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In Pace.png

It’s getting to be that time of year again. I call it deep autumn. Some call it the red oak stage, others create vivid dreamscapes from it and work from there. October Country if there ever was one, the grass is dying and the trees are shedding the last vestiges of their summer coats, and beautiful young people from the cities take in the sights one last time on park lanes and benches before they pack out. Once they leave I’ll be left to wander the grounds of this place for as long as I see fit, until the first snow.

It is clear from the rust and decay that things are dying in this town. It started during my youth, when the northern industries left. Workmen were contracted elsewhere, the factories shut themselves down and moved out. Now only the facilities stand, barren skeletons of piping and steel on the outskirts, weed-ridden and full of disease.

And more businesses followed soon after. The small bakery on the corner of 4th run by the Grecian couple closed down when the husband drove headlong off the turnpike. The barbershop of my youth, which once spouted ephemeral music and even featured a part-time tenor, ripped from the ground like yesterday’s news, and then they gated off the naked basement and filled it with cement. And the large frontiersman that once stood proud adjacent to the road in, welcoming visitors, is splintering at the edges and one of his eyes has fallen to the ground, where it lies alongside an empty soda can in a thicket of ragweed. I may be the only one here who remembers these things.

While these things have gone, a new presence has arrived to fill their respective vacancies. Over the steppes it appeared, like a cloud of locusts, a pervasive melancholy that under normal conditions would be deemed a public health concern. There are not normal conditions, however. Far from them, these are the conditions that try men’s souls, that wake them in the dead of night to check the windows and bolt the latches. These are conditions of peril and of doom.

And there’s something in the aether which makes us wary of each other- because if this thing were to neglect our solidarity as a community, it might not have a chance at driving us to the edge. But it goes by the old Roman tactic, divide and conquer, and so it keeps us on our toes, always right on the precipice, getting ready to jump into what would be our last breath.

Unfortunately, we are a reserved people with little in the way of common sense. So the calendar pages continue to turn, and the clock continues to wind itself down. Time is like a noose in many ways, it tightens around the neck, makes the eyes deep and sallow, turns the skin to crepe paper and the internal organs to steel. We sit in our armchairs with our legs crossed, reading the newspaper or staring into the fire as it burns, as the wood we cut extinguishes itself and evaporates into nothing, as the fuel reserves are depleted and the radiators break down. A hard winter is ahead.

I go out for walks sometimes, when all the houses are in dreamless sleep and the porch lights are off. Here’s the small park with the drinking fountain that never runs. Here’s the gully with the small stream running through it, filled with garbage and rancid thoughts. Here’s the long and winding lane with the Goathead thorns that prevent even the most avid cyclist. Here you’ll find only rusted Datsuns and decrepit Cadillacs, once displayed in a sparkling showroom, now taken out for a cautious joyride every year at the most. And though it is the middle of the night and I am alone in my thoughts, I sneak a casual glance over my shoulder every now and then, to be certain. My nerves are tightened with every new month, and every new week brings with it its own needlessly specific challenges.

I am viewing, firsthand, an epoch of civilization which in the future will come to be regarded as one of barbaric savagery and futile endeavors. In a century or more, this town will no longer be where it stands. Its people will be extinct, the buildings boarded up. They will have lacked the conviction to reproduce, or those that do reproduce will meet an unspeakable end. Fate is a cruel mistress, and she leads people around by the neck, always with that enchanting gallows smile, and only then to pull the lever and have the trapdoor fly out from under your feet.

I think often about the ultimate conclusion of this decay, and the further steps that will be taken to ensure the town’s demise. Doubtless, the cogs have already been initiated, and the trapdoor is already feeling unsteady beneath my shoes. First, the frontiersman will lose both legs when a passing motorist tears him limb from limb, though his removal will cost too much and they’ll leave him there where he is. He’ll be eaten by termites, chewed up and digested, and a tree with no life or hope will sprout from his dusty plaid vest. The downtown area, what remains of it, the center of commerce and authority, will be decimated in either a wildfire or a tornado. The people, having lost their final anchor in life, will succumb to an even greater state of emptiness. Finally, the only ones left will be the genetic waste- the mongrels out in their shacks, polishing their guns with bleach, muttering under their spittle and serving as the final torchbearers of this needless waste. Finally they, too, will perish, like everything else here on the lonesome steppes. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Deep autumn has arrived, and everywhere there are leaves, though they are usually mixed with a fine layer of mysterious soot. They neither inspire us nor drive us, they don’t give us passion or drive or motivation to grow as people. They’re only a mild nuisance, something the beautiful young people come to look at and then leave, never to be seen again.

I am reminded of Montresor’s ascent. Half a century, he said, the wall remained. But how long can a wall remain in place, and how long can one’s mind remain intact and healthy? How long can the years continue to turn and the cycle of nature continue before the equilibrium of reality is shifted too far in one direction or another, and chaos reigns in the defiance of order? Through my own Purgatory I spend sleepless evenings and lightless dawns, I walk through the hallways of my estate and discover only that it, like the rest of the countryside, is in decay.

What happens now is only for the bricklayer to decide. In Pace Requiescat.

I woke up disoriented and groggy, shuffled downstairs to pour myself something. Almost out of bourbon, it numbs the pain on occasion. As I sat at the table over a bowl of stale wheat, it came to me. Like a false recollection, the dream came back into my head, swooping in, slipping itself just under the radar. Bits and pieces from it, then the entire thing. And for ten minutes I had forgotten it completely. They say that in the early hours as you rise from your slumber your dreams become less pronounced, and by the end of the morning you can’t remember anything. Dreams are filler and pulp, placeholders and effluvium. As the dawn drew on, however, this one stuck out and it grew upon me. As the sun rose in the sky, I was brought back to another sun. The sun of crimson and scarlet, the symbol of death.

I was a young shepherd on a plain similar to this, although by night the constellations were foreign to me, and there were several bodies in the cosmos of this distant world that, while familiar on an instinctual level, ultimately meant nothing. I could make neither heads nor tails of the rolling hills and the faraway lights on the shore, of the dark sea that lapped and eroded itself, or of the numerous structures I encountered during my travels. One was a monument of some kind, inscribed with a foreign language. It was tall and topped with the effigy of a blue-eyed deity.

Another indication of this world’s practices were the pumps that I saw coming over a rise. They were arranged in rows, and I assume they were either used to draw fuel from the ground or as agricultural equipment. When I found them they were silent and still, titans on an unknown landscape, question marks that only served to add to my confusion and angst. And as on my walks in the waking world, I felt as if I were being observed by a malignant force. It was uncanny.

