The Lovison brothers, Jake and Casey, were quite close. Jake was the oldest by a wide margin, and despite his rough exterior, he was attractive and looked up to by his younger sibling. Casey was completely committed to following Jake’s lead. All three of Jake’s high schools were trouble spots for him. He was constantly getting in trouble with the law for things like skipping class, getting into fights, and shoplifting. His mother realized she needed help in order to raise him. Her older sister set her up on a date with Thomas Debar, a recently widowed man, but the outing lasted much longer than Jake was comfortable with. After making that decision, the boys set out for the north in quest of their absent father.They started thinking about what they could carry in the late fall. They expected to have enough money and supplies along the way. But that all changed as they came to a halt on the route that led deep into the Alaskan tundra. They were not prepared for the searing cold that slowed them down.
His father had sent Jake a pair of cowboy boots before he ran off to the north, and Jake had worn them until they were completely worn out. Rough pen and coloured marker scribbles covered the coat. He had patches from Metallica and Judas Priest on both arms. He wore his jeans all the way down to the knees, but it didn’t do much to insulate his skinny legs. The younger brother did better than he. He put on his grandfather’s old black leather jacket with the Vulcan Riders Club patch from Harley-Davidson. That tiny booger was charming as all get out. An excellent method of convincing motorists to pick them up for a ride. The switchblade in Jake’s boot was another present from his absentee father, so he didn’t feel too unsafe getting into a car with a stranger out in the middle of nowhere.But that was yesterday. Today, they walked along a stretch of frozen asphalt crunching under their feet, with nothing to greet them but an icy wind slapped their exposed faces. With their hands stuffed deep into their jacket pockets, they noted the glorious vastness surrounding them. They awed at the distant whitecap mountains while surrounded by miles of spruce, tamarack, aspen and birch trees rooted on the frozen gravel.
“I’m cold,” Casey managed out while his teeth chattered from the cold. His face was so red that it looked like someone had stuck him. Icy tears streamed down his puffy little cheeks.
“Come here.” Jake motioned him to come closer, even though he too was losing heat, fast.
They huddled together like penguins conspiring to find shelter. If they didn’t get to somewhere heated soon, they would succumb to hypothermia by the road.
“W-we should’ve come by b-bus,” Casey whined as he rubbed his hands together and blew into them. “We’d be at father’s by now.”
“Did you remember that enormous meal we had?” Jake sniffed as he looked around for a sign, a car, anything remotely to rescue them from freezing to death.
“Yeah,” Casey squinted up at him. “That was like two days ago, Jake. We ran out of there without paying.”
“Yeah, that was cool, huh?” Jake nodded.
Casey looked down at the ground and kicked at the sharp stones. “So?” He waited for his big brother to bring on the bad news.
“Well… I sort of might’ve lost the map, and all of our money during our little dine and dash.”
“All of it?” Casey looked down at his shoes as he stamped on the frozen asphalt. For sensation in his toes, “what are we gonna do, Jake? We’re gonna die out here.”
“Not if I can help it.” Jake looked for something, anything, to help.
After a few unnerving seconds, he spotted something. His voice echoed through the valley as he pointed ahead of them.
“There!” Jake jumped up and down. “Hey! Over there: smoke.”
“Huh?” Casey spun in the direction his brother pointed. “What, smoke?”
“You know what they say, little brother, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Jake smiled down at his brother. “And where there’s fire, there’s…”
“Food?” Casey exploded with glee.
“Yeah, and shelter,” Jake added.
“Then we’d better hurry, big brother.” Casey squinted up at the sky and pointed.
“Snowfalls coming, ain’t it?” Jake swore under his breath, “and to think that I made fun of your Cub Scout weather merit badge.”
“Yup.” Casey grabbed his backpack and ran in the smoke’s direction.
“Hey!” Jake blew the hair from his face and ran after his little brother. “Wait for me, spaz.”
