The Hunting Grounds

The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. I didn’t believe it at first, but it was undeniable; The faint orange that attracted me with flickering, whispering screams. I watched from my study in the main house some couple hundred yards away. Originally Mother’s sewing room, the study now kept my books and collections on various topics, mainly the occult. Mother made all of our clothes in this room before the madness took her. Before we had to keep her in the cabin at the back of the property. 

The woods were our family hunting grounds and legacy, as Father put it. Father was keen to flash our grandeur to the local socialites, inviting them up the hill for dinners and extravagant evenings full of brandy and loose women, all while Mother ensured the food was hot, the glasses full, and the tapestries pressed. The socialites weren’t privy to how we came to own such a vast estate, or what members of our family he supposedly betrayed in order to walk away with the keys to the Hunt Manor. He never admitted deceit, of course. Only the blurred faces of enraged and betrayed loved ones told that tale. They should have been loved ones, but all that remained in my mind’s eye were twisted expressions, dark eyes, and the pointing of fingers that leapt from bodies boiled over in hatred, locked out of one last family relic. 

“They touched us with the devils,” Mother said to me. She told Father too, and claimed she could see them coming for us in her dreams, but he marked her as a hysterical woman and threatened the sanatorium. She attempted to reach him with reason and begged him to reconsider his greed.

“At least give them access to the cabin.” She stated out the window at the frame beyond the well-spaced oaks — enough room to get a horse through. Enough room to hunt. 

One morning on the floor of Mother’s sewing parlor, I sat with my wooden blocks and watched her as she blindly hemmed a dress. Her attention was turned towards the pane-glass window. Her eyes were empty and hollow, and she moved her hands across the fabric in a way that was mechanical and rigid. The pump and whir of her pedal machine carried on without faltering for what seemed to be an endless afternoon, until the red-orange beams of sunset pierced the room and Mother let out a sharp scream. I jumped. She lifted her right hand, sewn into the hem of her dress. 

“Mama?” I looked at her hand in terror as blood and thred wove through her mangled fingers. 

“You see that, dear?” She looked at me a moment longer, unblinking, unfazed by my fear, and returned her gaze to the window and the woods beyond her home, hand still sewn to dress.

That was the first time I heard Father call Mother “crazy.” For months and months he opted for hysterical. Hysterical was something that could be treated. Hysteria was quite common in women, almost expected, and Mother was indeed hysterical in the weeks that led to the night she sewed her hand into her dress. She spent her evenings sleepless and alert, pacing in front of the window of her sewing room. Watching the woods, watching the cabin. When she did sleep, she screamed out from her room for forgiveness, for mercy. One night, Father confronted her for an answer. 

“What is your obsession?! Do you wish to live in the cabin? Away from me and the boy?”

“Not that. Not that.” Mother rocked in jagged, short movements in the kitchen chair at the head of the table, a seat normally reserved for Father at dinner, but necessary as a point of interrogation on that particular night. She twisted her left hand around her bandaged right hand. I stood off to the side in another room and peered around the doorway as Father berated Mother with questions and accusations. Words like devil, heretic, witch

“It is you they want.” She pointed her bandaged fingers in Father’s face, which enraged him. “You. You are the one they want.” 

“I don’t care what my extended, departed family wants,” Father said. He folded his arms. 

“Not your family. The devils beyond the trees, William. The devils are coming for you.”

It happened so quickly, that when I blinked from the sound of the back of Father’s hand hitting Mother across the face, I missed most everything else. I covered my eyes and sank to the floor on the other side of the wall and only listened to Mother’s whimpers and Father’s heaving breaths. I could tell he was thinking, plotting, eliminating Mother from his mind. 

The next morning, as the cold Autumn sun peered over the horizon and illuminated our cursed land, I lay in bed and listened to the shrill and desperate cries of Mother fade to long echoes as Father dragged her from our home and to the cabin at the back of the woods. I heard my name. I heard her call for God. I heard her hit Father across the face; I was glad for that. 

“The devils are coming for you!” She shouted in between the dense thud of her fists against his riding jacket.

“They’ll come for you first.” His affirmation echoed into the trees. 

“You will get what you deserve!’ She continued to yell, and I swore I could hear the metallic click of Father locking her in the cabin. It rang out like a gunshot, but hunting season wasn’t for another week. 

A silence crashed down onto our home, and I felt a crack from the sewing room. I leapt from my bed, afraid Father made it back too soon and was destroying Mother’s things. However I found a crack on the wall beside the window where she sat, from floor to ceiling. Father found me some time later staring at the crack, and then out the window, hoping to see Mother’s face, but I only saw the candle in her window at night and heard her cries. Until one day it all stopped.

There wasn’t a funeral; There wasn’t a body. The door remained locked from the outside, and Father swore to heaven and back that I had something to do with it. He accused me of breaking her out, and letting her loose onto the world, but I was a coward. I was too frightened to see Mother; Father said she turned crazy. And crazy was not like hysterical. On the nights where her yelling turned into howls I was left sleepless, watching the window and her candle in the window.

I learned from a young age that men couldn’t become hysterical, but I witnessed Father slip into something more devastating. It began with nightmares. He never admitted to it, of course, but I could hear him down the hall, night after night, begging for forgiveness. He called out Mother’s name. He asked her to stop. He whimpered like a child. In the mornings, Father lurked across the wide wooden floors to the liquor cabinet. Opting for a bottle over a tumbler, he disappeared to Mother’s sewing room and stared out the window at the cabin, questioning out loud where she went, only to find her at night when he closed his eyes. 

It came as a surprise, and maybe no surprise at all, to be a grown man and see the faintest flicker in the cabin window one evening shortly after burying Father on the grounds. I stood in my long sleep shirt, illuminated by the fireplace of Mother’s old sewing room, open books on the occult and the devils on what used to be her work table. The crack that led from floor to ceiling stood stronger than our foundation, and I paced. Perhaps the devils, or perhaps a squatter. I tried to play a game of logic against myself, but I could hear the flame call out. I could hear Mother. Curiosity won over my hesitations as I readied my lantern and hunting boots, still in my nightshirt and equipped with Father’s old meat cleaver. I entered the biting cold and the lamplight flickered beneath my knuckles, pulling back to the front door of the house. I pressed onward, the cabin’s skeleton key around my neck. The tall oak trees waved and leaned; The naked tops clacked and crashed together like old bones. It seemed to me, as I closed the distance between myself and the cabin, that the wind grew stronger. 

Still I pressed on. I walked for what felt like hours until I felt this burst, as if I stepped through a door to a place that was not of this world. The wind ceased. A crack rang out in the distance. Was it a gunshot? Was it Mother’s sewing room? No matter, I told myself, for the cabin door was at my feet. In the window, the candle glowed with the same strength it did from my view in the house. I watched the flame — it remained still, without so much as a flicker. A chill ran down my spine, but still I leaned Father’s meat cleaver on the ground against the side of the building and placed the skeleton key in the lock and turned until the familiar metal click released what had been in place for two decades. 

The door opened with a fight on rusted hinges until there was enough space for me to step into the single-room cabin. The door swung back towards its latch and it was then that I knew I wasn’t alone. I looked to my hand, holding nothing, and thought of the cleaver just beyond the wall. It was strange to see the candle from within the window, and stranger even to watch its glow dim into nothingness in the absolute still of

The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. I didn’t believe it at first, but it was undeniable; The faint orange that attracted me with flickering, whispering screams. I watched from my study in the main house some couple hundred yards away. Originally Mother’s sewing room, the study now kept my books and collections on various topics, mainly the occult. Mother made all of our clothes in this room before the madness took her. Before we had to keep her in the cabin at the back of the property. 

