12 January 2007
Jackie had found a shop where she could get some incense, crystals, or whatever else she needed for her magic, and for whatever reason decided to invite Alice and me to come check it out with her. They entered, excitedly talking about some of the questions Alice had and heading straight upstairs, while I milled around the register area trying not to touch anything. I found a small altar off to the side, with a sign warning that it was neither for display nor sale, and to please leave it alone as the owners of the shop used it for their own purposes. The things that resided near it hissed as I stood there reading the sign.
“Fine, fine. I get it. Just give me a second.” I went upstairs and told them I was going to wait outside, then headed out and lit a cigarette. I was leaning on the window smoking when an older lady rounded the corner, walking her dog. They stopped in front of me and seemed to be reading the window.
“How much does it cost?” she asked. I narrowed my eyes and looked around.
“How much does what cost?”
“The tarot readings,” she said, pointing at some words I hadn’t noticed next to me. “Do you do those?”
“Oh, no. I don’t work here. I’m just waiting for some people inside,” I said, pointing vaguely toward the window with my cigarette.
“Oh. You looked like you work here. Why don’t you wait inside?”
“It’s...not really for me, in there. Why are you asking about the readings?”
“Well, I--I wanted to get one.”
“To, uh...to know the future, I guess.” I tossed the butt away.
“Where’s the adventure in that?!” She adjusted her grip on the leash and seemed to be holding it a little tighter.
“The...adventure?” she asked, taking a half step backward.
“What’s the point of knowing the future? What’s good about that? There’s no fun, there’s no surprise, just the same old crap. And that’s if you actually get told your future instead of scammed. Knowing the future is overrated, we as a species need to learn how to appreciate the mystery.” She opened her mouth, then watched me for a moment, closed it again, and led her dog briskly across the street and down the block. Alice and Jackie came out as I was lighting another cigarette.
“I hope you weren’t too bored,” Alice said as they approached.
“Nah,” I replied, “There’s always something to do.”
31 December 2006
The music was throbbing through the whole house, Alice was having a great time meeting the rest of my friends and no one was walking on eggshells around me as if they were trying to avoid reminding me of my father, which was a nice change. Jackie’s theater people were here and pitching the idea that some improv show they apparently did the year before could be a tradition. The New Year’s Eve party was going really well, and I was glad for it, but I was outside with a beer and a smoke, leaning on the porch railing that Dad and I had built, staring up at the stars.
What a fucking year. It seemed like the whole thing had been overshadowed by Dad’s cancer and death. I could barely put half of what happened this year in order in my head, and I knew that part of it was simply the fact that I hadn’t even had time to process what happened with Lori, or Alethea, or whatever before I was dealing with Dad, and I wasn’t entirely sure now that I ever did process it. And now some goddess is on my ass? I’d’ve completely forgotten that bit if Jackie hadn’t reminded me. What kind of a mess has this year been, that something like that would seem like a minor issue? I heard the door open and glanced over to see Alice peeking out.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Do you need to do that alone?” I smiled to her.
“I’ll be back inside in just a minute.” She gave me a weak smile back, but went inside. I flicked the butt of my cigarette into the street and finished off my beer. Hey, whatever else happened, this year also brought me into contact with proper allies in Benedict and Akshainie, and helped me learn more about my power and what my dad was training me for, and now there’s Alice. I don’t know where that’s going, but it feels good so far. I looked up to the stars again. “Let’s do this,” I muttered, before heading back inside.
21 December 2006
We had done some more coordinating by text the next couple days, with Jackie commenting by Tuesday that she’d never seen me look at my phone so much. Alice told me it wasn’t a formal affair, but it was a classy one, so I made sure to wear a nice suit and give it a go with the iron before I headed out. There was a quick stop at a car wash to make sure Alpha was as nice as it gets, and then I picked Alice up at about 5. It took me a moment to compose myself and talk to her once I saw the dress she was wearing. I suddenly felt concerned that I was underdressed, but she insisted that I looked good and we left. Besides, there wasn’t much to do about it now, my closet was two hours away and the party was not.
