The Expedition

Editor’s note – the following is an excerpt from the diary of Jonah Johnson, surveyor for the Carter Expedition, an outing to the Arctic Circle in the early 20s.  The expedition left the north-most region of Canada in April of 1923, and were presumed lost.  Jonah was survived by a wife and son and two grandchildren, Jesse and Caroline.

 

July 1923, Day 5

We left base camp in Canada five days ago, setting off from a remote island in the north and across the ice bridge that forms year round between it and the Arctic.  Our guides, two Inuit men named Aguta and Itigiaq, met us there, with two teams of sled dogs and accompanying sleds.  We took what supplies we could – a compass, a map composited from past expeditions and surveys, dry rations, fuel for fire lighting, tents, and a few gallons of water.  Despite the abundance of snow and ice, most of it is salt-based, and attempting to drink it would be a futile effort at best.

The party seems to be in good spirits, Milhausen and Carter joking, and Brimly looking on with a wry smile.  We’ve already covered good ground, and with luck, will be at our destination in fifteen days or less, weather permitting.

 

July 1923, Day 7

We had considered the possibility that our rations would run out before we could return to base camp, that it was entirely possible to be stuck in the snow and weather past our scheduled time.  On the sixth day out, one of the sled dogs died, and though the idea was tossed about, no one here spoke on it or acted on that atrocity.  I can already see the worry that gnaws at Milhausen beginning to fester, and hope he holds himself together long enough to make this trip.   We all agreed to half-rations for as long as we could stomach it, which should be a good while.  I don’t think anyone wants to admit they had entertained the idea of eating a pet.

Aguta buried the dog in a mound of snow and marked the grave with a few jagged pieces of ice he managed to break free.  He seems like a good man, though quiet.  Itigiaq just looked on, and made a sign in the air at the grave.  I asked Aguta about it, and he explained it as ‘old superstition’.  Still, that night in my tent, I crossed myself and said a little prayer for safe passage.

 

 

 

June 1923, Day 10

Carter found something while striking camp.  One of the tent-pegs had cracked the ice in a deep rift, perhaps digging into an existing fissure and acting as a wedge.  Below, we could glimpse a rock formation that looked to be a vein of pure silver.  Milhausen claimed it was simply reflection caused by light striking a surface that had been eroded to a mirror over the space of ages.  With cold creeping in, and an estimated ten more days to our destination, no one was in the mood to argue.  But I know what I saw.

That night, I dreamt of things long sleeping under the ice, and other less pleasant things.  When we awoke in the morning, another sled dog had died.  Most of us assumed he had left the pack in the middle of the night and froze to death without their protection.  Aguta and Itigiaq had a heated argument while they buried this one, with Itigiaq finally storming off.  When I asked him about it, Aguta did not seem to think he would be with us much longer.

 

June 1923, Day 11

Solid travel, uneventful.  Maybe just acclimation, but it feels like it’s getting warmer.  More tomorrow, the hardest leg of our journey just ahead, what Brimly has dubbed our Everest – a four mile diameter sheet of ice riddled with pressure ridges and ice floes.

The dogs are fighting.

 

June 1923, Day 12

Snowstorm.  It came on us from the north (Ha!), and blinded us almost instantly.  A halt was called, and we managed to find each other through calls and our flashlights.  We figured the winds to be about 35 miles an hour, and had to drive our tent spikes twice as deep, though there is still the fear the ice will shift and loose a peg, and the wind will snatch a tent away.

The temperature has dropped again as well, and I can only heat the ink in my pen so many times before it becomes useless.  I will stop for the night, and pray the storm does as well.

 

June 1923, Day 13

Itigiaq is gone.  The storm abated in the night, and we woke to find he had taken a sled and three day’s supplies with him.  Milhausen is beside himself, and keeps asking when we’ll have to eat the other dogs.  I suggested that we consider turning back now, but Brimly would have none of it.  He’s convinced we’re only a few days from our destination, and will be branded cowards should we fail now.  Carter nodded assent, though I saw a worry in his eyes as well.

My other concern, I kept to myself.  That is, the farther we go, the more frequent the nightmares become.  No one else has spoken of them, but I see the dark circles under Brimly’s eyes, and the haunted look in Carter’s.  If I weren’t a rational man, I would think we were being hunted.

I had the chance to speak with Aguta before we retired to our tents.  He is upset as well over Itigiaq’s betrayal, but is sure the man will be brought to justice should he return to their village.  I am not so sure.  Three days’ supplies, and a twelve day trek back – the math does not work out well for him.

 

June 1923, Day 14

None of us slept well, between fears of dreams that had grown darker and listening to the sounds of the camp between gusts of wind.  Those dreams – I see things in the daylight now – half-shadows and shapes that lurk at the corner of the eye, and then dart from vision when you turn to view them.  I feel I should speak to Carter about this, since he is the medical expert in our group, yet I cannot bring myself to admit to another man, let alone myself, that I may be losing my mind.

When I left the tent, Brimly greeted me with a cup of coffee and a grimace.  We drank in silence for a minute, the ice just beginning to glisten from the rising sun.  He broke it first.

“Milhausen’s gone.  Poor bastard slit his wrists last night, bled out in his tent.”  He said.

I opened my mouth to ask about the others – Carter and Aguta, and Brimly cut me off.  “They’re gone as well.  Together, or not, I can’t be sure, but they’ve disappeared.  They took almost the last of our rations, the sled, and the radio.”

I took it all in, weighing our options.  Pursuing those two would most certainly constitute a complete collapse of the expedition, with precious time and resources wasted.  Brimly had apparently arrived at the same conclusion, and so we agreed on the most sensible course of action.  We would search the immediate area for signs of either Carter or Aguta, and succeed or fail, strike camp the next day to proceed to our final destination.  Depending on our supplies, should we be able to hold out there, our contingency plan called for colleagues back home to mount a rescue should we pass our trip goal.

We began our search, splitting the mile surrounding the camp into hemispheres, Brimly taking the west, and I the east.  I didn’t walk long before I found my first clue, red slush in a wide pool not even a quarter mile from the tents.

The cold restricted the senses, pressing in at times from all sides as though the air had walls and was slowly imploding.  I got to my knees and lowered the mask I had worn for the walk, and smelled almost immediately the coppery tang of fresh blood.  I looked around, trying to locate Brimly, loathe to waste one of the few flares we had left to signal him.

Luck seemed to be with me however, as I spotted him nearly right away.  He was near the center of camp, standing with his back to me.  I figured he had returned to warm himself at a small fire we had made.  I waved and shouted his name.

He turned, as though hurt or stiff, and I waved again.  Another moment passed, and he didn’t respond.  The oddest thought occurred to me then.

What if that isn’t Brimly?

A shadow flickered at the edge of my vision, and I turned my head.  Nothing there, but that thought bothered me.  This was the Arctic, after all, and we were the only two at camp.  The amount of blood I had found suggested another would be dead or dying, and as for the fourth, I doubted they would have made the trouble to come back.  I hailed Brimly again, and hesitated for a second, despite logic settling in.

I waved one more time, and saw him respond at last, his body turning in what again struck me as an odd, mechanical way, his legs punching into the snow like pistons.  I reached into my pocket and grabbed the only thing there – the flarefun I had tucked away – it wasn’t much in the way of a weapon, but it might do in a pinch.

At sixty yards, the bottom dropped out of my stomach.

Brimly was stripped to the waist, his chest a red ruin where someone or something had torn a ragged hole where his heart used to be.   In its place was a glass cylinder that seemed to be affixed by cables shunted directly into raw veins.  In the center of the cylinder, suspended in a mix of plasma and a glowing green ichor, a single disembodied eye glared out.

Even as I recognized it, it rolled in its fluid and fixed that stare on me, and I felt an unnatural chill roll its way up my spine and into the base of my skull.  For a moment, those shadows at the edge of my vision began to darken, and I could hear what sounded like words forming in the back of my mind.

I was torn away from the voices in my head, their words twisting like smoke in the wind, by the sound of Brimly, gurgling and then screaming from deep in his throat.  I stepped back, and for the first time noticed the ice axe he was dragging behind him.  He raised it, and I fell back again.

The axe whistled by me, the serrated head so sharp I could almost taste the steel in the air.  Unthinking, I reached into my pocket, and pulled the flare gun out.  Not aiming, not thinking, I raised it, and fired.

By then, the thing that had been Brimly regained his coordination, and I was knocked sideways even as an agonizing pain tore into my ribs.  I screamed and heard one in response even over what I was sure was the snap and crackle of breaking bone.

I pulled myself right even as the axe fell away from me, and heard the pop and fizzle of fire in snow.  I was able to clear my head long enough to see what had happened.  The flare had shattered the cylinder, spilling its contents onto the tundra, the eye a blackened ruin in a pool of glass and green ice.  Brimly’s body was not far from it, the torn tubing leaking green and red vital fluids into the snow.

Warmth slid down my leg, and I saw the blood seeping through the rent in my coat.  It took some time for me to stagger back to the tents, and once, I thought myself lost when my vision went black, and I found myself staring out at miles and miles of snow and ice.  Eventually, I made it, and crawled into my tent.  I was able to bind my wound with strips of cloth torn from my bedding, and when I could no longer hold my head up, I slept.

