THE SEER OF POSSIBILITIES AND OTHER DISTURBING TALES
The Seer of Possibilities and The Perfectly Behaved Boy – A Dark Christmas Tale Copyright 2015 by Thomas O.
All other stories copyright 2016 by Thomas O.
I would like to thank my wife and the members of my family for their continued support in all aspects of my life. I would also like to thank the administrator and moderators over at creepypasta.com. Their hard work and dedication is one of the driving forces the keeps the community alive and vibrant.
Sometimes, otherworldly beings find interesting ways to try and contact you. They might use a Ouija Board, or maybe come to you in a dream, or sometimes they speak through another person. They each have their own style and preference that’s particular to them. The one who contacted Jack spoke to him through his computer, or, I guess you could say the communication was through onscreen text. The first time it happened, Jack had been sitting at his computer playing solitaire. A blinking red light from the router indicated that his internet connection was down again. This was at least a weekly occurrence, and Jack was getting used to this spotty internet service. As he moved his cards, the game faded into a solid black screen and the red text appeared.
Hi Jack, I need a favor from you. You’re a very special person and I know you’ll help me. I can’t ask this of just anyone.
Jack paused for a second. The router light was still blinking red. “Is this some sort of joke?” he couldn’t help but wonder. Several moments later the message continued.
Yes Jack, I know this is weird for you. But I don’t want you to worry. This is just a small, easy favor I need. I’ll make sure you’re rewarded.
Now nearly in a panic, Jack reached around and pulled the internet cable completely from the wall.
Still here, Jack. I don’t want to waste any more of your time so I’ll get right to what I need. Tomorrow when you go to work I need you to move the large potted plant that’s next to the elevator on the ground floor. All you have to do is pull it out three inches from the wall. If you do it at 8:17 a.m., nobody else will be in the area.
Jack sat there, refusing to respond, still trying to figure out what was happening. The writing continued.
Look Jack, I’m asking you because I KNOW you’ll do it. You won’t let me down. You’re special. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Jack pulled the power cord from the wall and the computer went blank. “Did that really just happen?” he thought.
Still shaking from the experience, he took a warm shower and got ready for bed, convincing himself that he’d either had some crazy dream or that it was just some elaborate joke. But who would play that kind of prank on him? He didn’t really have friends, or enemies.
He woke up the next morning feeling refreshed. Work would start at 8:30 a.m., and Jack was never late. He pulled into the parking lot at 8:10 a.m. Normally he would have just gone right in, but the message had told him to move the plant at 8:17. Was he really going to do it? Overnight, Jack’s fear had turned into curiosity. Let’s say he moved the plant, he wouldn’t be doing anything wrong or illegal, right? In Jack’s mind, the most reasonable course of action was to move the plant. He’d do it, nothing would happen, and he’d be able to put the whole crazy matter behind him. One minute before 8:17, Jack left his car and walked towards the building. He entered the foyer at the exact time he was supposed to. The message was right, nobody else was around.
“Odd,” Jack thought. The building was normally busy this time of morning, but this temporary lull had been accurately predicted.
“Fine! Let’s see what happens,” Jack muttered to himself.
He walked up to the large potted plant placed firmly between the two elevators in the lobby of the ten story building. The plant looked like it was fake, a decoration people passed every day without really noticing. It was heavier than Jack realized. He put some might into his effort and pulled the plant out three inches to his best estimate. He stood back and looked at the plant, then glanced around the lobby. People were coming in behind him and the lobby was starting to fill up again. Nobody seemed to notice the plant was in a slightly different location. Nothing seemed different at all. Jack skipped the next elevator and waited, waited for… something. But nothing happened. Finally Jack entered the elevator and made it to his seventh floor cubicle, on time like always.
If you ever asked Jack’s coworkers to describe him, you’d hear words like polite, quiet, respectful, and competent. And while those words were all accurate, they gave little indication of the truth, the truth that Jack really didn’t like most people. That’s not to say he disliked them, just that he had very little interest in getting to know them or being their friend, save for one. Allie, the girl who sat two cubicles down from him, was the only person he wanted to know more about. With her big smile, blonde hair, and beautiful figure, Jack was very interested in learning all about her. Despite his lack of success with women in the past, he was actually doing a fair job getting to know her. Every morning as he passed her cubicle he’d stop for a chat. The chats were one minute at first, then two minutes, then several minutes. Jack was surprised that she actually seemed to like him.
On that particular morning, their daily conversation lasted only a couple of minutes. As they exchanged their morning greetings and talked about Allie’s wild night out, the elevator doors opened up behind them. Out hobbled James Bentley, the boss of both Jack and Allie.
James’ loud complaining could be heard throughout the office, “My damn foot!”
“What happened, James?” came the mumbled queries.
“It’s that damn plant they have in the lobby. I ran right into it and twisted my ankle.”
“James, you can barely walk. You need to go to the hospital,” came Allie’s concerned reply.
“Can’t do it now. I have meetings all day. Too important to cancel. I’ll just have to tough it out.”
Jack, feeling stunned, left Allie’s cubicle mid-conversation and sunk down into his chair. It was his fault, he was sure of it. How could he have been so stupid and careless? Still, there was no use in worrying about it. A twisted ankle would heal, everything would be all right.
Upon his return home, Jack went immediately to his computer and turned it on. As soon as the computer booted up, the screen went black and a new message popped up.
How was your day, Jack?
He sat there, staring at the screen, not knowing how to answer. The message continued.
Actually, I know how your day was, but never let it be said that I’m not polite. You’re wondering what’s going on. You want to know why James Bentley had to twist his ankle. Well Jack, this chain of events isn’t done playing out. I don’t want to tell you too much too soon, but this will all make sense to you in short order. Just go to work tomorrow like you normally do. Don’t worry about a thing Jack. You’ll be rewarded. You’re special. Talk to you tomorrow.
Jack sat back in his chair. What was going on? Who was sending him messages? Jack’s curiosity was fully engaged, and he was almost a bit excited to see what would happen next.
The next morning at work started off as any ordinary day. Jack noticed that the plant had been pushed back fully against the wall, probably by the night cleaning crew. James Bentley showed up shortly after lunch, hobbling into the office on his one good foot. “Man this foot is killing me,” Jack overheard him say, but apparently James still had a meeting he didn’t want to miss. It wasn’t until around 3 o’clock that Jack saw him again. James, who always seemed to prefer Allie over others, came limping up to her cubicle.
“Allie, you’re not doing anything right now, are you?”
“Um, no. Nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow I guess.”
“Good, could you please drive me to see my doctor? I probably should’ve gone yesterday, but I just couldn’t get away. This pain is just killing me right now and I don’t think I can drive myself, I barely made it here this morning and I don’t think I can even push the gas pedal right now. We can take my car if you want.”
“Yeah that’s fine James, I don’t have a problem taking you.” Turning to Jack she said her goodbye. “See you tomorrow, Jackie.” She put on her coat and slowly followed James as he struggled down the hallway. She gave a half turn and a shrug in Jack’s direction, and with a little smile she walked away. Jack felt even lonelier than normal when she was gone.
It was ten minutes later that they all heard the crash. It was preceded by the loud horn of an eighteen-wheeler and screeching brakes. The collision itself was a sickening thud of two large metal objects slamming into one another. Even on the seventh floor it was loud. The office workers gasped and ran to the windows.
“Is that James’ car?” one of them asked.
“Hard to tell from up here,” someone responded, “It’s so banged up.”
The horrifying implication of what had just happened came to Jack immediately. “No, no, no,” he thought. “This can’t be true.”
Shaking all the way, he ran to the elevator and went to the ground floor along with several others from the office. Some of them were crying. As they joined the growing crowd around the scene of the accident, Jack could hear the far off sound of emergency sirens. Looking past the gawkers, he could see that the eighteen-wheeler had hit James’ car broadside, its driver had been thrown out onto the pavement where he lay lifeless. James was sitting in the passenger seat of his car, motionless but with a surprised look on his bloody face. Jack couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. The driver’s side, where Allie was seated, had taken the hit. The space she’d been occupying had been compacted to a third of its original size. Allie’s head was smashed open and her twisted body was broken and battered. The crowd was stunned. Crying, screams, sirens – that was all Jack could hear. Without going back inside the building, he ran to his car and drove home, angry and sad.
He made the journey home and to his computer. There the machine sat, he wanted to turn it on, but was afraid of what he’d find out. Was he really the one responsible for Allie’s death? The whole chain of events had started with him. He knew he was to blame. Jack reached for the power button, and then pulled his hand back. Finally, after several minutes, he found the mental strength to turn it on. The screen flickered and then went black, and the familiar text started appearing on the screen.
No Jack, it’s not your fault. I know you’re blaming yourself, but all people die eventually, some just sooner than others.
Jack stared at the screen. He resisted the urge to throw the monitor to the ground. After a moment, the writing continued.
Jack, I’m going to tell you something, and I really need you to seriously consider everything I’m about to say. You thought you were in love with Allie. The truth is, you just wanted to fuck her. And please excuse my language, but every once in a great while it’s best to be blunt. Jack, she wasn’t the one for you. She would’ve made your life miserable. Yes, you would’ve eventually found the courage to ask her out. She actually was interested in you. She thought you’d make a good “project.” Sad really, for her, not for you. I want you to think back to all the things she told you. Why did her last boyfriend break up with her?
“Because she cheated on him,” Jack mumbled under his breath.
Because she cheated on him, Jack. The same thing she would’ve done to you. She would’ve made you happy for about two months, and then miserable for the next four years. Sneaking around, laughing at you behind your back, spending all your money. Once you finally got rid of her, you would’ve been so jaded that you would’ve never dated again. This is true Jack. I see all future possibilities, the ones that come to pass and the ones that don’t. You’ve seen how she really is Jack, but you let your lust for her blind you to the truth. Together, you and I have made sure you avoided that path. One more thing Jack, this isn’t done playing out yet. There’s more to come.
“No! Fuck you! You killed her!” Jack screamed and threw the monitor from the desk. It landed on the floor and sparked out.
Jack got barely any sleep that night, and the next day he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to work, but the last words he’d been told had piqued his curiosity, and his anger had somewhat subsided. No work was done that day at the office. The company brought in grief counselors, people shared their thoughts, they cried, they hugged. James had actually survived the accident, but was in a coma. The doctors thought he might recover eventually, but nobody was really sure.
Late in the afternoon, Jack was approached by Diego Salbara, the head of the division. Diego was blunt and upfront, and he offered James’ position to Jack. Technically it would be a temporary promotion, but James wouldn’t be back any time soon. Diego promised him that the promotion would be made permanent once enough time had passed.
“Let’s keep this low-key for now,” Diego told him. “I know it might seem quick, but the Lancaster project James was working on can’t be stopped. It’s too important to the company, and I need someone in charge right away.”
Stunned, Jack accepted the promotion. He left work with a strange mixture of feelings, not really sure how he felt about anything. On his way home, he stopped at the electronics store and bought a new monitor. He made it home and powered up the computer. Once again the writing came on the screen.
Jack, I want to be the first one to congratulate you! I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished.
Jack stared at the screen.
Jack, I have to ask your forgiveness, because I haven’t introduced myself yet. I’m called the Seer. Like I told you before, I see what will be, and I see what can be. It’s a very powerful gift I have. But you know what, Jack? For all my power, I still can’t do anything corporeal. I can predict, I can see, and with enough effort, I can even communicate. But I don’t have a body, that’s something that was taken from me a long, long time ago. That’s why I need you Jack. I’m an artist of sorts, an artist of human manipulation. You’ll be my paintbrush and my canvas. I want you to work with me Jack. It’s all very simple, just perform easy tasks for me, from time to time.
Jack was becoming more and more curious.
And Jack, before you give me an answer, I want you to know a couple of things. First off, I’ll never lie to you. Secondly, I’ll never ask you to do anything which, taken by itself, is wrong or illegal. Yes, bad things will result, and sometimes people will die. But they’re going to die eventually anyways, right Jack? And the bad will always be balanced out by something good happening to you.
Jack winced at this last idea, but he fought the urge to turn the computer off. The Seer was right. Everyone would die eventually, why not let something good come of it? And what about never lying to him? If he’d known at the time that Allie was going to die, he’d have never gone through with the original favor. But as he thought more about it, he realized the Seer hadn’t lied to him, but had only withheld information. Still, Jack wondered if he could trust the Seer.
Work with me Jack, together we’ll make incredible things happen. I’m just asking you to perform little tasks from time to time. Oh, but these little tasks will have great consequences! They’re going to be beautiful Jack, and they’ll always end with a reward for you. That’s the beauty of my art, one single task produces something bad and something good. Oh, one last thing Jack, I can see you’re having trouble with this. If I stopped talking to you right now, it would take you about two weeks to decide to join me. But you know what Jack, you WOULD join me. That’s right, you’re going to say yes. So instead of waiting, why don’t you just say yes to me now? Let’s get started Jack. And when all this is over, you’re going to thank me. I promise you.
Jack considered what the Seer had just said. His initial feeling of revolt was slowly fading. He paused, and then for the first time, he placed his fingers on the keyboard and responded directly to the Seer. “What do you want me to do next?”
As years passed, Jack did every favor the Seer asked of him, and as the Seer had promised, Jack was rewarded for his actions each time. The rewards often came in unexpected and interesting ways. One of the more memorable experiences for Jack happened about two years after he first agreed to help the Seer.
Jack, I need you to go downtown tomorrow. Enter Garmin’s Liquor at exactly 12:37 p.m. A man will ask you a question. The answer you’re to give him is ‘twenty-seven.’
As always, the Seer’s instructions were simple and direct, yet mysterious. The next day, as requested, Jack entered the store. In front of him, a burly construction worker was at the counter filling out a lottery play-slip.
“Let’s see here,” said the construction worker, “My birthday, that’s the 15th, my wife’s birthday, that’s the 24th, and my kids’ ages, two, ten and thirteen.”
The man scratched his head and looked around, zeroing in on Jack. “Hey buddy! I need another number. Ya got one for me?”
Jack smiled, “Twenty seven.”
“Really? I was thinkin’ bout playin’ thirty five. But ya know what? I like your face, let’s go with twenty seven!”
With that, the man completed his slip and paid for his lottery ticket. “See ya, pal!” he said happily as he patted Jack on the shoulder on his way out the door.
Jack tried not to put any more thought into what would happen to this man. “Just let these things play out, Jack,” the Seer had advised him. “You’ll never guess how things end up, so just let yourself be surprised.” Still, it was impossible not to wonder about these things from time to time. He knew, considering the way the Seer worked, there was no way possible that he’d actually helped the man. But giving him a losing lottery number? That was too simple for the Seer. And he couldn’t imagine he’d actually given him a winning number. So that’s how Jack was surprised, when two weeks later, he ran into the same man again, this time at the grocery store.
“Hey buddy! It’s you! I remember you! Check it out, I won!” Indeed, the man looked like a million dollars. Wearing new clothes, a new gold watch, and a big goofy smile, the man walked right up to Jack.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again, but I’m glad you’re here. I coulda never won without you. Hey, lemme buy these groceries for you. No wait, that’s not good enough for you, you’re my good luck charm. Always gotta treat people right, that’s what my mom says.”
Reaching into his pocket, the man removed his checkbook and promptly wrote Jack a check for ten thousand dollars. “It’s the least I can do for my good luck charm.”
After thanking the man, and feeling a bit confused by the whole thing, Jack raced home to his computer. After turning it on, the Seer’s writing appeared on the screen.
Well Jack, how does it feel to be ten thousand dollars richer?
“It feels good. But I can’t help but wonder, we’ve never helped anyone before. Why are we starting now?” Jack asked that question with a tinge of guilt. He never liked to admit that people were being hurt by his actions, but in this case his curiosity overwhelmed any latent feelings of guilt.
Oh Jack, we haven’t helped anyone. Yes, that man is happy now, but he’ll have lost every last penny within two years. You saw it for yourself, he just gives money away. Old friends, lost relatives, they’re all going to come asking him for handouts. And there will be some very bad investments as well. The stress of losing everything is going to cause his wife to leave him. She’ll take the kids too. He’ll be alone and broke, a ruined man who would have been much better off if he’d never won. You needn’t feel bad Jack, it’s the man’s own stupidity and greed that will do this to him.
Jack felt some regret, but the Seer’s rationalizing, and focusing on his own reward, always put him at peace in the end.
Through the years, no two tasks were ever alike. Sometimes the effects of his actions were direct and easy to see. Other times, they caused a chain reaction so complex that he simply could not follow it.
Go to the County Administrator’s building, park in space number forty-three at 4:47 p.m.
Jack did so, and two months later he met Donna, with whom he fell in love and ended up marrying. He wouldn’t have even known the two events were even related if he hadn’t asked the Seer about it.
Jack, when you parked in that space, you caused the person who would’ve parked there to choose a different spot, but she bumped the car next to her. She barely made a scratch, but she called her insurance agent anyway, causing him to leave the office late. He missed his train home, and while waiting for the late train, he was mugged and stabbed. He’ll never fully recover. The muggers took his credit cards and used them… and Jack, I could keep going with this, but there’s another twenty-three people involved. Sometimes these favors are going to be very complicated, but let’s just say your action ultimately caused Donna to be in the exact right place for you to meet her.
Jack’s relationship with the Seer grew. Though remaining mostly mysterious, the Seer divulged enough information over time so that Jack could get a generalized understanding of the Seer’s history. From historical references, Jack knew the Seer was thousands of years old. When still alive, the Seer had been a powerful fortune teller and artist, who foretold future happenings through paintings. A foolish king, who misinterpreted the Seer’s prediction and lost a battle as a result, had the Seer executed. Unencumbered by physical senses, and existing in a lonesome void, the Seer’s abilities expanded exponentially. Finally learning to communicate with the living, the Seer began reaching out to those who would respond, including Jack. And of course, the Seer knew everything about Jack. In all, it was as much of a friendship as one can have with a dead person. And Jack was grateful to the Seer too. He had a nice job, a nice house, a beautiful wife, and people respected him. He was happy, which is something he never really felt before the Seer contacted him.
Twelve years in total passed, twelve good years for Jack. Many tasks were completed, usually about one every month. Jack, sitting in the office of his large rural house, was contacted by the Seer once again.
Hi Jack, I have a favor to ask of you. This one’s the easiest yet, you don’t even have to get up. Call Riago’s Pizza in exactly two minutes, let the phone ring three times, then you can hang up.
Jack smiled, nice and easy. He no longer wondered about how these tasks would play out. He trusted the Seer and simply did as he was told. Jack made the call, exactly two minutes later.
The quietness of the household was broken thirty minutes later by the ringing doorbell.
“That’s odd,” Jack thought. Neither he nor Donna were expecting anyone. Jack looked out the peephole and saw a pizza delivery boy. The logo on his cap said “Riago’s Pizza”.
Jack opened the door. “Here’s your pizza,” said the boy as he thrust it into Jack’s hand.
“But I didn’t order this.” Jack argued.
“Look, I don’t give a damn if you ordered it or not. Mr. Riago told me to take it here, so that’s what I’m doing,” the delivery boy argued as he became increasingly annoyed.
Jack looked at the boy in front of him. He looked to be about seventeen years old, but the most noticeable thing about him was his size, he was huge. Probably about six and a half feet tall, and very muscular.
“It’s already paid for by credit card, just take it, because I’m not driving it back.” The boy put out his hand for a tip.
“I, I don’t have any cash on me.” Jack told the truth.
“Whatever,” came the disgusted reply. The boy looked past Jack into the house, then turned and walked slowly to his waiting car, looking over his shoulder as he left.
Jack closed the door and took the pizza to the living room where Donna was watching TV. After explaining what had happened, he excused himself to go to his office, promising to return shortly.
Donna opened the pizza and took a piece. “Come back soon sweetie, this pizza’s got all your favorite toppings on it.” Donna giggled as she took a bite.
Arriving at his computer, the Seer’s words appeared on the screen.
Confused, Jack? Don’t be. Your neighbor down the road ordered the pizza. Mr. Riago told that boy the correct address, but a ringing phone made it difficult for him to be heard clearly. Still, give the boy credit, he got the street right at least.
“So my reward is a pizza?” Jack typed, a little confused.
