15 September 2005
Charles remained in the car as promised, while the rest of us snuck up to the side of the building. We had parked on the far end, with the hopes that whoever was in there would be unable to hear Alpha driving over the gravel and the engine running. We found a man door that did not, itself, have light coming from under it, but was near the section that did. Rick and I were arguing about the best way to pop the lock when Jackie reached past us and opened the door, which was apparently never latched.
We entered a hallway and could hear what sounded like distant chanting, but couldn't make out any of what was being said. The floor was cracked and filthy, the walls covered in the remains of peeling paint and rusted signs. One door was hanging half off its hinges, and we slipped as quietly as we could into the room behind it. Here we found a few desks stacked up against one wall, papers and scraps of garbage and broken glass scattered across the floor. The glass, it turned out, was largely from a panel of windows on the far wall, looking out over a mill floor depressed into the ground by about ten feet from the level we were on. When we peeked through the windows, we saw about a dozen robed figures standing on a large spiral embedded into the floor, filled with blood, with a large stone altar in the center. On the altar was a naked woman, not moving, blood dripping from her wrists and throat into the spiral. The chanting was coming from that room, and there was a ball of light hovering over the altar. Jackie grabbed her head and slid down the wall to sit on the floor and take deep breaths.
"What is it?" Rick asked softly, kneeling down and putting his hand on her shoulder. "Is it the murder? I think they murdered someone, guys."
"The other side of that--" she started, then groaned and began rubbing her temples.
"Other side of what?" he asked, turning to me. I was scowling.
"The portal. I can see enough to know it isn't good," I said.
"What does that mean!?"
"They're trying to summon something. Whatever it is is coming from deeper in the Realm than I can see, but there's a lot of darkness involved in drawing it out."
"Holy shit," he muttered, sitting down beside Jackie. "Oh holy shit. Is this happening?" I nodded and sat down on Jackie's other side, lighting a cigarette and then putting my arm around her shoulder. She let go of her head and leaned on my chest.
"You can't keep blocking me from this," she said, "not if we're going in there."
"I'm sorry, did she say we were going in there?"
"You don't have to," I answered, "but she's right. As far as we know, we're the only people available to stop whatever it is they're trying to bring here, and I can promise you someone needs to stop it." He began breathing heavily and fiddling with his fingers.
"Okay! Okay. I can do this. I can help you guys."
"I don't see how. Look, maybe you should go tell Charles, figure out what to do if this goes wrong."
"Oh yeah, let me just call the fucking cops, tell them there's a demon they need to arrest!"
"Keep it down, and no, please don't call the cops."
"Because they'll think it's bullshit!?"
"Because they don't tend to respond well to a black man at a murder scene." Jackie punched me lightly, and then got up to crouching and headed back toward the hallway.
"Give me some space for a minute," she said, "so I can prep some defenses, and then I'll be set, okay?" I nodded and we watched her slip into the hall before Rick slid over to me.
"Hey, look, if we survive this, could you be a little less handsy? I think I have a shot with this girl, but you know, you two kinda have this thing--"
"Just asking! Just thought I'd ask." We sat in silence for a minute, before he whispered again, "is that a yes?"
"Go to the fucking car," I said, heading out to the hallway. I caught up to Jackie and we both watched as Rick slipped into the hallway, waved to her, and then left the building. I turned to Jackie.
"You think he knows I could hear him?" she asked.
"Nope. Does he really have a chance?"
"Well not tonight. Why, you want him to?" I chuckled and offered her a cigarette.
"I don't care."
"Mhm," she replied, flicking her lighter. Once she had her cigarette lit, we made our way down to the mill floor.
At the bottom of the stairs we found a small alcove with three other bodies in it, all cut open, none of them still bleeding. The pile startled both of us, and after we caught our breath again we rounded the corner to find ourselves looking directly across the room to the group. I went out along the wall a ways, to give her room, then stopped and watched for her to be ready. When she nodded to me, I took a deep breath, muttered something vaguely similar to a prayer, and rushed forward.
I drilled into the back of the closest robed figure and knocked them forward into another one, both of them crashing to the floor as I turned to close the distance and punch another. I felt their rib give way and stomped at their kneecap; by the time they screamed and went down, the chanting had stopped and the rest of the figures were moving toward me. The portal shifted and started to close slightly, when one of the figures suddenly turned to look in Jackie's direction and, without a word, threw a fireball toward where I knew she was. I reached my hand in its direction and closed my fist, and the fireball vanished in a puff of smoke. The figure who threw it recoiled and his hood fell, revealing a man with a massive burn mark over half his face. When he looked at me his eyes were like a snake's, and he growled and raised his hands, igniting all the air around me. None of it could get more than a few feet from me, so I charged forward through it and emerged from the edge of it just in time to drive a fist into his jaw. All of the fire vanished as he stumbled backward.
