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ARMS RACE by Josh Trapani

Yes, the daily Halloween Hits will keep coming!  Today's addition is our newest podcast from our newest short story collection.  "Arms Race," by Josh Trapani can be found in our anthology STRANGE INVESTIGATIONS.  Take a listen to it HERE

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Note:  You can listen to an audio version of this HERE

"63 Sequoia Lane" by Lauren A. Forry

Dwayne Stokes lay dead on the attic floor, surrounded by spilled cardboard boxes, arms stretched above his head as if he’d been dragged, a trail of blood leading from his legs to the attic stairs. Archer kicked a bagged artificial Christmas tree.

    “This is not what I asked for, Pratt.”

    Pratt huddled near an antique sewing form, tapping on his tablet. “I know what you asked for, but despite what the police report said…”

    Archer chucked a mouse-chewed Cabbage Patch at Pratt’s head. It missed and knocked over an empty DVD player box. “And I’ve told you people are expecting us to mimic the original case. I’m not interested in your armchair detective theories! We open this weekend and those slasher hacks over at Gore Grotto are already killing us in ticket presales. They have zombies with lasers. Laser zombies! And what do we have? A misplaced body and faulty AR glasses.”

    “The glasses aren’t faulty!” 

    “Then why do they keep flashing red?”

I’m not sure what I found more amusing – the way Archer’s face bloated like a steamed tomato or how Pratt’s voice kept increasing in pitch. They argued for another ten minutes at least. When they finished, Archer looked like he had a permanent sunburn and Pratt sounded like a castrated songbird. 

“Pratt, you’re my brother, and I love you, but Jesus Christ, if you want to solve the Staedlar murders, do it on your own goddamn time.” Archer picked up the Jurassic Park compound playset he’d kicked over in order to reach the stairs. “I want the overlay matching the police report before you leave tonight. Get Stokes hanging from those support beams!” He disappeared down the steps.

“But the police reports are wrong,” Pratt muttered. It gave him pleasure to talk back to his brother, even if said brother was already downstairs and out the door. Pratt watched from the attic window as Archer climbed into his new Ford F250 and drove off toward the highway. Pratt’s hatchback looked like a bug in comparison, parked alone in front of the old Staedlar farmhouse. He turned away and started picking his way through the cluttered attic.

“And the glasses aren’t faulty.” Just as he said that, the light in the corner of the screen turned red. He glanced around the attic but saw nothing unusual in its dark corners. He removed his AR glasses, and the red light vanished, along with Stokes’ body. The attic was just an attic.

“I’m going downstairs, Mellie.”

I followed him out. I could tell Pratt was uncomfortable. Ever since he and Archer bought the Staedlar house last year, I’d always felt more drawn to him. The brothers were only 18 months apart in age, but where Archer was loud and impulsive, Pratt was quiet and thoughtful. 

Pratt walked down through the old, shell of a house – no decorations, minimal furniture – all the way to the basement, a converted cellar and the only place not open to the public. Archer and Pratt kept their offices here, along with the control panel, hard drives, and central computer terminal. Last year’s augmented reality glasses, already outdated, sat in a plastic tub, while all boxes of the new models, except one, were still waiting to be unpacked. Pratt perched his own AR glasses on his head while he booted up the terminal.

I stood in the kitchenette and thought about making Pratt some coffee. Coffee is my second favorite smell, even though I don’t drink it. It’s one of those smells that can really transform a house into a home.

Once the program was running, Pratt started scanning lines of code. I didn’t know what any of it meant, but I liked seeing the numbers and symbols flying across the screen. I’d listened to Pratt explain so many times how it worked, but still had trouble comprehending how all those numbers translated into images that people could interact with. 

“Archer says I’m obsessed with the police reports? He’s the one refusing to deviate from them. And Mellie, we both know those reports don’t detail exactly how it happened. I knew I should’ve demanded a fifty-fifty split. Then he’d have to listen to me. My version makes a better story anyway.”

 Except you don’t know what your version is, I thought.

“If I could only figure out exactly what my version is,” he sighed and continued typing away at the keyboard.

I loved watching Pratt work. His tongue would stick out the corner of his mouth, like a lizard’s, and sometimes he wouldn’t notice and clench his teeth and bite down by accident. I’ve always found it cute, how someone can lose himself so much in his work that he doesn’t realize he’s hurting himself. When the old grandfather clock upstairs, one of the few pieces of real furniture, struck twelve, Pratt spun around in his chair and leaned his head back.

“You know, Mellie. You must have seen everything.” He was looking right at me as if he could see me. Then, he spun back to the computer and continued his work.

Pratt started calling me Mellie about three months after he and Archer bought the farmhouse. It was short for Melanie – Melanie Amelia Hecht – who was here long before the Staedlar’s took up residence, long before computers or electric lights or even indoor plumbing. Mellie Hecht, the very first murder at the farmhouse on 63 Sequoia Lane, rumored to still haunt her old family homestead. But those rumors didn’t stop the Staedlar family from buying the house in the 1990s or the Gower brothers in 2039.

“There.” He hit a button on the keyboard and all the code disappeared. “We can do a walk-through in the morning before Archer gets in.” He yawned.

I didn’t want him to leave, so I turned on the coffeemaker. The water heated instantly and, with no mug underneath the spout, coffee began spitting onto the counter. 

“Crap,” Pratt ran to the kitchen and unplugged the machine then gathered a bunch of paper towels and soaked up the mess. “Thanks, Mellie. I guess you think I should do the walk-through now?” He glanced at the clock – half-past midnight. “Well, it won’t take long. But any glitches I find can wait till tomorrow.”

He tossed the wet paper towels into the recycling bin then grabbed his AR glasses off the desk. He cleaned them off with a wipe and went upstairs to the beginning of the Staedlar Family Horror Experience: a full sensory, interactive augmented reality entertainment event fun for all ages, 17 and up! I, personally, don’t see why people consider it fun to be scared to death. In my experience, when someone is about to have his life taken from him in a brutal and terrible way, fun has nothing to do with it. True fear is anything but. But I guess everyone is different.