Yes Jack, your reward is a pizza, and also the chance to spend a little time with your wife. Go down there, share the pizza, enjoy it. When you’re done, make love to Donna. That’s not one of your tasks, that’s just some advice I think you should follow. Oh, by the way, your neighbors who ordered the pizza are arguing right now, over the silly fact that the pizza didn’t arrive. Some of the things people argue over amaze me, they really do. Their fight is going to get very heated, but you don’t need to worry about that. Go, enjoy your night.
Jack followed the Seer’s advice, cuddled with Donna as they enjoyed their meal, then made love to her on their big, comfortable living room couch. Donna fell asleep on the couch shortly after 11:00 p.m. Jack lay there awake, this latest favor, it just felt odd. Carefully extracting his arm from under Donna, Jack left the living room and headed upstairs. Sitting down at the computer, Jack typed, “Are you there?”
Yes Jack, I’m actually always here. I’ve been waiting for you to come back. That pizza delivery boy. He’s quite a specimen, isn’t he?
Jack looked quizzically at the screen while the Seer continued.
He’s a horrible employee. He was hired only three days ago and already Mr. Riago wants to fire him, but as a physical specimen, he’s strong, fast, and VERY observant. For example, he noticed that you didn’t lock the front door after he delivered your pizza.
“What?” Jack said aloud as he started to get up.
Sit down Jack. I need to tell you something important, and locking the door now won’t change your situation.
Jack slowly took his seat again at the computer, looking behind himself as he did so.
[_ You see Jack, it’s true that I never lied to you. Everything I’ve ever told you is 100% honest. But yes, I’ve withheld certain facts. You see, I told you that every task causes something bad to happen to someone else and something good to happen to you, but there’s a third thing. There’s an ultimate goal that each task was working toward. Remember Allie? Of course you do. What you probably don’t remember about her is that she was helping to pay her brother’s way through college. When she died, he had to drop out. He was going to be a great psychologist, but now he works in a factory instead. That’s really too bad for our pizza delivery boy. He could’ve used a good therapist a few years ago, but that good therapist wasn’t there for him. Instead, he got some Freudian quack. And remember our lottery winner? Yes you do. He was a neighbor to our pizza boy, after he lost all his money of course. He beat the boy senseless after the boy jumped into the street in front of his car. Quite a traumatic memory for our young lad. And his mother didn’t care about that incident, didn’t protect the boy at all. She couldn’t, not after using all the drugs given to her by her boyfriend, who happened to be one of the muggers who robbed that insurance agent. He bought the drugs with the money he made from the robbery. Do you see now the scope of my artistry? _]
Jack sat, glaring at the monitor. He wanted to get up, to check on Donna, but he was too scared to move.
Jack, you’ve done over a hundred tasks for me, and each one has served an ultimate purpose, to psychologically destroy this boy, turn him into a monster, and to bring him here tonight. Don’t you see Jack? This involved tens of thousands of people, and billions of possibilities. If you had failed to complete even one of the tasks, the whole chain would’ve collapsed. This was orchestrated by me, and set in motion by you. Together we’ve done something wonderful, this is a masterpiece of human manipulation. Our masterpiece. And it all begins and ends with you, two perfect points in time. Tonight, wrong address, no tip, this poor boy finally snapped. He’s downstairs right now. He’s slitting Donna’s throat, at this exact moment.
Jack could hear a short, muffled scream coming from the living room, followed by a gurgling noise.
“No!” Jack screamed and stood up, starting to run downstairs.
“Jack, stop!” The voice startled Jack. It was inside his head. For the first time, the Seer was talking to him directly. It was a pleasant voice, a feminine voice. “You can’t do anything, she’s already gone. He’ll be coming for you shortly, and you can’t stop him.”
“But why?” Jack cried with tears welling up in his eyes.
“It’s not an artistic masterpiece if it doesn’t begin and end with you, Jack.” Her voice was soothing. “I want you to appreciate the fact that I’m talking to you directly. This requires all of my energy, and as a result, I’ll have to rest for several years before I can contact anyone again. That’s how special you are to me. Please don’t feel bad about this, Jack. I want you to take a moment and enjoy our accomplishment as much as I do.” The voice paused briefly, and then continued. “Do you know what Jack? If I’d never contacted you, you would have lived for eighty-five years. Eighty-five boring, meaningless, and bitter years. And when you died, nobody would’ve been at your funeral. I gave you twelve great, meaningful years. You were happy, and together we did something beautiful, something unique.”
Jack paused a minute and considered his twelve years of happiness, and his tears of sorrow mixed with tears of joy. He turned and looked at the computer, while behind him, the massive hulk of the demented delivery boy appeared in the doorway, a bloody knife in his left hand.
On the screen, the last words from the Seer appeared.
Don’t you have something to say to me, Jack?
Jack wiped his tears and absorbed everything the Seer had just told him. As the hulk started stepping closer to him, Jack mouthed his final words, “Thank you.”
The two college students, Shelly Hester and Mona Darling, got off at the wrong bus stop and ended up at Mr. Videre’s place completely by accident. They’d been trying to find a used record store someone had told them about, and they would’ve been successful if only they’d gotten off on 6th Street, but they didn’t. Maybe they missed their stop because Mona was too busy applying her crimson lipstick, or maybe the friends simply weren’t paying enough attention. Regardless, the girls stayed on the bus for one stop too many and found themselves to be someplace they hadn’t planned on.
As the bus departed, the girls stood along the unfamiliar street, still unaware that they’d gotten off at the wrong place. Mona, who’d recently developed a preference for listening to music on old-style vinyl records, attempted to justify their trip into unfamiliar territory. “If you really want to hear music in its purest form, then vinyl is the best way.”
“You’ve said that three times today already. And anyway, since when do you care about purity?” Shelly responded.
Mona ignored the question. “Hmm, where’s the record shop at?” she asked while slowly surveying the area.
Both girls quickly realized their mistake. The part of town in which they found themselves was an older, quieter section of the city. There was no record store in the area. Instead, dirty facades of mostly empty businesses lined up along the street.
Shelly pointed to a small building at the end of the way, the last among a row of stores. Its red brick construction made it look older and more mysterious than the other buildings in the area. She assumed that it must have been a business of some sort, but there was no outside signage to indicate what was sold on the inside.
The allure of the uncommon structure proved to be too strong for Shelly, who pointed in its direction. “Let’s see what that is. It looks like a funky little store.”
Mona disagreed with her friend. “It’s not the record shop, and we don’t have time for anything else. If we wait here for the next bus we might still make it before closing.”
“It’ll be quick!” Shelly shouted over her shoulder as she walked briskly towards the brick building.
She walked alone, becoming more worried with every step that Mona wouldn’t follow her, but eventually she heard her friend running to catch up. Shelly turned and waited, and she took the opportunity to stealthily focus on the curves of Mona’s hips. Her gaze slowly shifted upwards towards Mona’s beautiful crimson lips, but she averted her eyes before her friend could notice the lustful look.
Though there was no signage on the outside of the building, a hand-written OPEN sign was propped up on the window sill. The two girls glanced at the sign, shrugged their shoulders, and entered. The first thing they saw was a stack of books, and then even more books behind that first stack. Some books were newer, but many appeared to be quite old. Stepping through aisles of piled volumes, the girls took note of the aged tomes.
“Check out how old some of these are,” Mona said as she pointed at a particularly dusty book.
Their moment of awe was suddenly interrupted by a voice of a middle aged man who had entered from a back room. “Hello. Welcome to my home.”
“Did he say this was his home?” Shelly wondered to herself.
The girls’ eyes darted around, looking for some indication as to the true nature of the place they were in. It was at that point that Shelly noticed there was no cash register, no signs on the walls, and no price tags on anything. Most of the books were distributed along uneven shelves and on the tops of tables. The more that Shelly looked, the more evident it became that the books weren’t displayed in a manner that suggested they were for sale. Still, it was clear that the original builders of the structure had intended for it to be a store, and then there was the OPEN sign in the window.
Shelly spat out an apology. “We’re sorry sir. We didn’t know this was someone’s home. It’s just that it looks like a store from the outside.”
The man spoke again, and his calm voice put the girls at ease. “It’s okay. You’re not the first people to make that mistake, and I’m sure you won’t be the last.”
Attempting to expand her friend’s explanation, Mona pointed at the window. “And the sign said we could come in.”
“Yes,” the man replied. “I confess that I put that out sometimes. I enjoy visitors. You’re both welcome to stay and look around.” The man studied the girls for a moment. “I noticed the way you girls seem to be admiring these books. You must have a true appreciation for the written word. Tell me, are either of you writers?
Mona raised her hand in acknowledgment, “I am, or at least I’d like to be. My name is Mona.”
“Hello Mona, my name is Mr. Videre. I have some rare books here that you might find interesting.” As he spoke, Mona became enraptured with his voice. The girl who had initially resisted the trip to the red brick building quickly found herself wanting to stay.
Shelly wanted to stay and look around too, and though she wasn’t quite as taken with the man as Mona seemed to be, she decided immediately that he had a trustworthy quality about him.
“Many of these are early editions of well known stories,” he said to the girls. Then addressing Shelly directly, he added, “There are some photography books over in the corner you might enjoy.”
Shelly wondered how the man knew that she was interested in photography, but she was too distracted by the treasure in front of her to question it further.
The girls spent the next several hours looking through the books in amazement. Mona even missed her evening writing class, which was unheard of for her. As the night progressed, Shelly noticed Mona directing subtle flirtations towards Mr. Videre. She found it to be odd; Mr. Videre was a handsome gentleman to be sure, but not in a way that Shelly found romantic.
It was late when they finally left Mr. Videre’s place, too late for the busses to still be running. Mr. Videre insisted on paying for a taxi for them, with the friendly caveat that they come and visit him the next day.
“Let me see some of your writing,” he said to Mona as he escorted her to the door. “Bring me a sample when you visit tomorrow. I’m interested in seeing what you have to tell the world.”
Mona reached into her pocket and pulled out her smartphone, “I can show you some now!”
“No no, Mona,” Mr. Videre’s silken voice protested. “I want to see your writing printed out, on real paper. If you do that for me, then I’ll show you my other collection.” As he spoke, he put an emphasis on the word other, as if what he’d already showed them wasn’t fantastic.
Mona giggled. “Okay, I’ll bring it tomorrow.”
The girls could barely contain their excitement during the cab ride home.
“He’s so nice,” Shelly complimented.
Mona agreed. “And sexy too. I’ve never been attracted to an older man before, but there’s just something about the way he…” She thought for a moment, “…about the way he everythings!”
It was at that point where Shelly’s opinion differed from that of her friend. “He reminds me of my dad, Mona. He’s great, but I just don’t see him like that,” she said.
The conversation lulled and Shelly took a moment to reflect on her own emotions. She wondered if she was a bit jealous of the attention Mr. Videre was getting from Mona, but she found it difficult to have any negative thoughts about the man. She quickly put the idea to rest.
Excited, the girls showed up the next day. Mona kept her word and brought a sample of her writing, which Mr. Videre happily accepted. “I’ll read this and give you my opinion soon,” he said. Mona blushed.
Mr. Videre then guided the girls to the back room. “The books that you saw yesterday are nice, but here’s where I keep the truly valuable works.” He motioned for the girls to enter.
The girls immediately discovered that Mr. Videre collected more than just books. Several paintings graced the walls of the room, which somehow seemed much bigger once they were inside of it. A couple of sculpted busts sat imposingly in two of the corners. Wooden file cabinets were arranged in a row along one of the walls. Old, hand-bound books graced several shelves. Large, comfortable leather couches provided seating.
“Please, look around.” Mr. Videre spoke with a certain level of satisfaction in his voice. “I’ll tell you now, very few people ever get the chance to enter this room. I don’t want to appear too prideful, but you should consider this a great honor.”
Mona picked up a nearby book. It was bound by hand, and the text was handwritten as well. She read the title aloud as she examined the artifact. “The Devil’s Face, by Edgar Allen Poe.”
She pondered for a moment, then said, “I’ve read all of Poe’s stories, and this isn’t one of them.”
“It isn’t?” Mr. Videre responded with mock surprise. “Don’t be so sure of yourself, Ms. Darling. Mr. Poe gave that to me as payment. You’re going to find many surprises here today. Why don’t you sit down and read it?”
Mona was already opening the book and poring over the first words. She almost remarked that Mr. Videre should stop joking around, but the story grabbed her attention before she could do so.
For her part, Shelly examined an impressionist painting on the wall. She peered closer and closer so that she could see the individual brushstrokes.
Mr. Videre came up behind her. “This one was painted for me personally.”
Shelly looked at the painting’s lower right hand corner, where the artist had painted his signature, Claude Monet 1862.
Shelly laughed at the absurdity of Mr. Videre’s words. “Claude Monet painted this for you? In 1862?”
Mr. Videre smiled confidently. “Yes, he was at a crossroads, artistically speaking, and I helped him out.”
Then he directed her to an old filing cabinet. “You’ll find more art in here. Spectacular photographs, beautiful sketches, all sorts. It’s regrettable that I don’t have enough room on my walls to hang all of them.” He handed her some gloves. “Put these on and you may examine them.”
Shelly found that the gloves fit her hands perfectly. Carefully, she opened one of the file cabinets and pulled a photograph out from the front. It was sealed in a see-through sleeve.
“This is amazing,” she said. Then looking back at Mr. Videre, she commented, “Look at the eyes of this model. How did this photographer capture so much sorrow in just one picture?”
“Well, look who the photographer is.” Mr. Videre motioned for her to turn the photograph so that she could see its backside.
For the second time in five minutes, Shelly read a name from another era along with a date that had long since passed. “Johanan Masterson, 1952. I’ve heard of him, but I don’t think many people know who he is. I think he’s very underrated.”
“Indeed he is Shelly. Only now are people starting to discover his artistry.” He pointed at the photograph in her hand. “And this particular picture here, you won’t find it in any book. This is the only copy in existence.”
“Then how did you get it?”
Mr. Videre just smiled mysteriously. “Both of you, please look around as much as you want. Wear gloves if you handle anything. And no pictures or recordings of any type, please. Those are the rules.”
He handed a pair of gloves to Mona, who put down the Poe book only long enough to put them on.
The girls sat enthralled the whole day, delving into undiscovered art. Mr. Videre’s odd statements about interacting with artists, most of whom died long before he could’ve been born, didn’t elude the girls, but the artwork was so engaging that neither one of them bothered to question him further. Many famous artists were represented in the collection, and all of the works were dated from times in their careers when they were either just starting out, or transitioning to different styles. Despite the fame of all the artists, the girls had never seen or read any of the individual pieces before.
At the end of the day, Mr. Videre invited them back again, but asked of them not to tell anyone about his collection. “That’s a rule too, but I already know you won’t break it.” He gave a wink and a devilish smile as he spoke.
The girls, as Mr. Videre predicted, spoke of the collection only to each other. Questions shot from their mouths excitedly, “Where do you think he got all that from? They can’t be real, can they?” Adoration left Mona’s lips excitedly. “I wish I could stay there forever,” she said with a sigh.
The girls returned for several days straight. Mona, who was a natural beauty, wore successively tighter clothing each day, which didn’t go unnoticed by Shelly. Mr. Videre, who was always polite, charming, and intelligent, treated Mona the same regardless of what she was wearing.
On the fourth day, while Shelly was examining a particularly beautiful photograph, Mr. Videre approached her. “You have a preference for this art form,” he said as he pointed at the picture in her hand.
“Yes,” Shelly agreed. “I love photography.”
“Of course you do. And you’re good at it, aren’t you?” He opened a nearby cabinet as he spoke and began rustling through it, seemingly looking for something.
Shelly pondered the question for a moment. “I’m okay at it, I guess. It’s something I really enjoy.”
“Here it is!” Mr. Videre exclaimed as he pulled a camera out from the cabinet. “Please take a look at this, Shelly.” He gave the camera to the girl, who turned it around in her hands, examining each part.
“Forty years ago,” Mr. Videre began, “this was a very expensive camera, but now, some people would tell you it belongs in a museum. There’s only one company in the world that still makes film for it.”
Shelly flipped the latch and opened the film compartment. “I’ve never used a camera that wasn’t digital.”
“Most People will tell you that digital photography is better in every way, but in my opinion, you lose any sense of serendipity when you rely too much on technology. Anyway, I think you’ll find that once you master this old camera, you’ll have a foundation on which you can build other aspects of your art.”
Shelly held up the camera and took a mock picture of Mr. Videre.
He smiled for his fake photograph as he continued to speak. “It’s a bit ironic, I hated photography when it was in its infancy. I feared it would supplant truer art forms. But I came to love it eventually. One day, I may even come to love all this digital manipulation that’s so popular nowadays. I suppose I’m always several decades behind the times.”
Shelly raised an eyebrow when Mr. Videre insinuated that he was a witness to the dawn of photography, then laughed it off. Was the man crazy? She didn’t know, but she was comfortable in his company.
“Here, let me show you how this works.” Mr. Videre took the camera back from Shelly. “I think, if you were to practice using this camera, you would enjoy yourself. I have some film that you can use, and when you’re done, we can develop the pictures here in my darkroom.” Mr. Videre pointed to a door which Shelly had previously assumed led to a closet.
“What do you want me to photograph?”
“I want you to use your imagination. Take pictures of whatever you want. The most important thing is to forget everything that you’ve been taught in your photography classes. Just use your instincts.”
“But I learned a lot in those classes,” Shelly protested.
“Those classes are for lesser people. Tell me Shelly, what was one of the first things they taught you?”
Shelly contemplated, then answered. “The rule of thirds.”
“Shelly, rules are good if you want to take decent pictures, but you’ll never take a great picture until you learn to break the rules. Your teachers have constrained you.”
Shelly disagreed. “I’ve never felt constrained by them.”
Mr. Videre smiled. “Their pointers and tips work well for the other students in your classes, but I think you’re ready to move beyond all that.”
Mona, who was sitting nearby, couldn’t help but wonder about her own artistic efforts. “Mr. Videre, have you finished reading my story yet?” she cooed sweetly.
He turned towards the pretty brunette, “I’ve started, my dear. You have some very interesting characters, indeed. I promise you a full assessment when I’m done.”
Mona smiled at the promise, then sank back into the comfortable couch along with the world’s only copy of An Anticipation of Death, credited to Ellis Bell, which Mona knew was a pseudonym for Emily Bronte.
Shelly took the camera when she left that night, and spent the next morning taking pictures of various outdoor objects. With every snap of the camera, she prayed that she wouldn’t let Mr. Videre down.
The girls arrived at Mr. Videre’s place later in the afternoon. Mona was frustrated that she had to wait for Shelly to finish taking photographs. She’d even briefly considered arriving early on her own, but in the end she waited because it didn’t seem right to show up without her friend.
Mr. Videre gave each girl plenty of attention. With Mona, he discussed the philosophical implications of the newest novel she’d stumbled upon. With Shelly, he spent time carefully instructing her on the process for developing her own photographs. She was an especially quick learner. When her first batch was completely developed, the man examined each photo individually. “These are excellent Shelly. Look at this one here.” He held up a photograph of a tent pitched under a freeway overpass. “It’s off-center, but it works. I think you may have learned something already.”
He put the photograph down. “I want you to shoot at least three rolls of film every day,” he told her. “Then come here and develop them.” Shelly agreed to this.
Days passed, Shelly and Mona weren’t even sure how many. They missed nearly all of their classes, and had no regrets about it. Mr. Videre seemed to have nothing but free time to spend with the girls, and he spoke freely about the art in his possession. Shelly kept her word, and made sure to shoot photographs daily, and under Mr. Videre’s tutelage, her skill at developing film quickly matured.
Mona spent most of her time reading. Holding up one particular manuscript, she asked about the author. “Stefan Redbone? I’ve never heard of him, but this story is one of the best I’ve ever read.”
Mr. Videre gently took the manuscript from Mona’s hands and flipped through it. “Mr. Redbone was one of the most intriguing authors I’ve ever met. I suppose you could say he was a misfire on my part. He wrote four other novels after this one, but he never published them. Sadly, they were all consumed in a fire that he set. I wish I’d had the chance to read them first, but there are no surviving copies. Even Mr. Redbone himself was consumed by that fire.” Mr. Videre sighed. “The world would have loved those novels, and it would’ve increased the value of this particular manuscript a million-fold.”