The woods were our family hunting grounds and legacy, as Father put it. Father was keen to flash our grandeur to the local socialites, inviting them up the hill for dinners and extravagant evenings full of brandy and loose women, all while Mother ensured the food was hot, the glasses full, and the tapestries pressed. The socialites weren’t privy to how we came to own such a vast estate, or what members of our family he supposedly betrayed in order to walk away with the keys to the Hunt Manor. He never admitted deceit, of course. Only the blurred faces of enraged and betrayed loved ones told that tale. They should have been loved ones, but all that remained in my mind’s eye were twisted expressions, dark eyes, and the pointing of fingers that leapt from bodies boiled over in hatred, locked out of one last family relic. 

“They touched us with the devils,” Mother said to me. She told Father too, and claimed she could see them coming for us in her dreams, but he marked her as a hysterical woman and threatened the sanatorium. She attempted to reach him with reason and begged him to reconsider his greed.

“At least give them access to the cabin.” She stated out the window at the frame beyond the well-spaced oaks — enough room to get a horse through. Enough room to hunt. 

One morning on the floor of Mother’s sewing parlor, I sat with my wooden blocks and watched her as she blindly hemmed a dress. Her attention was turned towards the pane-glass window. Her eyes were empty and hollow, and she moved her hands across the fabric in a way that was mechanical and rigid. The pump and whir of her pedal machine carried on without faltering for what seemed to be an endless afternoon, until the red-orange beams of sunset pierced the room and Mother let out a sharp scream. I jumped. She lifted her right hand, sewn into the hem of her dress. 

“Mama?” I looked at her hand in terror as blood and thred wove through her mangled fingers. 

“You see that, dear?” She looked at me a moment longer, unblinking, unfazed by my fear, and returned her gaze to the window and the woods beyond her home, hand still sewn to dress.

That was the first time I heard Father call Mother “crazy.” For months and months he opted for hysterical. Hysterical was something that could be treated. Hysteria was quite common in women, almost expected, and Mother was indeed hysterical in the weeks that led to the night she sewed her hand into her dress. She spent her evenings sleepless and alert, pacing in front of the window of her sewing room. Watching the woods, watching the cabin. When she did sleep, she screamed out from her room for forgiveness, for mercy. One night, Father confronted her for an answer. 

“What is your obsession?! Do you wish to live in the cabin? Away from me and the boy?”

“Not that. Not that.” Mother rocked in jagged, short movements in the kitchen chair at the head of the table, a seat normally reserved for Father at dinner, but necessary as a point of interrogation on that particular night. She twisted her left hand around her bandaged right hand. I stood off to the side in another room and peered around the doorway as Father berated Mother with questions and accusations. Words like devil, heretic, witch

“It is you they want.” She pointed her bandaged fingers in Father’s face, which enraged him. “You. You are the one they want.” 

“I don’t care what my extended, departed family wants,” Father said. He folded his arms. 

“Not your family. The devils beyond the trees, William. The devils are coming for you.”

It happened so quickly, that when I blinked from the sound of the back of Father’s hand hitting Mother across the face, I missed most everything else. I covered my eyes and sank to the floor on the other side of the wall and only listened to Mother’s whimpers and Father’s heaving breaths. I could tell he was thinking, plotting, eliminating Mother from his mind. 

The next morning, as the cold Autumn sun peered over the horizon and illuminated our cursed land, I lay in bed and listened to the shrill and desperate cries of Mother fade to long echoes as Father dragged her from our home and to the cabin at the back of the woods. I heard my name. I heard her call for God. I heard her hit Father across the face; I was glad for that. 

“The devils are coming for you!” She shouted in between the dense thud of her fists against his riding jacket.

“They’ll come for you first.” His affirmation echoed into the trees. 

“You will get what you deserve!’ She continued to yell, and I swore I could hear the metallic click of Father locking her in the cabin. It rang out like a gunshot, but hunting season wasn’t for another week. 

A silence crashed down onto our home, and I felt a crack from the sewing room. I leapt from my bed, afraid Father made it back too soon and was destroying Mother’s things. However I found a crack on the wall beside the window where she sat, from floor to ceiling. Father found me some time later staring at the crack, and then out the window, hoping to see Mother’s face, but I only saw the candle in her window at night and heard her cries. Until one day it all stopped.

There wasn’t a funeral; There wasn’t a body. The door remained locked from the outside, and Father swore to heaven and back that I had something to do with it. He accused me of breaking her out, and letting her loose onto the world, but I was a coward. I was too frightened to see Mother; Father said she turned crazy. And crazy was not like hysterical. On the nights where her yelling turned into howls I was left sleepless, watching the window and her candle in the window.

I learned from a young age that men couldn’t become hysterical, but I witnessed Father slip into something more devastating. It began with nightmares. He never admitted to it, of course, but I could hear him down the hall, night after night, begging for forgiveness. He called out Mother’s name. He asked her to stop. He whimpered like a child. In the mornings, Father lurked across the wide wooden floors to the liquor cabinet. Opting for a bottle over a tumbler, he disappeared to Mother’s sewing room and stared out the window at the cabin, questioning out loud where she went, only to find her at night when he closed his eyes. 

It came as a surprise, and maybe no surprise at all, to be a grown man and see the faintest flicker in the cabin window one evening shortly after burying Father on the grounds. I stood in my long sleep shirt, illuminated by the fireplace of Mother’s old sewing room, open books on the occult and the devils on what used to be her work table. The crack that led from floor to ceiling stood stronger than our foundation, and I paced. Perhaps the devils, or perhaps a squatter. I tried to play a game of logic against myself, but I could hear the flame call out. I could hear Mother. Curiosity won over my hesitations as I readied my lantern and hunting boots, still in my nightshirt and equipped with Father’s old meat cleaver. I entered the biting cold and the lamplight flickered beneath my knuckles, pulling back to the front door of the house. I pressed onward, the cabin’s skeleton key around my neck. The tall oak trees waved and leaned; The naked tops clacked and crashed together like old bones. It seemed to me, as I closed the distance between myself and the cabin, that the wind grew stronger. 

Still I pressed on. I walked for what felt like hours until I felt this burst, as if I stepped through a door to a place that was not of this world. The wind ceased. A crack rang out in the distance. Was it a gunshot? Was it Mother’s sewing room? No matter, I told myself, for the cabin door was at my feet. In the window, the candle glowed with the same strength it did from my view in the house. I watched the flame — it remained still, without so much as a flicker. A chill ran down my spine, but still I leaned Father’s meat cleaver on the ground against the side of the building and placed the skeleton key in the lock and turned until the familiar metal click released what had been in place for two decades. 

The door opened with a fight on rusted hinges until there was enough space for me to step into the single-room cabin. The door swung back towards its latch and it was then that I knew I wasn’t alone. I looked to my hand, holding nothing, and thought of the cleaver just beyond the wall. It was strange to see the candle from within the window, and stranger even to watch its glow dim into nothingness in the absolute still of the cabin. The door behind me clicked shut, the skeleton key still in its place on the outside. My eyes fought to adjust to the dark, and I raised my lantern to see a gnarled silhouette. A pointed, bandaged fingers. The devils. 

“Mother?” I whispered as my lantern light died.

the cabin. The door behind me clicked shut, the skeleton key still in its place on the outside. My eyes fought to adjust to the dark, and I raised my lantern to see a gnarled silhouette. A pointed, bandaged fingers. The devils. 

“Mother?” I whispered as my lantern light died.

Greta

Greta

She rummaged through grease-coated bins of ancient tools and junk — things far older than her and certainly useless. She had no particular outcome in mind; Greta wasn’t looking for anything. But the most spectacular things always seem to happen when we aren’t looking. 

The old tool shed on the back of the farm sat adjacent to an old red barn on an old dusty plot of land. Nothing grew on that farm — at least as long as Greta had been alive — which was exactly nine-years and forty-two days. She learned to count using her birthdays and the old calendar that was left in the kitchen when Ma died three years earlier. On that day, Greta was six-years-old plus one hundred days. She knew three years had passed, but she didn’t know that the days moved with the years, so as far as she was concerned her birthday always landed on a Monday. And that was fine – a good way to start that week, she thought. 

