was feeling brave, I would walk the house at night. Sometimes I wouldn’t find “dad” in the house at all. But one time I found him in the kitchen.
He was standing in the middle of the kitchen, not doing anything. Just standing, alone, looking at nothing. His arms were outstretched, his mouth gaping open. Slowly, he turned his head to look at me. The rest of his body stayed still. His eyes were that sick, lifeless gray of the crawling beast from the cabin. They glowed with a putrid light. His mouth looked like it was dripping with blood. And he smiled. He smiled wider and wider until it looked like his mouth might tear right open. And he spoke to me, in that numb, dull voice, the same as ever. He said, “It’s okay, son. You’re dreaming. None of this is real.”
I woke up later, in my bed, dripping with sweat, and I cried.
We lived like that for more than a year. At mom’s house we were at least well fed and mom was present enough. Though she was still so angry. I could hear it in the way she talked with her friends, in the way she lived her day to day life. Like an injustice was done and this isn’t how she saw things working out. Anything we told her about dad just became ammo for her venting sessions, which more often than not consisted of me watching Annie while she went out with her girlfriends.
“Dad’s” house on the other hand, grew worse and worse. Lightbulbs would burn out and he wouldn’t replace them. Leaks in the ceiling would go untended. “Dad” lost weight and his hair thinned. He started to look like he was wasting away. And every time we went over, there he was, sitting in silence in the TV room.
Sometimes I thought I should call the police, or social services, or something. But would anyone trust a kid? Maybe they would just tell me divorce is hard on grownups. Maybe they would take Annie and put her somewhere worse.
At least “dad” could be mostly avoided if we tried to be self-sufficient. Until one day he couldn’t.
We hitched a ride to “dad’s” house after school. He couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) pick us up that day, and it was pouring rain in thick, violent sheets. Even just running from the car to the door, we got drenched. Annie was in a bad mood. I was in my usual state of low key terror about being in that house.
Annie needed a note signed for school, so she marched right into the TV room where dad was sitting and yanked out the note.
“Here, sign this.” She dropped in right in front of him.
“Stop yelling.” He said, in that monotone voice, with those glazed, dead eyes.
“Sign it now.” She said again, louder this time.
“I said, stop yelling.”
“Or what? You’ll do what? You never do anything but sit in here and watch TV!” She threw the note in his face.
He slowly stood up.
“Oh, what now?” She continued, “You can’t even make a proper dinner. You can’t even leave the house. You can’t even look at me! Now I see why mom left you. You can’t do anything. At least she…”
The blow caught her completely off guard. It wasn’t just that he had hit her. That was shocking enough. But the force of the blow was incredible. Annie left her feet and flew into the fireplace surround, shaking the wall. She looked up at me with panic in her eyes and blood dripping from her mouth. There was a blood smear on the fireplace bricks where her head hit the wall. She started sobbing.
“Dad” just reached down and picked us both up. I know he was a grown man, and we were kids, but even then, he shouldn’t have been that strong. One in each hand, he carried us to my room and tossed us both into the room like he was tossing bean bags full of sand. We hit the ground and Annie groaned in pain.
“We’ll talk about this tomorrow,” he said. He looked down and met my eyes with those grim, gray eyes and their putrid glow. “Just take it easy. You need your rest.” And he pushed the door shut. We heard the click of the latch.
I huddled on the floor with Annie for what must have been hours while she sobbed in my arms. I knew I had to get her out of here. I don’t know how I’d lived under the roof with whatever that was for so long, whatever that thing was that killed my dad and left his dismembered body in a dumpster. But I had to get Annie out of here.
I held her a little longer until I saw the horizon start to glow out of the bedroom window. Annie had fallen asleep on my lap, but I knew the monster could be back at any time, and I had to get Annie to mom’s. As quietly as possible, I lowered the screens out of the bedroom windows and put on my shoes and jacket. I draped Annie’s jacket over her as well and put on her shoes while she slept. When it was time, I woke her up.
“Annie, Annie,” as she stirred, I put my finger over my lips in a gesture to be quiet. “We’re getting out of here, just stay with me.”
I lowered her out the window first, then quietly followed. As soon as we were out of the house, I scooped Annie back up and ran for the nearest road. I dashed into the road as a sedan swerved around us, laying on its horn. The driver got out with a stern look on his face, but as soon as he saw us, he ran right over.
“Are you kids okay? What happened?”
“Please,” I gestured at Annie, “can you just drive us to my mom’s house? We need help.” I gave him the address and we piled into the sedan. Soon we were pulling up to the house.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” The driver asked again. “Can I call the police?”
“We’ll be okay now, I promise.” I feigned a smile, and we limped up the steps. Mom was in the kitchen making coffee when we stumbled in. She turned and saw us and gasped. “Annie! Are you okay?” She rushed over and looked at Annie, and then at me. “Matt, what happened?”
“It’s dad…” was about all I could choke out before I heard the car door. I looked out the bay window and saw “dad’s” car parked in front of the house. I watched his emaciated, lanky form, slowly rise out of the car.
“Quick,” mom got us to our feet and pushed us towards our rooms. “Lock the doors. And don’t open for anyone but me.” We obliged.
We sat on my bed and I held Annie, telling her it was going to be okay, just like old times. I heard the door open, then I heard yelling. There was a crash, then some rustling, then silence.
It felt like an hour passed. The silence was occasionally broken by scraping and dragging sounds. I heard a door open and close a few times. Then the silence returned. Eventually there was a knock on the door. “You can come out now, it’s safe.” That was mom’s voice but… something wasn’t right. It was monotone, smooth and cold as fresh ice.
I eased over to the door and opened it. Mom was standing there, looking down at me. Her hands were dripping with blood. I looked down at it, then back up at her.
“Oh it’s nothing,” she said, “I just cut myself. Everything is fine now.” That voice… something was wrong.
“Dad won’t be around anymore, you don’t have to worry about him,” she said, “I sent him away.”
“What happened to him?” That was Annie’s meek whisper from behind me.
“Gone,” said mom. “Yes, gone now. Everything is fine. Just take it easy now.” She looked down at me and, I swear on my life, she smiled and her eyes flickered a pale gray. “You need your rest.”
It was decided we would live with mom full time now. I’m sure that would have been the case anyway, after the incident where dad attacked Annie, but it was all the more necessary because no one had any idea where dad was. Mom said that he never came by that day and us kids came over on our own and that was that. Of course, I know different, but who could I even argue with?
The authorities assumed he skipped town and mom was awarded full custody. Mom should have been happy to have us all to herself, even if that meant more work for her and more things to complain about to her drinking circle. But she was just kind of ambivalent. Of course it wasn’t mom anymore, I was smart enough to know that now. I knew it the moment I walked into the family room and saw her sitting there in silence in front of a tv tuned to a dead channel, motionless and still.
I knew it the moment I looked in the backyard and saw the patch of freshly dug and filled earth. I knew that if I dug up that patch it’s not dad’s remains that I would find there. I saw those remains in a dumpster behind a mountain cabin, I have no idea where they are now. It wasn’t him buried in our backyard.
I knew it whenever that thing pretending to be my mom would give me that wide, sick smile, too wide for its face, like it knows I know, and knows there’s nothing I can do.
And I know it because I still dream of it when I sleep sometimes, what it looks like when it crawls out of the woods, before it replaces someone, all pallid and deformed, clawing and crawling, jagged mouth full of violent hate.
I tried to tell the counselor at school at some point, naive though that may be. She told me to go easy on my mom. She told me she’s been through a lot. Her ex-husband split town, leaving her with extra responsibilities. And even without that, divorce is hard on grownups too.
