Jim stopped the truck where the forest road ended and the hiking trail started. There was a small, hand painted sign that read: Trail Head.
"I have got to get a picture of that!" said Ryan. He grabbed his phone, hopped out of the truck, and took a couple pics.
"You've had to 'get a picture of that' for just about everything so far," said Jim, smiling as he turned the ignition off and got out.
They went to the back of the truck to grab their gear.
"I've been looking forward to this for years!" said Ryan. "Years! Come on! Open up! Open up!"
"You're practically vibrating," Jim replied, going through his jumble of keys. He eventually found the right one, unlocked the truck topper, and opened the tailgate.
"So exciting!" Ryan shouted. He snatched his backpack from the truck and got it on in record time. He looked at Jim and smiled. "Oregon! Woo!"
Jim looked sidelong at his new friend while grabbing the extra water. "You do have forests in Wisconsin."
"Yeah, but not like this!" Ryan gripped his backpack's straps, sighed, and looked up. It was a beautiful summer day in the Coastal range. The deep blue sky was framed by towering Sitka spruce whose trunks were swallowed by the ferns mobbing the forest floor. There wasn't a level piece of ground in sight. A cool breeze blew off the Pacific. "I can't believe its freakin' August! Do you know what the temp and humidity are in Wisconsin right now? 95!"
"Is that the temp or the humidity?" asked Jim.
"That," Jim said, grabbing his backpack and buckling it on, "truly sucks."
"It's reason number three hundred twenty seven why I wanted to move out here."
"Well," Jim said, grabbing a fanny pack and slamming the tailgate shut, "now that you're finally out here, let's get going on your first PNW hike." He clipped the fanny pack around his waist, shrugged his backpack a couple of times to get it seated properly, then gestured for Ryan to lead the way.
The two of them spent the next couple hours hiking – gaining and losing hundreds upon hundreds of feet of elevation.
"The views! The drop-offs!" said Ryan for the hundredth time that day. The-"
"-water breaks," finished Jim. He stopped, shrugged off his pack, grabbed two waters, and handed one to Ryan.
"Stupid beautiful," said Ryan, drinking. He wiped some sweat off his brow with his tee. "This is all just so stupid beautiful."
They found places to sit and drink their water while they enjoyed the quiet psithurism of the wind blowing through the trees and the burble of the water flowing around rocks in the nearby creek.
After a bit, they got up and brushed themselves off. Ryan tossed his empty water bottle to Jim, who utterly and completely failed to catch it.
"Dude," said Ryan walking toward him, picking up the water bottle. "Fast hands." He tried to hand it to him, but Jim's hand wouldn't close around the bottle. Ryan looked at him more closely, all the blood had drained from Jim's face and he was trembling ever so slightly. "Jim? Hey Jim!" He waved his hands in front of Jim's face. "Earth to Jim!" He snapped his fingers.
Jim grabbed Ryan's hands so quickly he didn't see them move.
"Shh...shsshshhhh...shh...shsh," Jim managed through gritted teeth.
Ryan tried to catch Jim's eye. "Hey! Hey! What's wrong? Do you have a medical cond-"
Jim let go of Ryan's hands and grabbed his shoulders - he felt like he was being gripped by two overly-tightened vices – then spun him around.
Ryan got as far as,"Come on, man! What's going o-," before he saw the mama bear and two cubs thirty feet away from them, stopped on the trail where Ryan and Jim had just come from.
The bears were staring at them.
"Shit!" Whispered Ryan.
"Yes," Jim whispered back. "Shit."
"What are we gonna do, man?"
"Don't make any sudden moves. You'll startle them. Don't run. Their prey drive will kick in and they can run faster than Usain Bolt. You cannot outrun them. Don't try to climb a tree. They can climb trees almost as fast as they can run."
"Jesus Christ! Then what the hell are we supposed to do."
"Don't worry. I brought a...deterrent."
The bear cubs were getting curious and started toward the two hikers. Momma bear was decidedly unhappy with this turn of events and began huffing.
"Okay. I'm gonna grab something from my fanny pack, then we have to rush toward the bears making ourselves as big as we can while yelling at the top of our lungs."
"That," said Ryan, "does not sound like it should be Plan A." He felt Jim remove his hands from his shoulders. He heard a zipper being opened slowly. He heard a snick followed by Jim mumbling something that sounded like, 'not again.' He heard another snick then risked a look back. Jim was holding a revolver.
"You're gonna shoot them?" asked Ryan. "You can't just shoot them!"
"I would never shoot a bear," responded Jim. "Besides, this is just a little .22. It'd just tick 'em off."
"Alright, on the count of three, we're gonna rush the bears."
"Are you sure? This doesn't-"
"I don't know if I can-"
"Remember. Make yourself big and loud."
"Okay," whimpered Ryan.
The cubs continued to slowly make their way toward the hikers. Momma bear started pounding her front paws on the ground and clacking her teeth between huffs.
"Three!" shouted Jim.
Ryan roared. He threw his arms out and flapped them like he was trying to fly. He hopped toward the bears and screamed, "Go away, bears! Go away, scary bears!"
The cubs ran back toward their mother. Momma bear's lower lip protruded and her ears flattened.
Ryan shouted. "I think it's working!" He glanced back at Jim, who was pointing the gun at his leg. Ryan stopped his flapping, hopping, yelling advance and, through his confusion, said, "Wha-?"
"That was really something," said Jim. His face broke into an agonized rictus. His eyes wide and unblinking. "I'm," his voice broke. "I'm so sorry," he whispered. He pulled the trigger.
Ryan heard a pop and felt a burning sting in his calf. He collapsed, grabbed his calf, and started screaming.
Momma bear charged.
Jim stood still for a moment and watched, then turned and ran for all he was worth. Lucky for me, he thought, I don't have to outrun the bear.
Ryan felt an immense pressure, first on his back, then on his right shoulder. Huh, he thought, just like having wisdom teeth pulled – all pressure, no pain. He was violently jerked around then dropped. He felt lightheaded. Confused. He was annoyed by a high-pitched wailing, then astonished to discover he was the one making it. His vision blurred then cleared. He saw his arm lying on the trail a couple feet away. "That," he wheezed, spitting up foamy blood bubbles, "is not right." He wished for his vision to blur again. He felt more pressure on his back, then heard cracking and crunching. Ah, he thought while passing out, there's the pain.
Momma bear sniffed around the unconscious Ryan then gathered up her cubs and headed down the trail the way they'd come. Ryan came to in time to see the bears round a bend in the trail and disappear from sight. Who knew bear butts were furry? he thought. Furry bear butts! Furry bear butts! Ryan started giggling, or at least he felt like giggling, but his crushed lungs would not allow him the breath to do it, so he just convulsed for a moment. Furry bear butts! He tried getting up but couldn't move his arm or his legs. Can't move my other arm either! he thought, which caused more convulsions. His vision started tunneling. He felt an infinitely increasing weariness and detachment. Oregon. Woo, he thought.
Ryan had one, final, overwhelming urge to live. All people from Wisconsin experience it when they're about to die. I'm never gonna eat cheese again, he thought. His body and mind rebelled at such a horrible and alien concept, but alas, not even the power of cheese was enough to save him.
"Freeeeeeedooooooom!" yelled Nick, doing his best Mel Gibson in Braveheart impression. He raised his beer then shotgunned it. Nick was drunk. He was pretty happy about it.
"Freeeeeeedooooooom!" yelled Ted and the guys doing their best Mel Gibson in Braveheart impressions. They raised their beers then shotgunned them. They were drunk. They were pretty happy about it.
Ted and the rest of the gang had dubbed themselves the Dirty Dozen for this long weekend on the Oregon Coast. Their mission? Keep Nick as drunk and happy as possible while celebrating the finalization of his divorce from his wife of four and a half months.
"I love you guys," said Nick, deep into the lovey drunk portion of the evening.
"And we love you!" they shouted back.
"What would I do without you?"
It was 11pm and they had a bonfire raging at the Canyon Drive Beach Access (#46) in Lincoln City, Oregon. The sky was clear and the stars were bright. Lights from the commercial fishing vessels dotted the horizon. The ocean was in front of them and the hundred foot high grass and sand bluffs were behind them. A bracing 18mph wind from the North had miles of empty beach to do a run up and made the bonfire dance.
"Aye aye, sirs!" said Nick, nearly completely failing at his attempt to stand up and absolutely completely failing at his attempt to salute. He had insisted on bringing the wood for the bonfire. He had also insisted on wearing his I Got Wood tee because, well, he was the guy who had brought the wood to the bonfire.
The Dirty Dozen began chanting, "I Got Wood!" as Nick stumbled his way to where his wood pile was supposed to be.