No one came when Ma died, because no one knew who Ma was. Only Greta. No one knew Greta belonged to Ma, or that Ma even had a daughter. When she did pass away, over under the clothes line while hanging delicates one morning, Greta spent two hours trying to wake Ma from her deep slumber and then covered Ma in the sheets from the basket. That night Greta heard, from her bedroom window in her sleepless house, a strange screeching hiss that she never heard before. 

She tried her best to visit Ma and sit near her until the rot set in. Ma smelled awful for weeks, but luckily she died towards the beginning of autumn, and the snow and thaw reduced Ma to a pile of bones that Greta took and buried in a shallow grave next to the old oak tree. Greta didn’t cry moving Ma’s bones, but she did cry out in frustration when the hole took longer to dig than her seven-year, eight-day-old arms could handle. Into the night and under the guidance of a full moon, Greta used Ma’s gardening spade. There she heard that unmistakable hissing, screeching sound. She wielded Ma’s spade like a weapon and stood in fear. 

“Who’s there?” she cried out. 

Who

Greta couldn’t see through the cover of night. The screech rang out again and there, up in the old oak tree, Greta saw the culprit. A barn owl, illuminated by silver moonlight, spied on Greta from the safety of its branch. Greta lowered the spade. 

“This isn’t easy, you know,” she said. “The ground is still hard.” 

The owl screeched once again and flew off. Greta tried to watch the owl until it was absorbed by the evening. She returned to her little grave, settled with a shallow plot, and buried Ma. 

Later that evening, near the wood burning stove, Greta warmed her little hands. The winter would have been unbearable if Ma didn’t spend the whole year before piling wood and kindling, and canning fruits and vegetables, drying meat, and storing grain. More than they’d ever need, Greta reminded Ma. Ma only smiled and coughed some into a napkin before stashing it in her apron. Greta thought to herself, at least now she had enough to get by, and that summer before Ma died, she learned to build a fire. Ma showed her. 

“Here,” Ma said weakly. “Put the kindling here. Strike a match like this, but be careful of your fingers. Don’t put too much wood in because the fire needs to breathe.” 

“The fire breathes?” 

“Everything in nature breathes if you listen carefully.” 

Greta struck her first fire on her sixth birthday. Now that she was almost ten, Greta noticed the wood pile was low. The basement full of jars was sparse. The stove crackled and Greta boiled water for Ma’s tea leaves and while she waited she chewed on the last of her dried meat. A screech was heard outside. She removed the pot of water and walked along the old cottage floor to the back door where, in the old oak tree, the barn owl sat. Under its claw and pinned to the tree branch was a dead rabbit. 

“I would love some rabbit stew,” she mumbled. Greta returned inside. 

The next day, struck with boredom, Greta set out for the old tool shed. Her usual routine for the last three years was to wash her face with the well water, eat porridge off the stove, and walk around the perimeter of the property. It was marked with heavy, ancient stones on each corner and in some spots Greta came to low, broken stone walls. She stayed within them, in the safety of the property, close enough to Ma, and memorized the landscape. Greta learned to count even more; She made it to one hundred steps, one hundred times, plus eighty-two. And, every so often, Greta laid her head on the dead, golden-brown land and listened for breathing. 

Dissatisfied in the silence she came to expect, Greta changed her routine and walked to the old tool shed. The door was open and hung off the hinges, ready to collapse into the earth. It swung lazy and heavy in the late spring wind as the metal creaked and bellowed for Greta to enter. She carefully stepped into the musty room; everything looked coated in a thin film of black — not quite dust, decay, or dirt. It looked like an old memory, mostly forgotten. Greta took a deep breath in the clean outdoors and stepped carefully up into the shed. The darkness engulfed her and she disappeared inside. 

The interior of the shed seemed far smaller than Greta thought. Whether it was the row of too-high tool benches, the low-hanging hooks that swung delicately from the ceiling in her presence, or the mess of old dirty bins filled to their brims with junk — Greta made sure to tread carefully. Ma told her. 

“Don’t cut yourself on anything rusty, now. Stay out of that shed.” 

The words floated around Greta and wrapped her in caution. Ma was gone, and Greta was bored, and the land wasn’t breathing. Greta crouched down in front of the first box and picked it apart. She pulled old tools with manual cranks, hammers — a wrench. Nothing of note. But again, Greta wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Elbow-deep in the second bin, Greta heard the screech of her elusive friend. In the corner of the room, in plain sight (how could she have missed it?), the owl sat perched in a corner. Shrouded in the cover and safety of blackened windows; The owl must have lived in the shed. Greta was probably a bother. 

“Sorry,” she said. “I was just bored.” 

The owl made a low sound not unlike a coo and settled in, as if to let Greta know it didn’t mind. She watched it as it blinked in a slow and hypnotic rhythm. It made Greta sleepy, but she continued her search for nothing. Greta picked a few more items before she found the thing she wasn’t looking for. From the bottom of the bin she pulled out an old key. Greta held it high and far from her face to marvel at it before giving it a hard shine on her pants. Ma would have lost her mind at that, she thought. 

“I wonder what you belong to,” she said. Greta’s owl friend screeched, frightening her. It dismounted from its perch and left the tool shed. 

“Wait!” Greta stumbled out, shocked into the daylight, to see the owl disappear into the old barn.

She followed as fast as her legs would allow and stepped into the cavernous space. Greta’s shoes scratched along the dirt floor and she marveled at the size and emptiness of it all. A shell, as if she were inside Ma’s ribs. The air was filled with the stench of mothballs and decay, like everything else on the land. With the key clenched tightly in her hand, Greta craned her head back and searched the rafters for her white and gold friend. A flutter led Greta’s eyes to the back corner of the barn, where the barn owl sat on top of a rusted, dead tractor. Behind the owl she noticed a gentle glow, like sunrise, although there were no windows. A thrum-thrumming filled her ears but it wasn’t her own heart. 

The owl let out a gentle screech and flew behind the tractor. Greta ran to catch it and peeked behind the machine. The owl was gone, but she found the source of the glow — a small door, not much larger than her. The thrum-thrumming grew louder when Greta looked at the key in her hand and back to the door where a small lock hung. She carefully placed the key in and turned it to the left. The lock opened with a clunk, and the door breathed open. 

Evolutionary

Evolutionary

We hovered our rear ends above the sand and waited until the tide went out, passing the time by making miniature teepees out of reeds and seaweed that our nana would toss in the garbage the moment they entered the house. Our ultimate mission was mussels, black-and-blue-shelled, oval little things that hugged the rocks, half-buried in sand. My brother and I spent cumulative hours ripping them from their oases — never taking more life than necessary for the work of bored, unsupervised creek children. We used the end of the private beach’s spillway, made of solid, jagged concrete, to line them up one at a time and bash them open with a rock. We’d use the meat to catch blue claw crabs off the edge of the dock to later cook and enjoy, or we’d toss them back to the creek for the fish — or we’d just leave them to the birds. No matter how many mussels were cracked open, I understood everyone was the same inside. I never felt guilty about ending their little lives because I don’t think I was old enough to understand that I was killing something over and over. My life still went on.

We experimented with building large, extravagant sand castles that had little moats which led to the water’s edge, designed with fiddler crabs in mind. We’d use our index and middle finger to penetrate the sand and push the crabs from their burrows before displacing them into a world of luxury. I preferred to find the female crabs because they lacked the extra large male claw that — to a child — was extra large. Once in my life the tip of my thumb was caught in between the might of an angry fiddler crab and I screamed and cried to my nana until she made the pain go away. The fiddler crab lost his claw that day from my writhing, and from then on I dedicated summers to sand architecture. Once the tide was right, my moat would push foamy water around the castle to protect the fiddler crabs; Sometimes, a bait fish would make its way in as extra muscle. Ultimately, the crabs would reject the abundance and disappear back into their holes under the castle.

