1 May 2007
It was instinct that drove me to try and catch Rick, and I hadn’t even registered what that would do to the portal until it was too late. It exploded, and I jumped up onto the altar and reached out, hoping somehow, maybe, he was still there. But it was just empty air.
I stood silent for a while, trying to process what had just happened. I slowly turned to look at the rest of the clearing. Alice was laying on the ground crying. There were five people laying around the clearing, and it was hard to tell from where I was, but they didn’t look like they were breathing or moving at all. Any other cultists that were able to move had already disappeared into the trees. Jackie was approaching the altar, visibly trying to hold back tears.
“I need you to move,” she said. I nodded and stepped down, then ran over to Alice. I tried to comfort her, but there was nothing I could find to say. So I just sat next to her rubbing her back, and she cried into my lap.
Jackie was trying desperately to reverse-engineer the spell that opened the portal, but it wasn’t working. We stayed there a while watching her try over and over again, growing more and more angry the whole time, until finally she collapsed on the altar and wept. Alice had stopped by this point, so I helped her up and we both went over and gave Jackie a hand off the altar. I could barely move at that point, with the knife still in my side, so we all leaned on each other the whole way back to the cabin. We agreed on a story as we went; strangers in masks had invaded the cabin and kidnapped us, we fought back, Rick had a gun, we ultimately managed to escape somewhere in the woods but they disappeared with Rick. No mention of the portal.
We called 911 as soon as Jackie had reception, and there was an ambulance arriving at the cabin for me when we emerged from the forest. The police ran over to check on the girls and collect their stories, and I was rushed to the hospital. There, while confirming my identity, a nurse asked my birth date. I told her, and she looked at the time and date on the computer.
“Oh, honey,” she said, “I’m so sorry you have to spend it like this.”
“It’s not your fault,” I told her, before I was wheeled in for surgery to remove the knife and stitch up whatever damage it, and my continuing to move and fight with it in me, had done.
“John!” Rick called. I paused and held my hand to my side, discovering the knife was still there. I thought maybe I should leave it there. When I looked back to him, though, he was pointing. I turned away from the cultist I’d just laid out to the portal. It was still there. I didn’t know why. If their chanting had been holding it open, and we’d already silenced over half of them, why wasn’t it closing? Jackie said it would take a lot of cultists, or a lot of…
I looked at the blood on my hands.
I looked around at the clearing around me.
There was blood everywhere.
I looked back up at the portal and finally saw what Rick must’ve seen better from his angle. There was something starting to reach through the portal. It was grayish, with splotches of black and deep red over it. It wouldn’t be wrong to call it a tentacle, but it certainly wouldn’t be right, either. It was smooth and thick like one, and even had some shapes on one side that kinda resembled one? But there was a clawed, three-fingered hand at the end, just starting to grasp the altar. They were succeeding. Something was coming through! I turned back to Rick to tell him to concentrate whatever shots he had left on that…thing, whatever it was, but he wasn’t there. I turned back and found that lead priest standing in front of the altar. With one arm he was holding Rick against himself, and with the other he was holding a knife to Rick’s throat. His back was to the portal and he was staring at me.
“Do you see, Omen!” he cried out, over the rumbling sound of whatever was dragging itself closer to the portal. “Do you see how you are the key to our victory? You delivered this into our hands today!”
“Like hell I will,” I answered, stepping toward him. He pressed the blade against Rick’s neck.
“One more step, and his blood joins ours! We’re so close. Do you really think you can close this portal before your friend’s blood brings the ritual to completion?” There wasn’t time. I knew that. I was still too far away. I saw Jackie emerge from the trees out of the corner of my eye. Maybe she could do something. Maybe she could help. I resisted the urge to look at her and see what she was planning, and instead stood tall and put my hands on my head. I had to trust the others now. Just as long as his attention was focused on me, maybe it would work.
As soon as I saw that Rick and Alice were the sacrifice, any plans went out the window. I don’t even really remember starting to move. One moment I was talking to Jackie about how we were going to handle the scene, and the next I was on my feet and breaking the tree line. One cultist stepped slightly in my way, and I punched them directly in the face without slowing down. I barely even registered the sound of them hitting the ground behind me before I was gone again, making a bee line for the three robed figures holding Rick and Alice. I didn’t notice one of them had a gun until my left shoulder erupted in pain.