They fell upon the old gas station and looked through its window. Their combined breaths fogged the glass and reflected behind them a light drift of fluffy snowfall. Casey sniffed as he tried the door and found it locked with a weathered sign saying closed. Jake, however, fumbled in his boot for something he could use on the lock. With numb fingers, he withdrew the switchblade. Jake winked at his litter brother before jimmying with the door lock. Seconds passed like minutes in the freezing cold. His hands shook so much that the blade kept slipping off the keyhole. Jake swore aloud as he slipped the blade back in his boot and took a deep breath. Stepped back from the door, grimaced and focused on his last ounce of strength. Casey instinctively kept back and turned away as Jake booted the locked door repeatedly until it gave. He then grabbed for his little brother by the arm and slammed the storefront door closed behind them.
“Jake,” tried to twist free of his brother’s tight grip. “You’re hurting me.”
“Ah, don’t be such a suck.” Jake blew into his icy hands and rubbed them together for warmth. “Now get good and warm with a belly full of—” He inspected the dusty shelves full of foodstuff. Many which had been past their expiry dates.
Casey looked over at what his brother was doing. “Anything good?”
“Just be glad we’re not diabetics.” Jake found a chocolate bar and tossed it over to his brother.
The fierce wind outside kept blowing open the entrance door and refused to close on its own. So Jake improvised and dragged over the fire extinguisher to hold it shut. He spotted a small plug-in heater in the corner next to the pay area. It radiated enough heat to get them comfortable. Enough to leave their jackets in the corner as they cased the place. The two ate their fill of chocolate bars, salty chips and old soda, where Jake used the countertop side to remove the bottle cap so they could drink straight from the bottle.
“Whoa.” Casey took a swig of his root beer and burped out.
“Pig,” Jake burped longer and louder.
Casey giggled at his big brother. He could be so silly sometimes.
Jake lingered around the payout area and inspected the cabinet locks that posed easy pickings to his switchblade. Jake uncovered a tiny buoy in a tin box. There was enough money to fill up their pockets. He then uncovered old nudie books full of women old enough to be his mom. He found something else that impressed him.
“Hey,” Jake threw something at his brother to face his way.
“What was that for?”
“Lookie at this.” Jake held up the shopkeeper’s pistol.
“Whoa,” Casey deserted his post near the heater and shuffled over to the counter in awe. “Is it loaded?”
“Looks like it.” Jake weighed the pistol in his hands. “Never thought it’d be so heavy.”
“Like now? Here?”
“Sure,” Casey shrugged, “why not?”
Jake leveled up the pistol. Wondering what to aim at. Itching to shoot something, he eyed his brother and thought about doing something stupid with it. At least, that’s what his father (if present) would say to him.
Naw,” Jake tucked it in his waistband. “We should track down where the smoke is coming from, hey?” He slapped his brother on the chest with the back of his hand and pushed past him.
Casey pouted and made a face. He wanted his bother to shoot something. “Okay,” he muttered with disappointment.
With a startle, Jake wakes to a cold, wet cloth slipping off his head. He had a splitting headache. Hailey reaches out in the dim light for him. Her hands were icy against his sweaty back. After a few minutes of catching his breath, he looked between his fingers at his beloved. He trembled like an animal trapped in a corner with nowhere left to run.
“Jake—” she pleaded, “please. Please listen to my voice—you’re going to be okay. Everything’s going to be fine.” She rubbed his back. A thing she discovered had helped ease his troubled mind, taking him back from the edge of insanity.
Hailey sat in silence as he caught his breath and whipped the tears from his eyes. “Wanna talk about it?”
“I was with my little brother,” he sighed. “We investigated the source of the smoke.” Jake scratched at his hair.
“After you two broke into the old gas station,” she relayed back.
“Jake nodded,” and whipped his eyes. He tired of the disjointed memories. They came fractured and made little sense. Longing to recollect it without the pain in his head and heart. Knowing deep inside that something had happened to his brother before he came here, lost and half-crazed with grief.
Jake sniffed. “How long before daybreak?”
“A few more hours,” Hailey spoke. “You’re not planning to revisit her again, are you?”
“You mean the Witch Queen?”
“Witch Mother,” Hailey placed her hand on his head. “You got hit on the head pretty hard.”
Jake shrugs. “Mom had me tested years back. I’m a little dyslexic.”
He smiles and grabs her by the shoulder and pulls her close enough to kiss. “Have I told you I really, really like you? Like a heck of a lot?”