There was no wood. He looked around confused, then turned to the fellas, "No wood?"
The Dirty Dozen went silent for the first time that night, then a lone voice began chanting, "No wood!" and soon the rest took up the cause.
They rose from their folding seats and driftwood logs.
"No Wood! No wood!"
They started dancing around the fire.
"No wood! No wood!"
They formed a conga line. Someone began chanting, "Get wood!" The conga line shuffle step/kicked its way to the parking lot. Cars were started. The search was on. Muffled "Get wood!" cries were heard through acoustic auto glass all up and down Hwy 101. Thirty minutes later, failing to find firewood for sale anywhere in Lincoln City at midnight on a Sunday, they headed back to their beachfront vacation rental.
The Dirty Dozen climbed out of their cars, took off their shoes, and, at 12:30 in the morning, began clapping two dozen pairs of shoes against each other, the house rental, and the driveway in an attempt to get the sand out. After a few minutes of futile and loudly echoing thwacking, and at the vigorous behest of some of their temporarily awake neighbors, they decided to concede defeat in their quest of drunken, early morning shoe de-sanding and left them outside for the night.
Also left outside for the night? Nick, who had begun the sleepy drunk portion of the evening when the conga line started. He'd fallen asleep on a driftwood tree trunk by the bonfire. "Get wood," he mumbled between snores. "Get wood."
- - -
Nick tried very hard to wake up as little as possible when he felt the ground move beneath him. Earthquake, he thought before falling back asleep. When the ground moved beneath him again, he got annoyed. "Darla, make it stop," he whined, forgetting that he was no longer married to Darla, and that she did not, in fact, have a super power that gave her control over earthquakes.
Nor, given the acrimony of the divorce, would she if she did.
Nick rolled over and fell into something cold and wet. The good news was that falling into the ocean surf was a surprisingly wonderful way to clear a sleepy, hungover head. The bad news, of course, was that your surroundings were the fifty degree waters of the Pacific Ocean on the Oregon Coast at three in the morning.
"Shit." He started.
"Shit." He continued.
"Shit." He concluded.
He was dragged down the beach as the seawater around him raced back toward the ocean. He dug his hands into the sand, but it didn't help much. When he hit the surf coming the other way he screamed in surprise at the cold, which he regretted almost immediately as ocean water and sand flooded his mouth. The water underneath him shifted back up the beach, and, coughing and sputtering, he managed to drag himself a couple of feet toward the dead bonfire before his comfy sleep driftwood tree trunk – all three tons of it - was pushed up over his right foot, up his right leg, and onto his lower back, pinning him face down in the sand. Water swirled around him. He panicked, trying to remember if it was three inches or six inches of water that a person could drown in. Nick was just able to arch his back enough to keep his head above it all, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not move himself out from under the driftwood.
As the water flowed toward the ocean again, the tree trunk was pulled down over his right leg and he felt the horrible popping of his right knee dislocating. Before he could think not to, he cried out and immediately choked on seawater and sand again.
This is so fucking stupid, he thought to himself as he gagged. I'm getting my ass handed to me by water and sand!
The surf calmed. He braced himself, waiting for the next wave to hit him, but none came. Oh thank God, he thought. He tried pushing off with his right leg, but only got bright lightning bolts of pain shooting all over his body from his knee for his efforts. Check, he thought after the pain dialed down to a 9 on the doctor office smiley card pain scale. Don't push off with right leg. He took a moment to gather his strength then began slowly crawling up the beach, making sure to use only his arms and his left leg.
A wave sideswiped him. He was pushed twenty feet to his right, dragged over and crushed against basalt rock laid bare by the ever-shifting sands. His skin was scraped raw. He bled from dozens of wounds. The water receded. He tried crawling away from the ocean, but couldn't bear the pain of dragging himself over the volcanic rock.
Another wave came, this one straight up the beach. It lifted him over the rock and onto sand. He managed to turn himself over onto his back, though the lower part of his injured leg remained bent the wrong way at a ninety degree angle. The seawater flowed back down the beach, his injured leg went with the flow and was pulled toward the ocean, it just kind of waved back and forth as the surf rushed around it. Luckily the surf left the rest of him where he was. Except for the terrible chorus of pain from the stinging of seawater on his wounds, and the electric pain of his dislocated knee, he was completely numb with cold. He shivered violently.
Nick saw a wave heading toward him. He tried using its momentum to move further up the beach, but the water brought the driftwood with it. It floated up over his legs, bending the injured one back onto itself, then landed on his chest, pinning him where he lay. The weight of it was suffocating. Water rushed around him. It lifted the tree trunk just enough for him to breathe, but then the water went over his head and he began drowning. The water receded down the beach, leaving the full weight of the driftwood on his chest and he began suffocating once again.
The cycle continued over and over: the weight of the tree trunk suffocated him, then the depth of the surf drowned him, he had only a few brief seconds between each interval to try and breathe. When he was suffocating all he could think to do was try to push the driftwood off. When he was drowning all he could think to do was get his head above water.
With each cycle his strength decreased. With each cycle his terror increased. He eventually stopped shivering. He eventually began convulsing. He eventually stopped breathing.
It took Nick seventeen minutes to die.
- - -
The Dirty Dozen woke up to someone pounding on the glass door of the back deck. The one overlooking the ocean.
"Go away!" Ted tried to yell, but all that came out was an enormous belch. He immediately scrunched his nose and waved his hand in front of his face. "Oh god, that's horrible. Smells like something died."
"I can smell it all the way over here," said one of the Dirty Dozen.
"Nocturnal emanation most foul," said another.
"Totally," someone else chimed in. "What'd you have for dinner? Smells like dead fish?"
"I drank my dinner," replied Ted. Then to the person outside, "Stop pounding on the door!"
The pounding stopped.
Ted couldn't see much on the balcony, it was too dark. A thick, swiftly moving fog blotted out the moon and the stars.
Ted saw the shadow of the person outside shift to his left, then a giant driftwood tree trunk came hurtling through the glass door, shattering it and the neighboring windows. The stench of wet death rolled over them like a tsunami. The Dirty Dozen froze in place.
The person stepped into the vacation rental. They dragged their right leg. They wore a torn, soaked through tee with I Got Wood printed on it.
"What would I do without you guys?" Nick gargled.
Belinda Jablonski had taken the kids – Pete, 12, and Kelsi, 13 – to the Family Picnic in Lake Tahoe. The Family Picnic was a seven day affair consisting of organized water sports, hiking, horseback riding, heli-biking, catered meals, and lodging at her parents' sprawling family compound.
The Family Picnic was most definitely spelled, and spoken, in the uppercase.
"Think you'll be able to rough it for a week?" Stephen Jablonski had asked while seeing them off bright and early at six in the morning.
"You'd love it there, you know. It's beautiful." replied Belinda, loading up the last of the luggage and ignoring the jab. "Besides, I worry about you all by yourself for a week." She walked over to her husband and gently touched his face.
"I know. I know. But those AP History papers won't grade themselves." He nodded toward the kids - phones on, earbuds in - in the second row seats. "Spring break for thee but not for me. And don't worry, I won't let anyone know that I, a grown man, was able to take care of myself for a whole week. Nobody wants that kind of information getting out to the general public."
Her gentle caress turned into a light slap of his shoulder. She put on her serious face. "You're going to go to the Family Picnic one day, and then you'll fully embrace the hoity toity." She laughed, then started breathing heavily as she raised her arm and made a fist, "If you only knew the power of the dark side."
They hugged. He opened the door for her and she hopped into the driver's seat of the Chevy Tahoe.
"I always forget how short you are until I see you climb into the Tahoe," Stephen said. Before she could respond he raised his voice to give himself a shot at being heard by the kids. "Take care of your mom. Have fun this week. Enjoy the Bohemian Grove! I love you!"
Without looking up from their phones, the kids gave the slightest of nods, which Stephen interpreted as, Dearest father, we don't know what the Bohemian Grove is, but we love you, we'll miss you, we'll take care of mother, and we will, indeed, have a wonderful time at the Family Picnic.
Belinda made a dismissive gesture with her hand. "Bohemian Grove? Bohemian Grove wishes they could get into the Family Picnic." She cocked a thumb toward the kids behind her. "Next time, try livestreaming your goodbye to them on Twitch. I bet they'd love that." She closed the door, started the SUV, and powered the window down. "Oh yeah, I'm not going out 18, TripCheck says there's an accident. I'll head down to Newport then hop over the Coastal Range on 20."
Stephen gave her a thumbs up, blew her a kiss, then said, "Make sure to call when you get there." He waved as they pulled out of the driveway and down the street. When they were out of sight he headed in the house. "Okay!" he said, rubbing his hands together. "Back to bed. Wake up after noon. Burgers on the grill for lunch."