 

June 1923, Day 15

When I woke again, it was dawn.  I gathered what things I could, and determined that I would make our destination and wait for rescue, if it came.  On the way out, my pack loaded with what I could carry, I stopped at Brimly’s corpse and picked up the axe that had wounded me.  My ribs ached and throbbed, but I was able to keep them at a dull roar with some of the morphine from Carter’s medkit.

I made my way from the camp, heading due north, according to the compass.  The wind was up, and it didn’t take long for a numbness to creep into my skin despite my layers of clothing.  Head down, I crept forward, and it wasn’t until I realized a shadow had fallen over me that I looked up.

I was at the base of an ice ridge, pushed up from the sheet cracking and shifting, much like the earth’s crust after an earthquake.  It loomed over me like the hand of a long dead and frozen god, and for a moment, I could only stare, fighting the image in my mind of it crashing down on me, crushing me from existence.

I stepped forward, under the eaves of the ledge, and felt the wind drop off.  Mixed feeling flowed through me.  I was glad for the respite – frostbite can be a horrible thing – and worried as well.  The chill was helping to numb my wound, and I wondered how long out of it before it began to ache again.

I checked the compass and my surroundings, and made note of the length of the ridge.  In order to progress, I would have to go around, since I neither trusted the nature of the ice, nor my own strength to try to climb over.    I began to edge along its base, making my way to the far end where the summer sun split the shadow and turned the snow and ice into brilliant diamond reflections.

I almost fell into an opening in the wall of the ridge.  One second there was an unbroken wall of ice, and the next, an opening the size of a man, stretching down and back into the Arctic surface.  I looked into the dark, and could feel it trying to press back on me, the black like a pressure on my eyes.  After a moment, I was able to fetch my flashlight out and shine it in.

Pale light struck the walls of a smooth tunnel carved from the ice, lighting it up in a soft blue glow, and illuminating a worn path into its depths.  Outside, the wind shifted directions and picked up, and I could feel that chill coming back to me.  Snow began to drift, and then swirl in heavy gusts, and my mind was made up.  Whatever was in that tunnel, at least it wasn’t certain frostbite.  I took the first step in, and my flashlight flickered.  Shadows moved at the edge of the darkness, black cut from black, and then were gone as soon as the light relit.

I moved on, the ice beneath my boots creaking.  Walls that looked as though they were bored into the ice by a hot drill slid by, absorbing, then reflecting the light.  I could hear the wind outside, increasing to a howl, and took comfort in the idea that though I might not know my destination, I would not die in the snow.

After a long descent, the tunnel began to level out and widen, and the ice began to recede.  Walls of rock replaced ice, and hard-packed earth the floor.  I hadn’t been imagining the warmth.  Water dripped from the ceiling, and formed small pools on the floor.  After a time, I felt warmth begin to tingle in my fingers and toes, and I pulled off my mitts, trying to drink in as much of the heat as my flesh would allow.

After three hundred yards, I was amazed to find the cavern walls converging on a single egress point – as if the cavern had been shaped by purposeful hands.  Something in the pit of my stomach stayed my step, and I found myself unwilling to walk further than I had come.  I retraced my steps, to the furthest point from that black opening in the cavern wall, and set up a meager camp.

For a while, the smallest sound – water dripping on stone and earth, the distant howl of Arctic wind, even my own breath in my ears – kept me awake.  Once, maybe twice, I would swear shadows moved at the edge of vision, and then I shut the flashlight off.  I was growing too weary to be afraid.  Too tired to fear death, or insanity.

 

June 1923, Day 17

I made it a hundred feet into the tunnel at the end of the cavern today.  Something’s in there.  I can feel a warm breeze, and smell…something.   Smells like hot metal, sometimes like hot flesh.  I will make another trip tomorrow.

Shadows, and movement in the dark.  I can hear you, I can hear you I can hear

 

June 1923

I feel better.  Hunger, maybe sleep deprivation was getting to me.  I will have to leave this cave soon.  I fear I have been here too long, and missed the rescue crew.   I’ve eaten a few extra rations – it won’t matter if they’re here soon, or if they’re not.  I think I will walk through the tunnel today.

 

 

 

June

A man came today – I found the other end of the tunnel – he tried to stop me.  He tried to stop me, and I bit him, and hit him, until he fell down.  The shadows are back.  They talk to me now, and they wear the faces of my friends – Brimly, Milhausen, Carter.  Maybe they were always my friends?  I don’t sleep now, too much…

 

June 1923, Day ?

…took the man to the room at the end of the tunnel…he came back, but I had to kill him again…I will sit in the chair…no choice…out of food…out of time…

 

Editor’s note – The diary ends here.  No indication has been given as to how the diary was recovered, or by whom, and further attempts to contact Jesse Johnson, the author’s grandson, have gone unanswered.  Research of periodicals of that time indicates a rescue mission was sent to the Arctic, as scheduled, but was suspected lost as well.  

 

Epilogue

June 2012

Caroline said she wouldn’t take the house – had enough responsibilities, she said. Cleaning the basement was a bitch and a half, but I managed to get it done in a couple of days.  If I didn’t know better, I’d swear my grandparents were hoarders.

Found a cool old chair down there that I think I’ll have restored.  Looks kind of like an old dentist chair, with all kinds of tubes and instruments hanging off of it.  Just brought it upstairs for now.  If nothing else, I might be able to sell it.

I’m going to have to hire a contractor to wall off the addition to the basement – it looks like an old root cellar – just a wooden door there locked tight, but so old I wasn’t able to open it.  I think there are rats in there.

I keep hearing something moving, and more than once in that light, a shadow crossed the edge of my vision.

Panphobia

Airplanes.  Flying.  Heights.  Spiders.  Insects.  The dark.  Germs.  Thunderstorms.  Highways.  The list went on.  Harry tried to think back on when he hadn’t been afraid of all these things, and why, but all he got was nostalgia without reason.

He hardly watched the news anymore, or read it, for that matter.  Floods, fires, war, and rumors of war.  Murder, envy, and greed.  It was as if every time he picked up the paper or flipped on the tube, he gathered a new phobia to himself, and he already felt full to bursting.  He knew the ridiculousness of it, knew the news catered to sensationalism.  He knew there was enough good in the world to balance out the bad, yet another part of him sat in its corner and scowled out, and refused to believe it so.

That part of his mind had always refused to behave.  When he was younger, it held less sway over his life, though no less pessimistic; no less sour.  It came out in bouts of dour humor and cynicism, and occasional anger at the ridiculousness of the world.  The older he got though, the more that part of him took hold, entrenched itself in his way of thinking.  It reminded him that there was always a catch, always a downside.

When he finally grew to the point he could fight the pessimism, he found that the cynicism had turned into a dour fatalism that insisted the world was a dangerous place, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.  As a matter of course, the rest of his brain reasoned that must mean the world was to be feared.

For the most part, he was able to suppress his fears.  He found a job that let him work from home.  He had his groceries delivered.  He meticulously cleaned his home every three or four days, and himself every night.  (Not without making sure the adhesive ducks on the bottom of the tub were firmly in place, though.  Wouldn’t be right, being cautious, only to be done in by a tub faucet.)

He had considered therapy, maybe medication, but that would mean leaving the house.  It would mean exposure, both physical and mental.  He didn’t know that he was ready for that.  Until he found an MD willing to diagnose via internet, he was content to stay put.

*

The day Harry found the spider in his shower drain was the day that changed his mind.

It had been an ordinary day, as far as days went for him.  He had done some work for a client, a simple piece of freelance code for a website, and managed to wrap that up before noon.  The rest of the day he spent cleaning the house, since it had been three days – making sure the surfaces were wiped down, the floors swept and vacuumed, and the tub scrubbed of soap residue.  After that, he sprayed everything with sanitizer, and waited in his office while the fumes dissipated.

As he waited, he read a bit of news, though he couldn’t get much past the first story, an article about death squads in the Congo.  He wondered for a moment if such things were exclusive to third-world countries, and decided not to leave it to chance.  You never knew who was watching, and what they might deem punishable.  Maybe just visiting a global news site rather than local had already dropped him on a watch list.  He took a moment to dump his browser history, and then turned the computer off.  He should probably have alarms installed, just in case.

He walked to the bathroom, and dropped his clothes in the basket by the door.  He turned the faucets on, tinkering with the hot and cold until it was just right, and tested the ducks on the bottom by trying to slide his hand across the floor of the tub.  It stuck, and he was satisfied.  He got in, and wet his hair, humming to himself.  There was a song stuck in his head, ‘Fall Down’.  He thought it was by Toad the Wet Sprocket.  A part of his brain checked off the coincidence, and carried on.

He turned to grab the soap from the ledge by the showerhead, and stopped, mid-reach.  He had looked down, to make sure the drain wasn’t clogging with hair (though his wasn’t long, and he wasn’t balding).  A clogged drain meant soap and water build-up, and almost guaranteed slippage, no matter how many adhesive ducks you had in the bottom of your shower.  His gaze was frozen on the drain, still clear, water still swirling down.  Despite that, he could see two long legs poking from the holes.

His heart skipped a beat, and he took a step back, trying to make space between himself and those legs.  As he did, they began to move, as though they sensed his fear, trying to gain purchase on the wet surface of the tub.  Harry stood frozen for a moment, then with a curse, shoved the shower curtain to the side, and stepped out while watching the legs squirm.