The portal quivered and contracted again as the man wiped a spot of blood from the corner of his mouth. The rest of the figures backed away, watching us. I flexed my hand a couple times in an attempt to ignore the pain of the last punch, and the man's eyes glowed for a moment before he started to laugh.
"It's you!" He screamed, cackling. "The Omen!"
"What are you on about?" I asked, stepping forward.
"Your coming has been foretold, Omen. You are the key, the end of our quest comes through you!" The rest of the figures gasped and started whispering among themselves as they slowly made their way forward again.
"Nobody move!" Rick yelled, stepping out of the shadows on the other side of the room. He was holding a gun, pointed at the crowd, but his hands were shaking.
"Motherfucker," I muttered.
15 September 2005
I maintain that I did not know Rick had lied to Charles in order to get him back into Alpha to go look for that town again, but it probably should have been suspicious when he agreed to come. I had reattached my mirror and Jackie had grabbed supplies to help her casting if we needed to hide again or, God forbid, fight. Rick said he was ready for whatever, but all he seemed to bring was snacks. Which were appreciated, but hardly seemed special in any way.
I made a point of memorizing the path we took to get to the town, and the path out of it again, so we could hopefully get there quickly and have some time to poke around and see if we could find any explanation for it. I decided to try the way we had gotten out first, since it was easier, but as soon as Charles figured out what we were doing he started arguing about it. We had to actually pull over just off 224 to calm him down before continuing. Once we resumed, however, we found the path not as easy as before. I was certain we were going the right way, and we all recognized things we were passing for a while, but then we were certain we'd gone to far and never saw it. We tried another pass, and again knew exactly when we were driving through an area we had been in before, but there was no sign of the town on the road and no large empty area where the town could have been.
After those two passes, we decided to try the dirt path we were on when we found the town in the first place. By this point it was starting to get dark, and Charles was growing more impatient with us. We found the dirt road and turned down it, right around the time he decided to stop running his mouth and just ignore us in favor of looking out the window. I asked Rick, who by now had confessed to lying to Charles, why he put in that effort when it would have just been better not to, and he just laughed.
I'm beginning to suspect Rick is a legitimate asshole.
It was about a mile down that road when we suddenly came to a barrier line blocking the entire road, in front of a large dirt hill. The path curved slightly into a haggard garage, marked with faded railroad signs. I stopped Alpha and we all got out, except Charles, and walked up to the top of the hill.
"Did they make this overnight or something?" Rick asked.
"Did who make it?" I asked.
"I dunno! Some...villager? With a backhoe?"
"Well the answer is no either way," Jackie said, pointing ahead. Where the road should have continued was just a field, with grass that looked like it hadn't been mowed all summer.
"Was this magic?" Rick asked, excitedly. "Can you see if it's magic?"
"Well I can't," I said, "unless it's an ongoing effect I could interrupt."
"Like an illusion!"
"Yes. Like an illusion." I turned and looked at Jackie, who looked at me and shrugged. I sighed and walked down the hill and into the grass, and once I was about five feet deep into the field I turned around and threw my arms out. Nothing changed around me. Rick turned to Jackie.
"Can you check?"
"You seem really excited about this," she said.
"It's exciting stuff!" She reached into her bag and pulled out a pair of glasses. I could see her eyes close and her mouth moving while she put them on, but couldn't hear what she was saying. Once she was done, she opened her eyes, screamed, and grabbed her face as she stumbled backward. Rick caught her and started asking if she was okay while I ran up the hill toward them.
"Jackie!" I called. "What's going on?" Rick helped her sit down, and she pulled the glasses off. When I got to about ten feet from them she visibly relaxed, and when I got closer I could see tears of blood trailing from her closed eyes. She was rubbing her temples.
"I never thought I'd be so glad for you to suddenly end one of my own spells," she whispered.
"What did you see?" She opened her eyes and Rick and I both gasped as we realized one was now blue.
"What? What is it?" she asked. I opened my mouth to answer, but happened to glance up and notice and cloud of dust coming closer on the road. I stood up and focused on it, and realized that it was coming from a black, roughly garbage truck sized block heading down the road toward us.