We arrived at the college, with Alice directing me the whole way, about a half hour later. She seemed surprised I didn’t have a GPS, and I informed her that Alpha was bought out of a field and I’d only had enough money so far to get it running. Besides, I told her, I was way more interested in getting body work and some mechanical stuff done to it than adding new gadgets. She asked about some of the stuff I wanted to do with it, and I told her a couple things I knew were wrong and how I’d like to repaint it and stuff. I didn’t mention that the speedometer is screwy. I’ve found that bit of information is usually best taken while Alpha isn’t moving.
The party was probably the most swanky affair I’ve been to in recent memory. There was a proper punch bowl and everything. I met a number of her friends from class, and we danced some, and there was a whole door prize thing that we didn’t win, and they served one of those dinners where you just picked between chicken, beef, or fish and then they brought you whatever that meant. I picked beef. She picked chicken. We ended up trading.
I slipped out to a balcony for a smoke while she was off talking to some friends, and chatted with a couple other people out there smoking until they went inside. I was looking out toward the rivers and leaning on the railing when I saw Alice lean on the railing next to me.
“Those will kill you, you know,” she said.
“Nah, they won’t.”
“Why do you say that?”
“King and Queen told me that’s not how I die.” She turned and looked out toward the rivers with me.
“You really never get away from it, do you?”
“Away from what?”
“Do you ever wish you could?” I thought about that for a moment.
“It would probably be nice to turn it off, once in a while, I guess. But I don’t think I’d even know what to do if I pulled that off at this point. Would you turn off your ability to see in color, if you could?” She thought about that for a moment.
“Colors don’t almost burn my house down,” she said, jokingly, with a jab at my ribs. I chuckled.
“No, I suppose not.” We stared out at the night while I finished the cigarette.
“Why did you ask some spirits how you’ll die?”
“I didn’t. I was smoking and they were getting lippy and I asked if they were going to tell me the smokes would kill me and they said that that’s not how I die.”
“Is it because you quit before that happens?”
“I…didn’t think to ask that.”
“Well,” she said, turning me around and hooking her arm in mine, “maybe you should give it a shot.” I told her I’d consider it as we made our way back inside.
I couldn’t believe it. Of all the places to stumble upon on my very first case as some kind of professional paranormal investigator, it had to be the house where Joanna and Aaboukingon lived. Well, not the exact house. That specific house didn’t really survive this next few moments.
“We need to follow them,” I said, as the spectral man lifted his wife into his arms and made for the door.
“Why?” Alice asked, but she didn’t hesitate to move as soon as I started walking.
“Because the house where this happened burned down.”
“It’s not going to burn my house down, is it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. But it definitely won’t if we get outside.” We went through the front door and down the stairs from the porch while the echoes we followed stayed at the level of the floor, finally reaching their own front door and doing the same.
“Why would that matter? What did you do?”
“I…well, I changed the rules a bit.”
“Look, it’s not easy to explain, but…just follow them, I think if we let the memory play out it’ll be easier to make it stop repeating.” The man stopped and fell to his knees, crying out to Joanna, until two ravens—one who looked normal, if a bit large, and the other glowing faintly blue—flew down and began talking to him, though for some reason I couldn’t quite make out their voices or words. Alice’s jaw fell open as they talked, and then the ravens were flying again and the man followed and we followed him. We made our way back to a creek in the trees behind Alice’s house, where Aaboukingon called the water up and onto Joanna and healed her wounds. The ravens, at this point, seemed to be looking right at us, and I found myself for the first time in a very long time deeply disturbed by the notion that what we were seeing might be able to see us. Having healed Joanna, Aaboukingon collapsed. Joanna screamed, grabbed him, and started to drag him away before the vision suddenly ended. Alice had her hands wrapped around my arm and was pressing in close to me, and we stood there in silence for a few minutes.