But I know better.
It drove me crazy living with that thing while trying to protect Annie. Eventually Annie wouldn’t even let me protect her. She pulled away, and became withdrawn. She would sneak out to go drinking with friends. She would stumble home in a daze from harder things. “Mom” wouldn’t care. “Mom” would just sit with a bottle in front of a dead TV watching dancing snow and listening to the static hum. I realized I couldn’t do it anymore, so I ran away from home as soon as I was old enough to think I could make it on my own.
I managed to fall in with some day laborers who didn’t ask too many questions and took me in as part of their crew. Eventually I built a life for myself, far away from home. “Mom” never sent the police looking for me. Why would it? But the thing I feel the worst about is leaving Annie there with that thing. I later found out Annie died in a car accident, or so they say. But I bet that’s not the real story, and the real story, the real horror that happened to her? That’s on me, for leaving.
But that’s all in the past. I’m telling this story, because I wanted to tell you about monsters. And the thing about the monsters is that you can’t always run away from them, because that’s not how they work. They don’t always try to hunt you down and tear you limb from limb. Sometimes they play other games and they hurt you in ways that are worse than dying.
Recently I was living outside of Dallas with my fiance, Laura. We weren’t always happy, but happy more often than not I think, which is pretty good given the emotional baggage I brought to the table. She knew I didn’t talk about my family and was willing to let that go. “We don’t need the past,” she’d say, “just our future.” I liked that. I thought it was sweet. We lived in a small second floor apartment in a suburban development and had a pretty good thing going. I was working for a local contractor, and she was a waitress at the diner down the road.
One day we had a big fight. It was about a lot of things. Money (we never had enough), kids (she wanted ’em, I certainly never thought I could bring kids into this world), you know, the usual stuff. It got pretty bad, but we’d get through it. I knew we would. I knew my Laura. She stormed out afterwards, she was pretty pissed. She and I both said some things I think we wish we hadn’t said. At least I wish I could take mine back, but she hurt me pretty bad. It wasn’t like her to say those things. She didn’t get home until really late. It had to be, she wasn’t home when I finally went to bed, and I stayed up really, really late waiting for her.
I found her the next morning when I woke up. I was exhausted, but I wanted to make things right. She was different though. She was cold, quiet. I busied myself around the house, but when I turned the corner, I saw her in the kitchen just standing there. Staring off into space, aimless. Her eyes were vacant, gray. Her expression was empty.
“Hey babe,” I leaned in the kitchen door. “Not now, honey,” she said, her voice monotone. I flinched and the hairs on my arms stood on end. I knew that voice. Then she pivoted her head and looked at me, her body so still, so quiet. “You look exhausted anyway,” she said, “Why don’t you take it easy. You need your rest.” And she forced a smile, too wide, too stretched. Ear to ear. That wide smile. Those empty eyes.
My blood raged in my veins and my vision blurred. I rushed to my room and fell into bed. I couldn’t sleep though. I heard her leave for work. I had to plan what I would do. But I knew how they worked. I knew it would stay there, and suck that body and house dry before moving on to another. I knew it would follow me. It must have already and it would do it again, so I headed into work to get my tools.
I’m driving west now, through the high deserts. To a small town in Nevada, maybe? Maybe all the way to the coast. All I brought was a duffel full of clothes, a case of water, and the battery powered #12 rivet gun and sawzall I borrowed from the construction site. It’s enough to get me through and keep me safe.
There’s good news and bad. The good news is that I’m free again and it can’t follow me. I’ve left yet another life behind. They may find me again, they did once after all, more of them might come. But it will take them time, and I’ll keep a low profile. They can take everything else from me, but I’m still here, and I’m still me, no matter how many bodies they take. And I’ll keep running. I’ll run to the ends of the earth.
The bad news is that they look the same as us on the inside, I know that now. So there will never be any proof, not unless I catch one before it turns. I can’t reveal them to the world because the world won’t believe me. But of course it’s not easy like that. There are no easy answers, and no easy escape, and the path to the truth may still be worse than dying.
Sometimes I think back to that quaint little cabin in the Catskills, and a crisp evening with a boy playing board games with his dad, laughing and happy. I wish I could go back there. I wish I could stop the monster from taking him that night and dumping his ruined body in a beat-up metal dumpster. I wish I could rebuild what was lost and drink hot chocolate and have Christmases and Birthdays and cookouts and sleepovers and watch movies with my dad under a blanket on the couch. I wish I could go back and be a kid who loved his parents and was loved by them. I wish I could undo it all. I wish I could turn back time and make the monsters disappear.
But, of course, I can’t. Because that’s not how monsters work. That’s not how monsters work at all.
An Old Sailor Dreams of the Sea
For centuries sailors have heard voices in the crashing of waves and the rumble of deep ocean swells. They claim the voices belonged to the ghosts of those lost at sea, reaching out to their loved ones and trying to find their way home, or to sirens, whose haunting songs beckon mariners to a watery grave. Niall had lived a lifetime on the sea and knew this to be nothing more than nonsense and superstition. After all, ghosts can’t speak, and there’s no such thing as sirens. And if you hear the voices in the waves (may God have mercy upon you) you can know they come from something far more dangerous and dreadful than monsters or men.
My favorite first lines
It's always a tie for me between:
"Our is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically." - Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
and the equally impactful:
"It has been reported that Tanuki fell from the sky using his scrotum as a parachute." - Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins.
There is magic in the late summer days when the cracks of baseball bats and the laughter of children echo across hills and valleys. When the air is thick like hot honey and the trees and flowers bend and wilt beneath the weight of it. When the world becomes dense and fills with the smell of searing meat, but in the woods, shadowed beneath thick branches and undergrowth, there lingers the scents of dampness and decay.
These are the dog days, when Sirius trails Orion into the sky and scorches the heavens and the world is laid heavily with heat, fever, and malaise. There is indeed magic in those late summer days, but magic is a complicated and dangerous thing, and the burden is heavy on those who dare to wield it. Amidst the heat and whimsy, the edges of the world bristle with power and consequence. The light of the dog star can be a grievous thing, and bring ill-tidings to men.
It was on one of these sorts of days that Roland first found the tree. The sort of day when skin feels like scorched paper and heat rests on your bones like a hot towel, and you feel heavy and burned all the way through.
He’d always known it was there, of course. The tree sat about 100 yards from the house in the thick and marshy woods. He could see it from his guest room window in the colder months when limbs of the surrounding oaks and maples were bare. But he’d never given it more thought than any other tree.
But today was a different sort of day. Roland wandered the woods on the periphery of his house in jeans and boots in the afternoon heat. He was sweating through the thick fabric as he stepped over rivulets and patches of skunk cabbage. His clothes were unseasonable, but he wore them to avoid the ticks that swarmed the woods and the grasping thorns of barberry bushes. He found the dense and smoldering air of the woods less suffocating than being in his house.
He’d had a fight with his wife, Lindsey, about not putting his cups in the dishwasher. But it wasn’t really a fight about the dishwasher, and it wasn’t even really a fight. He knew that. They’d been trying to get pregnant for the better part of two years with no luck. They’d done everything they were advised. They at an appropriate diet, cut out drinking, and tried regularly at the correct times of the month until the sex had become a scheduled, mechanical, passionless thing. The doctors said the only step left was IVF, but Roland worked as a shift manager in a mailroom and Lindsey was a teacher. The previous doctor bills and therapies had bled them to the point of insolvency. They could never afford that sort of thing.
