Jake and Casey Lovison were as close as any brothers could be. Jake was by far the oldest, and although he was rough around the edges, he had a certain appeal and worship by his younger brother. So much that it was clear that whatever Jake would decide, Casey would follow. Jake was having problems in every high school he attended. He’d skip out of class, get into fights, shoplift, and be delivered home by the cops. His mother decided that she couldn’t raise him on her own. That was when her eldest sister introduced a recently widowed Thomas Debar to her little sis to date. A date that amazingly lasted longer than Jake could stand. That was when the two boys took to the road to seek out Jake’s father up north.
They left in the late fall with as much as they could carry, thinking they would have enough money and provisions along the way. But that quickly changed when they hit a snag in their plan as they hit the highway that led deep into the Alaskan wilderness. What they didn’t expect was the stinging cold that permeated them right through to the bone.
Jake wore a tattered jean jacket and a pair of scuffed-up cowboy boots (given to him by his pop before he went and fucked off north). The coat had crude and lewd scrawlings in pen and colored markers. While up and down the length of both arms, each wore Metallica and Judas Priest patches. His jeans were worn at the knees and did very little to keep his own scrawny legs warm. His little brother fared a bit better. He wore his old man’s faded black leather jacket with a Harley Davidson Motorcycle Patch Vulcan Riders Club on the back of it. The little shit looked cute as fuck, and he made a great motivator to get people to pull over and give them a ride. Jake wasn’t too worried about getting into a car driven by a stranger in the middle of nowhere, for in his boot sat another gift from his deadbeat dad: a switchblade.
But that was yesterday. Today, they walked along a stretch of frozen asphalt crunching under their feet, with nothing to greet them but a cold wind slapping 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. Freezing tears streamed down his puffy little cheeks.
“Get over here,” Jake motioned him to come closer, but even he was losing heat fast enough to freeze.
They huddled together like penguins and conspired to find shelter. If they didn’t get to a shelter with heat soon, they would succumb to hypothermia by the side of 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 fathers by now.”
“Did you remember that big 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. In attempt to get some feeling back in his toes, “what are we gonna do, Jake? We’re gonna die out here.”
“Not if I can help it,” Jake looked to the clear skies for something, a sign, anything.
After a few unnerving seconds, he spotted something, and his voice echoed through the valley as he pointed to the sky.
“There!” Jake pointed and jumped up and down, “over there.”
“Huh?” Casey spun to 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 started to run in the direction of the smoke.
“Hey!” Jake blew the hair from his eyes and ran after his little brother. “Wait for me, spaz.”
They came to the old gas station and as they looked through the shop window. Their combined breathes 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, took the initiative to fumble 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 felt 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 long, deep breath. Stepping back from the door, he grimaced and focused 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 cold hands and rubbed them together for warmth. “Now we need to get good and warm with a belly full of-” He inspected the dusty shelves full of foodstuff, many of which had been past their expiry dates.
Casey looked over 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 just enough heat to get the two comfortably leaving their jackets in the corner as they looked around. 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 loudly.
“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 started to inspect the cabinet locks that posed easy pickings to his switchblade. He found a small float in a tin box along with enough change to fill both of their pockets. He uncovered many old nudie books of women almost old enough to be his own mom. He encountered something else that really impressed him.
“Hey,” Jake threw something at his brother to look his way.
“What was that for?”
“Look 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 felt the weight of the pistol and added, “I never thought that it would be so heavy.”
“Like now? Here?”
“Sure,” Casey shrugged, “why not?”
Jake looked at the gun, wondering what to do. He was itching to shoot something, eyed his brother and thought carefully against doing something stupid with it. At least that was what his father, if he were present, would say to him.
Naw,” Jake stuffed it in the front of his pants. “We should first find out what the source of the smoke was, 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 awoke with a cold, wet cloth slipping off his head. He had a splitting headache. Hailey’s hands reached out in the dim light for him. Her hands felt cold against his sweaty back. After a few minutes of catching his breath, he looked between his fingers at her. He felt like a wild and terrified animal trapped in a corner with nowhere left to go.
“Jake—” she pleaded, “please. Please listen to my voice—you’re going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay.” She started to rub 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 went to investigate the source of the smoke.” Jake scratched at his hair.
“After you two broke into the old gas station,” She relayed back.
“He nodded,” and whipped his eyes. He felt so tired, so damn tired of the disjointed memories. They came fractured and didn’t make much sense. He longed to remember all of it without the pain in his head and in his heart. He knew something had happened to his brother before he came here, lost and half-crazed with grief.
He 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 must’ve got bonked in the head really hard.”
Jake shrugged, “Mom had me tested a few years back. I’m mildly dyslexic.”
Jake smiled and grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her close enough to kiss. “Have I told you that 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 playfully, “The Witch Mother.”