Without turning the water off, he edged to the side, eyes still on the drain, and flipped open the cabinet under the sink.  He groped around for a moment, feeling his fingers brush a can of Scrubbing Bubbles, a block of soaps still in their cardboard boxes and cellophane, and a container of disinfectant wipes.

The legs seemed to notice he was up to something (maybe it was his imagination, though he didn’t care to make a distinction at this point), and seemed to be scrabbling harder for purchase.  He saw another set of legs worm their way through the drain, and he choked his fear down.

His fingers finally found the handle of the bleach bottle he kept under the sink, and he pulled it out with a triumphant grunt.  He spun the cap off, and without any ceremony or hesitation, poured it into the drain.  The legs fought for a moment against the added flow from the bottle, then lost the battle, and slipped away.

Harry let the water run for another minute, until the smell of bleach started to dilute with the steam in the air, and he was sure the spider wasn’t going to try again.  He hoped the damn thing burned all the way down the drain.  He dried off, deciding that was enough shower for one day.

He lifted the lid of the toilet – he really needed to pee after all of the excitement – and let fly.  He watched the stream hit the water, and looked down.  Legs the length of his pinky sprouted under the water, coming from the siphon hole.  They disappeared into darkness, though as he watched, they squirmed, as though trying to pull the rest of the thing attached to them to the surface.

His flow cut off like someone had kinked a hose, and he slammed the toilet lid shut.  After a second, he picked up the laundry basket and placed it on top.  He flushed once, and then twice, holding the lever down for longer than was strictly necessary, then left the bathroom.

He could hold it until he got to the therapist’s office tomorrow.  He looked at the toilet, and considered checking it.  Nope.  He could hold it.  He had to.

*

The therapist’s office was cool, white, and nearly sterile.  Harry liked it.  Two rows of two chairs sat across from each other in the waiting room, and an indoor waterfall babbled against one wall.  It was all very soothing.  The door to the therapist’s office was frosted glass, with stainless handles.  Stenciled on it in small neat letters was the name ‘Havel Patel, PhD’.

Harry was reading a paper someone had left on one of the small tables between the chairs.  It was, admittedly, a rare occurrence for him, but he figured he was already taking the right steps, surely another couldn’t hurt.

The news itself was surprisingly benign.  A new study had come out; revealing murder rates had dropped to all-time lows.  To Harry, that just meant his odds were better than ever to be killed by some psychopath or idiot with a gun.  As far as he was concerned, smaller odds for everyone else meant a higher rate for those within the target demographic.  He had left the house today, after all.  Surely that meant he had dropped himself into the likely target lottery.  He reminded himself again to check into an alarm system.

He moved on to another story.  Disease rates were down – better antibiotics, better treatment, and a greater knowledge of how disease worked were all collaborating to decrease why people got sick, for how long, and how severe a sickness could last.  Harry figured most of those people didn’t go out of their way to catch a bug.  Not like him, sitting in an unfamiliar office, holding a used newspaper, with a fountain sending unfiltered mist into the air.  He tossed the paper on the side table and brushed his hands on his legs.  He hoped Dr. Patel was coming soon.

As if on cue, the door to Dr. Patel’s room opened, and the man stepped out.  He was on the short side, a bit stocky, his head shaved to baldness, and a pair of glasses in rectangular frames perched on his nose.  He smiled at Harry.

“Mr. Dora?”

Harry nodded and stood.  Dr. Patel waited for Harry to enter his office, then closed the door behind them.  He hadn’t tried to shake Harry’s hand.  That was good.  There were two overstuffed chairs in the room, bracketed by walls of books, and a small window that looked out at the therapy center’s grounds – rolling lawn and trees that led to a small creek.  Harry took one of the chairs and waited for Dr. Patel to sit.

Patel sat, digging his backside into the chair for a moment before pulling up a notepad that had been nestled between the cushions.  He smiled over at Harry again.

“Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself, Harry?”  He said.

Harry hesitated for a moment.  Could he tell a stranger all of the things he thought?  What about the things he felt, the things that frightened him, even in the warm light of day; especially in the cold dark of night?

Baby steps he thought.  One at a time.

He took a breath, and began to talk.

*

He told Dr. Patel about his childhood, and his adolescence, his drift from fearless to phobic as he moved to adulthood.  He found himself talking about his belief in the degradation of safety in society.  He talked about how he knew his fears to be irrational, knowing what was versus what he felt, and not being able to reconcile the two.

Dr. Patel listened, taking notes through the entire session, and when Harry was done, he set the notepad down.  The room seemed more still than it had when he started, as though filling the air with his fears had hushed even the air.  The doctor glanced at the clock on the wall, and then leaned forward.

“This is a good start, Harry.  I want you to think about the things you’ve told me, and come back in two days.  Specifically, I want you to think about that cognitive dissonance you hold – the idea that your fears are irrational, and yet you cannot banish them with rationale.”

Harry let out a breath, and nodded.  He was a little disappointed.  He had built up a good head of steam, and it felt like he needed to get some things out.

Doctor knows best, he thought.

He stood to go, and Dr. Patel stood with him, leading him to the door, and opening it for him.  The doctor must have seen the look on his face, because he laid a hand on Harry’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry, Harry, we’ll get it all out.”

Harry nodded, and stepped out of the office.  The door closed behind him.  He waited to hear the click of the latch in the doorframe, and walked out.

*

Night found Harry lying in bed, staring at the ceiling.  His nightlight cast a dim yellow glow into the corner of his room, bright enough to comfort, soft enough to not stab his eyelids with light.  He wondered for a moment where the spider in his toilet had gone.  He’d taken the time earlier to move the laundry basket, and lift the lid, and found the bowl was blissfully empty.  He had bleached it anyway, and then flushed it for half an hour, just to be sure, and he felt he could use the toilet tomorrow with a reasonable amount of confidence.

He thought about what Dr. Patel had told him – that he held a cognitive dissonance, a fracture in his mind.  He knew the statistics and the facts.  Spiders were rarely venomous enough to kill (more people were killed by champagne corks than spider bite every year), flying was safer than driving (redundancies on redundancies), and you had a higher chance of dating a celebrity than you did of catching the bird flu.  Still, they remained.

It was almost as if his fears were the symptoms of a virus he had contracted, a malignant strain that invaded his mind and rooted itself there with iron barbs.  He could talk all he wanted about the rational, the real, but when it came down to it, when the fear took hold, his body betrayed him.  Sweating, heart pounding, short breath, and an anxiety that drilled into his gut like an electric wire all drove him to avoid the things that caused those symptoms, forced him into a corner where avoidance was preferable to confrontation.

He was snapped away from his thoughts when something in the house creaked.  He knew it was probably just the place settling, but his mind immediately went to the things that lurked at the dark corners of his imagination – great misshapen furred beasts, and thieves with knives and little to lose.  He cast a glance at his bedroom door, and saw it was still locked.  He considered flipping on his light, and reading a bit more, but pushed it away.  With effort, he closed his eyes, and tried to calm his breathing.

He still listened with half an ear to the hall outside of his room, but the noise never repeated.  Sleep started to claim him, and for a moment, he thought of all the things outside, all the things in the world that could shake a man to his core.  He let it slip by, and fell into darkness.

*

Two days slipped by quicker than Harry expected.  He spent them much as he usually did – cleaning, writing code, and wrapping himself in the comfort of his home, away from the fright of the outside world.  There were exceptions.

In the morning, he opened the paper, and saw two stories that interested him.  The first, a short piece in the nature and science section, was about the decline of poisonous spiders and subsequent fatal or near fatal.  It went on to say that due to climate change and aggressive pesticides, several species were either dwindling or migrating to climates that weren’t hospitable.

The second article was in the same section – a piece about new avionics.  It was said to be so reliable, the planes nearly flew themselves.  Even the pilots were happy about it – far less micromanagement involved in the general workings of the cockpit.  Further down in the article, one of the engineers was quoted saying what the article had already stated.  “The planes practically fly themselves.”

When he was finished reading, Harry put the paper down and frowned for a moment.  He was jealous of these people.  Every day, less things to be afraid of, and he still couldn’t force himself to see past it.  He tossed the paper down with a grunt, and went to clean the bathroom.  The spider still hadn’t appeared, but he’d been bleaching the bowl and the shower every day, just in case.

A plane passed overhead while he was cleaning, and he imagined, just for a moment, the landing gear tearing free, or an engine working itself from its moorings, and smashing through the roof of his house, leaving him a broken mangle of flesh.  It passed after a moment, and he shook the vision off, and finished scrubbing.

Later that day, he was finishing up some chores, and had the television on for background noise.  He happened to look up just when the newscaster started to speak.

“A new study shows that violent crime – specifically murder – has dropped in the past few months.  It is now at an all time low, nationwide.”

The television cut to commercial, and Harry stared at it for a moment, not really seeing it.  Murder was down?  What was happening to the world?  The things that haunted him, that frightened him to the core, were slipping away.  It was as though the things that were real dangers, no matter how irrational the fear, were leeching from the world, and into him.

As soon as he had the thought, he shook his head, as if to clear it.  Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough, as far as Harry was concerned.  He was starting to worry for his sanity.  Fear welled up in him, and he tried to quench it by pinching himself.

No, this is real, I am real, and I am NOT crazy!