The dark sea, as I said, made a pulsating rhythmic noise, and its waves were of an immense crest. I was under the impression that it was a living being. It behaved in ways normal water does not behave, multiplying and swarming, and sending certain waves in one direction and others in another. And across the expanse I could make out those twinkling candles- a city, perhaps, or a primordial settlement. I was separated from them by miles of seething froth and spray, and knew not East from West.

It was then that I noticed the oily quality of the grass, and my garments, which consisted of a light cloak and a staff. The staff was roughly seven feet, engraved with intricate spirals and the same unknown language I had seen at the base of the monument, and carved from wood. I saw no trees in my immediate vicinity, and had no idea where the wood had originated, but with this in mind I determined I was of a rural class, possibly nomadic.

I crested yet another hill and saw, grazing below me, hundreds of strange herbivores, bleating in unison. They were similar to sheep, although they had less hair and had blue eyes, the color of aquamarine. They bit off the stalks of the oily crop and they were enclosed on four sides by a metallic fence. To the left of the enclosure was a small hut. I only went in there once before the thing came, but it was dark and constructed from clay, and contained several implements whose functions, like everything else on this forgotten land, were an enigma to me.

For an hour of dream time I sat outside the dwelling, listening to the herd as it chewed softly and made quiet noises. It was serene, and for once I felt at peace, my flock by my side. While I was not of this place, I held onto it because the sense of surveillance had died, if only for a moment. It was me and the greasy foliage and these otherworldly ruminants, and nothing else.

Gradually, however, the tension increased once again, the noose as I refer to it tightened, and the bleating strengthened in vigor and frequency. And the herd looked up at the night skies and trembled slightly, a vibration passed through them as if they knew something were coming. And I felt it too. It was growing by the minute, a blistering heat that spread over the oily substance and made it warm to the touch. I took off the cloak. It was of no use, the darkness left and the peaceful wasteland became an uninhabitable desert, it was seventy degrees and then ninety as the sky turned from jet black to pink and then to orange in the space of only a few minutes. The flock stopped eating and began to scream. Never have I heard such a horrible noise, hundreds of these placid bovine creatures awaiting their end.

The orange gave way to a singing yellow and then a red directly from Dante- the herd began to paw at the gates, making sounds of malcontent and of anguish. The plains were now so bright that the oil on them nearly blinded you, and the rocky outcrops on the far end of the valley were like skillets. The metal of the pen, no doubt, was unbelievably hot. It was well over a hundred degrees and rising.

The red grew deeper and the horizon was impregnated with a macabre ellipse- this was the thing that had reduced the world to a broken mirror image of yesterday, this was what had caused such anger and death, and left all lands in perpetual famine. This was Xhyrre, the scarlet leviathan, which had posed a significant danger for the duration of my career as a shepherd. Today it was too much for the flock to withstand. Before my eyes, their internal organs failed them, some combusted, others merely burst open like ripe watermelons, still others fell in a soulless heap to the ground, which itself was erupting in some places. Xhyrre rose over the equinox and consumed everything, it stretched from one line of sight to all the rest, and it was an all-consuming, all-devouring entity coated in jets of ash and torrents of hot coal. The scarlet leviathan chuckled to itself as the ruminants gave out one dying breath and were no more, and I sat and viewed all this and my hands were turned to dust and my face melted off the bone.

Before I woke, in that one breathless instant where heat was everywhere and the rays pierced through my flesh, I caught a glimpse of the true sun of this world. It was smaller by an exponential magnitude and blue like the monument on the shore and the eyes of my late herd. It had been conquered and usurped by this mad deity, and now all it could do was wait and observe. Like myself, this forgotten leader stood on the sidelines of the unavoidable.

And there I was, sitting and eating my wheat, mulling the facts over in my head. It came to me then, clearing my dish into the sink, that the scarlet leviathan was a parasite of sorts, feeding off the weak to add to its own mass. I was no astronomer, I know little of the affairs of the heavens, but I was certain of those facts. I had been shown something few if any would ever be given the opportunity to witness. And I still felt hot. Maybe it was the early sunbeams streaming in, amplified by the panes of glass in the kitchen. I put on a lighter shirt and opened all the windows, letting in the air.

I walked onto the porch and sat there for a while, taking some deep breaths. Across the way, life as usual went on, the people got up and discussed the events of the day prior over jam and eggs. The sun hung low in the pollutant soup over every home and every dusty sidewalk, stirring up in me a sense of tension I had never felt prior to my vision. There was something to that thatched construction near the pen that was so like my own home, old and weather-beaten, the inheritor of a crippled legacy. What other parallels could I draw between my life and that of the shepherd?

After sitting there for some time, I ambled down the walk and closed the gate behind me. It was getting to be around noon, the sun rose ever higher and I quickened my pace. And all around me were the products of autumn, miles of debris, making the world look like a malfunctioning paint factory. All Hallow’s Eve was still a month or so off, but on many balconies I was able to make out the gourds with their caricature teeth and devilish eyes. And of course the fervor of the season. Young children with eyes that sparkled, prepared for infinite tooth decay, setting up bets and ledgers that would make stockbrokers blush.

After saying hello to a few of my peers as I passed them by, I made my way towards Albion Court, one of the only boulevards remaining with enough products to sustain anyone. The Velvet Cafe has been around for as long as my memory will allow, it sits in the center of the Court between a foreclosed tenement and an incomplete construction site. The owner, Ferdinand, lives on the upper floor of the Cafe in a small apartment. He showed me it once, told me how the Court had been featured in national papers and culinary magazines. He holds out hope for a renaissance that will never come. He’s well into middle age and going deaf in one ear, and soon he like all the other shopkeepers here will go their separate ways.

I pushed through the beaded curtain at the far end of the foyer and moved through the tables until I spotted my favorite booth- out of the path of the Cafe’s traffic, it offers solemnity and contemplation. The waitress, Barbara, came out of the back holding a clipboard in one hand and a glass of water in the other. She looked at me with an expression of abject contempt. Going by a conversation I overheard once between her and the head chef, Roger, she seems to have the misguided impression that I abuse substances. In a certain regard, she is correct. I abuse pessimism.

She came over to get my order but I waved her away. She’d return soon enough. I needed to get my bearings, feel the smooth leather and take in the aromas from the back. Maybe I would leave without buying anything. Nobody would stop me. Effort is a lost art in this district.

I was constructing a mental image of the pen when I was interrupted by the noise of the curtain opening. I poked my head out from the row of benches to see my old flame, Vera. Like a bolt, I snatched myself back in and tried making my presence as diminutive as possible. She and I hadn’t had our way since graduation. I had no idea she was still here, last I heard she had made it over the county line and found work as some kind of accountant at a legal firm. Maybe she was visiting a sick relative, I thought. Maybe she was just checking up on the old stomping grounds. But why, then, did she walk with such a demeanor, one of acceptance and familiarity? If she had seen the way her former residence had declined as I had, and saw it with new eyes in one fell swoop rather than with a brutal and unrelenting descent, why didn’t she flinch some, or at least scoff? Maybe she was made of stronger material than the rest of us.

