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Chapter 1: Sirens in His Ears


Water was what the air in and around this town smelled like the most.

It was in the deep, earthen musk of the damp soil that lay beneath the lush, rain-soaked grass.

It was in the marshy fumes, sometimes sulphurous, sometimes sickly-sweet, of the patches of hidden swamp that lay in wait for unsuspecting feet.

It was in the carpets of fallen leaves that hid hollows between the tree roots, where pools could collect and play host to all things that crawled or squirmed through the wet.

It was in the very town itself, coating wet asphalt and bleeding from the pale, pulpy wood of the Lakeview Hotel ruins’ moldering foundations.

There was nothing dry about this place.

Fog, ghostly-gray and creeping on silent feet, drifted in low wisps over the crumbled gravestones and cold earth of the cemetery, painting the normally-stark outlines of the trees so pale that they faded into the sky rather than stood boldly against it. The mist had dissipated somewhat since anyone had last passed through this particular stretch of rarely-visited meadow and tombstone just outside the town’s border, but not by much. Hours, though, or perhaps a day before, it had been as oppressive and thick as cold clam chowder.

Now it was slowly thinning out, listlessly lacking the eerie, almost lifelike malevolence with which it had pressed in upon the very soul before. There was a certain… uncertainty about the way it was hovering now, no longer pouring into every little hollow and alcove like milk over cereal. It was just there.

There, in a sort of in-between way. Lingering.

All was still, and—save for the rhythmic lapping of the waves at the water’s edge, just out of sight beyond the trees—all was silent as well.

Except for himself, of course.

It was movement in the stillness that preceded the first disruption of the tranquility of the graveyard; the silk-thin web of drifting mist that hung in the air like lace slowly began to slide forward, rolling away from his feet like a translucent white carpet, perhaps in front of some ghostly celebrity attending an afterlife movie premiere. Right from the very beginning, his movement through this strange, still world had felt alien and out of place, but it had never felt that way more than right now.

With each footstep, a narrow patch of soggy grass pressed down and sent a miniature pool of moisture bubbling up around the edges of his boots and in through invisible gaps in the leather, oozing into his already-saturated socks and settling in icy little pools in the dips where his toes went. If his feet hadn’t already been numb from the wet and cold, he might have cared more. But everything from his toes to his feet and the soaked denim that clung stiffly to them was in no shape to feel anything but the dull warning stings of oncoming pins and needles.

Besides, he had other things on his mind right now.

Like how the end of the plank he was dragging had nails poking jaggedly through its end. Nails that were bent and twisted and red with something other than rust.

Like how the sharp, metallic tang of blood was gushing off of him in waves and invading his nostrils with each breath. It was so overpowering that at times, like when the now-soggy bandages tied around his middle to staunch the bloodflow from the shallow but hideous scrapes up and down his left flank began to slip downwards, it made him want to choke.

Like how lifting his feet from the indents they made in the muddy undergrowth kept on getting harder and harder to do. His legs felt heavier with each step and the little grassy pools made squelchy noises of protest, sucking hungrily at his feet each time they left the earth. Behind him in the grass, there was a long trail of tiny shoe-shaped lakes, like murky little gray-green cousins of the one he was walking alongside and had been sailing on not ten minutes before.

Like what he had been doing out on the dark, sunless surface of that lake.

There was a clank-CLONK and a gentle patter as droplets of condensation came raining down from where they’d collected on the bars of the cemetery gate. There was no real latch, so he just pushed it open. There had been one once, but it had rusted away under the perpetual wet.

… Or maybe it hadn’t.

Maybe in the real world, the gates to the graveyard were kept under well-maintained lock and key. Perhaps this was just one last bit of mercy from the Otherworld to facilitate his departure. It was a small kindness he’d have appreciated much more back at the beginning of his journey, back when he’d still had an objective… something to hope for.

The gate’s movement ground to a halt after a mere few inches, hindered by tufts of almost-oily grass which had been allowed to grow out of control around the edges of the compound for what had probably been years. They snagged on the metal almost as though they were alive, gripping its frame with the sort of desperation one normally only saw from a particularly needy child clinging to its mother’s arm while she was on her way to work.

A half-hearted hiss of frustration escaped him as the gate’s creaking cut off. He clenched sore and swollen fingers around the wet bars, feeling flakes of rust and ancient, now-colorless paint crumble away and stick to his fingertips, which the lakewater had turned pruny and pale pink, like anemic raisins. When further shoving only yielded that rubbery, elastic sound that wet wild grass sometimes got, he let out a puff of air and gave up for the moment, leaning in to rest his forehead against the cool metal as he slouched, peering through the bars at the army of gravestones with eyes that were as gray as the world around him.

He’d have to squeeze his tired, battered body through that narrow gap, and he just wasn’t ready to deal with that. Maybe in five seconds. Yes, five seconds sounded good. Five seconds was plenty of time. In five seconds, his aching legs would feel a little better, the cuts and scrapes would hurt a little less, and he’d stand tall, shove that gate wide open, and continue his uphill trek with renewed determination.

Twenty minutes later, everywhere hurt just as much, his back refused to straighten from its slouch, and the gate still wouldn’t budge.

He wasn’t an incredibly muscular man to begin with. In fact, he was distinctly soft around the edges in several unflattering places, which was the nice way of saying he’d taken on a bit of paunch in the past few years. And in case the unpleasant reminder of his out of shape physique wasn’t enough of a reason to not be looking forward to squeezing through the gate, there wasn’t an inch of flesh on him that wasn’t already bruised or tender.

He leaned harder, unable to muster forth the effort to make more than one or two disgruntled sighs and one distinctly lack-luster kick at the gate that didn’t even connect.

Oh well. There was nothing to be done, really. The only alternative was to go all the way around the perimeter of the graveyard and hope that he could find another path to his destination before he collapsed, and that particular prospect was not a good one. But he could do this. He could. The scrapes and bumps and scratches and god-only-knew-what-else-he-hadn’t-notice
d-yet-leeches-maybe all over his body were the result of far worse than just shoving himself through a tight spot. He’d just have to deal.

… But maybe after another twenty minutes.

Swiping at the condensation that had settled onto his face like cold sweat and the fringe of dirty blond hair hanging in his eyes, he lifted one arm to dry it with the sleeve of his coat. Said coat was caked with so much dirt and mud and blood that you could hardly even see the original green underneath, except for the sleeves themselves, where the lakewater had washed away the surface grime.

… Meaning, of course, that they were still wet and here he was, rubbing them on his face and wondering why it wasn’t getting any drier.

Great. What a champion.

He dropped his arms and tried to curse under his breath, but all that came out was some nonsense word, spoken in something like a resigned sigh. Too tired to even swear at himself. Now that was just sad.

It wasn’t that he’d expected all this to be easy…

It had been three long years since his life had last been easy.

”That’s why I want you to live for yourself, now. Do what’s best for you, James…”

She had made it sound so easy.

And it kind of had been, just for a few moments, while her body had still been near.

The oars of the rickety little rowboat had slid through the water in slow, rhythmic strokes, sending them both out onto the middle of the lake far more quickly than he’d wanted, considering what he was planning to do— going to do once they got there.

Now that he’d gotten an inkling of what the nature of this place truly was, it was hard to say just when and where a lot of what had happened had actually taken place, or which of it had been real, or maybe if all of it had been real at once, even the things that couldn’t have happened at all. In a strange, dim way, like an insect contemplating something too big for it to see all of at once, he had a feeling it was that last one.

The room at the very end of it all, though—the one he had found himself sitting in so suddenly after he’d brought the Great Knife crashing down on that monster’s broken body where the rooftop met the bottom of a rainy sky— that had been real, even if none of the rest was. Maybe he was crazy for even thinking so, but he was certain of it.