I’ve since read that people don’t fall when they’re shot because the shot actually knocks them down. It happens, sure, but that’s usually only the case when the shot kills them. Mostly people fall when shot because of a combination of shock and a cultural understanding that that’s what happens to people when a bullet hits them. I don’t know how much truth there is to that, but I wasn’t thinking about cultural expectations and certainly didn’t have time for shock. I kept going, and the shooter made the mistake of hesitating when they didn’t see me drop. They scrambled to make a second shot, but it was too late. I had the wrist of their shooting arm by the time they pulled the trigger again, and I felt their arm snap in my hands when I went to disarm them. They dropped the gun and fell backward, screaming and holding their arm, and I kicked the next cultist away. I grabbed the third and threw them at the second, and then turned my attention to untying Alice.
“Holy shit, dude,” Rick said, looking around. “I didn’t know you could do that!” A cultist was running at us with a knife, but was stopped when they ran into an invisible barrier about ten feet away. The others drew weapons and approached more slowly, continuing to chant. I got the ropes off Alice, and she started to run toward where I knew Jackie was waiting. I turned to Rick and focused on his hands, a bit less gently. As soon as his hands were free, he dove over and grabbed the gun.
“How many more shots you got?” I asked, catching my breath as the cultists drew closer. I counted about ten moving toward us, and then noticed the asshole with the burned face and snake eyes next to the altar.
“Six, I think.”
“I was under a spell for a while there, you know!”
“Fine. Six. You ready?” I asked, clenching my fists. He raised his gun.
“I’m good. You gonna be okay with that shoulder wound?”
“Let’s do this.” I ran forward at some cultists, and heard shots fired as I did. I dodged an attack from the first person and drove my knee into their gut before tossing them aside, and felt a knife stab into my side. I spun around and drove my elbow into the head of the cultist behind me, throwing them to the ground. When I looked up, the apparent leader was already gone. I grumbled and made for the next person in line as I saw a cultist to my right catch fire. The cultist ahead charged at me, and I let them get close before I stepped aside and kicked them in the ribs. I heard multiple cracks as they hit the ground and rolled away. I glanced over and saw that the portal was shrinking and growing more unstable. I smiled and charged the next robe I saw.
28 April 2007
My birthday was coming up, and Alice had made arrangements for the two of us, along with Jackie and Rick, to spend a few days at a cabin her family owned or had a timeshare on or something, I don’t remember, up in the Allegheny State Forest. It sounded nice, and she was very excited about the idea, and I liked the thought of getting out and doing something, especially something away from town, so we’d secured the days off. Alice stayed at my place the night before we were supposed to leave so we could all go up together first thing in the morning, but Rick had some appointment in Ohio that he couldn’t break so it was just the three of us who left on time. Rick swore up and down he’d go straight to the cabin from the appointment, and Jackie called to remind him in the morning to have his luggage in the car before he left.
Alice and I took the master bedroom, and Jackie set off to pick one of the two other rooms for her and Rick. I asked Alice if it would be weird for us to have sex in the bed her parents usually used on their family camping trips, and she said “only if you fucking talk about it,” so I dropped the subject. There was a large living room, with a small balcony overlooking it that served as the place for the stairs and the upstairs hallway to meet. The rooms Jackie was looking at, and a bathroom, were up there. Honestly, the place was way larger than I expected, and I was convinced it was only considered a ‘cabin’ because it was made mostly of logs.
“I’m pretty sure this place is as big as my actual house,” I’d commented.
“Well, yeah, it’s meant to house a family,” Alice had answered.
“It’s meant to be a vacation home for a family. I feel like that’s different. Like it should be smaller.”
“Yeah. It is smaller than my family home.” I couldn’t really argue with that.
I cooked us some lunch on a grill on the back porch. Well, she called it a porch. It was a deck. I had friends in Sharon whose entire backyards were the size of this deck. But she’d corrected me when I called it the deck, and I decided I was not going to spend my birthday weekend fighting about rich people semantics with my amazing girlfriend who brought me to a beautiful spot in the woods, so apparently it’s a porch. And it was beautiful. The yard, which had been mowed by someone, sloped down away from the house which ensured that the trees at the end of it were low enough not to block the sight of the rolling hills off in the distance. There were some hiking trails in those woods, Alice said, and an outlook spot down one of them that gave an amazing view of a nearby river. We’d all agreed to check that out tomorrow.