My mind went back to the after party all those years ago, when our community had a semblance of foundation. She and I had sat on the grass on the south end of the campus for a while. She had told me her goals and aspirations in life, and that her family would be moving away soon, and we started embracing passionately but then she pushed me away and told me she had to leave, and walked out into the night, holding her shoes with her head tilted up. I hadn’t seen her since then.

I had never forgotten the intoxicating perfume she wore that night, her energy, her good humor, her zest for life. I had forgotten her as a person, though. A few fleeting photos here, a yearbook snapshot there. Gradually she escaped my thought processes. I had other things to do, keep up the house and maintain myself. I had no time for long-term relationships, even platonic ones.

To my horror, Vera now sat at the table nearest me. I tried staying quiet, pulled my hat over my head. I prayed she’d eat quickly and depart, but she took her sweet time. She casually set down her purse and applied some makeup. Barbara emerged from the shadowy recesses of the adjunct dining room and glided over to Vera, pushing aside some stray chairs as she did so. They exchanged some dialogue, Barbara must have recognized her. I tried to drown them out in the ambient noise of the early afternoon, didn’t want to eavesdrop and wanted even less to hear what they were probably saying about me behind my back.

Barbara left and came back a few moments later with a freshly prepared sandwich and a cup of piping-hot coffee. The sandwich was wrapped and I thought for a moment Vera would take it to-go, but she remained where she was and ate slowly, peeling off the paper and making her way in. I stared directly ahead, at the leather booth and the crease in the middle. The room was filled with the ambient drone of the midday rush, the consumption of the employed. My gaze returned to her.

I remembered why all those years ago I had been smitten with her, and why we had carried on for as long as we had. She had small wrinkles around her eyes now, the effect of legal paperwork and bureaucratic dogma, but otherwise she appeared to be in good spirits, and in perfect standing with herself and her environs. For this I envied her. How could she sit atop this pile of debris and see beauty in it? She was a puzzling creature, but that puzzle was why for three long years we had attempted something serious.

She pulled a napkin from the dispenser to wipe her mouth, and when she tipped her neck her eyes lit on mine, and for a couple seconds the world was silent, her brain combing through itself, getting into the index, contemplating where she had seen my face before. And then it dawned on her.

“It’s you...” she said, a smear of mayonnaise dropping to her lapel. She rose to her feet and approached me. “How have you been? Almost didn’t notice you with that stubble.” She brought her coffee and sandwich over to my booth, deftly placing the sandwich so it would remain intact. She leaned on her elbow and those irises of hers consumed me as they had in the past. Her smile was like alcohol, it ruined the senses and numbed your limbs. And here she was.

“Fine, all things considered,” I replied. “Times have changed, people come and go, still the same at the end of the day. You look great, I’ll say that much.”

“I have?” she blushed. “Thanks.”

Barb returned then and asked me if I was going to have anything or if I was going to stay here and waste space, and I ordered a bowl of soup. She shook her head with reluctance and made for the swinging doors. Vera looked over at the condiment rack and squeezed more mustard onto her bread. She picked the sandwich up and looked at it, turning it over, licking her fingers, going for the critical points where ingredients were falling out.

The most apt comparison I could draw for her would be to the Pythia at the Temple of Apollo, the legendary priestess who betrayed Croesus in his endless quest for power and glory. Here, in the dim lighting of the Cafe, she looked like she was sitting over a smoke hole direct from Delphi, enrobed in tribunal jewelry and murmuring incantations to herself, those dark Spanish eyes that led into deep cavernous pools of mystic revelations. Inspection was her modus operandi, that and strategic analysis of any given situation. In the time I knew her, she had been gifted at algebra, could decipher any proof within 30 seconds. Now she had seen the ways of the world and through fate or dumb luck had journeyed back to her point of origin.

“You also look good, considering,” she remarked after some thought. “Just the clothes. They’re not what I remember you having, they don’t really suit you. You used to have all those baggy sweaters, and those denim jeans. What happened to those?”

“Some closet somewhere,” I muttered, taking my hat off and ruffling my hair to make myself more familiar. “If you haven’t noticed, Vera, you’ve been gone for over a decade. Things change in ten years, Vera. I’m not the same as I was. Neither are you. Do you still play chess competitively, or was it only a passing phase?” She nodded. We both knew the time we had spent on the summer lawns was ultimately of no consequence to our latter years, and that was a disturbing prospect.

“I guess not. Still, some things are still up. Right here, for instance. This is still the same. Remember me and you and Emilio sitting a few booths down, and Emilio did that salt shaker trick? That was fun. I wonder where Emilio is.” She gestured toward an empty booth. I had forgotten about the salt shaker, but it reared its ugly head from the depths of my subconscious and I had to be honest with her.

“Deported. He was deported. Misplaced his green card and they shipped him out.”

“Shit,” she said, chuckling halfheartedly and taking a deep swig of coffee. “Sorry to hear that. You look like you could use some company.” Here barb returned, carrying the soup gingerly so as not to spill it. She set it down, gave me another ugly glance, and gathered Vera’s check.

“You could say that. What’re you doing back in this neck of the woods?”

“Left the office,” she remarked with cynicism. “Full of chauvinistic creeps. You might think this is bad, but in the slightly larger law firms in the mid-size cities, they really have no restraint. Saw a news report on it a few months ago, thought it would never happen to me, but then one of our senior partners gets me in a closet and makes a move on me. Completely inappropriate. I push past him, gather my things, head out the door. When I got home, Dad was upset about me throwing away my career, we had a fight where he yelled at me about all the funds he had sunk into my tuition. I decided to take the sedan, fill it up with my stuff, and now I’m living out of it, at least until I can figure something out. Maybe an apartment here, I’m sure the rates are low. Better here than out there.” I drank my soup casually as she told me all this. She was hardly emotional, relayed this inner turmoil with the mundane affectations of a ticker tape. Strong-willed and ever difficult to please, that was Vera.

I took in our surroundings further. At one table, in the center of the main area, sat an elderly gentleman with a dark suitcase. He was bespectacled and held an outdated magazine in his left hand. He looked over at us. I didn’t know him, had never seen him on the streets before. He was probably a visiting academic or a grifter. And yet there was something else to him- he watched the tableau of us eating and chatting with utter contempt. There was fire in his grimace, in the way his wizened hands gripped the pages with ferocity. He was disgusted by me. Was this the poison of the place, the presence that had settled in, or had he seen what I had seen, did he know what I was thinking? His gaze bore right through me with X-ray vision, pinned me to the wall like an intriguing specimen of butterfly.

