The Doom Statues

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Summary

Though dormant for many years, when an artists' retreat in the country reopens, a group of creatively inclined strangers cannot resist its charms. None of them find it odd that the locals steer clear of the place - at least not initially. Long before the property's dark past reveals itself to them, however, they begin to discover the horror of their predicament, that there is truly no escaping this place.

Genre:
Horror
Author:
JasonMcGathey
Status:
Excerpt
Chapters:
1
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
18+

1

“This is some seriously creepy territory,” Emily observes, as their carload of four turns off of the paved road onto one composed of half dirt, half stone.

“Yeah and this gravel road makes it even better,” Kay concurs, with equal mixture sarcasm and queasiness from the back seat.

“The funny thing is, I didn’t come this way last time,” Jeremy, their driver, tells them, “thank god for those maps on our phone. I must have taken a wrong turn away from the normal route, but this will work.”

“Wait a second – you’ve been out here before?” Kay gasps.

“Well yeah, whose idea do you think it was?” Emily turns around to ask her best friend with a smirk. “He said he’s got something to show us.”

“That maybe be true, but…never mind. There’s a little one in the car,” Kay jokes, then glances over and ruffles her four year old son’s hair. For his part, the youth, Noah, is mostly tuning out all conversation, sitting as upright as he can in the middle of the backseat to afford the best view of their progress.

“Yeah…,” Jeremy croaks, “but I think I might start coming this way. The gravel road part’s a nice touch.”

“What are we even seeing again? You told me but I forget,” Emily says.

“You’ve heard of a gravity hill?” he says.

“No….”

“Well, okay, a gravity hill they’ll tell you is an optical illusion. There are these places where it looks like you’re going up but you’re actually traveling down. But…I don’t know, this whole area’s weird.”

Though the directions guiding him that first time here were vague, with the false information outweighing what turns out to be true – a common predicament, in the flood of information now overwhelming everyone online – Jeremy did manage to find this nifty little urban legend, or make that a rural one, just a week ago. Traveling alone and charting these winding roads through the woods, northeast of Stokely, itself a blip on the map and nearly an hour away from any terrain he really knows all that well.

Viewing this hill that first time, at night, had been spooky enough, but in a way less satisfying. Too dark to really make out as much of the horizon, even with proper headlights and all. With his girlfriend of a year and a half, Emily, and her best friend Kay, not to mention the ultra impressionable Noah, it should not only prove more fun, showing them this peculiar sight, but also a little more easy to discern visually.

“Isn’t this cool?” Jeremy asks, at the wheel even though this is Emily’s parents’ Cadillac – as they are out of town, she determined this would make the perfect vehicle for their little day trip here, even if she personally didn’t feel comfortable driving it and the car wasn’t technically supposed to leave the house at all.

“Yeah, we’ll see how cool if you scratch up the side of this frickin’ car,” Kay grovels, only maybe three-quarters joking, as this gravel road narrows and finds them near overhanging branches on both sides.

“Don’t worry, I think we should be back on solid pavement here soon,” he says.

“Yeah, I think I see it, actually,” Emily seconds, nodding to where this lane dead ends into another up ahead.

Just past where the trees finally open up, with a quaint two story country home on the right and field to their left, another solid bank of forest directly before them, this T intersection presents its pair of choices. Even though the internet connection is spotty out here, memory and the occasionally cooperative maps on their phones both seem to indicate they should turn left, and so he does.

Outside of Noah, the other three occupants of this car are all 19 and have known one another since at least the third grade, possibly longer – on this point memories diverge, and nobody has yet bothered to unearth a yearbook from those elementary days. Like this pair of females in the car with him, Jeremy Ado has been artistically inclined for as long as he can remember, and supposes that at some point this explains how all three of them ended up so chummy. But it doesn’t feel this way, as his recollection has this fact slowly emerging, or possibly even an osmosis type influence, after they were already friends.

Though somewhat on the thin side, he’s always been tall, and in at least as good of shape as basically every other average kid his age. Thus he gave a token effort to athletics, with modest interest and even less success, until his sophomore year of high school. This roughly coincided with his taking up smoking, and also a burgeoning mutual attraction with one Emily Garverick. Somewhere along the line, it became obvious to both of them that the longtime friendship was turning into jokes about flirting, which itself begat actual flirting. Even so, it took them a solid year to really do anything about it, and begin dating in earnest.

Equally tall as Jeremy, and a curly haired blonde to his sandy brown up top, Emily has thus far successfully avoided taking up smoking, but in nearly every other aspect they are pretty much the same. That and her art form of choice, pottery to Jeremy’s (and even Kay’s) fondness for painting. Otherwise, they fall into your same basic late teenage category, given to a little bit of partying with alcohol and maybe the occasional ultra rare weed, nothing else really edgier than this. Still, a little shiftless, which is maybe the product of their nothing town – a town almost as lame as that Stokely or whatever it was they just drove through – and working stupid jobs with no real prospect of anything else on the horizon, though they’d all done at least decent in school.

Of course, when her lifelong best friend, Kay Ridley here, found herself with child at the age of 15, that did somewhat complicate matters in her specific case. Especially as baby’s daddy was basically of no use at all. Even in these modern times, there’s a horrific stigma attached to pregnancies at that age, and Kay’s suffered all manner of abuse in the court of public opinion, basically just for deciding on her own that she was quite happy and excited to have this kid. Her parents are actually well off, and if making little effort to veil the fact that they’re not exactly thrilled by this development themselves, they’ve at least allowed her to remain living at home without pressure to figure out a career, thus far anyway.

Jeremy has just begun to wonder if he made a wrong turn somewhere, when he rounds a corner and realizes they have just crossed the top – or is that the bottom? - of the hill he’s been seeking. It just looked different this time, having approached from the opposite direction. And though he says nothing, the first words out of both girls’ mouths is some variation of a “whoa” and a mild curse, marveling at all this graffiti on the road.

Some in paint and some chalk, these markings cover much of the expected bases with this sort of defacement. Mostly lighter colored and/or pastel, with the assortment of handwritings and subject matter, plenty of names, few actual drawings, but maybe just a little more demented bent than usual, given the nature of this site. Among these are a baby sized chalk outline of a body, an assurance that CLOWNS LIVE HERE, as well as a question written in a girl’s looping cursive, asking simply Do ya love me?

Having reached the bottom of this hill – or the starting line, to be more precise – Jeremy knows he’ll have to turn around, and yet there’s no immediate point to do so. He continues driving as the road inclines upward once more, then at the peak of this slight rise, finds a gravel drive leading to a rickety wooden, two story house, its exterior grey and warping. An old man in the back yard is burning trash in a barrel, and turns slowly to regard them with a dirty glare, but turning around is not exactly a shooting offense.

“Ooh hoo hoo!” Kay chortles from the back seat, “did you see that? That old man looked pissed! I’ll bet he’s tired of this shit.”

“Well yeah!” Emily agrees, “wouldn’t you be? He’s probably burning the bodies of the last dumbass kids to try this!”

“It could be their spirits haunting this place,” Jeremy jokes.

Upon turning around, he creeps down the current hill until bottoming out. Here, upon lining up his car as well as possible between two wooden posts that have been painted with single, horizontal purple stripes, to mark the proper start point, he comes to a complete stop.

“So what is the point of this, anyway?” Kay questions.

“Just watch,” Jeremy tells her, then demonstrates. “Okay, you’ll see that the car is now in neutral and that we are completely stopped, right?”

“Yeah,” both girls reply at once, with a tone of voice suggesting a shrug.

“Okay then, so see what happens...when I take my foot off the brake...,” he croaks, lifting his knee a little more than necessary to show them he has done so.

Though staring at a fairly steep incline, with no gas and the car in neutral, the Cadillac does indeed begin to ascend this hill. Will continue doing so for approximately a quarter mile, even around a curve in the road. Though Kay in particular insists this has to be some sort of trick, especially as she can’t fully see what Jeremy’s up to in the driver’s seat.

“You’re hitting the gas!” she insists.

“But even if I was, it’s in neutral!” he points out, directing both of his hands toward the steering column in the middle. “We were dead stopped and the car’s in neutral!”

“Whoa...,” Emily croaks, running a hand through her long, curly blonde hair with a wicked, appreciative grin, “that was...tripped out...”

They are stopped at the top of this hill, near where the curve in the road straightened out and momentum ground to a halt at last. Still, no other cars have materialized, which affords them a chance to deconstruct this occurrence.

“Okay, so what is this place allegedly about?” Kay asks.

“Well, actually, allegedly,” Jeremy explains, “common sense would bear this out, and there also a number of similar places around the world, but...apparently you are not actually moving uphill there. It’s an optical illusion. Apparently we are actually moving downhill. Although, man, I don’t know...it doesn’t look that way, does it? Plus I have another theory on that, which I wanna point out to you guys at some point.”

“Let’s do it again!” Emily cheers, softly clapping her hands together, “I wanna film it!”

At her instance, Jeremy executes a three point turn, then descends the hill once more. Here, though nobody mentions it, the residue of that pissed off looking old man is clearly upon them, for he makes a similar turn near the purple striped posts, rather than risking a turnaround in that dude’s driveway again.

“Alright, I’m getting out,” Emily explains, phone in hand, “I’m gonna post this and see what everyone has to say.”

“Good idea,” Kay tells her, “I’m gonna do the same from in here.”

With Jeremy acting as chauffer for Kay and her son in the back, they creep up the hill once more, and actually seem to gain momentum along the way. After rounding that bend in the road, at which point the car finally stops, Jeremy mutters, “actually, that made me think of a second point about why this is just wrong....”

“Mom, what are we doing here?” Kay’s son pipes up and says at last, despite untold minutes of silence throughout this process. This causes both adults in the car to break out laughing, though the kid remains in character, so to speak, and appears completely serious.

“Hey!” it occurs to Kay to suggest, “we should back down the hill. Wouldn’t that prove...something?”

Jeremy weighs this thought for a second, lips pursed, before nodding and agreeing to give it a try. Throwing the car in reverse, as Emily in turn whips her head around with a nervous grimace to watch for potential oncoming traffic – a move Kay unconsciously mimics, although more to chart their progress and prove this isn’t an illusion – they begin creeping back the way they came, in the same lane, gradually picking up steam as they approach and then reach the longer, straightaway portion.

“This is so weird!” Kay marvels, facing forward again. She extends her arms and flaps her hands to indicate the breadth of this scene. “I mean, look at this! This is clearly a hill!”

“I know!” Jeremy agrees, half turning in his seat toward her.

“I wanna check something,” Emily mutters, extracting her cell phone. With the photo app pulled up, she points it at the road, though not actually snapping any pictures. “Now what does it look like...,” she wonders, “if I zoom in to crop out the horizon...hmm. No, I guess it still looks like a hill, either way.”

Shortly thereafter, they reach the bottom of the hill again, the starting point between the purple striped posts. Everyone just sort of stares at the landscape ahead for a moment without saying anything.

“Let me out,” Emily finally requests at last, although the car isn’t moving and she’s able to simply open her door, step onto the asphalt unimpeded. “I wanna film this and post it online, see what everyone has to say. You guys go up the hill again.”

As she stands by the side of the road, Jeremy slides the manual transmission into neutral, and is just about to let his foot off the brake again, when Kay blurts out, “no, no! I wanna try it! I wanna find out firsthand that this is for real!”

Jeremy waves his hands around at the dashboard, console, and pedals before replying, “but you can see, I’m not performing any, fucking, uh, slight of hand up here...”

“Yeah, I know, I know, but it’ll drive me nuts not to prove it. Just let me try.”

As she gets out, he does the same. With Kay behind the wheel now but Jeremy in the passenger seat, and Noah, now somewhat interested, at least wide eyed and open mouthed as he stares out the window – if still not actually comprehending what makes this a strange phenomenon – they begin moving in earnest. Kay continually mumbles that she can’t believe this, can’t believe this, glancing down at the gear shift repeatedly, and at one point even throws it into park. As expected, the Cadillac jerks to a halt, though the instant it’s switched back to neutral, they begin accelerating all over again.

Upon reaching the apex of the straightaway, though not continuing through the curve this time. Kay throws it into park and jumps out, shaking her hands above her shoulders now as if at the world. “Huh uh. You take over,” she tells Jeremy.

“Okay,” he agrees, and opens the passenger door.

As they stand for a moment in the road, staring down the apparent bottom to where Emily now is, a white minivan materializes at what is for all intents the starting block. A light mist has begun falling, to accompany the thin veil of fog which never evaporated on this slightly warm fall morning. But figuring that this minivan probably wants to start this experiment, and can spot them at the top, Jeremy declares that he should move the car, then begins in that direction.

“I’m gonna stay behind up here. There’s something else I wanna see,” she tells him.

“Okay.”

Even after Jeremy executes a three point turn, in this plot of land bordered by a slight strip of woods and then fields on both sides, then makes his way down in proper fashion, that minivan has yet to move. The driver is a lone middle aged man of some sort, a bit on the hefty side from the looks of things. Emily is leaning against his vehicle, talking to him through the passenger window he has rolled down. Jeremy also hits the button to drop his own window and shouts a hello out to the two of them.

“You tried this before?” Jeremy asks the guy.

“No, but I’ve been meaning to,” he says. He has curly black hair and just the faintest trace of beard stubble, smiles broadly and readily enough, although it does bother Jeremy that this dude is wearing a business shirt and tie, not mention wraparound shades despite it not being the least bit sunny today. “There’s all kinds of urban legends online about this place, too,” he adds, turning to nod his chin at the road ahead.”

“Yeah, I read some of that junk, too...,” Jeremy replies.

“Urban legends?” Emily asks, perking up, intrigued by this angle.

“Yeah...something about...this girl felt some thump on the back of her car,” the guy tells Emily, “that part must have happened right here? Anyway, supposedly she got to the top of the hill and got out to look, and saw fresh hand prints on her trunk lid?” Turning to Jeremy now for confirmation, he asks, “that’s pretty much the story, right? And it all took off from there?”

“Yeah but why would you just randomly get out to look at the top of the next hill? In the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night? Seems a little too convenient.”

“Exactly, exactly,” the guy agrees, nodding as he stares at the road some more.

“Anyway I don’t really care about any of that crap,” Jeremy allows, “I just want to know what is or isn’t actually happening here. But yeah, Emily, allegedly that’s how this all started.”

After the man sighs and says something about he supposes it’s time to try it, they wave and wish him good luck. Jeremy’s watching in his rearview as the minivan, while Emily, though also glancing a couple of times up the road at his progress, crosses and eventually climbs back into the passenger seat. Within thirty seconds, a panting Kay arrives, reclaiming her original spot as well.

“What was that all about?” Jeremy asks.

“Well,” she pants, winded still though having merely strolled down the road, “you’re probably not gonna wanna hear this, but...I decided to walk it, except with my eyes closed. And if you do that, I mean, you can tell after one step that you’re actually moving uphill. Even though it looks downhill. I mean it’s completely obvious, trust me.”

Emily isn’t sure why, but feels as though she’s been punched in the gut with this revelation. Furthermore that for some strange reason, she’s fighting off the urge to spin around and reach over and – only playfully, of course – strangle her lifelong best friend here. How dare Kay deflate one of the most interesting mornings they’ve experienced in who knows how long, possibly years? But instead, Emily offers a fake, though real enough looking smile, and suggests, “hey, didn’t you say something about a lake? The first time you came here?”

“Yeah,” her boyfriend nods, flicks an index finger at the road ahead of them, “I came in from that direction. You drive past this fairly good sized lake. It’s pretty, though.”

Emily shrugs and suggests, “let’s go that way, then.”

They begin moving in this direction. Past the old house and possibly even older man still burning trash in a barrel, eyeing them warily. At the top of that crest, just past the home, there’s another dip and a gradual bend left, down and up another rise, where this particular road abruptly dead ends into a more significant one. Faced with this pair of choices, knowing his way home from here, Jeremy turns left.

Something about this terrain reminds Kay of what she always pictured Scotland would be like. Hilly and fog drenched, sure, but abundantly green, too, with long sweeping curves to the road. But it’s not exactly a land she would care to walk, say, alone on a moonless night. Which is why it so startles her, bogged down in these thoughts, when Noah speaks up, croaking something about this small cemetery on a hill to their right.

“That one doesn’t have too many doom statues,” he says, pointing a finger in that direction.

“Doom statues?” she and Emily repeat at the same instant, with even Jeremy joining in as all three of them share a laugh. Obviously, by this he means tombstones, though she doesn’t bother too correct her son. These little slips of incorrect phrasing will someday seem charming – in fact they already do – and she’s in no hurry to rush through this era.

“No, I guess not,” Kay agrees. As they pass the graveyard, she observes that many of the tombstones are faded, the names barely legible, and some have even fallen over with age and neglect.

“Grandma told me there are ghosts in the doom statues,” Noah adds, in the same deathly serious croak.

Kay clicks her tongue and says, “grandma told you that? I’m gonna have to have a word with that woman...”

“Yeah,” Noah nods, “but only if there are evil men there. And zombies, vampires, or skeletons.”

“Noah honey, that’s not true,” she says, “for one thing, there’s no such thing as zombies or vampires or...well...uh...”

She trails off, fighting back a sudden urge to ask Jeremy to floor it, anything to change the subject matter. But the boy, to his credit, has always been headstrong, he cannot be shaken from a topic that holds his fascination.

“Can I come visit you when you’re in your doom statue?” he asks Kay, peering up at her with expectant eyes.

“Yes, Noah, of course. Now can we drop it?”

“You gotta wait five years for that, buddy,” Jeremy jokes, half turning to hold up all five fingers in his right hand.

Everyone laughs, including Kay. Noah doesn’t seem to get the joke but is giggling along with it anyway. Yet even though she is laughing, which feels like a tremendous release at this point, she’s also shuddering, wishing they had never come this way.

They pass the lake in a flash, just one S curve of a bridge, though this obviously passes through the narrowest point of what is a fairly massive body of water. To their left, the slightly shorter expanse, and a sign indicating it’s the reservoir for the nearby town of Stokely, where a small, placid pool tumbles over a dam, apparently leading the way southwest to that town. Meanwhile, to the right, it fans outward to accommodate the expected variety of jet skis, fishing boats, and recreational craft. They cruise past a tiny marina and then the land closes in around them once more, all forest, on a slight uphill swing that eventually gives way to peaks and valleys again.

A few miles along, having moved in more or less a straight western line despite the ups and downs, Jeremy slams to an abrupt halt. Fortunately, there isn’t anybody directly behind them, for that matter he can’t remember passing a car heading the other way, either, since at least the marina, maybe longer. The problem is that while the main road appears to sweep gradually to the left, another route of identical importance branches off to the right at this juncture, the angle only slightly less abrupt. Both possible paths are equally tree lined and to further complicate matters, there’s no street sign of any sort.

“What’s the matter?” Emily asks him.

“I can’t remember which way to go. I came out and returned via this route last time, but...”

“Wouldn’t it be to the left?” Kay suggests, pointing her own finger now in that direction, “it said back there that the left side of the lake was some reservoir for Stokely.”

“No, you know what, I don’t think so,” Jeremy says, and whips the wheel to the road, begins accelerating up that road, “it seems like it should be, but that’s where they get you.”

“They?” Emily asks, with a slight smile, half joking.

“Eh, you know what I mean. I feel like I went that way last time but it just ends up being a bunch of bullshit dead end streets. I know I got lost, anyway. Let’s try this, I think it’s correct.”

For the next twenty minutes, almost nothing about the landscape changes. Most of the trees on both sides of the road are a tall pine, uniform in that they range from, seriously, between sixty to eighty feet, Emily’s guessing, and none of them have branches except near the very top. They’re just these impossibly tall, slender, vaguely creepy looking objects otherwise. Emily begins to wonder if she’s the only one among them feeling the weight of this increasing dread. Sure, her cell phone still shows a healthy signal, and there’s plenty of daylight, so even if they were to run out of gas or something miles from civilization, it would only prove a hassle, not exactly life and death. But she can’t shake the feeling that this entire trip this morning was a mistake – and if not, daydreaming herself back to the living room couch, curled up with a book and some background noise on the TV, sounds like an improvement over the current situation anyway.

But they reach a passage where another road, splitting off to the right, is clearly a newly laid one, its fresh black asphalt and impeccably drawn lines unblemished. Not to mention that the power lines cutting through look, that distinct open wound of a freshly razed path through the woods. Nobody has to say a word, as Jeremy instinctively turns in that direction.

Back this way, as elsewhere, they do encounter the occasional driveway leading to a house, although these are almost exclusively brand new gravel paths cutting through the woods, back to homes which in some cases not yet built. Though even in this instance there aren’t many, this has the makings of a fresh subdevelopment, which brings with it the hope of civilization. Still, apart from spotting a few carpenter looking types yanking supplies from the bed of a battered red pickup truck, off to the right hand side of the road, near one of these sites, they encounter no one. After another couple miles of this, Jeremy decides he’s had enough, and makes to turn around.

“You know what, fuck this. I’m gonna ask those guys back there how you get out of this mess.”

After turning around and making their way near where he remembers that particular gravel drive, Jeremy slows down so as not to miss it. Even then, this entrance does seem to creep up on them, despite the near glittering, large white rocks which fill this lane, back to that red pickup truck and those workers. It’s even out in the open, somewhat, hugging a stretch of woods on one side, true, but bordered by maybe a half acre of low cut grass on the other, before that too is hemmed in by trees on its opposite end. A slight rise up that truck and whatever log cabin looking structure this is that they’re working on.

“I thought you were kidding,” Kay remarks from the back seat. “Is this even necessary? I mean, one of us could just pull up Mister Google’s map on our phone.”

“No, actually, I’m trying that right now...,” Emily murmurs, distractedly as she fidgets with her cell, “the signal kind of sucks out here...”

By now, Jeremy has already parked just shy of the crest of the hill, right where the lane bends at 90 degrees to cut in front of the cabin, parallel to the road below them. It’s only upon taking a few steps up to the apex that he observes there are in fact a number of structures in various stages of completion, some out in the open and some tucked back into another strand of woods, behind this front building.

“Excuse me!” he calls out, to the trio of gents who are studying a blueprint of some sort, having spread it out across the hood of that truck.

Two of them appear to be about the same age as him, maybe a little older, though the third is probably in his mid 40s. All three look over their shoulders, apparently having paid their arrival no mind until now, though only this older figure fully turns to regard him. Then actually smiles and takes a few steps in your direction. He’s wearing a long sleeved denim shirt to go with matching blue jeans, has a curly mop of loose brown hairs worn a bit shaggier than is custom in this day and age, though overall he appears to be the kind of middle aged character who will always look younger than his years, and, while slightly flabby, is also more muscular than the typical guy his age.

“Hello there!” this figure calls out, “you the phone guy?”

“The phone guy? Huh? No, ah...,” Jeremy explains, turns to nod at the car, “we just kinda got lost, I was hoping you could...”

“Harry Kidwell,” this figure says, extending his right hand. He has a pencil tucked behind one ear and is holding one of those L shaped metal ruler type gadgets in his left.

“Oh! Uh...Jeremy Ado.”

The two of them shake hands, and Harry asks, “Ado?”

“Yeah, rhymes with Play-Doh. That’s kinda what I usually tell people. Look, uh...”

“Sorry, you said you’re lost?” Kidwell replies, though rubbing distractedly at a slight bit of grey-brown beard stubble, as he eyes distant buildings – most likely considering whatever kind of work lies ahead – in the woods behind them. After leveling out just behind this front building, the lane rises again maybe 50 yards ahead, before curving into those trees.

“What is that back there, anyway?” Jeremy questions.

“Oh that. This. Everything here,” Kidwell chuckles, nodding finally at this cabin beside them, with its slender wooden porch, basically flush with the ground, and actual firewood logs stacked in a neat right-angled triangle against one wall, beside the front door. Then he squints up at Jeremy and explains, coupled with his winningest smile, “I guess you might call this the kookiest idea I’ve ever had. Or one of them, at least, heh heh. But yeah,” he straightens up and sighs, adopts a more somber tone, “my grandmother died a while back, and I inherited a nice bit of property here.”

He begins to stroll, past the cabin, and Jeremy instinctively follows along. As if still half absorbed by the tasks ahead, Harry draws up short, as soon as the breadth of the property comes into view, and continues his monologue. “So anyway, yeah, I’m in the construction business, you know, that’s just sort of what I do. At first all I could think about is how many plots I might possibly carve this into, pop, I don’t know, at least three-four houses in here and sell ’em. But then it hit me, you know: wouldn’t it actually be kinda cool if I reopened this place?”

“Reopen? Why, what was it before?” Jeremy asks. A second or two later, the car horn sounds out, though he turns to raise both of his arms and fix Emily with an impatient what the hell? glance. She responds by flipping him off.

Harry’s nodding at this property, as though still amazed by what he’s been given, glances over at Jeremy and then returns to beholding this wondrous land again. “Oh, well, you probably don’t know, but this used to be – well, it went by a few different names, over the years, though basically always the same concept. Central Carolina Artist’s Retreat, that was the final incarnation, the last ten or twelve years there.”

“Hmm. Cool,” Jeremy says, genuinely somewhat impressed by this unexpected twist. “So you plan on, what, like, setting up grants or something to have...”

Kidwell only glances sidelong at him now, with a slight smirk and admits, “well, that’s my grandmother Esther tried, here and there anyhow, you know. But no, I’m not quite rolling like that. I mean, yeah, if this thing really takes off like I expect it to, then yeah, it would be great to maybe look into awarding some residency type situations down the road. For the time being, though, it’s gonna be a somewhat loosely organized half educational, half retreat type structure. I’ll be charging the artists, in fact we’ve already gotten some enrollees in the program, but trust me it’s definitely a fair, slightly below market even fee for room and board.”

“You already started, huh? I mean, it looks like the place is in pretty decent shape.”

“Yeah, but we got a lot more to do if we hope to hit this September 1 open date. I mean, it’ll happen, but...” Kidwell trails off, then laughs and says, ”hey, you don’t know any artists, do you?”

“Artists? Like, what kind?”

“Any kind,” Harry shrugs, “like, we’ve already this husband-wife duo of painters sign up, and this older guy that’s into some kind of media pastiche nonsense – oop, I mean, pieces, masterpieces, heh heh – and then also this young girl that actually does some pretty nifty pottery work.”

Though getting out of this massive forested region had seemingly turned into a major hassle, Jeremy’s thinking now that this could turn into an amazingly lucky break. He doesn’t believe in providence or any of that crap. It’s just this, pure random good fortune, which, even while considering himself a major pessimist – or make that someone who’s public shtick is pessimism, because it’s so hard to allow oneself to be a cheesy, uncool believer in just about anything – that decent breaks are allowed to happen to anyone ever now and then. That the law averages pretty much says they have to.

“Actually...”

“You an artist?”

“Me? No. But my girlfriend Emily is actually pretty damn good with a lot of this stuff.”

“Oh yeah? You don’t say!” Harry replies, beaming. Even in the moment, Jeremy’s aware that this guy is transparently about half impressed, half huckster, or maybe more like 20/80, but doesn’t care. Soon enough, he’s spinning on his heels and shouting Emily’s name, waving for her to come on up here.

“What?” she irritably demands, upon exiting the vehicle, though marching to meet them just the same.

As they are leaving with pamphlets and all kinds of other information in hand, Kidwell points out with a chuckle that if they had never turned off onto this road, they were actually moving in the right direction and would have reached Stokely in less than fifteen minutes. Which is exactly what happens, as Jeremy and Emily climb back into the car and drive to the main road, back into town. Though unfamiliar with Stokely before their first past through it earlier, there’s not much to the town, and soon enough the four of them have settled in for lunch at a diner. The entire town appears to consist of two state routes, crossing at one of the three traffic lights, with this Stokely Farm Road spilling in just a block northeast of that intersection.

“I don’t know, I’m kinda excited about this...art retreat concept!” Emily cheers, turning the pamphlets over in her hand, then examining them again. “I think I’m gonna hit my parents up for this – they’re always telling me I should find some sort of passion in life. You could come, too, Aim! We all could!”

Though Jeremy just scoffs, tucked low in his booth but also examining some of the paperwork Kidwell had given them. Kay offers a rebuttal, saying, “yeah but you’ve that whole...pottery thing, which you’re good at. I’m not really good at anything artistic. Plus I’ve got...well...,” she breaks off and points down at Noah, with a hand above his head. He’s busy playing a portable arcade gadget, though, and paying no apparent mind to this discussion.

“That’s not true – what about those chalk drawings, of, like, dolphins that you used to do? Remember those? On black construction paper?” Emily points out, giggling as she recalls these. “Those were awesome!”

Kay rolls her eyes and says, “come on, that was like fifth grade.”

“They were still cool! I’m sure you could totally get back into that groove in no time! And are you saying your parents wouldn’t keep Noah for, like, a month or whatever? Of course they would! I mean, you already live there...”

“I don’t know...,” Kay sighs, “even if they would, I’m sure it’s a lot of money just to completely suck, and not follow through on anything anyway. Not to mention, there’s probably a limited number of spots and...”

“Come on, who are we kidding,” Jeremy grumbles, tossing the pamphlet aside, “dude was a shyster. Charming and probably harmless shyster, but still. He would obviously take anybody willing to pony up the cash for that crackpot scheme.”

“You really think so?” both girls ask, with just slight variation.

“Pssh,” Jeremy scrunches up his face to retort, “totally. Anyway, I’m way more interested in that gravity hill business. I still can’t stop thinking about it.”

“You kids talkin about that spot way out offa Stokely Farm Road?” their waitress asks, returning with the food they’ve ordered – breakfast, all around, though it’s mid-afternoon. This woman is 60 years old if she’s a day, with a gold name tag bearing the name Doris and attired in the kind of powder blue diner uniform that fell out of fashion have a century earlier, a matching skirt and button up blouse which look like one solid piece.

“The gravity hill?” Jeremy repeats.

Doris nods, dispensing their plates, and says, “yuh, I’ve heard all about it over the years but taint never been. They say if you put a buncha flour on yer trunk before you start, then you can see handprints in it by the time you get up top. Somethin to do with a young girl s’posedly killed herself there. But then I also heard the handprints are just yer own residue from openin and shuttin the trunk, and the whole thing’s an optical illusion anyway so I don’t know...”

Trailing off in this manner, Doris departs twice as abruptly as she’s arrived, the battle worn swiftness of a veteran waitress, leaving the three adults at the table to chuckle in her wake.

“She’s right, though,” Kay offers, “if you close your eyes you can totally tell you’re walking uphill instead of downhill.”

“Okay, but the whole thing doesn’t make sense,” Jeremy sits, straightening up in his seat in a manner not even the food could summon, “what are we saying, then, that it’s a hill inside a hill? Or that the other side is an optical illusion, too, even though I’ve never heard anything about it working if you go that way?”

“Hill inside a hill? What?” Kay questions.

“Yeah. Think about it,” Jeremy tells her. “Well, okay, like, we turned around in that old man’s driveway...”

“Burning bodies,” Emily jokes, “that’s probably what really happened to Doris’s girl there...”

“Yeah,” Jeremy says, glancing over and humoring her with a slight laugh, “but so anyway, think about it. We turn around in the old man’s driveway, okay, right?”

“Yeah?” both girls says.

“Okay, then we clearly head down that hill – I mean, clearly – and bottom out at the end of it. Nobody ever said going up in that direction was any sort of gravity hill or illusion, so we have to take that one at face value, right?”

“Sure, I mean, whatever,” Kay shrugs.

“Sure,” Emily agrees.

“Well and then there’s an obvious shift in the opposite direction or whatever you want to call it, once you throw the car in neutral from there. What is it, some kind of hill inside a hill? That doesn’t even make any sense.”

“I still don’t follow,” Emily admits with a grimace, and Kay laughs, mostly at Jeremy’s plain agitation.

“Okay...,” he says, clasping his hands together, attempting to explain it slowly, “once you come down that hill from the old man’s driveway, you are clearly at the bottom, unless you’re saying that hill is inverted also and you’re really at the top. Otherwise, if we agree we are at the bottom there and that the road obviously isn’t flat from that point and is obviously moving in a different direction, and there isn’t any kind of dip in the road, then that other direction must be up!”

“But what are you really suggesting?” Kay says, “come on, this goes against every known, like, gravity law in the universe!”

“So what are you saying then? I mean, based on what I just laid out? It’s true, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know, I’m just telling you: walk the thing. Walk the thing and you’ll see what I mean,” Kay tells him.

“Hey but wait a second,” Emily interjects, almost, everyone senses, more to soothe some frayed nerves as much as anything else, “what about when you put the car in reverse? Did that...prove anything?”

Jeremy raises his eyebrows and says, “well, actually, that’s a good point because it proved....” But then he stops and trails off before smacking himself in the forehead.

“What?” Kay asks, with Emily right behind her.

“That actually proved nothing. I remember clearly putting the car in reverse up there. It should have been neutral. Dammit! I just wasn’t thinking. So yeah, that proved nothing. But the rest! I’m telling you, I don’t know...”

The drive southwest back to their hometown of Kenner, NC takes right at an hour. There are no good interstate, for the most part, between these two points, making this a drive of state routes and country roads between a number of only slightly larger towns than Stokely. Kenner is the most sizeable of these, though still not much, boasting but a population of about 3000, with two elementary schools feeding into a single junior and then senior high.

Jeremy drops Kay off first, then his girlfriend, before swinging by the ice cream shop that his parents, Ben and Lois Ado, have owned and ran for the past 13 years. Up until about a week and a half ago, that is, when they could no longer deny the inevitable and were forced to shut the place down, in the face of mounting debt, though this is still the late stages of summer. They can’t even claim some slick corporate competitor swooped into town, unless you count a few Dairy Queens and other mom and pop chains, some fifteen miles away in Martindale. No, though they are conscientious owners who took their craft seriously, doling out fairly impressive and popular fare for an operation like this, watching food costs and adjusting prices accordingly...the reality is, there just isn’t enough population in this declining town to keep even one small ice cream stand afloat. There are but two national franchise chain restaurants, and even both of these are somewhat struggling.

So as Jeremy enters, he finds his parents in their expected states, harried, bummed out, and packing boxes. Ben Ado, his father, donated whatever tallness gene Jeremy might have inherited, though at a good six foot six he didn’t exactly pass on all of that, and towers a good half foot above Jeremy. He’s also wiry strong, despite the years and relative thinness, and looks like he could probably still beat his son up as well. Jeremy likes to think that this is why his dad’s unchanging crew cut through the years has also displayed nothing but a pure, premature greyish-white for over a decade now, as some sort of cosmic scale balancing.

Ben has a Sharpie tucked behind one ear and a hammer hanging out his left pants pocket, behind the counter of this admittedly dingy ice cream parlor which went up somewhere in the mid 1970s. They have a number of cardboard boxes filled and staged along the food window behind, which he is using his marker to label. Then grabs the box in question, spins and deposits it on the counter for Lois to run to the van.

“Here, ma, let me help,” Jeremy offers, jumping in to grab a box as well.

Despite her more modest height, Lois Ado has that brand of invisible strength obtained from a life spent working on one ’s feet. Therefore can shoulder what seems like an absurd load for a middle aged woman of such modest proportions.

It’s only when they are outside again that Jeremy risks asking what has been bothering him for weeks now. Whenever the subject is introduced, his dad, while relentlessly upbeat about the situation, is almost what one might term antagonistically positive, insisting everything will be alright. As though challenging someone to just go ahead and try suggesting they won’t come out smelling roses after this ice cream shop closure. So he’s leaving it up to his mother to answer a much more practical question: what are they going to do with themselves, now?

“I don’t know,” Lois admits with a dry, throaty cackle, the product of who knows how many pots of coffee, every day for most of her 50 plus years. “You’ve got some money saved, right?”

Jeremy, by virtue of living at home and his already having risen through the ranks of his stocking position, to a low rung managerial level, has in fact both made decent money for quite some time now, and also managed to sock it away. Though paying for his car and insurance, his parents have generally not asked him for anything else, nor to move out on his own, even as he’s occasionally offered both since graduation. So as far as he’s concerned he not only doesn’t mind the thought of chipping in and bailing them out if needed, but would be open to having his own place to cut down on their expenses if needed.

“Sure,” he tells her, “I can help you guys out…”

“I’m kidding,” she says, as they’ve finished loading the boxes by now and are returning to the building, “we’ll figure something out. We’re crafty. I’m not worried about it.”

They instinctively clam up on this topic once indoors again, however. Behind the counter, spinning around with the latest box in his hand, Ben’s eyes dart between the two of them, as though - not that this would be a major stretch - plainly intuiting the subject matter covered outdoors. Even in picking up the Sharpie again, to write on this box after setting it on the counter, his face a picture of grim if cautious determination, his eyes don’t leave them as they approach.

Emily is uncertain about a great deal concerning her background. By all rights, she should probably be one of the snobbish popular girls. And even as things have always stood, most would probably agree that if not quite in the inner circle of the uppermost clique, she’s still not far removed from it. Yet she has conflicting emotions about all this anyhow, which might be factor enough, causing by itself exclusion from the high priestess clique. They surely don’t trouble themselves with these matters.

She’s quite aware that most of what popularity she does possess is a direct result of being a) one of the prettier girls - though speaking objectively as she can, if being candid she knows this is true - in her grade, b) living in the Threaded Oaks subdivision, the finest their small town has to offer, a result of her parents’ lustrous careers, c) involvement in all manner of school related and extracurricular activities, which is its own reinforcing feedback loop, in a way, stemming from the confidence brought about by point b, continually increased the more she continues at it, with maybe a pinch of two of d) her intelligence, thrown into the mix, although this too is mostly only a byproduct of some previously listed factors.

And yet, even so, things hadn’t quite turned out how you would draw up the cliché. First off there’s the matter of her obsession with creating art, which manifested itself in substantial fashion somewhere around the age of six. While she supposes her parents are technically kind of artistic themselves in their chosen professions - her dad some kind of major tech wizard, her mother one of the area’s top two or three interior decorators - nobody on either side of the family, stretching back as far as anyone living is aware, has shown so much as an aptitude with watercolors, not until Emily’s arrival in this world. Her mastery of not just painting but a whole slew of other art forms is therefore one of the family’s treasured though perplexing delights.

Her tall, slender frame is also a bit of a mystery, and to a lesser extent her cascading falls of curly, bright blonde hair. True, her dad, Randy Garverick, does still maintain that basic shade himself, into his early 40s, although in his case it’s more of a wispy, often vaguely greasy, straight and ever so slightly orange tinted bowl cut that went out of fashion decades ago. To go along with his giant gold tinted, wire framed glasses which are also stylistically challenged, ditto his seemingly ever-present uniform of black dress slacks and long-sleeved white business shirt with some sort of ill advised vertical striping pattern happening there.

Sure, without question he is a brilliant man, but even so, she has picked up far more genetically from her mother – yet that too wouldn’t seem to extend very far. Kathy Garverick does have a handful of inches on her husband, granted, but she’s also a little more prone to maintaining some excess pounds. True, maybe this doesn’t bode well for Emily in later years, but her mom was never exactly skinny at any age, nor has Emily’s younger sister, Denise, ever been. And so even if already slightly taller than even her mom, she did at least pick up the height gene there, and likewise a tendency toward social interaction, a breezy, inclusive chattiness, as well as the prevailing fashion sense of if not quite hippie attire – God no – then at least a fondness for wild, colorful schemes and loose fitting clothes.

Kathy is much more of a straightforward, networking extrovert, however. Emily considers herself a skilled mingler, as evidenced by her popularity with both teachers and fellow students alike, though she also feels more analytical and withdrawn, cautiously studying a scene more even while ostensibly taking part in it. If not coming anywhere near Randy’s rampant, introspective nerdiness, a trait which he seems to have not imparted upon either of his girls, Emily is still capable of the odd Friday night where she’s ignoring every text and phone call (even those from Jeremy, although typically she’ll just tell him in advance not to bother, and he’s cool with it) in favor of blasting music in her attic bedroom while she paints.

Still, though Emily’s somewhat of an oddball within her family tree, nothing yet considered will even begin to explain Denise. Emily feels as though she’s mostly the complete opposite of her parents, and then Denise is the opposite of that, somehow, which doesn’t flip her back to the other side, rather into some other farflung realm.

Nobody really knows what happened with Denise. There are of course endless theories about everything. But in Emily’s estimation, her parents are neither too lenient nor too overbearing. At some point you maybe do have to chalk it up to just hanging out with the wrong crowd, with possibly a dash of some distant family tendencies thrown into the mix.

Shorter than their dad, even, her hair naturally a wavy shade of sparkly brown which she nonetheless has always hated, almost always straightens and dyes raven black. Denise also possesses by far the most alluringly curvy body of them all, too – even if she takes great pains to downplay this physique, both in dress and, Emily believes, a calculated effort at obnoxiousness which nonetheless, however accidentally, has bled into the real thing, after so much extended practice at it.

So the smoking and drinking at a very young age, yes, as well as a near total lack of interest in school, further enhanced by occasional suspensions from said school, up until she just completely dropped out. And then also a tendency toward boyfriends who were a little more on the thug end of the spectrum. Whereas Jeremy was a handsome, well-liked guy of roughly the same popularity as Emily, throughout high school and beyond, Denise has not only displayed far less interest in social ranking than even she, and has definitely trended downward from there in her selection of dudes.

Clay, her current find, actually might be the best of the bunch, so there’s always hope – and yeah, Emily suspects, as might her parents if they don’t want to actually vocalize as much, that Denise will someday outgrow these rebellious outrcroppings and turn out just fine. But two or three major boyfriends ago she wound up pregnant, in the tenth grade, and if eventually making what was surely the correct decision in opting for an abortion, she sure worked everyone else up around her into a nervous frenzy, wringing her hands about it for an awful long time. Admittedly, her mom and dad handled this situation with considerable aplomb. They were much calmer throughout that ordeal than they have been about Denise’s decision to stop showing up for school, early into her senior year. Currently Denise enjoys a semi-pariah status, half crashing at Clay’s parents’ house, home some of the time, sleeping on the couches at various friends’ the rest.

Ever since stumbling onto that artist retreat the other day, Emily can’t stop thinking about it. While it does sound like a great opportunity for possibly advancing her own artistic pursuits, mostly she’s trying to think of a way to get Denise excited about it, too. Though losing interest in formally expressing it, at a very young age, Denise is actually pretty skilled with poetry, and even better with pencil sketches. She still fiddles with both, in her diary, or graffiti-esque bursts around town, on coffee shop bulletin boards, and so on, but prefers to keep it on the down low. If anyone expresses interest in any of her work, she shuts down and as far as anyone knows won’t touch it again for a month. But this retreat, it could really spark Denise’s interest in pursuing something artistic, Emily feels.

Sometimes Kay resents the relationship Emily has with her parents. Well, not resent, exactly, more like it fills with profound sadness, and leads to bouts of fantasy when contemplating her own situation. She often wonders how different her Noah situation would be, for example, if switching households with Emily. It’s kind of hard not to, considering that Denise actually endured a similar ordeal herself. Meanwhile Kay’s own family, not to put too fine a point on it, has ranged from ever so slightly, queasily supportive of her single mother status, to occasionally downright hostile.

Depending upon these climate changes, she has ranged from either holding down a job – housekeeping, dollar store cashier, you name it – while various relatives babysat Noah, to be stuck at the house doing so herself, for months at a time, when they suddenly began hassling her about the arrangement. She could understand some of the arguments, that they’re all attempting to hold down normal lives themselves, and bring home paychecks, and that Kay’s not even paying them for their services. Yet at the same time, this household wasn’t exactly swimming in cash – that was the entire thrust behind many of these arguments – so if they could somehow juggle things to where Kay might contribute a paycheck, too, then wouldn’t this be better?

It is never explicitly stated as shaming about her teenaged, unwed pregnancy, but Kay knows that this what much of the friction amounts to. Instead, however, her parents, with occasional unnecessary opinion offering from nosy grandparents and a wiseass aunt or uncle, typically focus on the scheduling hassles and telling her she needs to figure something else out. Only roughly half the time, that is, for the other half, everyone’s quite cooperative.

References are often made to her finding and securing a “nice guy” too, somehow, amidst this mayhem. However, while not exactly easy to pull off in her current state, anyway, not in a small town of steadily declining prospects and almost no free time to speak of, she’s mostly in whatever spare moments she has still devoting a great deal of energy to battling her ex, Derrick, for child support. This is not exactly a calm sea to navigate even during the best of times. On one end you’ve got the bureaucracy and red tape, and on the other Derrick’s own constantly moving target. Just when she thinks they’ve got him pinned down with a job and garnished with a payment or two, he quits and relocates somewhere else.

So the general downward drift of her family’s fortunes is behind a great deal of this stress, she knows. But isn’t quite sure what to do about it. Kay’s Hutchison clan were never anywhere nearly as well off as the Garvericks, though were solidly middle class for most of her years growing up here. At this point, though, they are clearly much less so. She and Emily bonded at an early age, not exactly over art, just from being lumped near one another in the same first grade classroom. As a result of hanging out, however, Kay did sort of drift into vague projects somewhere between an old lady’s craftwork, and genuine art. Mostly things involving yarn or fabric, though trending more toward the demented and weird than anything quaint or grandmotherly. Of course it’s been years since she even thought about any of that.

Kay knows Emily is pumped up about this artist’s retreat, following their fluke visit there, and has been attempting to hatch convoluted plans around it ever since. But all Kay can say is that maybe she will be able to visit a couple of times, if this opportunity even comes to pass. Apparently that guy they met who runs the place is charging a pretty penny for residencies of either six weeks or three months, nothing else. While it sounds like a luxurious dream to sit around and zone out thinking about, this is not a feasible strategy. She can already hear them now, her family going absolutely apeshit if she so much as suggested such a thing.

For the past couple of months now, Kay has been going through one of her housebound stretches. They were already on the brink of foreclosure on their two story, vaguely Victorian house out here on the southeastern fringe of town, forcing her parents to double down on their own work schedules. Both her dad, Phil, and her mom, Janice, are fortunately more or less self-employed or at least independent contractors, a carpenter and a house cleaner, respectively, and have simply gotten more industrious in landing clients of late. There’s been talking of downshifting into a smaller place, because this one is maybe slightly more than they need, but this too is a major project nobody has had the time for.

Amidst this constant bickering, the high wire act of tiptoeing around frayed nerves, Noah’s behavior has turned increasingly erratic of late, too. He will go through days long stretches of being alternately irritable, argumentative, or at the other end of the spectrum so quiet he’s nearly listless. Often no interest in doing anything else but sitting indoors glaring with a dazed expression at the TV or computer screen, which she sometimes battles by forcing him outside, though also admittedly is sometimes too exhausted herself and secretly relieved to battle it. But then just as capable of remaining in his room for a few days long stretches, or days where she has to physically drag him back indoors from playing with the neighbor kids. It’s difficult to say where a basic personality begins, and what is just a phase all kids go through, or a cause for legitimate concern. She’s frequently too exhausted to devote much thought to this as well.

“Does anyone want to write a letter to the president?” the girl in the window asks.

“Uh...,” says Denise, while Jeremy just chuckles and smirks.

“Sure!” Emily enthuses, however, and ventures a few steps closer.

“Always eager to please,” Denise says to Jeremy, low, out the side of her mouth.

Jeremy nods but says nothing, too intent upon absorbing this scene to focus on anything else. A great deal has already changed since their first visit out this place. And that was only a few weeks ago, which means Kidwell must have been working these people at a furious pace ever since. Half a matter of building and half restoration, with the three of them having just stepped into the oldest remaining structure, one that has been structurally improved in a couple of places yet otherwise, apparently, left almost unchanged from its previous incarnation.

It’s a three story, almost exclusively wooden affair, with a smattering of brickwork on the back, and will function as the main building for most residents at this retreat. They’ve just stepped through the front door, to the left of which was one of those giant, bulging bay windows, common to old school, downtown businesses back in the day. A raised platform where mannequins and merchandise would frequently reside, although now there’s some girl seated at a school desk, with an ancient typewriter, pecking out the message that Emily’s dictating.

This young lady, of roughly the same age as they, possibly a smidgen older, has curly reddish hair which would probably look even more reddish, except she’s wearing these plastic bright red glasses as well. Retro looking ones, though, of course, with these sharp, kittenish edges, like a sexy secretary in some 1960s spy movie or something, Jeremy thinks. She’s wearing a metallic name tag with GRACE etched into it in black block letters, though, which might look more at home on a security guard or police officer. Even as the rest of her outfit, from this frilly, sheer blouse with an obnoxious flower pattern, to these lime green slacks, neatly fits beside those eyeglasses.

Smiling with satisfaction, having just hammered out that three sentence message on a postcard, Grace peels a stamp from this roll on her desk and affixes it, before dropping this missive into a tray up top. Outside of Harry Kidwell, whom they chatted with for a good ten minutes near the entrance again, and silently nodding at a couple of construction workers in passing, Grace is the first person they’ve encountered, although the house is bustling with activity behind them. Per Kidwell’s instructions, she is supposed to act as their tour guide of these premises, and rises now to facilitate that role.

Emily’s parents basically required no convincing whatsoever to write a check for her three month enrollment here. That was every bit the effortless slam dunk he and she expected. Though passionate about any number of things, she’s been kind of directionless ever since graduating high school, and her folks couldn’t break out that checkbook fast enough. Metaphorically speaking, of course – for all Jeremy knows, they may have paid online. The problem is Emily’s been too fascinated by far too many things, and has left the burned out husks of her interests scattered all over the place. She was enrolled for a while at a university branch location near Kenner, theoretically pursuing nursing, then kind of switching gears into radiology at some other community college even closer to home, is now talking about always wanting to be a veterinarian. Dropping out in between each of these, she’s has occasionally dabbled in work, too, for the most part at clothing stores, though her current jobless state has been far more frequent.

Now that she’s already signed on the eye-popping dotted line, today’s mission is kind of two pronged, possibly three pronged beyond her already agreed upon involvement. She still holds out hope that Jeremy will join her, of course, even though he’s not the least bit artistically inclined, has said he will surely drive out here often to visit and in fact would think it kind of cool to hang out around here often. Kay on the other hand remains highly interested, though funding is an issue, as is the Noah situation. They’ve fantasized about all sorts of wild scenarios where they might come up with the money for Kay to attend, down to Emily even hinting about it to her parents, though they failed to take the bait. That is admittedly a far-fetched scenario, and while under other circumstances she might be more inclined to attempt persuading them, this concern is taking a back burner for now, and she’s really just accumulating more information for Kay at this point, trying to stitch together as many selling points as she can to bring back home. Reason being that, most of all, Emily is really hoping that Denise will take a shine to this concept.

If Denise even displays the tiniest glimmer of interest in being here, Emily knows for a fact that her parents would double the speed in saying yes and forking over the cash. It’s been a major battle with her kid sis, one for whom she almost feels like a parent herself, whose funk or depression or rebellious streak or whatever has lasted well beyond some moody teenaged phase. Maybe some or even a lot of it is just a cry for attention, but she’s convinced that if Denise would just give this retreat a chance, it could seriously turn her life around. Nobody’s talking about taking the art world by storm as a result of this obscure, remote outpost; it’s just a means maybe of tapping into their potential and exploring what they’re capable of, possibly even stitching together a career somehow if they are lucky.

“Hi!” Grace beams at them, flashing a broad, nearly flawless smile.

“Howdy!” Jeremy throws back at her, with a slightly exaggerated jocularity. “Harry sent us here for, you know,” he sticks his index finger in the air and twirls it around, “the grand tour.”

“Yeah, I know!” she enthuses, and is already two or three paces ahead of them as she beckons with one hand, “come on!”

The three of them are barely paying attention to their guide, as the space beside a scuffed, wooden check in desk of sorts – and beyond – has already commanded nearly every drop of their collective focus. Lining the right hand wall, as they move past that desk which looks like something from a hundred year old hotel, at ground level, bin after bin faces them, long wooden troughs are stuffed to the hilt, overflowing with mountains of random looking old toys. From a plastic yellow school bus to some kind of embroidered blue heart, covered with lacy white doily of sorts, and a monstrous jeep missing one wheel, a lunch pail, miniature playset figurines, and everything else conceivable in between. None of it looks any more recent than two decades old, at minimum, and Emily finds herself shivering through her crossed arms for some reason, creeped out by this display. Though it’s this Raggedy Ann stuffed doll, minus one eye, which bothers her most of all.

“Huh uh,” she shakes her head and chuckles darkly at the sight, “nope!”

Denise giggles and says, “she’s looking at you.”

“I know she is! Why do you think I’m freaked out!”

Drawing up to a halt, Grace cackles in the manner of someone who’s heard this countless times before and asks, “you like that, huh? So yeah, umm...,” she brings her hands together, pausing for a beat to collect her thoughts before continuing. “To give you a little bit of history about this place, uh...oh wait – have you all already enrolled, or just thinking about it, or...?”

“I’m already enrolled,” Emily explains.

“Great! Great!”

“...and he’s on the fence,” she points to Jeremy.

“No, I already backed away from the fence. I never even looked at the fence,” he jokes.

“And I burned the fence down,” Denise adds with a smirk. If nothing else, this seems to ruffle Grace’s unflappable demeanor ever so slightly.

“Well, uh...so yeah, anyway, to tell you a little bit about this place, then, as you probably know, Harry’s grandmother passed away a while ago, and left this place to him. Now, as you can probably imagine, there were some legal, uh, situations to sort out, with a place like this...”

“I can imagine,” Jeremy offers.

Grace shoots him a brief, quizzical glance, then barges onward with, “yeah, so it took a couple years to get off the ground, you know, but here we are!”

“What’s with all the toys? And the other...stuff,” Denise asks, casting her eyes around the space. Here in this lobby of sorts, the vaunted ceiling reaches a high as the second floor ceiling does in other parts of the house. Racks upon racks line every inch of the visible walls either, containing neatly sorted collections, if still seemingly random and often duplicate, of board games, books, eight track tapes, magazines, folded fabric, and, in one memorable section, eight or nine ancient looking steamer trunks, side by side, stacked atop one another. Just to name some of the various sets, which she can’t even begin to fully catalog yet.

“I was just getting to that!” Grace offers with a smile, “so yeah, basically, everything you see here in this main house, it belonged to Harry’s grandma. It was all here when he inherited the place. Now...”

“Crazy hoarder granny, eh?” Jeremy suggests.

Grace chuckles and says, “well I think, you know, hoarder is kind of a modern term, which we use to describe maybe this highly disorganized pack rat type of person. But as you can see,” she opens one palm, swivels an around to indicate this room as a whole, “she was actually extremely organized, and thought of herself as more of a collector. I mean, yeah, we have tidied up a little, and made some...modifications, too, but for the most part, she left this building just like you see it.”

Stunned to the point of speechlessness, the trio follows Grace’s lead in a near daze, attempting to cast their eyes around and absorb as much as they can. As such, they have nearly reached what is possibly the most crazed sight this section has to offer before any of them realize what they’re dealing with. It’s an arched doorway carved into one wall, just around and past that hotel desk, except it was created by sawing through stacks of boxed board games stuffed into the wall. These too are all seemingly vintage, if occasionally still popular. Such as the bizarre cross sections of Monopoly, Sorry, and Operation they can see inside of in passing through the doorway.

Awaiting them on the other side is a proper, musty old library, with shelves high enough to require ladders at their upper reaches. In keeping with much that they have seen here, the books are neatly arranged, though otherwise without any sort of organizing pattern. Tall and short, fiction and nonfiction, it’s all jumbled together in a fashion which has them spellbound. A handful of what are presumably fellow residents, Emily observes, are shelving books from boxes, about the spacious room eating up most of this half of the building.

“We did have to restore most of the floor in this room,” Grace observes, staring pensively down at the fresh looking bare hardwood that has now drawn their attention as well, “here, and in the kitchen. There was just too much damage.”

“You were pretty involved with that, were you?” Jeremy jokes.

Finding humor in this taunt, Grace smirks, shooting him a sidelong glance. “Well, you know what I mean...”

“The kitchen?” Emily questions.

“Oh, yeah,” Grace replies, turning toward her now, “there’s a kitchen, and a communal dining area, too. Come on, I’ll show you.”

Near the library’s rear, a pair of restrooms sit on the left, a back door with a large window allowing in some much needed light straight ahead. To the right, a wide, brick lined arched doorway, which was apparently the only one connecting these two halves before that saw job on the board games. Passing through it, they observe a long, scarred and much written upon wooden picnic table, albeit one which has been shellacked with a shiny, clear protective coat recently. It and the bench seating on both sides run parallel to the building’s front and back sides, or what large bay window where they entered, north-south. Meanwhile, beyond it, perpendicular, there’s an actual restaurant looking counter, with the crude beginnings of a menu chalked onto this blackboard hanging above.

“Oh, wow...,” Denise mutters.

“Yeah, it’s starting to come together,” Grace observes, nodding up at the menu herself. “We did have a little...setback with some of the staffing this morning,” she laughs, “but eventually, yeah – it’s gonna be great. We plan on having the same mentality here as we are with the materials, you know, pretty much everything we use is gonna be from on site. I mean we will probably have to get our meat elsewhere, and possibly some other stuff, but plan on growing as much as we can here. Actually, we already are.”

Grace starts to lead them back the way they’ve came, toward the restrooms and the back door, although Emily stops her momentarily by asking, “the materials? Can you elaborate on that?”

“Oh. Yeah! See, the plan is, everything we artists use is supposed to come from the collection. The materials Mrs. Kidwell donated, which we have on hand.”

“Really?” Emily says, doubt plain in her voice, as she casts her eyes about the room, from the floors to the ceiling, “I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of stuff here, and it’s pretty damn fascinating, and weird, but...” she trails off with a giggle.

“You haven’t seen the upstairs,” Grace explains, looking a bit self-satisfied as she miles. She nods toward the obvious, a big staircase whose backside is only visible from here, running alongside one wall between here and the front desk. “But anyway, let me show you our garden area first.”

Upon stepping through the doorway and exiting the back door, they first step onto a dirt type pit area, with benches and a fire ring, which is obviously used as some sort of smoking lounge for the residents. Indeed, a young girl in a white kitchen jacket, black chef’s pants emblazoned with a continuing pattern of ketchup and mustard bottles, is puffing away on a cigarette out here. Standing off to the side, she’s a short girl with dark brown hair which has been braiding with rubber bands on the side, the braids themselves – or pigtails, or whatever, Jeremy’s not exactly sure what you call these – have in turned been lashed with clips to the side of her head. She looks both a little agitated, somehow, and completely nonplussed by their presence.

“This is Jen,” Grace explains, extending a hand as if this were just another tour piece. “Jen will be in the kitchen, well, obviously.”

“Is she the main chef?” Denise asks.

“They!” Jen snarls, turning toward with a swift, startling vengeance.

“Huh?” Denise replies.

“I’m not a she! I prefer they, okay!?”

Denise’s eyes widen as she turns to her pair of colleagues, as if to say what’s with this crazy bitch? but saying nothing more.

“Well, I guess you could say Jen is our primary kitchen employee, now...,” Grace suggests with a weak smile, attempting to cut the tension.

“Only kitchen employee now,” Jen retorts.

“Yeah, I heard! Okay, so anyway...,” Grace breezily declares, “moving along...”

Beyond the smoking area, they reach a fenced off garden section, directly behind the brick wall of the kitchen, which itself has a door off of it, for convenience. The garden is a rectangular plot measuring, Jeremy calculates, probably something like 30’ x 50’, enclosed by a wire fence, with neatly tilled rows and a path for walking the perimeter. Additionally, the rain spouts running alongside the back of the building have been fitted with these neatly little appendages, curving upward every couple of feet, with additional planters of spices, flowers, and the like. Even if much of this is beginning to look a little threadbare at this point, late in the summer season.

“We’ve already harvested a lot, obviously,” Grace says, intercepting where their gazes have drifted, and the thoughts behind them, “and canned or frozen or, like, preserved what we could, you know, since it’ll be getting cold soon.”

Now that the chef has finished her cigarette and drifted back indoors, though, Denise explodes with what had clearly been a bottled up sentiment. “What a fuckin cunt!” she bellows, staring at the back door into which Jen just disappeared. “How the fuck would I know the way you prefer to be addressed?”

“There’s no reason to be that shitty about it,” Jeremy agrees.

“Yeah...,” Emily concurs in soothing tones, in an effort to calm down her sister but also not completely alienate this really nice tour guide, “not with somebody you just met, I guess.”

“That’s what I mean,” Denise says, still seething.

Grace crinkles up her features into an awkward, lopsided smile, but otherwise presses onward in showing them the facilities. Led back indoors and up the stairs, they will encounter a second followed by a third floor, nearly every room of which is dedicated to one particular type of supply Mrs. Kidwell was in the habit of collecting, from mountains of yarn in one room, to pretty looking bottled in another, various types of wood, or a thousand half empty containers of paint. According to Grace, the old lady was not an artist herself, but just literally fond of collecting large sets of random objects like this. A select few rooms on the second floor have been left alone as quarters for kitchen employees, and there’s one in the front portion of the top-level which has a bar, was once and might be again a resident lounge of sorts. Also, one giant, carpeted section, which is in the southwest corner of the second floor and feels like the world’s largest walk-in closet, features nothing but clothes.

“We’re encouraging the artists to borrow clothing from The Collection, also,” Grace notes, “in fact everything I’m wearing today is from The Collection.”

“Everything?” Denise suggestively questions, with a raised eyebrow.

“Well...,” Grace cackles, shutting off the light as they leave, “everything you can see.”

Once their inspection of this main building is finished, the three of them will track Harry down again, working on yet another residential cabin, which he and his team are building in an inverted L shape, if facing from the front of property. Just beyond that front administrative building of sorts, where they had met him during their first visit, these cabins form a solid line, obscuring the institute proper, behind them, and then also continue in a line up the right hand side of the clearing, beside that major expanse of forest. Harry shakes their hands with considerable enthusiasm and asks what they thought, before talking them into exploring the rest of the grounds and he extolls its virtues at great length.

Just two of the cabins remain from an earlier incarnation, and it’s in one of these that they are introduced to a middle aged couple, Tom and Kathy Drucker, who are apparently artists of some renown in the region, especially him. Tom Drucker is arguably semi-famous, Harry explains, after they’ve left the couple, and it’s a major coup landing them for extended residencies, that he’s hoping they will conduct some workshops. This makes Jeremy wonder if they’ve been paid to come here, but he can’t think of a tactful way to ask. So, as Harry rambles at length about some of the buildings being in such a sad state that he had to tear them down, although an old brick schoolhouse and a barn are a couple of the other pre-existing structures, Jeremy instead frames a vague question about what kind of employees will be on hand once this opens.

“We’re launching in two weeks,” Harry begins explaining, in somewhat roundabout fashion. They’ve stopped walking for the moment and are gathered near the rear of the compound, before reaching the barn and the school building, as Harry stands with hands on hips, nodding yet observing the distant action up by the main house. “In fact you might argue we’ve already launched, unofficially. So, yeah,” he chuckles, “I’m in a little bit of crunch on some things, particularly on the kitchen staffing now. I have already hired this extremely knowledgeable old guy with a ton of experience, Liam Blodgett, who I’m sure you’ll be meeting shortly. He’s got a ton of experience in both, so basically he’s going to be running things here, on an administrative level, but then also I’m hoping providing some guidance on the art angle as well.”

He’s gonna be running things?” Jeremy asks. For whatever reason, he pictured Harry being on site even after the retreat launched, although this does seem kind of preposterous, the more he thinks about it.

“Yeah...well, I figure to back away, and move onto other things, you know, once this is up and running. Of course,” he turns his attention to them now, finally, flashing a lustrous white smile, as a gust of wind blows his brownish-grey moptop around, “the way things are looking, I’ll probably be stuck in a caretaker’s role for at least the next little while. So just call me Mr. Janitor!”

Trailing in his wake, the three of them follow his lead to the faded old brick building, directly ahead. Though the land has been on a slight incline ever since cresting that first big hill up front, it levels out here, although the school and barn both are wedged in against an even larger hill directly beyond. Hemmed in by forest on the north and south sides, but the rise itself, behind and to the east, continues in mostly clear fashion – at least as much of it as they can see – other than a tall, wild, kind of trampled looking variety of lush green grass.

As they enter the school, Kidwell explains a little bit about its history, that it was built in the 1940s and contains four classrooms, an office, and a small breakroom. No cafeteria, however, as the main building downhill has been here much longer, and its ground floor was used in that capacity during the years this school was open.

“Wait, was it a school school ever, or just, always, like an art institute of some sort?” Emily asks.

Pausing in their travels, about halfway down the central hall, Harry taps his lips thoughtfully with an index finger and says, “that’s a good question, actually. I’m not sure. I think it might have been used as a regular old school, briefly. But I have to admit, I haven’t done a ton of research on the history here. Or any research, really – but don’t tell anyone.”

As he chuckles and continues down the hall, they do the same, reflexively. Dividing the brick building in half, this hall passes a classroom each on the right and left. Ahead, the hall bends to the left, though in its elbow on the northeast corner sits the office, where they can hear someone talking on the phone. Following his lead, all four of them slip into the reception area, and can see an older man, probably in his late 50s, with a mostly grey head of curly hair and matching bushy goatee, seated at a desk, cell in hand. He glances up and raises a hand, to which Harry does the same, and the others nod in recognition.

Backing out into the hallway, they conclude this portion of their tour. After bending in his its own L shaped pattern, inverted, that small breakroom lies on the right hand side, with another classroom, running the length of the hall on the left, and a final one carving out what remains of the space on the right. They then exit the only other door into the building, and find themselves facing the barn, with the sun having suddenly gone behind some clouds and a somewhat fiercer breeze kicking up. Dreamily absorbing this scene, they all stare down the hill, at the flurry of activity down the hill. People toting boxes into various cabins, and the construction team busy in various other pockets about the compound.

After offering to show them the barn, though with the disclaimer that it’s only used for storage and there’s nothing interesting to see there whatsoever, it suddenly occurs to Kidwell to mention, “oh! So that was Liam Blodgett back there, in the office, in case you couldn’t figure it out. He’s a...Carolina...Englishman...trapped in – well, whatever you’d call this place, I guess!”

Though chuckling heartily at his own joke, the others aren’t quite sure what this means and respond in much more subdued fashion. More to break up the awkward silence than anything, Jeremy nods at the hill behind them and asks, “so what’s up that way? Anything else?”

Startled away from his own train of thoughts, by appearances studying some workers nearby, it takes Harry a second to register this question and turn in that direction. “Yeah, actually, there’s a decent sized pond up there. It seems to stay pretty clear, too, don’t ask me how. Of course there is a little creek flowing into it, but...some fish, too, believe it or not.”

When another moment passes in silence, Kidwell brings his hands together and says, “well, okay, I guess we should wrap up this little sojourn. I’m behind enough as it is. But do I have any converts?”

He laughs and so does Emily. While Denise continues to not so much scowl, but look around in every direction, in contemplative fashion, the other eyes turn to Jeremy, who has suddenly somehow become the target of an inside joke. Or at least that’s how it feels. He becomes aware that Kidwell and his girlfriend must have had at least some little discussion about persuading him to attend. Emily knows that he easily has enough money saved to afford enrolling here for as long as she has. What she’s not aware of, however, is that he has been mulling this over at great length, and some of the time, it does almost seem like a viable concept to him. Despite not having an artistic bone in his body, the idea of goofing around in this pastoral retreat for a few months sounds heavenly. But then more practical concerns win the day, and he realizes it would just be a tremendous waste of his hard won savings. Not to mention the most compelling obstacle of all, which he voices now.

“Well, unfortunately, while it sounds cool and everything...there’s the little matter of the job I’ve got to hold down. Those bills don’t pay themselves!” he jokes.

“Don’t I know it, don’t I know it,” Harry nods in agreement. But then shifts gears back into a clowning mode again himself, jesting, “you any good with your hands, by chance? I told you I need a custodian around here!” And laughing heartily yet again at his own little joke.

Even so, Jeremy thinks he’s if nothing else half serious, and can’t resist throwing out some feelers in that direction. “Hmm! Well, you never know. What’s the starting salary?”

“Well, what are you doing now? Chances are I’ll match it.” Harry suggests, though muddying the seriousness of this proposal yet again with another gut busting laugh.

Upon hearing this suggestion, however, Jeremy isn’t thinking about himself, but rather his uncle Lenny. Lenny, his mom’s younger brother, is probably his favorite relative, and it’s kind of cool to daydream about Lenny taking up such an exotic assignment as this. Though in many respects, he is custom made for it – kind of a hard luck guy, even if much of it is his own making, true, and accident prone, but a lot of fun to be around, always up for an adventure. But more importantly, he actually has a ton of background in this line of work, while at the same time does often seem to experience difficulty keeping a job. He makes a mental note to ask Lenny if he’s interested, as soon as they are back to town.

“Of course, even with the tuitions and grant money, uh...let’s just say we might need some other revenue streams around here...,” Harry muses, rubbing his jaw now as he continues to study the workers. “So be brainstorming! Your thoughts are welcome, heh heh. Now, I know we will probably set up some showings down the road, but I’m not sure how much of that I could realistically ask...maybe a gift shop, too, I’m thinking maybe in the barn if we clear that out at some point...”

“What about charging for a tour?” Emily suggests, “that was actually pretty interesting. I’ll bet you could rustle up a decent crowd if you did that, like, once a week or something.”

Harry makes an impressed face as he begins nodding, then turns, smiling, and points an index finger in approval at Emily.

The three of them turn right upon leaving the institute, which is the same direction they’ve arrived from, of course, on this immaculate, newly constructed road. It still seems as though there’s almost nothing but forest both ways on this road, and so even if most of the trees are those tall, slender, nearly branchless pines, creepy as they are, this should indeed make for an idyllic retreat, for Emily to get away from the mundanity of their everyday existence and just focus on her artwork. She sighs now at the sheer dreaminess of it, in this otherwise silent car, as to a person they all seem to be absorbed in their thoughts and soaking up the scenery. It’s only upon reaching the curvy, mostly downhill main road back into Stokely that she attempts questioning them head on.

“So...what did you guys think?”

“Eh,” Jeremy shrugs, “it’s impressive how much they’ve accomplished in such a short order. And I have to say, meeting a few more people who’ll be staying there makes me feel a little better.” He smiles over at her and clarifies, adding, “makes it seem a little less...half baked.”

She opens her mouth in mocking protest and says, “it was never half baked! You could tell right away they weren’t messing around up there!”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”

“I don’t know, something was bugging me the entire time we were up there,” Denise chimes in from the back seat, “I don’t mean, like, something paranormal or whatever, nothing like that. I mean...like there was something missing or something, something off, and it was in plain sight but we hadn’t noticed.”

“Well, they were definitely missing a strong internet signal. But Harry said that’s one of the things they’re working on,” Emily says, which is true, but kind of a taunting joke anyway.

“No, no, that’s not what I mean. Although now that you mention it...,” Denise trails off, digging in to the front pocket of her jeans to extract a cell phone. She pulls up an internet browser and asks, “has anyone actually bothered to check out the history of that place? Or do a background check on him?”

“Paranoid much?” Emily says, and rolls her eyes with a smile over at Jeremy.

Well, Emily can make these dismissive wisecracks all she wants, but it’s always been like this. Denise feels as though she’s forever been the one hanging back and observing, attempting to piece things together, see them as they really are. Whereas Emily tends to just accept everything she sees at face value. Again, this probably ties back into her need to please, but it’s also, in Denise‘s estimation, made for a much more superficial existence. Whereas with her own choices...Denise is well aware that her family condemns them, is often in a state of dismay in considering her the clear cut black sheep of the family. And mistakes have been made, no doubt about it. But as far as she’s concerned, this is the price you pay for attempting to strip out superficiality, the see things as they are and live how you want.

“Well, the signal’s still not great, even here,” she says, puts her phone away in the face of such sluggishness. “So hopefully this dude has some major clout or something. But. I don’t know. Jeremy’s right, in a way, that encounter with that kitchen cunt does make things seem more believable and real, in a way....”

Approximately ten minutes after leaving the art institute, they arrive in the nearest sleepy hamlet all over again, gliding down a gentle curve to the southwest, crossing one state route, before nearing the Fairlawn Diner. Apart from one national pizza delivery outpost they’d glimpsed on the opposite edge of town, itself a shocking sight, this appears to be Stokely’s only restaurant. By mutual consent, if agreeing to ride out here with Emily today, on a recon mission of sorts which really didn’t even accomplish anything, then she in turn was willing to explore the countryside beyond at random, which is one of Jeremy’s hobbies. Therefore also by mutual, if instantly decided, consent, they are pulling up into a curbside parking slot opposite the diner, to grab some lunch and decide upon their next destination, or more likely a series of them.

As they are crossing the street, the front door swings open, and that old woman who’d been their waitress the previous occasion exits, with a light jacket on, toting a bulky handbag. Her work day has obviously just ended. Jeremy chuckles and raises his hand in a quick wave, but she glances at them without recognition, turns and begins strolling down the sidewalk. He watches her the whole way, but she just keeps going, so apparently must live around here.

They are seated this time at a four top table in the center of the room, where a tall, impossibly energetic and highly feminine acting kid of roughly their age immediately greets them, explaining he’ll be their server. He has spiky hair dyed a vibrant orange, with bright yellow spots elsewhere, is heavily pierced and tattooed. Leaves little doubt as to his sexual orientation, they all agree, and must furthermore have ruffled quite a few feathers all around with his presence in this community. In other words, good for them, although Jeremy can’t help joking, after their server’s out of earshot, retrieving their drink orders, that the dude would make a good fit up at the artist’s retreat.

“That’s inappropriate,” Emily tssks.

“For whom? We’re the only three that heard it.”

“Well...it’s offensive, then,” Denise jokes.

“In what way?”

“Well...it’s something. It’s definitely something,” Emily concludes.

Jeremy has brought a book with him titled Creepy Carolinas, and has begun thumbing through it for suggestions on where to spend their day. As the waiter drops off their drinks, Emily, observing that this place actually has surprisingly trendy fare for such a podunk operation, requests some fried oysters as an appetizer. Otherwise, she orders a Caesar salad and Jeremy some massive sounding sandwich with three different kinds of meat. Denise says she’s just sticking with a water, yet denies being broke, when Emily offers to pay if she orders something.

Having signed into the free wi-fi this diner offers, Denise is much more consumed with attempting to figure out some local history, on her phone, and researching Harry Kidwell. Emily continues to people watch, both inside and outside, as she is facing the large picture window in front. Jeremy flips through his book, which is sorted by region, and while there is a curious lack of any noteworthy sights anywhere around here, he’s found a bunch within driving distance, particularly to the east.

“Hey, you wanna go see the only place Venus flytraps naturally grow?” he suggests.

Emily laughs and replies, “no, I don’t wanna see where Venus flytraps grow!”

Their waiter, meanwhile, though just barreling past their table with four plates in hand, bound elsewhere across the room, jokes in passing, “mmm, I was gonna say if she doesn’t, I sure do!”

The three of them laugh at this, though Jeremy also smirks over at Emily, raises one hand slightly, palm up, and points it in the general direction the server just went, a gesture generally interpretable as see what I mean? She concedes his point by returning an over-the-top fake, wiseass smile.

“Okay, so...wow!” Denise announces, staring down at her phone, “well, even though – admittedly - the internet kinda sucks these days if you want anything except current events, uh...apparently there was a fire up there at one point...”

“A fire?!” Emily gasps, recoiling and shooting a glance at her sister, in the next seat over.

“Mmm hmm,” Denise nods, “so okay, that’s what happened to most of the buildings. Obviously that just kind of killed their momentum. They closed down a short while after that. Now, as for this Kidwell...,” she sighs through her nose, clicks on a couple other links until finding one she had evidently already read, “well, I mean, it looks like he’s actually a reputable businessman around this region...”

“You guys talking about Harry Kidwell?” the server asks, as he’s dropping off their oysters.

“Yeah!” the three of them more or less say in unison, peering up at the kid for answers.

“Thought so,” he nods, setting down the gleaming, white, irregularly oval plate, with a pair of identical looking, creamy orange dipping sauces and a trendily tasteful if not overabundant clutch of fried oysters.

“Yeah, he’s uh, starting that artist’s retreat back up,” Emily explains, “I’ve already enrolled, actually. The Central Carolina Artists’ Retreat?”

“Okay, okay, I might have heard something about that,” the waiter nods, as he refills their waters, “that dude’s got...,” he rubs his free thumb together with some fingers, pantomiming someone rolling in money.

“Really?” Jeremy alone says, hopefully.

“Oh yeah,” the waiter replies, glancing down at them. Then to the whole table says, “I mean, I think the general impression is, you know, he’s kinda kooky, kinda flaky, but mostly harmless. He lives not too far from here, actually. He’s had some whack ideas as far as reviving this region,” the waiter says with a laugh, then adds, “but...I guess you don’t get that far in life without having a lot of good ones, too. Mostly good ones.”

When their food arrives, they are impressed with the portion sizes and modernity of it all. Emily even shares half of her salad with a seemingly reluctant Denise, and Jeremy some of his fries. Emily most of all remains dazzled by their oyster appetizer, in particular the dipping sauce, and raves about it continually as the other two continue their incongruous research.

“Hey, I guess there’s an abandoned castle you can visit, not too far from here,” Jeremy observes, “of course, it’s supposed to be off limits, but this says nobody’s really watching the place.”

“I wonder what that dipping sauce was?” Emily ponders, “I don’t remember what it said on the menu. I think I’m gonna call it...Yum Yum Sauce.”

“Well, I don’t know,” Denise concludes, putting her phone away. By this point they have killed their plates, and are waiting on the check. “Something’s still bugging me about that place, and I don’t think it’s the fire.”

When the waiter reemerges, and Jeremy just hands him cash before he’s even set the check down, Emily asks, “hey, what do you call that sauce that came with the oysters? I decided it was called Yum Yum Sauce.”

“It’s actually called Mmmdelicious Sauce,” he jokes.

“Something horseradish...,” Jeremy mumbles, remembering at least this much from the menu.

“Well yeah on our menu it says tomato horseradish, but in the culinary world, you know, its official name is Mmmdelicious Sauce. We just put sundried tomato horseradish on there because it’s easier for people to remember.”

He breezes away without even waiting for a response, as the others begin to rise from their chairs. Emily asks what the verdict is, exactly, for their next great adventure. Jeremy mutters that he wouldn’t mind trespassing through some woods back to this castle. Denise, however, is having none of it.

“Can we just dispense with this daytrip stuff and head back home.? We have a lot of work to do,” she suggests.

“A lot of work to do?” Emily questions.

“Oh yeah,” she nods, grinning broadly for a change, as they head out into the bright fall day, begin crossing the mostly still street, “I’m coming with you. And so’s Jeremy.”

Jeremy waves his hands in protest, and mentions pitching that job offer to Lenny instead. But Emily’s not really focused upon this detail, anyway, visibly brightening instead over the notion that Denise is interested.

“Really?” she says, smiling over at her younger sis, as they draw up next to Jeremy’s car.

“Yeah, why not. Somebody’s gotta look out for you. And figure out what’s really going on.”

“Lenny! Get over here!” the foreman, Bob Griffin, barks at him from across the muddy expanse of their work site.

Rivet gun in hand, Lenny was en route to the makeshift elevator, which would take him to the upper, skeletal reaches of this high rise in progress. Had only sort of halfway slowed down to yuk it up with a couple of coworkers, over some random woman they’d spotted walking down the sidewalk during lunch. But must now reverse course and jog over to see what it is his boss wants.

“Yes, sir?”

“What’s this?” Griffin asks, bringing one hand around from behind his back to reveal a tall green metal thermos.

“What do you mean?” Lenny shrugs, though already aware where this surely headed, and attempting to keep his face from dropping into the mud as a result, “it’s what I keep my coffee in.”

Grimacing, Griffin unscrews the lid and shoves the thermos under Lenny’s nose. “Hmm. Well, I’d say you’ve been keeping a little bit more than coffee in here, wouldn’t you? What would you say this smells like? Go on, give ’er a good whiff.”

Lenny does as instructed, although there’s no real reason to. Already, he’s begun enacting his defense, stammering, “yeah, but today, uh...”

And what he’s starting to say is that he hasn’t been drinking on the job today, as it turns out, which is actually true. Yet he stumbles over the realization of how a) how ridiculous this sounds, b) how it doesn’t matter anyway, and c) almost adding that he hasn’t been drinking on the job at all this week, but knowing this is untrue, and thinking about a course correction at the last minute by naming the specific number of days, except he’s not 100% sure about this, either, whether it was Monday or Tuesday, and also realizing that this too would sound ridiculous and not make a difference anyway.

Griffin now sticks the thermos under his own nose and wiggles it back and forth, inhaling deeply. “I’d say this smells like rum, wouldn’t you? And not especially expensive rum at that. Can we agree that this smells like cheap rum?”

Lenny half nods and half shrugs all at once, as his foreman barges onward with this inevitable series of points. “Okay, now let’s suppose, you’re about, I don’t four of five stories up,” Griffin suggests, pointing at a section of exposed beam towering above them, casting his eyes skyward for a second. Lenny’s reflexively drift up there as well, before they stare one another down again.

“Now, let’s suppose you have an – oh, I don’t know – let’s suppose you have a jackhammer up there with you. So there you are, cruising along with your rum and your jackhammer, and everything’s going just fine. You with me so far?”

Lenny just slowly nods, now, fighting off an urge to simply walk off this job site and spare himself the embarrassment. But these boss figures don’t end up commanding large swaths of men by chance, and there’s an intimidation factor keeping him here, as well as some sort of mesmerizing trick, whereby he feels himself under a spell to continue standing here and listening.

“Good,” Griffin nods once himself, satisfied. “Now let’s suppose you happen to let go of that jackhammer. Understand I’ve got – what – two dozen men running around down here on this site, yours truly included. Now what do you suppose is gonna happen if you accidentally let go of that jackhammer from four or five stories high?”

Lenny just shrugs, feeling yet again like a high schooler rather than the 32 year old, up to this second gainfully employed adult that he is. Which wouldn’t be the first time, true, and is surely an outcome of his own creation. Yet it’s kind of getting old, all the same. He hasn’t even technically been fired yet, but is already kicking himself in the pants.

“You don’t know? Well, I’ve got a pretty good mental picture!” Griffin barks, “but I’d rather not see a real life reenactment of it! Now get the fuck out of here!” He hands Lenny the empty thermos and adds, “you can pick up your final paycheck next Thursday.”

With this, Griffin turns and stomps off to another corner of the site. Lenny stands staring after him for a second, dumbfounded, thermos in hand. He glances around and observes almost nobody is paying any attention to this spectacle, as they all continue about their business, and this fills him with an even greater despair, somehow, than a bunch of jeering leers. Having no other choice or say in the matter, he turns in the opposite direction and trudges reluctantly off the grounds.

“I need this!” Kay screams, hands out and fingers raised as if about to claw her mother. “I fucking NEED this, and YOU already agreed to it!”

Emily and Denise are on their way over right now, this morning of their scheduled departure. Everything came together with shocking swiftness, finally gelling in just a couple of hours last night. While Emily is generally perceived as the more gifted, popular socialite of the two sisters, and in most respects this is true, there are occasional situations where Denise’s bluntness is more effective. Emily is almost too nice to pull some things off. When those two and Jeremy returned from their visit to the artist’s retreat last weekend, they stopped in here at the house that Sunday night, with some elaborate plan they’d already concocted. Denise went to work convincing Kay’s mother that this was basically the best idea, ever. Meanwhile with an insistence that threatened to and then did actually move Kay to tears – giant, sobbing ones – Jeremy insisted that he had enough money saved to theoretically enroll himself, but had no plans to do so, and therefore would be willing to back Kay in this venture.

“You can pay me back whenever. I know you’re good for it,” he told her, when she attempted weak protests of this offer.

The only real sticking point concerned her mother, Pamela, a heavyset, chain smoking, foul mouthed blonde whom she both loves like nobody else this side of Noah, yet also fights with more than everyone else on the planet combined. While Kay is not exactly skinny herself, she is not nearly as foul mouthed, either – most would probably describe her, essentially accurately, as sweet – and yet during their more vicious, extended shouting matches she can occasionally be found calling her mother a fat bitch, both to the woman’s face, and in weary recaps, shaking her head as she explains it to friends later.

So she had sat on the fence all week, hemming and hawing about this proposal, of letting Kay attend the retreat for three months. Kay brought it up at least once every night from Monday through Wednesday, yet these efforts seemed to have little impact and may have in fact damaged the situation. It wasn’t until a series of morose, bleary eyed phone calls last night, Friday, and the eventual appearance of the Garverick sisters back over here, and Denise once again working her magic – because, for whatever reason, Pamela has always sort of bonded uniquely with her sassiness – that the entire concept was not just salvaged, but given the green light.

“We’re only talking three months, and how many people around town do we all know? We know half of Kenner,” Denise rationalized, “so everyone can kinda pitch in watching Noah, even Jeremy has said he doesn’t mind watching Noah. In fact his parents also kinda suddenly have a bunch of free time on their hands, heh heh heh...”

“Yeah, plus, you can always bring him up there to visit me,” Kay added, though judging from Pamela’s facial expression, this wasn’t helping any, “and actually I think they plan on having tours.”

Still, her mother did finally nod and say okay, without a whole lot of additional effort. Only to kind of erupt this morning and claim she has a full slate already, just considering today alone, and really can’t deal with Noah right now. Furthermore insisting this is a stupid idea, rolling her eyes and scoffing, “pottery,” under her breath when Kay mentioned what she’d hope to work on, not just up at the retreat but possibly as a business venture moving ahead. And that therefore Kay should call her friends back to cancel.

But she is having none of it. As Emily and Denise pull into the driveway, honking their horn because they know better than to risk compromising this by coming indoors, Kay gives Noah a hug and kneels down to explain that she’ll miss him very much, but that this is something she needs to do for their future. She grabs her bags, shoots a dirty look back at Pamela, who’s smoking a cigarette and leering from the kitchen doorway, before slamming the door behind her. Yet all this anger is instantly forgotten, as she sees her friends and they squeal in unison, as Kay slides her bags and her body into the back seat.

“Man, your timing could not be better!” Lenny had marveled, when Jeremy called him, not even 24 hours after losing his construction gig.

“Yeah, he already agreed to it, on the spot,” Jeremy explains, “not that it really took much convincing. He was basically worried he would have to do this caretaker crap himself. He asked me to do it, actually, that’s how this started.”

As Jeremy recites Kidwell’s phone number, so Lenny can call him to discuss pay and some other particulars, Lenny jokes, “thanks, man – can’t say I’ve ever had somebody else line up work for me before!”

“Yeah, no problem,” he tells his uncle.

Yet as they continue making small talk, Jeremy’s only half focused, for his mind has suddenly drifted off to another which just popped into his head, somehow. He’s glancing back at the kitchen, watching his parents talk and sort through a number of boxes they’ve brought in from the car, various restaurant items they’re sifting through now as they decide what to put where. In his single-minded focus to shovel off any temptation with this caretaking assignment, while at the same time hopefully hook up his uncle and keep this job in the family, he kind of overlooked something even more obvious: that kitchen up there at the retreat needs staffing, too. And so as soon as he’s off the phone with Lenny, drifting upstairs to his bedroom so as to discuss this in private, he’s calling up Kidwell with another proposal.

After an exceptionally brief chat with Kidwell, during which time he sounds borderline euphoric to learn that Jeremy has not one but two potential kitchen workers on standby - “yeah, with everything else, I hadn’t quite gotten around to tackling that situation yet...,” Harry admitted – he is back downstairs, trying to think of the best way to broach this topic. It’s weird how invested he feels, like he’s taken pride and ownership in an enterprise that even he has nothing to do with. True, his girlfriend, uncle, and a couple other lifelong comrades have already committed, but Jeremy has nothing invested, in any sense of the word, if this doesn’t succeed.

Judging from his parents’ faces, they too consider it weird when he finally gets around to bringing this up, a number of minutes into their conversation. As far as they knew, while aware that Emily was enrolling, the last update had been that Jeremy himself considered it some sort of kooky scheme he had no interest in. Yet in the course of helping them sort out these boxes, first he mentions landing that job for Lenny – although this too unfortunately derails conversation a while, because there’s no way not to explain that Lenny had just lost his previous job, forcing its own substantial detour of Lois pausing to call Lenny for details – and then he casually mentions the kitchen vacancies up there, that he’s already lined up jobs for them, too.

“I just talked to Harry and explained your credentials,” Jeremy says, with what he hopes is a casual, offhand shrug, “he said you could basically run the place.”

Basically run the place, or actually run the place?” Lois pointedly asks.

“He said you could run the place. They do have a chef already, you know, to make the food, but you would be in charge of the business aspects of running the kitchen.”

“This guy sounds like a real crackpot, Germ,” Ben observes, hands on hips, as they’ve halted progress to discuss this, standing around the kitchen table, “who just hires a bunch of people, sight unseen, without even talking to them, or asking for a resume?”

“Everybody says he’s loaded,” Jeremy shrugs again, “and we’ve done our research on him, too, you know, he looks legit.”

“He looks legit or he is legit?” Lois questions yet again.

“He’s legit,” Jeremy confidently declares.

“I don’t know...,” Ben croaks, wiping some sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, staring off into the near distance.

“Well just, at least, talk to the guy,” Jeremy implores, “I’m sure it will be a temporarily deal anyway. I don’t think he plans on operating this place year round. If nothing else it buys you time to figure out your next move.”

Having apparently won over his mother, now she is suggesting to Ben, “well, it wouldn’t hurt to call him, anyway...,” and explaining that this seasonal situation, as well as the nearness to opening, is a plausible explanation for Kidwell’s casual hiring stance. And Ben’s nodding, agreeing at last that he’ll give Kidwell a call, accepting the business card that Jeremy extends to him.

The main building has four bedrooms, all in a row on the right hand side if the second floor. These have basically been reserved for the kitchen help, although in the absence of much kitchen help, Grace is occupying one of them. Jen naturally claims the other, yet in the weirdest twist yet, by the time the girls arrive at the retreat this fine Saturday morning, at some point during the course of their drive up here, Ben and Lois Ado have called, spoken to Harry, and laid their hands upon the largest, which is also the only with its own bathroom.

Kidwell is waltzing about the property in a state of mild euphoria, which more or less matches their own. So much is going on that it’s a bit brain scrambling to even process it all. First off, by mutual consensus of the artists polled – Grace did at least text Emily for suggestions, though not using any of her ideas nor for that matter replying – it is officially announced just this morning that the retreat is now renamed the much more modern sounding Otherwise. Not being an artist himself, Kidwell takes some convincing, as he scans their faces endlessly looking for signs of some elaborate prank before finally saying yes.

Tom and Kathy Drucker have taken the old, last cabin on the right, for various reasons. Chief among them is its spaciousness, though they also like the relative seclusion – unlike the newer ones Kidwell has constructed, theirs at least has some landscaping, is set back partially into some of the forest’s trees – and its proximity to the school building. Although Kidwell has been half jokingly pressuring them to conduct some workshops in that building, at the very least they plan on working and displaying their pieces over there.

As the unofficial quote unquote opening night, Harry has planned an introductory dinner here in the main house. Yet even the food is not even near ready, apart from veggie and finger food type trays staged every so often along the massive picnic table, everyone is milling around with the inevitable glasses of wine, talking with slightly raised voices above this 1930s type swing music someone is ironically – Emily hopes, anyway – spinning on a vintage turntable. Whatever the case, it does make for a lively atmosphere, if nothing she would ever choose to play on her own.

Though meeting their vague schoolmaster figure, Liam Blodgett, ever so briefly, finding him as charmingly droll as one would expect from a well-dressed old British gent, Emily winds up chatting most of all with this married couple, the Druckers, with whom she’s hitting it off more than expected. They are in their early to mid 40s and not the least bit pretentious, even though both are highly skilled artists and he is apparently, so Emily has been told by others at least a half dozen times, somewhat of a painting celebrity in this state. He has a full, vaguely shaggy head of shiny black hair, goatee to match, and a checkered old fedora perched at a jaunty angle atop his head, while she wears her sandy, rough hewn locks not quite reaching the shoulder, and, though smiling more openly than the much more smirk-inclined Tom, also has this tendency to stare you down with these wide, vaguely glassy looking blue eyes, every time you speak, as though it takes her a few seconds to register whatever is said. Yet this is by all appearances just Kathy’s natural state, for she doesn’t come across as messed up, is actually quite witty still even after a few glasses of wine.

When Emily also hears in passing that Jeremy’s uncle Lenny has also agreed to a job here, though, it occurs to her how weird it is that her boyfriend hasn’t even so much as texted her yet, and breaks away from this party to playfully give him a hard time about it. Even though, as she’s standing in the library with just a couple other bored or curious souls strolling through the aisles, he insists he did text her. Twice, actually.

“Hmm, that’s strange,” she says, “maybe let’s stick to the phone calls then. Although reception does seem better here already, and Harry has mentioned he’s gonna...oh, wait. Your texts just came through. Hmm.”

“Must’ve been some kind of glitch,” Jeremy suggests.

“Must have,” Emily agrees. “Yeah, so anyway, Harry says he’s gonna throw his weight around and see how the county can improve our signal. But ah...how come you didn’t tell me your freaking parents were coming to work out here! And Lenny!”

Jeremy laughs, in response to the jesting shrillness of her voice, and says, “it was a surprise!”

“A surprise?”

“Well, no actually, that’s part of what I was texting you about. You’ll see if you open them, I basically said call me and that was why. Although I really didn’t know until an hour or so ago that they would definitely agree to this, anyway. Well okay Lenny I guess I could’ve guessed, but not Mom and Dad.”

“Hmm. When are they coming?”

“Eh they’re all riding up together in the morning, from the sounds of it. Should be cool.”

“Yeah. Should be cool,” Emily replies, although to Jeremy’s ears, she sounds less than thrilled. Maybe she’s just tired and going through the motions – he seriously hopes he hasn’t dashed the adventure of this retreat by lining up these jobs for his family.

“But anyway, enough about that. How are things going so far?” she asks.

“Pretty good,” she allows, elaborating with mentions of the people she’s met, the name change to Otherwise, and, in hushed tones, the “somewhat bizarro” dinner Jen is preparing right now, with no help aside from Harry and Grace as gophers.

After getting off the phone with him, Emily makes a lap around this building, its three main spaces on the ground floor, and the hall with the restrooms. If her head count is correct, there are 26 people present, a figure that will swell by at least three more tomorrow. That should be all, however, according to Harry. So excluding him, this adds up as 28 residents. Five employees, 22 artists, with Grace occupying some sort of middle ground – though an artist herself as well, she is also performing some work, most notably as tour guide, and therefore has neither paid to attend nor is being paid for her time. And while she wishes nothing more than that Jeremy were here, too, at least Denise and Kay are here, which makes for almost the perfect balance of familiarity and strangeness. In fact she’s getting goosebumps just eyeing the dining room right now, taking all of this in. These months could very well represent major defining epochs in each of their lives, and she still can’t believe she’s here. All due to some fluke stumbling onto it when driving around that day, lost.

By now, the official helpers and a couple other random helpers are clearing off the long, scuffed, but sturdy looking, dark brown wooden table, as piping hot baskets of sliced Italian bread are in turn brought out to replace these appetizer trays. With murmurs resembling the buzzing of a hive, people begin sliding into seats along both benches, intuiting without being specifically told that dinner is about to begin. Though she’s been networking quite a bit and isn’t exactly shy, Emily has been daydreaming to the extent that she’s second to last on the left hand side of the table, as she allows Kay to sit on the end, with Denise across from her. Jen appears at the opposite end, standing in a chef’s coat as she clasps her hands together and announces what they’ll be having.