It was impossible to explain how. It just was.

Even as he had felt the distant ache of the hard, wooden seat underneath him and the protests of his tired arms as they pumped the oars, he had also smelled the cold tea in the pitcher on the bedside table and heard the creak and groan of the dusty old chair against his back and felt his own hands clasping each other anxiously as he looked down at her bed.

“Mary?” he had asked, his voice hoarse as he leaned timidly forward and rested a hand on the edge of the mattress.

A spasm of coughing had first been what he’d received in reply, before she had turned her tired eyes—eyes that were somehow clearer than they had ever been during those final days, eyes that knew
everything— up to his. “…James…” she had murmured.

The soft light filtering in through the window above her bed cast a halo of light over her body, giving a quiet glow to the cream-colored silk she wore.

At the sound of her voice, his eyes had begun to sting. It was a few seconds before he’d been able to loosen his throat enough to stammer out, “Forgive me…”

She had smiled—that sad,
strong, beautiful smile that she had sometimes worn during the increasingly-few times, between all the anger and pain and violent mood swings, that she’d been at peace with what was happening to her. Although he would never know for sure, James thought that she had most certainly been wearing that smile when she had written her final letter to him. Not the one that he’d imagined—the one that had led him here to this shadowy doppelganger of the town they had once loved—but the one she really, truly wrote.

She lifted a hand that was almost translucent—from sickness, not ghostliness, for she was here before him not as a spirit or memory of Mary, but as
Mary— and laid it on his knee. Just like she had sometimes done during the quiet moments back home, back when their lives had been normal… although her hands were no longer strong enough to give him that comforting squeeze like they had back then.

told you that I wanted to die, James. I wanted the pain to end.”

The stinging became relief as tears that had been waiting to fall for far longer than was healthy finally came trickling out over the flesh under his eyes, purple from bruise and exhaustion alike.

“That’s why I did it, honey. I just couldn’t watch you
suffer,” he had choked out, the words that he hadn’t been able to say to her soon enough now spilling out of him before he could stop them. Not that he’d wanted to.

But, like a hook in a fish’s cheek, there was something else. Something he did not want to say, even to himself. But it had to come out. Had to, if he was ever going to be able to atone for what he’d done. If he had learned anything at
all from this town…

“… No. That’s… not true. You also said… you
didn’t wanna die.”

Shoulders quaking with the very effort of making his throat release those awful words, he had slumped forward and turned his head aside, eyes leaving hers as the tears flowed hard enough to blur her sickness-scarred face right out of his vision, just like it had been blurred right out of his
mind until just a few hours before. His voice had grown high and choked.

“The truth is… I
hated you. I wanted you out of the way… I wanted my life back…!” He had trailed off there, lifting his hands to staunch the tears that he didn’t have any right to be shedding. Or maybe it was to hide his shameful face, the one that Mary didn’t deserve to have to look at after what its owner had done to her. Or maybe it was to do both at the same time.

But that frail hand moved away from his leg and entwined its fingers with his, bringing them back down before it withdrew to its original position on the bed, lying limply next to its owner. James looked up once more, just barely enough to see her through the strands of hair that hung in his face, only to find her gaze locked with his and a searching, piercing,
knowing expression on her face.

“James… if that were true… then why do you look so

Those words—those twelve quiet words—were the words that had echoed over and over in his head like the end of a record that no one was bothering to take off the turntable. They had repeated like far-off birdcalls as the little boat arrived at the center of the lake and he’d opened his eyes, leaving the room behind. They had repeated as he’d leaned over the side of the boat with her in his arms, breath growing shaky with the effort of holding onto her. They had repeated as he leaned further still, the water eating up to his hands, then to his elbows, then to his shoulders.

It wasn’t until it was lapping at his chin like an icy tongue and he could feel the boat tipping sideways under his weight—and he was tempted, so very tempted, to just let it capsize, perhaps catching him on the back of the skull with its hard wooden edge, knocking him out cleanly and letting them both go to rest together—that he finally forced himself to let go of her.

He watched her body, now several days dead, drift gently downwards until it was lost to view in the inky depths.

And still, the words repeated. Over and over, as the boat had returned to the lake’s edge minus one of its passengers and scraped through the silty sand of the shore, as James had climbed out and made his way up the forest road, and even now as he was standing there outside the graveyard, feeling so dead on his feet that he wouldn’t have felt out of place in one of those graves himself, he was still hearing them. Over and over and over and over.

Well, if it were true, why did he? Was it true? Did that even matter now? The deed had been done, regardless of his reasons, of either of their pain…

At this point, he didn’t claim to know. Everything that had happened was swirling bewilderingly in the dark recesses of his mind, and amidst all the chaos inside and all the pain and exhaustion outside, there was only one thing that he was certain of right now: right or wrong, whether he’d deserved it or not, his wife, or whatever last remnant of her spirit had remained on Earth to visit him there at the bitter end of his journey, had told him to keep on living. Had not only told him to, but told him to promise to.

He hadn’t promised… not out loud. He’d tried to, but all that had come out of his mouth as her eyes suddenly fluttered in pain was a tremulous, almost childlike “… Mary?!” and he’d leaned forward again, knowing what was happening and wanting so badly to say more. To say everything, even though there was so much to say that the words were piling up behind his tongue like a traffic jam, packed so tight that not even a single one could make it out and escape into earshot.

“James,” she had sighed. “Please… please do something for me.” She had raised her hand once more, and, finally, he dared to lift his own to press his cold fingers tentatively against her warm ones. They closed around his as she smiled that sad smile at him one last time. “Go on with your life…”

He had remained sitting there in that room next to her still body, dimly comprehending the entire time that, somewhere in what could loosely be called the real world, he was rowing a boat across Toluca Lake, towards the very center. And when he got there, he would finally let go.

This was important, he knew.

This was how it should have gone.

Maybe it was a final punishment on the part of that town, making him watch her slip away again. Or maybe it was a sign of how much he had changed. After all, this time, he had spoken, and held, and watched… not reached for the pillow.

Suppressing the shudder that wracked his whole body, James tugged the coat more tightly around himself (for all the good that would do) and sucked in his stomach before finally trying to squeeze his way through the gap. It didn’t quite work.

“Dammit!” An actual, coherent curse word forced its way out of his throat as the pressure brought the rough fabric of his coat into direct contact with the cuts on his side, making them light up in pain and defy the cold numbness they had been encased in. Grunting in frustration, he cocked a leg back and delivered another kick. This time it actually did connect, but that didn’t stop it from being one of the weakest kicks in the entire history of James’s life.

And if anyone had seen some of the kicks he’d been doling out earlier, they would add an addendum stating that, considering it was James, this also meant that it was one of the weakest kicks in the history of the world.

As if to add insult to injury, the new droplets of fog collecting on the bars merely quivered, without actually falling.

James gave the gate he was now pinned into the tight gap by a hard stare. Then, after a brief hesitation, brought the arm holding the plank back and struck the bars like one might beat a stubborn donkey, sending a ringing clang echoing out across the silent graveyard.

Naturally, it didn’t do any good. This was not a surprise. He’d only sort of been hoping that it might make him feel better.

It didn’t.

Actually, it sort of just made him feel like hitting things more.

Just as he was on the verge of adding a petulant fist to the mix, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye and froze on instinct.