“I hope you don’t put any stock in what happened,” Vera continued. “You know, between us. Like you said, that was a long time ago, and I’ve moved on from it. But you’re still a decent person, and that’s a rare thing to find in this day and age.”

Her voice came to me distorted and slowed down, because the grifter was now gritting his teeth and picking up his suitcase. And I knew, somehow, that whatever was in that suitcase, whatever paraphernalia he bore on his person, would have dire consequences for both of us. He had set the magazine down and he was now undoing the lock. He was having trouble with it, but we didn’t have much time to spare.

“Is it OK if we leave?” I asked. The panic was clear in my voice and Vera raised her eyebrows. She probably thought I was crazy, but she was equally puzzled by the old man with the suitcase and casually responded as someone would if they were in an active hostage situation, with a reserved demeanor and a non-accusatory tone.

“Fine. You can show me your place.”

I pulled out five dollars in a mad rush, slammed it down next to my unfinished soup, and grabbed Vera’s hand, pulling her past the veil of multicolored beads and out onto the street. Back in the Cafe I thought I heard someone screaming their head off, but was too intimidated to go back in and investigate what had happened. Vera was a few tiles ahead of me, rubbing her shoulders, trying to warm up. The temperature had dropped and the few businesses along the Court were preparing for their final hour of operation. Time had sped by, I only counted an hour at the most, but the sun was making its way behind the Western clouds and we ran all the way back to my property.

Under any other conditions, we would have been nostalgic and gone on a quick sightseeing tour, but it was cold and getting dark and there was an old man with a suitcase somewhere in our immediate vicinity who had it in for us.

The bricks were piling up.

Vera came up the walk from her sedan, which she had gone out to fetch after I prepared a hot mug of chamomile tea for her. She carried with her a few boxes, some trinkets, and some memorabilia. I remembered most of it, had been up to her loft a few times prior to her departure. She set it by the door and shivered. The thermometer was hitting 20 degrees and still falling rapidly. Outside, the town stood like a buried tomb, most of the windows were unlit and only a few chimneys had smoke billowing from them. The trees were a death rattle, their branches swayed vigorously, and below on the streets a generous layer of October frost was piling up, enough to create hazardous conditions.

“You won’t even notice it,” she said, gesturing toward her things. I closed the door and bolted it shut. He would have a hard time finding us at this address, whoever he was. He’d need to search the directories down at the city center, and it was already closed.

Halfway up the staircase she noticed the old portrait. Me and my parents on the lake during happier times. Sunburn, a half-eaten popsicle discarded on the sand, free canoeing lessons. She untacked it and held it for a while, then sat down on the step. I came up and joined her. It was difficult to see things in the house, especially printed media. I hadn’t replaced the bulbs lately and they were wearing thin. Every facet of the place was bathed in a dull, half-hearted ochre.

“You do miss them sometimes, don’t you?”

“I do.” She straightened up and got her things. “Seems every day the value of this estate drops. I don’t mean in terms of money, but what had to happen for me to get it. I feel like a damned leech, profiting off their death.” And at this last, memories came back of my father, who drank himself to death at Duffy’s Tavern, and my mother, who either out of desperation or simple clumsiness, fell off the Oak Rapids Bridge a year later. Next day they hauled her out, every department was in attendance and her innards were dashed against the rocks.

I sat there for a while, listening to Vera’s footsteps as she vanished down the balcony. She reappeared and, seeing me in such a fix, put her arm over my shoulder and we sat there for a while. I looked downstairs through the bannisters at what had become of my sorry state. Troves of junk, dust on every surface. And there were noises. Only the house settling. It’s an old house, i told myself, ancient from pioneer times, built back when architecture was a new field. Nothing to worry about.

“I’ll light a fire,” she said.

And that was how we spent most of the night. In armchairs, across from each other, watching the embers die down and the nocturnal weather pound at the railings. Outside it became inhospitable and hostile, and in here it wasn’t different. Wind whistled through the cracks, moisture condensated in the attic, and all the while Vera stared at me with those dark eyes. I told her about my time as a shepherd, about the monument and my flock. She was puzzled by it but swallowed it all without any hesitation.

I could tell there were no amorous feelings between us, we had grown distant and cold like the icicles that would appear by dawn. Still, it was amazing to have someone to tell this to, to unload my guilt. She may not have understood my condition, having spent a long time elsewhere, but as the night drew on and the stars came out, I think the weight of the situation began to draw her into its perilous vortex. I told her about the rancid presence that occupied everything, the dark cloud that had turned friendly people hostile and driven the weakest of the population to stark madness, and she listened in that inquisitive way of hers, with her cheek propped against her fingers and her hands drumming the armrest.

And with her so close by my side, I futilely assumed that perhaps destruction could be avoided, that I was a free agent with multiple options. It was an appealing fantasy. Maybe the trapdoor would stick. Couldn’t hang a man twice, didn’t work like that. I poured my heart and soul at her for well until midnight, and when the chimes in the big tower downtown rang and the wind kept going, she said that she was tired would probably turn in. I bid her goodbye and she went up the stairs. I remained where I was, feeling it would be ridiculous to move in this state. There was still so much I needed to tell her. About the factories, about the broken skeletons and the barren wastes.

I stayed put, listening to the clock tick well past the barrier. I counted the seconds, watched the minute hand make a full rotation around the smooth crystal surface of the timepiece. There was a hypnotic quality to it, a symbol of the passage of time and the journey that lay ahead, and as the last of the firewood sputtered out, I drifted into a dreamless and fitful ocean.

I woke up only once, after a loud noise that resembled a truck backfiring. I made my way carefully to the front door and peered out the glass window at the top. There he was, the old man, briefcase by his side on the slippery concrete, somehow making it through this bitter display of nature’s wrath, inspecting the premises. He knew I was looking at him, and vice versa.

It was an almost surreal scene, like something from a Kafka novel or a rene Magritte painting. Here it was, the wee hours of the morning, the time when hearts stopped and brain waves slowed to a pedantic crawl, and I was wide awake staring at a complete stranger whose presence here was impossible. After a while of this mindless amusement he picked up the suitcase and casually sauntered off to the North.

Needless to say, I didn’t fall back to sleep after that.

The bricks were held together by a potent mixture of cement, and Fortunado’s agony did not make it past that potent mixture. It was airtight, soundproof, the greatest device known to man. And as it was airtight, the air quickly ran out, and Fortunato was left in his final hours with nothing to draw in and nothing to see by. An invisible agony, a fate known to none save his captor.

I relayed the details in the tale of the cask to Vera, who to my surprise had never heard it before. She was amazed by the eloquence with which I summarized it, and by the end she agreed with me that it was an accurate parallel to what was happening here, now, in the town where we had both spent our formative years. She was quick to point out when something felt off, and she was better at that than me, as I had been around the presence a good deal longer than her and had grown somewhat apathetic to it.