Pratt went outside onto the bare front porch. Without the overlay, the Staedlar house looked as empty and abandoned as it did when the Gower boys first saw it. They’d patched some holes, cleaned the dust, and brought in an exterminator, but other than a few props, there was nothing in that house. That was the magic of the overlay, how it could bring the Staedlar house to life just as it was that night on October 27, 1999. 

Once Pratt put on his AR glasses, adjusted the speakers, and activated the overlay, the original porch became decorated with pumpkins on a hay bale by the door, a hanging wicker wreath, and orange-red leaves scattered around a welcome mat marred by a single drop of blood. If the system could create smells, there would be the scent of damp air and a wood burning stove. Those are nice smells, too. Pratt turned the brass handle and opened the front door, which was unlocked, same as the police had found it. Pratt stepped inside and closed the door behind him. 

Now that the experience was running, all the interior lights were dark. Guests would have to find the switches themselves. Pratt found the hall light easily and proceeded into the living room which, thanks to the overlay, was now filled with a brown sofa and loveseat, marble coffee table, framed Thomas Kinkade prints, and a Compaq Presario desktop computer that sat in the corner on a dark brown entertainment center. The computer didn’t really work – it was only a hollow prop – but because of the overlay, when Pratt looked at it, instead of seeing a black screen, he saw icons scattered over a Windows ‘98 desktop background. 

Saved on the desktop, next to an article on how to protect your computer from Y2K, was a folder marked ‘Tiff.’ Pratt stared at the icon and blinked to open it. Inside were folders marked Homework, College Apps, and AIM. He opened the AIM folder and scrolled through the list of saved conversations until he found the one dated Oct. 26, 1999.

Stokesy81: hey babe can’t w8 to see u

    TiffGrrl84: me 2 luv u lots

    Stokesy81: sure ur parents b ok?

    TiffGrrl84: plz they do whatev i say & i say i want u

    Stokesy81: luv u babe

As Pratt closed the conversation, a chat window popped up. Stokesy81 was typing a message.

Stokesy81: Tiff, u at ur grandparents house?

    Stokesy81: talk to me. i see ur logged on

    Stokesy81: srsly Tiff. where are u?

    Stokesy81: we need to talk

    TiffGrrl84: i need u

    Stokesy81: im here babe

    TiffGrrl84: i need u to kill them

Then the screen went black. Pratt checked the overlay, but it appeared to be working correctly. Yet, he hadn’t programmed that conversation. He’d never even seen it before. Pratt decided Archer, for all his ‘we must match the police report’ griping, must have added it. It did make for a nice touch, as loathe as Pratt was to admit it, so he stopped worrying and continued to the kitchen.

    Archer, of course, hadn’t added anything. That would’ve taken work. No, that conversation did occur. It just wasn’t in the police report because it had been deleted before the police arrived.

    Guests could explore the rooms in any order they pleased before moving up to the next floor, but Pratt only needed to check his adjustments to the kitchen. The Staedlar’s old coffeemaker was set ready to brew at 7:00am, though there would be no one left to drink it. Pictures of Tiff and her younger twin brothers decorated the refrigerator, held in place by magnets for pest control, home alarm systems, and realtors. Next to the fridge sat a butcher’s block with one large knife missing. Since the kitchen appeared to be in order, Pratt headed to the staircase, passing the family room on the way. The red light began to flash. 

The red light was a warning. It meant something was wrong, and the guest should be afraid. But, it should not have been set off by the family room. 

“What is it now?” Pratt crossed the threshold as the red light continued to blink. Everything looked to be in place until he glanced at the old RCA television. The screen glowed as Channel 6 broadcasted a local news report. A female reporter in a branded Channel 6 winter coat stood in the driveway, a clear view of the Staedlar house behind her. The audio played in Pratt’s ear:

“No one can say for certain what happened here at the Staedlar home, and perhaps no one ever will. All we know is that another bloody chapter has been written in the history of the Hecht Farmhouse, a home locals are calling their own Amityville Horror…”

The cameraman zoomed in on the house where figures could be seen inside. One was a man with Pratt’s hair, wearing Pratt’s blue jacket, bent over, staring at a television while, on the floor above, a dark, motionless figure stood in the master bedroom. It raised a finger to its lips.

    Pratt jumped back from the TV, and the glasses fell from his face. Without the overlay, the TV went black and most of the room’s furnishings disappeared. Pratt listened but heard nothing over his own heartbeat. The adrenaline made him giggle as he retrieved the glasses from the floor.

    “Don’t be idiot,” he told himself. 

Speaking out loud makes people feel better when they’re alone, as if filling the silence with their voice can make the world whole and safe. It doesn’t really do anything.

    It was now long after midnight and no one can think straight at that hour after working all day. Pratt probably should have gone home. Instead, he perched the glasses on his head and returned to the kitchen. The coffeemaker and fridge decorations had vanished but not the butcher’s block. He retrieved the second-largest knife, slid on the glasses and went to the staircase.

    “What do you want me to see, Mellie?”

    Why you should get out of the house would have been my answer, but Pratt continued up the stairs. The children’s rooms and attic stairs were to the right. Bloody boot prints, exactly like those in the crime scene photos, led out of the master bedroom to the left.

    “Hello?”

    Of course no one answered. Despite that, Pratt continued towards the parents’ bedroom. Though Steve and Louise Staedlar’s bodies were covered, nothing could hide the extremity of the violence. Feathers from the stabbed down comforter stuck to the damp bloodstains. Blood sprayed the headboard and the wall opposite. It was nearly impossible to walk in without stepping in blood. Across the room, Steve’s work computer, a Gateway, switched on by itself. A website popped up on the screen. Like the AIM conversation, this was not part of Pratt’s program. He tiptoed around the bed and blood. The website listed the name of a child psychologist. Steve Staedlar’s Hotmail account was open in a second browser. Pratt maximized the screen, and a draft email appeared:

    Dear Dr. Miller, 

 

My name is Steven Staedlar. We met briefly at the Spring drug conference in Philadelphia. (I am a representative for Merck.) However, I am contacting you now regarding a personal matter. I am concerned about the behavior of my twin sons, aged 13. They

 

The red light flashed, and the screen went black. Reflected in the glass was the image of two young boys standing in the bedroom doorway. Pratt spun to see the backs of the boys as they ran from the room. He didn’t move. Like Tiff’s message downstairs, the information on Steve Staedlar’s computer couldn’t exist. It wasn’t in the police report. But it was here now. I was showing him the way, and Pratt finally realized it.