Mr. Videre placed the manuscript on the table in front of Mona, then he continued, “I knew he had a tortured soul, but I’ll admit that his suicide surprised me. There are very, very few happenings that I don’t see beforehand.”
Shelly put down the sketch she was examining so that she could listen to Mr. Videre. Mona, who was mesmerized, spoke up. “So, do you see the future?” There was incredulousness in her voice, but also some awe.
“Not as well as I once did.” Mr. Videre pointed at his eyes and ears. “The senses, they lie to you. As strange as it may sound, when you’re like me, your eyes cloud your true vision, and your ears can lead you down the wrong path, from time to time.” The man’s polished words carried the weight of truth. “Being bound to a physical body, it’s a tradeoff for me. I don’t see as well as the others, but I get an enjoyment from living that will forever elude those non-corporeal companions of mine.”
“There are others who can see the same way you do?” Mona asked.
Mr. Videre nodded. “Just a handful. We are the curators, creators and purveyors of art and culture. We look for beauty and balance, and we revel in perfection. As for me specifically, I find myself to be more of a curator. Look around you, what do you think the value of my collection is?”
Shelly answered wisely. “I don’t think you could put a monetary value on what you have here.”
“You’re correct Shelly. No amount of money could adequately represent the value of what we have here before us, but I have had people pay me more than a million dollars for twenty four hours of access to my collection, and I could easily ask for more.”
Shelly spoke up. “So that’s what this is about? Having people pay you to see what’s in here?”
“No.” Mr. Videre was stern. “That’s not at all what this is about. That’s simply an unavoidable reality that pops up from time to time. Bills must be paid, you see.”
“Why don’t you share this with the entire world?” Shelly asked.
“So they could corrupt it? So it could lose its value? Believe me, I’ve given the world more than enough. This collection is for me, and for those who I choose to allow in here.”
The moment of seriousness was broken when Mona gently raised her hand and brushed it against Mr. Videre’s arm. “I don’t blame you. It’s wonderful what you have here. Too many people knowing about it would just ruin it.” She bit her lower lip.
The man, for the first time, looked towards Mona with some lust in his eyes. He then turned towards Shelly and spoke. “My dear, maybe tomorrow you should take advantage of the afternoon sunlight. You don’t need to come in so early. There’s a park down the street which will give you some amazing opportunities.” He turned back and addressed Mona. “And while she’s out, we can use that time to discuss your story, and get to know each other better.”
Mona understood the look in Mr. Videre’s eyes, and her heart jumped in her chest. She immediately imagined herself lying on the couch, her legs spread apart, and Mr. Videre thrusting on top of her. She shook with nervousness and excitement. “Yes, I’d love to discuss my story with you alone, Mr. Videre.”
“Marcus. My name is Marcus.”
“I’d love nothing more than that, Marcus.”
Shelly watched as the two other people in the room planned a date without her. For the first time since they’d met Mr. Videre, she felt truly jealous. She wasn’t sure if she was more upset at losing time with Mr. Videre, or if it was because Mona was being drawn away from her.
The next day, Shelly stayed out well into the afternoon taking photographs of anything that held her interest. She felt a strong urge to show up to Mr. Videre’s place early, but she ultimately decided that interrupting the two of them would come off as immature.
Mona’s day was quite different. She slept in late so that she would have plenty of energy for later in the day. She was happy, nervous and excited all at once. She went through her closet, trying on several dresses. She first selected a tight black dress and looked at herself in a full length mirror, then shook her head. “Too slutty,” she said to herself as she slinked out of it and left it on the floor.
She finally found a dress that she felt was perfect. It was a dark, form-fitting outfit, but it left enough to the imagination so that Mona still felt a little bit classy. She straightened her hair and applied her favorite crimson lipstick. The last thing she did before leaving was go into her roommate’s bedroom and grab some condoms from the nightstand drawer, but she put them back after deciding that she didn’t want any sort of barrier between her and Mr. Videre. This wasn’t going to be the first sexual experience for Mona, not even close, but it would be the first time with someone that she truly cared for.
It was mid-afternoon when Mona arrived. She felt a bit odd being so dressed up in a place where she’d always been casual, but carried herself confidently nonetheless. She opened the door and walked in. Mr. Videre was sitting on one of the couches in the back room.
She smiled mischievously and spoke a sultry salutation. “Hello Marcus.” Her voice had a beautiful, songlike sound to it.
He turned his head and stared at her coldly.
Her smile faltered a bit. “Is everything okay?”
“Sit down,” he said curtly. “We’ll discuss your story now.” He didn’t seem to notice or appreciate the effort she’d put into making herself pretty.
Mona sensed something was terribly wrong as she sat next to Mr. Videre.
The mysterious man held up the printed pages that Mona had brought to him on her second day there. “This is some of the worst writing I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading. Your characters have no life and your plot is poorly paced. The entire thing is terrible. I could go into detail about how dreadful this all is, but it would be a waste of our time.”
His cruel words pierced her soul all the way through. She waited for a minute in shock, then tried her best to salvage the situation. “You can help me get better Marcus. You can show me how.” She attempted to regain her smile, but her lower lip only quivered.
“No. You’re an insipid girl with ridiculous ideas. Look at yourself. You’re dressed like a disgusting trollop. Did you really think that a piece of trash like you could seduce me?”
Mona looked down at herself, then back at Mr. Videre. “Please stop joking around, Marcus.” She desperately reached out to him, hoping that he’d take her hand.
“Put your hand down, you pig. I would never touch you.” There was no feeling or remorse in his voice. It contained only a cold quality that made her feel miserable.
Mona began crying. “Please don’t do this to me, Mr. Videre. I don’t understand what’s happening. I feel awful right now.”
“Do you feel as bad as that time when you were fifteen and you took all those pills?”
Mona met his steely glare with confusion in her eyes, and managed to ask a tortured question between her sobs. “How do you know about that?”
He ignored the question and handed her the pages of her story. “Here, please throw these in the garbage on your way out. I’m done with you, and I don’t want you to ever come back here.”
Mona tried to make sense of the situation. “You’re doing all this because you don’t like my story?”
“No. I’m doing this because I don’t like you.”
An overwhelmed Mona stood up and began shuffling towards the exit. She paused in the doorway and wiped the tears from her face as she made her final apology. “Whatever I did to make you upset, I’m sorry.”
His last words towards Mona were perhaps the cruelest of the lot. “It upsets me that people like you even exist, Ms. Darling.”
He walked to the doorway and watched her as she exited onto the sidewalk. She wiped the tears from her face as she shuffled away slowly. Once she was out of sight he removed the OPEN sign from the window and locked the door.
Still holding onto the pages of her story, Mona headed in the direction of the park, where she knew Shelly would be taking pictures. “Where are you, Shelly?” she wondered. She took out her phone as if she was going to make a call, but it slipped through her tear-soaked fingers and fell to the ground. She made no attempt to pick it up. The sights surrounding her blended together into a singular drab-gray form.
She meandered silently through the streets, without even being aware of how long she had been walking. Eventually, she saw in front of her a large, five-story parking garage that held cars for a nearby hospital. With no real plan in mind, she started climbing the stairs, floor by floor. As she ascended, her emotions began shutting down, as if the cost of admission to each level was part of her very soul. She made it to the top floor, where a cool breeze gently swept the hair from her face. Moving close to the edge of the structure, she took a moment to view the city. She saw that everything was peaceful and calm. She held out her arm, and one by one, she let the pages of her story slip from her grasp and flutter over the side. They flashed intermittently as they caught the afternoon sunlight. Mona mused that they looked like a disorganized flock of birds, and she managed a small smile at that thought. There was a short wall that separated her from the drop-off, but it was easy enough for her to climb on top of it. She stood there and took a moment to let the sunshine warm her, then, she closed her eyes and took a step forward. Her fall was much quicker than that of her pages.
On the ground below, Shelly’s attention had been caught by the fluttering papers drifting downward. Looking for their source, she immediately recognized Mona standing up on the ledge. Even though she couldn’t think of a reasonable explanation for her friend to be in that spot, she was sure it was her. Before Shelly could even process what she was witnessing, Mona stepped forward and began to fall. A large crash sounded out as she landed.
Arriving at the site of impact, Shelly gasped at what she saw. Mona, having landed atop a car, was unmistakably dead. The awkward angle between her head and body made that much clear. Yet as Shelly looked closer, she noticed that Mona had a peaceful look about her, as if a huge burden had been lifted from her. The car’s roof had crumpled around her, cradling her lifeless form. A trickle of blood ran from her mouth and blended with her crimson lipstick. Another trickle of blood dripped out of her ear.
As the reality of the sight set in, Shelly asked a question that could never be answered. “Why did you do this?” She shook her head back and forth in agony. “You were such a beautiful person.”
She wanted to cry, yet her gut instinct gave her pause. The tableau in front of her was nearly complete, and it begged for some sort of preservation. The camera’s display showed that she had only enough film for one more picture. She reached forward and adjusted Mona’s hair so that it covered the blood running from her ear. The blood running from her mouth felt more appropriate, there was no reason to cover that up.
Continuing to hold her tears in check, Shelly whispered a promise to her dead best friend. “I’ll keep you beautiful forever, Mona.”
She kneeled down and found the perfect position without even thinking about it. The camera clicked, then fell loosely against her body as she released her grip. It was soon covered in the teardrops that flowed freely from Shelly’s face.
Two weeks passed before Shelly felt emotionally ready to return to Mr. Videre’s place. The OPEN sign that had once greeted her and Mona was missing, but the door was unlocked. Shelly entered without hesitating.
Mr. Videre came from the back room. Skipping any sort of pleasantries, Shelly addressed him curtly. “You’re aware of what happened to Mona, right?”
“Yes. I know what happened. The police investigator you sent my way told me all about it. It’s very tragic.” He looked at the backpack Shelly was carrying. “Do you have something for me? A roll of film, perhaps?”
“I don’t know.” She paused for a moment as she tried to size up Mr. Videre’s intentions. “I want to know what happened between you two first.”
“We spoke about her story, then she left.” He looked at the backpack again. Then spoke in his most fatherly voice, “Shelly, you’re here for a reason. Let’s see what’s on those rolls of film. Maybe it will ease your pain.”
Shelly wanted to scream and demand real answers about what had happened to Mona, but a strange calm settled over her as she listened to the man’s voice. Hesitantly, she went into the darkroom and developed her final roll. She worked quietly and efficiently, at times moving in complete darkness. Her fluid movements echoed that of someone with far more experience. Everything Mr. Videre taught her came into play as she navigated through the complex process.
It was much later when Mr. Videre finally entered the darkroom. Shelly was seated in the corner, emotionally spent from the process of watching her last photograph slowly arrive at its final form.
He picked up the photo and its negative and gave an uncharacteristic gasp of surprise and delight. “This is exceptional. This turned out much better than I imagined.”
Shelly questioned his last statement. “Better than you imagined?”
She followed him as he left the darkroom. He held the photo at arm’s length to study it further. “This is one for the ages.”
In the photograph, he could see Mona’s lifeless body. A small, mysterious smirk crossed her lips. It was accentuated by the drops of blood running from her mouth. The roof of the car had caved in around her, yet if one looked at just the right angle, the folds of the metal almost looked like a giant hand holding her in repose. A shaft of light, which had sneaked through two nearby buildings, bathed Mona’s body eerily, as if it were calling her into the heavens. One could almost mistake Mona for someone who was simply resting. She was peaceful. She was beautiful. She was dead.
“You’ve done an excellent job, Shelly. This is the most beautiful photograph I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t have asked for a better result from the two of you. We’ll count this as your payment.”
“Payment?” Shelly didn’t understand what was happening. “Payment for what?”
“Payment for shaping you as an artist. Before you came here, you were one of the most naturally talented photographers I’d ever sensed. You only needed some small pushes in the right direction. You needed some advice, you needed some inspiration, but most of all, you needed to understand the full range of human emotion. You came here understanding love, and now you understand loss as well. An artist needs to fully comprehend both of those, and everything in between, before they can capture the truest beauty.”
Shelly looked closely at Mr. Videre. Even though his facial features were unchanged, he no longer reminded her of her father. It was as if a veil had been lifted. She looked around the room. Everything was in its place, yet nothing seemed as vibrant and magical as it had before. Her anger suddenly rose to the surface. “You asshole! Mona wasn’t some sort of lesson, she was a beautiful person!”
Mr. Videre nodded. “I agree. She was beautiful. And now she’ll be added to the most magnificent collection of art in existence.”
“No. I don’t agree to this!” Shelly looked for the photograph so that she could tear it in two. “Mona was worth far more than a stupid fucking photograph. I loved her.”
Her eyes darted over the nearby table and then to Mr. Videre, but the photograph was no longer present.
“Where did it go?” Shelly demanded.
“It’s already been added to the collection. Now it’s your job to go out into the world and make yourself famous. Make my assortment even more extraordinary than it already is.”
“And what if I refuse?”
“No harm will befall you, if that’s what you’re asking, but I’m reasonably sure you won’t take that route. Remember, I see things, maybe not as well as some of my colleagues, but I can tell that you will be very well known. Two-hundred years from now, students will be studying your techniques, and scholars will be amazed at your accomplishments. It will have all started with one photograph, the same one that I now have in my possession.”
Mr. Videre handed the camera to Shelly. “You can keep this. It’s a gift.”
Rage filled Shelly’s face as she lifted the camera above her head with the intention of throwing it against the wall, but after a brief pause, she brought it back down and shoved it into her backpack. She brushed against Mr. Videre with some force as she stormed out of his place forever. “Fuck you, you piece of shit. Now I understand hate too,” she shouted on her way out.
Mr. Videre exited the back room and watched through the windows as Shelly slowly disappeared down the street. He smiled and spoke aloud. “It’s been a true honor to know you Shelly Hester. You will be one of the all-time greats.”
Author’s note: This story is a work of fiction (obviously). However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the work of Robert Wiles, whose photograph, The Most Beautiful Suicide, served as one of the seeds from which this tale sprung. Captured on film in 1947, The Most Beautiful Suicide shows the immediate aftermath of the suicide of Evelyn McHale, who unfortunately jumped to her death from the Empire State Building. The imagery of Wiles’ photograph provided the inspiration for the photograph described in the story above.
I have two stories I want to tell. In each one, the main character is missing an arm. Other than that, both of these tales are quite different from one another. Yet, I can’t seem to separate the two in my mind, as they seem to complement each other in peculiar and disturbing ways.
Our first story, the much shorter of the two, was passed on to me by my father. It starts in 1910, and it goes like this: A mill employee named Gerald Parsons suffered an unfortunate workplace accident when he stepped a little too close to the grinding equipment. The mill’s gears, as strong as they were unforgiving, ripped Gerald’s arm clean from his body. Surprisingly, he not only survived the accident, but he lived another forty years, working in that same mill until the day he died of natural causes. Beginning shortly after his death (if you’re prone to believing the rumors) the ghost of Gerald Parsons could sometimes be seen walking the floors of the mill. In addition to the sightings, there exists a fuzzy photograph from 1965 that purportedly shows his eerie form walking through the grinding room. Not too long after that picture was taken, the mill was torn down. Shortly after that, Gerald Parsons’ existence became one based only on the memories of others, as his ghost was never seen again.
Now, here’s the most interesting thing about this story, all of the eyewitnesses who saw Gerald’s ghost claim that he had two arms. My father was one of those witnesses, and he too swore that on the night Gerald appeared to him, both of his upper limbs were intact. Even the fuzzy picture shows a possibly grinning Gerald with two equally fuzzy arms down by his side. So I ask you, how is it that a man who lived two-thirds of his life without his left arm suddenly reunited with it upon death? The question is completely rhetorical, because neither you nor I can know the real answer. Yet, it happened. It’s almost as if his arm preceded him to the afterlife, and somehow waited there for the rest of him to catch up. Silly, right?
I suppose I wouldn’t have put too much thought into Gerald’s story if I had never known my friend Sebastian Culpepper. If you compare Sebastian and Gerald, you’ll find very few attributes in common. Gerald: earnest, hard working, and serious. Sebastian: fun-loving, loyal, and friendly. Yet, as I touched on earlier, they do share one major quality. Both lost their left arm at a relatively young age, and that brings us to our second story.
When Sebastian was seventeen, a heavy crate fell on his arm while he was moving some items around his attic. The injury seemed minor at first, but an unfortunate and uncommon cascade of events followed; the injury began to swell up, the swelling cut off the circulation to the arm, and then his arm tissue began to die. The pain finally forced Sebastian to the emergency room, but not soon enough. Two days after his injury, his arm was amputated.
It’s quite common for an amputee to still feel a limb after it’s been removed. It’s as if the brain still thinks the limb is attached. The phenomenon is referred to as Phantom Limb Syndrome. Upon waking from his surgery, Sebastian could’ve sworn that his left arm was still present, but it was just a trick his body was playing on itself. Not only could he feel his missing arm, but it hurt too.
Sebastian adjusted as best he could, and he was determined not to let his missing arm prevent him from accomplishing his goals in life. However, the pain and discomfort associated with his phantom limb was ever present. There were different therapies that Sebastian subjected himself to, and there were painkillers too. The treatments helped somewhat, and slowly, over the course of years, Sebastian’s phantom limb pain improved, though it never went away entirely.
I never knew Sebastian when he had two arms. I met him years after his accident, when we both worked in the same office. I used to tell him that he was the coolest one-armed guy in the world (I might’ve even been right about that). The clients loved him, and he always got a laugh by going to shake their hands and then acting like he didn’t know where his arm had gone off to. Corny, yes, but somehow Sebastian made it funny every single time. The bosses all adored him too, and I can’t really think of anyone who didn’t like him, so it was odd when Sebastian came to work one particular Monday in a foul mood. I watched him the entire morning, uncharacteristically snapping at people for making minor mistakes and generally being a jerk. Rather than see him get himself in some sort of trouble with the higher-ups, I suggested he and I leave early for lunch.
“Yeah Brian, that sounds like a good idea,” he told me. “Let’s get out of here.”
It was at the restaurant where he finally clued me in to what had been bothering him. “It’s my arm,” he said between bites of his hamburger. “It’s hurting me, a lot.”
I looked at his right arm, the only one he still had.
“No.” He shook his head. “My other arm.”
“But you’ve had phantom limb pain before,” I argued, “and you didn’t go around acting like a complete asshole when it happened.”
“It’s different this time.” He took another bite before putting his burger down. “It’s not random pain like in the past. I feel specific…” he trailed off as he tried to think of the right words, “things.”
“Things?” I asked. “I don’t think I know what you mean.”
“When I was younger, the pain was always generalized. It started here,” Sebastian pointed to where his left forearm should’ve been, “then it moved up towards my shoulder. But now, it feels like there’s something sharp stabbing me. I tell you, it’s very specific. It’s not like anything I’ve felt before.” He sighed and looked right at me. “And it fucking hurts.”
Even though I’d clearly heard him, I still sought some clarification. “You’re talking about your missing arm? It feels like it’s being stabbed?”
“Yeah. Stabbing, cutting. It’s like someone’s trying to torture me.”
“Do you feel it right now?”
He shook his head no. “Usually it starts around 6:00 p.m. and goes for about half an hour or so. It’s been like this for the past few days.”
I wasn’t sure what to tell him, but I wanted to be supportive of my friend. “Hey, the Lakers are on tonight,” I told him. “I’ll head over to your place around six and we can watch together.”
He had a distracted look on his face, as if he hadn’t heard me.
“Hey,” I prodded, “I’ll bring the beer.”
Sebastian’s stern face broke and he gave a small smile. “Sure man. Sounds good.”
I got out of work late. Sebastian had gone home early at my suggestion, so I finished up some of his loose ends. By the time I got to my house and changed clothes, it was already nearing six o’clock. Traffic took up more time, and the line at the convenience store was anything but convenient. As I arrived at his apartment complex with the beer in hand, I cursed myself for not getting there sooner. I bounded the stairs up to Sebastian’s apartment two at a time.
When I knocked on his door there was only dead silence from the other side. I waited a minute, then let myself in with a twist of the handle. Sebastian was lying silently on the couch. His eyes were scrunched shut, and trails of wetness on his cheeks gave evidence of the tears that had run down his face moments earlier.
“Sebastian? You okay?”
He nodded silently, not to say he was okay, but to acknowledge my presence. I put the case of beer on the coffee table and stood by awkwardly.