True to his word, Rick showed up a couple hours later. By then we were all out on the porch drinking, and he jumped right in on that. He’d brought some weed, too, and was certain he had enough that we could enjoy a blunt right away and still smoke me up on my actual birthday. Well, we weren’t about to turn that down. So we spent a little while smoking and drinking and carrying on, and I cooked us some burgers on the grill, and we rolled into the cabin a little after dusk and disappeared into our respective rooms.
I was only half awake a few hours later, with Alice asleep and half laying on me, when I was startled by some noises in the woods. I listened for a minute, and thought they didn’t sound natural, so I jumped out of the bed and made my way to the window. I couldn’t see anything in the dark out there.
“Are you okay?” Alice asked, barely coherent.
“I thought I heard something.”
“There’s always noises. It’s a forest.”
“But this sounded different.”
“Everything sounds different in the forest. Come back to bed.”
I looked around again, but the sound had stopped and was definitely distant to begin with, and I had to admit that Alice spent a lot more time in the woods at night than I had. I slipped back into the bed and fell asleep.
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.
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?”
By the time I pulled into the graveyard, it had been about 22 hours since I got the call from the hospital, and I had only had a half hour of sleep in that window. I spent my entire day focused on finding any trace I could of Dad, or researching what I could about King and Queen (which was not much), or trying to focus on controlling my ability more carefully. Before Jackie left for work she expressed concern about me, and offered to call out if I needed anything, but she wasn’t willing to do it to come to the Devil’s Church. It was very apparent that she felt this was a poor use of my time and that I should be home dealing with my emotions and probably sleeping. She would have gladly helped me with that; but not with this.
When I arrived at Rick’s to pick him up, Charles and Bob were with him. Charles was hesitant to actually go along to the Devil’s Church, but Bob and Rick had convinced him shortly before I arrived. I don’t know if they knew about my dad. Maybe Jackie had told Rick, or maybe one of them heard some other way, or maybe they had no idea. I know I didn’t tell them, but in retrospect it really seems like Charles would not have agreed if he didn’t at least suspect it was a favor of some sort. We made a point to bring flashlights this time, to help ease his concerns and because the half moon out that night wouldn’t give near enough light. He also brought along a cheap machete, but somewhere along the half hour drive he apparently forgot it. When we emerged from Alpha, we only had two flashlights, our cigarettes and lighters, and each of us had a drink in hand.
There was a path leading off of the graveyard and along the edge of the woods, which had clearly been made by cars but was not used often enough to avoid grass from growing in it. We decided to take that path and watch for an opening in the trees to enter instead of plunging straight in, and went probably forty feet or so down that way before finding a place that seemed easier to enter. It was dark, but the trees were farther apart here than in other places and the grass was short, and the ground looked pretty even. It seemed about the best place we would find to start, so we took it. We walked in, past the first half dozen trees or so, before Charles remembered that he’d left his machete and asked if we could go back for it. We agreed it was probably worth it to turn back while we were still so close to the entrance. We turned around to leave and found the path back completely blocked by thick jaggerbushes five or six feet tall.
“That…was the way we just came from, right?” Charles asked. We all confirmed it was. We slowly turned to look in every other direction to find more of those bushes, their thorns long and woody and threatening, on every side except the one that led deeper into the forest. We all agreed that the machete would, indeed, have been a good choice, but it was clearly too late for that now. We pressed on.
We soon found ourselves facing a thick section of the woods and, deeming it better than the bushes that seemed to keep popping up just outside our field of vision, we spent a good half hour stumbling over roots and dodging branches and squeezing between trunks. When we finally emerged into a somewhat more sparse region, we paused to light cigarettes and take drinks. It was then that Bob looked up and paused.
“Hey guys, you see that?” he asked, pointing. We turned and looked up and realized he was pointing at the full moon.
“Yeah,” Rick said, “it’s the moon.”
“It wasn’t full when we came in,” I said.