    “Oh my god, Mellie. It was them?” he whispered. The red light switched to green, confirmation for Pratt. “Then who killed the boys? Stokes?”

    Pratt’s desire for the truth overwhelmed his survival instinct. For nearly a year, he’d been convinced that Stokes wasn’t solely to blame and now, here was confirmation. With Mellie giving him exactly what he wanted, how could he leave? He gripped the knife tightly and headed for the boys’ room.

    Tiffany Staedlar’s dislike for her brothers was well documented. When the police interviewed her friends, they all said how much she complained about them. The twins read her diary, stole her things, broke her stuff. When she found her parakeet decapitated on the front lawn, she finally put a lock on her door. But, despite all this, the police wondered, did she really hate them enough to coerce a troubled teenager like Dwayne Stokes to kill them? A teen who, with a fresh lust for blood, then turned on Tiff, murdering her and her parents as well?

    But the police didn’t know how much the Staedlar parents covered for their boys – the increasingly strange behavior that began to tear the family apart. No one spoke of it outside the house, not even to extended family.  The sleepwalking. The insomnia. Their violently fluctuating emotions. The bloodied clothes and dead cats in the trash can. And the boys? Well, no one knew what kind of pressure they were under because they didn’t tell anyone. They didn’t think anyone would believe them. And they were right.

    Their bedroom door was cracked open. Moonlight illuminated the room. Pratt adjusted the grip on his knife and pushed in the door. Just like that night on October 27, the boys were dead in their beds. The Airfix models hanging from the ceiling twirled lightly from an invisible breeze. The knife used on their parents lay bloody on the floor by their Hot Wheels track. A dark stain of blood and brain matter marred the wall and their posters of Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen. Beside him, Pratt heard the hum of a computer. The boys had the family’s old Apple Mac. Steve and Louise let them keep it in their bedroom because they didn’t think it could access the internet. It couldn’t, but somehow the boys were able to access an online chatroom, a chatroom which now appeared on the screen:

dubletruble0228: we can’t. we don’t want to do that.

    sqaln63: you have to.

    dubletruble0228: no. that’s too much. don’t make us.

    sqaln63: you know what will happen if you don’t.

    sqaln63: you can be just like mr. peepers.

Pratt remembered the parakeet from the police report. And now he knew. The boys, alone, hadn’t murdered their parents. Something had made them. It didn’t take Pratt long to figure out what – sqaln63, Sqa Ln 63, 63 Sequoia Lane. But was it something in the house, or the house itself?

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u

The new message popped up in the box.

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u

It repeated itself.

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u, pratt

Pratt pulled the computer cord out of the wall. Of course that didn’t do anything because the computer wasn’t real. It was the overlay, but Pratt forgot. And when the message remained on the screen, he ran out of the room and shut the door. He held the knob for a few seconds, as if afraid something might come bursting out.

    The front door opened and closed.

    Pratt ducked into the nearest bedroom – Tiff’s – and closed the door as footsteps echoed up the stairs. They turned towards the master bedroom, getting fainter with each step. Pratt hid himself in the closet as the footsteps ran towards Tiff’s bedroom. Her door opened and shut. The bed creaked, and the room filled with quiet, restrained sobs. The sobs became deeper and darker, morphing into an angry wheeze. The bed creaked again. The door opened and shut. Someone went into the attic then returned. Moments later, the door to the boys’ room opened. A pause. Two shots were fired. Then, all was silent. 

When another minute passed with no sound, Pratt crept out of the closet. The lights in the bedroom were on now. The pink carpet, pink bedspread, and pink walls were toned down only by posters of N*SYNC and Justin Timberlake. As Pratt passed a desk covered in AP textbooks, make-up, notebooks, and jewelry, the screen on Tiff’s phone – a hot pink Motorola Razr – lit up. A new picture message had been received. He flipped open the phone. Sent from an unknown number was a grainy shot of Pratt taken through the boys’ bedroom doorway. Pratt was about to throw the phone across the room when I flashed the red light. I wanted him to stop and look at the picture again. I kept the red light flashing until he did.

    At first glance, it did appear to be Pratt, but then he realized the jacket was black not blue, and the hair was cut too short – Dwayne Stokes. The phone buzzed. Another picture message – Stokes discovering the Staedlar parents. It buzzed again – Stokes stumbling from their room, leaving a trail of bloody footprints.

    Pratt put down the phone as voices sounded in the hall.

    “Oh my god, Tiff. What have you done?”

    “I had to. Please, baby, I had to. They killed my parents!”

    “Yeah? And how do I know you didn’t do it? You’ve been freakin’ weird for months.”

    “Please, Dwayne. It’s not me. It’s the house. There’s something wrong with this house. Dwayne, stop. Stop!” Her voice became choked. She was choking. Dwayne Stokes was strangling her to death right outside that bedroom door, and he would leave the body in the hall, just like in the crime scene photos, then go up into the attic and hang himself. The police had been right about that. Pratt listened as Tiff’s body dropped to the floor and Stokes’ heavy footsteps carried on up to the attic. 

He quietly opened the bedroom door, expecting to see a body, but only a shotgun lay in the hall. Knife still in hand, he made his way toward the attic, needing to see the final act and fearing it just the same. 

    Pratt wouldn’t have been so scared if he remembered he was wearing his AR glasses. Granted, it’s easy to forget a thing like that. But if he would’ve taken them off, he wouldn’t have seen or heard a thing. The house would have been as quiet and empty as it normally is when viewed without an augmented reality overlay. That’s what I love about technology, how it lets you reach out to people. How you can get inside its wires and its circuits and change anything you want. In the old days, it was all slamming doors and mysterious footprints, whispers in your ear and shadows in the corner of your eye. The hard part was making people believe that what they were seeing was real, being insistent enough so that they wouldn’t run screaming but wouldn’t dismiss the signs as fatigue or the flicker of candlelight or the settling of a new house. 