He finally spoke to me. “I’m scared. It feels like the skin is being pulled off my arm.” A scream erupted from his mouth as he rolled off the couch onto the floor. I stepped forward to help him up, but he waved me away.
“I’ll go grab you a Percocet,” I said as I changed direction towards his bathroom, where I knew he kept his pain medication.
“No. I already took a couple. They aren’t helping.”
With nothing left to do, I stood and waited helplessly as my friend struggled with his pain. For maybe fifteen minutes more he grimaced in agony, occasionally screaming out. Eventually, I could see a look of relief spread across his face as the pain ebbed.
“It’s stopped,” he said.
“Maybe the Percocets worked,” I ventured.
“No,” he responded. “I think whatever it is, it’s done for the night.” Sebastian got back onto the couch and motioned for me to sit down with him. “Man, it’s the craziest thing,” he continued. “When I’m in all that pain, it feels like sometimes there’s a hand grabbing onto my phantom arm.” He paused for a moment after seeing my face, which must’ve had a strange look on it. “Hey, thanks for coming out tonight. It’s nice to have someone here.”
“Yeah, no problem, Bast. Have you seen a doctor about this pain?”
“Not since this weird shit started, but I don’t know what else they can do for me that they haven’t already tried.” He reached for a beer and opened it before picking it up, then he took a good long drink. He wiped his mouth before continuing. “I looked it up online to see if anyone else has experienced pain exactly like this, but I couldn’t find anything.”
I stayed with Sebastian for a couple more hours. We just talked, like good friends do. It took his mind off of what he was going through. On my way out for the night I told him that I would be back the next evening, and that I would try to get there earlier.
That night, as I tried to sleep, I found it impossible not to envision the pained look that I’d seen on Sebastian’s face earlier that evening. The situation simply wasn’t normal, and it worried me. What was causing my friend such pain? How was it possible for such a long-gone limb to have an effect on his current well-being? Finally, after lying awake and pondering his situation for hours, I willed myself to stop thinking about it. As I faded off, the story of Gerald Parsons swirled in my mind for just a moment, then, sleep.
Work was busy the next day, and I barely had time to acknowledge Sebastian’s presence at the office, so I was glad when, later that evening, I was able to keep my word and arrive at his apartment twenty minutes before six. Sebastian had already taken two Percocets in anticipation of what was to come, even though he seemed to believe they didn’t help.
I had brought Chinese food, which I put on his dining room table. As I pulled out the paper plates, I asked a question that had popped into my head as I had drifted off the night before. “So where do you think your arm is?”
A look of confusion spread across Sebastian’s face. “The arm they cut off? I don’t know. What do they do with medical waste?”
“That’s not exactly what I’m talking about.” I felt foolish for what I was about to say, but I think Sebastian already knew where my line of questioning was headed. “I’m not talking about your physical arm. No, I mean… where do you think its spirit went?”
Sebastian managed to force out a meager laugh. “I didn’t think arms had spirits of their own.” He didn’t sound convincing, as if maybe he’d already had this same conversation with himself.
Knowing his fragile state, I tried to be gentle with my words. “Well, maybe that was a bad way to phrase it. But what if it’s still part of your overall spirit, and it’s out there waiting for you somewhere?”
Sebastian laughed even harder at that.
“Don’t laugh,” I said. “I’m serious. My dad used to tell me a story about a man who lost an arm, just like you did. After he died, people saw his ghost, and it had two arms.”
Sebastian sat down at the table. “So you’re saying that my ghost arm is out there, floating around in some nether region, just waiting for me to reunite with it?”
“Well, it sounds stupid when you say it out loud like that.” I was suddenly embarrassed at my idea.
“Not stupid. I appreciate the fact that you’re putting some thought into this. But if what you’re saying is true, then that would mean my arm is waiting for me in some place that probably isn’t so nice…” He faded off as the implication of what he was saying sunk in.
I shook my head and tried to change the subject. “No, it was just a stupid thought I had. Sorry I brought it up. Your arm’s not waiting for you, that would be ridiculous.”
Sebastian was silent. I could see that the idea was gaining traction in his thoughts. Finally he looked at his watch. “It’s almost six.”
The pain came to him the same as it had the night before. Once again, I waited helplessly while my friend writhed in agony. Sebastian, in a tortured voice, was able to describe the pain as it happened: stabbing sensations, bones in his fingers getting snapped, a sharp instrument slicing along the length of his arm, and something grabbing onto him.
After some minutes of extreme pain, it seemed he was given a temporary reprieve. “I don’t feel any stabbing or breaking,” he said, “but I still feel warmth, like my arm’s in some sort of really hot room.”
A new thought popped into my head. “Why don’t you try to move your arm?” I asked. “Maybe this thing works two ways. Maybe it won’t hurt so much if you can mentally shift its position.”
“What do you mean?” His interest was piqued. “How would I do that?”
“Use your muscle memory. Just imagine that your arm is still attached, and then act on it. Move your fingers or something.”
Sebastian nodded, indicating that he took the idea seriously. Personally, I thought it was a crazy idea, but it matched the crazy situation. I gave no credence to the fact that it might actually work.
Sebastian closed his eyes and concentrated. “Okay, I’ll wait until I feel something, then I’ll try it.”
We sat in silence as the clock seemed to tick endlessly. Sebastian was focused and at the ready. I twiddled my fingers, beginning to regret both the fact that I’d made such a silly suggestion, and that he’d bought into it.
“Look, Sebastian, maybe it’s done for the nigh-”
I was suddenly cut off by Sebastian’s cries as the torture restarted.
“God! Mother fucking damn…” The expletives flew from his mouth as he squirmed on the couch. It seemed like for just a second, he’d forgotten his plan of attack, but then, he composed himself and gave me a nod. I could see the muscles of his stub flex as he made his motion.
When I saw what happened next, I jumped from a sitting position and stood up on the couch, screaming out loud in shock and surprise.
Sebastian had gotten launched from the couch. In fact, it looked more like he’d been pulled off of it. He landed on the floor face first, and then his whole body moved along the ground towards the other side of the living room. His stub was leading the way. I saw the look of terror in his face as he was dragged to the other side of the apartment by something unseen. He finally came to a stop next the wall.
“What happened?” I asked between breaths.
“I grabbed it! I grabbed it!” Sebastian was breathing too heavily to say anything more.
I got off the couch and helped him up. He walked back and sat down, and when he spoke, there was trembling in his voice. “I actually felt my hand as it latched onto some sort of creature. Its skin is hot and rough, and it pulled back when I grabbed it. Probably I surprised it, and it dragged me until I let go.”
Faced with indisputable proof that something supernatural was happening, I began shaking all over. I tried to imagine a way that it could just be a trick that Sebastian was playing, but the way he moved across the ground, no man could move like that on his own. I’d seen it first hand, he’d been dragged.
I suddenly wanted to be anywhere else. “I’ve gotta get out of here, Sebastian. This shit’s just too real.” I walked quickly to the front door and opened it. “I don’t think you should try that again. I’ll call you later.” I had no intention of calling him.
“Wait, please don’t leave me alone.” Sebastian looked desperate. “I’ll admit it, I’m fucking terrified, Brian.”
“Yeah, I am too. That’s why I’m leaving. Just don’t do that again. Take another Percocet and go to sleep. Everything will be all right.” Even as I spoke the words I knew they were bullshit. Fear was firmly in control as I walked out the door. I just wanted to be alone, before yet another new reality reared up and dragged my friend across the room.
I raced home, turning my phone off before I even got there. I tried to sleep, but the sight of Sebastian being dragged across the room by some unknown specter kept replaying in my mind. To say I got two hours of sleep that night would be generous, so I called in sick to work in the morning. That whole day I tried to keep busy. I watched television, took some naps, read a book, and did basically anything to keep my mind occupied.
As the day waned, I began thinking more and more about Sebastian, despite my efforts otherwise. I’d intentionally kept my phone off for the entire day. After sunset, I held the device in my hand and went through the motions of turning it on without actually doing so. I knew that once I powered it back up, I’d no longer be able to ignore the new world that had been opened to me.
I eventually gathered the strength to turn it on. Not more than three minutes later, I got a call from Sebastian.
“Come over. Please. Now.” He was desperate.
“What’s the problem?” I tried to be strong, but I immediately regretted answering his call.
I could hear the horror in his voice as he answered. “It’s started communicating with me!”
I quickly sat up. “What? How?”
“It’s spelling things on my arm. Just get over here, please.”
I gathered my final bit of courage and headed over to Sebastian’s apartment. He let me in as soon as I got there.
“It’s writing things to me.” I could see a tear in his eye. “I can feel its claw, or whatever it is, cutting the words into my arm, letter by letter.”
“What’s it saying?”
Sebastian showed me a notepad that he’d written on. “Once I figured out what was happening, I started to write down the letters.”
I looked at the pad and saw what he’d scribbled:
WATE FOR YU
“What’s doing this to me?” Sebastian quietly asked.
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, it can’t spell for shit.”
Sebastian looked at me incredulously and hit the notepad out of my hand. “Who cares if it’s a bad speller? It’s damn good at causing me agony!”
I apologized to him. It had just been a stupid comment meant to mask the true fear I felt.
I picked up the notepad and looked at it again. “So this thing, it’s communicating with you now.”
“Yes.” He was solemn.
“But why today? Why would this thing start sending you messages only now?”
“I wondered that too,” he replied. “I think the link between me and my phantom arm is growing stronger. This thing couldn’t do it before because the connection wasn’t sensitive enough for me to feel the words.” He looked down at his shoes. “But now it is. When I grabbed it, it learned that the link was getting stronger.”
“Getting stronger? Why would it be doing that?”
He motioned down to the notepad in my hands. “You saw it. Death soon! The closer I get to death, the stronger the link to my arm becomes.”
I shook my head. “You don’t know that. You can’t be sure.”
“But it makes sense, doesn’t it?”
I nodded grimly. I couldn’t think of a better explanation. “Is it still talking to you?”
Sebastian shook his head. “Not anymore. I think it’s done for the night.”
Sebastian was right, and the thing, whatever it was that was communicating with him, didn’t hurt him again that night.
I went to work the next day, but my recent inability to focus on anything remained with me. I’m sure I must’ve lost an account due to my distracted mind, but it didn’t even matter to me. Sebastian had called out sick, which he certainly couldn’t be blamed for. I held off calling him during the day for the simple reason that I had no idea what to say to him. When work was done, I made the uncharacteristically bold decision to go straight to his apartment. If I went home, I knew I was unlikely to go over to Sebastian’s ever again. I was scared, yes, but I knew that if I were in his position, Sebastian would never let me go through something like that alone.
I picked up a pizza on the way over. When I got there, I saw a smidgeon of relief grace Sebastian’s face when he answered the door. He motioned me in with a sweeping arm gesture, then stepped into his living room and fell backwards onto the couch. I set the pizza down on the table and offered Sebastian a slice as I picked up one for myself. He shook his head no. The room was quiet, except for the ticking of the clock and my chewing, which I was quickly becoming aware of.
With the silence getting uncomfortable, I thought of something to ask. “Sebastian, why do you think this is happening to you?”
He looked away from me. “Lots of people who lose their arm have phantom limb pain.”
“Yeah, but they don’t get dragged across the room.” I was shocked that he could somehow respond as if what he was going through was common phantom limb pain.
Sebastian didn’t respond, and instead he nodded towards the clock on the wall. Six o’clock. He picked up the same notepad from the night before and placed it on the end table next to him, then he grabbed his pen. With his eyes closed, and in deep concentration, he was ready to write any messages that came through.
The next couple of minutes passed by uneventfully, but soon I could see Sebastian visibly begin to struggle with the increasing pain. Beads of sweat formed on the side of his head and his breathing quickened.
“It’s starting?” I cautiously asked.
Sebastian nodded, “Yeah, and my head hurts too.”
“A headache? That’s new, isn’t it?”
Sebastian nodded yes again, then screamed out, “It’s cutting into my arm!”
Even with the pain, Sebastian focused inward and began recording the letters that were being cut into his long lost limb.
H E L L O B R I N
I stared at the paper, and then I screamed as Sebastian marked the final N across the paper. Sebastian’s pseudo-trance was broken by my outburst.
“It’s talking to me!” I yelled as I pointed at the writing. “Hello Brian! Oh fucking shit!” I jumped away from the couch. “How does it know my name? How does it know I’m here?”
“I don’t know, man. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have dragged you into this.” Sebastian held his hand to his eyes as an apparent wave of pain pulsed through his head.
“That’s it! I’m leaving.” I grabbed my jacket and headed for the door.
“Wait!” Sebastian pleaded. “You asked why this was happening. It’s about Carla Shavers. That’s the only possible reason. I think I’m being punished.”
“Who’s that?” I demanded with my hand on the doorknob.
“Just look it up later. I’m sorry it ever happened.” He looked ashamed as the words left his mouth.
I pulled the door open and took one last look at Sebastian.
“Please don’t leave me alone,” he cried. His left eyelid pulsed as he spoke. Tears streamed from his other eye.
“I’ll call you tomorrow.” It was the last lie I’d ever tell Sebastian. I closed the apartment door behind me and walked quickly away. As I moved down the hallway, I heard Sebastian scream out. I walked faster.
He wasn’t at work the next day, nor did he call our supervisor to say he wouldn’t be in. I turned my cell phone off just in case he tried to call me. I felt guilty about it, but I wasn’t too far from having a breakdown of my own. I mindlessly went through the motions of my job. I didn’t go see Sebastian that night.
The day after that, his corpse was found by another one of our coworkers who went to his apartment to check on him. The news was devastating for me. He’d been a great friend, one who’d never let me down. The sense of loss was compounded by the knowledge that I’d abandoned him in his time of need. Even worse than that, I knew that the entity that once had only his arm, probably now had him in his entirety. I vomited the first time that thought entered my mind.
Sebastian’s body didn’t have a mark on it. It took time, but eventually the medical examiner determined that his death was due to natural causes, a ruptured brain aneurysm specifically. It was a condition Sebastian never knew he had. The time of death was estimated to be between 6:30 and 7:00 p.m. on the last day I saw him, so it happened shortly after I left. For a long time, I kicked around the idea that somehow his demise had been caused by the entity that was communicating with him. Yet when I thought on it longer, I remembered something Sebastian had said, “The closer I get to death, the stronger the link to my arm becomes.” I came to the conclusion that his death truly was natural. That thing didn’t cause Sebastian’s death. It didn’t have to. It just waited for him, and had some fun with him while it did so.
I completely forgot about Carla Shavers for a few weeks. When I finally looked her up, I found that she was from Sebastian’s hometown, and she’d been missing for years. The last time anyone ever saw her she was walking home from a late-night party. There were very few clues about her disappearance, and she’d been gone so long that most people in the town considered her to be dead. eHer It was shocking to read about, not because some poor girl had disappeared, but because of Sebastian’s insinuation that he’d had something to do with it. I found it impossible to believe that the Sebastian I knew (with his amazingly friendly disposition) could be directly responsible for anybody’s demise, but he’d obviously felt guilty about something. I thought back to some of the conversations we’d had about his youth, and I remembered him talking about the group of friends he ran with in high school, a time when he was less of a leader and more of a follower. Some of them weren’t good people, and a couple of them were downright nasty. I ended up making peace with the fact that Sebastian had probably participated in something malicious. It probably wasn’t his idea, or even something he wanted to do, but nonetheless he was present for it. At a minimum, he had information about a missing girl that he never shared with anyone.
I contacted the police in his hometown and told them what I knew, which wasn’t much really. Still, it was a lead they could follow up on. When I reported it, I kicked myself for not knowing more. If I hadn’t been so desperate to run out of Sebastian’s apartment on that final night, maybe I could’ve gotten more information from him.
I saw Sebastian in my dreams every night for months. Little devils with pitchforks would run all over his arms and legs, stabbing them repeatedly. Flames would shoot up around him and cook his skin. “Help me!” he’d scream. The dreams became more and more vivid, until one day I finally woke up with a promise on my lips to try and help him.
I drove to Sebastian’s hometown, which was about four hours away. Through my research, I knew that Carla Shavers’ parents still lived in the area. I called ahead and told them that I wanted to speak with them about their daughter, and I was greeted warmly at the door. “Were you a friend of Carla’s?” they asked.
I explained to them that I never knew Carla, and that I was actually a friend of Sebastian’s. The police had updated them on the case, so they were already familiar with the name. Then I told them that Sebastian, with his final words, had passed along his apologies for whatever part he’d played in Carla’s disappearance. It was clear they weren’t ready to hear it. “Thank you for coming out,” Mr. Shavers said rather tersely. He was obviously struggling to be polite with me. If Sebastian was ever going to be forgiven, it wasn’t going to happen on that day.
I couldn’t think of any other way I could possibly help Sebastian, and soon my thoughts turned inward. That thing, the entity, it said hello to me. Believe me, it’s a very unsettling feeling to know that something so evil has made an effort to personally acknowledge your existence. I wonder if it’ll be there waiting for me when I die, but maybe it was just having an easy laugh at my expense. Like so many other things associated with Sebastian’s demise, I just don’t know for sure. I’ve taken the time to carefully think back through all of my sins. I know I never did anything as bad as Sebastian. Yet, when a friend needed me most, I just left him to die. I might’ve been able to save him. I for sure could’ve been there to comfort him when he passed, but I wasn’t. He died alone and in fear. Some may argue that he deserved it, but for all I knew at the time, he was the same innocent Sebastian that he’d always been, and there was plenty of good in him. I hope that my cowardly actions aren’t enough to condemn me, and I hope that somewhere, somehow, Sebastian forgives me.
There’s a place in the forest my father and I used to visit, a spot he called Ohwayhee. There have never been any buildings at Ohwayhee, and there’s no obvious evidence that people ever planned to settle in that location. If anybody had the inclination to go there, then an hour-long hike over demanding terrain was the only way in, and that was only after a twenty mile drive over a bumpy dirt road. Those who successfully undertook the journey, and there weren’t many who bothered, were rewarded with the inherent tranquility that goes along with being in a place that was never a dot on anyone’s map.
The visits to Ohwayhee started when I was very little, perhaps three years old. At that age, I never once questioned why my father brought me to that out-of-the-way place; it just seemed like a natural thing for us to be doing. We’d often stay there overnight, sometimes for two nights, but we never brought a tent or sleeping bags. In fact, I don’t even recall bringing food or water with us, yet I never once felt hungry when I was among those trees. When we got tired, the forest floor was our bed, and I remember feeling secure and snug sleeping on the ground while the leaves above shrouded us from the black sky.
My father, a slight, bookish man, spent most of his time there meditating, and he encouraged me to do the same.
“Listen,” he’d tell me as he pointed up to the treetops. “Do you hear them?”
I’d close my eyes and imagine fantastic stories and faraway lands. I could actually see the people and places if I was patient enough. It was almost like tuning in to a staticky TV show that suddenly comes in clear. When it was time to leave, I would hang my head in sadness, and I could sense a certain melancholy in my father too. Hiking out, he always promised me that we’d return again, to “refresh and recharge,” as he put it.
When we weren’t among the trees, my father spent most of his time reading books and doing research on topics of personal interest to him. We lived in a large, Tudor revival home that was nestled alone along the edge of the forest. It was very comfortable. I don’t remember my father ever having a job. He’d inherited both the house and a substantial amount of money from his father, whom I never knew. The money was wisely invested, and our tastes were never more extravagant than enjoying whipped cream on top of our hot cocoa, so I doubt we ever made much of a dent in the savings.
I was happy being with my father, just me and him living mostly in solitude. However, we did venture out to visit museums, libraries and other public institutions at least twice weekly. Sometimes we drove far, but the trips were always worth it. I had a voracious appetite for learning, which was clearly an inherited trait.
Looking back, I understand that the course my life was on might’ve seemed modest and humble at first glance, but in reality, my father and I were both on an exciting quest for knowledge and wisdom. I should’ve grown up to be like him, but that never came to pass.
When I was five, I was kidnapped by a gray-haired man named Solomon Longburke. This was a completely random occurrence. He could’ve taken any small child, but I happened to be the one who was standing nearest to the exit that day at the public aquarium. I was no more than ten feet away from my father when I was suddenly ushered away by a tall, imposing form. The man looked important, dressed in a brown suit and a fedora. With luster in his grin he winked, as if to say that everything would be alright. I went with the man, all the while looking back at my father, who was too engrossed in one of the displays to notice that his only son was being ushered away.