"Back to Alpha! Now!" Rick looked back and swore under his breath, and we both helped Jackie to her feet and ran down the hill. I hadn't turned the car off, so as soon as we all dove in I threw Alpha into gear and punched the gas, cutting the wheel to turn around half in the grass while Rick was still pulling his door closed.
13 september 2005
Apparently one of the search engines has satellite maps now, and I was able to track down where we’d been the night before. I had difficulty finding the quarry, or whatever it was, where we saw the standing stones; but I did manage to retrace our steps enough to find the strange field. There was what appeared to be a service road running alongside the railroad at one end of the field, on the side opposite the lights, but what caught my attention were the two large black circles in the grain next to the service road.
I grabbed a notebook and wrote down the coordinates so I could find it again, and went to meet up with Rick and Charles. We cruised around, hung out at the park, basically just killed the day, until Jackie got off work. When we picked her up, I told them what I’d found, and they wanted to see for themselves. We went back to the house and I found the location again. The field, however, looked normal, or at least only slightly altered, with no sign of the marks.
“Are you sure it was here?” Rick asked.
“Yes! They were right there! Look, it even looks a little...off, in the picture.”
“I’m not seeing it.” We argued for a few minutes until I offered to just drive us there so we could check. Having nothing better to do, everyone else agreed, and we piled back into my car and headed out. It took about forty-five minutes, with us stopping for drinks on the way, before we got back to the field. It was after dark, and the fall fog was laying thick on the road. Thick enough that we actually missed the service road and had to turn around and head back. Once we found it, however, we pulled in slowly and watched out the side for any opening in the grain. It didn’t take long before we saw a dark space on the passenger side, and I pulled over.
“Shit, man,” Charles whined. “I dunno about this.”
“You’re gonna do this now?” Rick asked.
“I’m just...it looks pretty dark. Did anyone bring a flashlight?”
“I think I have one in the glove compartment,” I offered, looking to Jackie. She sighed and opened it, pulling out a small maglite. “Yeah, here we go.”
“Great. What do the rest of us use?”
“Are you guys always so prepared for these things?” Jackie asked.
“No, no,” I said, opening my door, “usually we’re also drunk.”
“How you’ve managed to pull this shit off for so long is beyond me. Matteson, you keep your distance.” With that, she stepped out of the car and pulled something out of her pocket. Holding it tight in her hand, she whispered something, and then blew on it. It was then I could see it was a crystal, and it was now glowing like some kind of torch.
“You gotta teach me how to do that!” Rick said, sidling up to her.
“You don’t have half the will for magic.”
“She’s not wrong,” Charles said, hugging close to her. I pushed the button on my flashlight a couple times, then smacked it until it turned on. When I caught up to the others, they were standing in the middle of a perfect circle, probably about thirty feet across, which had been burned into the field.
“So they...have a fire pit?” Rick offered. “Maybe they burn garbage here?”
“There’s no garbage here. Usually there’d be remnants of something.”
“Maybe they burned, I dunno, paper? Only?”
“Why would they have two of them?” I asked, pointing my flashlight at one side of the circle where it overlapped briefly with another, equally large and equally empty circle.
“Do you guys think this was aliens?” Charles asked. We all turned to look at him, and then Rick began to pinch the bridge of his nose. Jackie lowered her crystal and knelt down to touch the ground.
“No,” Jackie said, flatly. “There was magic here. I can feel it.”
“Would that be better?!” Rick yelled, throwing his arms in the air. “Would you sleep better at night thinking there were alien wizards visiting our farms?”
“At least they’d leave when they’re done,” Charles muttered.
“Can you tell us anything else about it?” I asked Jackie.
“No. Not really. It feels...the magic was recently performed, but it was very, very ancient magic.”
“Awesome. Love ancient magic. Nothing sinister about ancient magic burning giant holes in fields and then having them vanish from satellite pictures. You guys wanna see where this road leads? Maybe it’s related”
“Can I vote no?” Charles asked.
“You can vote whatever you want, but I’m driving.” He groaned and followed me back to the car alongside the others. Once Jackie’s light was out and the car was started, we pulled off into the fog. Once again, the radio went dead. We drove for a few minutes, slowly watching for anything else of note, until we came to a paved road. Ahead, the service road seemed to vanish into a garage. As there seemed little more to find that way, I turned and we followed the paved road around in a wide loop, riding along the edge of the farm, until we got back to where we’d entered the service road. I stopped and looked, and we saw the service road head off in the other direction.