He pinched until he bruised, and then pinched a little more.  When he was finally able to calm himself, he wandered to the bedroom and lay down.  Tomorrow he would see Dr. Patel.  Tomorrow it would be better.

I’m not crazy.

*

Dr. Patel’s office was the same.  Sterile, white, and soothing.  Even with only two visits, Harry was starting to feel comfortable.  He listened to the waterfall tinkling in its frame, and took a deep breath of cool air.  He ran his finger idly up and down the white fabric of his chair, making idle patterns in the fabric.  Generally, he tried to think of nothing.

The door to Dr. Patel’s office opened, frosted glass giving way to an inviting interior, lit by sunlight and lined with bookshelves.  Dr. Patel stood in the doorway and smiled.

“Mr. Dora.  Glad to have you back.”  He gestured toward the room.  “Come in, come in.”

Harry got up and entered the office, sitting in the same overstuffed chair he had last time.  Dr. Patel closed the door behind him, and sat across from him, picking up his notepad as he did.  Once settled in, the doctor crossed his legs and rested the pad on his knee.

They exchanged pleasantries for a moment – words about the weather for the most part, and when that died down, Dr. Patel began the conversation.

“The last time you were here, we talked about your fears, the irrational versus the rational.  How have you been doing with that?”

Harry sighed.  “Honestly?  Terrible.  It seems like the harder I try to convince myself that there’s nothing to be afraid of, the more afraid I become.”

He took a minute, and told the doctor of his new fears.  Dr. Patel listened, nodding and making notes on his pad.  When Harry finished, the doctor sat back and regarded him.  He looked concerned.

“Harry, I want to try something.  It’s a bit different, but if it works, we may be able to halt this…degradation…you’ve been dealing with.”

Harry could feel a pit of anxiety starting to worm its way into his stomach.  It must have shown on his face, because Dr. Patel’s tone changed; became soothing.

“I won’t lie.  What I have planned, you’re probably not going to like, Harry.  But it is effective.”

Harry swallowed, hard.  It felt like there was a lump in his throat.  He could already feel his heart rate trying to climb.  Dr. Patel set his notepad aside, and leaned in.

“It’s your best hope, Harry.  Ask yourself – do you want to live like this anymore?  Do you want to get worse?”

The answer was no.  It was easy enough to answer.  At the same time, that trickle of anxiety was working itself into a river, and he was starting to regret coming.  What if the doctor wasn’t a doctor?  What if he was trapped with a madman?  He started to push himself off the chair, and Dr. Patel held up a hand.

“Wait.  I know you’re feeling it again.  Sit down for a moment, and give me a chance, Harry.”

Harry did so, reluctantly, and Dr. Patel studied him for a moment more.

“There, behind you.”  He said, gesturing at the wall behind Harry.  “Would a madman have those on his wall?”

Harry turned to look.  Arranged in a loose square were several diplomas and certificates.  Harry leaned closer to get a better look at the largest one, decorated by flowing text and a gold seal.  As he did so, something pricked his finger, and he jerked it away from the chair, instinctively sucking on it.  For a moment, his vision blurred, and he gave up trying to read the diplomas.  He turned back to the doctor.

Dr. Patel was just leaning back in his chair, tucking a syringe into a small black case Harry hadn’t noticed when he entered.  Panic tried to well up in him, but it was felt distant, disconnected from him somehow.  He knew the doctor had stuck him, but he was having trouble caring.

“How do you feel, Harry?”  The doctor asked.  The lenses in his glasses reflected the overhead lights, making them look like white panels in wire frames.  Harry couldn’t see the doctor’s eyes.

A part of Harry screamed for him to run, to get the hell out of the office, and run until he was safe at home.  That part too, felt disconnected, and distant.

“Fine.”  Harry lied.

“Good, good.  You’re going to feel a little fuzzy for a bit, but when it wears off, everything will be fine.  You’ll see.

Now, I want you to listen, and think about what I’m going to tell you.”

Harry nodded, and felt a stupid grin creep across his face.  He fought it back, but not before he saw himself in Patel’s lenses, looking like an idiot.  Didn’t matter, he didn’t care.

Dr. Patel leaned forward again, and the illusion of shuttered windows in his glasses disappeared.  His eyes were intense, and held Harry’s own.

“The universe does not care.  This is the thing you must remember.  There is no vast conspiracy, the world is not out to get you, you are not statistically more significant than anyone else; you are not beholden to predestination.

If a thing happens outside our realm of choice, it does not boil down to fate, or destiny, it does not mean a damn thing other than that thing happened.  Move on, recover, and grow stronger.

Most importantly, remember this: you are not special.  You are not singled out by the machinations of world, and never will be, aside from the decisions you make directly impacting your own life.”

Dr. Patel finished speaking, and Harry felt the words sink in.  Combined with the disconnection he felt from his fear, and the intense gaze of the doctor, the way his gaze seemed to hammer home every word, Harry felt a weight lift from his shoulders.  Harry felt his eyes grow heavy, and they began to droop.  He felt Dr. Patel pat his knee.

“You can rest here, Harry.  Go home when you wake.”

Harry let his eyes close fully, and took a deep breath, then another.  In a moment, he was asleep.

*

He woke in darkness, the only light in the office a desk lamp the doctor had left on.  Harry stood, and stretched, then ran a fingernail over his tongue.  It felt like a cat had slept in his mouth.  He looked around, but saw no sign of the doctor.

“Dr. Patel?”  He called.

He stopped.  The desk lamp was on, and outside, he could see the neatly manicured lawn of the clinic, lit by carefully placed lights in flowerbeds and shrubs.  He wasn’t afraid.

He wasn’t afraid.

He felt a mix of emotions at that – elation, anger at Patel for tricking him, and an odd serenity.  Nothing mattered that he didn’t do to himself.  It was an odd kind of comforting thought, but there it was.  He made to step out of the office, and stumbled when his shoe bumped something.  He frowned and looked down.

A dark shape lay on the floor, but he couldn’t quite make it out in the dark.  Harry reached over and flipped the switch on the wall, flooding the office with warm light.  He looked down again, and stepped back.

Dr. Patel lay curled in the fetal position, his face swollen and blue.  His eyes protruded almost comically, and his tongue jutted just slightly from his mouth.  Harry nudged him with the toe of his shoe, and the body rolled slightly, exposing a lump the size of a Clementine just above Dr. Patel’s collar.  He bent down for a closer look, then straightened as a spider, black and swollen with venom, crawled from under the collar.

After a moment, Harry shrugged, and walked carefully over the body.  He opened the door, and left the office.   He passed through the waiting room, noticing someone had left the door on the other end open, the waterfall still gurgling away, and through the nurses’ station.  He didn’t notice the pretty receptionist who was sprawled in her swivel chair, congealed blood crusting in her pores and orifices.

He walked out of the office, and to his car.  In the distance, he saw a jogger stopped mid-stride by a large man.  She stood there, her body language indicating she was torn between fight or flight.  The big man grabbed her, and as Harry watched, drew a long blade from his jacket and opened her throat.  He turned away.  None of his business, not his problem.

He got in the car, and pulled out of the lot, out of the neighborhood, and started to drive.  It was a quiet night, aside from the cars that littered the side of the highway, and the fires in the distance.

He looked up at the sky, and something passed overhead.  For a moment, a jet blacked out the stars, and as Harry watched, a blossom of fire bloomed on its wing, and half the fuselage ripped away.  The two halves went spinning in opposite directions, and another moment later, he saw dark shapes silhouetted against the stars as well, each the size of a man.

Harry shrugged to himself again, and continued driving.  Not his problem.  The universe didn’t care.

Someone else could shoulder his fears.

Cold

 

The trenches were laid out across the earth like a zigzag of scars, men huddled deep in them against the glowering sky and the cold rain that fell from it.  Between them, fields of barbed wire grew from the ground like a steel harvest.  Here and there, bodies bloomed on the ground and in the steel, sightless eyes staring upwards.  They wore the uniforms of friend and foe alike, victims of failed charges and successful sorties.  The sun had been down only a few hours, but already the temperature had dropped several degrees.  A chill wind had sprung up in the interim, driving the rain into the trenches and the cold into the bones.

Down below, men dug into packs and pulled out ponchos to keep the worst of the wet off, or had erected makeshift shelters with bits of canvas while mud squelched beneath their boots.  Others forwent comfort entirely, eyes or mirrors occasionally peeking above the rim of the trench, always on the lookout for any sign of movement from the Germans.

John Valentine was one of the men below.  He leaned his back against an earthen wall, the bulwark cool and hard through his uniform.  He lit a cigarette, grateful for both the habit and the cold.  Between the two, it was almost easy to believe the smells of decay and cordite were fading, and that death could be forgotten as easily as a scent carried away by the wind.

He stood in silence, watching the smoke from the end of the cigarette rise in lazy spirals, and then get torn apart in a cold gust.  To either side of him, he could hear the low murmur of conversation about home, of comforts left behind, and occasionally, of the current situation.  Somewhere to his left, someone had started up a card game under their makeshift shelter, and he could hear the soft snap of cardboard striking wood, and a quiet chuckle.  He even imagined that if he was very still, he could hear the wind rustling the leaves of the trees of the Ardennes – a long way off, but still visible on a clear day.

The fighting had gone on for six days.  Six days of fire and blood, of the Germans shelling their positions, the explosions coming so loud and frequent it felt as though the earth itself would shake and split and swallow them whole.