The obvious question, the one I still ask myself to this day, is why I left so willingly with the man. I’ve replayed this moment many times in my head, and I’m still not really sure. I think, with the man being so important looking, I went with him simply because I’d been taught to respect authority. I called out weakly for my father, but I didn’t yell. There was an honest expectation that he would be following right behind us, but it turned out that I wouldn’t see him again for four years. Once outside in the sunlight, I could see that the man’s suit wasn’t as clean as it’d looked moments earlier, and his teeth weren’t quite as white. My stomach knotted up.
Solomon Longburke, though he tried to dress like a respectable citizen, was an evil, awful human being. He took me to a dwelling in the desert where he lived along with his pathetic wife. There, I was mistreated until I was nine years old. Most of what happened to me I’ve managed to block out of my memory. But from the parts I remember, I know was made to serve him and his wife. Ultimately, I was a stand-in for their deceased son, who himself had been abused and had passed away the year before. My psyche, rather than being gently molded by my father, was instead hammered into shape by that monster Longburke.
Eventually I was freed. Solomon got sloppy one day and brought me with him when he went to the store. The clerk only needed to glance once at my malnourished frame and the bruises on my arms before calling the police. The reunion with my father was a happy time for me, but it was probably one of the last times I felt true joy.
Once all the commotion surrounding my return faded away, and when all the police and reporters stopped asking me questions, there was a point where our lives regained a sense of ordinary. Unfortunately, it was only a very brief flirtation with normality, and I soon found that I was unable to connect with my father on any sort of affectionate level. I spent most of my time feeling angry towards him. I’d have flashbacks from the day of my kidnapping, and I’d remember how he’d been so enamored with that display that he couldn’t even bother to turn around and check on me. Whether justified or not, I blamed him for the years of torture that I’d suffered at the hands of Solomon. Eventually, my anger grew to the point where its origin wasn’t even important to me anymore. I was mad… just because I was mad. For his part, my father reacted with confusion at my outbursts, as if I was yelling in a language that was totally foreign to him.
Our special spot in the forest, Ohwayhee, never held the same magic for me, and I only returned there four times in total. The first return visit took place about three months after my rescue. I remember pouting for the entire duration of the car ride. Then, when we hiked in from our parking spot along the road, all I could do was complain about the stupidity of the task we were undertaking.
When we finally got to the spot, my father, like all the times before, encouraged me to listen. With nothing better to do, I closed my eyes and concentrated. I heard some common birds, and there was a breeze blowing through the leaves. But really, there was nothing special about what I heard. Nothing.
I shook my head in annoyance. “What am I supposed to hear?” I whined.
“The same things you heard when you were younger, the stories of our ancestors.”
“Don’t be stupid,” I said despairingly.
Despite my young age, disrespect such as that had started becoming more common with me. My father didn’t seem to mind my poor attitude so much; he seemed more concerned with the fact that I couldn’t hear whatever it was he thought I should be hearing.
I soon became thirsty and hungry, which was the first time that ever happened to me while visiting Ohwayhee. When I complained to my father, he simply encouraged me to wait. If I was patient, he told me, I’d reconnect with the land and everything would be better. That night was one of the most miserable of my life, not counting the nights I spent in the capture of Solomon Longburke. I sprawled upon the forest floor, cold and miserable. Bugs crawling over me tickled my skin and gave me shivers as my father slept peacefully nearby. In the morning, I screamed at him and demanded that he take me back home.
My relationship with my father was completely destroyed over the next few years. He had no idea how to deal with my explosive anger, and he’d meekly walk away from me when I got too loud. In my more reserved moments, he encouraged me to accompany him on his day trips, but I no longer had any interest in going to museums and other places where you were expected to be quiet. There were times when he proposed that we take a trip to a faraway land, so we could learn about foreign cultures: Egypt, Europe, Japan… anyplace I desired, but I didn’t want to do anything like that. And he never, ever stopped encouraging me to return to Ohwayhee, but I simply wouldn’t listen to him.
“Stop it!” I’d scream at him. “I don’t want to hear about that fucking forest!” At times, I would literally put my hands over my ears and start humming until he left me alone.
As I got to my early teenage years, I began leaving the house whenever I felt like it. I made new friends, which was a first for me, as my father and I had always led sheltered lives. With my earlier isolation, I’d never really learned the difference between a true friend and an acquaintance who’s absolutely, positively, no good for you. It’s an understatement to say that I didn’t choose my new relationships wisely, and these new colleagues exposed me to alternate pathways I never would’ve considered on my own. I don’t remember much about the first time I tried drugs. It was a hazy experience. However, I do remember that they made me feel better, for a little while. When I was high, memories of Solomon no longer dominated my daydreams, and my weakling father’s bothersome voice didn’t penetrate so deeply. I seemed to have a huge tolerance for whatever I put into my system, and I even saw people overdose and die from far smaller amounts than I myself would use on a normal basis.
I spent my adolescence mostly on the streets. During that time, I occasionally returned to my father’s house to shower, eat, and sleep off whatever drug I’d last ingested. If I found any cash, or anything I could sell, I’d take it with me before I left. My father never tried to stop me, and if I ever saw him, I would simply scream at him until he left me alone.
By my early twenties I’d managed to drastically curtail my drug use, mostly due to the lack of fulfillment that I felt in my life. Some of my anger had faded away, and the drugs no longer had such a big hole to fill. I found it much easier to reduce my substance abuse than any of my friends did. In fact, I did so at will, without any sort of withdrawal symptoms.
“You must be made of something different,” one of my astonished companions said to me after I was five days sober and fully functioning.
By the time I reached my late twenties, I’d been completely clean for a few years, and I’d found employment selling cheap junk to idiots at a kiosk in the mall. I hadn’t spoken to my father in at least ten years. That’s not to say he hadn’t tried to contact me, but I never answered his calls. My resentment towards him, and a sense of personal shame at my own behavior, ensured our estrangement.
It was his final message that caused me to reach out to him once again. His voice sounded emotional and despondent.
“Hi son.” There was a long pause where he seemed to be gathering his thoughts. “I guess I don’t have too much time left here. Please, I need you to go with me to Ohwayhee. It’s the most important trip you’ll ever make. The house, the car, the stock portfolios, they’ll be yours. I just need you to take me up there one time. Call me back.”
I didn’t want to see my father, nor did I want to go back to the forest, but his offer was too good to say no. The house? The money? I had no idea why he was offering those to me, but I figured he was probably dying. I called him up and said yes without even asking how he was doing. We agreed that I’d pick him up the next day, and that was the reason for my second return to Ohwayhee.
Seeing my father again, after so many years, was awkward. He’d aged substantially from when I’d last seen him. He hugged me when I got to his house, yet he struggled to bend his arms when he did so. I returned his embrace halfheartedly. His legs were stiff as he walked to the car, and any movement seemed painful for him. I wondered how well he’d do when it came time to park the car and hike in.
The drive was quiet. Even though I believed my father was probably dying, I didn’t bother to inquire about what was wrong with him. Large, dark scabs on his arms seemed to be stretching out from underneath his sleeves. They were impossible not to notice. I had no idea how much of his skin they covered, but it seemed to be quite a bit.
We parked the car and began our hike into the woods. My father actually did better than I expected, and the closer we got to our destination, the more energetic he became. By the time we arrived at Ohwayhee, he’d attained a brisk pace.
Once he was among the trees of his hallowed spot, he removed his shirt. I stared in surprise when I saw his chest, which was completely covered by the same scabby material that I’d seen on his arms. My father looked to the sky and took a deep, satisfied breath.
“This feels good,” he said as he continued to breathe in deeply. He lowered his gaze towards me. “Do you remember my lawyer, Carl?”
I nodded yes.
“Good, go see him when you get back. He’s not one of us, but he can be trusted. He’ll make sure everything gets transferred to you. It’s all been set up.”
My father bent down and removed his pants and shoes. The sight of his feet surprised me even more than the sight of his chest had. His toes no longer looked like toes at all. Instead, they were several inches long and vine-like. They’d wrapped themselves around his feet in what looked to be an unnatural and uncomfortable position. The relief on his face was visible as he flexed his lower limbs, and the vines that were once his toes spread out among the earth as he did so. I knew for a fact that his feet, in the past, had been quite normal. He was going through some sort of transformation.
“What’s going on with you?” I asked.
He gave an ironic smile and said, “Finally, you want to know.” He began shifting his bare feet back and forth, digging them into the earth. “It’s time for me to join our ancestors, just as you will one day too.”
I watched in awe as the giant scab that covered my father’s chest and arms appeared to grow further down towards his hands and his legs.
“Are you dying?” I asked.
“No, I’m not. In fact, I’ll live for another thousand years. I’m just ending this stage of my life, and moving on to the next.”
“Tell me what’s going on, Dad,” I demanded with a shaking voice.
He made a sweeping motion with his hand. “These trees, they’re our ancestors. Although calling them trees isn’t completely accurate, just like calling you human isn’t fully accurate.”
If I hadn’t been witnessing my father transforming before my eyes, I would’ve thought he was going crazy.
“So you’re telling me the trees in this forest used to be people?”
He nodded and explained, “not all the trees in the forest, just the ones in this area.”
The scab-like material continued to grow upon his body, and I finally realized that it looked more like tree bark than anything else.
He spoke with urgency as his transformation began to quicken. “This place is a repository of knowledge. The trees are interconnected. They’re speaking to one another, sharing their experiences and their wisdom.” He looked right into my eyes before continuing. “This place is alive in a way that you can’t imagine. When we’re in our human form, it’s our chance to learn and experience life’s offerings. Then, when it’s our time to transform, we bring our knowledge back to Ohwayhee, so we can share with the others.”
He stretched his arms towards the sky. I saw small green buds sprout from his fingertips. They were the beginnings of leaves.
He continued, “There was a time when you could hear your ancestors talk. You could feel their stories, and you lived their past adventures, but you lost that ability when you were taken away. You were too young, and gone too long.” His voice took a remorseful tone. “I tried to get you to reconnect. So many times, I tried to tell you, but you would never listen.”
“You’re like a sponge,” I told him.
His eyes perked up at this comment. He wanted to know what I meant.
I explained, “That day at the aquarium, I was looking at the sea sponges. When they’re in their larval form, they swim around the ocean, eating and growing. Then, they find a spot and anchor down, and they stay rooted to that spot for the rest of their lives.”
He smiled at this comparison. “So I guess you did learn something from our trips after all. I suppose it’s a little bit like that, but this is so much more.”
I shook my head, “No. You’re just a worthless sponge, and that’s something I’ll never be.”
“You don’t have a choice, son.”
I noticed some movement in the ground a few feet from my father. It looked as if something was trying to claw its way up to the surface. Suddenly, a small green hand breached the forest floor from below. With the exception of its color, it looked like the hand of an infant. I stepped back as a second small hand also pushed its way up.
With the pace of his words beginning to slow, my father went on, “There’s so much to explain to you, but not enough time. Just know that you must continue our cycle. You must raise a child.” He averted his eyes from mine and spoke his last words, “I hope you’re better at it than I was.”
I yelled at him, “Are you insane? I’m not raising some kid!”
The baby’s face broke through the earth, and it started to wail.
I began kicking at my father, or whatever it was he was becoming. His legs had grown far more solid, and they absorbed my blows with ease. I punched at his chest, and his barky growth cut into my skin.
“Why didn’t you protect me?” I screamed at him between punches, only stopping once the pain in my fists demanded that I do so.
The green infant wiggled fully free from the earth after a few minutes. Disgusted at the whole situation, I ignored it and stomped away, determined to get out of the forest as soon as possible. I quickened my pace as the baby cried louder behind me, but I couldn’t be bothered by its distress. Whatever it was, it wasn’t human, and it certainly wasn’t going to be my child. I got about a quarter of the way back to the car before I finally stopped. I turned and punched the nearest tree with my already bloody hand. Then, after screaming out loud, I turned around and headed back to where the baby had emerged.
It was still crying when I returned. The green color had mostly faded from its skin, and the baby looked nearly as human as I did. I cursed at the child for being such a burden to me, but I took off my sweatshirt and wrapped him up. He stopped crying for a moment as I held him, but he started again as I walked.
“Shut up!” I told it several times. I refused to make eye contact with it.
When we got back to my father’s car, which was actually mine at that point, I placed the baby on the back seat and drove away fast. Many miles later I passed a small roadside diner with a few patrons lingering inside. It was a good spot to leave the child; nobody was likely to see me, but somebody would come out shortly and find it. I parked and looked around to make sure there weren’t any potential interlopers spying on me. Then, I ran with the little bundle to the front of the diner and placed it on the ground.
“Maybe Solomon Longburke will find you one day too,” I said derisively to the baby. “When he does, tell him I said to fuck off.”
I left the child there and drove aimlessly for another hour, finally running across some shitty dive bar that looked like it could collapse at any moment. I went inside and lost my sobriety within two minutes.
My third return to Ohwayhee is the most regrettable of them all. It was only four weeks after my father had gone through his transformation. I’d spent nearly all that time putting various substances into my system, stopping only long enough to sign the papers that Carl the lawyer shoved in front of my face. I’d been virtually unable to sleep, and the handful of times I managed to pass out for more than ten minutes, I saw Solomon Longburke in my dreams, taunting me.
“C’mere,” he’d bark. “Do you really think you got away from me?” He cackled and wheezed as he spoke. I felt his firm hand coming to rest on my shoulder. “You’re just a piece of garbage. You’re not even human.” My bloodshot eyes would shoot open, and I’d be unhappily conscious once again.
I barely even remember asking my friend if I could borrow his truck for the trip to Ohwayhee, and I can only vaguely recall buying several jerry cans and filling them with gasoline. However, the hatred burning inside of me torched my soul in a way that can’t be forgotten, and it led me to the belief that all my problems would be solved if only Ohwayhee could be wiped off the face of the Earth.
Erase them. That was the plan. Then, I could never become one of them.
I drove there early in the morning. It took a long time to walk all the jerry cans into Ohwayhee, five trips in all. It was a colossal effort on my part that used up nearly all the daylight hours, but my single-mindedness allowed me to push through with the task. I guessed that the trees would have a natural fire resistance, but the gasoline would counter that nicely. After a short rest, I began spreading the fuel throughout. My efforts were concentrated on dousing the bases of the larger trees, knowing that once they were aflame, the smaller trees would have no chance.
Where they aware of my presence? I figured that they probably were. I took a brief moment to examine the tree that my father had become. He’d grown at least a foot taller in the weeks since I’d last seen him. His legs had fused completely together so that they formed one solid trunk, and smaller branches emanated from what were once his arms. His vague facial features were still identifiable,His though if a person didn’t know what to look for they would’ve missed them entirely.
It wasn’t until I’d dispersed all of the gasoline that I finally heard the trees again. They were confused. They were afraid. After so many years, I finally connected with emotions from them that were so raw, and so intense, that there was no possibility they could be muted.
Ancient voices invaded my consciousness, and I could feel their protests crushing my own thoughts. I stumbled as I tried to walk, and I knew there was only one way I could get them out of my mind. I walked to the edge of Ohwayhee, where the ancestral trees bordered along the rest of the forest. I took a final look back at them, with their silent horror throbbing in my head.
“I’ll never be one of you,” I said with disgust.
I ignited the lighter and threw it against the biggest tree, and the flames immediately surrounded its once proud trunk. Tongues of fire smacked their way up the huge base as I stood and watched. I could feel its agony, and the pain shot through my skull and bowled me over. The heat from the first tree reached across the gap to its nearest neighbor, and it too flamed up.
As I crawled away, the fire behind me spread from tree to tree, and their memories flitted through my brain. I envisioned an ancient people first stepping upon the land that became Ohwayhee. I saw adventurers from distant times exploring the far ends of the earth. Ripples from lives spent in search of truth and knowledge floated through my head. I felt the brotherhood and kinship that existed among the trees. These memories lingered in my mind for only a moment, then they were pushed aside forever by the final sense of sorrow that each of my ancestors felt as their lives were extinguished. Only vague imprints of their essence remained.
I picked myself up and ran as fast as I could. The final thing I heard from them, once Ohwayhee was well behind me and fully engulfed, was a collective scream that pierced my mind and knocked me down once again.
My fourth return didn’t happen for another twenty five years. I’d foolishly believed that if I destroyed Ohwayhee, I could live a normal human life. But now, the rough growth spreading across my chest has shown me otherwise. What I finally came to understand, and what I refused to consider then, is that joining my ancestors would’ve been a magnificent ascension, unlike anything a regular human could ever experience. It would’ve been something wonderful.
I’ve become a better person this past quarter of a century. When I was ready for it, sobriety found me again easily. With my not-quite-human constitution, the drugs never had hold of me the same way they might’ve with others. For years, I’d forced them on myself, yet when I decided I didn’t need them, the physical addiction simply wasn’t present. The years tempered my hate, and a natural wisdom slowly grew upon my blistered soul. The visions of Solomon Longburke stopped long ago, about three years after the man himself died in prison. I’ve made peace with what I’ve done, but I can never forgive myself, nor should anyone else be willing to forgive me, ever.
I’m naked, and I find myself standing here upon the ground that was once Ohwayhee. The land is dead, at least in the sense that it doesn’t talk to me anymore. It doesn’t feel, and it has no knowledge to speak of. Small trees and bushes populate the area, but they’re nothing special. I find a nice sunny spot and survey the land one last time with my human eyes, and a small smile graces my face as I think about what this place once was. I wiggle my feet back and forth to dig them into the dirt, and I can feel them growing down deep into the earth. I raise my arms to the sky. This is the point where I should be hearing a hundred happy salutations, but because of my actions all those years ago, there’s only silence.
I know I may be here alone for a thousand years or more, yet my despair momentarily switches to hope. Maybe, with my return, the earth with come back to life, and a new generation will be spawned forth. But then, I wonder, who’ll be around to rescue them and raise them? Mostly, I think of the man who was supposed to be my son. He’s still out there. I was never able to find him once I actually tried, but that was several years after I abandoned him. He’s made it to adulthood, somehow I can feel that he’s still alive, yet he can’t possibly know his true origin. It’s regrettable that he’s grown up without any sort of roadmap to what he’s supposed to become. He’ll go through this same transition one day too, but it will most likely be a time of terror for him. I focus my thoughts and try to reach out to him. He could be anywhere on Earth, and I simply don’t know if he can hear me. Still, I have nothing else to do. I’ll keep trying. Maybe he’ll just naturally be drawn to this place in the future.
My body starts to harden, and small leaves spring from my fingers. The sunlight feels good shining on me. I have hope, but for now, and possibly forever, I’m alone only with my thoughts.
The planetary survey was expected to take nine months. The surveyors, all carefully selected by The Company, would be on their own for the entire duration. Their goal was to locate valuable deposits on the unexplored planet, and hopefully, make money for their employer. A mobile construction crew had landed on the planet a week earlier to assemble their habitat, and had already moved on to the next planet by the time the surveyors arrived.
Their drop ship, the Stardust, was a small transport vessel manned by a captain and two crew members. The captain, Yasmala Teg, had been traveling through the near-lawless reaches of that sector for several years, transporting all sorts of surveyors to and from their destinations. Edward Ginbrauzer was her frequent passenger, and the one whom she was most fond of. She had transported him to his last five surveys, and had grown to understand his subtle humor and sly wit as much as anyone could. Despite his often distant demeanor, the two of them had formed a romantic relationship. He was quite the enigma to her – a man who seemed to prefer his relationships in small doses, yet was a selfless lover who always helped keep her bed warm. Though he never let her get too close, she took solace in her knowledge that the gentle man could never hurt her.
“I suppose he thinks our relationship is perfect as is,” she thought to herself as Ginbrauzer slowly woke up next to her. She looked out the window at the planet below while the man yawned and stretched out his arms. After a five day journey, they had reached their destination.
The planet she found herself staring at was earthlike in some ways, in that the length of a day and its gravitational force were nearly identical to that of home. There were striking differences though, most notably the very thin and poisonous atmosphere. Viewed from space, the surveyors and the crew seemed to think the surface looked like someone had swirled ketchup and mustard together. The Company didn’t have high hopes for the planet. In fact, hope was so limited that they hadn’t even bothered to name it, only giving it the designation of P12-348. It was a lifeless and desolate place. Still, they felt it merited at least a cursory look, so a minimal crew of three surveyors was given the assignment.