“Please do!” Rick countered, leaning forward and patting my shoulder. I looked to Jackie.
“I’m off tomorrow,” she said with a shrug. I smiled and cut the wheel to head off down the dirt path.
12 September 2005
Rick, Charles, Jackie, and I were playing Rock Band at the house and talking about something better to do. Nothing good was happening at the local bars, there were no shows scheduled for the night, and none of us were due to be in early for any reason. We were an hour and a half in before Rick mentioned a lake he'd heard about down in Lawrence County that used to be a quarry. It wasn't safe to swim in, of course, but none of us had ever seen a quarry lake and decided looking for it was better than sitting around. Well, most of us decided that.
"This sounds like a terrible idea," Jackie said, putting on her jacket. "Someone is going to die."
"And yet, you're getting ready to go," I replied, tying my boots.
"Excuse me, I would remind you that I'm the hot girl that makes it to the end of the movie, and you're the token black guy." I put my hand to my chest in mock offense.
"Token?! This story is clearly about me."
"Yes, you're both very important people of color," Rick said, crossing his arms by the door, "can we go now?" As we all made our way to the car, Jackie leaned over to me.
"Why are all your friends white, anyway?" she whispered.
"Black folks have enough trouble with dead white people," I whispered back. "It's very hard to find any that want to go looking for them." She snorted and tried to stifle a laugh, and we all loaded into Alpha and set off.
We stopped in West Middlesex for smokes, drinks, and snacks, then turned down 551 and tried to make sense of Rick's vague, half-remembered directions. When that shallow well ran dry, I decided to just start looking for places where a quarry might be. By this time it was dark, and there was a light fog rolling in, so we took it slower on the unlit side roads to look for anything interesting. We were wandering for a little while before I noticed we were driving alongside a low ridge with a fence over it, that went on a good ways. I stopped and pointed it out, and we decided to try and find an entrance.
We followed the fence until it cut abruptly into the trees, but there was no road to take the same turn. I had to go on a bit further to find a road that went in that direction, then look for anything that may lead back to the fence. We finally found an abandoned dirt road, and I took it. As soon as I turned onto the road, the radio cut out, and I started fiddling with the volume to see what was going on with it. As we rounded a curve with low branches hanging over the road, we found ourselves confronted by two standing stones. I stopped the car and pulled my hand back from the radio as we all looked the stones over.
They were dark, probably ten feet tall and five feet wide, each with a red spiral engraved into it near the top. There were no other markings, no words or signs or anything to tell us what that spiral was supposed to mean. We discussed the possibility that it was some kind of corporate logo, but had to admit that those are usually paired with more information. There was no fence between the stones, but there was also no visibility as the fog was much thicker ahead than it was around us. With Charles balking and Jackie suggesting she was very uncomfortable going forward, I hesitantly agreed to turn around and head back.
Unfortunately, by this point we weren't entirely sure how to actually get back, and ended up driving around aimlessly for a little while longer until we spotted an access road next to some train tracks. Out of curiosity we turned down the road, and found ourselves quickly surrounded by a corn field. There were a couple openings in the grain near the beginning of the path, but it was too dark to see anything in them, and we kept on going. When we reached another road, we turned off and drove around to the front of the field where a large farmhouse stood. It looked empty, with broken Halloween decorations hanging in the trees and a single illuminated cross in the back yard. There were tombstones, not decorative ones but clearly real, near the cross, and a rusted and half-collapsed swing set nearby. It was clearly the house that went with the field, we'd all seen enough farms to recognize that, but the corn was perfectly maintained while the house didn't look like anyone had been there for decades and there was no sign of farm equipment. We stopped and stared at the house, and the radio kicked back on. The volume was all the way up, and the local rock station was just getting to the chorus for Metallica's "Enter Sandman."
I punched the gas as Jackie turned the volume down. Charles screamed. We found our way home, debating the whole way about whether or not to go back and check out that house or possibly the site of the standing stones. We hadn't come to a decision before I dropped the guys off at their places.
"You're going to do it, aren't you?" Jackie asked as we pulled up to the house.
"Yeah. You in?" She sat for a moment, then sighed.
"Tell me tomorrow what you have planned. I'll think about it."
4 July 2005
Lori, Beth, and Bob were getting back to normal, but clearly still in mourning. I was running through ideas on how to cheer them up while Jackie and I were going through my books the other day, and suggested hosting a cookout for the Fourth of July. When I suggested it, Jackie put her book down and rested her hand on my shoulder.