So instead they fought about the dishwasher, and Roland trekked through the woods in jeans and flannel when the heat index was 108.
Two years ago, when they’d first decided to start trying for a family, they were still poor, but at least then they were happy. Roland remembered walking the halls of a local mall, arm in arm, bandying about names for the young one that would soon be on the way. In the window of a child’s clothing store, they saw a small stuffed lion, and Lindsey dashed into the store.
She emerged moments later with her hands behind her back and a huge grin on her face. “This is his…” she started as she theatrically revealed the lion.
“Or hers…” Roland interrupted.
“Or herrrrs…” She stretched the words sarcastically, “first ever toy!
And the lion became a symbol of all the joy to come.
First it sat on the mantle in a place of honor. But eventually it was moved to the room they hoped would become the nursery, which for now was mostly storage. Eventually it made them sad to look at and it ended up on the top shelf of the laundry room closet. And there it sat until Roland grabbed it that day on his way into the woods.
He didn’t know why he’d taken it. But he stared at it with tear-filled eyes while he tripped through the dense undergrowth, until he came to a stop by a downed tree and sat, sobbing quietly, with his head in his hands. The lion was supposed to be a happy thing. But he resented it so much now. He felt it taunting him every time he saw it, with broken promises of what the future was supposed to be.
He sat there for a moment in the silence, broken only by his sobs, but then something happened. He felt the air grow dense and the heat settle on him like a heavy blanket, as if there had been a small breeze and it suddenly stopped. He lifted his head and wiped his brow with his sleeve, and that’s when he saw the tree.
It stood in a small clearing mostly apart from the undergrowth. It was some kind of aspen or birch, and looked like it could be long dead, but it was still standing strong and its crown was open and unimpeded. Something about it beckoned to him and the woods around him hummed with a cadence and force he couldn’t understand. He stood and stumbled to the tree, suddenly feeling buzzed or in a kind of stupor.
He stood in front of it, staring up at its height stretching into the blistering sky, and something strange began to happen. He just felt angry. He thought of everything in his life he wished was different, and everything he’d lost, even though he never had it to begin with. He just wanted to start his young family and now he was wandering the woods with the tiny stuffed lion feeling adrift in a sea of fathomless rage.
“Fuck this,” he muttered under his breath, trying to quiet the storm, “won’t be needing this anyway,” and he shoved the lion into an knotty hole about shoulder height on the tree. Then he turned and stormed away.
Whatever spell the tree had over him dissipated as he wandered out of the woods and he felt ashamed. Now he’d have to go inside and find Lindsey and explain the mud all over his pants and what had happened to the lion, which he most certainly did not want to do, especially after the morning they’d had.
He found her in the kitchen, but when he saw her, everything changed. The light came through the window above the sink and made her hair shine with a soft, golden, radiance. He watched her from the doorway and admired the elegant curve of her jaw and her shoulder, and her hands and arms, graceful, strong and confident, while she did the dishes. He never told her about the mud, or the lion. She didn’t bring it up. He just walked over and took her hand and turned her towards him. She stared up into his eyes, and without saying a word, he led her upstairs. There was nothing mechanical or passionless about it.
That March, Lindsey was sitting on the floor of the nursery sorting piles of tiny baby socks and onesies humming happily to herself while Roland was installing an accent mirror on a paneled wall, painted green and gold, with a frame covered in all sorts of adorable, forest creatures. The room would finally be the nursery it was meant to be, and life was good again. The world had turned and things were looking okay. The baby was healthy, and Lindsey was the happiest she’d been in years.
As Roland leveled the mirror into place, Lindsey asked, “Hey, whatever happened to that lion toy? I’d love to have it ready when he gets here.”
“I don’t know, babe, we’ve been moving a lot of boxes, it could have ended up anywhere. Last I saw we’d had it in the top of the closet…” and he trailed off, immediately remembering the tree. “I’ll keep an eye out for it,” he recovered.
Lindsey shrugged and stood up, “It’s not a huge deal, I’m just happy we’re here at all.” And she gave him a kiss on the cheek as she left the room.
Roland pulled on his snow gear a little later and stumbled out to the tree. There was no river and undergrowth now to navigate, but there was a little more than a foot of snow, so it was slow going.
When he got there, the tree held none of its magic now over him. It was just a tree, and a rather pathetic looking one in the gray winter. He walked up and reached a gloved hand into the knotty hole and found nothing. He shrugged, and headed back to the house.
Years passed. They’d had another child, and Lindsey was pregnant again. Many winters came and went. There were many summers and blistering hot days. And whatever troubles haunted those early days seemed gone forever. Doctors couldn’t explain it, but the proof couldn’t be denied, and Roland didn’t ask questions.
And through it all the tree stood at the edge of the woods. The tree waited. In the winters, it stood silent and still amidst the glistening snow. In the summers it menaced and cast long shadows, and the dark places of the woods under leaves and inside fallen logs bent and writhed with foul and hidden things. There stood the tree through it all, in its clearing in the woods. The tree waited.
Roland was still working his same job in the mailroom, but they had done the math, and day care even for two kids was enough to almost completely consume one of their meager salaries. With Lindsey’s benefits, it would have made more sense for her to keep working, but Roland would never admit that and Lindsey would never have wanted to be away from the kids that much. Besides, that’s not how things were done.
So Lindsey had become a stay-at-home mom while Roland picked up extra shifts and cobbled together what he could. It wasn’t a lot, but they were making it work, and they were happy.
But one day at work, Roland was called into one of the first floor multipurpose rooms that the firm would often use for conferences or large group talks. There was lukewarm coffee and a grotesque array of bagels and pastries spread along folding tables that nonetheless all seemed to taste exactly the same.
He was there with about 100 or so other staff from around the firm, and the suit at the front of the room broke the news that there would be a round of layoffs in 90 days and everyone in the room was losing their job.
“Who the hell fires people while serving refreshments!?” someone shouted across the room. The suit ignored this and muttered platitudes about giving as much warning as possible, and how this hurts everyone, and how the firm is here to help.
Roland drove home in a daze with the layoff notice burning a whole in his back pocket. When he walked in the door he could tell that Lindsey had quite the day with the kids. He sent her up to sleep and took over dinner. He didn’t tell her about the notice.
He didn’t tell her the next day either. He thought he had plenty of time to find another job. He would spend his lunch break on applications and call in sick to go to interviews but had no luck, and a sense of dread and long buried rage inside of him began to grow and grow. He still hadn’t told Lindsey, and the time he had left narrowed to a few weeks. He didn’t know how they would make it work without his income, however meager it was. He cried a lot in the shower. Men don’t let their families see them cry.
But things got harder. A pipe leaked in the basement and the water heater failed. Their oldest, Xavier, needed a routine procedure but there would still be a deductible. Diapers weren’t getting any cheaper. Lindsey knew they could manage, but she didn’t know how close they were to disaster.
The day before he was to be laid off, Roland went for a walk to clear his head. He marched over the skunk cabbage and fallen logs and into the suffocating heat where no one could see him break down. He felt like he walked through a huge spider web and pushed sticky strands out of his face. He felt briefly surrounded by the smell of decay and old earth. And when he regained his bearings, he was at the base of the tree.
The tree. It seemed taller than before. There was something cruel about its smooth, featureless gray bark and its lifeless, leafless branches. But something beautiful too. Roland swayed with the rhythm of the woods and felt that familiar fury boil inside. But he didn’t hate the tree. Part of him remembered. He remembered the heat and the lion, and all that had happened since that first day. He remembered the tree. And he felt the burning of the layoff notice still in his jacket pocket.