John was almost grateful for these moments, as well.  Fear and noise and the shouts of his fellow soldiers served to drown out the noise in his head, a constant assault of memory and vision that threatened to drown him and pull him under in its persistence.

In the cold dark though, the sounds of wind and rain his only companions, memory flooded back.

 

*

Summer, and the sun slipped across a clear azure sky, while a warm breeze stirred golden fields below.  She sat across from John on a blanket they had spread under an old oak at the edge of the field.  In the distance, sunlight shimmered on the roof of the old farmhouse, sending up mirage waves of heat, and off the windows, turning each into a silver mirror of light.  Gnats gathered in small clouds in the middle distance, boiling in the air like steam from a kettle.  John could smell wheat chaff and lilac from the bushes by the house, and closer, the scents of her hair and skin, fresh and sweet like sun-dried linen.

Under the emerald leaves of the oak, they leaned in and kissed, his hand sliding under her hair to the back of her neck, skin as smooth as flax.  He tasted the apple they had shared for dessert, heated by her breath, and when they parted, she whispered his name.

 

*

“John!”

The voice snapped him out of memory, and he looked around, flicking away the cigarette that had burned to a nub.  He heard the sound of dirt sliding on dirt, and a soft scrabble.  A second later, a hand gripped him by the shoulder, and he turned to look at the speaker.

It was Merryweather, a slight ginger-haired private with a ruddy complexion and a smattering of freckles across his face.  He smiled, white uneven teeth shining in the moonlight.

“Hey man.  Sorry, thought you’d checked out.”

“No, no.  Just woolgathering.”  John said.

Merryweather nodded.  “Right.  Well, Sarge says it’s your turn up top.  Good luck, man.”

He patted John on the shoulder one more time, re-slung his rifle, and turned to go.  John watched him walk down the trench until his back disappeared around a curve in the trench wall.  He sighed, picked up his own rifle, and made his way up the embankment to take his place as lookout.

Up top, iron plates with slits in them had been placed in intervals along the trench line, ideally to keep snipers from picking off lookouts, but the idea hadn’t been one hundred percent, as some German shooters had taken to using armor-piercing rounds.  As a result, John had been showered with bits of skull and brain after an over-eager private had stayed too long peering out.  He could still remember the sound the bullet had made as it passed through the plate –metal on metal, making the iron plate ring like a bell – and the sound the private’s body made as it slid down the trench wall.  Because of that, John only looked out when he had to – every three to five minutes, and only long enough to be sure no one was creeping across no-man’s land.

Once at the top, John settled into the hollow behind the iron plate, making sure to unsling his rifle and have it at the ready.  From where he stood, it seemed the smells of decay and fire had redoubled their efforts to overpower the senses, and he had to fight to keep his gag reflex down.  The rain was stronger here too, driven by a wind not hindered by the earthen walls.  He shivered, and then did his best to suppress that too.  It would be hard to draw a bead if he was shaking like a puppy.

John took a deep breath and took his first look through the slit in the plate in front of him.  Scorched earth, craters, barbed wire, and bodies greeted him.  He scanned left to right, and tried not to look the corpses in the face.  When he was satisfied the field was empty, he ducked back down and tried not to think of the rotting bodies the mud and the earth were already trying to reclaim.

John looked around at the other men behind their plates, men that were for the most part, little more than teenagers thrust into adulthood by the war.  Most had come into an awareness of this, men’s minds forced into young bodies by death and cruelty; others still innocent, and wearing it on their sleeves.  He worried about the latter most of all, knowing that the ones who believed this was just a bad spot in a good life would one day wake up from dreams of fire and the clutching hands of dead men and realize a part of their souls had been burned away.

 

*

A cold December, and John had spent the majority of his time either looking for work or doing odd jobs and maintenance around the old farmhouse Emily’s father had left her.  They had been married in the fall, and her father had passed away shortly after, cancer claiming first his lungs, then the rest of his once hale body.

He had lain in the hospital bed, his withered frame barely stirring the sheets as he breathed, tubes snaking into his body like tendrils of vine.  He had held Emily’s hand and smiled, his eyes watery.  Then he drew one breath and released it, a long slow rattle that wheezed from his ravaged lungs like a rusty teakettle, and when it was over, he was gone.

Emily cried on and off for three days, the sound of her sobs punctuating the sighs of the winter wind outside.  John drifted through the house those days like a ghost, unsure of himself, or the comfort he could give.  He would go to her at times and hold her, until his chest was wet with her tears and his arms trembled with the force of her sobs.  Other times he would sit and listen to her grief, and stare into space, and sometimes he could feel a hole in his chest as though something had been lost to him too.

In those times, those dark quiet times, surrounded by grief and wind and winter, he would cry too.

*

His cheeks were wet.  John reached up and wiped them, and felt cold on his palm.  He looked up at the sky and saw a white star field falling slowly down.  He watched it drift and blow and swirl in eddies, dancing in the wind.

Three soft pops, and then a sizzling sound, almost like bacon in a pan, and the night sky was lit in red and orange, turning the battlefield into neon nightmare.  John looked to his left and saw a private staring out of the slit in the iron plate in front of him, his eyes wide and white.  John didn’t blame him.  He knew what came next.  He rolled over and looked out of his own opening; to be sure the flares weren’t simply a feint by the Germans.

He scanned the battlefield – bodies, wire, and snow a blur as he ran his vision over them.  He did it twice.  Right to left, left to right, and halfway back he heard it – a deep thump and then a whistle that reminded him of a train barreling down its tracks.  John knew what was next again – a bright flash and torn earth, and a shudder in the ground as though it too was dying.

Before that though, before the sound and the fury, he saw her.  Emily, barefoot and naked and pale, walking to him in the snow.  Then the tears came, moments before the whistling stopped and a white-hot flash seared her and the world from his vision.

*

He found her in their bedroom.  While he had slept in her father’s old overstuffed chair in front of the fire downstairs, Emily had found her father’s hunting rifle, pressed the barrel against the roof of her mouth, and pulled the trigger with her toe.

John had torn up the stairs at the sound, the pit of his stomach clenched so hard he wanted to vomit, sleep still clinging to his eyes.  When he got to the top of the stairs, and saw what Emily had done, he did.  He looked again, and sank to the floor, his wife painted on the wall and ceiling, and his own hopes and dreams drying on the floor beside him.  He sat there, and didn’t cry, and when the smells of blood and cordite and vomit became too much, he got up and called the coroner.

After all was said and done, they buried her in the spring, in a plot next to her father, but by then John was gone too.  The war had come calling, and he had embraced it.

*

John blinked.  He blinked again, and his vision cleared in fits and starts, white fading to orange fading to dim spots at the edge of his vision.  He stared out of the slit.  No more explosions bloomed in his view, though a haze of smoke and dirt and snow hung in the air.  The wind and snowfall had died as well, and the glow from the flames was long-dimmed.  Then the haze shifted, as though the wind was pushing aside a curtain, and she was there again, Emily, closer this time.

John stared, his eyes roaming her from hairline to ankles and back, stopping at the dark crease between her legs, and her full pink-tipped breasts.  She was more than that to him, but it had been so long, and seeing her again had pushed those tied feelings of love and lust to the surface, rose and razor bound together.  He felt himself move below the waist, that part of him defying rational thought and seeking refuge in animal instinct.  He snapped a look right again and stifled his thoughts.  The private beside him hadn’t noticed, and didn’t seem to care, instead huddled in his hollow behind the steel plate against any debris and shrapnel that might stray his way.

John turned back, and peered out again.  Emily was still there, watching him, pale skin untouched by the miasma surrounding her.  Their eyes met, and then she was moving, in stutters and flashes, first whole and perfect, then dead and rotting, as though reality were trying to remind her that she shouldn’t be – couldn’t be.  Her eyes were pitch black, the color of tar in sunlight, and when they turned on John, he could feel his bowels clench.  The pit was back in his stomach, and though he wanted to, he didn’t vomit, and then she was there, in front of that iron plate, and he could hear her breath, rasping and cold, behind it.  Emily squatted.  Perfect, rotting breasts swayed in front of her chest, her mouth a gaping not gaping wound in her skull, her eyes black pits of fever.  When she pressed her lips against the opening in the plate, the pit in John’s stomach let go, and he pissed himself.  He watched frost rime the opening of the port, watched her full lips open in anticipation.

So long…it’s been so long, he thought, and he felt something let go inside of him, like a gear stripped free of its machine.  He raised himself up and met her lips with his own, and tasted apple and cold earth.  For a moment, he thought he heard a sound like metal on metal, or a bell, then it was gone, and there was only Emily.

 

Long Road to Vegas

They took the dead man wrapped in sheets to the desert.

They huddled in the front seat of the car, the radio blaring something by Creedence, while they did their best not to talk about the man in the trunk.  The windows were down, and dust plumed up behind the Monte Carlo, fogging the daylight.  It didn’t bother them that they were going to bury a body in the middle of the day.  It was the Mojave – no one just wandered by, and if they did, what was one more body for the thirsty sand?

Dean watched the landscape roll by, tan dunes under blue sky, telephone poles dotting the roadside and receding as they passed.  It had been the same thing for two hours, and he wondered how long before they got to where they were going.  He turned to Carl, and thought about asking, but the man was focused on the road, his eyes unreadable under the dark glasses he wore.  Instead, he scratched the day-old growth on his face, and reached for the radio, with the pretense of fiddling with the knobs.