"John," she said, then waited until I was looking at her. "Listen, I don't know what it's like for you, but you need to understand that for most of us, death is permanent."
"No, I get that, I just--"
"Do you? I mean, you've clearly been trying to comfort Lori through a difficult loss, and that's great, but you just seem like you expect it to go faster than it really should. They have had to grapple with saying goodbye to their close friend for the last time, and under particularly difficult circumstances. There are no ghosts in their daily experience, no conversations they can have with those they've lost. Death is the end." I set my book down and stared at it for a little while.
"Not everyone sticks around, you know," I finally said. "They have to have a reason. Otherwise, it's just...echoes, scraps, little bits of them laying around in the aether. My...I've lost people, too."
"We don't even get that, you know. Those memories, those echoes, those little pieces of them in the metaphysical realm. We have only what's in our own heads, and the objects they leave behind. It's not the same."
"So you think the cookout is a bad idea?"
"No, no, not really. It's just, make sure you're mindful of where they are while you do it, okay? It'll be nice for things to feel normal, but some cookout isn't going to fix things. And if this Mark was fond of the holiday, it may be extra difficult for them. Just...be careful, yeah?" I nodded, and we went back to what we were doing.
We did end up hosting the cookout today, and it went really well. Lori, Bob, and Beth all seemed to appreciate it, and I tried to give them space when they needed it. Rick insisted on working the grill, which was fine for burgers and hot dogs, but I made certain I knew exactly how the barbecue chicken was seasoned and cooked. The whole band was there, and we ended up playing a few songs when it was getting dark. It was fun, and by the end everyone seemed to leave in a good mood. Lori kept a little distance from Jackie, but she stayed over for the first time in weeks. I really think things are starting to turn around for all of us.
29 May 2005
Lori had finally agreed to move back into her apartment when I offered to let her keep the key she'd been using. She chose a number of things to leave behind for when she was spending the night, and I helped her carry the rest of her stuff home this morning. I'd been home, staring at the tv with Rick, for about an hour when I decided to start putting things back to normal. There was food I would never eat to check on, supplies in the bathroom to find homes for, a room I needed to make sure was clear for Jackie, books I had rearranged to make room for-
"Rick?" I called, looking at the books. "Have you seen my books on possession?"
"Why the hell would I have seen your books on possession. Are they exciting?"
"I guess that depends on what you want out of them."
"That's a no, man. Just say no when people ask you something like that."
"They're all gone! The ones on possession, a couple on ghosts, one that wasn't really about either but had a relevant chapter, everything!"
"Are they important?"
"Well, they're mine. But also I figured I should brush up on the topic, you know, since Jackie is gonna wanna talk about it."
"Oh, right! Hey, weren't you doing some of that research at your dad's place? Maybe you left them there?" I had been carrying stuff back and forth, I had to admit to myself, and it wasn't a completely unreasonable suggestion.
"Yeah, alright. I guess I'll check there."
"Speaking of, how's Lori handling the idea of you living with a woman?"
"I haven't really mentioned it yet." I heard the tv turn off, and then Rick walked into the room.
"Run that one by me again."
"Well, she isn't living here, it was hardly her decision."
"Are you fucking kidding me? You invited some hot Latina chick-"
"I never said she was hot."
"You showed me pics from that Halloween party. And you invited her to live here, in your house, where you live, and it never occurred to you that your actual real-life girlfriend might like to know about that?"
"What's your issue here?"
"She...you...you're so dense sometimes! You spend too much time worrying about what dead people think about you and not enough dealing with the living ones! Look, she's gonna feel threatened, and she's gonna feel hurt when she finds out, and only you can stop this particular forest fire."
"He's right," Kastor said, sitting on my armchair. I pointed at him.
"You stay out of this!"
"Yeah!" Rick yelled to, what I assume to him was, an empty armchair. "Unless you're agreeing with me!" He turned to me. "Is it agreeing with me?"
"Is there any good way for me to answer this?"
"Probably not," they both said. I put my face in my hands for a moment, then looked between them.
"Okay, okay! I'll talk to her later. I just, you know, she was pretty occupied with everything going on, and Jackie isn't going to be here for a bit yet, I figured I had a little time to wait for an opening."
"Do what you want, man," Rick said, leaving the room, "just know none of us you leave behind can talk to you after she kills you."
"I can," Kastor said.
"Greeeaaaaat," I muttered as I returned to my work.