“Oh, yeah?” Hailey smirked, “Tsk, I’m not so sure you do.”
“I mean, you’re spending more time with her than with me.”
“The Witch Queen?”
“No dummy,” she slapped his chest, “the Witch Mother.”
He bent close to her and kissed her forehead. “So you know what dyslexic means.”
Hailey chuckled and hit him in the face with a pillow to smother him. He laughed along with her as they flopped over on the bed, exchanging a long kiss, and then made love.
Jake waited until dawn’s early light before making his way to the Witch Mother’s abode. She was at home in her herb garden with her clutter of cats roving around the yard with her. He stopped at the gate. She smiled to herself, as if knowing that he’d be there. She kept humming to herself as her cats noticed their guest, and came over to welcome him. This time, he hadn’t brought them any treats, so many of them quickly lost interest in him.
“You’re earlier than last time,” she spoke, as she was still collecting clippings of sage and sweetgrass. “Don’t tell me you’re out of opium so soon.”
“It’s not helping me to get better. If anything, it’s making me feel worse.” Jake omitted to add the nightmares it gave him, “so I had to stop.”
“Could just always use a weaker dose.” She looked up at him. The glasses she wore made her eyes look huge. “It would make you have far fewer nightmares.”
Jake smiled to himself. “I see that you’ve been talking to Hailey.”
“She is one of my pupils in the covenant. She’s like a sister to me, as Casey was a brother to you.” Witch Mother stopped to address him. “Many here come to me for guidance. All I ask from them is that they become part of our commune.”
Jake looked down at his scarred hands. He had done his share of hard work in the commune. “When you found me, I got lost in the snow-”
“Oh, we’re going to start there again?” She nodded with disappointment. “It’s just you’ve blocked every attempt at rehabilitation. But I just don’t understand why?”
“It’s like…” Jake stammered, “It’s there, but that it’s just out of reach.”
“Trauma is like that,” she pointed at him, “you think something terrible happened, but you can’t remember after all these months we’ve been caring for you?”
“I hate to be a bother about it-”
“Then I welcome you in again for a spell.” She paced over to open the old wooden gate and gestured him into her yard. He followed her down the stone path leading to a small cottage. “Let’s try something different this time. Something more—unconventional.” She held her basket of herbs in one arm and slung her other arm over his. Together, they made their way into her little cottage, and she closed the door behind them.
“Do you have a name?” Jake sat down on the only wooden chair in the cottage. “I mean, aside from your title?”
“Call me Margaret if you like, but no one else needs to know that,” she winked at him. “I prefer a sense of professional anonymity.”
“Can you help me?”
“Remember what happened to you?” Margaret turned her back to make some tea. “I wish I could say yes, but that’s up to you. How much you want to remember.”
Jake looked around the room. He noticed the terrariums and the large aquarium that hosted an entire ant nest. He spotted bookshelves full of water-damaged books and ceramic incense holders with different colors of ash. Among them were raw leather satchels, filled satin pouches, and stained wood cases with little copper latch locks. Plants of varying size filled ceramic pot plants, some of which looked like marijuana and other more foreign plants he could neither recognize nor name.
“Tea’s ready,” Margaret pointed at the glass terrarium on the low table beside Jake. “Could you get that for me?”
He bent close and tried to see what was in the mold and dew-coated terrarium. Something amphibious looked right back at him. “This ugly thing?”
“Yes, and please, be very careful when handling it.” She gently took it from him with a smile. “This creature isn’t from here. Oh my no, I had it sent to me straight from South America.”
“What is it?”
“It’s called a ghoulah toad,” she unlatched the top of the terrarium and gently extracted the creature. “This little beasty, is a rare find.”
Jake gave it an uncomfortable glance. “How so?”
Margaret smiled as she held the thing up so its legs dangled down. “It produces a neurotoxin. It can…” She looked back at him with an intense expression. “Let’s just say it can unlock that stubborn subconscious of yours.”