That particular response hadn’t always been instinct… but it was pretty amazing what trekking through a town filled with twisted creatures that were hungry for human flesh (in more ways than one, some of them…) could do to a man’s reflexes. Hour after hour of skulking through infinite alleys, corners, crevices and narrow doorways in which said creatures could lie in wait for their prey…

Every one of James’s senses had been running on overdrive for a great deal longer than was healthy, and though they had started to trail off as he reached the end of things, they were still awakening from their numbness at random times to spark off like a broken burglar alarm. Most of his walk upwards from the beach had been spent completely isolated in his own thoughts, but apparently his encounter with the gate was dragging him out of his numb contemplation enough to get the adrenaline flowing again.

Breath catching in his throat, he whipped his head around in the direction of the movement.

There had not been a single monster in sight since that final struggle on the rooftop of Lakeview—or his memory of Lakeview—and something, some strange inner knowledge that he had no real reason to have, told him that there wouldn’t be any more. Not now.

And there had already been little starbursts of light floating around the corners of his vision out of sheer exhaustion for the last leg of his journey, so he would not have been surprised to find that it was a false alarm. Lord knew there had been plenty of those even while there had been the constant, looming threat of attack.

So it was a bit of a surprise to find that there actually was something moving out there among the headstones. Rolls of fog, the same of the ones that had gone spinning ahead of his feet like ghostly little pinwheels, were lazily drifting past the graves. Something was coming.

James peered into the mist apprehensively. A few hours ago, he would have stood stock still. Now, even though the sentiment was the same, he could feel his body shaking like a leaf, as though it had a mind of its own. It wasn’t fear… just fatigue. He’d experienced it before on plenty of occasions, on nights when he’d been awake so long that tremors ran through his hands every time he lifted them.

But here was the first place he’d ever felt his entire body succumb to them.

It took some time for the cause of the motion in the mist to be revealed, and when it did, James felt his stomach sink like it was one of his own footprints, filling up with icy water.


She was hardly visible, but there was no mistaking that bright gold ponytail bobbing along just above the tops of the tombstones, which were almost as tall as she was. Her path had come from the far side of the graveyard, which was large enough that its edges were lost to sight. James had never been here before his fateful arrival to this town, during which he’d had to cross through it just to get to the road. But he’d seen enough of it to know that while there weren’t any he’d fit into, there were more than enough gaps in the perimeter fence for someone as small for Laura to slip through them.

After a short period of watching the blond tassel of hair weave around the stones, the girl in question emerged into a patch of open space. Yeah, it was her all right. The bold blue of her little overall dress stood out through the fog as though someone had swiped their hand across a dusty chalkboard. He could even hear the squelching sounds her tennis shoes made as they tramped through the soggy undergrowth.

But there was something wrong. She wasn’t running, skipping, cavorting, swinging her arms, or humming…

Just walking.

Walking, with no bounce to her step at all… just the resignation of someone who had gone somewhere to look for something and found only heartbreak for her efforts… like him.

The difference was that he had brought it onto himself… and onto her. She had been looking for Mary too, after all.

Her expression was impossible to make out in the fog, but from the way her head hung and her skinny little arms were held stiffly at her sides as she put one stolid foot ahead of the other, he could make a fairly accurate guess. Even with no one around to see her, she looked determined not to give out any sign that something was wrong. Except that it was written all over every movement she made, enough that even he could see it… and before this whole ordeal, he hadn’t even known she existed.

James had never been a people-reader, but he had a feeling that she was telling herself lies just like he had for three years.

Who cares? I knew she was gonna die anyway, I knew she wouldn’t be here, and I knew her husband hated her all along after all… I’ll be fine. I am fine.

Chest tightening, James bit his lip and shrank back as much as the gate would let him. He wished he could just melt into the background, or that his coat was the kind of green that would camouflage him from her eyes. Mostly, this was because she had every reason in the world to hate him, had hated him right from the beginning, and hated him even more now. The last thing he wanted to see, here at the bitter end when he could hardly stand, were those angry blue eyes staring up at him.

… But he had to admit that at least part of the reason was just that she was the last person in the world he wanted to bear witness to the fact that he’d gotten himself stuck in a gate.

The fingers on his right hand still hurt from where she’d stomped on them during their very first meeting, and that had been before either of them had known about the horrible, horrible thing he had done. He didn’t want to know the sorts of things she’d say to him if she saw him here, now that she’d had time to mull over the fact that her best friend was dead, murdered by the man she’d already loathed to begin with.

He was not in possession of a creative enough mind to anticipate or predict what those words might be, but he was willing to bet that they would be more barbed than the deluge of “I hate you, James, I hate you! Why’d you do it?! Give her back to me, I want her back! Why? Why?!” that he had received when, shocked and numb, he had delivered the truth.

And frankly, those words had hurt far more than he ever could have imagined, anyway.

So he just stood in shameful silence, watching her passage.

At one point, she paused for a long moment with the toe of one shoe digging into the grass as though she was about to pivot in his direction, and for a few seconds, he was sure that she was going to turn and look right at him. But eventually she carried on, and continued her winding path towards the foggy tree-line at the far end of the cemetery.

James watched her go with a heavy heart.

Part of him felt like he should have called out… at least tried to talk to her. To apologize again, for whatever miniscule amount of good it would do. She’d only have run from him, he knew, but… she was just a little kid, and she was all by herself. There was a reason this town was advertised as a vacation spot above all else, and that was that it was so quiet. And it was quiet because it was isolated.

The closest town over that one could get to without having to go around the lake was Brahms, and that was still a good half-hour’s drive away, along high, winding cliff roads. The only thing that stood anywhere near was a roadside diner, bar, and gas station combo about two miles down the road from the overlook where he had parked his car—and Laura wasn’t even headed in that direction.

To be entirely honest, he didn’t even know how she’d gotten here in the first place. It seemed unlikely that any responsible person would have driven an eight-year-old girl all the way to a town she’d never been to before and then just left her there to search for a dying woman.

Although… she had not seen the monsters. It had baffled James at first, the way she’d so flippantly gone skipping through the town that, to his eyes, was a desolate maze of cracked pavement and broken chain-link, a labyrinth of dark alleyways down which death of a thousand kinds lurked. But now that he knew what the town was, it was starting to make sense. Whatever had been happening to himself and the others that this strange old place had called out to, Laura had not been a part of it. Not like they had. Hell, the entire place probably still looked perfectly normal to her.

He still wondered how they had been able to see her though, in that case. If she’d still been in the normal world that whole time…

…Oh well. At least it probably explained how she’d gotten there. Maybe she’d just taken a bus. Or… or something. James didn’t know for sure, and thinking about it too hard made his head hurt even worse.

He should have at least offered her a ride to… wherever it was she was going. He owed it to her. … And to Mary.

But it was too late. She had disappeared from view into the trees.

Mary’s letter had mentioned wanting to adopt Laura if things had turned out differently. So that meant that she was an orphan. Why had she been in that hospital with Mary then, anyway?

… James decided he didn’t want to think about that. So he stared a few seconds longer at the spot in which Laura had finally passed out of his line of sight instead.

… If things had turned out differently…

James decided he didn’t want to think about that, either.

“I’m so sorry, Mary…” he murmured hoarsely under his breath.

Talking to himself. That was another little habit he’d been developing that hadn’t existed before he’d come here. A few hours ago, he’d thought that he’d had it for three years, ever since Mary had ‘died’. All that was just a load of bull, though. Bittersweet lies his mind had created that, while painful, still hurt less than the truth.

No, he had just talked to himself because he was alone. And crazy. But mostly alone.

… And stuck in a graveyard gate like a dog through a flap-door too small for it. That wasn’t a good combination. Little girl or no little girl, it was time to get out of here.

Heaving a sigh, he shifted his weight once more in what had to be the five-hundredth attempt to get the thing to move. He didn’t need it to go far, just an inch or two so that he wouldn’t gut himself trying to get through i—

Suddenly, the horizontal bar that was pressing on his battered middle so uncomfortably felt exactly like the side of the wooden boat cutting into his belly as he leaned over the side, upper half weighed down by the frail body in his arms, the one he had to force himself to let go of, to stop clinging to like a child with a broken doll—

No. No, stop it.

