West Virginia, Mountain Mama
The first time I killed someone must have been in late August, 1993. In Central Florida, for a few months out of the year, it rains at 4 pm each day so reliably that you can just about set your watch by it. I recall the night I fired those shots. I recall the thickness in the air, the sort that follows these rains. I recall the hypnotic glitter of Church Street neon on damp asphalt. I recall the clammy grip of the fake leather upholstery in the back seat of my classmate’s Lincoln as we swerved toward the forbidden Waffle House on Orange Blossom Trail. It was the damp, the rain that tells me it was August. It was the length of Electronics Technician A-school that tells me our doomed outing would have been in the last couple weeks of the month.
At the time, the Navy’s nuclear training program centered chiefly in Orlando, as did one of the Navy’s three recruit training commands. The City of Light was the potter’s wheel on which the Navy molded doughy high school graduates into dog-tired, slightly less doughy sailors ready to assume responsibility for the glowing hearts of America’s uranium-powered warships. I first arrived not long after my 18th birthday in 1992 to finish out the year in Basic Training. After a couple of weeks off while the class filled up, A-school started. Three ratings are available to Navy nukes. Machinist’s Mates are responsible for, as the name suggests, engine room machinery: pumps, valves, pipes, condensers, lube oil separators, seawater distillation plants, air ejectors, gland exhaust, main engine bushings, shaft couplings, & al. MM A-school is the shortest of the three, lasting (if I recall) around 18 weeks or so. Electrician’s Mates operate and maintain switchgear, motors, generators, breaker panels, and shipboard wiring. EM A-school is a bit longer, around 22 weeks. I was assigned to Electronics Technician A-school. Our school was something like 26 weeks, where we learned all about basic electronics, radar sets, 70s-era integrated circuits, and a load of other crap none of us would ever see on the job. As it is for the other ratings, the academic requirements started easy. However, by the end of the school, free time became a rare commodity as we strived to stay on top of required learning standards.
After finishing A-school, we were frocked from E-3 to E-4, and assigned a make-work detail before Power School started. For a couple of glorious weeks, my buddies and I went from 70+ hour work weeks to putting in a token 20-30 hours as badge-checkers. It was during these weeks, and the first few weeks of Power School that followed that a few of us enjoyed enough free time to go farting around town in my buddy’s big ol’ Lincoln, listening to the melodic strains of Haddaway and Ace of Base as we explored the giddy world of Orlando’s 18+ nightclubs.
Yes, it was as awful in practice as it sounds on paper.
At first, I didn’t even realize the other car had opened fire. The combination of the radio and our rowdy conversation was loud enough to drown out the popcorn snaps of the small-caliber pistol they were using to pepper our bumper. The dude riding (forgive the vulgarity) bitch to my right was the first to notice the activity behind us. Once he raised the alarm, we promptly decided to shoot back while fleeing as expeditiously as road conditions allowed. Since I was the only person in the car able to squirm around without having to awkwardly flop across someone’s lap or shoot southpaw, the fellow driving (identity withheld for obvious reasons) handed me the 9mm he kept in his glove box. I rolled the window down and shot without aiming. Traffic was non-existent at that late hour in that part of town, so we burned rubber out of there, and the other car swerved off the road and into a shallow ditch.
For years, I thought that was the end of it. We were the butt of some random street violence that ended in scaring off some joyriding thugs who balked when they saw a muzzle flash. It wasn’t until 2005 or so that I happened across an old Orlando Sentinel article while looking for a report on someone I thought might be an old girlfriend finding a chunk of severed tongue in her yogurt (another curious story I may relate another day). A 20-year-old male admitted to the ER had died of trauma related to gunshot wounds sustained in a shootout with rival gang members. Dated late August, 1993, the (now-gated, sorry) article gave the rough address of the shooting. I pulled up a city map and sure enough, it was close enough to my then-decade plus memory of the event for me to conclude that I probably have that guy’s blood on my hands. I shot that man and he died.
I wish I could say that upon reading the article and realizing that the outcome of that evening was so tragic that I felt some shame, remorse, or regret. Memory is ephemeral, so it is at least possible that I felt some twinge of guilt. If so, no such twinge lingers to today. Hell, the whole thing was so inconsequential at the time that neither I nor any of my dumb buddies even bothered reporting the shooting. These days, Orlando is a world away, a sweaty Avalon drenched in swamp fog and alligator farts. I find it difficult to muster any sentiment toward anything that happened there.