    But people believe in technology, have done ever since it first crept into their homes through telephones, radios, and television. The more they bound it with their lives, the easier it became to make them believe the impossible. After all, your computer can’t lie. Your cell phone doesn’t want to hurt you. Augmented reality is just a game. So why shouldn’t two young boys murder their parents, or a lonely computer programmer believe that the ghost of a dead farm girl might be trying to lead him to the truth of a very haunted house?

    Pratt went up to the attic, the red light flashing. I activated the speakers on his AR glasses and played Stokes’ voice from that night forty years ago.

    “Please, please don’t. I don’t want to die--”

    A chair fell. Pratt turned a corner and saw Stokes’ feet dangling in the air, just as Archer thought they should. I waited as Pratt thought through all he had just heard and seen. He trusted me so very much.

    “Mellie, if the boys killed their parents, Tiff killed the boys, and Stokes killed Tiff, then who killed Stokes?”

    The air went very cold, the light in the attic dimmed and, for the first time, I spoke loud enough so Pratt could hear me:

I’m not Mellie.

    It never gets old, playing with people, but it’s hard with no one living here full-time anymore. That’s why I liked Pratt so much. He was in the house so often, he might as well have lived here. Now he lay at the bottom of the stairs, bleeding out from the knife sticking into his side. Blood is my most favorite smell. It can really transform a home into something else entirely. I let Pratt’s seep into the old floorboards, joining the Staedlar’s and Mellie’s and all the others and embraced it with a sigh. Dawn had long since broken when Archer’s car came down the drive. I welcomed him with open doors.

THE LEGEND OF BLACKWATER BRIDGE

by Amy Weaver

 

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Swoosh. Swoosh. Crack.

The long, wool coat dragged the tops of the broken branches and thriving weeds left in the wake of last summer’s rainstorms. Swoosh. With every quick step, she deleted him from her life, her future. The duffle bag slung across her shoulder forced the extra weight she was already carrying a little deeper into her sore knees and blistering feet. Muddy boots collected layers of soil too thick and time-consuming to clean off with a twig. She had tried already, twice. 

“Forty-seven… forty-eight… forty-nine…” she whispered. Counting always calmed her when she had a nightmare, and her current situation seemed to qualify. In between steps, she gripped the brim of the borrowed fedora and thrust herself deeper and deeper into hiding. “Fifty.”

The wooded field was thick; the sky dark. Too dark, she thought. Surely she was almost there – it had been a couple of hours since she and her compass had begun their walk. The sun would be up soon and she couldn’t be left behind. 

“Only bring cash and a small first aid kit,” the man had told her. “Memorize the address of your destination – nothing on paper that needs explaining - and no traceable devices!” She had followed his orders, but before she left, her mother stashed a few pieces of fruit into her pouch. She was grateful – these days traveling made her nauseous. 

His image appeared in her mind: dark hair, bright blue eyes – she stomped him away. She had fallen in love with the wrong man; or rather, he had fallen in love with the wrong girl. That’s what she had written in the letter she left for him the night before. Since the new regime had come into power, she had gone from being different to damaging - the new President had told them all so – and William’s family had too much clout in the State to risk being associated with her kind. Things had changed drastically over the last two years – new walls, new direction. The incoming leadership had vowed order - the return of greatness, and what was promised as solace to the majority quickly became survival to the rest. She glanced behind herself as she’d done numerous times already this morning. She would always be looking over her shoulder now, she suspected.

As she entered into a small clearing in the woods, her body was blindsided by a giant figure. The hit was so hard it forced her to lose her footing in the thick leaves and fall backward, her spine crashing into the sharp edge of a stump. Crack. Her compass flew into the air. 

“No!” She screamed, throwing her arms up for protection. They had found her, she feared. Horrendous pain pulsed through her as she tried to focus in the dark. The large figure hostilely moved toward her until finally morphing into a large man - arm drawn back, palm hidden beneath a willing fist. He paused for only a quick moment but she could see in his eye that he saw her – really saw her. Beyond her masculine clothing and chopped hair, she knew he had seen her softness, the curve of her body. He didn’t swing. Instead, he swiped her compass off the ground and stepped over her, never making a sound. Left with no option, she followed him.

She caught up with the stranger just as red taillights began peeking through the thinning trees. Side-by-side, they picked up their pace. 

The woods halted at a narrow dirt road. An old Greyhound bus stood before them - #79 screaming out from its crown, a small line of people hugging its side. Her tired feet began to run - freedom was so close. 

Standing behind the others, she kept her head down and waited her turn as instructed. The minutes felt thick and heavy, but it struck her in that time – in the presence of others – that this disguise she was wearing, this costume, had transformed her. Underneath this shield was a new person, an adopted identity. She was changed.

“You! Show me,” barked the man in the front of the line.

Stepping forward with cold, shaking hands, she began unfastening the buttons just below her neck.

“I don’t have all day, boy.”

The man’s voice was gruff; she was immediately intimidated. She tried to move faster – fighting the frozen fabric and ripping lone threads that mysteriously found themselves on the wrong side of closure. Eventually, she slid the stiff sleeve of her shirt and bra strap to the side in one fell swoop. She had practiced this part. Her left shoulder exposed an inch-long scar adorned with black stitching to lace up her unpopular brown skin. Luckily, it was a clean cut – her uncle was a veterinarian and although he dealt with a different beast, he was still gifted with a scalpel and thread. 

The man began to examine the wound, leaning in so close she felt her throat widen – a gag reflex to the smell of numerous cups of coffee and cigarettes. Dirt sat comfortably on his uniformed shirt that introduced him as “Hank.” She studied the curly font and wondered if he, too, was playing a role. 

“When did you take it out?”

She hesitated. ”When did I…?”

“When did you remove your chip?” He snipped.

“Last night. 8:27.”

“You’re cuttin’ it close. If we have any problems on the road, you’ll be removed.”

He stepped past her. “Next.”

“I was told I had plenty of time before the system could pick me up.” Under the tension, her voice tightened into its natural, higher register.

Hank paused to take in this change – this girl. He softened.

“You’re okay, sweetheart.” He whispered, “We’ll get’cha there in time.” He pulled her in toward him and patted her shoulder. “You’re okay.” It was then that she noticed the prosthetic arm resting at his side. Strangely, it soothed her. She felt safe – they were all flawed.