“Okay,” she finally said, between deep breaths. “Now. I think you owe me one hell of an explanation.”
“Yeah. Yeah, okay. Let me just clean this up first.” She exhaled hard and finally let go of me, adjusted her shawl, and then stood bolt upright.
“I will be in the house. Where it’s warm.” With that, she was gone, and I began trying to reverse what I had done to make the echoes more visible. As I did so, I realized the ravens were still there.
“Do you need help?” the blue one asked.
“You don’t happen to be that King and Queen, do you?”
“We are.” I groaned and paced around in a circle.
“What’s your deal, exactly?”
“It’s not time to answer that question.”
“Fine. Then what are you offering?”
“You’re trying to stop this echo from repeating, yes?” I nodded. “Then we can help you do that.”
“Yeah? How’re you gonna do that?” The blue raven flew closer, suddenly becoming the woman from the beach and floating just above the snow in front of me. She reached out and touched my forehead.
“Let me show you. I cannot affect an Anchor without permission.”
“Oh, the great and mighty King and Queen, don’t have purview over me?”
“It is complicated. Just, let me in.” I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and tried to drop my guard as much as I could. Finally, there was just new information, suddenly there, in my head. I knew exactly how to make the echoes stop. I snapped my eyes open, and both of them were gone. I reached my hand out, closed my fist, focused on the echo, and felt something in reality pop. I went into the house, to where the scene had begun, and did the same thing. On my way by I saw Alice sitting on the couch with a new coffee and a blanket, so when I was done ensuring there would be no more noises anywhere in the house, I returned to the loveseat. There was a hot tea on the coffee table in front of me.
“Thanks,” I said, softly, testing it. She had already sweetened it.
“Tell me what you did,” she said, coldly. I cleared my throat.
“Um, okay. So it goes like this.” I explained that I’m an Anchor, and everything I now knew that meant. I didn’t mean to go into too much detail, but I just kind of started talking and then couldn’t stop. She listened, attentively, almost never stopping to ask any questions. Just taking it all in. I told her how I had recently learned that I may be able to alter the rules of an area in the metaphysical realm, and how what I had done here was try to enforce a new set of rules that amplified the echo and made it visible so we could both find out what was happening, and how I had finished up by adjusting the rules again so the echo was gone, or at least, pushed deep enough that even if it did happen again no one on this side of the hedge would know it. “I’m still kind of learning what I did just here,” I confessed.
“So was there really any danger of my house burning down?”
“I don’t think so. The bullet didn’t affect us.”
“Oh shit! The bullet! You didn’t think to warn me we might get shot?”
“I…well, I didn’t know. I didn’t realize that was the scene until it was kind of too late.”
“So. Tell me about these two. The man and the woman. And the ravens! I want to know about the ravens.”
“You and me both,” I grumbled, raising my mug for a sip. “Do you mind if I smoke?” She pulled a clean ashtray out of a cabinet under the tv and handed it to me. For guests, she explained. So I told her everything. I told her everything I knew about Aaboukingon and Joanna, and what had happened here, and who those men were. I told her about Joanna coming to me as a ghost, when I was a child, and telling me all these stories, and how they had a son together, and that was my grandpa, and she didn’t trust him one bit, and how my dad had been in some kind of battle with him that I only recently realized he had been training me to pick up. I just poured everything out. I cried, when we got to the bit about my dad’s recent death, and how that was when I found his books and pieced some of this together. I told her about meeting the ravens in Erie, and what had happened just then outside her house. We talked for hours, she had so many questions and I didn’t realize how badly I’d needed to talk about some of this stuff. She heated up some food for us both, and we talked well into the night, and by then it was getting so late and I was so tired that she insisted I sleep there on the couch instead of driving the two hours back or, God forbid, being stopped by the cops again after dark.
When I woke in the morning, there was an envelope on the coffee table addressed to me. I opened it to find a check and a note. The check was for well more than I would have thought to ask for. The note informed me that she had something important to handle that morning, and explained that we hadn’t come to an agreement on price so she just made her best guess. I grabbed my coat and hat, locked the door behind me, and went home.