“That’s what I thought! And it shouldn’t be that high yet either, right?” Bob was getting excited. I had to remember that this was all new to him.
“What does that mean?” Charles asked.
“It means,” I said, shoving my drink back into my jacket pocket, “we should probably keep an eye on it.” I didn’t mention the call I was still sensing. I was trying to ignore it, but it had been growing stronger ever since we entered the woods and I knew whatever it was, we were getting closer. I knew I needed to face it, but I was growing less convinced that I was really ready to do that. Two large black birds took to flight over us and vanished into the trees. Charles jumped when they did, and Bob began talking softly to him. I didn’t hear what he said, but I recognized the look Charles has when someone is trying to calm him down and he’s considering whether or not to try it.
“What was that?” Rick asked, shining a flashlight in the direction they’d gone.
“Probably just ravens,” I said, finishing my cigarette and smashing the butt to death with my shoe. “This is more their territory than ours.” He hummed in agreement, and Charles and Bob walked the few feet back over to us.
“Where do we go from here?” Bob asked.
“Not the way we came,” Rick answered. “I ain’t doing that shit again if I can help it.”
“If the trees would even let us anyway,” Charles muttered, looking around with the other flashlight. I looked deeper into the woods, the direction I knew something wanted to pull me. Then I looked left of that and saw a line of jaggerbushes. I turned to look to the right, and saw a clearing. There was more dark forest, and it wasn’t exactly the way the forest wanted us to go. But it was open.
“That way,” I said.
“Why that way?” Rick asked.
“I feel better about it.” With that I started walking again, and the others followed. It’s not like anyone else had any better ideas.
We went along for maybe five minutes before we found jaggerbushes blocking our path. We turned back, but that was blocked, too. The only way ahead was to go deeper into the forest. Closer to the source. Something, or someone, was drawing us in. I suspected that wherever we were being led would have the church itself waiting.
“What’d you say?” Bob asked. We all stopped.
“What?” I asked.
“Someone, I don’t know which one of you, said something, but I must not have been paying attention because I missed most of it.”
“No one said anything,” Rick offered. “Are you sure you heard us say something?”
“Well…I mean, I assumed it was you, right? No one else is here.” Rick and Charles did a sweep with the flashlights but saw only trees and thorns.
“Seems that way.”
“Okay,” Bob said softly, and we continued a bit more slowly.
“Have you come to join us, John?” a female voice whispered in my ear. I spun around, expecting to see a spirit, but only the guys were there.
“You alright?” Rick asked.
“I think I know what Bob heard,” I answered.
“Oh, was it a bird or something?” Charles asked hopefully.
“No. It is definitely not a bird. Be careful, everyone.” Charles moved closer to Bob, and Rick suggested that we avoid silence to see if that would help. We all agreed, but I wasn’t much in the mood for it, so the three of them began telling stories and jokes as we progressed. I checked the sky again, and the moon was still full directly overhead.
“They don’t understand, do they?” the voice in my ear returned. I ignored it and kept walking. “It’s all a game to them. But this is so much bigger than they realize. Your fate lies ahead. Are you man enough to claim it?” I slipped between two large trees trying to avoid two more lines of jaggerbushes and stopped. Ahead of me was a few feet of tall grass, and then a large clearing. It was oddly shaped, clearly defined by the trees rather than people. On the opposite side of the clearing were two massive pine trees, jutting up above the canopy around them, and perfectly framing the full moon which had a moment ago been above us. It glared down on us like the eye of a cold god, and the sensation I couldn’t shake of something pulling me forward felt almost irresistible here. This was it. This was the heart of the site, the place where the earth swallowed the Devil’s Church, the core of whatever power was calling to me. According to the voice, my fate waited in that clearing.
I knew, somewhere deep down, that I wasn’t ready for it yet.
30 October 2006
By the time I arrived at the hospital, Dad was gone. Really, truly, gone. Because I had been working on my skill with tracking ghosts, I was able to pick up a faint trace of him in the hallway with something…else. Something powerful. But about two doors down, the trail just ended. Wherever he went beyond that point, and for that matter wherever else the other presence went, was beyond my ability to sense.