“Excuse me!” A male voice rang out as she began to step aboard the bus. 

“Did you drop this?” A man her age - perhaps just a few years older – stood with an outstretched arm, a floral scarf dangling from his hand. 

“No.” 

As their eyes locked, she felt chills surge through her veins. His smile is contaminated, she thought. He was too clean, too composed, with his crisp leather jacket and fresh gray sneakers – not a trace of mud in sight. Instincts told her he was just like the privileged boys she had known in high school – the ones who had taunted her about her hair, her accent.

“I’m Jake. What’s your name?” 

Without a word, she stumbled up the stairs.

One by one the seats of the old Greyhound found takers until at last the hydraulic doors shut tight, closing the misfits off from their pasts. Her heart raced – gratitude, regret. 

The smell of diesel had already begun to give her a headache. As her fingers massaged the aching temple, she thought back to long vacations spent traveling by bus with her family after her father – God rest his soul - declared his mission to show his girls the country. “All of this can be yours,” he said every time they stopped to admire a new horizon. While now reserved for junkyards and country roads, this beaten up vehicle used to be a window into the ‘possible.’ How foolish we were, she thought.

“Listen, people,” Hank roared above the engine and shuffling feet. “This is my bus. My ass is on the line just as much as yours, so here’s the rules. Sun’s almost up so I suggest you listen closely.” Stillness fell over the crowd. “I’ve searched y’all for traceable devices and you’ve all come up clean. But, if you even think about connecting, you’ll be thrown out into the ditch. No questions asked.”

“Now, we’ll be goin’ straight through on the back roads ‘til sundown, ‘bout 5:30. We’ll stop to refuel right at the Blackwater Bridge and y’all will get a chance to...” Voices rumbled from the back of the bus.

“WHAT?” Hank screamed.

“We can’t stop at Blackwater Bridge!” A large black man jumped up from his seat. His hands shook as he spoke. “That’s only three or four miles away from the hyperloop. It would take only minutes for the authorities to reach us!”

“Who put you on here?” Hank roared back.

“I can vouch for him, Hank!” screamed another.

Hank studied the man, his nervousness. “Have a seat, sir. Relax. We’re safe – they’ve got the fuel we need for this old thing and it’s gonna be a real quick stop. “

Still shaken, the man sat back down. 

“Y’a’ll will have ‘bout five minutes to use the facilities there, but that’s it. FIVE MINUTES. Got it? And if the line is too long, you figure it out. That’s the window – I WILL leave you.”

Hank began to walk the aisle – a last glance at his customers. He stopped by the girl.

“You alright?”

She nodded.  

“I know it’s real cold but hang in there. It’ll git a little warmer when we git goin’.”

The engine roared and exhaust filled the air with steam as the sun began to introduce the day. She grabbed her bag tightly - her companion for this journey. Adrenaline moved through her body and for a moment, she couldn’t feel the pain in her back from the fall this morning. As the wheels began to spin, she closed her eyes and said a prayer to whatever god was out there to listen, counting “safety, strength and peace” among her wishes.

The time passed slowly for the first three or four hours, she couldn’t be sure how long it had been. Winter light could be tricky, filled with relentlessly gloomy fog. 

She pulled out the small bag of grapes her mother had stashed in her pouch and curled up next to the cold aluminum to eat. Exhausted from the physical effort of her morning hike, she allowed her body to relax a little. Her eyes grew heavy, begging for rest. Eventually they betrayed her will and shut. 

 

Thump, skid. Thump, skid. Thump, skid.

 

“Family history is important to us, obviously.” The light from the chandelier hit the silver cane perfectly as the old man stopped to admire the family portraits adorning the wall of his library.

“I would assume family history is important to everyone, Dad. Isn’t that right?” William looked at her mother for confirmation – his apology for his father’s arrogance.

“Yes. Of course.” Her mother muttered. 

“I’m sure that’s true on some level,” said the old man. “But, to whom much is given, much is required.” He turned to face them all. “Expected, really.” 

The girl had always felt out of place around William’s father and had hoped her mother would receive a warmer greeting. This was not the case.

“When your family is rooted deeply in tradition - prestige - like we are, it’s particularly IMPORTANT to uphold the integrity of the name.”

“The wheels on the bus go round and round…” a child’s voice sang out.

William reached for her hand. “Should we head outside for some tea?”

“round and round…”

As the others left the library, William held her back. “We’re forever, Nina. Don’t let my dad get to you. He doesn’t own me. He doesn’t control us. I want this more than I’ve ever wanted anything.” He held her gaze. “Promise me you’re in.’”

“round and round…”

“I’m in,” she whispered, because it was true then.

“The wheels on the bus…”

Suddenly, her body jerked to life on the cold vinyl. Loose grapes lay wilting on her wool coat, having shimmied out of their protective bag. The sky was black now.

“round and round…” a little boy sat in the row just beyond her, rolling a Hot Wheel back and forth on the top of his tiny leg. “…all through the town,” he sang.

Hands trembling, heart pounding, she cursed her mind for being so cruel. Their power had been left hundreds of miles back, she told herself. She was in control now.

 “You get some good sleep?” 

Across the aisle, an old woman sat shivering, underdressed for the winter weather in a flannel shirt and cotton gloves – her smile the only source of warmth she carried.

“I did,” the girl replied in the deepest tone her sleepy voice could muster.

“That’s nice. Sleep is good for all of us.” 

The girl took her in – genuine kindness radiated from the woman’s face, and she imagined that every line embedded in her skin was the mark of a good deed. She held out the paper bag with the surviving fruit. 

“I’d like that very much. Thank you.”

The rhythm of the road had once again settled into background noise when she felt his stare. 

“Hey.” 

From the corner of her eye: the gray sneakers. She didn’t look up. 

“Feels like we’ll never get there, right?”

Was she being followed? Panic, helplessness – this unease was tormenting her.

She turned toward the window, clutching her bag to her pounding chest. The moon was just bright enough to cast his reflection into her view. He loomed, threatened. Finally, he was gone.

