Ruby

Surveillance_photograph_of_Vicki_Weaver_21_Aug_1992

He saw trees. Broad, dead trees, intermingling with the silent pines. Blue moonlight creeping through the night, painting shadows darker than charcoal across the leaf litter. There, in the shadows, movement. Eyes like golden coins sinking through water.

Suddenly the door opened, and he realised that he was pacing the interrogation room.

“Mr Walker, please sit down”.

“I’ll sit down when you guys explain just what the fuck is going on. Where’s Vick?”, he said, voice raised with anger and fear. Fear of what he had seen.

“Vick?”

The man rubbed his fingers at his temples, forcing in against the bone until it hurt. He wanted to yell at the two men in the room with him, to beat them senseless, to tear the whole police station to the ground. He wanted to rip apart the world, bring down the system in which he was imprisoned. He was about to burst out again when he realised that, for the first time he could remember, he was thinking like his step-father. He felt the fight leave him.

With a sigh, he slumped into the metal chair. Out of the corner of his eye he glanced at his reflection in the one-way mirror. The eyes gazing back at him were bloodshot, set in a sagging face of grey skin. The room was stark, lit by fluorescent tubes overhead that cast everything in a sterile white light that left no shadows. In the corner, a pot plant wilted next to an impassive water cooler.

The two men sat down opposite. They wore expressionless faces, pure bureaucracy. The one on the left had sharp features beneath short chestnut hair. He pulled out a cigarette from a packet and rolled it between his thumb and forefingers without lighting it. The one on the left was older, and a little doughier. His dark hair had the odd length of white in it. There was a little bit of grey stubble around his chin, and he looked nearly as tired as Walker felt.

“I’m sorry,” Walker said at last. “I’m just so… exhausted. Victoria Walker, my daughter. I just need to know that she’s safe.”

The man with the stubble nodded in recognition. “Mr Walker-“

“Please,” he interrupted. “Don’t call me that. Puts me on edge.” He cracked a weak smile and was about to suggest that Mr Walker was his father, but the words caught in his throat and he suddenly felt very empty.

“Would you rather we call you Kevin?” the man with the cigarette asked.

He nodded, staring at his hands on his table ahead of him. He resisted the temptation to rub his temples again. It was a nervous tic from his childhood he thought he’d kicked in college.

“Kevin”, the tired man said again, “don’t worry about your daughter. She’s being looked after by one of our officers until her mother comes to collect her.”

Kevin looked up in horror. “Her mother? Shit, do you really have to bring her in? She’s not meant to have her for another two weeks.”

The tired man hesitated, but his partner launched in. “Mr Walker, you don’t appear to understand the gravity of the situation here. We’re not talking about some petty bullshit here like the odd switchblade or some old sticks of TNT left over in a quarry. We’re talking about illegal weapons, explosives, drugs labs-“

“And,” the tired man interrupted, voice heavy with authority, “the murder of three police officers.”

Silence hung in the air like a physical presence, a living thing, growing and changing with the lengthening seconds. Kevin stared at his hands again.

“I think we ought to introduce ourselves,” the tired man continued. “My name’s Richard Hudson and this is Martin Cooper. We’re from the FBI, and it’s our intention to get to the bottom of how things got as bad as they did up on that hillside last night.”

Cooper finally put the cigarette to his lips but didn’t light it. “We’d like you to answer some questions of ours, then maybe we can start to look into helping you out.”

Kevin ran the back of his hand across his lips, and it came away with a little blood. It was only then that he realised he’d been chewing his bottom lip since he’d sat at the table.

“Shouldn’t I have a lawyer?” he asked. Hudson looked over at Cooper, who shook his head once.

“I don’t think that’s necessary for now,” Hudson said, and shrugged. “It’s up to you. It could take two more days to get one in here for you, but we’d really rather get this over with. The sooner we finish here, the sooner the gears of office get to work, the sooner you see your daughter.”

Kevin let out a deep breath of air, stood, and paced up and down the room once, before sitting back down. “Ok,” he said, reaching out and accepting the cigarette Cooper offered. “Ok. What did you want to know?”

Cooper lit his own cigarette, before reaching over and touching the flame to Kevin’s. “We’re still trying to piece a lot of this business together,” he said, smoke seeping out of his mouth and rising, collecting in a blue haze around the strip lights sent into the tileboard ceiling. “More or less, we want a statement from you about your family in the lead-up to the events of April 23rd, 1995, your step-father’s illegal activities, and anything you can recall about the situation prior to the ATF raid on the National Park cabins.”

“Ok”, Kevin said. “Where am I starting?”

“We’d like you to start with your step-father, Mr David Howell, if possible,” Hudson said, checking that the cassette recorder on the table was functioning.

“Ok. Ok,” Kevin repeated, unsure of how to begin. He looked over at his reflection in the one-way mirror and felt nauseated, running one hand through his greasy dark hair.

“My mother was never great after dad died. My father was a… dominating presence, if you will. Not that I’m suggesting anything untoward, you realise, but they’d been wed as soon as they were out of high-school. Mom had spent more than half her life with that man, I mean, the longest they’d been apart was the 18 months after I was born, before my dad was sent back from ‘Nam with a flesh wound.

“When my father died-“

“For the record, your father, Kevin Walker Sr died on the 12th of October, 1989?”

“Yes,” Kevin said. He looked at the cigarette in between his fingers, noticing the dirt beneath his fingernails and feeling mildly disgusted. The smoke spiralled lazily above the ash tray, a blue phantasm, disturbed briefly as Kevin tapped the tip against the glass, before raising it to his lips and taking another drag. “Nothing unusual, mind you. Guess the old guy wasn’t as healthy as he looked, and his arteries just couldn’t keep up with the… rich lifestyle he was known to engage in, foodwise.” Kevin briefly became aware of the grease in his unwashed hair and thought of the cholesterol that had taken his father.

“If you would, sir”, Cooper ventured. “Mr Howell?”

“Right, right, I was just getting to him”, Kevin replied. “See, my dad’s death had a huge impact on my mom. I guess you’d call it depression, but for whatever reason, she could barely think, barely eat, barely even get up and out of my bed. For the last twenty-two years of her life, my dad had been there, a fixture in her every moment, and now that he was gone, she didn’t want to continue. Broke my heart to see her like that, I can tell you. I tried to get her to come have Thanksgiving with Karen and I down in Spokane, but she just wouldn’t listen. She wouldn’t answer the phone, wouldn’t look at her mail, even knocking on the door would usually get no response.

“That Christmas, Karen, my wi-“, he cut himself off, “my ex-wife, the baby and I went up to stay with her. I guess I never consciously courted the idea, but I was worried being alone at that time of year, well, I thought it’d kill her. Karen was… opposed to say the least. Her parents had already offered their hospitality, and our marriage wasn’t exactly doing so great. Looking back, I thank God Vick was too young to remember. The atmosphere was toxic that evening as we headed up north, driving into the mountains. I remember half hoping that the roads would be impassable as we headed towards Colville, just so that we could turn around and head back to Karen’s parents in Spokane.”

“Then, come Christmas morning, something changed when, searching for something to do or say, I suggested we head to church.”

“Church?” Cooper asked. Kevin nodded.

“Yeah. Karen didn’t like it, I can tell you, she’d barely set foot in one outside of our wedding day, and she took some persuading then. That’s not so say that I was jumping at the chance to go, though. I mean, I wouldn’t say my upbringing was godless or anything, but my dad had always been a practical man, too concerned with the here-and-now to be worrying about philosophy and his immortal soul.

“My mom, though, I saw a light in her eyes I’d never seen before, not even in the good old days when I was a kid. There was something strangely girl-like in her as she got ready to head out, which I guess makes sense. She’d not been a regular church-goer since before she’d started going around with dad, way back when. I guess it was some way for her to reclaim herself, to take back a teeny bit of her personality that didn’t revolve around my dad. That day, I swear, it was amazing to see how swept up she was in the enthusiasm, singing along with the Lutheran congregation like she’d always belonged there. I was so happy for her, and, for a time, things were looking up. We got back into regular contact, she began to look healthy again, and every few days we’d talk by phone about this and that. For a time, at least, it looked like she’d begin to live a healthy, happy life.”

“And it was through the church that your mother met David Howell?” Hudson asked. “We see that he attended the St. Paul Lutheran Church in Washington, alongside three other churches.”