We were combing the northern wastes - the McArthur iron mill, to be more specific, which during my adolescence promised a multitude of jobs and industry. In the years since it was bought out by an investment firm in Chicago, the large pipe had tilted slightly from its base, a modern-day recreation of the leaning tower of Pisa, coated in thick orange and white stripes. Vera couldn’t believe it when we had first approached it, but there it was, all the same, in its demure accolades it stood out from the remainder of the scrapyard like a sore thumb, a testament to incompetence, of unfulfilled promises and shaky guarantees. It was everything I hoped to convey to her.

We stood in its shadow holding hands, exchanging no banter but deriving a kind of connection from it. Behind it was the scaffolding of the unfinished Ruben Project, an adjunct to the main factory that would have supplied additional parts to the mill had it not fallen through. Fabric hung from the rafters, screws had long since come loose from their corresponding holes. Vandalism, of course, was omnipresent. Everywhere you could see the effects of erosion and intentional corruption. It made the grounds less of a nostalgic whistling pen and more of a hollow mockery.

She kicked at clumps of dirt with her scuffed leather boots and her nose became moist in the crisp air- while it was not as cold as the previous night, it was still well below acceptable temperatures and we were both bundled to the extent that movement and practicality would allow.

We made a circular tour of the concrete jungle, clockwise through the contemporary ruins. I had not seen these in some time, and they had become worse since I saw them last. While our friend from the Cafe was nowhere to be seen, the presence was palpable here, and it made our journey almost as nerve-wracking. I can liken it to the sense one gets after going to the clinic and being put through a machine that gives out radiation- while you may be wearing an insulated apron and while the doctor may run you by a full checklist of procedures beforehand, there will always remain gnawing at the back of your mind the suspicion that somehow, through some unforeseen negligence or contingency, some of the invisible particles made it through and are now eating away at your systems. This is how the presence operates. It is unfelt, unseen, unheard, but everywhere and everything.

“Stand here,” I whispered, positioning her roughly half a mile to the west of the leaning pipe.

“That feels so weird,” she chuckled nervously. This was, from what I could tell, the epicenter of the presence. It made sense. This was a hole carved by the bulldozers, earth scraped away in massive chunks to build a foundation that never came. If the presence was like fog, if it rolled in and settled, then naturally it would approach the lowest point. The dugout was a shallow cone, and at its center it was so overwhelming that even with a strong will like Vera’s, you felt you were constantly under persecution and that your life was in mortal danger. I crawled back up the edge before it could take hold of me. She remained for a while longer, her eyes twitched and she began to tremble. Then she staggered up the side and collapsed at my feet. I offered her a hand up.

“THAT,” she exclaimed, “is really something. We need to bring some scientists here, have them test whatever this is. I mean, in short bursts it can motivate someone. They can stand down there for a prolonged period of time, and then once they’re out they’ll feel amazing because compared to what’s down there, the rest of the world and by extension their life is excellent.” She was making a pathetic attempt to smile, but I brushed it away with my gloved hand and we moved forward.

“There is no ‘out,’” I said, waving my arms in every direction. “The entire town is feeling it. Some days more than others, but it’s always there. At my house, at the Court, even the turnpike. Until you cross the border, it’s with you. Sticks with you. It’s less out there, of course, but there, and it can do things to people with low self-esteem.” She wasn’t listening, she was too busy double-checking the path behind us and making nervous sounds. Despite her show of prowess, she was as much affected by the presence as I was. You could no more defy it than you could defy radiation poisoning.

“The Andersons, for instance,” I continued. “Last year, Mr. Anderson took his wife and tied her out in the garage, stuck her to a chair with duct tape, for the whole neighborhood to see. I was there, saw it up close and personal. He accused her of being a Government plant. She yelled for almost an hour until someone bothered to call the police. After which, he was given a restraining order and his ex-wife moved out with the children. Now he broods over there, nobody goes to see him and he only comes out on weekends to buy groceries. Talks to nobody. Stays by himself. I can list off more examples if you don’t believe me.” From where we were now, on a wide promontory, we could see the town in full. It was dismal and rainy, and the sky overhead was coated in monochromatic shades of gray. She held onto me like an anchor in the sand. She looked close to vomiting.

I decided to go to some places I hadn’t on my previous forays into this silent wilderness. She tagged along, offering her usual witty banter, although it had been tempered by time. She had always been great at parties. That was another quality about her, at all the parties we went to she could leave an audience spellbound. All these long-forgotten Veraisms, drudged up from the mire.

We approached the end of the northern industrial area, which was marked off by a barbed wire fence that was easy to cross in some areas, entirely demolished to bits in others. Beyond it, the highway snaked through a narrow swath of preserved wilderness. A car drifted past every 15 minutes or so, but for the most part it was quiet. We both sat down, facing the vast sprawling headache before us. I pulled off my sack and retrieved some sandwiches and drink mix.

Vera was somewhere else, physically she was sitting next to me but mentally she was on another plane. Maybe thinking about her father, maybe about her future. She put on a good front about it. Maybe it was that she saw, for the first time, in a panoramic landscape shot, what had become of her past, and that there would be no return to the idyllic sock hops and asphalt joyrides.

Beyond the highway there was a wall, and beyond that there were some trees, a small wooded area. I don’t know what those trees were on, probably a private gun range or hunting preserve. The highway marked the boundary between the realm of the presence and the outside world- and while the entire sky was gray, with pregnant cumuli, it seemed more natural past the road. I could leave anytime I wanted. I could pack up my things, sell the house, buy another one somewhere else. Maybe near Vera.

But the presence didn’t want that, it wouldn’t let me go. It would probably still let her go, it was indifferent to her being here, she was irrelevant to the thing’s motivations. But I was a staple in them, a necessary component. I would hold onto the expensive property and live off the pensions until it allowed me to leave. Which probably wouldn’t be anytime soon.

Looking at these factories was like seeing a kaleidoscope of history in a microcosm- the construction, the edification, the worship and the fall of a once-supreme empire. Pipes and bolts and reinforced concrete meant nothing if nobody was around to keep it in check. It was almost a modern art installation by now, serving no purpose save for rat lodging and litter disposal. And it choked the residences beyond with its pervasive locks, its imposing stature. While it was no longer a factory or iron or glass, it was a factory of oppression and a mechanism of brute force.

After our lunch, we rose to our feet and began walking south along some railroad tracks. These had once carried monolithic vehicles loaded up with coal and steel, making deafening trumpets, but now they were only wooden ties and splintered forks, and the circuitry on the switch boxes had been eaten through by some native rodent. We were in an expansive switchyard, tracks that curved and doubled back in impossible permutations, a field of locomotive remains.