10 December 2006
Rick was finishing a smoke and talking on his phone when he came in the door, and gave us a half wave and nod when Jackie and I glanced over at him. We turned our attention back to the movie while he chatted about something to do with work on his way to the kitchen, and by the time he returned with a can of pop and sat next to Jackie on the couch the phone was back in his pocket. She leaned over and he put his arm around her as she grabbed his smoke and took a drag.
“How was Pittsburgh?” I asked.
“Pretty good. That’s actually what I came over to talk to you about.” He turned to Jackie and said to her, “We were all pretty disappointed you couldn’t be there.”
“You wanted to talk to me about being disappointed Jackie was at work?”
“No, no,” he said, accepting his cigarette back and taking one last drag before snuffing it out in the ashtray. “She’s got a ghost problem.”
“Is that why they were disappointed I wasn’t there?” Jackie asked, pinching him. He yelped a little.
“Alice just wanted to meet you, I’m sure.”
“What kind of ghost problem?” I asked.
“A ‘they scream in the night and she thought someone was breaking in’ ghost problem.”
“Did that happen while you were there?” He nodded. “Wasn’t Mandy with you?”
“Bet she loved that.”
“Didn’t sleep a wink.” I grabbed the remote and paused the movie, then turned to face him.
“Alright. What’re we doing?”
“Well, actually, it’s mostly just you. She wants to hire you.” I raised a brow.
“For…ghost, stuff, I guess! She said if you can do something about the ghosts she best pay you for it.”
“Professional services are usually paid work,” Jackie said. “Really, this shouldn’t be a radical idea for you.”
“I’m not some kind of supernatural plumber,” I said, sitting back. “Guess I never thought of it that way, anyway.”
“Well, whatever, but her family has money so it isn’t like it would inconvenience her at all,” he said. “Will you just call her? She’s a good friend and needs help here.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll call her.” I tossed him my phone, which Jackie caught and handed him. “Just put her number in there.”
“It’ll be under Alice,” he said, tapping away.
“Could you include a last name, just in case? I like to have whole names in my phone.”
“Fine. It’ll be under Alice Templeton.” I nodded and turned the movie back on.
23 November 2006
I decided to host Thanksgiving this year, with Jackie’s help. We worked hard on it this morning, with no idea who was showing up from the list of people we’d reached out to. I knew most of them would probably have to spend the day with their families, but I couldn’t bear to do it alone. So we invited basically everyone, and cooked as though they were all coming, but didn’t know what would actually come of it.
It was actually a really good turnout. Everyone from the band, except Tony, came by. Rick and Charles and Bob, and probably about a third of the theatre troop, and a couple people from work rounded off the gathering. We had a lot of fun, played some music, ate good food (probably about half the people who showed up brought something with them), and Charles dug out some board games and those of us that remained had a few rounds of those after dinner. It was late when we wrapped up, and Rick stayed over with Jackie while Bob and Charles crashed on the couch.
It was a good day, probably the best I’d had this month.
5 November 2006
I finally got around to the guest book from Dad’s funeral. I’ve always felt awkward about these things. I sign them when I go to funerals, of course, but I’m never sure why. Is it just a record of how many people bothered to show up? Am I supposed to take some comfort from it somehow? Is it more for them? I kinda always assumed other people knew why they were doing it, but it never seemed appropriate to ask. But now that I had one, I didn’t know what to do with it. I skimmed through the names and short messages, hoping I would get a sense of what everyone else thought it was for, when I noticed the one from Benedict.
“When you’re ready, call me,” it said. “We need to talk.” I decided that I might as well be ready, set the book aside, and stepped away to call him. I don’t know why I still do that. It’s not like I have roommates anymore, except Jackie, and she’s never going to give me weird looks for talking about spirits.
“Matteson,” he said, by way of a greeting. “I expected it to take you a little longer.”