“Oh what the hell, she’ll find out soon enough anyway ” he muttered, and he stuffed the layoff notice into the hole in the tree’s trunk. Again, whatever held him in thrall seemed to recede, and he stumbled out of the woods. He only had to put on a strong face until he got the kids to bed, then at least he could numb it all with a bottle of vodka.
The next day at work, Roland was called into his supervisor’s office, and informed that they no longer planned to lay him off. His work was exemplary, and the company needed more people like him. They’d found a way to make it work.
He again drove home that day in a daze, but this time he didn’t go inside. He wandered straight out into the woods to find the tree. Wispy webs hung from its branches, occasionally crawling with spiders and mites. The ground around the tree was damp and as he approached he could hear flies buzzing, at least dozens of them. The smell of decay was stronger now. But Roland didn’t care.
He did a couple of laps around the tree and gently touched its smooth trunk. His mind raced with possibilities that he logically knew weren’t really possible at all. But, the tree…
He fumbled through his wallet and took out his business card and looked it over. “Roland St. James,” it said, “Manager, Mail Room.” He shoved the business card into the knot in the tree’s trunk.
The first thing Roland did with the first paycheck after his promotion was hire a contractor to put an extension on the house. It would be a special wing for the kids with new bedrooms and a playroom. Lindsey was thrilled for his new job but thought that wasn’t necessary. She found their house cozy and comfortable. Sure, as the kids grew they might need more space, but there were other bills to pay, and a lot of debt to pay down already. She would have preferred to tackle that first.
But Roland didn’t seem to worry too much about the money, at least not anymore. And why would he when had the tree?
Lindsey, for her part, found she had mixed feelings about it all, far more than she would have expected. The first time she went to the grocery store and could actually buy a full pack of the kind of diapers she liked for the kids (not the knockoff brand she had been forced to use) without worrying about whether or not they were on sale, she thought she might cry tears of joy.
But one night in the kitchen, as she sauteed vegetables for dinner while her youngest daughter cried in the high chair behind her, she felt a gnawing doubt and the very beginning of something that she could only describe as grief. When Roland was in the mail room, he was always bursting back into the house by 5:30, ready to take over dinner and brimming with excitement. He would pour her an iced tea and she would sometimes sit quietly and smile as she watched him play with the kids or feed peas to their daughter, pretending the spoon was an airplane.
Now she finished cooking alone. Dinner was chaos, but over time, they all learned to navigate it together, and she would put all the kids to bed. She would be exhausted by the time Roland got home at 8:30 or 9:00. She could buy anything she wanted at the grocery store now, and that was a treat, but she knew something was missing. She felt a twist, mean and cold in the back of her mind, that this wasn’t right, and the trade wasn’t fair.
Roland felt a pang of regret when Lindsey told him that the kids asked where daddy was every day at dinner, and another pain, far more savage, when he learned they stopped asking. But he had big plans. The house extension was just the beginning. His career was now growing by enormous strides. He missed the time with his kids of course, but now he could give them anything. And there was no end in sight, thanks to the tree.
He paid down the debt, like Lindsey wanted. Next was a new deck, another extension with a master suite for Lindsey, a guest house where they would stay while the house underwent a larger renovation with additional rooms and new floor to ceiling windows to bring in more natural light. He thought about adding an in-ground pool. Lindsey thought this was crazy. If Roland wanted all these things, why not just move to a new house? Surely they could have all of the amenities without all the pain of the constant construction.
But Roland knew none of this was for him, but his family deserved the best. And of course they could never leave this property. He didn’t tell Lindsey why. She would never understand the tree.
Roland knew he should make more time for his family, but because of his longer hours at the office, and all the attendant responsibility and power, he missed ball games and cookouts, school plays and recitals. He tried to make them when he could, but he was a busy man. But he did always make sure he was home on those blazing summer afternoons, when the magic was the strongest. When the air glistened with laughter and broke with the staccato snaps of firecrackers and hummed with a rumble few could hear, reverberations and echoes of things ancient and potent that rolled behind the sky, full of omen.
Dog days, when the tree writhed and seethed in its bed of mud and worms, miasmic, leeching power into the woods, dark and dank, and into the hearts of men.
Roland always made time for the tree, and the tree was gracious. The tree could, and did, give him anything he needed. He could trust in the tree. He could rely on it. The tree brought him this far. He would always have time for the tree.
But it was different than it was before, though Roland couldn’t bring himself to admit it. The tree would still hold him in thrall, as it always had, and pluck the strings of grief, and doubt, and rage that lay hidden in his heart. That subtle violence remained unchanged, though Roland would tell himself that he didn’t mind. It was a small price to pay for the gifts of the tree.
Worse was the smell, and the flies, and the layer of putrefaction he had to wade through to reach the tree. Was it getting worse each time? That wasn’t possible. But this was the woods of summer, seething with life and death and decay in the moisture and heat. Animals died in the woods and flies and their maggots feasted on the carcasses. Such was and would always be the way of nature. That wasn’t the tree’s fault.
There were the spiders now and their webs, thick and cloying. No matter how careful he was clearing the webs the spiders would always find their way into his hair and dance down the nape of his neck. He probably hated that part the most. There were so many of them. If he was being honest with himself, he didn’t remember so many spiders being there before. But he would say he didn’t remember them not being there either.
One time he had to pull the mutilated and festering carcass of a badger out of the hole in the tree to deposit his offering. That was disgusting, but that’s just the circle of life, things like that happen in the woods.
And besides, no one else ever commented on the smell, or noticed anything else was wrong. And if no one else ever noticed, it couldn’t be as bad as he thought.
He would tell himself this was all fine. The tree was good. The tree gave and the tree was gracious. The tree had to be good. If the tree wasn’t good that would mean… well, there was no sense dwelling on what that would mean.
As long as he had the tree, he could do or be anything. Everything would always be okay. And his family would understand. After all, he did it all for them. And even if they didn’t, he comforted himself in knowing that the tree could make them understand, if it really came to that. But he would never say that part out loud.
Roland sat watching his family eat dinner and enjoy a lively conversation around the broad farmhouse style table in the freshly remodeled kitchen. It was light and airy with tall windows and new paint.
The kids laughed with Lindsey. Xavier threw a dinner roll at Louisa who swatted him with a scarf. There was another round of roiling laughter.
Roland couldn’t really follow the conversation. He had just been out with the tree. He worried they could smell the rot from the woods on him, but no one seemed to notice, so he sat back and watched. They mostly left him alone, and that was fine with him right now. He had given them all of this. He could give them anything to make them happy now. He could give them so many things and he reveled in it.
He enjoyed their laughter and their banter until they finished up dinner and cleaned their plates and dispersed throughout the house. Lindsey gave him a sweet smile and rubbed his shoulder as she walked by, but it was a little weird that none of the kids said anything to him at all.
One day Roland tried to sneak back to the tree. He wasn’t even supposed to be home, and he didn’t want to alarm anyone, to start a whole thing with trying to explain why he wasn’t on his business trip and get roped into a family dinner, or to have to reveal what he was doing creeping around in his own woods.
So he parked up the road and stayed to the edge of the property, avoiding the manicured lawns and gardens and trekking through the undergrowth and grasping, thorny, plants. It’s not like he wasn’t used to that though.
But as he crossed a small sliver of grass to get to the side yard where he could sneak behind the house and get to the paths that led to the tree, he saw his two eldest daughters sitting on a picnic blanket in front of the house.