The second time I killed someone was an unambiguous case of self-defense. The dude charged at me with a knife in his hand and I walloped him in the head with a branch. Emergency services took longer than usual to arrive since the incident occurred in the backcountry of Olympic National Park at some campground a couple of miles up the Staircase Trail. He died on the way to the hospital from severe cerebral edema. This was in the days before mobile phones, so my buddy Steve ran back to the ranger station while Glenn and I watched the lunatic gasp in the dust as, unbeknownst to us, the pressure in his skull built. It was later revealed in the police report that he had enough methamphetamine in his system to kill an adult water buffalo, which I reckon helps explain the irrational behavior. Still, it was something else to stand there and see him writhe, hear him groan softly, taste the fading copper flavor as the adrenaline receded, and try my best to keep my composure.
That sound. I heard that sound for months. That horrible, wet crunching sound of the branch connecting with the side of his head. I couldn’t stop second-guessing myself. Did I have to hit him that hard? Did I have to aim for his head? There must have been some other way I could have handled it. After all, there were three of us, and just one of him. Maybe we could have subdued him peacefully. Maybe we could have talked him down. Maybe we could have disarmed him somehow, or…
Or. I carried around a lot of ors for a long time. I lost a lot of sleep. Smoked a lot. Drank more than usual. Tried in vain to keep from imagining how it could have gone better. At least the legal hassle was minimal. Park rangers handled the law enforcement side of things. Since the incident occurred in a national park, I had to sign paperwork at the federal courthouse in Tacoma. I don’t even remember talking to a prosecutor face to face. The guy had no family, and with three active duty sailors telling exactly the same story, we weren’t arrested or anything. No one pressed charges. The gold crew was deployed at the time, so I didn’t even have to request special liberty to take care of business. I didn’t even have to bother with an attorney. I just drove down to the Pacific Ave. address at my leisure on a Friday afternoon. Either Squadron 17 or ComSubGroup 9 had us fill out independent incident reports, which amounted to nothing on the military side of it. My command offered us some counseling (which all three of us declined), but they otherwise ignored the whole thing. I pushed memories of it to the back of my mind during crew turnover, and by the time I was underway on my next patrol, I had effectively forgotten about it.
Except I didn’t. Not really. Killing up close like that changed me. don’t think I have fully come to grips with exactly how, but I think I’ve maybe become more skittish. I don’t care for large crowds. I don’t care for noise. I won’t sit with my back to the door if I can avoid it. When I enter a building, I do a quick check for exits and emergency equipment. I am frequently armed. I can’t say for sure what it was about that whole mess that changed me, if it was being attacked or having to defend myself. At my best, I am more cautious than I used to be. At my worst, I worry that I am downright paranoid.
On the advice of my attorney, I will not discuss the third time I killed someone.
You may wonder why I bring my violent past up. Some of you have been reading me for years, and not once have I even hinted at any of this. Hell, some of you know me in person, may even be related to me, and you didn’t know this about me. It isn’t something I mention frequently. I write about it now to show that I am not now being frantic about some novel experience. I am not proud to admit it, but I know what it means to take a man’s life.
I therefore aver that upon the most recent occasion, though I may have fatally discharged my pistol after answering a frantic ringing of my doorbell past midnight, I slew no human.
I do not know for sure what perished on my stoop after eating half a dozen .44 mag hollow points, but I did hear its pleas for help after the first shot, and listened as the breath left it for good as I put the last shot dead center between where eyes should have been.
You will recall from my last post that I have been in contact with an elderly lady named Gladys who has been trying her darn tootin’ best to get me to buy into some cockamamie fairy tale involving Precambrian resurrection rituals or something of the sort. I will admit that I initially found her intriguing, if not entirely persuasive. Her fantastic tale echoed what I wrote about here, and so I wasted a day and a half mired in historical errata on an uncomfortable chair in a poorly lit basement. After thanking her for help, I ended up driving back home in a dark mood.
This stormy demeanor clung long after I arrived home. Our insurance is telling us that they won’t cover inpatient care past the first week of September, and my daughter has been saying some rather disturbing things on our daily phone calls. “Daddy, that isn’t mommy. Don’t let her come home,” and “something from the moon got in through her eyes.” Let me assure you that the cliché of the little girl making creepy proclamations is just as disturbing in real life as it is in the movies. I still remain mostly laid off, allowing ample time to waffle about how seriously I should take all of this nonsense.