Kevin hadn’t noticed, but at some point, while talking, he’d stubbed out his cigarette in the ash tray. He took another when Cooper offered.

“Yeah, yeah”, Kevin replied, nodding. “I guess it was about… eighteen months after dad’s death?” He paused. “Yeah, I think it was about June when mom first mentioned him to me. God, the way she talked about him, you’d think he was the Archangel Michael himself had come down among the parishioners. I didn’t really get his deal at first, you know. Sounded like just another church busybody but then, at Christmas, I met him for the first time.”

He took a drag from his cigarette and stared at the back corner, above the wilted house plant, not really seeing it. “I was alone that year. Karen had begun the divorce proceedings and was living with Vick at her parents’ house, and, as you can imagine, I was feeling pretty down. So, when mom phoned and offered her house for the week? You bet I jumped at the chance. It was only when I got there that I realised he’d be joining us.

“If I had to narrow Howell down to one word, it’d be… charismatic. Nothing really about his appearance. I mean, he was handsome I guess, late 40s when I met him, hair still dark, but I don’t really know how to explain it. Nothing he said was especially witty, especially clever, but it just seemed to sound right. I remember as a kid hearing about that shit down in Guyana or whatever, Jim Jones? That’s the sort of vibe I got off of him. Charismatic, but with just that hint of crazy. I remember, though, sitting there at Christmas dinner, down on my luck, across the table from this guy who seemed to be saying the exact right stuff at the exact right time? If I were ever gonna fall under that man’s spell, it would have been that dinner, right over the god damn turkey. Until I saw my mom, that is.”

“Your mother?” Hudson prompted. Kevin stopped looking at the corner of the room and shook his head, as if clearing his thoughts.

“She was a changed woman. Now, I’m not talking about her generally being in a better mood- I mean, she was- but everything about her seemed to be tweaked a little. Most obvious was the dress sense. Mom had always mostly kept up with the times, and had always had an eye for nice clothes. That day, though, on Christmas, when she always used to pull out the stops and dress nice? A grey cardigan and a heavy wool skirt, down to the ankles. No earrings. No make-up. Her hair put up in a tight bun. I swear, when I really looked at her, she looked like she’d stepped out of the 19th century.”

In his minds eye she saw her again. Her skin pale, gaunt. Her forced smile. An image of a toothless grin in the night filled his mind, but he forced it away.

“It wasn’t just the clothes, either. Her smiles looked stretched and taut. The wrinkles that had barely been there two Christmases ago were now deep, scarred trenches on her face, but her eyes were what scared me the most, though. Every time Howell spoke, her face would snap back into that taut smile and her eyes would latch on to him and just… glaze over. It was like the woman my mom had once been was just sucked out by his presence.”

Kevin put the cigarette to his lips and noticed that his hands were shaking. “There were bags under her eyes, too. She’d gone back to work about May, which I guess was about when she met the creep. Fucker must have been working her to the bone, and for what? A Walmart turkey and stuffing out of a can? He was bleeding her dry, I’m sure of it. Look back through his bank account records and I wager you’ll see a hell of a lot of payments from my parents’ shared account.”

“We have colleagues looking into the financial dealings of Mr Howell, sir,” Cooper replied. He scrawled something on his notebook in front of him and tapped the ash off his cigarette. “Now, if you’ll continue, we’d like to learn some more about his ethos.”

“I started paying more attention to what he was saying once I saw through what he was doing to mom. The man was a madman, ya know that?”

Hudson glanced at Cooper, who nodded and said “We are aware that Howell sought help for schizophrenia in February 1985.”

“Schizophrenia, psychosis, paranoia,” Kevin muttered. “Whatever you call it, dude was fucked up in the head something fierce. Drugs probably didn’t help, either. Back in college, I remember, had a couple of friends who got screwed up on reefer- not”, Kevin said, suddenly nervous, “that I’d have anything to do with that.”

“We are hardly interested in that, sir,” Hudson replied.

“Right, right. Well, they’d get all screwed up and start saying crazy shit, think the government were out to get them and all that. Howell had those sorts of thoughts when he was sober, so I can’t imagine what the crap he took made him think. No wonder the dude thought angels were talking to him.”

“Howell claimed he was a prophet?” Cooper asked.

“Yeah, yeah he did,” replied Kevin. “I figured you’d know all about this, but I guess you want it from me, right? Yeah, he said he was a prophet. Claimed to be the second coming, claimed to be able to channel angels and write in the language of heaven, claimed to have past lives as a 13th century Crusader and a 7th Century holy man and as a pre-Christian martyr and alchemist, said he’d carved the ‘Emerald Tablets’, whatever that meant. Dude even wrote a book about this stuff, I made it about ten pages in, but I guess you’ll get further with it.”

“What were Howell’s views on the government?” said Hudson.

“Not positive, I can tell you,” Kevin replied, putting the cigarette to his mouth. “That’s where it started getting real nasty. According to him, the revelations he was having were a threat to the established order of things. Said that since he was an avowed anti-Catholic, Bush himself was being pressured by the Pope to take him out. Guess it never occurred to him that Bush was a Methodist, but I doubt telling him would’ve made a difference. Things only get worse, but I can keep going if you want?”. Hudson nodded. “Well,” continued Kevin, “He tells us, straight faced, that multiple attempts on his life had been made. Every car backfiring was a sniper’s bullet to that man, every cop a CIA operative, every mailman potentially about to deliver him an envelope full of anthrax. All because, according to him, he was the only one who could stop the rise of the anti-Christ, which was being hurried along by the Jews and the Blacks and the Papists. Eventually, I guess it was only a matter of time before something made him turn his back on society.”

“He told you all this over Christmas dinner?” Cooper said, one eyebrow crept up slightly in disbelief. Kevin shook his head.

“No, no, this was over weeks and months. He played it cool the first few times. I guess he did the same with mom, otherwise she’d have turned around and ran the moment he started spouting his bullshit. Nah, this was all in the lead up to the wedding.”

“He officiated, am I correct?” Cooper asked.

Kevin nodded. “Yup. Didn’t have a church, either, or a reception really, unless you count tinned fruit and Cool Whip in the dining room. I don’t really know why I showed up, unless it was out of hope that mom would finally snap out of it and I could help her. First time I met his children, too. They weren’t bad people, you have to understand. Dumb, yes, and completely in the sway of their father, but you’ve got to understand that it wasn’t their fault. Which ones are still alive?”

“Of the five? Just the two girls,” Hudson replied.

Kevin sighed. “Poor fuckers. Still, better than being stuck with the old lunatic. Anyway, things didn’t change much immediately when they got married. He still came and went, sleeping at home in the night and going off to do, well, whatever a psychopath does during the day, dealing and buying drugs and arms I guess. Gradually, a couple more people would seem to be at home when I saw mom. Friends of Howell, people who thought the same way as him. Unabomber types, gang leaders, creeps and perverts of all description. A couple of times, I shit you not, there were a couple out-and-out white supremacists staying there, swastika tattoos and everything. Made me glad my dad wasn’t around to see it- his dad had been on Idaho beach, he would’ve got ulcers over my mom pouring them a cup of coffee. She mom just wouldn’t see the issue with the freaks that guy hung around. Anyway they continued like this until, I guess two years after they got married. When Waco happened.”

“The ATF siege in Texas?” Cooper asked. Kevin noticed that the agent’s pen was poised over the paper and realised that the two men in dull suits didn’t know about Howell’s interest in Waco yet.

“Yeah, Branch Davidians and all that bullshit,” replied Kevin. “See, what I think happened is that Howell saw what happened to David Koresh, and realised that it was only a matter of time before the ATF or the FBI came knocking and realised what a piece of shit he was. This was only a couple months after Ruby Ridge as well, you remember? Anyway, I think, whether he was right or not, he saw the net closing around him, and decided to try and get out while he still could.”

“And that’s when he moved into Colville National Forest?” Cooper queried.

“Yeah, yeah,” Kevin nodded. His eyes glazed over as he remembered the cabins. The noises in the night. Snapping twigs, metallic chinking. The grinning.

“…what the living arrangements were there?”

“Sorry?” Kevin said, snapping back into it. His hands were shaking and he placed them together.

“Can you describe for us exactly what the living arrangements were there?” Hudson asked, jotting something down in his notebook.