A man with a plan.
The Jablonski's house was situated on the cheap side of a street running parallel to, and 125 feet on a bluff above, the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. In contrast to the homes on the expensive side of the road - cedar shingled, 7000 square foot monstrosities perched on the edge of terra firma, hunched close together, bogarting the multi-million dollar views of the Pacific Ocean - the Jablonski's was a cozy affair painted cayenne orange with a lime green door. No view of the ocean, had the Jablonskis, unless they were on the second floor in their bedroom and the rich folks' blinds across the street happened to be open. The back of their property lie adjacent to a heavily wooded forest of shore pines which sloped sharply down to a stream which wound its way through the forest floor, eventually finding its way to the sea.
Attached to the back of their house, overlooking the forested ravine, was a deck with a wooden bench, a wood slat table, and a Weber charcoal grill currently tended to by a very happy man.
Stephen whistled as he finished with the grill, threw the meat and buns on a paper plate – only paper plates this week, no washing dishes if he could help it – and sat down on the bench. Before him lay Lunch (he figured if Belinda's family was gonna capitalize the important things, so should he): burgers and buns on a plate, burger fixins on a second plate, beer in a mug kept in the freezer for special occasions (one of the few exceptions to the dish washing rule for the week), and an iPhone and earbuds for tunes.
Conspicuously absent from his set up? Napkins. Along with waking up late and the use of paper plates, we don't need no stinking napkins, was one of his mantras for the week.
It was a beautiful day on the Oregon Coast. 65 degrees and sunny. From his bench seat on the deck, Stephen saw bluebirds, robins, and western tanagers flitting from branch to branch; seagulls and birds of prey soaring high above, riding the thermals created where water met land; bees and butterflies working their way around the flower garden alongside rabbits and deer, which were completely unafraid of humans and totally enamored of the tender shoots and flowers of the garden Belinda assiduously minded. Stephen added the proper fixins in the proper proportions to his burger, grabbed it, and, with a sigh of contentment, simply sat for a moment in anticipation.
His phone buzzed. The FaceTime notification chimed loudly in his earbuds. Stephen jumped and dropped his burger on the table. The patty slid halfway through one of the gaps between slats and stuck there. He instinctively swiped Accept and left a greasy, meaty streak on his iPhone.
"Hi, Steve!" said Belinda.
Stephen froze. There was a lot to grok, a lot of mental gears to shift.
"Steve? Stephen? Are you there?"
"Ahhhhhh-," said Stephen. He finally kicked into gear, grabbed some lettuce, and tried to wipe off the mess on his screen. He only succeeded in spreading it around.
"Stephen? I can hear you but I'm only seeing a cloudy schmear."
"Yeah. Uhhhh." said Stephen. He wiped his hands on his shirt, grabbed his phone, then wiped that on his shirt as well. "Ahhhh...Hi! Hi! Just a minor lunch snafu. Hi! Uh...how's the trip?"
"There's your smiling face! Let me guess. You got startled, dropped everything, but are currently working under the no napkin mandate? You still using lettuce to clean or have you escalated to using your shirt?"
Stephen panned the phone down, showing the sorry state of his shirt.
Belinda giggled, "We stopped at Lake Alamor to stretch our legs and I thought I'd just give a ring. Love ya! Sorry for interrupting lunch. I'll let you get back to it."
"No worries. Glad y'all are good. I think I can save lunch."
"Steve, I have to ask. Will the no napkin mandate hold during this catastrophic incident?"
"Pshhhhhhh ... sorry ... pshhhhh ... house ... going through ... tunnel ... pshhhhhhhh ... love ... pshhhhhhhhhh ... bye."
Stephen heard laughter as she ended the call.
He looked at the mess around him and sighed. It was already getting harder for him to find a clean area on his shirt, but he found one and rubbed his iPhone screen on it again. He put down the phone then grabbed the hamburger patty from the gap in the table. I wonder if I can salvage this, he thought. He examined the patty. Looks okay. He put it down then peeked into the slat gap to see if there were any obvious obstacles to burger patty redemption. He saw some quarter inch sized lumps on the side of the slat. He moved closer and rubbed off some of the hamburger and grease that covered them.
"Mushrooms?" Stephen said. "Are you mushrooms?" He got closer. "What are you little fellas doing there?" He poked them a bit then his stomach rumbled.
"Back to business!" he exclaimed to the backyard.
Stephen put the slat patty back in the gap between the slats. "Good patty holder," he said, then prepared a second hamburger. He ate his hot burger, drank his cold beer, and lazed the afternoon away on the deck getting some sun and listening to classic rock. When he finally cleared the table – including the slat patty – he considered wiping it all down, then thought, Nah, I'm outta lettuce.
Stephen woke up after noon again. Two for two, he thought. Excellent. He took care of his
morning afternoon ablutions, gathered up his cookout accouterments, and headed to the deck. He set everything down on the table and-
There was a big stonkin' blood red mushroom growing between the slats. It was segmented with overlapping brackets, about two inches wide and eight inches long.
"What are you?" asked Stephen crawling under the table to get a better view of it. "You kinda look like chicken of the woods, but that color..." From this position he could see it was starting to expand to the slats next to it. "Totally awesome," he said, his 1980s showing. He poked it softly. It gave at first, then pushed back against his finger.
He reached on top of the table and blindly felt for the cookout tongs. Paper plate ... frosty mug ... fixins plate ...ah, there they were. He poked the mushroom with the tongs. It exploded open, crimson red spores and an electric blue liquid ooze pulsed out of its bottom. He gasped, inhaling spores, then jerked his head back, bumping it on the underside of the table. He felt the bench with his tush, twisted around, planted his hands on it, and pushed up. He bumped the table hard with his back, turned around again, and sat heavily on the bench.
He laughed as he rubbed the back of his head where he'd bumped it. He looked at the table and saw that the top of the mushroom had exploded, as well. There was a giant cloud of red spores hovering over the entire deck.
He was breathing the spores in. He stopped laughing.
Movement caught his eye. He turned and saw the blue ooze, well, oozing its way toward the burgers and fixins which had shifted off the plates when he'd hit the table – twice - and fallen on the mushroom. It flowed around the lettuce, tomatoes, and onions - ignoring them - toward the burgers. The blue ooze seeped into the burgers and broke them down until there was nothing left.
"Whaaaat the fuuuuck."
Stephen sprinted into the house, up the stairs, and into the shower fully clothed. He ran the hot water as hot as he could stand it. He stripped off his clothes, and used an entire bar of soap and all the shampoo trying to get clean. He stayed in the shower until the hot water ran out, then stepped out, failed to towel off, and lumbered his way, naked, to bed where he collapsed and passed out.
He came to a couple of hours later to the sound of the FaceTime notification chime from his iPhone. He tried to focus his eyes and figure out where he was and why he was there when the entirety of his afternoon cookout came back to him. "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck." he chanted under his breath as he tried looking at everything everywhere all at once for red spores and blue ooze. His relief in finding neither was immense.
His phone continued to chime and he realized that his left hand was vibrating. He looked down to see it clutched there. All that, he thought, and I still grabbed my phone. He snorted as he swiped Accept.
"Did I ruin a catnap?" Belinda asked, smiling until she saw the look on Stephen's face. "Steve? You okay? You look terrified!"
"Sorry! Sorry." Stephen said, trying to collect himself. "Yeah, I was catnapping. I was just startled by the notification chime. Everything's alright." He forced a smile. "How's the trip? The kids okay?"
"You wouldn't believe it. They packed mountain bikes into a helicopter – a freakin' helicopter! - then dropped the kids off at the top of the mountain behind my parents'. Steve, they rode them down the mountain. Halfway down there was a catered picnic set up in this beautiful valley. The kids didn't actually look at their phones for almost six hours straight. It was pretty amazing."
"Six hours? New record. Nice."
"Yeah. The kids liked it so much they're doing it again tomorrow, then, when they get back, they'll do some horseback riding."
"Kelsi been in the lake yet?"
"Too cold, poor thing. She was so sad until she heard about the helicopters and horses, then, somehow, she managed to get over it."
Stephen snickered. "She's a trooper, our Kelsi is."
"You enjoying your 'you' time?"
"Haven't even thought of grading a paper yet."
"Fantastic! Glad you're taking it easy. I miss you, hon."
"Yeah, miss you, too. Make sure you say 'howdy' to your parents for me."
Belinda laughed. "Yeah, I'll get right on that. Take care of you."
"Back atcha. Love ya, babe." Stephen ended the FaceTime call and lay back in bed. Take care of me, he thought. Good advice. He put his iPhone on the charger and crawled under the covers. He looked at his desk in the corner of the room and saw the pile of AP History papers awaiting his judgment. Yeah, no.