I was told at an early age that jellyfish lived forever unless they had no salt water to keep them gelatinous. It was very rewarding to split them into thirds and toss them back into the creek. I felt like God. Moon jellies only, though — the ones who liked to hover close to the surface of the creek. If the moon wasn’t out we could sit in our kayaks on the inky-black water and watch them glow like fairies or ghosts of dead relatives. My sympathy ended for stinger jellies when I swam through a school of them and had red, burning stripes all over my body that seemed to never go away. They did, eventually, just in time for my growth spurt and for more red, uncomfortable lines all over my body that never went away. 

My legs grew longer, as did the rest of me, and I lost my penchant for smashing open mussels and propagating jelly fish. I spent more time on top of the creek than under its deep, empty, black-green veil. I traded salty skin for tanning oil, and gave up on crab castles. Broiling under the sun like a lobster in my nana’s stove, I spread my arms wide and beautiful like the wet creek loon sunning himself. My life went on and the creek stayed static, with probably a few extra shellfish. When it became too hot to bear, I ran through the sprinklers on my nana’s lawn; One time, I did it fully clothed in a light pink shirt. I looked down at myself and then to my mother. 

“I think I need to buy a bra,” I said. 

“Sure. Nan will come.” 

My nana wanted to buy me my first bra, and growing up as a creek child I was accustomed to bathing suits and towels, or choosing between the two. There was no store to acquire a bra, so we made the great excursion to WalMart, thirty-five minutes away. A whole to-do over my new body. I was becoming a woman, apparently. That meant new tops, new bathing suits, and new ways to show myself to the world. The male fiddler crab donned a large claw, but what did the female fiddler crab have? Certainly not cleavage. Maybe I should expose myself like a wet loon. 

“Your first bra should be modest,” Nana said. “Here.” 

She handed me a white training bra, and I took it obediently although the rows and rows of exciting, sexual, provocative ones sat dangled in front of me like bait on a hook. There wasn’t any fighting a woman of God like her. I said “thank you” and took the spoils home, where I’d forgotten to wear the bra two to three days a week for about six months, until I sat in gym class in a white tee and nothing underneath knowing my nipples were there. Woman nipples. Around pre-teen boys. I never forgot again. 

The Ninth Circle

When evil took over earth, we didn’t anticipate a landscape of frozen tundras, ice, and life lost in time. I personally expected — and now find myself longing for — blazing heat and dust. We weren’t worthy of that, though. Media outlets and prominent political figures tried to blame it on environmental disasters and human irresponsibility for the Great Freeze. They pointed to scientists to back up the claims who — when put on the spot — denied any of it having to do with humans. 

This is happening too fast.

We had at least another fifty years.

It’s your fault. This is supernatural.

I remember when I heard the head of the World Health Organization blame a single group of leaders for the Great Freeze. They blamed evil and greed. They blamed lust and laziness. I looked at the family Bible on the shelf that we hadn’t touched in years and thought, there’s no way in Hell. But here we are, three years into the Great Freeze and no other logical explanation other than Satan himself. Crops froze over in the first year and people looted relatively quickly. There was a theory floated around by some surviving world leaders that involved controlled nuclear explosions to try and break the ice but the ice surrounding the bunkers and hidden locations was glacier-thick, or so I heard, and the men and women in charge of guarding (or operating) the weapons were all dead. 

Having a background in theology and mythology led me to deduct that we, as a human race, were placed in the Ninth Circle of Hell. My mother thought my exploits in old books and ancient history were for nothing, and now look at her. She’s in a block of ice somewhere, and I’m roaming the frozen tundra that was once home to someone. I haven’t eaten in months, but I haven’t been hungry. I’m not sure if it has to do with the supernatural events surrounding me or if maybe I’m dead and don’t know it yet, but the desire to satiate myself is gone. I also have no clue if there are others; I don’t know if I’m here because I was deemed good, or if I’m still alive because I was evil. Do evil people really know they’re evil? Regardless, I’ve been placed in the Ninth Circle. Or the Ninth Circle was brought up to earth — or the Ninth Circle just… appeared — I can’t really say. But whatever was written all those years ago in Dante’s Inferno was correct to an extent. It hasn’t happened often, but the writers and thinkers of previous millenia have had predictive abilities before. I just wished it wasn’t the Ninth Circle. A traditional Apocalypse would have been more manageable, honestly.  

No matter what, there’s no denying man did this to himself. Very on-par with the way everything else has been going for the last hundred years, if I’m being honest. I’m not surprised, I just wish I wasn’t alone so much. 

I did travel for months on foot looking for shelter that wasn’t sealed shut, or for a person who wasn’t frozen in fear. It was a fruitless hunt, however, and eventually I stopped looking around me. I kept forward, walking over ice and snow in the boots and puffer jacket I left home with. Tucked carefully inside of my jacket was a heart-shaped locket. My mother’s. I lost track of time, and I would have lost hope if I had any to begin with; The first unnaturally large storm cloud that blew in however long ago sucked any semblance of maybe it’ll pass out of me. 

My walking came to an unfortunate and abrupt pause when I came across a shallow, mostly-frozen river. Mostly frozen didn’t happen in the Ninth Circle. Beyond the banks of the water was a church. It wasn’t frozen. I saw lights. It couldn’t be, I thought. But I had to try. Even though I wasn’t religious, a priest was better company than no one. A log thick enough to sit on lay on the shore, as if waiting for me to embark. It was the first thing I could touch in that endless winter that moved from its place, and I felt a tingle throughout my body just to have connected with something earthen. Carefully, I eased it into the water and grabbed a long, wide branch to try and maneuver myself across. Luckily, because it was mostly-frozen, the water wasn’t moving very fast. Unluckily, neither was I. I paddled carefully, using my arms for the first time in months. My teeth chattered in the sharp air and I tried to not let that distract me from the shoreline. 

Fifty feet felt like an eternity, and I exhaled with relief at the sound of my log hitting dirt and ice. The church sat only steps ahead like a warm, inviting beacon. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t frozen over; I was used to glancing over smooth large bubbles of what once were homes and businesses. It looked like a safe place to me. It looked like Heaven. 

I didn’t knock. You never knocked in churches. You just went in, because it was always a place of safety, and always inviting. The feel of the carpet under my feet made my legs wavy. I spent months (years?) wandering a frozen, desolate wasteland. Even my hair was rigid and stood still in time. I marveled at the paintings, the stained glass – and then I saw the priest. He stood behind his podium at the altar as if he knew I was coming. 

“Father,” I said, “how have you survived here?”

“Come in, my child.” He waved me down the aisle. I noticed he didn’t answer my question.
“Father, how have you managed to survive in this frozen wasteland?” 

I glanced quickly around me to the fixtures on the walls. All of the crosses looked melted and hung upside down around me. They glinted in the sun. 

“Father,” I said, “how did these melt? Was it hot in here last night? Do you have fire?”

“It was below freezing last night, my son,” he replied. 

“Father…” I took a step back. “Father, why is this church the only building that has not been frozen in ice? How did this survive the Ninth Circle?”

“Well,” he sighed, “I let the Devil loose.” 

Decay of the Farm

Old Man Jack’s yellow recliner sat at the entrance of the red barn on the back of the property. Like Jack, the recliner was also very old, with fabric pilled and pulled along the back and arms from years of lingering in the elements. I was often tempted to call him “Uncle Jack,” because I had an Uncle Jack, but my parents were adamant to never call him that. He never has been, and never will be. It was well enough, I figured, since he always threatened to feed our barn kittens rat poison for letting them climb all over his yellow recliner.

It always smelled a certain way in the barn, like almond liquor and oil. I didn’t know what almond liquor was at the time, but when I first smelled Amaretto it brought me to the belly of our barn where the monstrous tractor sat dormant, its keys in the ignition. The floor was strewn with kitty litter and saw dust to absorb the oil, and I dragged my sandals along the cement and felt the scrape of time. More often than I was probably permitted, I climbed the tractor with slipper little hands and dusty shoes, bits of gravel and litter raining from my feet to the ground beneath me. The seat was high and hard; The vinyl was cracked and decaying like everything else in the barn. I touched the keys as they tempted me to hear the motor and smell the oil, and take the tractor from the time capsule – but I was instructed to never touch it, so I let it continue to rot.