“Okay, so I will be starting you off with a light salad of mixed greens, cucumber, and tomato in a champagne vinaigrette, followed by a main course of salmon with French lentils and baby carrots, all in a port wine sauce. “She’s gonna kill us with this weird crap, I can tell already,” Denise jokes under her breath. Although not quietly enough, as Liam, about a third of the way up the table, yet within earshot, looks over at her and pointedly shakes his head, looking equally horrified at this suggestion.

“Oh no, I shan’t allow it. There’ll be beef or better every night, I can assure you. If I have to go back there and fry up a bloody hamburger myself...”

“...portobello and onion soup for any of you vegetarian slash vegans out there,” Jen continues to explain, “or for that matter anyone who just wants to switch. And then of course if you have any allergies or dietary restrictions, just let me know. It would be good to have that on file moving forward anyway, okay?”

Smiling as he climbs aboard his decades old, powder blue Honda Goldwing motorcycle, Lenny rolls down the short gravel drive, and waits until he’s on the street before firing up the engine. The roommates at this house where he’s been staying – unofficially, though chipping in for food, beer, utilities and rent in exchange for a couch – were not exactly thrilled that he was bailing on such short notice, and he doesn’t want to further rile them up this early on a Sunday morning. Although with the state of this muffler, it’s debatable how much noise he is cutting between here and their bedrooms.

This has been his primary mode of transportation for six months now, a situation which has worked out surprisingly well. All the more so in that he paid cash, and is currently jobless, therefore would be unable to afford car payments even if he wanted to. Of course, that outlook is on the upswing, too, with this sweet sounding gig Jeremy lined up for him. Who knows, he might even be able to drink on the job – or make that, it should be a lot less dangerous when he inevitably does so.

Still, though everyone tends to scoff at this notion, unfortunate setbacks here and there aside, Lenny does know his limits. On this point he is confident. While it’s debatable how many people in a town like Kenner could possibly not know he is the operator of this sweet beast, Lenny prefers to go helmetless, in this state which still allows one to do so, just in case there happens to be some fine young lady passing him one of these days, who might possibly be unaware of his identity. Why take chances? But despite the statistical danger of this move, he is a careful rider, not some wheelie popping asshole, and furthermore, technically an alcoholic or not, limits himself to exactly one drink wherever he happens to be if arriving via Goldwing. The only exception, well, yes, was work, though he had hours to burn off the effects of that, and was meticulous about doing so, given the ticket happy boredom of these cops around here. If home, he would park it for the night, and if at the bar, he would make a point of moving somewhere else before partaking of another adult beverage. And again, and again, and again, if the case may be. Should this well-crafted strategy ever collapse, meanwhile, as even the best ones do on occasion, then he would just walk or catch a ride by other means.

These thoughts occupy him for the first handful of blocks, shooting across town to Lois’s place. He can’t remember the last time he was awake this early on a weekend, early enough that the bottoms of his pant legs are still wet with dew, as are the lawns he’s passing. And to top it off he’s not even feeling hungover, is actually in great shape this morning and feeling pretty damn optimistic about this whole enterprise.

Turning right onto the main north-south road through town, Central, his thoughts shift instead as they have countless times, to how he really needs to install some sort of music device in this puppy. He’s tried the whole earbuds in his phone business but that didn’t cut it, not with tinny headphones and this loud ass muffler. Of course nothing might work if he doesn’t address that, and continues riding sans helmet, but still – it’s something to consider. Which he does, rolling north along Central, whistling a classic rock medley of sorts to keep himself entertained.

One of his dipshit buddies, Robby Messner, passes in red Pinto, with a honk and a wave. It’s hard to imagine what that goofball would be doing out at this hour, although he did have two only vaguely familiar looking women in the car with him, which meant last night must have been real interesting, or today would be, or both. Lenny entertains the thought of turning around right now to follow and catch up with them, though grudgingly staying course and shooting down this notion. No, he has something real solid lined up, here, and can’t keep Ben and Lois waiting. Not to mention he sorely needs the cash, already, considering how far he is behind on everything.

Upon reaching Oakmont, which slants diagonally to the left where Central vaguely curves right, near the edge of town, he puts on his blinker and slips into that road, cruising along at a steady 35. About three quarters of a block ahead, he spots this rusted out, dark blue-grey pickup truck puttering along, and is chuckling to himself, wondering how old this monstrosity must be. As he slowly gains on it, he can see it’s a Chevy of distant vintage, and while people might constantly rip on him about the age of his motorcycle, this rustbucket ahead of him is positively ancient by comparison.

He’s keeping a respectable distance, even though this truck hacks its way up the street at a speed slightly below the limit. Except without signaling to do so, this idiot slams on his brakes. Makes to turn left, but doesn’t quite do so, as this morphs more into a situation where he is attempting a U-turn in too tight a space, and so just momentarily stops instead.

With a line of parked cars on both sides, Lenny’s options are limited, and he feels frozen even while watching this in what will later seem the frame by frame slowness of a slide show. Just past the front bumper of the last possible car, he attempts swerving out to the right, except there’s a fucking mailbox, a sturdy brick based job no less, in the only realistic lane he has to avoid disaster. Which means he is sitting the unexpectedly high curb at a funky, nearly sideways angle, which means this machine soon checks its progress even as he is in motion, flying over its handlebars.

Lenny hasn’t quite fully abandoned his seated form, however, and almost manages to land feet first in whoever’s dewy lawn this happens to be. Almost being the operative word here, naturally. And while he will later have opportunity to even manage a smirk and a chuckle to think about giant white snowball of a cat whose eyes go wide as it scampers like a lightning bolt out of his way, Lenny doesn’t have a whole lot to find humor in at the moment. He can feel a snapping motion in both of his legs upon impact, and to top it off even manages to drill his head into the sod real good, though telling himself to avoid this, before he rolls a handful of times, up over their front walk and into this flower bed, coming to rest in awkward fashion against some bushes, with a brick barrier of sorts jabbing into his basic. And as if this weren’t bad enough, the would be U-turner, though driving a highly distinctive vehicle that Lenny should be able to track down later, he slowly straightens his vehicle out, then creeps on down the road without bothering to get out and check on Lenny’s progress. Even in this busted up, half delirious state, Lenny could see the guy, some beard stubbled male with long hair under a red and white trucker’s cap, and believes he will never forget this face. If he lives through this, it goes without saying. First things first. At the moment, he’s got much more serious problems.

Lois receives the phone call from Lenny sooner than they were actually expecting him to arrive. On this point, she’s kind of impressed by his punctuality for a change. Of course, he happens to be prone on some front lawn up the road at that moment, waiting on the ambulance to arrive, and he’s relating the horrific news of the crash. She and Ben hop in their car and race up there as well, compelled by who knows what kind of motivation leads humans to act in this manner. They arrive just seconds before the EMS squad comes roaring up the block, and it’s only at this moment that the actual homeowners even notice what’s happening in their yard, the missus somewhat hysterical and the man of the house looking bored, as they tumble out of the front door to inspect this scene.

Lenny’s timing in all this is abysmal, it goes without saying – though typical of him, Lois concedes. After they follow the ambulance down to the county hospital, and sticking around a couple of hours for a prognosis, however, this is where the serious questions begin. Or maybe there would be a question, for most normal folks. If Lenny didn’t make a habit of this sort of thing, constant chaos, and if she and Ben didn’t admittedly need this income source so badly right now.

As expected, both of his legs are busted, and he’s suffered a mild concussion. The doctor says he’s lucky not to have thoroughly messed up his spine, or cracked his head wide open in the absence of a helmet. These he wryly attributes to Lenny’s having endured countless injuries before and possibly having some instinct for the best way to roll. Plus, he admits, a fairly athletic physique, due to working outdoors all the time.

Still, he’s not going to be working on his feet again anytime soon. As his older sister, part of her wants to stick around town now, too, but that’s just not possible. Half of her feels a genuine tough love aspect at play here, telling herself – and him, when he asks – that this is just what he deserves, and might do him some good. The other half of her is just going through the motions and forcing herself to say this. So after a number of hours, though running behind schedule, with the car already packed, she and Ben say their goodbyes, bound for the artist’s residency straight from the hospital.

They run into Jeremy in the parking lot on their way out, however, who’s been informed by them and Lenny both, plus a couple of other random friends who already heard the news. He tells them that Lenny was cracking up on the phone, quoting that the doctor had said, “you bonked your head pretty good, there,” and seemed to be in great spirits.

“He told me the doctors said it was one of these fluke occasions that wearing a helmet would’ve killed him,” Jeremy says, “something about the angle of impact or whatever...”

“Oh Lenny’s full of shit!” Lois seethes, shaking her head at the many different angles of this debacle, “what kind of doctor would tell his patient that? And how would they prove such a thing, anyway?”

As they drive off, Jeremy heads up to visit his uncle. He doesn’t mention the helmet angle hypothesis, and doesn’t have to, as Lenny chortles and brings it up again anyway, like a boast. Even though he feels he shouldn’t, and has heard this already, Jeremy can’t resist laughing along anyway. It might make Lenny an idiot, but you had to kind of admire the guy’s relentless, unflappable cheer.

Even when said cheer flies in the face of everything rational. Lenny’s insisting that he’ll be on his feet in no time, if Harry can hold the fort for a couple of weeks. As it turns out, the doctor happens to be breezing through and overhears part of this, shakes his head and says there’s no way in hell this is happening. That Lenny’s looking at more like a month and a half if he’s lucky, maybe two. And Jeremy’s no expert on this matter, but he’s pretty certain which point of view he believes.

Over the course of this morning, the sky has turned grey, and now drizzly. Though aware that his parents will be arriving in moments if they haven’t already, and will surely break the news to Kidwell right off the bat, for someone Jeremy feels a responsibility in this arrangement, and believes he should call up there to explain. That’s not the only thing occupying his mind, however.

As he stomps around this gloomy old house alone, one where he is both brought down by and yet finding comfort in the dreariness, therefore abstaining from turning on any lights, he’s thinking about his job stocking shelves at that department store. Yes he has a great gig there, an excellent track record, and is pulling down good money. But that one hadn’t been particularly hard to come by, and he could surely find a similar job just about anywhere. Or he could even go back to the same one, if leaving on good terms. Truth is, though, he is kind of burned out on that place – plus, if he’s honest, this potential for joining everyone at the artist’s residency has been gnawing at him all along. So it is he’s calling up Kidwell, who, as expected, has already heard the news anyway. Though sounds positively elated when Jeremy suggests he could possibly take over that caretaker’s role, if Kidwell can wait out a two weeks’ notice at his current job.

“Absolutely! Absolutely. Welcome aboard!” Kidwell tells him.

No sooner is he off the phone, then, that he dials Emily’s number next, and breaks the news to her. This time around she does sound a little more excited than when he’d delivered the news about his parents. She tells him with a smug little laugh that she always knew he would wind up joining her at Otherwise.

“Yeah...I guess there’s no escaping your fate,” he deadpans.

“Yeee-ep,” she tells him, “you hit the nail on the head, there, buddy.”

For whatever reason, Jeremy doesn’t even think to tell Ben and Lois about his arrival, until he has joined them at Otherwise. Then again, Ben supposes that his son has always had a project-oriented mind, and was simply focused on the next task, then the one after that. For example, Jeremy barely has his bags unpacked before he first kind of wins everyone over to an idea that others first initiated, which is that they move all the farm equipment to one side of the spacious barn and clean it out, to use as some sort of clubhouse or possibly a display space. Then he pitches in and leads the troops on a cleanup mission.

Or so it seems to Ben, anyway. He admittedly has his hands full getting up to speed here, first in meeting Harry Kidwell and learning everything he needed to know from a business standpoint – which isn’t much, admittedly – and then a much more informative kitchen walk through he and Lois undertake with the informative and competent seeming if not exactly cheerful Jen. It is a surprisingly modern looking and clean operation back here, with concrete floors, the fashionable white tile walls in most places, and brand-new equipment where needed. Among the few exceptions held over from its previous incarnation are a stove, and an Italian brick oven. There is one weird stain on the floor, in the back of the kitchen, near this reach-in cooler, which is neon green and brown, in alternating swirls, or more accurately that the brown is atop the green, the appearance being that of a little bit of mud mixed in with antifreeze. Kidwell says they scrubbed the hell out of it, though nothing seemed to work, but that they can paint or treat the floor if Ben and Lois like.

Kidwell is tinkering with the idea of making a small menu available to visitors, one day a week during tours, which will probably end up being Saturdays. Aside from that, paying residents get their three meals a day for free, non-alcoholic beverages, too, but otherwise are on their own nickel. As for the staff, which currently works out at five of them, plus Grace, Harry says that if they’re meticulous enough about their bookkeeping here, then he is fine with just letting them eat whatever they want at cost.

After he has left to oversee the barn cleanup, and they’ve learned the lay of the land from Jen, Ben and Lois get down to the business of unpacking their boxes, and carving out their niches here – spaces to operate in, and who will be doing what. Jen says she is totally fine with creating menus and making food all day, admits with a chuckle that she could do without interacting much with the residents and especially any visitors. And this suits Ben just fine, he knows Lois feels the same. Based upon what little they’ve seen today, it’s obvious Jen knows her way around a kitchen, and is coming up with some amazing looking, slightly rustic and back-to-earth type modern concoctions. If all they have to do is handle the business end, interface with the public, and help a little with executing the meals, then this could really wind up being a plum gig.

Actually, it already seems like a plum gig. As he’s unpacking one box – conveniently among those they’d not yet deconstructed back at the house – which contains a set of personalized set of knives he loves but probably won’t need much, Ben looks out the trio of windows, situated high above the sink, thinking about their incredible luck in landing this. It feels like just the right amount of work to keep them busy all day, but not killing themselves, and, more importantly, no longer stressing over whether a lease or electric bill will get paid for their own declining business.

These three windows are too high up to see anything but sky from here, but it provides some wonderful, mood enhancing light, even on such a gloomy day as this. Nothing could really interfere with his good cheer today, anyway, not even Lenny’s shattered legs. He and Lois had done their homework, of course, checked out everything they could about this Harry Kidwell. Everything they read seemed to indicate that he was, while a bit of a goofball (usually termed eccentric for those with a lot of money, and this certainly applied to him), a mostly highly successful businessman, well-known throughout this Stokely region. He had suffered some failed enterprises, of course, but if anything, the biggest knock against him seemed to be that he was obsessed with making a buck, leading some to speculate that his aw-shucks charm must be some sort of an act.

Well, Ben doesn’t care any about this, so long as they can make this particular enterprise work. Well, and of course, so long as they are paid. He seriously doubts this will prove a problem, however. As Lois tells him she’s heading up to their room to unpack some things there, he nods and starts in on another box himself, this one containing business related materials. They weren’t quite sure what all they’d need here, nor how often they would be returning to Kenner, and therefore had packed ledgers, stamps, an adding machine, an accounting program for the computer, and really just about anything they were using in their office at the ice cream stand.

The office here is a little more cramped, but in many respects more cozy. Ben can’t quite explain it, but he already loves being in this room, even though it’s really not all that warm. Something to do with soft yellow overhead light, maybe. There are two desks in here, though, or more accurately one somewhat large, battle scarred wooden desk, which faces the doorway and this other setup beside it, a pair of shelves along one wall which are crammed with papers and a computer rig, some filing cabinets beneath. The lower shelf sits at a level reachable by chair. Harry explained that the previous kitchen manager for some reason didn’t want the computer on his own desk, but they can of course move it if they like. Otherwise, there are stacks of presumably paperwork filled boxes lining the left wall – if facing forward from his desk, permitting just enough of a path between here and the doorway – and there is nothing behind him, unless counting a calendar on the wall, whiteboard beside it. If seated at the desk, he can just barely make out one corner of the service counter, a little more if he were to lean over to the left and crane his neck.

If he had to summarize, Ben would say it’s just snug enough, without feeling cramped. That office at the ice cream stand had always been a little too spacious, and dingy no matter how well they lit it. He will probably move the computer back over to this desk, as Harry suggested. The only thing he doesn’t like, he thinks while standing, though he can’t explain it – then again, can anyone really verbalize their tastes in interior decorating? You like what you like – is for some reason this junk on the wall behind him. Maybe he’s subconsciously worried about jabbing his back into it, for example that ledge with the markers on the bottom of the whiteboard. Whatever the case, he takes it and the calendar down, leans these items casually atop that row of boxes. There, he reckons, glancing back at the space from his doorway. The room is perfect now.

A couple of the artists spend three weeks, before the official opening, cataloging every piece of wood in the main building, most of it located up on the third floor. Others do the same with every drop of paint, the yarn, the fabric. Some additional materials, in particular the wood and the paint, are found in additional quantities when cleaning out the barn.

One of the girls, Lydia, a tall, skinny and pale blonde, happens to be working with photography as her medium, and is left in charge of snapping most official pictures, for documentation purposes and also promotional efforts on their website. Meanwhile Tony, this burly if equally tall, black haired kid in full beard and some trendy horn-rimmed glasses, works almost exclusively with video, has dedicated himself to interviewing people, shooting a bunch of historical material on the progress made around here, in addition to his other artistic efforts. Anything of use in either of these realms Grace uploads to their website, from her perch at the welcoming slash reception desk.

The highlight of this main building, if not the entire compound, everyone seems to agree, would be the spacious back room on the third story. With its brick balls, original hardwood flooring, ample tables and shelves built into the walls – not to mention an oven and some pottery wheels leftover from earlier incarnations – this was obviously designed from the beginning as a workshop of sorts. However, its main selling point for many is the back wall, which consists nearly entirely of a series of hinged, floor to ceiling windows, which can flipped all the way open if desired. To the left of these, there is also a door leading out onto this fat lip of rooftop, a convenient break spot for any smokers working up here, or anyone else, really.

Design wise, the third floor is unique in its entirety from either of the other two. The central stairwell here is flanked by a hallway on both sides, rooms a few artists have already claimed for their own installations of each. The front, meanwhile, is about three quarters of the way occupied by their quote unquote employee lounge, which features a pair of windows looking down upon the front half of the property. Tucked away in what remains of the front portion of this story, there is one additional room, sans windows, which Tony has already staked as being perfect for his video project.

But, as most of the artists’ concepts are – and might forever be – impossible to gauge, regarding their level of completion, it’s understandable that the most accomplished among them, Tom and Kathy Drucker, attract the most interest here in the early going. While Denise and a couple of others make distant wisecracks that it’s a bit showoffy for these two to have brought completed works here with them, for the most part, folks are grateful in that the presence of these works elevates this entire enterprise right out of the gate, particularly when it comes to attracting and impressing folks for these future Saturday tours.

Each of them claims one of the front classrooms in the school building. Kathy’s, found on the right hand side, is a little bit smaller, and this makes sense as her pottery takes up less space. Still, with a handful of shelves, not to mention desks and tables, mostly filled by her impressive array of earthen and stoneware, mostly, some glazed and some not, in a variety of shapes and tones – along with a smattering of porcelain, although she admits to only trying these for variety’s sake, to never being much interested in this form, for whatever reason – everyone viewing these has to admit this is damn intimidating accomplishment.

It only seems less so, maybe, compared to her husband’s portfolio. A point that might irk just about anybody else, but, though often pressed by those who are a little more cruel, asking Kathy with faux innocence what she thinks about Tom’s paintings, she only shrugs and smiles, gushes something to the effect that, “I mean, what can you say? He’s amazing,” in other words refusing to admit any tension whatsoever between their levels of appreciation.

Tom’s thing is painting landscapes. This is 100% of what he has ever done, for he has never endured any other phase, or “period,” or obsession. He does oil paints on canvas with a very small arsenal of dull tones, nothing more vibrant than maybe a mute orange. Yet, though operating only between there and pure black, painting these bleak landscapes – landscapes with aren’t quite surreal, though not perfectly rational, either, instead maybe bent just a little though clearly recognizable – he has somehow fashioned a distinctive look and much more than a cult following at this point. Some present have whispered that he even has a painting in the governor’s office, and has been the subject of a few documentaries.

Though he will often sketch things out by pencil beforehand, these oil paintings are otherwise the only thing he has ever done. And one of his hallmarks, perhaps the tiny little watermark of a touch which has elevated by whatever mysterious algorithm to almost household name status, is that every single one of his paintings features somewhere at least one vague green-black shape, which almost everyone agrees looks like a bird. Sometimes it’s buried and sometimes obvious, sometimes a single bird shape and sometimes a flock of them, but regardless of the painting, guaranteed there’s at least one of these green-black shapes somewhere. If asked, Tom with admit with his offhand smirk that he truly can’t say where these came from or what they’re supposed to represent, only that he’s felt compelled to include them almost from the outset. Though estimating that there are “three, maybe four” early paintings absent these shapes, from that point onward, this has been his unvarying signature on the rest.

Sorting out who will sleep where is a matter decided with surprisingly little animosity. Though the artists mostly prefer solitude to begin with, this whole notion of separate living quarters, with or without bathrooms – the newly constructed cabins all have one, but the surviving older pair don’t - are something basically every human craves, and these prove the most popular. Still, the help found actually working in the main building prefer or at least don’t mind the convenience of rooming there, even if it means sharing one second floor bathroom or else traipsing down to another on the first. Ben and Lois, Jen, and Grace are the natural occupants of three such rooms, on that right hand side of the second story hallway, though the photographer, Lydia, says the thought of living alone in one of those cabins spooks her, and she can’t fathom rooming with anyone else, either, therefore plants her flag in the final bedroom down that hall.

Dr. Blodgett says he has no preference either way, but would prefer not drifting to the main building to use the commode every time, or else the school, therefore claims the cabin closest to his office, this being the third one in. All told there are 16 cabins, but the new ones are slightly smaller, and as the only true couple outside of the Druckers, Jeremy and Emily with an indifferent shrug accept claiming that older cabin in between. Elsewhere, Kay rooming with Denise further down the line is somewhat predictable, though the remainder are split neatly right down the middle. Some are keen on solitude and choose to room alone, while others are horrified at the thought, bunking in pairs.

In the early going, at least, this leaves two unoccupied cabins, those closest to that welcoming center type first building for which nobody’s really figured out a proper use. Some have suggested a gift shop, and while that makes sense in many respects, the lack of foot traffic means either a greatly bored Grace will be hanging out there all day, or else maybe they instead leave some pamphlets out on the desk, along with a phone to the main building, and call it good enough. For now, this latter view wins, as even Kidwell agrees they all have much more pressing needs.

As promised, the internet situation does seem to improve in the early going, although the more bodies that migrate up here, the slower the signal becomes, forcing yet another wave of upgrades. The water, which is drawn from a well this far into the country, is fairly hard, and the women immediately begin to needle Kidwell with their objections, fear that they will all have orange hair in short order. This sends him off on another round of improvements, installing water softeners, by request, in the cabins, school, and second story restroom of the main house.

By the time their introductory mixer of sorts gets underway the following Saturday night, after Emily and her girls have already been here a week, most are at least familiar by sight with one another, if not quite on a first name basis yet. Stringing together some white, yellow, and orange Chinese lanterns in the barn, combined with a bunch of red bulbs someone found on site, and a makeshift DJ rig of sorts pieced together with a computer and a couple of speakers, the dance is some complex hybrid of an ironic mock up of events they all remember from high school, and a loving, comfort inducing tribute to the same.

Some tall, mousy haired stringbean of a chick, Rebecca, who dresses every bit the part of a tender Amish lass, who says her grand overview of a project will be to reconstitute clothing pieces from The Collection into shocking new forms, finds a dead racoon while walking around in the woods earlier that day. She not only insists upon bringing said carcass to the dance, propping the poor fellow up in an artful pose upon some bales of hay in the corner, but also commandeering the communal DJ stand to get on a microphone and issue a bunch of weird, speculative tributes to the racoon. Will also waylay unsuspecting, apparently forgetful passerby on occasion to shove the mic in their faces and ask – albeit with a playful, isn’t this clever? kind of a laugh and glance out at the remaining crowd – for their takes on the racoon situation, theories about how it lived and died.

After a couple hours of this and the admittedly strong, blood red punch somebody spiked with a lethal dose of vodka, many are already dropping off, with the general, murmured, agreed upon consensus seeming to be that everyone kind of plans on sleeping in late, getting their affairs in on order on Sunday, and then cracking down to a serious work schedule from here on out. Among the warriors sticking this dance out to the end is Kay, who, like everyone else present, has begun to either tune out or roll eyes at the inexhaustible Rebecca’s antics. Kay remains vigilant in the manner of someone with a stake in the game, hers being, mainly, that she’s already developed a considerable crush on this Tony character.

Though almost never left alone – drifting around this event almost exclusively with some combination of Emily, Denise, Grace, maybe one or two of the other guys – and with him almost never moving from this spot near the wooden railing of a former horse stall, hanging out and laughing at who knows what with others, she barely says three words to him tonight. Will content herself for now with come hither type glances over the rim of the plastic punch cup as she drinks, the brief smile and hello. But there’s something about the manner in which he makes his semi-formal attire, of, say, a black polo shirt and nice jeans, as he‘s wearing this night, look both urban and rural, as though equally capable of functioning in a cubicle in the banking district of downtown Charlotte, as he would be bunkering alone in these very woods as a self-sufficient lumberjack type, which sets her heart aflutter. And to seem so casual about everything on top of it.

She’s certain that whatever video work he produces will turn out amazing. Truth be known, however, there’s also an additional, self-preservation angle maybe fueling just a smidgen of her interest. While, yes, there are still a couple of cabins available, and she could drift to one of them on her own, the thought of doing so feels half awkward, half terrifying. Even while she’s certain that this move is probably inevitable at some point, because – while possibly a matter Kay should have considered in more detail before agreeing to bunk with Denise – her hilljack boyfriend Clay has already dropped by today for a visit, hung around for the entirety of this dance and by all appearances surely crashing here tonight as well.

“If y’all keep hookin up here all the time, I’m gonna need to get my own place,” Kay jokes, once the three of them are back at the cabin.

This is maybe something not too many of them thought out, or considered a likely possibility. Therefore, the pair of empty cabins are already referred to in jest as the conjugal visit shacks. Really, though, while amusing and all, there’s maybe a solid reason why at last count, 23 people were using just 14 of the cabins, and even then, some who were theoretically keeping their possessions in a place of their own had begun – if ever doing anything else but – crashing at someone else’s.

It’s as if very few of them want to spend a night alone. Kay lies in bed pondering this after the lights go out and the three of them are left here in, well, not exactly pure silence. She can hear those two having sex, albeit as quietly as possible, and while not exactly a turn out, it’s not repulsing her as much as she’d supposed, either. Mostly it just feels comforting to be with these other people. She can’t quite put her finger on it. This isn’t a cold atmosphere, Otherwise, and it’s not spooky in any conventional sense, like one might expect of a secluded retreat in the woods. This is actually a warm, modern feeling, well-lit and still active place – she can even hear people laughing and shouting elsewhere on the property right now, for someone seems to have started a bonfire back by the barn.

She even kind of likes Clay, too, but knows that this has nothing to do with her reluctance to leave. Emily has phrased it best, referring to Clay Conrad as the least horrible by far of the many dudes that Denise has brought around. That’s not a ringing endorsement, maybe, but it’s something, particularly by tacking on those last two words. He’s not exactly friendly but not unfriendly, either, just this gruff hillbilly who chews tobacco nonstop and says very little. Jeremy has said he is built like a football player, a “prototypical tight end, really,” in that Clay isn’t tall or of overpowering, obvious muscularity, yet you can tell he has this wiry, compact strength and could knock someone a country mile.

Maybe they’re all just a little homesick still. She knows she is, and misses Noah something fierce. But she also knows that a whole lot of people are spooked and having trouble crashing at night, even with alcohol, or other sleep aids. Even ones who won’t exactly admit it, like Denise, who still continually insists she’s going to get to the bottom of what’s really going on out here. And while Kay might harbor serious fantasies revolving around this Tony, others have begun openly plotting on how they might hook up with Lydia, or Jen, or Grace, because the main house suddenly feels the most inviting of all, never mind its creepy collections of junk.

Of course, this already started happening before anyone has anything concrete to go on. Nothing truly bad or terrifying has yet gone down. But it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 3am this very night of the welcoming mixer that Emily first sees the tall man. He’s knocking on the front window of their cabin, his grin, even beneath the bill of a top hat, illuminated by the nearly full moonlight. Lying awake in bed, she had first spotted him across the clearing, detecting what was at first just a sliver of distant movement. But then watching with increasing horror the closer he drew to their cabin, then this window. At which point, yes, he leans in, grinning, first points a long index finger at her, then beckons her to join him out here. Followed by her screams, waking Jeremy, and flipping on every light in the cabin.

Sunday morning brings with it more of the unrelenting gloom, which is somewhat unusual for this state this time of the year. They’re all still waiting for an Indian Summer that hasn’t yet materialized. Prompted by a sleepless Emily’s continued hysteria, though the others manage to calm her down and insist it had to have been some sort of prank, because there aren’t any houses to speak of for nearly a mile in both directions of the road, those who are interested nonetheless agree to inspect the grounds and arrive at some sort of conclusion.

This posse will mostly consist of Emily and Denise, Jeremy and Clay, Grace, and the documentarians among them, Lydia and Tony, all trailing around behind Kidwell, as he makes his rounds with a grim determination. After he somewhat reluctantly concludes that putting up a nice, sturdy fence on both sides, at least as far back as the cabins on one and the barn on the other, is probably something that needs done anyway, the Garverick sisters go one further and suggest he install a few video cameras on site as well. He shoots them a dubious glance until Grace chimes in with her verdict.

“That’s probably not a bad idea,” she tells him, shooting Kidwell a cautious smile, “I’m just thinking from a legal standpoint, especially if we’re gonna have people here to visit...”

“Yyyyyyeahhhhhh...,” he eventually agrees, rubbing his chin, lost in thought. Then jokes, “wow, this is turning out to be way more involved than I thought!” before they all move on.

Though gloomy, it hasn’t actually rained much this week. Therefore there’s not much mud to speak of, therefore really no footprints to be found – suspicious or otherwise – in the clearing between the main house and Emily’s cabin. Still, she remains adamant, that the figure she saw was at least seven feet tall, in a top hat and dark trench coat of some sort, yet obviously quite skinny despite his height.

“He almost looked like somebody standing on stilts, you know what I mean? That awkward, kinda wobbly skinny...”

“Well then I’m sure that’s what it was!” Clay says, “some dude fuckin around on stilts!”

To a person, they all reflexively cast their eyes around the property, as though this insight would lead them to spotting such a character right now. Then, Denise asks Harry if he has any maps or anything detailing the layout of this property. He replies that he doesn’t believe so, although it inspires the next, much more fruitful question, Jeremy wondering what’s in these woods, and up the hill behind here.

“I remember going down that lane some as a kid,” Kidwell replies, nodding at a dirt path, wide enough for vehicles, cutting diagonally through the woods just in front of and beside the barn, near where they’d build that bonfire last night. Then chuckles and adds, “but I can’t seem to recall what it actually leads to. As far as those woods,” he nods in the opposite direction, those south of the Otherwise, “your guess is as good as mine. And then up that hill behind here there’s a pond, obviously, which I think everyone’s pretty much checked out at this point, and beyond that I think you eventually start to run into some houses here and there. Although then again, you’re talking probably close to a good mile. There’s also apparently an underground spring around here with some sort of access tunnel, or at least there used to be...”

“An underground spring?!” Emily blurts out. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

While Kidwell shoots her a serious though nonplussed expression, shaking his head no, to which she replies that who knows what kind of “weirdos” are probably hanging out down there, including the man on stilts, Jeremy once again diffuses or at least cuts to the quick of the situation, in suggesting they split up into teams maybe and inspect the land beyond this place.

“Mmm, I’m saying let’s just call the cops now and be done with it,” Emily counters.

“No, I actually kinda like Jeremy’s idea,” Denise allows, grinning as a proper co-conspirator would. “Who wants to go where?”

Kidwell raises both hands and announces, “count me out! I did enough exploring around here as a kid!” He laughs and adds, “much as I would like to get out of all this work you’ve just assigned me...”

“Should we go try to rustle up some of the others? They might need a break anyway,” Grace proposes.

“Good idea. If we’re crazy enough to go poking around in this shit, we should probably bring reinforcements,” Emily says.

Kay is up in the workshop on the main house’s third floor when the posse arrives, rustling up people for their expedition. She loves this room and can easily imagine waking up every morning, grabbing a cup of coffee and coming up here just to hang out, without any specific projects in mind. She had been lying in bed, watching their little mystery solving troupe goof around in the clearing, before deciding to come up here. With those cabins raised about maybe six steps off the ground, and each – of the new ones, anyway – having been designed in identical fashion, with a giant, shin high front window, the only window, set just to the right of the front door, eating up most of the front wall, she’d had a clear view, and lay there a good half hour debating whether she should join them, if only to rub elbows with Tony, though laziness won that particular battle.

She’s feeling pretty damn energetic now, however. Granted, that episode Emily describes is a little creepy, but everyone seems to agree it had to be a prank of some sort. Plus it’s kind of her fault for not having put up curtains of any sort whatsoever. Because the living arrangements were not decided when they arrived, sure, none of them were prepared, but she and Denise did at least pin up a blanket there for the time being. You can always move it out of the way if desired, as she had this morning.

Mostly, Kay has been up here watching Kathy work. She has proven very friendly and helpful. While the artists are expected to use as many materials from the property as possible, that’s going to present somewhat of a challenge for the two of them, and whoever else is working with pottery. Kathy has been kind enough to offer Kay usage of her enormous clay sack, but she’s been to intimidated and rusty feeling to start, preferring instead to just watch this master in action today.

“As it so happens, North Carolina has an overabundance of really excellent clay. Right below our feet,” Kathy points out, as she’s glazing one pre-existing piece, otherwise completed earlier in the week, “but...I’m guessing Harry probably doesn’t want us digging the crap out of his campus here.”

“Yeah, probably not.”

At the wooden bench where they are working, Kathy turns her head to smile at Kay, with those always distant seeming, bright blue eyes of hers, and suggests, “maybe you and I can go on a little scouting mission in the woods tomorrow, though.”

“Okay!” Kay nods, readily agreeing.

As if by magic, though, Jeremy leads this pack up the stairs into their workshop, more or less suggesting the exact same thing right now. In a sense, though, it’s remarkable that nobody has really gotten around to this exploration already. Of course Clay felt the need to grab a handgun from his truck’s glovebox, and shove it in the waistband of his jeans. This causes Marcus, a tall, slender black man, who is coincidentally centering his project around some concept of war as a form of addiction, who is perhaps not so coincidentally the only minority figure joining them out here in these remote Carolina woods, as he returns from a cigarette break out on the roof, to throw his hands in the air with exasperation, just passing through.

“Is that really necessary, bro?” he asks Clay, before drifting down the hall to the room he’s claimed for his project.

“Yeah, really, Clay,” Kay seconds, “bit excessive, don’t you think?”

Clay shrugs one shoulder and says, “never know what we might find out there. Possibly dinner.”

Out the side of the her mouth, Denise cracks, “can’t be any worse than what Jen’s gonna feed us.”

“Okay, listen,” Jeremy announces, clasping his hands together, “let’s get to the point, here. Anyone care to join us on a little fact finding expedition? We’re putting together a few different teams.”

Kay recognizes this as a golden opportunity to spend time with Tony, but doesn’t want to appear too eager. So instead she pretends to waver, and make it look as though a genuinely encouraging Kathy has to talk her into it. And they expect that this will represent the entirety of their group, until Tom Drucker, who is over in the corner making some kind of list about the paint supply available, says he’s been meaning to sketch some trees and wouldn’t mind joining them.

Once they have gathered outside, next to a storage shed behind the main house, they reach a quick agreement determining who will go where. Tom, who is the only one among them who has really done any research at all, says he believes there is a swamp somewhere, off of that dirt lane leading northeast, and he would prefer to go there. The couples meanwhile stand around looking at one another, thinking that protocol surely demands that they stick together. Until, that is, Emily volunteers to lead a group in the opposite direction, south into those woods, and Jeremy casually waltzes to join her.

“Oh no. Huh uh,” she tells him, “go form your own team. What fun is that, anyway? We’re supposed to be getting to know one another.”

“Okay then,” Jeremy laughs and says, “guess I’m heading up a team...going straight up the hill.”

With this in place, Denise and Lydia wind up joining him, while Tony, whom Emily believes is surely acting on one of those guy things by not wanting to throw in with either of the other males, says he’ll go with her, and Kay casually agrees to do the same. Grace has already made a joke about having plenty of experience as a tour guide, and will act as Tom’s eyes while he sketches. Clay, the last to commit, simply says, “the swamp sounds cool,” and enlists with them.

Emily and her crew strike off south, across the clearing, reaching the woods in between the Druckers’ big old cabin and that brick schoolhouse, which is about halfway illuminated even though they haven’t seen anybody coming or going, nor spotted anybody in the visible classrooms. This entry point is chosen because it avoids climbing that hill, which, though open and only covered by a little bit of grass, looks like a lot more work than necessary. These trees, which are almost exclusively those tall, weird looking pines with no branches up until the very top, are at least spaced out well, situated on only a modest incline, and provide a nice blanket of needles for relatively smooth walking surface, too.

The other two groups only break off beside the barn, where that dirt lane begins. Jeremy’s team also sees no reason to scale that hill until absolutely necessary, therefore are skirting some of it by going around the pond. With handshakes, nods, and comical bows at the waist, they split here, as Jeremy, Denise, and Lydia are soon confronting this mostly calm, impenetrable blue-black surface, reflecting only gloom this grey morning, its shape not quite circular, more like a flower with six or seven rounded leaves. Meanwhile, charting a diagonal northeast path thus far, Tom has already whipped out his sketch book and a pencil, has begun drawing trees with surprising detail given his speed.

“What are those for?” Clay asks, walking more or less beside him, with Grace leading the way by a couple of steps.

Tom crinkles his face into a smirk, neatly framed by his goatee, and offers, “eh, you know, I might use these in some of my landscapes.”

“Landscapes?” Clay says, having apparently not witnessed any of Tom’s work thus far.

“Yeah...I like to paint a little bit,” Tom replies. Though continuing to stare at his work, without looking up from it, he asks, “but what about you? Got any...artistic inclinations?”

“Noooo. Noo noo noo. I’m just visiting,” Clay declares. “Denise is my girlfriend, uh, so...but wait – couldn’t you just, like, look these trees up in a book? Or online or something?”

“Yyyyeah, you could,” Tom hesitates, “but, I don’t know, it’s not quite the same. There are features about the landscape,” here he does glance up, and begin gesturing ahead of them with his pencil hand, “that are gonna be distinct, plus for the most part, I mean, every tree looks a little bit different. You get to where you can spot them, and know them by name, but even so...”

“You know these trees by name?” Grace asks, visibly impressed, as she turns around to face them for the first time in a number of minutes.

She’s kind of been enjoying this peaceful outing, passively observing the scenery on this quiet, slightly cool late morning, with just a little bit of a breeze. Only vaguely paying attention to their little chat behind her, although that last phrase did catch her ear. If thinking about them at all, she was actually considering for a second that it’s pretty amazing Tom can walk and draw in such detail like this, at the same time. Granted, they’re not moving at the briskest pace in the world, but still.

“Yeah, for the most part,” he says with a casual shrug.

“Bullshit,” Clay challenges.

“Tom’s really good,” Grace tells him. With a trace of a smirk herself, adds, “and somewhat famous, too, you might say. You’ve got a painting hanging in the governor’s office, don’t you? Kathy was showing us pictures.”

“Something like that,” Tom replies, in typical nonchalant fashion, but with a smirk that wordlessly confirms it.

“Okay, then, so...what’s that?” Clay points down at Tom’s current drawing, and then to a tree on the left, the one he’s been sketching.

“That’s a jack pine.”

“Okay...what about that?”

“Black locust.”

“Mmm hmm. And then what about that one?”

“That is what you would call a gum, or quote unquote woolly, bumelia.”

“Bumelia?” Clay questions, looking about half disbelieving and half on the brink of vomiting, somehow.

“Yeah,” Tom proudly insists.

“Ah, hell, what difference does it make,” Clay admits with a self-conscious smile, a glance at both of his companions, “it’s not like I’m gonna remember this shit anyhow, to double check yer work.”

“Here,” Tom volunteers, flipping over the top page, “I’ll write the names on the back.” And upon scribbling jack pine to label that sketch, continues flipping through the book to label others.

“Come on, let’s get moving,” Grace says, as they’ve been stopped completely during the course of this mild debate, “I want to see where this lane ends.”

Jeremy and the others, distracted somewhat by the pond, have gotten no further than skirting it. They approached from the left side, nearest the woods, but then rounded the top and have come back around some, down the opposite side. He wouldn’t consider himself a nature nut, but there is something peaceful and enchanting about this pond.

“Well, alright,” he says at last, after a long spell staring at the placid surface. “Enough of this. I suppose we should keep moving, no?”

While the other two lead the way, Lydia, as she has for most of their outing, lags a few paces behind, snapping endless photos with her high dollar film/digital hybrid camera. When asked, she explains that like many “serious” photographers, she prefers shooting to film, but this digital storage option gives her a nice backup if running out, or if absolutely needing to use an image on the fly.

“We need, to like, dig a little deeper on this place,” Denise insists, “I’m telling you. I’ve been saying this all along, and that incident last night confirms it.”

“I guess so,” Jeremy says. He had picked some random pink and yellow, late season flower from near the pond’s bank, and is now absently picking off petals one by one.

“You guess so? What, like, you don’t think that’s a big deal? Or you don’t believe her?”

“No, I do,” he replies, grimaces, looks over at Denise. They are now marching side by side up a slight incline, behind the pond, parallel to but not nearly as steep as the larger one behind the school. “It’s just...I don’t know, I still think it had to be a prank of some sort. Somebody clowning. I mean do we really know any of these people? What about Marcus, he kind of fits the basic body shape she was describing. Or Emily even said it looked like somebody on stilts. This could be anyone. They had a little too much punch and were feeling frisky, or maybe somebody even put them up to it.”

“No,” Denise says, and has now clasped both her hands together, pointed forward like someone about to dive, is making a chopping motion downward with every stressed syllable. “Well, I mean, maybe. But that doesn’t really change anything. We need to go into town and dig around some. Stokely has a library, I’ve seen it. Plus you have to get some curtains up, for real. I know you threw that fucking blanket up after she started freaking out, but...”

Jeremy nods a handful of times, yet questions anyway, “haven’t you tried looking some more online? The connection’s been decent lately.”

“Yes and no. But I mean, if you’re talking about really old history about some tiny little town in the boondocks, that shit’s not gonna be online. Meanwhile the major cities want you to pay for every single article. It’s like you’re fucked either way.”

Thinking that they haven’t heard much from the third member of their party in a while, Jeremy glances behind them. But Lydia is still dutifully marching up the hill, all business, with a furrowed brow as she stares at a strand of trees to the northeast. “You don’t say much, heh?” he calls out to her, grinning.

It takes a couple of seconds for Lydia to register that she’s being spoken to, but then awareness reaches her face and she looks ahead at them, returns his smile, if cautiously. “Sorry. I just really get into my work. There are a lot of interesting things to capture out here.”

“No doubt, no doubt,” he concurs.

“Okay, but listen,” Denise continues, “we’re allowed to go into town, you know. I realize everyone is kind of enchanted with this notion of disconnecting and...”

“I haven’t looked at my phone once since I’ve been out here,” Lydia murmurs, though already engrossed in snapping pictures again, “shut it off, in fact. It’s beautiful.”

“See what I mean? So yeah, that’s fine and all, people can enjoy their little retreat, but we’re allowed to go into town if we want. Kay and I have already discussed that we’re gonna beef up the locks on our cabin a little bit. There’s a little family hardware store, there’s a library. I say first thing tomorrow, we head into Stokely, or maybe even up into Winston or something if need be. It’s time to figure some shit out.”

By now, they have reached the apex of this hill, which faces a thin strip of various trees, spilling out from the forest Emily and company are exploring to the south. The larger hill slopes down to meet them, right along with it, and from here they can see a long, hilly stretch of field, most of it covered with assorted wild grass and weeds, to the north. But also, though distances are basically impossible to judge, they can just barely make out a puff of what looks like chimney smoke, beyond the fifth or sixth hill.

“No way...,” Denise marvels.

“What do you think? Should we check it out?”

Slightly out of breath, they have come to a stop here, allowing Lydia to reach them. When Jeremy repeats his question, she too absorbs the view ahead in fine detail, silently nodding. Side by side in a row now, the three of them strike off in that direction.

“Actual people. Civilization. I don’t believe it,” Denise jokes.

“But see what I was saying?” Jeremy tells her, “if we can walk it, so can somebody else. I don’t even think Kidwell’s proposed fence would absolutely keep people out.”

“Hmm, well, let’s see what we’re getting into up here, before we jump to conclusions.”

As they crash through the brambles, selecting the best route consumes most of their conscious energy. Sometimes they are charting separate paths, while other occasions find them moving single file. Yet at more or less the same instant, after traveling across a few soft hills in more or less an increasingly winded silence, they arrive with a distinct solid thud upon this singular curiosity: an overgrown, cracked, but mostly intact set of asphalt highway, with a line of yellow dashes down the middle, solid white ones near each shoulder.

“What the hell?” Jeremy wonders, jumping up and down on it, as all three of them are for some reason, as they stare across what they can see of the road, which is almost nothing amidst this see of tall yellowish brown overgrowth.

“Yeah,” Denise agrees, looking down with a look equal parts bafflement and dread, “this seems a little random.”

Still, that chimney smoke looms ever closer, by appearances belonging to a small house or possibly a trailer, just two or three steep hills ahead of them. And so they continue on.

“So have you invited your parents out here?” Emily asks Kay, as they crunch their way through this burnt orange carpet of needles, “like, for one of these upcoming tours, maybe?”

Harry hasn’t explicitly stated who is and isn’t permitted upon the grounds of Otherwise. Emily kind of appreciates this, that he has left it up to them to sort out their own informal bylaws. For the most part, it seems that the artists have specifically chosen this opportunity so that they might withdraw from society a little bit, get inside their heads again and tune everyone out to create something. Therefore, while the occasional significant other, like Clay, has made an appearance, nobody’s turned this into an excuse to invite a bunch of friends and make this a giant party. Still, homesickness has already begun to creep in, and it’s inevitable that some will reach out to their close ones, if they haven’t already.

“No,” Kay admits with a reluctant sigh. As the three of them move vaguely uphill, mostly side by side as they weave around these well spaced trees, she’s not only weighing what Emily said, and her response, but trying to think on the fly how much she wants to reveal to Tony. “I know I need to call them. We’ve texted a few times, me and Pamela. Mostly just me asking about Noah. But...the way we left it was kinda shitty, I know, so I’m kinda dreading...”

“An actual phone call?”

“Yeah, an actual phone call.”

Tony has been stomping along in his jeans and hiking boots, not saying a whole lot, for that matter not shooting much footage at all on his digital video camera. Now he begins cackling, however, and Kay recoils, at first believing this is directed at her. Only when they glance his way do they observe he’s stopped moving and is staring back with a broad smile, at the direction they have come from.

“I guess we have not quite been moving in as straight a line as we thought,” he observes, laughing still. Facing the two of them, he ponders, “I wonder if anybody out of any of the three posses thought to mark their trail?”

Emily, holding an index finger aloft, “well, the other two groups I think had a little more obvious path. But as for us...that’s actually not a bad idea...”

“Too bad I didn’t think to bring any...all natural vegan bread crumbs,” Tony jokes. “Should I, like, start cutting notches in the trees? I wouldn’t exactly claim I’m an expert at that, but...”

“Hang on a second,” Kay wearily grumbles, though more for show than actual irritation. She extracts her phone and says, “I mean, we’ve already got our GPS maps on here. But let me send a connect request to... Kathy. I’ll send a location connection request to Kathy. Good?” More or less in the time it takes for them to nod in agreement, and finish catching their breaths, an audible ping sounds out on Kay’s phone.

“Okay, she approved the connection. Now I know where she is and she me. Problem solved.”

They continue along this slight, southeast incline for another five minutes or so, as the girls continue to discuss their personal dramas, which Tony is mostly tuning out. He doesn’t mean to look down on these concerns – and truly doesn’t - but would, if pressed, admit that he feels as though he personally has grown beyond this phase of his life. While keeping this point close to the vest, as far as he knows, he’s the only person here who applied for and received a grant to attend Otherwise. He’s a graduate student who has already begun making a name for himself to some extent with his documentary films.

Granted, mostly what that means is networking oneself endlessly, until one fluke network connection turns out to matter. But he’d been applying forever at any number of residency programs, and had no success at any of them, until this basically fell in his lap with shocking swiftness. He just wants to keep a level outlook and not get ahead of himself, though excited about the potential here. At the very least, he hopes to set up a screening in a classroom one night, beyond his installation in the third floor corner room. Beyond that, there are a couple of already prominent artists on hand, and everyone says this Kidwell is positively loaded, so who knows where this might lead.

“Whoa...”

“This is rather...” the girls are exclaiming in unison, having crested this slight lip of hill, which pulls him out of his reverie. Here’s an undisturbed section of paved road, in surprisingly good shape even though – it’s impossible to know how a person can just tell these things – the route is clearly not in regular usage. In fact, nearly within spitting distance, certainly no further away than someone could launch a plastic camera lens cap in a good tailwind, the road abruptly ends. At its terminus, more or less south of here, there’s jumbled up mess of brush, which kind of resembles – although this would make no sense, to actually do – a bulldozer scraping it into this pile, much as a snowplow would its targeted material. But then, beyond, what looks like not much more than a single line of trees, and beyond that, a bunch of smooth, irregular stones, sticking out of the ground.

“Is that...?” Emily begins, but doesn’t have to finish.

Kay nods and confirms, “I think it’s a graveyard.”

Tony is staring at the sight, agog, torn between attempting to comprehend it, and wanting to just snap on his camera to film it, and trying to think of the best artistic angle for doing so before he proceeds. Except practicality wins the day, or at least the moment, and he whips off this backpack’s he’s been carrying, kneels on the road to inspect it.

“What are you doing?” Emily glides over to ask him.

“Okay,” he says, extracting a spool of bright blue masking tape, ordinarily used to mark lines for either camera placement or a subject to stand. He tears off the first strand, of what will eventually be a rough asterisk, and explains, “I’m gonna mark the spot where we entered the road. It’s between these two trees, can everyone agree?” he asks, indicating the section he’s chosen, which is among the wider gaps in sight. Kay and Emily both silently nod their assent.

“Alright, now enough about that!” Emily concludes, more cheerful now than they’ve yet seen her during this outing, “are we gonna explore this graveyard, or what?”

Thinking back on this episode, Kay will later conclude that she felt a momentary shiver of reluctance rattle through at this instant, but failed to register it as it was happening. This is mostly because she and Tony share a shrug and some eye contact, behind Emily, in other words a bonding moment, and the jolt of this wordless connection supersedes all else. And her best has by now literally sprinted over to the brush pile, playfully giggling as she does so, begins prying at it to determine the best point of entry. Meanwhile, she and Tony draw up beside one another, as they march in much more subdued fashion toward the end of the asphalt.

“I’m not sure about this. You?” he mutters, with a half smirk, out the side of his mouth, though there are layers of complexity here. His comment is presented, if she’s interpreting this correctly, from an angle of this is all very ironic, because it’s obviously only something a kid would find scary, yet it’s kind of fun to pretend it’s scary, even though we are actually a little spooked, but can’t admit it, so that makes this both fun and kind of brave albeit from a completely different direction.

Me neither,” she admits, “but I guess we’re doing this anyway?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” he smirks over at her, raising his eyebrows for comedic effect. And she giggles now, too, genuinely, forgetting for a moment this imperative to be cool, instinctively covering her mouth as she does so.

In turns, after Emily has led the way and Tony holds the parted brush for Kay, before bringing up the rear himself, they ascend a slight rise of just a few steps into this graveyard. Yet as soon as they’ve set foot onto this vaguely spongelike, mossy cemetery turf, Kay and Emily exchange a quizzical glance. Neither has to say anything, because this furrowed brow expression is yet another easily interpretable one, even in a silent movie, even from a distance.

The graveyard is mostly flat, on this ridge above some hilly curve of country road. There’s a single tree in just about the exact center. Aside from that, which Tony is the first to discover, stomping around in fairly reckless fashion, his video camera fully engaged now to capture all this, the ridge takes exactly one swift if steep dip down, somewhat reminiscent, Kay thinks, of those giant slides in a county fair, the ones you ride down in burlap sacks – but just one big dip on such a slide – which is itself dotted by tombstones, leading down to another small, flat pocket of land, hemmed in by a tiny gravel lane. Fencing in the other, eastern side, quite naturally, is another stretch of forest, although this is a much more normal and varied looking one, populated by any number of trees and not just one solid mess of those tall and strange pines.

“Why does this look so familiar?” Emily wonders. “Did we...?” she asks, and breaks off, but she doesn’t need to finish the thought, even without the finger she’s whipping back and forth to indicate the road. Kays nodding her head nonstop, with a bit of a surly expression played for laughs, to indicate Emily is right on the money. “We drove past here, didn’t we? That one day?”

“Yep,” Kay wryly offers, “we sure did.”

By now, they are both standing in the small, lower parcel, which is for all intents even with that stretch of road. Tony has already ventured back up top, and is shouting down with a disbelieving cackle that he already found a tombstone that just says Grace, that he’s filming it to show her. Amusing as this is, however, as much as Kay wishes right now that the two of them were alone here, and she had one arm draped around him, or something, as they’re stumbling into each other, laughing and pointing at this sight, she’s even more preoccupied at this moment with the admitted hilarity of Emily’s speedwalking routine.

Arms pumping, Emily barrels across the lawn, stands in the middle of this country road. Peers north, toward that giant expanse of lake she recalls, where even now she can glimpse a couple of ski boats kicking up a white spray. Then turns and looks the other way, dangerous as this lookout point probably is, at the curvy hills from which they’d arrived. Satisfied, she flies like a sped up tape back to rejoin Kay.

“Oh my God!” she chuckles in disbelief, “this is totally it! I remember it distinctly! Because wasn’t this the place? This was the place, wasn’t it, where Noah made his weird little comment about...?”

Again, she glances up at Kay, though she needn’t bother. Her best friend is nodding that comedically surly confirmation once more, as both of them blurt out the phrase at once.

“The doom statues.”

And both start cracking up. So it is that the two of them are leaning into one another, or rather a combination of pushing, embracing, and leaning into one another while they laugh. For a second, anyway, Kay has forgotten all about Tony.

“Yes, yes,” she wearily intones, “the doom statues. Who could forget?”

“Okay, so what kind of tree is that?” Clay challenges, pointing to a gnarled specimen which is sticking up just a few feet from the creek’s middle.

“Those are what’s known as bald cypress trees,” Tom explains, without breaking stride in his furious sketching of the same. He gestures at a handful even closer to them, where this quote unquote creek bleeds in much shallower form near their feet. “And these you see in a little bit shallower water, those little bumps sticking up everywhere?”

“Yeah?”

“Cypress knees. That’s the popular term. Irregular root outgrowths. Nobody knows what they’re good for, but you see them everywhere, especially in a swamp.”

Are we in a swamp?” Grace wonders, “how can you even tell for sure?”

The others understand this as a mostly rhetorical question, and nobody answers. But the transformation of terrain they’ve encountered has been gradual, barely perceptible at all, as it casually glided from more or less unremarkable forest into this somewhat soupy bog. Upon encountering this creek, which was expected at some point as a tributary spilling into their pond back at Otherwise, all three of them ventured away from the dirt lane, to stand along the shore and regard the water up close.

As for that dirt lane, it does continue across the creek, in some form. They can spot it resuming again on the other side, for example. But in between there are the remains of a crude, crumbling bridge, which Clay returns to now for an in-depth examination. Walking as far out as he dares – although the drop is not severe, would only leave someone soaked and angry – on one of the remaining wooden slats, which appears sturdy enough, held in place by a rusted but intact metal framework, he tests its support capabilities by bending at the knees, lightly pressing downward with his feet. A move for which there’s no known name, though everyone instinctively knows it, a form of jumping without leaving the ground.

“We get a few guys out here, we could totally patch this fucker up,” Clay declares, peering ahead at what remains of its patchwork construction. “Then again, if push comes to shove we could always throw enough wood down to drive straight across. Here or somewhere else.”

Grace expels a violent burst of laughter, covering her mouth momentarily as if startling even herself, before recovering to tease, “what are you expecting, some kind of hostage situation to develop out here?”

Tom crinkles his mouth into one of those expected smirks and says, “well, yes, clearly, that is what he expects. If the handgun is any indication.”

But Clay is glancing up one length of the creek, and down the other, clearly inspecting the creek for possible points of passage. He doesn’t acknowledge them in the least. Until he sighs and turns to rejoin them, announcing, “alright, fuck it. We’ve seen the swamp. It’s something to think about, anyway. Although I do wonder still what’s out there beyond it.”

“Harry says there’s, like, this huge swamp in the middle of this forest,” Grace says, as they turn around and begin their journey home, “but he can’t remember what’s on the other side.”

“So you’re in with the ones starting that school back up, eh?” the old man says to them, then nods in confirmation before they’ve even responded, “okay, we heard they was doin’ something with that property, but we didn’t know what.”

After cresting one final steep hill, Jeremy, Denise, and Lydia encounter that has the basic contour they expected, though the specifics have changed. In that instant, cresting the rise, they encounter a small, well manicured plot of land, then a gravel driveway with large, clean, light grey rocks, indicating it had recently been redone. But beyond that, a tan and brown mobile home, with some old man tossing wood scrap onto a fire in between.

He glances up at them with a quizzical expression, though not appearing all that alarmed by their presence. Or alarmed in the slightest, really. Simply staring back down at the fire for a couple more seconds, before appraising them again and raising one hand in a cautious hello.

As they draw nearer, however, the old man immediately takes a chatty, friendly neighbor turn, dispelling any threat of unease between them. When possible to do so without staring, Jeremy attempts to take stock of this figure, one of those hardy country types who seemingly live forever despite poor diets and who knows how many other bad habits. His indifferent if thick head of greyish white hair – kind of matching the gravel, actually, Jeremy observes with a smirk – blows all over this place in the wind. His short, stocky frame is clothed in some sort of burlap jacket, jeans, and work boots, his face craggy with battle scars, so to speak, and mostly red, although it’s impossible to tell if this latter condition is a constant one, or caused by either exertion or this sudden wind.

Lording over a tall set of steps, which seem incongruously flashy too, in comparison to the abode, the side door swings open and the lady of the manor, Jeremy’s guessing, stands in the frame just enough to keep it open. She’s wiping a plate with a kitchen towel, but beams and nods in their direction as she wordlessly smiles down at them. Her man has heard or peripherally spotted this opening door, and creaks his head around now, ever so slowly.

“Maggie!” he calls out to her, jerks a thumb back at them, “this here’s some-a the kids from that school!”

Then, jarred by the realization that his manners have been lacking, spins around and extends a hand. “Oh, I’m sorry. Forgot to mention it. I’m Owen Hazelwood, that’s my wife, Maggie.”

After introductions are handed out, the three of them find it impossible to turn down an offer to chat a while indoors. It had never occurred to Jeremy until his arrival here, but soon after they began speaking with Owen out by that smoldering fire, he realized that these folks could prove a vital link in maybe uncovering some history about the region. And he doesn’t even have to ask Denise to know she’s thinking the same thing, if it didn’t in fact occur to her quite some time ago. Soon enough they are seated around a dingy living room, whose brown carpet and particle board walls are too much for a solitary lamp to overpower. A large picture window of sorts does face out on the other side of the yard, though today’s weak light doesn’t offer much, either, and there’s no view to speak of outside of a laundry line and then a resumption of the tall yellow weeds.

While Owen sits with them, facing the crew from an Ottoman he apparently favors, Maggie drifts in and out from the kitchen repeatedly. Chiming in with details or questions if the mood strikes her, but otherwise occupied by chores in there. Meanwhile Lydia occupies a faux rocking chair on gliders, while Jeremy and Denise sit near one, taking up just 2/3 of a couch. Maggie has made everyone tea and brought out a tin of assorted cookies, both of which the suddenly cold and ravenous travelers eagerly devour.

Prompted by some questions about what developments have been made down there, Jeremy and Denise take turns outlining whatever improvements they can think of. Lydia doesn’t say much outside of, specifically prodded by Owen, asking what kind of art she’s into, explaining with a shy smile that she’s more or less the house photographer. Jeremy’s explaining that they cleaned out the barn and just last night had a bit of a welcoming dance in that space, to which it immediately strikes him as odd that Owen’s kind of smiling in the overly broad, robotic manner of someone who’s assumed a distant look in the eyes, as he has, and doesn’t seem thrilled with this information at all.

“That’s nice, that’s nice,” Maggie says in her lilting, soft voice, from the kitchen doorway, however, which also borders the side door they entered. Diverting attention in that direction, and causing Denise to think that this skinny woman, with her steel wool helmet of curly grey hair, has that weird brand of bottomless energy which only old ladies seem to possess. “I’m glad somebody finally did something with that place.”

Continuing to chew his bottom lip in a meditative state, Owen finally asks, “you haven’t had any...problems down there, have you?”

“Well,” Denise offers, with a play-acting laugh she hopes passes off as authentic, “I’m not sure what you mean, but...just last night, my sister actually thought she saw some guy come and knock on her window...”

“Is that right?” Owen remarks. “Huh. Well what did this fella look like?”

While Denise contributes an in-depth description of the character, she throws herself into it both bodily and emotionally, becoming progressively more animated as she continues. As such, Jeremy’s not even sure she notices the subtle expression passing between Owen and Maggie while she speaks. Neither will turn their head away from her during this tale, but their eyes will slowly drift to meet one another’s. And maybe he’s imagining this, but he believes they share a slight nod, too.

Studying them, after waiting for Denise to finish, Jeremy immediately asks, “there haven’t been any...weird incidents or anything in this region, have there? Anything noteworthy?”

“Weird incidents?” Owen repeats.

“Yeah!” Denise enthuses, beaming and bordering on cackling behind her enthusiasm for this topic. “You know, have any ffff...messed up things happened around here? Or better yet, have you heard anything about that place being haunted?”

“Weeeelll...,” Maggie equivocates in a slow Southern drawl, “I’d say just about everywhere has a little touch of somethin, wouldn’t you?”

It’s not lost on Jeremy that this isn’t an actual answer, however. Plus, he feels as though he can just sense it in the air, that Owen is itching to tell them something. He turns his eyes in that direction and leans forward, shifting his feet from the coffee table’s bottom ledge to the carpet, and keeps an unwavering gaze on the old man. Eyebrows raised, but grinning, to lace this inquiry with a little sugar, he says, “alright then, come on, let’s hear it. What are some things that have happened around here? What kind of scandals are we talking about?’

Owen nods, as though expecting this, and looks off into the near distance, at the windows next to that side door, in casting his thoughts back to recall. “Okay, well, this woulda been twenty-five, maybe thirty years ago at this point. They was this high schooler, Roger Terry, lived over off of Stokely Farm Road...”

Maggie has by now turned to drift back into the kitchen, the sounds of running water and gently clanging dishes reaching their ears once more. But nobody’s paying much mind to this, for at the mention of this road, Jeremy lights up with recognition. “Oh, okay, out by that huge lake?”

“Huge lake?” Owen replies, blinking, with downturned mouth, a confusion indicating that Jeremy must be way off base.

“Okay, so wait,” Denise interjects, with more of that curious, animated intensity, relishing this juicy opportunity to play detective, “was this the tall man my sister saw last night?”

Owen shakes his head and says, “no, this weren’t the fella you described. Roger Terry weren’t that tall at all.”

“Fine, fine,” Jeremy tells him, prodding the discussion to move it along. “You were saying?”

“Right, so yeah, this Roger Terry,” Owen continues, drawing his focus inward once more, “like I was saying, he was a high schooler, junior I believe, lived with his folks over off Stokely Farm Road. ’cept one morning in the spring of that year, he woke up and shot his entire family to death. Both parents and a younger sister. Just shot ‘em to death, and then stood at the end of the drive and got on his school bus like nothin’ ever happened. Nobody found ’em until later that afternoon, the mom’s sister came over and saw ’em all dead. The kids was on they way home from school by then. Sheriff and his deputies brought three cars out and pulled Roger’s bus over.” Owen nods at some distant point in the same general direction as, yet miles beyond, the corner between side door and kitchen archway. “They got out with guns drawn and yanked him off that bus, right on Stokely Farm Road.”

“No way! That’s bizarre...,” Jeremy says, for lack of anything better.

Even the mostly silent Lydia is muttering how messed up that is, with whispered, shocked wows and a continued shake of the head. Maggie is in the doorway again, leaning against its side, and remarking how it was all over the papers and the only thing people talked about for months. Fascinating though this is, however, Denise feels she must leapfrog to more important points, before talk becomes sidetracked again.

“So what prompted this? And what happened to him?”

“Nobody could ever figure out what prompted it, and he never said,” Owen explains. “He just snapped one day and that was that. You’d see him on TV sittin’ in the courtroom lookin’ halfway catatonic, though. In all this time he’s still never said nothin’ about it. They tried him as an adult, though, they gave him life without. He’s up there to this day, a-course.”

“Wow...,” Jeremy croaks, staring at the floor. But then snaps his fingers and glances over at Owen again, Maggie as well, to recall, “hey! That kinda reminds me of something, well, I don’t know why it does, really, but...”

“Yeah?”

“Well we passed this overgrown road on the way over here. You know anything about that?”

“Over thataway?” Owen questions, flips a finger in the direction of the side door and its accompanying wall.

“Yeah! What’s the deal with that?”

“Well, okay, that used to be the main road. That looped over and connected with Stokely Farm,” he explains, tracing a long line, from his right to his left, with that same index finger.

“Main road for what?” Denise asks.

Owen nods, expecting this, and elaborates, “well, okay, now, among other things, the lane back to your school fed off of it.”

“Wait a second – was this Roger Terry’s school?” Jeremy asks.

“No, no, that one was actually down into Stokely. This place here’s always been a, what you call, artsy kinda deal or whatever. But now, okay, yeah, you had your long dirt lane through that forest and the swamp, leading up to the school. A-course now you’re comin’ in from the other direction. S’far’s I know they closed off that lane. Well, maybe not closed, but it don’t serve no purpose.”

“Well that’s weird. I wonder what inspired the switch?” Denise says.

“That I couldn’t say for sure. I think just general, you know, development, they had to reroute some stuff.”

“Was there ever a fire?” Lydia startles all of them by suddenly proposing, as though snapping away from a highly involved daydream. “I thought I heard something about a fire.”

“Yep, yep, they was indeed a fire,” Owen tells her, “that may-a had somethin’ to do with it, I couldn’t tell ya.”

Saying their goodbyes, handshakes and waves are exchanged, along with enthusiastic pleas from the home’s elderly residents that these kids and anyone else is welcome back any time. By this point, they’ve been gone two and a half hours, although it’s not until they’ve reached the outdoors and they start clomping down that first hill that Jeremy’s inbox lights up with three texts and a voicemail, all from Emily, all apparently sent quite some time ago.

“Huh. They must have a poor signal in there, too,” he observes, reading the messages. Emily mentions that her team has stumbled onto some weird pond – which must be a big deal, considering the caps and exclamation points (WEIRD POND!!) - and also casually mentions that they earlier found “that one cemetery,” although he’s not quite sure what she means by this. Later texts, meanwhile, and the voicemail, are all variations asking where the fuck he and Denise and Lydia have disappeared to.

“What, like it’s better out here?” Denise jokes.

“Eh, you know how it is. Sometimes no signal is better than a bad one. Most of the time, in fact.”

“I know. I was just messing around. But, you know, I have to admit,” Denise offers, glancing back at the trailer, the smoldering remains of a fire one last time, “I do feel a little better after talking to them. Especially him. I mean, I guess I was sorta right about there being some bad shit in the air around the place. But probably nothing like I imagined.”

“It’s funny you say that, actually, because I’m thinking just the opposite,” Jeremy tells her, “that old man has me thinking you probably were right, all along. I think Kidwell knows a lot more than he’s letting on.”

“No...fucking...way!” Emily insists, “No way! There’s just no fucking way that this was here before!”

“It does seem...rather unlikely,” Tony agrees with a chuckle, rubbing his chin as he stares down at the water’s greenish black surface.

“Well it had to have been!” Kay shouts, throwing her arms into the air, “I mean, what are you even suggesting? That this...pond...materialized out of nowhere, in the – what, half hour? - it took us to walk to the cemetery and back?”

Kay’s aware of and suffers a mild pang that her passion might be casting her in an unfavorable light, as far as Tony is concerned. But she can’t seem to stop, all the same. The sight is plenty strange on its own, to be sure, but Emily’s not helping matters any by insisting it just appeared out of thin air.

Their trajectory must just be ever so slightly off, is all, Kay theorizes. Returning from the cemetery, they walked up that strange abandoned road, a hundred yards or whatever, to the spot Tony had been smart enough to mark, that taped up asterisk. Entered the forest again in the space between those two trees, the only two trees near that asterisk, and then right over that first lip of shoulder, off of the road and past these trees, they immediately encountered...this.

It’s small body of water, perfectly round, by appearances, and no more than maybe eight foot in diameter. But the pond itself looks like it were stamped out by a biscuit cutter, with impossibly smooth walls of red Carolina clay lining it, leading down a good twenty four inches to the water’s surface. Yet the water itself manages to look both murky, in its undisturbed state, yet clean, or at the very least not at all dirty. They can detect no movement and see no objects within it, and Tony, against the vocal objections of the girls, as they lean into one another and cringe as though expecting he might lose a hand, stuck one palm into it, extracted in that makeshift cup a little of perfectly clear looking water.

The area around the pond is undisturbed, too, as far as anyone can see, just a pristine bed of these orange-brown pine needles. Still, something has to explain this, Kay concludes. Either it’s an elaborate prank somebody nearby has figured out how to concoct in quick fashion – maybe even that tall man from last night – or else they are ever so slightly off course, from their voyage here, and simply missed this the first time around.

Debate rages about this find, as Tony shoots a ton of presumably professional looking footage on his camera, as the other two do so with their phones. And then during the surprisingly swift walk home, a leg of this trip which leaves them feeling great about their collective navigational skills. None of them questions direction or so much has to look at a phone app for course corrections. It’s just one short and graceful, gently northwest curving arc, and before they know it, roughly fifteen minutes later, the Druckers’ cabin and the brick schoolhouse both appear in view.

Arriving from this angle, they can see that Liam’s office is illuminated, and can soon enough make out his back, seated at the desk. Furthermore that he has some others in there with him, who are standing there speaking to him, from the looks of things Grace and Clay. By mutual murmured consensus, the three of them shrug and agree to drift in there as well, as good a spot for a note sharing experience as any.

They drift down the hallway and then squeeze into the office, where they do indeed find Grace and Clay standing there, but also Tom Drucker sitting in an uncomfortable looking wooden chair – one of those old fashioned boxy numbers where the arm rests are even made out of the same varnished but unadorned wooden - and glancing up at them with a wan smirk, sketchpad in lap and pencil in hand. Though Grace is beaming at them with a friendly if unsure expression, in other words her default sitting, Clay’s standing with hands on hips, as though challenging their presence.

“So?” Emily asks, rubbing her hands together with eagerness, “you find anything noteworthy?”

“Eh, not really,” Clay shrugs.

“Technically, no,” Grace agrees, “but we did see some interesting stuff. Like we finally ran into that swamp.”

“What about you guys?” Clay asks, and it seems to Emily that even the taciturn, vaguely bored Liam Blodgett appears to be peering up at them with interest. Even while Tom has already turned his attention to that sketch pad, and is furiously drawing away.

“Yeah!” Emily squeals, clasping her hands together, “did we ever!”

“It’s not as interesting as she’s making it sound,” Kay cautions, shooting them a let’s get real type glance.

“Is that so?” Liam questions, in this clipped, though rich sounding English accent, salt and pepper eyebrows shooting skyward. “And what’s your verdict, Mister...uh...? Since you’re apparently the tie-breaker here...”

“Mister Bender,” Tony explains with a low wattage smile, running his fingers through his bushy black hair now, all nerves, “Tony Bender. Or Anthony, if you prefer. But anyway ah...,” he chuckles, then continues, “I think they’re both right, in a way. I’m sure there’s a rational explanation and all, but man, this pond, I don’t know...”

“Pond?” no less than three people say in unison, with Liam, Emily thinks, seeming to perk up the most at this mention, the other two merely curious as to how weird this could possibly be. And meanwhile Tom continues paying them no mind while he pencils in some sort of tree filled landscape.

As they take turns explaining this sight, Liam sits leaning forward at his desk. Elbows pressed into its scarred wooden surface, chin resting in both hands. Continually nodding without comment, like a therapist, or maybe a judge, expecting this information. Only when they’ve finished speaking does he offer his take.

“Well, in fact, there’s actually a quite popular composition that mentions this very phenomenon. Have you ever heard the Fleetwood Mac tune Hypnotized? This is what Bob Welch is singing about.”

Drucker looks up from his sketch pad with one of those twisted smirks and says, “you know, I have heard that song, but I thought he was singing about palms. Strange palms, you know, with sides like glass...”

“No, no, it’s definitely about ponds,” Blodgett explains, shooting his raised eyebrows in that direction, “it’s an experience a friend of his related to him, and it happened not too far away from here, in fact. In some woods up around Winston Salem. I’m sure the old interview’s rattling around somewhere online, if you really wanted to dig it up.”

“Well, that sounds kinda weird, but I don’t see how it could possibly be more creepy than that swamp we saw,” Grace suggests, and shivers even though her arms are crossed.

“I don’t know,” Tony reflects, “you guys get any footage? I think this pond is more tripped out than it sounds. We’re not doing it justice. I wish we had a screening room around here of some sort....”

Liam nods in the manner of someone considering this a valid suggestion, and scribbles something down on a sticky note. Grace shakes her head instead, however, musing, “you know what, it’s funny, but no, I didn’t think to take a single picture.”

“Your camera can project?” Kay asks Tony, feeling a tiny jolt of having made what she thinks is a smart, useful comment. When he confirms this with a nod, she continues the point, suggesting, “these are some old classrooms. I bet they have one of those pull-down projection thingies, remember those?”

“That’s true,” he says, “or if nothing else I could always just shoot it against a plain white wall...”

“Dammit, where the hell are these guys? They must have found something really good,” Emily says. She calls Jeremy’s number, to no avail, and leaves a voice message.

So as not to disturb any of the rooms already in use, the seven of them drift across the hall, to the most central of the four classrooms. Tom and Kathy have each claimed the front two, and begun loading their pieces into those spaces, in addition to shoving most furniture aside and beginning to work in those as well. But this central classroom will work, despite the lack of one of those pull-down screens Kay had mentioned. There’s a bare patch of wall, to the left of the desk, which is will work for their purposes even though the paint is a pale key lime. With the familiar loud, metal on tile scrape that brings up a flood surprisingly pleasant memories for many of them, they begin turning all of the chairs and desks ninety degrees or so in that direction.

“I’m thinking about actually working in the back classroom,” Tom’s telling Liam, jerks a thumb behind them, as the two of them kick back side by side in a middle row, “you know, leave my stuff in the front one as an exhibition space, but work back here. I like the ambiance in that room better, it’s the only one with the original hardwood floors still.”

“Is that so?” Liam asks, though nodding approvingly.

“Yeah, I mean, you know, unless somebody else has already staked out one of the rooms. I don’t wanna be a space hog and crowd everyone else out.”

“No, no, that should be fine. We’ll play it by ear, though. I’m still not sure precisely what Kidwell expects of me for these tours. So that will be my primary focus this coming week.”

As Grace dims the lights and Tony begins broadcasting his footage against the wall, it takes him a few clicks and some fast forwarding to get to the desired stretch of video. He plays it a few times, with and without sound, although most of those who weren’t present continue to seem unimpressed. One exception would be their quote unquote overseer.

“You know, this reminds me, I’ve also heard Charlie Daniels make reference to these,” Blodgett recalls, “he’s a Carolina bloke too, you know, although I’ve believe that’s more the Eastern part of the state. Venus flytrap territory. I caught him performing live once and he mentioned these ponds right before playing The Legend of Wooley Swamp. He said those are what inspired this tune also, in part.”

Wooley Swamp also mentions these ponds?” Tom questions, as though straining to think of what lyrical passage that might be.

“Well no like I say, he only mentioned this in passing once before performing it live. That he’s seen such and they inspired the tune. But as far as I know there’s no direct reference in it.”

“Great,” Tony mutters with a dry chuckle, while fiddling with his camera to rewind the footage once more, “we’ve got a...Welch Pond and a...Wooley Swamp. What have we gotten ourselves into here?”

Emily’s not sure how anyone can joke around about any of this. Granted, most were not present for the pond episode, but Tony was. And sure, she alone glimpsed the tall man last night. But they seriously need to figure out what kind of pranksters are on the loose around here, and put a lid on these activities. They are threatening to ruin what still has all the potential to be a life changing residency here.

Tomorrow, she resolves to get down to some serious work, too, which has admittedly been somewhat lacking thus far. Right now, however, she just wishes Jeremy were here, and Denise. What could possibly be taking them so long. She sinks lower in her chair, near reclining, and extracts the phone from her front pocket. Its blue screen alone is somewhat soothing, she has to admit, as she sends him a text for the third time, and now her sister, too, for good measure.

“I don’t know...it’s out in the middle of nowhere,” Clay’s telling whomever he’s speaking to on the phone, feet propped up on a knotted pine coffee table in the main house’s library, “the closest town? I forget, it’s like...Spinning Rock or some shit. Aren’t all the towns around here named something like that?”

“It’s called Stokely, okay?” Jeremy calls out, not wanting to hear the conversation, yet unable to help himself. “Stokely.”

Monday morning has arrived and, as they plot out their upcoming drive into town, Jeremy paces around the library. He was relieved to wake up and see the sun shining bright and clear already, at this early hour, every bit as much as the truck stop sized dispenser of fresh coffee Jen put out for them. Still, he has a week left at his real job back in Kenner, a midshift today beginning at 2pm, and is dreading the drive home for that more than the work itself. Clay’s in the same boat, in fact, employed currently as part as some kind of odd job carpentry team, and is calling around to see what kind of colleague he can connive into taking his shift. The difference being he’s due in at 10, therefore has very little time to play with.

“I can’t stop thinking about that dream I had last night,” Denise reiterates, shaking her head as if attempting to brush off cobwebs. She’s sitting crossed legged on the knotted pine table itself, never mind the scattered magazines beneath her, while Emily, on a nearby couch flips through a book about modern mixed media techniques.

Denise has already divulged the contents of this incredibly vivid dream to them twice, but she gets it. They couldn’t possibly understand how real this all seems. Not real in the sense that she believes it meant anything, or was prophetic or what have you, only that this one was more crisp, somehow, than any she’s had in quite some time. But dreams are impossible to convey to others with the same urgency and context we feel ourselves.

What made this one unique, she supposes, are the levels. Sometimes you are a participant in a dream. Sometimes you are merely watching the action in the dream. Other occasions, of which this is one, it’s like there’s another level above that, or maybe two, where you are outside of all this, yet aware, that you are watching yourself observe a dream. You are privy somehow to receiving the thoughts of the you inside the dream, the one who is watching it.

This one might have a smidgen of movie imagery mixed in, true. There are a bunch of kids on bicycles, after all, and the central one she’s observing is named Elliot. Still, she has considered this matter over and over, and can’t think of any realistic connection between their current situation, anything she’s heard, anything she’s fretted about, and, well, a certain famous film from the 1980s about a loveable extraterrestrial creature.

“Elliot? Like E.T.?” Jeremy had joked, when she first told them all about the dream.

“That’s what the me inside the dream was thinking!” Denise marvels, “but see, this is what I’m talking. Then the me on the outside of the dream is meanwhile thinking, seriously, trying to remember – wait a second, was Elliot’s the kid’s name, or was it the alien’s name?”

Anyway, as far as the details are concerned, a bunch of kids are chasing this Elliot kid around on their bicycles. The landscape does look kind of similar to the artist’s retreat here, but that’s about it. This Elliot kid is the only one without a bicycle, and this pack of others are chasing him around the grounds. Then somehow they end up in this single room wooden building, little more than a shack. Somehow she’s aware that there is at least a little kitchen on the backside of the one main room, and she’s kind of watching – the her inside the dream that is – kind of floating above the action from a corner where the bathroom door must branch off from the main room. The her outside the dream is watching all of this from a vantage point higher still.

The entire room is illuminated in a bright red, for some reason, not a fire but just the illumination they have in here. She gets the feeling that Elliot considers this his sanctuary, his lone sanctuary, but isn’t one hundred percent about that. This room has nothing more in it but a large round wooden table, kitchen table size and height, but no chairs. Elliot is thoroughly horrified as they continue shouting his name, pinning him against the table. They don’t manage this directly physically, but rather, he is pinned against the table because they are riding their bikes in a relentless circle around it, laughing with the exceptional cruelty, Denise thinks, only young boys and maybe serial killers possess. Granted, some of these young boys could very well have turned out serial killers, but still. She wakes up at this juncture, with nothing technically all that bad having happened to Elliot yet, though the pending menace is unmistakable. She shudders even now to recall these details.

“Is Kay coming or what?” Emily sighs, “we’ve already wasted half an hour!”

“I don’t know. Let me text her,” Denise says, “she was trying to work up the nerve to ask Tony, so of course what that really meant was making herself look good enough first to feel confident in asking Tony.”

Kay shows up a few minutes later, and they break off into a pair of vehicles for the drive into Stokely. Since Clay has to drive in this direction anyway, Denise rides with him as far as town. Clay will have just enough time to help her and Kay at the hardware store, picking out some locks and possibly other reinforcements for their cabin, before continuing homeward. Meanwhile, having conveniently reached nothing but Kidwell’s voicemail ever since yesterday evening, Jeremy and Emily figure they may as well descend upon the Stokely library and see what kind of history they can dig up on the region.

This means the original trio, who stumbled upon this singular location that distant summer day, are leading the way in Jeremy’s car. They’ve reached the end of the half gravel, half mud drive, and are about to turn right, when Emily instead points in the other direction.

“Wait a second. I just thought of something. Didn’t we come from that direction, the first time? And didn’t we leave that way as well? Because this road was a dead end or something?”

“Well, yeah, I mean that’s what Kidwell said,” Jeremy shrugs, turning right onto the road anyhow, “he said it wasn’t finished or it was longer this way or something. But who knows if he even knew what he was talking about. He could’ve been full of shit, or maybe they’ve even finished it since then.”

“Yeah...,” Emily trails off, uncertain, and flips all the way around in her front passenger seat, belt be damned, to peer at the woods receding behind them. “I don’t know, I would like to see a map. Remind me to check at the library. Something about the layout around here isn’t making sense to me. We must have driven in circles or taken a really long route to get here that first time.”

“You’re starting to sound like your sister,” Jeremy scoffs.

“No, I mean, I really love it here. I already feel like I never want to leave! But I’m just kinda curious...”

“I know what you’re saying,” Kay pipes in from the back, “we made it to that same cemetery on foot yesterday in, what, twenty minutes? There must be some shortcut in between that we missed that day, driving here.”

“You guys keep saying that, but I’m telling you, it’s just not possible. That had to be a different cemetery. Had to be,” Jeremy counters.

“How do you figure?”

“Well, okay, let’s think about this. Exhibit A: did you cross a gigantic lake at all in your travels?”

“No,” Kay admits.

“Well okay then. If you recall, there was this huge ass lake spreading out on both sides of the road. Stokely Farm Road. We drove over it in this S shaped bridge, and passed some marina right after that. That lake was so huge you couldn’t see the end of it in either direction.”

“Mmm, I’m not convinced. This terrain could be laid out a little different than you think. If Otherwise somehow sits east of the lake, then so could that graveyard,” Emily counters.

Stumped and agitated, Jeremy raises one from the wheel and declares, “okay, fuck it, then. Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna look up some maps at the library, and then we’re gonna come out here and run a couple different tests, too. Actually, couldn’t one of you just pull up a map right now, on your phone?”

“That’s what I’m doing right now...,” Kay mutters, “but, ah...that’s weird. It doesn’t show a lake on either side. Not that I can see, anyway...”

“What?” a disbelieving Jeremy wearily intones, “get outta here. Emily, why don’t you look it up? We all know Kay sucks with maps.”

Emily looks him straight on with a mischievous little smile and waits a few measures before speaking. “I already did, actually. It doesn’t show the lake. But I figure, who knows, maybe it’s manmade and the phone map gadget dealio is outdated or whatever. That’s why I was saying let’s look it up at the library. Or maybe we’ll luck out with a gas station that hasn’t switched out its inventory in a couple of decades or something, still has some lying around...”

“Oh my god...,” Jeremy groans, shakes his head.

“What? I’m serious. You’ll notice the map app doesn’t show much anything for that plot of land with Otherwise, either. So it must have been seriously overgrown before Harry went to work on it. But, I don’t know...you ask me, it makes this neater, in a way. A little more mysterious, more of an adventure.”

Though buckled up by now, Emily turns around enough to fix her best friend with a radiant smile. But Kay doesn’t exactly share this same level of lighthearted enthusiasm. On the contrary, all this talk, in particular this notion Jeremy’s proposed about running some tests and charting their terrain, has filled her with a body consuming dread. She flashes from Noah, to that comment about the doom statues, and the apparent nonsensicality or at least deceptiveness of their surroundings, and her stomach feels as though it’s dropped a good foot or so in a split second, like cresting a giant drop on a roller coaster at Six Flags.

“What, you’re over your little midnight caller episode, now?” is all she can think of by way of response.

“I don’t know. I guess so,” Emily merrily declares, facing forward once more, with an indifferent shrug. “It probably was some prankster. We’ll figure it out.”

Within fifteen minutes, they are rolling down the long, diagonal hill into Stokely, gently curving at the bottom where it runs into the state route. Just past the intersection, in the row of buildings on the left, Fairlawn Diner sits at the end of the row, but H.L. Mortensen Hardware sits a few doors nearer. Its front, fairly typical for buildings of this advanced age, features display bay windows on both sides of a double wooden door. Clay is able to coast his faded red pickup into a curbside slot across the street and Jeremy, though in the lead, without another vehicle behind them, is able to hit his brakes and back up to draw even. After a quick discussion, Kay climbs out, to join the other two, as Jeremy and Emily reiterate their plans to hit the nearby library.

“They got a liquor store in this town?” Clay notes, obviously impressed. He’s peering back the way they’ve came, albeit where the state route winds out of town in a vague south-southeast direction.

“Man, I almost wish I was going with you guys,” Denise laments. Though a couple of cars have passed going the opposite direction, eastbound through town, none have yet come up behind them, and she’s continuing to lean in Emily’s window.

“Well, you could, I mean,” Emily tells her, “how much time can you possibly spend in this hardware store? Not to mention the library’s, what, a whopping three blocks away.”

Eventually, another vehicle materializes in their mirrors, and with an agreement to meet up at the diner in an hour, Jeremy and Emily continue up the road. There’s some kind of closeout specialty store nearby, and a low budget pawn shop, some sort of quaint, family owned, small town pharmacy, all of which Kay and Denise plan to hit after Clay helps this out and splits town.

The library is tucked away on a parallel street, one block to the north of the main drag. If not already researching the existence of said library, they never would have known it existed. Just past a pair of nearly identical, towering brick churches, albeit of opposite denomination – one Lutheran, one a Church of Christ – the turn and then the next quick left. Here, in the shadow of a tin can colored water tower, with the name STOKELY across it in big black block letters, they encounter a much more nondescript brick building, single storied, one whose only remarkable feature is a series of almost Spanish looking arches along the front walk, leading to the library’s entrance. As for the building itself, it is situated perpendicular to the lot, at the edge of a wide green lawn fanning out for a good acre behind and beside it.

They park and approach the building, finding about as many patrons sprinkled throughout as the seven or so cars in the lot would have suggested. Though exhausting in fairly short order what this charming, cozy little building contains – a space small enough to glimpse all four walls at once, with thin, loud carpet of a garish color scheme that would make even Las Vegas blush. Still, there is a tiny, glass walled room eating up the northwest corner of this main space.

Emily is the first to spot it, tucked behind a tall yet single aisled reference section. She and Jeremy had temporarily, wordlessly split, as he was already distracted and drifted over to the magazine section. She resists an urge to gallop over to the glass, arriving to discover, with a giddy shudder that brings a smile to her lips, that this might indeed prove a fruitful little find. A sign, taped beside the thick wooden door, on one of the glass panes, bears what looks like an amusingly outdated dot matrix style print job as it announces LOCAL HISTORY AND GENEALOGY.

This smile almost immediately leaves her face, however, to read further, in slightly smaller type below, that entry is only granted by appointment only, that no pictures are to be taken and indeed no cell phone is permitted inside the room. Which leads her to spin around and look for an employee of some sort, and it’s only at this point that she’s realized someone’s been watching her with considerable amusement this entire time. Standing at the checkout desk, across the room and just to the left of the entrance, there’s a middle-aged man with a thick grey moustache, a matching, neatly groomed head of curly hair, beaming – in friendly enough seeming fashion, Emily thinks, it’s true – in her direction. Then they make eye contact, as she closes the gap between them, and his smile widens. He’s wearing a crisp, long sleeved white dress shirt, a tastefully red tie with some sort of repeating abstract pattern in yellow, and a thin, gold name badge with the name Paul Hilldreth engraved, below that the title of Head Librarian.

“It says we need an appointment for that room?” she blurts, in a near panic, it seems, for reasons even she can’t quite explain. Only the urgency of getting this close to a targeted destination, and finding it painful to think about turning around now, empty handed.

But the librarian waves this notion off before she’s even fully finished it. “Nah, it ain’t locked. We put that sign up to give it a little intrigue, but...turns out nobody cares anyhow.”

“Do I need to leave my phone here?” she offers, even going as far as to extend a hand clutching the object.

He merely glances up at her, as they make eye contact once more, and with an even warmer smile, somehow, assures her, “that won’t really be necessary.”

Once she and Jeremy are ensconced within that glass walled room – well, the two internal walls are glass, anyway – they are nearly elbow to elbow at the lone available table, which only seats four. A couple of stray chairs are tucked into tight corners of this cramped space, and there’s a desk in case anyone ever cares to monitor activity here. If standing just so, in the little walkway bordering the west external wall, Emily is able to glimpse the cute little workstation someone has crafted, in the underbelly of that hotel-style desk, and she suddenly wishes that this were her job. It could be the most charming work station she’s ever seen. An old school computer, with one of those giant, white monitors, sort of like a deformed marshmallow. Then a pair of those plain metal L shaped bracket type bookends, to the left of that computer in the corner, jammed with books and papers which are sticking out all over and sort of leaning anyway. Plus another whole row of random manuals on a shelf above it, just beneath the tall ledge where this employee is meant to stand and deal with people.

Looking about the space, she had considered that this might be the coziest room she’s ever visited, period. For a moment an image fills her head, of her and Jeremy owning some big old farmhouse in the countryside, maybe not too far from here – for she really has fallen in love with this region – and them having some tidy little office, in some back nook of the ground floor, where she spends her every free hour. With just enough room to do some painting, yes, and clearly no need for these towering bookshelves, but the same basic warm aura for sure.

Now they are seated at this table, with every spare inch taken up by the books that each has found fascinating. For some weird reason, God bless him, Jeremy is obsessed with maps and charts, which might help explain why he’s so good with logistics at his department store. So he’s studying that angle here. Whereas she, and again this is more of an artist’s sensibility, is reading up now on local history, sure, but also its folklore, its ghost stories and other murkier details.

“Finding anything interesting?” she asks him, after a long, silent stretch, following the kind of obvious glance over that surely he picked up even peripherally, therefore requires some sort of explanation or comment.

“Ehahhhhhh...,” he sighs, flipping back and forth between these two pages, comparing some sort of decade-by-decade map of the region, “none of this is making sense, really. Granted, the most recent map I have here is fifteen...no, wait, seventeen years old, but still. There’s nothing whatsoever where that gigantic ass lake should be. Just this huge forest. But then on the other hand, that overgrown road we passed coming and going, which even Owen and Maggie...”

“Owen and Maggie?”

“Yeah, you know – that old couple I told you about?” Jeremy questions. Only when Emily solemnly nods does he continue. “Anyway, even Owen and Maggie said it was the old route for Stokely Farm Road. I mean, we saw it ourselves, we heard them say it. But according to this that is still Stokely Farm Road.”

“Well wait a minute, we saw that road too. If it’s the same one, anyway. It dead ended into...well wait a second, does it show that graveyard I was talking about?” Emily asks, and then, genuinely interested in what he’s looking at now, leans over to peer at the map herself.

“Mmmmmm...no. So see? I just wanna drive the fuckin route myself and see what’s what. I think this must just clearly be outdated, or wrong to begin with.”

“We could maybe ask that librarian guy up front,” Emily suggests, glancing back in that direction, where she can see him joking with and laughing over whatever he’s saying to some elderly couple checking out right now. “He seemed pretty knowledgeable about stuff...”

“Eh, well, anyway. What about you? Coming up with anything?” Jeremy inquires.

“Oh!” she says, jarred back from this reverie, into the heart of her research. “Well, I mean, this is all pretty scattershot, but...I did find some reference to an Edwina Rochefort Kidwell who...”

“Wow. That is an awesome name.”

“...yeah so anyway,” Emily chuckles, “an Edwina Rochefort Kidwell who apparently owned this Otherwise property – under its former name, of course – for damn near fifty years. Only when she died about a year and a half ago did a Harry Kidwell inherit the property, of course....”

“Of course,” Jeremy replies, after Emily has gestured in his direction for exactly this response.

“Yeah, so anyway, this fire everyone keeps referencing, apparently this is how she ended up with the property. Everything except the what we’re calling the quote unquote gift shop up front...”

“Yeah?”

“...the main house, the school building, the barn, and those two old cabins, everything else went up in flames.”

Jeremy nods but is thinking that they’ve already kind of heard all this. “Okay yeah but what are the details? We still don’t actually know what happened.”

“Well...I don’t know,” Emily replies, and flips back to the glance at the cover, Ghosts of the Carolina Piedmont, and then returns to her current page to read some more. “They don’t really get into that. This is just a book about local hauntings, you know, they’re just setting the scene of...oh...my...god...”

“What?” Jeremy asks. But when Emily turns the book in his direction, it’s immediately obvious what has freaked her out so. She has turned to the next page, at the top of which is a black and white sketch which clearly looks a great deal like the tall man she saw two nights ago, including the trench coat and top hat. “Whoa...,” he says, and admittedly feels all at once as though he’s going to fall out of his chair.

“Yeah,” she nods in rapid fire fashion, although distracted to some extent by what she’s reading. “Apparently he is spotted around that property all the time, in particular the pond.”

“The weird pond you guys found, or the...”

“No, the normal one right behind the barn. They say he likes to walk around it. Everyone thinks this must be the ghost of William Allensworth.”

Jeremy chuckles and says, “who the fuck is William Allensworth?”

“Well, once again, I don’t know, they don’t get into any...”

Just then, the door flies open with a bang, startling the two of them, until they hear some giggling, and Kay barking out, “okay, bitches, you ready to go?” before they’ve even had a chance to turn around.

“Go? Already?” Emily questions.