The staff were kind and gave me a little bit of time to say goodbye, but it felt hollow knowing that he wasn’t anywhere nearby. Once they took his body away and I had no reason to be in the hospital anymore, I drove to his house and checked around. There was no sign of him there, except the normal traces left just from him living there as long as he did. I drove to Erie to check the neighborhood where he lived with Grandma and Jeremiah back in the 70s, but found no sign of him there at all. As I sat on the shore of Lake Erie and watched the sun rise, I tried to sort out anywhere else he could be.
“What’re you thinking about?” a female voice asked. I turned and saw a blue woman with runes moving around on her body standing with a man in robes that mostly hid what seemed to be armor and a hood that cast his entire face in shadow. They were clearly spirits, and I immediately recognized their mark on the Realm.
“You!” I said, jumping to my feet. “You were with my dad, last night, when he died! Is that what you are, some kind of fancy death?” I looked to the man and waved my hand up and down in his direction. “And, I guess, regular death?”
“We’re not death. We don’t normally collect the dying, but we had something to say to Henry Matteson.”
“Yeah? What was that?”
“We delivered our message to its recipient, and it was not you.” I clenched my fist and felt my teeth begin to grind, then turned around and kicked some sand before I began pacing. “You seem troubled.”
“My fucking dad died last night, and I don’t know if you know this, but the fact that I can’t find his spirit anywhere is kind of a new thing for me!”
“Well, yes, there is that. But there seems to be something else on your mind.” I turned back toward them and threw my arms out.
“Oh yeah?! You picked up on that? You must be psychic or something!”
“Well, he does remember everything most mortals remember,” she said, pointing to the robed man, “but Anchors are…tricky. Either way, you are being very obvious.”
“What’s your deal?” I asked, storming back toward them. “You don’t normally take the dead, but you decided to escort my dad wherever he’s gone to, and then you show up to fuck with me? Is this some kind of game for you?”
“No, John Matteson. It was time for you to meet us. For us to help you stay on track.”
“On track for what?”
“We cannot say.”
“We? He seems like he cannot say anything about anything,” I said, pointing at the man again. I leaned over to look closer at him, but if he had any features at all they were completely consumed by the shadow. “Do you speak?”
“He speaks quite a lot, when he has occasion to.”
“Hm. Do you two have names?”
“We have many.” I groaned and rolled my eyes.
“What should I call you?”
“That is up to you.” My fists shook in front of my face. I lowered my arms, took a few deep breaths, and then looked her in the eyes again.
“Give me something I can use here. He remembers things? Is that his whole shtick?”
“He is the memory, order, and structure of the Metaphysical Realm. I am the flow, life, and chaos of the Metaphysical Realm.”
“You—you two are in charge of the Realm?”
“Something like that.”
“Fine. Fine. King and Queen, how does that work?”
“Good! Queen, what the fuck is going on here?”
“Matteson, you are entering a very dangerous time. The forces arrayed against you are already closing in. Your father is on the Other Side, you will not find him here. And you cannot afford to be distracted by that which you cannot find.”
“And you know all that, huh? Even though dark and broody here can’t remember me?”
“He remembers you. He does not—”
“Remember what I remember, yeah, I got it.” I groaned, then dropped back down to sit in the sand. “This all important to you somehow?”
“We cannot say.” I laughed as I pulled out my cigarettes. I lit one, looked out over the water, and took a few drags as King and Queen stood waiting.
“You’re not gonna warn me about these things killing me while you’re at it?” I asked, dryly.
“That’s not how you die.” I considered that for a moment, then shrugged and took another drag. “Matteson, please—”
“Get my shit in order, yeah, I heard you. And how do you suggest I do that?”
“You must prepare to face great forces. You must learn to resist a trap laid for you. But you must decide how you do that.” I nodded, then rubbed my eyes against the growing light. When I opened them again, the spirits were gone. I looked around for a bit, then stood and dusted the sand off myself. I walked back to Alpha thinking about their words, and once I reached the car I pulled out my phone and called Rick. He was sure to be asleep, but he was a light sleeper.
“Hello?” he asked, his voice weak and confused.
“Rick, it’s Matteson.”
“Yeah, yeah, what’s up?”
“Devil’s Church. Tonight.” I hung up, took the last drag off my cigarette, and threw it aside before I climbed in and drove away.
The blog of John Matteson.