1 May 2005
"So you guys just do this, on a regular basis?" Bob asked, giving the hallway a sweep with his flashlight. He was with Rick, Charles, and me exploring an abandoned house in Brookfield that Tony said he'd heard ghost stories about. Bob was, admittedly, not part of the plan, but he and Charles had been hanging out a lot lately and when we called Charles to come along they showed up together. We were walking around the first floor, having only just started.
"Well, we do it when we feel like it," I said, before lighting my cigarette. Once I'd taken a drag and put my lighter away, I checked my own flashlight and walked forward. "It's usually pretty unplanned, like this."
"So what're we looking for, anyway?"
"Trouble," Charles muttered. Bob rested his hand on Charles' shoulder and rubbed it a bit.
"Yes, okay, but what kind of trouble?" Bob asked with a big smile. Charles sighed.
"Ghosts!" Rick called out, pumping a fist in the air. "Or demons, or whatever's here."
"So far neither," I said, "and hopefully not demons."
"Aw come on, man. You talk real big about ghosts and spirits and gods and everything, but demons? That's where you draw the line?"
"Demons are the kind of trouble that follows you home."
"Are...are you guys being serious right now?" Bob asked, looking between us.
"Yes," Charles said. "See, Matteson believes he can see the spiritual realm, and has this masochistic interest in exploring it, and somehow we always get roped into coming along."
"Roped in? That's one of my favorite things about him!" Rick said, elbowing me in the side. "Though it's still weird hearing everyone call you that."
"Well, okay, but...can he see the spiritual realm?" Bob asked. We all stopped at the bottom of the stairs, and I turned and looked at him.
"Yes, I can. Whether I want to or not," I answered. "And being that it's an unavoidable part of my life, it seemed sensible I should know how to handle it."
"Has this been, you know, tested in some way?"
"Well, okay, so, we obviously can't really confirm what he says is going on with spirits we can't see," Charles said, wringing his hands together. "But, there are a lot of strange things that happen around him we don't really know how to explain, and he does tend to know things he shouldn't have any way of knowing."
"And the behemoth," Rick offered, pointing. "You and I both saw things get knocked over by something very large and very invisible when he said that thing was following him around."
"Well, the size is a guess, but..." Charles paused.
"But it was invisible?" Bob asked. Charles hesitantly nodded. Rick enthusiastically nodded.
"Not to me," I said.
"Well okay then. That certainly sounds like a start."
"I'm sorry to drag you into this," Charles said.
"Oh, no! No, no, this sounds fascinating! I'd kinda like to know more!" Charles looked at him with pleading eyes.
"Alright, then," I said pointing my flashlight up the stairs, "shall we?" Bob and Rick nodded and we started up the stairs. Charles groaned and followed, hanging close to Bob.
20 December 2004
I groaned as I reached over to the ringing phone, only barely turning my head from my pillow to be able to see the screen. It was Rick. I let out a low growl as I answered.
"Were you asleep, John?"
"It's two in the afternoon!" I grumbled and rolled onto my back.
"I had a long night," I said, pushing myself up to sit with my back against the headboard. "Were you calling for any specific reason?"
"We're on for the Devil's Church! Tony is getting some people together, they're going to meet us at the D'Onofrio's parking lot in about an hour. You coming?" Mandy groaned and rolled over, laying her arm across my waist.
"Uh, let me check. I may have to do something real quick first."
"But you'll be there? Charles and I need a ride, he's here at my place."
"Yeah. I'll come get you." I hung up and leaned my head back against the wall for a moment, before putting the phone down and grabbing my smokes and a lighter.
"Who was that?" she asked, her voice soft and still half asleep.
"Your cousin." I lit my cigarette and breathed deep, blowing the smoke toward the ceiling. "We're gonna go investigate the Devil's Church."
"Oooo, that cursed place up past Headliner's?"
"The same." She began to trace her finger around my belly button as she scooted up to lean her head on my side.
"Can I come?"
"I think we've established you can." She lightly slapped my stomach and sat up, placing herself on my lap and facing me.
"Are you in a hurry?"
"We have an hour to get dressed, pick up Rick and Charles, and be up to D'Onofrio's." She hummed, running her hands down my sides and sliding herself down to slowly ease the blanket off me.
"I think we can make that work."
When Rick and Charles came out the door on hearing my horn, they were bickering about who would ride shotgun. I had my window down in case I'd need to yell to them, and was lighting another Newport. Mandy leaned over.
"Chicks get shotgun in Alpha, you know that!" she yelled out my window. Rick jogged down and leaned against my door to peer in as Charles grumbled and moved around to climb in the seat behind her.