With just one glance, Denise becomes completely enthralled by this cozy little room, though, as Emily knew she would be. “Oh wow! This is so cool!” her little says, begins drifting around among the handful of short aisles, the random stacks of papers. Inspecting that desk in busybody fashion, with a boldness Emily hadn’t dared, but then also some enormous tomes set up on slanted tables, books written in the 1800s in the region, with what looks like a fountain pen, not to mention the copious clippings and dated photographs pinned all over the two external walls, taped to the glass ones in spots, framed on the top of some shorter shelves and table space.

“You’ve been here for two hours!” Kay protests.

“We have?” Jeremy and Emily both say, more or less in unison.

“Yeah,” Kay nods, “and let me tell you, that was a nice little hike up here!”

“Really? But it’s only, like, four blocks,” Jeremy says, “it couldn’t have been any worse than your walk in the woods yesterday.”

“I don’t know, it seemed longer somehow. But yeah, so anyway, we put that stuff in your car. Checked out some shops, even ate lunch at that little diner. That cute old lady, Doris, was our waitress again, you remember her?”

“Yeah, we told her you two were doing some research,” Denise interjects, as she continues to stroll around the room, “she said she could tell us some stories about this area, but not on the clock. She looked kind of horrified when we told her about your tall man encounter, though, said she wasn’t surprised.”

“We need to go talk to that lady!” Jeremy declares, “maybe not while she’s working, but figure out a day when she’s off.”

“Yeah...,” Emily murmurs, but is playing with her necklace and glancing back at the direction of that librarian, who’s just kind of standing at his counter now and admiring his kingdom, so to speak, watching everyone in action around the library. “Although something tells me he would know quite a bit about this area, too...”

The three of them leave the room, though careful to reshelve everything they’ve been reading. If asked, Emily concludes she couldn’t really say why, but that it feels like they want to keep this stuff under wraps until they solve the mysteries themselves. This just feels right. Not to make a big deal about it, and cause everyone to know about their little secret here – or maybe not learn, much to their disappointment, that these aren’t secrets, but rather boring old common knowledge to these locals.

Since they are passing right by him anyway, though, prompted by Emily’s comment, Jeremy leads the way on a slight detour over to ask this Paul Hilldreth some questions. He cuts immediately to the chase, explaining that they’re all staying up at that artist’s retreat, and that they read about some fire but can’t seem to figure out what happened.

“Yeah, you know, this book mentioned something about a William Allensworth,” Jeremy adds, figuring it best not to come off as a crackpot, or at the very least sidetrack this discussion from pure facts, “and then also, yeah, we’ve heard from numerous people about this fire...”

“Yeah, do you know anything about this mysterious fire?” Emily asks him.

“Yep, I sure do,” Hilldreth nods slowly, studying both of their faces, with a quick glance over at Denise and Kay fanning out to the right. “I know pretty much everything there is to know about this region. I could tell you every road, every wildflower, probably damn near every address if I really had to,” he adds with a chuckle.

“Okay, so what happened?” Jeremy asks again.

“About this fire or...?”

“Yeah, about this fire, about this fire.”

“Well, then,” he says, and leans in, a move which subconsciously inspires all of them to do the same, “it was arson. Fifty, sixty years ago, that was a boarding school for boys. Troubled ones, or ones who were just, you know, maybe what you might call orphans. Anyway, evidently a bunch of them had it out for this one kid in particular, and just kinda relentlessly tormented him for whatever reason – nowadays what we would refer to as bullying. The headmaster and the other adults all knew what was happening, but apparently they did absolutely nothing to stop it.”

“Oh my god...,” Kay says.

“Yeah,” Hilldreth glances over at her, making eye contact, before returning his gaze to Emily and Jeremy, “so one night this boy, who was I believe about nine, ten years old, doused all their cabins with gasoline and torched the place. A bunch of them burned alive up there, or at any rate died from inhalation. The body count ended up being something like twenty-three.”

“Twenty-three!?” Jeremy exclaims, a bit louder than intended. He looks back and observes a couple of people looking their way, though only mildly curious.

“Yeah, they had ’em crammed like sardines into those cabins. It coulda been higher. Also by some kind of miracle the firefighters got there before it spread to the woods. Everybody was runnin around in a panic, but they just found Charles calmly walkin around the place. That’s what made the sheriff and his deputies immediately suspicious about the kid, in fact.”

“Charles?” Emily questions.

“Yeah, you know, he was the one who did it, the one they were bullyin.’ Charles Elliot.”

At the mention of this name, Denise feels her eyelids begin to flutter in frantic fashion, a tic she can’t control. Mostly because her knees also go weak at this time, and it’s all she can do not to faint. She steadies herself by glamping onto the counter with all her might, as the other three glance over at her, mouths open and nearly as shocked as she.

Though they are unable to reach Kidwell on Monday, he is on premises Tuesday for what feels like, many of them agree, the most productive day since they’ve arrived at Otherwise. In some sort of zone ever since they returned from Stokely, in fact, Emily knuckles down to work in her cabin beginning on Monday night, and is up to about three in the morning painting. Then wakes up at eight, her head buzzing with a million ideas, and begins to work all over again.

The heavy curtains Denise and Kay picked out for her, at the closeout store, surely help with her sense of wellbeing. With some tunes cranked and every light in the cabin on, she was firing on all cylinders in this watercolor depiction of a church. It was maybe sort of inspired by one of those witnessed in town, but far simpler, mostly because she hadn’t the patience for sketching subjects nor any sort of photographic recall. Really, the greatest influence might have been witnessing Tom Drucker in action all week, and examining his work, for the colors on this creation are all muted, just variations of brown and black in the building itself, the barren ground surrounding it a little lighter and then this vague, purplish gray mist wafting all around it, the shade depending slightly upon where one looked.

Jeremy was up with her until well after one, goofing around on his phone. But he could sleep through anything, it seemed, and even with the music relatively loud, the lights positively blazing, her creative fury in full swing, none of it prevented him from dropping off into a full slumber. The merriest pair of drunken roommates on site, Denise and Kay, even stopped by with what remained of a wine bottle, as they’d already plowed through one and a half, apparently, in the course of their own remodeling and fortifying project next door. Still Jeremy didn’t so much as turn over in his sleep.

Neither one of them had done much Monday, but both of them hit the ground running on Tuesday, just like everyone else. Kay drifts up to the third floor of the main house, to fire up a pottery wheel, and is not seen for many hours. Meanwhile Denise, very much in keeping with this role of surreptitious observer she feels she has carved for herself, wanders around and plants herself in various locations, sketching away with a pencil in a notepad, making conversation here and there, maybe occasionally jotting oblique little notes next to her drawings, concerning the goings on around this property.

Tony, who says his video installation piece is almost complete, and who anyway claims he can only seem to do serious work at night, when no one around, volunteers for this project to further clean out the barn. They’d really only cleared its central space, throwing tarps over equipment around the edges, that night of the dance. The remainder remains highly dusty, not to mention covered with hay and straw along much of the back half, in particular the animal pens.

Kidwell naturally has Jeremy assigned to a number of odd jobs around the property. His most major of these concerns getting that front building in shape to function as a gift shop. The Druckers, who are clearly not messing around and whose ability to combine art with commerce even Kidwell has to admit, with a hearty chuckle, is highly inspirational, have shown up with boxes upon boxes of prints, and are seeding the gift shop on an agreed upon 50/50 consignment split with Harry. Upon hearing of this deal, Lydia also gets to work cranking out high quality photographs to sell. Still others plan to peddle even their most half baked concoctions – often quite literally, as in barely finished pottery. These sudden flood of product is part of the reason Kidwell wishes to get the barn in order, as a potential overflow point of display space for these tours.

Jeremy will not soon forget the moment where they first heard the news about the natural spring. Kidwell continually insists he doesn’t know anything about the layout here and has no map. Which, whatever, fine. He has also shook his head and insisted her never heard the name Charles Elliot, either.

“I don’t know, man, I mean, my grandma,” he shrugs, when Jeremy presses him on this point, “I know my grandma had gotten this place on the cheap, and something about a fire, but that’s about the extent of it.”

But so anyway. Jeremy is standing in the front space of the gift shop, looking out its large front window. There are five vehicles, basically nose to asshole, parked directly before here, in a row, with Kidwell’s giant navy blue Suburban leading the pack. Jeremy and Emily have been cleaning and arranging display racks in this gift shop all morning, and he’s just now taking a break, basically just daydreaming as he stares out this window. Grace has dropped by for a visit, and she and Emily are softly chatting, laughing about something this very second, as he idly gazes down the overgrown hill. Rebecca and Jen, curiously enough – not because they have recently been linked as a couple, only because he has trouble picturing Jen anywhere outside that infernal main house kitchen – are cavorting around with a handful of others, with a butterfly net, doing who knows what on this slightly overgrown hill with its bluish purple flowers. Then again, he’s pretty sure he’s glimpsed a one hitter of pot being passed around down there, too, so maybe this explains quite a bit.

“This tour business has me somewhat terrified,” Grace is confiding to Emily, somewhere behind him.

“Just say juxtapose a lot,” Emily jokes, “like, all the time. Use it at least once in every description of what an artist is doing, and make up the rest. You’ll be fine.”

Jeremy’s been commuting as his schedule sees fit, this final week of pulling duty in two different places. It’s only an hour, which isn’t horrible, less than others spend one way on the bus or train in major cities. The thought of double dipping on pay for this period has been reward enough to keep him going. Of course, last night he was off at 10:30 and turned around to work a morning shift today, but what the hell. This seemed to happen at least once a week regardless, and he’s young enough to pull it off.

He and Emily spent a solid two hours dusting the crap out of this counter, outfitting it with a cash register, credit card reader, pens and notepads, brochures and maps and anything else which might come in handy. Still, while this counter does run about ¾ the length of this gift shop’s front room, the space directly in front of it is looking a little barren. That’s actually what he’d been contemplating before zoning out and becoming distracted by those playing outside in the distance. He had strolled around in front of this counter to get a feel for its dimensions, but became sidetracked.

Now he turns in the opposite direction, back to the window, to appraise the shop as a whole. To his left, there’s the front door, and beyond it the gift operation proper. Right now, Grace and Emily are inspecting a rack of clothes near the back left corner, snickering as they examine the pieces. These were all lifted from quote unquote The Collection, specifically curated by a handful of the girls, pieces that were just ironically funky or retro hip or just plain weird enough to pass off at a premium here. Even though Grace for example wears items from The Collection herself, as most of the artists do. So far Emily has been, thankfully, impervious to that particular affliction, but he feels that’s just a matter of time.

Anyway, they gave the clothes a good wash and a spritz of some fresh smelling spray, and here they are. Just one tastefully arranged rack, so as not to arouse suspicion and overflood the market. They look right at home amid the Drucker’s little cottage industry of prints and pottery, Lydia’s more modest offerings and the smattering of pieces others have come up with.

So the gift shop in turn eats up probably a good sixty percent of the available space in this one room building. An office, carved into most of the remainder, is accessible from both sides, behind the counter and from the shop itself, with one small unisex bathroom, tucked away in the shop’s elbow, about dead center within the building as a whole. Yet there’s definitely some room up front here for...if not more display space, then maybe room for chairs and a little table? Although this then calls into question who would want to sit there and why, which means it’s probably going to wind up as still more display space. Still, they can put up some bulletin boards, maybe, or chalkboards or something, and turn it into a general information space.

He turns to the window once more, thinking that something about this arrangement out there is gnawing at him, and he can’t figure out why. Nothing about them nor their arrangement seems all that striking, this line of four running parallel to the front of the building. They just look weird, is all he can think. This window is pretty good sized, and lines up well with the counter, if looking straight ahead, centered within it but maybe a foot short on each side. This is why he strolled around the counter and then up to the window itself, to grab a better look.

There’s some IT guy’s white pickup truck last in line, then that metallic powder blue station wagon, who knows how old, which Tom Drucker is known to putter around in. Some black sedan directly in front of him, which he thinks might be Grace’s, actually, and then, though pretty much just its back bumper and a tiny bit of the rear quarter panel is visible from here, Kidwell’s big old navy blue truck. Jeremy leans up against the glass, to glance left and get a better look at the remainder of the truck, continuing to believe all the while that something is truly weird about its placement there, just sitting in broad sunlight there alongside the remainder of this building, when a breathless Denise barges into the front door, startling the crap out of him even though she’s all smiles.

“They found the natural spring!” she pants.

“What?!” the others say uniformly, also adding some variation of, “where is it?”

Denise nods repeatedly to this question, mostly to catch their breath, and then explains, “there’s a hatch door in the barn. In one of the stalls. Tony discovered it when he was sweeping out some straw.”

Standing with hands on hips, having crossed most of the distance to the front of the room along with Grace, an open mouthed, wide eyed Emily at last gathers herself to announce, “well, we have to go check it out! Right this second!”

“I already have, actually,” Denise beams, and Jeremy begins to pick up on a little sibling jealousy passing between these sisters, a subtle taunt. “It’s pretty cool. C’mon, I’ll show you...”

They flip open the hatch and descend the stairs, where a handful of fellow residents are still hanging out, marveling over this sight. The stairs themselves are an untreated, roughly hewn wood, though appearing surprisingly solid and unblemished considered they must have sat here for years in the dark, unused. At the bottom lies a solid concrete landing area of maybe fifteen feet by fifteen feet, leading up to the water. A short piece of it sits behind the stairwell, though the passage ends in that direction just behind the stairs, allowing only enough room for those.

As for the natural well, nobody has yet reached the end of it. The concrete floor continues in the form of a path, wide enough to easily walk, along both sides of the spring. The ceiling is a curved, light colored tile of some sort, while the walls are themselves concrete, about three quarters of the way up the wall, until meeting the tile. Light bulbs are mounted every so often along the wall, and while Kidwell says that a couple of the ones near this entrance snapped to life, however weakly, with the pull of a little chain, all the ones they’ve tested further down failed to work.

“I’ve been in the process of switching out the bulbs as we go or, you know, made a note to test out the wiring if that doesn’t work. Most of them have, though,” he explains to the four of them, now, near the entrance. Then adds, admiring the long passage, “this is really neat!”

The passage continues further than they can see, even with most of the bulbs freshly installed and working. It continues in what appears to be a straight line, to the naked eye, albeit ever so slightly diagonal from where the stairs came down, in a vague SSW direction. Tony and Marcus each have a case of bulbs and are making their way down the paths in lockstep, switching out the lights until they deplete their source material. As for Jeremy, he remains skeptical, as to how clean, new, and cobweb free this tunnel appears, and can’t wait to compare notes with Denise later concerning her impressions. For now, however, he’s just waiting for his opportunity to broach this topic.

“So, how far do you think they’ve made it, Harry?” Emily asks, and is flipping an index finger up and down, to indicate the two levels, “as far as, like, compared to Otherwise? Have they made it to the edge of the clearing?”

“Oh yeah, they’re well past the clearing, I would say,” Kidwell nods, “they’re a good...twenty feet into being underneath the woods, I would guesstimate. But, I don’t know, that’s a good question. We should figure out a way to measure this.”

“And you don’t have...any kind of maps or charts of this property, and you haven’t been here since...you were a little kid?” Jeremy questions.

Possibly picking up a little bit of his dubious tone, Kidwell slowly rotates his head in Jeremy’s direction, hand on chin, before stating, “no, huh uh. That’s why I’m saying, we should probably do so now. Seems kind of important.”

“Okay but what about this fire? You had to have heard something about this major fire. Considering...isn’t this how your grandma acquired the place?”

“Well, now, I do remember something about the fire, of course,” Kidwell allows, assuming a pensive expression as he taps his upper lip with a finger now, staring into the near distance to recall, “it was big news at the time, like you say. But as far as the details? Eh...no. Then again, you have to remember we didn’t live all that close to here, and I didn’t see Grandma Edwina all that often, either. Maybe twice a year.”

Jeremy supposes he’ll have to buy this tale for now, though he still isn’t sure. By this point, Emily and Denise have long since drifted off, to inspect the passage in detail. Laughter and the unmistakable high pitched sound of enthralled voices bounces all over, off the hard surfaces of concrete and tile. Grace remains dutifully at her boss’s right hand side, though, hands clasped behind the back, continuing to offer that daydreamy tour guide smile of hers, however silent at the moment.

“What about the water?” Jeremy thinks to ask, “wouldn’t your guys have tapped this to get water, for the cabins and other buildings?”

“Good question. I definitely would have told them so if knowing where this was!” Kidwell chuckles, adds, “but, actually, it’s all well water, which they accessed elsewhere. Then again, I’m not a hundred percent on any of this. I’m more of a hands-off boss anyway. I tell my guys to execute such and such and they execute such and such. We’ll ask them, though. But you know me – all I can think about now is how I might market this natural spring angle, heh heh!”

Saturday morning finds many of them walking on eggshells. With the first tour slated to kick off at noon, and three of them total scheduled for the day, 78 people have already pre-registered online, with untold walk-ups likely to appear as well. Even though Rebecca recently shocked almost no one by casually moving in with Jen, and the relationship does appear to have calmed down their tempestuous chef to some extent, she’s as tense this morning as anyone has yet seen her. Confidently declaring that this week’s theme will be brunch, all around the clock, and sticking steadfast to that concept, she’s nonetheless displayed uncharacteristic doubts concerning the individual dishes.

“I guess we’re going with the duck bacon hash, with a tomatillo relish on the side,” she sighs to Ben and Lois, and pretty much anyone else crossing her path out back while she smokes. Despite having already thought of and discarded this concept earlier in the week.

The Ados know better than to lock horns with her, however. Still feeling themselves a bit out of their depth in this environment – and this is with their son and his girlfriend on hand, a couple other familiar faces in the form of Denise and Kay – they’ve mostly elected to just stay out of Jen’s way, offer whatever support she asks for or they’re certain is needed. For his part, Kidwell has come right out and said he knows they don’t have much for a workload throughout the week, so he really only expects them to be on top of every number in that kitchen, managing food costs, to make sure Jen has all the help she needs and that it’s spotless enough to keep the health department happy. As it so happens, limiting food costs is one of Ben’s fortes, and likely the only reason their ice cream stand lasted as long as it did. Lois meanwhile is a cleaning dervish, not just fast but also tireless, although also great at multitasking, keeping endless functions separate in her head, and just rocking in a restaurant environment in general.

Despite Emily’s pep talk, Grace is understandably the most nervous of the bunch. It would probably be worse if not for Lydia, who has already stated she intends to blend in with each tour group, to hang in the back as if one of them, while snapping as many photos as she can on the sly. For whatever reason, this is a calming thought to Grace. Even so, she’s stood behind her counter sipping endless diet sodas, while furiously studying notes about the history of this place, and various talking points about the art pieces on display.

Jeremy isn’t so much nervous as he is a bit agitated by Kidwell’s endless last minute projects. Meanwhile, the owner himself, his mood surely buoyed by all the dollar signs floating around, not to mention definitely a people person if not an outright attention whore, is perhaps the lone exception in seeming more enthusiastic than he has in all the weeks they’ve known him. Guffawing at his goofy dad jokes, clapping people on the back, giving thumbs up and in general just kind of clomping around the property with a cringe inducing cheer, it’s enough to make the already edgy artists retreat to their corners all the more.

Or at least, some of them feel this way. Most seem to agree that while Tom and Kathy surely don’t think of themselves in these terms, there’s no denying the two of them are way too professional to be anything but on top of their game today. Tom has set up shop in the front left classroom, with a few tasteful examples of his own work, but also some stapled together pages and spare painting supplies, should anyone care to sit in for a workshop of sorts. Meanwhile Kathy has stated she intends to sling pottery all day long up on the main house’s third floor, and will gladly speak a little bit to each tour group about whatever stages of the process she happens to be working on during those moments.

Though attired in a sharp looking suit, a tan corduroy sports jacket, his curly hair neatly gelled into place for a change and beard trimmed to respectably academic levels, Liam admits he has no clue what he’s supposed to be doing today, and plans on merely patrolling the school itself if not parking behind his desk. Kidwell has stated that in the coming weeks, he plans on being less hands-on, which will give Blodgett a meatier role here at Otherwise. Until then, he is mostly occupying himself with ordering supplies for everywhere outside of the kitchen, looking the part of a professor, and settling whatever rare disputes emerge.

Whether the artists are present or not largely depends upon what types of projects they have undertaken. Tony’s endlessly looping piece, projected along the far wall of the dim, third story room he has claimed, means he needs be nowhere in sight, and isn’t. Jeremy would be the first to admit he doesn’t know the first thing about art, nor does he have any interest in learning such, and for that matter isn’t really all that into most of what his own girlfriend comes up with in that department, but even so...Tony’s work is kind of cool, at least what he’s seen of it.

Take this piece Tony’s debuted for the first weekly tour. The static image on the wall is the lobby of some anonymous looking bank, shot from the side, where customers would stand to wait their turn at the counter. Then, projected upon it, you see Tony enter the lobby from the left, opening the plate glass front doors and removing these gigantic aviator shades before he waltzes up to assume his place as the first person in line. Then the exact same sequence repeats itself, although choreographed to where this second Tony assumes his place in line behind the first. And on and on, until these figures are lined up all the way backward to the door. Nothing else changes, and these endless Tony replicas do nothing but stand there, which lends the entire piece a creepier quality than if they wore different outfits or spoked to one another or did anything else at all.

His fellow residents along this truncated hall offer still different levels of involvement with the intermittent crowds. Rebecca, who, long before moving in with Jen on the second floor, claimed this middle room on the south hall of the third, is sometimes lurking about the exhibit, making awkward, nerves induced jokes as she guzzles one retro chic cocktail after another. Therefore sometimes over in their quote unquote employee lounge, the front room on the north hall of this third floor, mixing said cocktails, with each also insuring that the awkward jokes become just a little more so. But then also disappearing from sight entirely during other long stretches, all of it apparently done at a whim.

As far as her work is concerned, here possibly the juxtaposed catchphrase – which Grace has, in fact, liberally sprinkled in speeches throughout these tours – has earned its keep. Or if not that, then at least there are certain angles and dimensions to her work to appreciate. For she has not only taken to wearing virtually nothing, with the obvious exception of bras, panties, and socks, that was not originally found in The Collection, stocking her dresser in Jen’s room with these items exclusively save that lone undergarments drawer. But she has already cycled through a number of outfits she no longer cares for, and these are what comprise her exhibit.

Hanging these clothing items from the ceiling, she has also affixed them with old school price tags, yellowing, thin card stock type monstrosities you would have expected to find in maybe the 1930s, upon which a dutiful shop owner might have written the price in fountain pen. Instead of this, however, on one side of the price tag, Rebecca has jotted a little note about what attracted her to this clothing item in the first place. And then on its flipside, a quick vignette about something that happened while wearing this garment, like the ghastly, green and orange, flower patterned blouse she had on that day that she found the dead squirrel. Upon which she has therefore written a pithy, heartfelt tribute to said squirrel.

Then there’s Marcus, in the last room, that between Rebecca’s and the wide open space of that huge work room, where Kathy and sometimes Kay continue to crank out pottery, where the lone Latino resident, Rafael, has been quietly – meaning he has said almost nothing – been cutting a bunch of boards in half all day, with some handheld electric saw. Wearing thick plastic goggles and intent upon nothing but his work, to Rebecca’s knowledge, nobody has even bothered asking him what he’s up to, as even the insistent whine of that saw slicing through wood has become a background noise they don’t even notice after a while.

Oh, but Marcus. While in discussing this project with Jeremy, he admitted he doesn’t get the connection here, period, Rebecca believes that she does, and yet finds the premise dubious anyway. Owing to the nature of his art, a performance art, Marcus is required to stand in one spot in his room all day, without even so much as sa potty break. At least this is his stated intention, which he has thus far not violated.

Marcus is not only standing, but he has an old fashioned television resting on one shoulder, an equally antiquated boom box on another. If asked, he will recite something about this being a protest centered around how the government’s longstanding war on drugs is actually a cleverly disguised war on black people. Rebecca actually agrees with this premise, because this is the part she gets. What’s lost on her is the execution of his ideology, to wit, why there’s a 6 hour VHS tape of random black and white war footage playing on the television, and endlessly flipping cassette tape of classical music in the boombox, and what these two have to do with one another, not to mention his overarching premise. But she kind of doesn’t want to betray herself as some sort of dilletante neophyte by asking, at least not without a few more cocktails maybe, during a less intense moment when this is all over, perhaps in the employee lounge. And so apart from answering tour participants’ questions, or hitting the PLAY button his TV/VCR combo when the tape reaches its end and automatically rewinds, Marcus just stands there, adopting this same unwavering militant expression.

Like Denise, Emily has found it most interesting of all to wander the grounds at random all day, soaking up whatever is to be had at that moment from wherever they find themselves. Occasionally joined by Kay, or just as often meandering alone, not to mention occasionally intersecting her boyfriend, just as Denise, with Clay arriving to screw off and hang around the fringes himself midday, does the same with hers.

Emily finds herself hanging out in the front right classroom with Liam, their only company otherwise a quartet of middle aged housewives oohing and ahhing over the pottery exhibits. As Kathy has not been here in person, Blodgett has been keeping an eye on the merchandise, along with whomever else happens to be around. In his dapper suit and tie, his sports coat, well groomed and with his hands clasped behind his back, Emily actually thinks Liam looks every bit the part of museum tour guide himself, at the very least as much as he does schoolmaster. He’s telling her a bit about his history – quite a bit, actually – and meanwhile she’s also listening to Tom Drucker offer his workshop pupils some instruction across the hall.

Only flat sides have flat shades of tone,” he is explaining, his voice a soothing, near monotone, Emily thinks, in fact not all that far removed from the Bob Ross she vaguely remembers from PBS specials of old, “curved surfaces, as you will see here, have gradation...okay...and...there we are...”

“So you were saying?” Emily throws back to Liam, as much to pull her mind into this conversation as much as anything else, “Oxford, was it?”

“Okay, right,” Blodgett nods. The two of them are standing side by side, just to the right of the classroom’s only door, passively observing the minimal action. “Well then. For all intents, yay, you may as well declare I drank myself out of not one but two separate posts. Within this industry.”

“...and so as you can see, it’s much more preferable to plot the position of the horizon before any other compositional lines...”

Really?” she says, turning to Blodgett, genuinely intrigued now by what had been idle conversation to this point. “How is that?”

Blodgett sighs and thrusts his hands in his pockets, rocks on his heels while explaining. “Right, well okay, so I was terminated from my post at Oxford for what you might charitably term, uh, let’s call it alcohol inspired indifference. So and then – right – I managed to catch on at this slightly less prestigious college here in the eastern Carolinas. But let’s just say...familiar patterns often repeat themselves, heh heh....”

...and so if we pause to really examine our piece, a couple of things will stand out to us. One is that the range of tones diminish the further away an object is...”

But are you...better...now?” Emily asks.

Liam shrugs and allows, “well, you know, a big parcel of altering one’s behavior is inner twined with altering one’s environment. You might suppose that having all sorts of free time on one’s hand, and keeping a much more solitary lifestyle, might lead to greater temptation. But it’s actually proven quite the opposite.”

“Oh wow,” she offers, shaking her head, unsure what else to say, “that’s pretty wild.”

“Not really,” he tells her. “It’s all actually sadly, predictably common. As well as - and I’m not precisely certain how to phrase this – but a well-documented disillusionment begins to set in, and eat away at you after a spell. If you’ve half a brain at all, that is.”

“What do you mean?”

“What do I mean?” he throws back at Emily, and craning his neck to face her directly for a change, “well, most eventually begin to realize there’s a great deal of bullshit within these halls of academia, shall we say. If you’ve half a brain, as I mentioned. If you’ve half a brain, you realize you could memorize a few key talking points and basically sleepwalk through any of this.”

“The art?” she questions.

“Not so much the art,” he replies, extracts his hands to wave them up at down, indicating his suit. “More this. The administrative slash instructive side. That’s why I might have the credentials, but refuse to answer to Doctor. Would rather get in one’s face demanding that he or she does not address me as Doctor, in fact. But, you know...,” he sighs, “I must admit, I do rather expect that I will like it here.”

“Well, yeah, uh...hopefully this can help with...whatever, getting you back on track.”

“Yeah,” Blodgett chuckles, though it’s debatable whether this this pure cynicism, or standard droll British humor as he adds, “here’s to hoping...”

Kay happens to be hanging out in the library, taking a break with a cup of tea, when her parents arrive for the tour. They had made no appointment, at least none that she’s aware of, but they have brought Noah, whom Kay is genuinely overjoyed to see. They’ve spoken on the phone a handful of times, but he hasn’t exactly been talkative during these occasions. Then again, the whole situation, she would be the first to admit, is more than a little awkward.

But her folks seem to be in much calmer spirits than usual today, not to mention genuinely kind of curious about this place. Or something to that effect – though dutifully traipsing along for the entirety of this tour with Grace, and, she has heard, taking photos, asking some questions here and there, whenever Kay spots either of them, they’re both wearing these weird expressions. Her mother’s aura is the brisk, harried, I’m-going-to-deal-with-this-piece-of-business energy that is singular somehow to a certain brand of determined grandma. And meanwhile her father shuffles a step or two behind, arms crossed or hands in pockets, with a bemused smirk.

They do ask to see some of her work, however, which is something, during a moment where they’ve reached that third story work room. Lips pursed, they nod and say hmm, seeming to approve, or at least to appreciate that she hasn’t just been screwing off up here the entire time. And there aren’t any scenes, or anything like that, no blowups. Although Noah is a curiously pensive mood throughout, which Kay attributes to him missing her a great deal, and lacking an adult’s coping mechanisms for dealing with these thoughts.

This is one reason, apart from her own homesickness, and feelings of missing him, that she goes out of her way to interact with him for as long as she can in this library. Having finished their tour, her parents are a bit antsy to get out of here – based upon body cues, that is, Kay surmises, for they haven’t come out and said as much – but Kay is able to talk them into trying out some of the admittedly adventurous fare over in the café, while she hangs out with Noah for a while.

It’s only twenty minutes, maybe, but it’s something. He still isn’t saying much, though displaying a great deal of interest in that wall of board games, just outside the library, which the doorway has been cut into. Finding for example this New Kids On The Block offering to be giggle inducing, even though he’s far too young to even know who they are, and for that matter even she almost is. Otherwise, he is either tremendously interested or else making a great show of displaying tremendous interest in the dusty old tomes, the tawdry romance novels and golden era science fiction paperbacks, upon their return to this library. Eventually she just leaves him to his own devices to wander around, as she dips out for a tea, then rejoins Denise and some others, standing in a crude arc near the library’s back end, between the furniture and the back hallway entrance. They are standing hear still, rehashing the day’s events, when her parents re-emerge, drifting through that board game doorway.

“Well, I think we’re gonna pack it in,” Pamela informs Kay, before calling for Noah. During which time her dad continues to wear that semi-bewildered smirk, allowing his stares to rest on people and objects for a couple seconds longer than is customary. Although he does dip his head once in a nod and sling a little wave over to Tony, who’s thumbing through some kind of art book in an easy chair. Kay is finding that while she has said nothing to no one, not even Denise, about having an interest in Tony, that people are kind of picking up on this anyway, and rumors are beginning to swirl. Rumors which must have even reached her folks.

“Well, okay, um...I really appreciate you guys coming out!” Kay babbles. She also finds that, having set her empty tea mug down on this nearby barstool, one which has been painted a soothing lime green for use as an end table, that she has no idea what to do with her hands, and is formlessly rubbing them together.

“Yeah,” Pamela snaps, somewhere halfway between agitated and bored. Now she casts her eyes in vaguely disapproving form, around the room, lingering just long enough to make her point clear in case anyone was wondering. Yet this is a situation where Kay is feeling awkward enough to more wish they would just get out of here, rather than working up any anger toward the woman.

“Come here, Noah!” Kay cheerfully calls out, and kneels down to hug him as he draws near. “Mommy’s gonna miss you! Well, I mean...mommy already does miss you, but...this is just something I have to do okay? I’ll be home before you know it.”

At first Noah just nods, looking vaguely pensive, while Pamela is telling Denise something about, “see ya when we see ya,” with her own little wave, and they move incrementally toward the doorway. But then Noah speaks up, asking, “have you been back to the doom statues yet, Mom?”

Kay’s jaw flies open, as she takes a moment to compose herself and respond. “The doom statues? Why on earth would you ask about that, Noah?”

“You said I could come visit you at your doom statue,” Noah continues to croak, though his face is nearly expressionless.

“Noah!” she shouts.

“Yeah ’cause you will be in your doom statue soon and you said I could come visit you,” he tells her.

“Noah!” she barks, more rattled than she would have ever guessed possible by his strange, though characteristically childlike pronouncements. “You stop talking like that right this instant! Do you hear me? I’m not going anywhere!”

Long after they are gone, Kay can’t stop replaying this scene in her head, even as it unfailingly fills her with dread. By nightfall, a number of them have gathered in hers and Denise’s cabin, for an alcohol fueled recap of the day’s events. Actually Jeremy isn’t drinking anything, only pacing endlessly along the hardwood floors, and Kay stopped drinking quite a while ago, is tucked under some heavy blankets in her bed. But every light is blazing, and, though some point past 11pm, with many of them exhausted, this quaint little gathering that finds even Lydia, Tom, and Liam hanging out with them, it shows no signs of abating.

Or it was on the verge of breaking up, maybe, at least until a breathless Grace barges onto the scene, explaining that a handful of them had just seen the tall man. She, Kathy Drucker, Marcus, Jen and Rebecca had been sitting out on the roof behind the third story work room, sharing a couple bottles of wine, when Kathy noticed something glowing in this sickly greenish-blue color out by the pond.

“It was him,” Grace explains, still shaken up and appearing on the verge of passing out, “his face was lit up in that color, somehow. But it was...I don’t know, it kind of looked like this light was shining up at him, from his collar, if that makes sense? He still had that top hat on and trench coat, though, as far as we could tell.”

“It looked like a light shining up from his collar?” Denise says, dripping sarcasm, “so then, it, like, could have actually been, you know, a light shining up from his collar? AKA some dumbass kid’s fucking prank? This is one leading theory, anyway.”

“No...I don’t know...I mean, maybe, but....it was just really weird...”

“Hey, you know what I just realized?” Jeremy says, as he continues to pace around, “we never did figure out who that William Allensworth character was, we kind of got sidetracked that day at the library.”

“Anything useful in this library? You think about that?” Tom Drucker asks, the first he’s said since Grace burst upon the seen. Otherwise he has continued to offer his standard unreadable wry half-smile.

“Eh, I mean, no. I already looked,” Jeremy tells him, then adds, almost as if only reminding and reassuring himself, “I’m gonna check in town tomorrow. Well, no, they’re closed Sundays. Monday, though.”

“The other strange thing,” Grace continues explaining, “is we could hear him, like, talking, but it sounded like this staticky...I don’t know, kind of like the staticky sound from a fast food drive through speaker, you know? We couldn’t make out any of it. He just kept pacing around the pond and talking, then seemed to just wander off into the woods.”

Denise is fired up enough to rustle troops for an expedition out to the pond area, one which ultimately proves fruitless. Kay, feeling too weary to leave her bed, begs off of this adventure, and shuts her eyes against the bright overhead lights, as only Emily and Grace remain behind, chatting in low voices at the makeshift kitchen table, the small round wooden one by their front window. She has no trouble falling asleep, though it’s a fitful one, as for whatever reason her jaw is just killing her now. She figures it’s probably the byproduct of talking so much today, and is eventually able to drop off for good.

While doubling up on the paychecks was great, Jeremy is relieved that it’s finally over, and he can remain at this retreat full-time. Though he and the others failed to locate any trace of that tall, possibly glowing man, they remained up well past three in the morning discussing it, relocating to his and Emily’s cabin so that Kay could sleep. Someone pointed out that there seemed to be a pattern to these sightings, however limited, as both occurred on a Saturday night, during major events here at Otherwise. So this in turn, most seemed to agree, including him, tended to bolster the theory that it was some local teenager screwing around.

Sunday is spent puttering around and cleaning up after the event, which he supposes will become a weekly tradition for him. The same applies to catching up and comparing notes with his parents, who were just too busy throughout that tour. Both remain cautiously enthusiastic, saying they love it here, and wouldn’t mind making a regular career out of this, though still unsure it’s viable year-round...although Jeremy suspects the caution is just a public façade, because they’re both secretly thrilled to death, unable to believe their good fortune at landing this.

He feels the same way. It’s less work for more money, in a lovely, secluding setting, surrounded by friends, family, and new acquaintances he mostly already likes. The occasional weird occurrence is certainly not going to alter that outlook. Even Harry Kidwell, though a cheesy goofball, is at least affable pretty much all the time, an easy boss to work for even when he’s on site giving orders.

As was the case much of Sunday, during which time they tracked down a pair of generators in the barn, got those up and running. Kidwell mentioned that the thought there was a third in some janitor’s station in the school, though the two of them never got around to locating that. But there had been a brief circuit breaker overload during the tour on Saturday, due to heightened activity in the main house, and Kidwell was correct, with them being this isolated, it wouldn’t hurt to make sure a backup plan was in place, in the form of these generators, for any potential future episodes.

Now that Monday has arrived, he finds himself again driving into Stokely, to visit the town library. This too might turn into a tradition, who knows. The only difference this time around is that he’s driving alone. After chatting with his parents again briefly, when it was just the three of them hanging out in the kitchen, they also called Lenny and took turns on the phone with him. He’s at least home and getting around okay on crutches, if not yet anywhere near back to work.

Arriving in Stokely this gorgeous fall morning – and, wow, it already is early October now – Jeremy thinks that, while extremely dull, far duller than Kenner even, somehow, this little village is not without its charms. Driving past the Fairlawn Diner, he even glances over and can spot that adorable old lady Doris, pouring coffee and joking about something with some of her guests. So while Emily has already said she would love relocating to this region, he knows that’s farfetched, anyway, considering she would never willingly give up her entire network of friends. But he wouldn’t necessarily be opposed, either, if she was serious about it, particularly if he could remain employed at Otherwise.

He pulls up at the library and finds the parking lot even less sparsely populated than it had been the first time. Then again, it’s just barely past nine and they probably open at that hour. Drifting through the front door, he glances left and nods once to Paul Hilldreth, who is leafing through some magazine but nonetheless rooted to his same, apparently eternal post, standing behind that counter. Jeremy continues ahead to the glass walled, local history room, but, after a quick inspection of the aisles, concludes there’s probably nothing here specifically pertaining to his question, and it would take an eternity to stumble across it somehow even if there were.

Drifting back out to approach the librarian again, he’s considering various angles for phrasing this question, without sounding like a crackpot. Eventually decides to just state the basics, about spotting some dude in a costume walking around their pond, and the leading theory that it’s likely just some teenager who snuck onto the property to mess with them. Also mention this William Allensworth whom Hilldreth had alluded to last time.

“Who was he? I can’t seem to find out anything about the guy,” Jeremy says, though omitting the fact that he hasn’t exactly looked real hard for any information, either.

Hilldreth nods once, as though expecting this, and says, “and...there’s a reason for that. You’re not going to find anything back there on this topic.”

Believing that he catches this guy’s drift loud and clear, with one elbow propped on the counter as they casually chat, Jeremy grins and asks, “are you saying this stuff has been removed?”

The librarian offers him a knowing simper and repeats, “like I said, you’re not going to find anything back there. Let’s leave it at that. But here, I’ve got somewhat you might want.”

Bending slightly as he reaches into a lower drawer, from the sounds of it, Hilldreth straightens and hands Jeremy a book. It’s a slightly larger than standard, dimension wise, paperback book, with a murky if unmistakable portrait of the main house on the front, at night, with quite naturally a full moon above it, to the left, illuminating the house with its distant, soothing beams. The cover itself is black, aside from the author name and title in yellowish-orange at the bottom: The Allensworth Incident at Stokely Home For Girls.

Stokely Home For Girls?” Jeremy questions, “I thought this was always...some sort of, artist’s retreat kind of deal? Well, aside from that Elliot thing you mentioned, last visit.”

Hilldreth shakes his head, though maintaining the knowing smile, and says, “not always. Not even most of the time, actually.”

“Hmm,” Jeremy murmurs, thumbing rapidly through the book, which features a handful of black and white photos, a photo of the author in the back. Also a handful of folded up newspaper clippings, which Hilldreth himself presumably tucked in there. “How old is this thing?”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe thirty, thirty-five years. But I go back even further than that, heh heh, and trust me, this is a tremendous account. I mean, yes it is clearly self-published – the blinding white pages! The typos! The kooky, oversized font! Oh, the terror! - but uh, yeah, if you want an accurate portrayal of the events leading up to and then the, uh...final episode itself, this is it.”

“So wait a minute, what is this Allensworth incident?”

Hilldreth offers some furtive glances around the room, to illuminate his point, and says, “eh, I really shouldn’t get into that here. Just read the book, and the clippings.”

“Okay,” Jeremy nods, picking up the book now to examine its back, and read the vague blurb. “Will do.”

“I’ve been up there, you know. A couple of times,” the librarian offers, “I wanted to get a feel for the property, visualize the layout a little.”

“Oh really?” Jeremy glances over at him, “did you spot this...Allensworth apparition? I mean that is basically what we’re implying it is now, right? Or at least some prankster dressing up like Allensworth?”

“No I didn’t see him. Mostly just walked around that lovely pond, cataloged the wild flowers on hand. You’ve got – or did have – some lovely yellow trillium, twisted stalk, nodding mandarin...uh, I even saw swamp pink, the wonderfully named deathcamus...”

“Eh. Well. I wouldn’t know anything about that junk,” Jeremy cuts him off. “But, ah, should I sit down here and read this, take notes? Or are pictures cool or....”

“It doesn’t matter,” Hilldreth says, waving him off, “you can take it with you, really.”

By the time Jeremy has returned to Otherwise, the big news around camp is that Jen has disappeared. Rebecca says that Jen got up from bed somewhere around 3am; she fell back asleep, and didn’t think anything was awry even upon waking this morning. Jen is a noted early riser anyway, particularly as a chef accustomed to opening shifts. But Rebecca is pretty certain Jen never returned to bed after getting up at that hour, and neither Ben nor Lois has seen any sign of her today, either, though her car remains parked where it has been for days. Now a handful of them are gathered in the café to discuss this situation.

“Well, unfortunately...this wouldn’t be the first walk off we’ve recently had in this kitchen,” Kidwell observes, shaking his head. But then can’t resist joking, with a laugh, “I’m surprised she lasted this long, actually.”

“Did you two...have a fight or anything?” Lois delicately asks. She and the other women are sitting at the long table, to console a sobbing Rebecca, while Ben remains behind the counter, leaning against it, and Harry paces around.

“No...huh uh...nothing like that!” Rebecca insists, shaking her head with a velocity causing her tears to spatter the table below.

“Well, don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll find something,” Ben says, “Jeremy n’ the others are looking through the woods for her now.”

“Yeah, I’m sure it’s nothing,” Grace says, patting Rebecca on her free, non-tissue holding hand. “I’m sure everything’s okay.”

Rebecca shakes her head again and insists, “I just know something terrible has happened. I can feel it!”

“Well...until we figure something else out...,” Kidwell says to Ben and Lois, “think you two can hold the fort until I get more help in here? I’m not sure if I’ll have someone hired in time for the next tour, but...”

Ben waves him off and says, “we’ll be fine,” a sentiment his wife echoes. Ben then adds, grinning as he does, “it’s not going to be any of this fancy fare, you know, it might be a more down to earth menu, but...”

“That’s fine, that’s fine,” Kidwell smiles and insists, “I’m just sitting on a mountain of fancy schmance inventory, is all. Hopefully we can do something with all those...quail eggs...and squid ink and morel mushrooms or whatever, before it goes bad.”

Lois shoots a stern look at the two of them, to straighten up with their clowning. A point well taken as they lapse in silence, and then Kidwell even drifts out the back door of the building, off to attend to other pressing matters.

As this conversation is taking place, the search party has already made its way an estimated halfway up the slope of forest, southeast, in the direction of the Welch Pond and that cemetery encountered during Kay’s previous expedition. Her jaw continues to hurt, though it seems to come in waves. Much like thoughts about Noah, and that weird droning rant of his, the other day. Both she occasionally blocks out entirely, though has more commonly shifted back and forth between the two. At present the jaw is winning that battle, then, and it occurs to her, that for all the puzzling hires, such as Liam Blodgett, and other not quite crucial ones, like Grace – nothing against her personally, of course, as she’s a really sweet girl – it’s strange that Harry didn’t bring on anybody even remotely medically qualified. Considering how removed they are from everything and everyone out here. There’s that little school nurse’s station, inside the office, with a handful of possibly outdated supplies, and that’s about the extent of it. She makes a mental note to inspect that upon returning, and mention this oversight to Harry as well.

Their search party this afternoon consists of familiar, expected faces such as Jeremy and Emily, Denise, Tony, herself, but then also Tom Drucker, who sketching this terrain now, in a spiral bound pad, and the welcomed wild card Rafael, who is quiet at first but can talk up a storm once you really get to know him. Perhaps believing that in the absence of Clay, he might have some shot at Denise, or possibly just chatting her up at random, or sensing in her a friendly kindred spirit – and true, he might be gay, for all Kay knows about the kid – he is yakking her ear off in particular.

Owing to their distance, though, Rafael is more or less shouting, and Kay has no problem hearing every word as well. They are walking as much in lockstep as they can, though spread out, with each person as far enough away as can be with the next still able to see him. Moving up the slope in this fashion, as they scan for any sign that Jen has been here. Everyone seemed to agree there was virtually no chance she would head off in the direction of the swamp. Throughout, Rafael is explaining his current art project to Denise, which pretty much everyone must have seen by now anyway.

In a room claimed across from the sleeping quarters on the second floor, Rafael is building a crawl-through maze using every roll of yarn found in the house. He is cataloging them first, however, noting the color and the diameter remaining, before finding a place for them, in the walls of the maze. Those boards he was sawing the other day are used for the roof alone, for support, although even these he is covering with yarn as he goes. Just setting odd spools to rest atop the boards, those which won’t fit elsewhere at that particular moment, and maybe never will.

It’s only upon their reaching the abandoned road that Rafael finally takes a breather. Half a product of their marveling over this peculiar, slightly decayed and overgrown yet not that decayed or overgrown sight, and half a regrouping to discuss future strategies, this sudden drop in volume feels like one of those inexplicable moments where hundreds of chirping boards all go silent at once. Everyone is looking down the road, where it ends before some barely visible tombstones. Until, that is, Tony remembers the Welch Pond, and is asks if anyone passed it. When this response is basically all crickets as well, he speed walks over to the taped asterisk, placed during an earlier expedition.

“My marker’s still here!” he calls out, pointing down to it. “So, I mean, this would have been somewhere between where...Denise...and you, Kay, were walking just now!”

The remaining half dozen of them drift over for a look. Drucker is wearing the same old bemused smirk and not only that but scribbling calmly if furiously right now, too, but if Kay’s not mistaken, the rest of them are all wearing the same expression of vague apprehension, as they stare ahead at the bed or pine needles, the slight lip of a rise leading into that dark gap, between the two expected trees. But then, led by Jeremy, begin moving in that direction anyway. A quick but exhaustive search can find no trace of the pond, however.

“I don’t fucking believe this!” Tony remarks, chuckling darkly, if obviously enjoying this little mystery, “it’s not here!”

“What did we tell you?” Kay says, in a tone she is hoping sounds somewhere between gruff and sassy, aimed mostly at a disbelieving Jeremy. Maybe partially at Denise, too, although the whole point of this comment was really to align forces with Tony, express that she is totally on the same page as him. “That thing was really strange.”

“Well, I mean, clearly, it’s got to be here somewhere. Either we didn’t walk in far enough or our prankster friend moved the tape or who knows what. Maybe it wasn’t as deep as you thought and just evaporated. I mean, who knows. I’m more interested in that cemetery anyway,” Jeremy declares.

“Yeah, let’s go take a look at the cemetery,” Denise agrees.

Emily speaks up at last and says, “oh no, it was plenty deep, and it was here. But okay, let’s go look at the cemetery.”

As they walk off toward the abandoned road again, Jeremy and Denise lead the pack. He’s telling her that he forgot to drive this way, to compare the time and distance. But plans on doing so as soon as they return. Tony, who had forgotten to film much footage thus far into their journey, has extracted a camera from his backpack and is now walking slowly in reverse as he captures the scene, where the pond was expected. Meanwhile Kay and Emily walk side by side, near one another, and discuss in low voices what just happened.

“They don’t get it. I mean, the footage we got doesn’t do it justice, maybe, but...,” Emily says.

“They don’t get it,” Kay agrees.

After peeling away the thin strip of brush, separating road from graveyard, and stepping up the slight incline, one thing Jeremy points out which nobody had consciously noted or commented upon before is that this cemetery is obviously well maintained and mowed on a regular basis, meaning there’s a caretaker, meaning there’s at least one person somewhere whom they can poll for current information and hopefully a little history as well. He also thinks to stroll down and examine the sign bordering that slight gravel lane, beside the curvy, hilly main road: Fairlawn Cemetery.

“What’s with all this Fairlawn business?” Denise wonders.

“I don’t know. Another mystery to ask about the next time we’re in town,” he says.

“Or Maggie and Owen. I think we should head over to see them.”

Jeremy looks around and even bodily turns some while nodding, as he appraises every angle of this scene, including the giant lake visible off to the distance, what must be west or southwest, something like that. “I agree. Let’s get moving in that direction. Although I still want to drive this route as soon as we get back.”

The abandoned road if nothing else offers them a more or less straight path, carving through forest and then eventually the overgrown field, in a northeasterly direction. They’ve barely exited into this sea of tall, straw colored vegetation, in fact, when the Hazelwoods’ trailer emerges into view, atop a handful of hills in the distance. Upon reaching a spot where it looks that the most direct line is to leave the road, they begin stomping their way through this rough terrain, in a loosely single file fashion.

They’ve crested a couple of the smaller hills and are nearly over a third when those in the lead, Jeremy, with Emily and Denise right on his heels, draw up short as their eyes land upon a peculiar sight ahead. On this side of a small, semi-circular tree strand, to the right, inside the arc of it, a barren and by appearances perfectly round plot of land sits. Completely devoid of vegetation, although everything else around it continues to grow, wild and unchecked.

“Whoa...”

“What the...?”

Stepping lightly down the backside of this hill, and around the circle itself initially, it takes a moment or two before the first person – Tony – actually sets foot inside it. An incredulous smile upon his face, he spins around in a circle, hands out as he makes eye contact with the others, the universal gesture for I don’t know what to tell you, as he then kicks at the ground with his hiking boots. The soil here is a strange, almost moldy looking greenish-black, a shade not normally associated with dirt. With a hesitation that will later seem comical, if none of them ever quite admit as much, the rest of them watch for a seconds, to see if anything happens to Tony, before they all join him.

“I’ve heard about places like this!” Kay marvels, “I think there’s another famous one, like, not too far from here! Something about the...high salt content or something? That’s why they think nothing grows in these spots?”

“Actually I saw a documentary debunking that,” Tony explains, “on TV once. The salt theory, I mean. They had some dude from the state’s land division out testing the soil, and he said he couldn’t figure it out.”

“Yeah,” Denise says, testing the soil’s hardness with one running shoe herself, “now the experts believe that the reason nothing will grow is...everyone tramping over the spot, to see why nothing will grow.”

“Hmm, I don’t know. It is kind of weird, though, isn’t it?” Jeremy offers, casting his eyes in every direction to size up the dimensions, “and I can’t think of any natural reason why something like this would be a perfect circle. At least it looks like one, doesn’t it?”

“We should figure out a way to measure it,” Emily suggests.

“Yeah!” Jeremy concurs, and begins pounding his left fist into the open, upturned palm of his right hand, “what’s something we could use to measure it? Or what’s even the best way to measure it?”

“Come on, you’re acting like the leader of the group,” Tom cracks, smirking as always, “can’t you figure something out?”

“Mmm, I’m more an ideas man. I don’t actually know how anything works,” Jeremy jokes, laughing.

“We could do paces,” Rafael suggests.

“Eh, but then how would we know the pacer was walking a straight line? We need something consistent to lay across...”

“Explain to me why this matters again?” Denise cracks.

“I don’t know. Fuck it. Something to do, anyway,” Jeremy says with a shrug.

“I’ve got this nifty little measuring app on my phone, actually...,” Emily explains, absently, distracted as she fiddles with the device, “but I can’t seem to get the damn thing to pull up...”

“Dead zone,” Rafael ominously declares.

Tony and Kay are crashing around in vain, through the slight strand of trees, desperately hoping for a fallen limb long enough to span the circle. The rest remain in the circle, looking around and either rubbing their chins or scratching their heads, most wearing the same dazed grins. Tom Drucker being the only exception, as he continues scribbling away in his sketch pad, and eventually says, in the offhand manner of someone who thought of this long ago, “you know, I’ve got a huge box of unused pencils. In my backpack...”

“Yes! That’s it! They should be enough to cover...what’s this look like, twelve, fifteen feet maybe?”

“Yeah but even then how would we know this is a straight line?” Emily questions.

“Well, at least we can eyeball it, if we leave them in place,” Jeremy says.

As Tom unslings his backpack, and withdraws the mostly full, 100 count box of No. 2 pencils, the rest of them begin working in vague, unspoken assembly line fashion. Even Tony and Kay return to pitch in, as they piece together a pair of intersecting lines, in the form of a plus sign across the circle. And while each of them would surely conclude this wouldn’t pass for scientific scrutiny, to a person, down to even Tom Drucker, they admit amazement that this meets the eyeball test: almost exactly 19 pencils across, both ways, with just the tiniest sliver of an eraser extending beyond the circle. No less than three different people pull up the calculator function on their phone and crunch the numbers, to conclude that this amounts to 11.875 feet, give or take a smidgen.

Denise feels it’s to her point, though, that nobody really knows what significance this has, if any. Therefore may be a complete waste of time. Not to mention getting them nowhere closer to finding a trace of Jen. Yet she’s just standing here the same as everyone, staring at this sight of the crossed pencils, dumbfounded, with her arms folded in front of her. This is when she notices a slight breeze picking up, and that she’s shivering. She begins rubbing the goosebumps on her arms to stay warm, but then also casts a glance skyward, realizing that time has really gotten away from them, and it’s already twilight.

“Man! It’s almost dark already!” she observes.

Kay looks up as well, and chuckles, saying, “oh wow! I guess you’re right! What time did we leave, even?”

“See, this is what I mean,” Jeremy tells them, gesturing vaguely toward the dark, “there’s no way it only takes fifteen minutes to walk to that cemetery.

“Well, I don’t know, I’m telling you it does,” Emily snaps, with a curious edge to her voice. “Did anyone happen to notice the time when we left? Or at any point?”

Everyone else shakes their head to the negative, with the exception of Tom, who continues sketching – in this instance, the bizarre sight they’ve half stumbled upon and half added to, with these pencils. “You know, it is the middle of autumn now. Nightfall arrives that much sooner,” he says, without looking up.

“Okay. What we do about visit those people at the trailer? Up the hill?” Rafael wonders, in his clipped, mostly correct English, as he nods in that direction.

Emily grimaces and says, “ugh, I’m saying at this point, let’s not. I mean, are they really gonna tell us anything?”

Jeremy clears his throat, appraising the distance to that trailer himself and says, “well, you know, it doesn’t look like much, but it’s probably at least fifteen minutes from here, tromping through the weeds, up those hills. And then at least half an hour back to camp, probably more.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” she agrees.

“I really wanna find out what they know, though!” Denise protests.

“Well, have at it,” her sister jokes, giggling, unfurling a hand in that direction.

“Some other time,” Jeremy allows, “for all we know, she might have already returned. If nothing else we can always come straight here tomorrow, if need be.”

“What should we do about these pencils, though?” Tony asks, hands in front pants pockets, as he nods down at them.

“Eh, I say leave them,” Tom shrugs, “keeps us from having to redo the experiment. I can bring my compass and protractor set out tomorrow if we’re gonna get crazy with these measurements.”

“Get crazy,” Kay repeats with a chuckle, as they begin their march back to Otherwise.

Alone in their cabin for the first quiet night in what seems like weeks, Jeremy and Emily are both sprawled across the spacious bed, atop the blankets but lying in different directions. Though she had spent a good hour thumbing through this book on mixed media techniques, which she’d found cast casually aside in the back classroom days ago – the room Tom Drucker recently claimed as his primary studio – she is now scrolling through various social media sites, attempting to get caught up and remain in the loop, which is an urge that has come and gone in the nearly month she’s been gone. Mostly it’s something she doesn’t even think about anymore, which is itself amazing to fathom. Other times, she does think about reconnecting to that world, but then forcibly restrains the lifelong social butterfly within, making a conscious effort to remain distant. On a couple of occasions, however, such as tonight, the urge has proven impossible to resist. Even so, Emily considers that this is a perfect and healthy balance, overall, probably healthier than her endless socializing had ever been, all those years back home.

“You know what we really need,” she says to Jeremy, glancing up from her phone now, and over at him, “I wish we had a couch. You know? This is a huge ass cabin, and it’s kind of bare, don’t you think? I would totally love to be curled up on a couch right now.”

“Hmm. Yeah,” he chuckles, meeting her gaze from his position, nearer to the warm yellow glow of the bedside lamp, which they’ve at least turned on in favor of those blinding overheads, “except the next thing is, if you’ve got a couch, you’re gonna want a TV after that. It’s inevitable.”

He is only now flipping through that book the librarian had lent him, having initially forgotten about it in all that excitement concerning Jen. It was well after dark and they were sitting here twiddling their thumbs, Emily with her book, when she asked him whatever happened with his mission into town. He snapped his fingers and thanked her for reminding him, as he strolled down to his car to retrieve it. Only seriously glancing at it for the first time upon returning to this light of the cabin, he and Emily both agreed that the black and white photo looked familiar, on the back of this flimsy, self-published book, but that they couldn’t place it. Some skinny youth with a light, natural looking near pompadour, either blonde or possibly light orange, with a number of piercings up both ears. But the name, Nicholas Hoskins, meant nothing to them.

“Maybe we spotted him in passing somewhere in Stokely,” Jeremy theorized, “Hilldreth was right, according to the copyrights this book is...thirty-two years old. So he would look quite a bit older now.”

“Yeah, either that or he just sort of reminds us of someone we know. Or somebody famous,” Emily says.

These considerations are obliterated as soon as he begins reading anyway. He had certainly not expected a book as engrossing as this one, which he hasn’t been able to set aside in nearly two hours now.

The book is divided into two wildly disparate sections. This structural choppiness, which Jeremy thinks is characteristic to self-published works such as these, in many ways makes the entire thing a little more disturbing, however. As far as the writing quality, it’s mostly just workmanlike prose, nothing too fancy, although there’s something about the way that a person can write about grisly subject matter in such a matter-of-fact tone which will make it more demented, and that certainly applies here.

Over the course of its first half, the narrative here, with plenty of authentic seeming documentation to back it up, details the minutiae of life here at the Stokely School For Girls, which was an apparently successful operation for roughly twenty years, up until this William Allensworth was appointed headmaster in the late 1930s. And the pictures provided here do make a compelling case that this is the figure Emily and the others claim to have seen, although Jeremy wouldn’t necessarily discount that one or more of them may have already heard about this case somewhere, if even just in passing, and were subconsciously influenced by it. Or for that matter, whatever local prankster jackass who is fucking with them, he too is surely familiar with this dark period in the site’s history, which may very well have been the most famous incident an obscure town like Stokely has ever known. Possibly second to that fire, which occurred some twenty-five or so years later, but whatever the case, both occurred right here.

So this Allensworth, which Jeremy could have probably guessed before even cracking the spine on this puppy, is alleged to have begun molesting most if not all of the girls here at this boarding school for troubled teens and even pre-teens. That’s ghastly enough, to be sure, though sadly all too predictable. Yet it’s where the narrative goes from here which has him scooping his jaw off the floor.

“Holy fuck...,” he murmurs aloud at one point.

“What?” Emily questions, glancing up from her phone with a troubled expression.

Jeremy recounts what he has learned thus far, including this recent, most disturbing passage. The girls, who were trapped here with Allensworth and just a skeleton crew of other adults – who, it’s made clear, must have known what was going on, though doing nothing to curtail it – began referring to him as The Ruiner. This term sounds somewhat hokey and outdated now, yet Jeremy can picture it very in keeping with the parlance of those distant times. And in this sense it’s almost come back around full circle to sounding all the more ominous as a result.

After years of abuse from The Ruiner, one night in late November, while much of the staff was away for a Thanksgiving holiday, a gaggle of nearly a dozen girls cornered Allensworth in the kitchen. They forced him into the walk-in cooler there, held him down, and poured a number of poisonous household chemicals, chief among these antifreeze, into his mouth. Then left him in there to die, shoving enough tables, boxes, and other kitchen equipment in front of the door to trap him in there.

Except he didn’t die, not right away. Some three days later he could still be heard groaning in there. Here the narrative gets a little muddled, or at least doesn’t seem to make sense, in that Jeremy can’t picture how the school remained in operation, even during the Thanksgiving lull, without what adults remained on hand discovering the kitchen in disarray, and Allensworth nowhere in sight, not to mention his groans in the cooler. Then again, if aware of his misdeeds, they may have considered this his just desserts, and turned a blind eye, a deaf ear to these developments.

Whatever the case, after a few days of this, the girls could take no more. Armed with knives, they removed their cooler blockade, then set about stabbing the living hell out of Allensworth right there where he lay. Then, for whatever reason, most likely thinking this might help them avoid detection, dragged his body clear out to the pond, leaving him to rot at last in the thin strip of land between that water and the forest, maybe fifty feet beyond the barn. Then sat calmly in their cabins where, that Sunday afternoon, less than a full day after stabbing him to death, the body was found, and the sheriff arrived on the scene. Some were sitting on their beds, combing their hair, and just nodded with total dispassion as the law stormed in and took them away. However, once all the facts came to light, this incident was swept under the rug as much as was possible, with a charge of aggravated manslaughter, slaps on the wrist. The girls were whisked away to disparate locations, many if not all of them changing their names, and none suffered any consequences whatsoever.

Well, it served that bastard right, Jeremy concludes. Yet he’s only halfway through the book when that detailed chronicle ends, and can’t imagine what’s possibly left to say. Here the book abruptly shifts into ghost story, albeit one presented as non-fiction, with plenty of its own supporting documentation. There’s just one page of separation, in large, bold faced italic, proclaiming Part II: The Ruiner and His Continued Presence before the author launches into this section. Here, while moving in strict chronological order, he begins to skip through the years, the decades, outlining various noteworthy sightings of this figure. Most occur around that pond, and if not that then on this property itself, although a couple of witnesses have seen him elsewhere, for example “walking along Stokely Farm Road, and at least one reputable incident near the gravity hill on Goldrich County Line Road.”

The descriptions are admittedly rattling Jeremy beyond whatever skepticism he might have been inclined toward, even as it applied to his girlfriend. Some have reported spotting him knocking on their windows, smiling and waving at them in the middle of the night. Hoskins briefly entertains the notion, too, that this explains the lack of development in the region, in that whatever residents were around had mostly been spooked out of their homes by this phenomenon, and word got around fast to steer clear. Though always clad in trench coat and top hat, he is sometimes illuminated in that sickly glowing green color, sometimes not, though that peculiar staticky sounding voice is usually heard in either instance, at least by those who have been outdoors themselves when spotting him. He does make passing reference to the Elliot fire, and speculating about any role the paranormal and/or a “bad aura” might have had in that disaster, though this episode is only given a few paragraphs.

Though Jeremy is typically a heavy sleeper, and can seldom if ever remember his dreams, when he and Emily do manage to drop off for the night, at some point well past 1am, he is visited by a curious one which does stick in his head come morning. In this dream, his skull is filled by a mob of swarming, buzzing bees. There is nothing else in his head except for these bees. Yet the skull itself is made out of some thin, brittle material, like a candy shell, or – more accurately, perhaps – the hardened chocolate or butterscotch syrup on a dipped cone, like they used to sell at his parents’ ice cream stand.

Up near the top of his skull, there’s a small hole, which the occasional clever bee manages to find and escape through. With each one that passes, too, the hole does become incrementally larger, and Jeremy knows it’s just a matter of time before they are all gone. He kind of knows what Denise was talking about, as far there being levels of consciousness in a dream, too, because when he awakens, it will seem to him peculiar that he still has an awareness here, like observing himself from the outside, for example being able to see the top of his own head.

But anyway, the bees escaping is a bad thing. Even though when they first exit the skull, for whatever reason, their little feet are sticky, and they can do nothing but walk along the surface of his head, for a moment or two. When they finally do manage to fly off, without exception every single one of them, well, makes a direct beeline for this nearby wooden shed, lands against its front exterior wall, and remains there.

He can’t say what possible meaning this might have, and it wouldn’t seem influenced in the slightest by any current events, or anything he’s read. Yet Denise’s own apparently prophetic dream, coupled with some of these bizarre sightings, has given him the unshakeable impression that this might prove important, too. And that whatever it means, this is probably not a good thing.

In other developments, they awaken Tuesday morning to discover that Rebecca has painted her bedroom blue. But not just any blue, rather a particular shade which is meant to ward off ghosts. Without even hearing about what Jeremy and Emily had discovered the night before, thanks to that book from the library, she had already reached the conclusion that there must be some sort of haunting at work, and took this preventative step.

“This is what’s known as haint blue,” she explains, “it’s a Southern tradition.”

“Hmm, well, if nothing else, it is kind of soothing,” Denise counters, though this comment has the opposite effect as intended, for Rebecca openly sneers at her.

On this day that manages to be both overcast and bright, they are hanging out in Rebecca’s room. Despite every working in the house being open, to bloodlet the paint fumes, so to speak, the aroma is still borderline headache inducing. It probably doesn’t help that the rooms on the south side of the second story hallway have no windows, therefore the air flow isn’t fantastic. These would be one bathroom, a pair of installations including Rafael’s yarn maze, and then the giant walk-in closet housing The Collection in the southwest corner. Some of the air flow does presumably travel up and down the stairwells, which carve up the middle of the floor, but otherwise they rely on a breeze from these windows – those found in the bedrooms, and one along the back wall, where the first story stairwell rises to its conclusion.

The other two stories have been aired out to roughly a similar extent. Still, as Rebecca undertook this project in the middle of the night, without breathing a word of it to anyone, and continues to operate as if in some sort of daze following Jen’s disappearance, some of the other girls have thought it a good idea to hang out in her quarters for what remains of the morning, consoling her. Without coming right out and saying so, of course.

“Part of me wants to say fuck this place and get the hell out of here,” Emily says, “especially in light of what we found out last night.”

“But...,” Denise cracks, aware that there will be a second half to this sentence. She is sitting in an easy chair, some kind of gold lame looking thing, in an especially dim corner of the room, and is sketching this current scene right now, as well as scribbling quotes in cursive coming from each of their mouths.

“But that’s just it!” Emily laughs, “I just can’t imagine myself going through with it. I do still love it here. I don’t know, there’s something about this place.”

As Emily is casting her gaze around the messy, freshly painted room, with its scuffed hardware floor, mismatched furniture, and clothes strewn everywhere, Grace suggests, in her forever kind, red lipsticked smile, “you can’t stop thinking about your work, right?”

“Well, no, it’s not that – well, it’s not just that, because admittedly I haven’t done a whole hell of a lot yet,” Emily says, laughing again, “although I have a ton of ideas. One in particular I might start soon, which would be a bit of a departure for me...”

“I know what you mean. I can’t stop thinking about my projects, either,” Grace muses.

Although some of the snider contingent have questioned whether Grace’s work more accurately falls into the interior decoration category more than it does art, most have concluded that it’s just weird enough to qualify for the latter. She hasn’t undertaken any wall painting flights of fancy like Rebecca, but did, for example, staple dozens of post cards all along one wall of the stairwell, the one leading up from the first floor. The typewritten ones about sending a letter to the president, a question she has been posing to tour guests and other visitors now, too. On the wall of the next stairwell, meanwhile, between floors number two and three, she has been gluing a bunch of random newspaper and magazine articles, discovered in and cut out from the boxes upon boxes being stored behind the front counter downstairs. Almost none of them have anything to do with this place or anything else remotely local, and follow no discernible pattern otherwise. Thus far she has literally just fitted them in by shape, after cutting out those that interest her.

“But that’s not mostly it, is it?” Denise asks Emily, though more a statement than a question, punctuated with the smug half-smirk of those who already know the answer. “This place has gotten in your head. Now it’s a mystery that you want to solve.”

Emily hesitates for just a second, saying, “uh...,” before nodding her head, coupled with still more laughter, and admitting, “yeah, I guess you’re right, sis.”

When Clay shows up mid-afternoon, Jeremy uses his appearance as an excuse to conduct this long simmering time experiment. This concern is very much a guy thing, he supposes, as he turns left out of Otherwise’s long drive. With Kidwell nowhere in sight, his parents occupied in the kitchen, and even a vaguely harried seeming Liam occupied with vague paperwork concerns in his office, every other soul on sight, even those who were consoling Rebecca earlier, is concerned at the moment with his or her most pressing art project.

On one hand Jeremy supposes this is kind of cool, that the highly artistic and even only sort of artistic are getting down to brass tacks with what is supposed to be the whole point of this extended retreat. But as a practical concern, it’s somewhat annoying right this moment. In the end, they were eventually able to coax Marcus and Tony into participating as well, both of whom admit they are only in some vague “conceptualizing” phase of their next projects and can pretty much mull this over anywhere.

The idea is that they want a witness for verification, and then that each team will switch sides to see if they can duplicate the results, or possibly even improve upon them. At first Jeremy had toyed with the idea of suggesting that Clay take Marcus, if only because – and though some might term this a racist thought, Jeremy hadn’t meant it that way, believing it instead a progressive pairing – the thought of saddling such a backwoods hick with an urban black artistic type, in the middle of the woods, seemed like it might be a hilarious but genuine learning experience for Clay. For both of them, probably. But then more practical concerns won the day, in that at least he and Tony have both already been to the cemetery, so splitting up made more sense. Especially this was the leg of the experiment which was most incredulous to Jeremy, the fifteen minute walk times that some were claiming.

This drive with Marcus is already proving an eye opener, however. One in that it’s becoming obvious to Jeremy right away that he’s not as advanced as he would like to believe, and also has almost nothing to talk about with Marcus. The artist in this equation is full of ideas, and pontificates at length about hidden agendas and corporate control and the ways this is keeping all marginalized people, thanks to our government’s buddies in big business and advertising, mostly yearning for just a little bit more out of life. How this keeps them on a hamster wheel preoccupied with just that, even for the few who reach it, to the extent they’re completely oblivious to and/or uninterested in the big picture.

It’s quite a speech, melodic and flowing and full of insight. Yet Jeremy is aware that he’s not faring much better than someone like Clay would, by way of intelligent response. In fact it’s only the presence of someone like Clay who makes Jeremy seem a little less bumpkin-esque, as many have accused him of hilljack status himself. Not necessarily during his school days, where he fared well enough academically, was popular and mostly liked by his teachers. But certainly in the work place, folks yukking it up over his latest comical yet apparently effective hack.

So this is the first grand revelation. The second is when they have just reached Stokely Farm Road and turned left upon it, when Clay rings his number and says they’ve arrived at Fairlawn Cemetery. This can only mean his internal map is more screwed up than he would have ever dreamt possible, for they’ve barely skirted his massive section of forest.

“There’s no fucking way!” he insists, however, resisting that thought for as long as he can. “This doesn’t make any sense.”

“No, they be there, for real...,” Marcus says, glancing at his own phone. The four of them had all connected with location markers on a phone app before leaving, and he has these coordinates pulled up now.

“Are we at least on the right track, then? Is this the shortest route?” he asks, after hanging up with Clay.

“According to this,” Marcus nods, inspecting now the more mainstream map virtually everyone in the universe uses, “according to this.”

But as Marcus also relates, which Jeremy has seen on at least four separate occasions himself, the omnipotent mapping program hasn’t quite gotten around to detailing these boondocks down to the letter. There’s just one huge vague blob of forest, without even so much as a house to drill down into, and no giant lake to be found anywhere.

The two of them drive for another good half hour, without observing anything remotely remarkable. Their scenery, while pretty enough at first, becomes an exercise in dreariness, with even what sights they do encounter beginning to all looks the same after a while, the farmhouses and little brick ranch homes tucked into the woods. Passing traffic is almost nil, too, and nobody comes up behind them. At one point Jeremy even pulls over to the shoulder, to inspect the route they’re on himself, but it still shows them pointing just about perfectly due east, as expected. And so they keep rolling.

Another fifteen minutes or so will pass. During a break in conversation, Jeremy starts telling Marcus about his dream with the bees last night, which even its narrator has to admit is one of the few interesting things he’s said this entire trip. And Marcus accordingly shows more interest in this than anything else Jeremy has said, too. Finally, at long last, the shimmering gold on blue of a large water body looms ahead, first on their left and then the right, and a marina just before that S curve and the bridge leading over it.

Both crane their necks slowly, to take in the marina, before continuing across the bridge and over the lake. This means Fairlawn Cemetery should appear on their left any second now. Although Tony already long ago texted both of them to explain hey dudes we got bored and left. See ya back at camp, they have to complete this journey, in order to determine anything at all. Therefore, when the graveyard appears, almost hidden, flush against the woods on that hill, Jeremy slams on the brakes and whips into that little gravel lane. He was hoping by some miracle to spot the caretaker today, but they’re not this lucky. Instead he notes the time it took them to drive out here: an hour and ten minutes.

The old-timer working the register at the marina is of little help to them. About the only thing useful they get out of him is when Jeremy asks him how long Stokely Farm Road has been routed in this direction. He has a long white beard which reaches the plastic countertop, a mess of sweaty hair the same shade tucked a red trucker cap. So he certainly looks like he should know. Maybe in retrospect Jeremy shouldn’t have supplied him a readymade answer by suggesting, “twenty-five, thirty years?” To which the old man had nodded and said, “somethin like that, somethin like that.”

Yet he is either reluctant to discuss or is just plain ignorant about any reason the former route was closed. He also claims no knowledge of the artist’s retreat in any of its guises, or the Allensworth incident or the fire. In the end Jeremy is reduced to asking if this lake is manmade, and if so how long ago.

“Well now yes, it is, you know, they dammed that river – really no more than a crick – up there a ways. But now I couldn’t attest as to the year.”

“Do you at least know its name? Because I’ll tell ya, none of the maps I’m consulting seem to know the first thing about it. Granted this is really deep in the holler and they’re not up to date everywhere, but…not to mention why would they reroute a perfectly good road to go over the lake instead of beside it? You see what I mean?”

“Yeah…,” the old man croaks and nods, slowly now, “but see now, it just depends what era yer talkin. I’ve heard it called by many names, pretty much any you can think of,” he adds with a chuckle.

“What was your boy Clay calling it earlier?” Marcus jokes.

“Mmm, I wouldn’t exactly call him my boy.”

“Spinning…”

“Yeah, that’s right. Spinning Rock Lake,” Jeremy says, chuckling himself.

“Well now I can’t say I’ve ever heard that one, now…,” the old-timer replies.

Changing tacks abruptly, Jeremy thinks to ask, “do you happen to know of an Owen and Maggie Hazelwood?”

The old man whips his head in Jeremy’s direction, though seemingly amused by the question. “Owen and Maggie, huh? Well now what would make you wanna ask about them?”

Jeremy is about to answer, but the clanging of some metal trays, and some other conversation, whips his and Marcus’s head around, to the little café area in back. They can’t see the counter for that side of the operation from here, though this was clearly the source of those sounds. Without a word said, Jeremy and Marcus both speed walk back to that portion of the marina, and around that corner.

Here they encounter a craggy faced, middle aged woman with spiky blonde-grey hair. She is eyeballing them disdainfully and even borderline suspiciously. Marcus has just laughed to observe they already have a poster up about some Super Bowl party. But Jeremy just knows somehow that this has nothing to do with her expression, and it isn’t race related, either. They can see some fisherman looking type who just exited via the back screen door, though, onto a wooden patio bordering the lake, his ponytail swishing behind as he walks away. So presumably this guy just ordered something, or made some comment to upset her. When asking about theoretically ordering some food themselves, she shakes her head and tells them the kitchen shuts down during these hours to prepare for dinner. She has the body language of someone in motion, wordlessly hinting that she has other work to do and was about to leave this room.

Ever the networker, and in this instance already feeling sorry for his parents, Jeremy asks her if she’s ever heard of this artist’s retreat. She shakes her head and says no, but he presses on anyway, questioning if she likes it here, or might be open to other career opportunities involving their kitchen.

“No,” she shakes her head again, and continues eyeing them with curious wariness, “I don’t believe I would be interested in that.

Upon returning to Otherwise eventually, the two sides switch, and both are able to duplicate those from the first experiment. Or at least thereabouts – not quite as familiar with the route as Tony, it takes Jeremy about twenty-two minutes to find the cemetery. Curiously enough, those other two manage to drive it in about exactly an hour, though Clay insists he wasn’t speeding. Still, even these slight disparities do nothing to dispel the experiment’s incongruities.

Jeremy resolves to get a more detailed map on paper somewhere, preferably some older ones, even if it means driving to a larger town such as Winston Salem, or even the state capital in Raleigh. He also makes a point of sticking around until Clay and Tony arrive, just for one final piece of confirmation, even though he and Marcus have already long run dry on ready conversational material. They randomly inspect gravestones, first in conjunction and then separately, and are eventually reduced to texting people, and further eating up their data plan to scroll random social media sites.

“There has got to be something about this terrain we don’t understand,” Jeremy tells him, not for the first time, after Marcus has finished telling him about his next planned performance art piece. And this is a phrase Jeremy will repeat once the other two arrive in Clay’s faded red pickup, too, and they’re standing around in a light mist discussing the situation.

Jeremy and Marcus are offered a ride back to Otherwise, though this would mean climbing into the bed of Clay’s truck. Instead they opt to just walk back, despite the darkness now, if for no other reason than that it will be faster, and much less cold. Still, Jeremy is given reason to rue this decision in some respects, considering that the duo in the truck somehow manage to get lost, losing somewhere in the neighborhood of three and a half hours, before finally reemerging around 11:30pm. Tony in particular looks extremely rattled by this experience.

“I don’t know, I can’t explain it...,” he says, ashen, even slightly shaking, as they stand around in the smoking area, next to the garden, behind the kitchen. Though ordinarily not a smoker, he has even borrowed a cigarette from Denise and is puffing away in an effort to calm down. “Shit started to all look the same after a while, I’m kinda joking around like, man, haven’t we passed this already? But only kinda...”

“Fuckin GPS, though...,” is all Clay has to say, shaking his head a couple of times while tipping back this pint bottle of bourbon, conveniently extracted just now from his truck.

“Well I mean, yeah, that was part of it, but...I don’t know, the whole thing was weird. There’s one turn to get here, from Stokely Farm Road, right? But then we somehow missed that and...I don’t even know where the fuck we ended up.”

“Part of the problem is the map app sucks,” Clay insists, “the whole reason we missed the road is they highlight your route in, like, this bright ass fuckin blue, but then you can’t read the street name. So you zoom in more, but that just makes the street name smaller. At one point it showed me literally driving in a circle for ten minutes, even though we were on a straight road...”

“Well, at least you made it back,” Denise offers, however weakly.

“Yeah, well, like I said, we’re actually gonna chart this region ourselves, one way or the other,” Jeremy tells them.

Perhaps to block out these troublesome concerns of the real world, when morning comes, the artists and non-artists alike jump into projects with renewed vigor. For many this possibly brings them around full circle to their primary interest in art to begin with, an escape. Emily awakens at barely past seven in the morning, glances with a warm little smile over at Jeremy, then climbs out of bed. She’s contemplated showering, or maybe even drifting over to the main house for some coffee, except for some reason she can’t stop thinking about that natural spring. To think, even, that if her mental image is correct, it basically runs right underneath this cabin, or maybe in between this one and the Druckers’. That make it seem all the stranger, somehow.

She drifts over to the barn and down that hatch door for a look, flipping on the first few lights along both sides. It’s just so peaceful and beautiful down here, not to mention mysterious. Part of her wants to just walk the length of it this morning, and see where it leads, though she feels just the slightest twinge of fear at the thought of doing so alone. Really, if she’s being honest with herself, what she most wants to do – however idle and possibly irrational – is to just stand right here for as long as she can, at the mouth of this tunnel, and...well, not so much guard the entrance, because that’s kind of a silly way to phrase it, but, yes, maybe see what might materialize out of the gloom at the other end? Wow, isn’t that crazy thought, to picture that, she thinks and even giggles a little bit to herself, which echoes ever so slightly.

After tiring of this, she climbs the steep wooden steps and shuts the hatch. Then drifts over to the school building, entering via its side door, where she’s not surprised to see the warm yellow light of the back classroom spilling into the hall. This means Tom is already hard at work on his next painting, although this isn’t too surprising in that he gets started somewhere around five, every single morning. He and Kathy both are the picture of professionalism, and, everyone seems to agree, a major source of inspiration, particularly as they are so unpretentious and approachable.

“Hello there!” Tom says, turning to her with a warm, actual smile when he sees her enter the room. He’s standing in the middle, painting away at the latest canvas, facing north. This means the room’s lone windows, a trio of them spaced out along the back, eastern wall, provide most of his light. Emily knows that artists prefer north facing windows, though the light here does seem mostly adequate, especially with an overhead on and a small lamp nearby.

When he asks what brings her about this morning, Emily explains this wild notion that has seized her, which is that she wants to paint a mural along the hallway, just outside his room here. Hearing this, his eyebrows shoot up and he sets his paintbrush down, as the two of them drift into the hall for a look. Rubbing his goateed chin, Tom nods repeatedly, eyeing this stretch of cement blocks painted off white, from here to the teacher’s lounge in the corner.

“I think that’s an...excellent idea,” he tells her, “it must be at least, what, ten by twenty feet here? Something like that. What were you thinking about painting?”

As Tom turns to regard her, Emily smiles, blushing slightly, and says, “I’d rather not say yet, in case it turns out badly. I kinda wanna get started first. Then if people recognize what it’s supposed to be, that’s how I’ll know it’s decent.”

“Fair enough,” he tells her, reverting back to his cryptic half-smirk. “Well, good luck with the project!”

“Yeah...I think I’m gonna start this right now...,” she says, and as he turns to head back to his work room, she heads in the other direction, around the corner and down the long hallway, out the front door. Liam is already in his office, too, actually, visible through the office lobby’s open doorway and then his, slightly offset, to the right. He’s leaning back in the chair at his desk, talking on the phone, but glances up and returns her wave.

Emily has already done quite a bit of research on what type of paint will be needed for this project, and the colors she will mostly need. The look she is going for would be street graffiti, of a sort, although realistic enough that her depictions will be readily discernible. She has never been more excited about a project, not that she can recall, and is wondering how much she could possibly get accomplished this morning before anyone even lays eyes on it.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Ben and Lois are cleaning up their end of the breakfast carnage. They too have been rising, one if not both of them, somewhere in the neighborhood of five a.m. every morning, with the other soon to follow. The food itself remains out, on the countertop in hotel pans, along with of course the endless supply of coffee they keep flowing all day. At present, taking a break as they idly observe a few of the residents eating, most of which sit alone in some pocket of the long table, flipping idly through a cell phone as they chew, the cooks survey their handiwork, mostly without comment.

“Think I should flip on more lights?” Lois wonders, as she wipes down the counter, then laughs, adds, “or should I say, a light?”

Nobody has complained, though, nor took it upon themselves to flip on an overhead, so they must be fine with eating in the near dark. Only what illumination spills out from the admittedly bright kitchen is helping them see at all, with a partial assist from some weak daylight from the windows at the back wall.

“Nah,” Ben says, laconic, from the prep table he is busy clearing off, tall enough to see some of them eating from here, “they look peaceful. Things have been hectic enough. They will be hectic again, soon enough.”

“I think it’s peaceful back here in the kitchen,” she says, drifting over to the sink now to begin washing some of the things Ben has deposited there. “I get to where I don’t wanna leave it.”

“That’s funny because I don’t like it back here. Especially after what Jeremy told us. You know, it’s weird because I was already thinking that, even before. For some reason I just feel really at home back there in that office.”

“You can head in there now if you want,” she tells him. “Get caught up on paperwork. I’ll finish up out here. I imagine we probably need to fill out a dairy order today anyway.”

He nods and tosses his towel casually aside. With a final glance at the handful dining at the table, and then a little half wave to Jeremy and Clay, who have just entered the room, Ben dips into the sanctuary of that cozy little office.

“You grabbin a plate?” Clay asks, as they approach the hotel pans of food.

“Nah, I ain’t got time for that shit.”

“You ain’t got time for that shit,” Clay repeats, laughing, as he does indeed grab one, begins heaping it with scrambled eggs, sausage links, a couple of biscuits and some gravy.

“Eh, Kidwell’s already here,” Jeremy explains, and, after ripping off a couple of squares from a paper towel roll, picks up an equal number of breakfast sandwiches. “I would say he’s got me hopping around at this ungodly hour, except it was pretty much my idea.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?” Clay asks, gesturing with an elbow at the table, “sittin down?”

“Probably not. But ah...well, we’re gonna measure how far that natural spring tunnel goes. By stealing some of Rafael’s yarn.”

“No shit! That’s fuckin brilliant!” Clay half shouts, grinning broadly. Some of the less enthusiastic diners glance up, shooting stern, partially asleep glances their way. And then back down at their phones again, soon enough.

Despite insistences otherwise, Jeremy finds himself straddling the picnic table bench, beside Clay, as both rip into their food. “Yeah, well, what did I say,” he shrugs, “I get some ideas every now and then.”

“I should join you guys. I don’t have shit else goin on around here. Especially if Denise decides she’s gonna be an artist today. I’ve got my truck and my guns and...that’s pretty much the extent of it. If she pulls that I might head on home.”

“Dude, you should totally go William S. Burroughs mode! Shotgun art. I mean, I’m pretty much in the same boat as you, but I do know that much.”

“Shotgun art?”

“Yeah man. You know – he would line up cans of paint in front of a sheet or a canvas or whatever and blast the living hell out of ’em. See what developed.”

“No shit? That’s fuckin awesome!” Clay marvels, begins nodding his head with increasing speed as his grin also broadens.

“Yeah I mean we have an absolute assload of paint out at the barn, too. In the back of the barn, along the backside of the barn. And not artist paint, I mean actual paint paint. Buckets upon buckets of it.”

After finishing his first sandwich, Jeremy takes off out the back door with his second. Suspecting that Rafael would scream bloody murder about cataloging the yarn used, if not denying him access altogether, Jeremy actually snuck in here late last night, to commandeer a bunch, which he’s hidden away in a box, stashing it in the shed behind the smoking area and garden.

Jeremy was a bit surprised that it took an hour and a half to assemble this collection, even with the restriction that he wouldn’t tinker with any part of the already constructed maze. He limited himself to unopened rolls, or whatever they’re called, which have been tossed into this insanely tall, loose mountain, with a number of other rolling hills surrounding, in the room next to the maze. And all the same length, as well: 400 meters. This will make it a simple matter of counting rolls used, and not having to break out a score card, or measure the measurements, which would totally defeat the purpose.

Kidwell is already puttering around outside the barn as Jeremy approaches. When asked, makes a vague reference to tidying up the junk strewn all over outside the building, including possibly finding a way to tow this rusty old wagon off the property. He goes as far as to mention the mountain of paint cans stacked along the building’s backside, even, though Jeremy chuckles and tells him not to worry about those, because someone needs those for a project.

Nodding in approval at the box of yarn, Kidwell adds, “I’m glad you thought of that. Cool idea,” as the two of them enter the barn, then make their way over to the hatch. And that might be true, although it was his boss’s idea here to bring along a sack full of plain metal paperweights, which they intend to use in securing the yarn, all the way down.

Taping them had been discussed, and in fact Kidwell’s brought along a pair of duct tape rolls as well, but this idea was eventually discarded. They intend on leaving the yarn in place down here – there’s no reason not to, and who knew, it could come in handy again, somehow - and there was just no telling how well the tape would stick, nor how long it would do so. Not to mention any future explorers seemed much more likely to kick a section loose or trip on it if taped tightly to the ground. At least with these paperweights in the way, and strings a little bit off the ground, they should be more obvious and easily avoided.

Jeremy’s been waiting for his opportunity to grill Kidwell about his preexisting knowledge of this place, and this one is ideal. As the two of them carefully mark starting spots, by breaking out a measuring tape on Kidwell’s belt, they each begin, on opposite sides of this underground stream, unraveling the first roll of yarn. This too was something Jeremy came up with, saying they might as well do this in tandem, one to each side, since it doesn’t take too people and they’d at least have a backup section if one becomes unraveled or damaged. So they pace more or less in lockstep, each with half the yarn rolls and half the paperweights, Kidwell with the sack and Jeremy stuck holding the box. If nothing else, the load does become lighter over time. During this process, he peppers Kidwell with questions, as conversationally as he can.

“No, I never knew their names. Or specifics. I’d heard there was a fire, but, you know,” he shrugs, before pulling the string for the next light he comes to. “Oh wait, shoot. You know, I just thought of this: I’m not really sure how far those guys got with installing these bulbs.”

He peers into this pitch black distance, as though this will tell him anything. But Jeremy feels like he recognizes a diversion when he sees one and says, “yeah but your grandma snapped up this property right after that. She must have told you something.”

Kidwell shakes his head and says, “not really. I mean, I was pretty young at the time, you have to remember...”

“This was like forty years ago. So you must have been, what, in your late teens I’m guessing? Plus didn’t your family live in this area, like on other side of Stokely?”

“Yyyyyyeah, but...we weren’t really all that close with Grandma Edwina. I mean, yes, she did leave me this property, sure, although...hey, you know, one thing I do remember, I remember they had this intercom system here at one time.” And this time, lends the appearance of being trapped in some sort of reverie, as he muses, “hmm. I wonder what happened to that. It must have gone up in the fire.”

“Actually, no, everything I’ve read says that was ripped out after the Allensworth incident. That’s why I’m not quite buying you never heard anything about him, or the murder here, either.”

“Hey now, clearly that was before my time,” Kidwell jokes. “I mean, if I were, what, ninety, you’d have to admit I look pretty damn good.”

Frustrated, though aware that he’s clearly not going to get anything solid out of the guy, Jeremy drops the matter. Then again, as far as he’s concerned, everything said today merely confirms that the guy is full of shit. So they both draw inward, focusing only on their tasks at hand. He finds it much easier to walk backwards, letting the yard unspool in that manner, though Kidwell prefers facing ahead. They make some small talk, for instance Kidwell mentioning that he‘s posted kitchen jobs all over the place online, and mentioned it wherever he can, including an attempt at cribbing help from the Fairlawn Diner. Nobody has firmly committed yet, but a few seemed extremely interested, and he’s sure they’ll have reinforcements on hand by Saturday. For some reason Jeremy’s not buying this, either, however, though keeping this sentiment to himself. He does mention in passing that he offered a job to some woman up at the marina.

“The marina?” Kidwell fires back, as though aghast at this prospect, or maybe confused as to why Jeremy thought this a good idea.

“Yeah, well, I don’t know. I feel kinda sorry for my folks. Or at least I definitely will come Saturday.”

By Jeremy’s calculations, which he committed to memory after studying extensively online, 400 meters translates to just over 1300 feet. Which means that, coincidentally enough, four such rolls of yarn should represent just about a mile. So clearly it was overkill for him to have loaded twenty-four rolls into that box. This would give them three miles of yarn apiece. Although they might not have a chance to find out, at least not right this second. As Kidwell goes to snap on the latest light, there’s a flash and a momentary, electrical sizzling sound, as every light bulb in sight goes out.

“Son of a...,” he curses.

“Umm...well, this is interesting,” Jeremy says, chuckling, “where is the circuit box, anyway?”

“Another excellent question,” Kidwell tells him.

The two of them stare down the long tunnel, back the way they’ve come. Each has burned through just three rolls of yarn, and is barely into the fourth. Given the flat terrain and this distance of just over three-fourths of a mile, they can make out a small square of light, where they left the hatch open, but only just. In many respects, the absolute silence is creepier than any noise could possibly be, leading Jeremy to begin cracking his knuckles just to hear something. Still, neither says anything for a handful of seconds, nor really moves, for that matter, until the owner of this property speaks.

“Well, I do have my phone’s flashlight feature...,” Kidwell says, extracting it, as Jeremy observes that familiar bluish white glow emanating from the other side of this spring.

“Same here,” Jeremy states, and does the same. Then the two of them wordlessly begin walking back toward the entrance, careful not to trip on the yarn they’ve carefully strung as close to the tunnel walls as possible.

“Okay, now, so here’s what I’m thinking,” Kidwell says, after the two of them have walked maybe a couple dozen paces, “they would’ve had to have to laid some underground cable of some sort to get power down here. But...as you mentioned, where this circuit breaker box is located is anybody’s guess. Unless...I didn’t notice anything at the entrance, ever, did you?”

“Nope.”

“Same here, same here. So this means it’s probably either in the barn somewhere, or else – well, it depends how far this tunnel extends. I could almost see it being located in the janitor’s closet in the school, maybe, something like that.”

“Hmm,” Jeremy says, nodding even though Kidwell isn’t looking this way, and it’s unlikely he could see this even if he were. Then, a thought slams the brakes on this train and he questions, “wait a second – the janitor’s closet? Where would that be?”

“Just inside the side door,” Kidwell tells him, and now does turn to look this way, slightly over the shoulder as he’s a few paces ahead of Jeremy. His tone is one that suggests a fact which should be obvious, and can’t believe it isn’t. “Like, to the right of it. I mean, it’s a slender closet but it actually,” he demonstrates by holding up the first two fingers of both hands, almost like one of those airport runway people with the glow sticks, and whips those back and forth, “it’s narrow, but deep.”

By now, they’ve covered maybe half the distance back to start. First they hear, which causes them to glance up and see, a pair of legs descending the wooden steps ahead, followed by a female’s voice calling out to them. Owing to the distance, and the reverberation of this tile, concrete, and water filled tunnel, it’s unclear who this is, at first. Jeremy has at least narrowed it down to one of the Garverick sisters, but only a combination of them drawing nearer still, coupled with a full glimpse of the body shape, confirms that this is Denise.

“Oh my God! What the hell are you guys doing down there?” she questions, albeit in the manner of someone enthralled by and envious of whatever this deed entails.

“Good timing!” Jeremy calls out to her, laughing.

“Yeah, we literally just blew a fuse,” Kidwell declares, and cackles maniacally at his own corny joke.

“Well, yeah, uh...I mean Emily told me what you’re up to, so I kinda knew already, but...I didn’t really believe it!” Denise explains, still managing to sound completely in awe of this concept, “are you guys seriously running yarn all the way down?”

“Yeah and guess what? I’m tapping out. You just volunteered to relieve me,” Jeremy tells her.

“Serious?”

“Serious,” he insists, adding, “I’ve gotta go investigate where the circuit box might be. We both do, actually. So I don’t know if you wanna hang out here, or...”

Soon enough, they have reached the entrance, where a dumbfounded Denise stands and has also turned on her phone’s flashlight, to alternate illumination upon each path. Jeremy hands her his box of remaining yarn and paperweights, even though she technically hasn’t agreed to anything yet. Despite their leisurely gait, Kidwell sounds about half out of breath, though confirming as he tells Denise, “yeah, we’re both gonna head up to ground level and look for this.”