One day, Old Man Jack just stopped sitting in the recliner at the entrance to the barn. My parents forbade me from claiming the chair as my own due to filth, and no one wanted to touch it, so it stayed. And as I grew older, the memory of Old Man Jack faded; we never talked about him. I couldn’t recall if he ever truly was the sentry of our barn, or simply a ghost that vanished as I lost my innocence.

The recliner remained as a symbol of someone or something I knew. It went to the barn kittens – now cats – who worked the fabric down to springs and bone – and like many other things – the recliner eventually made its way to the local landfill. The barn cats were sad to see it go, but they were young and had so much more to discover. They were born in a hole behind the barn. Six babies in total – all different colors – to a sleek black mother that vanished shortly after they were born. She could have been scared away by over-excited farm kids who knew nothing of space and everything of soft, plush, kitten desires. Or, more likely, she could have been killed by a fox – an unfortunate truth of farm life.

When the mother didn’t return, the kittens were moved to the chicken coop – a small, offspring of the barn. I recalled seeing chickens once bursting out of the wooden latched door, full of life and enthusiasm. But, like Old Man Jack, the memory became a dream and I couldn’t remember if the chickens were real or just more ghosts of the barn. We plugged up the egg chute – evidence that chickens did exist one time – and kept the kittens warm. I waited under the maple tree next to the coop everyday for weeks until one finally chose me. She was black, fluffy, and mean. She was a perfect hunter, and like the other cats, remained feral to the farm. Eventually, four went away to family and friends, but two – mine and my brother’s gray short hair – remained the new keepers of the barn.

We were forbidden from entering the second shed, the one directly across from the chicken coop. It wasn’t locked up, like the recliner wasn’t hidden away, and like the keys never left the tractor, but our temptation was tested at the easy wooden latch that kept the door closed. Eventually, our curiosity overtook us on an unsupervised afternoon when the kittens were no longer kittens, and we entered the space. It smelled like oil and old blood. Two work benches sat on opposite ends, one for repairing, and one for destroying. One side held tools and the other had blackened metal hooks that hung from chains on the ceiling. The shed was cold and the air was heavy, full of iron and death. I felt, as a young child, that things were killed and skinned, flayed and cut, but not a way conducive with nature. Not for survival or sustenance, but for entertainment. Evil. The space was dirty, but it felt dirty – filth in its bones and stains behind the walls. I feared touching anything, so we put the wooden latch back. We never talked about it again, and shot out the windows with a bb gun.

The barn never changed much. It stood past the edge of our grass in perpetuity, beyond a treacherous sea of gravel and rocks – something designed and intended to deter barefoot children of summer. But we grew immune with calluses and strong will – and determination to witness the slow decay of our farm and the life that came after. I often stood in its open mouth, breathing vapors of rat poison and dust, risking my health without knowing any better. In the winter the barn stayed closed, but it watched our house from afar, and peered in through our kitchen window long after we fell asleep and until the thaw of Spring. Then, we’d return to the tire swing outside and watch barn swallows use the broken window to make their nests and feed their young in the rafters above the tractor.

The Runalongs

Another boring weekend meal at the home of Friends of a Friend of Mom and Dad. A stout housewife in heels that were either cut low or compressed under her size pushed once-a-year-used silver trays of tartlets and stuffed mushrooms in our faces with a smile embedded so deep in her apple cheeks that I swear I saw her molars. Mom graciously took or denied a bite at each pass; My boredom led to the discovery that she took from every two offers. Dad sat with a crystal glass half-full of sherry and enthusiastically engaged in banter with buzzwords such as “dividends” and “fiscal” and – my personal favorite of the evening – “fiduciary.” 

These Friends of a Friend had no children for me to engage with and partake in my own new fancy words, such as “fuck.” I sat politely, as previously instructed in the car on the way to dinner, and accepted hors d’oeuvres as they came at a rate of one-to-one. Exponential is the word Dad might have called that. Mom warned me more than once to watch my intake or else I’d spoil my appetite come dinner, but if I was forced to commingle with adults, I was going to take advantage of the free, painstakingly-prepared food. As far as I was concerned, she should be grateful to have a child who loves mushrooms as much as I do. 

The dinner itself was nothing short of overdone in regards to both the effort of the wife and the texture of the roast. Fortunately for Mom, Dad, and me, we were provided with serrated steak knives that effortlessly glided through the housewife’s science project. Unfortunately for Mom, Dad, and me, our teeth were not of the same strength as the cutlery. We ate, though, and complimented the Friends of a Friend, and made it to dessert which — although I’d hate to admit it — I was too full to eat. Mom was right, and I did spoil my appetite on the mushrooms from earlier in the evening. Another glass of sherry for Dad before we departed. The husband handed each of us our jackets, and made sure to help Mom into hers, before we bid them adieu and piled back into Dad’s car. In my opinion, he had one sherry too many, and Mom should have driven, but God forbid she gets behind the wheel of his Mercedes. She has her own. 

“It was a lovely evening.” Mom spoke like a B-flat in the sticky air of the car, the remnant smells of Friends of a Friend’s house dangling from the ceiling. 

“Mhm,” Dad said, trying to focus on not swerving. 

“Why do we have to do these things anyway?”

“It was a very good business connection for your father, dear.” Mom answered on Dad’s behalf because I think she, too, knew he was trying his hardest to focus on the lines of the road. 

“Whatever,” I replied. 

Thirty minutes into the drive I found my head moulded into the car door and I watched the white line of the road’s shoulder glide alongside the vehicle. Each yellow-orange street light just blink blink blinked along. It may have been the massive amount of food I ate, but I swore something was making its way along the side of our car, at the same pace as Dad. A man? Maybe some wolf-like creature? I’m not entirely sure, but the longer I looked, the more real it became. It used the guard rails, fire hydrants, lamp posts — jumping and leaping along as if it needed to deliver a message. I watched intently at the shadowy figure, hoping it wouldn’t lose its balance. Part of me wanted to tell Mom and Dad to look out the car window and see what I saw, but I knew Dad was too busy to focus, and Mom was too boring to care.

This creature — runalong — found its cadence eventually and ran well-enough beside us to make me forget that it was unnatural or abnormal in the first place. For the first time that evening I felt less lonely, and also forgot about my upset stomach where I imagined prosciutto piled on mushrooms piled on meat-flavored brick. I put my face in my palm and leaned my elbow into the car door so I could watch more intently, but just as I became comfortable, Dad turned a corner and continued down our street. I let out a sigh of frustration. 

“Oh, what? Now you don’t want to go home all of a sudden?” Dad snapped. His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. It was the first time he spoke to me all night, except for the pep-talk in the car on the way to Friends of a Friend’s house, where he told me to be on my best behavior or else he’d drop me off on the side of the road. Watching the shadow beside our car, I wished I goofed off at the dinner party. 

Once the car was off I leaped from the backseat and ran up to my private bathroom where I washed my face and brushed my hair, brushed my teeth and gargled, and got into my bed. It was up against my windows, and instead of falling asleep, I perched myself up far enough to get a good view of the street and lights that surrounded the end of our cul de sac. Anxiously, demanding in my head, I wished for the runalong to come find me. 

“Where are you? Come on…” I whispered into my safety blanket and cursed — quietly enough that Mom and Dad wouldn’t hear or try to come into my room. I locked my bedroom door anyway. I often heard about friends from the private school whose parents argue a lot after dinner parties, but mine never disagree. In fact, my parents don’t talk very much to one another. Mom goes along with whatever Dad wants to do — whether it’s a dinner party, or punishing me, or a new business venture — and everyone is happy. Everyone but me, I guess. 

It was about three in the morning, and I felt myself strain to keep a minimum one eye open for the runalong, when I saw a shadow zip from the pine tree on the front lawn to the street light across the street. My heart jumped out of excitement, not fear, that the thing I thought I saw really existed. 