Upon touching down, Captain Teg took her time making sure the surveyors were settled in to their simple yet sturdy habitat. The Company certainly hadn’t overspent on the lodgings, but the basic structure would serve its purpose, and it provided each man with his own quarters. Once it was clear that the habitat was in perfect working order, she promised to return for them in nine months. As she went to board her ship, she made eye contact with Ginbrauzer one last time. He smiled at her and winked, but didn’t speak. She nodded and disappeared into the ship.
Soon, the men were alone. Between the three of them there was no official leader, which was common for such a small team. Per company policy, they were all carefully screened to make sure they had the correct personalities for their mission. There were no egoists among any of the survey teams. They were level headed, kind, and curious – perhaps even a little boring. They were expected to get along well enough and avoid squabbles. Decisions would be made by committee, and in the rare event that team members disagreed on something, compromise was expected. This formula had worked well for The Company, and there was no reason to expect anything different this time.
Of the three, Ginbrauzer was the longest serving, already having worked on six previous surveys. He considered himself the smartest of the three, and he knew that most of the technical chores would fall to him. Jed Collins was the second longest serving member, with four planetary surveys to his name, three of which had been served alongside Ginbrauzer.
The last member was someone new, Benedict Jasperson, a man on his first planetary survey. In Ginbrauzer’s assessment, Jasperson didn’t appear to be among the smartest of the surveyors he’d served with, not by a long shot. His size and strength would be his contribution. On paper, all three members were interchangeable with one another. Each one was trained in, and expected to be able to perform, every task, but in practice, team members were often specialized in their duties. As Ginbrauzer saw it, most of the heavy lifting and physical chores would be done by Jasperson. Collins would be the in-between guy, sometimes filling in on technical duties, and sometimes doing the physical work. It was no mistake that these three were assigned to work together. In many ways they complemented each other well.
The first four days went as expected. Ginbrauzer uplinked the computers to the satellites that had been left in orbit by the Stardust. He fed them instructions and plotted the most promising courses for them. They would map the planet’s surface, and the subsurface as well. Jasperson spent his days in the runabout, exploring the planet’s valleys and peaks in person. Even with all the technology available, there was still no substitute for getting outside and surveying with one’s own eyes. Collins went about setting up the analyzers, replicators and other various machines.
It wasn’t long though, until Jasperson really began to stand out. His personality was unlike any of the other surveyors Ginbrauzer had ever worked with. He was friendly, amiable, and talkative. That’s not to say that the others hadn’t been nice, but there was a distinct and noticeable difference. Jasperson made it a point to ask the other men about themselves, about their families, and about their dreams for the future. He was always smiling, and his big, lumbering form made him look like a proverbial gentle giant. When he wasn’t working, or regaling the other men with his stories, he spent his time writing in his old style, hand-written journal. It was a very curious attribute, Ginbrauzer thought, to journal in such a primitive way. Jasperson wrote in it every night, and though Ginbrauzer and Collins both thought it to be an odd habit, neither of the men bothered to ask him what he was writing about.
After all of the equipment had finally been set up and calibrated, and a rudimentary map of the surface had been completed, it was Jasperson who broke out with a bottle of whiskey and encouraged the other men to celebrate their accomplishment. Consumption of alcohol was against company policy, but Jasperson had snuck it onto the planet none-the-less.
“Time to celebrate, boys!” he told them.
Ginbrauzer considered the offer. He really had no need for that type of fraternization with his colleagues, but at the same time, he was growing fond of the dumb, hard working giant who was in front of him holding the bottle. He agreed to one drink. Collins was game too, so that night the three men sat down in the common room and shared the bottle. Ginbrauzer, as it turned out, ended up taking far more than one drink. As the bottle emptied, and the whiskey had its way with the men, the conversation flowed.
Looking at Jasperson, Ginbrauzer spoke in slightly slurred words. “Tell me, Jasperson, why are you so nice? You’re just so talkative.” He took a drink then slammed down the glass. “I guess nobody told you that you wouldn’t fit in with this company.”
“It’s just how I am Gin,” Jasperson replied with his smile. “It’s how I’ve always been.”
“Bullshit!” Ginbrauzer shouted louder than he intended. “C’mon, nobody who chooses to work in deep space is THAT nice. Tell us, what are your secrets? You gotta have something. C’mon Jas, confession is good for the soul.”
Collins nodded in agreement.
Jasperson took the bottle to his lips, and tossing his head all the way back, finished it. “Looks like we’re done here, fellas.” He smiled mischievously.
The three men laughed, but soon a silence settled over the room. With the alcohol making their eyelids heavy, Ginbrauzer and Collins began to doze off, not even making the effort to find the way to their personal quarters.
Despite the fact that he’d consumed over half the bottle, Jasperson seemed less affected than the others. Once they passed out, he wrote in his journal, then he too closed his eyes for the night, sleeping in the common room with the other two men.
A couple of hours later Ginbrauzer woke up. He stumbled to the bathroom to relieve himself, then slowly wandered back to where the other two men were sleeping. He noticed that Jasperson, who was spread out on the couch, had his journal lying across his chest. Normally, Ginbrauzer respected everyone’s privacy, but still a little drunk, he couldn’t help but wonder what kinds of things Jasperson had written down. Who was this enigma lying before him?
“This guy just doesn’t fit in here,” Ginbrauzer thought as he slowly lifted the journal from Jasperson’s chest. Sitting down, he began flipping through the pages, his eyes taking longer than usual to focus on the writing. With the room spinning around him, he was only able to read bits and pieces, but what he saw concerned him.
I’m so bored. I really need some excitement around here.
Can’t stand it, gonna snap soon.
I’m really trying. It’s just so dull. Ginbrauzer is nice but boring. Collins is so bland.
Ginbrauzer was confused. How could Jasperson have possibly made it past The Company’s psychological screening process? Someone like him, who got bored after five days, should’ve been flagged well before he was ever sent on a survey. Still, at that moment, he was too tired and too drunk to give it much more thought. He carefully closed the journal and gently placed it back on Jasperson’s chest. Jasperson snored peacefully. Ginbrauzer walked slowly to his quarters and passed out for the rest of the night on his bed.
The morning was a blur for Ginbrauzer. He awoke hung over and grumpy, and Collins didn’t look too much better. Still, The Company wasn’t paying them to sit around nursing their hangovers, the work had to continue. The three men decided that Jasperson and Collins would take the runabout to a distant outcropping that showed some promise. Together, they’d use a drill to check several hundred meters below the surface. Ginbrauzer was thankful for the opportunity to stay back and analyze the satellite feeds, and he closed himself in the upstairs tech room with the lights low.
Jasperson and Collins entered into the airlock and loaded the runabout with their equipment. They double checked the integrity of their exploration suits and then shut the door between the habitat and the airlock. Once the airlock depressurized, they opened the outside door and headed towards their destination. From the tech room on the second level, Ginbrauzer watched out the window as they slowly disappeared. Jasperson could still be heard cracking jokes over the radio, and Ginbrauzer soon turned the volume down so he could concentrate. An eerie calm fell over the habitat, and Ginbrauzer became lost in his work.
The two men were expected to be gone eight hours, so Ginbrauzer was surprised, when only four hours later, he saw the runabout come flying back over the horizon.
“Why are they moving so fast?” he wondered.
Ginbrauzer reached over and turned up the volume on the communicator, and Jasperson’s desperate voice came through.
“Gin! Gin! Can you hear me?”
Ginbrauzer responded to the call. “Yeah, what’s wrong?”
“Meet me in the airlock! Collins… he’s dead, man. He’s dead.”
Ginbrauzer bolted up in his seat, then ran down the stairs towards the airlock. He watched through the window as Jasperson skillfully maneuvered the runabout inside. In the back of the vehicle he could see Collins’ bloody body. His protective suit was torn open and his helmet was cracked. The outside door closed, and Ginbrauzer waited several agonizing minutes as the airlock pressurized. When it was safe, Ginbrauzer opened the inside door and ran to the runabout. Looking closely at the body, he could see that Collins’ head had been cracked open. By what, he didn’t know.
Jasperson spoke first, “A boulder landed on top of him. I couldn’t stop it.” His voice was shaking, then he addressed Collins as if he was still alive. “Oh man Collins, I’m so sorry.”
Ginbrauzer looked at the body of his friend. Collins had been a good man, and he deserved a better fate than having some rock land on his head. Ginbrauzer had always enjoyed working with Collins. He’d been reliable and friendly, and he even had a good sense of humor once someone got to know him.
They cleaned the body as best they could and placed it in a new exploration suit. Per company policy, the body was stored outside, a short distance from the habitat. It would be retrieved when the drop ship returned.
Jasperson explained that Collins had set up the drill under an outcropping of rocks. When the drill started, the whole area shook and a large boulder came loose. Jasperson saw it fall, but couldn’t warn Collins in time. Ginbrauzer cursed at his dead friend for being so careless.
That evening, Ginbrauzer used the long-range communicator to send a message to The Company – Collins; ID #2545-49; deceased. The brief message didn’t seem like a proper way to pay tribute to his friend, but the communicator required an extraordinary amount of power, and even a small message could nearly deplete the battery banks, which would then take several days to fully recharge. The message would reach The Company headquarters in a few days. If they followed standard procedure, they would eventually send a replacement for Collins, but he had no idea how long that would take. He couldn’t imagine that this expedition, with its unpromising nature and remote location, would rank too high on their list of priorities.
The next few days passed by uneventfully. Jasperson continued with his amiable ways, seemingly unaffected by the death of his coworker. Every night he wrote in his journal, and Ginbrauzer could hear the loud strokes as they swept across the paper. Both men worked extra hours to make up for the loss of their companion, but Ginbrauzer managed a few moments to reflect on his situation. He still wasn’t sure how someone with Jasperson’s personality wound up on their mission. What the hell was he writing about every night? And the question that bothered him most of all, why would Collins, a man with years of experience, make the rookie mistake of setting up a drill beneath an outcropping?
Even though it was unlike Ginbrauzer to become nosy and meddlesome, there was nothing typical about the survey that was unfolding around him. With that thought, he finally allowed his curiosity to get the better of him. While Jasperson was out in the runabout, Ginbrauzer stepped carefully into his room and spotted the giant man’s journal on the bedside table. Picking it up, he perused through the pages until he landed on the entry from day six, apparently written shortly after Collins had died. His mouth dropped when he saw it. It wasn’t a typical journal entry. It was a letter, written to him.
Hi Gin. I was awake last night when you read my journal. You thought I was asleep. You were wrong. It’s okay, I’m not mad. In fact, I think it presents me with a unique opportunity since I figure there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll try to read my journal again at some point. Remember what you said to me, that confession is good for the soul? Well I’ve been thinking about that, and I’ve come to believe that you’re probably right. So here it is, I killed Collins, and it was fun. It was just a sudden urge that I tried to resist, but once I gave in, I can’t even begin to describe how much I enjoyed it. I know you’ve never killed anyone, but you should really try it. It’s the best feeling in the world, and despite what you’re probably thinking right now, I bet you would really get off on it. Just bringing that rock down on his head again and again made me so happy. It was only afterward, seeing how it affected you, that I began to feel bad, but I’m already starting to feel better just writing this down. It’s like a burden has been lifted off of me, I’m even smiling as I write this.
So what do we do now, Gin? I’ll tell you what we do, you put this journal down and you pretend like you never read it. Beautiful, right? I get to confess, and you get to live. And just so we’re clear, if I find out that you know my secret, I’ll have to kill you too. But I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt Gin, and I’m going to assume that you’re not actually reading this. You’re the only friend I have right now, so let’s keep it that way.
Ginbrauzer read the passage seven times, absorbing its contents as a sense of dread overcame him. There were no other notes to him in the rest of the journal.
“This has to be a joke,” he thought, but in his gut he knew the truth.
With his hand shaking, he carefully placed the journal back on the table, leaving it in the position he found it in.
A million thoughts raced through his mind…
He’ll never let me off of this planet alive.
He’s just playing with me.
I don’t want to die.
I should’ve told Yasmala I love her.
A few minutes later the sound of the approaching runabout filled the habitat. Ginbrauzer resolved himself to act normal. He looked himself over in the bathroom mirror and used his hands to straighten his clothing. He took a deep breath.
After clearing the airlock, Jasperson entered the common area. “Hey Gin! Man, gotta tell you, there’s nothing out there but common rocks.”
Ginbrauzer nodded his head in agreement and forced a little laugh. He could feel a small bead of sweat forming on his forehead.
Jasperson sat on the couch and put his feet up, “I’m gonna sleep good tonight. You should really get out of the habitat more, Gin. You’ll sleep so much better if you’re physically active.”
Ginbrauzer nodded again.
Jasperson looked at him closely, “You okay, Gin?”
Ginbrauzer nodded, “Yeah, I was just thinking about Collins. I miss him.”
The smile fell from Jasperson’s face. For several moments he stared straight at Ginbrauzer. “Yeah right, Collins. I almost forgot about him.” Suddenly, his voice became animated. “But hey, if you miss him he’s right out there!” Jasperson let out a laugh and pointed out the window to the small bump just a short distance from the habitat.
Ginbrauzer didn’t know how to respond, and simply looked at the floor.
Jasperson stopped laughing. “Sorry Gin. That was a shitty joke.”
“That’s okay. I think I’m going to go to sleep now.”
Ginbrauzer walked to his bedroom as Jasperson protested behind him, “Hey, stay up a little while and play a game with me.”
A thought, one he couldn’t verbalize, popped into Ginbrauzer’s head – We’re already playing a game, you stupid bastard.
Ginbrauzer had lived in terror for days, constantly having to remind himself to act as if he didn’t know that he was living with a vicious killer. Forced smiles, meaningless pleasantries, casual conversations – they all became harrowing chores for him. He toyed with the idea that he should sneak up on Jasperson and attack him, and hopefully incapacitate him with a single blow. But the truth was that Ginbrauzer was too much of a coward to do so. Jasperson outweighed him by at least forty-five kilos, and Ginbrauzer knew he would stand very little chance in an outright brawl, even if he went with a surprise attack. Still, it was an option that he kept under consideration, mostly because he knew that most likely, Jasperson would eventually have to kill him no matter what. It would simply be too much of a risk for Jasperson to let him off of the planet alive. He decided, for the time being, to go along with Jasperson’s game until he could think of a better plan. One idea he’d already discarded was sending a message to The Company and telling them about Jasperson’s murderous ways. “Too risky,” he thought. Jasperson would most likely notice the drop in battery power and become suspicious. Regardless, The Company would already be sending out a ship.
Ginbrauzer awoke to find Jasperson standing next to his bed.
“Good morning, Ginbrauzer,” Jasperson said in a monotone voice.
Ginbrauzer shot up. “What are you doing in here?” The fear in his voice was obvious.
“Relax, my friend.” Jasperson’s voice was strangely calm and slow. Then without answering Ginbrauzer’s question, he continued, “I’m going to take the runabout to check out another spot on the western plains. It’ll be a long day for me.”
Ginbrauzer nodded his understanding.
Jasperson turned and left the room, and with his voice suddenly regaining its natural charm, he yelled over his shoulder, “See ya tonight, Gin!”
Ginbrauzer stayed in bed until he heard the airlock open and the runabout speed away. He got up and forced himself to eat breakfast, even though his stomach felt like it was tied in knots. As he walked past Jasperson’s open bedroom, he glanced inside and saw the journal. It had been placed on the nightstand and balanced upright, so that it was standing on its edge. Its white cover stood out in the darkened room. Jasperson had never left his journal in such a position before. It was there to draw his attention, Ginbrauzer knew it.
For an hour, Ginbrauzer argued with himself about whether he should read the journal or not. The strange combination of fear and curiosity swirled in his mind. He didn’t want to play Jasperson’s game anymore, but he knew he was already sucked in whether he read it or not. Finally, he darted over to the journal and picked it up. He flipped it open and found another page addressed to him.
Hi Gin! Did you read my journal the other day? When I got back it seemed like you were trying to hide something. I considered killing you right there on the spot. I’m glad I didn’t, because right now you’re my only friend, and I hate when I have to kill my friends. For now, I’m just going to assume that you didn’t read it. I know you’re probably still shaken up over the whole Collins mess, so that’s what’s got you acting all weird. Right? Please, if you are reading this, don’t let me know. It’s quite therapeutic for me to unload all of this on you, but I can’t take the chance that I’m really, and truly, letting you peek into my mind. Gin, I want you to know that I never wanted any of this to happen. I came out here with every intention of working hard and being good. But even more so, I needed to get far away from some people who were coming to realize the type of person I really am. Do you know how hard it was for me to get past the psych evaluation? I had to let that bitch of a psychologist probe my mind. I thought I had her fooled, but she was very good. She seemed to know I wasn’t right for this type of work. She’s actually the one who suggested that I start writing my thoughts down in a journal. She said it would help keep my mind occupied when I got bored. I never got the chance to tell her it worked, because I killed her once I realized she was going to deny my application. It’s too bad, she was stunning. She dressed sharp and wore some great jewelry. In fact, I have a diamond ring of hers in my drawer, it’s beautiful. You should really look at it when you get the chance.
There was still more to read, but Ginbrauzer paused at that point. He remembered hearing about the disappearance of one of The Company’s psychologists a couple of months earlier. Nobody had a clue about what had happened to her.
He looked down at the nightstand and its unlocked drawer. Slowly and methodically, he lowered his hand and opened it. Inside he found only one thing, a sealed plastic bag. Inside the bad was a diamond ring. And the diamond ring? It was still being worn by a dried, severed finger. Ginbrauzer gasped and dropped the bag to the floor. His breathing increased as he looked around to make sure he was still alone. He was. Collecting himself, he reached down, retrieved the bag from the floor, and placed it carefully back inside the drawer. He closed it and went back to the journal.
The next psychologist liked me quite a bit more. She was easy to manipulate, she never even knew who was really in charge. She gave me a terrific recommendation, and she was a great lay, too. So here I am. Out here, far away where my past can’t catch up to me so easily. And I want you to know Gin, I’m trying. I want to be good, but sometimes, that’s just so boring.
Ginbrauzer carefully placed the journal back in the position he had found it. Then he did the only thing he could do, he tried his best to forget what he’d just read and got to work.
Jasperson made his way back to the habitat towards the end of the day. His loud, amiable voice boomed through the room. “I tell ya, Gin. There’s nothing valuable out there at all. The Company didn’t have too much hope for this stupid rock, and they were right.”
Ginbrauzer nodded his head and reminded himself to act normal.
Jasperson continued, “You know how lucky you are? You get to sit in here all day, not really lifting a finger.” He chuckled. “It’s okay though, I really like flying around in that runabout.”
Ginbrauzer’s ears perked up. Maybe he had imagined it, but there had been a very slight emphasis when Jasperson spoke the word finger. He suddenly felt nauseous.
“I think I need to lie down. I don’t feel so well,” Ginbrauzer said.
Jasperson’s wide smile instantly fell from his face, only to be replaced by a serious look that spread across his visage. “Is that so?”
“Yeah. I just need a nap.”
Jasperson stared intently for several seconds, then his smile instantly returned. “Okay, you go lay down. By the way, there’s another outcropping out to the East that I’m going to check out tomorrow. I’ll probably leave early. So I’ll see you when I get back.”
Ginbrauzer mumbled his assent and headed to his quarters.
Ginbrauzer awoke alone in the habitat. As he walked into the common area he glanced into Jasperson’s quarters, almost as a reflex. The first thing he noticed was that the journal was once again left out in the open. It was lying on top of the crisply made bed. The diamond ring (sans the finger) was placed on top of it. Jasperson was becoming more and more emboldened with this game of his, and Ginbrauzer wondered how much longer it would be before he was killed.
Ginbrauzer glared at the journal. He wanted to destroy it. He wanted to read it. In the end, he left it in its place. “I’m done with this, Jasperson,” he muttered under his breath.
He went to the tech room and began his work for the day, though he wondered if there was any point in doing so. Slowly, he started focusing on the screens in front of him. It wasn’t until late afternoon that he noticed something was amiss on the computer. The logs recorded that an incoming message had been received five days earlier, but when he went to look for the message itself, it was missing entirely. It had been erased.