“There were three cabins. I only ever went into two of them, but they both seemed to have the same layout- two rooms, a toilet, a kitchen barely bigger than a cupboard. There was no gas for the stove, of course, so everything they ate up there was cooked on a hotplate off the generator, or raw. Can’t have been great for their health.”

“And it was in these two houses that the Howell family lived?” Hudson asked.

“Yeah. The cabins were arranged around a central firepit. Howell claimed that his granddaddy had built them, but given the crap that man came up with I’m willing to bet that that’s bullshit, same as the rest. I’d much sooner believe that it’s an old tourist camp ground that the park rangers had mostly forgotten about. It was tucked away really well, I swear I’d have gotten lost on the way there if I hadn’t been following one of Howell’s sons back from town.”

“How many times did you visit the National Forest once Howell and your mother had moved there.”

“Uhh”, Kevin murmured. His chin was nestled in his hand, and he could feel greasy stubble there. A sudden wave of tiredness washed over him, and he realised that he could barely remember the last proper night’s sleep he’d had. He shivered, remembering what he’d seen to keep him up. “Three times in all. Once in the autumn of 1993 to try and convince my mom to get out of there before the snows became impassable, and in summer of 1994. God, I’m surprised those assholes didn’t burn the whole forest down with their 4th of July amateur fireworks display,” he scoffed. “To be honest, I’m even more surprised they didn’t accidentally set off any of their own stock and blow us all to kingdom come.”

Cooper stood up suddenly and paced over to the corner of the room. He poured out a cup of water from the cooler and downed it, then offered one to Kevin. He accepted, and sipped from the Styrofoam, feeling the cool liquid trickle down his throat like a creek cutting through the mountainside.

“Then, one last time, just two weeks ago.”

“With your daughter?” Cooper said. He was still standing, and for a second Kevin felt very small. The FBI agent’s eyes glared down at him.

“Yes, with Vick.”

“Mr Walker,” Hudson said, “you were aware that Howell was a dangerous man with psychotic beliefs. In addition, you had reason to suspect Howell of being an affiliate of several far-Right terrorist organisations, and that he was in possession of and sold illegal firearms and narcotics.”

“Yes,” Kevin said, his voice trembling a little.

“Why did you bring the girl?” Cooper asked. He lit another cigarette.

“Things were going downhill at that place,” he said. “From what little correspondence I managed to have with mom, it sounded like Howell was getting worse. I guess you guys were shutting down his network, taking down some of those Aryan Nation people, dealing with the Militias. Could be Howell thought you were out to get him, could be he was just mad that his source of revenue was crashing. Personally, having known the guy, I reckon Howell genuinely thought it was all a nation-wide conspiracy to target him. He thought they wanted to force him out of hiding so that the Papists could kidnap him and somehow prevent Christ from returning, ensuring the damnation of all the world’s people for eternity. He was convinced that Satan was winning, and, worse, what was much worse, was that mom believed every fucking word that man said. He was dangerous.”

“So,” Hudson interjected. “Why did you bring Victoria into all this? She was safe with her mother.”

“Because!” Kevin exclaimed, throwing a hand up in exasperation. “She may have gone crazy with that man, may have been consorting with evil people and making them coffee, but she was still my fucking mom. She could have served up a mug of joe to Hirohito himself and I’d still have tried to get her out!”

“And Victoria would have aided in this?” Cooper asked. His voice was quiet and controlled.

“Yes,” Kevin sighed. “Howell was very controlling with my mom, would never let us be alone together- and don’t get me wrong, she was fine with this. As I said, she adored that fucking creep, would’ve followed him off a cliff if he’d asked. I just thought, if I brought Vick along, maybe, just maybe, I’d find an excuse to get her away, or she’d just see her granddaughter and realise that this bunch of wackos was not her real family.”

“Can you tell us about the events leading up to the 23rd of April?” asked Hudson.

“I remember it. Vick and I were staying in the ‘family’ cabin- mom and Howell got one to themselves. For the past week, Howell had been spending ten, twelve hours straight inside the locked cabin, doing god knows what- brewing every recipe in the Anarchist’s Cookbook, I suppose. Anyway, I wake up at about 9 and hear some yammering in the yard- this must’ve been the morning of the 19th, I suppose? Anyway, one of the sons- Obadiah, I think- had gone down to town and come back up, and he’s yelling his head off, trying to wake the camp up. I stagger inside just as he’s getting out of the jeep, and see Howell come out of the locked cabin. He’s already dressed and has this mighty fierce look on his face, eyes all blazing like a southern preacher, asks Obie ‘just what in the fuck’ he thinks he’s doing- and, for a second, there’s just an ounce of fear in old Obie’s body language- but then he walks up to Howell and hands him a newspaper.

“It’s the NYT– how he managed to find a fresh copy in this backwater is beyond me. The headline reads something about a bombing in Oklahoma, at least 30 dead. There’s this big photo of a dead kid on the front page, cradled in the arms of this panicked looking cop.”

“And the bombing in Oklahoma triggered the change in Howell’s behaviour?”

Kevin let out a single, quiet laugh. There was no humour in it. “That’s understating it. To Howell, it was the end of the world. Now, he’d been going off the rails for a while- since I’d been getting there, he’d been claiming to see the signs. He found weird footprints and dead animals around the house and claimed they were evidence of the Four Living Creatures waiting there to show him to his seat on God’s Throne. Bill Clinton was the antichrist, Janet Reno the Mother of Abominations, Freeh the Great Red Dragon, and my own god-damn mom the Woman Clothed With The Sun. Makes me shiver even now to think about it. To him, Oklahoma City was the opening shots of the god-damn final war, America was Armageddon, and he wanted to bring about the New Jerusalem.”

“And it was to fight this war that Howell brought the weapons out of the cabin?” Cooper asked.

“Yes, and that’s when you made your move?” A thought entered his head. “How long had you been watching us up on that hillside?” Kevin asked, a hint of annoyance in his tone.

“Mr Walker”, Hudson said, putting his hands together and leaning over the table before him in a strangely paternal way. He spoke calmly. “In the hours before we made our move on the cabins, we observed the Howell family readying 10 barrels of what was suspected and later confirmed to be Ammonia fertiliser-based explosive, along with one hundred pounds of home-brewed Semtex. Howell had 19 assault rifles of various make and model, 12 shotguns, both shortened and un-altered, 5 high-calibre hunting rifles and 17 handguns. Inside the cabin, we found 3000 rounds of ammunition, 20 grenades, and one honest-to-god Stinger missile launcher, along with enough rockets to bring down a small fleet of aircraft. If we had not acted, the Howell family could have been responsible for the deaths of countless innocent civilians. Best case scenario, they march into Colville and decimate the town, death toll in the hundreds. That’s the best case. Now, imagine how much damage they could have done if Howell had smarter plans than that.”

“I know”, Kevin sighed, letting the breath out and feeling as if he was collapsing in with it. “I know. I just… wish you could have given me time. Time to get Vick and my mom out of there.”

“And you honestly believe Howell would have let you go?”, Cooper said, eyes narrowing at Kevin. “You think Howell would have let you stroll down off Sinai with his woman cloaked in the sun?”

“I wish I could have tried!” Kevin exclaimed, suddenly angry at these G-Men who had strolled in and placed the final touches to the nightmare he’d been living for months. “Now what? My mom’s lying unconscious in a hospital bed, a bullet put in her spine by those meant to protect her, with maybe a 30% chance of waking up again if she’s lucky. Vick’s sitting in a police station, surrounded by strangers, having just seen her beloved grandma shot in the back by a soldier in full camouflage like this is fucking ‘Nam or something. And me? I’m stuck here”, he said, gesturing at the near featureless room, “being sold some shitty story about how the traumatisation of my daughter and assault of my family is something I should be grateful for.” He felt like spitting on the floor, but dropped his voice. “Sorry, but I struggle to see how big of a help you’ve been.”

“Mr Walker”, Hudson said, his voice dropped into a monotone, giving away nothing. “I would like to sincerely apologise on behalf of the FBI, ATF, and National Guard for the trauma that you and your daughter have been through, and the wounding of your mother.”

“I don’t want an apology,” Kevin spat, his voice heavy with resentment. “I just want to see Vick.”

“And you will, soon,” Cooper said. “We just have one more question.” He looked at Hudson.