"Mandy! John picked you up on the way?"
"No," I said. She laughed and winked, then sat back up in her seat. He looked puzzled for a moment, then concern washed over his face. "Get in or we're gonna be late." With that, I began rolling up my window and turned my attention forward. Rick stood upright, paused, then got in the back behind me. He tried to bum a smoke off Mandy but she reminded him we were going to a store and he could get his own, and he was quiet the rest of the trip.
D'Onofrio's is a standalone grocery store on the northern edge of the business district in Hermitage, and the last real stop before 18 becomes a freeway the whole way to Greenville, or at least the last one we acknowledge. For those of us who grew up in Sharon, it was an unstated fact that our home region ended at the store, and everything north was country. When we arrived, Tony's car wasn't there. Rick and I went in to get drinks and smokes while we waited.
"John," he finally said, softly, once we were out of earshot of the car and the store, "did you fuck my cousin?"
"Yes." He clenched his fists and took a deep breath.
"It was her idea. I didn't induce her to anything."
"Fine. But, please, did you at least-"
"I'm not answering any questions about how I had sex with your cousin." We were silent the whole time we were inside, and when we returned Tony's car was parked next to Alpha and Olivia was talking to Mandy through their open windows. As we got closer we saw that he also brought Karen, Mitch, and Rob. Mitch suggested we stop by Headliner's while we were up that way, citing his belief that strippers are always more friendly to a group that includes other women. He was soundly voted down. Rick and Olivia switched cars. After Tony and I confirmed we both knew where we were going, we set out.
We joked and carried on the whole way, and judging by the way they were laughing as they got out of the car I suspected the rest of them did roughly the same. Even Rick seemed to be in a better mood. Karen went straight for Olivia and Mandy and they began talking among themselves near Alpha as the rest of us gathered next to a headstone with letters faded beyond recognition in the dying winter light.
"What's the deal with this place, anyway?" Tony asked.
"Wait, they didn't tell you?" I asked, looking to the group.
"I thought he knew," Rick said with a shrug.
"I thought everyone knew," Rob said.
"Yeah, it's haunted, right?" Mitch offered.
"More than that." Rick was nearly jumping when he cut back in. "It's called the Devil's Church because there's a real church in there, somewhere in the haunted woods! They went dark, started worshiping the Devil, hosting orgies, human sacrifices, the whole thing. They got so corrupt that the Earth opened up and swallowed them whole; and now, the souls of the people who died wander the woods, tempting and tormenting people that enter!"
"And...why are we entering?" Tony asked, his brow furrowing.
"Because! We're gonna find the church!"
"No one has ever found the church itself," Rob said. "Everyone who tries falls to the spirits, and those who die there join the ghostly army."
"They're gonna try to kill us?!" Charles blurted out.
"Only if we don't join them willingly."
"That's not better!"
"They get people to do all kinds of things," Mandy said as the girls approached us. "They say groups who go in there can be best friends, but somewhere in the woods they start killing each other, or going mad. Sometimes eating each other!"
"Some stories include rape," Rob offered. I raised my brow.
"There...some very compelling reason you guys wanted to come along?" I asked the girls.
"Oh come on, you don't really believe the stories, do you?" Olivia asked.
"Besides," Mandy said, walking over to me. "If we were gonna start believing the stories, we should also believe you can just," she started fake punching the air in front of me, "break the curse and keep us safe, right?" The others laughed.
"John's our ringer, guys," Rick said. "We're gonna be the first ones to find that church cause nothing gets by him." I sighed and pointed my cigarette toward the trees.
"Fine. Lead the way."
"I will!" With that, Rick started walking toward the woods, and we all fell into groups following him. As we got closer and closer to the trees, Karen was growing visibly more hesitant. Finally, when Rick was just past the tree line, she stopped dead in her tracks and started to shake. We all stopped and turned to face her, as Rob and Olivia tried to calm her down. She started to protest going any further, and when Rob put his hands on her shoulders and told her it'd be okay she kicked him square in the balls. He stumbled backwards and she fell to her knees, crying. Olivia and Mandy swooped down to her. I looked around.
"You know, guys," I said, "it uh, it looks like no one brought a flashlight and it's getting dark. Maybe another time?"
"Yeah," Tony said, weakly, "Another time."
"Headliner's?" Mitch offered.
"How about Denny's." We all agreed to Tony's suggestion, and started heading back to the cars.