Someone from the outside, probably The Company, had contacted them. Whatever they said, Jasperson didn’t want him to see it. He thought back to the journal. Was it possible that there would be some mention of the deleted message somewhere within its pages? Despite having the opportunity to do so, he had yet to thoroughly go through all of the journal’s entries. He cursed Jasperson for his actions, and then half-heartedly walked down the stairs and into the other man’s quarters. He carefully moved the ring from atop the journal and placed it on the bed. He flipped through it, looking to see if the information he sought was in there. There was no mention of the deleted message, but on the last page, he found another note addressed to him.
Hello Gin! Things have been a little boring here lately, haven’t they? So with that, I have a little challenge for you, and I think it will be fun for both of us! Here it is, when I get back later, I’m going to say something completely innocuous. Just a little meaningless phrase. Let’s go with, “The sky is beautiful today.” When I say that, can you act as if it’s just a pointless bit of banter? Or, will you start to stutter and sweat? Will your eyes look away from me as you try your best to pretend that I haven’t just triggered your survival instinct? Will the tone of your voice change as you try your best to swallow the bile and fear coming up from your throat? We’ll find out! Let’s see how normal you can act when you know your every subtle nuance is being studied, that is of course, assuming you’ve actually read this. If you haven’t, then you’ll have no discernible reaction, and no problems! Last thing, Gin, regardless of what happens, it’s been fun knowing you. I honestly did want this new life to work out. I guess my biggest failing is my inability to change who I really am.
Ginbrauzer flung the journal across the room in anger. It hit the wall and bent at the corner. Jasperson’s challenge seemed simple enough on the surface. Don’t stutter, don’t sweat, don’t hesitate, don’t answer too fast, don’t blink – just respond normally when he mentions the beautiful sky, but Ginbrauzer knew his nerves would make it much more difficult than that, especially if Jasperson really was as observant as he seemed to think he was. Finally, his emotions took over. He ran over to where the journal had fallen to the floor and stomped on it. Fear and anger fueled him as he picked the book up and beat it against the wall. He collapsed on Jasperson’s bed for a minute; he knew he was as good as dead.
He stormed back up to the tech room, determined to send a message to The Company telling them that Jasperson was a murderer. The game was ending, so it no longer mattered if Jasperson knew he sent a message or not. It wouldn’t help him personally, but at least it might make it so Jasperson would one day have to answer for his crimes. He turned on the long-range communicator and instantly saw blinking red lights.
“Shit!” Ginbrauzer yelled as he suddenly realized that the communicator wasn’t functioning. He removed the cover and saw that some of the internal workings had been removed. “That son of a bitch!” he screamed out.
Out the window he could see Jasperson’s runabout returning to the habitat, a trail of red dust was kicked up in its wake. Ginbrauzer felt a moment of desperation. He had no place to hide, and he couldn’t possibly outmuscle Jasperson. He looked along the wall of the tech room, where he saw the protective exploration suits hanging. His only chance of survival would be to leave the habitat. Even with a suit on he wouldn’t survive more than a day, but it would give him time to hopefully think of a plan to defeat Jasperson.
He quickly began putting the suit on. Its batteries were at full power, which meant twenty hours of air for him. If he could manage to get into the runabout, that would provide him with even more life support. He knew that it would be impossible for him to move quietly with the suit on. He would have to wait for Jasperson to go to his quarters, then run out as fast as he could.
He could hear the outer airlock doors opening, and the runabout slowly moved to the inside. The airlock filled with air again, and the inner door opened. Ginbrauzer remained upstairs in the tech room, standing as still as possible.
He could hear Jasperson’s voice from downstairs. It was as cheerful as ever. “Hey Gin, look at this rock sample I found! I don’t think it has much value, but it’s got some interesting patterns you should look at.”
Ginbrauzer heard Jasperson walk towards his quarters. If he hadn’t yet seen that his journal had been damaged, he would notice it in the next few seconds. He heard a mighty thump come from the downstairs area, as if a large object had been dropped. The heavy footsteps left Jasperson’s quarters and quickly moved towards Ginbrauzer’s room. Ginbrauzer knew he only had a few seconds before the maniac would check for him upstairs. He bolted down the flight as quickly as the suit would allow him. As he ran into the common area, he noticed the heavy, yellow rock that had been dropped by Jasperson. It was the size of his head. He glanced at it only a moment and then kept running, unsure if Jasperson was following him or not.
Behind him, Jasperson’s loud voice rang out from the other side of the room. “Hey!”
Ginbrauzer stopped just shy of the airlock door.
“The sky is beautiful today, isn’t it?” Jasperson’s voice was eerily monotone.
Ginbrauzer didn’t speak, and he refused to turn around.
Jasperson spoke again. “I said, the sky, it’s beautiful today. Don’t you think?” He gave a slight chuckle.
There was only dead silence in the habitat. To Ginbrauzer, the quietness seemed to last for a minute, though it was probably only a few seconds. The complete absence of sound was eventually broken by the methodical footsteps of Jasperson as he walked over to the rock he’d just dropped. Ginbrauzer, who still hadn’t turned and faced Jasperson, made a desperate lunge for the button that would open the airlock door. The door whisked open, and in one swift movement he dove inside the airlock and pushed the second button that would shut the door behind him. As it began to close, he turned and saw Jasperson walking quickly towards him. All of his teeth were showing through his goofy smile, but his steps had a sinister, rapid gait. The door closed only seconds before Jasperson got to it. Ginbrauzer quickly latched the helmet on his exploration suit and then immediately pushed a third button that began evacuating the air out of the chamber. He was safe, the inside door couldn’t be opened once the evacuation procedure had begun. He could hear Jasperson repeatedly slam his fist into the door. The heavy door vibrated with each punch, but it was strong and couldn’t break easily.
Ginbrauzer breathed a sigh of relief and went over to examine the runabout. After Jasperson’s latest excursion, its batteries were only at quarter power. That didn’t matter, it was enough to get him away from danger. A minute later the outer airlock door opened and he drove several meters out of the building. He stopped for a moment and looked back at the habitat. Through one of the windows he could see Jasperson standing in the common room, staring back at him. Jasperson waved, smiled, and made a friendly looking gesture for Ginbrauzer to return. Ginbrauzer turned again and drove off towards the horizon, to a spot where he could no longer see the habitat.
He stopped and took a moment to assess his situation. He couldn’t stay out of the habitat indefinitely, his suit, and the runabout, would only offer him life support for so long. He would have to think of a way to get back inside, but no ideas came to him. As he sat in the runabout contemplating his fate, he was startled when a large shape passed over him in the sky. He shot a look upwards and immediately recognized the outline, it was the Stardust, and it was headed towards the habitat.
“The message…” Ginbrauzer whispered. “Yasmala…” He shook his head back and forth as he slowly began to realize what the erased message must have said. It had been the Stardust letting them know when it was going to arrive with a replacement for Collins. It was no coincidence that Jasperson had chosen that day to end his game. Ginbrauzer turned the runabout around and headed towards the habitat as fast as the vehicle would take him. Yasmala and her crew were all in danger, but he was at least fifteen minutes away.
As he approached the habitat, he could see the form of the Stardust perched on the landing platform atop the structure. A transport tube, which allowed the crew direct access to the inside, extended from below the ship. Ginbrauzer became more concerned when he saw that all of the habitat lights were out. It was dark inside and out, and only its silhouette showed up against the setting sun and the dusky yellow sky. The darkness indicated either a full electrical failure, or that somebody had intentionally powered the habitat down.
He pulled up next to the building and carefully stepped from the runabout. Walking with trepidation, he moved up to the window and looked inside. The common room was dimly lit by the setting sun. He could see a small form moving through the room, which he quickly recognized as Bannon, one of the Stardust’s crewmembers. Bannon held a small flashlight in his hand, though most of the light was lost within the cavernous room. Ginbrauzer banged his fist against the window, but the solid structure absorbed his blows easily and he went unseen by Bannon. Suddenly, Ginbrauzer noticed something else moving within the habitat. Slowly, out of the shadows, the mammoth shape of Jasperson moved up behind Bannon. Ginbrauzer tried to scream, he tried to warn the crewmember of the danger right behind him. Jasperson, who was only a few steps behind Bannon, turned and looked at Ginbrauzer. Even in the dim light his toothy smile showed bright. In only an instant, the smile dropped from his face and his hands shot out as he grabbed Bannon by the neck, pulling him in. With a quick jerk, he turned Bannon’s head all the way around. Bannon’s lungs let out one last breath as he died with a surprised look on his face. Jasperson dropped the body to the ground, and apparently not feeling as if he’d completed his task, he picked up the large yellow rock and brought it down on Bannon’s head. Blood splattered all over the room as the rock smashed into the dead man’s skull.
Though Ginbrauzer couldn’t hear what was happening inside, he knew the sound of the slamming rock must have been loud. Two people ran down the stairs from the tech room and Ginbrauzer’s heart sank when he recognized Yasmala. Hack, the ship’s other crewman, was with her.
“Go back!” he screamed uselessly. “Leave!”
Jasperson once again disappeared into the shadows. In the near darkness, it took a moment for the two shipmates to register what had happened to Bannon. Yasmala peered closer and closer at the form on the ground. From outside, Ginbrauzer could see her turn away in shock as she realized her crewman was dead. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Ginbrauzer frantically waving his arms and pointing to the darkened corner into which Jasperson had faded. She turned to look just as Jasperson emerged from the shadows. Taking giant, quick steps, he had the rock held high above his head, which he then brought down on Hack’s skull before the crewman even knew what was going on. Hack collapsed from the strike and blood flowed from his nose. He was dead.
Yasmala screamed as Jasperson grabbed her by her shirt and pulled her towards him. He paused, as if to contemplate his next move, then he punched her with his big meaty hand. The force of the blow was sufficient to knock her unconscious, and she fell to the ground as Jasperson loosened his grip on her shirt. With the woman temporarily incapacitated, Jasperson picked up Hack’s body and carried it in front of him to the window where Ginbrauzer was standing. He smiled and used Hack’s limp hand to wave at Ginbrauzer. He dropped the body and began laughing uncontrollably.
Ginbrauzer had seen more than he wanted. With no real plan of action, he got back into the runabout and drove off again over the horizon, feeling thoroughly defeated. Yasmala was still alive, but there was nothing he could do for her at that moment.
He stayed away overnight, until the sunlight slowly began creeping back over the horizon. After an uncomfortable night spent in the runabout, he accepted that there was no further point in staying away. No plan he could think of would be even remotely successful in saving his life. He would try to reason with Jasperson, maybe even make a bargain for Yasmala’s life, but he knew there was virtually no chance of that working. Still, a quick death at Jasperson’s hands might actually be preferable to the drawn out death that awaited him outside the habitat.
He turned the runabout around and headed back. On his return approach he noticed that, unexpectedly, the Stardust was gone. The power to the habitat was still out. He made a circle around the building to make sure that Jasperson wasn’t waiting outside in an exploration suit. He saw nothing. He parked the runabout outside the common room window and looked inside. The bodies of Bannon and Hack were on the floor and blood was everywhere, but there was no sign of Jasperson or Yasmala.
With the power out, the door to the airlock wouldn’t open for him automatically. He would have to open it manually. Stepping down from the runabout, he reached underneath it and retrieved a large metal crank that could be used, in a power failure situation, to open the airlock doors. He approached the outer door, but he stopped when he saw something moving in the airlock through the window. It was a person, but it was too small to be Jasperson.
It was that moment that Ginbrauzer understood the final move of Jasperson’s game. Yasmala was inside the airlock, alive. There was still plenty of air for her, but with the power outage she had no way of opening the inside door and getting back into the living quarters. The inside door could be manually cranked open too, but it was unlikely that Jasperson had left a crank in there for her. There was no protective suit for her to put on. If Ginbrauzer was to get back inside, he’d have to expose Yasmala to the thin, poisonous atmosphere of the awful planet they were on. If he did that, she would be dead in fifteen seconds or less.
Ginbrauzer considered his options. He could survive outside in his suit and in the runabout for several more hours. Eventually, his power would run low, his oxygen recycler would stop working, and he would die. Taking into account the size of the airlock, and the fact that life support had been down for several hours, Ginbrauzer estimated Captain Teg had about twenty-five hours of breathable air left, then, she too would die.
“I can do nothing, and we both die. I can do something, and only she dies,” Ginbrauzer reasoned with himself.
He made eye contact with Yasmala through the airlock window and held up the crank. He pointed at it, and then back at Yasmala. She understood that he was asking, “Do you have one?” She shook her head no. He pressed the palm of his gloved hand up to the window, and on the other side, she did the same.
He waited hours, hoping that another solution would present itself, but there was no change in the situation. Eventually, the warning lights on his suit came on, and he knew he had to act.e He picked the crank up from the surface of the planet. Inside the airlock, Yasmala could see the indicator lights flashing on his suit, and she knew exactly what was happening.
“It’s the only way,” he mouthed to her through the window, though he was saying it to himself as much as he was to her.
He saw the momentary panic on her face, but she regained her composure and resolutely nodded her head as if to say, “It’s okay.”
They both stared into each other’s eyes one final time, and he remembered when he’d last held her in his arms. Resigned to the fate that awaited Yasmala, he bent down so that he could stick the end of the crank into the small hole near the bottom of the doorway. Out of the corner of his eye, he could still see Yasmala standing silently in the airlock. He turned away entirely to avoid looking at her again.
He took a deep breath and began turning the crank. He saw dust kick up as the door slowly raised and the air shot out into the planet’s thin atmosphere. Yasmala was pushed up against the door by the force of the escaping air. As it continued to rise up, Ginbrauzer could see her face peek through the widening slit between the door and the ground. Her eyes bulged out, and she had a look of absolute horror pasted over her features. She might have been screaming, but it was also possible that it was simply the air being ripped from her lungs against her will. She thrashed several times before she became still, and as the door continued to rise, her lifeless body rolled outside onto the dusty ground.
Ginbrauzer cried in his suit. “Forgive me, Yasmala,” he lamented. The moisture fogged the visor of his helmet, but he continued on. The door was high enough for him to crawl under. Once inside, he pulled Yasmala’s body back inside, then he inserted the crank into another square hole and slowly closed the door. He went through the inside door in the same manner. He was no longer afraid of Jasperson. The Stardust was gone, and Jasperson was the only possible pilot.
In the tech room, he found the battered corpse of a man who he didn’t know. Collins’ replacement, probably. He carefully stepped over the body to the consul and restored power. The habitat’s systems came back online. Ginbrauzer removed his suit and walked down to the common room. Among all the blood and carnage, he saw Jasperson’s beaten journal placed on the middle of the table. He sighed, and even while shaking his head as if to say “no”, he picked up the journal and read the entry that he knew would be waiting for him.
Hello Killer! Did you like that little bit of fun that I left for you? Admit it, you enjoyed it just a tad, didn’t you? I have to say, you surprised me by running out like that. I figured a boring little thing such as yourself would stick around and try to talk your way out of it. I was really going to enjoy slamming that rock into your head, but as it is, I had a great time killing those others in your place. They could still be alive, you know, all four of them. I wasn’t planning that massacre, but with you still running around alive out there, I really had no choice. Or maybe, I actually was planning to kill everyone! I’ll just leave it for you to figure out which one is the truth. I have to say Ginbrauzer, I’ve learned a lot about myself these last two weeks. I know now that I should embrace who I really am. The funny thing is, I was actually good at this job, probably better than you. Did you know that I found a very valuable outcropping over on the western plains? It’s true, and I’m sure there’s more. This planet is probably one of the most valuable resources in this sector, and now, it’s ALL YOURS! Too bad for The Company though, as far as they’re concerned, they’ll receive a message from the Stardust that all hands on this planet were lost due to unforeseen seismic activity. Then, the Stardust itself will eventually disappear in space. I seriously doubt that they’ll send another team out here. They’ve already invested way too much on this “valueless” rock, and you know how cheap they really are. So it’s a new start for both of us. Enjoy your life, Ginbrauzer, I’m sure that one day I’ll come back and see you. Maybe I’ll kill you, or maybe I’ll just say hi. I suppose it will depend on how I feel at the time. Until then, take care, my friend.
Ginbrauzer let the book fall to the floor as he contemplated his situation. Jasperson had been right about one thing, The Company would not spend any further time or effort on this planet. He would probably be stuck there the rest of his life. The habitat, with its food generators and air recyclers, could easily keep one man alive indefinitely. But did he really want to live out the rest of his life alone? He looked at the dead bodies around him. Across the room he noticed the missing parts to the long-range communicator. They were broken and smashed. He fell to his knees. Even for a man who liked solitude, it was too much to bear, and he found himself hoping that one day, Jasperson would indeed come back to visit him.
There was once a very well behaved eight year old boy named Miles. He did all the things that good children are supposed to do, nearly all the time. He ate all his vegetables, unless they were carrots. He completed all of his school assignments, except for that one time he forgot to finish his homework. He was always nice to his friends, unless you count that one time when he yelled at his schoolmate, Tony. And he never spoke back to his parents or got mad at them, with very rare exceptions. Yes, he was nearly perfect, and he was a joy for his parents to raise, almost all the time.
That boy existed more than thirty years ago, and in a manner of speaking, he still exists. That boy? He’s me, and he will always be part of who I am. I can remember every transgression I made as a child, not only because there were so few of them, but because they ended up shaping my life in a way you could never imagine.
Of all my misdeeds, the one that stands out most vividly is the very last time I yelled at my parents. The funny thing is, even though I can remember being mad, and I can remember every word I said, I don’t recall exactly why I was upset. When I try to think of the reason, it’s like looking at a blank sheet of paper in my mind. I can tell you that it wasn’t anything that my adult self would find consequential, but I know it felt important at the time. It was two days before Christmas, and the words I spoke felt foreign as they came out of my mouth, probably because I’d never said anything quite like it before.
“Go away! I don’t want you to be here anymore! I don’t want you to talk to me ever again!”
I could see the hurt in my parents’ eyes as I unleashed my tirade towards them. Even now, I’m surprised at what a profound effect the words from my eight year old self had on them. Their dismay was mixed with obvious shock upon hearing me lash out. My mother had a look on her face that was confused, sad, and angry all at the same time. My father was harder to read, but I knew he wasn’t happy. Sadly, the looks on their faces are among the last memories I have of my parents. Their distraught scowls are burned in my mind; two visages that are now a permanent part of my psyche.
By the time that Christmas Eve came around, all had been forgiven. Whatever the issue had been, it was resolved. My mother cooked a special ham dinner, and we had a roaring fire going. The house was warm and extra comfortable, and in the hours after dinner, I sat and sipped from a mug of hot cocoa with peppermint. I no longer believed in Santa Claus, but that didn’t stop me from feeling a natural yuletide excitement. I fell asleep that night staring at the dazzling lights and shiny ornaments that clung to our Christmas tree. I vaguely remember my father carrying me to my bedroom and giving me a little kiss on my forehead.
I awoke later that night to the feeling of someone poking a finger into my back.
“Wake up, kid.”
It was a voice I’d never heard before, a man’s voice, with a slight drawl. My eyes opened widely as I instinctively rolled out of bed in an outright panic. I fell to the floor and screamed for my father.
I was trapped in a corner of my bedroom. I could see the man’s silhouetted figure looming clearly in front of me. A small red glow came from a cigarette in his hand. I froze in fear of this stranger who had invaded my home.
The man spoke to me again, “Quiet down, he can’t hear you right now anyhow.”
He put his cigarette to his lips and inhaled deeply. As he did, his face was illuminated by the red glow, and I could see his deep-set eyes, his dirty fingers, and his long black hair.
“But kid, I can hear you. I can hear you better than anybody, in ways you can’t even understand.” He pointed at the side of his forehead as he spoke.
I didn’t reply, but even through my fear, I couldn’t help but wonder who the man was.
He nodded, as if he knew exactly what I was thinking. “So, you’d like to know who I am. Well, I’m the guy who’s tuned into your mind. I’m the guy that’s been around for a long time. And most importantly, I’m the guy who gives kids what they ask for.”
He looked straight into my eyes, invading my mind and reading my thoughts. “No kid, I ain’t Santa.” He was agitated. “You stupid? Do I really look like that fat fucker? No man, I’m much better. I don’t judge, and I don’t discriminate. I give kids what they ask for. The good kids, and the bad kids.”