“Is this a good time?” I asked.
“Might as well be. Sprichst du Deutsch?”
“Yeah. Dad was very keen on teaching me a few languages.” He continued in German, so I did the same, and it took me a minute to figure out why.
“Your father and I were working on a case. Well, I brought him a case, and he gave me the information I needed to move on it. He said something very interesting, though, and I need to know if he ever told you.”
“I will need you to be a bit more specific.”
“Did your father ever tell you that you do more than break magic?” I sat down, thinking about that for a moment.
“No. He did not. What do you mean?” I heard some conversation in the background, sounded probably English. It grew more distant, as if Benedict was slipping away from a group.
“If he took notes, they may be more” here he said a word I didn’t understand, and when I repeated it back as a question, he said, “ah…helpful, I suppose. Clear.”
“Like ‘enlightening?’” I asked, in English.
“Yes, much like that,” he continued in German. “But what I know of it is this: your power is not just a passive breaking of magic, or at least it does not have to be. I searched that town you told me about, in Ohio. What they were doing there is something you can do, maybe by nature, maybe with some work.”
“What is it?” I slipped back into German.
“He said it as ‘enforcing a version of reality,’” that last bit in English, “as if you set rules on spirits, or on the world of spirits. That town was…separated from the rest of the world of spirits. It was a dead zone, and they were trying to create a new form of spirit world there that they liked. We have been searching for others.”
“I will see if he left notes.”
“Good. I have to go. We should talk more about this.” I agreed, and then he was gone. I sat in the chair for a few moments, tapping the arm of it, before I finally got up and went to the basement. I dug around the books on the shelves, until I found one out of place. It was in with the texts in a language I hadn’t learned, so I had never looked there before, but it was definitely I English. I opened it to find that it was a text on how the worlds meet, and as I flipped through the pages a note fell out. I sat down and opened it.
“There is no doubt now that Johnny is a door between the worlds,” it said, in Dad’s handwriting. “The things he sees and knows line up with too much of this research. The question is whether he is an open door, or a closed one; if open, I must keep him away from these things for his own safety. But if closed, he may be exactly what can stop Jeremiah.” There were no other notes in the book, but I gathered that a ‘closed’ door must be what I turned out to be, given the way he didn’t try to keep me away from these things. I turned back to the beginning of the book and began reading.
2 November 2006
It wasn’t a surprise that Dad was leaving me the house and basically everything in it. He always said he was going to, but it still didn’t really hit until I was told as much in an office, sitting alone with a lawyer. Dad didn’t really have much of an estate outside of the house and books, so there wasn’t much else to handle, but there was a little bit of money he had designated for a small list of charities, the community library and things like that. As we took care of the legal aspects of the house falling into my care, I just felt…numb. I had been trying to really face what was happening, but things like this and the funeral planning just seemed so business-focused that it was hard to feel much of anything while they were happening. And this occupied a lot of my time; the planning, and the contacting people, and figuring out legal things and utility bills and everything was just…it was a lot of my time spent doing this stuff.
I knew this was coming, though, and had sat down with Kyle and Jackie last night to talk about the apartment. Kyle and I reached an agreement, I paid him for November rent and, if he didn’t find anyone to move in by then, I would pay him for December rent as well, but that would be it. Jackie offered to move in with me, and made the same deal with Kyle, and I thanked her and accepted. It would be nice, I figured, to not be alone in the house. Besides, if anyone but me could make good on unfettered access to the library in the basement, it was probably Jackie.
I had been out running errands all day, and it was getting close to dinner by the time I left the office and headed home. I pulled up in front of the house on Lorain, and just as I went to turn the car off, I remembered I didn’t really live there anymore. I debated about whether to go inside to where my bed was, or to go to Dad’s…my house. I took a deep breath and decided to at least stop by, make sure everything was cleaned up and in order before everyone came by after the funeral tomorrow.