The waffling ceased after I shot that thing on my stoop. I had more or less convinced myself that I was the butt of some elaborate prank, that my first post on Brainbash had gotten around and some clever group with too much time and puckishness on their hands had lit upon my deranged tale as appropriate fodder for some needlessly convoluted jape. But my mind changed irrevocably once that whimpering thing bundled in an overcoat and hood, eyes blank, whined, “come, Harold.” It had refused to honor the “no soliciting” signs prominently displayed at the entrance to my neighborhood, and completely ignored my insistence that no one present at my home is named Harold. I held my fire until the moment it attempted to cross my threshold on loathsome rubbery limbs without my consent.
Let me tell you a secret, my dudes: a .44 magnum is loud. Loud enough to give me acute tinnitus for a few hours. Certainly, loud enough to wake the neighbors. Loud enough to have someone call the cops. I live in a quiet little town outside the DC beltway, and most of the folks around here are busybody types. There’s even a state trooper who lives five doors down. Surely, he heard the commotion. Yet not one porch light flickered on. Not one concerned nose poked between parted curtains. Not one Internet warrior bothered making so much as a breathless post on Nextdoor.
The surreality of the non-response was exceeded only by the prompt, inexplicable disappearance of the corpse. This wasn’t, as they say, my first rodeo, as I have described above. I retreated inside to swap my empty pistol for my phone (yes, the same phone). By the time I returned to my stoop less than half a minute later, the only remnants of my early morning caller were a hideous stench that I can only compare to rancid suet. Not so much as the tiniest drop of blood lingered anywhere on the concrete steps, and the ragged chunks of pallid flesh I saw torn from its chest had vanished like morning dew touched by the warmth of the sun. I could find no evidence of confederates after running up and down my street in pajama pants, flip flops, and a frown, adding to my growing sense of alienation. This was, if you will forgive the crude language, total bullshit.
I abandoned the futile enterprise of attempting to return to sleep. Like a dog to its vomit, I returned to the notes I had taken in Elkins, this time with terror-heightened vigor and a keen willingness to take my findings both more seriously and more literally. Unfortunately, I soon discovered the limitations of my methods. There was evidence of diligence in my efforts, but little focus. I seem to have focused on irrelevancies and tangents in Gladys’s box of goodies. Read my last post to see for yourself. Instead of tracing the disputed county boundaries against the clues left in Gov. Stevenson’s survey sketches, I transcribed the contents of some of his dream journal entries. In lieu of aligning lunar cycles with the news reports provided to me by Gladys, I wasted time and energy trying to track down mysterious black bones (thank you to the person who contacted me regarding the trunk in your grandparents’ house. It appears that I will not require access to the artifact passed down by Pappy Carpenter after all). When I return, I resolve to do better.
I reluctantly called Gladys back the following morning, during normal working hours. She picked up on the first ring. “Good morning. Thank you for calling. This is Gladys [Lastname], how may I help you today?”
“Hi. It’s Sam. You helped me look up,” I began.
“Oh, hi there Mister Wilson. It’s so good to hear from you again. I was worried when you went back to, where did you say you were from? DC? I was worried that I wouldn’t hear from you again. How are things? How is your family?”
“About the same, I guess. Look, the reason I called…”
“Well, no news is good news they say, but I don’t know about that so much. It’s like my cousin Abigail used to say, God rest her soul: ‘no matter how bad things get, they can always get worse.’ Of course, she married a gambler and a drunk, in that order. Now tell me something, are you recording this call?”
The question caught me off guard. “Recording? Uh, no. Why? Should I be?”
She laughed, wheezing only the way a veteran smoker does. “Honey, do yourself a favor and record all your calls.” The laugh continued; this time tinted with regret. “You never know.”
“Look, something happened last night. I…” I was unsure exactly how to proceed. “One of those things came to my house.”
“Mmm?” Her response was uncharacteristically taciturn.
“I… I shot it. I went back inside for a minute, but when I went to check on it, it was gone. Like gone gone. Vanished like a fart bubble in the tub. There was nothing left. No body, no blood, no nothing.”
“I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Of course, dear. You need to write all this down.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Write it down. Publish it, sweetheart. Put it up on that nice website of yours.”
“It’s not my…” I started to object.
“Put it up on that nice website, and maybe someone else will read it. Someone important. You just have to know that I’m not the only one who keeps tabs on this sort of thing. Believe it or not, there are plenty of us out there. Why up in Pennsylvania, I know at least three people who keep tabs on the thing trying to wake up under Centralia.”