And still we carried on, heads up, all while the presence grew stronger. We were nearing the pit. Vera motioned toward the interior of one building- if memory serves, it was the Daedalus Automotive Plant. This structural eyesore was loaded in every direction with scattered picket signs and assembly lines that went up to the ceiling in serpentine fractals like a roller coaster that had stopped moving midride.

It was then that something caught my eye. On the wall to our left, a small opening. I took Vera in my palm and we tiptoed over to it, careful not to disturb the phantoms. It was a brick wall, and in its center there was an aperture through which no light entered and nothing exited. Five bricks had been removed- or they had never been filled in. Either way, it had not been done by weather or by decay. The wall was intact save this very spot. Vera stood next to the wall, squinting at the hole’s contents, but I pulled her from it and held my finger to my lips. Whatever was in there, I indicated, was best left unseen.

We could hear the approach of thunder through the roof, those pregnant clouds were now giving birth and the drops came pouring down on those thin glass panes. A full percussion section emerged. Vera held onto my arm and I held onto hers. I debated for a moment whether it would be easier to wait out the storm or run for the exit. If we held out in here for too long, the rain could persist until nightfall, and I didn’t want to be here after sunset.

However, the Daedalus was longer a sturdy or waterproof enclosure. Water came in buckets and torrents through the holes in the glass roof, the faults in the masonry, and ran down the assembly lines in eddies and currents. It was undoubtedly a flood out there, certainly a deluge that could test one’s patience and strength. But it was sopping in here, and our shoes were ensconced in puddles and mires. Vera pointed to the exit. We hastened toward the rectangle of evening, holding our hands over our mouths to avoid breathing the dislodged carcinogens.

Vera shielded her eyes. It was difficult to make anything out beyond a cataclysmic blur, little drops kept forming over our eyebrows, but then I saw him, too. He was standing at the edge of the pit, briefcase and suit as they had been yesterday. And he was holding something, pointing it at us. A small opaque object that glimmered. I pulled my head away from it and we struggled through the curtains of runoff- toward the front gate of the complex, back toward home and safety.

“It’s that same man-” she cried, letting out a cough. She faced me as we sped double-file for the border, and I saw her eyes. They were like the eyes of the herd, anticipatory and vigilant.

“I know. Don’t look at him, Vera, and whatever you do, don’t look at that thing he’s holding.” I glanced over my shoulder. He was following us, slow but steady, keeping behind at a clockwork pace. I didn’t know what he wanted, but if he was here for me, my time may as well have come. I was prepared to do anything to escape this torment- sacrifice myself, sacrifice Vera. Please, my head was throbbing. Make the presence stop. Make the pursuit stop. Can’t take both of them at once.

When we got to the front gate, which was comprised of a tall chain link fence and an employee entrance road that had potholes to an absurd degree, the opening we had come through was locked. That was impossible, as nobody had the key to the lock, but I suspected our friend, who was now closing in at an alarming rate, had access to resources in dark recesses.

“Quick,” I screamed over the deafening thunder, holding my hands out. Vera stepped into them. It was immensely difficult to keep them clasped, the water made everything slippery, and it was even harder to take her full weight with my shoes stuck in the mud, but she clambered over the top and then gave me her arm. I hooked my freezing digits into the holes, cutting off my circulation. I tried getting off the ground any way I could, launching myself into orbit, twisting as the old man came closer. With one gangly outstretched paw, he took hold of my shoe and grabbed on with a pneumatic force.

He held out the object. In this light, it was kind of pretty. Shiny and reflective, like a mirror. A mirror that went on forever, the result of two large mirrors on either side of an empty room. Shiny enough to burn you, shinier than a supernova, photons rushing toward me at incredible speeds, soaring through my head. He smiled, and I smiled back. Toothy grins on both sides.

Vera lunged me up with intense strength, something I had no idea she was capable of, but it seems she was full of surprises and revelations this week. We fell off the top and down the precipice, and landed in a puddle that broke our fall, but if it hadn’t been there I think we would have suffered a fracture or two. I was dazed and confused, and saw for a moment the old man, watching us through the slots, bitter and resentful that his prize had been stolen away from him.

I was still in a stupor as Vera wrenched my arm from its socket, clutched at my jacket and dragged me over the rubble, all the way to the curb of Apple Street. She knelt before me and brushed the dirt off, and I was coming out of my state and starting to see things as they really were. Her lips moved but made no sound, her eyelashes flickered but the day was well behind us and it was difficult to see anything. The sun went down without casting so much as a vermillion farewell.

It was night now, and we were in the shadow of the McArthur pipe, made eerie by a streetlight which had flickered on a few moments prior. No words were exchanged, no witty banter from Vera was given as we gathered our senses and staggered at broken intervals in the general pattern we had observed on the beginning of our excursion. We were both very tired, as if the stranger had sapped us of our lifeforce, and when we came at last to within a block of the house, we let out an exhalation of relief. Something which, as the week went on, became a rare commodity.

If the noose had been casually assembled before, it was now crafted by an expert. If before the wall had been two or three layers thick, it was now mounting its construction with speed and agility. The next three days were spent in solemn isolation. We didn’t go out for air, all the windows were shut, not even a scant trace of daylight, we relied only on our circadian rhythms and the grandfather clock in the living room to keep time. Nights were spent ever vigilant, and bags grew under our eyes from the worsening insomnia. Games of chinese checkers and mahjong were attempted but seldom one or lost, as with our minds preoccupied neither of us could manage more than a halfhearted stalemate. I poked the fire and kept it ablaze, as if by the smoke rising up into the atmosphere any demons in our vicinity would take note and fly elsewhere.

Conversation after the incident at the factories had been made increasingly difficult, communication was stifled and pushed back into our throats. Vera was now pale and fragile, her confidence chopped into a fraction of what it had been. She twisted at every creak of the attic and every thud from the basement, and when we did exchange words it was pitifully brief and futile. With words came clarity, with discussion came knowledge, and the presence didn’t want that, so it kept our verbal interactions to an absolute minimum. Only enough so that we wouldn’t suspect what it was doing.

And when I did sleep, and Vera stood watch over my bedside as I did so, listening for footsteps or the slightest motion from the hall outside my room, I fell back onto that world, and repeatedly lived through the same terrible red morning, as Xhyrre crested the horizon and the flock let out that bawl of agony. There was no relief in sleep. Sleep was a dreaded guardian of sanity, a last resort to be implemented only when all other options failed.

I would wake up with a start and leap into her arms, and she would tell me that it was fine, that there was nothing I could have done to save them. I wondered often why she didn’t pack up and escape in her sedan, but I think what she was going through in the stew she called her cerebrum prevented that. I think also that she wanted to follow these events through to their endpoint, get a sense of resolution and of finality. She was too curious for her own good, even reckless.