Hudson took over. “On the night of the 21st of April, National Guardsman Matthew Walters, who was patrolling the woods around Howell’s compound, went missing up-slope of the cabins. Despite a fine-toothed search of the area, no remains have been found. His rifle was found half a kilometre away neatly disassembled and wrapped in a ripped, bloody portion of his uniform jacket. While the other deaths have been accounted for in the process of the firefight, we would like to know if you have any idea what might have happened to him. Did Howell have any traps in the area? Did you notice anything unusual on that evening?”

Kevin opened his mouth as if to speak, then shut it. The colour had dropped from his cheeks. “What did you see?” Cooper asked.

Hudson recognised the look in Kevin’s eyes. Like Kevin’s father, he’d served in Vietnam. Unlike Mr Walker Sr., though, who had been an infantry grunt, he’d been a medic. There was a certain absence in the eyes of people who had experienced true horror. Hudson always thought that they were trying to concentrate on the world around them, but inside a single memory, a single image was playing over and over, their mind broken like a scratched record. A friend disappearing in the noise of a landmine. Your own arm torn half off by a Viet Cong sniper. And, he supposed, whatever Walker had seen in those woods. Whatever had happened to the unfortunate National Guardsman.

“I mentioned… I mentioned that Howell claimed to have seen things moving around the cabins? ‘Living Creatures’?”, Kevin begun. That absent look disappeared and he shook his head, as if trying to rid himself of the image in his mind. “It’s silly, I don’t want to tell you more.”

“Mr Walker”, Cooper asked, “May I remind you that any information you give us regarding this case will be met with favourably. At the moment, you are not being charged with anything, and are free to go once this interview is over. Don’t ruin it and make us consider obstruction of justice.”

“You’ve got your justice”, Kevin replied. “Howell and his sons are dead. My mom is going to be paralysed below the neck if she makes it through the night.”

“Mr Walker-“

“I have my right to remain silent. I choose to.”

“Please,” Hudson said once more. There was a tone of earnestness in his voice that nearly made Kevin reconsider, but he shook his head.

“I’d like you to leave now,” Kevin said quietly. The image was already replaying in his mind, and he barely heard Hudson sigh.

“We’ll let you know about your daughter,” Cooper said. Despite his carefully controlled expression, he sounded pissed. Kevin could hardly have cared less about his mood at that point.

“Come on Coop,” Hudson sighed, standing up. Kevin closed his eyes, and heard a shuffle of clothing, the snap of a notebook being closed. He reached out and finished his water.

In front of his eyes, memories danced. He was standing by the window of the cabin, called over by some rustling outside. By the light of the dying bonfire outside, through the misted pane of the window, he saw something huge and terrible lurking. Pale skin, limbs with too many joints, a face shaped wrong, animal and horse-snouted. Something worse though. His mind tried to block it out, but like a drill piercing flesh, the image came through. There- its eyes, shining in the firelight like golden coins sinking through water, there was an intelligence. In long-fingered hands, it examined and manipulated an assault rifle, dwarfed in its hands like a child’s plaything. As the embers finally sank into blissful, cold dark, the creature looked up at him, and grinned with a toothless mouth. With a rustle and a crack of twigs, it sloped off into the forest, until even those faintly luminescent eyes disappeared into the inevitable dark.

When Kevin opened his eyes again, there was a layer of cold sweat on his brow, and he was sat in the interrogation room alone.

 

 

 

 

 

[Author’s Note: Happy Hallowe’en everyone!]

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Fleming Storage Unit 26

[Author’s Note: This story was written for the Undercooked Analysis Fleming Storage Unit challenge in November 2017. Due to unfortunate recent circumstances, the future of this project is uncertain, so I have decided to post this here in order to preserve it in the public in case nothing ends up happening. Huge love to all.]

“You’re here about Unit 26 right? We opened it up a couple of days ago. This place seems to have been a magnet for crazies, so in all honesty what we found in there was a relief compared to that stuff.” The cop licked his lips, pink flesh running along the underside of his coarse-haired moustache. “But, I’m sure you’ll get to that in your own time, won’t you?”

I nodded, not saying anything. I’ve always been cautious around police officers, but had been more so in recent years. The news was too saturated with stories about the Trayvon Martins and Philando Castiles of the world for me to not consider the very real possibility that any cop could be a George Zimmerman waiting to strike.

Not that the man in front of me was particularly threatening. His green state police shirt bulged out with the force of his restrained gut. On his chest was a brass badge, reading SCHERKER, across an expanse of glutinous breast from the seven-pointed star of his office. When I’d walked into the small, cramped office that had, until recently, belonged to the custodian, he’d been absent-mindedly fiddling with a wedding ring that he’d set down on his desk.

The room was dimly lit by four fluorescent tubes on the plasterboard ceiling. One of them was flickering on and off with a soft plink. On the wall behind the broken swivel chair Scherker was slumped on was an old corkboard with a couple of plain business cards and a “Kittens and Puppies 2014” calendar, flipped to December and left there. To the left of me, a blandly motivational poster was tacked to the wall, hanging in a carefully quirky manner. There was a slight smell of old sweat in the room, masked ineffectually by the putridly sweet stench of Febreze.

“Here,” he murmured, handing me a labelled key without looking up at me, his attention fixed on the old cathode-ray Dell on the plywood desk. “Do you think you can find it yourself, or do you want me to come show you?”

His glassy eyes passed over the screen, set in pallid skin. He blinked, eyes closed for a second, and finally looked up at me.

“No, I think I’ll be alright,” I replied. There was a short, uncomfortable silence. “Hey, you got a wife?”

He looked surprised at me for a moment, before glancing back at the gold ring he was twisting around his finger. “Oh, this? Nah,” he chuckled. “You?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t like women.”

“Ha, neither”, he guffawed gracelessly. “Not that I’m a queer or whatever.”

I felt a flush of anger run up my neck, but steadied myself. What was I expecting? Montana was Red heartland, after all. I thanked the Deputy and left the office, back out into the chill afternoon air of Havre.

Though the snow hadn’t come yet, there had been a threatening chill in the October air when I’d stepped off the train. Though I was used to the cold autumns, having only migrated west to Oregon, I had forgotten the bleakness of the world I was returning to. The train was uninterrupted, save for a brief stop in Spokane, WA, at a platform with a broken vending machine, before the train started to wind its way through the night-shrouded majesty of the Rockies. As we crossed the mountains, the pine forests of home were replaced with the bare prairies and empty fields of my past. I was sleepless as dawn broke over the gridded countryside, kept awake by the vision of something with teeth in my dreams, and stared out of the dirty train windows at a world as hostile as my past there.

The tarmac of the path passed underfoot as I walked towards the block of storage units containing Number 26. Somewhere to my left, a mercury light flickered on in response to the setting sun and encroaching dark, lighting up the grey patches of discarded chewing gum on the floor beneath me. Someone on the other side of the lot was just closing up their own unit. I glanced at my watch, and saw the white minute hand crawl past half-five. Half an hour left.

The numbers beside me increased, sliding past as unstoppably as the years that had separated me from this place, and from what was inside the dark green metal door, stencilled with the white, painted characters “26”. I drew up to a stop beside it, and slotted the key into the old Yale padlock. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and turned it.

“Sir,” a voice interrupted, calling out from beside the office. I took the key back out. “You’ve got ten minutes to vacate the premises, are you going to be out in time.”

“I guess not,” I sighed, turning to face her. The policewoman walked towards me, her movements measured and masculine. She drew up close, and held her hand out.

“I’ll need the key back before you leave, sir.”

“Gilroy, I assume?” I queried as I dropped it into her palm. The keyring shone in the light of a speeding pickup truck.

Officer Gilroy,” she admonished, not unkindly, but with the tone of someone who had to make the correction too often.

“Sorry, yes. We spoke on the phone? Frank Hanlon.” I offered my hand.

She shook it once, her grip firm. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr Hanlon. You should get going now, though. The units are open for the next two days. You’ve found somewhere to stay?”

I nodded. “Yes officer, the Best Western on First Street.”

“A fair walk then,” she mused. “I’ll let you get on your way. Goodnight, sir.”

“Officer.”

She walked off, her black hair moved slightly by the cold wind that blew through the gates and into the compound. My breath frosted in the air in front of me, and I turned the collar of my coat up as I walked back out and onto Pollock Street.