I finally found the courage to speak, even though he seemed to have no trouble answering my questions before I even asked them. “I- I didn’t ask for anything.” My voice trembled as I spoke.
“Sure you did. You wanted your parents to go away. I heard that loud and clear. Loud and clear. Not very nice of you. I’d say that makes you a bad little boy. But don’t worry, like I said, I don’t discriminate.”
“But I don’t want them to go away.”
He shook his head. “You said it, you meant it at the time. I heard it. I don’t hear all the kids, just some of them. And I hear you loudest of all.”
Tears began streaming down my face, but their presence didn’t seem to change the visitor’s demeanor towards me.
“Well kid, I just wanted to meet you, and see whose voice has been screaming in my head the past few days.” He turned and started walking towards the door. “I gotta get started. It’s time to give you your gift, and get a gift for myself too. Merry fucking Christmas, kid.”
He flicked his cigarette into the corner of my bedroom as he passed through the doorway, repeating himself as he walked down the hallway in the direction of my parents’ bedroom. “Merry fucking Christmas.”
The door to my bedroom shut, even though the man himself had made no effort to close it.
I screamed out for my mother and father. To this day I still have no idea if they heard me. I wish I could tell you that I bravely ran out of my bedroom to warn them, but I just sat huddled in the corner, crying and afraid. I listened intently for sounds of a struggle, or for my parents yelling, but I couldn’t hear anything.
Hours passed, and I could see the outside sky turn from black to gray, then to orange. I waited for my mother and father to find me. The orange sky turned blue as the day wore on, but they never came. An absolute silence hung over the house, yet still I sat there. It was well into the afternoon when I finally left my room. I knew I couldn’t stay there forever. I tiptoed slowly to my door and opened it only a few inches. Looking out from inside my room, the house appeared normal. Everything that I could see was in its place. I pulled the door open all the way, almost expecting the man from the night before to jump out at me, but that didn’t happen.
My voice broke the silence. “Mom? Dad?”
Trying my best to stay quiet, I walked slowly down the hallway towards my parents’ bedroom. Their door was ajar.
I put my hand on their door.
I pushed it open and looked inside.
I don’t actually remember what I saw. To be clear, I’m perfectly aware of the fate that befell my parents, based on what was told to me later on. But I have no memory of the actual sight that I witnessed during that one awful moment. It’s a traumatic event that my sane mind has blocked out. Even today, when I recreate the events of that night in my dreams, the scene fades to white as I push the door open. My next memory is of me lying down in the street directly outside of my house, screaming and flailing my arms wildly. The Porter family, who lived next door, witnessed my distress through their living room window.
Mr. Porter exited his house and rushed over to me, he could tell something was seriously wrong.
“They’re dead!” It was all I could say. I repeated it again and again.
Mrs. Porter followed closely behind her husband and comforted me as he went to check inside my house. A minute later, he exited and promptly vomited in the bushes.
Nobody ever told me the whole story of what they found in that bedroom, at least not directly. It was explained to me that a very bad person had broken into my house and murdered my parents, even though I already knew as much. What was held back from me at the time was the fact that they’d been decapitated. The cuts were clean, almost surgical. Both bodies were lying on the bed as if they’d been asleep when it happened. The worst part was that their heads were missing, not to be found anywhere. Their bodies were sliced open, and strange symbols were drawn on the wall in blood. Other than the carnage itself, absolutely no physical evidence was discovered at the scene. Not one fingerprint, stray hair, or footprint was left behind. Nothing.
The police listened to my story once I was ready to talk. I found out later I was considered to be an unreliable witness, mostly because the details of my story didn’t mesh with the lack of physical evidence.
A specially trained detective, and my new therapist, sat down with me to review what I’d told the police earlier. “The man, he wasn’t wearing gloves?” the detective asked.
I shook my head no. I clearly remembered the cigarette in his hand, and there was no glove.
“And he threw a cigarette on the ground when he was done smoking it?”
I nodded yes.
“And he closed your door when he left your room?”
I shook my head no, then thought about it, and nodded my head yes. I wasn’t really sure.
The detective took notes as I talked. He nodded his head pleasantly, but even then I could see the strange look on his face when I told him that the man had read my thoughts. The one thing I never told the police was that two days before the murders, I’d asked for my parents to be gone.
The sketch artist came by afterwards. He started off by drawing some Smurfs for me, then he slowly began working me up to the task of remembering what the murderer looked like. I appreciated his effort. When he was done, the picture looked somewhat like how I remembered the man, but not exactly.
I was taken in by my mother’s sister, Aunt Janine, and her husband, my uncle Anton. As unlucky as I had been with the deaths of my parents, I have to say that I was nearly as lucky to have those two in my life. Other than my parents, they were probably the best people in the world who I could’ve lived with. Looking back at the events in my life, I have to say that today I miss them every bit as much as I miss my parents. Janine worked as an office manager, but she took a leave of absence in the first few months after the murders so that she could be home to support me. Anton worked for a home security firm. He was the kind of man who always had a smile on his face, so much so that it would be impossible for a person to even imagine him angry. He made instant connections with people, and he had a confidence about him that made people want to seek his approval, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Janine and Anton didn’t have any children of their own, and they’d always been very generous towards me. I knew them well, so it was easy for me to slip into their lives. I put a huge effort into making sure that I gave them no trouble, and I asked them for nothing. My conversation with the murderer was never too far from my thoughts, and I could hear an amalgamation of his comments ring through my mind daily, “I give kids what they ask for. The good kids, and the bad kids.” I didn’t know what the good kids were given by this man, but I understood all too clearly what happened to the bad children.
It was two months before I felt like I was ready to go back to school. Janine and Anton, and even the school administrators, were very helpful and understanding throughout the whole process. My classmates welcomed me back with smiles and words of encouragement. It’s often said that children can be cruel, but I think it’s even more true that they can be sweet and supportive. I really can’t emphasize enough how much returning to all my friends helped me along in the healing process. My anxiety began to ebb, and my therapist proclaimed that it was a major milestone for me.
Despite the progress in my psychological healing, there were always several thoughts that I couldn’t rid myself of. The first was the guilt that I felt about asking for my parents to go away. I knew full well that the murder of my parents was in no way my fault, but there was always that nagging voice that wouldn’t let it drop. I’d asked for them to be taken away, and that’s exactly what had happened. The second thought was that the murderer would return again the following Christmas. Initially, all the adults assured me that he would be arrested quickly. Then, when that didn’t happen, I was promised that there was no way he could ever get his hands on me, and that I was safe. They made sure that I was never left alone, and when Janine went back to work, she only did so part-time so that she could pick me up when school let out. I also had difficulty with the more unbelievable aspects of what happened that night. I tried to convince myself, on a daily basis, that the murderer was just a normal man, and that my memory of those fantastical elements was merely my own imagination betraying me. But just like the guilt I felt, the troubling thought, that this man was more than just a man, didn’t subside entirely.
For victims of trauma, anniversaries can often trigger symptoms like depression and fear. For me, Christmas was the anniversary of my worst memory. As the summer ended, Janine and Anton, along with my therapist, decided early on that Christmas wouldn’t be celebrated in our household that year. Nobody felt that I’d be ready for it, and they were right. Since we knew that Christmas was going to be an ordinary day for us, Janine and Anton made sure to throw me a huge birthday party in October of that year, when I turned nine. It seemed like most of the community turned out. We had a bounce house, ponies, and even a magician. Everyone, including me, had a great day. It was probably the first time in ten months that I’d grinned. Sure, there had been smiles up to that point, but I’m referring to the type of grin where your teeth show and the elation on your face can’t be mistaken.
Unfortunately, the joy of my birthday couldn’t last forever. Inevitably, the signs of Christmas slowly started popping up not long after Halloween passed, and my anxiety started increasing. Though we weren’t going to celebrate it, Christmas would be impossible to ignore. Holiday lights, store displays, television commercials, yuletide songs pumped over public address systems – how can one avoid all those and still function within society? Though those harbingers couldn’t be avoided altogether, Janine and Anton made a concerted effort to minimize my exposure. Instead of letting me watch my TV shows, Anton taught me the game of chess, which we played nightly. For the most part, they avoided taking me to any stores, and kept me home, or close by, as much as possible. Avoiding these triggers probably helped somewhat, but I still couldn’t get rid of the tightening feeling in my chest that I felt every morning when I woke up.
I managed to avoid any sort of breakdown until the 21st of December. Aunt Janine, because she was taking care of me, had herself been staying home an inordinate amount of time. Finally, after our fifth game of rummy in a row, she’d had enough.
She tossed her cards aside. “You know what, Miles? We’ve been cooped up too long. Let’s get out of here. We’ll go get some ice cream. One little trip out won’t hurt. Right?”
I smiled in response. “Okay!” Ice cream sounded good, even in the middle of December.
Aunt Janine, who was talkative by nature, kept the conversation flowing all the way to the ice cream shop. I suppose this was her attempt to keep my focus away from the lights and displays that we passed, and it worked too. Ask a kid questions about his favorite superheroes, and he’s going to be fairly preoccupied while he talks about them, even the quiet kids.
We made it into the shop, and I ordered a double scoop of chocolate fudge brownie. We sat down to eat our treats, with Aunt Janine still engaging me in conversation. Just for a brief moment, a nearby toy store’s glittering Christmas display caught my eye through the window. They had a life-size poster plastered in their display window. It was a picture of Santa upon a rooftop, posed in a position as if he were just about ready to climb down a chimney. Blazing Christmas lights surrounded the display, and large words spelled out, “What do you want for Christmas?”
I tried to turn away, but the colorful lights clouded my vision, enlarging in their scope until they all combined, finally creating a great white light.
“Miles? Miles?” My aunt’s voice was becoming more and more urgent. I suddenly realized she’d been calling my name for several moments.
The cup of ice cream dropped from my hand. “I just want them back.” At that moment, the tears flowed freely. I could think of nothing else. I was hysterical.
Aunt Janine quickly came over to my side of the table.
“Oh my god Miles. I’m so sorry.” She grabbed me and hugged me tightly. I reciprocated, holding onto her as firmly as I could. “This was a bad idea. I’m so sorry sweetie. I’m sorry I brought you out. That was stupid of me. I miss them too.”
It took at least fifteen minutes for Aunt Janine to calm me to a point where we could leave the shop. We left our unfinished ice creams behind.
No other incidents happened in the next couple of days, and my interactions with Anton and Janine helped distract me. Finally, it was Christmas Eve. I was quiet all day long, even more so than usual. Anton noticed, and had a talk with me after dinner.
“You okay, buddy?”
I nodded my head yes.
Despite my assurance that I was okay, he could tell I wasn’t. He knew almost exactly what was on my mind.
“Come here, Miles. Let me show you a few things.”
I followed him to the living room window where he moved the curtains aside. “See these windows?” He slapped his hand on the pane to show me how solid it was. “This is the strongest window that they make for residences. My company installed these. They’re unbreakable, and there’s no way someone can open them from the outside.”
I stared at the window, while on the other side, blackness enveloped the house.
He took me over to the door. “See how strong this is? It would take a tank to knock this door down. The back door too. And there’s no other way in.”
He led me over to the alarm control panel that was on the wall. “This is the best system that they make. I installed it myself.”
He kneeled down to my level. “Miles, you’re safe here. Nobody, and I mean nobody can get in here unless we let them in.”
He glanced to the side with his eyes. “And don’t tell your Aunt I showed you this.” He moved his coat aside so that I could see the holstered pistol he was wearing. “Just some added protection. But I won’t even need this.”
I nodded, feeling a little bit safer, but not completely. I still worried, not only for myself, but for Janine and Anton as well. Bedtime approached, and Aunt Janine, with an insight usually reserved for longtime mothers, knew the one thing that might make the night a little easier for me. “Miles, do you want to sleep in our room tonight?” She asked.
“Yes.” I smiled and nodded at the invitation. We would all be able to look out for each other. They’d protect me, and I’d be able to warn them if someone came in.
They put some soft blankets on the ground for me, right next to their bed. It was in a nice, protected spot in the large gap between the bed and the wall. I couldn’t fall asleep for several hours, but I could hear both Janine and Anton begin their nightly slumbers. Their breathing became rhythmic and almost melodic. I listened intently for any noises that might’ve been out of the ordinary, but nothing abnormal sounded out. There was a clock ticking somewhere in the house, and the occasional car passed by outside. Finally, my weariness overpowered my uneasiness, and I began my night’s sleep.
The dream I had that night was unlike any other I’d had before. I was in what appeared to be a large garage, the type where mechanics worked on cars. All around me, automotive parts were spread out along the ground, tires were stacked up, and an old rusted chassis filled the center of the room. Grime dripped from the walls. The area was lit by a single overhead lamp. I instantly knew I was dreaming. From the corner of the garage, I heard metal clanging. I turned around to face the sound, and out of the darkness, the man who’d taken the lives of my parents emerged.
He spit some phlegm onto the ground and wiped his mouth before addressing me. “Hey kid. Don’t worry. I ain’t gonna hurt you. I’d like to though, I’d really like to be able to shut you up, but it don’t work that way.”
Despite my grimy surroundings, and perhaps because it was just a dream, this didn’t feel like a place of anger and fear. Unlike the year before, I was able to find my voice right away. “Why do you want to shut me up? I hardly ever even speak.”
When you consider some of the other obvious questions, I know it may sound strange that I chose to open with that. Who was this man? And why did he take an interest in me? Those were the questions I was really thinking, but my participation in the dream was guided, as if my actions weren’t wholly my own.
The man finally responded. “Hell, you quiet ones are the loudest of all. Y’all never stop thinking. Thought after thought, you kids can’t ever just shut your brains off. Gimme just one loudmouth, those kids never think about anything. Tell you what, if it was up to me, I’d just rip all your fucking heads off and be done with it, but like I said, it don’t work that way. I ain’t allowed to hurt a child.”
I looked around, and came to a slow realization. “This isn’t my dream, is it?”
“That’s a stupid question. You ever dreamed of a place like this? Of course not. This is my dream, kid. I’m parked right outside your house. I just wanted to take a moment to peek in on you.”
My fear of this man, which had been otherwise controlled to this point, slowly began creeping back.
He saw the look of despair spread across my face. “Have you been a good boy this year?” He gave a little chuckle. “Actually, yes. You have been. Do you ‘member what I said last time? I give kids what they ask for, the good ones, and the bad ones.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t ask for anything.” I spoke with a confidence that I didn’t really feel.
“Sure you did. You kids always ask for somethin’. And don’t you worry now, ‘cause you’re gonna get it.”
The room, and the man, began to fade away. “See you next year, kid. I get the feelin’ that you and I are going to be part of each other’s lives for a long time.” Those were the last words I heard. Pure whiteness consumed me, and then I slept peacefully.
My eyes opened. Outside the window, I could see the gray sky that signaled the approaching dawn. The house was eerily quiet. Too quiet. I stayed fixed in my bed on the floor, listening for signs of life from my aunt and uncle, but I could only hear my own heartbeat. I wanted to sit up and look over to them, but I was afraid of what I’d find.
The dream had felt so real, I wasn’t sure what to think. I continued to listen. “Please.” I whispered to myself, “Let me hear them breathe.”
Several minutes passed. I still heard nothing. Tears began streaming down my face, and my pillow became wet. I knew deep inside that eventually I would have to look and see if they were okay. I couldn’t lay on the floor all day, but my gut instinct told me that I didn’t want to witness what was up there. Drawing upon my deepest strengths, I put my hands over my eyes and sat up. Slowly, I moved a single finger away from my teary eye.
There was no blood, no gore. I pulled my hands fully away from my face. I could see uncle Anton’s chest clearly rise and fall. He was sleeping peacefully, and very quietly. Aunt Janine turned in her sleep and mumbled a few nonsense words before resuming her silent rest.
I smiled, then I laughed in relief. I could see no evidence that the man had been there. It was still early, but any sense of sleepiness had been pushed away by my earlier feeling of dread. I stood up and walked over to the mirrored closet door. I looked at my red eyes and wiped them dry, while behind me I could see the reflection of my aunt and uncle sleeping soundly. There was no need to wake them.
I left the room with the intent of getting something to eat, most likely a bowl of cereal. I walked down the hallway and passed by the alarm panel on the wall. All the lights were green. The doors, the windows, they were all secure. Nobody could’ve gotten in.
Now fully relaxed, I passed through the living room on my way to the dining area. That’s when I saw it, sitting right on top of the dining room table. I froze in place and looked all around, to see if there was anything else out of place, but everything else was as it should’ve been. I turned again to the table, and stared at the beautifully wrapped gift box that definitely hadn’t been there the night before. It was a large box, maybe about eighteen inches square. The wrapping paper that covered it was bright red, with sparkles all over it. A pretty green bow covered the top.
My aunt and uncle had agreed that we wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas that year, yet there sat a gift box atop the dining room table. I wondered if they’d changed their minds. I walked slowly towards the gift, step by step. I stood up on one of the dining room chairs, so that I could see the top of the gift. Whoever had wrapped it had taken their time. The box’s lid was wrapped separately from the box itself. I lifted it up, then I peered inside.
There was no “fade to white” for me that time. No, I saw exactly what was in the box, and simultaneously, three truths occurred to me. The first truth was that the man had been in my house. Despite all the security measures, he’d gotten in and out without raising a single alarm. The second truth was that the man had been right, I’d asked for something without even realizing it. The third truth was the sinking acceptance that his visits would be an annual occurrence.
I stood there on the chair, staring into my parents’ dried out eyes, which were still in their decapitated heads, which were both in the box. I’d said I wanted them back, and the man, however he did it, had heard me, and granted my wish in a manner befitting his evil ways.
The ultimate truth that I learned from that day was that there could be no mess-ups with my behavior, and I could want for nothing. I was being constantly watched, and my mind was being continuously invaded. Bad actions would be severely punished, and even good behavior would lead to its own sick and twisted reward. And that’s the story of how a very well behaved boy became the perfectly behaved boy. And as a perfectly behaved boy, all my desires had to be held in check. Emotionally speaking, I had to become less than human, so that the visitor would have no fuel for the wicked game he played.
Of course, nobody is truly perfect, and there were slip-ups throughout the following years, times when I inadvertently made a wish or asked for something. Those slip-ups were very costly to me, but I don’t care to recount the full extent of them here. I think I’ve given enough of myself for tonight. I’m weary and beaten, but what I will tell you is that after thirty years, I’m no longer afraid to finally say that I want the painful memories to go away. I don’t want them anymore. I even said it aloud, I want the memories to be gone.
It’s cold outside right now, and it’s getting late. I think I’ll make myself a cup of hot cocoa with some peppermint before turning in. That will make me happy. For the first time in ages, I’m calm and at peace. Looking out the window, I can see all the pretty lights on the eaves of the houses. I don’t think I ever really had the chance to appreciate just how festive they make everything look. For a long time I just didn’t care, but now, I’m going to take a few minutes to enjoy them while I can. Good night everyone, and merry Christmas.
Sometimes, otherworldly beings reach out to you in strange and mysterious ways. They may have a request for you to fulfill, or maybe they simply take pleasure in terrifying you senseless. It’s even possible that they just want your help in creating something beautiful. If you’re lucky, you might even live to tell the tale… or maybe not. This book contains six stories that will enthrall you on one page and scare you on the next. The popular story, The Seer of Possibilities, starts this collection off. I can guarantee that you won’t guess the ending. It’s followed up with A Story of Death and Beauty, which is a companion piece to the first story. Again, if you figure out the ending beforehand, then I commend you. The third story is The Phantom Arm of Sebastian Culpepper, which is the tale of a man whose phantom limb pain is caused by something much more sinister than a medical condition. The Trees of Ohwayhee is the next story, and it’s perhaps the strangest and most disturbing of the lot. You should just read this one for yourself, as I can’t even begin to encapsulate it here. Next up, we have Jasperson’s Game, which might seem like sci-fi horror at first, but at its core, it’s just regular blood-and-guts horror. The final piece of this collection is The Perfectly Behaved Boy, which, like the lead story, began its life as a popular piece on horror themed websites. In it, a boy gets his Christmas wish. In fact, he gets exactly what he asks for. How could that possibly go wrong? So there you have it, six stories that will stay with you long after you’re done reading.