Vera was in poor health and required medicine. Her cough, which had started at the Daedalus Plant, was worsening by the hour. Probably pneumonia. Every so often she would stand at the base of the stairs, watching the doorknob, hacking into her elbow. It never turned, but once someone did shake it from the front porch. I had no doubts as to their identity.

If she hadn’t been there to keep me in check I would have flown off the rails. This was, after all, deep autumn, and though the windows and doors were locked tight I could hear the noises of the town’s children outside, naive to the silent dangers that preyed on them daily, blissfully ignorant of what lurked in every corner and adjunct of this desperate backwater.

We barred our fortress for three weeks, and it felt as if months were slipping through our fingers. The motion of the lever, the noise of a trowel digging into a bucket of mortar in an Italian catacomb. Time slipped through our fingers like sand, filtered through us without recognition, pressed on like a marching band whose destination was an alligator pit at the end of the block. We were conscious of every movement and sound but not conscious of being alive, or being present. We drifted through the events of this excruciating period disconnected from the world. We had become living ghosts, trapped behind a self-imposed obstruction.

The storms worsened. A massive branch snapped off of the great oak out front and smashed into the roof with intensity. The attic sprung a leak and began dripping onto the second floor, but we paid it no mind because neither of us were willing to go into the attic and remove the branch. Every evening was saturated with the howling winds, the drunken shouts from down the street and the enigmatic murmurs that had no explanation and required none.

For better or worse, the spirit of deep autumn was inescapable. While I could not see them, I knew the candles were lit and the costumes were stitched together, and out by the highway on the farmland the orange gourds were being plucked from their stems by the hundreds and sold to pedestrians at the general store. And I assumed, too, that if I were to look out the top of the front door at any time, I would be greeted by a familiar face- and his familiar object.

The aromas of burning leaf piles and cinnamon and apple cider drifted on the wind to our nostrils, and they tempted us both, but we had no food. The old man was indeed cunning, he was starving us out. Sooner or later, we would need to run for supplies, gather something to eat. But for three long weeks we stood a vigil, taking turns sleeping and watching each other constantly. I don’t think we once let each other out of our sight.

It was coincidence or perhaps twisted karma that we caved and made a break for it on All Hallow’s Eve, the darkest day of the year, when the stars align to bring misery upon our terrestrial plane and the occult is palpable, when the rivers run red and the timepieces turn backward. When the skies are devoid of color and the only color comes from the gaping maw of the jack o’lantern, a burst of flame in an otherwise jet black swamp. It was the vile occurrence, the neverending carnival, the display of arrogance.

It was Halloween. We were tired, we were hungry, and there was no looking back.

”Stay close by me,” I said, bolting the front door tight and sticking the key firmly into my shirt pocket. “We walk down to the general store. Only a few blocks down that way, they should be open for at least 15 minutes. We go in, grab anything we can. I’ll stand by the register, monitor the aisles. Don’t ask questions to the cashier, don’t make small talk. We get out, run back. Got it?” She nodded slowly. It was cold, but not nearly as much as the day up north, and it looked as though no rain would come, which gave us hope for a safe passage. We started down the walk.

“It’ll be fine,” she said, looking like something out of a Gothic dungeon. “There are plenty of parents around. We can always scream.” She was correct- the block was littered with families going up and down, crunching on leaf debris and munching on toffee apples. Nobody stopped by the Anderson residence, and I could guess why.

Soon these children would all be gone, save for one or two. When the small schoolhouse on Canterbury Way closed down due to a lack of attendance, they would be funneled into a new facility a couple counties over, and there they would enter academia and earn degrees and scholarships. I hoped that was how it turned out for them, because if they stayed here who knew what might happen. Their lives were doubtlessly troubled and scarred. How they must have suffered, tripped, fallen down. Not as in my youth, when this place still had potential. Now it was only a breeding ground for lunatics.

We gathered no stares from passersby as we made the long walk to the store. We were only in costume, not two recluses who for three weeks ate from tins and boxes and did not sleep. The bags under our eyes, the disheveled hair, these were only an elaborate costume and we were on our way to a party. Nothing to see here, move along.

A necktie party. Ha ha.

The old man was nowhere to be seen, though we tilted our heads like owls, searching for him amidst the scenery as you would search for something in a puzzle book. Here were two middle-aged fathers discussing the results of that week’s football game in their front lawn, one’s hand set casually on the top of a rake. Here was a young mother chewing bubble gum as she watched a cluster of children, hers among them, ascend to the house with the thatched roof and traditional mailbox. Here were the ghouls and goblins, and still no profane warlock. Our spirits were lightened, if only by a small margin.

The homes ended and gave way to the business district. Only the general store remained open in the evening, the rest had skeleton crews and pitiful salaries. We picked up speed toward that beacon of warmth and light, and saw nobody from crossroads to crossroads, only our reflections in the dusty displays staring back at us. Above, the waning daylight was subdued by a murder of crows flying in from the east. They made their raspy cries and we tried to set our stride by their movement.

There is something indescribable about watching the sun slip out from below your eyes. The wispy cirrus were moving at a medium pace and the air was quickly losing all its heat. Vera shivered once or twice, despite our constant movement toward that beckoning hole of security at the end of the lane.

When it’s deep autumn, the chill is palpable. Every bone feels as if it has the potential to transition into a state of rigor mortis, the skin is stretched and erected, the eyes become moist and you don’t blink unless you absolutely have to. It is winter’s sadistic cousin, a season that enjoys toying and playing around with one’s perception of an acceptable temperature. We should have brought some heavy coats along, but this frigid inclination gave me the signal we wouldn’t need them anyway.

Vera opened the door and I followed, and she careened around the racks grabbing whatever she saw that looked good- not inherently nutritious, mind you, but filling and calorie-heavy. I stood by the aperture. Still nobody out there. Only an empty thoroughfare, and way in the back you could see my street, where children still meandered in grotesque outfits with bobbing candles in tow.

She was more a horde of undead than a late-night shopper as she scrambled along those greasy tiles and the clerk gave us an accusatory glance before returning to his crossword puzzle. Vera and I were overjoyed, her arms were heavy with cans of soup and bags of cheese curls. She went to the cold drink section and retrieved a large jug of tropical blend from the bottom rack. Her fingers seemed burdened and I took a few things from her. She set them down on the desk and as there was nobody else present she went for a second round. I was then called over and pulled out my wallet. The clerk rang us up and stuffed our cargo into multiple bags- well enough to keep us safe for at least another week. We said nothing to him and vanished into the gathering external darkness like spectres.

It must have been only a few minutes in the shop, but outside the visibility and insulation had gone down by several orders of exponential magnitude. The gathering fog didn’t help any, small ice crystals that made our clothes adhesive and turned our muscles into quivering jelly. Vera rested her head in the crook of my shoulder. We were silent but through the sheer combined power of our minds we weathered through the growing murk. Behind us the lights went out, ahead of us the world seemed to stretch like a piece of taffy, extend itself farther than we were capable.