I found a curious kind of solitude walking along the road. The darkness and the cold had driven most people home and, though I did spot a couple of lonely souls drifting down the sidewalk, it did nothing to quell the sense of emptiness the town had.

Walking through Havre that evening was like walking through a memory. I hadn’t been in the town for fifteen years before that autumn night. I hadn’t even returned when my dad died, instead arranging by phone to have what he owned dumped into the storage unit and what couldn’t fit in there sold. It had been so long, though, and so much had changed.

I was roused from my reverie by a pang of hunger. Aside from an overpriced sandwich and a couple of chips on the train, I hadn’t eaten a proper meal since leaving Portland. Near to the storage units was a small plaza with a couple of decent looking restaurants and, remembering it opening just around the time I’d left, I walked over and opened up the cold metal door of the Lantern Buffet.

“Table for one, please?” I asked at the entrance and the waiter, a bored looking Asian guy of about 19, motioned me towards a seat over the back of the restaurant. The inside of the place looked like it hadn’t changed since it opened up in 2002. Overhead, ugly bright fluorescent bulbs shone glassily out of red lanterns which, though Made in China, were not at all traditional. On the wall, an oversized print of a Hokusai hung in a plastic frame, at a hideous angle to the dirty grouting lines on the tiled wall. The green vinyl creaked under me as I sat down.

“You want buffet?” a young woman asked, coming over to me with an iPhone in her hand, ready to take down my order. She was eager to get my choice, and her wide eyes stared at me while I examined the yellow laminated menu.

After a while I settled on an a la carte vegetarian katsu curry to keep it safe. With surprising speed, yet another waitress came out and delivered the meal to me. I deliberated over my noodles slowly, enjoying the surprisingly adequate taste. I heard a voice from the door.

“Frank? Frank Hanlon? That can not be you?”

I turned to face them. A short, plump, homely woman, blonde dye barely covering the grey, was striding purposefully towards my table, the door sliding shut behind her. Her arms were outstretched. I stood to hug her, still unsure of who she was.

“Oh, it’s great to see you,” I murmured. She pulled back and grinned at me.

“Audrey? Audrey Allen?”

“Audrey… Oh! Mrs Allen?”

She nodded and grinned, lips tight and broad across her lightly wrinkled face. “I taught you English in 7th Grade, remember? How are you?”

I shrugged. “Weird to be back.”

“Oh, you haven’t come home since your dad’s funeral?” she said, frowning sympathetically. I shook my head.

“No, I didn’t come back then.”

Her expression faltered, realising the faux-pas she’d made. “Well, tell me, anyway,” she said, brushing it off like snow from her shoulder. “What brings you back to little-old Havre? I hear you went off to the city.”

“Yeah, this storage unit business.”

“Oh, that poor man,” she exclaimed quietly, looking down at the waxy surface of the table. She knotted her hands together, and rested her chin on them. “Have the police said anything yet about what happened to him? There’s nothing in the Daily News about it.”

“The Havre Daily News,” I whispered to myself, mock-reverently. “God, I haven’t thought about that in over a decade. They still print it?”

She nodded and smiled. “Yup, every afternoon. There’s one over there on the desk if you wanted to take a look.”

I glanced at the folded paper and shrugged. “That’s alright.”

There was a moment’s quiet. The smell of chow mein wafted over as one of the staff slotted a new tray into the buffet.

“Why didn’t you come back?” Mrs Allen blurted. I glanced up at her, a flash of irritation passing briefly through me.

“I beg your pardon?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, I-“

“No, what did you ask?”

“Well, why didn’t you come home?”

“I’m back now,” I muttered.

“Yes, but when your father…” her eyes were staring intently at me, rheumy and prying.

I stood up, leaving half my food untouched. “It’s been nice to see you again,” I lied, finishing off my coke and leaving two twenties on the table. Without looking back at her, I strode out of the restaurant and into the cool night air.

On the way to the motel I stopped in at a liquor store. I’d not drunk since leaving Montana but, I reasoned, what the hell. When in Rome.

Back in the room, half a bottle of vodka down, I slumped against the side of the bed. Staring up at the single, slowly spinning fan on the undecorated ceiling, I let my mind wander. Through the open window I could see the blinking red lights of the old LORAN transmitter, beaming out signals into the nothingness. I relaxed into a sort of sleep.

My father loomed in my dreams. Half remembered memories and forgotten events drifted back.

Once, a few years ago, I flew into Salzburg, Austria at night. It was winter, and thick snow clouds hung in the air, pregnant with latent storms. Through the window, nothing could be seen save for the dark miasma of the weather and the flashes of the wingtips. Yet, somehow, there was some animal part of me that could feel the mountains beyond that, that could sense this colossal immutable mass in the black night.

It was with this same sense of untouchable magnitude that my father was present in my sleep. Glimpsed images of things from my childhood- the empty, open fields, the exclusion from school, worship at the Pentecostal Church.

And something else. Something in the living room, teeth and claws, ugly, patched fur. Stitches.

I woke up, gasping with fear and still in my clothes from the previous day. I looked with disgust at the bottle in my hand, and tossed it away, watching the vodka spill out and onto the dirty carpet. Crawling into bed, I slept again.

Although the sun was bright the next day, the night’s chill still clung to the morning air. I winced at the sunlight walking along the street before turning and entering the office at the Fleming Storage Units. Scherker was at the desk already, playing with his wedding ring while reading a story about the Blue Ponies on the Daily News’ website. He glanced up at me, a tired look in his eyes.

“26?”

I nodded tersely.

“Here you go,” he said, passing me the key. He glanced at my rumpled clothes and dishevelled appearance. “Fun night?”

“No.”

He laughed once, a quiet bark. “Not much of that around here. You know your way?”

I nodded, and left the room, pacing quickly to the locker. Without stopping to let myself chicken out again, I slotted the key into the padlock and pulled it off. The door slid easily up into the ceiling, and I flicked the fluorescent light on.

I don’t know what I was expecting. The unit was full of what you’d expect- dusty boxes, old Christmas decorations, a couple of damp old chairs. I picked up the closest item to me. It was a green box with draws, and I pulled one open, taking a cursory glance at the glass baubles inside. I carefully placed it back on the shelving unit it had been placed upon.

There was really only one thing I was looking for as I opened up box after box, glancing over the entirety of my father’s life up until he was moved into the nursing home four years ago, two years before his death. Even then I hadn’t been able to come back and face him, instead arranging by phone for his worldly goods to be packed into boxes and stored here. I knew that what I was looking for must’ve been here though, the movers had called me about it.

Photo albums, tools, ceramic ornaments, I passed them all. I knew my family history. My grandad had been born in Brooklyn but settled down on a farm out West when he came back from the war. The discrimination he had suffered had been awful here. Jim Crow was still in place to say nothing of the… extrajudicial punishment inflicted on him for his skin colour.

In the last box, I found it. It was filthy, covered in cobwebs and poorly preserved, but in it’s yellow glass eyes I could still see the anger of my father and his father before him. The claws were smaller than I remembered, the teeth frozen in a less angry sneer than in my nightmares, but the thing was still there, and still horrifying in its materialism. I physically backed up from it when I saw it.

Around the neck of the dog was a collar, with a dirty brass badge which still read “Poppy”.

I lost count of the number of times my dad told me the story of how he found her on the front lawn. He told me about the still potent smell of petrol from the long burnt-out cross driven into the earth (later showing me the hole in the ground where it had been staked). He narrated, too, the stench of death, the noise of the frantic, feasting flies, and, finally, finding Poppy on her back, her skin torn off of her and laid neatly on the ground beside her.

My grandad had had a strange sense of how to educate his son. Rather than consoling him when he found him doubled over by Poppy, chest spattered with vomit, face streaked with tears, he made my ten-year-old dad help dig the grave where they dumped the skinless corpse. Then, over the course of a couple of days, he had Poppy stuffed as a reminder to my dad of the hate and evil of the world but, more importantly, to fight it and be proud of his identity.

It was, then, an unforgivable betrayal to me when my dad flipped it around and showed the ugly side of his prejudice to me. It had taken all the courage I could muster to accept my sexuality, and even more to tell my father who had, all his life, been a Pentecostal Christian.