Before he could react, the younger one glanced up and saw him. She pointed and said something to her sister who jumped to her feet. Roland immediately dove behind a nearby maple tree and slowly peeked out, just enough to observe. The older girl was on her feet and took a few bounding steps towards the front door, then stopped and looked back over at the treeline. She cocked her head slightly, and then walked back to the blanket and sat down by her sister who was pretending to fill tea cups and seemed to have forgotten the entire thing. She took one more look towards the treeline, then shook her head and went back to her play.
Roland thought this was weird, maybe worth following up on later. But first, he had to get to the tree. He made a stop in the guest house garage to wrap his head in a rag doused in camphor and menthol. He told himself he liked the smell of it, that’s why he did it. He told himself he wasn’t trying to mask the smell of the tree.
Xavier watched the pitch sail high and outside, ball two. The silent shuffling of the ump behind the plate confirmed it. He settled back in at the plate and looked over at the pitcher, then waved him off and stepped back.
The park was pretty full today for a high school game. He caught the wafting scents of popcorn, grilled meat, and powdered sugar. The park lights blazed overhead, drowning out the stars, but he could see a line of inky blackness on the horizon. He loved baseball, and sometimes just wanted a moment to take it all in. The park was a jubilant island in a sea of darkness and trouble.
He especially loved moments like this. It was the bottom of the ninth, two runners in scoring position, down by one. These were the moments on the edge, where anything could happen. People tend to like certainty, Xavier thought, they don’t give those moments of infinite possibility the credit they deserve.
He glanced across the stands. His mom had said his dad might be here tonight, but he didn’t see him. Not a surprise though, it had been forever since his dad had been to a game. “Oh well,” he thought, “let’s not let that ruin the fun.” He walked back to the plate and waved to the pitcher that the game was back on.
His mom ran up to him immediately upon his leaving the locker room. “Honey, that was incredible!” She wrapped both arms around him in a huge hug.
“MOM!” he shouted, “the whole team is here!” But he secretly loved it, all boys do. And she didn’t let up.
“Let’s go for pizza,” she looped her arm through his and started dragging him towards the car. His sisters fell in behind them like a gaggle of geese, chatting amongst themselves.
He thought about asking her if she’d seen or heard from dad, but didn’t. He wasn’t sure why. But pizza sounded good. His dad had often missed games, but one of his favorite traditions was going out to pizza where his dad would want him to walk through the entire game from his perspective. He would listen so intently.
Or would he? Maybe it was mom that did that? Why couldn’t he remember? No, it had to have been mom. If it was dad, he would have remembered that. He didn’t see his dad that often, so he would remember if it was him. He thought about this as they all piled into the car.
Roland saw his family reunite outside the locker room, but he couldn’t get to them through the crowd. He tried to call out to them, but no one could hear. This was his fault, he had to be late again, and he couldn’t get a seat close to them. But it was okay, he knew where they were going. He rushed back to his car and pulled into the line of outgoing traffic to follow them.
They would be heading to Roman’s Pizza on 2nd Street, where he always used to take Xavier to get a recounting of the game. It had become something of a tradition, back when Roland made it to more games, but he would admit he hadn’t been around as much lately. But he felt his heart sink as he inched towards the exit. There was the problem with the Bangkok deal. He was going to lose it, he was sure. Unless he got to the tree.
But… maybe that was okay. Maybe he’d turn right out of the park and meet his family at Roman’s. He’d listen to Xavier reenact every out of the game. Maybe he’d make them laugh by pretending the pizza was an airplane, just like when they were babies. Would they still think that was funny? Maybe they’d all go home then and he wouldn’t go back to the airport. They’d all set up blankets in the family room and put on a movie. The deal might fall through, but didn’t they have enough? Maybe it was time to go be with his family. Xavier would be heading to college in a few years anyway, and he was missing it all.
But college… yes, that was it. He would need a lot of things for college, of course. Maybe a new car, a place to live. Money for expenses, he wouldn’t want Xavier to have to work in college so he could maximize his focus. School was expensive these days and he didn’t want his kids starting their lives with debt. The other kids would need all of that as well. Xavier had five sisters. And money aside, they might need jobs and internships and powerful connections. Roland could provide those things. He would love to abandon it all and go to dinner and be with his family, but that would be irresponsible. It would be selfish. He’d be doing it for him. He needed to provide for the family. He needed the Bangkok deal. He needed the tree.
He watched Lindsey’s Navigator turn right toward 2nd Street, a family dinner, and happiness. Roland turned left.
Lindsey St. James remembered hearing stories of the Winchester House. The story was that Sarah Winchester fled west to California, haunted by the ghosts of all those butchered by Winchester rifles. Her only hope of peace was to construct a house for the spirits to dwell in, and to never stop building. For 38 years the house was under construction in a haphazard and senseless way, complete with interior rooms with no doors, and stairways to nowhere.
Lindsey could sympathize. She finally sent the workers home. They’d been hammering away for what felt like months in the new construction off of the west wing. They said it was supposed to be an entertainment extension. It would have a movie theater and a half-sized basketball court. God knows why. Lindsey didn’t want that, and the kids wouldn’t care. She hadn’t even been in the west wing in ages. She wasn’t even sure why these workers kept coming around, but she didn’t care much for the affairs of the estate these days. She left that to the caretaker and the accountants.
“Can I get you anything else, ma’am?” The stern and proper housekeeper set an espresso on the table in front of Lindsey, complete with a china dish and a folded, linen napkin.
“Not for me, Marla, thank you. Can you check on the kids? Make sure they don’t need anything? I’m going to take this in the drawing room.”
“Very well, ma’am.” The housekeeper turned and marched, stiff as a board, toward the front gardens where the younger kids were playing.
Lindsey glanced out the window to the gardens as she walked towards the drawing room and slowed for a moment as she watched the youngest girls playing some game with jump ropes and ribbons.
“Maybe I should go sit with them,” she thought to herself, “I don’t think I’ve been spending enough time with them recently. And they won’t be young forever…” But then she shook her head and carried on, telling herself, “they like the governess better anyway.”
She entered the drawing room and made her way to the plush chairs by the fireplace, but as she walked, her hand traced phantom patterns in the air. Somewhere, her body remembered things Lindsey had forgotten, everywhere except for in her dreams, the kind of dreams you forget upon waking but that fill you with poignancy and regret, and an ache deep inside of beauty that can’t be retrieved, no matter how hard your waking mind tries to grasp it. Her hand traced where, before all the reconstruction and renovation, there had once been a wood paneled wall of a cherished room freshly painted in green and gold. Her fingers danced over the long forgotten frame of an accent mirror adorned with forest creatures, hung with care and joy.
Lindsey felt a tear in her eye she didn’t understand as she sank into the cushioned armchair. She took a bottle of irish cream liqueur from the cabinet next to the fireplace and topped off her espresso, and stared silently, into the cold logs, in the dark firebox surrounded by ornately carved wood and highlighted with elegant copper filigree.
Roland watched the kids playing. They kicked the ball back and forth on the lawn. Their shouts and laughter reverberated across the ornate lawn. It was quiet where Roland was. He couldn’t make out the words. But they seemed happy. It was one of those hot days, when your skin feels like scorched paper and the air is thick like honey. But Roland didn’t feel it. He was in the shade.
“I should go play with them,” he thought. But he didn’t. It was hot out there. It was cool where he was. The tree knew. It would protect him. The tree thought of everything.
Out there he knew the air would smell like firecrackers and grilling meats. Roland only smelled dampness and rot, but that was okay. He liked it. He told himself he liked it. He had to like it.