It took me a moment longer to recover before Bob was able to help me to my feet. As my senses returned to normal, I dusted myself off and looked in the direction that Rick and Charles were busy debating about in hushed tones. Somewhere in the distance, barely visible through the trees and faint enough we’d have never seen it with the flashlights on, was a distant point with a reddish glow. I groaned and rubbed my head as we all looked at it.
“What do you think it is?” Rick asked, turning to me. Now that I had a moment to look them over, I realized how bloody and torn up we all were. Charles was holding his arm, and Bob went over to see if he was okay. Everyone was tense; it seemed like they remembered everything they had said and done. I took a deep breath and looked back toward the light.
“It’s new,” I said, “and that means it may just be worth checking out.” I turned and looked each man in the eyes in turn. “You guys with me on that?” Everyone agreed, Rick picked up the now blown-out flashlight, and we made for the red light.
We had walked for probably a half hour or so, at our best guess, when we came across a new line of jaggerbushes. By that point, I was sick of dealing with all of it, and not about to risk being redirected again. I found a branch with some weight to it, and dove into the bushes, smashing and stomping them down enough that we could scramble through to the other side. From then on, everything was a blur. I remember finding more bushes, and more, and swinging and stomping and climbing. I remember the red light never leaving my vision, always moving forward, refusing to shift even a little to one side or the other. I was lost in the movement, the destruction, the screaming as I took out every bit of rage and pain and loss on the thorns, the blood as they bit me back in the process. I remember trudging through what felt like a mountain of them, the sound of the branch breaking little by little, the way my friends’ voices grew more hushed and distant as I threw myself into the work of tearing every obstacle down, eventually dropping what little was left of the stick to grab and shove and tear and snap the bushes by hand. I don’t know how much time passed. I don’t know how mad I looked. I don’t know how I endured all the stabs and cuts. The next thing I remember with anything approaching clarity was storming through what little remained of a bush and falling down a short hill, crashing right into a fence.
I stood and looked around, taking a moment to get my bearings and refocus, as the others carefully made their way down the hill toward me. The moon was not directly overhead, and when I found it it was only half full. The woods loomed menacingly over us at the top of the small rise, but ahead was a ten-foot-tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire, with a shorter fence inside, and then a large field housing a barn. I don’t remember if we talked about what to do next, but I do remember climbing that fence. I felt the wire cut at me, but I pressed on, and by the time I had made my way past the inner fence I was starting to come down and stood catching my breath until the others caught up to me. We walked across the field, noticing that the tall and dangerous fence didn’t continue to the sides facing away from the forest. At this point, we didn’t feel the need to walk straight toward the light anymore, so we picked a part of the field away from the house to make our exit and scurry down to the road. We followed the sound of traffic back to 18, and when we got there made sure to glance over to find out what light had led us to safety.
It was the neon sign for Headliner’s, the strip club Mitch had wanted to go to instead of the Devil’s Church.
We made a note to tell him about it, then turned away to walk back to Alpha. It started to lightly rain, and we all started to walk a little lighter and a little more confidently as the water started rinsing some of the blood off of us. We noticed a road we had to cross on the way back, and recognized that it runs far enough up that we must have crossed it at some point in the woods, but decided not to dwell on it. By the time we got back to Alpha, we were all soaked, all of the wet blood washed away and most of the dried stuff starting to fade. We climbed into our seats and rested in silence for a minute, before lighting cigarettes and turning on the engine. The clock on the stereo kicked on, and we realized we had only been gone for forty minutes. I put the car in reverse, then sat for a moment with my foot on the brakes, then put it back into park.
“Look,” I said, “about tonight.”
“You were a madman out there at the end, man,” Rick said. “It was kind of impressive. I mean, I know we wanted out, but like. What got into you?” I sighed.
“My dad died last night.” I heard someone in the back take in a deep breath. “I…I couldn’t find his ghost, and then some spirits showed up and told me he had crossed over and that I needed to focus because big things were coming, and I was so mad and felt like I needed to step up and remembered this place and…I’m sorry, guys. I really am.” They took turns trying to convince me it was okay, and they understood, and then we pulled out and went to Denny’s. No one ever asks why you’re bleeding at Denny’s.