The three of them ascend the stairs. Jeremy, having volunteered already for traipsing over to the school, strikes off in that direction, while the other two set down their gear and begin investigating the barn. Except he is barely outside before nearly colliding with Clay, grinning as he totes a shotgun, a box of shells, and this giant balled up bed sheet, heading east, away from the property.

“Noooo...fucking...way...,” Jeremy says, “are you serious? You thought I was serious?”

“Hell yeah, dude!” Clay enthuses, and doesn’t break stride, as Jeremy falls in to a similar march beside him.

“Well, in that case, man, here,” Jeremy offers, “you’ve got your hands full. The least I can do is grab some cans of paint...”

Emily has already completed more than even she would have guessed possible, in the space of just a few hours this morning. The straight line of murky, almost blackish blue at the bottom of her mural is already complete, and looks perfect. She has already lightly sketched the first figure to stand above it, before realizing she can’t really start these people until completing the backdrop behind them. This led to another miniature break, during which she has popped into the doorway and then entered the room to bug Tom again, though he doesn’t seem to mind in the least.

“So, how did you decide to start putting those...what are they, bird shapes?” Emily begins to ask, as Tom continues painting. This concerns of course the vaguely V shaped, greenish black objects found on just about every canvas he has ever produced.

“You can call them bird shapes,” he shrugs, with his palette holding shoulder, “actually I think that is the common term they’re given, people referring to them as Drucker’s birds.” At this, he allows himself a little self-deprecating if slightly amused laugh.

“Okay, so how did you decide to start putting these bird shapes on all your paintings? Was it a conscious thing? Did you do this from the start?”

“It wasn’t a conscious thing. I don’t know, you can’t really explain something like this. I know it comes up often, when I’m teaching classes, or even in those workshops we had here. People are asking me how I came up with my signature, or whatever you want to call it, and brainstorm, you know, ideas for their own. But I keep telling them it has to come naturally. So to answer your question...I don’t know. It’s something that just seemed to fit in one of my early paintings, and since then, every single one of them has seemed naked without these shapes on there, somewhere.”

He is hard at work on a greyish black rendition of so-called Wooley Swamp, although to Emily’s eyes, the images look almost ghostly, as though the trees might evaporate with the next gust of wind. She’s thinking about these things when the first, unexpected shotgun blasts rings out, startling both of them with its nearness and volume. Tom is especially rattled, nearly dropping the palette before executing a deft, crouching motion as he regains balance and sets it aside.

“Pray tell what this is all about,” he coolly states, as they stride over to the windows. Up on the edge of the hill, behind this school house, Clay and Jeremy stand, the latter taking aim at some unseen target with a shotgun. Emily opens her mouth in the shape of a gasp, though no sound initially comes out.

“What in the world!?” she says at last.

“What indeed,” Tom agrees, and, setting his painting materials down, begins walking across the room. “I have to know,” he says, and Emily’s still at the windows when she hears the side door open and close, then Drucker striding up the hill himself. Liam shuffles down the hall, meanwhile, to enter and join her at the window, though appearing neither surprised nor alarmed by any of this.

By the time Tom reaches them, Clay has regained control of the shotgun, loaded it, and is now carefully selecting his target. One eye closed, gun pointed at the random assortment of paint cans. The sheet, which they have tied in eight places against a strand of trees, is already covered with an impressive assortment of mostly pinks, reds, and yellow, blending as they will. Collateral damage in the form of buckshot does riddle the sheet, too, but this only enhances its impressive abstract state.

“Dare I ask what’s going on up here?” Tom questions as he approaches.

“We’re blasting paint cans!” Jeremy turns and enthuses, as Clay rips off another shot. “It’s art, man!”

“Mmm, I wouldn’t get carried away, here,” Drucker deadpans, punctuated, as they might expect, by one of his crooked smirks.

Both pivot to inspect Clay’s latest handiwork, however. Thought at least in Jeremy’s case, he’s disappointed to observe that the shot must have obliterated a can of boring old green, somewhere between primary and pine, which splattered to the extent it pretty much covered all previous pockets and splashes of color. The current result is a drab concoction, all been ruining the striking visuals of a moment ago. Such are the vagaries of art, he concludes. This roulette wheel of a concept can all change with the very next shot.

“Shit! I’m getting sidetracked, here!” he suddenly realizes, having forgotten all about Kidwell and Denise and the circuit breaker box and the tunnel. As he waves a goodbye to these two, and takes off down the hill, Clay offers the gun to Tom, who shakes his head, passing. Then gestures in an as you were type manner as he continues to stand watching, hands clasped behind his back, while Clay fires yet again.

As Jeremy barges into the school, his eyes immediately land on Emily, who is back to work painting her mural. “Why, hello there, darling,” he says to her, then, appraising her work, enthuses, “hey, that looks pretty cool!”

“Why thank you, darling,” she coos, sarcastic though pleased, then asks, “so what brings you in here?”

“Eh, looking for a circuit box here in this...janitor’s closet...,” he says, trailing off as the glances that way. And sure enough, though its slender door is a flimsy wooden one, painted the same off-white as the cement walls, flush with them, this easily overlooked passage is plain enough, he supposes, once you become aware of it.

“Janitor’s closet?” Emily says, puzzled and having obviously never noticed the door either, herself, as the strides over for a look. As he opens the door, which has no handle and is one of those you push, as it swivels open from roughly the middle, its backside extending into the hall now, she sees him enter and muses, “hmm! I guess this makes sense. You know, I never thought about it, but this explains why the central classroom doesn’t have any windows.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right...,” he mutters, reaching up to pull the chain for a ceiling light, as she takes a step into the room as well, “because the blackboard wall’s right here...”

He reaches up to pat the interior wall, to his left, thought scanning down its length for any sign of a circuit box. Meanwhile, behind them, along the external wall, plan old wooden planks supported by brackets hold all manner of assorted janitorial junk, four levels of such, running the length of that wall. Jeremy doesn’t see what he came here to find, it’s true, although only partially aware of such, as his overriding conscious thoughts have just jumped the track to somewhere else entirely.

Something about this nearly hidden, almost secret passage like space jogs another similar experience loose in his head, one from a few days ago. That moment he was standing at the window in the gift shop, staring out at a car parked directly in front of it...but then there had been Kidwell’s truck, parked to the left of it, his front bumper more or less congruent with the building’s edge. Except something about those dimensions doesn’t add up. This is what had been bugging him that day, though he couldn’t put his finger on it right then. He could have stuck out his left arm and touched the gift shop’s southern wall...from the inside. How was there another, what, eight or ten feet of exterior wall, which the truck was parked parallel to?

“Put down your paint brush,” he tells his girlfriend, “there’s something we need to go see.”

Though the gift shop has received almost no traffic apart from the Saturday tours, Grace is tasked with keeping an eye on the space, and at least drifting though it a couple of times a day. She’s sitting alone in here now, having recently spotted some middle-aged woman who apparently lives nearby, driving up the lane for a visit. After ringing up this apparently snoopy, busybody type, to here Grace tell it, she decided to keep hanging out in here. And this is how they find her, with an office chair pulled out into the gift shop itself, facing the door, scrolling through a social media feed on her phone and blowing on her freshly painted nails.

“I love that blouse! That’s frickin awesome!” Emily tells her, regarding this satiny, short sleeved shirt, a button up affair, which is a shiny greyish-blue, depending upon how the light strikes it, and otherwise covered with this identical repeating print of gold colored owls. Just the basic outline of this owl, really, wide eyes and all.

“That’s,” she shrugs, though smiling, “it’s from The Collection, of course. A back, back, back corner of The Collection, but still...”

“Hmm. Maybe I gave up on The Collection too soon,” Emily muses.

“So, what, you’re just chillin in here by yourself? Isn’t this extremely dull?”

Shrugging only her left shoulder, seated still and clutching the phone with her right hand, Grace tells him, “eh, I kind of like it, actually. Peaceful. But...yeah, so anyway, what brings you guys down here?”

Without getting into a ton of specifics, Jeremy explains his theory about a possible hidden room. She doesn’t appear too impressed, only sort of nodding once before returning her attention to the tiny blue screen before her. Except as Jeremy and Emily are soon behind the front counter, pawing around, a clicking sound rings out behind them. They whip around to see Grace, at the door, have just bolted it.

“Are you seriously locking the door? That’s awesome,” Jeremy says, grinning.

“Yeah...I don’t know why, but it seems important for some reason. If we find what you think we will.”

Even with all three of them on the case, however, touching every object and surface they can find behind the counter, underneath, on it, in front of it, and prying with fingers along that wall, nothing is found. Every minute or two, they continue hearing shotgun blasts across the property, meaning Clay hasn’t yet lost interest in his newfound art project. Then Jeremy and Emily are in the office, which, though painted a cheerful seafoam green color, and well illuminated by a window on the back wall, is about the least spooky room on site. Still, it’s just crammed up enough with junk to make searching it a valid exercise. Jeremy has squeezed in behind the heavily cluttered desk and is playing with various drawers, feeling underneath every available surface, when Grace lets out a very fortuitous sounding squeal, at the same instant as this sharp slamming sound.

“I found it! I found it!” she calls out, and the other two are on her in an instant.

“What! You’re kidding!” Emily gasps.

“Where is it?” Jeremy asks, though he, like Emily, is already in motion, moving past a kneeling Grace to inspect this secret chamber.

“It’s right here,” Grace demonstrates, both hands cupped around one wooden support beam on the inside of the counter. “My hand just brushed it accidentally, and I felt it give the tiniest bit. It kind of sticks, but...,” she demonstrates, if you yank down on it, that door slides open, like, really fast.”

“It’s on some kind of track...,” Jeremy notes, inspecting the manner in which the door shot open, tucking itself inside another section of wall. He was truthfully within minutes of announcing a change of plan, and running off to find a sledgehammer or something, though this is without question better.

He estimates that the room is maybe six feet wide and twelve feet deep. A concrete floor, though, judging from the suddenly muffled sounds of Clay’s shotgun blasts, the walls are well insulated. The lack of any windows in here certainly helps in this regard, as they’re turning to their phones yet again for illumination. Still, Emily notes that there are a couple lamps, and a mini refrigerator that’s sitting unplugged, with at least three wall outlets she can see, so the power must work, or at least once did. To demonstrate, she glides over, and flips on a lamp, feels an instant soothing sensation wash over her within its warm glow.

She already loves it here. Maybe not quite as fascinated by this as she is that underground tunnel, but she could be, given enough time. There’s a thin queen-sized mattress on this grey metal, vaguely military looking bed in a corner, and a small table, with two chairs, and also, perhaps most importantly, an old-fashioned stove, one she’s guessing would burn would or whatever else flammable you might throw in its hinged front loading door, with a surface up to for cooking. A curved pipe feeding into, clearly, the chimney nobody questioned, because there’s a fireplace nobody uses – which is in fact mostly blocked by the disk – in that bright, cramped matchbox of an office.

In the front corner of the room, there’s even a tiny stall built, a single wall projecting outward, with a flimsy wooden door that is currently flung open. Within it, there’s a tiny sink and a toilet. So this just about covers all the essentials, it would seem. Except along the remaining front wall, there’s also some metal shelving, four levels of it, jammed with rice, bags of beans, peanut jars, honey, and even a bottle of rum, another of whiskey. Alongside other essentials such as match boxes, light bulbs, candles, various cups, plates, and silverware items, a heavy looking hunting jacket, and some blankets. So this means the essentials truly are covered, now.

Jeremy is expecting the door area now, observes there’s a string on the door, for pulling it shut, and then a series of deadbolts on this side of it, to prevent opening from the gift shop. He tests these features out now, locking them in, then strolls over to knock every so often on all four walls.

The girls watch him without comment, as he nods and inspects this space, observes that it’s for all intents a sturdily built, above ground bunker. He doesn’t want to spook them by questioning aloud the reasons why someone might build such a space – although it’s possible they are thinking such anyway. Instead, however, all he offers is, “Grace is right. Don’t ask me why, but I feel like we need to keep this a secret.”

“Totally,” she agrees.

“Do you think Harry knows about it?” Emily wonders, her smile dropping to more of a concerned grimace. “I feel like we should at least tell him.”

Jeremy’s holding his head in his hands, attempting to sort out what this means, against the backdrop of everything they’ve already learned. On one hand, this is mighty weird, as have been numerous other occurrences, but on the flipside, nothing bad has really happened here. They’ve had one already disgruntled seeming chef walk off her job and that’s about the extent of it.

“He would be about the last person I would tell,” Jeremy states. “I’m not saying I don’t trust the guy, or whatever. I’m still...reasonably sure he’s cool and everything. But somebody felt the need to build this for some reason. And we’re the ones actually living here. It just might come in handy.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Grace says, “what if we need some sort of sanctuary? You have to admit there’s been some pretty strange stuff going on around here.”

“Yeah, but, seriously? Like I’m not gonna tell my sister about this? Or Kay? Come on!” Emily says.

“No, she’s right, Emily,” Jeremy insists, “I think we need to keep a lid on this. With everyone. It seems important. Can I get you to agree to this?”

Emily kneads her hands together for a few seconds, making a conflicted, tortured expression. Then the defiance sinks from her face and she reluctantly concedes, “okay. Fine.”

They’ve no sooner wrapped up this conversation before a pounding sounds out at the front door, however. Which calls into question a whole other dilemma, considering someone could surely see this secret passage sliding open, if a person were looking in through either the door or the front window. Jeremy concludes they will need to get some curtains up, and most likely something tall to sit atop the counter as well, obstructing the view.

As the three of them discuss what to do in sharp whispers, they eventually agree that if unlatching the door bolts, they should be able to slide the door open with a finger. The shortest among them, Grace does so, peeking out to observe all she can see is Denise out there, with her back turned to the building as she looks out over the front of the property. Most likely searching for them, everyone agrees. After a quick consensus, Grace sneaks out of the room, followed by the other two. And in playing with the support beam under the counter again, they are able to slam the secret passage all the way shut once more.

“What are you guys doing in there? Having a threesome? Why was the door locked?” Denise questions, when they finally fling the front one open.

“That’s probably my fault,” Emily replies, without hesitation, “I was the last one in. Probably just a reflex thing.”

Though Denise nods, apparently buying it, Jeremy is studying her face in its entirety, and concludes the must be the only one to wonder what brings her here. Because aside from the jokes, and grilling them, she’s otherwise wearing the mischievous grin and raised eyebrows of somebody who’s just dying to tell you some unbelievable news.

“So? What is it? Spill the beans,” he tells her, “I can tell you’re just dying to blab about something.”

“Yes,” Denise replies, and her grin increases, her eyebrows shoot up even higher as she rubs her hands together and relates, “so, okay, the tunnel?”

“Yeah?”

“We ran out of yarn.”

“What do you mean you ran out of yarn?”

“I mean we used up all the rolls. All twenty-four of them.”

“Get out of here!” Emily says, spellbound and incredulous all at once.

“Okay,” Jeremy nods his head, then asks, ”so how long is it?”

“We have no idea. It keeps going after that.”

So Harry and Denise found the corresponding circuit box, along the back wall of the barn. At least that much seems reasonable, and expected. Emily isn’t quite sure she believes even her own sister’s tale, however, until she and Jeremy and a handful of others descend into the natural spring tunnel, investigate the phenomenon themselves. And more than once, too. They crunch the numbers, they count the rolls, they recreate the experiment with other rolls of 400m yarn, and even extended it further. Currently the known tunnel extends four and a half miles, without any visible change whatsoever, yet no end in sight.

One night, unable to sleep, Emily crept out of bed again – somewhere in the neighborhood of 3am – and ventured over to the barn alone. She has gotten to where she is no longer afraid of The Ruiner, only more curious about him, about everything that’s happening here. She hopes to spot him again, and will not run or cower in fear if she does. As far as this particular night is concerned, though, she ventures down and flips on only the first few lights down both sides of the tunnel, sits on a wooden stair for close to an hour, staring ahead down it.

For the most part, though, she remains obsessed with this mural, and has been putting in ridiculous hours painting. Then again, she has always been streaky with her art. This is why, come Friday morning, when Jeremy and others are striking off to attempt mapping the property, she declines an offer to join them, preferring instead to remain behind working on this.

As she had hoped, with the first five people more or less filled in well enough to discern facial features, everyone recognized who she was painting immediately. There’s no conscious order to the lineup, either, just some sort of inner prompt notifying her as to when the timing is right to begin filling in the next person. So far it could be reasonably asserted she’s focusing on the people closest to her, or thereabouts, as the first five from left to right have been Kay, Denise, Tom and Kathy Drucker, and then Jeremy.

For some reason she’s having trouble coming to grips with painting herself, something she’s never seriously attempted before, and is stalling on that thought for as long as possible. She has also kind of decided, by whatever subconscious, internal logic is guiding her, that Harry should be last, because he’s heading up this operation, but at the same time does not live on site. Otherwise, it’s entirely a matter of feel, and she has already begun the preliminary sketches of her next subject, the missing chef, Jen. And just about everyone has loved her work thus far, too, which is intended as realistic, as far as dimensions are concerned, though going for that slight graffiti-alien look, but only slight, in regards to her style. About the only person to complain, actually, has been Kay, although it’s possible Emily was not 100% on top of her game with that first portrait.

“I feel like you made my jaw look weird,” Kay remarked, viewing her likeness just last night, “it looks, like, drawn out or something.”

Emily turned to regard her closest friend, however, examining her and the portrait in close detail, back and forth. Yet, the artist stands by her rendition, and is in reality thinking, if anything, she may have been a little too flattering, that Kay might even have a smidgen more of a lantern jaw than this. “No, I mean, not to be shitty or anything, but I think it looks spot on.”

“Not to be shitty...,” Kay repeats, chuckles at the dark humor of this line.

“Well what I meant was, don’t take that the wrong way! I think you actually look great!”

“Really?” Kay questions, not entirely believing this.

She wants to believe this, though. If for no other reason than it’s helping with her confidence, in attempting to attract Tony.

It’s been a strange experience thus far, in his presence. While ordinarily not the least bit shy around boys, and having both thrown herself successfully at others, and inspired others to throw themselves at her, she can only conclude now that she must not have been all that into any of those dudes. Tony’s not even intimidating, unless possibly if she were to sit around and seriously contemplate his intellectual capabilities or something. But he doesn’t throw any of that in anyone’s face, nor his already somewhat impressive pedigree of accomplishments.

On this latest fact finding quest, the two of them are almost always bringing up the rear, side by side talking. That’s just about all it’s even been between them, so far. Last night, directly on the heels of that conversation with Emily, she did work up the nerve to invite him over to her cabin, to sit around drinking with the radio on for a number of hours. Having told Denise to get lost for as long as possible, which Denise was game enough – one might even go as far as to say reveling in the devilish conspiracy of such – to stay away, spending those hours and then some up in the main house workshop, as she and Kathy learned a bunch of silk screening type techniques from Rebecca, just for fun.

Kay made herself as fetching as possible, without being obvious about it, and though she hasn’t gotten any gay type vibes from Tony, he didn’t really make any moves on her, either. Something about her level of interest has prevented her from being as bold as in the past as well. As he was leaving, there was a moment where their faces leaned inward toward one another, at the front door, and she was sure this would be the first moment where they kissed. Except he pulled away at the last instant, rubbed his chin with doubt and chuckled as he admitted, “ah...sorry, nothing personal, but I really need to think about this. We’re all living right on top of each other here.”

“So?” she replied, hoping her tone didn’t come across as wounded on defensive, “we will be, for months upon months still.”

“Yeah, I know. That’s exactly the point,” he laughed.

So no reference to that incident has been made yet today, though it is a progress, of sorts. Today for example he has already confided in her much more than in the past, like when she compliments him on his last installation, as well as his next, which he has already screened in part for her: set in that same bank as the previous installment, except this time, he is all the tellers, the manager, the people in line but then also a trio of robbers storming the lobby. They pour into the scene, one after the other, with no cutaways, layering neatly into the scene in succession.

“I love your work,” she tells him, as they’re walking across the field, “I’m serious. I mean, if you had a huge budget and it was this fake ass Hollywood looking CGI thing, that would be different. But yours is really grainy and low budget and, like, believable.”

“Thanks,” he says, nervously running a hand through his hair, “but to be honest, that’s all mostly just some old junk I’ve had lying around. This is one thing I’ve learned.”

“Oh really? What’s that?”

“Well, yeah, when people ask what you’re into right now, or what you’re working on, don’t give them anything current. I always mention something I was into a couple of years ago.”

“Hmm...,” she says, smirking with a bit of that Denise-type mischievousness, or so she hopes, “so what are you actually working on now?”

And now he actually faces her, his eyes warm and a bit mischievous themselves, behind those thick glasses, “heh heh, weren’t you listening? I can’t tell you that.”

Kay lightly chuckles but says nothing. She’s been trying to economize her speech again today, owing to this weird predicament with her jaw hurting yet again today. So far this pain has come and gone without any discernible pattern, though it’s exceedingly odd that, despite not mentioning this to anybody, she would still testify that Emily’s portrait of her seemed to feature a somewhat elongated jaw. While this is surely only do to seeing it because she’s preoccupied with this pain at the moment, what if that’s not true? What if her jaw actually were elongating somehow? How crazy would that be?

To take her mind away from these concerns, she focuses on what the others are doing. As expected, Jeremy and Denise are leading the charge, so to speak, he in front of the pack, issuing orders, she somewhere closer to the middle. Overseeing the yarn dispensing portion of this operation, as they’ve broken out numerous additional rolls for this mission. Kay watches as Denise carefully pins down both ends of a roll switch, the end of one and beginning of the next, as she then waves a couple of the others – Rafael and some short, thin, pale and studious seeming, college age girl she still hasn’t gotten to know – to continue ahead with the next roll. Rounding out their posse, Tom continues sketching and half smirking, both attitudinally and bodily a bit distant from the pack, while Lydia snaps pictures with a fury.

“I should be filming, really. But I don’t know, I’m just not feeling it right now,” Tony concedes.

“So what are you working on, anyway? If your exhibits have been some old junk? Come on, you can tell me...,” she says.

He chuckles and tells her, “eh, well, noting too mind blowing or secretive, really. Just going through the footage I’ve shot here so far, editing some stuff. Trying to decide on my angle.” She nods but doesn’t say anything, is somewhat occupied pulling apart a flower she’d bent to pluck from the ground earlier. As if sensing his manners might be out of place, Tony abruptly says, “oh, but wait, enough about me – how’s your work coming along?”

Kay gives him a melodic little tinkling giggle and admits, “well, I’m feeling good about how productive I’ve been. Kathy’s been an absolute sweetheart, she really has, so I’ve learned a lot from her. But even so...I don’t know, I’m not too crazy about any of the actual work I’ve created so far.”

“It’ll come, it’ll come,” Tony assures her, nodding along as if trying to convince even himself.

She’s sure that’s probably true, but is not overly concerned about it. Occasionally aching jaw aside, and sweating these developments with Tony, Kay has otherwise felt herself in mostly a dreamlike state here, not overly concerned with much else. If asked, she would admit to hoping somehow that they never had to leave, that she could make it work forever up here. As it stands, though, she’ll just have to content herself with soaking up as much of this atmosphere as she can.

This has manifested itself in displays like the one earlier, where she’s interested enough in coming along, though passively observing all discussions about specifics. Even Tony was chiming in with recommendations, as they met in the library after breakfast, but Kay just sat with a dreamy smile and watched. Sure, from that easy chair perch, she might have spent at least half the time daydreaming about Tony, and the really sweet if slightly disappointing time in her cabin last night – but only half. The other half she intently listened, and attempted paying attention to what the others were discussing, though really not caring one way or the other.

In the end, they agreed to a combination of digital and analog approaches. Some were reliably able to pull up map and compass apps on their phone this morning, while others could not, though there wasn’t any apparent pattern based upon devices. Therefore they also broke out more of this yarn, despite Rafael’s objections about depleting the supply before notating it, and Jeremy also brought along a pocket compass to make sure they trod a direct line due east, during this initial stretch.

If moving due east, from where the dirt lane in front of Otherwise meets the road – some maps have it depicted as Pine Bluff Road, even though Kidwell said days ago he was never asked for a name despite funding much of its construction expense – then it will run into the still depicted, overgrown Old Stokely Farm Road in roughly 1.2 miles. Nobody seems all that surprised by this figure, and it’s generally assumed that this will turn out correct. But no one that she’s aware of has even so much has mentioned how to approach that swamp, to the north, and it’s the part south of here which concerns most.

It’s this section of terrain which is most in need of an update, GPS-wise. Regardless of whose device, or where the map app is accessed, none of them show the lake. Meanwhile, the current point at which Stokely Farm Road is routed around this forest, cutting through from the south in straight east-west fashion, as opposed to the old route’s north-to-southeast slant, should be in the neighborhood of three miles from here. In other words, what they’ve charted of that natural spring tunnel would have long since passed underneath it. None of it is making any sense, even Kay would have to admit. But while it’s certainly interesting, interesting enough that she would have probably agreed to this expedition with or without Tony, she’s not exactly sure what Jeremy or Denise or anybody else actually expects to do about the layout here. The distances are as they are.

The plan at the outset was to reach Old Stokely Farm Road and run string from there down to the cemetery and beyond, the point where it meets the current road. Except that now as they’re setting foot on this overgrown pavement, jumping up and down on the asphalt as always – as though still unable to believe it real – someone observes the smoke billowing from the Hazelwoods’ trailer, and talk turns to how they’ve still not made it back up there, for a follow-up interview of sorts.

“We should split up into two groups,” Denise suggests, “we don’t need, what, eight people measuring yarn.”

“Good point,” Jeremy agrees, “though I’m definitely gonna be one of those people.”

Denise nods, expecting this, and says, “and I don’t need to be. I’ve already met Maggie and Owen, so it would be good for me to head up this posse.”

In the name of variety, the more vocal contingent, this being Kay and Tony and Tom, agree to go with her. Lydia mutters something about how she should probably go with Jeremy, to document this process. Rafael and the even quieter girl, Zoe, whom Jeremy’s thinking he seriously doesn’t even remember seeing before today, are by default left rounding out his pack.

Their journey to Fairlawn Cemetery passes as expected. Almost without commentary, and even less incident, they arrive at the road’s brush covered end, climb over it and through the graveyard down to Stokely Farm Road proper, roughly .88 miles later. Plant their feet on that firm, smooth, slightly warm asphalt, as if just to confirm it’s real and to say they did, before moving out of the road in deference to this approaching white minivan.

“Okay, so what now?” Rafael questions. Jeremy’s standing with hands on hips, surveying the lake ahead, the road as it bends in that direction, then turns and smiles at the group. Rafael knows what this means and shakes his head, tells him, “no way, man.”

“What?”

Zoe has wandered off to inspect the names on various tombstones, in a seeming random pattern. It strikes Jeremy as odd that she’s wearing a flimsy white summer dress, with some pink flower pattern, and nothing else aside from her shoes. Then again he supposes they’ve all worked up quite a sweat on this seasonable fall day. The other two stand motionless, eyeballing him with weird, nervous grins.

“You’re thinkin bout walkin this, man,” Rafael says.

“It’s a thought,” Jeremy admits, smiling over at them again.

“Do you even have enough yarn left?” Lydia questions.

There’s something unrelentingly sad about this girl, Jeremy thinks. She’s tall and awkward and quiet, but that’s not quite it. Nor is it the light film she always seems to have on her teeth, her tendency to dress plainly, almost mannish. Rather that this sadness pervades every aspect of her being, and it would never matter how glamorous she attempted making herself. She could look pretty, and almost would without this aura of sadness alone, in consideration of her admittedly gorgeous, wide blue eyes, her long, corn silk hair and smooth, pale complexion. Then again, if anyone is aware of this, it’s surely Lydia herself, and this likely feeds the sadness, in a self-perpetuating loop.

“Eh, actually...,” he says, even while thinking these things, as he extracts his glances at the phone cupped in his hand, “I seem to be getting decent service out here. Could just follow the map app and assume it’s correct. I mean, I’m aware no one else would be interested, so I won’t even ask...”

Though Rafael furrows his brow, unsure about the wisdom of this strategy, even if Jeremy’s only volunteering himself, Lydia continues just smiling oddly, her eyes darting in regular intervals over to his. Eventually, Jeremy has no choice but to ask, “what?”

“Didn’t you say it takes, like, an hour to drive?” she questions.

“Yeah, but that’s what’s not making any sense. There has to be a shorter way. There has to be. Even if I have to leave the road and just follow the lake shoreline, see where it goes. Or better yet figure out where this freaking spring tunnel comes out.”

In the end, the other three leave Jeremy standing there at the road’s edge, with what yarn remains, as they traipse back the way they came. He thinks about sending Emily a quick text, but changes his mind. There will surely be plenty of time for this, and he wants to see what kind of progress he can make before announcing his whereabouts. It’s always possible he will tire long before reaching Otherwise, and will have to send for someone to come get him. All three of his departed companions are glancing over their shoulders as they walk up the cemetery hill, as though worried about him, but he knows he’ll be fine. And, figuring his enthusiasm will not exactly last forever, begins striking off down the road himself.

“Rebecca and some of the others have been talking about a Halloween party,” Denise mentions, as they stomp their way across the tall weeds of this slightly soggy field. “What do you think about that?”

“That’s fine, but we should do something different and cool,” Kay replies, “if I see a freakin pumpkin, I’m gonna puke.”

“Come on, look who we’re trapped here with,” Denise jokes. “It’s definitely gonna be different. Cool, now, that’s debatable.”

They move across a slight rise in the field, during which time, a familiar looking strand of trees drifts into view. It’s that thin arc, in front of which sat the moldy looking circle, devoid of all plant life, that they had measured off with pencils. Except now, in this same spot, there’s a perfectly round pond, of the same apparent dimensions.

“No...fucking...way!” Denise shouts, and sprints down the hill’s small backside.

“See! Now do you see!?” Kay asks, approaching the pond herself, “this is what we were talking about!”

“Whoa,” is all Tom says, open mouthed for once, chin tucked in as he peers over the top of his glasses.

Tony has unslung his backpack and begun extracting his video rig, while the other three walk circles around the pond. By appearances, perfectly round, with a smooth surface whose water – if that’s what it is – from here has that same greenish-black tint to it. Yet that surface sits a good two feet below the remaining ground, as the sides of this pond are impossibly smooth, unblemished walls of rich red Carolina clay.

Strolling over to the nearest tree, Kay examines the ground below it and picks up a fallen branch. “Here’s something we didn’t think to do before,” she explains, and returns, dips the branch into the pond. Doing so produces the expected ripples, but also, as if to remove all doubt that this is the same place, also somehow kicks up a couple of pencils, bobbing briefly to the surface. This branch doesn’t find any bottom to the well, however, although when she withdraws it, the stick is dripping a mostly clear substance that pretty much looks and acts like regular old water.

“Jump in,” Denise challenges, one eyebrow raised, challenging her good friend.

“Pfft. Yeah, right. You fucking jump in there!” Kay says. “Why do I feel like this would be the last we’d see of ya?”

“I don’t know, but...you’re right,” Denise says, and now has the glassy eyed, slightly mesmerized look that most have adopted, upon viewing these weird little, cookie cutter stamped ponds. “This is pretty damn bizarre.”

But then, as if forcibly snapping herself from this spell, she commands, “alright, come on! Let’s not get sidetracked,” and leads the charge forward, up the next, much larger hill, toward Owen and Maggie’s trailer. Tom continues furiously sketching, for the remainder of their hike, attempting to capture as much as he can of this latest Welch Pond incarnation before it fades from memory, though Tony, after walking backwards and continuing to film for as long as the pond remains in view, finally puts his camera away.

Upon reaching the Hazelwoods’ trailer some fifteen minutes later, they find some smoldering ash in Owen’s fire pit, but nobody visible outside. Denise suspects that the adorable old couple living here must have seen them approach, however, for she has barely pulled her hand away from a single knock, before it flies open and she’s looking up at a positively radiant Maggie. Denise is standing on the last step, one removed from the tiny porch area, but the missus of the house, wiping her hands on an apron around her waist, steps aside and tells her to come all in, all of them to come on in.

“You remember me, right? From a couple of weeks ago?”

“Of course, of course!” Maggie insists.

“We don’t get too many visitors here,” Owen explains. He is seated in his same curious position, all the way forward in that big easy chair, as he watches a slightly fuzzy evening news.

“So what brings you kids up here?” a beaming Maggie asks, while the four of them settle into the remaining living room furniture. “Oh! And you!” she says to Tom, with a brittle, self-amused giggle. He offers only his wry smirk, though not unkindly, and a follow up nod hello. Then settles into that rocker on a track, as the other three have already claimed the couch.

“Well...,” Denise sighs, genuinely winded by this walk, wondering in a flash if she’s already smoked enough cigarettes to have them affect her breathing, “we’ve just been kinda wandering around still, checking things out...”

“Yeah, and Denise here said you guys might have some answers,” Kay announces.

“Answers?” Maggie replies, lips peeled back as if aghast at this notion. She and Owen exchange glances, though he is far more unreadable, nonplussed. He only blinks a couple of times and returns his attention to the news.

“Yeah, well, um,” Denise clears her throat, feeling more of need for diplomacy, around these older folks, than she ordinarily would, “there’s definitely been some...weird things going on down there. The whole place is weird, really. And we’re just trying to sort it all out.”

“Like our one chef just disappeared,” Kay explains. And if Denise is worried about the effect of cigarettes upon her lungs, Kay is feeling relieved, that her jaw seems to have stopped throbbing for the time being. This has put her in an especially loquacious mood, suddenly. “Walked off the job, whatever you wanna call it. You didn’t happen to a chef wandering around, did you?” she asks, laughing heartily.

Though Owen continues to just watch the television, Maggie starts to shake her head. But then pauses and asks, “was this a he or a she?” Upon receiving the answer to that, she finishes this motion, adding, “nnnnno, I’m afraid not.”

“Okay, well, how about a William Allensworth?” Denise asks, running both hands through her long black hair, as she attempts to get a handle on how to phrase this. “He would’ve - actually, we think he would’ve been that tall man we were asking about last time.”

She studies their faces, as does Kay. Tony seems to be drumming his knees and absently looking around without paying attention to much, while Tom continues sketching. But though she will have to compare notes with Kay later, it seems pretty obvious to Denise that these two are hiding something. It’s almost imperceptible, but she’s certain that Maggie shifts her eyes ever so slightly over to Owen. And that, even from this angle, Denise believes she spots him doing the same.

“You know all about him, don’t you? I mean, I don’t see how you could not, considering everything that happened. He was murdered basically right down the hill from here.” When neither says anything, though Maggie in particular appears nervous as hell, wringing her hands as she leans against a section of wall – partially blocking the little restaurant style window connecting kitchen and living room – Denise presses on. “Let guess, just a wild hunch, but you know all about the details of that fire, too, right?”

Nobody responds for a good ten seconds, until Owen finally speaks. Even so, he continues to stare straight ahead at the television, his tone entirely flat. “Well, now, we might-a heard somethin about that...”

“Come on,” Denise pleads, not buying his attempts at sounding casual. “We’re just trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on around here. That’s all. And we came here specifically because you seem like the only people around who might tell us anything.”

Finally, Owen and Maggie do exchange a much more obvious glance at one another, and Owen cranes his neck all the way around to Denise’s left-most seat on the couch, nearly behind him. “Well, we didn’t wanna spook ya the other time, ‘specially since it was yer first time up here. But okay,” he pauses, massaging his chin, stubbled as it is now with a greyish-white five o’clock shadow. “Maybe they’s been some wicked things that went on down there on that property. Sure. What place hasn’t seen such, though. And that don’t mean nothin’ about what’s goin’ on in the present time, ya know, it might...”

“Just give it to us straight,” Kay prods, laughing again, as he trails off. “We’re all big kids here.”

Owen shoots his eyes over at her, then back to Denise again, before nodding once. “Okay, you want my advice, I wouldn’t come anywhere near this land. There’s something completely foul here, and I don’t know what it is. If it was me,” he says, and looks down at Tom and Tony know, too, wordlessly lassoing them into this suggestion, “I would leave right now. I wouldn’t go back. ’Cause it’s only gonna get worse.”

After considering this for a moment, Denise says. “Fair enough. But why do you two stick around, then, might I ask?”

“That’s a good question. That’s a real good question. I guess I just don’t see us ever leavin,” Owen tells her.

“I’m not sure where else we would go, even,” Maggie says, the first words she’s uttered in quite some time. “You get to be as old as us, you’re just kinda set in your ways.” Chuckling lightly now, she concludes, “I guess we’re just stuck here ’til the end.”

“Okay,” Denise declares, clasping her hands together. “Final, and much more contemporary question: do you know anything about the current owner of the property? Harry Kidwell?”

Owen brings his head up and down a few times, to indicate yes, followed by a number of side to side swivels. This latter is done in the weary manner, however, of somebody saddened by and maybe possibly even in a state of disbelief about the topic at hand.

“Let me guess. He charmed your pants off at first, but now you’re havin some doubts about the guy?” Owen says. “No need to answer, ’cause I already know the answer. Else you wouldn’t be askin.”

“You’ll probably regret gettin mixed up with him,” Maggie offers, stressing the last syllable until it sounds me like hee-um. “Apart from this whole art school business. Everyone around here says he’s a real bastard.”

“Well, I don’t know...,” Denise says.

“That’s the part we don’t get,” Kay explains, “I mean, we’ve read all kinds of stuff about how he’s a prominent businessman throughout the region and respected and donated a ton of money and et cetera et cetera....”

“And I’m sure a lot of that’s true,” Owen allows, “anybody with that kinda money’s gonna be a prominent businessman and respected around the community and so on. Particularly as he’s probably real chummy with whoever’s writin it. Everything’s real buddy buddy with all the fat cats around here. Everywhere, really.”

“Yeah, well, I’m sure that’s true...,” Denise says, trailing off, until a much more pertinent line of attack occurs to her. “But let me ask you this. Do you think there’s any way he doesn’t know about the history of that property? Or what’s going on down there now?”

Owen’s eyebrows shoot up and he says, “in my opinion? No. There ain’t no way in hell he don’t know the details about that place. He was around all the time down there, before.”

“We knew Edwina,” Maggie explains.

“Yeah, like I say, there ain’t no way in hell. No way in hell. He was around all the time, and everybody and their grandma knows about that fire, the Allensworth murder down there. Him and his weasel friends was around some back then, even, during that period with the Elliot fire. We even had a little bit of a run in with him, the little shit. So of course he knows all about the history of that place. Of course he does.”

Though nobody says as much, Kay thinks the somber aura and near total lack of conversation home indicates the degree to which they’re all spooked. She attempts some lighthearted chatter with Tony, yet is only going through the motions herself. Thus it’s not all that surprising a disinterested pall has befallen everyone else as well. On top of this she feels exhausted, somehow, even though it’s not quite twilight by the time they return to Otherwise grounds.

After passing the school, Tom says, “until tomorrow!” and salutes them, disappearing into his cabin at a brisk clip. Upon reaching theirs, Denise immediately heads inside, perhaps sensing that Kay’s hoping for a word with Tony outside. And the funny thing is, as if recharged by this return to what increasingly feels like home, her lethargy seems to be gone. She might even call it a second wind.

“You coming in?” she asks.

“Nah, I don’t think so,” Tony replies, running one nervous hand through his close cropped hair, staring down the long line of cabins. Probably call it a night, really.”

“Oh yeah? Heading back to your bunk already?”

He looks over at her now, grinning in sheepish fashion as he admits, “are you kidding me? I’ve mostly been crashing in my little corner spot at the main house. My projection room. Rafael sits up half the night flipping through magazines and, like, cranking this weird Latin jazz. I mean, I’m not saying it keeps me up at night, but...it kinda keeps me up at night.”

Kay chuckles and admits, “you know, that’s weird, I guess it never even dawned on me to wonder. I didn’t realize you were sharing a cabin with Rafael.”

“Yeah...,” he groans, sizing up the L shaped pattern of cabins, to the west of where they stand. “I tried living alone in one of the empty ones, but to be honest it was a little bit creepy for some reason. Even though the thing was brand new.”

“A lot of people have been saying that,” Kay concurs, “I mean, that kind of explains why...we thought they would turn into conjugal shacks, but that’s not really happening much.”

“Yeah...I don’t know...I hate to say it but that old man was kinda freakin me out a little bit back there,” Tony admits, pure nerves, continuing to run a hand through his hair.

“What?!” Kay teases, “come on, you’re not thinking about leaving us, are you?”

“I have to be honest, I sort of am. I mean, why risk it? You’ve gotta admit there’s been some weird stuff going on around here. Plus, I mean, everyone’s already kinda forgotten about Jen. It’s just like, eh, she must’ve walked off her job, whatever,” Tony says, mimicking the basic response, shrugging as he says this, “but we don’t know this is what happened. We have no idea what happened to her. Not to mention all the kitchen people who quote unquote walked off before her.”

“Come on,” Kay challenges, “you’ve got to at least stick around for me! Can’t you at least do that?”

Caught up in the moment, she leans in and kisses him, at last. So she’s at least accomplished this much on this glorious evening. But also, which is no small point, she inspires him to offer afterwards a small, shy smile, and agree, as he says, “okay. Sure. I guess. For now, anyway.”

Jeremy never could quite bring himself to leave the road in favor of venturing, at random, through the massive forest. Even with the lake as his potential guide, and the ability to hug the shoreline as a means of maintaining direction, he nonetheless can’t seem to set foot in that direction. But of course, as soon as the others return to Otherwise and Emily catches wind of what he’s up to, she’s blowing up his phone, which means he is forced to fake doing so anyway.

“Oh my God! Are you crazy! You yourself said it takes an hour to drive!” she practically howls into the phone, “best case scenario, what is that? Six hours walking?”

He laughs and downplays her hysteria, nimbly bending the truth maybe a smidgen by insisting, “I plan on just following the shoreline of this lake. Trust me, darling, there has be a faster way.”

“Well...okay,” she reluctantly tells him, “but...I’m giving you an hour. Two hours. It’s...five minutes to one now, and if I don’t see you by three, I’m sending out the search party.”

“Fair enough, fair enough,” he tells her.

But the truth is, he has passed the marina during the course of speaking with her, which means he is far beyond the lake now. And, yeah, he could always backtrack slightly, thereby stick to the script he’d sold Emily. But despite all evidence to the contrary thus far, he’s still convinced there must exist some shorter route they’ve missed, through the woods. Even if it’s just a dirt lane that’s almost impossible to see from the road, or something, this route has to be there. And of course, at any moment, he can simply make a right turn into the forest, roll the dice on finding his way back to home base. If nothing else, the moon is bright tonight, he can use this as his...

Wait a second, it occurs to him at some point, the moon is bright tonight? Yes, the moon is bright tonight. This is his first inkling that he clearly has been out here way longer than intended. After wrestling with the notion for a good long while, he finally breaks down and attempts calling Emily again, yet it would appear that service is down out here. At any rate, he remains walking along Stokely Farm Road, so if she’s serious about coming to find him, he should be easy enough to spot. In the end, he settles upon sending her a vaguely reassuring text.

Be home soon, darling. I recognize some of these landmarks already.

He is beginning to not feel quite so fresh, chipper, optimistic, whatever, though. His legs are rubber, and hunger has crept in. He would die for a drink of water right about now. And though a handful of cars have passed during his time out here, coincidentally of course he has seen none in quite some time, during this bleakest point of his journey. It figures. Just as the houses have also thinned out, and he can’t recall the last time he’s seen any of these, either.

It’s the appearance of the next house which finally convinces him something must seriously be awry. Stokely Farm Road is nothing if not hilly out this way, in fact it’s nothing but endless a series of endless rises and dips, though maintaining a more or less straight line west as he walks it. Yet after he trudges through this series of three quick hills, tall enough to where he can’t quite see the tops while at the bottom, with a flat, harvested field to his left and the forbidding, endless seeming forest on his right, he reaches this brick, ranch style home, with a newly tarred driveway, at the top of the third hill. Sunken ever so slightly back into those woods. There’s some kind of silver sedan parked there, and a large white pickup truck beside it. Not a single light on in the house, however, although this isn’t what’s bugging him, as he stands debating whether to approach and knock on the door anyway. Rather, it’s the doubt creeping in, as he begins to wonder, haven’t I already passed this house?

This only leads to a loop of further, additional doubt, though, the kind which merely gets worse the more one dwells upon it. Because he can’t quite recall now whether he viewed this house during this particular trip, or if he’s thinking of a previous outing. Or maybe just confused and not even remembering this exact house at all, rather one that just sort of looks like it.

He stands in the road, in front of the brick home for a good two or three minutes. Extracts his phone, even, to consult it, and observes that, incredibly enough on both fronts, the time shows almost nine p.m., while according to the map he’s barely budged at all. Possibly most disturbing, while his last text to Emily shows as having been delivered, she hasn’t responded. Then, upon turning around to face the way he came, it’s at this moment that pure dread sets in. Maybe he’s hallucinating, due to exhaustion and lack of food, but he could swear he sees the moon and starlight shining off the lake, meaning he hasn’t covered much distance whatsoever. How the fuck is this possible?

Attempting to sound as jocular as he can, he types out a quick message to Emily again, and then another for good measure to Denise. Both contain the same basic content, turning it into a joke that he’s been waiting by the side of the road all this time. The latter for example reading where the hell is your sister, heh heh? Tell her I’ve been waiting at this damn marina for hours! Good thing they have beer...

And then he starts walking back in that direction. Something tells him any other course of action at this hour would be suicide.

His heading is pounding by the time he makes it back to the marina. He feels as though every footstep reverberates in his skull. It took an impossible seeming two and a half hours to make it back to this point – which makes no sense, on a few different levels, though he can’t think clearly enough to sort that out at the moment.

There’s a heavy fog rolling in off the lake. Even so, though the marina itself is closed, he’s certain there must be an all-night fisherman or two in the vicinity, one he can flag down if drifting into view. For the meantime, though, he intends on resting here. Even what should be less than an hour walk home, through the known route of the cemetery and abandoned road and forest, is just too much to contemplate at the moment.

Drifting into the half mud, half gravel parking lot, he realizes it’s gotten quite a bit colder. The breeze drifting in off the lake surely doesn’t help with this. He muses with a smirk that the yarn he’d tossed into a trash can, the first time he passed this place, might be of some use in knitting a sweater. Assuming he had a needle and the knowledge and all the energy in the world, that is.

As it stands, he’s left popping some change into a soda machine in front of the building, then doing so again. He drifts around to the backside of the building, and though there is a bunker type freezer on this patio, it’s also chained shut. Well, if starving to death days from now, and in desperate need of ice cream bars, he could always smash the glass. For now, however, he dashes off a text to Emily, explaining exactly where he is. Even though one of those red exclamation marks immediately pops up, indicating that it failed to send from here. The same happens when he attempts it again. Oh well, he can always try some more later, he reasons. He yanks off two of those vinyl table umbrellas, wraps himself in these, and passes out in one of the chairs.

Emily had awakened with a start just prior to sundown. After spending most of her day painting the mural, in between telling Jeremy he was an idiot over the phone and in text, she returned here for what was supposed to be a quick nap. It was already a little past three o’clock then, but she didn’t feel like tracking him down right that second, figured she would allow him another hour to work out this lunacy and maybe possibly show up.

Now she gasps out loud, snapping fully awake in that instant manner of those aware that they’ve overslept. Reaches for a phone and observes that another text from Jeremy came through while she was sleeping, saying he’s by the side of the road, and then six more from Denise. Most in that playfully angry tone familiar to siblings everywhere, Emily’s sure, where first her sister is saying answer the goddamn texts, thank you very kindly, then asking if she’s dead in here, followed by some random article share which has nothing to do with anything whatsoever – a link to some review of these colored pencils that she says she really wants. Asking if she can have these for her upcoming birthday.

She scrambles to throw on some clothes, reaches for the car keys hanging on a nail by the front door. Well, at least he’d been smart or lucky enough to have left these behind. Although surely she could ask any number of her truly awesome fellow residents for an assist in this matter. Right now, for instance, as soon as Emily barges out the front door of her cabin, dashing down the trio of wooden steps, she looks up and the smokers behind the main house, though chatting and engaged in their own conversations, smile and hold up a hand in her direction. Ditto Kathy Drucker, who is up on the third story roof, pacing as she talks into a phone, though beaming and waving when she spots Emily down here on the lawn.

By the time she reaches the end of the drive in Jeremy’s car, it’s nearly dark outside. That happens mighty fast, she supposes, this time of the year. Turning left onto Pine Bluff, she rockets off into this clear, chilly, almost spookily quiet night. Even that scene back at Otherwise felt kind of dreamlike, considering she couldn’t really hear much of anything, just a tiny vague murmur and the windchime tinkling of their occasional laughs.

Less than ten minutes later, Pine Bluff dead ends into Stokely Farm Road. Okay, this is all as expected. While she agrees with Jeremy that it seems kind of strange it should take an hour to drive this, something about the layout of the terrain must be out of whack in their minds, is all. Turning left onto it, she believes that this road takes them much further west than they would need to, if just walking a straight line from it, through the woods to Otherwise. And that Pine Bluff doesn’t bear directly south, either, though it appears to, but more in a major southwest direction.

That’s what rational thought says, anyway. Yet after a good twenty minutes driving this hilly landscape, though aided by an admittedly gorgeous moon, lighting up the random fluffy cloud in its otherwise clear vicinity, she concedes that this road is almost hypnotically repetitive, and it seems easy to get lost upon, somehow, even while making no turns. In fact she would almost swear she has passed some of these markers before, like for example these damn single story, redbrick ranch style homes with their attached carports. These things are everywhere out here.

Emily’s chuckling to herself about this one, driving through a relatively flat, higher section of road, and observes that it’s really pretty how a moonbeam illuminates this one section of forest to her left. Then slams on the brakes when she realizes the light actually has more of a sickly greenish-blue quality to it, and this isn’t a moonbeam at all.

Sure, she really could keep driving, because Jeremy’s surely pulling his hair out at the marina by now. Then again, does she know for a fact this is where he still remains? It seems highly likely he caught a different ride from someone – which she really should have asked around to determine, come to think of it, though still half asleep at that moment – or, reasoning things through at last, took off through the woods himself.

So with the engine running, idling at this spot in the road, she finds herself captivated by this sight. The Ruiner, of course, clad in his familiar top hat and trench coat, she can see from here. He must light up a good eight foot circumference, all around him, everywhere he walks. Rolling down the window, Emily determines she can even hear him speaking, in that staticky intercom speaker sound. But, though if he were stomping toward her, this might make for a different, far more terrifying story, he’s actually moving away, walking in some random looking, vaguely zigzag pattern.

Something about this makes for a much more comforting thought. She eases the car over, fully into a field beside the road, and shuts the engine off. Though it’s truly possible he is somehow mesmerizing her from afar, she concedes, Emily doesn’t believe this is the case. What if he’s actually trying to tell her something? And anyway, if she were somehow sneaking up on an apparition, following it instead of the other way around, wouldn’t this be a crazy thought, a truly unique and possibly useful experience?

Easing out of the car, shutting the door with a light click, she giggles a little too herself and acknowledges that this is insane. A fun kind of insane, though. And anyway, while this is still probably the work of some bored prankster, if not, everyone knows that a ghost can’t actually hurt you. You can only spook yourself to death fearing them. And so looking both ways out of habit, though she hasn’t seen another car in forever, Emily dashes across the road, so as not to lose sight of The Ruiner.

She tiptoes on the slight downhill trajectory, into this forest. Despite her best efforts, the crunching leaves sound like gunshots to her, although it doesn’t appear The Ruiner has noticed her presence in the slightest. Sticking as far back as she can while still able to see him, Emily darts from the tree to tree, peeking around each before moving on to the next. If she had to guess, she would say they are moving, however meandering the basic pattern, in what is pretty much a straight northern route. So it’s possible he really is leading her back to Otherwise, and that, however frightening in appearance, this is actually a friendly spirit.

While lodged behind a tree, Emily risks extracting her phone, pulling up the map app on her phone. Mostly this is done just for the compass feature. As expected, while her actual location shows a vague blob in the middle of nowhere, they are pointed just a tick to the west of true north. Pine Bluff Road is depicted on here, right where she’d expect, although oddly named Girls Academy Road on here at the moment. So it must be some sort of glitch.

She puts the phone away and continues following her spectral friend. Much like the woods she has marched a couple of times, out to that cemetery, the terrain here is mostly hilly, with miniature little rises tucked into the larger sweeps of landscape. The trees, however, are mostly not those weird, tall, branchless pines, but rather a mix, more in keeping with what she’s seen of the Wooley Swamp side of their property.

Emily reflects that it would be fascinating to bring Tom out here and have him catalog these trees as well. This sets her off into a reverie, as the absently trails this apparition, or teenage cutup, or whatever this is, thinking about how maybe in some weird way she and her fellow artists are actually historians. And botanists and sociologists and media theorists and who knows what else, all rolled into one. Or at least fractions of some of the above, each his or her own unique mix. But these documents they are creating, they not only record the people, places, and things around them – however oddly at times – but they become a piece of the record themselves. Not to mention the participation itself, the degree to which they are kicking up dust here, both learning and becoming something for others to learn. Or something like that.

I mean, what do most people even really know about the nature of ghosts, she thinks? If that’s even what this is. Ghosts might have gotten a...bum rap, when most of them are completely harmless. This entire stroll has been without incident, peaceful and possibly helpful, one might argue. There’s something about the aura this being is projecting, even – which, okay, probably does rule out the whole local-in-a-costume concept, which she wasn’t really buying anyway. But Emily would swear she could feel the aura projecting outward from this entity, casting a wide swath in front of its advances. And this is how she knows she is perfectly safe here.

Something changes slightly, though, as The Ruiner begins to meander in more of a NNE direction, however. But, again, surely he has a good reason for this, and she still clings to this theory that he’s guiding her back to Otherwise. After all, that place represents his main, ahem, haunting grounds as well. Shielded by the tree, although it’s debatable he would even notice this glow amid his own, were he even to glance back here, she extracts her phone once more, confirms that her sense of direction is good, and they are still on course, if pointed a couple degrees or so to the east now.

It’s when she puts her phone away and peeks around the tree again, however, that the first major shift occurs in this dynamic. He just stops. This unexpected move throws her for a loop to the extent she freezes right where she is, out in the open, before recovering enough to dash to the nearest tree.

Her heart is suddenly hammering through her chest, though she couldn’t say why. Maybe the reality of the situation is finally catching up to her, though she attempts blocking out this intrusive thought: you are lost in the middle of a gigantic fucking forest, chasing a ghost around. Upon recovering, though, she risks another look around the frayed bark of this tree.

The Ruiner is bent over at the waist now, sideways to her in a small clearing, a place where the dirt is visible for once, amid this otherwise consistent blanket of leaves. Then he does the craziest thing – he starts knocking on the ground. Waits, and then repeats the process, a second and third time. Finally, he reaches down, and must pull up on a ring of some sort, for she can see this hatch door of some sort, which he has opened. With the door held open, peering down at whatever he’s glimpsing there, he startles her into heart attack territory yet again, by turning his head ever so slowly in her direction, until he is plainly looking right at her.

Emily she wants to pull away, she does, and it’s not that she’s mesmerized, or that he’s cast a spell upon her. Rather that she feels compelled to confirm for a fact that these things are happening, knowing that otherwise, she will always wonder if she imagined the entire episode. So yes, she continues staring back at him, for as long as she has to, at that grinning face, and the eyes she still can’t quite see in the shadow of that hat brim.

Then he just begins walking again, as if none of this ever happened. Eventually she recovers the courage to begin trailing him, too, albeit figuring there’s no point in hiding behind trees now. Only when he resumes that staticky intercom voice does she realize he had stopped talking during that knocking episode, which is one reason it had sounded so preternaturally still. That would explain some of the weirdness, anyway.

And even so, something is off. She can’t initially put her finger upon it. But Emily gradually becomes aware that this figure has just sort of zigzagged his way in more of a north-northwest direction, then fully northwest, then kind of sort of actually facing west and finally abruptly southwest, to where he’s now completed a quick little half circle, with her at its center. She recognizes that aura is subtly changing, too, becoming darker. Then it hits her with a force that would suggest she’s been in some sort of trance: The Ruiner is facing her, now, and the aura he’s projecting is pure menace.

He begins striding toward her. Okay, this is bad. Clearly this was the dumbest idea, ever. Emily takes off running, back the way she came.

Kay is standing in front of a communal bathroom mirror, staring at her reflection in this unforgiving light. She almost wishes Harry had gone a cheaper route with the lighting, but no, say this much about the guy at least, everything – except for that which was left charmingly, nostalgically intact – he installed new is shiny and top of the line. Therefore she can’t even kid herself it’s the poor lighting, causing her to look like hell.

These thoughts began soon after Tony left. Denise was already asleep, improbably enough, as Kay crept inside their cabin. This feeling of intense restlessness found her sitting at the round wooden table by their window, with the drapes parted, staring out at the security lit expanse of central lawn, the backside of it, primarily the buildings behind the main house, and the barn and the school, even though nothing was happening. Then drifted over to the main house, which itself seemed curiously, atypically moribund at this hour. Few were still up and around, among them Lois and Ben – in the kitchen and its office respectively – and those that were mostly had that harried self-absorption of those seriously behind the 8-ball on their projects. The rest had cashed in their chips atypically early. With another tour set to begin in the morning, everyone had run themselves ragged and were looking to conserve whatever energy they could. Tomorrow would likely prove another grueling gauntlet.

Then she had returned here, and contemplated, not for the first or the last time, simply showing up at Tony’s cabin, dragging him kicking and screaming to one of those empty, quote unquote conjugal shacks. Because he hadn’t been in his video installation room at the main house, despite his jokes about such. And she had almost talked herself into such an excursion, except as she was sitting there, once again back at her cabin, and the round wooden table, she was just kind of absently playing with her tongue in her mouth, running it across her teeth while she gazed absently out the window and daydreamed. This is when she first felt one of her bottom teeth move.

A cycle of avoidance and then a gradual return to reexamining the topic began. Horrified, though attempting to block out thoughts of being horrified, thoughts of what she was certain she’d felt, by thinking about anything else whatsoever. Followed by, however minutes later, daring another expedition with the tongue, while simultaneously entertaining the thought that playing with it more would only make matters worse. Still, she had to know. Upon confirming her worst fears, that, yep, this bottom tooth, just to the left of her incisors, sure as hell was wiggling in its post, she bolted up from her chair. Marched her way over here.

And yet this turns into a saga not just concerning the tooth, but expanding outward as well. Because to regard herself in the mirror, Kay believes that she is looking like hell in general, to an extent she’s just about forgotten this tooth for a moment. Not only with bags under her eyes, but thinking that the flesh underneath her eyes appears to be sliding downward, however ridiculous that sounds. Also, which may explain both why her jaw has been hurting and why it looks so funky in Emily’s painting – despite Emily’s insistence she thinks it’s accurate, yet looks perfectly fine – Kay would swear her jawline has expanded as well.

Though its buzzing on the porcelain sink rim jolts her, Kay has never been so thankful for a text message in her life. Any distraction at all will do, really. She snaps up the phone, however, and while this just so happens to be a message from Emily, the message is almost so preposterous, Kay initially questions whether it’s not some kind of joke. In reading Emily’s text, one which explains that she’s lost Jeremy’s car and names a current whereabouts that is almost too ridiculous for words, Kay exhales a gruff chuckle.

Fo rizzle? She types into her phone.

Yes, for real. I’ve been trying Denise but she won’t fucking answer. Can you get our car and come get me?

Mmm, I suppose I can be bothered. If I can remember the way, ha ha.

Please do. I’m losing my fucking mind out here.

After working her tongue over that troublesome tooth a few more times, it actually pops out, and she’s quick enough to catch it in her left palm. Exhaling a quick, somewhat satisfied, “ha!” in admiration of these quick reflexes, Kay glances at herself in the mirror one more time before pulling on the string and exiting this bathroom. She marches back to her cabin and flings open the front door, calling out, “yo! Denise! Get your ass up! We gotta rescue your sis!” as she enters.

Denise, who is passed out underneath a thick comforter, with this maroon satiny, button up pajama top, and a matching eyeshade, sits up with a start. But doesn’t immediately remove the mask, frowning instead as she questions, “are you fucking serious?”

“Yes, I’m serious. She got lost in the woods. You’ll never believe where she is.”

For Emily, the terror wrapped around this frantic dash from The Ruiner has nothing to do with the distance traveled. Rather, it’s the lack thereof. That and how it’s even possible to get this catastrophically turned around in such a short period of time.

While it’s true that, though she is running fast as she can – a progress only slightly impeded by these wet leaves on the ground – and that The Ruiner never breaks from his leisurely, almost roundabout gait, nonetheless the distance between them never shrinks, but instead seems to decrease slightly, with every glance she risks back at him. Even so, she only makes her way up and down a series of three or four small peak-valley combinations, covering a distance of what feels like the same number of football fields, maybe, tops, if attempting to mentally graph the distance. Or golf holes or driving range surfaces or baseball fields – a handful of any of those.

At the top of one such hill, she reaches a clearing, conveniently well lit by the moon and even its reflecting nearby clouds, not to mention the mostly naked stars. She can’t see to the end looking to either the left or the right, which are the longer ends of this tamped down, recently harvested field. But straight ahead lies another thick looking forest, and it’s this she sprints toward, for a number of reasons. For one, she thinks she can make better time across this open field than The Ruiner, and two, might be able to lose herself in those trees before he even reaches this clearing. But most of all, her internal compass tells her this is the direction to run if hoping to reach her car.

Except what’s happens next seems to make no rational sense whatsoever. She enters this stretch of woods, and it’s all downhill, a section so small that, unless hysterical and seeing mirages by now, Emily believes she can actually glimpse some road ahead, at the bottom. Yes! No fucking way! And this turns out to be true. Only problem is, Emily’s certain she recognizes this section of road, for some weird reason, and it isn’t Stokely Farm. Compounding her horror, one which finds her overcome with the clamminess of cooling sweat, possibly with another layer of freshly generated, panicked sweat atop it, she can’t see The Ruiner anywhere. But she can hear that goddamn static riddled intercom of him speaking, while at the same time is unable to pinpoint where it’s coming from. Every instant where she seems to get a beat on its source, it shifts, and comes from somewhere else.

Thus she remains frozen, in the middle of the road. Hoping like hell that by some miracle, another car will come along. Doing a little dance, even, as she suddenly feels like she just might piss herself.

This is when she happens to glance ahead, down a section of road which would have been to her left as she exited the woods. As her eyes adjust, attempting to make out what these weird shapes are in the road, most of which are bright colored, possibly even pastel, or glow-in-the-dark, and that’s when it hits her: that’s a bunch of graffiti in the road. She’s at the top of that freaking gravity top, somehow, she’s almost certain of this.

Frozen still with indecision, unable to even wrap her head around which way to run – not until she lays eyes upon The Ruiner again, or else gets a definitive beat on his voice – she remains rooted right where she is, albeit bouncing around, light on her feet, in an attempt to look every which way at once. She can see her breath now, too, which is a curious development in that it hadn’t seemed anywhere near this cold earlier.

Since Emily is basically stuck here, however, there is something she’s been wondering about, and may as well resolve. The only question is, will anything around here roll to an adequate degree? She casts her eyes around the forest she just left, as well as one on the other side of the road, though it is bordered by some sort of cow fence, despite being heavily treed. Unable to spot any object round enough on the ground, inspiration strikes and she begins fishing around in her front pants pockets. This is when her left hand grazes a small, mostly full bottle of paint, one she’d forgotten all about stuffing in there earlier.

She extracts the plastic bottle and holds it up to the moonlight for closer inspection. Okay, so how fitting is this – the paint in question is crimson colored. In this lighting, it all the more resembles the deep red, blue imbued, nearly purple color of fresh human blood. Chuckling at the perfect morbid humor in all this, she dips slightly at the knees, enough to bowl this bottle east, i.e. in the direction which allegedly only looks downhill, though it’s actually bending upward. Even Kay claimed that in walking it with her eyes closed, she could readily discern as much.

Yeah, well, except the bottle doesn’t stop, or reverse course and return to her. It keeps right on rolling, picking up speed, even, if her eyes are to be believed, into sailing into that graffiti soaked zone at the bottom, slightly up the next hill, then back down again, where it comes to rest.

Emily stares down at this scene in attempt to draw any other conclusion from it. She remains here, her mouth slightly agape, that is, until she becomes aware of a sickly greenish-blue glow in her peripheral, the expected figure only now emerging from the woods to her left. She instinctively begins backing away from this figure, in the direction of the top/bottom, however a person would even phrase such at this point, slowly inching in the direction of the graffiti.

But then it smiles, and extends an index finger, beckons it toward her in the universal come hither motion. When this fails to do anything but paralyze her, however, The Ruiner extends both arms, as if pleading for a hug, head tilted slightly in the wordless manner of someone suggesting the other person is being a bit ridiculous. As if he’s disappointed that she’s chosen to keep her distance, though he continues to wear that sick, perverted leer.

This is when she takes off running. Emily sprints and doesn’t look back, down the hill which, Kay’s testimony, gravity, and the scientific community be damned, certainly feels exactly like a downhill slope to her. Only upon reaching the graffiti itself, both a little winded and realizing she hasn’t heard any noise behind her, does Emily risk a pause, to catch her breath and look behind her.

Remaining right where she’d left it, that nightmarish figure stands at the top of the hill, watching her. And now he raises on hand, snaps it shut a handful of times in a sarcastic bye-bye motion, grinning all the broader as he does so. And then turns to disappear into the woods from which he came.

Though exhaling violent bursts of stream, her breath is ever so gradually returning to her normal, as is her heartbeat. Only now does she actually allow herself to examine the graffiti, just about all of which appears to be new. In fact, there’s a fresh looking, single line of yellow dashes down the middle of road, atop some newly poured looking asphalt – she’s guessing the county does what it can to stem the vandalism here, though it’s pretty much a lost cause. Already an absolute onslaught of spray painted messages and symbols has nearly obliterated their efforts.

Aside from the expected, gigantic, pure white outline of a cock and balls, there are also hearts, names ranging from Brent to Kate to Zebra, in a variety of fonts and handwriting styles. Among the more intriguing messages, however, remain a cursive, also white, Do Ya Love Me? which she recalls from last time, and can only mean someone took the trouble of reapplying. Also, a long, thin rectangle so neat it looks to have been either measured or else sprayed through a stencil, a gradual fade through every color visible to man, almost like a giant pH strip. Elsewhere, a dark blue – at least as far as she can tell, within this moonlight – line drawn perpendicular to the road, beside which a post still bears that purple blaze. And a message that must be in black just before the line, advising Charlie: start here!

This message creeps here out more than any other, even though a purely utilitarian one, serving some actual purpose. She uses this as her cue to turn and begin walking eastward, continuing on this trajectory. It’s the only one that makes even marginal sense. Eventually, she knows, she should reach Stokely Farm Road, and Fairlawn Cemetery, but she can’t quite recall how far away this would be from here.

Now that she’s walking up this hill, though, the one leading down to the graffiti, Emily finally gets the point Jeremy had been making. This is clearly a sharp downward drop, leading down to that starting point, and from there, upon bottoming out, the road clearly bends in some direction. So either both sides are optical illusions, or...something really weird is happening here.

But enough about that. While entertaining enough to pass the time during an endless hike, it does her no good from a survival standpoint. She can always return to these thoughts later, because who knows how long she’ll be out here. Oh, except wait, she had somehow forgotten all about this: just beyond the top of this latest rise, there’s that battered looking white farmhouse, close to the road, where the old man had been burning something in a barrel. And...wait a second...though the windows alone are lit, all of them she can see, with those faux candle thingies, could this possibly be...despite the late hour and the cold, that crazy looking old man is standing in his yard right now, burning stuff in that barrel?

Yes. He most certainly is. And though she’s frozen all over again, wondering if this isn’t even more insane that traipsing around in the woods with The Ruiner, eventually Emily is standing in the road so long that he comes aware of her presence. Turns her way, and sticks a single, flannel jacket clad arm into the air by way of greeting, before turning his attention back to the fire. Still Emily debates the matter internally, studying his orange face in the firelight, though all she’s coming up with is a selection of really bad alternatives. Of which this definitely seems the least bad option. Which is how she finds herself shuffling up the gravel driveway to approach him.

The old man doesn’t really say much, but he seems kind enough. After standing around for a handful of minutes, during which time he extracts a pint bottle of whiskey from the breast pocket of his flannel coat a couple of times – and offers some to Emily, though she refuses – and pulls on it, he eventually offers the use of their regular old landline telephone, inside the house.

This comes on the heels of Emily withdrawing her own phone, and discovering it dead, though another quarter hour passes before she works up enough nerve to mention it to this old man. Until then, she’s weighing the pros and cons, wondering if such an admission would make her more vulnerable. But, after concluding he doesn’t really seem the axe murderer type, and anyways she’s freezing even with this fire, has no other valid plan for getting home, she reluctantly mentions her dilemma, then accepts his offer.

Even though they are behind the house, next to the driveway, and there appears to be a perfectly fine door into the house, for some reason he leads her around to the front. Emily still isn’t certain about any of this, but when this kind of adorable ancient gent creaks open the door, and shouts for his wife, she immediately approaches from the direction of what must be the kitchen. Wiping her hands on one of those front apron thingies, and wearing some frilly, flower patterned grandma’s dress despite the late hour. Then, after sitting her down at their charming little Formica covered table, the kind with one of those shiny metal rims encircling it, a rim encrusted with six or seven parallel grooves, they point to their phone on the wall nearby, and the dear old woman makes her some tea. This time, when the man of the house extracts his whiskey bottle, and holds it above her mug with a quizzical expression, she readily nods yes. By this point, she is already dialing Denise’s number, then giving up in favor of Kay’s. This actually doesn’t work, possibly because they don’t recognize the number, although by now Emily’s phone has recharged enough that she’s able to text them from her own.

Emily hears the front door swing open, then click shut, and believes that the old man must have returned outside to his fire. While she waits for Kay to arrive, Emily sips at her hot toddy type concoction, one which seems to seep into the spaces of her ribcage and is basically the most magical beverage she believes she’s ever tasted. During this time, the old woman washes dishes by hand at the sink, occasionally looking up and out the window above it, which faces their backyard, occasionally glances over at Emily. Most of it is local folklore, for example when Emily asks if they ever get tired of the teenagers down at that gravity hill, and the woman admits that they do, though adding they’re not sure what can really be done about it.

By the time Kay and Denise arrive, it’s an impossible seeming 2:30 in the morning. Yet this woman doesn’t appear the least bit fatigued. As for her crew, they remain in the car, honking the horn and with the engine running, making jokes about being too freaked out to come retrieve her. Denise adds that they could see the silhouette of some dude out by that fire barrel, but couldn’t get a good look at him in the dark.

“Oh, he’s perfectly harmless,” Emily assures, as the car is backing out of the driveway. Staring wistfully over at the house, as they drive away, she adds, “they were really just the sweetest old couple...”

Still, Emily does kind of wonder if he hadn’t poured a bit more whiskey into her mug than she realized. Nothing is really adding up. It takes them almost a half hour to retreat to the marina. All three of them glance over at Fairlawn Cemetery, tucked away in that little elbow, the hilly bend between road and forest, though nobody says a word. Then they’re immediately over the vague S shaped bridge across the lake, finally arriving at the mostly muddy parking lot beside the marina. Even through the fog, she can readily spot her idiot boyfriend, slumped forward in his chair, wrapped loosely in that pair of umbrellas.

Once they honk enough to rouse him, and he shuffles in half-asleep fashion to the car, they are on their way back to Otherwise. Emily attempts explaining to all of them, with frequent pauses to admit she knows how preposterous this all sounds, about her recent interludes with The Ruiner. It’s only after they pull up beside Jeremy’s parked car, which Kay and Denise admit they somehow hadn’t even noticed on the way out, and she climbs behind the wheel so he can mostly half-doze again, that she really gets into addressing the timing and spacing issue, that he’s right, that the layout of this terrain makes no sense. Where they differ, however, even in his sleepy state, is their opinion of what it all means.

“I think we’re in some weird, like, other dimension or something, when we’re out here. Some kind of space-time vortex.”

“Get out of here,” he scoffs.

“Is that not what you’re saying? What are you saying, then?”

“I’m saying there is an answer, we just haven’t figured it out yet. We’re gonna feel like idiots, once we finally do piece it all together.”

“Okay, but, like, how do you explain where I ended up? Or how I got there without ever crossing that gigantic ass lake?”

“You had to have run across a small bridge of some sort. You had to have. You just didn’t notice because you were frantically running away from...our prankster friend in the ghost costume. I mean we have no idea about the layout of that lake. I’m not a freaking cartographer, are you?”

“Cartographer?” she questions with a laugh.

“Whatever. What I mean is, for all we know, that lake might narrow down to this tiny little stream at some point. Or even stop completely. You just happened to run over it at that point.”

“I guess so. I don’t know, this area is really starting to creep me out,” she observes with a shiver. “It’s creeping me out, but at the same time, like, I feel drawn to it. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain.”

Though the tour ramps up within a few hours of their return, and perhaps Kidwell might have been expecting something from him today, Jeremy crashes until well past noon. It doesn’t much matter, because nothing requiring his intervention happens, and anyway the owner of this property is nowhere to be seen.

His absence is puzzling, but must indicate more pressing business elsewhere – considering how into this whole tour concept he has been, up to this point. At the very least, however, he apparently cajoled the tall, orange haired, feminine acting kid from the Fairlawn Diner into pitching in at the kitchen, as the lad shows up around six in the morning, claiming such. Denise, who in many aspects just kind of willingly supplants the preoccupied Grace’s usual role during these tours, walking around under her own volition and mingling with everyone, is at the café making breakfast when she spots him behind the counter.

“Hey!” she cheers, calling out to him, “I’m surprised to see you here! Although...I guess I didn’t realize your hair is, like, dyed bright orange. I thought it was actually orange orange, like naturally.”

“Mmm, it mostly sorta is. I think. At this point it’s kinda hard to even remember what I originally looked like,” he tells her with a laugh. “If I remember right I went blonde, and then a whole bunch of other colors and now back to...pretty much where I started?”

Denise nods, but then, observing the gold plated, Fairlawn Diner name badge he wore here, atop his actual uniform from there – which is just a plain white dress shirt, tucked into black slacks – and observes the name, Nick, which strikes her as odd. “Nick, huh? That’s funny, I was thinking your name was like...Evan or something.”

“Yeah, it all depends. Basically whoever’s name badge I find lying around, that’s who I am that day,” he chortles, looking down at it. “Today I’m Nick. Was there ever an Evan there?” he attempts to recall, “yeah, there must have been an Evan there. Maybe.”

As they chat, this middle-aged, yuppie looking dad with three small children approaches. He’s glancing up at the day’s lunch menu, written in chalk on a blackboard, which is turn hanging by some rustic looking string from the ceiling. He has his arms loosely around the kids in the manner of someone who doesn’t intend to stick around this vicinity long. Ben happens to be nearing the counter himself, from behind it, bringing a tray of breakfast food to some woman and her teenaged looking daughter.

“Going for an ironically downhome menu today, huh?” the man says to point, pointing at today’s offerings of burgers, fries, chicken tenders and so on. “I like it, I like it. Clever!”

“Uh...yeah, that’s it,” Ben says, offering a weak smile. “Glad you picked up on it.”

Only after the man has whisked his kids away and is out of earshot does Ben scoff, under his breath, “ironically downhome.” Then, turning to his lone helper, asks, “have you actually talked to Harry Kidwell recently? I can’t seem to reach the guy. He needs to get some freaking help in here! If this keeps, up, I mean...we’re easily doing double the business we did last week. Easily.”

“Yeah, well, I mean he stopped in at the diner one day. Let’s just say I couldn’t resist his offer,” Nick jokes. “As far as anyone else, eh...I guess they’re not that curious.”

“If you guys need a hand, I mean, I’m not doing anything,” Denise offers. “Let me wolf this down real quick.”

“Really? That would be awesome, Denise. We’ll hook you up somehow,” Ben tells her. Then, turning to Nick, continues, “that’s great, he made you a killer offer and all. Now if only he’d extend that to maybe ten or twelve other people...” before walking away, still muttering as he returns to his post in the kitchen.

Nick and Denise share a laugh, though she continues to inhale her food right where she stands. “You know, that’s kind of related to what I was just about to tell you,” he advises, with the air of someone on the edge of revealing a secret.

“Oh yeah? What’s that?”

“Well,” he raises one eyebrow and glances around, nodding vaguely at the café behind them, then says just above a whisper, “I kind of just wanted to see the place. But for the most part, okay, let’s think about what’s missing. You’ve got pretty much everything you need here, everything you would expect. And yeah these tours might draw some folks from the area in, to breeze through real quick before they, like, speed walk back to their cars. But what’s one thing you would expect to have here, that you don’t?”

He says this with a self-satisfied little smirk, letting the question hang there while she ponders it. Finally she shrugs and admits, “I don’t know, what?”

“Locals,” he says with a broad smile, holding up one index finger. “Hasn’t anyone noticed that there aren’t any locals actually living here?”

“Hmm!” Denise offers, nodding at his flash of insight, a bit impressed by this. “No, I guess not. But you’re right.”

“Okay, there’s a reason for that. That’s all I’m gonna say. There’s a reason for that. And you might wanna look into it.”

Emily’s hard at work on her mural throughout the tour. She doesn’t find the presence of others the least bit distracting – on the contrary, she kind of enjoys the warmth they bring to this environment. And if nothing else, it’s another attraction for luring and stimulating these guests.

When Denise materializes at her elbow, in the course of making random rounds all over the property, apparently, Emily’s only half paying attention as her sister rambles on at length about some conversation with that witty kid from the Fairlawn Diner. In actuality, Emily is paying much more attention to Tom’s latest workshop, to a classroom full of adults, in the front room down the hall.

“...yes and so as you can see, it’s a good practice to rub several coats of linseed oil into the canvas, allowing a couple of days for each coat to dry,” he is explaining, while Emily herself paints away, having by now moved onto the likeness of Liam Blodgett.

“Are you even listening?” Denise questions, “he said there’s a reason we don’t have any locals living here.”

“Hmm? Yeah, of course. But he’s not really telling us anything we don’t already know. And did he give any specifics, anyway?”

“What do you mean he’s not telling us anything we don’t know!?” Denise protests, “I never thought about this before. You’re saying you have?”

But by now, Emily’s mind has already drifted down the hall again, where she hears some crotchety sounding older gent, with a bit of a wheezy if authoritative voice ask, “excuse me, but if you don’t mind my asking...”

“Of course,” Tom says, encouraging him.

“But how did you decide to put those...greenish black circles on every painting? Is that like, what you’d call a personal signature, like a conscious decision?”

“Umm...heh heh,” she hears Tom chuckle, explaining, “it’s interesting you should ask that. This is what you might call my first significant process change in, I don’t know, twenty years. This is something I just started doing, this week. I don’t know what to tell you – it just felt right?”

“Are you kidding me?” Emily mutters, and begins shuffling, almost without conscious thought herself, down the hall.

“What?” Denise questions, though follows right behind, a step or two in her older sister’s wake.

The two of them materialize in the hallway, and Tom shoots them pleased, though vaguely perplexed smiles. Particularly as Emily in particular continues to stand smack in the center of the archway, paint brush in hand and mouth agape. Yet it is indeed just as he’s described: not only are the bird shapes gone from his most recent couple of paintings, in favor of greenish black circles planted somewhere, but he’s gone back to older ones and painted over the bird shapes on those, mostly in corners or other somewhat concealed spots, and replaced them with greenish black circles as well.

Hours later, long after the last guest has left and every other soul on site, as far as she can tell, has dropped off into the land of dreams, Rebecca finds that she is unable to do so. Just on the brink of sleep, she has twice awakened slightly before dropping off for good. In both instances, plagued by this weird experience she can’t remember ever happening before.

It’s this vague state where she both half-dreams that she’s heard someone screaming at her, yet also awakens with a start certain that she was the one who just screamed it. And not only that, but in this borderline condition, plague by that almost sleepwalking sensation she feels there is someone in bed with her, only to awaken and discover that, sadly, this is not the case.

Well, it’s only natural that she should still mourn Jen’s sudden abandonment of this scene. And in some sense to feel that she remains here, in spirit, or whatever that means. But, after the second of these episodes, lying awake in bed, sweaty and with her heart pounding, Rebecca concludes that there’s no way she’s going to fall immediately back to sleep, despite her exhaustion from this grueling tour day.

She picks up her phone and observes that it’s 3:17am, which would explain this deathly silence here in the main house. While she can’t remember – never mind that it had seemed so insanely vivid at the time – the specific words spoken, that first time she woke up tonight, this most recent one sticks with her. It was an unfamiliar female voice screaming, look up! Which in turn, yes, led to jolting awake with a start, believing that she was the one who’d just screamed this, in that nonsensical-yet-making-sense-at-the-time realm particular to dreams.

Lying awake for a number of minutes and hearing not another peep in the house, however, convinces her that she hadn’t actually screamed anything. Still, sleep will not come again easy, she knows. Thinking that some tea right now might do the trick, she flings back the blankets and steps out of bed, finds her way across the room and down the hall without turning on a light, not even that of her phone, so as not to disturb any others.

Rebecca has no sooner rounded the corner, to begin descending the stairs, when the first peculiar flash erupts before her. Well, this is certainly strange. It kind of looks like someone is taking pictures downstairs here, that kind of quick flashing motion, except only if the camera in question was using some weird neon gree-blue flash instead of the customary whitish one.

Now she’s really glad she woke up when she did, because this is extremely interesting. Who knows what kind of weird things have been going on in this house, after everyone has gone to bed? She could really stumble onto something outrageous here – although it’s difficult at the moment to imagine what this might be, exactly.

It happens a second time, before she’s reached the bottom of the steers. She pauses upon reaching the ground floor, however, looking every which way, but sees nothing. Her mind begins to race in the absence of any abnormalities, and this is when she realizes, with considerable disappointment, that this actually must be some sort of malfunctioning toy. Of course. That would make total sense, considering all the dolls and fire tracks and toy guns and other oddities collected all over the place down here, the tubs and endless shelving along every wall.

She turns and makes her way back to the café counter, the little nook in front of it with a microwave, a water dispenser, tea packets, and other essentials. As her eyes have adjusted, she’s able to make out a chamomile packet and prepares this, with a healthy coat of honey poured into the mix. It certainly helps that Ben has left the office light on, too, which suffuses the general area, if not shining upon her directly. Although, come to think of it, this is kind of odd, even if Denise was telling her the dude has passed out in there at the desk at least once already, in the course of his endless, late night number crunching.

As her water heats in the microwave, Rebecca takes a step in that direction, toward the swinging, western saloon type door separating the counter from the café, and that’s when another of those greenish-blue neon flashes erupts, directly before her. Spookier still, that burst of light had blown out of the open office door, she’s sure of it.

The lightheartedness of this adventure has all but evaporated in this moment. In fact, she feels more like her heart just plummeted somewhere near the bottom of her stomach, and she’s finding it difficult to swallow. As the timer on the microwave dings, hear in the stillness and near darkness – apart from that office light – she remains right where she is, unable to move. At least until another of those flashes flares up, this time more peripherally, to her left somewhat, deeper back within that kitchen.

Rebecca has this sinking suspicion that she shouldn’t look, but can’t seem to help herself. Cringing at how loud that creaking, swinging door seems to be at this hour, certain it will wake up every person asleep right now, she nonetheless works up enough nerve to keep going. It’s just a slight zigzag motion to the right from here, to where she can peek around the corner, and glance in that hot, cramped, tiny office that Ben has seemed particularly partial to from day one, for whatever reason.

At first, as if by willful, subconscious omission, because there’s really no way to miss this sight, in such a small space, all she observes are the boxes of paperwork along the wall, and the calendar pinned above the desk, the adding machine and clutter upon it. But then, of course, it’s eventually impossible to ignore the most glaring, out of place, and just plain horrific sight: this sticky looking puddle in the middle of that wooden desk. It’s bright green but with swirls of what looks like human blood intermingled throughout.

And this is when she really does start screaming, and really does wake up the entire house.

It’s funny how your mind can wander even at a time like this. The thought strikes Jeremy as he stands outside this gift shop, staring at the side of the police car. Then again, it’s not as though you can shut these thoughts down, not without a bunch of conscious willpower – which would itself be some sort of deflection from the trouble at hand.

Three identical cruisers arrived on the scene, before daylight even arrived this Sunday morning. They’ve since closed down that section of the main house, conducted a thorough sweep of the property and interviewed everyone on premise, as they continue to do, for so long that the sun is now well above the horizon slightly hazy looking October sky. An otherwise bright morning, if chilly, with an occasional whipping wind, where they are just about to wrap up everything they can at this moment, and Jeremy stands in the driveway, examining at the side of the police cars, and thinking they look unexpectedly cool.

“I like these,” Jeremy tells Emily, nodding at the nearest car’s side panel. Unlike seemingly every other county in the state, they haven’t gone for boxy looking speed cars, rather more dependable, solid sedans. And somewhat of a throwback, too, in appearance, for the cars have been painted brown, but with tan doors, the words STOKELY POLICE DEPARTMENT in black block letters upon those doors, surrounding some sort of shield.

“Hmm,” she says, absently, nodding as the glances over at them, but nothing more.

Their presence isn’t required, by any means, but they’ve been eager to soak up as much information as possible all morning. Thus have dutifully followed the police from scene to scene, eavesdropping upon statements given if not contributing their own. Now the chief is by appearances wrapping things up nearby, as he chats yet again with Harry Kidwell.

Well at least this got his attention, Jeremy thinks with a rueful, and half resentful, little laugh. They had not been able to reach Kidwell for about a week prior to this incident. Particularly his parents, who are the latest to have come up missing. The only difference between this and the Jen situation, however, is those weird stains, evidence which appears to suggest they are not just missing, they are dead.

“I agree. I agree,” Kidwell is telling the chief, even as the looks beyond that figure, over at Jeremy and Emily, “that last girl, you know, or really all the other kitchen staff, I mean you never know with these flighty kids nowadays, am I right?” He chuckles, then adds in more somber tones, “but you’re right, this situation does possibly look a little different. Still I wouldn’t necessarily rush to...”

“We’re testing those stains,” the chief cuts him off, which does admittedly give Jeremy reason to smile, “but even so, based upon the visual evidence, you know, and these statements we’ve collected,” he shakes the folder, clutched at his side, “this doesn’t look good. The basic assumption is, we’re assuming it’s foul play of some sort. Now, granted, I’ll be damned if we know what this is just yet, but yeah, foul play of some sort.”

Kidwell continues nodding at this, without comment. Jeremy’s thinking he doesn’t look too pleased, however, and as if receiving this sentiment, he glances over this way yet again. All of which causes Jeremy to revisit the known facts. Rebecca reported seeing those lights, and finding that first huge puddle on the desk, somewhere around three thirty in the morning. After her screams woke up basically everyone within a country mile radius, everyone else jumped into the mix.

The Druckers were already awake, getting ready to begin their day in typically precise, professional fashion. But Jeremy, having slept a great deal throughout the tour, was actually already just sort of tossing and turning, half alert himself. Thus the three of them had basically spearheaded the remaining search, with additional assists from Denise and Grace especially, as well as about half the others standing around in some fashion. Rebecca, understandably, remained half catatonic, glued to an easy chair in the library, while Emily and Kay and some of the others attempted to console her. Meanwhile he and the Druckers and company examined the office and kitchen.

At the desk, that giant puddle didn’t just coat the middle of its surface, but was found on the chair and the floor below it as well. Still dripping, in spots. Nobody had enough nerve to actually touch it, but prodding with an ink pen seemed to confirm the impression that this was a viscous, sticky liquid of some sort.

This pattern repeated itself in two separate, if connected, spots in the kitchen. Identical looking, though slightly smaller, little puddles of neon green, with crimson swirls, on both sides of the walk-in cooler door. What’s interesting here is that Jeremy would swear there was some sort of weird stain in at least one of those spots already, although Grace is the only other person who seems to remember something like this, and neither of them are 100% certain it looked the same as this latest stain.

But whatever the details, the basic truth remains that his parents are gone. And Kidwell can attempt to deflect attention for this all he wants, by suggesting otherwise, but Jeremy – and for that matter anyone else here who really knew them – is well aware that his parents wouldn’t have just up and left in the middle of the night. Hell, the Druckers and Rafael and some of the others seem to be well aware of this, and they barely knew his folks any time at all.

Jeremy wonders why he doesn’t feel even worse. He supposes it’s mostly shock, with maybe a pinch of this mystery thrown into the blender, occupying his thoughts.

Even in the absence of bodies, funeral preparations begin immediately. Though Jeremy and to a lesser extent Emily assure the others that they certainly don’t need to throw everything down to travel an hour and attend, nearly all involved with Otherwise do precisely that. The retreat grinds to a standstill on this miserable and atypically drizzling Friday afternoon, even with so much to do in preparation for tomorrow’s tour. Among the notable absences are Kidwell, though he does send an eye-popping flower arrangement, with a card bearing the suspicious appearance that it was written in some female’s neat cursive, most likely his secretary.

However, he does also foot the bill for this entire ceremony and burial. Waving off all arguments to the contrary, Kidwell had insisted he was responsible for this, also making a couple of weak jokes about how insurance was paying for it all anyway. Jeremy’s not sure what to think about this. It feels a great deal like a parent trying to buy the affection of his children. He appreciates it, but shudders at the notion that Kidwell would in any way consider himself a father figure now, or that Jeremy would need such – parents or no parents. If that were the case, hell, he actually vibes a great deal better with Liam Blodgett. True, Liam also failed to attend today, one of the few holdouts. Jeremy never asked for nor received an explanation, and doesn’t care, really, for it feels better in some respects that there are people whose routines aren’t interrupted by this. Liam presumably has all sorts of administrative details to attend to up there at Otherwise. Besides, as a couple people have pointed out, nobody can recall him leaving the grounds period in all the time they’ve been holed up there, one of only a handful who might make that claim. Possibly the only, in fact. So either his dedication is astounding or...well, maybe there’s something else going on.

“Sorry about your parents, Jeremy,” Kathy Drucker had told him just this morning. They were hanging out up in that third story workshop, he and many of the others already clad in their dress attire for this service. She was glazing a few pieces real quick before getting ready herself, and others were also wrapping up a few last details, while everybody else wandered around in some sort of ansty daze.

“Yeah, thanks...,” he sighed. “Even though it’s the cliché, I get it now, when you see other people on TV or whatever after a tragedy, saying they just wanna know what happened.”

Kathy nods and suggests, “for the closure.”

“Well, I don’t know if I’d call it closure, or what else I would call it. It’s just that it literally gnaws at you constantly, when you have no clue what might have happened.”

She nods again, but is busy, with latex gloved hands, dipping a brush into a dish full of clear looking liquid, applying it to the latest object. “Well...I’m not sure this is any consolation, but,” she offers without looking up, “I really believe it will turn out to be some freak accident. As opposed to...some of these other wild theories I’ve heard.”

“You think so?”

“Yes, I do. I mean look around this place. Don’t get me wrong, I love it here, but who knows what kind of weird chemicals are to be found inside this building alone. Maybe it was something they accidentally ingested?”

“I hear if you eat too much the horseradish at once, it can kill,” Rafael interjects from across the room. He has these thick plastic ski goggles on, though by appearances only inventorying wood pieces at the moment on some clipboard he’s holding. Jeremy wasn’t even aware he was listening until now.

“Horseradish?” Jeremy repeats. Rafael just shrugs and returns to his work.

Kathy shares a puzzled look with Jeremy and chuckles, continues, “anyway, I don’t know about that, but weird things happen all the time. Weird things that nobody can explain. Or eventually they are explained, and it turns out to something very rational and real, even if the odds of it happening are astronomical.”

Jeremy bites on his lip, pondering this. At last tells her, “yeah, I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t know if it changes anything. They’re still gone, you know? And as far as we go, I mean...people were already talking about bailing on this place. I’d be surprised if there weren’t a bunch of defections, now.” He looks around the room, taking in the kilns, and the inventoried wood, the finished pottery pieces everywhere. The silk screen and its attendant material, as well as some of the posters and tee shirts and other artifacts cranked out by such. Or similar objects created using various other combinations, the so-called mixed media techniques he’s heard referenced. That weird little room in the corner, too, illuminated by one purple light, one green light, with its spooky tornado of glued together dolls.

“I know I’m gonna have to reassess what I’m even doing here. Paycheck or no paycheck. I mean, what about you? Don’t you ever wonder what you’re doing here?”

Kathy cackles and repeats, “do I ever wonder what I’m doing here? Yeah, you could say that. Although I think that would apply basically anywhere, to the work I’m doing in general.”

“Really? You and Tom seem, like, you’re these fucking machines, cranking this stuff out. It’s like you never even have to stop and think about it.”

“Is that how it seems?” Kathy chuckles, offers instead, “I really think it’s a form of possession, in many respects.”

“A form of possession?”

“Yes. By that I mean this endless need to keep churning out these pieces. Be glad you’re not among the afflicted. I mean, yes, maybe some of us have found ways to, so to speak, put a best case spin on the situation, and figure out how to make some money from it. But this is just capitalizing on what we’re gonna do anyway. And so maybe feel a little less ridiculous about it.”

Jeremy nods, considering this, then asks, “is pottery, like, considered art art? Or is it more like a craft, like, old ladies doing crafts?”

“Art art?”

“Yeah, uh...I mean, like, with Tom, I know he’s considered this somewhat semi famous like local painter. Are there famous potters? Not to be shitty but I was just thinking...you know, even if you were just as talented or whatever – not that you are, I’m just saying, I actually have no idea – but does that bother you? Or would it, I mean, like the lack of recognition?”

“Umm...”

“Okay, so maybe I’ll shut up now,” Jeremy jokes, “I kind of know what I mean, but it’s coming out wrong, and I’m only making it worse. Yeah, I’ll just shut up now...”

“Okay, sure...,” Kathy agrees, laughing and vaguely mystified herself.

The funeral seems to him an interminable slog. Just the drive there alone, during which it seems to take a freaking half hour or something only to reach Stokely, is miserable, and it only gets worse. Decorum means standing through this, most holding umbrellas, while the preacher drones on, but Jeremy just wants to get the hell out of here the moment it starts. In his youth and inexperience, having never dealt with this before, he mostly deferred to other family members, who insisted upon a lengthy service at the funeral home, then driving out here to the gravesite. About the only relative who refrained from voicing an opinion was Lenny, and for this Jeremy is eternally grateful. Black sheep or not, Lenny seems to him the most sane, even keeled one of the bunch. Emily and Denise were more fired up about throwing in their two cents’ worth than Lenny, even.

About halfway through this neverending service, Lenny approaches Jeremy, elbows him in the ribs. Son of the deceased or not, Jeremy insisted upon hanging out in the back row of the standing mass of bodies, underneath this mostly barren maple tree. After being elbowed, he glances over at his uncle, who grins and opens up his suit jacket just enough to reveal the pocket within. With his free hand, he reaches into its inner pocket, hoists a pint bottle of whiskey just enough so that Jeremy can see it. Grins expectantly, eyebrows raised, and shrugs to wordlessly gauge his nephew’s opinion. Jeremy purses his lips and responds to the affirmative, at which point Lenny leads the way back to this line of cars, lining the paved lane nearby.

“How you like it?” Lenny abruptly asks, patting the ass end of a camouflage patterned jeep.

“Huh? What? Seriously?”