I had grown up with ways to deal with the racism, taught to me by my father, my grandad, and the leering nightmarish face of Poppy, who stood by the fire in the lounge. I had no defence against homophobia, though, and when I told my dad and he denied it, shouted at me, called me “faggot” and “queer” and sought advice from the pastor about gay conversion therapy and how to “get the devil out of me”, I did the only thing I could do- I fled. As soon as I was out of school, I went to college in Portland and made a life there, a new life where I could be whatever I wanted.

Still, though, the spectre of my father’s betrayal and the yellow-eyed threat of home haunted me. I ignored his calls, his letters, his urgent pleas that he could help me. All I wanted was an apology, but he couldn’t see it. Even as the dementia worsened, and he was taken into permanent care, I refused to come home. He died two years ago.

Shaking my head, I closed up the box and stepped outside for a breather, shutting the door behind me and letting the tears flow down my face, unashamed. The police could have it all. I didn’t need the past any more.

Devourer

IMG_3649

She was alone and beautiful.

The thin rays of the coal-red sun slanted through the oblivious pines. Her coat was bright, the colour of warnings. Her breath misted in a frosty veil in the air in front of her, breaking apart as she walked on through the deep dark woods. Needles crunched beneath her feet, the only sound in the forest.

I lifted my head and sniffed. Her aroma was intoxicating. The smell of fresh hay, pastoral and warm, clutched to her, so separate and clean, too much for the world of stench she inhabited. Fresh bread invaded my nostrils, still hot inside the basket she carried..

My ears flattened back against the fur of my neck. My tongue flicked out, ran across the ivory mountain range of my teeth, blood-heralds.

Somewhere in the forest, an owl cried out, a long, plaintive sound. The sun was down now, pink-death in the far east, beyond the village the girl came from, beyond the valley and the mountains and the sea, born down across the world by unknowable time. The girl took her path westwards and knew not what night she walked into. The bulbous, blind moon rose up ahead of her and took its place in the sky.

Pale moths skittered around in the deepening dusk, never settling for long, their bright eyes seeing only danger and fear. There were other smells in the forest now, beyond the usual detritus and rot of these ancient, sun-starved woodlands. Foxes  through the brush, badgers crawled and hedgehogs snuffled. All fled at my silent approach, rightly afraid of me, an animal unlike any other.

Without sound, I padded out onto the path. The trees above us were dense and let little light through. Gradual as approaching winter, I closed the gap between us, not needing the chase, enjoying my private approach to the defenceless girl in the red coat who didn’t listen to her parents’ warnings. My tongue lolled free outside of my mouth now, diamond-dew sliding out and onto the packed earth of the dangerous path.

At last, as if sensing her destination, the girl stepped out into a clearing through which the moonlight poured. Her world was monochrome now, even the brilliant crimson of her coat dulled into the deepest, inky black. She lowered her hood, let the dark locks of her hair spill out. Placing the basket of now-cold bread on the floor, she removed the coat, standing now in just her underclothes, exposed and naked before all the eyes of the night. The girl turned and saw the one splash of colour the world had to offer. My eyes, fire-bright, yellow and ethereal, shone into the darkness ahead of me as I closed the distance. It was cold now, and I could see the beads of her nipples beneath the muslin.

She let out no cry as I approached, stepping out into the moonlight forest-bed with her, revealing the muscular slope of my back, my upright ears, my questing, starving snout. Nor as I drew up with her, took in a great waft of that smell, fresh-hay and fear, and something deeper, something musky and intense. The girl reached out her hand.

She let out nothing but a whimper as my teeth crunched through her bones. Her hot blood spilling out of my mouth and falling onto the grass, breaking the wildflowers beneath her trembling feet. She gave no tear as I swallowed her flesh, moved up the arm, sunk my teeth deep, penetrating into her muscle, tearing the tendons from her. When, gorged with her pain, I clenched my mouth around her neck and squeezed until blood jetted out and her body went slack, she went with a look of ecstasy on her face.

I ate until my stomach was full of girl and my breath rancid with the metallic odour of fresh meat. What I left behind was barely a girl, her ribs exposed and broken, heart eaten out, abdomen a cavity for my desires. I bathed in the river, and her blood ran from my skin and darkened the waters.

I woke up in my house in the village the next day to the sound of wailing. There was an old lady outside, decrepit and near death, screaming and holding a red hood.

Grease

[Pretend there’s an illustration here- I don’t wanna put anything this gross on my blog]

The internet is a really weird place. Of course we all know, thanks to a dozen conscientious-Christian exposes, about the Dark Web- the drugs, the porn, the gore- but even right here on the surface, there’s enough crazy shit to fill up a thousand mental health journals.

Even on YouTube, the horrors don’t end, and, despite the impending adpocalypse that’s the nightmare of so many whingy “content creators”, it still does pretty well. Of course, a lot of the really hardcore stuff, like deaths, gore, strange erotica, gets hidden or taken down within a couple of hours. There is, however, one particular area which seems impervious to any attempts at disposal.

The video “FLYING PIMPLES IN EARS (POPPING PIMPLE IN EAR)”, from the channel “All Pimples Of The World”, has 6.2 million views. The video “POPPING ZITS & PIMPPLE & CYST | YOUTUBE 2017 | Pimple Popping” from “iPimple Popping” has 2.5 million. “Bot Fly Removal” from “joespc” has 7.7 million. Whether it’s low quality shaky iPhone footage or big, flashy productions like Monsters Inside of Me, videos about gross stuff like this is popular. Popular- and profitable.

Now, it seemed simple enough to me to try and get a foothold in this industry. Keep an eye on LiveLeak, download any videos like this that catch my eye, reupload them on YouTube, and hope to god that I don’t get demonetised. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. The rate at which the internet churns up videos like “Huge Botfly Maggot Removed from Head” is surprisingly slow. So, I decided to do what any good businessman would- cut out the middleman.

Problem was, I’ve always had a pretty good complexion. Even as a teen, I never got zits larger than maybe a couple of millimeters, a quarter of an inch at most. I took a look online but couldn’t find any good suggestions as to how to block pores, so I had to figure it out myself.

Oil. That was the answer, oil. I took great care mixing my preparation in an old metal bathtub in my room. 20 sticks of molten butter, a bottle of engine oil, and, ordered in specially, just a splash of raw, crude oil. The master stroke, though, was a pinch of brake dust- an engineer friend clued me in on it and, I have to say, it worked wonders. I grabbed a wire brush, and, stripping naked, applied a thick, even coating across as much of my body as I could manage. I took a couple of sleeping pills and spread a tarp on my bed, and went to bed.

A full fourteen hours later, I woke back up. The dark, sludgy brown mixture had dried on my skin and I had to use a butter knife to reveal a patch of skin on my arm. Like the freshly-laid eggs of some loathsome creature, tiny bumps of pearlescent pus were already there, developing. I felt filthy, but knew that I couldn’t shower without losing all the progress I was making. I jumped out of bed and covered myself again with the gunk, and took a few more pills before going back to sleep.

I woke up in the dead of night, and angrily swatted at a fly. Hitting a light switch and taking a look at my watch, fastened to my wrist- the only un-painted strip of skin on my body- I saw that I’d been asleep for longer this time, about seventeen hours. I was hungry, and took a look at my skin as I prepared a sandwich to choke down.

Things had progressed. I scraped off a different layer of muck on my leg, and revealed a mottled patch of angry flesh. Wide areolas of reddened skin surrounded the yellow volcanic mounds, centimetre-wide bumps that raised up from my skin in painful mountain ranges. I gently prodded at one and winced as I felt the ooze within get pushed deeper into myself, before it popped back up with latent force. When they went, I knew that it would be glorious. When I clambered back into bed, I took five sleeping pills- well above the safe limit, but I was settling in for the long stretch- when I woke back up, I’d need to deal with them.

The last thing I remember before I slipped off was swatting at a fat, lazy fly as it settled on my leg, landing right on a spot.

I slept for over twenty-four hours. When I got up, streaming sunshine came through the dirty window of my flat. I felt absolutely filthy, and immediately went to the shower, rinsing off the black goop and watching as it disappeared down the porcelain and into the gaping sinkhole.

I was careful not to damage any of the precious, festering bulges that were all over my skin. I examined myself in a mirror, admiring my work. There were at least three dozen huge, quivering masses on my front alone, pregnant with creamy, precious filth. There’d be so many videos to make on this, on my masterpiece, but before I got footage, I wanted to do one just for myself, a private show if you will.