Stephen fell asleep.
Stephen woke up and reached for his phone. 2:12pm. "Three for three after noon," he groaned. "Yay me." Everything hurt. His entire body ached. His head throbbed. His joints were stiff. His skin was warm to the touch. Everything was too bright. He was exhausted in a way he hadn't been since...well...ever.
Slowly, he climbed out of bed and limped his way to the bathroom. When he got to the mirror he squinted against the brightness of the light and examined himself: red pupils, red skin. That can't be right, he thought. He turned the faucet on, cupped his hands, and splashed water on his face a couple of times. He looked back at the mirror.
"Yeah," he said turning away. "Definitely gonna lay back down now." He once again ignored the pile of AP History papers and climbed back into bed.
Stephen slept the entire day away. All 24 hours of it. The FaceTime notification chime didn't stand a chance at waking him up. Nor did the FaceTime voicemail notifications, the email notifications, the text notifications, the phone call ringtone set to Yakety Sax, or the phone's voicemail notifications.
Some time during the early morning he'd begun exhaling crimson red spores.
Between the 24 hours of sleep the previous day, the 12 hours of sleep the day before that, and waking up after noon today, Stephen had slept for a grand total of 53 hours. He woke up feeling fantastic.
It hadn't been a dreamless sleep, this magnificent sleep of his. He remembered his dreams had been very vivid. In the beginning he was all alone in a pitch black void. Occasionally he'd see his wife, children, and parents; his childhood friends and pets; his colleagues from work and his bowling buddies. They'd flashed in front of him briefly, his heart flaring with love and a sense of belonging each time it happened, but they always disappeared all too quickly, leaving him to feel little but sadness and disconnection. Then, slowly, so slowly he couldn't detect the change, only the effect of it, a warm, red light grew around him. It illuminated dozens, then hundreds, then countless bright orange filaments connecting innumerable soft, yellow points of light.
Pulses, all colors of the rainbow, raced across the filaments. He looked down at himself and saw that he, too, was a soft yellow point of light connected to the others by the same orange filaments. He thought of his wife and kids, and when he did, he sent out deep, red pulses. They moved through the filaments to the yellow lights nearest him, then the ones next to them, and so forth, until the red pulses had spread to the entire colony of yellow lights. He felt the colored pulses of emotion and information flow through and around him from the other yellow lights. Red was love. Green was satisfaction. Orange was anticipation. Blue was hunger. Purple was fear.
There was an entire rainbow of colors for an entire galaxy of information.
Positive emotions were shared widely while negative emotions spread only as far as they needed to before being contained. When this happened, the colony would send soothing red and green pulses until the disturbed section of the colony was okay again.
The feeling of connection, of love and belonging, went deeper and further than anything Stephen had experienced his entire-
The FaceTime notification chime interrupted his thoughts. He grabbed for his phone without thinking, swiped Accept, then tapped Audio Only.
"Stephen! Where have you been? I was so worried!" said Belinda.
She'd be pulsing red and purple, Stephen thought. "Sorry honey. I graded all the AP History papers in one go," he said, glancing at the untouched pile of papers on his desk. "I muted the notifications on my phone and cranked AC/DC for a day and a half straight. I finally got through them then crashed. I forgot to unmute my phone. I just woke up, like, two minutes ago." I wonder what color the bullshit pulse is?
"Thank goodness I'm not there to smell your breath or your B.O."
"So, audio only, huh?"
"Yeah. Just woke up. Hair's every which way. Probably crusties in my nose. Just ew. How are the kids?"
"Turns out Kelsi did finally get in the lake. My parents bought wet suits for all the kids so they could play water polo."
"Water polo? In Lake Tahoe?"
"Oh yeah. They bought buoys, swim lane dividers, and floating goals. I guess their pool is currently being renovated. Get this. Cousin Dave's kids are getting into diving, so my parents are putting an official Olympic-sized diving platform and pool area in."
"Language!" Belinda giggled.
"Sorry! Sorry! Hey babe, I hope you're a having good time, too, but not having eaten for like a day and a half-"
"I sense another cookout coming up."
Stephen shuddered at the word. "You bet. Gonna go get the burgers and fixins ready now."
"Love you. Don't forget to shower."
"It's job one. Love you, too." He ended the FaceTime call and looked at the time. "3:18. After noon. Woo."
He made his way to the bathroom and looked in the mirror – eyes and skin still a deep, blood red. Same color as the mushroom, he thought. He sighed, and when he did, he saw a small cloud of crimson red spores erupt from his mouth.
"That's new," he said, exhaling more spores.
He bowed his head and closed his eyes. He saw the connections from his dream. Red light pulsed toward him. I have to learn what these connection are called, he thought, and a word floated in front of his closed eyes: mycelium. He was so surprised that he opened his eyes and lost the connection. He felt an enormous sense of loss. Disconnection. He closed his eyes again. Multi-colored pulses flowed every which way. I think they're laughing, he thought. Another message floated in front of his closed eyes: We. We're laughing. He looked down and saw that he was sending out multi-colored pulses of laughter, too.
He opened his eyes, confident he could get the connection back when he wanted to, and walked back to the bedroom. He saw new mushroom growth everywhere – in the high corners of the walls, on the nightstands, on the headboard, on his desk. Not, however, on his AP History papers. Huh, he thought. You don't want to touch the AP History papers either. He followed the trail of blood red mushrooms out into the hall and down the stairs. Mushrooms grew everywhere. He glanced out the window and saw the table covered with mushrooms.
He closed his eyes and touched the mushroom on the wall next to him. It (We) pushed back against his (our) hand. He (We) opened his (our) eyes. The connection remained. They - Stephen and the mushroom colony - had merged. They looked all around them and saw the fibrous orange connections running all around the room, up through the ceiling to the second floor, and out to the deck and table. Wicked cool, they thought. The pulses turned an electric blue. Yeah, we're getting a might peckish. They went to the refrigerator, got the last two packages of meat from the freezer, and tore off the packaging. They grabbed them, one in each hand. Blue ooze came out of their left hand, breaking down and absorbing the meat.
Neat trick, they thought.
They took the other handful of meat, broke it into chunks, and threw them around the room. Blue liquid oozed all over the first floor. After they'd thrown the last hunk of meat, green and red pulses flowed toward them, faster and faster and brighter and brighter, until the pulses were all they could see. Well, that sure is something, they thought, then passed out.
Stephen came to the next day to frenzied blue flashing. He bolted upright, eyes wide with panic. He pulsed purple to the colony – Purple pulse? Colony? He thought. What the fuck? - as he tried to remember who and where he was. The colony responded with red and green. Ohhhhh. Oh yeah, he thought, settling down. No 'I' or 'me,' only 'Us' and 'They.' There is no Stephen, only The Colony. They pulsed red for a moment, then started pulsing blue again.
"Let's see what we have to eat," they said. They went to the fridge and the freezer. No meat left. They caught movement out of the corner of their eye and saw a fawn munching on the flowers and new shoots in the garden. They moved slowly toward the door to the deck and opened it even more slowly. They began oozing blue liquid and jumped 20 feet over the deck, over the railing, and onto the deer's back. The blue ooze flowed over the deer, making quick work of it. They brought what was left of the deer inside for them to consume.
They spent the rest of the day and evening in the house, communing and learning about themselves. As day turned to night, there were fewer and fewer thoughts and feelings that could be categorized as Stephen's. At first, he was alarmed over the loss of autonomy, but by evening they accepted it, and sometime, in the early hours of the morning, they eagerly embraced it.
Family, they thought, amidst a storm of pulsing red light.
They covered every surface downstairs – the floor, the ceiling, the walls, the furniture, the appliances.>
They heard a vehicle pull into the driveway.
They heard its doors slam shut.
They heard muffled talking.
Blue pulses erupted throughout the colony.
They heard a key in the lock.
The front door opened.
"Stephen! We're home from the Family Picnic!"
They oozed blue liquid. Their blue pulses suffused with oranges and greens. A Family Picnic, they thought.
He'd been sleeping hard lately, having pulled oodles of doubles at Georgia-Pacific pumping out all the extra toilet paper people were clamoring for in the first weeks of Coronavirus (Commodavirus, his coworkers gleefully called it...Brown Gold) so when his wife started pounding on the front door, screaming his name at three in the morning, he registered it only in his dream – a quiet morning fishing on the Siletz River turned Walmart-wide, no holds barred TP fracas. He snorted, mumbled "three ply," and turned over while the thing that had replaced his wife in bed with him gently stroked his hair, telling him, in his wife's voice, that it was all just a bad dream and everything was going to be alright, as its teeth lengthened - sharpening to points - and its hands became talons.