Jake pulled back, just a little. He wiped a tired hand over his face. Then he placed both hands on his neck, nodding. Then snorted as he shook his head in utter disbelief. “I assumed you were a counsellor or therapist. Everyone here claims you are wise beyond your years and would be willing to assist me. Now you want to help me with some nasty toad?” He made a shaky motion with his head. “How’s that thing going to fix my memory problem?”
“Like I said many times to those I help. I do things unconventional, when nothing else helps.” Margaret shrugged as she placed the toad back in the terrarium and secured the lid. “I’ve been a toxicologist in a former life and did studies on all kinds of drugs and poisons. This little guy, in particular, produces something similar to lysergic acid diethylamide.”
Jake looked confused, shrugged, and shook his head.
Margaret gave him a thin smile as if he were a child. “You’ve heard of acid?”
“The kind found in batteries?”
Her eyebrow perked up, and she chuckled at his naivete. “You know what psychedelic drugs are? I mean, you attended public high school? Got all that anti-drug talk from your peers?”
“That kind of acid.” She held up the tea and took a deep drink. “I purpose we do this tonight. So bring your sweetie pie along.” She turned away, dismissing him. “I think I just may need an assistant for this session.”
As the day turned to night, Jake dragged Hailey along to help him focus during his therapy with the Witch Mother. Tea was waiting for him. Margaret dragged a teaspoon across the back of the toad before using it to mix Jake’s tea. He used Hailey’s lap as a pillow when the hallucinogenic affects kicked in. Meanwhile, Hailey stroked his long, black hair, assuring him that he was in a secure place. Creating a trance-like state in him. The room surrounding them is rippling like a pond. Until her beautiful hazel eyes and features morphed into those of a huge toad. Jake neither screamed nor laughed. Instead. His delirium transported him to another time and place.
Jake woke to a single drop of water on his brow. He eyed the ceiling, where the water damage appeared stained with mold and mildew, peered into the little hole as he wiped the brownish water from his face. The shirt and underwear he owned dripped with moisture and clung to his wiry frame. Even the sheet they slept on and the damp blanket they shared clung to them. He slid Hailey’s arm from around his waist and sat at the edge of the spring bed. From his vantage point, he gazed upon the distance white-capped mountains, through a dew-covered window, with a frosted forest of towering trees that spread for miles around. He stood and came closer to the window and noted a small, but steady stream of water trailing down the old wallpaper beside him.
“Strange,” he mulled over in confusion. It was as if he were in a thick fog, trying to pass through. I desperately need to remember what had happened so long ago. He squinted out the window. In the short time since his arrival, the commune had experienced a dramatic growth. Whenever he awoke, he’s ventured out beyond the commune. Beyond its borders he saw another stone and mortar buildings, full of cobblestones street, occupied by animal-drawn carts, people of varying ethnicities, and open markets that had traveled from afar to sell their goods. He had wandered into a different place. Another time. A world within worlds and there he had heard rumors of a white child wandering, lost among the crowd.
“Heading to the market again?” Hailey propped herself up and gave him a meek smile. The bed beneath her looked water stained, and its springs squeaked as she moved. The frame rusted, and the mattress stained and worn through in spots. Hailey’s cotton nightgown clung to her swollen belly, her pert nipples and swollen breasts Jake found so arousing, although Hailey was due any time now.
Jake made his way past the bed. His breath was visible in the air. “Talked to one merchant yesterday. He swore he spotted someone that could be my little brother.”
Hailey gave him a sad smile and blinked. For an instant, Jake mistook her eyes for that of a fish. He turned his attention to the only marble sink in the one-room apartment and noticed that even the cracked mirror above it trailed with droplets of water as he wiped it off without cutting himself. The entire room behind him appeared stained or dripped with moisture. Even the table that sat on the warped linoleum floor in the dining area had droplets of filthy water from the damaged ceiling.
Hailey pushed up from behind him and slipped her arms across his chest. Jake stiffened and jumped a little, but he smiled and turned to kiss his beloved’s forehead.
“You sure you’re okay?” Hailey’s face was damp. As if sweating throughout the night. The electrical lighting in the apartment flickered and shadowed her features. Her acne scarring appeared almost like the scales of a fish. Her mouth reminded Jake of a bass he and his father had caught on a fishing trip years ago. God forbid. Her eyes appeared larger than usual.