Her face, scarred and blistered from the disease that would have taken her life if he hadn’t gotten to her first, drifting downwards away from him and into the darkness, the last few ripples of gray-blue light from the surface crossing delicately over her skin and those pale pajamas she was still wearing, the same as when he had picked up the pillow and—

A ripping sound, a hoarse cry that he would later realize came from his own throat, and the sudden sensation of falling jerked him back to his senses and he reeled away from the gate, arms pinwheeling. The next thing he knew, he was on the other side, sitting on the ground and missing a large scrap of fabric from the front of his shirt.

His clothes already looked like they’d been to Hell and back, so this didn’t bother him nearly as much as the part where he was sitting down. Which, in turn, would not have bothered him as much either if it hadn’t meant that, just as the pressure of his boots had drawn up mini-reservoirs from the sodden earth, he was now sitting squarely in a puddle of ice-cold water crafted perfectly for his own rear end.

Stifling a yowl, he turned awkwardly and pressed one hand down into the edge of the grass with a sound like a jellyfish being squeezed, then scrambled upright so ungracefully that he narrowly avoided falling right back into it again. James spluttered and glanced at the gate, which had that scrap of bloodied gray fabric hanging from it almost tauntingly. What… what was that? What had even happened right there? It had almost been like a dream… which was not too implausible, all things considered. Every inch of him that didn’t already ache with bruise, cut, or cold was aching with exhaustion. Maybe he’d fallen asleep standing up… and dreamed, and fallen, and panicked.

Yes, that had to be it.

Still, after a pause, he turned to question the empty air in front of him querulously. “… But it’s over. You… forgave me, right?”

The question came out so softly that at first he didn’t even realize it had sprung from his own mouth. Or that he didn’t even entirely believe the thing he was asking for clarification on.

There was no reply, of course. The graveyard had no answers for him and he knew it.

He also knew that he couldn’t be doing this right now. He still had questions—dozens, maybe hundreds of them—but his ability to think straight was fraying away at the edges, unraveling from the accumulated weight of everything like a spool of thread. Those questions would need to be addressed, or at least thought disjointedly about, sooner or later. But not now… not when he could hardly even look at the ground without feeling dizzy.

So, after swallowing hard and running a nervous tongue over his lips, he set off across the overgrown compound in an awkward, crooked walk that was nothing more than a vain attempt to somehow make the seat of his jeans feel less wet. When he reached the imaginary fork in the path of the little-girl-sized shoeprints that Laura had left behind, he paused. She had gone off to the left, somewhere into the thick, dew-laden underbrush.

His path would take him to the right, up a winding cliff-side trail that would eventually lead to the starting-point of his journey… if it could be called that. And… well, somewhere after that, he supposed.

But he continued to hesitate, peering off into the wood, which was still veiled in thick fog that had taken shelter between the trees, where it could cling on longer than in the open space of the cemetery.

“… Laura?” he called out softly after a time. It hardly breached the edge of the forest—there wasn’t even an echo. He’d mean to say it louder, but no amount of effort could make his voice go above a murmur. Maybe it was because he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted her to hear him… if she’d even still been there.

There was, as he suspected would be the case, no reply but hollow silence, broken only by the odd ringing in his ears that had plagued him ever since he’d arrived. It was appropriate for this place.

He waited a few seconds longer before resignedly shaking his head and turning away onto his own path.

There was still a long way to go, and it was all uphill from here.

“She’d only have run away, anyhow…”


Once he could feel the crunch of gravel instead of the marshy squelch of wet grass or grotesque suction of mud under his boots, he knew he was there. Chest heaving in and out with the exertion of dragging his leaden feet in front of one another up that winding path, James let out a whimper of relief when his fingers finally met the chain-link fence of the gate to the parking lot where he’d stepped out of his car what seemed like an eternity ago.

For the last leg of his uphill trek, he had almost been sleeping on his feet. Unable to keep his eyes open for longer than the time it took to briefly scan the path ahead of him for any roots jutting out far enough to trip on, or patches of loose soil that strayed too close to the edge of the drop, he’d let them stay shut for the most part. He’d come close to paying dearly for it a couple of times when the toe of his boot snagged on a cleverly-camouflaged (meaning, of course, that it was right under his goddamn nose) root that his bleary vision had astonishingly managed to miss during his slit-second sweep of the next few yards of trail. Or when he’d veered over on the path further than intended, his exhaustion having the same effect as a bottle of vodka on a lightweight teen learning the time-honored practice of getting smashed (something that he himself was well-versed in, but that was another issue entirely, one that he wasn’t nearly coherent enough right now to draw and analyze the connection to). He’d stepped down on the edge, only for a chunk of wet, rocky soil to crumble under his foot and send him scrambling for purchase as one leg stayed on level ground and the other decided that sliding down the slope (which was one of those steep New England forest hills, the sort that was about five scant degrees away from being a perfect vertical line) would be an excellent idea.

The end result was that in addition to the rest of his colorful menagerie of bodily injuries, his left ankle now looked like he’d run a cheese grater over it, and his entire pant-leg from said ankle all the way up his inner thigh to his crotch was painted thickly with mud and bits of broken fern. Lovely. It could go with the seat of his jeans, which were still making him look like he’d gone water-skiing on his butt.

This town had already stripped everything else away from him, so naturally his chances of being able to emerge from this ordeal with a little dignity were pretty much zilch at this point. He could accept that.

To his immense relief, the gate swung open effortlessly under the weight of his hand, although it let out one of those long, lonely-sounding creaks that was at a register so high that it was probably only a few notches below ‘dog whistle'. It was the sort of sound you expected to hear in the middle of the night, echoing forlornly across an empty construction lot or from the other side of a lake.

But it was not the dead of night. It was hard to tell exactly what time of day it was, with that monochrome gray sky overhead. But it was, indeed, day. The sun might not have been visible, but it was light out, far lighter than it had been in the woods.

James was grateful for this. Now that he was out of the forest and high, high above the town, it was much easier to see. The fog still lingered in the dips and small, dark spaces along the edges of road and tree, but it had almost burned off entirely now. For what had to be the first time since before he’d even arrived to this haunted place, the air was almost clear.

And things had changed, noticeably.

As he stepped into the lot, it occurred to him immediately that there were other cars besides his own parked here, something that had been distinctly absent when he had pulled into it to begin with.

Granted, there weren’t many, but there they were, four or five of them, scattered across the lot in various spaces. Three were minivans packed to the brim with suitcases. Families on vacation… Yes, in fact, when he listened closely, he could even hear voices; chattering and rustling off down one of the other hiking paths. The sounds were growing fainter by the moment as their makers descended away from the parking lot. After everything that had happened, it was so easy to forget that this place was supposed to be a tourist location… a resort town.

That was what it had been to them.

Him and Mary, that was. Their ‘special place’.

If parking his old junker of a car here at the overlook seemed like a long time ago, those seven days of heaven with Mary after their wedding seemed even longer. Especially now that he knew the truth about those three years he’d managed to completely blot out, leaving nothing but a sad, empty void in that space…

Well. Suffice to say, his memories of that long-ago happy time, when they had been young and ferociously, joyfully in love in that way only a pair of optimistic little twenty-somethings on their own for the first time can be, seemed almost foreign. They had gained the warm, yellowy glow and fuzziness of an old film reel being shown on a projector.

Beautiful, yes, and comforting… but detached. Remembering them was like watching someone else’s life. He had been a different person back then. They both had.