The tired bus pulled into the truck stop, shielded from the road with abandoned pumps under a rusty awning. “Pay Inside” and an image of an ice cream cone still lingered on display in the windows, proving life existed here in its prime. Paper waste lay sprinkled over broken cement. The bus came to a stop in front of pump #3 - the source of the bootleg diesel.

The girl ran quickly to the bathroom, fearful a line would rob her of the opportunity for privacy. As it turned out, most of the passengers chose convenience over discretion and opted for the fields. Everyone felt the vulnerability of Hank and the close proximity of the hyperloop. No time to waste!  

On the cusp of their time limit, the girl and the old woman found themselves locked inside. Heavy clothes and old age slowed them down. The doorknob rattled, startling them. 

“Just a minute,” shouted the old woman.  

“We’re headin’ in TWO! On the bus or you’re left behind!” Hank’s voice called out from the open air. 

Moments later, as the girl reached for the door, the knob shook again. 

The old woman sighed, “Jesus, Hank.” 

Intuition stopped the girl’s outstretched arm. She placed her index finger to her lips and motioned for the old woman to stand back. Squatting down to the filthy floor, she removed her hat and laid her ear to the ground, looking beyond the threshold. It was just as she feared. Gray sneakers shuffled on the pavement outside and within seconds, disappeared. Back to the bus, she assumed. 

Feeling trapped, it was the old woman’s shivering that sparked the girl’s next move. 

“Here,” she said while offering her overcoat. “I’ll trade for your shirt. You need this more than I do.”

The woman understood and with that, she began to remove the red flannel. “I’m Cecilia.” 

“Nice to meet you… Cecilia.”

The old woman clocked the girl’s hesitation. “Honey, I’m too old not to tell the truth. Passed that mark when I turned 80.”

The girl nodded. “Beautiful name.”

“If you don’t mind my saying, you are quite a lovely ‘boy.’ I hope there’s lots of love awaiting you when you get to where you’re going.”

There is, the girl thought.  

She fastened the last button of the coat under Cecelia’s chin and placed the fedora tightly on her tangled silver hair, loose strands were tucked in back. Every possible inch covered. 

“Good luck to you,” the girl said. “You better go now.”

The old woman gripped her shoulder, words useless now. She began her exit.

“Uh - Cecilia! I left a small bag of fruit in my seat. 15A, I think. Make sure you sit there and grab it before anyone finds it.”

The old woman assured her the food wouldn’t go wasted, then left quickly.

The Greyhound let out a load roar, then another. 

“One… two… three… four…” She began.

The girl held her breath and pushed her body deeper and deeper into the cinderblock wall until the muffled sound began to fade.

“Forty-seven… forty-eight… forty-nine…”

Winding the flannel around her body, she stepped out to brave the unknown. Red lights bounced around in the fog as the bus moved away from her. Desperate to be sure, she slid along the exterior of the building watching as the bus approached the narrow bridge. 

As the tires rolled up the incline, the overhead lights lit up. A passenger ran along the aisle as bodies popped up and down from their seats. The girl couldn’t make out what was happening and in a state of bewilderment, she ran toward the bus.

There was no mistaking her fedora as she saw it fly through the air – it had been her protector this day. She braced herself against a tree as she saw the old woman’s body lift through the air and crash into the glass windows. Above the thrown body stood the man the girl had feared all along. Through the dense fog she could clearly see him – there, in plain sight. She was right: he was one of them and had come for her.

Mayhem ruled the bus for the next few moments as the tires began to sway about the bridge, ignoring the warnings of yellow and white lines. Back and forth, it violently tossed the passengers into its walls, its floor. A skid rang out sending the back of the bus to the front and the front of the bus into the icy water below.

The girl ran to the edge of the bridge in time to witness the water crashing into itself - hungry waves devouring metal and flesh alike. She watched in horror as the tide rolled and twisted until small bubbles danced to the top, bragging. She waited in disbelief. Nothing. No one. She waited... Nothing. They were all dead. She began to weep.

Stranded on the border to freedom, she took a moment and gave thanks to Hank and his bus for helping her get this far. She said a prayer for the old lady, “Cecilia,” – her unintentional sacrifice. She owed a lot to them and asked that perhaps they could forgive her in the afterlife.

The heavy burden she had been carrying in her body formed an unexpected explosion inside her stomach. With a rush that took seconds to erupt, she began to vomit – confirmation.

“Safe.” she reminded herself and squeezed her eyes shut.

 

Thump, skid. Thump, skid. Thump, skid.

Her eyes opened in a flash. The outline of his cane pressed into the side of her shadow. She gasped just before the old man’s hands steadied themselves in the center of her back. 

As the air slipped underneath her feet, she grabbed her swollen stomach. It was an honor, if only briefly, to be a mother. She sucked in as much air as her lungs would allow before she slipped into the water.

 

Splash.

 

THE SEASON IS UPON US

We love this time of year - who doesn't?  This will be Brick Moon Fiction's THIRD Halloween season and we're going to have some amazing new stories to tell you.  Our theme for this month is STRANGE INVESTIGATIONS.  But you'll have to wait until the 10th to find out exactly what that's all about.  What you don't have to wait for is this special page curated daily to bring you a delicious morsel from our library.  And we're going to start right here with a previously unreleased story from Stephanie Jessop. This is from the anthology theme DIGITAL GHOST STORY and it's called COPING MECHANISM.  It's a kick that'll get you in the seasonal mood.  Enjoy

COPING MECHANISM
by Stephanie Jessop

PAGE 1

Madison Kurtz updated her status (October 7 @ 9:23pm)

Hello, everyone. I am Madison’s sister, Taylor Kurtz. I’m sorry if it is disturbing to any of you who cared about Madison to see someone posting under her name. As you already know, my sister left us three months ago. I’m writing this as a way of giving myself (and hopefully some of you, as well) a little bit of closure. I will let this message stay up for one week and then I will be deleting Madison’s account.

I don’t want to eulogize my sister. I know most of you knew her as the perfect girl who always had a smile for everyone. And she did that. She was that. But she was also very complicated. The high standards she held herself to took a toll on her that many of you never saw. She never wanted to let anyone see her flaws and she did a good job of making sure we never did. Even I didn’t see some of them until it was too late.

But I guess that doesn’t matter now. She is gone and all we can do is remember. The one tragic blessing in it is that we can all remember her the way she wanted us to, the way she showed us she could be – perfect.