“Yeah,” Lenny beams, extracting the whiskey bottle and uncapping it for a swig. Handing the bottle to Jeremy he explains, “figured it might be a good idea to trade in the bike. The leg’s almost healed, but...I don’t know, I’ve always kinda wanted one of these. Hell on gas, but I love it.”

“Pretty sweet,” Jeremy agrees, circles back to ask, “so the leg is almost healed? I was wondering about that. It looked like you were getting around pretty good, but...”

“Yeah, I’m basically back to normal,” he says, having reclaimed the bottle for another healthy pull, before passing it back to Jeremy.

“Well that’s cool.” Jeremy’s internal clock tells him that his latest swig drags on for maybe a second or two longer than is customary, but he doesn’t care. Returning the pint to its owner, a thought occurs to him. “So what’s next? I mean are you already back to work somewhere or...”

“Coming up to join you guys,” he explains with a grin.

It’s one of these moments which seems obvious to Jeremy in retrospect, even though he is genuinely floored by this announcement in real time. Lenny grinning, taking one last pull before he tucks the bottle away, sighing as he stares into the near distance of this procession they’ve just dipped out on. He’s examining his favorite uncle’s face as if it might betray something to contradict the words coming out of his mouth. But without making eye contact again, Lenny continues, insisting on this point.

“Yeah, it was something I was planning on doing anyway. You guys could use my help and I should’ve been up there to start with. It seems like the right thing to do, especially now.”

And Jeremy opens his mouth to protest, but discovers that nothing comes out. Nothing to the contrary, anyhow. Instead he finds himself punching Lenny in the arm, and giving him a little half hug, agreeing that this is the best idea ever.

At no point had there ever been any news crew sent out to report on Ben and Lois’s mysterious fate, neither at Otherwise or in their hometown or anywhere in between. Common sense seemed to indicate that there probably was a newspaper writeup or two, of some sort, but even these had to have been second hand and vague, considering none of the residents personally talked to anyone about it. And Jeremy’s family was mostly inclined to keep a tight lip on all of this as well, just as it was difficult to imagine Harry Kidwell went out drumming up a bunch of bad publicity.

Still, word had to have gotten out somehow, considering the sharp decline in attendance for their third Saturday tour. While Tom laments the possibility that he might have gotten two stale with his teachings, after that first pair of workshops, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Liam appears somewhat relieved. In any event, they go from 78 paid attendees that first week, to a whopping 213 the second, down to just 36 this time around. Kidwell himself is once again nowhere near what had once been his pet cause. Meanwhile, the others are left wondering if the market truly had already been tapped, or...if there’s something else going on.

With Lenny on hand, he is able to assume his original handyman’s role – one he’s admittedly a little better equipped for – while Jeremy, mostly with the help of Grace and Denise, manages to keep the kitchen afloat. Though hobbling quite a bit, Lenny proves capable enough, and says he’s not really concerned about the pay situation, at least not yet. Whenever Kidwell comes around again, maybe they will revisit this topic, but in the meantime he is getting free room and board here. He’s still collecting unemployment checks, anyway, and should be able to for the next little while, so long as everyone keeps this hush hush. Although his ability to move here at the drop of a hat does make Jeremy wonder what Lenny’s situation could have possibly been prior to his arrival.

“Uh, yeah...,” Lenny demurs with a broad grin, “I might have lost my...previous living arrangement, during that little hospital adventure. Might have been just kind of crashing on some couches since then. Just maybe.”

Arriving right on the heels of this out of town funeral service, spirits are low, regardless, and everyone is dragging ass on top of it. Thus the downturn in business, while potentially problematic, is something not many are complaining about.

Most instead turn their attentions to the upcoming party. This year as it happens Halloween lands on a Tuesday, and so Tuesday night it is. Though they’ve been among the least productive, from an artistic standpoint (depending upon one’s views on the actual “work” involved, mentally or conceptually or otherwise, in Marcus’s performance art), Kay and Denise have at least thrown themselves into planning this. Officially giving the gala a sort of so-winking-retro-kitsch-it’s-not-even-kitsch name, Not Your Grandma’s Halloween Party, is something they begin setting up Tuesday morning, just the two of them, although Grace and Rebecca eventually pitch in to lend a hand, Lenny, Jeremy and Clay are sent all over the grounds as their reluctant, frequently whiskey enhanced gophers.

Liam makes one of his few legitimate executive decisions thus far, in refusing to let them stage it in, “that damn dreadful barn.” Therefore they elect to define the party’s parameters with lights, roughly parallel sagging strings of white and purple Christmas lights, in a square between the barn, school, the last two cabins, and then the shed and communal bath behind the main house. In keeping with the theme, any pumpkins or for that matter anything even remotely resembling traditional Halloween orange is verboten, and anyone displaying such shall be denied entry.

Nobody can really bring themselves to entering the kitchen office, in the wake of Ben’s presumed death. For some reason the aura in that tiny room is far heavier than in the kitchen itself. Or it could just be that the kitchen is a necessity, unavoidable, whereas they can just shut the door on that office and forget about it. So it is that the computer screen is left dark in there, as various laptops are always conjured in the kitchen instead, for creating these often tongue-in-cheek concoctions for the party. Though Rebecca insists that the Ghoulish Goulash, of which she cranks out enough to likely feed the entire town of Stokely dinner, is a family tradition of sorts.

Though it’s been two months, they’re still not quite sure what to make of this girl. She seemed kind of uneven and manic – and this was before the disappearance of her lover. Lately, impressed by that shiny blue blouse with the golden owls, the one Grace keeps wearing, Rebecca took to crafting a stencil replica of it, and then painting that pattern, in sparkling gold as well, all over her bedroom wall.

“Owls are also considered good luck, and a deterrent to hauntings,” she explained. Then went ahead and painted the so-called employee bar, in the front room of the third floor, that same shade of haint blue, followed by the repeating sparkling gold owl pattern atop it.

Say anything else about this Halloween party, however, it is nothing if not well stocked with alcohol. As if on some collective wavelength in realizing this is one notable shortcoming in their supplies thus far, nearly every car scooped up a trunkload of various adult beverage, either on the way to or from the Ados’ funeral. As such, a punchbowl the size of your average charcoal grill rests atop one picnic table, and there’s a podium someone dragged out from the school, behind which Lenny and Jeremy volunteer as bartenders, with an array of liquors and mixes on a table behind them. They even go as far as to dress the part, in mostly the same outfits worn to the funeral, sans tie and jacket, substituting much more comfortable shoes.

Rather than bolstering spirits any, however, the party remains a somber affair. Oh, those outside what Jeremy likes to think of as the central circle are having a smashing time, with the laptop cued up to crank a party themed playlist – Marcus offered to curate and DJ, though accepting suggestions before and throughout – with the occasional monster tune thrown in, and it certainly looks cool out here, the girls did a great job in that department. But, citing the tired cliché of it all, few of these artists bothered dressing up in costume.

Tom and Kathy look a little different, different enough to cause everyone to ask who they’re supposed to be. But when forced to explain over and over again that they are Mark Rothko and Ruth Duckworth, respectively, and then explain who these people are on top of it, Jeremy supposes these costumes lose much of their power. He has sort of heard of the one and not at all the other. Otherwise, Rebecca dressed like that doll missing an eye in the front area of the main house, Zoe like a plain old fashioned witch, broomstick and all. A good half dozen merely rifled through The Collection, threw on the zaniest outfits they could find and called it a day.

Among these is Grace, no surprise there. Even so, she is feeling less than festive, and winds up joining the other mourners in this central cluster of tables. Despite being in the middle of everything, this is curiously the least happening spot, with the food on one side, the alcohol another, Marcus DJing between the barn and shed – his back to Wooley Swamp, which really creeps her out for some reason – and people dancing in between. The back wall, so to speak, of this light fenced area, meanwhile, is occupied by those standing and mingling, of which the Druckers and a quite clearly sotted Liam Blodgett have been holding court as a trio for hours. With few other interlopers that Grace has seen.

She smiles a lot because her job as goodwill ambassador kind of demands it. But also, in more personal moments, because she often has no idea what they’re talking about, what the codes of conduct are, though she really likes these people and would love nothing more but to fit in with them. They don’t ask her much about herself, but she can only assume this is because she has projected a vibe of being not that interesting. Yet, everyone is for the most part exceedingly nice to her, in turn, so she would have to guess that they like having her around, they enjoy her presence. And she’s even begun to gain confidence in her own creations, too, the weird marginalia she has glued or nailed or taped, in themed clusters around the main house. This seems to coincide with a growing appreciation for her contributions, as if they are finally getting it, the more of it they see around the house. All of which leads her to conclude that maybe she just needs to do more to make her presence felt.

Then again, it’s hard to say why she feels this endless need to play peacemaker at all times. This need trumps even any efforts at fitting in. As the dour mood suffuses this group like a fog, refusing to lift, she cannot resist the urge to triumph all the positives this place has to offer. And this isn’t empty hyperbole, either – she really means it, she still loves it here. Grace supposes she has always been overly optimistic, though. Maybe this has been her downfall.

At least Emily and Kay remain in her corner, however. Both are currently arguing, as her mind floats back to the present tense, that while a few events around here have certainly been weird, nothing downright bad has happened to anyone, at least not that they can prove. And that the mystery has made them all the more intrigued, in a way, determined to stick around.

“See, now, it’s having the opposite effect on me,” Denise argues, with a throaty chuckle. She’s the only person at the table puffing away on a cigarette, though nobody seems to mind. “I feel like I came here all fired up about solving some mysteries. And now it’s more like, mmm, mystery solved! It’s time to get the fuck out!”

“That’s me,” Rafael concurs, “I only stick around for the party. Tomorrow, you see. It’s bye-bye.” At this, he makes a flying motion with his hand, extending his arm as he lifts it skyward.

“Well, okay, let me correct that,” Denise says, a rebuttal of sorts to what Rafael had said, though she’s actually speaking to her chick friends, “I’m not quite saying it’s time to get the fuck out of here. I’m more saying, you know, we’re not getting the answers we need. It’s time to look elsewhere.”

“And that’s cool and all,” Emily agrees, nervously fidgeting with her necklace as she peers into the near distance, at her boyfriend tending bar, “and, you know, of course I loved Ben and Lois to death. Of course I did. And I can’t imagine holding up as well as Jeremy has, during this whole ordeal. But at the same time...”

“Yeah, I mean,” Kay chimes in, completing her thought, “the whole thing is weird, like you said, but even the chief of police admitted they couldn’t see how this was any direct danger to us. Whatever the fuck happened.”

“I only stay for the party,” Rafael explains, and then, in a whisper almost like a chant, repeats, “tomorrow.” Nods to confirm this, if only to himself.

Tony, who has been looking down and picking at the tablecloth, ones Rebecca silk screened with overlapping random animal images, like a red squirrel standing on its haunches, slightly offset from a green one, slightly offset from a black one, mutters at last, “eh, I’m kind of with Rafael, actually. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, really. I mean, this place has been cool and all, but am I seriously expecting it’s gonna advance my career in some way?”

Kay clicks her tongue, with a speed that suggests it’s more reflex than a consciously mapped reaction. “Come on! You’ve got to stick around!”

When he remains noncommittal, she will not so subtly march up to the drink podium for another pair of these apple spiced bourbon concoctions they’ve been sipping, and plant herself on one of his knees. She is somewhat of a large girl, but he is an even bigger boy and this move doesn’t faze him in the least. At one point, long after conversation has moved on, Kay turns just enough in his lap to squeeze his chin with one hand, lean in for a kiss and ask again, “so what is it? You’re sticking around here a while longer, aren’t you? Please tell me yes. You’ve gotta at least stick around for me!”

Tony flutters his eyelashes a few times and finally looks up at her with a shy smile, concedes, “okay.”

But Rafael doesn’t leave the following day, nor the one after that. When pressed he will only continue to mutter that it will happen “soon.” And even after coaxing this concession from Tony, he remains ambivalent, Kay can tell. They’ve continually revisited this topic, as they are this gloomy Thursday morning, circling back around to it again and again.

She was slinging some pottery over in the workshop for a while, but her lower jaw began to hurt in an entirely different section, and she was having trouble concentrating. Decided to dip over here to Tony’s corner space and see what he was up to, for just a quick chat. That had been over an hour ago. For most of it they’ve been exactly as they are now, side by side with their backs against what is ordinarily the projection wall, as Tony shows her his work in progress on some slick video editing software. The lights are off in this room, which has no windows, the blue glow of his laptop their only illumination.

“My next step will be to figure out the camera angles,” he’s telling her, regarding his current vision. He wants to project on all four walls of this room at once, with carefully synchronized footage that will make the person feel they are moving through the area in question, even if standing still – the woods leading up to that cemetery, various other rooms in this house, Wooley Swamp, the school.

“And like, I could include the ceiling, too, if I wanted, and I probably need the floor as well. Especially if we’re talking about those weird little so-called Welch ponds.” He clears his throats, toggling around with some 3D imaging software that seems way over her head. “That’s kinda why I’m still here, I think, I just keep wondering if I have enough footage. Maybe next Saturday I could cobble together some kind of dry run. I’d hate to leave, you know, and then realize I don’t have enough.”

This is why you’re still here?” she playfully taunts, “here I thought it was for me!”

He offers a slight chuckle and mischievous smile, eyes mirroring this frame of mind, behind those thick glasses, as he turns to her. “Oh, yeah. Of course, of course. That’s what I meant,” he says, before facing his work once more. She makes a disappointed sound and smacks him on the shoulder, as they both share a laugh.

“Where is home, anyway? I know you told me, but...you’re not from New York, right?”

“Connecticut,” he says, shrugs, swivels his head mostly in her direction again, though gazing absently into the near distance, “it’s close enough, though, it may as well be New York.”

“So are mom and dad, like...do they have artistic backgrounds, too?”

“Depends what you mean by that,” he smirks, readily visible beneath his thick beard, “mom’s a psychologist and dad’s a surgeon. I mean, you could argue that just about everything is an art form. But...you know, they’ve been extremely supportive every step of the way. Even now they’re basically telling me, you know, if I wanna leave, then just leave...”

A blood curdling shriek from not that far away snaps them out of this discussion in an instant, and both of them instinctively hop to their feet as swiftly as these awkward positions allow. Even if, by this time, it has already become apparent that this wasn’t quite a terrified scream, more one of delight – it’s Kathy, who just happens to be alone in the workshop at this moment.

“OH MY GOD!” Kathy’s saying, to whomever might be within earshot, “I just saw Jen! She’s out by the pond!”

Kathy is far too credible a source to question, but even if it were anybody else making this claim, simple hope alone would probably send half of them out to the pond behind the barn to investigate. She had been leaning into the sill of an open window, chatting on the phone with her own mother back home – just about this only break this one woman cottage industry seemed to allow herself ever – and was already idly peering in this direction. Even allowing for the gloom, she has no doubts about what she saw, which was Jen, clad still in a white coat and those crazy chef pants, hair braided against both sides of her head, just materializing from over this one small hill, as she strolled around and stared at that pond.

Still, nobody can find any trace of Jen out here. Then again, the grass remains relatively tall still, a holdover from summer, and the ground is for the most part dry. This outdoor excursion does bring with it one positive, however, aside from the hope of their chef’s return – now that they’ve gotten their blood flowing, the general mood is brighter than it has been all day. It helps that the sky goes from a pure grey to at least a bright cloud cover, backlit by the sun. A little warmer, too, meaning that just about everyone involved suddenly feels the urge to remain active outside.

Jeremy is the lone exception, wistfully remarking, “I would like to screw around, but I should probably go fill out a kitchen order. This reminds me. We’re running low on a lot of stuff.”

Though long discussed, only now does Denise get around to organizing a posse for further explanation of the natural spring tunnel. Everyone is saying screw the yarn concept for now, and charting how many miles longer it might run. Of more importance, all seem to agree, is scanning the ceiling for any sort of hatch. After hearing Emily’s story about following The Ruiner, most concur that this is the most logical explanation for where that door in the soil was leading. Lenny jokingly suggests they should take turns dragging a long paint roller across the ceiling, kind of like an inverted highway line, but those involved believe the lighting is sufficient to spot a hatch with the naked eye. Even so, nobody can recall any ladder along the sides anywhere, though it’s entirely possible the few explorers thus far just weren‘t paying attention.

Lenny himself is still feeling a little too gimpy for such strenuous exercise. Instead, he openly embraces Clay’s offer of a shotgun art tutorial, followed by his own experiments with the same. Kathy suggests she and Kay pull wheelbarrows out of the barn and go rustle up some more of this rich, red Carolina clay, meanwhile, and Tony agrees to throw in his lot with them as well. He’s never certain he has quite enough footage for his project, and anyway they could use an extra hand, a third vessel for transporting this dirt.

Through the intermittent shotgun blasts she instinctively tunes out now, Emily continues working at this mural. As they are most days, she, Tom and Liam are the only three souls in this building, have been – apart from the odd brief visitor – for hours. She isn‘t quite sure what Blodgett does all day in that office, seated behind his desk, with the overhead light blazing. Then again she’s mostly too preoccupied with her own work to even notice or wonder. Sometimes she hears him talking on the phone, though usually never loud enough to make out much.

As for Drucker, he’s kind of spooking even her with this added intensity of late, the way he’s withdrawn into his work even more than usual. It isn’t just that he’s gone back and painted those greenish-black circles over the bird shapes on every painting, but also how she’s caught him on more than one occasion standing a great distance away from whatever canvas he’s working on, head tilted at a quizzical angle, staring at the work in question as if trying to decide the latest circle is at is should be.

Well, Emily supposes that this is what genius looks like. You don’t get as far as he has without total immersion in the work, and yeah, some of that might seem a little weird in practice. Besides, it’s not like she has much room to talk. At this very moment, for example, forward progress on this mural is halted, because she’s gone back to touch up Kay’s jaw. She chuckles now to think that her old dear friend had been correct, in a sense, that Emily had painted it wrong – though in the complete opposite direction Kay insisted. Emily’s consulting a picture on her phone snapped just yesterday, and is forced to conclude that the jaw should be even more drawn out. It’s actually bigger than she’d initially painted it.

If this weren’t enough, she’s contemplating adding people who aren’t even here, at the far right of this mural. This is something she’s gone back and forth on for a few days now, and can’t say why, but it just feels fitting somehow. She has this image of a little boy, maybe a preteen, with extremely distinct features – no idea who he is, just this image. Common sense would indicate she must have spotted him somewhere, in an old photograph perhaps, but damned if she can recall any instance of doing so. Harry she long ago added, standing behind everyone else in pretty much the exact center of the piece. Though some have scoffed and asked her why she included him, to her it was a no-brainer. He stands there as the only figure in the back row, taller than the rest, with a kind smile befitting his shepherd status, which is pretty much how she continues to see him.

But if this is a mild controversy, she’s certain that some will positively flip out over her final planned addition. Everyone else has basically been included, although Zoe, the current end figure, is just a vague outline thus far. The boy will be next, yes, and then William Allensworth is going in after that, to bookend this masterpiece.

The latest Saturday tour draws just seven paying customers, three of them at the kids’ price. This latter development occurs late in the afternoon, even, as a woman with three kids she is babysitting arrives and tells Grace, “we had a terrible time finding this place! It seriously took us over an hour, and I live just down there off the state route, in Stokely!”

“Really? I’m sorry,” Grace tells her exuding genuine warmth, “I know someone else was telling me the GPS...”

“Well yeah the GPS!” the woman cuts her off, “it had us all over the place. Sometimes it didn’t even show this road, then other times it did. But I’ll tell ya, you guys need to get some signs up somewhere, too. I mean they ain’t even one down at the end of the drive yet, at the entrance.”

The woman is otherwise genial, however, and Grace’s much more intimate 4pm tour proceeds without a hitch. Still, this piece of news, while disturbing, does help solve for them the declining attendance mystery. Somehow nobody noticed – although it’s true that few of them ever leave the place, and even then only rarely – that the giant wooden sign at the end of the drive was indeed gone, and the same applied to a pair of much smaller ones, at each end of this relatively short road.

All of which also lends credence to their belief that most of the weird happenings around here can be placed at the feet of local, most likely teenaged, jackasses. Maybe not the disappearance of Ben and Lois, but with even Jen having apparently simply gone somewhere nearby, choosing to cut off all contact with everyone, including Rebecca, their apparent deaths remain the only detail that can’t be explained away in this manner. And even then, while it’s possible four play is involved there, at which point this quaint talk about jackassess or pranksters would scale upward into something darker, human hands were the most likely culprit there, and if not that then a fluke chemical mishap of some kind.

Or at least, this is what most of them believe. Kay isn’t quite sure what to think, though still inclined to give Otherwise the benefit of the doubt. Particularly as she has talked Tony into staying. Yet as she stands in this communal bathroom, female edition, and gazes in horror at her mouth in the mirror, it’s obvious that not everything can simply be explained away as a prank, or some sort of shady dealing. Like for example how it’s roughly 2:30 in the morning and here she is with a second lost tooth in her hand, staring at its bloody former home. Or how she could positively swear, as she tosses the tooth in a trash can and plays with her jawline now, that her mouth in general has sort of gotten wobbly and loose. Possibly even elongated.

The other thing is, if she’s got this secret and has told nobody else, then what other similar, inexplicable occurrences are her fellow residents holding onto? This implied fact surely increases the odds that something paranormal is going on here. Even so, she really does love it here. If only she can hang in for another month and a half without anything else strange or bad happening, then they can return home and life can go back to normal, possibly even better than normal with the experiences and connections formed here.

She’s thinking this, and then nearly jumps out of her skin to hear a female voice plainly murmur, “I know what this is all about, I do...”

Kay feels the color drain from her face, holds onto the sink with both hands to steady herself. Then regards her own mortified expression in the water spotted mirror. Except any sort of paranormal explanation wilts as she continues listening, and can plainly hear footsteps crunching through the grass outside. Tiptoeing so as to not add any noise herself, nor drown out anything else this person or persons might say, Kay eases her way over to the door and gently pushes it open. This side of the building faces the main house’s backside, however, so there’s only so much of the lawn she can glimpse from here. A second listen confirms that these sounds are coming from around the corner, to her left, and so she exits, gently edges in that direction, her back pressed against the building’s exterior like a character in an action movie.

Though the voice had been a tad too quiet to determine its owner, Kay is nonetheless taken aback to peek around this corner and witness...Emily, clad only in her pajamas and a flimsy pair of slippers, traipsing off toward the barn. She gives no indication about being the least bit aware of Kay’s presence, however, so she follows. In the course of which will hear her dearest friend, who admittedly has been acting mighty strange the past couple of weeks, say something else about, “this is where I belong, isn’t it?”

Her tone isn’t necessarily of someone talking to herself, but more how you would speak to someone that can’t actually hear you – a character on the television, maybe, or an email sender you’re replying to. Which throws Kay for a loop, but only for a moment, until she clears the back corner of this bathhouse and has a clear shot of the entire scene. It’s here that she catches her first glimpse of The Ruiner.

The sickly green-blue glow of this creature is impossible to miss, standing near the open side entrance to the barn. And while Emily is apparently drawn to him, this monstrosity has the opposite effect on Kay. She freezes in her tracks and lets out a loud whelp, one loud enough to draw Emily’s attention at last. She whips her head around, to regard Kay with the wide-eyed look of someone just busted mid-crime. Yet what is most horrifying is that Kay would swear The Ruiner turns his head every so slightly in her direction, too, having spotted her as well. And that he even smiles when doing so.

When he regains her composure, Kay makes a point of remaining calm, as she walks backwards away from these two figures. Something about it makes her not wish to turn her back. Yet in so doing, she witnesses Emily making some sort of oh well, whatever, kind of face, as she turns her attention to The Ruiner again, and continues striding toward him. The last Kay sees of them, they have both disappeared into that barn.

Emily doesn’t creep back into the cabin into shortly after sunrise. Jeremy tussles a little in the bed but doesn’t open his eyes, and she’s able to slip back in without his ever having noticed that she was away. Following such an experience in the tunnel, she’s understandably exhausted, and will forego her painting ritual for a change, in the name of some quality rest. Still, it’s not as though she is able to sleep in very late – not once the commotion about their latest disappearance reaches her ears.

When Kathy arose this morning, their cabin was already empty. Such an occurrence was not exactly out of the ordinary, however, as Tom frequently awakened even earlier than 5pm, and went straight to work at the school. She got ready the same as always and drifted over, before dawn, to the third story workshop at the main house. It wasn’t until she bumped into Liam down in the café, when both were grabbing a quick lunch, that alarm bells began sounding.

“I gather Thomas must be on another sketching expedition, heh? I haven’t seen him today,” Blodgett casually remarked, tray in hand, as he moved from the counter to a table. Kathy herself intended to just order a salad and go sit on the rooftop to eat, feet dangling over the edge, as she commonly did.

“Mmm...no, not that I’m aware of...,” she casually replied.

It wasn’t until after she ate, in the course of chewing over this comment along with her food, that Kathy first began to consider trying to text and then call him, to no avail. This led to a steadily increasing panic as various developments played out: first discovering he wasn’t showing up on her location tracker, either, followed by hail Mary type speedwalking trips over to the school, then back to their cabin.

Finally, a slight comedown as she finds that their car is gone. While still somewhat perplexing, it does at least provide a solid answer concerning his fate. And who knew, maybe there was a perfectly valid explanation for the lost tracking connection, if he was in some area with a poor connection. So Kathy attempts to go back to work, and is occasionally successful, though her thoughts continually draft back to Tom. Here and there throughout the day, she reaches out to various family and friends, though none of them have seen or heard from him, either. Still, as the late afternoon arrives, she’s relatively calm, and continues to believe he probably just went for a drive.

Of course, all that evaporates with the discovery of their car. Lydia was intending to walk out along the road to capture some nature photography, considering the stunning autumnal colors now on display in these woods. She only got as far as the end of the lane before spotting the Druckers’ vehicle, in the ditch maybe fifty feet up the road. Tom had apparently driven only this far before crashing the car.

Except this doesn’t even begin to explain the nightmare of this scene. As Lydia approaches, she can see that every window looks to be dripping blood, and chunks of human flesh. It looks, in short, as if a bomb went off inside this vehicle.

Upon Lydia’s return, this ordinarily tight lipped and withdrawn girl remains inconsolable, to the point that Denise and Rebecca are forced to take her over to the school’s nurse station on the hunt for any possible sedation at hand. Meanwhile, most of the others ran out to the road for a look themselves, to confirm this gruesome scene. Kathy, it’s only natural, flings one of the doors open, although all this accomplishes is allowing the flies to enter, and provide additional nightmare material in the form of his eyeglasses, for example, having ruptured in two, so that just one half, a blood soaked, rests upon the dash, the other nowhere to be found. Or a mop of hair which is surely a large swath of his scalp, which has somehow landed on the backseat.

Though some puke right on the spot, others are a little more adept at crisis management. Kathy considers herself one such person, and therefore calmly nods as, when 911 for some reason fails to be working out here in the sticks, he explains the same thing happened to him, but he was able to at least call the Stokely Police Department directly. Well, in fact, Kathy, though admittedly probably more hysterical than she realizes, doesn’t see any webpage for the Stokely PD online, but she is able to reach the Rowlette County Sheriff, who arrives approximately thirty minutes later, a deputy riding shotgun with him.

These two rope off the scene with yellow tape, and eventually radio for more backup, as well as calling for a hearse. In the meantime, nearly the entire population of Otherwise stands in the road, unable to peel their collective eyes from these professionals, as if expecting that watching these men perform with dutiful stoicism will begin to explain everything that’s been happening out here. It’s a testament, too, to how remote they truly are, that no other curious neighbors drift out here for a look, there aren’t even any other passing cars.

One by one, the residents are interviewed by this sheriff, who takes understandable interest in Jeremy’s case most of all, explaining that his parents had recently gone missing, too, and that it remained unsolved. Though the sheriff and his men continue to explain meaningful glances, nodding and saying, “is that so...is that so...,” they never come right out and say what it is they think went down out here, not with this current incident, nor any of the previous ones.

“Okay, it might officially be time to get the fuck out of here,” Denise says with a chuckle, smoking, as she observes the action.

“It’s been time to get the fuck out of here,” Clay also half-jokes, “it was that time before you even came here.”

Rafael raises his eyebrows and says. “You see? Now you see. This is what I been saying.”

Overhearing this, the sheriff holds up an index finger to cut Kathy off mid-sentence, and strolls over to where this trio, as well as Jeremy, Emily, and Lenny, are clustered in the road, near the end of the drive.

“Folks, let me remind you that this is an active investigation. As I presume would be the case with the, uh, incident involving your parents,” he nods over and makes eye contact with Jeremy, holds this gaze long enough to assert his dominance of the situation. “So with that in mind, I’m gonna have to ask you to stay right where you are. You’re not gonna be moving anywhere anytime soon, if you catch my drift. In fact if you plan on so much as leaving town for a coupla hours, you’re probably gonna wanna give us a buzz. Are we clear on this?”

Though everyone so warned warily nods along with this, as soon as the sheriff returns to Kathy, the others begin striding up the road in the opposite direction, scoffing as they do, to converse out of earshot. Clay even shoots a glance back that way, scoffing, “fuckin dickhead. Like he’s gonna stop me anyhow...”

“Yeah,” Lenny chuckles in agreement, “whatever, dude.”

“Is he serious about this active investigation business, though?” Denise says, “like, what, he thinks one of us planted a bomb in Tom’s car? That’s what it looks like...”

“Apparently so,” Jeremy tells her. As Emily just sort of giggles and shakes her head, though, what he’s really thinking about is how she seems a little bit out of it right now. Granted, she did sleep in until mid-afternoon somehow today, and might still be half asleep or something. Actually, she might be coming down with something, which could explain her bedridden status today. Whatever the particulars, though, her response seems a strange one to him.

“Okay but then so what does he think happened to your parents? Sorry, Jeremy,” Denise says, “but seriously, what does he think happened to them? One of us told them to hold still while we dumped a bucket of acid over their heads or something?”

“I don’t know but...,” Jeremy trails off for a second, collecting his thoughts as he too turns to glance back at the action. “I should call the Stokely PD to see how that’s going, actually. It’s weird that we’ve heard nothing from them.”

They continue walking up the road in silence, until just about reaching the edge of the lawn, where it meets the southern expanse of forest. Then, from the person they might least expect to say anything meaningful right now, a viable suggestion emerges. “We should go look through his stuff,” Emily says. She is playing with her necklace and staring straight ahead up the road, as if intently concentrating on this topic. “Like, in his studio. I have a feeling that might tell us something.”

Without any other valid ideas, everyone stops in their tracks. They look to one another and shrug. Then, with a collective glance back at the still flickering police lights, and the scene of Tom’s apparent misfortune, they turn to cut across the lawn.

“It’s funny, but I think I actually remember the last words I heard him say,” Emily recalls, as the six of them, with every overhead light and lamp on in the room, begin gently tossing it. “He was telling that mom and those kids at his last workshop, blue is actually not a very common color in nature.”

“Should we be doing? This a crime scene, no?” Rafael asks the group.

“Pssh. Well, yeah, maybe in theory,” Jeremy tells him. “But they obviously didn’t give a fuck. I think they basically flipped on his lights and said, yep, this was his studio, and kept on moving.”

Emily is mostly just drifting around, hands clasped behind her back and inspecting Tom’s paintings. This hardwood floor and soft yellow light of the lamps provide the room with palpable warmth, she feels, and it was easy to see why he fell in love with working here. Just as she’s all but certain that, while they may never know why he left, the answer, if one exists, is bound to be in this room. It must have been something heavy.

She draws to a stop before one canvas in the middle of the room. This, she’s aware, was one of Tom’s last landscapes, a particularly bleak evocation of a desert in the foreground, with the unmistakable presence of Wooley Swamp behind it – albeit with three of those weird greenish-black circles, in a vaguely triangular cluster, having been painted over some of the sparse trees near the left hand edge, up near their tops. With an index finger she absently traces these circles, feeling every slight bump in their somewhat grainy texture. Whatever had ultimately consumed him, she considers, these circles probably do represent the answer they’re looking for back here...although it seems unlikely they now that they will ever unlock that mystery.

“What was the point of that?” her sister asks, startling her.

“Huh?” Emily says, whipping around, suddenly self-conscious and certain that Denise if not everyone must have been watching her.

Denise is behind Tom’s desk, rifling through it, and looks up to explain. “You know, that speech about blue. What were they talking about that would cause him to say that?”

“Oh! Um...if I remember correctly, she was asking him about his own paintings,” Emily explains, shrugging, as the turns again to regard this one nearest her, “why they don’t seem to have much, or any, blue.”

Liam Blodgett startles more than a few of them by breezing into the room. He has his half-circle shaped, wire rimmed reading glasses on a chain, perched at the end of his nose, a look they haven’t seen much from him. “Pray tell what this is all about!” he says, somewhere between a question and interjection. “Johnny Law send you up here on an escapade?”

“Fuuuuuck no. Those twats couldn’t find their ass if it was handed to them.” Clay scoffs. Uninterested in playing detective himself, he’s examining Tom’s collection of X-acto knives, laid out in a counter in a corner. Picking them up one by one, holding them up to the light and pocketing a couple that he likes.

“Hmm, I guess he doesn’t really have much blue in here,” Lenny observes, examining the array of cans and squeeze bottles further down the same counter. He picks up one and, also holding it to the light, adds, “a couple of really dark ones, that’s about it.”

Jeremy, meanwhile, is at a window sill, flipping through one of Tom’s beloved sketch books, this one depicting trees from that initial Wooley Swamp expedition. “slash pine...swamp forestiera...devilwood...,” he absently recites, flipping through the pages, examining the names Drucker had written on the back of each.

After this considerable wait, with Liam remaining in the doorway, only Emily finally bothers to explain what they’re doing. “We had this idea that looking through his stuff might give us some idea what happened to him, or at least what he was thinking.”

“Yeah,” Denise says, “they’re kinda acting like we’re suspects in this crime or something.”

“Yes, well, considering the history here, I’m not surprised,” Blodgett deadpans.

“...scrub hickory...woolly bumelia...myrtle oak...,” Jeremy continues to chant.

“Anyone know the key about this?” Rafael asks, tugging repeatedly on this tall metal cabinet, locked, in the southeast corner of the room, beyond the desk and blackboard.

“No but I can bring my guns to the party,” Clay beams, “that should do the trick.”

“Hang on, I think maybe I did see some keys in here,” Denise mutters, returns to a previously scoured drawer and begins pawing through it.

“Wait a second, what do you know about this place?” Emily asks Liam.

Liam dips his head to peer over his glasses at her, replies, “oh, these grounds have quite the sordid history, which I’m only just learning.” He tosses his head back and to the right, in the direction of his office, before returning to his previous position. “It turns out I’ve got scores upon scores of files in there, concerning the history of this property. I’ve been reading up a bit.”

“Are you serious!?” Emily gasps, “that’s weird!”

“Hmm, no, the weird part is that Kidwell left them here,” Denise croaks, as she continues searching for keys.

“Kidwell?” Blodgett says, as if surprised she would implicate him in this matter.

“...gray birch...sandbar willow...corkwood...,” Jeremy continues.

Now Liam turns to question him, repeating the last item in the list. “Corkwood?” he says.

“Yeah,” Jeremy replies, craning his neck in that direction, as his back remains to the rest of the room.

“What are you doing over there?”

“This is one of Tom’s sketchbooks,” Jeremy explains, “he liked to draw and then...apparently write down the names of trees around here. I think this one must have been from that quote unquote Wooley Swamp area.”

“Yeah, I was actually with him for that one,” Clay concurs.

“Let me see that,” Liam says, and speedwalks across the room to where Jeremy’s standing. As the latter steps aside, their would be schoolmaster begins flipping through the book, cross referencing the names, and even begins muttering them aloud himself. “Balsam torchwood...inkwood...weeping fig. Carolina hemlock? This is all a load of bollocks, mate. Carolina hemlock doesn’t grow anywhere near here.” He flips backwards now, through the already examined pages, and then concludes, “I don’t think any of these grow around here. Some not even in the entire state. I believe this chap was full of shit.”

“Really?” Clay marvels, perking up as he drifts over now, to peek over their shoulders. “That’s awesome. He definitely acted like he was an expert on this fuckin crap.”

“Wait a second, though. Do the drawings match the names?” Jeremy wonders.

“Well, yes, as far as my knowledge extends,” Liam concedes with a shrug, “it appears that they do. So I can only surmise he must have been slightly off, with whatever he thought he was seeing.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Denise declares from across the room, hands on hips, fully absorbed in this discussion herself now.

“Well, no, in a way I think it does. This might explain a lot...,” Jeremy says, lost in thought.

“Hey Liam, you think you can show us those files you were talking about?” Emily asks.

“Yeah! That’s a great idea, actually,” Denise seconds.

“Sure, I don’t see why not.”

“Okay, you guys do that,” Jeremy tells them, scooping up the sketchbook. “I have an idea about this.”

Clay, who has no real interest in these matters, begs off in favor of heading back to the cabin, streaming some hunting show on his phone. The others break away from him in the hallway, turning left into the office. With Liam in the lead they continue straight head, not into his office but rather behind the long, high desk, like a library checkout counter, where the school secretary must have been entrenched. Here, a series of low filing cabinets spans the width of the wall directly behind it.

The space atop these cabinets, though only chest high to most of them, is unadorned apart from a solitary picture in a plain looking frame at each end, each propped up and slanted to face away from its respective corner. The nearest of these shows a much younger Liam standing in front of what is possibly the Grand Canyon, a woman of his same approximate age next to him, both flanked by two teenage looking girls. The other, of more recent vintage, depicts a grey bearded Blodgett onstage somewhere in cap and gown, shaking hands as he accepts a rolled up diploma.

“Hey, what’s this from?” Denise asks, with considerable, sudden interest.

“That’s for my doctorate,” he says, calculates, “so...eleven...no, twelve years ago.”

The others move to other end, to inspect the family photo, and then Lenny asks, grinning to soften the sarcasm, “Oh wow. So what’s the story, here?”

“With what? The degree or the missus?” Blodgett deadpans.

“Both, I guess,” Lenny cackles.

Liam nods once, lips pursed before declaring, “and I guess the answer is the same in both instances as well.” He pantomimes the universal sign for someone imbibing an alcoholic beverage.

Catching his drift, Lenny also nods, a handful of times, explains, “yeah, that’s pretty much how I ended up here, too. In roundabout fashion.”

“Is that so? Drinking problem?”

“Eh, curiously enough, I really wouldn’t say so. I wasn’t drinking when I wrecked my bike, for example. But, you know, sometimes I felt like drinking on the job, so I would drink on the job. Of course,” Lenny laughs a little more heartily now, “my last boss didn’t quite see it that way.”

“Yes, these things are all cyclical, aren’t they? The free time leads to more drinking. Which often leads to more free time, as it were...”

As the other three are occupied pawing through the cabinets, extracting folders and examining their contents, Denise steps back now, indicates all of the drawers and asked, “hey, what happened here? Why does it look like somebody went after these with a crowbar?”

“Possibly because I did in fact go after them with a crowbar,” Liam tells her. “There’s a...small amount of similar material in a drawer in my office. I stumbled onto it one evening last week. This piqued my curiosity as to what might be found out here, but then I couldn’t locate the keys.”

“Dude, whoa,” Rafael remarks, though not to this. Rather, he has found a large, glossy, black and white photograph, with a couple dozen young boys and a handful of teachers, standing in front of what must be this very school.

“Holy shit!” Denise enthuses, and crowds in to inspect the photo alongside him, with the others to follow, hovering behind these two.

After studying the picture for a handful of seconds, Denise blurts out, “oh my God!” and starts tapping one boy’s face with her left index finger. “That’s him! Look, Emily!” She turns around to smile back at her sister, unable to believe the eerie coincidence. This kid she’s certain she’s never laid eyes on before, and absolutely not before having that disturbing dream about him. “This is that Charles Elliot kid! I’m positive!”

“Huh. That’s wild,” Emily says, hoping that she is able to at least fake some enthusiasm that she isn’t truly feeling. It’s strange, but she doesn’t even really wish to look at this photograph, and isn’t, only zoning out, eyes unfocused, with her head in that direction. Yet can’t say why this is the case, only that her heart begins beating out of control at the thought of it.

“Hey, check it out,” Lenny remarks, reaching an arm around Rafael’s shoulder to point at the photo. “Three from the left of the one you’re talking about. That’s fuckin Kidwell, ain’t it? Tell me that’s not fuckin Kidwell.”

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck...,” Denise croaks. Flips the picture over, but there’s nothing written here, just as there’s no note of any sort beneath or above it on the front. Holding it up, for all to see as well as enabling herself to view it more closely, she says, “I knew it! He is such a lying, crooked jackass! Of course, even if you shoved this picture in his face, he would probably still claim it was so traumatic he must have suppressed the memory, and blah blah blah, et cetera...”

Jeremy’s seated at the round wooden table in his cabin, having just finished the task at hand. Underneath the bright floor lamp shining over his shoulder, he’s gone through every tree in the sketch book, comparing the names Drucker scribbled, against the drawing itself, against whatever images he could find online, on his phone.

He leans back in his chair and exhales, attempts to come to grips with what this all means. Glancing down at the top drawing, at whatever page he’d landed on last, Jeremy concedes that this was mostly a complete waste of time. Like so many of the fact-finding episodes around here, it seems. True, the sketches appear to match the names Drucker had given them. And as Blodgett indicated, none of these species should grow anywhere near here. But does this mean he was only slightly off in drawings, and mislabeled them as a result? Or mislabeled them period, when there’s a similar looking tree that is found locally? Or is the explanation something otherworldly?

Whatever the answer, he’s just coming around to resigning, admitting that he isn’t the person for sorting this out. Has just about resolved as much, as well as what to do about it, when a knock sounds out at the door. Emily hasn’t returned, so he hasn’t locked it, which means that a few seconds later, before he’s even made up his mind about calling out hello, the door creaks open and he sees Denise’s mischievous face peeking through the crack.

“Oh good, you’re decent,” she says, enters the room fully and gently clicks the door shut behind her.

“But you were gonna come in either way?” he questions, palms up, bewildered yet again by his exceedingly forthright, possibly future sister-in-law.

“Apparently so, heh heh,” she cackles. Then claps her hands together, leaves them in this position, pointed forward like a swimmer. Or someone about to make an announcement.

“Listen. I know this is rather abrupt, but...”

“Where’s Emily?” he asks, cutting her off.

Denise rolls her eyes and says, “back at her fucking mural, painting! Can you believe it? Don’t answer that. That’s actually...eh, that’s kinda why I’m here. In a roundabout way.”

“She’s painting!? Does she not know how late it is?”

“Apparently not. You know how she’s been here lately. Now she’s back to fucking around with Kay’s jaw again. I guess it beats her outlining...some kid who was never even here? But anyway, so listen...”

That’s what she’s been doing?”

“Yes. Anyway. Listen.”

“I’m listening,” Jeremy insists.

“Good. Yeah, so anyway, I’ve been thinking, and I’ve decided. I’m outta here.”

He feels his own jaw reflexively drop, before he’s able to collect himself and ask. “What do you mean, you’re outta here?”

“I mean I’ve already loaded up my backpack with essentials, and I’m getting the fuck out of this place. My sister’s acting weird, people are disappearing left and right, I’m done. Well, not done done. I’m still determined to get to the bottom of whatever’s happening around here. But...,” she sighs, “I just figure our chances are better if somebody gets off of this property and does their research far removed from it. And I think that someone is me.”

“Yeah but...aren’t you a little worried about what happened to Tom? It looks like maybe he had a similar idea and it...didn’t turn out so well.”

“Of course I am. I’m fucking terrified. But we need some sort of a plan. It’s better than sitting around waiting to see what becomes of us. That’s why I’m not making an elaborate, like, spectacle of this. I’m slipping out in the middle of the night. Figure I’ll head thataway,” she says, half turning to fling a finger vaguely northeast, “because nobody’s tried that yet, not that I’m aware of. Unless Jen did, maybe, but, well...”

As she’s shrugging, unsure how to finish this sentence, Jeremy asks, “you tell Emily?”

“No. I’m telling you, and I already told one other person, just now.”

“Who?” he demands.

“Doesn’t matter,” Denise says, waving him off, “I already told this person, so they can corroborate your story. For when everybody’s freaking out in the morning, and you’re forced to tell them about this little conversation.”

“You’re serious,” he states, a plain declaration Denise interprets as a question.

“Hell yeah I’m serious.”

“Oh, wait,” it suddenly occurs to him to ask, “you guys find out anything over there in the office files?”

Denise offers him a wicked smirk and says, “did we ever. First we stumbled upon this old picture, taken here, and it sure as hell looked like Kidwell was in it, as a kid. Then we got to digging a little more and found some land records or whatever you call it. His grandma didn’t buy this property after the fire. He’s full of shit. It was already in their family at the time of the fire, and they kept it. We think he probably just hung out here quite a bit, when he was little.”

“Hmm,” Jeremy mutters, mulling over this information. “I’m surprised he would just leave that shit in a filing cabinet, even if he was locked. Then again he probably had no clue it was there...”

“And wouldn’t care if he did,” Denise concludes.

“Yeah really. He strikes me very much as a guy who just bulldozes down a bunch of shit, and keeps right on moving, without looking behind him a whole hell of a lot.”

“Or ever. But yeah, so all of this definitely plays into my decision. I mean I was already about ninety percent convinced, but now....” Denise sighs, nods once at him, as a sort of goodbye salutation, and makes her way to the door. Here she does a little half salute, half wave, while opening it, “So I will see you down the road, my, uh...”

“Possible future brother-in-law?”

“Okay, sure,” she chuckles, offering a warm smile as she backs out of the door, “that’s optimistic, the way things are right now, but why not. We’ll roll with that.”

Jeremy knows enough about Denise to recognize when she means business. Therefore he makes a point of rising early himself in the morning, before the hysteria kicks in concerning her absence. He has business to conduct in Stokely, and knows that once it’s discovered Denise is now gone, people will freak, most likely prevent him from leaving. So he needs to get ahead of that phenomenon.

The library doesn’t open until nine, but luckily Fairlawn Diner’s already up and running. Over a cup of coffee and some breakfast, he first attempts locating the Stokely police department online, but is having no luck looking them up on his phone. Wishing he’d have thought to drive around this very small town before coming here, and search for the place, he’s now reduced to asking that adorable old lady waiting on him, Doris, where it’s located.

“There’s no Stokely police department,” she tells him, face dropping as she shakes her head. It’s an expression not so much of horror, but of someone who has been asked an outlandish question and is adamant with her answer.

“Heh? What do you mean? What happened? I just saw a few of their cruisers a couple of weeks ago. Personally dealt with the officers, even.”

“I don’t see how that’s possible. They ain’t been any police department here that I’m ever aware of. You need you gotta call the Rowlette County Sheriff.”

“Hmm. That is weird,” he says, takes a sips of coffee and stares out the plate glass window, at the fairly active – for this locale – main drag this sunny, though cooler than expected morning. It’s pleasant enough outside, though a reminder that winter is hammering at their door. “Hey, you think maybe the Rowlette County folks are just using some old cars? Like maybe the PD used to be here, a long, long time ago? Like before your time?”

“Well, now, that could be, I don’t know. But yeah, I’ve been here sixty some odd years and ain’t seen a police department.”

This news is so peculiar that Jeremy doesn’t immediately know how to process it. He checks the clock on his phone and concludes that by the time he gets in his car and zips over – or better, just walks from here – the library will be open. Plus, there’s one other phone call he would like to make, now that he thinks about it. So after looking up that number, paying his check, and taking off on foot, he dials it.

“Rowlette County Sheriff.”

“Uh, yeah, I’m not really sure about the proper procedure for this. But I was kind of wondering if I could get an update on some occurrences we’ve had recently out at Otherwise?”

“Otherwhat?”

“Oh, sorry. We’re at this...artist’s retreat in the country, north of Stokely. Yesterday...”

“What’s the address?”

“Hmm, you know, I guess I never did get quite around to memorizing this. Fuck! Sorry...I mean it’s on Pine Bluff Road and...”

“Nnnnn....”

“...we’ve had a bunch of disappearances, then yesterday the sheriff came out, we had what looked like a guy who blew up in his own car?”

“Okay, now you’re talkin plainly, son!” the older sounding gentleman on the other end says, softening his officious tone just a touch. “Yes, I do recall that incident. That was just yesterday? Hmm. I tell ya...”

“Yeah, well, I was wondering if you could tell me anything about this. Also about my parents. This was just a couple of weeks ago and it appears they basically just disintegrated. There were some weird stains that they were gonna run some tests on.”

“Disintegrated?

“Yes. Well, that’s what it looks like, anyway.”

“I don’t recall anything about that one. Then again I’m just the dispatch so...you’d have to ask the sheriff.”

“Is he in?”

“No, he’s out on another call right now. But if you gimme yer number, I’ll make sure he gives ya a ring.”

Jeremy relays this information to the dispatch, then says, “okay, well let me ask you one other thing. Do you guys ever use older cars, from, like, other jurisdictions?”

“Oh, you mean, like, they been decommissioned elsewheres?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Okay, I think I know what yer talkin about. It’s possible. But I can’t rightly say for definite.”

“Really?” Jeremy blurts out, taken aback by this response, “how big can your operation possibly be up there?”

“It’s plenty big. It’s plenty big,” the dispatch tells him, plainly taking offense at this line of questioning. “We cover the entire county, and it might be sparse ’s’far as the population, ya know, but it’s huge.”

“Okay. Well, just have the sheriff give me a call.”

“Mmm,” the dispatch says. Click.

Though that hadn’t quite followed the blueprint, maybe, Jeremy nonetheless feels reassured after the phone call, on a number of fronts. Rational explanations still exist for pretty much everything they’ve experienced thus far, and that’s all he was asking for. By the time he reaches the library, which has a surprisingly half-full lot, given the attendance during his other visits here, he is in pretty fine spirits. A brisk walk even alleviates the chill in the air, and he’s sweating as he enters the building.

From the looks of things, there’s some sort of children’s reading circle in progress, which would explain the influx of cars. These kids and their parents have just about sewn up the central seating area, with its short, round tables and equally short plastic chairs. This sight initially distracts him, until he glances to his left and spots Paul Hilldreth standing in his expected post behind the counter. He’s flipping through what seems to be some kind of full color regional guide, which is probably a new arrival. Jeremy rounds the corner to the front of the counter and addresses him.

“Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but I’ve been here a couple of times, talking to you about that artist’s retreat, up north of here?”

“Of course, of course,” Hilldreth says, giving him a genuinely warm smile. In all likelihood, Jeremy considers, thrilled by the prospect of any routine break whatsoever.

“Okay, well, this might sound like a strange request, but I was kinda wondering,” he says, holding up the sketch book he’s brought along for this mission. “You said you’re somewhat of an expert on local plants?”

Hilldreth offers a charmed smile, flattered by this notion, and even blushes slightly in replying, “oh, I don’t know if I would go that far. But yes, I know a great deal about the flora in this region. At least I like to think I do.”

“Good enough,” Jeremy nods, and then flips open the sketchbook to the first drawing.

“Oh wow!” Hilldreth marvels, “that’s quite good. Did you draw this?”

“No, no, this is the work of another guy up there at the compound. He did this on the fly, even, believe it or not, while walking. Well, I think he’d do the basics walking, then fill in the rest later. That’s what I’m thinking. You ever hear of a Tom Drucker?”

Hilldreth hesitates, staring slightly upward, as he ponders this. Then shakes his head no.

“Hmm, that’s a little weird. He was allegedly kinda famous, and from the Carolinas somewhere. Actually I would have thought the local papers would have been all over his...well, so anyway. He was the one who drew these.”

“If this is any indication, I gather his work is quite remarkable.”

“Yeah, his stuff was – is – pretty amazing. But ah...as far as this goes: we were kind of wondering if you could name the plants for us?”

“Name them?”

“Yeah. Well I mean, tell us what they’re called. Just by looking at these sketches. Because we’ve checked them out online but it’s still kinda, you know, we’re not experts, so it’s a little murky what these actually are.”

Hilldreth begins nodding, though turning his attention to the reading circle while doing so. Jeremy figures he is most likely calculating whether he will have enough time to do so, or possibly rather this exercise will disturb them. Then he turns to Jeremy with another close-mouthed smile.

“Sure. Sounds delightful!”

Without ripping the pages out of the book, the motions required for flipping through them is a bit clunky. He holds up the first drawing, to which Hilldreth says, “jack pine,” and though he has this one basicallyo committed to memory himself now, flips the back around so he can see it, then turns the page to inspect the name written on its back. Jack pine.

He moves on to the second page, and rotates the book back around for the librarian’s viewing, though Hilldreth licks his lips before tactfully, as if almost nervously, suggesting, “ah, shouldn’t you perhaps write these down?”

Jeremy reigns the sketchbook in, pulling it nearer his body as he considers this. “That’s actually a good idea,” he tells Hilldreth, and it’s true. His hesitation stems from wondering how to conduct this experiment, without its participant seeing that there are already names on the back, possibly even the same ones he’s just mentioned. “Maybe you have, like, a pen and some paper?”

Hilldreth nods and produces a pad, lightning fast, points at a pen already lying nearby. After numbering the first entry and writing jack pine, Jeremy picks up the sketch pad once more and they resume this little test. One thing he likes about this is it offers tangible proof, instead of relying on his own memory as to how many answers this nerdy librarian has gotten correct. In fact he could just write down the answers now, without even bothering to check them, and let somebody tell him how accurate these answers are. But Jeremy already has a strong suspicion about the results of this exercise, and anyway, he can’t resist watching it unfold in real time.

As they work their way through these sketches, Jeremy feels his phone buzz twice, meaning someone is texting him. He’s just about certain that at least one of these has to be a freaking out Emily, and he can’t get sidetracked by that now. Soon enough, they have made their way through all 22 such sketches, the results of which, though expected, are no less baffling. Hilldreth admitted he didn’t know one of these (inkwood, according to Drucker) and differed slightly on two others, naming a different kind of willow and a different kind of pine. But the other 19 match what their dead artist friend has written.

“This is really – what’s the phrase you used – quite remarkable...,” Jeremy says, scratching his head as he attempts coming to grips with this.

“Why thank you!”

“I didn’t mean it that way,” Jeremy tells him. Then, realizing how offensive this sounded, sticks out one palm in a STOP gesture and explains, “don’t get me wrong, I appreciate your effort here. And it seems like you really know your stuff. The only problem with this is...none of these species are supposed to exist around here. Like, nowhere, anywhere, in this vicinity. Somebody clued me in to that fact, and I’ve researched it myself, and it’s true.”

Hilldreth’s facial features all sag in unison, far more than Doris’s had earlier at the diner, while these words sink in. At first he registers defeat, or the accusation of not really knowing what he’s talking about, until the bigger picture apparently clicks, and he too is muttering in bafflement. “But, but...”

“Yeah, I know. I’m not sure what this means either.”

“Well, those are the names of those trees! I’m nearly certain of it!”

“And I believe you. They’re the same ones the artist wrote, on the backs of pages himself,” Jeremy explains, holding up one random drawing to demonstrate. As his phone begins insistently buzzing, indicating a phone call, an idea pops into his head. “Hey, tell you what. You think you could come up to the property, see for yourself? That would be a big help.”

Given his earlier enthusiasm, claiming to have visited on a couple of other occasions, Jeremy expects that the librarian will readily jump at this offer. Instead he licks his lips again, follows this up with an uncomfortable, toothy grin and he gazes out at the reading circle full of people again.

“I’m...afraid that’s not going to be possible,” Hilldreth explains. His tone is not unpleasant, however, only distant and somewhat dreamy. Then he flicks his eyes momentarily up at Jeremy, almost wincing as he does so, before turning his attention to some random looking paperwork on the counter to his left.

“Well why...uh...hmm...,” Jeremy says, unable to decipher this peculiar climate shift. He soon recovers, though, and counters, “what if I take some pictures and bring them to you?”

The librarian turns his attention fully to Jeremy once more, though this time his ever-changing smile conveys not quite sadness, but something close to pity. Jeremy wonders what it is he’s missing about this interaction, and peeks around his shoulder at the people behind him now, too. “Sure, sure,” Hilldreth says, sweetly, “try to bring me some pictures. That would be fine.”

Confused, yet feeling this is a victory of some sorts, whatever just happened here, Jeremy nods without further comment. On his way out the door, he glances once more at the reading circle, which is paying them no mind whatsoever, the remaining scattered library patrons doing the same. He waits until he’s fully outdoors before checking the texts and the lone voicemail, all of which are from Emily, as expected. Behind the wheel of his car, he taps out a quick response of don’t freak, it’s not what you think, before starting the car for his fifteen minute drive up to the retreat.

In yet another library, that of the main house’s first floor, a teary eyed Emily confronts him as soon as he appears through that board game archway. “What do you mean it’s not what I think?” she demands, striding three quarters of the distance to intercept him. Jeremy doesn’t initially respond, taking a measured moment instead to observe that Kay, Marcus, Rebecca, Grace, and Lenny are clustered around the coffee table and furniture in this musty room’s back half.

“She...told me last night that she was leaving.”

Emily’s mouth flies open, and she whips her head around to stare at Marcus, as does everyone else. Marcus, seated in this maroon velvet easy chair and just as composed as ever, at least when not found rhapsodizing about the theories behind his performance art. “She told me that as well,” Marcus explains, for Jeremy’s benefit alone, as this is clearly something the others have already learned.

“Well what the fuck! Why didn’t you try to stop her!?” Emily demands of her boyfriend, stomping a foot as both arms fly in the opposite direction, toward the ceiling. “Or at least come get me!”

And Jeremy’s thinking that, whatever the particulars here, he’s at least glad to see Emily snapped out whatever torpor has seized her for the past couple of weeks. This could be the wake up call she needs. Possibly him as well, considering that he hadn’t even realized that the old Emily was missing, until seeing her blow up like this.

He attempts a comforting smile and tells her, “come on, you know how Denise can get. When she makes up her mind about something, you might as well forget it.”

“Forget it? Forget it, huh? What the fuck is wrong with you? What the fuck is wrong with BOTH of you? I mean, I had to call Clay, so now he’s on his way, she didn’t even bother to tell him. Who acts like this?”

“Especially with what just happened to Tom yesterday,” Kay feels the need to chip in from the couch, “it’s dangerous. We need to stick together.”

“Well, you know,” Jeremy suggests, taking the time to ration out his words and remain cool headed himself, “I agree we need to stick together. But should that be here? You could make a case we’re all crazy, for not leaving.”

Denise had done her homework before reaching this decision, slowly accumulating what she needed over the past couple of weeks. Even so, when limited to what one might carry on one’s person, running out of supplies remained a legitimate concern. Crazy as that seemed to be worrying about here, in the middle of North Carolina. Heavy forest or no, it’s a well-populated, more or less civilized state – at least as civilized as southerners can make themselves, she thinks to herself with a dry, vocalized chuckle – and the law of averages dictated that you would run into someone sooner or later, so long as you kept your wits, and weren’t spinning in circles.

To that end, she made certain of packing a compass, just in case the cell phone goes. That’s fully charged, however, and she also hoarded a half dozen charger packs just to be on the safe side. Even so she’s attempting to use the phone as little as possible. Otherwise, having draped herself this morning in a long sleeved shirt, a heavy hoodie, long johns under her black jeans and then some thick socks beneath her hiking boots, she’s hot now, even after removing the hoodie for the time being, but felt just about right leaving in the chilly predawn this morning.

Her pockets and backpack are stuffed with everything else she could think of, or discover in researching this topic. Dry socks are one concern easily overlooked in situations like this, and she’s got two more pairs of those, one light and one heavy. A big box of matches and a couple of lighters. Though getting colder by the day, this is still a dry season, and wood is about the one thing she doesn’t imagine will be in short supply out here. Yet, she has packed a small bundle of twigs for kindling just in case. A couple of rolled up tee shirts, a thermal blanket that folds up to about the size of a napkin. Bottles of water, though this too figures to be available somewhere out here, to which end she’s brought one of those collapsible canteen deals for collecting it. And then a good bottom third of her magical knapsack is stuffed with energy bars and jerky, which might get old, yet should last a good two months by the looks of things.

As far as leaving Otherwise, this went much smoother than expected. Or maybe even thinking this indicates how warped everything has gotten there, in a matter of just a few weeks. It shouldn’t be this difficult for an able bodied person to just walk across a field, or down some random country road. But weird illusions aside, whatever it is that’s messing with their heads when attempting to map the landscape, it’s also true that the property itself has begun to exert some sort of sick, magnetic charm on at least some of them trapped back there. With most of the others too terrified to leave. She could feel herself become more docile by the day, too, and knew she had to make her move now if ever at all.

To that end, while a horrific tragedy, this apparent explosion involving Tom could prove to be a life raft. For her, and by extension maybe everyone else, too. It was just the slap in the face she needed, but who knew how longs its effects would have lasted. Though still making her little wise cracks and giving lip service to figuring things out, she’d really stopped doing anything of the sort, what, right around the time Jeremy’s parents evaporated. Another week or two and she might have gotten just as zombified as her sister. God, what a terrifying thought that is. She shudders now just to consider it.

So she had left via that overgrown field, beyond the barn and the pond. With the exception of that gravel drive, and then the roads back into Stokely, this is the most natural exit route. Granted, as the nearest known outpost, Stokely was tempting, as was that marina. She could surely arrange pick up points from either one of them. For that matter, she could have just called Clay herself and asked him to come get her. But the truth is that she’s enjoying this adventure and has looked forward to it ever since the thought first formed in her head. It’s true that her actions might have been a little hasty, an overcorrection brought on by Tom’s bizarre death. Yet the need to get out of there had overwhelmed her, and on this front she doesn’t think her decision is unmerited, regardless of the individual specifics of it.

She reached that abandoned road in no time, the former Stokely Farm route. And from here had veered at a slightly sharper diagonal slant up it, though still basically northeast, to the point at which this ended into a proper road that remains in use. This went by so quickly she might not have ever even gotten around to contemplating her decision to leave, was instead preoccupied with other things, for example wondering what might become of the meager artwork she did produce while at the retreat. Whether Kay would just pitch it at some point or what. The volume she created was by no means great, but they do mean something to her, and leaving those pieces behind, however light, was a painful but necessary decision. So much so that at one point she almost convinced herself to turn around and head back to the cabin, pick out a few of the finest maybe before it was too late and everyone else woke up.

Of course, she could have just wandered off without mentioning her intentions, even after everyone was awake, too. But Denise knows this is the magnetic allure of those grounds whispering in her ear. And part of why she wanted to come this way is that, aside from the pure adventure of it, she has this inkling that not only would it be an exceptionally bad idea to leave in the same manner Tom had – call it a hunch – but even if surviving, that there are no answers to be had in that direction. It’s one of these things you can’t explain and just have to trust. To have survived this long, to have made it this far from the property, already indicates that her intuition must have been correct, too.

There’s a reason none of them have found out anything even remotely useful online. It’s basically just a medium that has no use for anything except current events and advertisements. So that’s one angle keeping them in the dark all along. The other is that, while Denise couldn’t testify that a guy like Kidwell is powerful enough to sew up the locals’ mouths, she also knows that power can wield all sorts of indirect influence. You can close things down, and burn them, and chop away the legs of whatever other platforms might remain.

All of which kind of helps to explain why she was determined to walk in this direction, toward the county seat, Winston Salem. If they are going to discover anything at all, it’s going to be buried in the dusty old records of the libraries and courthouses there, she’s sure of it. Just as she’s certain she had to do this alone, because anyone else would have compromised it somehow, even Clay.

It was hours away from daylight yet as she reached the end of Old Stokely Farm Road. From here the proper, in use country route, Remington-Rowlette Highway according to her earlier research, bears almost an unwavering, magnetically true north-south, making her decision an easy one. She just about has her journey mentally filed anyway, in perhaps not quite the shortest fashion, but the one with the fewest turns to memorized. North along this far however many miles until it crosses that state route which slashes through downtown Stokely, eastbound out to here and beyond.

In so doing she soon finds herself surrounded on both sides by impenetrable forest. Already she finds herself so creeped out that she’s road ahead without pause, for any sign of daylight, because the forest at her right hand is too thick to betray any sign of such. If she spots any greenish-blue glowing men at this juncture, or anything else even remotely freaky, Denise is self-aware enough to recognize that she will in all likelihood piss herself, right before she turns around and sprints back to camp, to denounce this stupid exercise.

To ward of these concerns, she says screw it, and fires up some music on her phone, with earbuds tucked into the kangaroo pouch of her hoodie. The effect this has, even on a playlist shuffling at random, which was itself stylistically random to begin with, is enough to calm her down a great deal. And from this perspective, as some light does at last begin to seep in through these trees, her walk has become much more peaceful. Invigorating, even. She can see well enough to pick out that while the forest on the right side of the road is populated as far as the eye can see by nothing but those weird, impossibly tall, tan colored pines with only the tiniest tuft of needles up near the top. Meanwhile, on her left, it’s the denser, soupier looking, much more varied habitat of what the others have been calling quote unquote Wooley Swamp.

Okay, so she was clearly insane decided to come this way. Might as well just get that admission over with right off the bat. She hasn’t seen another soul, or moving vehicle, or for that matter a single residence apart from the Hazelwoods’ trailer, perched high up on that hill where she first accessed Old Stokely Farm. Their driveway presumably led down to the hill to this road, which would give them a Remington-Rowlette Highway address, but any neighbors have thus far been lacking.

After passing by a good mile of this Wooley Swamp area, though, she does at last encounter some sign of civilization, however slight and faded. It’s such a bizarre sight she can scarcely believe it exists, though having heard rumors about its existence. This would be the end of what was apparently the original lane, leading back to the artists’ retreat, before tragedy and who knew what else led to the creation of its current entrance, at the opposite end. Oddly enough, it’s not the least bit overgrown – far less than the chopped off stump of Old Stokely Farm, for example – which must indicate this dirt lane is still in use, somehow. Probably good old boys off roading, or using it to reach prime hunting and fishing outposts.

Above the lane, she can just barely make out, too, a wooden sign remains after all these years. Dangling ever so slightly from a pair of mostly taut chains, one tugging it in each direction, as they are in turn lashed to trees on the side. The sign itself is of a style which would have been faux rustic, even back during the era of its creation, one of those untreated wood jobs where the letters are burned into the wood, carved into it in deep, fire singed trenches: STOKELY HOME FOR GIRLS.

She was doing okay until spotting that. But something about this signpost, a surreal reminder that she still hasn’t technically left the property, coupled with all the other negative energy surrounding what they have learned, causes her to shudder, and then to speed walk, bordering on a light jog, as far as she can before stopping to catch her breath. This is when a trio of conjoined thoughts first reach her head, all at the same instant. She hasn’t smoked or for that matter even thought about doing so since leaving Otherwise, which is itself sort of remarkable and cool. However, now that she has recognized such, it’s about impossible to avoid lighting up, as she does now. And yet, this is one curious omission she can’t believe she overlooked, in her haste to get the hell out of Dodge. She only has about half a pack on her person. Dammit. Dammit dammit dammit.

By the time an apparently not-overly-concerned Clay arrives on the scene, it’s almost noon. At Emily’s insistence a number of them are loitering around the front area of the main house, in front of Grace’s counter, which affords a tremendous view via that giant bubble of a display window. They readily spot his battered red pickup pulling into the drive, at which point Emily flies out the door, leaving their conversation floating in the air behind her. Most of the others, such as Kay, Jeremy, Grace, and Lenny, instinctively trail behind her.

By the time they reach the vehicle, Emily’s already at the driver side window, rambling and gesturing wildly with her hands. His window down and engine running, mouth full of chewing tobacco, Clay nods along until she’s finished. Something that can only be described as hillbilly heavy metal emanates at ear shattering volume from his stereo, yet he seems able to hear her just fine.

He bends his neck to spit around her. Wipes his mouth on the shoulder of his hunting jacket and tells Emily, “I’ll find her,” before turning around and peeling out, exiting the way he came.

Denise had shut off her friend tracking connections, even, leaving not much else for them to do but wait to hear word from Clay. Emily had almost volunteered to ride along, until a mental image seized her, of awkward silences stretching for hours as the two of them patrolled this forested region. Either that or even more awkward attempts at sustaining conversation this entire time. Then she had a request for Jeremy on the tip of her tongue, that he climb aboard as co-pilot instead, before recalling that she’s still mad at him, and anyway he would surely protest on the grounds that Denise wanted to get lost, and furthermore that he’d agreed with her that it was a good idea.

Actually, she’s not even sure why he continues to hang around. Whatever the case, as soon as Clay is gone, after the five of them wordlessly watch and hear his muffler gurgle away down the road, Jeremy says something about heading into the swamp to take pictures for that librarian down in Stokely. She not got around to even asking him what he was doing this morning, and doesn’t feel like it now. Lenny does inquire about joining him, asking if there’s a lot of hiking involved, before deciding it sounds too strenuous and that he’s better of catching up on work around here.

As he saunters off toward the barn, these three females huddle and debate what comes next. The day has taken an exceptionally gloomy turn, though it’s the kind of heavy cloud cover that manages to be dark without portending rain. A wicked wind has also kicked up seemingly out of nowhere, bringing with it a fierce chill that forecasts winter. Grace is the only one dressed properly for this, in her charcoal pea coat and toboggan, yet is also the first to observe how cold it’s gotten. Emily has her mind on other things, or rather one other thing, and mentions precisely what this is: she’s thinking about striking off on foot, in the direction Denise went.

“No. No,” Kay tells her. “Forget it. You’re not going anywhere.”

“Why the hell not? It beats sitting around here, waiting for the worst to happen.”

“Why the worst? You don’t know that. Maybe she was right, maybe it is good idea. I mean, what happened? I thought you were all gung-ho about this place.”

Grace continues saying nothing, just offering her delicate, unsure, red lipsticked smile at whoever happens to be talking, back and forth. Hands in coat pockets, green eyes faintly glinting behind her retro, 1960s secretarial kitten glasses. Emily meanwhile nods her head in vigorous, rapid fire fashion in response to Kay, “and I still am. That’s the whole point. I want to find her and bring her back here. Because I don’t think it’s safe out there. She shouldn’t leave.”

“Okay, well, I guess we’re on the same page, more or less. But you don’t need to go anywhere. The last thing we need is two separate missing people situations to worry ourselves silly over. I mean, I guess we did just send Clay off by his lonesome, but, heh heh...”

“Eh, I’m not worried about him,” Emily says.

“Yeah, I’m sure he’ll be fine. But anyway, I mean, a bunch of weird shit’s gone down, nobody knows what the fuck’s happening, I feel like hell, Kathy’s still a basket case...”

Grace finally speaks up, squeaking out the question, “yeah, where is she, anyway?” in what sounds like genuine, pained concern.

Kay turns to her and says, “I’m not sure, actually. She was up in the workshop trying to work on some stuff earlier. But couldn’t really concentrate on that so then I know she walked back to Tom‘s classroom or studio or whatever to start going through some stuff.”

“Last I saw of her she was just kind of arranging things in that front classroom with her stuff. Maybe getting ready for the next tour?” Emily says.

Is there gonna be a next tour?” Kay wonders, as both she and Emily look over at Grace.

“Yeah, I’m not sure what happened last week. That was weird. I sure hope it isn’t bad publicity or whatever about, you know, some of these unfortunate incidents we’ve had. That would be a real shame.”

“So as far as you know...?” Emily asks.

Grace eagerly nods, hands in pockets still, collared turned up now against the cold. “As far as I know, yes, I haven’t heard anything to the contrary. Of course, Harry is a little hard to get a hold of at times, but in a way I think that’s a good sign. It means he trusts us to handle things ourselves.”

“Well I mean he did put Liam in charge, anyway,” Kay points out, “I don’t know why everyone’s so obsessed with how much Harry Kidwell is or isn’t around. He’s a busy man, people, I’m sure he’s got shit all over the place to attend to.”

“Yeah, I think we’ll ride out this rough patch – and then it’ll be back to business as usual!” Grace enthuses.

“I think so too,” Kay says.

Emily mumbles in agreement with this, as the three of them begin walking toward the main house. Yet what she was really dwelling upon in that moment, also lost to her, in this hysteria over Denise, was the realization that her best friend really isn’t looking so well. She did mention feeling like hell, so maybe it’s a bug of some sort. It could be a trick of the light, too, but as they stood here, Emily couldn’t help but notice the tremendous, bruise colored bags sagging underneath Kay’s eyes. There’s also something going on with that jaw, which she can’t put her finger on. But of course, what it really means is that she’s going to have to touch up that section of the mural yet again.

On the surface, Jeremy’s morning would seem very similar to the one before it. Again he is leaving Otherwise before most of the others are awake, and again he is bound for the library in Stokely. The mission itself is even the same, essentially. The differences lie in details, however, of which there are plenty. For one, now the whole Denise situation is out in the open, so he no longer has this hanging over his head. On the flipside, it’s true that Clay had driven around for about five hours, until he was nearly out of gas, before returning with no news of any sort to relate. He had driven every road in the region but saw no sign of her.

He does now have a slew of pictures saved on his phone, however, in lieu of Tom’s sketchbook. Although he did bring that along as well, just in case. Trudging out to Wooley Swamp and back to snap these had only added to the mystery, however. While out there, it was true that he and Clay unexpectedly encountered one another, when the latter, having found the old entrance to the retreat, was able to drive all the way down the dirt lane, roughly a mile of it, until reaching the collapsed remnants of that bridge across the creek. The two of them analyzed the situation, and agreed that it wouldn’t be anything to patch this bridge up into a drivable state, and that it might be a good idea to do so, to give them this alternate route.

Then Clay had taken off again, back the way he came, leaving Jeremy alone once more to puzzle over these trees. As far as he can determine, he has captured every single tree Drucker drew – and then some – without much difficulty, which makes sense considering they apparently never left the dirt lane during that expedition. But the mystery of this is that his sketches are stunningly accurate, and if the pictures match these drawings, which line up neatly with the names both Drucker and Hilldreth have given them, species which aren’t supposed to exist out here...well, he’s still pretty damn confused as to what this all means. And then confounding him with further layers would be Emily, who seems pretty lucid for a change upon his return to the cabin.

“Your expedition doesn’t make any sense,” she tells him.

“Yeah, I know. What do you think I’ve been saying?”

“No, I literally mean your expedition doesn’t make any sense. It had no point.”

“How do you figure?”

“What are you trying to accomplish? He already named a bunch of trees that allegedly don’t exist. So now you’re gonna show him pictures of the same trees, just so he can confirm...yep, those are indeed the same trees I already named for you, the ones that don’t exist. You see what I’m saying? If his classifications match Tom’s which match the sketches which match the photos, then that’s not a coincidence. This isn’t two people being this confused in exactly the same way. There’s something else going on.”

“Oh yeah? Which is what, exactly?”

“Beats the fuck out of me,” she tells him.

Despite their differing viewpoints, the vibe between them is a friendly one. Any hostilities from earlier have melted away, and are never even discussed. It’s just the two of them in their cozy, lamp lit cabin, one which finds them firing up their fireplace for the first time. A small ration of wood was already stacked in a loose triangle next to it, and Jeremy was able to light it with no difficulty. Now, as he sits on the floor in front of it, staring absently at the flames, Emily continues pacing all over the cabin. Which she has been doing, and is understandable under the circumstances, although Jeremy just realizes that she’s throwing on a coat and toboggan, some thick wool mittens.

“Whoa, wait a second. Where you going?” he asks.

“I…I’m too restless. Think I’ll walk over and work on my mural a little bit.”

“At this hour? It’s almost midnight!”

She allows a mischievous little giggle to escape her smiling lips and tells him, “well, you’re not an artist, dear. You don’t know how it is. We keep strange hours.”

“Eh, I keep strange enough hours as it is. Lately every hour is a strange hour,” he drily jokes.

“Yeah, well…,” she says, opening the door. “Fuck! It got cold in a hurry!”

“No shit. I think we harvested that garden in the nick of time.”

Emily stares out at the star covered sky and muses, “man, I just…I really hope Denise is okay. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Then she throws her hands up and concludes, “I gotta go do something!” before shutting the door behind her, trudging off into the night.

So that had been last night. As he drives into Stokely this particular morning, if not exactly confident, he feels the peace that comes with having a strategy in place, however flimsy. It’s the calm of having everything out in the open, but also the mechanism of at least staying busy, which prevents one from dwelling on a situation endlessly. Even though, as it turns out, he has apparently been daydreaming about this phenomenon a smidgen too long, and driven right on past the library. Because this road he’s on doesn’t look familiar.

Last he consciously recalls, he had reached the speck of a downtown, and driven through it. Just past those two churches, near the big silver water tower, he had turned right, same as always. But then…okay, yes, he remembers driving over the railroad tracks on this side road, which means he completely overshot his target. His thoughts were meandering as he sailed right on past the library.

Jeremy picks a random residential driveway to turn around in. It helps having that towering signpost of the water tower to aid with navigation, which is how he knows he is headed in the correct direction, now, back the way he came, and also that he caught his mistake at most within two blocks. Except that after he hits one four stop, then continues onward, he reaches those railroad tracks, and where the library should be, in a well-manicured expanse of lawn off to the right, there’s a trio of old looking houses, facing this road. And furthermore the side street stemming from this one, which should run parallel to main drag, which he used to reach the library, is gone. The third of these three houses sits right in the middle of where it formerly ran, straddling the now invisible road.

After crossing the tracks, he stops cold in the road, next to where the library lawn should theoretically be, yet a big, yellow, wooden two story house, with wraparound porch and peeling paint, sits instead. A nice, normal, leafy maple tree – this one even he would know by sight – in the front yard, which must be twenty years old if a day. He sits here dumbfounded for so long that another car comes up behind him, horn blaring him out of this mental fog. He has no choice but to keep moving.

At Main Street, he makes a snap decision to make a right turn, heading west as if making the hour drive home. Then makes the first next right, and another, looping around in 90 degree angles. Yet no matter how many times he repeats variations of this experiment, attempting every which way he can find in this tiny town, he cannot seem to locate this damned library. Not so much at wit’s end but more pissed off about the situation, somehow, as he approaches Fairlawn Diner, Jeremy spies a parking slot at the curb before it, and coasts in to claim this spot. Shuts off the engine and pops out, stomps into the restaurant.

Doris happens to be walking toward him as he enters, near the door, coffee pot in hand en route to one of her tables. “What happened to the library?” he demands of her.

“Excuse me, hon?” she says, pausing in her tracks.

“I said what happened to the library?”

“Which library would that be?”

“The Stokely library! The library here in Stokely!”

Doris shakes her head slowly, as if tiptoeing around a piece of bad news. Or maybe just unsure what angle he’s coming from. “There ain’t no library, sweetie. They hasn’t been for a long, long time.”

“Oh bullshit!” he shouts. Half the patrons in the diner stop what they’re doing to look up at this spectacle, freezing with horrified expressions mid-bite. “I was just over there yesterday! Can ONE PERSON in this FUCKING TOWN tell me what the FUCK is going on!?!”

With this last outburst, he now has the entire restaurant’s attention, but doesn’t care. Some stern looking manager guy in a short sleeved dress shirt and tie, who has been leaning against the food service window and yukking it up with a handful of employees on both sides of it, holds up a hand to cut them off, and begins striding this way, brows furrowed. Doris remains right where she has been, though, just staring with a quizzical expression at Jeremy.

“You need to talk to Harry Kidwell,” she tells him, before launching into motion again, bound for her table. With that manager guy emerging from the counter’s opening now, Jeremy shakes his head repeatedly, throws up one arm in a, great, what good does that recommendation do me? type gesture, and leaves.

Jeremy pulls up at the main just in time to intercept Clay as he exits it, breakfast sandwich and coffee in hand as he heads for his truck. For whatever reason Clay chuckles, bumping into him in this manner, and mutters, “off to the workhouse!” with false cheer. Gliding right on past before Jeremy even has a chance to respond.

Thinking that he could really use some sort of nourishment himself, Jeremy enters the gloomy main house and continues back to the kitchen. Even from afar he can spot poor Grace, working her ass off with good cheer like always. She’s back there handing a plate over the counter to someone, near the register. Then he passes through that archway, into the café area, and has a fuller picture of the scene. Instead of grabbing any food, he immediately runs into and becomes distracted by Liam Blodgett, standing here explaining something to a rapt, mouths agape audience consisting of Emily, Kay, and Rebecca.

Emily registers movement and glances up as he approaches. “Jeremy!” she says, as though relieved. “I’m so glad you’re back! We’ve got something weird to show you!”

“More weird shit. Great,” he grumbles under his breath, though audible to everyone.

With Liam leading the way, the other four follow him out the back door. Through the currently abandoned smoking area, past the taut, piano-wire looking fence of the garden, in between it and the girls’ bathhouse. Considering that Liam only seems to leave the school for short bursts at the main house, Jeremy has a pretty solid idea where they’re headed.

“Where’d ya go this morning?” Emily asks, conversationally, as the two of them walk side by side.

“Well…hmm. I don’t even know where to begin with this one.”

“Oh yeah?” she says, shooting him an interested glance. “How so?”

“I was trying to get to the library. Except I couldn’t find it.”

Emily crinkles up her nose while drawing her eyes together, offering a mildly amused smile to the mystery. “You couldn’t find the library? That’s funny.”

“Yes. Because it wasn’t there.

“Oh wow. Hmm. That’s weird,” she says.

“Tell me about it,” he replies. After a short pause, he changes tack by asking, “has anyone talked to fuckin Kidwell lately? I tried calling him but of course he never answers. When’s the last time you saw him, or talked to him?”

As Jeremy expected, they are entering the front door of the school. During this transition, Emily taps an index finger on her top lip and says, “a few days, I think? Three, maybe four?”

“Huh. Well you must be one of his pets. Tell him to give me a call if you talk to him, though. I mean I don’t really care so long as the paychecks keep coming, but yeah…I’ve definitely got some questions for this dude.”

They arrive at the office and turn into it, intent upon continuing straight ahead, toward those filing cabinets. Apparently, only Emily and Liam have thus far witnessed this sight. She had been in the hallway working on her mural and heard him shout, “what the bloody hell!” At this she immediately jogged down the hall, brush in hand, and saw that Blodgett’s euphemism was also literally apt.

“Oh…my…god…,” Kay whispers.

The first thing they notice are a bunch of bloody footprints. Just in case anyone missed them, though, Liam stops to point these out. That they progressively grow fainter, drying and soaking into the office carpet, fading entirely just shy of the door. Which begs the next question, of where these footprints began. In which case a steadily bolder trail leads back to the point of origin, past the secretary’s counter, to that row of filing cabinets along the far wall. Specifically, to the last column on the left. Here, the top drawer is open, and is covered with numerous bloody handprints.

“Oh no. Huh uh. I can’t deal with this right now!” Rebecca announces, throwing her hands in the air before she runs out of the room and down the hall. They hear the front door open and slam shut behind her.

Whoever this was had obviously cut the hell out of his or her hands pawing through this particular drawer. Considering they’ve been here forever and are constructed of an older, sturdier metal, this isn’t all that outlandish a scenario. Yet what immediately occurs to Jeremy is something the others have thought of as well. Or at least, in part.

“But wait a second – how did she cut her feet?”

Liam nods and states, “that’s the question, innit?”

She?!” Emily challenges, whipping her head in his direction.

“Well yeah, I mean look at these prints. They’re kind of small. I don’t even think Rafael’s would be this small.”

“Maybe they knocked a small piece of metal loose, and stepped on that…,” Kay mutters, scanning the carpet for any such object.

“It’s possible,” Blodgett agrees. He has one hand balled into a fist and is resting his scruffy, grey goateed chin upon it.

“Anyone look inside the cabinet?” Jeremy wonders.

“Well yeah, I mean we did, but…,” Emily says, drifting over for another peek now. “Whoever this was dripped blood all over the place. It’s really disgusting.”

She does indeed look a little green around the gills, so he drifts over for a glance himself. After doing so he agrees that it looks a little problematic, to even think about cleaning up this mess without making a bigger one. So they leave the scene intact, as is, without so much as sticking a hand in there. All four of them are on the same page, though, that someone on site has to know what happened here. After snapping a bunch of pictures, they shut off the lights, and split up to start asking around.

It’s a couple of hours later before they manage to reconvene and compare notes over at the diner, in time to grab a somewhat late lunch. As the first to arrive there, Jeremy’s more than a little surprised to bump into Clay here. He’s seated at the long table, slumped low, and is pouring bourbon into his coffee from a pint bottle. Tucks the bottle back into his camouflage jacket, looking a little haggard and distraught both.

“Whoa. Hey. What happened?” Jeremy asks, chuckling as he does.

Clay is not the least bit amused, however. He slowly raises his head to look up at Jeremy, then shakes it just as slowly from side to side. “Don’t ask. I think I must be losing it, dude.”

“Really?” Jeremy says, dropping into the bench seat opposite him. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”

“Well yeah, that was the plan, man. That was the plan. Only problem is…,” Clay trails off. Now he does allow himself a laugh, albeit a dark, rueful one, shaking his head to match.

“What?”

Clay regards him, as if sizing up whether Jeremy is likely to believe him, how much to reveal. “I couldn’t seem to find my way the fuck back to town! I’m lucky as shit you guys had gas cans for the generators, n’ I topped off before I left. It took me two hours just to get back here. I dunno, maybe I’m just fried after the shit with Denise…”

“Mmm, not so fast. I might know a little bit about this topic myself.”

Jeremy launches into his tale about the missing library this morning, with much more detail than he’d been able to give Emily. Lydia, seated maybe ten feet down from Jeremy, has apparently been listening the entire time without looking up from her laptop. Swirling her finger around on the mousepad, face lit up in light blue, she finally comments on what she’s heard.

“That’s not even the latest outrage,” she says.

“Oh yeah?”

“What’s that?” Jeremy asks, wondering if she’s about to mention the bloody prints. Emily and Kay had canvassed this main house, asking questions, and are still upstairs somewhere. He had gone from cabin to cabin while Liam worked the remaining grounds and buildings. He’s already aware that nobody admitting knowing anything about that incident.

“The internet’s down,” Lydia replies, waving a hand at her screen. “Has been for over an hour now.”

Denise finally relented a little as she made camp her second night. Up until then, she had let the text messages and voice mails accumulate, leaving her phone completely off, even, for the most part. Sticking to this one long, straight highway, there really didn’t seem to be any reason for even consulting the GPS on her map app.

Finally, after stopping to build a fire maybe an hour before dark, and allowing herself exactly one beef jerky and one energy bar, washed down by a half bottle of water, she allowed herself an introspective moment to stare at the fire and catch her breath. Only then group texting pretty much everyone back at Otherwise with the simple message, don’t freak, I’m okay. See you all soon. Before extracting the thermal blanket and, with her backpack as a pillow, passing out in short order.

Sleeping alone in the woods like this was one of those things she expected would prove horrifying, yet it really hasn’t bothered her. True, it helps that she is always camping within sight of the road, to avoid getting lost and/or the fatal second guessing that often comes with it. It helps, for some reason, that it’s cold enough now to have pretty much killed off all bug activity. Also, while the lack of people by daylight has been extremely annoying and frustrating, she finds it a comforting thought at night. Most of all, though, the trick is to just keep moving until you’re so exhausted you can’t keep your eyes open much longer.

She’s fine with the solitude, even when limiting her music listening to only the bleakest moments of absolute boredom. She downloaded a couple of TV shows and movies to her phone before leaving, too, just in case the nights became unbearable, but so far this hasn’t posed a problem. Out of everyone, Clay has been, perhaps understandably, the most angry, going as far as to call her a crazy fucking bitch in one angry text – because she hadn’t answered anything up to that point – before calming down and backing off of these sentiments a little. And he’s a great dude and everything, but the fact that she hasn’t really missed him all that much is probably telling.

Emily’s been the most insistent as far as continual attempts to reach Denise, her response the most nuanced. It wavers between concern and fury, often within the same message. Which in turn, and again this would only make sense considering they are sisters, had given Denise the widest range of complex emotions. That she hasn’t heard a peep from her parents can only mean Emily hasn’t mentioned it to them, and she’s grateful for that. Hopefully she can reach some sort of destination before the folks find out and escalate this situation into a full on, county wide panic, with the authorities involved and everything else. On one hand, the elder Garvericks are pretty chill, but on the other, they are just organized and connected enough that they could pull off that sort of manhunt at the snap of their fingers.

But when Emily starts sermonizing, she feels like calling back and telling her sister to back the fuck off, just like always. As if the interactions between them had never changed a bit. However, Denise then considers that maybe Emily is doing this precisely to get that reaction, and therefore she’s not playing into it. Also, a little terror might do that woman some good. As Denise mentioned to Jeremy, Emily had been acting weird for weeks, and so maybe this was just the necessary wake up call to snap her out of that daze.

Most of all, though, which is the only reason that ultimately matters, Denise escaped because she felt that she had to. The situation at Otherwise was sinking daily and would only get much worse. At least here on the outside, she can hopefully get to the bottom of whatever’s happening there, and save not just her life, but all their lives. Actually, that everyone continues to remain there, while partially a side effect of fear, it mostly indicates what kind of spell most of them are under. They’ve had one disappearance, one death, and another two undetermined cases somewhere in between, but nobody seems all that fired up about any of this. And the kitchen staff was coming up missing long before they arrived. Kidwell could wave these away as “job walkoffs,” but who really knew at this point?

Denise feels like she’s holding up just fine until about midway through day four. Based upon everything she’s read, experienced, as well as a healthy dose of common sense, it seems logical enough that a healthy girl of her age, in totally normal and mild weather conditions, should be able to walk a good twenty miles a day without too much strain, on a mostly straight and none too hilly road. It’s occasionally gravel and dirt in spots, but even this shouldn’t alter her progress a whole hell of a lot. Yet she can’t quite comprehend how it’s mid-afternoon of her third day before she even reaches that state route she’d researched, the first significant crossroad.

By her count, only six vehicles have passed her in all this time, too. Even for the middle of bumfuck nowhere, that seems like an insanely low total. And though waving her arms like crazy, even jumping up and down and shouting, none of the drivers pay her any mind, or even slow down in the slightest. They just keep right on cruising as if not even seeing her. This in turn makes Denise wonder if word is out on the streets, so to speak, about these crazy artist types at Otherwise, and the locals know to avoid them. Or maybe the locals are just major dickheads.

At this state route, she hooks a right, as planned, which should lead her more or less in an easterly direction. She’s relieved to see some different landscapes, apart from that relentless forest, although this brings with it concerns about where she’s going to sleep instead. Near this intersection, there is one abandoned gas station, apparently out of commission for decades now, with an Esso sign, an island with two of those old fashioned pumps that have the scrolling digits, and a small white building with a single garage. If nothing else, she’s confident she could retreat here after dark and break into the place, if there wasn’t a readymade opening into it already, and nobody would bat an eyelash.

She encounters the odd farmhouse here and there, or maybe a brick ranch style home, which are the predominant housing styles out here in the wilderness. Definitely not a whole lot, or for that matter any, new construction to speak of. Yet even so, unless absolutely desperate, she just can’t see approaching one of these families at random and begging them for a ride into town. It’s some weird mix of pride and not wanting to impose on people, the empathy of knowing how crazy a person like her would seem if the roles were reversed. So she keeps marching.

This stretch of road is not only also mostly straight, as far as she can tell, but it’s also one long, gradual uphill, at least all the way up until nightfall. Her the terrain levels off at a higher altitude than anything else experienced during this epic hiking adventure. And the resumption of some heavily wooded areas to the south offer her a perfect camping spot when she finally becomes tired enough to collapse.

But again, she’s doing fine until the middle of that fourth day. It’s here where the wheels truly come off. She hasn’t seen anything even remotely creepy or paranormal up until this point, unless you count the asshole drivers staring into space as they refuse to even look her way. No, nothing out of the ordinary really happens at all, until the moment she rounds this one corner, and spots a trailer sitting high upon this hill, surrounded by overgrown fields. A lazy gravel drive leading down to this road.

She’s already thinking something about this trailer looks crazily familiar, but doesn’t dwell upon the thought too much, as she just keeps walking. Then, as she is nearly past the drive, Denise just happens to glance over and spot the name on the mailbox. No. No fucking way. This doesn’t make any sense. She stands and stares up the drive at the trailer, trying to spot something different, thinking this has to be some majorly weird coincidence. Maybe Owen has a brother or something with the same tastes as he, which wouldn’t be all that farfetched, in such a tight knit rural locale.

Eventually, it will occur to Denise that there’s one way to prove this for certain, apart from approaching the trailer itself. She continues walking for about another mile, as the mild panic blossoms into full blown terror, pulse threating to blast a hole through the side of her neck. First she spots that dirt lane leading into the woods on her left, then the wooden sign swaying above it. Continuing ahead as far as she must, just to prove this point beyond all doubt, Denise only stops when she’s directly before the sign. STOKELY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS. It’s only now that she starts clawing at the side of her head, and issues a full bodied scream.

Tony sits in his mostly darkened, quote unquote exhibition room, staring around the space. He still can’t quite get over what good fortune it was that he was allowed to have this corner, without any protests from anyone. From the moment he laid eyes upon it, he fell in love with the room, and can’t really say why. What can you say? People vibe with other people, and places and things, and much of it is a combination of elements you couldn’t possibly pick apart. And artists are maybe most susceptible to this phenomenon. Something attracts your interest, and you run with it, to see where it might lead.

He has solved the logistics of projecting forest scenes onto all six planes in here, ceiling and floor included. Getting them to move in sync is a trickier proposition, but he hopes to have that figured out within a few tours from now – if there are to be any more tours, that is. Following a turnout of seven last week, nobody knows what to expect of this coming Saturday. Still, regardless of this particular enterprise, it’s clearly an idea he can run with in many different guises down the road, wherever he ends up. Hopefully somewhere a little more noteworthy than this godforsaken outpost, although that’s looking increasingly less likely.

Until just kind of zoning out into this current, unintentional break, he had been working on the project for hours straight, and still has some images scrolling across a couple different walls, including the one at his back. For the first few months, he had left this room unadorned, with nothing in it apart from his projectors and laptop. Would sit on the floor with his back against the wall while working. And he continues to do so now, even after moving a couple pieces of furniture into here, at least on non-tour days, or when he needs a clear space for experimenting.

The first was a plastic chair he felt compelled to pick up and bring over, one day when he happened to be over in the school. It’s one of those plain, curved plastic numbers, most likely the from 60s or 70s, with four metal legs slanting slightly outward, down to these wobbly, suction cup looking legs. A few of them were hanging out in the teacher’s lounge, just kind of randomly inspecting the room, after Blodgett had noted that nobody ever seemed to like spending much time in there, for whatever reason. Something about the retro kitsch of this white plastic object spoke to him, one of many surrounding the handful of round tables in that lounge, and he’d grabbed it.

He occasionally sits in this chair, with his laptop, while working, even though it isn’t the most comfortable seat in the world. It’s all just a matter of feel. However no matter the circumstance, he’s never had any interest in doing anything productive from this room’s other furniture piece, the shiny bronze colored easy chair, with its somewhat raised swirl pattern of a similar yet brighter shade.

This chair he hauled up from the library one night, for the second occasion of his sleeping in this room. He has since crashed in here, for weeks upon weeks now, without exception. During tour days he will move these chairs around the corner into either the weird space across the hall, which Zoe has been using to collect and arrange every kind of bottle she comes across, either in this house or on the grounds, or else in the employee bar. The bar most of them frequent most nights, all the more so after Rebecca painted it that ghost-chasing blue and emblazoned with gold owl prints all over the place. Further outfitted with a record player spinning all manner of weird vinyl albums found downstairs, of course, and conveniently located, for Tony, just around the corner from this chair he collapses into every night.