I sat down on a stool in the kitchen, feeling the pressure build slightly in the zits on my rear. I made a mental note, knowing now to use cushions to guard against premature popping. I opened up a disposable scalpel and searched for a likely candidate.

I chose one on my arm, a fairly midsized one. The actual spot itself was fully an inch across, although the necrotic, purple flesh around it spread out further. I was surprised, and a little concerned to note how little pain I felt prodding it- if I had to go to the doctor about this, I don’t know how I’d explain.

Suddenly, I saw something move. I thought I’d imagined it, or maybe hallucinated it given the dangerous amount of medication I’d consumed, but nope, there was that same twitching motion. It was in there, under the thin layer of greasy, stretched skin, somewhere in the translucent milky depths of my own skin. I had to get in there.

I placed the tip of the blade on the taught flesh and gently applied pressure. It didn’t take long. A sudden rush of thin, watery pus came out and flowed along the metal, trickling down the handle and almost making me lose my grip on the tool. I kept going though, and opened up a slit in the spot.

It had deflated a little, but, surprisingly, not that much. I put the scalpel down and put my finger and thumb either side, resting them on the purple skin. I began to apply pressure, slowly forcing the cheesy pulp inside out of the hole. It slid out and fell onto the linoleum floor with a gentle “plop”.

Crimson blood welled up in the hole, and I held my arm out and watched the blood spread down towards my hand. It wasn’t enough, though. Using the tip of the scalpel, I teased the slack skin up and away from the hole, and, to get it out of the way, leaned over and used my incisors to neatly snip off the gristly, dead flesh.

It wasn’t enough, though. Something was in there, and remembering the flies, I began to suspect what it was. Using tweezers, I prodded down into the spot, submerging the tip nearly a centimetre beneath the blood, searching for something foreign and wriggling. It came away easily.

I smiled as I examined the squirming, waxy white maggot which I pulled out of my arm. I was about to get so internet famous.

Cyber Punks!

“I thought the view would be better than this, ya know?”

Ahead, the Vandenberg Spaceport spread out across the horizon, grey tarmac merging seamlessly with the imperceptible horizon. Weak sun, seeping through the toxic Californian smog, glinted off the distant skyscraper of a Transport. Nothing moved in the dirty expanse beneath them, save the neon flickering of the sharp red lights of a landing pad.

The girl pressed her cheek against the harsh black fabric of the boy’s hoody. Fuel pipelines and boarding walkways hung slack from the underside of the launch gantry they sat on, like the bowels of a freshly butchered animal.

“You’re really going then?” she asked, ignoring his complaint about the view. They’d spent hours getting there, bypassing security and hiking across the featureless cement desert of the launch complex. The climb up the launch tower had been long- 1400 steps, she’d counted.

“Yeah,” he sighed apathetically. He took a final drag on the cigarette and tossed it into the mist below them. He watched the orange-glowing tip recede until he could no longer see it. The ground itself was only just visible, 130 stories below them. The whole structure creaked just a little in a wind that blew in off the sea.

“You don’t sound happy about it,” she replied. He looked at her.

“Would you be happy if your parents were dragging you to some fuck-off rock in the middle of nowhere?”

She scoffed, “It’s hardly a rock, moron- you’re moving to Mars!”

“Oh yay,” he spat. “Another planet for us all to screw up, hooray for me!”

She frowned. “You’re sounding like one of those dickhead anti-colonial terrorists.”

“Whatever,” he sulked half-heartedly, looking off at the invisible horizon. A pause hung in the air, as heavy as the polluted clouds. They could hear the sounds of the distant surf as the wind picked up a little, rolling in off the dead Pacific coast.

“Look at the lights,” she said, changing the topic. A concentric snowflake pattern had started to play on the landing pad, spiralling inwards.

“The 17:34, back from Venus station, right on fuckin time,” he said. “Hold on to something, it’s gonna be quite something.”

She tightened her grip on his arm, wrapping both around him and squeezing in close. He sighed.

“Fine, but if you fall, don’t blame me in the couple of seconds you get before you hit the sidewalk.”

He sidled over slightly, hooking his arm through the triangular support struts beside him. They both glanced skywards as the roar approached.

Suddenly, like the whales of old, a leviathan breached the heavens. Sides scorched with re-entry heat, the rocket rode down through the sky, a pillar of bright fire supporting it as it descended. Flashes of bright control jets flickering on and off, making automated course corrections. Other thrusters came on and off ten times a second, adjusting the orientation as the ship’s speed slowed, eventually sliding effortlessly towards the flashing beacon. With a last thunderous crash, the engines flared up and seared a mark onto the pad. Then it was quiet, save for the final creaks of the vessel settling on its sturdy legs, and the Pacific waves.

The girl let out a silent wow. Once the sonic booms had finished reverberating off the ground, the boy shrugged her off.

“We should get going soon. They’ll let the passengers off at the ground level, but later this evening they’ll roll this gantry out and get the cargo off.”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

“You really don’t give a shit, do you?”

“Thanks,” he smirked.

“No, not that,” she sighed. “Look, you’re just… dull. Do you have no sense of wonder left?”

“Wonder?” he laughed. “Take a look around you? What’s wonderful about this?”

Her mouth dropped open. “What do you mean. This is sorta amazing, don’t you think? Fuck, 50, no, 30 years ago, no one could have believed that this would happen. It was god-damn science fiction for them.”

“Yeah, dystopia more like.”

He looked at her, and she turned away. Her pink, half-shaved hair stretched into the wind, a rare speck of colour in the Californian miasma. He looked beneath that, though- the sallow skin, stretched thin across her bones. He could see the bumps of her spine as it went down into her violet sweatshirt.

He’d watched a documentary the other day, some Martian production, and they’d talked about that- the “Terran Rot”, they’d called it. Average life expectancy had been shrinking for the last three decades.

“Look, you said something about it being like sci-fi, right?”

She nodded, quiet.

“Yes, fifty years ago they didn’t have the rockets, or the spaceports, or even VR, but… ah, fuck it.”

“What?” she asked.

“It sounds stupid, but you realise California was pretty much a nature reserve back then? There were millions of animals on earth in the ‘tens. Now, we’re living in a wasteland and we fucking built it.”

She slumped, resting her pointed chin on her hand. “I thought you didn’t give a shit?”

“You know why we’re moving there, don’t you?” he asked.

“Schiaparelli?”

He nodded. “They’re covering up the whole crater. Don’t listen to what the company says, they haven’t done a full survey of the area. They don’t know any more than you or I do that there’s nothing native there.”

She gazed at him quizzically. “You mean you’re being this much of a sulky jackass just ‘cuz of a few alien bacteria?”

“It’s not just there,” he said. “It’s terraforming writ small. Once they dome over Schiaparelli, there’ll be nothing to stop them from filling up Hellas Planitia, the whole Southern Basin. All it takes is just one of their test-bed projects to be successful, and they’re gonna take that whole planet and turn it into as much of a shithole as this place is. Mars may be the red planet right now, but don’t worry, it’ll be grey and corporate within a few years.”

She stood up and stretched. The boy noticed goosebumps on her bare calves, and shivered himself.

“Well, as you said, I better get going. You gonna come?”

He shrugged. “Nah, I’ll wait here a little while. See ya.”

She walked off a little way along the gantry, back to the staircase. There were heavy clouds coming in, and she briefly worried about thunder striking the gantry. She looked over at the boy, but he was already staring off at the recently-landed Transport.

“Hey, look on the plus side,” she laughed. “Keep this up, and you might be the first punk on Mars!”

She heard a brief chuckle from the boy and, without turning, he raised his fist and flicked up a middle finger at her in response.

As she started down the stairs, she gazed back at the boy sitting on the end of the gantry, his legs dangling over the drop. A cloud engulfed the top of the tower, and he disappeared into the grey.

Devil’s Laughter

[Author’s note: This was an entry in the UCA Ghost Story Challenge. Deamhaich is pronounced Deem-Hake.]

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Growing up in the town of Deamhaich, Cornwall, there always were stories told. The one that frightened me the most as a kid was that of the Devil’s Laughter.

The United Kingdom is a honeycomb of mines, and nowhere is this warren of tunnels denser than under the Cornish peninsula. Occasionally, this makes local or national news when a tunnel implodes and sucks down cars, houses, or entire streets.