The disease had changed everything.

The very sky had been darker on that day.

“Mary’s… going to die?”

He remembered staring up at the doctor in disbelief from his seat, which was one of those uncomfortable cushioned office chairs made from material that had itchy bits designed to poke through any kind of clothing in existence.

The office in question was small and gloomy, furnished with an ugly green rug and polished oaken cabinets the color of dark chocolate. Framed certificates of medical merit coated the walls like intellectual trophies, sporting titles and honorifics behind the glass that were all very impressive but still looked Greek to James.

Later, he would arrive at the conclusion that it was all one big shiny charade. A pile of bullshit as tall as the IV poles that Mary had spent most of the last few months of her life hooked up to. A great load of pretentious psychobabble that they plastered in every available space solely to reassure their worried patients and patients’ husbandswivesparentssiblings that it was all going to be okay.
It’s all right, this is a hospital and we are doctors. We are so very smart with our shiny stethoscopes and shiny medicine and shiny partially-bald heads and we’re going to make your loved one all better, so chin up, son, it’s a beautiful day outside and how about those Patriots this year?

But at this point, he’d still been naive enough to be shocked by the words he’d just heard coming from the doctor’s mouth. Still trusting and wide-eyed enough to have fallen under the comforting spell of the big words and fancy titles. So all he had done was gape up at the doctor in total disbelief.

“You… you must be joking!”

The doctor had only stared back at him gravely from where he stood behind his desk.

He was a fairly short man, with thick reading glasses so heavy that they had to be hooked around his ear with a cord just to keep them from sliding down to the tip of his round little nose, which ironically seemed to be red and running every time James had seen him. He had a wise-looking wrinkled brow and hair that was thinning and stormy-gray, the same color as the sky outside the window behind him.

It had been one of those blustery October days, the kind that wasn’t quite rainy but occasionally whipped up a gust of wind that carried a splash of raindrops in it.

Only a couple of hours before, he’d been helping Mary out of the car in the hospital parking lot and one of those very gusts had sprung up, planting a wet yellow leaf fresh off of the molting trees onto the side of her face. She had shrieked and pretended it was attacking her. When James had burst out laughing instead of leaping to her aid, she had peeled it off and stuck it to him instead.

She’d been laughing too, but had trailed off into one of her painful and increasingly-frequent coughing fits—the ones that, back then, they had thought were merely the result of a nasty, persistent cold. Perhaps bronchitis or pneumonia or maybe even whooping cough, considering how serious they were. But still, just a cough. Even as they’d made their way inside the big double-glass doors and into the lobby of the hospital, they had been joking that if the doctors needed to do THIS many tests just to figure out how to make her silly cough go away, boy oh
boy, they’d hate to see how much hassly they’d put a person who was REALLY sick through!

And now he was sitting here in this dark little room with his hands flat on his knees, surrounded by engraved golden plaques and university degrees that made promises of healing, health, and safety, staring up at the man who had just broken those promises into a million little pieces by telling him that Mary, his Mary, was going to die.

When James’s expression of horrified disbelief didn’t change, the doctor shook his head and sighed.

“I’m very sorry.”

James couldn’t believe his ears. Very sorry?
Very sorry? That was what you said when you dropped an expensive plate on the floor and it shattered, or… or when you closed the door on someone’s foot by accident. ‘Very sorry’ was not what you were supposed to say when you were telling someone that their other half was going to die. It didn’t work like that.

He leaned forward in his seat, digging his fingernails into the fabric of his jeans so hard that they left indents on the skin underneath. He’d raised his voice as anger started to replace his stunned disbelief.

“But you’re a doctor! It’s your
job to heal people!” He stood up from the chair, hands clenching into fists as his voice took on a slightly hysterical tone. It was like being a child all over again and re-learning the harsh truth that no, grownups can’t always fix everything. “How can you just let her die?!”

By the time he got to the question, it had turned into a yell. It was the only thing he could think to do, and more than anything else there was some part of him that wanted,
needed to see some kind of reaction from the doctor. You couldn’t just tell someone that their wife was going to die in a voice like you were reading the obituary of someone you didn’t know out of a newspaper.

Seeing him stand there so damn CALMLY made James’s blood boil. He knew he couldn’t expect a stranger to feel what he was feeling, but
this?? Was he a robot or something? James wanted him to react, to back away, to look scared, look angry, something. He’d have been satisfied with an annoyed look, or hell, even getting YELLED at and told to control himself would have been fine.

But no. The doctor just stood there, expression unchanging as the wind rattled against the window with a series of wet slaps as leaves, like the one that had landed on Mary’s face, plastered against it. If anything, he only looked resigned. Like he’d been expecting James’s every word and movement. Like he’d seen all this a thousand times before or more.

“Please, calm down.” He lifted a hand in some kind of gesture that James, staring at it, assumed was supposed to be soothing somehow. But all it did was make him feel angrier. As though sensing this, the doctor let his hand fall again and added, “As her doctor, I’ll promise I’ll do what I can. But… there’s still no effective treatment for her condition.”

Her condition? James had thought weakly, realizing that underneath the anger, what he really felt at hearing the doctor so calmly tell him that Mary was going to die, without following it up with a ‘but’ or a ‘however’, was fear. WHAT condition? She just has a cough… just a cough…

The angry energy that had filled him up began to ebb away and he sank back down into the chair, feeling like someone had just pumped his stomach full of lead.

“How… long does she have?” he’d asked, hearing his own voice as though from far away.

Finally, there was a bit of a hesitation on the doctor’s part, although it didn’t feel nearly as satisfying now as it might have a moment ago. “I’m… afraid I’m not sure. Three years at most. … Perhaps six months. It’s impossible to say with certainty.”

Three years.

Three years.

At the time, those words had felt like a death sentence, a clock ticking down the time he and Mary would have left together before the world ended. But now, after those three years had passed… he realized that there had been no countdown. It was that day that their happy life together had ended and changed into something else, right there in that unpleasant little doctor’s office.

Maybe that was why, when his mind had snapped like one of the elastic bands she used to keep her hair back with, it was three years ago that his brain had picked as her date of death.

… And maybe it was about time that he snapped back to reality and stopped standing there vacantly and staring at the burgundy minivan in front of him like he was planning on robbing it. James shook himself and turned to scan the lot for his own car, which was of course exactly where he had left it.

For the first time since he had set foot within miles of this place, James smiled. It wasn’t a big one. Truth be told, to anyone looking, it probably hardly even looked like a smile at all. Probably more like some grimacing facial tic. But it was a smile, and frankly, James dared anyone who’d just been through what he had, deserving or not, to get out of it and still be able to muster a big shit-eating grin.

Somehow seeing that old car seemed more like real proof that he was finally getting out of here than anything else had.

It wasn’t much to look at. Not that he hadn’t taken good care of it—well, at least until about a year before Mary’s health had gotten really bad—but he’d had the thing since before he’d even met her. Time had taken its toll on it.

The blue paint had started to rust and peel away in some places, and on the inside there were more than a few spots where the upholstery had started to wear thin.

But it was HIS car, and boy was it a sight for sore eyes. Forcing himself not to sag with relief on the spot (because he knew that any sagging now would leave him curled up on the pavement and completely unconscious without even making it to the car), James staggered over to it. Now that he was on hard asphalt rather than soft earth, he was made unpleasantly aware of the fact that one of his legs was actually dragging behind the other slightly, the sole of its boot scraping against the pavement in a way that sent painful jolts all the way up to his hip. Oh well, he’d take care of it later…

The car was in more or less the exact same state he’d left it in, apart from a few extra splatters of bird droppings on the windshield. Great.

… Although…

James frowned.