I stood still for a moment, trying to fight the intense desire to move forward. The voice was still trying to whisper in my ear, along with a discordant stream of other voices, but I was so absorbed in the moment that I could barely even make out what any of them said. I tried to push it aside, to silence the call of whatever waited in that field, but it was getting difficult until I noticed a figure move beside me. When I turned to look I saw Bob, his eyes wide and fixed somewhere in the distance, slowly moving to walk past me. I grabbed him and looked back, to see Rick and Charles in a daze but not moving. Was it not calling them? Was it calling Bob? He was still trying to get past me. I knew it wasn’t safe in there, that this was a mistake, that we weren’t ready to face whatever this was. I used both hands now to hold onto Bob, who now couldn’t move but was still trying.
“Guys, we need to go!” I cried out. No one answered. Rick furrowed his brow as if trying to understand, but Charles didn’t react at all. Bob was still trying to press forward.
“It’s too late,” the voice said, “they’re already mine.”
“Such weak things. But I’ll have fun with you, my little fighter.”
“No.” I pushed Bob back, sending him crashing into Rick and Charles, all landing in a heap on the ground. They slowly started trying to get up. I caught my breath and realized I was standing in the clearing, just at the very edge of it. When had I moved backward?
“We’re waiting for you, Jonathan Peter Matteson.” I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists, but found I was smiling despite myself. Did it really think I would fall for that?
“That’s not my name.”
“Don’t play games with me. As if we don’t know who you are.”
“That’s not my true name.” A pause. It didn’t know what to do with that. “Run!” I screamed as I stepped forward.
“They can’t hear you now, Jona-”
“Get back!” As I shouted the last word I felt the atmosphere change around me. The voices fell silent, the call to dive deeper into the Devil’s Church broke, the guys suddenly looked clear and alert and a swath of jaggerbushes behind them fell into heaps of thorns and wood. “We’re going!” I said before breaking into a sprint. The others scrambled to their feet and joined me, jumping over the pile and tearing into the woods.
We didn’t know which way we were going, and we didn’t care. As long as it was away, as long as it was somewhere outside of these woods. But whatever I did wasn’t permanent, and soon the draw back to the clearing was pulling at me again and jaggerbushes were starting to get in our way. The chorus of voices was back. We would try to dodge them, to get around, sometimes just barely skirting by while the thorns ripped at our arms or the edges of our clothes. I ran until my lungs burned, until my throat was dry, until my legs screamed for rest. And when I shoved through a wall of underbrush, I found myself staring at the clearing, directly opposite the two pines with the threatening moon. Charles collapsed behind me, gasping for air. Rick was bent over, his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. Bob, probably in the best shape of all of us, was leaning against a tree.
“No, it can’t be,” Bob said, looking past me to the clearing. “We were running away from it!”
“Not well enough, it seems,” I answered. I turned back and walked toward the others, recovering mere feet from a new line of thorns. We each took swigs from our drinks, Rick helped Charles up, and we walked toward the jaggerbushes.
“Can you open them up again?” Rick asked.
“I don’t know how I did it the first time.”
“Well, we can try this,” Bob said. We all turned toward him, Rick and Charles fixing their flashlights on a large stone Bob was resting his hand on. It was taller than the bushes, and they weren’t growing on it. No one agreed out loud, but we all made our way over and began scrambling up its rounded side until we could drop down on the other. With a line of jaggerbushes between us and the clearing, we pressed forward.
“You can’t run forever,” one voice taunted above the din of the others.
“Is there someone here?” Charles asked. “I mean, I don’t want to freak anyone else out, but I keep hearing voices, and Matteson is supposed to see spirits, and…” He trailed off, and I sighed.