“What are you,” I whispered. “Come closer. Come to the tree again.” I sat up tall and gestured for the runalong. I didn’t know if it could see me, but I wanted to at least try; I’d been awake far too long and wasn’t planning on going to sleep with failure on the brain. 

To my surprise, the shadow jumped back from the street light to the pine tree. Its movement was so smooth, but the shadow was far bigger than it appeared from where I sat in the car earlier, and I jumped back a little when it moved. I didn’t know if it could speak, but I said hello to it, and opened the window. 

“What are you?”

The runalong only stood perched in the tree branch. I couldn’t see its eyes — that is — if it had any. I could only make out vague appendages that wrapped around the branch and held it in place. Little swirls of shadows and darkness blotted out the street light behind it. I asked again, but it still didn’t answer.

“It must be so nice to just jump from treetop to treetop. Do you like chasing cars? Are you like a dog?”  

The shadow only moved a little. It inched closer to my window. I didn’t want it to think I was afraid so I didn’t move. My deduction was if the runalong wanted to eat me it would have done it when I first opened the window. Maybe it was never noticed before and just wanted a friend. Either way, I had questions. 

“Are you alone? Are you lonely? I get lonely. Mom and Dad only wanted one kid and even though I asked for a sibling they said no, so I just stopped asking. We were coming home from a dinner party. I hate dinner parties. There are never any kids. Do you know what kids are? I’m a kid. My parents are adults. And you — I’ve been calling you a ‘runalong.’ I hope that’s okay.”

The runalong appeared to sit up and mimic me. I determined this was its way of communicating so I patiently waited for its next move. It seemed to grow a head and a neck and even though it didn’t have eyes, I felt like it was looking into mine. 

“I bet you are lonely. I would like to be your friend, if you’ll let me.” 

Mom and Dad expected me to sleep in late from all of the excitement of childless, mushroom-filled dinner, so it was no surprise to them when I didn’t come downstairs for breakfast. It was slightly more suspicious when I wasn’t present for lunch, but Mom had a hair appointment and Dad was in a meeting. When dinner came around, and I didn’t show up, Mom walked up the spiral staircase and knocked on my door. When I didn’t answer, she jiggled the handle to find it locked. Mom ran downstairs and rummaged through the junk drawer for a spare key, ran back upstairs to shakily open my door. She finally called out to Dad when she saw my room was empty, the lights off, and the bedroom window open to the evening air. 

Dad grabbed the keys to the car and they peeled out of the driveway, out of the cul de sac, and down the road for any sign of where I might be. Mom cried for the first time in years, and Dad’s lower lip disappeared from how hard he chewed on it. They looked ahead, to the left and right — but not up — so they didn’t notice two shadows running alongside the car. 

There is Only one Devil

Deeper, deeper we descended into the abyss. Before exiting topside, I stood on top of the mound of red clay and sand that accumulated from weeks of digging and watched the last of the sun drip into the horizon. It was foolish of me to hope the last of the day’s light found its way into this cavern. 

My lantern swung wildly on the steep walk down in the empty space and made the clay appear as flames around me. My partner instructed me to lower it closer to my side so it would steady. He was right. He was always right, that’s why I am the assistant. It’s a role I take seriously and with pride – and admittedly a little fear when we go on expeditions such as these. I observed with a knot in my throat as hired hands cleared piles of earthen flesh for little money at a very specific geographical location. I found myself with the desire to sit, my gut pulling into my spine as if God himself was trying to remove me from the dig site. My partner remained silent for most of those weeks, sipping coffee from an old metal thermos and occasionally directing the unofficial foreman of the angle required to reach the cavern. 

“This will make everything better for me,” he said the night before our descent. 

I nodded and drank some of the bourbon he shared, but I didn’t ask him to specify what exactly would be better. Everything is a lot. Of course I speculated to myself in the twilight hours, as sand patted down my tent, what was in the cavern. What – or who, maybe – has patiently or impatiently sat in the deep, deep darkness waiting for a rescue party to rediscover it. Or him. Or her. Any average man may have suggested oil or gold, but I knew my partner. Quiet, yes – a businessman, no. My partner was a collector of artifacts – mostly religious paraphernalia. And it didn’t matter the religion, as long as it was held by someone with great faith in their god. 

“The energy exists within the item,” he’d say, turning whatever it was at the time over and over in his palms. Sometimes he would hold his hands close to the fireplace as if to soften the barrier of flesh before squeezing the item, like he wanted to absorb them. Of course I found it bizarre but I never asked questions. I’m an assistant. I’m only paid to assist. 

The air in the cavern was thick and hung like the velvet drapes in my father’s old bedroom, although the space smelled like our family crypt. It resembled slow organic decay and sweetly rotting flesh, encased in porous, chilled stone. My partner turned back and saw me flare my nostrils and exhale hard from my nose to banish the smell. He laughed and it echoed in our theater. 

“Smells like a graveyard.”

“Quite so,” I said. 

“Come now, not much further.” 

I obediently followed, my lantern at hip height behind my partner. He walked with no light of his own, guided only by the whispering glow of mine. I thought he must have spectacular eyesight – and it made sense the longer I thought – because his estate was often dimly lit. Something that I chalked up to saving on electrical expenses. My partner was extremely wealthy, though. His worth – I’m not sure of the exact amount – could have covered the lighting of a hundred estates such as his. After further deliberation in my mind, I settled on the theory that my partner simply had very sensitive eyes. 

We walked for what felt like hours, and I noticed my lantern light was low. Still, I continued behind my partner who marched dutifully forward with no light – and no map. He must have memorized an old, found parchment prior to our exhibition, I concluded. My inner dialogues ended when my partner began to speak. 

“You have always been a wonderful assistant.” 

I felt a bead of sweat produce at my hairline and trickle down my cheek. 

“Thank you, sir.” 

“No, truly. Thank you. You’ve never questioned my hobbies, methods, or exhibitions. You do exactly what is asked of you, and I never felt I’d find such an exceptional help in this very long lifetime.” 

“Well, sir, I’m humbled,” I panted. The air thinned in some way. What a horrible time to begin a conversation, I thought. 

“Oftentimes, my previous assistants either questioned – or were offended by – my wide collection of various religious artifacts. As if there was only one answer to their higher good. I never understood that – the judgment.” He turned back. “You don’t judge me.”

“Who am I to judge what brings another man joy?”

“My point exactly! Who is man to judge what brings another joy? See? There is still some good in this world.”
I was always told, only God can judge us.” I blinked hard and slowed my descent on the rocky steps in an attempt to catch my breath. I felt hot around my neck and back. My partner, fading from my lantern, strolled ahead. He carried no pack, no water – just himself. He turned to see me struggling and waited for me to catch up. 

“Out of breath, old boy?”

“The air feels thinner. Forgive me. And it feels warm. I feel so warm.” 

“I know, isn’t it great?” He hugged himself. I couldn’t understand his resilience. I envied him in that moment. 

In the final throes of my conscious wobbling into the hot, unforgiving void, I noted my hunger and thirst rise as my flame grew smaller. We didn’t pack water. We had no food. My partner kept pace with me, although he was entirely unaffected by our surroundings, and I lumbered onward, heaving my legs one in front of the other. 

“To continue,” he said, “almost everyone who believes seems to be under the impression that their interpretation of the highest being – God, if you will – is the best version, and all others are wrong.” 

“At least there’s only one Devil.” 

My partner grinned in the dying glow of my lantern. He helped me up with ease and steadied me to my feet. We were finally on some sort of flat surface, and just in front of me, I could make out an impossibly large wall. I tried to raise my lantern, but was too weak; All I could see was a thick, vertical crack in the stone. 

“Yes my boy, there is only one Devil, and to some believers, the Devil is their God.” 

“What are you saying?” My vision blotted in and out in the already dark, oven-like space. 

“I’m saying, you have been an excellent assistant. But I need to go home for a while. Thank you again, for believing in me – for following.” 