Had he really left the door wide open like that? Anyone could’ve gotten in and taken their pick of what was inside… not that he HAD much in there…

But nothing seemed amiss, outside of the seats being quite a bit damper than they might have been if the interior had been sealed against the moisture outside.

Hand braced against the side of the car, James leaned in. First things first, he had to see what the damage was. It couldn’t be life-threatening if he’d made it this far without collapsing, but that didn’t change the fact that there were more stings in his body than in an entire nest of hornets. Not to mention, if that unpleasant trickling sensation down his side wasn’t his imagination, some of his cuts had begun to open up again where the bandages had slipped or torn off.

There was a first-aid kit in here somewhere, one that had never been used. Ever since their very first date, Mary had hassled him day and night to keep one in the car. Once they were married and he could no longer use the excuse that he’d conveniently forgotten about it, she’d forced him to. He’d protested mightily, for no real reason that he could remember outside the fact that, like never wearing a seatbelt and refusing to stop and ask for directions, it was a standard male thing to do and therefore important somehow.

Of course, if he’d known then what he did now, he’d never have said a word against it. He’d never have said a word against anything Mary had said.

Stifling a grunt of pain as his bruises sung a silent song of protest, James leaned across to the passenger seat with one knee on the driver’s, fumbling the glove compartment open. It had to still be there… and sure enough, there it was, half-buried under old grease-stained takeout napkins and some kind of fossilized thing that might once have been a biscuit, as well as a crumpled roadmap that he must have jammed in there distractedly before he had left to pursue the truth on foot.

Pinching thumb and forefinger clumsily around one corner of the dusty white box, it took several attempts to get it out. During this process, he could feel his throat tightening the more he thought about what had led to the box being there in the first place. All the while, there was a quiet but nasty little voice in the back of his head that kept wondering things like:

Would Mary have wanted this to be here if she’d known back then that she was aiding her killer-to-be…?

NO. No. He couldn’t keep thinking like that right now. That had to stop.

Mentally shaking himself, James finally managed to tug the kit out. He withdrew and actually started to shut the door this time, only to find yet another new detail that he had not initially noticed.

C lose your door, u retard had been scrawled messily via someone’s finger in the condensation on the driver’s side window.

James frowned at the message.

That wasn’t very nice. At all.

The first person to come to mind was Laura. She couldn’t have left it—water droplets had bled downwards from the words, so it had been left some time ago—but it was something she’d do.

Anyway, he didn’t want to be reminded of Laura right now. Sighing heavily and wiping the window clean with a swipe of his hand, James limped his way around the front of the car and towards the restroom he’d parked alongside. It was an ugly concrete thing, built like a miniature prison. But he remembered that there were mirrors in there. Cracked, ugly mirrors, but mirrors. And he’d be needing some of those in order to do this right.

Drawing up to the door, he reached out and yanked it open—

… Only to come face to face with a stunned-looking middle-aged man whose hand was already outstretched to open the door, himself.

Both equally shocked, the pair stood there awkwardly, engaging in that universal ritual performed throughout history by any two people who suddenly and unexpectedly encountered each other in a doorway. It consisted mostly of standing there and blinking awkwardly for a few seconds, then perhaps performing the ancient ‘I’ll-go-around-wait-no-I’LL-go-around-wait-no’ dance, before finally stammering out an apology.

Or at least, that was likely what was going on in the head of the man on the other side of the door.

James, on the other hand, had just escaped from a place where social niceties didn’t exist and his last interactions with people-like things had generally involved shooting them after they went violently insane.

This was the first normal person that James had seen in what felt like years—and OH was he normal. Some mid-forties father come to New England with his family to see the leaves turn or whatever the hell it was that tourists came up north for instead of going to Disney World or Hawaii. There was even a big, brightly-colored fanny-pack around his waist and un-dissolved blobs of sunscreen on his face despite the overcast day and total lack of summer—but James didn’t care. The sight sent his heart hammering like a shipwreck survivor on a desert island who had just seen a rescue boat on the horizon.

The normally-automatic response of ‘Oh, sorry!’ was so far from occurring to him that it probably wasn’t even flying on the same mental plane.

“HI!” he blurted out, a great deal louder than he probably needed to. The tourist recoiled slightly, as though avoiding flecks of spit, which was… actually probably exactly what he was doing, and James raised a hand to his mouth self-consciously. “Oh—sorry!” he finally said, several seconds and a first impression too late.

“Are you… all right?” the tourist asked after a moment, staring with eyes so wide that James could actually see the brown-mottled green of his filthy coat blurrily reflected in them.

“Huh?” he said distractedly.

“Er—um, never mind,” mumbled the tourist, his brows shooting up so far that they almost disappeared under his curly chestnut hair. And then, with that sort of restrained haste one exercises while trying to get away from a street hustler or one of those crazy hobos that thought Tom Cruise was actually Jesus and smelled like feet (the hobo, that was, not Tom Cruise), he edged through the door around James, staring at him out of the corner of his eye the entire time.

James watched him go, feeling mildly confused. Why that reaction?

Turning away from the now-empty doorway, he hobbled over to one of the mirrors.

One glance confirmed it.

Oh. That was why.


Twenty minutes and the entire contents of the first-aid kit later, the James in the mirror had started looking a little more like James Sunderland and a little less like a mafia interrogation survivor who had escaped from the clutches of a couple of beefy guys with names that sounded like pasta, only to immediately be run over by an army of bears.

An entire roll of bandages for his ankles, slashed sides and chest, the groove of flesh missing on his left shoulder, and the long, ugly line of oozing red across his brow that he hadn’t even noticed until he’d seen his reflection’s blood-streaked hair…

Some kind of skin-soothing cream that probably wasn’t meant for bruises but that he was trying anyway for the puffy, indigo-black strangleflesh around his eyes and throat…

…And the entire mini-tube of disinfectant for the myriad of cuts that he had accumulated all over, even in places he hadn’t known could be cut without deliberate, creative use of a sharp object on oneself and a lot of preparatory stretching beforehand.

But mostly what he’d needed was water, and lots of it. There was a sort of irony in that, but it hardly mattered now. Water that came from a pipe, not the filthy, stagnant puddles he’d tromped and crawled through in that town, or the vast and all-consuming expanse of lake-water that history books theorized sat upon countless bodies. The faucet’s gush was ice-cold but he shoved his head under the jet anyway, repeatedly, until his face was no longer painted in thick daubs of red and brown.

It looked surprisingly normal without all the caked-on blood and grime. There was no fixing the bruises, but James was amazed to find how much blood had come from cuts and scrapes that proved to be tiny once they weren’t surrounded by dried gore.

Though the process had not been without unpleasant surprises…

Something in his nose had gone crunch at some point during his perilous journey and while it wasn’t visibly different, an attempt to clear his nostrils had resulted in, to his horror, a violent sneeze and the splattery appearance of something red, gelatinous, and about the size of a large ping-pong ball. It sat in the bowl of the sink malevolently, daring him to challenge it, and he stared at it in horror for a moment before washing it down the drain.

And the drag in his in his leg, it turned out, was caused by the fact that the ankle that had decided to take an impromptu trip down the hill had swollen to about twice its normal size and turned an ugly shade of purple-green. It had escaped his notice because its throbbing ache had merged seamlessly with all the others.

But still.

Standing back from the mirror, he heaved a long sigh from sore lungs. He still wasn’t anything close to clean… and he still looked like he’d been on the wrong end of a thorough beating… but he looked like a human again.