"Damn it! Be cool, man!" said Julius, looking around with more than a little trepidation.
"Or-EE-Gone! Or-EE-Gone!" shouted Floyd, cackling. A couple of the folks walking on West Burnside glanced their way. He turned to Julius. "Look, dude. I know. You told me it's OR-uh-gn, accent on the first syllable. It's not that I don't get it. I just don't care."
Floyd had met Julius playing Fortnite online. They got to talking. When he found out Julius lived in Portland he'd invited himself to crash at Julius' apartment for a couple of weeks. "I'm between jobs," Floyd had said. He cleaned out his parents' fridge into his '98 Civic and headed north outta Reno. He'd been in Portland for three days.
It had been a long three days for Julius.
"Something bad wi-"
"Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. 'Something bad will happen,'" said Floyd, mimicking Julius while waggling his fingers in front of his face. "What does that even mean, dude? Sheesh. It's not like we're walking in the forest primeval and Big Foot is gonna grab me and rip me apart with his bare hands for saying Oregon wrong. We're walking in Portland, dude. Powell's is right there," Floyd said, pointing. "There's nothing to worry about. Relax, dude."
"We gotta get you outta here," said Julius. He grabbed Floyd by the arm and hustled him along. "Maybe they won't mind so much in Whole Foods."
"Or-EE-Gone!" yelled Floyd, trailing behind Julius. "Or-EE-Gone!"
People on the street stopped walking, their heads swiveling in unison to track the two young men scurrying down the sidewalk. Traffic slowed to a crawl.
"Maybe we'll make...shit...I forgot there's a McMenamins over here," said Julius. They stopped thirty feet from the crowd pouring out of the restaurant. Staff and customers lined the sidewalk, shoulder-to-shoulder four rows deep, in front of them. Adult customers held forks and butter knives. Kids held plastic sporks menacingly. Staff held pots, pans, and butcher knives. Their mouths set. Their eyes determined.
"Or-EE-Gone!" Floyd screeched at them, laughing.
Julius dragged Floyd across the street. Traffic had stopped. They dodged around people getting out of their vehicles holding tire irons and crowbars. They made it across and turned the corner on NW 13th where they were greeted by dozens of Whole Foods employees and customers walking toward them holding price scanners and enormous wheels of gourmet cheeses. One of the employees lugged their POS register.
"Crap. They do care." said Julius. He peeked back around the corner they'd just turned and saw Powell's staff and customers jogging towards them carrying Russian literature and omnibus editions of Michener books. A group of bicyclists skidded to a halt next to them.
"I tried," Julius sighed. He turned to Floyd and punched him in the face.
Floyd hit the ground then looked up at Julius and the mob of Oregonity around him while rubbing his jaw. "What the fuck, dudes? It's just a state name! What's the big deal? Or-EE-Gone! Or-EE-Gone! Or-EE-Gone!"
With each 'Or-EE-Gone!' the swarm of Oregonians flinched harder. Some fainted. Others gripped their wheels of cheese more tightly as a shield against the barrage of profanity.
Julius took a step toward Floyd and pulled something out of his back pocket. Floyd flinched. "You have one last chance," Julius said unfolding a piece of paper. "How do you pronounce this word?"
The piece of paper read, 'Willamette.'
Floyd looked at the throng of furious faces around him. "What's wrong with you people?"
"Read the word, Floyd," demanded Julius.
Floyd looked from the legion of Oregonians to the piece of paper. "Shit. I don't know, dude. Will-Uh-Met-TAY?"
They descended upon him with their butter knives, Gouda cheeses, and Russian literature as they chanted, "Rhymes with damn it! Rhymes with damn it! Rhymes with damn it!"
When they'd finished, Julius looked down at the very little that was left of Floyd and said, "Saying Oregon incorrectly is the something bad that happens."
Their work concluded, the Oregonians began chatting pleasantly amongst themselves. Guitar music floated over the crowd. The wheels of cheese were passed around. An impromptu Russian authors book club broke out. The young woman who'd brought the register bent down to grab it, noticed some blood and brain matter on the display, and carefully cleaned it off.
A cab stopped nearby and a chubby, middle-aged couple wearing matching Green Bay Packers sweatshirts with "Cheesehead Nation" printed on them got out. They wore the diminutive smiles of the currently perplexed as they looked from their Official Portland Oregon City Guide to the buildings around them. They glanced at each other, shrugged, then approached the group. "Excuse me?" said the woman, trying to get their attention. "Hello? The cab driver said you might be able to tell us how to get to the..." she looked down again at the Guide. "...the Dez-Shuts Brewery Portland Public House?"
As one, the Oregon host snapped their heads in their direction. The guitar stopped mid riff. The wheels of cheese were once again held at the ready. Tolstoy, Akhmatova, and Chekhov were hefted ominously. The young woman kneeling by her register picked it up and lumbered toward the couple, making sure to stop within arms reach. She gave her best customer service smile and asked, "What was the name of the brewery you were looking for?"
"You really think Prince was better than Nirvana?" asked Hector, slowing his clapped out, emerald green, 1972 Buick Riviera as he navigated another curve up the mountain on Old Scenic Hwy 101 out of Otis, Oregon on a stormy January day.
He glanced at Paul, who grinned and said. "Fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is: Never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: Never go in against a Minneapolitan when Prince is on the line!"
Hector stopped the car in the middle of the road, threw it in park, and looked at Paul. "Inconceivable!"
"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
They laughed. Rain tap danced on the car. The trees in the forest around them swayed widely, creaking, clacking, and cracking from the storm blowing off the Pacific. Hector grabbed Paul's hand and squeezed. "I'm so glad you finally made it out here."
Paul squeezed back, "Oh yeah, you betcha." More laughter.
"Careful," Hector said. "Your Minnesota is showing."
"Ope. That's okay, ya? Uff da."
They giggled. The giggles turned to smiles and the smiles fueled a storm of emotions between them. They kissed. After a moment, Paul pulled away, "Not that I'm not having a wonderful time," he said, nodding toward the road in front of them, "but we are stopped in the middle of the road."
Hector looked out at the road through the rain streaked windshield then turned to look out at the road through the rain streaked rear window. He looked back to Paul. "You do realize we have not passed a single soul since we started driving up the mountain?"
Paul conceded the point.
"All right," Hector said. "It's just a little further to the scenic lookout. Let's see how fast Jolly Green can get us there." He threw it in drive, stomped the accelerator, and...Jolly Green sputtered, lurched forward a couple feet, then died. "Not a word," said Hector, cranking the ignition and stomping the gas pedal. "You say a bad word about Jolly Green right now and he'll never start for us. I'm serious. You can disrespect Nirvana," said Hector, pointing a finger at Paul, "you can be irreparably hoodwinked by that funky Minneapolis sound, but you must never utter a disparaging word against Jolly Green."
Paul patted Jolly Green's glove box and looked sidelong at Hector, "'irreparably hoodwinked by that funky Minneapolis sound?'"
"If the raspberry beret fits."
Paul mimicked locking his lips and tossing away the key. There was a huge, explosive crack and a tree branch the size of a small boat fell directly in front of them. The ground shook when it landed. The guys watched wide-eyed as it rolled off to the side of the road and down the hill.
"Whaaat the fuuck," said Paul.
"Yup. Okay." said Hector. He got Jolly Green running again and floored it. No sputtering and dying this time. The rear tires spun on the wet, dirt, hardpack then found purchase. Jolly Green roared up the mountain. "Hold tight," said Hector. "We used to do this in high school." The analog speedometer swung wildly back and forth as Hector wrestled with the steering wheel. The rear of the car bounced off the ground as it hit roots and potholes.
"You're drifting up the mountain!" shouted Paul, grabbing the oh-shit-grip above the glove compartment.
"Technically we're power sliding," replied Hector, hauling the steering wheel hard counterclockwise. "I'm trying to wait until the apex of the turn to get Jolly Green sideways." He spun the steering wheel back clockwise and winked at Paul. "Keeps the speed up better."
Small twigs fell around them. The clacking of the trees could be heard even over the roar of the engine. Occasionally a bigger branch would fall near them. The heavens opened. Rain so heavy the wipers couldn't keep up. There was a giant thud and the car jumped five feet to the left. Hector gritted his teeth as he fought to keep the car on the road. "Almost," he said, swinging the rear of the car wildly around the final curve, "there."
The rain let up as they broke the cover of the forest. Hector accelerated up the final straight. When they got to the small parking lot of the scenic overlook they fishtailed and slid to a stop facing the way they'd just come. Hector turned off the car. The rain stopped.