“You got a problem with Creedence?”  The question came out of Carl in a half-growl, and Dean’s hand paused halfway to the radio.  He let it drop, and shook his head.

“Nah.  I was just hoping to adjust the balance a bit.  I swear, every time we hit a bump, the shit in the trunk bangs around.”

Karl reached down, and turned a knob, and the sound shifted to the back of the car.  “Better?”  He asked.

“Yeah, thanks.”  Dean breathed a sigh of relief.

He didn’t feel like upsetting a two-hundred-something pound sociopath today.  He turned back to the window, and returned to watching the desert roll by.  He tried not to think of Tulsa, tried to squelch the thought that if management knew, he’d join the man in the back before his time.

*

After another half-hour, the car slowed, and Carl eased it off the road, and onto the hardpan that preceded the dunes.  They drove another couple of miles, until the ground began to slope downward at the edge of the desert proper, and the sand underneath began to soften.  When it seemed like Carl was never going to stop, maybe just drive into the desert until they ended up as mummies entombed in a steel coffin, the car ground to halt, and he shut off the engine.

The radio snapped off, squelching Aerosmith, and they were left with only the sounds of the wind, and the ticking engine as it tried to cool in the morning heat.  They got out, the sound of car doors slamming echoing across the sand, and walked to the trunk.  They stood over it for a moment, while Carl absently fingered the key ring.

“Hold your breath, man.”  He said.  “Boy’s gonna be ripe in there.”

Dean hadn’t thought of that.  His stomach wanted to turn at the idea.  Carl found the right key, and slipped it into the lock, then turned it.  It opened with a click, and the trunk popped up, a sliver of dark appearing between the fender and the lid.  He slipped his fingers in the gap, and lifted.

A smell, like week-old hot garbage, hit them in the face, and they both staggered back.  Dean turned his head to the side, his stomach heaving.  He didn’t relish the idea of puking on his shoes and having that little reminder around all day.  To his left, he could hear Carl cursing between bouts of gagging.  He bent over, and tried to duck his head as close to his knees as possible.

Gradually, the smell dissipated, and he gulped down deep lungfulls of air.  When he felt he could breathe again, he stood, and walked to the trunk.  Carl joined him.  The first thing he noticed was that the smell was still there, though it didn’t seem to have its earlier vice-like grip on his stomach.  The second was that he was glad they had made the decision to put the shovels in last.  They lay on top of a bundle of white sheets, already beginning to turn brown and red in spreading stains.  They each grabbed a shovel and stepped away from the trunk.

Dean made to close the trunk, and Carl just shook his head.  “Bad idea.  You’ll just get him baking again.  Leave it open so it airs out.”

He turned away, and Dean followed.  They walked a few yards from the car, where the sand grew even softer, and began to rise in the soft swell of the first dunes.  Carl stopped, and stabbed his shovel into the sand.

“This’ll work.”  He looked up at the sun, which was still a couple hours away from its zenith.  “Let’s get this done before we end up beef jerky.”

They began to dig, a slow process made worse by the constantly shifting sand and the ever-increasing heat in the air.  Dean could feel sweat rolling down every inch of his body, and his hands felt burned from the hot wood of the shovel.  He shot a glance over at Carl.  The man was digging, with no indication that anything was bothering him.  His shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a knot, and a cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth.  From where he stood, Dean wasn’t even sure the man was sweating.

They dug for an hour, and after the third time of the sides cascading down in a miniature landslide, Carl spat into the hole, and threw his shovel down.

“Break time.”  He said.  “Grab some water.”

Dean nodded, and dropped his shovel.  He wandered back to the car, opening the back door, and digging into the cooler in the back seat.  They had packed half a case of water, and he grabbed two bottles, and then closed the lid.  When he was done, he shut the car, and started back, then paused.

The smell had nearly disappeared from the air, and he frowned.  That didn’t seem right, fresh air or not.  He wandered back to the open trunk, and peeked inside.  The long bundle with its dark stains was still there, but it seemed smaller, somehow.  He thought about getting the shovel, and poking it for good measure.  Just to be sure.  Carl’s voice, impatient and annoyed, cut those thoughts off.

“Hey, numbnuts!  You bringing that water today?”

“Yeah, sorry.  Sorry.”  Dean hurried over to the hole they had been digging.  It was roughly six feet long by three wide, and three deep at this point.  Carl was sitting on the edge.  He looked like he was contemplating hiding from the sun by crawling inside, a though that made Dean’s skin crawl.  He didn’t really want to spend any time in any grave but his own, and not before his time.

He eased down onto the ledge, and tossed Carl one of the water bottles.  Carl caught it neatly, and spun the top off, tipping it up to take three big swallows before taking a breath.  Dean sipped at his, not wanting his stomach to cramp up in the heat, and looked around.  He saw sand on sand on sand, rolling in gentle waves away from him, as far as he could see, until the dunes became a taupe line that met with the blue above.  He looked away, and turned back to Carl.

“What’d this guy do anyway?”  He asked, gesturing with his water bottle toward the car.

Carl shrugged.  “Dunno.  I think he was a magician, or somethin’.  One of those guys that works Vegas when they can’t get Copperfield.”

Dean shook his head.  “No, I mean, what’d he do?”

Carl spit into the grave again.  “Oh, that.  Got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.”

“Cookie jar?”

“The boss’ wife.”  He laughed then, a mean, low sound.  He drained his water bottle, and tossed it into the grave, then stood.  “C’mon.  Let’s get this shit done, and get gone.  I got a beer with my name on it back home.”

Dean capped his water and tossed it to the side.  He stood, knuckled the small of his back, and picked up his shovel.  He glanced once more at the horizon, where heat had begun to rise from the desert in wavy mirage lines, and then began to dig.

*

They finished the grave after another hour.  Carl deemed it good enough after the fifth backslide, and besides, he had said, who was going to find him four and a half feet down after the wind started to blow?  They walked back to the car, shovels in hand, and tossed them off to the side, then stood over the trunk, looking in.  Neither man seemed in a rush to grab the bundle.

Carl lit a cigarette, and blew the smoke out in a long plume.  Dean watched it float away, torn to shreds on the wind.  After a minute, Carl seemed to shrug.

“Fuck it.  Let’s grab this bastard, and get on.”

They approached the trunk, and ducked in.  In the dark under the lid, it was cool, and smelled faintly of must.  The smell of the dead man was just a memory in the air.  They lifted the bundle, and it came easily.  Dean thought it felt lighter than he had imagined a dead man should.  The cloth felt damp, and the thing inside moved like a bag of Jell-O.  Dean tightened his grip, and choked down his rising gorge.  They came back up in the desert heat, and carrying the dead man between them, walked to the grave.

When they reached the hole in the ground, they dumped the body in unceremoniously, letting the bundle hit the ground with a muffled thump and squelch.  Carl spat his cigarette to the side.

“Go get the shovels.”  He gestured back towards the car.

Dean hurried off to run the errand, returning with them a moment later, one in each hand.  When he reached the grave, Carl was standing over it, looking down, his back to Dean.  A thought flashed through his head, an image of a shovel splitting the side of the other man’s skull.  He pushed it away.  Offing your partner was no way to make friends with management.

Carl turned, and Dean’s stomach sank.  He was holding a pistol in one hand, its black barrel pointed at Dean’s stomach.  The image of the shovel smashing the other man’s head went through his mind again, but he knew it was too late.  He dropped the shovels and backed up a step.

“What’s the deal, man?”  He asked.

“Cookies and jars, brother.  I think you know.”

Somehow, the things he had done in Tulsa had come full circle.  Management was writing his pink slip.  Carl waved the gun towards the grave as he circled away from Dean.

“Get in.”

Dean moved toward the grave, his stomach doing somersaults while knotting.  It was an unpleasant sensation.  He stepped over the lip, and down, trying not to step on the bundle at the bottom.  When he was in, he stood only head and shoulders over the edge.  He could see Carl, standing a foot or two away, looking down, the pistol trained on him.  He fought to keep control of his bladder.

“Lay down.”  Carl said.  He pulled the hammer on the pistol back, and it clicked like an audible period to the threat.

“Fuck.”  Dean whispered.  He crouched, and pushed the bundle to the side.  It was lighter than he remembered, drier.  He lay next to it.  His face was wet, and when he reached a hand up to brush it away, he realized he was weeping.

Carl appeared over the edge, a shovel in hand.  The pistol was packed over his waistband.

“You’re doing a good thing here, man.  No begging, no whining, just gonna accept it.  Shame you gotta go.”

He hefted the shovel, and pushed a pile of sand into the pit.  Dean could feel its weight when it landed on his legs, warm and soft, but unforgiving.  Another pile came down, and his shoes were already almost buried.  He waited, but another shovelful didn’t come.  He lay trembling, when Carl peeked back over the edge.

“Look, not a lot of men would handle this like you are.  That’s why I’m gonna give you a choice.  Truth is, boss says ‘Bury him, Carl.  Bury him and let him bake out there.’, but that seems like a rough way for a guy to go.  You ask me, and I’ll put a bullet in you, make it easy.”