18 december 2004
The hollow on Hogback is distinct both because of the rickety wooden one-lane bridge at the bottom and the local story surrounding the name. The former is dangerous because, with the trees and curves on the way down into the hollow from either end, you can't really see the bridge or anyone else hoping to cross it until you're dangerously close. This depends somewhat on the speed you drive through it, of course, but it's almost a rite of passage for local kids to go tearing through it as fast as they dare, and an unrelated rite to stop in the dead center of the bridge and watch for the ghost.
Thankfully, both events very rarely happen at the same time.
The story is actually fairly unimaginative and more than a little misogynistic. Dude pays a hog as dowry to a farmer up the road, marries the farmer's daughter, wife turns out to be a bitch, dude kills his wife and carries her body to the farmer demanding his hog back, road gets named in honor of that guy for reasons no one seems to know. There are variants, but the ones I've heard largely follow that formula (except one in which she kills herself because he's a bitch, which seems almost sensible in light of the other one). It probably isn't true but the fact is no one is as interested in the story as they are in the rumor that the wife's ghost hangs around the bridge. This claim is, itself, something of a disappointment, both because no one even seems to believe she does anything interesting other than hang around, and because she isn't there. People keep dragging me into these damn woods to confirm the ghost is there, and I always have to decide whether it's better to play along or tell them the truth.
"So there's nothing here?" Rick asked, rolling a blunt.
"God I hope so," Charles offered. We had actually parked in the dirt beside the road and walked out to the middle of the bridge, and Charles was leaning on the side and looking down at the creek. The light was growing dim and we were all talking quietly enough to listen for an engine coming.
"I didn't say nothing," I answered, as Rick put the blunt to his lips and got it lit, "I said there's no ghost." Rick let out the smoke as he passed to his cousin, Mandy.
"How can you be sure?" Rick asked.
"I've been here a dozen times, and there's no sign of her. Just kind of an...echo." Mandy handed off to me and I took my turn.
"What's an echo?" I signed for him to wait as I passed to Charles and then exhaled.
"It's like...there seem to be things that only exist because people think they exist. And they're only as real as the amount of people making them real. I call them echoes."
"So there is a ghost, just not a, uh, real ghost?"
"More or less."
"Your friend is weird, Rick," Mandy muttered.
"Your cousin is rude, Rick." She sneered at me as Rick smoked. He coughed a little as he visibly tried not to laugh.
"I think that still counts as a ghost," Charles said, inching closer to the group. Rick passed.
"Yeah! Isn't that ghost enough, John?"
"Well, look. I can't talk to it, it can't possess anyone, and near as I can tell it just stands over there," I gestured toward a tree on the side of the creek opposite where we'd parked, "so if you wanna call it a ghost, fine, but it hardly seems worth it." Charles quickly looked to the tree.
"Is it there now?" he asked, with a quiver in his voice. Rick laughed.
"You're afraid! Look at you, it isn't even really a ghost and you're terrified!"
"You agreed it was a ghost!"
"Guys," I said, exhaling and passing. "Chill."
"I'm going back to Alpha," Charles said. "We can smoke just fine there."
"Hardly seems like your decision." Charles waved me off as he hurried back off the bridge. I turned to the others and saw Rick was still laughing and Mandy sighed. "I guess we might as well go get some food." With that, we all headed over and climbed into Alpha. I started the engine and we listened to the music as we finished the blunt. Right when I began to pull out, a rusty Chevette came tearing out of the trees and across the bridge, honking and veering as it passed us. It just clipped the front corner of Alpha and kept going, vanishing into the woods behind us. I grumbled, turned up the music, and punched the gas.
19 november 2004
So Rick and I were at a local cemetery today staking a vampire to the ground, as you do, and Rick was standing guard while I had to pound the stake in.
"Can't your antimagic thing just, like, kill the vampire?" As opposed to keeping it from waking up while I was working, "Why are we doing all this extra work?" he asked.
"We're doing extra work? You're literally just standing there with a beer."
"But this is important? This is how you kill a vampire, just kinda...nail it into the coffin?"
"Oh, no. This doesn't kill it. It's already dead."
"This is a dead body, Rick. The parrot is no more! He's ceased to be."
"Are you seriously quoting Monty Python to me right now?" I stood up and looked at him.
"Would you have preferred Terry Pratchett?" I asked.
"Kinda, yeah. You got something?" We both just looked at each other for a few seconds before I sighed.
"No, the moment's passed now." I heard him grumble as I knelt down to shove the garlic we'd brought into the vampire's mouth.
The blog of John Matteson.