He bent close to her and kissed her forehead. “So you do know what the word dyslexic means after all.”
Hailey chuckled and hit him in the face with a pillow in attempt to smother him. He laughed along with her as they flopped over on the bed, exchanging a long kiss, and then began to make 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 paused at the gate, and smiled to herself as if she somehow knew that he’d be there. She kept humming to herself as some of the cats noticed their guest, and many came to welcome him. This time, he hadn’t brought them any treats, so some 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 that you’re out of opium so soon.”
“It’s not helping me to get better. If anything, its 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.”
Jakes smiled to himself, “I see that you’ve been talking to Hailey.”
“She is one of my initiates in the covenant. You could almost say she is like a sister to me, as Casey was to you.” the old woman stopped and looked back at him. “Many in this commune come to me for guidance when all I ask is that they become part of all this you see.”
Jake looked down at his scarred hands. He had done his share of hard work in the commune. “When you found me lost in the snow-”
“Oh, are we going to start there again?” She looked disappointed. “Surely something else before then has returned?”
“It’s like…” Jakes 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 went over to open the old wooden gate and gestured him in cordially into her yard. He followed her down the stone path leading to a small cottage. “Let’s try something a little 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?” She turned her back and started 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 smelt latch locks. Plants of varying size filled ceramic pot plants, some of which looked curiously like marijuana and other more foreign plants he could not recognize or name.
“Tea’s ready,” She pointed at the glass terrarium on the low table beside Jake. “Could you pass me that?” She indicated to his left side.
He bent close and tried to see what was in the mold and dew-coated terrarium. Something amphibious looked right back at him, “this thing?”
“Yes, and please, be very careful when handling it.” She gently took it from him with a smile. “This little creature isn’t from way up 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. “And this one, in particular, is quite unique.”
Jake gave it an uncomfortable look, “how so?”
Margaret smiled as she held the thing up so that all of its legs dangled down, “it produces a neurotoxin that can…” She looked back at him with an intense expression. “Let’s just say that it can unlock that stubborn subconscious of yours.”
Jake retreated a little, wiped a tired hand over his face, and then placed both hands on his neck, nodding. He then snorted as he shook his head in disbelief. “All this time, I thought you were like a counselor or something. Everyone here’s been saying that you’re so wise and would help me. But all you have to show me is this stupid toad to do what with?” He looked up at her with a mixed look of disgust and distrust.
She shrugged and 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 thinly smiled at him as if he were a child, “you’ve heard of acid?”
“The kind found in batteries?”
Her eyebrow went up, and she chuckled at his naiveté. “You know what psychedelic drugs are? I mean, you did attend public high school? Got all that anti-drug talk from your peers?”
He dumbly nodded.
“That kind of acid,” she held up the tea and took a deep drink. “I think, though, that we should do this tonight. Bring your sweetie along.” She turned away, dismissing him, “I think I just may need an assistant for this session.”
As day became night, Jake brought Hailey along to ground him during his session with the Witch Mother. Tea was prepared for him to drink. Margaret calmly dragged a teaspoon across the toad’s back then used it to stir Jake’s tea. Jake began to feel more of the psychedelic effects with each sip and had to use Hailey’s lap as a pillow for his head. Meanwhile, Hailey calmly played with his long black hair and reassured him that he was in a safe place. Lulling him into a trancelike stupor until the room started to move and shift, until her beloved hazel eyes and features became that of a giant toad. Jake didn’t scream nor laugh. Instead, in his delirium, he found he was no longer in the small cottage but in a distant place and in another time.
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 intently into the little hole as he wiped the brownish water from his face. The shirt and underwear he wore felt wet and clammy as they clung to his wiry frame. Even the sheet they slept on and the blanket they shared, felt damp. Ever so slowly, he gently moved 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 went 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 with a look of distant confusion. It was as if he were in a thick fog, trying to pass through. To get his bearing on what he was trying to think of what he had to do. He squinted out the window. Since his arrival, the entire commune had developed so quickly and in such a short time. Whenever he awoke, he’s ventured out beyond the commune. Outside he’d discover another stone and mortar building with cobblestones street, occupied by animal-drawn carts, people of varying ethnicities, and open markets that had traveled from afar to sell their goods. It was as if he had somehow stepped over into another point in time. A world within worlds and there he had heard rumors of a white child wandering lost among the crowd.
“Going 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, despite the fact that Hailey was due any time now.
Jake made his way past the bed. His breath visible in the air. “Talked to one of the merchants yesterday, and he swore that he had seen someone fitting the description of 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 flicked with droplets of water. Using his hand to wipe the water off, he saw that 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 dirty water from the damaged ceiling.
Hailey pushed up from behind him and slipped her arms playfully across his chest. Unexpectedly 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 looked damp as if sweating through 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 looked unnaturally larger than usual.