It was the peak of deep autumn, before the solace of yuletide but long removed from the empty ignorance of a hot summer’s day. It was a night whose effects were amplified by the growing sense of dread, the dread to end all apprehension, a rising acknowledgement that we would not make it back home with these supplies unscathed. The town was dark, the people were inside, and they would never help us were we to encounter anything.

It was then that a horrible thought wormed its way into my mind- that this was exactly what he had wanted us to do, that we would be better off remaining indoors until we both starved, that if we were desperate we could gnaw on the books and ruminate on the wallpaper, that fetching supplies every month on the month was not a practical solution, and that a long and painful starvation was immensely preferable to what lay before us in that impermeable soup of shadow and chaos.

Because- and then it dawned on me, this sudden realization- he could not enter my domicile under the conditions of his own existence. Like a bloodsucking aristocrat, one of those in the old dime-store novels and radio serials, he couldn’t come in without my consent- perhaps not a vampire in the traditional sense, but one whose proclivities for feasting on the misery of others was metaphorically present.

I looked over at Vera, whose face I could barely make out. She looked lethargic, on the verge of imminent collapse. Weeks prior she had seemed a candle of energy, a great relief in this gathering doom, but all candles lose their wax if taxed for long enough, and she was now shuffling back and forth on her weary ankles. I had brought her into this. I was responsible for her insatiable misery.

She tugged on my sleeve and my eyes rose from the sidewalk to the alley we had just passed. We took a few steps back and looked in. As I had expected, as we had both been aware of for some time, he knew exactly where we were and exactly what we were doing. Before us the houses lay dormant, the children were gone and the streets were forlorn and insufferably quiet. He had manipulated the hours and minutes such that, while we had left in the early evening, it was now the dead of night and we were alone in his presence, under his watch, and he would do with us whatever he saw fit.

He stood, as casually as ever, undisturbed by the inclement frost. He was framed in the rectangle of bricks, two brick walls that went off in tandem forever- giving way to an inexorable labyrinth of urban decay and squalor, coated in freezing rain and soot. Catacombs made of brick and mortar. He had come from the depths and now wanted to at last pull the lever, put away the trowel, put an end to his work. The boards gave way. The cap faintly jingled.

He pulled out the object and opened it, which made his figure more tangible, but he was still fading over the aether, the crux of what we saw and heard, the center of all known existence. He was at a crossroads in his present manifestation, it could be said, a transitional phase. Soon he would be leaving, to somewhere far, far away, but he wouldn’t leave without completing his task. We both stood, two parties at arm’s length, the mire gathering around us and our environs as silent as death.

His suitcase stood beside him on the greasy asphalt, his glasses were pearly and shone with the light of that accursed thing, which he held in his leather gloved hands beneath the folds of his immense greatcoat. He resembled either a stoic witness to the end times or a demented businessman whose appointment had arrived. While our breath was visible, his was not.

“Greetings,” he uttered casually, as if we were all good friends. “Been waiting for you some time now. Of course, you know that. Name’s Bayard Macey. You folks have been causing me a whole lot of trouble. In more ways than one, more than you could possibly imagine.” His voice was old- old enough to recount the times of the pharaohs and the pioneers. It had seen oceans of deep time, moved through a cavern of chronology. Rustic, faded, like unraveling a papyrus scroll unearthed from some long-dead Sumerian City. It was, however, strangely contemporary.

A disturbing look came over Vera’s face. It was one of utter misery and contempt.

This had been the endgame- starve us out like rats, cut our ties. There would have been no solution either way. Just as a vampire must ask to enter, but can do as they please to those who dare step foot outside their domicile, this wizened phantom had played us for fools.

“Listen here, you old FUCK!” Vera shouted, pushing me backward and moving toward him. “What the Hell do you want from us? We’ve done nothing to you!” I grabbed the frayed end of her sleeve, trying to tell her that she shouldn’t do this, that if he had our destinies written down, this was the one that would work out in his favor- but the threads broke, and she left the sidewalk and walked slowly into the alley, breathing heavily, fists taut.

It was then my head exploded with a sense of irreconcilable despair- pain erupted through all my systems at once, rending nerve from nerve and bond from bond. Horror recoiled from my ragdoll form as I doubled over onto the pavement, writhing and heaving. My field of vision filled with a deep red, the likes of which probably indicated every capillary in his head rupturing. From this distorted perspective I could witness a few key events through the unparalleled misery.

He grabbed her wrist before she landed a single blow, with inhuman strength he whisked her around so that she faced me, arm over her chest. She struggled but soon passed out- I assume from asphyxiation. He mulled the object over in his hands, then held it up to her, and from it there emerged a chaotic maelstrom of noise, which obfuscated the outside world and manifested itself as an infinite vortex of fire. He receded, with her in his arms, into the flames.

And then I was alone, in a fetal position on the empty street, and the street was quiet, and I was cold.

It was fifty years ago that Vera was taken. In those fifty years, numerous events have come to pass. The town has indeed become a residence of reclusive lunatics, myself included, and like all other forgotten communities here on the sweeping swath outsiders never arrive. We subsist on grit and termites, and the frontiersman was destroyed, and the business district was decimated in a tornado. I was present for the event, and it compared little to the spiral of hellfire that took Vera.

It is in these solemn hours that I reflect on my impending death- for if what I saw was indeed real, and not merely a byproduct of my fevered mind, there is some sort of afterlife or grand scheme. What it entails I cannot begin to postulate. I know that the old man was dead, in some manner. Alive in the physical sense, in the here and now aspect, but his mind and soul was far past. I am an old man myself now, my tissues are breaking apart, my metabolism is dropping by the hour, and I write this as an addendum to the few future wanderers who will come upon it while exploring my home.

Given my penchant for predilection, I know of a few other truths- that Vera still exists in some form out there in the cosmos, that the old man also exists. Every so often the pain returns, albeit to a reduced extent, and I am reminded that I am still being punished for my transgressions against him.

Read this if you have the omniscience, old man. I may be old, but I am younger than you by centuries, and when my spirit breaks through to the other side- and perhaps I find myself a shepherd on the shore of the forgotten sea on a world far removed from any I have previously known, I will not stand idly by while the red giant rears itself. I will stand and make my objections known, and I will ruin you. Ruin you and your miserable career, raise an army that would rival the nation-states of Earth, reduce your empire to a sea of carnage and desolation.

You may have seen yourself as Montresor and your victims as Fortunado. You have left out one key element- revenge. You are not one to carry out revenge. You have never been wronged. When I and my apostles breach your gates, you will know the meaning of the word. I am Montresor, and my time is soon. The tomb is vacant.