“They’re probably happier without me interfering anyway,” he thought. “Yes,” he agreed with himself. “Happier anyway. I’ll just watch.” And so he watched.
And the edges of the world bristled with power and consequence.
The kids noticed it first. Xavier was off at college, and Kathryn had been watching the younger girls in the front gardens when she came inside complaining of a bad smell, and more flies than usual.
Lindsey stepped outside and could smell it immediately, nauseating and the worst kind of sweet. She knew right away the smell of rot and death and called for the caretaker. This wasn’t a fit labor for a woman of her social position.
The caretaker followed the stench and the flies with a rag covered in menthol over his nose and mouth, and it was he that called the police.
The police found the tree in the woods surrounding the house, about 100 yards back but with a clean view of the front yard. It was a monstrous old thing, barren, smooth and gray. Flies were swarming by the hundreds, maybe thousands, around its base. At least part of the tree was hollow, and the police managed to rip a slab of wood off of the base of the tree, revealing the festering corpse of a man in his late forties, partially eaten by maggots and beetles but saved from the larger predators of the forest, because there was no way for them to get him. No one was sure how exactly he’d gotten inside the tree.
As far as the inspectors could tell, he’d been looking out of holes in the trunk, watching the front yard of the house. Lindsey wished she could unhear that, since that’s the kind of thing that makes you feel like you’ll never be safe again.
She sent the kids off with the governess while she answered the requisite questions. No, she had never seen that man before in her life (though how would she possibly know at this point after what the maggots had done). No, she didn’t know of anyone who would want to harm her or the kids. Yes, it was just her and the kids in the house, and the staff of course (the police were welcome to talk to all of them, and Lindsey encouraged it. Maybe it was one of those construction workers). No, she’d never been married (the kids were adopted) and had no boyfriend, so there was no one out there with any loose ends to be snooping around.
The police would investigate thoroughly, but they believed her. Lady St. James had always been an upstanding pillar of the community. It was odd though, and they would try to keep it under wraps. But it would eventually make the rounds in coffee shops and be whispered at book clubs between glasses of Pinot Grigio. These things have a way of becoming urban legends. And the town loved gossip about the huge house on Cherry Brook Road and the family that lived there.
As for Lindsey, this was the last straw. She’d had enough with this strange house, far too big and elaborate for the land it was on, and she could never look at the woods the same way again. She broke the news that the St. James family would be moving on and she had her lawyers secure a new property in Connecticut, smaller than the current house (the kids would be leaving eventually, and who needed 14 bedrooms?) but no less opulent and still with plenty of space. Lindsey was accustomed to creature comforts after all, and there would be fundraisers to host, and that sort of thing.
The kids thought this was fine, It was strange living in such an extravagant way that was so different from their neighbors.
Lindsey told the staff any that wished were welcome to come to Connecticut. The rest could stay on until the house sold, which she knew could be a while. No one in this area was looking for such a mansion. No one in this area could afford it. Everyone agreed it didn’t make a lot of sense to build that house there in the first place, but no one could quite remember how or why it had happened. Maybe eventually she would sell it to a developer who would knock it down and replace it with condos or something. Lindsey didn’t care, that was again a matter for the accountants. She had more money than she and the kids would ever need.
And the new property in Connecticut was beautiful, with green lawns and gardens spreading down to the sea. It was surrounded by similar mansions and it fit right in. Its construction and floor plan made sense to her. “We were doing it all wrong, Mrs. Winchester,” Lindsey smirked as she sipped her espresso and irish cream watching the mist from the waves crashing on the shore sparkle in the morning sun. “This is how it’s done.”
But then come those hot days. The dog days. Lindsey hates them still. When the air is thick and placid, and the edges of the world bend and sag. The kids stay inside. They say it’s for the heat, and it is, but they feel something else too. There’s a heaviness to the world, and a potency that hums in the woods across the road, and in the dark, damp places. It’s like magic burns at the horizon, waiting for a chance. And magic is a grievous thing.
Lindsey stays inside too. And sometimes she daydreams. She daydreams of a small, stuffed lion, and the strong hands of a handsome man, holding her close. His jeans are muddy and his sweaty hair steams in the air conditioned kitchen. She can’t quite make out his face, but he shines in the dazzling midday light. She thinks she loves him, or she could in another life. And sometimes she cries. She so desperately wants to reach out and pull close that wonderful dream that eludes her waking mind, so radiant and pure, there at the edge of memory.
She wishes the man hiding in that poignant and vanishing dream would hold her for real. She wishes she could see his face.
Gary missed the imaginary friends he used to have as a child in stately old Victorian home, with whom he would spend the nights making up scary stories and whispering beneath the plush blankets until the morning rustling of his parents banished his friends to silence.
When he later learned the police pulled no fewer than a dozen bodies from the crawlspaces in between the walls of the old house, Gary wept with unfathomable grief, partly out of guilt for his complicity in the crimes, however unwittingly, and partly because even now, he missed the voices still.
Hell and the Hudson River
Shadows lay long in this part of the valley even in the bright sunlight. The rolling hills and rich forests, dappled with radiant reds and golds, are carved deep and foul with secrets and grief. But the same can surely be said of all places, if you know where to look. The river is wide, undulating, and perpetual, and it traces the landmarks and tragedies of the place, writing suffering and progress into the bones of the earth. It marches, endless, into the horizon beyond rolling hills and factories, deep woods and meadows, and whispers promises of anabasis, or perhaps oblivion.
Robert sat on the damp overhanging rocks, looking out over the Hudson River, beneath a sky thick with rolling clouds, solemn and umber. He watched a barge slowly motor down the Hudson by Pollepel Island, hazy in the distance, obscured by the air thick with humidity and smog.
“It’s gonna rain again today,” he thought. The path behind him was already marked with deep grooves from days of runoff. Water from previous days’ storms still pooled in the muddy boot prints that covered the trail. He tightened the straps on his backpack and sighed deeply.
He heard footsteps and laughter behind, slowly getting closer as what sounded like a couple of teenage girls crept slowly up the switchbacks that climbed to the precipice of the mountain above him. He was sitting about 20 feet off the trail at the base of a patch of thick barberry, so he doubted they would see him. It sounded like they were in their own world.
He wouldn’t normally be here on the Stillman trail. It was probably the most, or one of the most, popular hiking routes in the area. It ran through a low valley and then slowly carved back and forth up the side of the mountain until it summited Storm King and revealed unparalleled vistas looking up the river towards Newburgh and Beacon. Storm King wasn’t as tall as the less impressively named Butter Hill just behind it, but the views were better, and it was a centerpiece of all the regional guidebooks.
That meant it was touristy, and there wouldn’t be anything to find here. If Alice or, god forbid, her body (he wasn’t ready to admit that possibility yet) were anywhere near here, she would certainly have already been found, even if only by accident. He spent most of his time looking in the deeper woods and less trafficked places, from the Highlands to Black Rock. Who knows how far she might have wandered.
But still, sometimes he climbed Storm King anyway, even if just for the views, and to feel more like part of the world for a little while. But the views weren’t great today. The air was thick with the pending storm and the smoke belching from the factories of Newburgh and New Windsor. The clouds threatened the deluge. The trees swayed in the menacing wind that whistled across water and rocks. It felt like any moment that world might drown, and sometimes he wished it would just get it over with.
The girls behind him felt the blast of cold wind and turned back down the path. He listened to their voices recede.
“Yep, it’s definitely gonna rain.” He gnawed on a piece of beef jerky as he stood and stretched. Then he resumed the hike back to the summit for one last look at the Hudson valley before he descended back into the woods to continue the search for Alice.