Since Denise left, Kay has been hinting around about how he should move into that cabin with her. Yet, while they have had sex on exactly two occasions now, both times in that cabin, he has attempted to remain as noncommittal and distant as he can without being rude. The truth is, this retreat spooks him to the bone, and with each passing day seems to get worse. He regretted telling her he would stick around almost as soon as those words left his lips. But every time it seemed he had worked up the courage to definitely just sneak out of here the next morning, some other completely baffling occurrence would transpire, and freeze him into an indecisive terror.

He’s absently pondering these things, from the plastic chair, as he once again takes stock of the finer details in this room. If he were more serious about these projections – if they were located anywhere, really, other than Nowhere, North Carolina – he would have touched up these walls a long time ago. For instance the front corner of the west wall, the one it shares with that employee bar, which is a little raggedy all along that edge. Though painted white, the wall is peeling over there, to the extent you can glimpse a layer of pink paint underneath, and then some kind of pea green wallpaper with a vaguely floral looking print, a cluster of twigs with maroon berries or something.

Tony gets up now to walk over to that corner, and inspect a little more closely. Running his finger along this peeling edge, he observes that there’s a fourth layer visible, underneath the wallpaper, which would have been a bright, primary yellow. Also, while there are tiny holes all over the place, not just here but throughout the room, there’s a relatively large chunk missing from the bottom corner of this wall, which either rotted or was smashed away. He has squatted and even laid down on his belly before to look in this hole, but knows there’s nothing there. Just the backside of the employee bar’s wall, as expected, the gap of maybe a couple inches separating them. Glancing down tonight, though, he observes there are drops of white paint here and there, all over this hardwood floor, really, indicating a sloppy paint job.

“Look! Look!” he hears a frantic sounding Kathy shout, from the direction of the workshop, “she’s here again! Come quick everybody!”

Tony takes off running in that direction, at least as fast as his bulky, non-athletic build will allow. By this time, a number of other feet pairs are heard running, soles smacking the hardwood floor, as well as others down below, or coming up the stairs. Plus, well, his eyes are instinctively drawn to the movement in Marcus’s room, as the latter attempts extracting himself from the latest performance art piece. Having taken apart and then reassembled one of those jewelry store type cases, which was basically covered with junk and unused on the backside of Grace’s front desk downstairs, he’s been building up his stamina by lying inside the thing himself, for hours at a stretch. With an eye toward doing so all day during the next tour – something about being on display and imprisoned both in today’s society, that’s the basic concept. Tony has to admit it’s a little more straightforward and easy to follow than some of Marcus’s others.

So as he attempts climbing out of this clear glass case from the inside, Tony streaks past, eventually joining Kathy and the others out on the roof. She’s pointing out at the pond in the back of the property, though there’s really no reason to. It’s the middle of an only mildly overcast day, and they can all plainly see. A woman who certainly does look like the spitting image of Jen, in a white chef’s jacket and crazily patterned, baggy chef’s pants, striding in their direction at the edge of said pond. She has her head down, so it’s impossible to say for sure, and is furthermore wearing one of those plain black, almost brick shaped kitchen type hats, brown hair braided on one side and spilling over her shoulder. If this is an apparition, then its appearance is somehow capable of changing, for these details differ slightly from Kathy’s initial experience.

They attempt shouting at the girl, but she never looks up, never breaks her stride. It’s not only him and Kathy but Rafael, who was in the workshop as well at the time, and Rebecca and Lydia, enjoying a mid-afternoon eye opener together in the employee lounge, followed by Kay, Grace, and then Marcus arriving last upon the scene. Eight witnesses is a shitload, all agreeing upon what they are seeing, although it’s possibly the quietest among them, Lydia, who has the foresight to suggest at least some of them run down and out the back door to attempt intercepting this figure.

“It might not even be who we think it is. Or maybe it is, and she’s just...lost,” Lydia says, also the first among them to think of whipping out her phone, to snap pictures of whatever this is.

As only Lydia and Kay remain behind, glued to the rooftop, and the others move with what feels like impressive swiftness, they are expecting to return with tangible news. Tony does pause long enough to run into his exhibit space and grab his high dollar digital camera, meaning the others are already a good floor, floor and a half ahead of him in running down the stairs. Yet it’s all for nothing, anyway, as they’ve seemingly already lost the girl before Tony even arrives. The half dozen of them make laps around the pond, scratching their heads, and peer into the nearby woods, but Jen has evaporated without a trace. To complicate matters, when they retreat and shout up to the rooftop duo, Lydia and Kay explain that Jen rounded this nearest corner of the pond, that which is obscured by the barn, before anyone of them arrived on the scene. So even they can’t really say what became of her.

“I knew it!” Kathy says, and her formerly almost too bright, too wide cornflower blue eyes, though dimmed for days following the tragedy with Tom, they are shining again for the first time in forever. She’s positively beaming as she tells them, a comment aimed at no one in particular, “I knew I wasn’t crazy! Aw man...this is great, I tell ya, to get some good news for a change. I feel validated.”

Most of the others are swept up in this positivity, too. But if so, this sensation is not a long lived one. And Kathy herself is hardest hit, once the euphoria of this sighting wears off, as she stares down night after night alone in the big old cabin. Five nights of this, in fact, is all the longer she lasts, before working up the nerve to ask Kay is she can move in down there.

Kay wasn’t expecting this, and is so taken aback by the request that she instantly blurts out yes. Alternating cycles of emotion will follow, before she eventually concludes that a) she is also lonely and scared, since Denise left, b) the presence of Tony in her life, wonderful as it is, doesn’t alleviate this, especially not late at night, especially not as c) it seems increasingly obvious that he doesn’t plan on moving in with her himself. Beyond all these concerns, though, there’s the simple decent, human fact that she knows Kathy is distraught beyond words, and could really use the company.

The lackadaisical attitudes of law enforcement in this region, these certainly aren’t helping matters any, either. Aside from one phone call placed to the Rowlette County Sheriff, during which time it seemed the dispatch at least sort of knew what she was talking about – not that he could tell her anything useful – the next four days were nothing but busy signals, every time she tried dialing the number, followed by this Friday morning, when their increasingly erratic service here at Otherwise meant that no outgoing calls were working, period. Well, at least not for most of them. It would later emerge, in a twist that was almost too extremely ironic to even count as irony, that Lenny’s cheap, disposable Tracfone seemed to work the best out of anyone’s in times like these, if the internet was down, although Kathy had long since given up for the night and didn’t even bother accepting his request, when he casually mentioned this to her over dinner.

By then, she had already hit Kay up with the roommate proposal, and moved a few modest items down to that cabin. Otherwise, Kathy couldn’t even bear to look at the cabin she once shared with her lifelong partner, the other half of her being. And she certainly had no intention of ever setting foot inside it ever again.

These newer cabins that Kidwell and his crew had constructed, they only had wood burning stoves for heat, instead of fireplaces. Kathy didn’t quite expect this, but the stove seemed to put out far more heat, especially when coupled with a smaller, cozier living space. It only took not even the entirety of that first night, standing near the stove, with her back to the warmth of the fire, hands in turns clasped behind the back, even nearer to it, conversing for a number of hours with Kay, for Kathy to recognize she’d made the correct decision in moving down here, that she was feeling better already.

“This cabin has a terrific aura,” Kathy observes, from her stoveside post, “that’s one thing about the newer ones, I guess. They might be kind of shoddily built, but they also haven’t built up any psychic residue yet. I feel like I can breathe again.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Kay replies. She’s stretched out atop her bed, turned sideways, as she half converses, half absently scrolls through some news feed on her phone. The internet has been playing nice again tonight, at least so far. “Although I personally have been kind of feeling like hell.”

Kathy thinks of how to diplomatically phrase this before speaking. “You know, since you mentioned it...I wasn’t gonna say anything, but you do look a little rough around the edges. Should you maybe go see a doctor?”

Kay shakes his head with skull rattling vehemence, then wonders if maybe she didn’t overplay her hand a little. Truth is, she’s terrified of leaving this compound, now, and can’t imagine ever doing so again, at least not until...whatever their predicament is, until that’s solved. The mysteries they unwittingly stepped into here. But also, yes, she’s scared to discover what a doctor would tell her about her health condition. She has since lost a third tooth. Her lower jaw appears to be wiggling a little bit, and is constantly sore. Actually, her entire face seems to be sagging a bit, in particular the top half, with these large, dark bags pooling under both eyes.

“Nah, I’m sure it’ll pass. I think I’m just run down.”

Kathy looks a little dubious, but nods and says no more on the topic, at least not for now. She doesn’t want to overstep boundaries with her new roommate, couldn’t bear the thought of being forced back to her old cabin, or moving into one of the smaller, recently built ones alone.

She has mentioned to others being unable to even enter her former residence, to clean out their things, but has said anyone who wants to is welcome to the cabin. She would even pay them to get the stuff out of there. A couple of the guys sort of reluctantly said they would get whatever she needs out of there, but nobody has shown any interest in reclaiming the space. And the same apparently applies to Ben and Lois’s old room up at the main house. Jeremy hasn’t even touched their things.

Ever since he’s been stuck here – or whatever the fuck is going on – Clay has taken to bunkering down for the night in one of the new cabins, along the front row. Nobody occupies either of the cabins flanking his, although Zoe lives alone a few doors down, and Lydia next to her. Otherwise Kidwell might not have even bothered. Marcus is in the first around the corner, with its back to the south woods, and then of course Rafael, some of the others, so on up the line from there. Now that he thinks about it, he is the closest one to the gift shop, period, to the front of the property, here in the third cabin down.

As far as the particulars of his stay are concerned, he made up some excuse about the flu for work, but knows this won’t last forever, probably not much into the new week. His clothing has been limited to whatever just happened to be tossed behind the seat of his pickup, or underneath it. In this respect he’s extremely lucky to have two pairs of underwear and three in the socks department, though it has meant doing laundry almost constantly. Everyone has been avoiding the topic of how and why they are stuck here, though this fact is common knowledge by now. Almost nobody wants to address it, though he’s aware that a few have tried calling out.

Rebecca was telling him she called her parents, without getting into details, only asking them to visit, but they later called back to complain of driving around for “six hours” and being unable to find the place. Marcus mentioned dialing 911 at one point, and them saying they’d be right out, but then never arriving. Kidwell of course remains completely useless and reachable to all of them, while Blodgett seems to be stuck in his own oblivious daydreams, unconcerned about much of anything. But in all these efforts, almost no one has come out and said why they are attempting these things in the first place. It’s as though they’re scared shitless at the thought of mentioning it.

Well, he and Lenny have resolved to figure some things out this rainy Saturday afternoon. As among the only non-artists here, they don’t have much else to do, as far as being involved with the visitor tour. Or make that theoretical visitor tour, considering that nobody has shown up today. No, that’s not quite true. They did have one unfamiliar face show up this morning, although he didn’t seem to be here for the tour. When Clay went over for breakfast this morning, some of the others pointed out to him the young kid, apparently some local who’d just wandered over, sitting at the table with a plate of food.

Denise isn’t sure what else to do. She’s not thrilled about enlisting the Hazelwoods for help, but can’t think of any other viable options. The thought of spending three days charting the same territory out to the state route again fills her with a bleak despair, and the notion of returning to Otherwise is even worse. So she finds herself backtracking to and trudging up their gravel drive, knocking on their door with the prayer that they remember who she is.

“Of course, of course!” Maggie cheers, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel as always, stepping aside with an arm out to indicate Denise should enter. Which she does, of course, figuring that a few pleasantries are really only good manners before she asks them for this favor. Owen, seated in his favorite chair, is eating a bowl of chili or soup as some old cowboy movie flickers on the TV set.

“How’s things down at the property?” he asks Denise, as she settles into that rocker.

“Eh, not so good. Actually, that’s kinda why I’m here.”

“Oh yeah? How’s that?”

“Well, um, I was kinda hoping...,” Denise claps her hands together, buying a few seconds to assemble her phrasing, “I mean, what’s the closest town to here? Like, where do you do your shopping?”

“Our shopping?” Maggie pipes up from the kitchen doorway, rubbing her hands together as if eaten up by nerves. In fact, Denise recognizes know that what she thought was Maggie drying those hands off all the time was probably a mostly nervous tic, too.

“Yeah, you know, like for groceries? Where do you usually go?”

Owen glances up at Maggie, either to indicate her expects she will answer this question, or possibly even unsure of and hanging on her response himself. Finally, she says, “well, ah, sometimes Rowlette, sometimes even all the way up to Winston. Usually not down to Fairlawn too often, but...”

“Oh, so there is a Fairlawn?” Denise questions.

“Yeah, mm hmm,” Maggie says.

“Yep it ain’t nothin but a...mebbe ten, fifteen minute drive thataway,” Owen replies, flipping and index finger to the left, vaguely southwesterly.

“Okay, now, what about Stokely?”

“Stokely?” Maggie replies.

“Yes.”

Maggie stares ahead of her, at the dingy carpet of the living room floor, as if trying to think back. “No, there ain’t nothin there. We really don’t have a reason to visit Stokely.”

In due time, Denise finally works up the courage to ask them if they can drive her into Rowlette, then. Or any town, really. And is relieved by the swift readiness with which they respond, as if not only willing, but borderline jumping at the opportunity to lend her a hand. They don’t even ask what this is all about, but instantly creak their way into action getting ready to leave the house. As such, Denise has plenty of time to sit back and observe the smirk inducing – though she mostly attempts to suppress it – specter of old people making preparations for a trip into town. The most charming of which is probably Owen putting on this hunter’s hat with flaps, and then his flannel overcoat.

After Maggie locks up behind them, they traipse down the steps and short stretch of lawn to this charmingly old, boxy, amber colored sedan. Owen climbs behind the wheel and Denise slides into the backseat, the middle of it so she can also see both of them equally up front. Still, despite the obvious age of this vehicle, it’s immaculate, and Denise is soon squashing another of those little smirks to see the odometer is barely over 46,000. They’ve obviously just been driving into town and back for the past thirty years in this same vehicle, with maybe the occasional splurge of a trip to Winston Salem.

As Owen creeps down the driveway and then out to the road, Denise can immediately tell he’s one of those cautious yet competent older drivers, and thankfully not of the blind and swerving variety. Feeling better than she has for hours, or maybe even since leaving Otherwise. Leaning back in the seat now, backpack off and resting beside her, she catches a glimpse of some sun peeking over a rare gap in the woods and smiles with genuine warmth.

The adorable couple up front murmur little comments to one another, but don’t really ask her much. Perhaps they can sense her exhaustion, not to mention filth, which she only became aware of, somehow, upon entering the polite civilization – however slight – of their trailer, and human company. She knows this road is a long, straight one, though, and that even while adhering to the posted 45 MPH, they’re probably looking at a freaking hour, somehow, before reaching so much as the next major intersection.

Unless maybe she had missed something during her first pass through, walking? It’s unlikely, but possible. Maybe she had zoned out daydreaming at precisely the worst interval. With this thought in mind, she extracts her phone now and turns it on, thinking that to consult the GPS map now is a justifiable use of battery power. If thinking, she would have recharged everything back at their trailer, but the thought didn’t occur to her. Even if it had, really, she might have shut the thought down. It seemed much more important to get moving. Besides, didn’t people this age go to bed shortly after dark? At this time of year that would only be a few hours away.

“He looks kinda familiar,” Lydia whispers, as they stand in the library doorway, watching the young boy eat. “Has he been here for a tour or something?”

“Yeah, I think that must be it,” Kay says with a nod. “We’re pretty sure he’s a local who just sort of wandered over here. I mean, obviously.”

The boy looks to be about ten or eleven, but they’re not sure, because they haven’t gotten him to say much. They get the feeling he’s quiet to begin with, and all the more so in this unfamiliar setting. He has a chalky complexion and slightly shaggy, dark brown hair, is otherwise unremarkable in appearance – the only exception being his somewhat unusual attire.

“Why he is dressed like a cricket player?” Rebecca asks, snickering. “That’s what I’m thinking of, right? Isn’t that what it’s called?”

Lydia giggles at this as well, though Kay tells them, “you guys are terrible. Things are a little different out here in the country, that’s all.”

“Okay but what’s the general consensus? We think he basically just wandered over here, or maybe hit his head and wandered over here, since he doesn’t seem to know anything whatsoever?”

Kay nods again and replies, “yeah, pretty much. I mean he told us his name is Zeke and that’s about the extent of it. A few of us were asking him where he lived and how he got here, but he just shook his head. But hey, at least he’s eating...”

“Hopefully he might...tell us something. About our unique little predicament here. Whenever he snaps out of it, that is,” Lydia says. Then adds, “I don’t know, I think I’ll go through my footage and see if I happened to capture him. I’ll ask Tony to do the same.”

The reactions among others who have spotted him run the full gamut. Emily and Jeremy both agree that he looks familiar, but are secretly certain they know a little bit about the reason why – even as they don’t mention as much to one another, either, and if they did, their explanations would differ. Others feel his old-fashioned attire is some sort of clue, from the polished shoes to the baggy pants, slightly drawn upward, to the long-sleeved white shirt that would seem out of place for someone traipsing through the woods. Some, like Kay, dismiss this as but one permutation of the way southerners dress, particularly country southerners. After setting her wisecracks aside, even Rebecca, the resident fashion expert, agrees that this is true. Still others, ranging from Blodgett to Marcus to Tony, have shrugged and said they’ve never seen the dude before.

In Emily’s case, she feels the answer is plainly obvious, and that everyone else here will come to the same realization, sooner or later. This is the boy she had visions about, and began adding to her mural. In her mind she knows this is true, and has filled in just enough to confirm it. The only thing she’s worried about is that seeing too much of the kid will distort things to where she can’t conclusively prove the two are separate. She doesn’t want to begin filling in the remaining details based on what she’s seeing of the kid in person, only those floating around her head. At which point she can show everyone, see, this person did exist, and I knew it along, and know in heart this is true without even a speck of doubt.

Not that she has much beyond a shred, even now. This morning she basically took one quick glance at him in the café, as Kay and Rebecca jibber-jabbered endlessly about how exciting and weird this was, and she excused herself to jog over here, begin painting the rest. So this is all settled, as far as she’s concerned. The only real question that remains is who he is, really, and what he’s doing here. She has a theory about this, too, of course, but will keep it to herself as well.

Over in the kitchen, Jeremy is scrolling through the pictures on his phone, just a handful of them, back and forth repeatedly. It’s pretty obvious now that the tour is a non-event today, so even Grace has wandered off to take care of other tasks around this main house, and in the gift shop. He puts together the occasional lunch for any residents wandering over, and that’s about the extent of it. This affords him plenty of time to examine these pictures of the bloody filing cabinet, and conclude that whatever this Zeke is doing here, it’s connected to this episode. These incidents happened on the heels of one another and are both too bizarre not to be related in some fashion.

And on the subject of heels, this solves the mystery of those footprints, maybe, as to why they were so small, even though none of the females questioned would admit being the owners. Nobody ever considered they might belong to a child, primarily because no children are living here. He would like to think of a way to get Zeke over there for a comparison, somehow. Because the footprints dried in the carpet, as all of them agreed they should leave the scene and preserve the evidence just in case. Which now appears to have been a brilliant decision.

The only question is, what is this Zeke’s relation to that material in the filing cabinet? Jeremy has a theory about this too, naturally. He suspects that it doesn’t pertain to this kid at all, but rather that Kidwell realized there was something damning in one of those files, and sent him over here to retrieve it. Whatever paranormal weirdness is or isn’t going on here, of which Jeremy still believes most if not all must have a perfectly rational explanation, there’s no question that Kidwell has realized he royally stepped into it, in reopening this place, and is avoiding it at all costs now. Now, it must be said, whatever he might be doing here now, on a return visit, days later, and why he stuck around to eat a meal, remains a bit difficult to reconcile. Though it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility that he was sent here this time to listen and observe, report to Kidwell with his findings. It’s also possible this kid is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, that Kidwell maybe didn’t choose his target well.

Jeremy sets his phone on the counter, as Tony and Rafael are now approaching in tandem with broad grins on their faces. He’s aware of how paranoid and ridiculous this line of thought would sound, if vocalizing it, and will have to think of a way to pitch it so that others don’t laugh. He thinks he will start with Clay and Lenny, when they return from their own experiment. With Denise out of the picture, they are his most trusted comrades on a topic like this.

The drive thus far has been an exceedingly pleasant one. With pleasant scenery and the late afternoon sun peeking out, this car is a warm and cozy bubble gliding smoothly along this country road. It even takes the gravelly spots without much of a difference, which indicates a well-built machine. Occasionally she makes small talk with the Hazelwoods, though for the most part they’ve left her alone with her thoughts, to either flip passively through her phone or smile and daydream out one of the windows.

She hasn’t even thought about Otherwise, really. A few of the people closest to her, and what she plans on doing when making it back to there, but that’s about it. Yet as the time nears six o’clock, by her estimation they should be approaching the state route intersection any minute now, and she supposes she should probably formulate a strategy for what to do upon reaching whatever town they are headed toward. To just disappear on them in the middle of, say, some random grocery store, she could totally see these sweet old people having a heart attack and calling the cops and everything else. Because presumably, they would want to pick up supplies, too, if bothering to travel this far.

So she needs some kind of story, a place for them to drop her off and then leave. Whatever the case, the pressure is off, in a sense, because she has successfully escaped Otherwise. You have escaped Otherwise. She allows herself to savor this thought, smirking a little bit, even, at her cleverness. It’s the first time such a thought has entered her head all day, and she basks in this one for just a moment.

But then it’s down to business. Okay, so whatever town they arrive in, she should make up some b.s. instructions, directions to so-and-so’s supposed house, a friend or relative. Then just have them deposit her wherever that happens to be. She can say, “that’s it!” to the first well-lit house on the street and wave them bye-bye. They might insist of remaining in their car with the engine running until she makes it inside, but if so, she’ll just have to charm her way inside somehow, when the folks come to answer the knocking at their door. Or not? She could just take off running, of course. Ideally, this town would have some crappy little motel somewhere, because she does have her bank card and a little bit of money on her, but if not that’s no big deal. She’ll improvise these particulars on the fly.

“So what brings you kids up here?” Maggie asks, head half turned so that Denise can see her profile. She has on the mild smile of someone just making conversation. And even though Denise is nearly certain they’ve explained all this before, there’s no reason to be hard on this dotty old woman. So she plays along.

“Well, ya know, like I think we might have mentioned that one day, Harry Kidwell just reopened that artist’s retreat, down the field from you.”

“That’s nice, that’s nice,” Maggie tells her, nodding at this postcard perfect image Denise has just described. And Denise supposes it would sound as such, if you hadn’t lived through it.

“You haven’t had any...problems down there, have ya?” Owen croaks, meeting her gaze in the rearview mirror. Okay, so the old man at least, he gets it and knows the general backstory. This was her impression from the outset. Even though it’s kind of peculiar in that they have covered some of this ground before.

“Eh, a lot of weird stuff was happening, but nothing you could put your finger on. At least not at first. But then Jeremy’s parents, they seemed to have suffered some sort of chemical accident, and right after that we found Tom Drucker, he was an artist there, we found or at least we think we found his...”

Denise breaks off mid-sentence, as her eyes land upon this house to her left. They’ve just passed a field that is bookended one both sides by heavy forest, although near the beginning of the patch they are approaching, an otherwise charming, single level brick home is cut in, a short distance back from the road. She’s already thinking this looks like a familiar sight, but then she catches sight of this guy with a linebacker’s build, in white tee shirt and jeans, mirrored sunglasses and a crew cut, washing off his truck in the driveway. It’s a singular enough image that she’s convinced she already saw this one, particularly as the truck is one of those shiny, oversized, modern models, in a banana yellow color you don’t see every day. Now she has to wonder, was this déjà vu, or another one of her prophetic dreams? Or is this guy out washing his truck all the time, or what?

“Well, now, we might-a heard somethin about that...,” Owen confirms, though, having heard enough to catch her drift.

Maggie has been looking ahead, but now half turns toward Denise again, and asks, “I’d say just about everywhere has a little touch of somethin, wouldn’t you?”

A sinking dread begins to fill Denise, as though she’s just swallowed her heart. She reaches into the hoodie’s front pouch and extracts her cell phone once more. Opening up the GPS app, it inexplicably only shows them about halfway between the Hazelwoods’ trailer, and the intersection of that state route. Which has to be a glitch, as it makes no sense. It makes no sense from a time and mileage standpoint, and yet it also makes no sense in that they are further back somehow, from the last occasion where she looked. Except she’ll but convinced that this is no mechanical glitch.

“Oh...my...god...,” she whispers, unable to peel her eyes from this map, as she refreshes it repeatedly with the same results, “no. No no no. How can this be?”

And yet these two in the front seat don’t respond in the slightest. Is it possible they didn’t hear her? Though unlikely, considering that the radio isn’t even on, and they don’t seem particularly hard of hearing, Denise repeats most of what she’s just said. But again, nothing.

“Weird incidents?” Owen says, instead, then includes almost as an afterthought, “huh. Well what did this fella look like?”

“Was this a he or a she?” Maggie says, as though she is talking to Owen, not responding to Denise at all.

Denise sits with her arms crossed, back against the warm leather seat, as she coolly regards both of them. Their peculiar behavior is bothering her on a couple different levels. Not only do their answers appear to not even match what she is asking them, which itself might not be of much concern – not much beyond senility, or just plain getting tired as a day wears on – but there’s another aspect to these answers, the words themselves, which has her thoroughly spooked. She can’t quite pin down what it is about these words that is making her hairs stand on end, only that as soon as she feels on the cusp of grasping it, the thought slithers away.

She has an idea, though, for a little test to perform upon them. After debating exactly what phrase to use, Denise finally settles upon something suitable, and blurts out, “Clay, I told you not to call me here!”

And yet if she was expecting any reaction whatsoever, even so much as a partial neck crane, or a gaze met in the mirror, then she would be sorely disappointed. Nothing. They didn’t react in the slightest. Instead continue veering off on whatever bizarre tangent this is that has seized them.

Owen shakes his head and says, “no, this weren’t the fella you described.”

“You’ll probably regret gettin mixed up with him,” Maggie offers, now shakes her own head, though much more slowly, as if saddened and wearied both at the thought of this.

The sun has begun sinking low on the horizon, and Denise recognizes that whatever the hell is awry here, the time has come for drastic action. Somehow she has to wake these people up, or...something. On second thought, maybe the ruse of pretending Clay was calling her hadn’t been all that dramatic, and there was no reason for them to react. Maybe they were performing the whole bit where people improvise random chit-chat to pretend they’re not eavesdropping on your phone call. Time to rattle them with something that leaves no doubt.

“LOOK OUT!” she shouts, as loud as she can, “THERE’S A DOG IN THE ROAD!” And even throws herself into the seat gap between them, pointing ahead for effect.

Yet Owen doesn’t hit the brakes, or let up on the gas pedal in the slightest. He just keeps cruising along at this same smooth, unvarying clip, and neither of them so much as flinches. They don’t ask for clarification, or tell her she is mistaken. A handful of seconds pass in pure silence, as Denise takes long hard looks at both, back and forth, back and forth, scanning for any hint of what they’re thinking at all.

Finally, Maggie sighs, and says, “I’m not sure where else we would go, even.”

“That’s a good question. That’s a real good question,” Owen agrees.

“Look, um,” Denise tells them, hoping this statement sounds a little more authentic than it feels, “this is actually right where I needed to go. I recognize it now. My friend lives really close to here. Think you can pull over and drop me off?”

“Of course, of course,” Maggie tells her.

“That I couldn’t say for sure,” Owen replies, however, negating this. Denise is so stunned she feels as though someone has punched her in the windpipe. And yet, the old man does indeed keep motoring along as if she never said a word.

Denise collapses back against her seat, slumped low and considering what few options remain. She could attack Owen, although such a clumsy attempt, from back here, would surely just mean wrecking the car, and rolling the dice on how that might play out. A broken leg or even a twisted ankle or some shit would be about the worst development in the world right now. She could attack Maggie, instead, true, and hope this rattles her husband into compliance somehow. Yet though this is a perfectly valid concept, it too is not without perils, and in the end she just can’t pull the trigger on jumping into motion with this one, going berserk on a perfectly defenseless, if bonkers, old lady. What else is left? She can try laying on the hysteria even thicker, and see what happens.

“Stop the car! Stop the car! Will you please stop the goddamn car!” she bleats, and begins hammering her fists in tom-tom pounding fashion on the back of their seats, alternating, one fist against each.

Instead, more of that cosmic, nausea inducing silence persists, broken only by Owen’s eventual non sequitur “We don’t get too many visitors here,” is all he says.

“You get to be as old as us, you’re just kinda set in your ways,” Maggie tells her, and even chuckles, somehow, though it’s not an evil chuckle, more just your garden variety, kindly old grandma’s tinkle, as though fondly recalling a pleasant summer day in the distant past, “I guess we’re just stuck here ’til the end.”

“I guess I just don’t see us ever leavin,” Owen agrees.

And yet, though Denise feels as though her eyes are about to burst from her head, it’s the final development which has her at wit’s end. This would be the moment where Maggie, turning around to face her for the first time in possibly hours, tells Denise, “we knew Edwina.”

At this, her fourth, and ultimately only practicable option, occurs to Denise in a flash. The car is going about thirty five but it’s low to the ground. The road is straight and flat here, the field overgrown with no discernible drop-off beside it. The doors are not locked. With this in mind, she throws her shoulder into the one on the right, and tumbles out of it, closing her eyes and praying for a smooth landing.

“One hundred and eighty four miles. And counting,” Lenny tells him with a grin, which Jeremy can discern, in the way a smile is audible over the phone.

“What do you mean, 184 miles? To what?” Jeremy questions, pacing around his cabin.

“I mean we checked the odometer before we left. We filled up the tank and wrote down the mileage. Not to mention, time wise, it was just over three and a half hours ago. This thing just keeps on going.”

“Wait a second, slow down. What keeps on going? You completely lost me. Well, actually, you never had me. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Okay, okay,” Lenny says, takes a deep, exhales before starting again. “Me n’ Clay took off from the compound, right, just trying to take Pine Bluff toward town?”

“Yeah...”

“But we’re still on Pine Bluff. We never even reached the main road, whatever it is, the road into Stokely. We’ve been stuck on this one for three and a half hours.”

“That doesn’t make any fucking sense.”

“I know it doesn’t make any fucking sense. That’s why I called you. We got to where we burned up...maybe forty percent of the gas?”

“Yeah,” Clay confirms in the background.

“Yeah we got to where we burned up maybe forty percent of the gas and figured it was time to stop. So now we’re turning around and heading back. But I thought you might wanna hear about this shit.”

Jeremy only nods, though of course they can’t see this. “Mark your spot,” he tells them instead, “can you mark your spot somehow?”

“I don’t know,” Lenny says, then asks Clay, “we got anything to mark our spot?”

“...carve our name into some fuckin trees maybe...,” Jeremy can barely make out Clay saying, in the background.”

“Okay, good enough. See you when you get back,” he tells them, and hangs up.

Tom is so distracted that he shuffles back and forth with phone still in hand, never a thought to putting it away. He skulks about the cabin, though it suddenly seems hot in here, suffocating hot, and considers what this latest twist means.

This is bad. This is another atrocious development. This could be the last nail, in fact.

Things have not only been snowballing on them, but the process appears to be speeding up as well. And yet, as he stops to lean on and stare out the picture window with a disbelieving smirk, you have people here like Rebecca and Zoe, who are blowing bubbles beside the main house right now. Laughing their heads off and smacking one another on the arm in so doing. Just completely oblivious, it would seem, to the impending doom swirling all around them.

And yet who’s to say these two are wrong, necessarily? Jeremy wouldn’t claim for a fact that their obliviousness has led to the current situation. It could just as easily be that the current situation has led to their obliviousness, a way of tuning it out.

If they can’t escape this place, what then? Luckily, he had ordered one huge truck full of product right after the last major tour, and a couple smaller ones since then. They were able to harvest a decent final haul from that garden before this first great cold snap blew in. And, well, thus far, to the extent that he’s aware, only he and Grace and Emily are aware of that hidden room off of the gift shop, which is well stocked with canned and non-perishables. The combined sum of which, he feels confident saying, is more than enough food to last their current party well into the spring. And while nobody – that he’s aware of – has attempting drinking from that natural spring beneath the barn, presumably as a last-ditch effort, if not sooner, this would give them all the running water they ever needed. And that’s assuming that for some reason, Kidwell pulled the plug on their current flow, the well water or the county supply or whatever else he might have arranged. So what’s the issue, really, aside from the panic they might induce amongst themselves, over the inability to leave?

Well, that’s just it. He does expect Kidwell to pull the plug on the water, and the power and the internet and everything else. It’s only a matter of time before everyone else realizes this, if they haven’t already.

But who knows, maybe the Rebeccas and Zoes are the most rational ones after all. A great number of them came here for a literal retreat from everyone and everything they’ve known, and are in no hurry to contact the outside world. He would assume that those two fall into this camp. Over the last few days, however, he knows that a couple of the more hysterical ones have gotten increasingly worked up over their inability to find rides out of this place. Kay, who is looking positively horrific of late, as though crumbling before their eyes, called her parents and claims that they hung up on her. A bummed out Rafael was telling Jeremy, after attempting the same with his, “it was like they didn’t even know me, man.” And of course Kathy Drucker’s at wit’s end with the county sheriff, attempting to get anywhere with them concerning the Tom investigation.

But this range of reactions is all preferable to those who seem catatonic, or in a daze of some sort. He’s not quite sure what Blodgett’s deal is, really, and Emily is even worse. Though snapping back to reality for a couple of days, following Denise’s escape, she has sunken back into this dreamlike state, even much more deeply than before. She spends nearly every daylight hour over there tinkering with that damn wall mural. Creepier still, he knows she’s been tiptoeing out just about every night to do who knows what down in that tunnel.

He snuck out after her one night, and followed her over there. Fearing any number of things which would technically be worse – some illicit rendezvous with another resident, perhaps, or drinking a pint by herself in the dark or something – what he found was in almost every respect more disturbing. After waiting a good fifteen minutes, he eased the hatch open, and stuck his head over the floor edge, to peer into that tunnel, upside down. Emily was just standing there, at the mouth of the waterway, motionless and she stared into that abyss, waiting for who knows what to emerge from the tunnel.

When the blood rushing to his head became too much to bear, Jeremy even flipped the hatch open and slipped down the first few steps, squatted there watching her further. The first handful of lights were switched on, along both sides of the tunnel, but there was absolutely nothing to see here, apart from his freaky girlfriend. He fought the urge to shout her name, or run down there and shake her silly. Eventually grew bored with this scene, and retreated to the cabin for a fitful sleep. Pretended to be passed out cold when she returned shortly before dawn, took a shower, and then left again, presumably to paint some more. He isn’t sure how to manage this situation with her, but clearly, something must be done.

As the hour nears 1am, a familiar mix of artists and other assorted residents are gathered in the quote unquote employee bar. Though the actual participants vary to some degree, this is a nightly ritual and a few are always here without fail. Rebecca, having painted the room in her favorite color scheme, the haint blue, with the gold colored owl prints atop it in an ever repeating pattern, kind of took ownership of this space from day one, and often insists upon pouring some obscure batch of old fashioned beverage for all of them, acting as mixologist behind that short, scuffed up wooden bar.

Tonight, however, she seems more interested in flirting with Zoe. From where Jeremy’s sitting, actually, on one of the couches, he thinks there is no disputing this point. Rebecca has just returned from behind the bar, with a pair of white zinfandel glasses, and plopped herself directly into a surprised Zoe’s lap, even though Zoe is by far the smaller of the two. Rebecca’s equally skinny, but twice as tall. Still, if there’s little doubt – in his mind and pretty much everyone else’s - that she’s interested in Zoe, debate rages as to whether this interest is reciprocated.

The room is just barely large enough to buffer separate pockets of conversation, and at present there are probably a good four or five. Yet not so large as to preclude baton passing, for example when a handful of them speculate if Zoe swings that way, in the modern parlance. Which leads someone to remark that it’s weird there aren’t any gay males sequestered here, particularly among the artsy set. Which leads to Kay, seated alone in an easy chair in the front corner, to declare, although she is slurring her words a little bit, “but Marcus is gay, isn’t he?” Which in turn leads to another mini debate, as opposing sides argue that they haven’t seen him hitting on anyone. Which passes like a chain letter to the spot where Marcus is standing, leaning against the short edge of the bar – where someone would round it, to slip behind and play bartender – sort of hanging out and conversing with others, but mostly just looking at his phone.

Except he glances up now and with a scowl, mostly meant as comedy, clicks his tongue and says, “pssh. Come on now. Even folks in isolation got standards.”

Even so, despite its short burst of popularity, this debate about sexuality is far from the most popular topic. This would far and away be the matter of the young boy who showed up here earlier, so strange that it somehow trumps even Clay and Lenny’s mind bending road adventure. Discussions about the two are fluid, and frequently collide, although Zeke’s tale peaks again as Lydia returns to the lounge. For whatever reason, she felt the need to take the boy under her wing from the outset. After asking Jeremy if he minded – which, of course, he did not – she installed him in Ben and Lois’s old room, and just went to check on him again. Now that she’s back, she reclaims her former seat, beside Jeremy on the couch.

“Well?” Lenny asks, eyebrows raised, smiling in anticipation. He’s seated in a folding chair, facing the couch, and has been cradling a beer bottle in one hand, a short glass of whiskey in the other, pretty much all night. Jeremy’s thinking that beer is going to be among the first casualties, if they are stranded here for any duration, and that this is a sad fate. But at least they will have liquor and wine to last them through this impending winter, for months and months beyond.

“Out like a light,” Lydia replies, heaving a long, expansive sigh. “So that’s something. Still can’t get him to talk, really, but at least he’s settled down a little.”

“I still think Kidwell sent him here. Either that or he lives nearby and is not quite...,” Jeremy pauses, unsure about the proper current euphemism, “maybe he’s not quite all there, or however you wanna phrase it.”

“Could be,” Lydia agrees, and as he glances sidelong at her, in a short little flash, he sees that she’s blushing, either due to exertion or what’s running through her head. “I don’t know why, but I feel, like, this compulsion to look out for him. I guess I did always want to be a mom, though. So maybe it’s not that surprising.”

“Hey, sorry, pardon my manners,” Lenny says to her, “but I guess I never got around to learning much about you. What’s your story? What brings you here?”

“Hmm, you’re better than me. I’m in the same boat but never even bothered to apologize for it,” Jeremy jokes.

“Well, ah, heh heh,” Lydia begins, and is blushing far more prominently now that the two of them are looking at her. “Uh............”

“What?” Lenny and Jeremy both at virtually the same instant.

In what is possibly the most unexpected move she could have made, Lydia explodes into laughter, even clutches her stomach while doing so. “I just got married, about two weeks before I came here.”

“Really?”

“Are you kidding me?” they ask, though she is doing the whole eyes closed, nodding repeatedly thing as she laughs some more, before stopping to explain.

“I’m...okay, I’m I guess what you would call a swinger. That’s what people on the outside call it, anyway. Nobody I know calls it that. But yeah so anyway...”

“Do tell!” Lenny encourages, with an intentionally exaggerated, bawdy grin.

“Okay, so yeah,” Lydia explains, suppressing her laughter well enough to speak at last. “A week after we got married, I was at this single’s meeting. It just happened that one of Bob’s coworkers – that’s my husband’s name, Bob – showed up that night for the first time. I hadn’t quite gotten around to explaining all this to Bob. But let’s just say he found out soon enough. A week after that, I was here.”

“Really?” Jeremy chuckles. “Wow. That’s pretty funny. What does the husband think about this?”

Lydia rubs each hand up and down its corresponding pant leg and laughs, replies, “eh, let’s just say, I don’t think it’s working out.”

Jeremy nods, as the conversation slips into another periodic lull. Or rather, Lenny’s telling Lydia about how he ended up here, but Jeremy’s thinking more about her, about how you just can’t assume you know anything about anyone at first glance. A swinger, he thinks, you know, who would have guessed? Granted, they say the quiet ones are those you must watch out for, but she seems so plain and conservative. Actually, she’s one of those girls whose sadness pervades every aspect of her being, to where the casual observer, such as he, doesn’t even realize that she’s actually quite attractive. It’s like this aura of sadness can completely mask that fact, somehow.

Clay, who has been standing over the room’s lone window, facing the front of the property, returns to the couch, beer bottle in hand. He is clad still is the Carhartt jacket, baggy jeans, and camouflage ballcap he had worn on their failed road trip. As he reclaims the far end of the couch, next to Lydia, occupied earlier, talk slowly drifts back into that and some of these other inexplicable occurrences.

“I can’t even wrap my head around it,” Lenny groans, “it’s like the origin of the universe or something – thinking about it just makes my brain hurt. I mean, does anybody have a theory? Or is it just, we’re trying not to think about it?”

“I believe you hit it on the head there, bud,” Clay mutters.

“Mmm, I guess I’m always more focused on solutions. Although, admittedly, this hasn’t accomplished much.” Jeremy says, accompanied by a self-deprecating chuckle. “But yeah, I mean, in a way, it kind of doesn’t matter what any of this stuff means. We just have to find our way out of it.”

“Well, yeah, like you’re saying, a lot of this stuff is interesting, these little experiments or whatever. But what is it really accomplishing?” Lydia questions. “We need to come up with some answers.”

“Okay, well, let’s take it from the top. Like where do we think this fucking kid came from?” Lenny asks.

Lydia shakes her head and says, “I have no idea. I went through all my photos but he’s not in any of them. Even though he seems extremely familiar to me. Tony’s combing through his video footage right now, actually, looking for him there.”

This line of discussion spins Jeremy’s thought patterns outward in a couple different directions. Actively, he’s extracting his own phone, and scrolling through the visual evidence collected there. While also pondering that, returning to an earlier thread he mulled over this afternoon, he’s not quite sure what side of the fence to come down on, concerning Tony. Though Tony still seems reasonable enough, attached to reality and everything in a way that Emily or even possibly Blodgett and Kathy are increasingly not, he also barely leaves that room just around the corner. Drifts down to the café every so often for a mug of tea, which he brings right back to the room, and that’s about it.

“We need to think up some way of getting Zeke over there and comparing his footprints,” Jeremy says, “to the bloody ones in the carpet. Because if you look at these pictures, his have to be the only ones around here that would match.”

“Let me see that,” Clay says to Jeremy, reaching over and holding out his hand.

“Nnn, yeah, I hear what you’re saying and everything,” Lydia tells him, turning to deliver this medicine with a kind smile, “but this is kinda what I was talking about. It’s interesting, but how is it helping us?”

“Yeah but are we sure about that? I think it might be a good thing to figure out, what he’s doing here. Like I was saying, I’m convinced Kidwell sent him our way, something to do with that filing cabinet. Those are his bloody prints in the office.”

“Well, you’re half right, at least,” Clay announces. He’s enacting the familiar pinching motion, anyone would recognize at a glance, to zoom in and out of the photos on Jeremy’s phone.

“Huh? What do you mean?” Jeremy asks, as not only his head, but Lenny’s and Lydia’s also swivel in that direction.

“I think these are a little kid’s prints,” Clay tells them, “but if you look closely, they’re not reaching into the filing cabinet. They’re backwards. This is a hand coming out of the filing cabinet.”

Not even ten minutes later, the four of them are entering the front door of the school. As always, the hallway lights are on, though at this hour most of the individual rooms are in darkness. Before they even enter, they can spot Emily at the far end of the long hall, brush in her right hand, lips clutched by her left as she stands at angle appraising her mural.

“Oh, hi,” she calls out, flatly, half sleepily, looking over her shoulder as she hears them enter.

“Don’t sound so excited to see us,” Lenny teases, which does if nothing else bring a smile to her lips.

“Sorry. I’m just...in the zone. That’s how I get when I’m painting.”

That’s how you are all the time, nowadays, Jeremy thinks, but refrains from saying as much.

Directly ahead, they can see that the teacher’s lounge is fully illuminated, too, and that there is light spilling from the office. Upon arriving at that back corner, they can see that Emily has a tea pot steeping on some portable hot plate in the former, and that Liam is snoozing at his desk in the latter. Slightly reclined in his chair, with both hands crossed and resting upon his belly, a dreamy smile on his lips. From somewhere in his office, they can faintly hear big band swing music playing. Otherwise, there is nobody else in the building, and the remaining rooms are left dark.

“Whoa! That’s Zeke, isn’t it?” Lenny marvels, pointing at the boy at the end of Emily’s mural. She doesn’t say anything, though looks over at him, nods a few times in a pensive manner, and returns her focus to eyeing the painting some more.

Lydia, who has been creeped out by Emily pretty much from day one, forgoes this scene in favor of the office. As she leads the charge, Clay, Jeremy and finally Lenny will follow. Jeremy sticks his head into Blodgett’s room, and thinks about shutting off the music or the light or both, but concludes that the old man is content just so, and to leave him alone. Though it’s hard to say what their alleged administrator does all day, he is nonetheless presumably the one paying the bills to keep the lights on, and this place running more or less smoothly without Kidwell, and that surely must be exhausting.

They continue onward to the filing cabinets. Sure enough, as Clay had somehow been the first person to observe, there are no thumb prints on the outside, and the prints themselves, of the four fingers are upside down. Not only would there have been no reason for anyone, a small boy or otherwise, to open the drawer in this manner, it was just about impossible to do so, period, without a tremendous amount of convoluted effort. For starters, Zeke is not this tall, nor would anyone else they’re aware of who might have theoretically left such small prints.

“This is kinda what I’m talking about, though,” Lydia says. Jeremy’s thinking that he doesn’t remember her ever being this vocal, and certainly not in the early going around here. But these extreme times are bending and pulling everyone in some pretty radical directions. “I mean, yes it is interesting, and yes I had to come over to see for myself, too. But what are we really solving?”

“Well, I don’t know, let’s root through this drawer,” Lenny suggests. He reaches in deep enough to wrap his arms around the entirety of its contents, which are mostly just a bunch of manila folders, stacked atop one another, with a few loose papers here and there in between.

After he has done so, Clay pokes his head into the drawer, then opens up his phone’s flashlight feature to inspect in greater detail. He reports that you can just barely make out a bloody hand, on the inside of the drawer’s metal door, as if someone were trapped inside and shoving it open. “What kind of detectives are you people?” he cracks, “how’s my hillbilly ass the first person to notice this shit?”

But by now, following Lenny, the other two have also turned around and taken a few steps, to the work surface of the secretary’s desk. It’s a little bit lower and offers them a great surface to sprawl out across, though they are careful to keep the folders in the exact same order they found them.

Not that such careful attention to detail is necessary, per se. A bloody trail continues about three quarters of the way down the stack. As they flip open this particular folder, Jeremy recognizes that they’ve looked through this before, and that if he’s not mistaken, this was the one with the infamous black and white group photo that included a very young Kidwell. Except it happens to not be here, now, which only opens up more questions – whether he was mistaken to begin with, or whether Zeke removed it, or whether perhaps somebody else did, for entirely different reasons. But no, Jeremy’s just about convinced that this is where it was, a hunch supported by blood along the edges of the individual pages in this folder, even, the sheets of paper and the photographs, until stopping (or starting, he supposes, depending on how much insanity one’s mind could withstand at the moment) somewhere near the middle of this folder.

Though the group photo with Kidwell is gone, digging a little deeper, they do stumble onto some others he doesn’t recall seeing before. Among this is another, slightly blurrier shot, of some boys in what looks like probably the café area of the main house. While the closest figure to the camera appears to be turning his head toward the camera right as the picture is snapped – which would explain its slight blurriness – with a surprised, though pleased, smile, he would just about guarantee that this is Zeke. Or else someone who has to be a close blood relative, everyone agrees. And it says a great deal about their current situation that none of them are overly surprised by this development, not even Clay, who stands on tiptoes to peer over their shoulders at the artifacts.

No, it’s the next picture in the stack which throws them for a greater loop, even though it’s in color, and a few decades more modern. Even if it has the muted tones and slightly fuzzy warmth to it that suggests this picture is still, nonetheless, about 50 years old. As does the vehicle in the shot, although these sometimes run well beyond their presumptive shelf lives.

It depicts a maroon pickup truck on a dirt lane, surrounded by forest, with a woman standing beside it. She’s wearing some seriously retro outfit – like something out of The Collection, it’s true – of polyester, flower prints, shades of green and blue that nobody has worn together, outside of a costume party, for generations upon generations. Her poofy hairdo and the pronounced, recognizable facial features, along with the age of the photograph, indicate that this surely must be Kidwell’s grandma. Whoever is snapping this stands at about a 45 degree angle, from the woman to the pickup’s driver’s side window, where a much younger Owen Hazlewood gazes outward. Not quite as clear, yet visible riding beside him, meanwhile, is of course Maggie.

“Now what in the hell?” Jeremy says, picking up the picture. He’s not sure what it means, but decides to hang onto it, just the same. He has some inkling that determining when this picture was taken might be important, though he can’t say why.

“Okay, okay, so what is the plan, though?” Lydia says. “I don’t think this is really helping us get out of here.”

“It might, though,” Lenny says with a shrug, as he continues rifling through the papers, looking for anything useful.

“I’ve got an idea about that,” Jeremy says, “but it will have to wait until daylight. And if I’m right, we’re gonna need all hands on deck.”

Denise had heard of alligators sleeping in this manner, but never witnessed it. Well, you know, obviously. As a matter of fact she wasn’t really aware that alligators even lived in North Carolina until just now.

It figures that she would finally work up the nerve to high tail it right as the first serious cold snap set in. This is what woke her up, in fact, slightly before the sun. The fire had gone out at some point overnight, and she was freezing her ass off. Decided to pack up camp, such as it was, and get moving.

That’s when she encountered this peculiar scene, about fifteen minutes into today’s hike. To hear about this phenomenon, or even see pictures online, maybe, is one thing, but to stumble upon it, unexpectedly in the wild, is quite another. Yet here she stands, confronting this body of water, a smallish river or a large creek, however you want to slice it, which had frozen over in the course of the night. During which time all these alligators, of which she can see a good half dozen without even moving, have gotten a little shuteye with their snouts sticking straight up out of the ice, two or three feet in the air.

She was feeling energetic and making good progress, or so it felt, until this encounter stopped her, well, cliched or otherwise, cold in her tracks. But this might be a positive. Stopping is forcing her to really think about where she’s headed, whereas before, she was just kind of stomping through this forest thoughtlessly.

Or so it has been this morning, anyway. So maybe she wasn’t fully awake. But as far as the previous days, ever since jumping out of the Hazelwoods’ car, these were ones marked by serious progress.

After that debacle of inadvertently circling back, and catching a ride with...whatever that freakshow had been, and acting very foolish in regards to her phone’s energy throughout, she’s made a point of leaving it off completely. Whatever else is going on in these woods, it turns out Jeremy was right, the distances doesn’t seem to make sense. Everything is more stretched out than it should be. Not to mention that tromping through the forest is slow going in general. As a result, she’s saving her battery life for true emergencies, because who knows how long she might be out here.

Common sense dictated that she stick to the roads, but that clearly wasn’t working out for her. Using on the visual cues provided by the sun, and a little trick she suddenly remembers hearing somewhere, about moss growing predominantly on the north side of trees, she’s been making much better progress, on this vaguely eastern trajectory. This she knows because the terrain has looked a little different, not only each day but each portion of the day. Granted, it indicates an enormous swath of woods she just happens to have entered, considering she has yet to encounter another road, but this beats her first stab at leaving the region. Now, so long as she doesn’t bump into any Ruiner type apparitions, or for that matter the Hazelwoods ever again, she’s cool.

This scene with the alligators jars another thought loose, though, which she had heard before, and even considered earlier in her expedition, but kind of forgotten. She doesn’t want to cross this water – nor would she even consider it, to be truthful, not with those alligator heads everywhere, frozen surface or no frozen surface. But, as this is the first serious body of water she’s encountered, she recalls now that you’re supposed to follow this, wherever it might lead. Unless the river forms a complete loop without hitting anything else of note, which is extremely unlikely, there’s basically no chance of getting lost, nor walking in circles.

So she hooks a left, and continues marching. Rays of faint orange sunlight are peeking through the trees, here and there, which helps warm her right alongside her heat generating steps. This will mark the fourth day since she took a flying leap into that ditch, and if you ask her, ol’ Denise is holding up remarkably well. She doesn’t even think about Otherwise, to the extent she hasn’t even had to force herself not to think of Otherwise. Mostly just enjoying the scenery, and considering what she’ll do with her life when she gets out of here (either physical therapy, or maybe a veterinarian, she’s concluded, these are the top current choices). And stray thoughts peeking around the edges, sure, whispering that Clay is probably not The One, but, you know, no newsflash there. She loves the boy and everything, but, well, let’s get real.

As Denise is thinking about this, she’s not devoting much conscious attention to the terrain. Yet as this landscape begins a sharp incline, during which the short, kind of flimsy looking, reddish brown pine trees continue to dominate, though thinning out, and the ground is mostly giant slabs of greyish rock, possibly slate, ascending like steps and dictating her somewhat meandering route. During which the trees act as convenient handles.

But then Denise finally crests this unexpected foothill, the apex of which levels out and opens up. She has an unobstructed sight line at least as far as a natural horizon, possibly further. This miniature mountain descends sharply for here and looks as though it will take half a day. Yet none of this matters as her eyes take in what lies ahead, at that horizon and beyond: it’s a small town or city of sort, and an unfamiliar one at that.

Though the ringleader for these stunts, Jeremy isn’t feeling much up to them this cold, misty morning. Strangely, though, considering she couldn’t have slept well herself, Emily has gotten really into these projects, right out if the gate. It’s possible he has misjudged her, and she is just as edgy as the rest of them about getting out of here. Yet once he marched around camp this morning, all but banging on actual pots and pans, telling everyone, everyone, Blodgett included, that they were needed today, she smiled and offered a meek, compliant, “okay.” Then volunteered to drive for the first portion if this experiment.

Though virtually everyone now seems to grasp the nature of their predicament, he and Emily had an especially rough night. As their little fact-finding crew stepped out of the school office, Jeremy was a little, though not entirely, surprised that Emily was not out there in the hall, working on her painting. But there was only one other realistic place she might be found, of course, so he knew where to look. Though playing along with the others, as they all separated in favor of their respective cabins – or sort of, anyway, as Jeremy can’t help but smile to observe Lenny chatting up Lydia, as they walk side by side, as he stands on his front steps and thinks, right on, o favorite uncle, you go right on ahead with that – he unlocks the door, observes the expected, that Emily is not here, waits five minutes and then stomps off toward the barn. Underneath which, in the natural spring tunnel, he finds his girlfriend standing in the familiar old spot, just staring down the length of it. Occasionally tilting her head slightly, to the left or to the right, as if spotting something.

“Emily,” he says, patiently at first, though this will eventually turn to shouts, and three of them, increasingly loud ones, before she turns around.

“Huh?” she replies, as though in some sort of daze.

“What are you doing?”

Emily blinks and considers the question, then replies, “what do you mean?”

An exasperated Jeremy sighs, holds out his palms, shakes his head a few times. “I mean down here! What are you doing down here! Every fucking night? There’s nothing to see!”

Then she shakes her head, slowly at first, hesitantly, but soon picking up steam. Followed by, “they told me I have to wait here. I have to be their lookout.”

“They? Who’s they? A lookout for what!?”

Emily just smiles, which is somehow the most disturbing aspect of this encounter, for them. And yet she seems genuinely pleased with what she’s about to say.

“I made it to the end, you know. But...they told me it’s not for me. Not yet. This is where I belong.”

It’s as she turns back to stare some more at the lifeless tunnel that Jeremy finally loses his cool. “Okay! That’s it!” he barks, marches toward Emily and grabs her by the arm. She lets out a whelp that is more frightened than genuinely hurt, and yet, even so, it’s true that he physically drags her to the wooden steps, and pushes her up them.

They continue tussling in this manner all the way through the barn, and out to the yard. It’s only at this point, that he gives her a shove and points toward their cabin that she finally resigns herself to losing this battle. Spins on her heels and begins trudging, however reluctantly, toward their theoretical home.

The thing was, though, Emily would return to these totally normal and lucid states once you pulled her away from that damn mural, or in particular the tunnel. Once they are tucked away inside their cabin, and have fired up the fireplace full blast for the night, she’s rubbing her hands and pacing around, unwilling to remove her jacket. The air between them is as though nothing ever happened.

“Fuck, it’s cold in here! Don’t you think you think it’s cold in here?”

“It’s pretty damn cold in here,” he admits with a shrug.

“How did this happen? It seems like we went straight into winter, overnight.”

Still, he’s not quite going to let her off the hook that easy. What starts out as a calm discussion soon devolves into a full-blown argument, during which time he tells her she needs to stay away from that hatch in the barn, and the natural spring underneath. She immediately burst forth with riotous laughter, as though this is the most preposterous suggestion she’s ever heard.

“What are you gonna do, stop me from going down there?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I am,” he declares, “as much as possible, anyway.”

She chuckles with her mouth closed, smirking and shaking her head. But Jeremy grabs a couple of blankets and some pillows, settles into a seated position on the floor, back against the door. There’s no way she’s getting through here without bodily moving him. And so after protesting a short while, pacing around some more, pulling the stopper out of a half full ball out of wine and polishing that off, attempting in vain to reach her parents, she finally collapsed in bed somewhere around 3:30am.

Only to awaken with a curious bubbly energy not even four hours later, and soon after waking him. She apologizes for her behavior last night, and gives him a peck on the lips, as soon as he’s on his feet. Moments like these make him think there’s hope she will snap out of it, as long as he and maybe some of the others help reign her in. Then again, if the girl’s half living in some fantasy world, who can really blame her?

If there’s a day where all these swirling currents collide just right, enough to form a flood, then this could be it. The internet has been spotty for weeks, but this morning has been a solid blackout on that front. Apparently there was yet another Jen sighting, by Kathy and a couple others, just as the early morning fog was lifting, the girl making another pensive lap around the lake. Yet when they raced down from the third story workshop to try and find her, nobody could detect a trace, once again.

Thus, while encountering some weariness, there’s no resistance whatsoever as Jeremy unveils his plan. Though some continue to work on projects upstairs, most remain loosely clustered on the ground floor of the main house. Everyone except Emily and Kay, that is, who, giggling as they cited some clause about “not letting the guys have all the fun,” insisted on being the drivers this time around. Meanwhile, the rest of them wait, fire blazing in the library and café both, a couple different folks playing some blessedly modern music they’ve saved to their phones, they snack and sip on various beverages in a manner that reminds more than a few of them of some holiday family gathering. Others insist it’s more like hanging on bad news in a hospital lobby.

Whatever the case, today’s first task involved Emily and Kay taking off in the most economical car on site, which is Grace’s blood red Mini Cooper. They turn left out of the long drive, in the opposite direction Clay and Lenny did, heading south on Pine Bluff. After they’ve gotten a good and presumably much needed head start, those are feeling energetic, or curious, or just plain bored, begin walking in that direction. Which winds up being about half the congregation. If the prevailing hypothesis is correct, the entire mob will be walking out here later with a bunch of tools, but that remains to be seen.

Grace claimed to have done the math before, and written the distance down. From the mouth of their driveway, to Stokely Farm Road, she has the distance at roughly 2.3 miles. Nobody else thought to make note of this precise figure, but Jeremy and Clay and virtually anybody else who had ever driven in that direction agrees that it sounds about right, and can’t be off by much. As they walk, Jeremy muses that, and for the first time, he wishes Denise were still around, for situations like these. Before this debacle – and to think, it was this stretch of road they drove, purely by accident, moving in the opposite direction, that day they stumbled lost upon Kidwell – he never would have dreamed they would have become like minding allies in much, if anything, ever. What can you say, strange situations bring unexpected results. Yet ever since she left, there’s no denying that they’ve suffered a few holes on the rationality front.

Nobody is much surprised that they make the 2.3 mile mark without reaching Stokely Farm Road, with that intersection nowhere in sight. This they know from their tried and true, thoroughly old-fashioned hack involving the spools of yarn. For good measure they hike another mile but the outlook doesn’t change one whit.

“Screw it. This spot’s as good as any,” Jeremy announces.

“Yeah, I doubt it will change much,” Clay agrees, and everyone else nods along.

Producing a can of spray paint from her purse, a haint blue that replaced the random white they originally had, and then the neon orange someone suggested after that, Rebecca shakes and uncaps it. Stooping slightly, she paints a straight line across the road, from one shoulder to the other. Then they begin trudging back to Otherwise, to wait for an update from Emily and Kay.

“Well, okay, so here’s the thing,” Emily tells Jeremy, over their crackly, surprisingly distant sounding phone connection.

“Yeah?”

“Lenny and Clay said their road just kept going and going, straight, right?”

As Emily relates to him a similar but slightly different experience, Jeremy listens but is only half thinking about this development. Or a third, really. He’s also contemplating what comes next, as expected, and is snapping his fingers, flapping his free hand in a come here motion, and nodding at everyone in a combination of gestures that universally signify it’s time to get moving. Yet also considering, during this little back and forth, how much he has missed his distant girlfriend, without even realizing it most of the time. The content of this conversation is almost beside the point, as it’s more important to him that she’s returned to normal again in a flash, from the moment this morning began.

But then, yes, there is also the content itself to ponder, and wonder at what it means. Heading in that direction, the scenery had changed not a whit, with not a house or a passing vehicle witnessed, only unending forest of those weird tall pines on both sides. The road itself, however, would occasionally shift into a gentle, loping S curve every now and then, and on a couple of occasions, bends much larger than that, which would convince them they were finally getting somewhere. Except things would straighten out again, and according to the internal compass on Grace’s dashboard, they continued to move most of the time in an unrelenting pure southward direction. Until reaching this point, about four hours into it – with the cruise control applied at a constant 45, this car much more fuel efficient and with no need to hit the brakes, ever – where they have just a little bit more than half a tank left, and pulled over to relay the news.

They are in motion as a unit before he’s even off the phone with her. Telling Emily that they can turn around and come back, but might want to take their time about it, to pull over and stretch or picnic or nap or whatever the case may be, because he’s not sure how long this will take. Loading up their equipment into a handful of vehicles, and peeling off, south along Pine Bluff for the second time today.

As it turns out, this still basically fresh asphalt doesn’t present as much of a challenge as they supposed. Upon reaching the line Rebecca spray painted earlier, just shy of it on this side, they begin attacking its surface with every equipment they could muster from camp. A couple of bright souls, Marcus and Rafael if he’s not mistaken, have the genius insight of loading this gigantic cooler with beverages and sandwiches, something he and apparently everyone else would have strolled off into this sunny afternoon without. Some did toss snacks and liquor and other essentials into a backpack, true, although even this mostly seemed to transpire after the cooler concept was announced.

With everything ranging from sledgehammers to shovels to pickaxes to mallets, they each pick a section of road and begin smashing the hell out of it. A jackhammer would have come in handy, more than one exceptionally witty soul observes, but they make do with what they have. As it turns out, this gravel and tar mixture, combining to form a smooth, tightly bonding mixture, is the type of surface which is quite sturdy and holds together exceedingly well until the first hole opens up. From there it becomes progressively easier, however, to chip away and expand upon its flaws.

Lydia, taking a break at one juncture to pull a bottled water from the cooler and place it against her forehead before guzzling it down, finds it particularly moving to glance over at a stretch of shoulder, and see Zeke kneeling there, with a metal spike in one hand that he is tapping with a hammer in the other. As she has mentioned to Lenny and some of the others, surely this is some kind of surrogate mothering instinct, her compelling need to dote upon and take care of the kid, as she’s always wanted kids, even if her lifestyle maybe didn’t reflect this. In fact, if she were in, say, Kay’s shoes, she couldn‘t fathom ever leaving a kid behind to attend this goofy retreat. But that’s a different topic for a different time.

Whatever the case, she seriously doubts that’s ever going to happen now. She’s approaching thirty, sure, so the clock is ticking to some extent, though this would appear the least of her concerns. Despite a lot of talk about finding solutions, and her perfect willingness to go along with this hokey scheme, Lydia isn’t under any illusions that this will solve their problems. It’s just something else to try, because why not. They have all the time in the world.

She’s thinking about these things while almost reflexively strolling over to the spot by the side of the road, where Zeke toils away in silence, tuning out all conversation and distraction around him. Attired still, as he has been every day without fail, even when others have donated if not made articles of clothing for him, in what has jokingly been referred to as his cricket player’s outfit, the corduroy pants slightly hiked, the black socks and black leather shoes, the cab driver’s hat and long sleeved white shirt. Even while visibly sweating with exertion, this pleasantly mild day, he doesn’t remove any of these articles, or appear troubled by them.

Upon reaching him, Lydia crouches down and asks him in a gentle voice, if he’s doing okay. Yet Zeke only nods, without looking up at her. She watches him work for a few seconds more, attempting to devise another line of inquiry. It eventually occurs to her to attempt something a little more direct.

“Where did you come from, Zeke? Does your family live around here?”

It’s nothing she and some of the others haven’t tried before, maybe, but Lydia thinks she might be breaking through to some extent, building a rapport with the kid. And indeed he does stop working for a moment to look up at her, if only to reply, “the missus said I’m not to talk of these things.”

“The missus? What missus is this? Do you remember her name?”

Zeke just tilts his head, slightly to the side, and makes a mournful expression. “Please,” he says, a plea, with this one word asking her to abandon this line of questioning.

Lydia runs both hands through her hair and attempts to think of a different plan. She watches the others working, but despite the chain gang type banter surrounding them, the wisecracks shouted while they swing various tools, and a couple, like her, take a quick breather, nobody seems to be paying them any mind. So they’re not likely to be much help, either. Well, whatever the nature of their dilemma, here, or wherever this boy came from, a less personal tactic is apparently the only one likely to succeed.

“Tell me, Zeke. Do you know what year it is?”

But he’s already gone back to pounding this spike with the hammer, and only bats his eyes up at her, blushing slightly. Shakes his head ever so slightly back and forth, with a weak smile, not to indicate he doesn’t know, but rather that once again he cannot say. “I’m sorry but the missus...”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know...,” Lydia retorts, trailing off as she stands.

Regarding this giant crater, and these poor brothers and sisters in arms trapped alongside her in this madness, Lydia considers it highly unlikely any of them will ever escape, will ever see the outside world again. Yet as she tiptoes around the swinging pickaxes and sweaty bodies scooping holes in the ground with their shovels, as she returns to her own abandoned sledgehammer, her eyes settle on Lenny, having just cracked open a beer as he yuks it up with Rafael and Liam, over by the cooler.

It’s something that never occurred to her before, or as far as she’s aware anyone else. But supposing they are stuck her for all time – is this necessarily the worst outcome in the universe? After all, they have enough supplies to last through winter, they have the land and seasonable enough weather to presumably grow crops when the weather breaks again. Meat could prove a challenge, but this isn’t exactly a requirement for survival, and anyway if they were smart about rationing what’s in the freezer, that too might last quite a while.

Really all that’s missing is a plan for ensuring their future here at Otherwise, in the form of offspring. Most of the women here are reproduction capable, and presumably the guys are, too. Glancing again over at Lenny, with a surreptitious little smirk, as Lydia seizes onto the handle of her sledgehammer, she thinks he would do just fine, really. Giggles to herself to ponder this, and realize that she has already internalized this possibility as an acceptable one. Not just that, but one she believes she would like to try and make happen. He’s a little bit older, but not ridiculously so, and has a pleasantly offhand bohemian aura, the looks to match. Almost like a landlocked surfer, in his early 40s and slightly past his prime, maybe, but still athletic enough to pull off most of what he always has. Yes, she believes, he would do just fine.

By the time they have a car sized hole carved out of this road, and a pit beneath it deep enough to preclude anyone driving over this, ever again, the sun has long since sunk behind the trees, and twilight has begun to approach. In fitfully assembled groups, they load their tools and themselves into various vehicles, some eager to return, some loitering. And yet their timing could not be better, for as the first car crests the final small hill, before arriving back at Otherwise, to a person the occupants are speechless to observe a blood red Mini Cooper, approaching from the other direction, pulling into the driveway just ahead of them.

Explain to me again what happened out there?” Grace says over breakfast, with a crooked smile, more nuanced and playful than her typical, straightforwardly polite one. “Can’t say I’ve heard of this particular development before.”

Kay’s jaw continues to throb, but at least she knows the reason behind it now. It’s a different kind of ache, brought about by her forcefully clamping her lips together, basically all the time these days. Shortly after losing a third tooth, she began to realize that, whatever the cause, however unfair this outcome, there is no denying that her bottom jaw is stretching out somehow. Or maybe it’s more accurate to state that the space between her jaw hinges must be elongating. Whatever the case, its bottom portion would just sort of hang there and flap in the wind – she knows this from observing herself in the mirror, not that you couldn’t feel it without any visual confirmation. Through practice, she has learned how to speak around this teeth clamped method, and as far as she knows nobody else is aware how bad it’s gotten. She’s attempted to cover up the bags under her eyes with makeup, and that works okay, but Kay isn’t sure how long this will be true for either of these workarounds. It’s already gotten to where she’s carefully choosing her words, to strain herself as little as possible.

But Grace already knows the details, of course, as does everyone else. She just can’t get over the peculiarity of it, and wants to hear Kay recite the tale in person. So at least she can shorthand this, with as little effort as possible.

It’s true that she and Emily drove on and on, in the road that was formerly just a couple miles long, yet now seems to have no end. Or at least that was true for the first half of their journey, until the point they turned around. Most of this leg remained the same, until about three hours and some change into it, whereupon they spotted that pale blue line spray painted across the road. Here, the road veered sharply left, though the landscape changed not a whit, before gradually bending to the right, followed by another somewhat long stretch, and finally one last bend to the right which somehow returned them to Otherwise...except approaching from the opposite direction than they expected, than that from which they had left.

None of this makes any rational sense, though Kay’s at a loss to explain why they aren’t really freaking out more. Well, more accurately, she would probably say that it’s a combination of reasons which explain this phenomenon. Part of it’s numbness, as they’ve gotten progressively more and more accustomed to all manner of weirdness since moving here. Part of it’s the very basic and often admirable human tendency to rally around a crisis and attempt to logically punch a way out of it. Yet a good half of it, if not more, she suspects, is that most if not all of them are gradually losing their grip on what their former lives were like, what quote unquote reality even looks like at this late stage in the game.

For example, this morning they are grappling with a complete internet outage, which began last night and has continued without pause. Now many of them are sitting around the long café table, or else hanging out nearby, lamenting that it just figures this would only happen after it became obvious they are stuck here, and kind of fucked by way of alternatives. But that’s just it, this isn’t true at all. To Kay it seems crystal clear that they have known they were fucked for weeks now, yet nobody could really work up much energy to do anything about it.

Kay isn’t quite sure how she would analyze her own reactions to these occurrences. Despite brief blips, like yesterday’s drive, where she gets caught up in the spirit of problem solving, for the most part she supposes she’s perfectly content to keep rotting away here, too. Though to entertain these thoughts makes it obvious that she isn’t delusional or in some kind of dream state – she’s perfectly aware that this is her basic attitude concerning a very messed up situation, and knows that there’s something horribly wrong with it, yet can’t quite bring herself to caring, most of the time.

From where he’s standing in the library, talking to Jeremy, Tony can see Kay and Grace chatting, but can’t hear them. And this is probably a good thing, he thinks, because it in turn most likely means they also can’t hear him. He had just blurted out an answer to Jeremy’s question, before remembering that Kay was seated over there in the café.

“No, man, I’d rather not. To be honest she’s kind of creeping me out here lately.”

He gives this response concerning an idea the two of them are batting around, for exploring in directions other than Pine Bluff Road. While nobody has suggested that crossing the street and exploring those woods might be worthwhile – primarily because this would place you directly in the middle of that loop Emily and Kay described – striking off elsewhere remains a possibility. It’s not like they have a ton of options left. Lenny and Clay, the two truest handymen on site, have already driven off in the latter’s pickup truck, down the dirt lane into Wooley Swamp, to examine the busted bridge, and brainstorm on a plan to fix it. This remains their most viable, and possibly only, shot for getting out of here.

In the meantime, he and Jeremy discuss canvassing the remaining pair of possibilities. Already this morning, Jeremy relates, he had ridden shotgun with Emily to see this so called loop first hand. This time, turning right onto Pine Bluff, driving north, they arrived at the spray painted, haint blue line, to the south of Otherwise, within fifteen minutes. And then were able to repeat this time, driving back to the property. So that effectively seems to rule out this possibility. As others attempt with futility to call, text, or even email friends and loved ones back home, and some of the truly strong-willed, like Emily or Kathy or even Liam, have somehow managed to block everything out and continue working on their projects the same as always, Tony for whatever reason finds himself in the rare mood of wanting to forget about his for the time being.

Jeremy has suggested they round up a couple of others, that one head out for the Hazelwoods’ trailer – an obvious, potential lifeline that they probably should have thought of much earlier – while the other head south through the woods, toward that cemetery. Tony has volunteered for that assignment, the graveyard and the quote unquote doom statues, primarily as a means of collecting more footage for his own project. This is when Jeremy suggested maybe he should take Kay with him. Truth is, though, as he mentions in his response, he has cooled considerably on her. They haven’t had sex for a couple of weeks now, and while she still attempts to keep the flame alive, he mostly tries to avoid her without being shitty about it.

Still, both agree that rustling up a companion is a good idea. Although it’s one of these instances where the reason given is, while valid, not the real reason, and everyone knows it but won’t admit as much. The reason given is witnesses or if not that then safety. But really it’s gotten to where nobody wants to go anywhere out there alone. Jeremy immediately strolls over to ask Lydia, who has just drifted downstairs to pour herself a coffee. She readily beams at him before he’s even finished the question, Tony observes. So that would be a yes. He’s still standing here surveying the scene as these two drift over to announce they’re shoving off. Spotting Tony’s indecision, Jeremy shouts out a request to Marcus, who is flipping through some old military magazine nearby.

“Hey Marcus! Why don’t you join Tony here on a little cemetery expedition!”

An incredulous Marcus slowly turns his head in their direction. “Must you keep involving me in this crazy ass bullshit? What makes you think I would be interested?”

“You’re saying you’re not?”

“No. And anyway, I’m conceptualizing my next piece.”

Tony, inspired by who know what, surprises even himself by cracking, “yeah, but couldn’t you do that anywhere?”

He eventually rustles up Rafael, who has more interest in such and is on friendlier terms with him anyway. Breaking off into separate packs outside, this pair of teams will each independently discover, at nearly the same time, separated by maybe half a mile, that the overgrown stretch of Old Stokely Farm Road is now entirely gone. From where they stand, Jeremy and Lydia can readily tell that the Hazelwoods’ trailer is also missing from the distant hill upon which it should sit. In the name of thorough investigation, they climb their way up to where it once was, and discover that an outline of dead, light yellow grass marks where it was, like an object recently moved.

Their driveway is still here, however, if more weeds than gravel. They trace this down to the road, and then the road north far enough to reach the former dirt lane entrance, the swinging wooden sign engraved with STOKELY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS. They stare up the straight, flat paved road, lined on both sides with forest, and not a car, house, or human in sight, and wonder at the possibility this offers for escape. By now, Tony and Rafael have long since reached Fairlawn Cemetery, and made their own disturbing discoveries.

Upon crashing through the brush, they pop out and are nearly beside themselves to see the same old road down below, Stokely Farm Road proper. Excitedly conjecture how they might still be able to drive out to her, then, or at the very least can pack and hike their way out just like Denise had done. For all they know, this might have been the route she used. However, this discovery is tempered considerably as they reach the pavement, and stare back at where that massive lake was expected, though there’s nothing if the kind. Only forest on both sides, as far as the eye can see, populated with nothing but those tall, smooth pines with just a smattering of needles way up top. The road is hilly here, in both directions, wave after undulating wave, though continuing in an unrelenting straight line.

Tony has just pulled out his video camera to document this, when Rafael chuckles and dips his head in the direction of a nearby tombstone. “Is this, how you say, the common name?” he asks.

Though he already has his eye up to the lens and has begun filming, Tony glances over and sees what Rafael’s nodding toward. It’s a grave marker with the last name DRUCKER, just a few spots in from the road, in the nearest row to them. “Heh. No, not really,” Tony tells Rafael, with a little laugh of his own, “that’s kinda funny. Actually, one other time a few of us came here, and we saw the name GRACE on a tombstone.”

Rafael’s eyes grow wide and his lips are even slightly trembling, as his whispers, “Grace?”

Which is also somewhat comical, Tony thinks, leading him to explain. “Yeah, but that would be the last name, obviously. These days that’s really a lot more common as a last name than a first.”

As his eyes scan the small cemetery, just this little pocket, no more than a half acre, tucked into what was formerly a curve in the road, Tony’s pretty sure he recalls roughly where this marker was. The Drucker one, sure, he’ll have to remember to ask Kathy, because it’s about fifty years old and might be a relative of Tom’s, who knows. But at the moment he’s more occupied with the Grace marker. As he recalls, it was in the middle somewhere, on the side of the lone hill. Yet as they stand here in this bottom section, he can’t seem to find it.

“What the fuck else is new...,” he mutters, and begins walking that way, toward the center and the hill, for a closer inspection.

“Eh? What you say, buddy?” Rafael asks.

“Nothing, I was just thinking that...,” Tony continues to mumble, and casts his eyes around the cemetery as a whole. Though not paying attention before, now that he thinks about it, there seem to be less tombstones here than on previous visits. And not only can he not find Grace’s, but the newest date his eyes are settling upon anywhere is thirty-seven years ago, with many, if not most, close to a hundred.

Another thought suddenly occurs to him. Though he’s absently left his camera rolling, Tony hasn’t been conscious of what he’s shooting, though now begins filming every marker within sight, spinning around in a low circle to capture as much as he can. Rafael steps out of the way, though nodding and giving a thumbs up, telling Tony, “good idea, good idea.” Once he’s finished with this, though, Tony hits the stop button, and begins instead scrolling through old files, attempting to locate the footage of a previous visit.

If nothing else, the clip Tony locates confirms that he’s not losing his mind. The one marked Grace is right here in that film footage, of course, and pretty damn close to where he’s standing. He can tell this by lining up the hill with the cemetery’s lone tree, a maple of some sorts on the flat area up top, and by counting the rows down from it. In Grace’s place, more or less, there’s now one that reads TURKELL, who died some forty-six years ago.

While he supposes it’s reassuring that he doesn’t know anybody named Turkell, and certainly no one at Otherwise, this is mostly yet another disturbing chapter in their tale out here. For it’s not that there are few tombstones, when he compares their current view against the video, and that many seem to be in different locations. It’s that all the names have changed as well.

As Tony feels himself growing even whiter around the edges, Rafael’s asking him what it is, and is clamoring for a look. Instead, Tony snaps the camera shut and tells him, “let’s get the fuck out of here. I’ve seen enough.” With a glance back over his shoulder, at the road, Tony tells himself that he is going to begin packing as soon as they arrive back at camp. That he’s going to pull a Denise, sneaking out in the middle of the night, and that this will be the way he goes.

Following his own return to camp, as he and Lydia go their separate ways, Jeremy drinks a few beers in his cabin, allowing Emily some time to finish up her work on the mural for the night. At the agreed upon hour of eleven, he walks over to retrieve her, as they soon drift off to sleep in their usual places. A nice toasty blaze crackling in the fireplace, he slumps in his sitting position against their front door, while she crawls into bed and passes out.

Or so it would seem. At some point just after daybreak, he awakens with a jolt to the sound of Emily’s screams. His eyes fly open to settle upon her, on all fours for some reason, in front of the fireplace, with a bleeding wound on the side of her face.

“What the fuck?!” he demands, even to his own ears sounding a little angrier than intended – although it will soon emerge, however conveniently, that has good reason to be in this state.

“Why is it so cold in here?” she dreamily asks, almost a purr, rubbing her arms now for warmth.

“What happened to your face?!” he asks.

Emily, in a slow, robotic motion, reaches up to touch the bleeding circle on her cheek. Explains, again in that sleepwalking monotone, how she had crawled on the floor in the middle of the night, to be closer to the fire. But then woke up this morning and yanked her head up, screaming because it was stuck to the floor. The fire had gone out and she had somehow frozen against it.

Well, this was part of the story, but not all of it. In all his meticulous planning, Jeremy had considered their only door. He had considered the large picture window. But he paid no mind at all to the tiny, frosted glass window in the bathroom, in the back wall above the toilet. It was small and as far as he knew did not open. Except, as he discovers now, soon locating the source of their draft, it is wide open. Not only that but, as he cranes his neck through it for a look below, someone has stacked a haphazard but effective pyramid of logs, wooden pallets, and plastic crates, for a platform reaching most of the way up to the window.

When confronted, Emily confesses in her dopey state that she slipped out last night for a few hours, “just to have a look” at that tunnel. Then admits she has been doing so most every night, really. The only difference was, this time she forgot and left the window open, collapsing on the floor here as soon as she returned.

“That is IT!” he tells her, slicing the air with one hand, right to left. “That is it! I’ve had it!”

“What do you mean?” she asks, rocking on her knees, gazing up at him puzzled and openmouthed.

“I mean it’s time for more drastic measure,” he says.

Before they even arrive at the main house – a little later than usual, considering this argument, and that it’s Grace’s day to cook breakfast, not Jeremy’s - word has already begun circulating that Tony is missing. In this regard he has more in common with Jen than Denise, in that he apparently hadn’t said a word to anyone. The latest version of his six planed wood projection continues to play in that otherwise dark room, but he has left all known cameras behind.

While some mourn more than others, most have by now nonetheless realized that staying occupied in whatever fashion is better than dwelling on these losses. Though everyone naturally expects that she will be affected most, Kay is among those throwing herself headlong into her artwork, far more than usual. Sublimating her desire into a bunch of pottery might be something she’s forcing herself into this morning, rather than a random kick from the muse, but wherever the truth lies, she’s been up in that third floor workshop all morning, firing away.

One person who can’t seem to get inspired today, atypically, is Kathy. She just isn’t feeling it, hasn’t been able to focus at all, really, since the news about Tony broke. Even as a fury of activity swirls all around her, both inside this main house, and floating up via to this workshop via those open windows.

Someone noticed first thing this morning that the thin, though strong and sharp, piano wire type fence was missing from around their garden area. She could hear Clay and Lenny down there smoking, before daylight, casually mentioning that it was gone. Just as Clay then relates that he can’t seem to find his pistol, followed by both of the discussing some bonkers plan she can’t quite believe, the reason they’ve gotten an early start – they plan on tearing down one of the new cabins that nobody is occupying, and using that wood to rebuild some bridge.

There’s just so much madness around here of late! Kathy thinks, hearing this. Standing at one of the long, scuffed, nearly shoulder high wooden work tables, she shapes her latest piece. Yet even with music playing – just some good old fashioned rock – and the presence of Rafael and Kay elsewhere in this space, she just can’t seem to focus. She drifts down to the café a couple of times, under the pretext of grabbing a drink or a snack, though it’s an actual craving for human interaction, and soaking up gossip, leading her here.

Emily hasn’t shown up in the main house today, Kathy is told, but she has some kind of horrific looking scab on the side of her face. Apparently self-inflicted somehow, and the catalyst behind a major blow-up between her and Jeremy. She has spent all morning working on that curious mural, of course. As for Jeremy, Kathy has heard that upon awakening, he joined forces with Lenny and Clay in ripping down that cabin. He also talked them into boarding up that hatch in the tunnel, leading down to that natural spring. Then they had pushed a couple of classroom cabinets – those ancient, heavy, wooden ones, basically resembling kitchen cabinets, but sturdier and beaten all to hell – out into the hall. Transported those in Clay’s pickup over to the barn, and shoved those atop the boarded over hatch as well.

Kathy actually caught a little bit of this last maneuver. It was kind of heard to miss them tearing across the lawn and struggling with those things. But, soon after they have finished and continued onward to work on that bridge, Kathy pauses in the middle of glazing her next wave of pots. The room is temporarily empty apart from her. She glances out the flipped up windows, at the overcast sky above this mild day, and sighs, recognizes that she just isn’t feeling this today. But she is feeling like a walk, and so just barely past noon, she throws on a light jacket and heads outdoors.

A cigarette sounds fantastic, too, is really what she’s thinking. This is her little secret – although she can’t quite say why she feels the need to keep it a secret. But ever since Tom went away, despite not smoking once or twice in the past thirty years – always drunk on wine and always at some major holiday party – she suddenly felt the urge to pick this habit up again, sort of. Some days she doesn’t think about it, and others she can’t seem to stop.

Passing by the school, Kathy glances over at the side door. Through the rectangular window, set upright in the thick metal door, she can see Emily in there, brush in hand as she continues painting that mural. What a strange, strange project that is. But you can’t exactly dictate where inspiration comes from, right? And anyway, Tom’s paintings were much more out there in many respects, yet found an audience regardless. Really, Kathy supposes, though never feeling that singular urge to tinker relentlessly with just one piece, at the exclusion of all else, in many respects she does feel that Emily is the closest to a kindred spirit she has here. Some of the others, such as the film obsessed duo, or Rafael, are certainly dedicated to their craft. Even oddball talents like Rebecca or Grace or possibly Marcus, she supposed, are highly devoted in their own weird way. At the opposite end you have Kay, God bless her, who is a sweet girl but just doesn’t have it. Emily however is the only other one here who seems to be on the same wavelength as her, totally possessed by her craft. Problem is, this doesn’t leave much room for others, so they haven’t exactly bonded.

She rounds the corner of the barn and continues up the short lip surrounding this pond. Safely over its peak and halfway down its backside, she sits down in the tall, cool grass and pulls her cigarettes out of a coat pocket. As she lights up and takes a drag, contemplating this beautiful, still body of water, she smiles just a little to observe that you almost can’t tell the difference between the overcast sky, and its reflection on this surface. They are one and the same.

The reason she prefers this spot is that it’s a secluded one. Again, while unable to explain this need for secrecy, apart from the illicit, teenaged aura of it, there’s no question it’s why she comes here. Partially the quiet and solitude, but mostly that it remains blocked from year. No one on the ground can see her, thanks to that lip, and those on upper floors of the main house find their views obstructed by the barn. In this spot, at least, directly behind it.

Well, no human can spot her here, that is. Others do make their presence felt from time to time. While for the umpteenth time today, just like every day, her thoughts turn again to Jen. Kathy supposes she should suffer some guilt in admitting this, but for some reason, she has pondered Jen’s fate far more than she has Tom’s. Maybe it’s because Jen initially chose to reveal herself to Kathy, pacing the edges of this lake, and continues to apparently favor Kathy over all others. So she feels some inexplicable connection to the girl, as if she’s trying to tell Kathy something, but can’t. And even though no one has yet spotted her from anywhere else but that third story workshop, and therefore she remains invisible to Kathy now, she can absolutely sense Jen’s presence nearby.

Some figures are much more blatant. This one, as many have noted, shows an unmistakeable preference toward females. As dusk begins setting in and she lights her second cigarette, Kathy can spot him in her periphery, without even looking that way. His glowing, sickly greenish-blue form, creeping in a lazy zigzag to the edge of the forest. She cranes her head slowly to the left, and the two of them engage in a staredown, though she does not move. His vaguely shimmering form, slowly leaking its essence like smoke, stands there grinning at her, while she continues to take drags of her cigarette, exhale, and stare coolly back at it. Finally, with the sky having now fully gone dark and her smoke down to its filter, she stubs the butt out, stuffs it into a coat pocket, and walks back to the main house.

At their agreed upon eleven o’clock hour, Jeremy walks over to retrieve Emily. By now he has learned to stop questioning the twists and turns this bizarre painting has taken, he’s a bit taken aback by the latest wrinkle. She now depicts Kay’s jaw as drooping all the way down until it rests upon the floor. And seeing this in turn reminds him of what Tony said just yesterday, about Kay creeping him out. Jeremy believes he is close to reaching that point with his own girlfriend, and what then?

As far as tonight goes, however, she seems perfectly normal, and playful. It could be that she, like he, is looking forward to the fresh start afforded by their latest mutual decision: they will begin spending their nights in that gift shop’s secret room. To keep up appearances, they will leave everything as is in their cabin, and continue to use it throughout their days. As they stand here appraising the mural, Emily readily admits she can’t explain the allure of that underground tunnel – having no memory, for example, of reaching its end, or who “they” are, nor what she had claimed they told her. She’s also perfectly agreeable to discussing this painting. Though Jeremy can’t quite bring himself to ask about Kay, he does question why she painted over Tom. Where he once stood, it’s now been painted over to match the background.

“Well I mean he wasn’t really here, you know? Not like the rest of us have been, this whole time,” she explains.

Jeremy’s eyebrows shoot up and he offers a nervous laugh, more caught off guard than amused by this comment. He’s wondering what will become of Chef Jen’s likeness, or that of his parents. “Wow. I don’t know…that’s kind of a messed up way of looking at things.”

She responds with a light giggle and says, “you know what I mean.” Then leans in to peck him on the lips.

They turn and begin walking down the ling central hall, past the office that is empty and dark for once, past the pair of equally dark classrooms and out the front door. As they stroll side by side across the lawn, Emily looks up and sees the empty space, in the slot nearest the gift shop, where a cabin used to be.

Emily starts laughing and asks, “what do you think Harry will have to say? About the cabin you guys tore down?”

“Fuck that guy. He’s never around anyway. This is down to survival.”

“How did they decide on that first cabin?” she questions, though half teasing, as if mostly knowing the answer anyway.

Glancing sideways at her, with a proud smirk, he explains, “that was my idea. I talked them into it. Maybe kind of suggested it was in the way. But really I was thinking we would wanna get that out of there. You and me, I mean. Less chance of discovery, if someone got some wild idea about moving in there.”

She shoots him an impressed smile and says, “hmm! Clever!” Then shifts gears and asks, “hey, you guys get that bridge built or what?”

“Heeeeelll no. But, I mean, we made good progress. Another day or two and it should be done.”

Moving through the bare patch of land, where that cabin once stood, they take a look around to make sure nobody is observing them. Then round the front corner of the gift shop, make their way to the front door and enter. There was always the chance someone like Grace could be hanging out here, but it was an exceedingly small possibility, particularly this late on a random, cold night, now that they’ve for all intents entered the winter season. Not to mention that, apart from Zeke, they’ve had no visitors for weeks now.

As they find the place deserted, and dark apart from one weak office light left on around the clock, the two of them slip behind the counter, begin fumbling around for the secret passage switch. It’s been over a month since their only visit here, so it takes a handful of secrets before Emily finally remembers where it was and gives it a pull to open that door. The two of them instantly pop to their feet and bolt inside there, then yank the door shut behind them. Then bolt it, which presumably renders it inoperable from the other side, even if finding the hidden lever.

Using their phones for illumination, they stand in place near the door, though sweeping their arms around to inspect every angle of this room. The air has that crisp stillness of an abandoned place, one that almost seems to pop in the ears. Jeremy’s eyes eventually land on a small bedside lamp someone had the good sense to leave in here, and glides over to snap it on. Both are relieved that the bulb is in working order, casting its warm buttery glow across most of the room.

Jeremy nods as he continues inspecting the room, admits to Emily, “This is good. I feel better already.”

“So do I. It has a good aura here.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, but...we should be safe, and have pretty much everything we need. Plus it should hopefully keep us out of, uh, whatever you wanna call some of this weird stuff. Until we can figure a way out of this place.”

“Yeah...I guess we should kinda take inventory and maybe make a list of what we need,” Emily suggests, begins rubbing her arms through the light sweater she’s wearing. “Fuck, it is cold in here, though.”

“Think we should start a fire?” Jeremy questions, tipping his chin toward the chimney. “It looks like we have a decent amount of wood. Of course, we’ll wanna start sneaking more in here, too, as soon as we can.”

Emily grimaces and says, “that sounds good and all, but wouldn’t somebody notice the smoke? Coming out of the chimney?”

“You think so? At this hour?” he questions, somewhat surprised that she would even suggest it.

“People are more observant than you think,” she tells him, eyebrows raised for emphasis. “Especially this bunch.”

Jeremy chuckles and says, “that’s funny, I would’ve guessed the complete opposite. To me it seems like everyone’s so wrapped up in their projects, they wouldn’t notice a fucking thing.” When Emily doesn’t respond, as the continues looking around the room, canvassing it slowly on foot, and nodding at what she sees, the silence compels Jeremy to add, “but...maybe you’re right. We need to think up some pretext for keeping the gift shop fireplace burning all day long.”

“Mmm...maybe something to do with...the pipes busting?” she suggests.

He snaps his fingers and points the index at her, smiling as he says, “yes! That’s brilliant! We need to keep a fire going so the pipes don’t burst.”

“As far as tonight....?” Emily questions, as the two of them draw up to one another, meeting face to face in the middle of the room.

“As far as tonight, I’ll keep you warm,” he says, pulling her toward him. He wraps his arms around him and she does the same, although only he is unable to resist sliding his hands down, cupping her ass in both hands.

“Hmm, I’ll bet,” she smirks, as they kiss some before moving over to the bed.

Morning will find the grounds consumed by a major uproar, as the internet and phone capabilities both are up and down in fits. Even so, whatever brief pockets of joy are to be found, soon fall by the wayside when one failure to connect with the outside world is followed by another and another. In many respects, having no connection was better, in that it at least kept their dim flickers of hope alive. As opposed to this bleak outlook offered by these connections, which are theoretically sound yet produce only sadness and despair.

Those sending email and texts mostly never receive a response. A couple manage to punch through with phone calls, yet are left almost wishing they hadn’t. As this feels like a community-wide project, in many respects, nearly every person on site hangs out in the main house for much of the day, comparing notes and sharing results. Emily attempts calling her mom, and is overjoyed when she picks up on the third ring.

“Mom! Oh my God! Hiiiiii!” Emily squeals, beaming, and even brought to tears at the sound of her mother’s voice, slouched low in a library easy chair. “Listen! Uh, we really need someone to come up here and...”

“Who is this?” Mrs. Garverick angrily demands.

“It’s Emily, Mom! I guess this isn’t the greatest connection. But ah...okay, so Denise, I don’t even know where to start, but...”

“This isn’t funny,” her mother says, and hangs up the phone.

Kay’s experience is an even harsher one. She also reaches her mother, only to have her tell Kay, almost before a single word is said, “don’t ever call here again.” And terminate the connection as well. Both will attempt calling home on numerous successive occasions, yet only reach voicemail or endless ringing that never goes to voicemail. Across the board, successes on this front are an effective nil. Those dialing 911 either discover an endless busy signal, or more of that endless ringing, or else wind up talking to the Rowlette County Sheriff.

Rafael is the first to manage this, just shy of noon, and a collective hopeful gasp breaks out across this ground floor. They begin writing down his report, though the dispatcher then continues to insist this isn’t a real place, and that the address doesn’t exist. Thinking it might be some sort of language barrier type episode, Lydia respectfully asks to take over, yet she doesn’t get much further. Eventually, the dispatch wearily agrees to send someone out, though this person in question never shows.

Jeremy was slated to cook breakfast this morning, yet managed to switch with Grace so he could continue helping with the bridge. Even so, this trio returns for a lunch break, reporting that they’ve made great progress and should be finished by nightfall. While this news offers the only ray of sunlight any of them have seen for days, plotting an escape that way will have to wait until tomorrow at the earliest. In the meantime, caught up in this phone connection fever himself, Jeremy is also able to reach the Rowlette County Sheriff. Even though he kind of gets sidetracked and winds up asking about the status of his parents’ case. Is beyond frustrated to discover they seem to have no idea what he’s talking about.