Dean didn’t reply.  He wasn’t brave, he was frozen.  He didn’t want to die out here with the buzzards and the heat and the sand, not under it, and not with a bullet in his head.  Carl waited for his answer, and when it didn’t come, the man shrugged, and began to push sand down again.  When the first pile came for his face, he held his breath, and let it filter around him.

Shovelful by shovelful, he was buried.  Before long, he could feel the oppressive weight and heat from the sand, pressing him down.  Inch by inch of it seemed to loosen him up somehow, as though his brain had decided today was not the day to die.  He began to blow out small breaths as his face was covered, carefully digging a hollow of air where he could still breathe.  After every shovelful, he would shift his arms and legs slightly, just enough to move the sand around him so he wasn’t packed in.

He figured he had to be under a foot, maybe a foot-and-a-half of sand, when it stopped coming for a second time.  He lay still in his hollow, and waited.  Maybe Carl had stopped for water.  Hopefully, he’d had a heart attack.  He waited another five minutes, or as close as he could figure, and when it still didn’t come, he began to push himself upward, through the sand, trying to get as close to the surface as possible.

He closed his eyes, and turned his head, the sounds of millions of grains of sand shifting against his skin, his ear canals, grating and grinding like the dry rasp of dry skin.  He pushed his head to the surface, until his ear broke the sand.  He could still feel the grains in it, but the world was alive with a sudden clarity, and he listened.

Overhead, the wind blew past the lip of the grave with a low, hollow sound.  He strained to hear more – and engine idling, heavy breathing from exertion, footsteps on the hardpan that lay nearby.  He waited like that another five minutes, and when no sound came, he began to pull himself fully from the sand, inch by inch.

He sat up, the sand pooling at his midsection, and then pulled his legs free.  He brushed himself off as best as he was able, some of the sand clinging to his face and neck where sweat and tears had made a mud of it.  When he was done, he eased himself onto his haunches, and began to rise towards the lip of the grave.  As he did so, his muscles tensed and threatened to cramp, both from the effort of the slow rise, and the struggle to listen for the sounds of a voice or gunfire.

He was all too aware as he rose that the top of his head would be exposed before the rest of him as he peeked, but he realized, when you’re in a grave, being buried alive, you tend not to worry about which part of you might be shot off first.  His eyes crested the lip, and he peered around.

Aside from the open car, still sitting on the hardpan, he appeared to be alone.  He scanned the area for a shadow, for movement, or color, but nothing appeared.  Satisfied Carl was either preoccupied, or just up and vanished, he grabbed the edge of the grave, and pulled himself out.  When he was done, he lay on the hot sand, and breathed heavily for a minute, and tried not to weep with relief.

He rolled on his side, and felt pressure in his ribs.  When he rolled back and sat up, he found he had rolled onto a shovel, left lying alone.  He stood, and wandered over to the car.  The back door was open, the cooler cracked.  He opened it, and grabbed a water bottle out, spinning the cap onto the ground.  He splashed the water over his head and his face, and tried to scrub the mud and sand out.  When he was done, he dropped the bottle and grabbed another, taking deep swallows of the still-cool liquid.

When he was done, he closed the door, and got in the driver’s seat.  The keys were still in the ignition.  He tried them once, and the engine turned over, purring to life with a low rumble.  He sat in the seat with the door open, and flipped on the air.  After the day he’d had, he was past caring about wasting it.

He wondered where Carl had got off to, and realized he didn’t much care, and didn’t feel like waiting around to find out.  He closed the door, and put the car in gear.  For a moment, he considered gathering up the shovels and the trash, and finishing the grave.  When presented with the possibility of Carl returning, and the fact that the wind would move the sand and bury the evidence in only a few hours, he dropped the idea.

The car pulled smoothly off the hardpan and onto the blacktop.  The afternoon sun was in full bloom, and baked heat in waves from every inch of the desert and road.  Inside, the air conditioning had already begun to slip a chill into the car, and content for the moment, Dean flipped on the radio.

Blue Oyster Cult began belting out Don’t Fear the Reaper, and he turned it.  A little too on the nose.  He changed the station, and found Otis Redding.  He left it there, and settled back in the seat.  Ahead, the road curved, and he took it a bit faster than he had intended to.  Something in the trunk slid, and thumped against the interior.

His heart skipped a beat, and he glanced in the rearview.  Nothing hovered into view.  He returned to the road when a thought hit him.  Nothing in the rearview.  He braked hard, and heard the thing in the trunk slam against the seat backs.  He pulled the car to the side of the road, still miles of desert on each side.  He knew the excuses for missing the closed trunk, but he still berated himself.

He fished under the seat for a minute, hoping to find a spare weapon – a gun, a knife – he’d settle for a wiffle bat.  He came up empty, and sat up.  He considered running the car to town and leaving it in an alley, but he knew the thought of the thing in the trunk would dig itself under his skin until he found out what it was.

He took a breath, and steeled himself, then stepped out.  Gravel on the shoulder crunched under his shoes as he walked to the trunk.  When he reached it, he stood over the lid, and fingered the keys, listening to them chime, hearing the wind blow sand in grating drifts across the road.  This wasn’t something he wanted to do, but something compulsion required he do.

“Fuck it.”  He muttered, and unlocked the trunk.

The lid sprung with a click, and he stepped back, the smell of hot meat rolling from the dark insides.  It wasn’t as bad as the putrid smell he had encountered earlier, but it was enough to make him wait a discrete distance until the odor dissipated.

The air cleared, he stepped forward, and lifted the lid the rest of the way.  The interior, previously shaded by the lid, was thrown into full relief by the afternoon sun.  Inside, a shape huddled, big, with scraggly hair.  Dean reached out, and rolled it onto its back.

The body turned, and he found himself staring into the remains of Carl’s face.  Dean found himself wondering where the man’s sunglasses were.  He looked at the red, fleshless ruin, and decided he didn’t care.  He shut the trunk, his stomach turning. He got back in the car, and started it up.  He knew he should ditch the body, probably ditch the car.  He also knew getting picked up by state patrol while wandering around would require a lot of explaining.

He closed the door.  From the back seat, a voice spoke up.

“Hey.”

Dean flicked a glance at the rearview.  After the day he’d had, he was officially out of the capacity to be shocked.  A man sat in the relative shadows in the back.  He was wearing a cheap dusty tux, and his skin looked pale, stretched.  Carl’s sunglasses were perched on his nose.

“Hey.”  Dean said.

“Feel like a road trip, kid?”  The man’s voice was dry, scratchy.

Dean shrugged.  “Sure.  Where we goin’?”

From the back seat, the man lit a cigarette, and blew a plume of smoke out.  He pointed past Dean’s shoulder.

“Vegas, baby.”

Dean drove.

 

Exorcism

Context is everything.  It’s the reason I was standing in a bodega, yelling at an old woman in a dead language and brandishing a jar of pickles.  I suppose it would help to know the old lady was possessed by a Sumerian gluttony demon, and the language was Enochian.  The pickles were because I was hungry for pickles, and I forgot to put them down, so I just rolled with it.  Like I said – context.

Somewhere in the background, someone was talking on the phone, and in the city, a siren was wailing.  I was more concerned with the old lady standing across from me, a French loaf in one hand, a bag of Fleet enemas in the other.  She was wearing a sweater with an embroidered chicken on it.  What can you say?  Age lends wisdom, but dulls fashion sense.  She blinked, and for a moment, I saw her irises turn red, like blood in water.  I could see her tense to run, and I pulled back my arm to throw the pickles to stun her.

In the back of my head, I heard the bell over the door tinkle – an angel was getting his wings – and someone was shouting in Spanish.  I started to throw the pickles as the old lady twitched to the right, but never made the throw.  A hand, cool, with a grip like steel, grabbed my wrist, stopped the throw.

“That’s enough now, Angus.”

I spun to face the man who had stopped me, and caught the old lady walking to the register.  She was wearing a smirk.  I looked in to the face of a six-foot-four two-hundred and fifty pound cop.  Shit.  Murphy.  He’s the only one that’d use my first name.  He smiled.

“How’ve you been?  Aside from harassing old ladies?”

He seemed unconcerned that a Sumerian demon was escaping.  Probably didn’t even know.  That’s what happens when you’re vanilla.  Suit, tie, nine to five, and having a good cry in your car alone over a McDonald’s cheeseburger.  I slid the pickles back onto the shelf as innocently as possible.

“Oh, you know.  Fine.  Just…exorcising a lot these days.”

Murphy looked around the bodega.  The old lady was escaping through the front door.  One of her support hose had fallen.  The bell over the door tinkled again as she exited, and I cursed under my breath.  The lady behind the counter, a middle-aged Spanish lady with long dark hair, was glaring at me, but at least was no longer calling me a puta over and over.  Murphy looked back to me.

“You gonna leave nice?”

I nodded, and tried to look contrite.

“You gonna chase that old lady?”  He asked.

I shook my head, and tried to look like I wasn’t lying.  He eyeballed me for a moment, and seemed to decide I wasn’t worth the paperwork.  He sighed.

“Okay.  Out, then.”

I went, leaving Murphy behind, the bell over the door announcing my departure.  The air outside was crisp, and smelled faintly of exhaust.  The light was fading, and I spent a good minute looking both ways down the darkening street, trying to find my demon.  After a minute, I looked behind me, through the glass door of the bodega.  Murphy had just finished talking to the lady behind the counter, and was heading toward me.  I decided to make like a pedestrian.