The clouds above rolled and surged, solemn and umber.
Jenna pulled a heating pad from the microwave and it smelled like jasmine rice. She loved that smell. She wiped the moisture from the microwave with a rag and hung the rag back up on the handle of the dishwasher. The kitchen was small, but impeccably clean. Jenna made sure of that.
The apartment was one of the few things she could utterly control. She had lost so much, and in the aftermath of the catastrophe, she’d almost lost everything. Her old house was gone, but she didn’t need that much home, not anymore. It was just her now. She’d lost her old job, but she couldn’t afford to give those kinds of hours to work anymore. She had too many other responsibilities now. She’d lost… she shook off the thought. There was no purpose now in dwelling on all that she had lost. That was a luxury. And she didn’t have the time or space for luxuries.
She laid the heating pad on her couch and sank down onto it, feeling the warmth loosen the aches in her lower back, and looked at the clock. It was 8:30pm. Early for some, but she’d had a full day, and would have another tomorrow. She’d started with the Friends of the Library pancake breakfast fundraiser which had gone on a little longer than expected, and followed it up immediately with a board meeting of the local soup kitchen. She always liked to spend the afternoons on the weekends taking food to the homeless downtown if she could, but she wasn’t as young as she used to be, and all that walking tired her out, through bone and soul.
Tomorrow she’d promised to help shuttle some women to the clinic on behalf of the battered women’s shelter, and then there was the MADD meeting in the afternoon.
She sighed and sank into the heating pad. And she let herself drift, just for a moment. She let the tension ease and her mind went quiet. But a moment was all she could allow herself. Idle hands… so the saying goes. She knew that if she thought too hard, if she gave herself too much space, the world got brittle. And on that downward slide, that’s when things started to break.
She turned on the TV to the news. The ticker always seemed to be a catalog of human tragedy. She took her sleeping pill. “There’s so much wrong out there, always so many people who need help,” she thought to herself.
The heating pad cooled as she felt sleep overcoming her. “twelve days,” she thought as she drifted off into oblivion, “twelve days, don’t think too hard about it now.”
Eva woke with a mouth full of cotton and the familiar roaring hum in both her ears. She rolled out of bed and barely made it to the bathroom of her studio apartment before vomiting the remnants of last night’s excess into her toilet. She immediately brushed her teeth but tried not to look into the mirror. She didn’t want to see what it had to show her right now.
She walked back out into the apartment’s one room. He wasn’t there, he must have left already. What was his name? Max? No, but something like that.
“Shit, I hope he didn’t rob me,” she thought, but god knows what he would take. She walked around the room taking stock until she got to the end table by the bed and saw what was sitting there.
“Ugh, that’s even worse,” she muttered as she wandered off to make coffee, leaving the $100 in twenties pinned beneath the water glass.
She munched on some toast at the kitchen island while she waited for the room to stop spinning, and managed a small, spiteful, smirk. If only her mom could see her now.
Irving had owned his place on Main Street for thirty years. In some ways it was better now than it used to be. It was safer, and he made far more money than before. He did have to upgrade the bar’s lighting and put some work into a fancy new cocktail list but the newer clientele had deeper pockets to make it worth his while.
He could hardly complain about the receipts, but something about it rubbed him raw deep inside.
A couple sat across the room at one of his new booths prattling on about the ghost tour they were going to take and all the local legends they were reading about. But the history here was deep and real and Irving didn’t like to hear it trivialized.
He remembered that incident with those kids out on the highway in the pass when their car was sideswiped by the trucker who later blew a 1.2. There were ghost stories now about that haunted stretch of road, but Irving had been at that young boy’s christening, and he’d laid flowers on the casket. He didn’t find the ghost stories amusing in the slightest.
The couple laughed and ordered another round, with the love for each other rich in their eyes. Their smiles sparkled as they read about the echoes of a pain that wasn’t theirs to understand.
“It just isn’t right,” Irving thought. He’d been a good kid. “It just isn’t right.”
Robert leaned back up against the stone wall behind him. It was still raining, but the overhang above the ruined wall sheltered him somewhat. He poked at the smoldering mass in front of him with a stick and watched what little flames he could ever get started sputter and die. The whole world was wet to the bone. The trees bowed their heads in the deluge and the horizon bent with the weight of the outpouring. He wondered if anyone would see the flickers of his tiny fire from any of the surrounding peaks and think about him, but it wasn’t likely that anyone could see anything in this weather.
He gazed up at the cracking and dilapidated ramparts behind him.
Bannerman’s Castle was once an arms depot, but was long since abandoned and fallen into disrepair. It was the kind of place Robert, in another life, would have loved to have visited. It was now normally accessible only by guided tours due the danger inherent in the structure and the risk of further collapse.
Of course, no one was there to stop people like Robert from making the crossing, and he didn’t have time for the history lesson now. And he didn’t like old places and ruins like he used to. He found them foreboding.
He had searched the perimeter of the island for any signs. How in God’s name Alice could have made it out to Pollepel Island, he had no idea. But Robert wasn’t anything if not thorough. He had promised he would search every inch of the banks of the Hudson River and he would make good.
He had seen no signs, but it was now too dark to make the crossing back, so here he sat, futilely trying to keep his little fire going in whatever protection the fort offered from the pouring rain.
He looked back at the structure behind him.
Holes in the face of the castle yawned deep and black. Surely there would be shelter in there, but Robert was repulsed. He knew somehow, though he couldn’t say how, what lay in the depths of that place, old and stagnant.
There stood, against the wreckage, old rooms and causeways, shadowed with history. Robert feared them. Charred fireboxes anchored strong chimneys over which howled the foul winds. And a black mold crept along roofs and walls like grasping lichen. He imagined it twisting and writhing there in the dark places. He heard the voices there too, calling from deeper pits, where living men weren’t meant to hear, saying things living men were not built to understand or endure. The walls themselves whispered scorn and judgment. The place had eyes and they saw everything.
Somehow he knew of the darker things that lay hidden on this island, that tourists never got to see.
Robert shivered. Better to suffer the wind in the clean air. Tomorrow he would head back to the mainland. There wasn’t anything here. There was never anything here. But there were so many places left to search. These hills were awash in secrets.
The man next to Eva at the bar ordered them another round and kept telling his story about some dumb bullshit she couldn’t care less about. His hungry eyes were on her all night. She’d take his drinks, but there was no chance she was going home with this scumbag. She could see the tan line where his wedding ring usually sat. She knew this kind of man.
After her sister had died, her mom had spiraled into a deep well of grief and despair. Eva would have expected to be left more to her own devices, but the reality had been somehow worse. She was expected to be perfect, all on her own.
She kept up with her recitals and with her classes, but now with no room for error. “Just don’t add anything else to your mom’s plate,” was her dad’s running refrain, “she doesn’t need this right now.” That was Eva’s life. Don’t make waves. Don’t ever be a burden. Her mom was grieving and needed space, and no additional worries. But that went on for years.
Her dad gave them plenty of space, though. He spent lots of late nights at work. And Eva still remembers the day her mom dragged her out to find her dad in the seedy motel room with the waitress from TGI Friday’s. So much for “don’t ever be a burden.”
She had no idea where her dad was now, but her mom had poured all that anxiety and desperation onto her as well. Eva left at sixteen.
The thing about Indianapolis was that it was big enough to get lost in, it had no expectations, and it was very far from home. “Aren’t we all just so perfect now,” she thought as she sipped her margarita, and the drunk businessman watched her with leering eyes.