They sat, staring forward, breathing heavily and fogging up the windshield. Paul reached out his hand to Hector, who gripped it tightly.
"That! Was! Epic!" said Paul, turning to Hector, a huge grin lighting up his face.
Hector turned to Paul, smiled anxiously, and said, "Fuck." He opened his door and stepped out, his legs a bit wobbly from the ride. Paul tried to open his door but couldn't budge it. He slid along the green vinyl bench seat and followed Hector out the driver's side. They held hands as they walked around the car to the passenger-side door. There was a six inch deep, eight foot long dent running the length of the rear quarter panel and passenger-side door.
"That," Hector said shaking his head, "is not going to buff out." Paul snorted. They giggled, then laughed, then laughed harder, hysterically, coughing and choking trying to catch their breath. Paul recovered first and walked to the edge of the scenic overlook. The sun broke behind them and a rainbow filled the valley below.
"The rainbow is a little on the nose," said Paul as Hector came over and put an arm around him, "but what a view. Totally worth it."
"Easy for you to say," said Hector. "It's not your car."
Paul snorted again.
"Looks like it isn't over," said Hector, pointing to the far end of the valley where clouds and fog were moving fast off the ocean. They could see a band of rain racing toward them. "We better get out of here." They ran to the car. Paul slid in first, Hector followed. Hector stuck the keys in the ignition and twisted. Nothing happened. "Come on, Jolly Green!"
It was upon them. Rainwater cascaded down Jolly Green's windows, obscuring everything except the dark gray light of the storm. The sound of the rainfall bounced off the roof so loudly it hurt their ears. After an agonizing couple of moments, the initial onslaught of the storm softened to a more normal tempo and decibel. They looked at each other and smiled with relief. "Well that was-," Hector started, then they both doubled over in pain. Their stomachs flipped. Their ears popped. A feeling of nausea rolled over them. They looked around in confusion until they saw what looked like half the mountain in front of them sliding into the valley below. Paul looked at Hector, eyes wide.
"Landslide," Hector said.
"No shit," said Paul, smiling weakly. "Was that infrasound?"
"I think-," Hector began, then another wave of nausea hit them followed quickly by a thirty foot tree landing on the hood of the car. They screamed as the mountain above slid into them. Jolly Green briefly rode on top of the landslide, rolling over and over, but all too soon the landslide was around them, then over them.
Hector and Paul were tossed around the interior of the car in darkness. The windows cracked then broke. The car began folding in on itself. Mud, rock, and water surged inside. Jolly Green came to rest three hundred feet down the mountain buried under twenty feet of compacted mountainside. Paul had died almost immediately, his neck broken during the first moments of the car flipping on top of the mudslide. He had ragdolled around the interior of the car until he landed on Hector, who managed to hold his lifeless body tightly. When Jolly Green came to rest, Hector was still alive, his body crushed and broken, unable to move in the densely packed mountainside inside the car. He was slowly asphyxiating, desperately trying to breathe as mud forced itself down his trachea and into his lungs. He managed to say "Paul" one last time before feeling only pain and fear and darkness, then nothing at all.
It's not like I wanted to kill him. It was, unfortunately, the best solution to the problem of...him. And it's not like I killed him. His ego did that. Men and their egos. There's not a married woman alive who doesn't know how to manipulate their husband's ego when they need to. We get burned by it often enough. If we didn't learn how to use it for good once in a while...well...
I want to stress here at the beginning: it wasn't always bad between us. We were high school sweethearts. Went to prom together. Graduated high school together. Got married. Moved to a little efficiency in the city. We were two suburban kids who didn't know a damned thing except we had each other and we were gonna make it together. I was his. He was mine. I worked. He went to school. He graduated. Got a job. We spent another decade in the city then started talking about kids. Got a house in the burbs. I caught pregnant. Quit my job. Twins right out the gate.
It was our little slice of the American Dream.
How's that Carlin line go? It's called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it?
You know, I still have the first gift he ever gave me. It was...sorry, I can't help but smile, even after all this time...it was so corny. He gave me the letter 't' on a necklace. It was our one month anniversary. I thought he'd given me a cross. When I'd told him he laughed and laughed. Said he'd be my cross to bear and I'd be the one to crucify him if he failed me. I asked him what it really meant. He said my name was Mary and his was Marty and now I'd have the 't' just like him and that 't' meant we'd be together forever. Pure schlock. Total cheese. But sweet, right?
Not all bad.
When the kids started middle school it was like a switch inside him flipped. He bought a Porsche. Automatic. Started going to the gym, which, by the way, lasted all of a week and a half. He started screwing anything under the age of twenty five. Late nights at the office. Long work trips.
I tried talking with him about it. About everything. He didn't even deny it. Said he was glad I knew. Made things easier. He said men had needs I didn't understand then hopped in his Porsche and went on another "business trip." I tried to get him to go to couples counseling with me, but he just laughed and told me he was finally seeing things clearly for the first time in his life.
I think that's the first time I thought about killing him. We'd spent years together. Created a life with each other. Had kids. Family. We went from being us to being...nothing.
You know my husband never learned to swim?
So for a few years I went on autopilot. Took care of the kids. The house. Scheduled appointments. Chaperoned field trips. Helped with homework. But the light had gone out of it. I loved my kids, mind you. But my guy? My partner? He'd checked out.
I still did things like go to his company parties, of course. Keep up appearances, Mary. I'd stand behind him and off to his side nursing my single free glass of Franzia Sunset Blush while he surrounded himself with female new hires and interns. Being cruel to me while I was present was a way for him to display his alpha male credentials to the new crop of targets. Occasionally I'd catch a sidelong glance from one of the young women: scorn, contempt, superiority, discomfort, sympathy. I took to raising my glass to them when they did it.
I had the lowest low of my life in my kids' dentist's waiting room. That's where it hit me. High school was coming. The kids were gonna be out of the house in a couple of years and I would be...what exactly? The kids would be on their own and my partner in crime had fled the scene without me. I panicked for the first time since he'd told me he was glad I knew. What was I going to do? Divorce my husband? Go to school? Get a job? Move back into that efficiency apartment in the city? It was too much.
So there I sat in the dental office waiting room. I bowed my head so people wouldn't see the tears forming. My eyes fell on a seven month old National Geographic Traveler magazine. One of the cover stories was, "10 Must See Coastal Wonders." I flipped through to the article. Some highlights:
I sat in that waiting room. Stared at the wall blankly. Processed. Did you know a cubic meter of water weighs a ton? I didn't. That's around 2,000 pounds of water in a box just over three feet wide by three feet high by three feet deep. Two of those boxes of water weigh more than a Toyota RAV4 or a BMW 5-series. An ocean's worth of water on one side and a coast of basalt rock on the other? Yeah. That'd do some damage.
We had a winner, folks. Winner, winner, chicken dinner. We'd take a Christmas family trip to the Oregon Coast with its freezing cold waters, deadly sharp rocks, powerful waves, and...a husband who couldn't swim.
What a strange sensation it is to bullet point the information that led to the plan of your husband's death.
I couldn't convince my husband to take us on the trip, but our kids could, and I could convince them. The boys were turning into young men and Marty wanted to impress them. He was long past trying to impress me.
We went to Depoe Bay. It was everything I could have hoped for. Waves slammed the coast. Seawater sprayed across the highway. The Coast Guard station flew a single red square flag with a black square inside of it. Meaning? Storm warning, winds 55 to 73 miles per hour. The conditions were supposed to hold for the next 48 hours.
We gave the boys fifty bucks and told them to check out the shops across the street. I told Marty we had to get the boys a cool picture for Facebook of their father on the coastal rocks by the waves. He loved the idea. Said he was just about to suggest the same thing. He also said we had to make it quick because he had a last minute work meeting set up down in Newport that might go pretty late.
When he said that? He didn't smile. Didn't smirk. Didn't gloat. Didn't even look at me. Just business as usual. I wasn't even sure why he was telling me until he said I should tell the boys their dad was gonna have to do some business while we were out here.
Ah. He wanted me to make excuses for him. Of course.
We threw on the warmest and most waterproof gear we had and headed out. We walked to the spouting horn. I pulled out my phone. He looked at the massive waves coming in and balked. He was about to say something. Chicken out. I urged him on with a shooing gesture. Come on you big baby, I said. The boys will love it.
That pissed him off.
He stepped over the little two foot guard wall and slowly made his way down the basalt rock. Everything was wet. Basalt is very slippery when wet. He climbed down to where waves had been just moments ago. Other tourists out to see wave action noticed him. Walked over. Watched. He hesitated. Turned back. Saw the crowd that had formed. Turned around. Went farther. Stood up straight. The wind whipped his soaked through clothes. He gave the crowd a jaunty little salute and, for some reason, did that Captain Morgan pose. You know, the one where you put your hand on your hips and raise a leg like you're standing on a treasure chest?