James tugged his filthy coat back on, careful not to strain the fresh bandages that now bound his shoulder and middle. The old ones, reeking of blood and sweat, had been tossed into the garbage can in the corner. At first he’d merely thrown them in, intending to leave them there and bother with them no more, but as he stood there with the lid in his hand and looked down at them, they had glistened up at him pointedly from where they lay on top of the other garbage, looking far more like a pile of intestines than James was at all comfortable with. He’d yanked handful after handful of paper towels from the dispenser on the wall and crumpled them artfully on top of the tangle until he was satisfied that whoever next checked the trash wouldn’t be burdened with a horrible discovery.

At long last, James shut the first-aid box, whose previously-pristine surface was now stained with rust-colored fingerprints. After giving his nose a few experimental prods out of habit (and wincing in the process. He sure hoped it wasn’t broken) in front of the mirror, he looked curiously around the bathroom.

It looked… different than it had before. A little cleaner, and not in a way that could merely have been the result of a janitor having been by between now and the last time he’d been in here.

James was pretty sure there was no such thing as a CLEAN public restroom, especially not one that was outside of town and only one door away from being exposed to the elements, but he remembered it looking like no one but wild animals and maybe the occasional drunken trucker had entered it in years. There had been dead leaves and broken bottles piled in the corners and everything had been rusted from disuse. It had reeked of decay and water, like everything else in the town had.

But now it looked used, and smelled like… well, like a normal public bathroom did. Not pleasant, or worth elaborating on for that matter, but normal.

It was enough to make him wonder.

Between this, and the sudden presence of cars and people

He had, after all, driven for miles and miles of lonely highway through increasingly thick fog just to get here in the first place, and hadn’t encountered a single soul in the process.

Perhaps the Otherworld’d had him in its clutches long before he had ever set foot in that town again at all.

Oh well. He had to wonder if it was even worth wondering about now. Straightening his coat collar, James tucked the much-lighter box under one arm and stepped back into the gloriously-clear air, fully intending to limp his way back over to the car.

Instead, for some reason that nothing had given him the privilege of being informed of, his uneven path took him over to the railing of the deck.

He could see the lake.

That was what this observation deck was for, after all. To give incoming vacationers a nice view of the main attraction. He remembered being just as enchanted as any other, back when he and Mary had been here. Toluca. That was its name. He didn’t know its meaning—perhaps it was derived from some Native American word or something. A lot of places in the town were. But either way, he and Mary had agreed that it was a good name for that lake. That the very word seemed to paint a picture of calm and beauty, of mysterious teal-blue depths.

Now she lay at the bottom of those depths.

James swallowed hard.

For a few seconds, he tried to reassure himself that while he would never, ever be able to give her what she deserved, he’d at least been able to make sure she’d be in their special place forever. When that didn’t make him feel any better, he turned his attention forcefully away from the lake’s steely gray surface and gripped the railing, staring beyond it instead. Hell, he could practically see the whole town from here, now that the fog down there was thinning.

That big building down there—that was Brookhaven Hospital. Now there was a place he’d be in no hurry to remember any time soon.

And the remains of Lakeview…

… And if he squinted, he was pretty sure he could even see that crappy little bowling alley.

Looking out at all the locations of such painful memories didn’t bring James any pleasure, but for some reason he couldn’t keep his eyes from wandering to familiar spots, as though some invisible string was pulling them along. He was in the process of hunting down the terraces of Rosewater Park when an odd reddish flickering in the corner of his vision grabbed his attention away.

The source was obvious. Red and blue flashing lights, the kind on police cars and ambulances and firetrucks, going off way on the edge of the resort part of town. It was so far away that James could see nothing but the lights bouncing faintly off the mist— but the meaning of their position dawned on him.

The Historical Society.

Yes, that was right…

Mary’s body hadn’t been the only one laid to rest here today.

And it had happened a good while back… made sense that they’d found him, or at least found his body, in the real world by now…

“… Oh my god,” James muttered as that faint sound of sirens brought on an onslaught of unpleasant memories—ones so recent that he could still see that dark red splotch spreading outwards over blue and white stripes and smell that metallic saltlick-snow of the underground meat-locker as if he was actually there. Up until now, he had been pushing those memories to the back of his mind, not out of insanity this time but necessity. In order to make it to the end. To finish what had to be done.

He pressed a hand to his temple, the other clenching around the railing to fight off a wave of nausea.

That one had been different, and he knew it… even in his dazed, weary state where everything was shifting together and apart in his head. He’d had to do it, or else he’d have been the dead one, lying on that cold floor with a bullet in his brain without ever having been able to discover the truth about what he’d done and make an honest monster out of himself rather than a liar.

But that didn’t make it any better. That didn’t make pulling the trigger on that man any easier— no, it had been easy, that was the wrong word. It had been frighteningly easy and that was what made it so awful.

The sudden sensation of something cold and slick against his leg made him jump and he slapped a hand down to his pocket. His eyes widened.

“What the—… ow.

With a quiet yelp, he withdrew the kitchen knife. The one he’d taken from her. The other lost soul he had encountered in the town. It had left a fresh cut on his finger. He stuffed his hand in his mouth instantly and it would never occur to him until far later that maybe doing that was a bad idea, considering that the blade was already covered in blood.

Old, though… dried, not his.

Although, he supposed it was a little appropriate that this knife take a little of his blood, too.

The feel of cold metal had come from a hole in his pocket, where the blade had unsurprisingly sliced through the fabric and left it devoid of loose change, bullets, and anything else he’d been carrying. He was too tired to take inventory.

Frankly, it was a wonder that it hadn’t sunk straight into his flesh on the unsteady trek upwards, although James was grateful that it hadn’t. He hadn’t even noticed it was in there… Had it been the entire time? He supposed it had. … No. Wait. He knew it had. He remembered putting it in there. But why had he left it, then, hovering directly over some important artery or another like a gun to his temple waiting to go off?

… No. He must have just forgotten about it. Stupid of him. Like usual…

He looked back over to the faraway flashing lights, knife in hand like a grisly reminder of the fates that had befallen the other people who, like him, had been called to this town. He supposed he could count himself lucky… lucky that he hadn’t died at the hand of one of the others, or that the knife hadn’t slipped…

The ringing in his ears, something that he’d thought was a product of his imagination, now seemed as real as the lights, projecting out across the water towards him accusingly. There was no ignoring it now.

He stood a moment longer before he suddenly knew what he had to do with the knife. Turning away from the view of far-off rooftops and flashing siren-lights and back to the steep slope of evergreen trees and vast stretch of lakewater before him, James uttered a silent apology to the third person called here by whatever forces were at work, and the fourth person who he had failed.

I’m sorry, Angela.

Angling his arm back, he threw the knife over the ailing as hard as he could and watched it sail away through the air, pin-wheeling. It flashed once in the dim, cloudy light, like a bright silver bird, and then it was gone.

Watching it go somehow lifted a small weight off of James’s heart.

Spurred on by this, he reached down and took the plank that he’d dragged all the way up here, grasped it in both hands, and threw that, too.

Its progress was not as light or unhindered as the knife, and it merely spun in the air once or twice before crashing down through the branches of the trees on the steep incline, audibly. Oops.

Ah, well.

If all had been right in the world, he’d have been able to throw them both all the way to the lake where they could rest, like Mary. But while the overlook made it look deceptively close, there was a fair stretch of forest between it and him. The plank certainly hadn’t made it… and really, to be realistic, the knife probably hadn’t, either. Both had likely tumbled down the sheer slope, through dead leaves and pine needles and off of rocks until a bush or tree-trunk got in their way. Maybe the knife had sunk into the bark of a pine on its way down and would stay there forever, while sap flowed out and crusted over the blood until you couldn’t see the red on the blade anymore.

But that light feeling he got as he watched them soar outwards before plummeting was so relaxing, so relieving… It almost made him forget that he was still bruised and dirty, forget the aches and pains…

Intoxicating. That was the word he was looking for. It was intoxicating. Like a drug.