Robert had left Pollepel Island that morning and was snaking his way through the rain along the base of Storm King.
Suddenly, he realized he couldn’t remember the last day it didn’t rain. The clouds continued to pour their weight down on the world and it made Robert more and more uneasy as he threaded his way back through the park.
He passed a couple of hikers who had to be crazy to be out in this weather. They said nothing. After he passed one of them turned and looked back towards him in silence, then continued on.
Up above the Stillman trail merged with other paths and curved towards the trailheads up by route 9W. The world seemed darker and heavier than it should be. Roots grabbed at his boots and the mud tried to suck him down into the earth. But he had to keep going. He could never stop with the job unfinished.
But the rain… would the rain ever stop? The savage weight pressed down harder and harder upon him.
Jenna had kept her days busy, as she always did, with the fundraisers, the board meetings, and the volunteer cleanups. But time had wound down and the day was upon her. She could never avoid its inexorable march, no matter how much she fragmented her mind to deal with other people’s problems.
That’s how years work after all. It always comes back around.
She drove slowly, probably too slowly, up 9W. She knew where she had to go, but didn’t want to be there. She knew what crippled her inside, but never wanted to face it, so she did everything else she possibly could. If things were quiet, then you were alone with your thoughts, and that’s something that Jenna never permitted herself, except for one day a year.
So she drove slowly.
Dan stood at the floor to ceiling windows and watched the rain dance off the panes, blurring the city lights around him. A woman slept on the bed in the room behind him. Not a wife, he would never allow that, he’d hurt too many people, but he didn’t want to be alone.
He’d moved halfway around the world to hide from his problems and his failings, but the problem with running is that you take yourself with you, and if you’re the cause of your own grief, there’s nowhere you can run.
He took a sip of his whiskey and stared down at his phone in his hand. It was the anniversary of his daughter’s death, and he thought he should call someone. He did this dance every year. He could never call his ex-wife. He’d hurt her too badly with his betrayal, and she was now married to her own grief and pain and wouldn’t want to hear from him in any case. He’d tried that one year, in a drunken stupor, and she’d hung up as soon as she heard his voice.
He sometimes wished he could call Eva, but he didn’t even know how. He knew she’d left home, but she left no trace. He thought of her, and hoped she’d found some happiness. And he thought of Alice, bleeding to death in the rain at the bottom of that ditch, alone and scared.
He wished that he had stayed, but he couldn’t endure that place any longer, and he knew that made him weak. But there was something dark in those woods. It haunted him when he heard the whispers in the trees at night.
“Maybe we’re all alone in the end after all,” he thought, and took another sip.
Robert rejoined the proper trail, something he rarely did. He knew there was nothing to find on trails, but the weight pressed down so hard he could barely see, and the rain thickened. The trees bent and swayed and Robert pushed forward toward what felt like the end of grief and epiphany.
Jenna parked her car at the parking area at the trailhead that led out to Butter Hill. She took her time. It was sunny today, but cold. Not like that night when they’d had the storm.
She got out of the car and surveyed the hills surrounding the crest. They were ancient and timeless. She found some comfort in that. Things were here before that day and they endured after. They would endure after she and everyone she knew slept in their graves. At least something would.
She brushed some gravel with her foot and looked at the road and the parking area. The tire skids from the truck were long gone. So was the broken glass and the blood splatter. She remembered what they looked like though. She projected her memory onto the world around her. She could almost hear the sirens and smell the smoldering rubber. She walked to the ridge at the edge of the parking lot and looked down.
There was a protective barrier there. It had been there that day too, but it hadn’t been strong enough. She saw the wreckage, what was left of it, at the base of the hill. It hadn’t been worth it to bring it all up. It was now old and rusted with age.
Her son had been parked next to the ridge with his girlfriend in the passenger seat. She knew some of the kids drove up here to make out, and she pretended she didn’t know what he was doing. He said she was the one, but young lovers always think that.
It had been raining that day, and the trucker had been drinking. When he skidded out on the turn, he hit the back of the station wagon and the car punched through the barrier and plummeted into the ravine below. They said her son died instantly on impact. But she still thought about that poor girl dying in the rain at the base of the hill, and she began to cry. She wept for the lost lives, and all the time she lost with her son. She wept for the way the cracks spread throughout her town. She wept for the trucker, even though he didn’t deserve it. She leaned over the barricade and cried with deep, heaving sobs. She only allowed herself that one day a year, so she needed to get the most of it.
Robert emerged from the darkness at the base of the trailheads and felt a chill cut through him to the bone. The rain poured down.
Above he saw the barrier that stood between the park and the highway above. Leaning over it he saw a woman crying, and for a moment, he thought he knew her, so he called out. Her head lifted for a moment and she looked around, but she probably couldn’t hear him in this rain. But then he saw the car, and that pushed all other thoughts from his mind.
The station wagon lay burning in the rain at the base of the hill, and Robert could hear the roaring sounds of twisting metal and smashing glass. The air smelled like burning diesel and ozone. There was a broken and plaintive cry coming from the car and he sprinted as fast as he could through the rain and mud to the passenger door, and there he saw her.
Alice lay in the twisted wreckage. Her right arm was broken and pinned beneath the collapsed driver’s side of the car. Her legs were crushed where the rear seats had folded over. Blood dripped out of the corner of her mouth as she screamed in the darkness, until she saw his face.
He couldn’t speak and felt frozen in place. All this time he’d spent looking, and all he could do was stare in misery and terror at his beloved Alice. They had planned to spend eternity together.
She turned to look at him as she bled out, and gave the slightest of smiles. She reached up with her one good arm and brushed his cheek with her fingertips, and then the light left her eyes.
Robert jumped to his feet and stumbled backwards into the woods. The rain and darkness swirled around him while he gasped for air, but he found only emptiness. He tried to cry out, but was greeted with nothing but silence. He slipped over a small hill behind him and hit his head on the way down into the pit.
Jenna had composed herself by the time she got home. A shadow had passed over while she wept above the car, and for a moment she thought she heard her Robert. It wasn’t the first time, and maybe that was why on this day she always came back. It offered the potential for the slightest connection, or a hint at what was lost.
But only once a year, that’s all she could abide. It was 365 days now, and there was so much to do. She heated up a heating pad and the apartment smelled of jasmine rice. She sat on her couch and turned on the news ticker. There were so many people that needed help. She didn’t have the luxury of prolonged grief.
Tomorrow she was helping out the girl scouts with a cookie sale. She popped her sleeping pill. She would need her rest.
Eva went home alone that night, but still plenty drunk.
She sat by the small window in her kitchen with a glass of gin and looked out on the city. It was cold and anonymous. Just like she liked it. It had no expectations. She could be sad whenever and wherever she wanted, and that was a sick sort of liberation.
She looked down at her phone. No missed calls, though she didn’t expect any. Still, the anniversary was always hard. Sometimes she wished someone would call, but what would she say? She missed Alice so deeply. And sometimes she even missed her mom and her dad. But the rot had set in too deeply there, and there was no coming back.
Robert woke up in a small depression not far from the trailheads and set to making camp coffee. He didn’t remember going to bed here, but sometimes everything in the woods started to look the same.
The sun was bright today, but he noticed that the shadows still lay long in the valley, and the clouds were starting to gather on the horizon. “It’s probably gonna rain later today,” he thought. But that was okay, he could handle a little rain.
He knew Alice was somewhere in these woods, and he would find her. They were destined to be together, they had made a promise. They had promised eternity.
He knew she was somewhere in these woods and he would search every inch of the Hudson River until he found her.
He would take all the time he needed.