Jake pressed a hand to his temples and then rubbed at his eyes. “It’s nothing—it’s just… these damn headaches again. They’re messing with my head.”
“Aw, honey,” she rubbed his shoulders. “You’ve been acting weird since you had that session with the Witch Mother. It all started after that awful tea she gave you to drink. In retrospect, it was an awful idea to have you imbibe it.
“Maybe you’re right.” Jake held her shoulders and looked around the room. “It’s just everything looks and seems so—wet.”
“That’s just the humidity.” She touched his cheek with a cold and clammy hand. “It gets like that on the coast during the winter thaw.”
Jake looked confused, “but we’re still in the Rockies. I should know I was there with my brother…”
“True, but our commune is close to the inlet, remember?” she looked at him with concern. “When it thaws, the boats come in.”
“Oh?” Jake stiffened as she hugged and rested her head on his chest. He hesitated to hold her back.
“Of course, silly, we’ve talked about this before.” She pulled back and pecked him on the lips. “It’s practically a seasonal tradition here. The markets are bustling during the spring. What with all the tourism and markets.” She smiled and stroked his stubby cheek.
Jake nodded. “One merchant I talked to said he spotted a boy fitting my brother’s description.”
“So you’ve said, that’s good.” Hailey clapped her hands together and pressed them to her lips. “You see? Witch Mother was right; he is here.”
“Sometimes, I think I can see him in the crowd.” Jake stuttered out. “I call out to him, but he doesn’t respond, but disappears in the crowd. Is he mad at me? For something I did? Maybe for something I’ve said?”
“Well,” she got Jake’s jacket from the coat rack. “When I was little, my siblings and I fought over silly things. Most people I’ve known when they do they come around. But it’s on their own terms to come forward and make amends. I guess what I’m saying is give Casey all the time he needs to heal, too. But utmost, be patient.”
“We headed elsewhere.” Jake was trying his best to recollect why this was so important. He squeezed his eyes shut to remember. “Where we were was cold, so goddamn cold…”
She helped him get dressed. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something productive. Go out and find him. Patch things up. Brothers should never fight.”
“Something I’m missing.” He paused before the door.
“Well, before you leave—” Hailey intercepted him before he left.
“Oh right,” He hesitated and then kissed her on the forehead. “See you soon.”
“Not that, you silly bugger,” she held up his pants. She patched up the night before. “Put these on before heading out.”
Jake hurried down the filthy cobblestone roads and littered alleyways. His old weathered sneakers slapped through the cold, wet mud, muck and manure as he made his way through the crowded markets, pausing before each stall to ask the merchants for information and to confirm sightings of his little brother. As night came along with the cold and freezing rain, he entered an establishment that kept an ample supply of opiates and hashish. Harboring for warmth in an opium den, Jake had received a pipe, a mattress, and the strongest hashish oil he had ever smoked.
In a narcotic haze, Jake found himself back on the road again with Casey. It felt too wet and cold for comfort. Their feet hurt and numbed in desperate need of shelter, or they would never make it to their father’s cabin in Alaska. They ended up chasing after a smoke signal far in the distance. Until they came upon an empty old gas station, where they broke in and filled their bellies with junk food. After they finished casing the place of anything of value, Jake found the owner’s float and a loaded gun. Instead of putting it back where he found it, he tucked it in the front of his pants. Together they agreed to locate the smoke source and made their way to the back where a lonesome shed spotted yards from the gas station. Assembled with sheets of tar paper, old sheets of chip wood, and plywood, and it had a tin chimney that had a steady wisp of thick smoke rising from it.
Casey waved Jake to follow and ran towards the shed. Jake didn’t trust the way the smoke seeped out from the closed door. So before he could yell for his brother to stop, it was too late. Casey opened the door to the shed, and a bellow of smoke enveloped him. As the makeshift door closed behind Casey, Jake hurried through the thick snow, grabbing the handle and entered.
Through the thick smoke, Jake coughed as he spotted Casey with his back to the wall, trembling and unable to speak. Jake looked to the center of the room, where an overwhelming smell of burned plastic, charred flesh, singed hair, and gasoline greeted his nose and burned his eyes, nose, and throat. The shock of terror was so absolute that neither of them could tear their eyes away.