I was at the crosswalk when the door tinkled one last time behind me.  The thought of that demonic old bag niggled at me.  I didn’t look back.

*

            I made a sandwich.  Exorcism is hard work.  Battle of wills, light versus dark, extreme personal danger – all that.  I was starving.  Bread, ham, pastrami, pepperoni – wait a damn minute.  No pickles?  I groaned inwardly.  That was why I went to the bodega in the first place.  Well, nothing to be done for it.

I put the sandwich in the fridge, grabbed my keys, and left.  I was getting pickles.  Luckily, I knew of a 24 hour store.  More importantly, I knew they were a bit farther than the bodega, which was closed, and I knew they had pickles.

The door to my apartment closed behind me, latching with a soft click.  I cursed the old lady under my breath all the way down the stairs, and daydreamed about a delicious sandwich, with pickles.

*

            The grocery store was a great corporate behemoth, whitewashed brick walls and vast glass windows that reflected the parking lot and the tall lights with their bugs buzzing around them.  The parking lot was nearly empty this time of night, most people done with their after-work shopping and dining, and now sipping coffee and beer in front of the TV where Sheldon Cooper or Gregory House entertained them.

The glass doors whooshed open on well-oiled tracks, and I could smell glass cleaner and an earthy aroma from the bin of watermelons in the entry.  I walked past rows of carts and a hand sanitizer pump – pump pump – I scrubbed my hands – and walked into the store proper.  Cool air and mingled food scents – cooling breads from the deli, and the tang of meat – hit me in the face and passed on.

I made a beeline for the pickled goods, and after a minute of walking, found them.  I stood for a moment, dumbfounded by the sheer variety.  Pickled okra, garlic, tiny ears of corn, Brussels sprouts – I suppressed a gag – and where the hell where the pickles?  After a moment of panic, I looked to my left, and found them, glorious, tangy pickles.  I grabbed a jar and wandered back to the meats, thinking I might add some salami to my near-perfect sandwich.

I was still in the aisle when I heard someone chewing.  Not like you hear someone chewing when something’s crunchy, but that lip-smacking, wet and gooey, somebody’s-eating-something-raw-and-I’m-gonna-puke chewing.  I stepped into the open, past the end cap of the aisle, where Stove-Top stuffing was hawking their new flavor.  Mint sage, I think.  I dunno – it’s gross.

The old lady was there, bent over the meat counter.  She had a package of hamburger open, and was eating it by the handful.  Thin runners of blood trickled down her chin and pattered on the floor.  My stomach threatened to heave up the sandwich I hadn’t eaten yet.

“Hey.”  I said.  That’s me, master of witty repartee.

She looked up, and I saw her eyes flash red.  A low growl rose in her throat, and for a moment, I thought she was going to speak.  Instead, I chucked the pickles at her head.

They hit with a thud, and the pickles fell to the floor.  The jar shattered, and the smell of vinegar and dill filled the air.  I felt a pang of regret.  I had really wanted those pickles.  A moment later, the old woman’s eyes rolled up in her head, and she collapsed into the briny mess, still clutching a wad of meat.  I looked around frantically and listened.

There were no shouts of alarm, no one running down the aisle.  Aside from the sound of the meat cooler humming away, the store was quiet.  I thanked whoever was watching over me, and weighed my options.  One – run like hell, and hope nobody found the old lady before I was out.  Two – my eyes fell on the service entrance to the stockroom, tucked between meat cases.  Two – drag her in the back, block the door, and perform an exorcism.  I looked around again, and grabbed the lady by her wrists, and dragged her through the doors.

The room was big and cold.  I could see my breath in the air.  I looked around.  Against the far wall pallets of meat were stacked, with a pallet jack nearby.  In the center of the wall was a deep freeze door, a dial next to it showing the temperature of the room beyond.  A stainless steel counter with a sink stood against another wall, with a hook over it, and knives on a magnetic strip.  The room had the distinct smell of coppery blood, old and new, floating through the air.

I pulled the old lady into the center of the room, and dropped her, then grabbed the pallet jack and shoved its prongs into a pallet.  After a minute of trial and error, I got the pallet and the jack moving, and managed to drop the small mountain of meat in front of the door.  That done, I turned back to the old lady.

I needed a circle, if I was going to get anything done.  I looked around, and my brain lit up.  There was salt on a small shelf over the cutting table.  Probably for pre-seasoned steaks.  I walked over, and sure enough, salt, Lawry’s, and a few other spices took up the shelf.  I grabbed the salt, and opened the spout, then walked over to the old lady.  Idly, I wondered what her name was.  She was probably an Edna.  They’re almost always Edna, or Bernice.

I poured the salt out in a line as I walked a circle around the lady, careful not to break or cross the line.  When I was done, I set the salt to the side, and crouched next to Edna.  I took a good look at her.  She was lined – more wrinkled than a paper bag, and thin blue veins traced paths in her temples and across the backs of her hands.  Her skin was like parchment, and nearly as white as snow, like her hair, which spiraled in wispy curls from the top of her head.

She stirred, and I spoke to her in Enochian.

“Who are you?”  I asked.

Her eyes fluttered open, and she saw me.  Her pale blue, rheumy eyes filled with tears, and she raised a hand to the swelling bruise on her forehead.

“What?  Why’d you hit me?  What am I doing here?”  She asked.

I smirked at her.  It was the demon, I knew.  I’m no sucker.  Well, that, and she sounded like Barry White with laryngitis.

“You’re free to go.  You just need to leave the circle.”

She raised her head and looked around, but made no move to leave.  A sneer snuck onto her lip, and her eyes flashed red.

“Look, cocksucker.  Let an old lady go.  Or, I can strip your skin, and eat you like beef jerky.  I can fill your mother’s mouth with sh-”

I punched her in the head.  I knew I’d feel bad later, but you know, Sumerian demon.  Also, I have issues with impulse control.  What can I say?

She slumped back onto the concrete floor, and I stood, shaking the ache out of my hand.  I was pacing, trying to find a new tack, when someone passed by the meat department doors.  I waited a minute, and he passed again.  Shit.  It was Murphy.

I ducked behind the meat pallet and waited.  I saw his shadow pass again, and I prayed to whoever was listening that he was just having a hard time deciding on a flank steak.  I waited another five minutes, the only sounds in the room my heartbeat and Edna’s breathing.  When I was sure he was gone, I moved the meat pallet away from the door, and broke the salt circle.  I hated to do it, but getting shot by an off-duty cop in Hamburgerville wasn’t my idea of fun.

I crept out of the double doors and left, my head down.  Someone had cleaned up the pickle puddle.  I hesitated for a moment, torn between wanting to get out clean, and wanting another jar of pickles.  The pickles won out.  I grabbed a jar, and headed for the checkouts, still looking at the floor.

That’s how I ran into Murphy’s wall-sized back.

I bounced off, nearly dropped the pickles, and cursed.  Murphy turned, and just raised an eyebrow.

“Pickles okay?”  He asked.

They were.  I nodded and swallowed the horse-sized lump in my throat.  I gestured at his basket.

“Dinner?”

He nodded.  We stood in silence for a moment, then his turn at the register came up, and we were done talking.  I breathed out a little.  I started toward the line, to put my pickles down, when a sound – running feet – distracted me.  I turned, and saw Edna, her hair completely wild, her eyes wide, dried meat blood on her chin, and spittle drooling from her open mouth.  She was also making a noise, which doesn’t seem all that important, but it was really really annoying.

“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

Murphy spun around just  as Edna raised a ten-inch boning knife.

“Holy crap!” He yelled.

“Ack!”  I agreed.

“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”  Edna added.

Then, time slowed down, and three things happened at once.  Murphy drew his gun.  Edna got close enough to take a swipe with that small sword of hers, and I chucked my pickles at her.  Again.

Time snapped back to normal.  The pickles sailed wide, and shattered on the floor, I felt what seemed to be a fireplace poker rip its away into my arm, and there was a noise in my ear, like someone popping the world’s biggest paper bag, if it were filled with gunpowder, in my ear.  The world went white for a minute, and then made a sound not unlike Edna’s wail.  I staggered back from the knife, and red blossomed on Edna’s blouse, right above the embroidered chicken on her chest.  She staggered as well; her eyes open in surprise, and then dropped the knife.  She swayed for a moment, and then fell to the floor.  She didn’t get back up.

I turned to Murphy, my arm burning, warmth running down the inside of my elbow.  He looked at me, then at the old lady on the floor.

“?”

Well, he didn’t really say ‘question mark’, but you know.  What else are you going to say after that?

I shrugged.

*

            It took the cops a couple of hours so sort us out, and another couple of my hours at the hospital, where they turned my arm into a cross-stitch project.  There was no inquiry.  The official report said the suspect was delusional, and combative, and Officer Murphy acted in the best interests of everyone involved.

You might ask whether I wrestle with some sort of moral dilemma after getting an old lady – God rest her wrinkled soul – killed.  I’d like to tell you there was nothing to feel bad for, that the demon had delved so deep and taken over so completely, the original woman was gone.  I’d like to tell you that good and evil are simple things that walk the world in suits of black and white.  I’d like to tell you I don’t have dark moments.  I’d like to tell you that lies are easy to come by for me, and I don’t turn to them sometimes.  But I won’t.

What I will tell you is that I finally got my pickles, and it was worth it.