Please feel free to share your memories and wishes for her here. Thank you.

 

###

“There. Posted.”

“You should be careful not to say too much.”

“I didn’t. Everyone loved Madison. She was smart, pretty and…sweet.”

“Did you love her?”

“She was my sister.”

“That was not the question.”

“I know.”

###

Tammi Knight commented on Madison Kurtz status (October 7 @ 9:28pm)

                        She was very special. We will all miss her so much. (hugs)

Catherine Watkins commented on Madison Kurtz status (October 7 @ 9:40pm)

                        I’m so sorry for your loss, Taylor. Stay strong, girl.

Kenneth Ellis commented on Madison Kurtz status (October 7 @ 9:42pm)

                        I’m gonna miss her.  Sucks that she left us like that.

Rebecca Claunch commented on Madison Kurtz status (October 7 @ 9:59pm)

                        An angel has been called home.

Madison Kurtz commented on her own status (October 7 @ 10:57pm)

                       “Left us” makes it sound like it was my idea.

###

 

“Are you sorry about Madison?”

“Of course I am. When she told me about her ‘coping mechanism’ I couldn’t let her keep doing it, could I?”

“You could have gone to someone for help.”

“Then people would have found out about her. Everyone would know and there would be no getting away from that ever. Everyone I ever met for the rest of my life would know. You don’t know how much it mattered to her what people thought. It would have destroyed her.”

“It sounds like it mattered to you just as much.”

“I’m not like her. I just couldn’t have stood to see that happen to her. But I still had to stop her somehow.”

“Why do you think she told you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she wanted me to help.”

“Do you think you helped?”

 

###

Taylor Kurtz updated her status (October 8 @ 7:45am)

I want to thank everyone for all their support during these past few difficult months. However, I would like to respectfully ask you to please remember that Madison was a very private person. I’ve gotten private messages from several of you asking for clarification about statements I made in the post I added to my sister’s page. I will not be answering any of these questions. Yes, there were things that Madison kept private. I respect this and I ask that you do, too. Let her secrets rest in peace as she does.

 

###

 

“You’re just making things worse.”

“I know what I’m doing. God, you sound just like her. She always knew exactly what I should be doing. I can handle this. I am handling it.”

“You felt attacked by her sometimes.”

“No, I didn’t. Why would you say that?”

“Because you sound so defensive.”

“I’m not. She was never aggressive. She was always in control…Maybe that actually bothered me sometimes.”

“She wasn’t always in control, though.”

“But no one ever saw that side of her.”

“Some did.”

“They did. But they didn’t get to tell anyone about it, did they?”

 

###

Cecilia Brown commented on Taylor Madison’s status (October 8 @ 7:50pm)

                        Matthew 5:4

Rebecca Claunch commented on Taylor Madison’s status (October 8 @ 7:58pm)

                        Are you holding up okay, Taylor? You’re not alone in this. We’re all hurting. Call me.

Vicki Garcia commented on Taylor Madison’s status (October 8 @ 8:11pm)

                        I’ve been so sad since this happened. Praying for you…

Chris George commented on Taylor Madison’s status (October 8 @ 8:30pm)

                        She’ll always be with us.

Madison Kurtz commented on Taylor Madison’s status (October 8 @ 11:20pm)

                        It's so touching to read how much all of you miss me. I miss you all, too!  

 

###

 

"What the fuck is this? Someone's posting as her. They even put that stupid smiley face heart thing at the end like her. That's not fucking funny."

"Who would have her password?"

"No one. Just me and that's only because I figured it out after trying about fifty different things."

"Could someone else have figured it out?"

"No. It's LukeHollaway. The guy who lived down the street from us when we were little who shot his wife and kids."

"That's a little morbid."

"That's why it was smart of her. No one would guess Madison would fixate on something so dark. Unless they knew."

"Do you think someone did?"

"They couldn't have. Even I didn't know. Not until that last week. It's messed up but at least there's nothing bad in her private messages. I checked that first thing. Even if someone hacked her account they won't find anything. And I'm going to delete it all in a few days anyway."

"Why not just do it now?"

"I dunno…I guess I'm not ready."

 

###

 

Madison Kurtz sent you a private message (October 9 @ 9:12am)

                    Taylor, I'm scared. You have to help me.

 

You replied on (October 9 @ 9:24am)

                    I don't know who you are but I just changed the password on Madison's account. Go die in a fire, please. Thanks.

 

###

 

"Unbelievable."

"What's wrong?"

"Someone is trying to fuck with me. Look at this message."

"Which one?"

"The one that says it's by Madison. That says 'help me.'"

"Taylor."

"It’s sick. But I changed all her passwords so it they won't be doing it again."

"Are you feeling all right?”

"No, I’m pissed."

"Are you sure that’s all?”

 

###

 

Madison Kurtz sent you a message (October 9 @ 3:52pm)

                    Taylor, I'm serious. You really screwed things up and because of you something really bad got left where someone could find it. You have to fix this.

 

###

 

Madison Kurtz sent you a message (October 9 @ 4:15pm)

                    Taylor, do not ignore me please. This is important.

 

###

 

Madison Kurtz sent you a message (October 9 @ 4:16pm)

                    Taylor, you didn’t look around close enough. The hammer is still there.

 

###

 

“Have you been sleeping okay?"

“What are you talking about? This is bad. Someone knows.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know but they’re in her account, messaging as her. But no one could know something that specific. I don’t understand.”

“Unless they were there?”

“But no one was. I’m sure of it.”

“You don’t look well. And, your hands are shaking."

“Someone knows. I didn’t tell anyone she used a hammer. No one knows that except me unless someone saw and they’re doing this-“

“Taylor, you need to calm down. I think maybe you need a break from this to clear your head a little.”

“I’m fine! I need to think. There’s no way anyone could know. No one was there but somehow they’re right. I don’t remember picking up the hammer. What if it’s still there?”

 

###

 

Madison Kurtz sent you a message (October 9 @ 8:20pm)

                    Taylor, you’re going back to take care of it, right? I knew you would. You’re the best! *hugs and boogers*

 

###

 

“Hugs and boogers. Oh my god.”