“I’m hearing voices, too, but I don’t see anyone here. I don’t know how they’re doing it.” Rick and Bob confirmed they were also hearing things, and we huddled together to make a plan. It wasn’t much of a plan; basically we just agreed to keep moving away from the clearing until we found some way to get somewhere else. We pressed on.
It felt like another hour of walking before we found ourselves at the clearing again, in the exact same spot, staring at that moon between the twin pines. The stone was gone, but we found a slight passage between trees to escape. It was maybe fifteen minutes before we were at the clearing again. After that we stopped trying to track the time as we found ourselves at the clearing another six times. We were on our way away from it again when we stumbled on a patch of ground maybe ten feet across with just pine needles and mushrooms on it. We stopped there to take stock. We had all finished our drinks. We were tired, and sore, and bleeding through tears in our clothes from all the encounters with thorns. Everyone sat down, leaning back against one of the trees surrounding our little patch of peace, and the only sound for a few minutes was our heavy breathing and the endless stream of incomprehensible voices.
“Are we going to die here?” Bob asked. I shook my head. “Well how can you know?”
“We can’t believe that,” I told him. “We can’t let ourselves believe that.”
“I’m sick of this shit from you!” Charles yelled, throwing the flashlight at me. It missed and broke against the trunk of the tree above me. I tried to shield myself from the bits of broken plastic and glass, but still managed to have one of the batteries hit me square on the top of my head. He stood, pointing angrily at me. “What the fuck is this all about, huh? You never did tell us! Just suddenly up and decided we needed to go to the one place we all agreed wasn’t worth the effort?”
“Charles, look,” I said, standing. It was hard to see his expression in the dim light, but he seemed to be looking past me.
“What the fuck, man!” Rick exclaimed, jumping up. “We don’t have very many of those flashlights, you know!”
“Fuck you!” Charles yelled, turning on Rick and pushing him away. “Fuck you for dragging me out here, and fuck you,” he said, pointing to Bob, “for going along with this bullshit!”
“Don’t you snap at me, you coward!” Bob yelled as he stood. The ambient voices in the forest changed their tone, bickering and leering and laughing in their terrible cacophony.
“Don’t you touch me!” Rick swung at Charles, who barely dodged. Charles threw himself forward, tackling Rick into a jaggerbush and sending the lone remaining flashlight rolling along the ground. Bob followed, screaming accusations at Charles for having no spine and Rick for convincing both of them to come along. I went to step in, but they were all soon tearing at each other, rolling around in the thorns that bit deeply into them. I grabbed my head as the voices grew louder, demanding my attention, urging me to do something, to take charge, to end this madness by beating them all down.
“Or,” the whisper of that first voice cut through all the noise, “you could give yourself to me, and I’ll free them.” I fell to my knees as the noise grew louder, throbbing in my head, giving me a headache so bad that my vision was beginning to blur.
“None of us,” I muttered, punching the ground. “You get no one tonight.”
“I will have my tithe.” I pounded my fist into the ground again as I tried to push the voices away.
“You get nothing. Not tonight.” I heard one of the guys scream in pain, but distantly, as if through a tunnel.
“Three mortals, or one Anchor.” I pressed my forehead against the ground. My entire body was beginning to feel hot. I felt my hand hit the ground again, and then again.
“Nothing!” I screamed. I sat up and stared ahead, resting my fists against the ground. “You get nothing!” I could feel pressure build around me, as if something was trying to push back, but then the heat felt like it exploded off of me. What remained of the jaggerbushes collapsed. The guys grabbed their heads and screamed. The moon flickered and the trees shifted, ever so slightly, for just a moment. The voices all stopped. The bulb in the flashlight popped and went dark. I gasped for air and fell onto my side, my vision blurry and my ears ringing. I could see the vague shapes of the others, rolling up to sitting positions and then slowly, carefully, climbing to their feet and out of the pile of thorns. One of them limped over to me, and I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Guys?” I heard Charles say as sound from outside began to filter back into my ears. “what’s that?”
The blog of John Matteson.