Letting his shoulders un-knot for what had to be the first time in… well, since he’d last been unconscious, he leaned over the railing a little, wondering if he could see either of the crude instruments of harm down there somewhere. No… too far. All for the best. Both of them, and all his other weapons too, if he’d still had them (wasn’t sure what happened to them, only that they weren’t here) needed to be down there. Preferably sinking to the bottom of the lake, where no one could use them to hurt anyone else ever again.

… The lake really did look close. It was a pity it was only an illusion, but the way its gentle lapping against the rocky sand far below could be heard all the way up here, echoing through the pine trunks, made it seem like it was right there, a jump’s distance away. Heck, he didn’t even have to close his eyes to imagine it. If he just tilted his chin up and stared straight at the distant horizon, he couldn’t even see the tops of the trees. Only water, stretching away from him in every direction.

Like he could just jump straight off the deck and plunge into those icy blue—

“HEY! Mister, what the hell are you doin’?!”

Snorting in surprise, James whipped his head around in search of the source of the shout, his eyes wide.

He didn’t have to look too far; the source was obvious. A pudgy, middle-school-age boy in a brown hoodie sweatshirt and baggy cargo pants was standing in front of one of the vans, a bottle of water in one hand and a set of keys in the other. He had a mop of shockingly-red curly hair—likely the son of the poor man James had startled earlier in the bathroom—and judging by the way his face was ruddy with exertion, he’d just come trekking back up one of the downhill trails to get a drink from his family’s car.

He was staring at James with his mouth slack and his brows raised incredulously.

James stared back over his shoulder with the expression of a deer that had somehow managed to wander onto an airport runway.

“Huh?” was his eloquent response.

The boy’s stare gained a skeptical edge and the hand with the keys moved down to sit on his hip in the classic ‘Let me tell you about my attitude’ pose perfected by children exposed to too many sitcoms. In an instant, James knew exactly who had written the insulting message on his car window.

What,” the boy said slowly, in that tone that only teenagers seem to be capable of. “The hell,” he added, with a sort of gleeful emphasis on the second word because his parents obviously weren’t here to stop him from using it, “are you doing? You wanna fall, dumbass?”

“… Huh?” said James again with a frown, just in case the first time hadn’t been enough to clarify that he had no idea what the kid was talking about.

And then he looked down.


He was perched on top of the railing, straddling it with one leg hiked over the side as though he’d been in the process of climbing over it. About to jump.

Now that he was out of his apparent trance and the dizzying tree-peppered drop in front of him was staring him in the face, he let out a horrified warble and pitched forward. Only slamming his hands down and clenching the railing desperately between his thighs stopped him from tipping sideways and plummeting off. Even then, it wobbled unsteadily under his weight, letting out an ominous creak.

What the hell HAD he been doing?!

The boy behind him observed the scene, brows still raised, before commenting in a nonplussed tone. “See? God, what a retard move.”

James bit his lip, hardly hearing the insult in the face of the vast, vertigo-inducing space below him that yawned outwards hungrily, waiting for him to fall. How had he not noticed himself climbing the railing? Hell, why had he been climbing it in the first place?!

Letting out a shaky breath, he hastily drew his leg back over the rail and threw himself backwards onto the pavement, stumbling and coming dangerously close to falling on his ass again. But at least he’d have been falling on his ass on solid ground. He was unable to prevent a high squeak of pain from escaping him as his bad ankle buckled under the hard landing, sending violin-shrieks of agony up his leg. As the pain re-registered in his mind, so did all the weight that had floated away as he’d watched the knife fall. It slammed back onto his shoulders so hard that it was almost physical and he stumbled to a halt, wheezing slightly and wondering what had hit him.

The boy watched this entire display with feigned disinterest, absent-mindedly taking a swig from the bottle and rolling it around in his mouth before swallowing as though he were taking something harder than water. Then, as though James wasn’t even there anymore, he groaned. “Ugh, why’d Dad have to pick a town full of weirdos?”

Attention span evidently dwindling now that James wasn’t being weird enough to be entertaining anymore, he turned his back and headed off towards the bathroom. For a fleeting moment, James wished that he hadn’t covered up the gory bandages in the trash so that the kid would get a little scare when he went to throw away that bottle, but almost immediately he realized what an awful thing to think that was, and busied himself with being quietly appalled at his own intrusive thoughts. He’d never have thought something like that before… that place.

Town full of weirdos… yeah, you have NO idea, kid…

Throwing a shaky glance at the railing again now that it was a safe distance away, he shuddered deeply before hobbling to his car as fast as his ankle would allow him. Forget this place. Yanking the door open, he dragged himself into the driver’s seat and tried to pull his rapidly-disintegrating thought process together into something coherent. Or at least something organized enough to run over a mental tally in his head.

What do I need to do right now?

His brain threw several possibilities out at him. Some were practical. Others, not so much.

Sleep. Just curl up in the backseat and pass right out for a few hours. No one will notice, no one will care. You don’t wanna be conscious right now.

That one sounded nice… But no, he didn’t want to stay anywhere near this place of nightmares. He’d sleep only once he’d gotten far, far away from this town and everything in it, even if he was back on the normal side of reality, where there shouldn’t BE monsters or bloody plastic tarps or broken locks or rickety railings that called him to jump off of them and let his body go crashing down the slope until it smashed into a tree-trunk with a meaty thud and lay there in a broken heap for some hapless tourists to stumble across later.

Then put the pedal to the metal. Get your back straight and drive right off the deck out of this parking lot and just go, go, go until you can’t anymore.

Better. But still not perfect. He wouldn’t make it far without needing sleep, food, water, or all three. Outside of the few gulps so cold they burned that he’d taken straight from the faucets in the bathroom, he didn’t remember the last time he’d had anything to drink. And the last time his body’d had food in it was even longer ago…

All right then, buddy. Here’s the deal. Did you say ‘drink’? Well, there you go. That’s what you need. A nice, stiff drink. Right now. There was a roadside pub a few miles down the road from here, remember? Do yourself a favor and go get smashed.

James hesitated, staring at his own blackblue-ringed eyes in the rear-view mirror. He wasn’t sure why his internal voice of self-advice suddenly sounded like a gangster whenever it talked about alcohol, but maybe it was because he knew it wasn’t a voice he was supposed to be listening to. Getting drunk had never solved anything before and it certainly wouldn’t solve anything now. That was the worst idea of the whole lot and Mary would have been ashamed.

No, he couldn’t do that now. Not ever!

… Never mind the fact that he was already jamming the keys into the ignition, trying to remember where the turn-off point to the bar was.

Just one drink won’t hurt, he thought resignedly as the engine rumbled itself back to life underneath him and the car started to move, his hands working the wheel as though on autopilot. Heck, maybe it’ll even HELP me sleep, once I get the chance to… Maybe forgetting for a few hours’ll make it easier…

He knew that wasn’t true. If this town had taught him anything at all, it was that what he’d done for the past three years hadn’t worked, hadn’t made anything better at all. He’d already done far more forgetting than he had any right to.

But he couldn’t think of anything else to do.

As the old blue car pulled out onto the street, James was suddenly aware that the sirens had grown louder. They must have finished their business at the Society and were now making their way closer, across town to one of the hospitals in the valley below… if they even took D.O.A.s to hospitals…

The sound settled through his skin and deep, deep down into his spine. Into his very bones.

James let out a long, shuddering sigh and stepped on the gas.

Time to go.

With sirens in his ears, James Sunderland drove down the hill and past the last thing land-marking the end of this restless dream, a sign that spelled out in big, peeling letters:

You are now leaving Silent Hill.