“Did you try the sheriff’s office?” he asks Kathy, who has drifted down from the workshop for a bite herself.

“The sheriff’s office?” she questions, blinking and recoiling slightly, making a puzzled face that would suggest she’s surprised by this question.

Well, he supposes it is a bit of a weird one, and that his focus is misplaced. They need to concentrate their energies one hundred percent upon getting out of this place. To that end, he’s frustrated, and considers it peculiar that Blodgett displays no urgency whatsoever regarding their common plight. Then again, unlike Wendal, at least the guy’s here, and he does offer some astute suggestions from time to time, if asked. One could possibly even argue that his level-headed refusal to become hysterical over any of this is an asset of sorts.

With this in mind, Jeremy exits the main house’s back door and strides over to the school. As expected, he encounters their headmaster in the office. However, this time around he is not in his own personal chamber, but rather standing with his back to the door, behind the secretary’s desk, staring at the row of filing cabinets.

“What is it now?” Jeremy asks.

Liam had already begun turning his body in Jeremy’s direction, at the sound of his arrival, and makes eye contact with him, accompanied by a slight nod. Then he rotates back the other way, to whatever sight has his spellbound, as he tells Jeremy, “damned if I know. But get a load of this, will ya.”

Jeremy drifts over near where Blodgett is standing, though he can see what the headmaster is indicating as soon as he rounds the secretary’s counter: a sizeable pool of blood, basically circular in shape, in front of the second file cabinet from the right. Upon doing so, he draws up short, both due to the shock of seeing this, but also to get a comprehensive, wide-angled look at the scene.

“What do you suppose this is?” Blodgett asks.

“Fuck if I know,” Jeremy tells him. “Nor do I really care to, to be honest.”

Blodgett has both hands in his pants pockets and is jangling some change found in one, keys in the other, by the sounds of things. Though still halfway lost in thought, lips pursed, he cranes his neck sideways and back, regards Jeremy again in joking, “got the ol’ blinders on at this point, eh? Can’t say as I blame you.”

“Nnnn...no, it’s not that. I’m well aware of the weird shit goin’ on around here. But I think Lydia’s right, we don’t need to focus on the weird shit. The weird shit will still be here. Solving the weird shit will not get us out of here.”

Liam nods and replies, “I gather that’s what brings you thisaway?”

“Well, yeah, I suppose so. Just hoping to pick your brain, really, on what you think we should be doing. Since you seem to be one of the more, uh, levelheaded characters around this place.”

Hearing this, Blodgett faintly smirks and says, “I’ll take that obvious bribe of a compliment.”

Jeremy chuckles and tells him, “that’s cool. But yeah, I mean, we’re repairing that bridge through Wooley Swamp, and that’s going just fine. Although I’m kinda wondering what comes next after that, assuming we do make it out on the other side. Considering what kind of...difficulties we’ve experienced, trying to leave via other means. Or some of us have, anyway. Presumably Denise and even Tony maybe have figured something out, though we haven’t...”

“Have you inspected the dirt lane beyond the bridge?” Blodgett cuts him off to ask.

“Well, no, I mean, not recently. Other than what we can see from there. Although Clay drove the entirety of it that day he was looking for Denise, and it was perfectly drivable.”

“I shouldn’t be so confident that it still is,” Liam advises. “You may wish to take a gander, next time you’re out there.”

Nodding to confirm this suggestion registers, Jeremy says, “we’re just taking a lunch break, actually, and are getting right back to it. But see, then I was also thinking, over there grabbing a bite, it’s been three weeks I believe since Kidwell paid us. Plus...”

Blodgett interrupts once more, however, with the question, “he’s been mailing your checks, I presume?”

“Well yeah,” Jeremy shrugs one shoulder, “first he was dropping them off, then ever since that dude disappeared, he’s been mailing them.” He shakes his head and jokes, in a bitter, gallows humor tone, “that’s what we should be investigating: the disappearance of Harry fucking Kidwell. Bring out the dogs. That dude. Wow...”

He trails off, collecting his thoughts, and Liam opens his mouth to say something. Except Jeremy flies into another tangent, beginning with, “not that we really need the money if we’re trapped here, obviously. It’s just one more red flag, you might say. Plus like I was gonna mention, the internet and the phone’s been down, so people are flipping about that, too.”

“The internet?” Blodgett questions, by appearances only now hearing about this dilemma, for the first time.

“Yeah, it’s been up and down all day.” Jeremy sighs and asks, “I don’t suppose it’s been working any better in this building, has it? On your computer or phone or whatever? Have you noticed?”

Blodgett makes a quizzical expression and says, “hmm, your guess is as good as mine. Let’s go investigate, shall we?”

The two of them walk around the corner to his office, and he slips behind the desk as Jeremy hangs out in front of it. Liam has a seat, and begins tapping the keyboard attached to a diagonally slanting PC on the corner of his desk. But he is by appearances having some difficulty even remembering his password. Then again, Jeremy’s not exactly surprised. He’s never seen the old man on it, to the extent that if asked to describe his office, you might forget to recall that the computer was even here.

“Ah, there we go...,” Blodgett mutters at last. He clicks around on and moves the mouse, types a little more before concluding, “well, my dear chap, I believe you are correct.”

“No connection?”

“No connection,” Blodgett confirms, and leans back now in his chair. It’s a fairly tight confines back there, and as the chair rocks a handful of times, Jeremy half fears that Liam’s head is going to smash through the window behind him.

“See, that’s what I’m afraid of. Not so much the internet and the phone, but what happens when the power goes down? That’s the next logical step. And then we seriously are fucked. I mean, I presume you must be the one paying the bills around here? So you’ve been paying the electricity and the internet and so on?”

Blodgett regards him as does someone who considers the question so basic, so obvious, it needs no asking. He shrugs and tells Jeremy, “nothing’s changed on my end.”

After rejoining his pair of coworkers over in the main house, Jeremy rides back out with them to the bridge. At this point the project is not quite completed enough to cross the river, not even on foot, though they’ve at least accomplished that much by nightfall. Tiptoeing their way to the other side – a fall here wouldn’t be fatal, only a brutally cold inconvenience – they are suffused with the giddiness of a job well done. A process aided by the inclusion of celebratory beers in their cooler, of which each is toting one.

Less than a half mile ahead, over one slight hump in the road, and a gentle bend to the left, they encounter a jaw dropping sight which is just as Blodgett had feared. As far as the eye can see up this dirt lane, spaced well enough apart so as not to obscure the track, though bunched too close to permit driving, dozens upon dozens of those weird, skinny pines are now standing. They are too young to have attained much height, yet are clearly members of that species, with their smooth, reddish brown bark to near total lack of needles.

“What the…,” Clay croaks, “man, I just drove this fucking thing, not even, what, two weeks ago?”

“That bastard!” Jeremy shouts.

“That bastard?” Lenny challenges, whipping his head to examine Jeremy with a puzzled, though amused, half smile.

“Well yeah!” Jeremy explains, flapping an angry hand in the direction of these trees. “Kidwell obviously planted these here! They didn’t just grow out of nowhere in a couple of weeks! He doesn’t want us to leave!”

Lenny nods, one hand on his left him, the other hoisting a beer bottle to his mouth. “Interesting theory,” he says, follows it up by asking, “and so what, Blodgett knew about it? Or this was just a lucky guess?”

“I don’t know but he’s gonna start answering some fucking questions too!”

“We’ll chop these down next. Fuck it. It’s not like we got anything better to do,” Clay says, spitting out some freshly applied chewing tobacco.

Returning after dark, Jeremy fetches a backpack from his old cabin, stuffing it with firewood. He sneaks over to their new digs in secret room and unloads it. At eleven o’clock, he traipses once more over to the school to retrieve her. The office is completely dark and the old man is nowhere in sight, so his interrogation will have to wait until morning. As for Emily, she is calmly painting over some figure near the right hand edge now, just as she did Tom. Jeremy can’t remember who was in this spot and doesn’t have the energy to ask.

Safely behind their bunker door, however, he suddenly finds the opposite is true. He has a surfeit of energy and can’t stop pacing as he vents to Emily. Specifically he’s wondering how cutthroat things might get around here as their situation worsens.

“I mean, do we invite Lenny in here to stay with us? Is it really selfish and shitty not to? Grace I can see where we might be forced to, you know, since she already knows and could turn it into a total free-for-all. But Lenny, that’s family, man, you know? But then you’re wondering, how much space do we have? Man, this whole thing is one fucked up nightmare…”

“Yeah because then wouldn’t we have to invite Lydia, too?”

Jeremy slams on the brakes and turns to ask Emily, who is sitting cross-legged on the bed, “Lydia? Why Lydia?”

Emily’s face expands into a broad grin and she says, “seriously? You mean you don’t know?”

Hearing this, faint bells ring in the back of his head. He does kind of recall wondering about that at one point. Well, good for his crafty old uncle, for pulling that off. As Emily fills him in on all the latest gossip, both of them manage to slip into pajamas and crawl into bed, with only the fire by way of light. They are side by side under the blankets, his arm wrapped around her, when Emily poses possibly the day’s most poignant question.

“Jeremy, what do you think is actually happening to us?”

“Happening to us?”

“Yeah, you know. Or maybe I should ask, what’s your stance on ghosts?”

“Ghosts?” he repeats, then chuckles. “Uh…I can’t say I’ve ever dedicated much – or any – thought to my personal stance on…ghosts…”

“Really? So what do you really think is going on around here with, like, these Jen sightings, or The Ruiner, or some of this other really bizarre stuff?”

“I don’t know. Why does everyone keep asking that? Because to me, you know, some shit will always be a mystery. I think I’m just good at blocking all that out and just focusing on what’s relevant.”

“Relevant?” She questions, and flips around in bed to face him. Searching his face, she asks, “you don’t think any of this is relevant?”

“You think it is?”

“Yes, I do,” she says, and her face now assumes a look that he can make out in the limited light, one that is half fear, yet also half an awestruck fascination. “You know, I always kind of assumed a ghost is a dead person who died but hasn’t, like, moved on. I think pretty much everyone does. But what if that’s wrong?”

“Okay, assuming ghosts are real. What do you think they really are, then?”

She pauses for a few seconds, before answering in the form of a question. “What if ghosts were people who had ceased to exist? Like they were never here at all?”

Jeremy isn’t sure what he actually believes. On the surface he would scoff at this, but then he’s wondering if he secretly knows this to be true. Then wonders whether he even wants to verbalize this duality, and discuss it with Emily. He debates this internally so long that he’s aware Emily is breathing heavily, that she’s fallen asleep without another word said. Soon enough, he too falls asleep.

By the time the power goes out, at some point after 2am, there is not a soul awake at Otherwise.

“Mmm, you look kinda hot in that getup,” Lydia tells him.

“Just kinda hot?” Lenny jokes.

He and the other guys have just returned from their third and presumably final day out rebuilding the bridge. They even drove his jeep and Clay’s pickup across the bridge and back, without incident. Tomorrow, they and whoever else they can rustle up will begin chopping down those trees blocking their path. But for now, attired still in his work clothes consisting of plain white tee shirt, jeans, and hiking boots, he is helping Lydia move.

“Shacking up with some strange dude,” Lenny teases, shaking his head, “what would your husband think about this?”

“Uh…heh heh…”

The initial plan was that he would bring his meager possessions down three cabins, into hers. On the surface this appeared less work. The only problem was, she had built a makeshift film developing room in one corner of the cabin, which was kind of in the way. Not so much that, but her reams of accompanying gear, and developed prints and so forth, stacked or loosely piled all around it. They eventually concluded it might be easier just to leave her work related stuff there, as her studio, and for them to live in Lenny’s cabin instead.

In between, there was an intermediary period where she tried bringing some stuff up to Tony’s old installation room. But the room never felt right to her, too gloomy even after she shut off the creepy projections and turned on some lights. So this never progressed beyond toting a handful of boxes up there.

“Hey, that reminds me. You told us that highly entertaining tale about the swinger’s club, but didn’t say how your husband found out.”

Lydia giggles and explains, “it wasn’t a swinger’s club. It was a singles club. Slight difference.” She sighs and continues, adding, “but, ah…what it was, was, one of his good friends walked into the meeting. I couldn’t believe. I wasn’t really a swinger, that was a joke. But I was used to being single, and realized right away the marriage was a mistake.”

Having dropped off the last of her personal effects at Lenny’s trailer, they are walking to the main house now for those boxes. After an outage that lasted most of the morning, the power is back on now, bringing along with it internet and phone capability. Actually, in one of the more comical twists – at least as far as Lenny is concerned, though others are less amused – his cheapie prepaid phone never seems to lose a signal out here. Not that it’s done anyone much good.

“Of course, as it turns out…none of it really mattered anyway, right? The last time I managed to call out, he didn’t even know who I was.”

“Yeah, that seems to be the latest twist. At first I thought my friends were fucked up, or being wiseass dicks. But after calling five or six of ’em, I thought, okay, this isn’t a joke…”

Upon entering the main house, they discover that seemingly every light is on, as if to make up for lost time. There’s some crazy golden oldies type record spinning on a turntable behind the front desk. Just past it, near the board game archway, Marcus is pacing back and forth, screaming into his phone.

“Man, what do you mean you don’t know anyone by that name!? Come on! It’s your boy! Marcus! What the fuck is goin’ on over there?”

Glancing over that way, Lydia can see past him and into the library. Zeke is sitting in one of the chairs, leafing through a book in the same old clothes he wears every day. She feels such an attachment to this kid, which she really can’t explain, except that her heart bursts every time she sees him. While able to cobble together some pajamas that he apparently wears, he hasn’t taken to other clothes she’s collected on his behalf, both from other people and The Collection. Seated in the next easy chair over, meanwhile, there’s Kay, drumming her fingers idly on one of the arms. She happens to be wearing this crazy set of cheek warmers, for some reason, with the strings drawn tight, and when her eyes meet Lydia’s, they are conveying such unbelievable sadness that Lydia quickly turns away. Shuddering as she does so, in fact.

Up on the third floor, they step into Tony’s old room, where some smartass or sentimentalist has turned on all six projectors again. Therefore to walk across it feels like traversing through a section of that peculiar forest, all the creepier in that it seems to move along with them. They each grab one box from the far corner and scurry their way on out of here. In the hallway, however, the sound of someone cursing the next room over, along with that of snipping scissors, draws them up short.

They exchange intrigued, though amused, glances, and without a word said change course. They step into Rebecca’s installation space, where the immediately observe that she’s changed her entire display. Hanging from the ceiling now, everywhere they turn, are garments that have been cut in half, with each hanging an inch or two from its counterpart. Yet each half has its own little note affixed to it, such as the left and right sides of some pants that are the color of red velvet cake.

This stain bring back any memories? One of them begins, with an arrow pointing downward and left. Can’t really see it, but it’s there (night of wine and tickling if that helps).

But then, attached to its mate, there’s the much more cryptic message, Sorry I couldn’t fix what your parents told you.

This scene is such an engrossing one that they momentarily forget what drew them to the room. “Stupid fucking cunt,” they hear from the back wall, however, followed by some sniffling and, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.” They look over that way where, through the sea of dangling dresses, blouses, and scarves, they can just barely discern Rebecca in profile, standing at some small fold-up table.

“Hey! What’s going on!” Lydia calls out with exaggerated cheerfulness, as they approach.

Even from a distance, it’s obvious that Rebecca is overcome with tears, yet extremely angry all at once. Thus she somehow manages to scowl in their direction while also relax and brighten to see them.

“It’s my fault, I know it is. I keep driving them away.” Rebecca seethes. She has just picked up a pair of lacy white panties, ones with a single red heart stitched just above the elastic band.

“What’s that?” Lenny asks, also with as much jocularity as he can manage.

Rebecca whips her head and examines their eyes, genuinely startled that they haven’t heard the news. “You guys don’t know? Zoe’s gone now, too. Haven’t seen her since yesterday. Soooo…,” Rebecca trails off, turning her attention to the panties once more, “this is my latest project. Memories! One good and one bad, for each piece of clothing. With Jen and Zoe both. These are the panties I was wearing the first time Zoe ever…well, never mind. That’s private. But yes, I also had these on just yesterday, when I realized she was nowhere to be found.”

She has them mesmerized, cutting a straight line up through the crotch, and separating that stitched heart into ventricles. They have set their boxes down without a conscious thought of doing so. And Emily has already entered the room before they’re aware of her presence.

“Hey! Thought I heard voices!”

“Whoa!” Lydia remarks, spinning around at the sound of Emily’s. “What brings you up here? Seriously, I don’t ever remember seeing you up here before!”

Emily is walking toward them with hands clasped behind her back, balanced on her heels. Curly blonde hair pulled back into a loose ponytail and wearing an enigmatic, knowing smirk. To Lenny, she brings up distant memories of a schoolteacher. She tilts her head to the left, toward the workshop, and explains.

“I’ve been helping Grace make candles. We cut up a bunch of tee shirts into strips, for wicks. We’re melting crayons into a bunch of old bottles. But…I’m getting kinda thirsty, thought I’d see what I could rustle up from the lounge.”

“Cutting up clothes, huh?” Rebecca retorts, snorting a demented little laugh. “Sounds familiar.” When nobody takes the bait and awkward glances abound, she turns to face Emily directly and says, “Zoe disappeared, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry,” Emily tells her. Now she draws up to the folding card table, in between Lenny and Lydia. Her eyes settle upon the sheared panties, which in turn draws everyone else’s attention there as well.

“This is my latest project. Good/bad memories, centered around specific clothing items.”

Emily is leaning inward slightly, examining those panties. Her next question isn’t specifically aimed at Rebecca, but is taken as such, considering she’s the last who has spoken.

“Do you know the difference between a ghost and a demon?” she asks.

As if in a trance, following a slight recoil, Rebecca’s eyes seem to glass over, as she regards Emily, and her hands fly up to this silver necklace, with which she begins fidgeting. “What do you mean?” she says.

Emily shrugs and rolls her neck around, in the manner of someone loosening up. “Most people don’t know the difference. We tend to think of these as being the same things. But I’m beginning to see the difference.”

Another short pause follows. Finally, Rebecca taps one of Emily’s hands and says, “let’s walk over to the lounge for a drink, you and me. I want to hear more about this.”

After these two have left this cramped, stuffy room, Lydia and Lenny look at one another and shrug. They pick up their boxes and exit the room as well.

“I just wanna hear it from you. Give it to me straight. We’re all adults here. Did you know the lane was blocked?”

“Specifically? No. But it only made sense.”

Following their long day working on that bridge, finally completing it, they actually returned slightly before dark. At roughly the same time Lenny is helping Lydia move, Jeremy marches over to Blodgett’s office. As expected, he finds its occupant kicking back behind the desk. Attired in his dress shirt, slacks, and tie, as he is most days, and with his hands laced together over his stomach while he reclines.

“It only makes sense?” a bewildered Jeremy questions, “what the hell does that mean?”

Blodgett flashes his eyes up at Jeremy, then stares vaguely ahead at his desk calendar once more. He covers his mouth with one hand, rubbing his beard stubble with the thumb, before making eye contact again.

“Well, hmm. How shall I phrase this? You’re not getting out of this godforsaken place. None of us are.”

Jeremy marched over here intent upon really laying into the guy, but is too rattled to continue. What’s the point, anyway? Determining what Blodgett does or doesn’t know really just amounts to more of these meaningless distractions.

Instead they work out an arrangement for tomorrow. It’s to be another all-hands-on-deck kind of day, albeit centered on a pair of projects this time around. Half the residents would be involved in chopping down trees. But, after discussing the matter, Jeremy suggests and Blodgett agrees to head up, there will be second group digging a large hole behind the main house. The headmaster concurs that the power is likely to go out for good. But it’s now consistently cold that they can bury their refrigerated and frozen goods. It’s a little too warm still during the days to just leave these goods sit outside. Should the electricity cut out for an extended period again, at least they’ll be prepared.

Upon ironing this out, Jeremy steps out into the hall. He’s a bit surprised not to see Emily slaving away at her mural. But, who knew, maybe this infernal creation was at last completed. Taking his sweet time walking back to the gift shop, mostly because it’s a pleasant, if cloud covered night, he notes the leftover stove, sitting against the second cabin, which is the only visible remnant of the first cabin. At least they have a functional spare, he thinks, in case they need it somewhere.

Inside the gift shop, he starts their little cover story fire in that side. Realizes he forgot to load up a backpack tonight, but picks up an armload of wood from here to take into their room. Pulling the hidden lever to enter, he’s surprised yet again to discover Emily is not here, either. She did mention that Grace had asked for help making candles, however, so that project must be running later than expected.

He builds a fire in their room, then traipses across the property once more to the main house. Once here, it doesn’t take long to establish that Emily was consoling Rebecca in some matter – well, in this blitzkrieg of confounding developments, it seems Zoe is missing, now, too, news to him – but nobody has seen them for two or three hours. With no fresh coffee to be found, or for that matter any brewed coffee, Jeremy throws together a mug of microwaved hot chocolate to warm himself up and think.

Slurping this down at a speed that occasionally brings that white heat sensation of burning one’s taste buds, Jeremy is initially stumped as to where this duo could have gone. It’s only in replaying some seemingly unconnected conversations, in particular the one where Emily was saying people are more observant than he thinks, that he’s finally led back around to what should have been obvious from the outset. The barn. Of course. How dense could he possibly be?

As he slams his partially full mug down on the counter by the microwave, and storms out the back door, Jeremy wonders if he alone hadn’t been the target of her comment, and had failed to pick up on that as well. But regarding this barn, and that infernal tunnel underneath, did he seriously think that shoving a heavy object over the hatch, and moving her to a different room would magically cure...whatever this spell is, the one that has such a powerful hold upon his woman?

He feels like an idiot, now, accepting such a rosy scenario without a thought to the contrary. And this is before he’s even found any direct evidence to contradict it. Yet, entering this barn, within which every working bulb is blazing, though seeing no one, and receiving no response when he calls out their names, Jeremy rounds the corner leading back to the old horse stalls and nearly falls into the man sized hole in the floor. It’s only the glint of those overhead lights hitting metal objects nearby, like for instance the hacksaw and the axe, that draws his attention at the last second. And even then, he has to jump off to the side to avoid catastrophe.

At first this seems impossible, but then he reconsiders. There’s really no reason a couple of healthy young ladies with these tools at their disposal couldn’t chop their way through a wooden barn floor, however sturdy, in the time allotted. And anyway, his interpretations of this phenomenon are about as meaningless as always, for there’s no debating this is what they’ve actually done. And then dropped a ladder into the backside of the hole, which he hadn’t even seen until jumping around it. Just beyond, there’s that damn school cabinet, blocking the actual hatch, a move which seems laughably inconsequential now.

Though dreading this prospect, and calling out their names still, Jeremy forces himself to descend this ladder. With considerable caution, though, each of his first three steps followed by a long pause where he listens for any sound out of the ordinary. Finally, when he has lowered himself enough to bend at the knees and peer downward, can he see into the chamber enough to spot Emily, standing at her familiar post to the left of where this water spring terminates.

This time, when he calls out her name, she does at least turn around. Only to coolly regard him, without comment, and slowly creak her head back in the original direction, staring at who knows what down this tunnel. And meanwhile, there’s no sign of Rebecca whatsoever.

Any potential danger does appear to be missing from this scene, though, and he’s also impatient to yet again rescue his girlfriend from this strange affliction, to rescue her as he would any person he truly loves. And so bounds down the remaining rungs as quickly as safety will around, then jogs over to where she is. Reaches out to lightly grab and shake her arm, attempting a weak laugh as he does so.

“Hey, Emily, come on, let’s go, I thought we were over this whole thing, right?”

But she says nothing, and doesn’t look at him again. So he moves around to where he’s beside Emily, sort of, though ahead of her enough to turn and make eye contact. Not that she reciprocates this gesture.

“Where’s Rebecca, anyway?”

Emily’s lustrous blue eyes continue peering into the eventual darkness, at the curve of the earth maybe a half mile ahead, though never regarding him directly. She does at least speak, however, muttering, “they said she was needed...a little farther along. But,” and now she sighs, “I am still needed here. I am to remain.”

“Come on, Emily. I’m done playing, let’s go,” he says, and grabs her arm with more force. At which point, Emily does finally look him in the eye – even as he will almost wish she had not, for it’s a look of pure unbridled hatred that he’s certain will haunt the rest of his days.

“YOU ARE NOT MY KEEPER!” she screams with unchecked fury, and shoves him with both hands, squarely in the chest. He’s caught off balance to the extent he finds himself windmilling his arms for steadiness, and just about tumbles into the spring.

By now, Emily has already returned her attention to the tunnel. And when she next speaks, it’s with such chilling calmness that Jeremy almost prefers the demonic shouting. “If you wish, you may bring me food on occasion,” she says, though never so much as flicking her eyeballs his way again. “Or I can get someone else to do so. Otherwise, please leave me the fuck alone.”

Jeremy is so stunned he finds himself unable to move, and will realize who knows how many seconds later that he wasn’t even breathing. Upon observing this, exhales as slowly and quietly as he can, as though the sound of his breath might cause another eruption. Whatever the case, he has no idea how to handle this situation. Will eventually tiptoe over to the ladder, with a couple of trepidatious glances back at Emily, and climb to the surface once more.

Nothing about this is making sense to Denise. She has spent the last six days effectively walking in circles. With every trip she repeats this same process, and every time it turns out the same.

Most days she has managed, particularly in the early going, at least two such circular journeys, and sometimes three. She climbs this jagged peak of rocks, high enough to see that town in the distance. Will descend it with a constant eye to her compass, diverting from this only to confirm with additional contextual clues such as the moss growth, and the sun, and occasional looks back at the miniature mountain, fading behind her. But will at all times continue due east.

The first few occasions, Denise is convinced her attention had to have lapsed at some point. Because she always unfailingly arrives back at this rock face again, near or precisely at a point she had earlier left. On subsequent journeys she makes a dedicated effort at remaining in the moment for the handful of hours it takes to complete this circuit. To conserve mental energy, if not reduced to such caveman mentality outright as a consequence of exhaustion, she internally or even sometimes out loud will repeat this mantra, over and over again. Leaving: Otherwise. Approaching: this next town.

It could be a sign of her delirium that she has not only given this town a nickname, Miragealia, but that she finds this name progressively more and more hilarious as these days continue. Yet make no mistake about it, she would tell whomever she might stumble across someday, assuming this ever happens again, the town is no mirage. She has taken a few photos, permitting herself this meager energy expenditure, and has consulted them on occasion by firelight. Mirages don’t photograph – for example, a seemingly extra large moon will appear normal sized in a snapshot – so unless she’s totally losing it, there’s something else at work here.

She remembers trying that moon experiment once as a young teenager, with Emily and Kay and a few other girls, the one where you bend over and peer between your legs, and in so doing will see that distant satellite as it actually is. Denise recalls reading somewhere that scientists still aren’t quite sure why this is so. And as if to confirm...well, she couldn’t quite say what at the moment, exactly, only that it seemed to make sense at the time, Denise will repeat that rigorous piece of testing out her alone, in the wilds, one night. A feat she is just barely over to pull off with her slight paunch and smoker’s cough, it’s true, although she does find comfort in the fact that, having run out of cigarettes, and walked halfway around the globe by now, her physical fitness does seem to be on the upswing.

At times she feels this close to figuring something out, but the thought skitters away like a moonlit apparition. Some mornings she rises with the intent of heading in the complete opposite direction of what seems to make sense, but can never – at least not yet – bring herself to do so. If the direct visual line, according to eyesight and a compass’s magnet and every known cue, is not the best route, then she’s at a loss to explain how anything else could possibly be even better.

For one, this mountain behind her effectively rules out that direction. Regarding the other three, the sun rises as she would expect, backlighting that town every morning, and sails overhead, setting behind the jagged peak. At yet this is still where she winds up, each nightmarish voyage. Which she has of course confirmed, because, after a handful of these, Denise began marking up the trees in elaborate fashion, carving for example her name in cursive, on the first occasion, and then the date after that.

Denise seriously regrets not thinking forward enough to stuff a freaking pen in her backpack. As such, among the few other energy burns she will permit herself, she has taken to jotting down some thoughts, at night, mostly, by firelight, on her phone’s note taking app. Unless she is way off base with how these devices work, after all, presumably the information is stored there long after the phone dies. Either on the device itself, or in some sort of cloud or server or what have you.

Long after it dies and you die, you mean, a voice in her head says one night, as a bone weary Denise, too tired to even eat, zones out under her thermal blanket, beside the meager fire she’s built. That alarm bells then go off is a good sign, meaning she hasn’t completely given up the fight. Whatever reflex this is kicks in, as she forces herself to jump up on her feet and pace around, think positive thoughts while slapping herself in the face. And wolfing down half of a beef jerky stick, repulsive though these seem at this point, because she knows her body needs it.

She took off again this morning, eastbound once more, but nothing about her plight has changed. The days are getting ever colder, too, and without food, she can only last, what, another month, tops? The dew each morning she is able to patiently collect in bottles, after lapping up as much as she can from nearby rocks and smooth wooden surfaces, so this isn’t as much of a concern, however unexpectedly. If lost in the wilderness, experts advise eating bugs is a far safer bet than messing around with unfamiliar vegetation, yet she can’t imagine what kind of torturous hunger depths she’d have to descend to reach this level. Best to conserve the energy bars and jerky for as long as she can.

Still, clearly something needs to change. For days now, the nagging sensation that there are a couple of painfully obvious points she’s missing, this has haunted her, and that particular itch has in turn made her question her sanity. How together she can possibly be if missing such obvious points.

Slumping in the shoulders, mentally defeated at having completed this circuit yet again, Denise concludes that it’s high time for a desperation move. She has arrived back at the mountain’s face, the first level of smooth, occasionally mossy, boulders, and contemplates this monolith of crooked, randomly stacked steps nature has placed before her. Meanwhile, a mere twenty feet or so ahead, underneath a vaguely triangular shaped trio of trees, she can spot the remains of some long dead fire – though whether she made it this morning or a week ago, who can say. These sites are all beginning to blur together by now.

What if she retreated to the other side of this mountain, and struck off at random from there? Denise isn’t quite sure she wants to tackle this equally horrifying prospect, but it’s a thought. At the very least, she wishes to climb a few of these boulders for the umpteenth occasion, this foggy, late morning in early December, and take a look at her surroundings.

As always, she only needs to pick her way up, in meandering, opportunistic fashion, up about a dozen of these boulders before she has cleared the treeline. And as always, there it sits, that distant, unreachable town of Miragealia, where she can make out at the very least a church, some houses, a water tower. The ambitious, cloud grasping sign of a familiar gas station chain. She would say it resembles Stokely, except her travels have taken her in the exact opposite direction, and also because basically every North Carolina town of this size resembles Stokely.

Denise turns and sizes up the remainder of this peak behind her. But she just can’t bring herself to scale it, the symbolic equivalent of waving a white flag. Or maybe more accurately setting it on fire. There was absolutely nothing to be found that way, and she knows it. But what if she descends this pile of rocks again, and makes a hard right, hewing to that unmistakable signpost, this mountain, to see where it leads? Granted, she had basically just arrived from this direction, but not quite, and who knew, though making no apparent sense on the surface, it might possibly amount to something.

She has to try any desperation move available, really, is what this all boils down to. If she gets lost to an even greater degree, well, so be it. Making this much progress, just to give up now, was an affront against her very being. Denise Garverick struck out on her own, while everyone else rotted back there at Otherwise and, she’s nearly certain, continues to rot. Those words will never be used to describe her.

What happens next feels in retrospect like when she’s watching a football game, and some wide open guy begins doing a celebration trot, with nobody around, just shy of the end zone. And then fumbles the ball on the two yard line as a result, and loses the game. She arrives at the very last boulder, before touching ground again, and begins eyeballing her planned route out of here. Reaches for a tree, which is handily growing near enough for support. But then isn’t paying the least bit of attention to where her feet are landing, which is how her next step slips on a particularly greasy patch of moss. Her trailing foot does the same, as she gyrates for balance, at roughly the same instant that the thin offshoot of this tree, the one she’s clutching, snaps in her hands.

With an audible thud that sends lightning bolts through her skull – also visible, she believes, though this much is possibly imagination – the back of her head strikes the rock, and then she tumbles sideways off of it. From here, it is essentially a straight drop down to the dense foliage below, although quite naturally her good luck would indicate her back would strike some jagged portion of a snapped off stump, right where the break occurred, sending another wave of pain up her spine.

A person’s reaction is often unpredictable, if not downright peculiar, in times like these. Once she has reached firm ground, fully spread eagled and belly down, Denise begins to chuckle at her plight. It fucking figures. Then again, considering she survived a leap from a moving car with no more than the equivalent of a grass blade scrape, the odds are really only evening out here. Regarding her current predicament, while sore, and out of breath, possibly mildly concussed, she hasn’t broken anything and doesn’t feel delirious, so that’s a minor miracle.

But can she move? Well, sort of. Moving with the grace of a 97 year old man, Denise manages to raise herself into semi-upright crouch, and lurches toward that fire pit she witnessed earlier. All she can think about now is sleep, precious sleep, sleeping off this doozy of a spill while she worries about her future some other time.

Staggering in this direction, she drops to her knees, and is relieved beyond words to discover a decent assortment of twigs, branches, and charred logs nearby, all of it dry enough to burn. Her hands are still shaking as she whips off her backpack and paws through it for that box of matches, a process that takes about three times longer than it should. After a number of false starts on this front, her spastic free hand loosely cupping the flame, she finally manages to coax a miniature smolder to life, and build it to a blaze from there.

Dropping her backpack in the dirt right where it is, she scoots over to the nearest tree. Reclines against it as one would an easy chair, and almost immediately falls into a fitful, half sleeping state. Even here, however, conflicting thoughts and subconscious twitches gnaw at her. Should she not fall asleep? What if she has a concussion? Wasn’t that supposed to be bad? Well, she can’t fully remember that detail, right now, and furthermore doesn’t care.

Of greater concern to her, the factor causing her to continually awaken just as she’s about to drop off, is again the thought that there’s some essential piece she’s been missing, right underneath her nose. Even more frustrating, Denise feels as close as she’s ever been to latching onto it, though too muddled at this moment to follow this mental thread. All she knows is, she has continually struck off toward that town, with all the good cheer and positivity in the world. Thinking random, pleasant thoughts, nothing specific about where she’s going or what she left behind. More often than not, the landscape even begins to change, into something she’s certain she’s never glimpsed before. Then on top of it even turns her pointed focus to thoughts of leaving Otherwise, approaching Miragealia, leaving Otherwise, approaching Miragealia. And then with dread realizing that the terrain has begun thinning out into a familiar state, shortly followed by, yes, the appearance of this damn rock pile before her again.

Wait a second...there’s something here...I know it... Denise thinks this, has just about wrapped her arms around a breakthrough, even mutters this slogan aloud. But then passes out for real, low against the tree, chin pressed into her chest and without even bothering to unravel that thermal blanket.

“What happened to you, dude? You look like you swallowed a frog.”

Lenny’s comment is heavy upon Jeremy’s mind, as their troupe strikes off for Wooley Swamp. Not only for what they signify, but the specific words themselves, a different thought that these have triggered. After leaving Emily behind in that tunnel last night, he had walked in somewhat of a daze over to the café, sat at the long table by himself, sipping a glass of red wine that Grace and some of the other girls at the far end were kind enough to share with him. Then Lenny happened to breeze in, looking for refreshments himself, and drew up short to see Jeremy sitting there.

“Fuckin Emily, man,” Jeremy replied, slowly swiveling his head back and forth a couple times, though too wiped out for much more, “I’m not sure what to do about this situation.”

Which is how they reached this current bleak end point, where they had no choice but to lock Emily up. Emily never cared much for Clay, so they leave him out of it, but eventually assemble a cabal on the down low, enlisting Grace, Lydia, and even Blodgett to join them. The five of them, after shoving that cabinet aside, conceding it serves no purpose now, open the hatch and descend the stairs to retrieve Emily. At first they attempt speaking calmly and sensibly, but are soon left with no other choice but to drag her kicking and screaming up the stairs. Everyone involved – saved Blodgett, who maintained more of a hands off, advisor type role – wound up with bruises or scratches or both, as a result of handling her.

Rebecca, curiously enough, was not down in the tunnel at all. Hearing the commotion, she drifted in via the barn door, and flicked a finger over at the pond to explain she’d just been walking around it. Looking for Jen and/or Zoe, she admits, although this didn’t seem the least bit peculiar under the circumstances, especially when compared against Emily. Satisfied that they have this situation under control, Rebecca nods once and leaves them to it, exiting the barn.

The next question involved what they should do about Emily, however. In the end, as Emily did progressively calm down upon arriving aboveground, aided considerably by a sedative Lydia happened to have in her purse, Jeremy spills the beans about the secret room where they’ve been staying. Grace already knew, anyway, while Lenny offers a knowing grin and says he tried stopping by their cabin one night, then for the few next nights, and knew they were hiding somewhere, but he hadn’t figured it out just yet. Which means Lydia was likely to know, sooner or later, and this didn’t even take into consideration whoever Emily might have told, particularly in her obsessive fugue states.

After sending Emily to bed, with an additional wallop of some liquid cold medicine, Jeremy assumes his former position, slumped against the door to fitfully ride out the night. And it’s possible he might have either underestimated his fellow residents, or overestimated how nifty this bunker is, because even upon learning about it, nobody clamors to join them, or complain that this is unfair. The ones helping put Emily to bed marvel that it exists, and remark that it reminds them of a childhood fort or something similar, and then leave the two of them alone.

Plans were already in motion for handling Emily moving forward, however. Marcus has some spare locks, which he’d tried but was unable to use for this jewelry display case installation, which Lenny and Jeremy affix to the exterior of the sliding door. These are some simple elbow shaped contraptions, with a padlock hanging from them, and while installing three of them might be overkill, they agree it’s better than allowing her to escape. She has everything she needs in there, and will be fine until they return. Hopefully, she can eventually return to a more lucid state, and become trustworthy again, but they will just have to monitor her behavior in the interim.

So that’s the leading crisis, occupying his mind as they head out in a trio of vehicles, bound for the bridge. Yet something else occurred to him in his night of fitful sleep, another concern brought about by the random chance of Lenny’s offhand euphemism. Who knows how these chains of runaway thought work. But as he kept replaying the comment about swallowing a frog, this led to Jeremy thinking about frogs, in turn thinking about the meat situation and wildlife, a slight detour maybe to wondering if anyone here would know what to do if catching a frog, were the legs of every kind of frog edible, and surely Clay would know that, if nobody else did, but then the larger picture suddenly dawned on him: well what about birds, and rabbits, and squirrels, and deer, and so on, then? This is when an observation settled into his chest, early this morning, knocking his breath away and rendering future sleep impossible.

Well wait a second. I don’t remember seeing any wildlife in these woods whatsoever.

He can’t believe he hasn’t noticed this before. And this oversight in turn has him questioning his own preoccupation levels again, as well as wondering about his own sanity. But also, yes, finds him scanning and listening as much as possible, window cracked despite the complaints of others, as they drive up the lane in his sedan.

He doesn’t see or hear a thing the entire ride out. Although what this really makes him wonder is if it’s always been like this, or is a recent development. Then he recalls all the footage Tony left behind – surely he could find some answers there.

For the half remaining behind at the main house, the day begins with a series of heated debates. As Liam is left in charge of the hole digging operation, by default he is the one fielding questions about the validity of this enterprise. He fights off the urge to tell them this truly is a complete waste of time, though possibly only for his own twisted amusement, if nothing else. Yet, as is often the case, their sagging morale would bother him on some level. So he must weigh keeping spirits afloat against some of these other, less noble impulses, and maybe check the facts as he sees them at the door.

“Well, perhaps you are quite right,” Liam concedes, when Marcus, though already among those digging, describes this mission as the purest nonsense. “But look, I would tell Marcus the same thing I’m telling all of you,” he says, addressing the entire crew, “let’s not kill ourselves with this project, shall we?”

“Whynt jst leave…tis,” Kay says to him, or thereabouts, through clenched teeth and this weird cheek warmer she has lashed to her face, as she too brandishes a shovel.

“What’s that, there?” he replies, amiably enough, eyebrows raised and chuckling a bit.

“She wanna know,” Rafael translates, thank heavens, “why not just to leave it.”

“Yeah, or better yet,” Rebecca proposes, “we could just move this food to one of the sheds.”

Hands in pockets as he watches them work – for nobody has made a peep objecting, that this old man should warrant a pass, particularly while attired in his standard college administrator type getup, sport coat and all – he turns slightly to regard the pair of somewhat rusted tin sheds behind this main house. Truth is, the thought had occurred to him. But in deference to Jeremy and the others, he decided to just humor this kooky plan.

“Yes, well, and that remains in play also, as a viable alternative. When the weather breaks a shade colder, that is. ’Cos I can assure you if the power went down right now, the days are still a mite warm. For, uh, storing perishables in the shed.”

Most everyone nods, accepting this as they continue working. Their numbers are such, though, that nobody notices when Kathy sticks her shovel into the ground, and slips off to the ladies’ room. Nor when, upon exiting the ladies’ room, standing in the doorway and observing everyone for a few seconds, she rounds the corner and slips off toward the backside of this property.

She spotted Jen yet again this morning. From the rooftop behind the workshop, of course, like always. She didn’t mention this to any of the others, particularly Rebecca, because she didn’t want to set off another wave of hysteria. Kathy still feels as though the poor lost girl is trying to tell her something, to communicate somehow – and as such, getting everyone else riled up seems like it might work against that concept, spooking her off before any connection is established.

Her first cigarette of the day sounds golden right about now, too. And it helps for some reason that the sky, which often seems to be the case when she gets in these ultra pensive moods – so it’s possible, of course, that these types of skies contribute to this mood, probably because they remind her of somebody’s paintings, she can’t remember who, but he or she often composed these muted looking skies – it is a sky that is covered thousands of small, separate clouds, like balls of shredded cotton scattered across a floor. So there’s plenty of blue surrounding them, technically, but the sun is obscured, meaning the whole of this scene is as dim as twilight.

Kathy slips around behind the barn, and climbs the short ridge to its backside, her favorite hideaway. Sitting in a spot so well worn that you can kind of make out the scrubbed away imprint from her butt, she plants herself and lights up. Exhales slowly, but with force, smiling as she appreciates this tiny victory, the stolen moment of solitude.

Well, there’s no sign of their glowing apparition friend today, thankfully, nor does she even so much as sense him anywhere in the vicinity. But she can feel the lingering residue of their missing chef, even if this is no more but wishful, fanciful thinking.

She stares at the untroubled surface of the water so long, contemplating these matters, that she almost falls into a trance. Oh Jen, you poor lost girl, what is it you are trying to tell us? Kathy thinks. A bit melodramatic, maybe, but this is how the thought travels through her head, unfiltered. None of them present were poets, and certainly not she. But if only Kathy could punch through somehow, and forge this connection, she feels she could not only help return Jen to them, she might be helping out everyone else as well, with...whatever it is that seems to be troubling many of them.

It’s funny, Kathy observes, but the water is so calm that you almost can’t tell the difference between the sky, and its reflection of the sky. They are one and the same, an identical shade of murky blue sky, dotted by those pinkish grey clouds. Actually, as she was telling Kay one day, it’s funny to think that what we refer to as the color of an object is in fact the one color in the entire universe that it is not. This is the color it’s rejecting, and firing back at us. All the rest it absorbs.

Something strange begins to happen, though, the longer Kathy zones out, becoming mesmerized by this body of water. It not only blends with the sky, but she’s in such a state now to where she can’t feel the ground beneath her jeans, and gravity loses all meaning. It’s as though she can’t tell up from down, and is rooted to neither. Therefore is unable to even internally decipher what is happens as her body begins to float downward, into the water...while at the same instant, it is sucked, with far greater rapidity, into the sky.

“Um, yes. We did. Are you serious that you just now noticed?”

Such is Grace’s response, from the backseat of his car. They are on the way home from day one of tree chopping and the girls, complaining that he and Lenny “smell like dirty, sweaty dudes,” force them to sit up front in claiming the back as their own. This would be Lydia and Grace, who, Jeremy observes via his rearview, share an amused if surprised glance, to his question about the lack of wildlife. After watching and listening all day, he finally decided to share this with others.

Yet even Lenny is kind of glancing over at him, while Jeremy drives, and regarding his nephew with a perplexed little smirk. So much for any need to examine Tony’s footage, outside of simple curiosity, maybe. He does have continued reason to doubt his perspectives on just about everything, though, a point driven home when he returns to Emily.

He’s pacing around, regaling her with the daily recap. That the tree chopping was slow going but they’d made solid progress. During this time, a few of the ladies broke off and walked the remainder of the lane, up to the swinging wooden sign and Old Stokely Farm Road, then back again, reporting that it appears in fine, drivable condition. Jeremy also learned from Blodgett, not that there was much that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye, that they dug a hole off to the side of the main house, large enough to fit a great deal of their refrigerated and frozen goods.

But while he would consider this a momentous, action packed day, Emily seems to find all of this hilarious. She’s stretched out on the bed, fully clothed and atop the blankets. Flipping through some book on North Carolina folklore, by lamp and fire light. As she was when he entered. She has either laughed aloud, shook her head and snorted, or smiled at him with considerable condescension, to just about anything he’s said.

“What!?” he finally demands, drawing up short in his endless back and forth shuffle. “What is it you find so goddamn funny about all of this?”

“Oh, nothing. Nothing. But…,” Emily says, and her blue eyes seem to light up in devilish merriment, at the joy of tormenting him, “you know, there are a lot of people who think it’s your fault we’re in this situation.”

“WHAT! Are you kidding me!? Why in the world would anyone think that!?

She just flips a page and smiles over at him, waits a few seconds before responding. “Well, I mean, let’s think about this. You brought…how many of us here? Not to mention the waves upon waves of people on the outside who will never see us again…”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“…and now, let’s see, your parents are gone, Denise is gone. The rest of us…”

“I said don’t talk like that!”

Staring down at her book once more, she begins languidly flipping through it again. Announces almost as a bored aside, “of course, I would not be among those claiming this, as I am where I truly belong. Well, most of the way. But as for the others, huh, some have gone as far as to suggest…”

“Yes?” he impatiently demands.

“…that it was no accident you quote unquote stumbled upon this place. You weren’t lost and this was no accident. Some have gone as far as to suggest.”

Jeremy is too flabbergasted to speak, and their room lapses into a silence that will remain for the rest of the night. Staring into the flames of the fire, long after she’s fallen asleep, he enjoys the remainder of a red wine bottle they’d had corked here on the shelf, and considers everything Emily said.

Nobody really knows how long this tree chopping operation could take. The pines are at least uniformly not that old, and progress remains steady, but even so the best estimate suggests they’re looking at a couple of months.

As such, it seems wise that they hedge their bets elsewhere. Experiments upon Pine Bluff continue, though these often bear the distinct hallmark of people screwing around for entertainment, rather than expecting a noteworthy outcome. Repeated trials for example concerning the spray painted haint blue line all turn out the same, though mighty baffling to its participants.

A person standing on the north, i.e. the Otherwise side of this line, can see a person driving up from the south, but the reverse is not true. All the driver sees is the line itself, right where the road veers sharply to the left, and the car of course winds up back at Otherwise some fifteen minutes later, after looping around to arrive from the other direction. Clever attempts to get out of the car right there have also failed, leaving persons to only get lost in the woods for nightmarish eternities if attempting to walk it. In either situation, the observer on the other side of the line and the scooped out pit will observe the car or the other persons simply vanish in a puff.

Though conceding at the outset that it’s probably a waste of time, Clay volunteers his pickup truck for exploring the hills behind the property, beyond the barn and the pond. The rolling, overgrown hills that have only gotten denser over these last few months. With him at the wheel and a couple of other good sports – Lenny and Rafael – alternately walking or riding along, they attempt to visually chart a path through this weed choked landscape, and are feeling optimistic after the first few hills, working them in mazelike fashion, with only the occasional reroute or backtrack.

Clay is riding along on a downhill slope, over a stretch that looks relatively clear. Admittedly probably cooking along at a greater clip than he should, but he’s having fun, and the speed might even prevent him from getting entangled in lesser obstacles. He never really sees this massive dip, because the tops of these brown weed stalks are all the same height, and he also hits the ditch at the absolute worst angle. It’s just enough to smash his nose against the backside’s bank, while the front wheels dangle in the air. The back ones, meanwhile, are left spinning in the mud. The three of them conduct about a half hour’s worth of feeble attempts at getting it unstuck, before Rafael suggests maybe they should go get some reinforcements.

“Eh, fuck it. Might as well save the gas,” Clay says.

Lenny nods and agrees, “it’s probably not our top priority right now.”

“Yeah. I mean, could we get it out, if everyone pitched in? Probably. But let’s hold off on that.”

They clear out the truck, grabbing only absolute essentials, much of which involves three different guns – two rifles and something that looks like an AK-47, yet only fires BBs. Toting these back to the compound, Rafael seems in awe, marveling that this is the first time he’s held a gun – even if clutching only the least dangerous of the three – and asks Clay if these are all his guns.

Clay clicks his tongue, scoffing as a form of joke while replying, “he wants to know if these are all my guns...”

Though lamenting the pistol he still can’t find, Clay mentions a pair of shotguns back at his cabin, which he was fond of using for the paint can art experiments, as well as a pellet gun and a .22. This discussion is engaging enough, up to a point, but as he begins relating hunting expeditions gone by, and his favorite warped experiments blasting things just for the sheer hell of it, Lenny and Rafael both find themselves mentally tuning out.

Whatever the particulars, the group as a whole typically hedges its bets, working at a solution on two different fronts. People rotate in and out of various tasks, if nothing else to shake up the monotony. As always, for whatever reason, they still feel the need to run these ideas past their schoolmaster, even as Blodgett almost invariably sighs and – verbally if not physically – performs a metaphorical eyeroll in telling them, “very well, then. So be it,” or something to that effect, signing off on the project. He rarely participates, but does at least usually remain on hand, to observe and offer pointers.

Jeremy’s next big idea involves scooping out the other side of Pine Bluff Road. Everyone seems in agreement that this is probably another futile exercise, and he’s right there on the same page with them, while they in turn concur with him, that it’s at least worth a shot. The only difference this time is, they begin digging out the road just to the right of the driveway, parking Grace’s red Mini Cooper on the other side before they start. It is pointing north, primed to lead them back to civilization, the more positive minded among them hope.

The theory is that scooping out this hole might offset whatever imbalance was created with the first. If nothing else, it opens up endless speculation about expected results. While only a handful agree that this has any chance of working, the particular fashion in which it will fail is open for debate, is part of what keeps them curious and engaged throughout. Some have theorized that it will just create an endless road in that direction, now. Others have gone one step further and suggested that even upon turning around, the car will never find its way back to their camp.

Whatever the case, it’s telling that nobody is volunteering to drive. Talk then turns to rolling dice or drawing cards from a deck to determine the lucky guinea pig. But with Emily’s comments from the night before still on his mind, and the guilt of not only that but, if true, that he’s led them yet again into another wacky experiment, Jeremy waves everyone off.

“Screw it, whatever, it’s fine. I’ll do it,” he tells them.

Tony has been wandering in circles for days. And a very small one, at that. Basically, his situation seems to be that he can walk up and down either direction of road for as long as he likes, without variation, but as soon as he steps off into the forest, no matter the direction, within fifteen minutes of losing sight of the road, he somehow winds up back at this damn cemetery.

Well, no, that’s not 100% percent accurate. He does have one other option: returning to Otherwise. On a pair of separate nights, at his absolute lowest, he ventured down that way, but could not bring himself to return to the fold. He stood in the trees watching this tableau from afar, for over an hour in both instances, and yet the longer he stood there, the more it filled him with sadness. It kind of reminded him of watching an old home movie you thought would warm your heart, but had the opposite effect. One that filled your head with lingering cobwebs even as you couldn’t look away.

Leave it to the video guy to think that way, sure. But he’s had this weight hanging upon his mind for quite some time, the sheer uselessness of his craft. It’s the main reason he left all his equipment and his work behind. Well, that an the practical concerns of lugging that stuff, no matter how relatively light, around in the woods for who knew how long.

But he did know. Or had a good idea of how it would be, anyway. What could he say? He just couldn’t take that place anymore. It’s one reason he bolted without even properly packing, though he damn well knew better. He shoved some underwear and socks into a backpack, threw in whatever cruddy snacks he could get his hands on, and got the hell out of there. Snuck into Clay’s unlocked pickup and swiped his handgun, which might be the most hilarious aspect of this debacle.

Tony must have been half delirious, he recognizes now. But that night, exactly seven ago if he hasn’t completely lost his mind, these romantic notions of living off the land were scrolling on an endless loop through his head. Which was a complete joke because, as he had noticed one day, editing footage for hour after hour in that miserable corner room, there was no wildlife out here. He had kind of forgotten already, as of the night of his escape.

The bigger picture here is what gives this more poignancy, however, and has him so depressed. Because the bigger picture is that a guy like him really has no place in the real world. These flights of idiocy with the pistol and the poor pack job prove it.

Objectively speaking, all false-modest downplaying aside, he’s more level headed and well balanced and intelligent than just about anybody he left behind back there. He comes from a great upper middle class to borderline wealthy background and could have done basically anything he wanted with his life. But the real problem, as he sees it, is that he is not equipped to deal with the real world. Why are people drawn to these artistic pursuits? They are drawn to these pursuits because there is something fundamentally broken in them, whatever it might be, that prevents them from dealing with the real world in a reasonable manner. It’s escapism for some and therapy for others but at all points, a method of blocking out anything that actually matters, or might prove useful for survival.

The real laugher is that he’s pretty sure he’s figured out how to get out of here, but can’t seem to pull it off. Merely more proof of what he’s talking about. But, whatever the case, a guy if his somewhat husky size can only live off of potato chips and collected rainwater for so many days. He knows where he can a ready cache of supplies, though, and as this night falls, a sad scene or not, he heads over that way in hopes of stealthily obtaining such. He had already observed that they were digging some massive hole beside the main house. Tonight, as he watches them from the forest, however, he can hear their shouted freakouts about the power outage, and see them carrying boxes out the back door to stuff in this hole. Yeah, that should help.

The latest road experiment produces an unexpected, though not exactly useful result. With Jeremy at the wheel and Grace volunteering to ride shotgun, they take off in her car, after the pit has been fully dug. Fifteen minutes later, at the conclusion of one very sharp bend, Jeremy slams the brakes into a screeching, slightly bunnyhopping stop. They have just drawn up on the other side of the other pit, the first one they’d dug a couple of weeks ago.

“Oh my God!” Grace squeals, along with an equally high pitched giggle as she smiles up at him. “Can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like this before!”

“Yeah, well,” Jeremy replies, backing up to begin a three point turn, “I’d say that was an understatement.”

So this is the latest wrinkle, or at least one among the latest. Others will repeat this experiment but it always ends the same way, with the road only looping around in that one short stretch between their trenches. But then, upon returning, Jeremy almost immediately notices that the latches on his door and undone and it is slid open, that Emily is gone yet again. He fears the worst, though soon locates her calmly painting at that infernal endless mural.

“How did you get out?” he demands, first words from his mouth as he glides into view.

Brush in one hand and palette in the other, as she dabs at Tony’s left cheek, apparently in the process of thinning it out, Emily turns to him and offers a warm, playful smile. “Grace unlocked it. She found Marcus’s spare key. Hey, don’t you think this is really coming along nicely? I think it’s just about finished, really.”

Jeremy would in fact state the opposite, that he doubts she’ll ever leave it alone, for as long as they’re here. But he refrains from saying as much – the whole thing creeps him out, and the less said, the better. Like how she now hasn’t even bothered fully removing some of the missing, like Jen and his parents. She has only painted over their heads, to this point anyhow, making them bleed into the background. Yet the decapitated bodies still stand.

“Grace!?” he retorts instead, “bullshit. Grace was with me all day.”

Emily flips her head his way once more and begins tapping her upper lip, with a free finger in her brush holding hand, in the manner of someone trying to recall something. When she glances upward slightly to see that a wholly unamused Jeremy is staring her down, brows drawn together like, well, a proper stern schoolmaster, she can no longer prop up the ruse. Bursting under the strain, she explodes into laughter and cackles, “okay, maybe it was Rebecca, then. I can’t remember.” And resumes work upon the painting.

It’s true that he has no recollection of Rebecca’s presence. But it almost doesn’t matter because he’s not going to get a straight explanation from her, whatever the particulars. Throwing his hands in the air, he shakes his head and stomps away, down the hall and out the front door.

He had no set destination in sight, just a need to distance himself from her. But upon reaching the outdoors again, he is immediately struck by some spitting snowflakes, ones that disintegrate upon impact. Funny how the first snow of the season always provokes this reaction, the upward turned palm, and delighted, surprised smile, eyes cast heavenward. There’s some primordial wonder at this which we haven’t quite outgrown. Once he’s over this, however, and finished examining whether it’s sticking to the ground (not yet), he notices it’s gotten dim out here in a hurry. And also that his uncle is smoking a cigarette behind the main house, checking out this snow himself. So he heads immediately in that direction.

Cigarette in mouth, Lenny smiles and mumbles, “what’s up!” while concurrently fumbling in his jean jacket’s inner pocket, for what soon reveals itself to be a whiskey pint.

“Just trying to keep my sanity with this Emily situation,” he sighs, and accepts the bottle when offered, “she got out, somehow.”

“Oh wow. So what’s she doing now? She down there in that…whatever, again?”

“No, just working on that damn mural, thank God. But even that creeps me out, I have to admit. I don’t know. I’m just tryin’ to keep shit together until we get the fuck outta this place.”

“Tell me about it,” Lenny agrees, exhaling and nodding, glancing sidelong at Jeremy. “But think about it, man – I mean, what harm’s it doing, even if she’s down there? Shit’s weird, I’ll give you that, but…”

“Yeah, I hear what you’re saying. It just bothers me, for some reason. It’s like this huge blinking sign spelling out how crazy this all is, as if we need a reminder. And I’m sure there’s some kind of male-protector, shining armor bullshit in there, sure. But mostly I feel like this can’t possibly be a good thing, her obsession with that tunnel, you know?”

“I know, I know. We’ll figure something out, though, Lenny says, and reaches out togive the top of Jeremy’s left shoulder a squeeze.

He has no sooner said this, when – although debate will rage afterwards, as to whether they heard this or just think they heard this – with the sick lurch particular to a dying motor, everything electric sputters out. It’s most apparent to them, backs against the main house wall, peripherally just ahead, where the lights to the bath houses have gone out. A few heartbeats later, followed some muffled exclamations indoors, a few drift out from the café. Right around this same time, Emily exits the school. She cups a hand over her eyes, either a reflex or to shield the random flakes, and looks their way. Jeremy’s certain she has made eye contact. And yet she makes a hard right angle, marching in a direct line toward the barn.

“Now what in the hell…,” Jeremy groans. He too starts in that direction, until Lenny puts a hand on his arm to stop him.

“It’s cool. Leave her be, for now.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Lenny nods, “it’s cool.”

Grace and Kay, who had just some out with Clay and were standing in a circle discussing the power outage with them, they eventually spot Emily themselves, as she drifts into view between the bath houses and the sheds. These two exchange a glance, and without a word said take off for the barn themselves.

“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Maybe they can talk some sense into her,” Jeremy says.

Clay chuckles as he approaches them, sticking a pinch of chewing tobacco in his mouth. He nods at the giant hole and wonders how long they should give it before moving the food out here. They hear the school’s front door open yet again, and all three look up to see Blodgett now casually strolling their way. Odd, Jeremy thinks, he hadn’t even noticed the old man in there. Maybe he was in the crapper? Whatever the case it’s not like he ever much leaves that building.

“I’m no expert, but I think we might as well do it now,” Lenny says.

“Yes, I believe it’s bloody well cold enough,” Blodgett agrees, hands in slacks pockets as he turns this way and that. He inspects the cabins from here, the trees. He looks at the bath houses and stands slightly on his tiptoes to attempt peering into the main house.

“I would be more worried about keeping the stuff dry, like making sure it’s not waterlogged. At least at this stage. We got anything to cover this pit with, like a tarp or something?” Jeremy asks.

“Naw, we used every tarp and then some lining the inside of it,” Clay replies. “Like you said, we didn’t want the shit getting soaked. “Tarps, sleeping bags, you name it. Plastic wrap. See what we did was,” Clay demonstrates with hand gestures, “we lined the bottom, put some wooden pallets down. Then came up the sides with the lining up the sides, staked those down after coming over the top.”

“Hmm, guess I never really looked at it closely,” Jeremy mutters. By now, however, he has drifted over to peek into the main house back door’s window. He can’t see into the café from this angle, but who he believes must be Lydia, lit up by the pale blue glow of her laptop. She has her back to him, in an easy chair, and even from here he can tell she must be typing something into a word processing program.

“You know what we could do,” Lenny proposes, “it wouldn’t take much to bring down one of those sheds. One of those tin panels would be just about right, to cover this thing.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Clay says.

“You boys have my blessing. As if you ever needed it,” Blodgett tells them, in his usual dry, inflectionless tone.

“How can we get some light? Fire up a generator?” Lenny says.

“Car headlights. I’ll go get mine and bring it around,” Jeremy immediately returns, from over by the door.

“Alright, then! Let’s hop to it,” says Clay.

As it turns out, however, at least as far as Jeremy’s concerned, dismantling this first shed brings with it an unexpected, equally important insight. Shortly after midnight, with the three of them involved and even featuring some rare elbow grease from Blodgett for a change, they have fully disassembled the shed, and are sliding out the best of the four wall panels to cover it. The weird junk therein, from gas powered rototillers to metal watering pails to still more random straw bales and paint cans, is either moved aside or left as is for the time being, depending upon whether it’s in their way.

Basically, chopping down support beams in the four corners is the hardest work, followed by attacking the flimsy joints holding the walls together. Once the first one is yanked free, by a combination of unscrewing, kicking, and sledgehammering where necessary, they do debate whether to leave the remaining structure intact, with this odd looking giant mouth. Yet, owing to various influences, among them that took less effort than expected, and also that they’re kind of having fun – it’s some kind of deep seated, male, not-that-secret impulse, Jeremy thinks, this glee in destroying things – they decide to bring the rest on down. Jeremy already has this next thought in mind, too, however, which is why he’s pushing for this development. And will suggest they take down the other shed tomorrow morning as well.

Once they take down the opposite wall, the remaining two, roof attached, essentially collapses with one good nudge. And while they’re toiling away at this, the remaining residents are lugging all refrigerated and frozen boxes out, to drop into that hole. Someone starts a fire in the ring on the smoker’s patio, although the cold doesn’t bother them much once they get moving, anyway. Grace and Kay even return, with furtive, apologetic glances in Jeremy’s direction, though obviously not much needs to be said, as they too pitch in with the food preservation operation. Cleverly enough, which is apparently Marcus’s idea, they have enough bodies to stand right where they are throughout, in a long line extending from the kitchen to the hole. Back door propped open, they merely hand off boxes to one another, on down this chain, and it too involves nowhere near the time nor effort they’d feared.

Celebratory drinks will follow, out here in the smoker’s area, the plot of land where their garden once was. A handful of brave souls climb two flights in this giant pitch black house, armed only with candles or their cell phones, to climb out on the roof directly above, beyond the workshop. They says it’s a beautiful, stunning night, with the snowflakes having stuck to the trees just enough to sparkle a little bit, in the face of this suddenly bright moon. And Jeremy believes them, but he has no intention of making this night a marathon, and suggests to the other guys that they call it a night soon, too.

Considering that she was still for the most part lucid, and predictable, Jeremy figured Emily would eventually crawl back into bed, and she did. He figures that these must amount to fugue states for her, because her general behavior would indicate she doesn’t think anything’s out of the ordinary at all. Waking when she returns, he has only to wait a few minutes for her to fall into a deep sleep, and, considering it’s almost 6 in the morning already, decides to rise for the day himself.

He’s already made a great deal of progress alone, by the time daylight arrives and a bleary eyed Lenny, then Clay, toting a thermos of coffee he made on the stove somehow, dutifully report to pitch in. Lenny, he can tell, is only supporting this idea as one does a family member, lending a hand if not totally behind a concept. Clay, meanwhile, displays the taciturn no-nonsense mien of a professional, the concise, single, right, let’s get down to business, then, nod of the head when the job is explained to him, as you would encounter with a mechanic or carpenter or what have you who takes pride in his craft.

As for the others, as they too gradually resume life and begin their morning activities, almost nobody shoots them a wayward glance, and positively zero ask them what they’re doing. Jeremy isn’t quite certain if this means that they trust it must be a worthwhile task, or the opposite, that they are so far gone, there is no point in asking. In light of Emily’s comments, though absent the knowledge of who specifically might have said these things, he doesn’t really want to dwell on either scenario too much, however, and attempts to keep his mind on the tasks at hand.

Without being so lucky as to have a blowtorch on hand, they have to make do, fusing the remaining tin panels together via some other means. This was a strategy that plagued Jeremy’s fitful sleep for most of the night, prior to Emily’s return. He eventually settled upon a solution that seemed like it would work, and it does, whereby they drill holes near the leading edge of each tin wall, and chain these together...in a ring completely surrounding the barn. They prop the first panel up against it, near the entrance, and work their way in clockwise fashion all the way around.

This will keep her out of that fucking place, Jeremy muses, more than once, with considerable satisfaction. As there was no pasture or fenced in area of any sort leading out of the stable area, even, only one of those giant swinging doors that to their knowledge nobody here has opened, they are able to keep the tin panels skin tight against the barn, all the way around, with a good eight feet maybe of overlap to spare. In this they are lucky that the shed doors were in a corner of their respective panels, too, because they were forced to overlap in those two places – if the doors had been set in the center, then they might have had not quite enough of the tin. They thoroughly lash chains through holes drilled into both overlapping panels, here at the project’s conclusion, and deadbolt that. Nobody is getting inside this fucking place.

The power never comes on again that day, and will not for most of those that follow, except for the occasional ten or fifteen minute glitch here and there. Oddly enough, for reasons nobody can quite wrap their heads around – then again, they are all either artists or handymen, more or less, with nary a tech person in sight – the phones and internet reception bars on said phones remain strong throughout this stretch, not so much on the laptops.

Having given up on friends and family, many now make weird, desperation phone calls and/or take to leaving messages on websites of random businesses, any they can find, anywhere within the vicinity. But these either go unanswered, are treated as pranks, or receive promises that fail to materialize. Rafael in one memorable instance thinks to call that franchise pizza place in Stokely, and place an order. When he gives the address and asks if they know where this place is, the manager chuckles, saying, “sure, sure,” and takes his credit card information. But no driver ever arrives, and when Rafael attempts calling his bank’s automated line, then logging onto their app, in both instances he is told no such user exists.

They charge their phones in their cars, occasionally running the engine the keep the battery from dying. Most keep them powered down for the most part, wanting to be prepared just in case of the potential miracle down the road. In the meantime, they send one another pictures, which still works, they jot down memories both on paper and various note taking apps. Many attempts are made at uploading content to various websites, be it cloud storage or social media, though they unfailingly find they have no access to existing profiles. They create new ones, yet the pattern repeats the next time they are online.

As work continues chopping down trees, it’s only natural that they continue to explore other escape routes, too. Someone spray paints another haint blue line, this time next to the newly dug pit beside the driveway, but this changes nothing as far as the Pine Bluff loop is concerned. Eventually, they work up enough nerve to inspect the woods at the center of it. Questions remain about the diameter of this loop, and if common sense will prevail. If it takes roughly 15 minutes at a 45mph clip to complete most of the loop, minus the undriveable, two miles stretch directly in front of Otherwise, then they figure this adds up a circumference of maybe thirteen, fourteen miles.

A test with the Mini Cooper’s odometer bears this much out, too. Walking a straight line, using a spool or two of twine to ensure one isn’t moving in circles, should add up to a little more than four miles. This a handful of them readily accomplish one afternoon. Their mapping apps have gone wonky, but the time involved bears this out, as well as their internal clocks, and visible evidence of the sun’s trajectory. Grace, enjoying herself tremendously, nose twitching as she giggles, spray paints an elaborate neon pink angel in the road, to mark this place. Kay, armed with a plain white, composes a plain message in all caps:

HELP ME. I CAN NO LONGER FORM WORDS.

This one spooks everyone out to the extent they all agree to head back, albeit without directly commenting on it. They will shoot surreptitious glances her way the entire trip back, she’s aware, although nobody has yet asked her a single question about the constant presence of her cheek warmers, nor that she hasn’t said anything for days. Emily is in la la land, and The Jeremy Ado Trio, as she likes to think of that band, remains obsessed with a bunch of weird projects. Not that she would necessarily expect them to ask her questions about herself anyway. It isn’t until they’ve arrived back at Otherwise and have built a fire behind the main house that Lydia pulls her aside and asks what she meant. Nearby, everyone else debates throwing together some kind of stew for a communal lunch, and are paying no mind to them.

Kay has been preparing for this question for weeks now, and her depression has only been fueled further – Tony’s disappearance certainly didn’t help - in that nobody has noticed, or questioned her well being. But, yes, she does just so happen to have a pen and a notebook handy, although it will later occur to her she could have just typed a message on her phone and held it up, too.

JUST WHAT I SAID. THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH MY MOUTH.

A genuinely pained look hits Lydia as she reads this, and then asks, “something’s wrong with it? Wrong how?”

IF I TOOK THIS THING OFF, MY JAW WOULD LITERALLY HIT THE FLOOR. AND I’VE LOST JUST ABOUT ALL MY TEETH.

“Oh my God! Are you kidding me? You’re kidding, right?” Lydia gasps. When Kay shakes her head, Lydia adds, much more softly, “I’m so sorry, Kay,” and reaches out to squeeze her shoulder.

I ALSO ATTRACT INSECTS. IF MY MOUTH’S OPEN, I MEAN.

Lydia receives this news much the same as everything else, with a weary nod. But seconds later, the implications of this hit her, and she does a double take, staring back at Kay with her own mouth wide open. “Wait a second – insects? Like, for real? You’ve seen this?”

Kay shoots back a proud smile, and why not. She hasn’t had much reason to smile, but this weird development, however tragic, at least offers something positive, or at least potentially positive. She nods her head slowly to confirm that this is true.

“Where did this happen? Do you have any proof? Are there dead bugs somewhere?”

And at this, Kay nods again, then waves her arm in the sweeping follow me motion, as Lydia does just that. Along the way, Kay contemplates the other significant development this week, which is that Kathy doesn’t seem to be around anywhere, and yet this too is something nobody else has commented upon. Depending upon her mood, she wavers between thinking people genuinely haven’t noticed, or that they’ve noticed but don’t want to comment upon it. Or maybe, the third and possibly most disturbing option, it’s a subconscious impulse, their minds have simply shut down in denial of what these continual disappearances imply.

At first, Kay assumed that maybe Kathy was occupied with her work, or had maybe possibly decided to start bunking in her old cabin again. But as the days progressed, she realized Kathy was nowhere to be found in the workshop – true, Kay may have made excuses to avoid going up there for the first handful of such days, knowing deep down what she’s probably discover – and a peek into the windows of her old cabin every so often made it quite apparent that nobody had disturbed this space. In fact, it was left unlocked, which Kay only thought of upon her third visit, and she was able to inspect it fully at leisure to determine nobody had been here.

At her own cabin, after climbing the few steps to the stoop, she pauses long enough to point down, swing a finger back and forth to point out all the dead gnats littering it. Once inside, Kay turns on her phone’s flashlight app and leads the way around the cabin, to where she’s swept together a few different piles of dead flies, gnats, and other tiny winged creatures. While considering the sight impressive, and not sure why anyone would go to the trouble of staging such a weird thing, Lydia clings to this thought, however, that it doesn’t necessarily prove that these insects came from here. She looks around the room, and listens, but doesn’t see any in flight.

“I hate to ask you this. But would you mind taking,” Lydia starts, then pauses, to consider her phrasing and point, ”that face covering off? I wanna see for myself.”

Kay makes a pained expression, but nods her head, and begins untying the cheek warmer. As it loosens, she uses one hand for this, and the other to hold her jaw in place. Only when the cover is off, so to speak, and has been cast aside does she move her other hand away from her chin. At this point, as advertised, her jaw drops in an instant to the floor, like an elevator gone amok, hitting the wood floor with a sickening thump.

Lydia’s own jaw now descends, albeit only to its natural, much less extreme bottom. She finds that she can’t even think of what to say, unable to offer even trite condolences. Within about fifteen seconds, though, as the two of them remain deathly still, she does begin to hear buzzing sounds, emanating from who knows where. This hum swells to a chorus, and then these creatures are visible – just familiar old insects, from the looks of things, who’d apparently been hibernating in darker recesses of this cabin, and not begin flying toward Kay’s mouth. She does her best to swat them away, though a great deal wind up flying into her mouth.

With a pleading shrug, Kay looks to Lydia to gauge whether she’s seen enough. Lydia nods, and at this, Kay kneels, moving with a fluidity that’s obviously all too real to her, having practiced it enough, as she scoops up her jaw with one hand, holds it there. Spitting out what bugs she can, she snatches the check warmer from the bed, and begins retying it. Not quite all the way, however, as she grabs a nearby pitcher of water, drinks from it. Walks over to open the door to spit this out, repeating the process numerous times as she stands there with that door wide open.

She tightens the strings to this face cover and pulls out her phone to begin tapping out a text. Lydia can see that Kay is crying, and understandably so, as she holds up the message for Lydia to read.

We are so fucked. We are never getting out of here. Some days I just want to end it.

“Don’t...don’t say that,” Lydia stammers, then walks over to give Lydia a hard hug. She pulls away, but maintains a hand on Kay’s arm, as she says, “I will admit that it doesn’t look like we’ll be leaving any time soon. But even if we are stuck here for all time, that’s not so bad! We can still go on. We can figure out something to fix your jaw, and we can survive here. You just have to hang in there.”

We can survive? What makes you so sure of that?

“Well, ah, we have everything we need to continue living here, forever if need be. If you really think about it. Plus, um, you’re the first person I’m telling this to – even Lenny doesn’t know yet – but...,” Lydia pulls away, as she smiles and pats her belly, “I have reason to believe I’m with child.”

Most days, they will continue working in two separate groups, possibly three. Emily is even reluctantly involved in many of these missions, though nobody presses her and she always seems distant, her mind clearly elsewhere. They rustle up all those who feel able bodied, for the tree chopping operation, while those who are worn out or under the weather or whatever tend to less labor intensive tasks – exploring other potential routes out of here remains at the top of this list. For the most part, nobody trifles much with breakfast or an actual lunch, as they pack snacks and walk to the various sites, to conserve gasoline. They leave their tools out there overnight, to avoid lugging them back and forth. Music plays from someone’s phone, to keep them occupied, and a communal dinner is almost always waiting, most nights.

Occasional sojourns are made to the overgrown fields east of Otherwise, though this doesn’t accomplish much. There is now no sign that the Hazelwoods’ trailer was ever even there, just a slightly shaggy lawn and a gravel drive leading down to Old Stokely Farm Road. Upon reaching it, if arriving on foot in this manner, the road itself is straight and unvarying, all the way to the horizon in both directions. Aside from where they are, of course, the driveway and the rusted mailbox on an untreated log post, the overgrown field beside it and the hill above. A little further down, however, there is of course that drive leading back to Otherwise, which they are working to connect with, and the swinging wooden sign.

Little about this makes sense, of course, but they’ve grown accustomed to as much. However monstrous and nonsensical, when the madness is at least predictable, by definition this makes it a touch less mad. But, one reason they maintain a fair degree of hope is that if walking up the lane, through Wooley Swamp and out to the road, then the landscape looks entirely different. The road, while straight, has hills to the north, and to the south, just past the Hazelwoods’ land, it curves sharply around a much smaller strand of trees.

The cemetery, meanwhile, undergoes constant change. The road running past it, what was once Stokely Farm Road proper, is completely gone. One observant soul notices that the individual stones, the doom statues as they now refer to these – without much if any irony – seem to be in different locations, depending upon the visit, bearing different names. None particularly familiar, which is a relief, although the next step leads to counting them, which in turns leads to a pair of differing observations. They are getting progressively fewer in number, sure, but what tombstones exist are also older than they were upon previous visits. And then, one day, despite twining a direct path that had led them to the cemetery countless times without issue, it is simply gone. Nothing but forest exists anywhere near where this line ends, though tied around that same maple tree, as far as they can tell, as always.

“You think the forest are like, they eat everything?” Rafael questions, a member of the exploration team initially discovering this.

Which is one compelling and somewhat sensible theory, although the evidence elsewhere doesn’t bear this out. Nowhere else would simple runaway growth explain what they’re seeing, even if however flimsily possible regarding the cemetery. In particular, this is true of their explorations involving the loop, and the woods beyond it.

If venturing out from the stretch of Pine Bluff directly in front of Otherwise, they will reach some other section of it within three to four and a half miles or thereabouts, depending upon how straight the path taken. This they begin referring to as the Inner Woods, and it remains predictable, consistent. What happens if they cross the road and enter this stretch of forest, the Outer Woods, that is completely baffling – although also quite consistent, to a maddening degree. If venturing at any point out into this section of forest, within approximately fifteen minutes, they arrive back at the road, but facing the same way they had when they left, i.e. as if arriving at it from the Inner Woods. This they know because of the markings on the asphalt, the ever expanding body of spray painted work upon it, and because no matter how many times an explorer repeated this experiment during a single outing, by simply turning around, he or she would arrive back at Otherwise within the expected handful of miles.

Such brain scrambling phenomenon make everyone pretty much write off this direction, the notion of ever leaving that way, as highly unlikely, and they write it off as such. In that sense it’s convenient, to be delivered such compelling proof and therefore not waste any more time or effort. Still, speculating about its potential remains a popular diversion, especially late at night, around the communal bonfire behind the main house.

One such night Jeremy only half seriously wonders what might happen if they dig another hole, disrupting the loop somewhere on the other side. But he has come to recognize that, while seemingly useful on the surface, most of his ideas have gotten nobody anywhere useful. This he has kept to himself, and certainly hasn’t admitted as much to Emily – mostly because they rarely speak, no longer even sharing a bed as he spends his nights either on the floor, or slumped against the door – but she may have been right about some of these things.

“We should twine the motherfucker,” Clay suggests, swigging from one of their rapidly dwindling liquor bottles.

“Yeah...I don’t know...,” Lenny demurs, “it’s one of those things that sounds cool, but I feel like this has been a ton of work, and hasn’t really accomplished much.

Lydia starts cracking up and says, “it hasn’t accomplished anything! Nothing whatsoever. I mean, yeah, okay, I guess if you’re trying to mark a path to a specific place, like the cemetery or something, then it’s been somewhat useful. Otherwise, a complete waste of time.”

Clay shrugs and mutters, “I don’t know, I was just thinkin – shit’s weird enough out there, but I really don’t see how we’d end up at the same place. If you got it marked.”

As Jeremy has been huddled around the fire with them, but said nothing, Clay turns and asks him his opinion. Carefully considering his words, because truth is he warmed to the concept as soon as it was mentioned, yet doesn’t want to come of as a zealot like before, he nods his head slowly a few times. Rubs his chin and says, “yeah...but I think we need some way to mark the line. Because...well, you know how it is out there...”

“Right, sometimes you’ll be wandering around out in the woods and stumble upon a line,” Lydia agrees, “it’s like, this is interesting and all, but it really doesn’t help you. You still don’t know where you are, or which direction you arrived from.”

As if smacked against the side of his head by this insight, Lenny snaps his fingers, wide-eyed, and points both index fingers like pistols at the three of them. “Okay, we string up two lines. One green, one red, side by side. Just like on a boat or an airplane. So you can tell right away what direction shit’s moving in.”

Pretty much everyone agrees, when the residents at large are polled, that this is a great concept. Or at the very least, like Lydia, not the worst idea in the world. She remains a game trooper, and willing to pitch in, even if considering most if not all of this a lost cause. Months upon months will pass before she is too far along with her pregnancy to remain in action, but she intends to keep working until then.

Scouring the main house by daylight, though it doesn’t have a ton of windows, and remains murky, they locate every roll of red and green twine they can, even though this means dismantling Rafael’s carefully constructed pyramid, in the room next to his completed maze. And with roughly half, like Blodgett, insisting as usual that they would prefer chopping trees to traipsing miles upon miles through the forest, their parties scatter like always into two separate functions for the day. Those who were involved in the original bonfire discussion take great pride in it, and want to head up the twine stringing operation – except for Lydia, who considers the tree chopping chore the least useless of the two.

Grace and Kay will join the three men in this project, although in reality, at most two people would really be needed. Still, whether anyone would confess as much or not, the loneliness is brutal out here, like an active force squeezing them harder with every step taken from Otherwise. The larger the party, the less this sensation seems to haunt them. Another thing Jeremy for one is having trouble admitting, even to himself, as he attempts to block out all thoughts of such, is that he really enjoys having Grace around.

Whenever this topic surfaces in his head, conflicting thoughts and emotions compel him to shut it out down almost immediately. Still, the notion is a pleasant one – even though to admit as much is itself also troubling. But that’s why it continually bobs to the surface. For example, well, she’s the one he most often thinks of when he masturbates. Without a sex life at this point, he supposes it’s only natural. Natural also, that as Lydia has occasionally mentioned, if they aren’t able to leave here, then they’re going to need to figure out a way to survive as is.

He guesses this is where biology and basic human nature takes over. A body will do what it can to survive, barring some kind of psychotic break. With the possible exception of those who left – and even then, he can testify Denise was perfectly lucid, perhaps the most so of all – they have fortunately avoided that fate, thus far. To reach such a point of despair where ending things feels like the only viable solution. But...yes. He still loves Emily, of course, and is consumed with as many if not more thoughts about means of rescuing her. So far, chaining the barn shut seems to have done the trick. She’s even apparently lost the desire to paint. If things should ever fully collapse between them, however, then Grace is in his thoughts. That’s all he’s saying.

They have collected more twine than they can possibly dispense with in this first day. Because any voyage out must be mentally doubled, as it will mean that much in return. At least if their thinking in this matter proves true. At the agreed upon starting point, between Grace’s neon pink angel and that weird message Kay wrote in white, they begin, tying off at the first solid tree and continuing into the Outer Woods from there. Taking shifts at walking side by side, while the others merely observe. After consulting a book on boater safety that just happened to be found in their musty old library – which confirmed what Lenny was thinking, though he wasn’t quite a hundred percent – they have the red string on the left, green on the right. Different tricks are useful for remembering this, too, among them that green and right have the same number of letters, or that red and left are the shorter words in their respective categories.

After blowing through the first parallel rolls of twine, it seems pretty obvious that Clay’s idea was correct. And by the second one, it’s all but certain. Though it’s anyone’s guess what this might mean, they triumph in this small victory, as if yet again outsmarting whatever insanity these grounds are attempting to deal them. Agreeing that this seems like a great stopping point for the day, high fives, good cheer, and a passed around bottle of wine that enhance both will accompany them on their way back.

Their small party is about halfway through the Inner Woods, or maybe a little more, when someone notices the plumes of smoke in the air, which must indicate that the other crew has already arrived home for the day. Even though it’s not quite nightfall. A good twelve miles in two different directions is no joke, but they are all in reasonably good shape, the air is crisp but perfectly fine once acclimated to it, and the terrain has cooperated in that it’s mostly flat, vegetation thin, the ground dry. Therefore they are a little sore, but not overly so, although all agree that a fire and some dinner sounds pretty freaking awesome right about now.

By the time they reach Otherwise, though, it’s apparent that whatever blaze the others have cooked up today, they’ve really gotten into it. Just in judging the smoke from the road, without even spotting the fire yet, this has clearly escalated well beyond their usual bonfire status.

Alarm bells don’t really begin sounding in anyone’s head until they’ve reached the drive, where, even though it climbs a short hill, it’s evident that the flames are coming from somewhere over by the barn. This is when, despite their fatigue, all five of them begin jogging – which turns into a full on sprint as they crest the hill, and can see that it’s the barn itself which is ablaze. Also that the other group doesn’t appear to have returned, at least not in full. Emily and Rebecca alone stand next to one another, admiring their handiwork, and only slowly turn, with mischievous, satisfied smiles, when the others repeatedly shout their names, then Jeremy and Grace grab Emily and Rebecca, respectively, by the arm. They have two cans of gasoline and a box of matches at their feet.

“I couldn’t get down there,” Emily explains, maintaining the creepy smile and the weird, distant glint in her eyes, “I wasn’t sure what else to do.”

“Yeah, and it was blocking my view,” Rebecca seconds, “I have to look out for Jen.”

HAVE YOU GUYS NOT NOTICED KATHY IS MISSING? reads Kay’s message, as she holds her note pad aloft.

After a period of relative absence, sightings of the Ruiner have lately intensified. Some have taken this as a good omen, and, while possibly a willful delusion, there’s at least a logical thread to be found in this thought – he was most active when they too had greater freedom, which might indicate they are close to breaking through, getting out of here. Maybe the Ruiner is disturbed by their actions, aware that they will soon leave him.

Most, however, interpret his appearances as a not-so-great sign, particularly when coupled with...whatever is going on there with Emily and that natural spring, for which he appears to be the ringleader. As most of them walk up the dirt lane to begin chopping down trees – having satisfied themselves, for the time being, regarding other projects elsewhere – this subject has cropped up, specifically how the Ruiner was spotted on consecutive nights peering into the front window of Kathy’s old cabin. On one occasion, multiple witnesses reported hearing his garbled loudspeaker type voice, as they peeked around the corner of the women’s bath house, and the other time they heard nothing, but in either instance, it’s kind of hard to miss that sickly, antifreeze green glow, especially now that the power is out everywhere.

“You know, I hate to say it, but...guess I’ve been preoccupied,” Jeremy laments, shaking his head, as though disgusted at being so self-absorbed, and genuinely saddened as he realizes she’s gone.

“I guess I just figured...well, actually, this doesn’t make sense, since we don’t have electricity,” Lenny says, “but I guess in the back of my mind, I just figured she was off working on her pottery somewhere.”

“She was never around much anyway,” Clay observes.

“Right? That’s what I’m saying, I guess.” Lenny replies.

This has led to the speculation that the Ruiner sightings are somehow tied to her disappearance. Which isn’t the most farfetched notion, considering how Ben and Lois met their end, the lights Rebecca reported seeing directly before. Kay shakes her head to refute this, however, and even holds up a sign saying Kathy went missing long before these recent Ruiner sightings, but the others remain skeptical.

She feels better and worse since the others convinced her to begin wearing a surgical type mask. Relief that her terrible secret is now out in the open, and appreciative of their practical suggestion, though it is physically uncomfortable to walk around with this obstruction on her face. Worse even than the toboggan with the ear flaps. Plus, though knowing they only mean to help, or at least are not actively trying to hurt her feelings, Kay is beginning to have some inkling of how deaf and/or mute people must feel, because the others often speak as if she’s not even around, and has no idea what they’re saying. It’s just a subconscious impulse, she believes, when encountering a person with these limitations. Like how a large party of them endlessly debated, this morning around the fire, whether it wasn’t better from a scientific standpoint to let the bugs continue assailing her, and possible in their survival interests as well – without even asking her what she thought about this subject.

Spirits are low at the outset this morning, and never really improve. In the wake of that barn burning episode yesterday, Lenny had found Jeremy sitting on the ground beside the main house, on the driveway side of it, slumped against the building’s side. He didn’t so much as look defeated but as though all hope had literally just drained away from him in a torrent, pooling underneath him, into the ground below. Lenny dropped into a seated position beside Jeremy, attempted to offer some measure of consolation.

“I...just don’t know what to do at this point,” Jeremy admits, eyes bugged out of his head, unable to process what just happened, hand cupped over his mouth now as if to hold in a scream.

“Well, it’s like I said, man. Let’s just leave her down there for the time being. She can do...whatever it she does down there, okay? Then when the time is right, when we’re ready to leave, we can grab her one last time.”

Jeremy had nodded at this, agreeing in spirit, although it really didn’t matter. Feeling a little weak at the knees himself, following yesterday, and a night of fitful sleep, haunted by horrifying dreams, he reluctantly took a plate of toast and eggs down the ladder to Emily this morning. Only to find that she had taken seemingly every chain they had tied around the barn, and looped them around the nearest pair of light fixtures on the left hand side. She sneers in his direction with pure hatred and, when asked, claims that she threw the key to this padlock into the natural spring.

“I don’t need you,” she calmly stated, “you may set the plate at my feet if you like, though it does not matter. Someone else will help me. There will always be someone else to help me.”

As if approaching a kicking horse, Jeremy does as she commands, then backs away immediately. Wringing his hands, he asks what she will do for changes of clothes, and heat, to which she paraphrases a repeat of her previous statement. Though telling himself he would not ask about this, the next question slips out anyway, as he’s wondering about various bodily functions. She offers him a wicked grin, then dips her head once to indicate the natural spring.

“It is pure. I have everything I need here. It is everything I need and will be pure for all time.”

To say he more or less scampers up the ladder following this exchange, yeah, this is an understatement. Although meanwhile, creepy as this is, nobody has seen Rebecca at all today. Someone reported maybe seeing a flash of human color up there on the third floor, as though moving past if not looking out of the windows, but it only lasts a second, and apparently no one went up there to investigate. But Jeremy is troubled by all of this, possibly more so, because it’s hard to say what’s worse. At least Emily has him, and to a lesser extent maybe Lenny or Kay whom she would consider family, but Rebecca has none of that. Does this make it shittier, that they are able to turn their back on Rebecca, that nobody claims her as their own? Or are they justified in considering this a relief, and one less thing to worry about?

About the only ones who appear to be in good cheer are the new parents, Lenny and Lydia. Even in this, however, they’ve tried to downplay any excessive bubbliness, so as not to upset the others. It’s true that, for a few brief seconds, Lenny was sort of bummed that she had told Kay before anyone else. But he got over that pretty quickly, and understood her morale-boosting reason for doing so, in the moment. As they return to their cabin this evening, and are building a fire prior to collapsing like exhausted heaps into bed, she compliments him, in fact, for remaining so even keeled virtually all of the time.

“You’re the master at just, like, blocking out everything that doesn’t matter,” she tells him now.

Nearby, just barely able to manage such in the orange flicker of this blaze, Zeke sits on the floor, flipping through an instructional book on kayak fishing. As soon as the power began going out, Lydia instantly felt this burning desire to have the kid move in here. She has always wanted a family, and slowly, however outrageous and logic defying their situation is at present, it’s coming together at last.

“In some weird way,” she continues with a playful smile, “although I’m sure you’re not really used to hearing this, I would almost say it’s a form of wisdom.”

“I don’t know about that, now,” he scoffs, “I think it’s more like, you know, after you fuck – sorry, screw – up so many things in life, it’s almost like you learn to cut down on the moving parts. Fewer moving parts, fewer problems.”

“Moving parts?” she questions, having crawled into bed ahead of him. Like most nights, they feel no need nor any point in telling Zeke to do the same, to climb into his own bunk that they toted over here from the main house, and up front, next to and parallel to the window.

“I don’t know,” Lenny shrugs, as he slips underneath the blankets beside her. “I’m just trying to describe it off the top of my head. But yeah, simplify. Doing as little as possible seems to fit in with that. Fewer mood swings too. Just try to kinda...ride along, you know?”

Lydia giggles and tells him, “I think it’s cute how you ride along with your nephew’s nutty ideas. Clay’s too. They still think they’re saving us. Which is somewhat cute in its own way, too, but...”

“Nnn, I wouldn’t say I’m just humoring them, though. This is kinda what I’m talkin about. I’m goin along with just about anything, really, and tryin not to get worked up about any of it. Let’s see where this goes.”

“You don’t seriously think we’re getting out of here, still, do you? I mean, I pitch in and help, too, but that’s mainly for the fresh air and the exercise, and to not look like a jackass.”

“Well, I mean, I still hope we’re getting out of here. Don’t you?”

“Mmm, whatever happens, happens. But this is your family now. This is our family now. At some point you might have to decide. If you’re staying with us, or still entertaining these...delusions about leaving.”

Lenny screws up his face, more amused than disturbed, and retorts, “of course I’m staying with you – what kind of question is that?”

At just about the same time this conversation is taking place, things have just about wrapped up around the now customary end of evening bonfire, behind the main house. The scenery behind them still looks weird, with two sheds and a barn now missing, all in the space of a few days. Some of them were joking earlier that the eventual rescue party, showing up months after they’ve all died, will have trouble piecing together exactly what went down here. Even with all of the documented evidence, in their journals, stored upon their electronic devices. Others found this line of humor distasteful, however, and told them to knock it off.

Though not yet midnight, Jeremy and Grace are now the only two remaining by this fire. Moments earlier, Clay went around the side of the house to take a leak, then reemerged, rubbing his face and yawning, “fuck, I’m wasted. Nighty night, children,” as he sauntered off to his cabin. Blodgett, remaining opposite Jeremy and Grace, on the other side of the fire and slightly further away, held his own pint bottle up to the light, sighed, “yes, well...,” and drained the last of it, before wandering off the other way himself. Although come to think of it, Jeremy didn’t quite notice if he actually went to his cabin for a change, or if he continues to haunt that damn office – even without any lights.

“So what do you think about...I’m hearing talk from the others, about how they think we need to maybe pivot...?” Jeremy begins, breaking a somewhat extended stretch where the two of them just stared into the flames.

Grace turns to gaze up at him, her tortoiseshell, vaguely figure 8 shaped secretary glasses reflecting the blaze enough to pretty much obscure her eyes. He can’t read much there. But her lips, which she continues to lipstick crimson, every day that he can recall, in addition to the eyeshadow and the light foundation applied, like a marooned islander who continues to throw on a suit every morning, are upturned at just one corner, in the familiar half smile, half smirk – somehow managing to be playful, quizzical, full of mirth and innocence all at once. For some reason he likes that her freckles are still readily visible through the foundation, believes that it adds considerably to her appeal.

“Is that what they’re saying? We should pivot? What would that involve?”

“Weeeeeelll...,” he begins, and chuckles, a sound and a gesture she reciprocates. “I think what it boils down to is, you know, I’m still focused on getting out of here. I’m still focused on getting her out of here,” he nods toward the collapsed ruins of the barn, “and everyone else. But at what point does that become ridiculous, or maybe even irresponsible? I don’t want to endanger anyone with...some wacky concept or whatever. Going too far. Even if I think of myself as our leader, you know, I would still hope...”

Grace giggles, which causes her nose and its immediate vicinity to crinkle up in a manner he also finds, well, adorable. Despite her mildly taunting him with, “you think of yourself as our leader? That’s sweet. And cute.”

“...yeah but seriously, like I was saying, even so, I would still hope someone would speak up and say, you know, yo, this is clearly a lost cause, it’s time to move on...I mean, please tell me that you would?”

Smiling as she always is, Grace cranes her neck to peer up at him again, and teases, “wait, what are we talking about, exactly, here?”

“Everything,” he tells her. “This entire situation. All of this...this shit we find ourselves in.”

“Mmm hmm,” Grace replies, offering more of a coy, knowing, closed mouth little smirk as she nods once and returns her gaze to the fire. “And were you thinking this might involve a pivot into me?” Then catches herself and covers her mouth, adding, “oops...heh heh...I didn’t quite mean it like that...”

As for Jeremy’s mouth, it has involuntarily flown wide open, before he too recovers and says, “what? No! Hey, I wasn’t saying...well, I mean, not that I wouldn’t say...okay, I should plead the fifth now...”