The crack in the cavern wall began to glow and I was overcome with a white-hot light. My skin felt as if it would melt from my bones. Whatever air I had left in me escaped with a final bloody scream as I was engulfed in fire, my partner holding me, laughing. 

I woke up on the dirt mound. Red clay and sand stuck to the sweat on the back of my neck and behind my knees. Slowly, I sat up from what felt like a horrible, horrible dream only to notice my partner was gone. I placed my hand on my chest to make sure my heart was beating, when I felt something solid in the inner pocket of my vest. In it was a thick envelope, and in that envelope was the deed to my partner’s estate and a will. Both written over to me. I stood carefully and looked over to see an apparition of yellow raise up over the horizon. My partner seemed to have gone home, so I used my hands and began filling in the hole. 

January 26, 2020 7:17 AM

It wasn’t that I gained a conscience for her, but I spent so much time hovering around her mother that I felt like something was owed. It had been a good fifteen years of watching this kid, front and center, go through hell. I never stay around so long, but in special cases like hers — the slow burn deaths — I tend to leave a little something for those who have to live in suffering. 

Dreams, in the long run, are given rational explanations for why they occur. Losing your teeth in a dream is thought to be the coming of changes in your life; overflowing toilets is supposed to imply a literal shitty situation, pressure, mental or emotional unavailability. For some reason, she dreamed a lot about overflowing toilets. She never told anyone, and I wouldn’t spoil it for her either, but I never really saw someone dream about overflowing toilets so much.  

Ever since she was small she had night terrors of the Shadow Man who lurked in the doorway. She’d wake up and he’d still be there, unmoving, glowing red eyes, watching. She thought he was there for her — but she was wrong — he was there for her mother. The Shadow Man and I work in a similar business, different departments, I guess. He has a habit of haunting the children of the afflicted individuals and lingering around like a malignant tumor until he finally gets what he wants. When she lived at home, the girl would dream of him almost nightly. She told her mother about it, who rationalized that she had too much sugar in her diet, and brushed it off. Her mother never believed the girl’s sense of impending doom. 

The Shadow Man is a demon of death, a harbinger of what horrors are to come. He generally arrives before I do and he likes to leave first. Being Death, I try to keep things simple — swoop in, take the soul, get out. The Shadow Man hovers in the subconscious and warns of things unseen. He never gives an explanation as to why he’s there until the last minute. 

“I can’t believe this is happening.”

That’s what the girl uttered after she heard her mother was in the hospital. That’s what she said after she threw her books across her room and crumbled to the floor. Her roommates tried to bring comfort but she knew already, that it was the end. I watched her for fifteen years and for the first time I — dare I say — felt something? Her head spun and spun and she thought about her mother, her mother’s disease, and the Shadow Man. That black shadow stood behind her, invisible. The demon that spent two decades watching her finally came back for what he wanted  — her mother.

The Disappearances of Duckworth Falls

1.

Rosalie McGinnis disappeared from her bathroom on Wednesday afternoon. Her mom was home when it happened, but when interviewed by police she claimed to hear no forced entry and no sounds of Rosalie in distress. In fact, her mother only noted the disappearance a full two hours after Rosalie went into said bathroom to get ready for the movies with two of her friends. Mrs. McGinnis was supposed to drop all three girls off for the matinee, and noted it suspicious that her daughter didn’t come out of the bathroom. She opened the door, fearing she would find her beloved Rosalie unconscious, maybe from hitting her head on the tub. Mrs. McGinnis was taken by quite the surprise, you can imagine, when she opened the door to find no Rosalie at all, only her comb on the floor next to the toilet. The window, still locked from the inside, lacked even a smudge of dust. It was all very abnormal. The police agreed, and Mrs. McGinnis’s alibi was solid. The members of the McGinnis family themselves are a very normal, boring, happy foursome – Rosalie the big sister to Tyler McGinnis, my best friend. 

“My mom says I can’t play with you anymore, Barry.” We sat in Tyler’s backyard under the only tree. He jabbed a pointy stick into the dirt over and over. 

“Me? What did I do? I didn’t kidnap your sister.” The words felt harsh coming out of my mouth, meaner than I meant. But Tyler didn’t react, just kept prodding the lawn.

“It’s not just you,” he sighed. He paused his excavation and looked up. “She says I can’t go anywhere with anybody. I can’t leave this stupid yard, and they said something about liability of other kids here.” 

“That’s dumb,” I said. I sat back and put my hands behind me to support myself. “Parents are dumb.”

“Yup.” Tyler lifted his stick and continued to dig. Rosalie went missing two weeks earlier and the cops were none the wiser to who did the kidnapping or how it happened. I felt bad. Tyler was my best friend and I was also madly in love with Rosalie. You’re supposed to fall in love with your best friend’s sister, at least, that’s how it always looks in the movies. She was two grades older than us but she was always so nice to me – how could I not fall in love with a nice girl? No other girls wanted to date a guy named Barry. 

Last year, Greg Hargrove told me I looked like a Barry. I looked up at him from where I landed after he pushed me down on the playground. I didn’t know how someone could look like their name. A name was just a name. 

“Because,” he laughed, “you’re fat and awkward. You have an old man’s name.”

“It is my old man’s name,” I said, still on the ground. I figured if I got up again, he’d just push me down again. And I didn’t like confrontation. 

“Dumb Barry’s parents can’t even think of a new name for him! Come on, get up!” He egged me on, but I just said no thank you.

“You’re so weird.” Greg grimaced at me and walked away. I made sure he was far enough that I could get up without a fight, and that’s when Tyler walked over and extended a hand. 

“He’s a jerk,” he said. 

“No doubt in my mind.” I took Tyler’s hand and he helped me up. Greg was right though – I was a fat kid named Barry. But those were facts and I couldn’t take facts as insults. I wiped any dirt from the butt of my pants when she walked up to us.

“You alright? Greg is just a sad kid, don’t worry about him.” Rosalie smiled like an angel and put her hand on my shoulder and that was when I fell in love.  

Hello?” I popped out of my daydream to see Tyler staring at me. 

“What?”

“Did you hear anything I just said? You looked like you were in space.” 

“I wish I was in space,” I laughed. “Sorry, I was just thinking about… Rosalie. And how weird this all is.” I moved off of my hands that were both very much asleep and leaned forward with my elbows on my knees. “Sorry,” I said again.

“It’s cool. I guess I’m thinking a lot about it too.” Tyler let out a long sigh and lay backwards onto the grass; his head just missed the base of the tree. 

“What if she’s dead?”

“What?” I asked, not because I didn’t hear Tyler, but because I thought he could read my thoughts. 

“I shouldn’t say that,” he corrected himself. 

“Try to be positive, Tyler.” I patted him on his outstretched foot. We sat in the sun and baked a while longer, the dirt mound between us. 

“Thanks for hanging out,” he said.

“Hey! Maybe if my ma talks to your ma, you can come over to our house to hang out.” 

“Yeah, maybe.” He didn’t look at me when he responded. I knew it was futile. My family was poor and our house sucked. There was no way Mrs. McGinnis would let Tyler come over, even if Rosalie wasn’t missing. 

Tyler really had no reason or need to be my friend. He was popular enough, and we all knew I was not. His parents were still together, and my dad left when I was eight. Not to mention both of Tyler’s parents made a lot of money. His dad managed the Duckworth Falls Power Plant, and his mom worked for the Duckworth Falls Town Hall. My mom managed the Till, the everything store that had a little bit of everything someone might need at a slightly elevated price. We didn’t shop there. 

Before Tyler wasn’t allowed to leave his house, we would walk or ride our bikes to the comic book and baseball card store across town. My bicycle is Tyler’s old one; he got the new Schwinn for Christmas and gave me his old one the next day. His old bike was only two years old and I was still riding around on my dad’s ten-speed that he left at our house. The comic book store on Cornwall Street was our mecca. I’d just sit and watch him use his allowance to buy packs of baseball cards, always searching for one or two specific players. He tore through the shiny wrapping of each pack, and let out a huff here and there when the card he wanted was missing. 