Jake pressed a hand to his temples and then began to rub 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. Looking back, it was a terrible idea to get you to drink it.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Jake held her shoulders and looked around the room. “It’s just everything looks and feels 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 wore a look of concern. “When it thaws, the boats start coming in.”
“Do they?” 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 quickly pecked him on the lips, “it’s practically a seasonal tradition here. Why do you think that the market is so busy in the spring with all the tourists and markets?” She smiled and lightly stroked his stubbly cheek.
Jake nodded. “One of the merchants I talked to said he spotted a boy fitting my little 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. It’s like he’s mad at me—or something I did, or maybe something I said.”
“Well,” she went to get Jake’s jacket from the coat rack next to the door. “When I was little, my siblings and I always used to fight over the silliest things. Most families I have ever known when they do, they come around—eventually. So give Casey some time to come around. Be patient with him.”
“We were headed somewhere,” Jake was trying his best to recollect why this was so important. He squeezed his eyes shut in an attempt to remember. “And where we were at the time was cold, so goddamn cold…”
She helped him get dressed. “Well then, no sense in you moping around here all day feeling sorry for yourself. You better get out there then and see if you two can patch things up. Brothers should never fight.”
“I just feel like something is missing…” Jake went to the door and paused.
“Well, before you leave-” Hailey intercepted him at the door.
“Oh right,” He hesitated and then kissed her on the forehead. “See you in a bit.”
“Not that you silly bugger,” she held up his pants. She had been patching up the night before. “You might want to put these 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. Seeking 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 was dreadfully cold. Their feet hurt and felt numb and in desperate need of shelter, or they would never make it to their father’s cabin in Alaska. They ended up casing 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 tarpaper, 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. But Jake didn’t like the way the smoke was coming from the closed door, but 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 entering.
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 burnt plastic, charred flesh, singed hair, and gasoline greeted his nose and burned his eyes, nose and throat. Yet there was something so deeply terrifying and disturbing that both couldn’t look away.
In the center of the shed was a burnt corpse. It barely looked human aside from the bones that poked through its charred remains. The charred skull was visible through what appeared to be scorched flesh, now bubbled flakes of ash. The jawbone held slack against the rest of the head as if howling. The smell of burnt 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. Before following, Jake stole one last look at the deformed corpse. He wondered what had happened. Was it a suicide, a murder, or perhaps an accident?
Like his brother, he didn’t want to linger around and find out. Nor did he want to alert the local sheriff. What with he and Casey, being on the run and all.
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 burnt dead guy. 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 he felt. “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 probably was an accident.”
“Didn’t look like it to me,” Casey brought his arm across his nose, and the wet white trail appeared across his arm.
Jake watched Casey with a look of disgust, “well, then, maybe you should’ve stayed behind.” He stood back up and looked away.
Casey kept shaking his head and looking off, “if the police find that body,” he looked up at Jake, “it’ll be the juvies for life, or worse.”
“Ah,” Jake waved it off, “we didn’t kill anyone.”
“Really think we’re gonna be okay?” Casey squinted at his brother.
“Yeah, sure,” Jake shrugged with his hands kept deep in his jean pants pocket.
“Then maybe we should at least get rid of that gun,” Casey quickly rose and 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 the fuck are you doing?” Jake grappled with Casey, and it was almost a tug of war between the two. “Have you lost your goddamn fucking mind?”
Casey managed to get a good hold of the front of the pistol. His thumb accidentally slipped into the trigger, and a shot rang out.
Jake’s eyes open with a terrifying revelation.
He’s back at the opium den, looking around anxiously. Smoke drifts out from between his nose and lips. Trapped between moments, he has 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, screams, and tries to rise from the cot. A nearby staff member tries to soothe his troubled mind. Instead of submitting, Jake violently pushes pasted, feeling along the velvet walls for support towards the nearest exit. Staggering out into the night, he feels cold rain pelted hard against his face, and it starts to clear his mind. His eyes search wildly in the night for answers he dares not utter, nor dwell on. Instead, he stumbles down the lonesome backstreets and alleyways in hopes to reaching home. As he laments for his lost brother, he sees Casey running ahead of him in his delirium. Looking back, laughing and taunting him to try and 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 shambles and pushed past, they appeared lost and deformed under the dripping street lamplights. Their features seemed twisted and shockingly fishlike. To him, they all look like they had drowned in the cold sea, then had risen by some dark and ancient spell. Each destined to wander the rain-flooded streets as visitors out from Hell. Jake avoids their blank, wide-eyed stares and falls upon the doorstep to the apartment he knows is a sanctuary. There to answer his call appears his beloved Hailey. She curiously 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 proceeds to hack him to pieces, and then feeds him to their new brood.