For the third time since this little chat began, she turns her eyes to him, except this time has her tongue lightly pressed between her teeth, smiling once more in her patented, maddeningly playful way. “Yeah, well, just so you know, it wouldn’t be quite like you think.” Grace unleashes another burst of light, tinkling giggles, which somehow reminds Jeremy of champagne bubbles, as she tacks on the remark, eyebrows raised, “you have no idea what you’d be getting into. With this seemingly quiet and polite little girl...”

“Oh I’m sure, I’m sure,” he chuckles, nodding a few times himself. Observes now that his beer bottle is just about empty, which is probably a good sign, a cue that his night should soon end. “But hey, in all seriousness – and don’t take this the wrong way, because I’m not trying to be icky or weird or whatever,” he shakes his free hand in between them, as if to manually dispel this notion, “but are you staying warm enough in this big old house? With no heat? I mean, if not I’m sure you would’ve moved into one of the cabins, but...”

Grace looks up at this dark, silent monolith behind them, exterior half crusted with frost and as still as one of those ice crystals throughout. “Yeah, you know...it’s pretty much just me and Rebecca staying in there now. It’s not so bad. Marcus I think meditates quite a bit up in that room of his and Rafael’s sometimes around doing...who knows what, now that his yarn maze is apparently finished. But yeah...oh wait, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, you were inviting me to come live with you in that...”

“Hey, now!” he jokingly protests.

“I’m just giving you a hard time,” she laughs, and removes her fuzzy white toboggan now, tossing back her lustrous, maroon-orange hair, all the shinier in this flickering light. “I think it’s sweet.” She flicks her eyes in his direction only, before fully facing him to explain. “But no, to answer your question, I have a fireplace in my bedroom. I do just fine. I mean if you feel inspired to bring up a couple armloads of firewood every now and then, I wouldn’t really...”

“You have a fireplace in your room? Guess I never noticed. Don’t know why I would have, but...”

“I do, I do,” she nods. “There’s one in the library, and then one in my room, and then...it comes up basically between that room with Zoe’s bottle collection and the doll tornado room. But they bricked that off for some reason, I forget why.”

She’s holding her own gigantic red wine glass up to the fire now, just playing with it, by appearances, because surely she can feel that it’s empty. Jeremy’s mind is mostly on other things at this moment, anyway, wondering how he could have missed all these fireplaces – yet another reminder that his focus hasn’t been what it should. As such he also kind of fumbles, at least in his examination of the topic, after the fact, when she smiles and salutes, says she’s calling it a night and trudges in through that back door. His head is only back in the game after he watches her leave, thinking that he didn’t hear her lock the door in any fashion, and wondering if that’s a good sign. But then questioning right after that if there are any locks on the doors to that house, actually.

Well, he’s clearly exhausted. Yet also feeling a little bit slimy after that conversation, though he hasn’t really done or said anything wrong. Thus, whether due to guilt or genuine concern – although either way, he supposes it’s just plain weird to think his girlfriend is nearby and underground right now, as she has been all along – instead of heading off to bed, he shuffles over to where the barn once stood. Treads as lightly as he can over the sheets of tin, not that this would wake anybody up, and then nearly falls into the hole she hacked into the ground, even with the now quite bizarre visual cue of that cabinet just beyond it.

After descending the ladder with the help of his trusty cell phone light, he shines it over where Emily should be, and finds her as expected. Standing there, chained to the wall. She is wearing a light parka, as he was his previous visit and theoretically always will be, so that’s somewhat of a relief, and it’s maybe slightly warmer down here than it is above ground, but not much. Even so, the cold apparently doesn’t bother Emily, nor does his presence, as he slowly swivels her head to give him a single, silent appraisal, then returns her focus to the natural spring once more.

He climbs the ladder again, and marches over to the still highly active flames of their nightly fire. Scooping up an armload of wood, he drops it all down the hole in one swift dumping motion. Returns and grabs a couple fistfuls of kindling, stuffs these into his pocket, and then yanks the most promising looking log from the blaze. Carrying this like a torch, he descends the ladder one last time tonight, to build Emily a small fire.

This time around, she doesn’t even look his way. Not even as he presses up against her, to make sure he’s built this close enough, but not too close. He can’t bear remaining down here another minute, but this fire should at least provide some warmth for her to last through the night.

When Kay spots Tony raiding their food pit, that first occasion, she can scarcely believe it. So much weird stuff has gone down here, though, that her response is understandable. It’s three o’clock in the morning and she – speaking of strange occurrences – just so happens to be standing at the picture window in her cabin, staring out at the still, lightly frost covered night. Though never a smoker, unable to sleep, she had been in some atypical furious cleaning mood, that started somewhere around midnight. As much as one can clean by candle, fire, and electronic device light, that is. Stumbled upon a half empty pack of cigarettes which must have belonged to Kathy, itself quite the little mystery, and felt compelled to light one up, stand here contemplating and observing the otherwise motionless night.

As the motion catches her eye, off to the far right, this figure emerging from somewhere roughly between the school and the Druckers’ old cabin, or maybe closer, by Liam’s, she recognizes right away, of course, who this has to be. Underdressed for the weather, because he’s clad in the same red and black flannel coat he wore as pretty much his standard uniform, from late autumn onward. No hat, which makes those oversized glasses stand out all the more, even if considering the shaggy beard and the slightly curly head of dark hair that he hasn’t shaved in weeks.

Yet these physical details, while instantly recognizable, she will only analyze in detail later. In the moment itself, she’s not sure what to think, at least not initially. A whole lot of folks, herself included, have been seeing all sorts of things around this compound, and there’s no compelling reason to consider this any different than a Ruiner or a Chef Jen sighting.

What changes her mind is witnessing his physical interaction with this world. Apart from their famous antifreeze-green glowing, gibberish speaking demon knocking on Emily’s window, nobody else has reported interacting with these figures in any significant way. Even Kay believes she has made eye contact from afar with the Ruiner and Chef Jen both, and while their gazes were enough to shoot a bolt of pure ice through her soul, this is still just a debatable, subjective take on this distant exchange. Nothing remotely provable, and quite possibly wrong.

To see this figure kneel and push aside the giant, corrugated tin lid to the food pit, though, this changes everything. Yet even as she watches it descend the ladder they propped up against one side, and witness a few plastic wrapped objects sailing out of the pit – their shiny surfaces actually gleam in the ample moonlight – and then climb out of said pit clutching a couple more objects, it’s impossible to believe this isn’t a flesh and blood human. Despite her lingering depression, though, for weeks upon weeks now, and its sudden lifting at the sight of him (the cigarette has helped, too, she must admit), replaced by something that almost feels like hope, or at least a little sunshine, she can’t quite work up the nerve to approach him. Not this first night, anyhow.

It will later occur to her that, if analyzing this encounter completely, it’s in the back of her mind that she somehow knew this was going to happen. If being truthful, she was in great spirits at the outset of that strange midnight cleaning streak, and wasn’t all that surprised to see him. Though quite naturally seeming like a great coincidence, it feels preordained in some respects, and less remarkable at the other extreme, when analyzed rationally – he’s probably been coming here every night for the past week or two. Sooner or later she was bound to spot him. None of which impinges her slightly brighter outlook in the least, however. Slight or not, this at least gives her something to look forward to, every night, the chance at spotting him.

Tony can feel her eyes on him during this specific encounter, too, of course. Well, not necessarily her eyes, though he suspects they might be. He really can’t explain it. But this sensation of just knowing when someone is watching you, this could be a by-product of living in the wild for so long, he’s not sure. Kind of like that day Emily exited the school and shaded her eyes, to peer over at the main house. In that instant, he was positively certain that she knew all about his presence in the woods, even though never looking his way, because was radiating this knowledge in waves. She may as well have held up a sign. Again, this must have something to do with heightened senses, instincts sharpened to a blade by living off the land like this.

Well, there is another possibility. This one is much more difficult to explain, however. In actuality, he fears that, however improbable seeming, this has to explain what is happening to him. But he doesn’t want to entertain such fanciful notions, doesn’t believe himself the type. As though to stop thinking about such will deny it this privilege. He’s also a bit ashamed of his actions, his impulsivity in these matters.

The manner in which he left Otherwise was rash enough. But it’s the reemergence of these damn Welch ponds, following his weeks in the forest, that have really knocked him over the edge. What can he say? Some phenomenon are just so damn compelling that they prove virtually impossible to leave alone. This curiosity was one of his strengths as a filmmaker, or at least what drew him to that medium, and this same curiosity gets him into trouble now.

Though never able to determine any definitive pattern, to Tony these strange little ponds sure seem to crop up with far greater frequency, during his time thus far haunting this cemetery. As some of them had observed during that long ago discovery, the appearance of these ponds is often preceded by the appearance of a blackish-green patch where nothing is growing. Tony hasn’t quite determined if they always precede the appearance of a Welch pond, or if the occasions where he didn’t observe one, it’s only because he wasn’t paying attention. On exactly one occasion, in the woods east of the cemetery and within about fifty yards of it, he stumbled upon three such ponds, within sight of one another in a loose V pattern.

He thinks that description he came up with a while back, that they looked to have been stamped out with a perfectly round cookie cutter, is an apt one. The water – or whatever it is – always sits perfectly still, a good couple of feet down from ground level, affording ample view of the perfectly smooth walls, whether composed of a red clay or some other kind of dark brown soil. Meanwhile, the liquid itself looks black, if standing upright on the ground, with absolutely nothing visible within, unless a stray pine needle or something happens to float down.

It was only inevitable that he would begin playing around in these ponds. He can tell himself he is testing this phenomenon, with a knowing smirk, and while that might be somewhat or even mostly true, his spirit is nonetheless one of a person at play. His first experiment is to simply take a long stick and jab it into the water. Based upon its surface experience, he half expects it to resist with the viscosity of tar, even when knowing better. But no, this stick extends without resistance, exactly as he would expect from a fresh, unobstructed pond.

Not yet quite working up the nerve to touch this stuff with his hand, he will crumple up a plastic wrapper, which formerly covered a pork loin he had pilfered from Otherwise, and poked this with a stick, jabbed that into the water next. Though the stick had appeared to drip water, this offers more concrete proof, as tiny pools of clear liquid exist in the packaging, after he withdraws it. Days later, upon discovering another, and having prepared for the moment that he would, Tony drops one four mile section of twine, found during the course of his travels, and tied to a heavy rock, into the middle of one such pond. It keeps falling and falling, as rapidly as one would expect, until the last bit of twine has flown from his hands.

From here he can’t quite resist touching the substance. It begins with poking a finger at the pools gathered in the plastic wrap, and will extend to his eventually lying flat on the ground, extending an arm into the pond itself. He finds this water neither hot nor cold, but a lukewarm that seems most curious of all considering the winter temperatures. Whatever it is, this stuff doesn’t freeze, and for that matter he hasn’t even so much as seen a light film of frost upon it, nothing like that.

The question of whether it’s drinkable will occur to him a few nights later, as he’s sitting in the dirt, staring at the small fire he’s built near one such pond, unable to sleep. He has taken to setting up camp next to these whenever stumbling upon them, and without fail, they are always gone the next morning. This in turn will lead to his setting up camp whenever finding one of those blackish-green, moldy looking spots where nothing grows. Within a day or two, a Welch pond will emerge, though in typically watched-pot fashion, he never witnesses the formation of one. These too seem to always materialize overnight, or else when he’s off somewhere else, wandering.

But this night, he thinks that what he really needs is a pail, and takes off for Otherwise to find one. Since they took down those storage sheds, these type of supplies have been left to rust out in the open air, and he is able to find a suitable one quickly enough. Back at camp some fifteen minutes later, he scoops out some of the water, and sets it upon his fire to boil. After satisfying himself that the water is sufficiently purified, he lets it cool, and then works up the nerve to drink some.

It’s somewhat of a disappointment that it only tastes like totally normal water, even somewhat better, actually, than tap water, like the highest end mineral water. And he suffers no ill effects, only some really wicked and demented dreams, although these could have erupted from anywhere and might only be a coincidence.

The first time he works up the nerve to jump into one of these ponds, he does so fully clothed. It’s an impulse decision made in the middle of a bright, if quite chilly, afternoon. He has a substantial blaze roaring nearby and figures he can just dry out beside it, no big deal. And as had been the case when only touching it, he finds the temperature perfectly mild, not at all unpleasant.

One curious thing does happen every time he jumps in one of these, however. Whenever taking this plunge, as expected he can allow his body to sink for as long as he wishes, and never hits bottom. And yet, he doesn’t float to surface, either – nor does he physically will himself back up to the surface. Instead, however improbable, if not impossible, his body always flips underwater, as if drawn by some gravitational force, dictating that his top half is more buoyant than the bottom. And only after doing so will his head pop out above the surface of the water, even though ever rational thought says he should be upside down, and sinking toward the bottom.

He has repeated this experiment dozens of times, and attempted everything he can think of to try and force the action in some other way, but it always turns out the same. Following that first jump, he has stripped down and done so naked, so that he at least has dry clothes to throw on upon climbing out. The water remains a riddle he can’t solve, though, not just in this outrageous direction muddling – for that’s what it has to be, he reasons, some sort of mental confusion plaguing him down there, even when he leaves his eyes open and believes he can see himself turning underwater – but in its continual pleasant temperature, giving him only the mildest, brief little shock upon entry, one small catch of the breath before he adjusts.

Other problems will eventually begin to surface, enough to make him forget about these charming quirks. As the stuff seems harmless enough, at least in the early going, and passes every sense test as far as being water, which would include his biological need for such, he soon begins to rely on these for hydration, and/or a cooking supply. A few days later, he begins seeing spots. Not the same kind of imaginary floaters a person will see, typically by those with poor vision such as he, which if he remembers correctly are caused by bacteria or something.

Well, maybe bacteria are behind these, too, who knows. Or maybe they are caused by malnutrition, which is his original theory. Yet the plain facts are that he begins to see these spots within a few days of jumping into the first pond. These are greenish-black ones, kind of like those lifeless moldy looking patches on the ground, actually, though translucent enough that he can still see through them. They also don’t seem to float around, really, and don’t go away.

Even so, this counts as relatively minor, an annoyance he can certainly live with. And it’s not like he can bring himself to steer clear of these ponds, anyway. Something about this ritual, apart from the general good old sanitary aspects of it, seems to wipe out all the cobwebs from his mind, and bring him to a more tranquil place. He can’t quite count on finding a pond every day, but they’ve begun to appear with greater frequency. Now that winter has settled in, there’s an ever present frost in these woods that never goes away, and he’s able to melt it when needed. But while this might be a case of wanting to believe it were true, he would say the water from these ponds is purer, and tastes better. There is magic in the ritual, to be sure, looking forward to finding the next appearance, because he’s never quite sure when that will happen. This doesn’t explain away all of it, though.

He can’t even claim with certainty that these ponds are causing his spots. And so this is the same thing he tells himself about this unyielding blackness, which consumes him every waking hour. Before experiencing this sensation, he never would have guessed that two seemingly conflicting emotions could coexist. Immediately following his immersion in these ponds, and drinking of the water, he does feel a great deal calmer, meditative. Even while at the same time, this simmering rage fills his every fiber, where he just wants to take this revolver and empty it into the next living thing he sees. It’s not depression and it’s not a blind, hot headed anger. It’s the pure calm and the unrelenting if directionless rage sitting side by side. These dark spells are stronger following his encounters with the Welch ponds, but they never really go away.

At times he thinks he’d really like to fire about three slugs apiece into his parents, for allowing him to get into this mess. But then a rationality will gradually wash over him, when he concedes to being a grown adult, and a mostly clear headed, intelligent one at that, at least prior to this doomed enterprise. If feeling especially foul, he will sit and stare at the fire, or one of these ponds, gun in hand, and entertain thoughts about Harry Kidwell, for luring everyone into this madness, or even Jeremy, who does seem to have a touch for getting people to follow him without even necessarily trying to. But while aware that a number of his former colleagues blame Jeremy for their being stranded out here, he can’t say, even in his blackest moods, that he really feels that way. No, it’s really all upon him, Anthony Joseph Bender II, and the sheer practical uselessness, out here in the real world, of the artistic mind.

Moments of clarity are cutting through the noise, though continually spaced farther apart. When snapping out of such funks, he will realize he must have been moving around in something of a fog. One such episode occurs when he bumps into Kay one last time, during what, as it transpires, is also his final visit to Otherwise.

Out of food, he has ventured over to the compound yet again, for another of these midnight raids. Usually later, in fact, for he is often forced to wait these idiots out, during their drunken little bonfire parties behind the main house. He has crossed paths with the Ruiner on two separate occasions, or at least glimpsed him nearby in the woods, also spying on these pitiful souls, and yet such sightings don’t even faze Tony at this point.

He has just slid the tin lid aside from the food pit and is standing at the lip of it, appraising the still plentiful mountain of boxes as he always does. As cold and as late as it is, and as hard as these people work at their futile tasks all day, as much as they drink afterwards, Tony knows that it’s basically lights out – metaphorically speaking, ha ha – as soon as the last person has left this bonfire. Basically. Because he has felt someone’s eyes on him now and then, and has suspected it must be Kay. But whoever this person is, they represent no threat to him, therefore he treats himself to this indulgence, half the fun of this ritual for him. Like the proverbial kid who has just entered the candy store, and wishes to take one long look around the premises, savoring everything, mentally cataloging his wishes, before set loose to run amok throughout.

Tony feels that someone is watching him again, though this continues to not bother him in the least. He climbs down the ladder and picks out a handful of selections, whatever he can fit into his backpack. Vacuum sealed, primal cuts of meat are his primary consideration here, although they have also stuffed industrial sized frozen vegetable bags in here, and frozen soups, which he tosses up top now. On exactly one occasion, weeks earlier, Tony risked a nighttime raid of their kitchen pantry indoors, loading up on bagged beans and canned vegetables, packs of ramen noodles, therefore he is for all intents set for the winter on that front, he believes. Having gotten quite good at estimating what he is able to transport, Tony stops when the time is right, and climbs to surface once more.

He has just crested the pit edge when his eyes, which are by chance turned in this direction, slightly to the right – at about the two o’clock position, from this ladder – immediately land upon Kay, standing on her front stoop, hands in coat pockets and staring right back at him. And though he is unable to say why this bothers him so, aside from the mental confusion stemming from what who knows what, from the exhaustion of his forest ordeal, or the collective ordeal before that one, living here, or a deep seated hatred of being watched, which has maybe always been there, or, yes, maybe whatever this peculiar cool headed rage is that has set his blood simmering – by coincidence or not – ever since he began partaking of those ponds, spotting her there has him positively furious.

But he is cool about it, all the same. Or believes himself to be. With only the slightest hitch in his motion, he continues to the surface, and begins loading his collected goods into the backpack. The only difference between this and all other nights, however, is that this time he casually rounds the corner of the main house. Tony has been economical and gotten quite good at leaving a fire going nearly all the time, and making sure he is perpetually drying wood out near the current fire in preparation for future ones. Therefore the pair of lighters he brought with him are still in good shape, the box of matches not even touched thus far. He’s certain that they probably use an accelerant of some sort for these bonfires, though, at least on occasion, and soon enough locates a can of gasoline, amid the junkyard of detritus now scattered where those sheds had been.

Even while aware that this makes no sense, and that he’s harming himself every bit as much as the others, he can’t seem to stop. If only Kay weren’t such a nosy cunt, he rationalizes, then none of this would have ever happened. Reaching the pit once more, he empties the contents of this gasoline can into it, splashing it all around, then fishes in his backpack’s front pocket for some matches. Upon sparking one of these, and tossing it into the pit – it only takes two tries before succeeding on this front – the contents of the whole erupt with one big, bright whoosh of flame, before settling down into a steady, smaller burn.

He doesn’t want to hang around here a minute longer than necessary, of course, only enough to make sure that this fire truly takes. Still, somehow, in all the excitement, he has kind of forgotten all about Kay, even though she was clearly the catalyst for all of this. Stupid bitch. So he is completely taken aback and jumps back a little to find she is suddenly standing right beside him, facing him with a mournful expression. Holding up the texting screen on her phone, where she has typed, in an extra large font, a question formed by a single word:

WHY?

“Do you think it’s Christmastime yet? Or did we completely miss it? I don’t even know at this point,” Lydia muses, only partially joking, as they trudge up the road for yet another day of chopping down the trees.

“I really could not tell ya,” Clay replies, the only one among them to answer. He squints up at the overcast sky, as if it contains some answers, before eventually locating the pinspot of the sun behind this cloud cover. “If I had to guess, though, I’d say we were already into January.”

Jeremy is feeling much less chatty this morning. The fire a few days ago not only set a good 90% of their food cache up in flames, it also torched whatever enthusiasm remained. He wouldn’t say pessimism has seized him, at least not yet, for he still believes that they will find their way out of this nightmare, and his mind continues to spin furious gears in search of a solution. Yet whatever tiny spark of joy still existed within him is now entirely snuffed out.

This task now represents their single collective obsession, every daylight hour. In so doing they have made incredible progress, so much so that they are within a quarter mile of reaching the final bend, after which the dirt lane’s entrance will become visible to them. So these are some pluses, on the positive side of the ledger. Subtracting from these gains, however, would be the mini ice storm which hit yesterday afternoon, for which none of them were prepared. Here in North Carolina, they all know from extensive experience, any sort of substantial snowfall is a rarity, but these ice storms were all too common, and there is customarily one doozy per season which will shut down the world for a solid week.

They were kind of hoping that the one which hit yesterday might represent such a storm, just to get it out of the way. As they scampered the handful of miles back to back, thoroughly soaked in that bone chilling manner for which even boiling a water and tossing it into a horse trough for a hot bath, as most of them did, never seems to quite rid. This had not proven the case, however, as the sky stopped firing its ice bullets upon them soon after returning, and thawed just enough afterwards to permit them to work this morning.

The truth is, he has lost most of his faith in escaping via this route. Not wishing to be seen doing so, one night he was feeling especially frisky, post evening ending bonfire, and walked out here himself after everyone went to bed, then well beyond. Armed with a couple rolls of twine, because he and everyone else save Lenny – with his damn low budget, pay as you go phone, which occasionally worked – had lost all internet service long ago, and he didn’t trust his distance tracking app. He walked out past where their tree chopping efforts had ended, to where the dirt lane met Old Stokely Farm Road. Strung up some twine there, around one of the trees supporting that STOKELY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS sign, and walked north up the road until he ran out of twine. You never knew quite what to expect with these experiments, but he went a good eight miles and the landscape changed not a whit.

So as not to completely obliterate what little hope remained, Jeremy never mentioned this little experiment to anyone. He slept in a few hours later than usual the next day, exhausted from his travels, and only rejoined the others around 10:30 or so, out here chopping trees, but nobody batted an eyelash. Not that they would have been shocked, necessarily. He feels like he detects this nearly invisible – but not quite – thread connecting them all, that everyone recognizes the sheer futility of this, but nobody wants to say as much.

Well, actually, Lydia has been saying as much for weeks now, though her slant is not a negative one, more an attempt to pump some air into these proceedings by suggesting they learn to live here. But she’s gone along with everything, if only for the exercise and camaraderie. Grace, well, she has displayed this curious attitude where she almost finds this stuff hilarious, and humors him just to see where it will lead, while Blodgett’s basic demeanor is one continuous eye roll – and yet those two have gamely contributed to this tree chopping campaign, throughout.

And concerning Lydia’s point, it’s true that they saved as many seeds as possible from the fall. Hydroponic green onions have proven crazily ridiculous to grow on a windowsill, though you couldn’t exactly live off of those. Even after that mysterious fire, for which nobody has taken credit, although there are rumors of a Ruiner sighting that night, (as well as reports of hearing gunfire, though nobody knows if this is connected nor what it might mean) they still have enough beans and jerky and trail mix to provide protein if they can just hold off until spring, and plant some more crops. Yet, while they might eventually all resign themselves to calling this their permanent home, most have not quite given up just yet.

Virtually everyone save Lydia and Blodgett has explored the Outer Woods endlessly, both with and without the red and green twine as a starting point. No effort to leave in this manner has amounted to anything whatsoever, just endless forest without much variation. During an especially low point, Kay freaked out and attempted tearing off in Grace’s car, even with the knowledge that this loop goes absolutely nowhere, and managed to hit a patch of black ice, sending the Mini Cooper into a ditch. The car appears to be fine, though it’s probably telling that nobody has bothered to attempting getting it unstuck.

They have established a surprisingly harmonious community here, with precious little squabbling. They’ve pitched in together on the Emily front, bringing her food, and water – though insisting she doesn’t need that – and building a fire on the really cold nights, despite her apparent indifference. Even with her left arm chained to the wall, the women have nonetheless insisted upon bringing changes of clothing for her bottom half, in particular under and socks. Emily left herself enough slack to reach the natural spring, and though some have encountered her with her bottom half submerged in the water, using this as her makeshift latrine, as creeped out as they are, the same old regular cast of pretty much all the women, plus Jeremy and Lenny, have pressed on taking care of her just the same. Much of the time she remains affable enough, if a bit spaced out, and might warm herself by the fire, converse a little with her visitors.

So yes, they could conceivably make it here. For who knows how long, maybe years, even. But the problem with an isolated arrangement like this is that every little mishap magnifies into something completely catastrophic. They can afford no slip-ups, or additional bad luck.

The misfortunes that follow push Jeremy into another, much darker place altogether. Anticipating another ice storm, if not a fluke snow and at the bare minimum heavy frost, they have long since taken to storing all their wood in the mostly useless main house, the hallway leading into the library. They still congregate here when the weather is especially foul, at either the long café table or the library itself, with few venturing upstairs now and almost no one ever in the employee lounge, or the workshop. And the weather is soon quite foul. Following a respite of a few days, another ice storm hits, this one a doozy, converting their forest of strange trees which shouldn’t exist into even more grotesque looking specimens, drooping everywhere with frozen stalactites.

These never melt, either, and while work continues at a sluggish pace, chopping down the trees is slow going with their manual tools, inability to drive out here now, fire making impractical if not impossible at this distant site, and the pines for all intents frozen solid. There are plenty of days where they don’t even bother. What nobody ever expects to happen, however, is that when their situation has become to seem its bleakest, Lenny somehow manages to punch through, and make his way to town. He even brings back proof. Yet in almost every respect, this only makes matters worse.

At times, Kathy understands human consciousness again. These moments come and go. She would describe this sensation, if able to communicate with others in her current spirit state, as mostly having this wide, all-encompassing presence a great deal of the time. She only has a dim awareness, but it covers a great deal of real estate, all at once. Every so often, however, this focus sharpens down to a single point. These are the moments where she feels she has a body again, and she can not only hear, comprehend what the humans are saying, but has this sudden desire to communicate with them.

Eventually, it will occur to her that these points of sharp focus never happen without humans being around. So in some manner, their energy must bring this about. During these encounters she feels something that is very close to the pangs of genuine emotion, human torment, which she still remembers. The general prevailing sentiment that ghosts are basically trapped dead people who haven’t been able to move on, she understands that this is basically true. However, they are quite aware that they are dead. It’s just that something has gone haywire and wherever it was her spirit was supposed to go from here, that didn’t happen.

There is much still unknown about this plane – and that applies just as equally to an entity stuck here. Even in her more aware, focused state, vision isn’t what she would have considered it to be, in her former, human existence. It’s possible that those who stick around here longest, like that figure the kids nicknamed the Ruiner, that they acquire strength, and get progressively more aware of their functionality. Whatever the case, she isn’t actually able to, say, look down and view herself, in any kind of bodily state. And when she arrives in this focused condition, she’s aware of not being aware the remainder of the time, in the more diffuse, much more common state she just now emerged from. Yet no amount of concentration will bring any sort of knowledge back with her, when she dissolves into that cloudlike, distant and only generally aware condition once more.

As far as getting around is concerned, she has no theory to explain why they seem to be slightly more active at night. It could be that some, like the Ruiner, who has assumed more of a glowing form, are present yet far less visible during the daytime. Because day and night look identical on this side, and it’s only some sort of other sense, she’s not sure what, that informs her, okay, the sun is out, or the moon, it’s purely felt and not necessarily seen. Day or night, everything has this murky quality to it, kind of like those lifeless black-green patches where nothing grows, except with a pinkish tint that makes it all visible.

She has seen Chef Jen around, quite a few times, but spirits – at least the ones in this realm – do not really interact. Even as a telepathy of sorts passes between them, if close enough, relating some knowledge. Here Jen has rope marks around her neck, and Kathy understood at once that she was either strangled, or that she hung herself. Also, while a figure like the Ruiner – or Allensworth, as it were – is powerful enough to roam as he pleases, others among them are bound mostly if not completely to one location, or an endlessly repetitive track between two points. Then again, Allensworth radiates a completely different energy, darker and more evil, and she understands that he might more properly be considered a demon as opposed to a spirit such as she. Or Jen, who appears to be stuck in this loop of appearing from the east, from the direction of the overgrown fields. She will circle the lake once, then wander off toward the fields again, eventually disappearing over the hills in that direction.

As for Kathy, she is mostly stuck near Fairlawn Cemetery, but isn’t sure why. She only materializes elsewhere, like around the pond, if either a human appears, or another spirit such as she. She’s also aware in these moments that while, say, Jen mostly resembles her former self in the land of the living, Kathy does not. Hers is more of a mistlike presence, floating above the ground. Again, it could be that entities in this condition gain strength over time, or that things will always be this way, she isn’t sure. Also, while spotting for example Zoe on exactly one occasion, witnessing her entering the front door of the school, from behind yet unmistakable, and seeing a handful of other random souls she has never quite known, more familiar energies have never revealed themselves. The impression she gets, in a manner much like feeling the presence of the sun or the moon, is that they are not on this plane, although she isn’t sure why.

On this particular occasion, it’s Tony’s return to the cemetery which once again returns her to the focused state. She isn’t sure what has fueled his obsession with this location, only that he is still human, and is radiating some disturbingly dark energy. Though typically her diffuse energy is one kind of floating above Otherwise, the woods, and this cemetery, congealing to a point above the ground when she focuses, that’s not always the case. Sometimes her energy is underground, as is true now, and it’s much more sluggish in coming together, during which time she can see underground and aboveground at the same time. This produces a double vision reminiscent of summer days spent swimming as a child, and having one eye under the water and one above. Also, the sounds are more echoey, it takes a little longer to attune to these and begin to comprehend them.

In a twist Kathy has not glimpsed before, Kay arrives at this cemetery just a couple of minutes behind Tony. And to witness how this poor girl appears now fills Kathy with an unspeakable, nearly bottomless grief. While most might consider spirits such as she inhuman, the truth is, she feels, they feel more than most humans, are possibly nothing but feeling now. Indeed, it is probably this overcharged emotion which has kept them stuck here, whereas other, more resigned souls have been able to move on.

The gunshot also generates some different energies than she has previously experienced. In its wake, as Kathy is floating above the action, on the upper plateau of the cemetery, to the right of the maple tree where Tony and Kay are arguing, the shock waves generate these ripples that make her aware there’s another layer of film lying atop the pink tint she has previously recognized – it’s a clear gaze, thickening the atmosphere, which registers as visible ripples in response to the gunshot. And at this point, she goes diffuse again, neither witnesses nor has any concrete awareness of the physical event.

As far as Tony is concerned, he felt like jamming the pistol into Kay’s stomach back there at the food pit. She is clearly miserable, what with the insects swarming about her face mask, and beyond that, her presence at his side infuriates him in a way he can’t put into words. Instead of shooting her, however, he shakes his head and stomps off into the night, thinking it best if he just loses her until able to calm himself down.

But of course, this dumb bitch follows him. It probably says a lot about his state that he didn’t even realize as much until arriving back at this cemetery, and reaching this maple tree in a sort of fugue. A couple of minutes later, she materializes in this clearing, begins holding up her cell phone to show him a bunch of texted argument type questions. Why she doesn’t just speak, he isn’t sure. There’s obviously something seriously wrong with this woman which he can’t even begin to wrap his mind around.

Tony recognizes at some point that she is crying, as he tells her to shut the fuck up and leave him alone. He has by now extracted the handgun from his backpack, and is absently waving it while shouting at her. Though aware that his frantic entreaties are probably only making the situation worse, he can’t seem to stop, even as, indeed, her flowing tears become more copious, her sobs more like convulsive heaves.

“Haven’t any of you idiots figured out the way out of here yet!?” he screams at her, with a volume sufficient to cause her to flinch and recoil, on its own. But Kay only blinks a few times, and shakes her head, a couple of paces back from where she’d previously been, which maddens him all the more.

“I HAVE!” he shouts, then shakes his head, and begins laughing. Laughing at his own weakness, but also how stupid the rest of these people have been, his former lover included. “Granted, I’m too weak to even pull it off myself,” he says, ruefully chuckling at this admission. “I’m too weak, and I’m too fucking pathetic. Mentally, I mean. Physically there’s nothing wrong with me. It’s fucking sad. It’s all about framing your mind the right way, and I can’t fucking pull it off!”

Finally, unable to deal with this madness any longer, Tony shoves her to the ground. And even though her mouth is fully covered, he can discern the shock broadcasted there, even if communicated solely through her eyes. She lands with a thumb on her ass, and rocks back slightly, but never fully topples over, her gaze remaining steadily fixated upon him.

As it continues to be when he leans back against the maple. Then slides all the way down, using it a support, until he too is sitting upon the ground. At which point he sticks the pistol under his chin, and pulls the trigger, putting a merciful end to this madness.

After witnessing this, Kay doesn’t move a muscle for a good fifteen minutes. Just watches Tony’s lifeless body, every inch of it, his face stuck in this self-inflicted rictus of horror. His back pressed against the base of the maple tree, though otherwise slumped off to the side, covered in blood, head upon the ground.

She eventually rises and drifts over to stand above his corpse, wondering how things ever got this far out of hand. In better circumstances, they could have and maybe should have been soulmates. On some level, Kay recognizes that only pure numbness has prevented her from being absolutely devasted by this loss, in the moment. Instead, she feels almost nothing, only the awareness that she should feel something, as she kneels, and lifts his lifeless head from underneath, cradles it in her hands.

Kay rocks back and forth on her heels for a number of minutes, silently sobbing while clutching his head in this manner. And then as daybreak begins to arrive, she drops it – with a sickening thud she didn’t intend, and instantly regrets – before standing again. Regards Tony’s body for a few minutes more, before turning and retreating to Otherwise. Is only back at camp maybe half an hour before some of the others arise, and discover the smoke, the burning pit which used to hold their major food reserves. Protective still of the only love she has known her, and possibly ever, Kay doesn’t say a word, remains mute on this topic when people begin wondering how this happened.

Lenny wasn’t even necessarily trying to get anywhere. Another dead day, with the ice a solid sleeve around the trees they wish to cut, and continuing to incrementally pelt them, even. Most of the others have decided to occupy themselves with going through those filing cabinets at long last – though there’s been a great deal of talk about such, apart from a couple of brief examinations, centered around the specter of blood, nothing much has been done with this. This doesn’t sound like much of anything Lenny would be interested in, however, so he comes up with a different plan.

Dressing heavily for the occasion, though finding this winter weather surprisingly lovely, Lenny loads up a backpack and decides to just wander around in the woods for a while, checking out the ice storm. They’ve all been extremely conservative burning the gasoline in their cars – only starting the engine for a handful of seconds, after each phone charging session – because keeping these devices up and running has felt curiously crucial, even while unable to contact the outside world. So picture taking remains one of the more popular uses for these phones, if not borrowing Lydia’s professional gear for some even better images.

Well, maybe she can use some of what he shoots, he tells himself in shoving off for the day. He has one of the last whiskey pints tucked into a pants pocket for easy access, and a toboggan atop a ballcap on his head – surely his first ever use of this dorky looking combination, in his entire life – and a heavy, rain resistant coat, likewise his rubber boots, with some long johns underneath his jeans to round out this ensemble.

The Outer Woods he considers particularly lovely and underexplored. He spent as much time as the next guy frantically marching through this sector, believing it their meal ticket out, following the stringing of the red and green twine. But in so doing, it’s almost as though they’ve overlooked the scenery itself, kind of taking it for granted.

One thing they discovered, in stringing up that initial eight miles of twine, though never getting around to adding any more, was that the terrain does at least change near the end of the line. Those tall and nearly barren pines eventually give way to, or are at least heavily supplemented by, numerous other specimens. Also, while mostly flat with maybe only the occasional bumpy waves in the early going, it does begin to slope downhill, as one would expect, for the road leading into Stokely did, too – back when they still had one to drive, that is.

He makes it to the end of the line, in surprisingly swift fashion. Or it feels as such, anyway, as he enjoys himself sipping at the whiskey, allowing his thoughts to ramble while soaking up the scenery. Times like these made him think it wouldn’t be so bad to just forge a life out here, with Lydia and their forthcoming child in Zeke. Provided they could continue to grow enough food, they really had no apparent obstacle to doing so. Sure, some weird things had happened, no doubt about it, but it’s possible most of those had a perfectly rational explanation, and they just hadn’t learned the full truth about these things yet. Given enough years, if reproducing to a sufficient degree, who was to say they couldn’t build a whole community here? Hell, over enough time, especially if there happened to be a book or two on the subject in that musty old library, maybe a genius among them would emerge, enough to just build their own electricity source.

Lenny continues down this expansive, tree covered hill. The landscape here has opened up into a massive bowl shape, with gigantic, totally normal looking maples and oaks having shed their leaves to completely cover the forest floor here. The prevailing colors, then, are white – or rather, the translucent clear shade of ice – and grey with a dash of brown above ground, orange and yellow upon it. In fact, these are just about the only colors visible.

He pauses to take a number of pictures, including a couple of full on panoramic shots. Then continues onward down the hill, almost slipping in one spot, which is his first clue that he’s maybe a little more tipsy than he realized. All he can think about, really, though, is that he wants to see what’s on the other side of this bowl, and then will probably turn around, head back home.

After cresting the hill, however, all Lenny can see is pretty much more of the same, scenery-wise, meaning little to no variation in the trees. The only exception is that these are maybe a little more densely packed. But the land slants downward at pretty much the same steep angle, and even mirrors this trajectory on the other side. It’s more of a true, V shaped valley here than a giant round depression, too, but that’s about it.

Having walked without pause for a couple of hours now, Lenny realizes he’s not just more than a little drunk, he’s also tired and hungry. Upon reaching a particularly thick and cozy looking tree, its bark billowing in thick rolls like a curtain, he squats and whips off his pack without even consciously concluding he was going to do so. Extracting a bag of beef jerky, he then zips the backpack up again, and throws it on the ground as a cushion. Sits down, with his back against the tree, and begins eating the jerky, washing it down with the remaining dregs of his pint. Will soon enough fall asleep, the latest strip of jerky uneaten in his hand.

“So you think Blodgett’s gonna be sitting up in here in his office? Even without any power?” Lydia asks, laughing heartily, as their tiny pack trudges toward the school.

“Can’t imagine where else he’d be,” Jeremy replies. Hands in pockets, he half turns to inspect the schoolmaster’s cabin, which as expected betrays no life.

Zeke, Grace, Kay and Marcus accompany them up this activity-worn path, between the main house’s and the school’s front one. Footsteps have worn it into mud, carving through the ice, and though subsequently refreezing atop this, it’s traveled enough and trampled enough to maintain a visible, slightly lower profile across the lawn. Rafael, citing exhaustion, and embracing the concept of a day off, begged off in favor of lying in bed, reading books. Clay scoffed, chuckling as if thinking this a joke, before stating that he had better things to do. He didn’t specify what these might be, although they can occasionally hear him firing off his shotgun, enjoying a little target practice in the woods north of here.

As for the others here onsite, of which it seems there must be at least a few, Lydia had told them Lenny intended just to wander around the woods today. Jeremy checked in on Emily long enough to rekindle her fire – even though it remained warmer than expected down there, water included, hinting at some sort of geothermal connection – and drop off some breakfast. But some they just haven’t seen, not so far today. Of the participants here, meanwhile, Marcus is easily the least expected and therefore\ most surprising.

“I’m still conceptualizing my next project,” he explains, with customary stoicism, head held high – a regality assisted in that he’s taller than any of them, too – as they enter the building. One by one they stomp off their feet, and continue up the hall. “It occurred to me that I might just find some inspiration here.”

It’s difficult to say whether such continued inspiration is admirable or insane, Jeremy thinks. Then again, it’s not as though they really have much better to do with their time. Plus, he thinks he might have heard somewhere that holding onto even pointless seeming rituals, in trying times like these, help a person keep an even keel, keep from losing one’s mind.

And anyway, though seldom mentioned in the same light, administrative tasks might be just as crazy under these circumstances. Which is their prevailing impression of Liam, as they round the corner into the school office, and see him seated at the desk back in his. Candles lit in an arc surrounding him, as he is bent, pen in hand, writing something into a notebook. He glances up, briefly, as they enter the carpeted lobby, though soon returns to his task at hand.

“Whatcha doin there, jotting down your memoirs?” Jeremy jokes.

“And lord knows there would nigh well be enough material,” Blodgett replies, without looking up. “But no, I believe this scene has been adequately documented, at the very least.”

At this, he leans back in his plush, swiveling leather chair at last. Hands crossed over his stomach, he regards each of them in turn and asks, “pray tell, what brings you fine people to this dingy hole?”

“Eh, we thought we’d finally go through those filing cabinets for real. See what we might find out,” Lydia replies, tipping her head in that direction, the next room over. “But seriously,” she chuckles, face widening into a broad smile, “this is quite a scene. What are you doing here?”

“Well, believe it or not, I thought I’d try my hand at balancing the books. Ludicrous though this may appear,” he says, appending his own weak smile to this. “It’s something I never got around to tackling before, and, well, who knows.” Liam offers a demented little chuckle. “It may be of some value someday. It’s also just the sort of thing this ridiculous old man might do for entertainment – particularly when he’s nearing the dregs of his gin.”

“We should have brought some candles. I don’t know why we didn’t think of this,” Lydia says, then looks to the others and asks, “or should we maybe take the files back to the main house?”

When to a person they shrug and waffle, Blodgett interjects, admitting, “I shouldn’t mind the company, if you are so inclined. And there are scores of candles about this office, just look around.”

After saying their goodbyes and shuffling around the corner to the secretary’s station, they light enough candles to see what they’re doing. But will realize there’s no good place for sitting down here, which is when somebody remembers the teacher’s lounge, the next room up the hall. Each of them will grab one armload of papers from the nearest file, Zeke included, and head off in that direction. Although as they are about to enter the room, Lydia does look over at Zeke, for all intents her adopted son, and realize that he is trembling. In fact, his lips are trembling, and he has drawn up short of actually entering the lounge.

“What is it, Zeke?” Lydia asks. When he looks at her with pleading eyes, though does not answer, she says, “go ahead, it’s okay!” And even lightly applies a hand to his back. Only reluctantly does the child enter the room.

“I’ve heard it said that nobody really likes this room,” Marcus remarks, glancing around at the shadows as if suspecting he might find some answers within them.

Owing to a long back of windows along the eastern wall, and a couple more in its smaller section to the south, this room has plenty of natural lighting, once the heavy shades are raised. These are of the thick, scroll like variety, rolling up much in the manner of a map in the history teacher’s room, or a projection screen rolling down in front of a blackboard. Eager to breeze past the remains of Emily’s truly horrifying mural, Jeremy was first into the room, and though it does admittedly sort of creep him out as well, anything was better than looking at that painting. Thus, he hustles through raising these blinds, as the others are arranging candles around a couple of the round, plastic faux woodgrain covered tables here in the lounge.

Almost wordlessly, as though dreading the contents, they begin cracking open the manila folders. But of course, they have always subconsciously dreaded going through these files, Jeremy thinks, whether anyone would admit as much. This is the only explanation for why even the most curious among them, some of which were determined to get to the bottom of things at the outset, have done nothing of the sort in, what, at least four months of living here.

Most of the papers are tucked away into these folders, though there are loose papers and folders between them, too. In no shape or form is there any discernible organization to the material, however, as it was obviously collected at random by unknown person or persons through the years. And though doing their best to avoid the known cabinets, at least for now, where the bloody trails were found, occasional clumps of pages are stuck together, clotted with a dried maroon substance that certainly looks like blood.

“Ugh,” Grace remarks, shoving aside one such bunch.

Though as previously noted, weeks ago, certain particularly incriminating items seem to have disappeared – bolstering Jeremy’s theory that Zeke was sent here for just that reason – there is still a mountain of damning evidence on hand. More puzzling, as Lydia is first to note with a gasp, stumbling upon a frontpage newspaper article, which expands into most of its flipside, “this was added after we came here!”

Unable to believe this, most of the remaining adults in the room lurch to their feet, and huddle over her shoulder. Sure enough, here’s a piece from the Stokely Gazette framing a black and white photo of Harry Kidwell, apparently contemporary, detailing how is intending upon reopening this artist’s retreat, despite the checkered past of this concept, and the property in general. It is dated from about a week prior to their arrival here at Otherwise, right before they settled upon this name.

“Let me guess,” Jeremy theorizes, “why do I feel like if we looked into this, we’d discover that the Stokely Gazette doesn’t even exist? Or that it hasn’t for a long, long time?” Kay nods repeatedly, in wholehearted agreement with this, though the others seem uncertain. Grace in particular is just wearing her usual frozen smile.

“That’s the work of someone trying to will us into existence,” Marcus pipes up, from the next table over, as the only adult to have remained seated.

At the sound of his voice, startled that he has spoken – and with possibly not everyone realizing he wasn’t among them – every heard turns in his direction. Lydia and Jeremy both ask at the same instant what he meant by this, while Kay holds out her palms, shrugs, and gives Marcus a stern, questioning look. Then, distracted by a gnat that is buzzing around her mask – one benefit of the ice storm is that it has mostly halted insect activity, though the occasional straggler such as this will still pester her indoors – she goes cross-eyed, attempting to hone in on and swat the critter.

“Let me ask you this,” Marcus replies, in a measured tone and pace suggesting he is carefully choosing every word, “where is it you people think we are?”

Nobody answers this question, however, and Jeremy even finds himself shuddering in response to it. He figures their silence must say everything, though, confirming by default what Marcus is hinting. But then again, none of this is exactly a newsflash – it’s only the confrontation itself, being forced to pin down by anyone exactly what he or she thinks is happening, this is what proves horrifying. Thinking about it now, though, again, his thoughts feel as though they are willfully darting around, doing everything in their power to avoid being pinned down, he realizes that at times, he has thought they are either stuck somewhere in the past, or in another realm entirely, or ceasing to have ever existed in the real world at all. These are all theories various people have proposed over the past handful of weeks. But in a sense, entertaining all of these ideas interchangeably at once, this has made their situation less horrifying. Admitting to any of them definitively would be far worse.

Yet what threatens to sap all the blood from his body is a thought that only recently occurred to him, becoming all the more insistent. It cropped up again this morning, before and then during their walk over here. It’s the thought that even the survivors among them will never be able to form their own community here, however tangential, because they are slowly becoming invisible to one another as well. He has this creeping himself that there are people he should remember, but they are gone and he – possibly the others as well – has already forgotten them, as if they never existed.

It isn’t a case of muddling thinking, either; he feels perfectly rational right now, clear headed as ever, and maybe even less distracted than before, once he became aware of that problem. It’s more as though he’s taking stock of who’s here, and he remembers roughly how many they started with, but even in subtracting out the known tragedies and disappears, there are still fewer warm bodies here than it seems like there should be. They’ve even added one to the tally, with the introduction of Zeke. But damned if he can say who these missing people are.

Regarding Marcus’s theory, that someone slipped more contemporary accounts into the files, this appears to hold water. They are attempting to sort out the paperwork, by case, so to speak, or account, if not chronologically, and some of these documents, like the newspapers, or occasional time stamped documents printed out from the internet, date from earlier this year – or make that late last year, if they are indeed into January now, as some have theorized. And the reason this seems a crucial point, that someone would have gone to the trouble of setting the record straight, is because plenty of the older documents are missing.

They only know this thanks to page numbers that skip, in sequential packets of similar looking items. The tales will begin to get juicy, but then all of the sudden a crucial two or three or four page stretch is gone. Only for the report to pick up later. Even so, in a manner reminiscent of redacted military correspondence, they can kind of figure out what’s going on anyway. This says nothing about items, such as photographs, which are gone completely, of which they have no knowledge unless spotting, by chance, during their earlier cursory examinations. But just in sifting through the ashes of what’s here, along with the more recent items stuffed in here, fleshes out the picture in greater detail. None of these are shocking revelations at this point, maybe, but they have greater detail now.

“But why would someone get rid of older evidence, then turn around and give us newer versions of the same stuff?” Lydia questions. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Mouth open, Jeremy smacks one cheek with an open palm, repetitively, creating a vaguely musical sound while he thinks. “No, but maybe it’s not the same person,” he theorizes, “someone knew there were documents missing, and wanted to fill in the gaps because…”

“…because this keeps happening? And this person knows it,” Grace adds, completing the thought.

Jeremy nods and says, “yeah, something like that.”

“Okay,” Lydia also nods, apparently buying this line of reasoning. “But then who? Who would be doing this?”

“Mmm, I don’t know. But I think we can safely rule Kidwell out,” Jeremy drily observes.

“Yeah,” Grace chuckles, “I think we can safely rule Kidwell out.”

The reason for this is that while not necessarily the villain in some of these earlier episodes – although it’s unclear he is completely without guilt, particularly during the era of the fire – it’s plain that he knew about the entire sordid history of this property before agreeing to reopen Otherwise. After properly sorting and examining one stack, they keep going over for still more. Some are even copies of official police reports. Meanwhile, a couple of the fresher newspaper articles feature fresh quotes from Kidwell. Though nobody pins him down with an admission that he’s aware of these earlier episodes, his evasive answers, instead of flat details, basically confirm that he is aware of this history, all of it.

There’s also the matter of his having been on site for much of it, in his younger years. None of the material on hand really gets into the reason why, but a young Harry Kidwell had spent much of his youth in the care of his paternal grandmother, Edwina. He was there when she purchased this property, at auction, following the Allensworth murder, and he lived here during the crazy old lady’s initial run at making this into an artist’s retreat. Nobody explains her decision for performing a complete one eighty, and having young boys room here instead of young girls. Her husband, Harry’s grandfather, however, had died in the war, and she’d never remarried. Therefore, with the hinted at though never stated fact that Edwina had no children of her own around any longer – it’s possible that Harry’s father was an only child, and also dead – she treated Harry as her own. That, and during her widower years, the crazy, hoarding grandma tendencies apparently ramped up to a major degree.

He was here for the fire, too, of course. One of the fresher newspaper clippings shows a faded, heavily pixelated black and white picture, with Harry in it, appearing dazed, not even looking at the photographer but rather at something off to the side, over his right shoulder. Other accounts mention boys that are either already familiar, like Charles Elliot, or seem as though they should be, such as Roger Terry. There is mention that a nearby elderly couple, Owen and Maggie Hazelwood, were the ones who’d phoned in the initial report of the blaze, but that by the time fire trucks and the police arrived, their trailer had also been torched, both of them burned alive. Maggie’s charred body was found in the lawn, as she’d managed to escape the trailer while on fire.

About half of the surviving boys were implicated in the bullying episode that led Elliot to burning down most of the cabins. Harry, who roomed on the second floor of the main house, down the hall from Edwina, was cleared of any wrongdoing – although there remained doubt as to whether he was innocent, or his grandmother just claimed he wasn’t involved. Among the deceased, meanwhile, there is mention of an Ezekiel Harrison.

“Ezekiel Harrison…Ezekiel Harrison?” Lydia says, savoring this name. She glances over to a patterned yellow easy chair in the corner, coming apart lightly at the seams, where Zeke sits, reading an old Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators book. She remembers those mysteries, vaguely, from her own juvenile years. They were just gathering dust in a corner of the library, but Zeke apparently loves them.

Silently watching this kid for a number of minutes, for all intents her adopted son, she’s struck again by this insatiable need to protect him. Not only that, but to root out the source of his distress. The pregnancy is a big part of it, she supposes, longing to circle the wagons, so to speak, and piece together a family here. But she was feeling that way long before hooking up with Lenny, basically as soon as she laid eyes on Zeke.

Thinking about these matters, Lydia has a new idea – well, not a new idea, as she’s thought this before, though never following through with it. While everyone else continues pawing through their own stacks, occasionally commenting on a remarkable find, Lydia flips back through pages she’s examined, until locating the picture she was thinking of. It’s a photograph clipped from some old newspaper, with no other information other than that this is Edwina Kidwell, shortly after the opening of the retreat. Lydia pushes her chair back and walks over to Zeke, photograph in hand.

“I think this a great picture of the missus, don’t you, Zeke?” she says, standing beside the chair, the clipping turned so that both of them can see it.

He glances up from his book, only now, and eyes the photo, then glances over at her and nods.

“The missus has been away for a while now, hasn’t she? Do you know where she went?”

To this, however, Zeke only stares and the picture, and then up at her again, blinking his eyes a few times, before shaking his head.

“How many days has it been since you have seen Mrs. Kidwell?” Lydia asks, modifying her approach. “does she go away often?”

Lydia believes that this approach isn’t reaching him, either, however. She stands continuing to hold the clipping, pinched between two figures, remaining silent so he might have space to respond. After a handful of seconds have gone by, she glances down at him, and this is when she sees tears welling in Zeke’s eyes. This amounts to a major breakthrough, as stoic as the child has been, and she feels that it’s important to keep pressing this point. Lydia kneels now, though continuing to hold the photo aloft.

“Zeke, dear, what is it? Has Mrs. Kidwell been away a long time?”

And once more, she doesn’t feel an answering is forthcoming – except this time, Zeke erupts with an outburst equaling the sum of all he has ever said, up until now. “I…I am so, so…confused…,” he croaks, and his teeth are chattering, tears rolling down his cheeks now, as he trembles, and stumbles over his words. “I…I don’t know most of these…people…and…and…the others…the others, I mean…” And though somewhat spaced out to this point, lost in whatever’s running through his head, his eyes shift now and look directly into hers. What she sees in them now is a desperate pleading, borne by this total confusion, and it chills her to the bone.

“Where has everyone gone?” he asks her.

Lydia is too stunned to reply. By now, he has the attention of everyone else in the room as well, though they remain right where they are, and don’t say a word, surely for fear of disrupting this spell. Eventually, unable to think of anything else, Lydia rises slightly, and throws her arm around him. She draws Zeke near, hugging him tightly, and kisses the top of his head. If nothing else, this gesture seems to calm him down somewhat, for he is no longer shaking.

“You’ve never known your parents, have you?” Lydia asks him at last. He doesn’t say anything, but shakes his head to indicate he has not.

Upon receiving this confirmation, Lydia pulls away, holding him at arm’s length so that she can establish eye contact again. “Well, I am your mother, now, Zeke, do you understand? I am your mother. And I will always be here for you, okay? Do you understand?”

Zeke nods his head, wiping away the tears from his face. He seems genuinely relieved, and as for her, she is positively elated. It’s possible she hasn’t felt this hopeful since the day she first stepped out of her car here. Whatever their limitations, they can make this situation work, whoever among them continues to think positive and embrace solutions.

It’s open for debate who this might be, however. Some are openly hellbent upon leaving still, believing despite all evidence that there’s a serious chance for this, while others are on the fence. Lydia has never been entirely certain which way Marcus is leaning, though, until now. After this tear soaked spectacle with Zeke, he goes back to reading, and she reclaims her seat, if unable to focus upon any of this material now, daydreaming instead. The others have gone back into digging through the files, however, and by now have hauled out at least half of the documents on hand, stacking these on the kitchen countertop when space at the tables is gone.

After a long stretch where nobody has said anything, Marcus shoves his stacks of paper with one motion, at the same time he is bodily pushing himself in the other direction, away from the table. When everybody looks up at him, expecting an explanation for this outburst, he is wearing an expression of pure disgust.

“There is nothing here. Absolutely nothing.”

“There’s nothing here?” Grace questions.

Marcus turns to her with a sneer, shaking his head, and elaborates. “Nothing here that will help us in any fashion. To get out of this fucking hell.”

Lenny wakes up with a start, sweating and momentarily confused. Then he recalls passing out against this tree which must have been, judging from the light, what, two hours ago? It has to be mid-afternoon by now. By habit, he pulls out his cheapie phone, but even this curiously reliable artifact has been wonky of late. No matter – he’s pretty sure about the time, and whatever the case, he should probably get back to Lydia and the others now.

He rounds the tree and starts down the hill into the valley. Though by no means defrosted enough to contemplate driving out of Otherwise, it has warmed up just enough today that trees are dripping water, here and there, all around him, which makes the landscape even more beautiful than it had been before. As he walks, he turns and snaps countless pictures, wishing to capture as much of this as he can. Lydia will surely be mighty impressed by this footage. Yes, she will certainly be blown away by his footage.

At the top of the next rise, he encounters another, somewhat similar looking valley, though the downhill slope is smaller and its back side higher. Hmm, he was thinking it was more of a bowl shape, his second to last such scene witnessed, so to speak, although then again he’d been pretty freaking drunk, more hammered than he realized. And it was kind of stupid not to string up any twine past the point the red and green ran out, but, well. In his favor, he would say that his sense of direction is well above average. Famous last words, I know, right, ha ha, would be his next thought, but he believes this is true. If pressed he would probably say it has something to do with that whole spiel he was giving Lydia the other day, about surviving so much crazy shit that it lends you weird skills, however accidentally.

This is his line of reasoning, anyway, at least up until he crests the next rise. He’s just sort of absently grinning, trying to shut down thoughts of how great a toasty fire, warm bowl of soup, and Lydia’s body, pressed against his, would feel right now. Then he notices he’s stepped into a large patch of tall grass, which is interesting, in that he doesn’t remember encountering this on his way out. Which is when it occurs to him to look up, because he should also document this area for Lydia. Which is when he first realizes that he can see the backside of a house.

And not just a single house, in fact. As he continues down this hill, into some family’s rear lawn, the pines trees, well-spaced, are more of the squat and totally normal looking variety, instead of those strange, towering, barren ones they’re used to seeing. Hands on hips, he’s half mesmerized, all but scooping his jaw off the ground as he regards the backsides of numerous other houses, in a neat row, on both sides of this one.

“What…the…fuck. No way!” he croaks out loud.

The unmistakable sound of a car door slam draws him out of this reverie. If there are houses and cars, then there are streets, there have to be, which lead somewhere significant. Screw looking for other people – people are one thing in fairly strong supply up there at Otherwise. They need to get out of Otherwise, that’s the whole point.

While thinking this, he realizes he’s a little blurry eyed, for these houses almost seemed to kind of shimmer for a minute. They looked kind of wavy, like maybe a drop of water from one of the trees has fallen into his eye. This is all the impetus he needs to get moving again, as he continues down this back lawn.

He cuts between two totally normal looking, single level homes with vinyl siding. Finds himself out on a residential street of some sort, with cars and mailboxes and everything. To his left, the road dead ends within sight, leading into a cul-de-sac, so that little wrinkle seriously assists his cause. He turns right and begins strolling up the street where, within a quarter mile, it spills out onto the state route. Just south of Stokely, within sight of its corporation limits sign.

Though only a couple of months, maybe, have gone by, it’s amazing how much he already forgot about, in this quaint little town. Judging from what shops are open, such as the liquor store, and the hardware, he’s guessing this must be a weekday. And while a bit sludgy in spots, the roads are clearer here, too, enough so that some people are out and about.

At the only significant intersection, he hangs a left, bound for the diner. This is not only a reliable place to grab a hot meal – although the franchise pizza shop’s sign up ahead, lit against the gloom even though it’s technically daylight, looks inviting as hell also – but there are at least a few familiar faces there, or so he hopes, which might help him sort out what the fuck just happened, and continues to be happening for those up at Otherwise.

Dashing up the sidewalk to its entrance, as another icy wave just kicked into gear, basically as soon as he rounded that corner, Lenny brushes off the ice from his shoulder and asks for a table in Doris’s section. It never occurred to him to ask whether she was even here today, he just assumed she would be, and he is correct.

As he has a seat and she approaches with a steaming coffee pot, and he turns up his cup, points at it to indicate he would indeed like some, he isn’t sure if this kindly old woman would even remember him. But after he asks her what’s good today, still focused on pouring his cup, in the same breath as explaining their specials, she finally shoots him a concerned, knowing glance.

“I was wondering if I’d ever see you folks again,” she says.

“So you’ve known about this? How long has this been going on? And why didn’t you say anything?”

Doris straightens up, at least as much as her squat frame will allow, sighing as she says, “well, I did tell that one boy, you know…you really should be asking Harry Kidwell about these things.”

“That’s it, though? This is all you said?!” Lenny halfway shrieks, drawing the attention of some nearby tables.

“Well,” she sighs again, “sometimes it works out up there, and sometimes it don’t. A-course, even when I used to try and say somethin, they’d usually just treat me like a crazy old lady. You probably would have, too. Eventually I just had to sorta decide…I have to stay outta this mess, for my own sanity. I can’t save everyone.”

Lenny eventually mutters something about just bringing him the daily special, whatever it might be, so she can get back to work, and he can muddle through these details. While most of what Doris said doesn’t make “sense” in any rational application of that term, it rings true. She immediately recognized him as being from the artists’ retreat, after all, before he’d even said anything. Still, this doesn’t quite explain, say, the library that four of them apparently witnessed, or the police department which did not in fact exist. When Doris at last returns with his food – a plate of fried chicken, with mashed potatoes and green beans – he poses these points to her.

“People who’ve been up there long enough, they start to see things. Or not just see things, actually – it begins to warp reality for them, somehow,” she explains, palms out now in a shrugging, what can I say? type gesture. She then challenges him by asking, “I mean, how else would you describe it?”

Lenny rubs his chin, pondering this before replying. “Yeah…so I guess you’re saying, these are things that used to be here, at least? The library and the police station and whatever.”

“Yes, but not in my lifetime.”

“So how do I even know you’re really here?”

“I guess you don’t.”

In the brisk manner of a career waitress, who is accustomed to not explaining everything – and doesn’t have the time for it, anyway – she takes off moving again, onward to the next pressing task. And as he sits there, wolfing down his food in bursts, as it truly tastes like the best meal he’s had in months, followed by long passages where he’s staring into his space, Lenny can’t get a handle on how to even begin processing this. He recognizes that by any sane measure, he should find a ride the hell out of here, and never come anywhere near this region again. But that feels just plain wrong, with not just friends but family up there at Otherwise. So what then?

It occurs to him he could possibly call up some of his jackass buddies, and rope them into this madness. That doesn’t strike him as any more ethical, though, and besides that, who knows what this would even accomplish. It’s true that maybe somehow he might coordinate a rescue party up there – but he has no proof of this, and anyway, there’s no sense endangering any of them trying to determine this. If he is able to perform some sort of rescue operation, it is just as likely to occur with him alone as it would by involving others. All he would really need to do, perhaps, is hotwire a car, and drive it on up there.

Well, he doesn’t need to decide upon any particular course of action right this second. In the meantime, another thought has occurred to him, and he extracts his phone from a coat pocket with this in mind. His first order of business is to dial up the number for the Rowlette County Sheriff.

Lenny isn’t quite sure what he expected, but certainly not this. Jeremy had once described a conversation with the dispatcher up there, where he described the guy as a combative asshole, but Lenny had kind of forgotten about that. And anyway, even a combative asshole was still theoretically working a job and required to perform certain tasks.

“So are you sending out a car to investigate, or what?”

“No sir, we are not. I don’t know what your deal is, but…”

“What do you mean, you’re not sending anyone out there to investigate? I’m telling you, there are people trapped up there! In the buildings!”

“In the buildings?”

“Yes! In the main house, and the cabins!”

“And you’re positive this is the old artists’ retreat between Old Stokely Farm and Pine Bluff?” the dispatcher asks, still with that smug, scoffing undertone Lenny detected at the outset.

“Yes! That’s what I’ve been telling you! Are you familiar with this site?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I am. Only problem is, there hasn’t been a single building on that property for decades upon decades. So like I was saying, I don’t know what kinda joke this is, but unless you’ve got some other point you would care to share with me, then…”

Lenny hangs up before he even has a chance to finish that thought. What’s the point? His own head is spinning, metaphorically of course, yet to the extent that he can’t really piece together a coherent argument anyway. Still, even if that particular number wasn’t of any use, maybe some of these others might be.

His first candidates are Lydia and Jeremy, though in both instances, a harsh beep sounds out before some canned, shrill sounding female announces that these are not working numbers. He runs through every current resident of Otherwise, and it’s the same old story in every situation, with the exception of Grace’s – in this instance, some Latino sounding woman answers, with a bunch of screaming kids and a TV blaring in the background, though it’s immediately apparent that she must not speak must English.

None of this is making any sense, and only gets worse the more he thinks about it. What does that dispatcher mean, for example, that there haven’t been any buildings on that property for decades? This would be saying that Kidwell hadn’t added those newer cabins – some of which people are clearly living in – and that none of those tours, however brief, ever existed. Actually if he could talk to that tall, feminine acting kid with the orange hair, who’d worked in the kitchen one day…but no, he doesn’t see that dude around here anywhere today.

Then again, it would be just like a cop to deny all knowledge of this phenomenon, even if knowing as much about it as Doris. He’s known plenty of cops like this. Always tight-lipped and humorless and flat out refusing to discuss things unless they have no choice. Answering questions with other, half belligerent questions, that sort of thing. He remembers one totally normal, sunny summer day back home, where he was driving through town and picking at his thumb. Casually tossed the piece out of the window without even thinking about it, and then astounded when a police car pulled him over not even a block later, demanding to know what he’d just tossed out of the window.

“Piece of lint,” Lenny blurted, who knows why, probably due to nerves and also the awareness that every cop in town surely knew his name, even though he didn’t quite recognize this one. “Oops, I mean, a fingernail.”

“Well which is it, a piece of lint or a fingernail?” The officer demanded, muttered a sarcastic “mmm hmm,” to his answer. And then proceeded to write him a ticket for doing 37 in a 35.

For some reason, this memory pops into his head again, thinking of that dispatcher. It was definitely that whole frame of mind. So he might as well forget about those clowns. What other options does he have, however?

He pulls up the internet browser, which even a cheapie pay-as-you-go phone like his has in this day and age. If nothing else, Tom Drucker and to a lesser extent Kathy were somewhat famous artists, so he should be able to find out plenty about them. It doesn’t exactly stun him to unearth absolutely no trace that either one of them ever graced this earth. Emily’s theory is right, actually, he thinks. They are all slowly ceasing to exist.

A similar pattern will repeat in searching for Ben and Lois Ado. One newspaper article he finds from just two months ago claims that a restaurant at the former address of their ice cream stand has just opened, though it alleges that the former business – unnamed – went under years earlier, and the building had been unused ever since. And on and on, with others, like Jeremy, Lydia, and even, however reluctantly, a different concept to wrap one’s mind around, searching online for traces of himself. Absolutely nothing.

One last thought occurs to him, however, just as he’s about ready to put his phone away and flag down Doris for his check. They never quite determined, or never the least bit determined, really, whatever became of Denise. Tony’s number had not worked, after all, so there’s no reason to think hers would, either. And thus he is astounded when on the fourth ring, a live human answers.

“Rowlette Womens’ Center,” the voice says, that of another, older sounding lady.

“Rowlette Womens’ Center?” he questions.

“That’s right,” she replies, then adds, in a brisk but not unfriendly tone, “is there something I can help you with?”

“Oh. Uh…yeah, I was actually tryin to reach Denise Garverick.”

“Okay and you are a friend or…”

“A friend, a friend. Well, halfway friend and halfway family, I guess you might say.”

“Hmm, well, okay,” the lady says, sounding somewhat pleased, “well, Denise arrived here two days ago. She’s still under sedation, you know, but she’s doing just fine, just fine.”

“Can I talk to her?”

“Well no I’m sorry, like I was saying, she’s still under heavy sedation. We’ve kept her phone up here at the desk just in case someone called, but don’t worry. I think she’ll be fine.”

“So what happened? To her, I mean?”

“Okay, again, I’m really sorry, but we can’t quite get into specifics over the phone like this, without her consent. But can I take a message?”

“Uh…yeah, sure. Just tell her Lenny Henderson called. Her uncle Lenny.”

Lenny’s slightly bewildered by this turn of events. It does raise his optimism quite a bit, however, for it shows his was not a fluke occurrence, that somebody else managed to punch through. So that’s something, although he has still made no progress on a concrete solution. As Doris is dropping off his check, one potential avenue occurs to him.

“So does everybody here in town know about…the history up at that place?”

“If they’re old enough, then yes, I’m sure they do. And even some of the ones who aren’t old enough, I reckon.”

“You think any of the old timers around here would be willing to help me? Do you know anyone? To get up there and rescue the others?”

Doris shakes her head and emphatically declares, “I can tell you the chances of that happening are positively zero, hon.”

“Hmm. Well, what if I asked some of the younger people around here to help, then?”

“I’d say that’s on you, then, isn’t it?” she tells him, and walks away.

No, Doris is right, he concludes, in paying his check at the cash register up front, then walking back outside to confront this gloomy winter day. He can’t with good conscience get any locals mixed up in this madness, unsure whether any of them would ever return. That would put him on the same level as Harry Kidwell. But the cops, now, that’s a different story. This is their job, after all, however strange or even otherworldly. Not to mention his checkered history with law enforcement - he wouldn’t shed many tears should something befall one of those characters.

He hits a handful of stores, all within easy walking distance around this little town. This he finds an unexpectedly fun exercise, apart from the kid-in-a-candy-shop aspects to it, this stocking up on some things after weeks if not months of doing without. But the real kick, as he’s mostly able to block out thoughts about the reasons for this emergency cache, is attempting to determine what’s absolutely essential, given just a backpack, his pants and coat pockets, and then maybe the ability to carry and/or hang a few bags from his arms.

A nice big bag of beans and a jar of peanut butter seem to offer solid bang for the buck, as far as potential versus the space taken up. Either could probably feed a person for a week, if not longer. Some cartons of cigarettes, which the few smokers at Otherwise are going to bow down and kiss his feet for, he’s sure. Bottles of liquor for, well, pretty much everyone. Matches and lighters, because they can basically never have enough of these, and then almost as an afterthought, one of those fire starting logs, just in case.

At one point he buys a tall can of beer at a convenience store, and chugs it in the back alley, as his quote unquote dessert. He has worked up a sweat running around like this. But it’s as he’s standing behind the store, peering idly at some cars and houses lining the nearby side road, that some even better ideas occur to him.

He could call 911 right now, sure, and maybe feign a heart attack. But wouldn’t they insist upon taking him to the hospital? And dialing up the sheriff once more is amusing to think about, yet he can’t really figure out what he’d tell them to convince them to come out here, and yet would still allow him to change his story and talk them into a drive up to Otherwise. Then his eyes land upon a row of vehicles, lining the curb of that side street, and he realizes: hey, wait a second. I could just hotwire a car.

Even with the early nightfall of winter, it’s still a little too bright out here by a couple of hours. He kills additional time shopping – tricky in that there’s not even a traditional grocery store in this podunk village – which mostly revolve around a second trip to the hardwire store, then another to the convenience store, this time warming up with a nice tall hot coffee afterwards. This particular counter clerk, who, like the hardware’s, gives off that distinct edgy and extra observant vibe, clearly must be the owner, and doesn’t take his eyes off of Lenny during this second outing. He supposes he must give off the clear vibe of the homeless, or at least someone who’s potentially problematic. Still, however weird, however deliberate, Lenny eventually pays for his goods and doesn’t steal anything, so he is guilty of no crime.

Not yet, anyway. By the time he’s finished his coffee, standing in front of the store and sprint puffing his way through some cigarettes, it’s just now dark enough to give this hotwiring business a try. The funny thing about this is that he’s never done this for real, although he and his dipshit friends did entertain themselves tremendously one afternoon, many years ago, practicing with an old beater that one of them actually owned. After setting his wares down, beside the dumpster, behind the convenience store, so as to free himself and also appear less conspicuous, he strolls casually down the nearby side road.

Eyes everywhere, to make sure he is not seen – though it helps only someone certifiable, or desperate, such as himself, would be out in this crap – he tries eleven cars before finding one that’s unlocked. And in this process, he starts to consider that there’s a sieve effect, of sorts, at work here. Because it seems to him that the cars most likely to be left unlocked are probably also the easiest to hotwire, i.e. older models that the owners clearly aren’t obsessing over. So it is that armed with nothing but his bare hands and the light of his low budget cellular device, he’s able to get this car up and running in roughly a minute’s time.

In so doing, he’s praying that the muffler isn’t so loud as to level this entire block – one likely hazard, he feels, threatening to counterbalance the sieve effect. Kind of like a low budget line of defense against having one’s beater stolen, if you really think about it. But no, he has lucked out in this regard, as this navy blue, late 70s jalopy purrs about as well as it ever has.

With one quick pit stop to retrieve his stashed goodies, Lenny hops back behind the wheel, and turns right out of town, heading east on the state route. It does occur to him that maybe he should circle back, or park this thing somewhere discreet, and load up further still. He’s probably pushed his luck about as far as it will go, however, and anyway, with his last pair of checks from Kidwell still rotting in his wallet – and never a guy with, shall we say, mountains of untapped reserves in his checking account – it isn’t as though he has much, if anything, left to spend anyway.

And so he rolls onward. Yet in the ten minutes it takes for him to arrive at the Pine Bluff intersection, he’s had enough time to suffer a slight change of heart. Or not a change of heart so much as a slight modification to the plan. Because while it’s possible this car has already been reported stolen, chances are that is a slim prospect indeed – and anyway, the risk is worth it. At the very extreme edge of potential outcomes, if nothing else he could just floor it in the direction of Otherwise, force the officers to chase him, and in so doing rescue the others. There hasn’t been much ice, so the roads are still drivable, and if it came down to it he could always just run.

Having turned the corner to idle on Pine Bluff, Lenny gets out and peers across the state route, to the mail box across the street. They’ve got enough lighting at the end of their driveway to make the address clear, and it’s this one he recites when dialing 911, and reporting an intruder. Though perhaps unnecessary, he disguises his voice as much as possible, too, effecting that of a wispy old man, croaking as such. And they sound genuine enough in insuring him they will send someone out immediately.

He returns to the car and sits for exactly two hours. This is the time he’s allotted himself for this exercise in futility. On a couple occasions he exits the car, to stand watch on the state route itself, returning when he can absolutely take no more and to fire up the heater for a moment. At this two hour mark, he calls again, though they insist they have no record of his first phone call. He’s not surprised. He reports this incident all over again, then, though immediately takes off down the road for Otherwise anyhow, not even bothering to stick around. It doesn’t matter because nobody is coming this time, either.

As he’s turning to gun it up the long drive, he has second thoughts just before pulling the trigger. Even if successful, he could very well get the car stuck up there, and they just might need it in order to leave. Best to park it right here, he thinks, at the bottom of the drive and…

Wait a second, what about that gigantic ditch they dug? He had forgotten all about it, driving up here, and to remember it now makes him feel a little lightheaded. He can feel his pulse hammering now against the sides of his neck, the thick wall of his forehead. Clearly there was no driving over such a thing. Yet as he cranes his neck to look in that direction, it sure as hell seems like it remains in place, right where he’d expect it to be.

Lenny gets out of the car to walk over there, for a closer inspect. Sure enough, there’s this huge, gaping pit, a good five feet deep and twice that across. No way he just drove over that thing. No fucking way. But is he really surprised? No, he guess he isn’t. Just as it doesn’t exactly shock him to observe that his tire tracks are already invisible on the road. It’s just one solid sheet of ice, as if he had never been through there at all.

It actually never occurs to Lenny, in his runaway thoughts about playing hero, that he might not receive a hero’s welcome. When he eventually locates most of the group, hanging out by the fireplace in the library, Jeremy is so shaken up that he is visibly trembling, and is covering his mouth as if to avoid an outburst. Lydia meanwhile suffers no qualms about making her opinions felt. While his nephew appears more emotional if anything, worried about his whereabouts, his girlfriend is more about just giving him a good old fashioned ass chewing.

“Where the FUCK have you been!?” she howls, with a ferocity well beyond anything he’s seen from her.

“Whoa!” Lenny replies, throwing his hands up as if to ward off an actual physical attack, “I told you guys I was doing a little exploring. And I have to say, I think you’re gonna like what I…”

“Do you have any idea how long you’ve been out there!?” Lydia shrieks, and does in fact smack him on his arm, will all her force, “it’s after midnight! We thought something happened to you!”

“Yeah man,” a still shaky Jeremy croaks, “we had no idea, no idea…we were thinking the worst…”

“Okay, fair enough,” Lenny says, continuing onward to the coffee table in front of the fireplace, where he rests his backpack upon random scattered books, skirting the handful of mostly empty bottles and cans. “But nobody’s asked me where I’ve been.” Peeling off the grocery bags from his arms, before he’s even gotten into them, he believes he can detect a glint of comprehension in some of their faces, at least, even in the relative dimness of only this firelight. “I made it out,” he explains, beaming, as he reaches into one bag and withdraws some cigarette cartons.

“You made it out?”

“What do you mean you made it out?”

Lydia’s eyes are like black beads right now, distant as she questions this, while Jeremy continues to look pale and upon the brink of passing out. Others are a little bit more enthusiastic, however, like for example Blodgett, perking up when Lenny extracts a hearty ration of fresh liquor pints. Their schoolmaster has been standing off to the side of the chimney, hands clasped behind his back even as one of them grasps a cigar he occasionally puffs on. Now however he marches over with a broad grin, clapping Lenny on the back.

“My boy! Good work, old chap, good work I say!” he exclaims, laying the Olde English bluster on thick, purposefully exaggerated for comedic effect. Readily accepting a bottle of mid-level gin as he does.

Bitter contention will mark the next handful of days. As it’s difficult to argue this treasure doesn’t exist, and pretty much impossible regarding the car, endless efforts are made by most to duplicate Lenny’s results. Some will extend lines of green and red twine in various directions through the Outer Woods, while some theorize that this somehow disrupts any chance of punching through. None will ever return successful, however, not even Lenny. About the only ones immune from this exploratory fever are Grace, Blodgett, Lydia, and of course Emily who remains chained to the natural spring wall.

They explore the loop to no end, too, quite naturally, but will in every instance find it unbroken and intact, making it all the more baffling how Lenny ever managed to drive home. Nights are commonly spent debating at great length what it all means, how these phenomena work, and ways to circumvent their effects, though all of these theories amount to naught come daylight.

Once the hysteria concerning his escape fades into the dull flicker of confronting their unchanging reality, though, work continues on chopping down the trees leading out of Wooley Swamp, all the way up until the last one is felled. Though lighthearted efforts at walking out that way have led nowhere, those still believing in this escape route conjecture it’s only because the distance is too far, to make any real progress by foot. They just have to wait for the spring thaw, the prevailing belief insists, and then they can drive on out via that long dirt path. Only a couple remain skeptical, with just one, his own girlfriend, ripping into him on a regular basis for continuing to entertain these dreams.

“You’re gonna have to make a decision at some point,” Lydia tells him, “are you with us, are you gonna be here for your family, or are you gonna keep chasing these…idiotic notions?”

“Why does it have to be one or the other? Of course I wanna be with you, and the baby, and Zeke! Wherever we end up. But what’s the harm in exploring an exit strategy, out of this fucking place?” Lenny argues. Suddenly, in ways he never would have dreamed, he’s beginning to sympathize with Jeremy’s Emily plight – though thankfully, Lydia remains lucid, if sometimes maddeningly so, and hasn’t chained herself to a wall.

“Yes, well, like I said,” she replies, shooting him a pointed glare, “at some point, you’re gonna need to choose. Whether you’re with us or not.”

Things come to a head this very night, or make that early into the next morning, as Grace and Jeremy are once again the last two remaining by the bonfire. It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of one a.m., which is pretty much their standard wrap-up hour, though they’ve done absolutely nothing else but to converse thus far, on any of these nights. Though he continues to check in on Emily multiple times daily – though no warmth whatsoever passes between them – and he frets her situation continually, he has just leaned in to kiss Grace for the very first time. This too is something he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about. But is already regretting it more than he ever would have supposed.

For her part, she just offered a light, throaty chuckle as he leaned into her, but was smiling, and opened her mouth willingly to him. But have said nothing since it happened, only continued to stare at the fire, side by side. She in her long, charcoal grey, wool coat, he in his puffy ski jacket. Nothing, that is, until a sickly greenish-blue glow catches their attention, from over by the cabins. They look up and, though only viewing this figure from behind, it’s quite plainly their old friend the Ruiner, peering into the front window of Rafael’s cabin.

“Oh wow,” Grace says at last, and even giggles.

“No…fucking…way…,” Jeremy croaks. The apparition then without incident moves away from the window, and slips around the corner of the cabin, toward the forest and out of sight.

Following an endless night that is nearly literally sleepless, Jeremy arrives at the main house the next morning with a major announcement to make. Well, in truth, he was still on the fence weighing this issue, telling himself he would give it least until nightfall before he made up his mind. But as he arrives in the library, witnessing all the bleary and in some instances tear streamed faces, informing him that nobody can seem to find Rafael, in this instant he snaps, and decisively announces what’s on his mind.

“That is it!” he tells them, slicing at the air horizontally with one hand, “this is what I came here to tell you. I’m locking myself in that room for the winter! Anyone else?”

That room? What room?” Lenny questions.

“My room! The room I’ve been staying in!” Jeremy shouts, flinging his arm behind him to point back at it. “This is crazy!”

“What, our fearless leader is throwing in the towel?” Lydia mocks with a smirk.

“Whatever. Yes! Are you kidding me? People are dropping like flies around here. That fucking glowing monster shows up at Rafael’s cabin and he disappears? We should all be locking ourselves in our cabins!”

“And then what?” Clay challenges. Attired in his Carhatt jacket, hiking boots and jeans, i.e. his standard issue attire. Front lip bulging with chewing tobacco, which he’s spitting into a Styrofoam cup.

“And then we wait for the spring. Shit thaws out, we see about getting the fuck outta here!” When everyone just sort of blinks and stares off into space, without comment, Jeremy presses onward. “Now, anyone care to join me? There’s plenty of room.”

Grace issues her melodic tinkle of a laugh, almost like wind chimes, he sometimes thinks, and says, “I’m good, but thanks. That’s sweet.”

The rest continue to either stare off in space, so Jeremy concludes, “okay, then. Come on, let’s split up the food I’ve got in there. It should be plenty to last everyone through the winter. Then this is the last you’re seeing of me.”

Technically speaking, this isn’t quite true. For the remainder of the day, he does busy himself transporting food out of the bunker. By his estimation, even in a worse case scenario, he should at most need about 90 days’ worth of food. If things were ever exceptionally bleak, of course, he could just come out early. But after separating out most of the rest, he carries it over to the main house’s café over a handful of trips, in bags, and boxes, and his own backpack. Considering that this is his own admittedly unique strategy for surviving the winter, he wouldn’t dream of asking anybody else to help, and none of them volunteer. Well, Lenny halfheartedly does, but Jeremy can tell this is a familial obligation type offer, and that furthermore he’s risking the ire of Lydia by even being generous enough to ask, so Jeremy cheerfully tells him he doesn’t mind doing this alone.

After piling this goods upon the table, with suggestions to anyone who will listen that they really should split this up and bunker down themselves – although for the most part, people just shrug away the notion, and don’t touch the goods apart from an occasional curious, pawing-through-items-at-a-garage-sale type motion, only to set the item back down – he finally does recuse himself from further obligations around here, at least through the end of the winter, with one key exception.

The exception is he has also set aside 90 days’ worth of food for Emily. Surely, the others will continue to look in on her, too, but he can’t just completely cut her adrift. Most of what he brings down to her is in the form of canned goods, along with an old fashioned, manual opener, piled up near her feet. Though glancing his way as he comes down the ladder, for nobody has ever gotten around to moving that cabinet off of the proper hatch, she quickly returns her attention to the deep recess of this natural spring, made all the creepier in that there aren’t even any working lights down here now.

“How you holding up?” he asks, as cheerful as he can muster.

“I’m doing okay…,” she tells him, robotic, mechanical, continuing to stare into the void.

Jeremy moves in closer, and throws both arms around her, from the side, attempting to draw her nearer for this awkward embrace. She makes no effort at reciprocation, however, and her gaze remains unflinching toward that same long dark tunnel, seeing what apparently only she can see. And she is not only cold in the metaphorical sense, he observes, distant and halfway hostile, but also bodily cold, as in temperature-wise.

In leaving, he passes the fire pit, and debates starting her a nice little blaze for warmth. But she has all the materials here, and they are well within reach, if she so chooses, not to mention that, yes, the others will be checking in on her now and then besides. Bottom line is, he just can’t do this anymore. He needs a clean mental break from all of this, a circling of the wagons to reflect on everything and above all else survive. That any of them have made it this far without completely losing their marbles, or winding up missing or dead, is itself already a major and, he thinks, statistically highly unlikely marvel. Best not to tempt fate any longer.

From here he marches directly to the gift shop, opens the door and bolts it shut behind him. Lenny has agreed to come knocking whenever the spring arrives and it’s thawed out enough to attempt leaving. Otherwise, armed with a shotgun he’s borrowed from Clay, just in case, Jeremy has served notice to everybody that they must leave him the hell alone.

At roughly the same time that Jeremy is doing this, some of the others are in the café, contemplating this mountain of food he’s arranged atop the long picnic table. WHY DID HE PILE THIS HERE? Kay has written upon a notepad, and held it up for everyone’s inspection.

“Good question. I take it he must be serious about the bunkering business,” Lenny replies.

Scribbling away furiously for a moment, Kay, directly below the first question, has written her next. NO. I MEAN WHY HERE?

“Dude’s losing his marbles a little bit,” Clay offers, “I mean, I hate to say it, but…”

“Well, in all fairness, it really doesn’t matter much,” Lenny says, “I mean, I know we’ve kept most of the food in the kitchen. But it doesn’t need refrigeration, and we have none anyway…”

“You know what I’ve always wanted to do?” Grace says, off topic though somewhat related, in that they’re staring at the object she’s referencing. Attired in a pair of thick mittens that match her long, charcoal wool coat, she claps these hands together and declares, “I think it would be cool to like, take a section of this table, somehow, and bring it outside.”

“Hmm,” Clay nods approvingly, “that’s actually not a bad idea.” He drops into a squatting position, to examine the table a little more closely.

“Lord knows we’ve got enough free time on our hands,” Lenny jokes, chuckling.

“Yeah really. Especially since I can’t find anything to shoot,” Clay retorts. But then points underneath the table, explaining, “see, these are actually a bunch of normal picnic tables, bracketed together. They did a good job. It’s pretty much seamless, and then they stained the whole thing to where you can’t even tell. But yeah, this is definitely doable.”

The sound, more than the light, of these heavy drapes opening is what awakens Denise from her slumber. It’s some elderly woman, dressed like a nurse – like, seriously, with the pointy white cap and everything – and, as Denise stirs, this grandma regards her with that peculiar mix of concern and vague derision that only ladies of this advanced age, in this profession, can manage to pull off.

Then again, Denise is kind of pissed herself. She has the crankiness of someone just rudely awakened from a medicated slumber, and knows it, though this isn’t quite the same as being able to snap one’s fingers and instantly get over it. This room was a mausoleum, pitch black and insulated against the world, until this rude crone with the gold plated name badge reading BEVERLY dared to move those heavy ass drapes, as thick and luxurious as a king’s robe, hereby blasting Denise in the eyes with this demonic sunshine.

As her eyes adjust to the light, Denise blinks and looks around the room, contemplating her situation. In a manner quite reminiscent of waking up after a heavy drunk, she’s aware that she’s been in a fog, yet can’t claim to have any memory of said fog. There are fragments of memories, here and there, though even these seem like dreams. Real enough, however, to flesh out this bodily hunch, where she can just feel she’s been here for a little while.

Only now does the memory of where she came from hit the conscious parts of her brain. Holy shit. Last thing she recalls she’d been out there in that endless section of forest, beneath those towering stone slabs. And then…what? Denise tries to ask Miss Beverly here, but finds that her throat is too parch, that the words literally hitch in the back of her throat. Fortunately, her insistent stare in the nurse’s direction, the expression on her face, says everything she needs to anyway.

“You’ve been here for quite some time, child. We were wondering when you would start to come around.”

“How…how long?” Denise eventually manages to croak.

“About a week and a half. Your head must have taken quite the hit.”

The mention of a head injury jars a couple more stray images loose, though Denise is struggling to complete this picture. And focusing on these elements has distracted her from what should have probably been her first, most obvious question. “Wait a second, though. Where am I?”

At this, her minor tidiness tasks apparently complete, Beverly draws up beside Denise’s bed, near the foot of it. The plentiful, deeply grooved wrinkles of her face draw up with genuine warmth as she smiles and explains, “this is the Rowlette Women’s Center. You were quite lucky those hikers found you, from the sounds of things.”

“Hikers?”

“Yes. They brought you here. A man and a woman and their two kids. They just happened to be out in the back corner of the state park. It wasn’t just a nasty concussion, you were also dehydrated and malnourished and really quite hysterical. This is why we’ve had you under sedation and observation. But don’t worry,” she concludes, and her smile widens, somehow, displaying an old woman’s crooked, pointing teeth, many of them not unlike that hat she’s wearing, “you’re in good hands here. And we could tell you were gonna snap out of it any day.”

Beverly then turns, to stroll in brisk fashion off to what is likely her next room, before she remembers something and pauses at the doorway. “Oh, and a Lenny Henderson called for you. Does that name mean anything?”

Nodding along, Denise utters, “Lenny? Oh wow…” as Beverly continues into the hall, and then out of sight.

Denise blinks continually, chin on chest as she stares across the room, out the window. Sun is streaming in from an angle, meaning she can’t directly see it, and can’t make out much else, apart from a tree and some flowers. She gathers this room must face the backside of this facility, but can’t really explain how or why she knows this. And is also wondering why, though on the surface everything seems fine and normal, there is something very wrong with her presence here. Which is disturbing enough in its right. But it’s also the sensation of knowing her head is still too fuzzy to piece things together – and for all she knows, might forever remain so – which fills her with an escalating terror.

After swallowing away her panic and attempting to rationalize for a number of minutes, she finally gives in and presses a pager button beside her button. Within thirty seconds, someone responds, but it’s not Beverly. Rather this dumpy, middle aged woman with curly blonde hair tied back in ponytail, clad in a flower patterned scrubs outfit. SANDY, this name badge declares.

“My parents…did anyone contact my parents?”

“Well, no, honey, that was the weird thing. We didn’t know what to do. But apparently you must have erased all the contacts out of your phone. You gave us your pin to unlock it, but there was nothing there. You didn’t seem to be logged into any email we could find, either.”

Denise feels lightheaded all over again, as though she might pass back out any moment. Fighting off this sensation, she manages to weakly ask, “but…insurance? How did I…”

Sandy shakes her head and waves a hand back and forth, saying, “don’t worry about that. You just get your rest. You can stay here as long as you need.” Then approaches, and extracts a phone from the breast pocket of her blouse. “Oh yeah, and I suppose you can have this back now,” she tells Denise, handing it to her.

“It sure seems like there oughtta be more people around,” Lenny observes, as a handful of them are seated around their newly created outdoor picnic table. “Even taking into consideration the people I know are gone…”

“Oh I know. Tell me about it,” Clay concurs, chortling through mouthfuls of his breakfast. “It’s like, even accountin’ for those, where the fuck is everybody else?”

Kay, typing a message on her phone – she alternates between this and a notepad, seemingly at random – holds up a message that says WE’RE FORGETTING PEOPLE. And then solemnly nods, to drive the point home.

“Yeah, that could be, I don’t know,” Lenny says with a shrug.

“You know one interesting thing about this house?” Grace calls out to them, from over by the fire. She has made breakfast, using some of their last bacon reserves, in cast iron skillet over the bonfire. When the other three turn to look at her, but say nothing, she continues. Smiling like always and dipping her head once in the direction of the main house. “You’ll notice it doesn’t have any windows on the south wall. And none on the north, either, except for a few bedrooms on the second floor. That’s why it’s so gloomy.”

Her audience nods but isn’t sure what to make of this information. Meanwhile, nearby Lydia is attempting to work with Zeke. They sit next to one another on a pair of lawn chairs, on the other side of the fire. She has some English instruction books and is attempting to figure out how far along Zeke is, education-wise, but the going is slow in that he takes tremendous coaching to respond.

After eating, the others entertain themselves continuing to experiment with ways of getting out of here. It is Kay who first types up an observation that nobody has done much of an in-depth observation of the woods directly north, between the dirt lane and the Pine Bluff loop. They are aware that as the dirt lane gradually bends in a northeast direction, as the so-called Wooley Swamp area more or less creeps straight across, east to west, eventually cutting all the way over to Pine Bluff. In earlier, more “normal” times, this prevented walking directly through the woods to the state route, but as things stood now, with Pine Bluff itself no longer connecting, who knew?

Like most days of late, if not warm enough to melt the ice, the air is pleasant enough for them, particularly once they get moving. Patches of blue sky are visible, cutting holes in the clouds, though the sun never seems to shine directly upon them. Bringing along a few rolls each of the familiar green and red wine, sticking within eyesight of one another, they take off, moving in this north, maybe ever so slightly NNW direction. They begin with Pine Bluff visible to their left, though as it curves to loop out of sight, they keep right on going past it. After they’ve drifted past the road, talk turns to how nobody can recall such a relentlessly inclement winter, here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.

“Seriously, I’ve lived here my whole life. It’s never happened,” Lenny observes.

“I know, man,” Clay agrees, “like, it’ll get cold for a few days, usually one of these ice storms every year, but not the entire winter.”

“Let’s think about where we are,” Grace lightly teases.

“Yeah really,” Lenny and Clay both say.

Kay holds up a message that says GLOBAL WARMING????? and everyone laughs at this. Everyone except she, that is. For her part, she has noticed that the insect activity has picked up just a smidgen, flying at her face mask, and wonders if anyone else is catching this. She switches these scraps of cut up tee shirts constantly, and washes them by hand in a sink, with plenty of soap, so it’s certainly clean enough. Their increasing presence might just mean spring is just around the corner – although she can’t allow herself to get her hopes up thinking about this.

“Did you know that back in the, well, I guess it must have been, I don’t know, let’s just say fifty years ago? But scientists were actually worried about global cooling,” Grace tells them. “I’m serious. You can look it up. Well, you could if…never mind. I remember, though. I remember hearing about it somewhere.”

“Did they conduct these studies here, I’m wondering?” Lenny jokes.

“No shit,” Clay chortles, and they continue moving.

When it becomes clear that they should have long since encountered the state route by now, yet failed to do so, the four of them turn around and make their way back to camp. Upon returning, Lenny finds Lydia and Zeke have retreated to their cabin – and if the kid remains as catatonic as ever, his pregnant girlfriend is especially fired up. Well, he would have said this at one point, but this behavior has become increasingly common.

“What did I tell you!” she shouts, throwing her hands in the air, “when are you going to give this shit a rest!?”

“But I don’t see what the big deal is,” he shrugs, “we’re hedging our bets. I mean…it could be smart. Chances are we’ll need to get out of here at some point.”

Lydia shakes her head and tells him, “No. Smart is…accepting that this is where we are, and planning accordingly. You don’t think I would love to still be fucking off with my photography all the time? But that’s not where we’re at. Our heads need to be completely into the current situation. And our hearts.”

“Oh, and you don’t think I’m completely into this?” h