“Dang.” He slapped the fanned cards against the top of his leg. “No dice. Here.” Tyler handed me the whole pack, opened, to keep.

“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t know too much about baseball or their cards, but Tyler had a zillion of them and he was the only person who gave me things, so I put them in my backpack. 

I was thinking about my backpack full of cards when the sliding glass door to Tyler’s back deck caused him to sit up straight, and me to crane my neck around. I expected to see Mrs. McGinnis at the ready to tell me it was time to leave. We were both shocked to see my mom, though, in the door. 

“Barry Bear!”

I hated that nickname.

“Barry Bear! Time to go. Come on we have to go now.” 

My mom has never set foot in the McGinnis house. She always said they were too stuffy for her, that they had too many things. She said it felt like a museum. Usually, when she picks me up from Tyler’s house she just honks from the street until I make my way outside. Something had to be wrong, I was sure of it. Maybe my dad came back and he was wondering where his ten-speed went. 

“Well,” I sighed, “see ya later, Tyler.” I rolled over to my knees and pushed myself up to my feet and dusted the grass clippings from my shorts. My mom stood impatiently in the typical impatient mother stance: arms crossed, one foot out and leaning heavy to one side from carrying my inconvenience as a son, or even the phantom imprint of holding me constantly as a baby because I was very whiny and collicky. She liked to remind me. 

I passed her into the McGinnis house with a smile and she raised her eyebrows in return. We walked to the car together and as I said goodbye and thank you to Mrs. McGinnis, she almost beamed at me, like she was happy to see me leave her house. It didn’t hurt, not really, because that’s just how she was. 

“What’s going on?” I buckled myself into the front seat as my mom made a U-turn to head south back towards our neighborhood. She didn’t reply immediately so I asked again, thinking she just didn’t hear. 

“I heard you the first time, Barry.” 

“Well, then what’s going on?” 

My mom bit her lip a moment and fumbled with the air conditioning unit before she slowed down. Only two blocks away from Tyler’s house there were three cop cars, a fire truck, and an ambulance in front of Chris Fleming’s house. He was my classmate. 

“Woah what happened there? A fire?” 

“Chris Fleming is missing.” My mom fiddled again with the air conditioning and then returned both hands to the steering wheel. She drove straight on, not looking at the Fleming house, only slowing down either out of respect for the emergency workers, or so I could see. It was then I realized why Mrs. McGinnis seemed so happy as I left – she was no longer suspicious for her child missing, especially if the circumstances were the same. She was relieved. 

I didn’t reply to my mom and kept my face turned towards the window and watched the flashing daytime lights of emergency vehicles fade in the distance as we drove closer towards home. I tried to think of the last time I saw Chris Fleming. Homeroom? Gym? Why were the kids in my class going missing? And in Duckworth Falls of all places? It was a small town, easily overlooked, and generally only driven through by people trying to get to the major cities that shadowed us. There weren’t even any falls in Duckworth Falls. Come to think of it, there weren’t any ducks, either. And if things kept going the way they were, Duckworth Falls wouldn’t have any kids. 

Two Pieces

This story, along with the one before it Death is a Woman were rejected from a writing contest. I wasn’t allowed to publish the stories unless they were rejected, so, here!

Swarms of people gathered at the terminal and waited impatiently for it to open. All walks of life – men, women, and children formed like hungry animals, eager to board the next ferry across. The terminal was more frightening than the boat ride, it seemed; Wet, dirty cobblestone and high cavern ceilings of what surely felt like the center of the earth gave way for a symphony of echoes from nervous voices and shuffling feet. It wasn’t just the echoes, though, but the stink of tragedy that still hung to the freshly departed passengers. The growls and groans of a three-headed beast on the other side of the foggy river was a welcome tune.

And then there was Ellie. 

She didn’t recognize any of these people. Moments ago – it seemed – she was crossing the street with her family when she dropped her doll. Next thing she knew, Ellie was in this place. She must have fallen into a sewer, she thought, and these were all sewer dwellers. She wanted to cry out for her mother, but Ellie was taught to never cry out if she was lost, because a stranger would see her alone and take her. So she stood very still instead, and looked earnestly around for her parents. 

The jolt of an ancient whistle grabbed the attention of the passengers, and Ellie found herself swept up in a wave as they gathered in an orderly line per the instruction of the ticketmaster. Slowly, she felt herself sucked backwards as large feet, petite shoes – ball gowns and hospital gowns – pushed forward. Ellie heard an old woman complain that she waited her whole life for this moment and now she was stuck behind a destitute.

“Two pieces!” the ticket man hollered. Two pieces of what? Ellie wondered. She had two clips in her hair, two shoes on her feet – two pieces of what? She was last in line, still unable to locate her parents, although compelled to wait exactly where she was, certain they would come find her. And at the back of this line, she figured, it wouldn’t be long before she found out what two pieces the ticketmaster required. 

It felt like an eternity before Ellie could actually see the call box. Just beyond it was a short pier and – at the end of that – a long boat waited in the fog. She couldn’t see the captain’s face, but he was tall and thin and she thought maybe she didn’t want to ride this boat. She’d keep her clips and her shoes. Ellie couldn’t understand why these passengers wanted to cross into the fog – and it was almost her turn – so she tapped shyly on the back of an old woman’s arm. The lady turned around and looked down at the little girl. Her face softened, sad, to see someone so young in this line. 

“Oh, you poor thing. How did you get here?”

“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “I can’t find my mum and dad.” 

“Oh dear. They didn’t come with you?”

“I was just with them,” she replied. “I lost my doll.” 

“Don’t worry, dear.” The old woman put a soft hand on Ellie’s shoulder. “My husband didn’t come with me either. We can ride the ferry together.”

“Where is it going?” 

“To the afterlife, of course.” The old woman flashed a warm smile down to Ellie, but all she felt was the cold chill of fear run down her little spine. 

“I want to go home!” Ellie stomped a foot and it echoed across the floor, prompting those ahead of her to turn and stare. 

“Oh, child,” the old woman said, “you’re going to a new home. Your parents will find you there one day.” 

Ellie wanted to cry. She looked frantically for an exit, and saw none. She was alone, and only had the old woman to guide her. Eventually, it was the woman’s turn to pay the ticketmaster. 

“Two pieces,” a voice called from the shadow. She opened her hand and dropped two pence on the counter. A large palm covered the pieces and slid them into a drawer. She walked to the boat. 

“See you soon, dear,” she said. 

Ellie gulped and approached. He demanded the same two pieces. She checked her dress pockets, though she knew they were empty.

“I – I don’t have to pieces,” she said. Her throat was dry and hoarse.

“No pieces, no ferry,” he replied. His pitch didn’t waiver for anyone, not even a little girl. 

“But where do I go?”

“Nowhere,” he said, and slammed the callbox window shut. Ellie was left speechless as she stood alone at the pier. She watched the old woman turn around and saw her face change to sadness. The old woman lifted a hand in a limp wave goodbye, her head falling to one side. The boat pushed off into the fog, taking with it whatever light there was. 

Ellie sat on the ground in her dress. Her mum would have scolded her – but her mum wasn’t coming. She knew that now. She wrapped her arms around her knees and cried for what felt like hours, until a hand touched her shoulder, frightening her. 

“Why are you crying?” The woman smiled down at Ellie on the cobblestone. 

“I can’t go on the ferry, and I can’t find my mum and dad. And I’m scared,” Ellie wept. 

“You can ride with me,” the woman said.

“Do you have an extra two pieces?”

“I don’t need two pieces,” she laughed. 

Another boat arrived, different from the last. It was bigger, newer, and there was no ferryman in sight. Death took Ellie by the hand and walked her to the end of the pier. She picked up the little girl and placed her on a cushioned seat. Ellie felt safe for the first time since she arrived at the ferry terminal and thanked Death for taking her in. 

“No worries, darling. Let’s go find that old woman.” They rode into the fog.