The crowd cheered. He raised his arms above his head in victory. I got a picture. A wave taller than he was hit him from behind.
He was thrown onto another section of basalt. The wave followed him. Washed over him. Dragged him into the ocean.
Some people screamed. Others started over the guard wall to help. Others held them back. I hadn't moved. Hadn't made a sound. Had it actually happened? I held the phone in front of me like a talisman to ward off the people looking my way. The people recording me. I waited to see if he was actually gone. Another set of waves came. The spouting horn blew. It blew red. I snorted. It blew red a second time. People covered in spouting horn spray screamed.
I laughed. Hysterical laughter. Couldn't stop. It blew red a third time. Some people ran away. Others tried to console me. It'll be okay. Don't look. You're okay. He'll be fine. We'll pray for you. Patted my shoulder. My back. I couldn't stand any longer so sat down on the cold, wet sidewalk. Put my head down. My stomach hurt from laughing so hard. Tears and rainwater streamed down my face. Everything was drenched. I started shaking.
He never came back to the surface. I actually thought he'd pop back up. Tread water. Make his way back to the rocks. Didn't happen. Of course not. Authorities told me he was probably knocked unconscious after the wave threw him against the rocks. Cut him up badly. The surf pulled him into the water. His heavy clothes pulled him under. The next waves lodged him tightly underwater by the entrance of the spouting horn. Cut him up a lot more.
The boys took it as well as possible. Marty hadn't been around much for them so his absence didn't leave that big a hole. There were two dozen different videos posted on social media by people who had been there. They'd watched the videos. Went to therapy for a year then got their driver's licenses. Played soccer. Dated. Went to prom. Graduated. They went to college a week ago. Got them moved in. Settled. Part of Marty's life insurance is paying for it.
I traded in Marty's Porsche for my own. Stick. I'm driving 2.000 miles to Depoe Bay, Oregon. When I get there I'll drop the 't' necklace into the spouting horn and turn around. Go home? Start fresh? I miss being his girl. I miss him being my guy. My partner. But I'd lost him long before he died. I'm still learning to be alone.
Marty was only joking all those decades ago. Turns out the joke was on both of us. He was my cross to bear. I crucified him for failing me.
Look, I'm not saying I was the most stand up guy in the world, right? I mean, selling fake vials of holy water for two hundred bucks a pop to people who thought they were vampire hunters? I was not gonna be a pillar of the community. The Loyal Order of Moose and the Klamath Falls Rotarians were never gonna come knocking on my door. I could live with that. At two hundred bucks a pop, I could live with that very easily. You know, a little folding money. A little walking around cash. But who knew vampires were actually real? Or that they were so fucking annoying?
Why holy water? It was easy. It was profitable. This is how I figured it: either folk who used it to hunt vampires lived, meaning they hadn't really needed real holy water in the first place, so no harm, no foul, or folk who used it to hunt vampires died, meaning they had really needed holy water, but since they hadn't had it they were gonna be dead and couldn't cause me any trouble. And, since you and I both know vampires aren't real, the second thing was never gonna happen anyway.
A vampire hunter tried using my fake holy water on a real vampire. A real fucking vampire. And not just any vampire. The head honcho. The First Vampire. The vampire hunter died. Of course they died. I mean, I get my holy water from the tap. The city doesn't even add fluoride to our tap water, ya dig? But then the head vampire turned the vampire hunter. The now ex-vampire hunter turned undead vampire tried to use another vial of my fake holy water to kill herself before she gave into her blood lust. When all that did was put a permanent water stain on her favorite suede jacket for all eternity, she put two and two together and came after me.
So why, you might ask yourself at this particular juncture, didn't I just use actual holy water? Why not get a priest to bless the water before I sold it to the vampire hunters? Why take that chance? To which I'd respond: you gotta be fucking kidding me is why. You don't go around wearing cloves of garlic every day, right? You don't chamber silver rounds in your Glock 9 for target practice? Why hedge your bets on something that'll never happen?
Besides, those goombah priests charged five hundred per blessed vial. Ecclesiastical pricks.
So the vampire hunter turned vampire knocked on my door one night. I invited her in. I didn't know she'd been turned, I thought she just needed some more fake holy water.
Big. Fucking. Mistake.
As soon as she could cross the threshold she was on me.
I mean, I couldn't even protect myself, right? I was raised catholic but had lapsed, so I didn't have any crucifixes lying around. I don't cook, like, ever, so there was no garlic available. And? Yup. I was surrounded by dozens of vials of my fake holy water.
The bitter fucking irony.
So like I said, she was on me. "Dag yo," she said before screaming in frustration then biting me.
Now granted, having exactly zero experience with actual vampires up until that moment, I didn't know how these vampire attack-deals usually went, but wannabe gangster talk followed by screams of frustration were not how I pictured them going down. I managed to croak, "'Dag, yo?' Really?"
She paused. Looked at me. I saw my blood smeared around her lips. Drip from her fangs. She smiled. It was the most beautiful and terrifying thing I'd seen in my life. "You'll see." She latched onto my neck again. I passed out.
She was right. I saw.
I came to next to a pile of ashes with a stake sticking out of it. "Dag, yo! Bitch be crazy! Stuck herself!" I jumped. The voice scared the crap outta me. If I'd still had a pulse it woulda been racing. I looked around but didn't see anyone. "Over here, yo." I looked behind me. "Nah, yo. Up here!" I looked up. "Youngblood be confused." I stood up and heard a high-pitched, nasally snicker. "You been punked! Nah, man. All cool. I'm in ya head, yo."
"Huh?" I eventually managed.
"I'm in ya head, yo! I can read ya mind, dawg. I gots mad undead skillz!"
What the fuck, I thought to myself.
"What da fuck? Truth!"
You can read my mind? I thought.
"Fo' shizzle," came the reply.
"As a heart attack, yo."
An enormous hunger pang hit me. It was like a baseball bat to the groin but from the inside. I fell to my knees.
"Da hunger be on ya, dawg," said the voice in my head. "Playa gotta feed."
I fed. It was my first time, which is awkward enough as it is. There's the choice of victim: Who to choose? Where's the best place to find a victim? The best time? Did I choose them because they were a minority? Poor? Pretty? Ugly? Then there's the gigantic ick factor of, you know, killing a person and sucking out all their blood. So when I'd finally made my choice, finally gotten over the heebie jeebies and was about to bite them, I heard, "Dag, yo! Virgin chomper pop dat cherry!" I hesitated, cringed, then fed.
"Slurp, slurp, dawg."
I actually asked him once what was up with the gangster wannabe lingo. His response? "'ingo? What da hell is 'ingo, yo? Is dat da thing dat ate dat baby?" I may have basically been immortal. I could theoretically live for all eternity, but I feared even eternity would not be time enough to explain to him what the word "lingo" meant.
I would have to put up with this for years. Decades. Centuries. Already it was all "Dag, yo! Playa had some mad blood up in dem veins!" and "Dis blood is all dat ana bag a chips!" It would be this way until one annoying day, annoyingly far in the annoying future, I'd realize I simply couldn't deal with him anymore. I'd have to kill myself. Better sooner than later. I'd have to grab a stake and drive it through my heart, yo.
And it was that 'yo' that I'd just thought that made me realize I couldn't just kill myself, I had to kill him, too. Now. Him and all the other vampire gangster wannabes. They were all like him. He'd infected us with a blood curse and gangster wannabe speech. They said things like, "Yo!" and "Tru dat!" There were thousands of them, and if I could take him out, it would kill every other vampire ever created. Including me.
No sooner had I thought that thought when I heard, "Props, yo!" in my head. "Playa wanna shot at da king." And he appeared. Just like that. Right in front of me. There was the faintest of fogs, and, without thinking, I punched into the middle of it. The fog coalesced around my forearm and hand, and became the First Vampire. He was about five foot four with wee, beady eyes and a weak chin. He had dark, oily, shoulder length hair. He was wearing raver jeans and a raver visor. Green velvet Puma sneakers. He wore Kandi bracelets and a neon yellow glow stick necklace with a pacifier on a string tied to it. The pacifier looked like it had been dipped in blood. He sported a FUBU tee that my forearm disappeared into between the first U and the B. He looked down at his shirt.
With much glee and a light, non-beating heart, I squeezed and pulled his heart out through his chest.
He looked at me, blinked back a single blood tear, and smiled weakly. "Just like the end of Chronicles of Riddick. Straight fire, playa." He raised a fist, cried, "Bitchez!" with his last breath, then turned to ash.