“What now?”

“It's her. Madison. For real, it's her. Hugs and boogers. That was our secret thing we said to each other since forever. She wouldn’t have ever, ever told anyone because it’s too gross and she couldn’t be gross in front of people. She couldn’t.”

“You know what I’m going to tell you.”

“That I'm crazy? I'm not. I know my sister. These messages, they're her voice.”

“Madison is gone. You know that.”

“Maybe. What if it’s real though? What if the hammer really did get left behind? I have to make sure.”

“Do you really think going back is a good idea?”

“What if someone finds it? They might find out about us.”

“About her, you mean?”

“Yes, but you know what I mean. I’m in it too now.”

“When are you going?”

“Tonight. Right now. I won’t be able to sleep until it’s done, anyway.”

“Don’t you think it might be better to look for it in the daylight?”

“Maybe. No, I have to do this now.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“What?”

“If you’re really getting messages from her, if she really is still around somehow, do you think she’s angry?”

“I don’t – Madison didn’t get angry like that.”

“Not that she let anyone see. She had her coping mechanism, didn’t she? But what about now?”

“What do you mean?”

“If she’s angry now, how will she cope?”

 

###

 

Madison Kurtz sent you a message (October 9 @ 10:01pm)

                    You’re coming, right? Don’t forget to bring a flashlight. It’s dark out here and there are a lot of loose rocks. You could trip really easily. See you soon. *hugs and boogers*

 

###

 

Madison Kurtz sent you a message (October 9 @ 10:02pm)

                    Also, you might want to wear a sweater. (Not one of mine) It’s cold out here.  

###

 

“Wait.”

“Are you coming with me?”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?"

"I have to be sure. Are you coming with me?"

"Don't I always?"

"Good. I'll do everything. Just be with me."

"Sure."

 

###

 

“Do you really think those messages are from your sister?”

“I’m not sure what scares me more, that they’re from her or that they’re not. It’s so cold out here.”

“How far is it?”

“A ways. She had a good secluded spot, I’ll give her that. It’s so weird to think of her coming out here. Let alone...”

“Let alone.”

“Taylor?”

“Hmm?”

“Didn’t you ever suspect? Even once?”

“I probably should have. But you know, she had that outer image that was tough to crack, even for family. She really never let her guard down.”

“So there was nothing to see?”

“I remember after Mr. Holloway was arrested – I was ten, I think, and she was not quite twelve – she took me to this wooded lot by our school, sort of to the side and behind it, you know. Anyway, she took me back there and showed me this tarp that was buried under a pile of leaves. She made me look under it and I did.”

“And?”

“There was a dead yellow lab under there and two cats. She told me that Mr. Holloway had put them there. It made sense to me at the time. We all knew he killed his family.”

“Now you think that she killed those animals.”

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“Why do you think she showed them to you?”

“I dunno. Maybe she was proud of it on some level. Or…”

“Or maybe you were supposed to do something about it?”

“I don’t know.”

 

###

 

Madison Kurtz sent you a message (October 9 @ 11:32pm)

                    Be careful climbing down. Lots of loose rocks.  

 

###

"The hammer is there. I can see it."

"Why is it sticking up like that?"

"I don't know. I must've dropped it when I was dragging…"

"When you were dragging her?"

"I got it. I'm coming back up."

"Do you think -"

"Shit!"

"What?"

"Damn it, I dropped the fucking hammer."

"Be careful climbing. The rocks-"

“Uph!”

“Taylor?”

###

Madison Kurtz updated her status (October 10 @ 9:40am)

I have some terrible news. It will be in the news very soon and I wanted to everyone to hear it from me first. Taylor was found dead this morning in a remote part of Red Oak Park. She apparently fell while trying to climb out of a ditch and landed backwards hitting her head on a hammer which was stuck in the dirt.

And I am sorry to tell you that it gets worse. At least twelve shallow graves were found in the surrounding area with bodies in various stages of decomposition. All had been killed with a hammer, the same hammer found at the scene, a hammer which bears Taylor's fingerprints.

I'm sorry to be the one to reveal Taylor's terrible secret. I'm sorry that she fooled all of you. I hope we can get through this together.

 

###

Catherine Watkins commented on Madison Kurtz status (October 10 @ 9:42am)

                    Who is this? Taylor? Is this a joke?

Steven Leibnitz commented on Madison Kurtz status (October 10 @ 9:46am)

                    This is sick.

Rebecca Claunch commented on Madison Kurtz status (October 10 @ 9:52am)

                    It's real. Turn on Channel 2. OMFG.

Becky Vu commented on Madison Kurtz status (October 10 @ 9:55am)

                    Who wrote this post?

Tammi Knight commented on Madison Kurtz status (October 10 @ 10:02am)

                    I'm watching the news right now. What is this? Who posted this? What is going on? This is crazy.

Becky Vu commented on Madison Kurtz status (October 10 @ 10:04am)

                    I know, right? Taylor can't have killed anyone. I don't understand.

Madison Kurtzcommented on her own status (October 10 @ 10:07am)

                    What do you mean, 'who?' It’s me. I'm sorry about my sister. Please don't hold it against me. I love you all. Please tell me we're still friends.  

 

###

 

"Well, I hope you're happy."

"Where am I?"

"Nowhere."

"You're still with me?"

"Of course."

"Madison wanted me to die."

"Yes."

"She really was angry, after all."

"Yes."

"I guess I still didn't believe it. I didn't believe she was capable."

"They found your body…next to the graves and the hammer."

"So she found a way to protect her image no matter what. Now she'll always be the good sister. She didn't have to do this. I would've kept her secret."

"Are you angry?"

"I don't know what I am. I think I would like to talk to her. Is that possible?"

"Who's to say what's possible here?"

"I don't know where she is."

"Neither do I."

"She was able to message me. Could I do that, do you think?"

"You can try. What are you going to say?"

 

###

 

Taylor Kurtz sent you a message (October 10 @ 11:12pm)

                   Madison?

You replied (October 10 @ 11:13pm)

                    Yes?

Taylor Kurtz sent you a message (October 10 @ 11:15pm)

                    I'm sorry we fought.

You replied (October 10 @ 11:22pm)

                    *hugs and boogers*

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