The story went that the mines of Deamhaich were abandoned quickly, a little before the end of the 19th century. I still remember my grandfather telling me about the miners. He said that they dug too deep, compelled onwards by greed and a few ancient rumours that, beneath the tin there was something rarer, older. This quest ended in horror, though. The miners dug through the earth to the gates of Hell itself, causing them to flee the tunnels at once and never return.

It’s said that, still, you can hear the screaming laughter of the Devil at the gates. He howls after the souls of the townsfolk and the miners who disturbed his lair.

Jumping forwards a few years, I was in a dangerous position. Intoxicated by a mix of teenage arrogance and the desire for a girl, I agreed to go into the mines, alone. Her name was Suzanne. She was a couple of years older than me, out of my league and at the forefront of Deamhaich’s burgeoning emo community. She’d dared me to descend into the mine and go to the edge of hell, and to bring back a pick-axe with me to prove it.

I didn’t believe the legends any more. There were other dangers though.

These excavations were old, and I was on my own. I genuinely, foolishly thought I’d prepared well before going down there. I’d packed a bag with two torches, a bottle of water, three chocolate bars. One of my friends, a Greek mythology fan, suggested that I take some twine down and leave one end at the surface. The plan was that I’d spool it out behind me to find my way back. If I got into trouble, I would tug on the twine three times to signal to Suzanne, who would be on the other end, that I needed help.

The entrance was barred with wooden panels, emblazoned with warning signs against exactly my kind of idiotic, hormone-infused bravado. A friend of a friend had a mechanics shop in town, and through them I had been able to find the crowbar that I used to pry the boards away.

As the wood sloughed off, a gust of stale, dead air flowed out of the now gaping tunnel entrance. There were marks in the wood that looked similar to the ones I was making. Whereas the scratches I left were fresh, these had clearly been there for a while. Someone else had gone down there, but whoever they were they’d done it many years ago.

I was only a little way into the tunnel before everything went wrong. I should have stepped back as soon as I noticed that the first few yards of the tunnel had a wooden floor, not stone. I didn’t, though, and I strode onwards, careless, and put my whole weight on some rotten floorboards.

I fell through two layers of wood before finally coming down hard on the gravelly floor of the mine. I swore once, loud, and lay there for a second trying to take stock of my situation as I got my breath back. Careful about harming myself further, I sat up.

I’m lucky that the fall deposited me on my chest. If it had been my legs, I would have been crippled, and a fall on my back or neck might have even killed me. Still, I was in a bad way. Prodding my chest, I winced as I encountered tender, shattered rib. I’d later find out that I’d been fortunate too that none of the shards had penetrated my lungs or heart. My limbs were functional, asides from a blazing pain in my left ankle. I tried to put weight on it, but it hurt too bad and I had to collapse back down. Later, I’d learn that the fall had snapped two tendons.

It only then occurred to me that I was in complete darkness. The torch was shattered, and I thanked my lucky stars that I’d brought another. At least until I tried to turn it on. The batteries weren’t quite dead, but the dim light was flickering, so I decided to save it in case I needed it.

I was in trouble so I pulled on the string, which I’d somehow managed to keep a hold of. When the other end came falling through the hole above me, though, I couldn’t help but let out a sob of fear. It repeated, then, and grew into full screams of fear.

I couldn’t help but think about how alone I was. The only person who’d known about my expedition had abandoned me. I could only assume that she thought the collapse had killed me, and that I had no way to get back to the surface. I was far from the entrance, now, and there were no maps of the tunnels. If there even was a rescue operation, there was no guarantee they’d find me. I knew it was illogical, that no one would hear me and that I was only wasting the precious few breaths I had left. I just couldn’t stop screaming.

I eventually did when I realised that there was another scream alongside mine.

A shiver of fear ran over me as I recognised that laughter, distorted and screaming. The tunnel walls and the demented energy with which the noise was produced warped it. Disregarding my inflamed ankle, I leapt up and, steadying myself against the wall, picked up my backpack.

I don’t know how far I’d limped when I heard it again. To my surprise, the noise was clearer. A high, keening wail now, it sounded less like laughter and more like screaming. I cursed the labyrinthine nature of the mine, reasoning that either it was following me or I’d been all turned around and walked closer to the source. Tears flowing down my face, I turned around, and walked faster.

I tripped on something, ruining my ankle more, and the screams began again, louder, as if I were in the same room with them. I was too scared to flee now, and I crawled to a corner and into a foetal position. It just kept going, not laughter now, not screams, but something worse- the crying of a baby. I pulled out the chocolate bars I’d brought with me, and accepted it as my last meal. I turned on the torch and laid it down, pointing it at the granite wall of the tunnel, simply to give me something to look at. After an hour or so, it blinked out.

After seventy-two hours in the dark, the fire brigade found me. They had been drawn by the crying. Suzanne had, of course, called them immediately. In the tunnel with me was what I’d tripped over- the tiny, shrivelled skeleton of a child, wrapped in a silk shroud. Pinned to the fabric was a handwritten note, yellowed and ancient.

“11-08-1908

My darling Emily, I’m so sorry. You were brought into this world too early, and remind me of forbidden love. May you find peace here, buried deep within the earth. Always love from your mother, LW.”

After some forensic analysis, the child’s body was buried in the local churchyard. People still claim to hear the Devil’s Laughter even now, but I believe that’s an urban legend. I think Emily has finally found peace.

Gold

The story of the “Nazi Gold Train” is an enduring one. According to the legend, a German train loaded with gold confiscated from Polish civilians and Jewish prisoners was buried in the woods near the Polish city of Walbrzych, formerly the German city of Waldenburg. Some sources quote the train as containing up to three hundred tonnes of gold, as well as jewels and several lost masterpieces.

The most recent attempt at finding the treasure was undertaken by two Polish men, Piotr Koper and Andreas Richter, in 2015-16. Though they initially claimed to have been told by the death bed confession of a concentration camp guard, they caused a media storm when they changed their story to claim that a government official had leaked the information. Although a minister from the Polish government claimed that ground penetrating radar had shown the presence of a 100-meter long train buried under the surface, this evidence was later shown to be false, the data instead suggesting the presence of a collapsed tunnel. After a seven-day dig, no train was found.

This excavation, though, was preceded by another attempt in the early 1990s that received less attention from the worldwide media. The exploration, attempted by another Polish national, was bankrolled by two Swiss bankers. Having studied as many documents possible relating to the Russian advancement through the area, the team placed the train’s location roughly ten kilometres north of the city, underneath an embankment near a long disused section of railway.

The exploration lasted two weeks, beginning on the 3rd of August, 1991. For the first five days, the area was swept for unexploded munitions and booby traps. When this initial exploration turned up a couple of dozen German land-mines that were mostly defused by the rust and time, the archaeologists and treasure-hunters assembled began to become confident of success. For the next two days, the clearing in the forest around the railway tracks was scanned with radar and, when the presence of a seventy-metre long mass was discovered, the go ahead was given to start digging.

It was as the excavators started to bore down that the issues started. Electrical equipment present started going wrong, usually nothing major. A large setback occurred when the discs containing the radar data were wiped, as if with a magnet, and the scanning had to take place again to confirm where the supposed train was located. Rumours started spreading around the hired workers that something was trying to disrupt the expedition, that something was trying to stop them from reaching the train.

The most major mishap happened on the night of the 15th. The workers had been living in a large tent in the forest. When one of the men fell asleep smoking, a large fire broke out and a dozen workers were hospitalised for smoke inhalation, and a few more with serious burns. Some of those present claimed to see figures in the smoke, gaunt men all in some sort of uniform, with a badge on their chests. The rumours of these “ghosts” spread quickly through word of mouth and local media. Many of those who weren’t injured quit, believing that the ghosts of German soldiers were jealously guarding their riches.

Still, the dig went on, with the few archaeologists ventured deeper. While some were still a little scared of what was dubbed the “curse”, they were lured onwards by the call of treasure and imminent renown for finding the storied vehicle. The JCBs worked through the night of the sixteenth, and as dawn broke on August 17th the expedition finally struck the metal hull of the train.

It was only when they opened up the crates inside and found ashes, charred bones, a few small children’s teeth, that they realised that the ghosts weren’t those of the soldiers.