In the shed sat a burned corpse. It was a human once, aside from the bones that poked through its charred remains. Its cooked skull was visible through what appeared to be scorched flesh, now bubbled flakes of ash. Its jawbone was open as if howling in death. The reek of burned flesh made Jake gag. Casey turned full circle, pushed open the door, and hurried outside to empty the contents in his stomach all over the fluffy snow.
Jake called out to Casey as his little brother rushed back towards the gas station. Jake gave the disfigured corpse a last look before he followed. He wondered what had happened. Was it a suicide, a murder, or perhaps an accident?
Like his brother, he refused to stay and find out. Nor did he want to alert the local sheriff. Since he and Casey were fugitives.
Jake slammed the back door to the gas station and found Casey on his knees, crying. “Hey. He shook his little brother’s shoulder for a reaction. “You okay, bro?”
“D-did you see what I s-saw?”
“Yeah, just some burned dead dude. No biggie.” Jake shrugged and tried his best to act tough. He stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets to keep them from shaking. He snorted, but his eyes betrayed the rising fear in his stomach. “So fucking what? Someone is dead, big deal. It’s not like we did it, hey?” He bumped his little bro.
“We shouldn’t even be here,” Casey shook his head as he slumped to the floor. “I wanna go home.”
“Come on, it’s just a dead body,” Jake gestured at the back door. “It could’ve been an accident.”
“Didn’t seem like one to me,” Casey brought his arm across his nose, and the wet white trail appeared across his arm.
With a face twisted in revulsion, Jake observed Casey. “Perhaps you ought to have stayed behind.”
Casey kept shaking his head and looking off. “If the police find that body, it’ll be the juvies for us.”
“Ah,” Jake waved it off, “we didn’t kill anyone.”
“So we’re gonna be okay?” Casey squinted at his brother.
“Yeah, sure,” Jake shrugged with his hands kept deep in his jean pants pocket.
“At least we should get rid of the gun.” Casey grabbed for the pistol Jake found and stuffed in the front of his pants. “In case it was used to kill the person in the shed.”
“What are you doing?” Jake grappled with Casey for the pistol. “Have you lost your goddamn fucking mind?”
Casey gripped from the front end of the pistol. His thumb slipped into the trigger, and a shot rang out.
Jake’s eyes open with a terrifying revelation.
He’s back at the opium den, sulking around. Narcotic smoke drifts out from between his nose and lips. He’s trapped between moments, having one foot in the past and the other in the present. The memory of his brother’s accidental death bubbles up from the subconscious and bursts free. Jake lets the pipe slip from his lips. He cries out and tries to rise from the cot. A nearby staff member tries to soothe his troubled mind. Instead of submitting, Jake shoves the man aside. His free hand supports him along the velvet walls towards the exit. He breaks out into the night and continues on his way. As the icy rain pelts against his face. Instead of submitting to the cold, it drives him to go on with nothing but the cold, wind, and his tears. His eyes search in the night for answers he dares not utter, nor dwell on. Instead, he stumbles down the lonesome backstreets and alleyways hoping to reach home. As he laments for his lost brother, he spots Casey running ahead of him in his delirium. The lad glances back, laughing and taunting him to catch him. Jake runs, but his brother is always just out of reach. Casey’s innocent laugh echoes as he turns the street corner. Jake makes it to the spot where his brother should be but discovers that he’s alone again among a flood of strangers. Those that he shambled and pushed past, they appeared lost and deformed under the dripping street lamp lights. Their features appear twisted and fishlike. To him, they slosh as if they drowned in the cold, dark sea. Later, raised up by a dark and archaic spell. Each destined to wander the rain-flooded streets as visitors out of Hell. Jake avoids their blank, wide-eyed stares and falls upon the doorstep of the apartment he knows is a sanctuary. There to answer his call appears his beloved Hailey. She glances down at him as a bird would spot a bug. Then, before he can utter a cry of alarm, she drags him in, screaming and wailing, to the den. There, she takes a rusted cleaver and hacks him to pieces, and then feeds him to their new brood.
— The End —