I heard a chorus of thousands of vampire voices around the world cry out, "Bitchez!" Then they were gone.
I was still alive.
I sat down and looked up at the night sky for the first time since I'd been turned. I watched the stars sparkle against the darkness then slowly disappear with the coming dawn. The clouds turned from light grays to soft pastels to pure white as the sun broke the horizon, and as the sun rose higher, becoming a perfect circle, I found myself rising above the earth with it. The light became brighter and brighter, and just as I was about to turn away from the light it took the form of a Man who beckoned me closer. I walked toward Him slowly, and as I approached, a beatific smile formed on His lips and in His eyes. All was calm and peace and beauty and understanding. God. I mirrored His smile, then He said unto me, "Mad propz on killing dat annoying vampire, yo!"
Transcript of Webinar Follows:
Hello, folks! Thank you all for making it today. We're going to wait just a couple more minutes to see if anyone else pops in, then we'll begin.
Okay! Good morning! Welcome! Thank you for being here! Just a couple of notes. This talk is being recorded and will be up on the website in a day or two, you'll get an email when it's ready. Everyone's mic is muted, so if you want to ask a question or make a comment post it to chat so our assistants Tim and Mary - wave to the camera! - can let me know. Tim and Mary will also be doing all the behind-the-scenes tech stuff that I have, well, absolutely no idea how to do.
Lastly! If you aren't here for the State Library of Oregon and Association for Small and Rural Libraries presentation of "Evil Tomes: How to Circulate Your Possessed Book Collection" then you might want to leave now.
Alright. So, we all know how hard it is to circulate a collection of possessed books that are inked in blood and bound in human flesh, the main issue, of course, being the fact that all too often patrons' lives, loved ones, pets, and souls get lost, devoured, and/or sold out from under them. Some of you have tried getting around these circ difficulties by making the books reference/non-circulating, putting them in a special collection area accessible only by appointment, or even by not allowing them to circulate at all, but all these solutions generally mean that patrons will still lose their lives, loved ones, pets, and/or souls, but now it'll happen on library property.
Your municipality's lawyer would probably like to have a word with you about this.
Putting aside the legal ramifications, and completely legit complaints from custodial staff who have to clean it all up (I hear blood mixed with soul is particularly hard to get out of certain types of carpeting) none of this gets us closer to circulating those pesky evil tomes. What's a reference librarian to do?
Education. Education is key. All too often we, as librarians, do too much of the work for our patrons. Our ultimate job with evil tomes is the same as it is with all other aspects of librarianship: teach.
Oh! I see a bunch of electronic hands went up. Let's take a moment to look at some of the questions we're getting here. Mary? What do we have?
Mary: It seems like most of the questions are asking for examples of teaching.
Ah! I see. Hmmm. Okay. It's like when you help a patron setup Libby, you don't grab their phone, download the app, setup their library card and get their ebooks for them, right? Instead, you talk them through it while they do all the work on their device. Ya gotta let the patron drive. It's the same with evil tomes, just walk them through it step-by-step while letting them do the actual incantation reading, demon summoning, soul selling, etc.
It sounds easy, I know, but we all know how impatient patrons can be. I know I’ve had more than one patron jump the gun while helping them with their device, a rushed click or tap and - poof! - all their hard work on that resume or email goes down the drain. Well, with evil tomes you don’t want them reading the Latin or sacrificing the goat before they’re supposed to, the elder gods get real cranky when things are done in the wrong order, and the last thing you want is a cranky elder god, let me tell ya!
So, how to teach the patron?
First: Place the book in front of them. Be careful here, while most patrons recoil at books bound in human flesh they also REALLY want to touch it...be prepared to slap some wrists!
Second: Have them recite the ancient words, "Klatuu Barrado Nikto" ...and, no..."necktie," "nectar," or "nickel" is not good enough! Our library actually made bookmarks with the ancient words - and their phonetic pronunciations – on them. We put 'em right in the evil tomes. At first, the books ate the them, but once we spritzed the bookmarks with a bit of holy water, the books stopped doing that.
Third: Have them pet the book a little and scratch its spine…evil tomes are people too, ya know…or they probably used to be people...or, at the very least, they're bound with human skin. Evil tomes need a little love.
Fourth: Help the patron get to the right place in the book. I’ve tried letting the patron find the right incantation on their own, but oftentimes they’re so amped up to be using the evil tome in the first place that they don’t pay attention to some of the little - but oh so important - details, like going to the page for raising the dead when what they really wanted was the page for razing the dead. I actually had that happen to a patron, they ended up having to kill one hundred and two zombies instead of the initial two they’d been fighting. Boy howdy, was their face red, and not just from all the blood and gore.
By the way, this doesn’t mean you recommend the right incantation for them. Think of incantations for evil tomes like tax forms. You wouldn’t recommend a specific tax form to a patron, right? You don’t know, nor do you need to know, their tax situation, and you’re not a professional tax preparer or accountant. You make the patron give you the name of the tax form they need then you print it out, right? Well, incantations are the same. Never presume to know what diabolical ends the patron is going for. Make them give you the name of the incantation and then help them find it.
Fifth: Once the patron gets to the right place in the book, exit the study room quickly. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1) You don’t want to be hanging around while the patron does their thing – patron privacy extends to their use of evil tomes, too. 2) Once you’ve seen Cthulhu summoned a dozen or more times, it gets kinda boring. Come on, Chtulhu, we get it, you’re a Lovecraftian cosmic horror...nice tentacles there, bud. 3) You do not want to be in the room if the patron messes up the incantation. Worst case scenario? You can hear the janitors grumble as they clean up your remains with a sponge. Best case scenario? The patron accomplishes what they set out to because they were all sneaky and used you as their human sacrifice.
Librarian pro-tip, folks: Don’t ever let yourself be used as the sacrifice for a patron’s incantation. Waving patron fines so they can use the library again? Good. Being the sacrifice in a patron’s incantation? Bad.
And finally, Sixth: When the patron is done with the evil tome, or the evil tome is done with the patron, clean up! Make sure to look for any stray unspeakable terrors around the room – don’t forget to check under the table or behind any hanging pictures, those terrors get everywhere – then put the book back on the shelf.
Alright. I’ve been talking for a while now, so we’re going to take a fifteen minute break. When we come back we're gonna answer some of your questions, but for now, get out of your chair, walk around, get a drink. Tim? Would you put fifteen minutes up on the screen? See y’all soon.
And we're back! Okay, Mary, can you give me some of those questions?
Mary: You bet! The first question we have is from Cassandra P. She asks: I'm currently reading a cozy cat mystery and I can't put it down, is it possessed?
Good question, Cassandra, but I have to ask, can you not put it down because it's just that good a read or can you not put it down because it is literally bonded to your hand and it won't let go?
Mary: Cassandra says it's just that good a read.
Very well! Cassandra, it sounds like you just really like cozy cat mysteries, and that's fantastic! Have you tried Miranda James' Cat in the Stacks series? "Careless Whiskers" is my favorite. So unless your book occasionally oozes blood or you get crazed, murderous thoughts when you touch it, I think you're gonna be okay.
Mary: Our next question is from Stephen. Stephen asks: We're looking to turn one of our study rooms into an evil tome viewing room, what are some of the do's and don'ts of a project like this?
How exciting for you, Stephen! Here's a couple of things you'll want to consider: sound proof walls so the rest of the library won't hear the infernal shrieking, diabolical shouting, and cries for mercy; no fabric surfaces, it's much easier to get blood off of ceramic tile flooring and metallic chairs; a good ventilation system for the sulfur smell; and an adjustable height desk to help patrons get comfortable.
Mary: Tina Y. asks: my library is going to start allowing patrons to check out evil tomes, how long should we make the circulation period?
Excellent question! If you're going to allow patrons to check out evil tomes, it's best to have a short circulation period. Most patrons already know what they want to get out of the tome and only need it for a couple of days. But be warned! If your library isn't fine free and the patron doesn't bring the book back before it's due, the book may devour the patron, body and soul, and then make its way back to the library by itself. But! If your library is fine free, the overdue evil tome will take no action at all against the patron. We're not sure why, but evil tomes seem to respect circulation policies.
I think we have just about enough time for one more question. Mary?
Mary: Sure. Daniel D. asks: how should we feed our evil tomes?
Ah, that question allows me to segue nicely into telling you about next week's webinar topic, which will be...I have it here somewhere, folks...ah, yes...The Care and Feeding of Your Evil Tome Collection. Sorry, Daniel, you'll just have to wait until next week to learn more about that. Here's a tip to tide you over 'til next week, though: Evil tomes like Skippy peanut butter.
Thank you all for coming, and have a wonderful rest of the day.