“What?” I later looked up Centralia, PA and found that there is a fire that has been burning under the town since 1962.
“I’m going to send you my recording of our little chat here, but you have to promise me you’ll write down every word and put it in your next post. Can you do that for me?”
I was silent for a moment, unsure of what I was promising. “Sure, Gladys. No sweat. I’ll redact identifying information, but other than that, word for word. You, uh, have my word.”
“That’s wonderful. Now listen. Nothing you have seen so far is make-believe, or a hallucination, or some kind of delusion. It’s all real, all of it, as real as the nose on your face, which is nothing to be ashamed of, honey. Lots of people have big noses. It suits you; it really does.”
I cleared my throat in the hopes that she would stay on topic.
It worked. “Those things you saw in Brainbash live in a place orthogonal to our West Virginia.”
I know a little something about linear algebra, and nothing about that sentence made a lick of sense. “I beg your pardon?”
She sighed. I heard the distinct flick of a lighter and a soft exhale. “You know what paper looks like?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“Imagine a living world on a piece of paper. It’s its own world. It’s got all these two-dimensional people going about their two-dimensional lives. They have two-dimensional kids, and work two-dimensional jobs, and eat two-dimensional Thanksgiving dinners every two-dimensional November.”
“Okay, got it.” I suppose I can sort of imagine what a two-dimensional world might look like. Creatures that live there would likely not resemble profile views of humans. Rather, they would likely evolve to fit their environmental constraints. I imagine more complicated versions of amoebae. I remember once reading a 19th century novel called Flatland that used the concept to skewer social conventions of the age. I also vaguely recall Carl Sagan mentioning it on an episode of Cosmos.
“Now take that paper world and photocopy it.”
“Sure.” I wasn’t sure where she was going, but I was willing to play along.
“Now you take that photocopy and you staple it to the original. One staple. It stays put right there, no matter how you fold and bend the paper. Right?”
“That’s Brainbash. That’s your staple.” I could hear her taking a drag on her cigarette. “And a few other places. But it looks like Brainbash is the important one for you, hon.”
“I think you lost me.”
“You follow the paper example?”
“Well, imagine you’ve got your photocopied paper world and you’ve stapled it to the original. You wouldn’t want just any old Jack or Jill from that first world finding your staple, would you? Why, what would they think? Their reality would be distorted, strange near the hole driven through their world.”
It almost made sense. I could feel dread rising. “So, there’s another world like ours, but different?”
“And it’s connected to ours.”
“In a town called Brainbash.”
She held the receiver away from her mouth to cough. “Not exactly in the town, as far as I can tell. Near enough that you can drive a car through it though. Which is what I suppose you did, ha ha.”
Yeah, real funny, lady. “And those blubber monsters?”
“Let’s return to Paper World. Imagine you were one of them. How would you get the attention of a person in our world?”
Despite being on the phone, I physically shrugged my shoulders. “I dunno. I’m still not sure why I’d want to.”
She produced a sound halfway between a cough and a laugh. “A paper-land person might be able to scrawl, ‘eat at Joe’s’ through trial and error. But those letters you and I can read without difficulty would be gibberish to anyone living there. Their writing would have to be a whole different system. Think about it. One of us would have to teach them how to write for a three-dimensional audience. To do that, we’d have to learn their language, find a way to announce our presence without driving them too crazy, and then finally teach them the technique and give them good reason to write us messages. It’s not as easy as it sounds.”
“Okay, but why?”
“Why what, hon?”
“Why would I care about anything on this paper world? Why teach them how to communicate with us? By the same token, why would some fourth-dimensional entity give a crap about us or our extremely limited world?”
A moment of silence, then, “beats me, kiddo. Don’t forget the metaphor here. We’re in the paper world, dear. You can’t expect me to understand them any more than a two-dimensional person would be able to understand us. I’m sure they have their reasons.” She scoffed, then added, “I looked up your Extinction-Level Event e-books. You never explained why that Swiss guy was running the simulation. That’s no different.”
I had to admit to myself that she had a point. Then again, I’m still in the middle of drafting the third installment, in which I will address some of these lingering concerns. “So, the things that attacked my family, that came to my house? They’re what? Teachers?” I could feel a current of indignation rising. I come from a long line of educators. And guilt by association is a potent logical fallacy, even after knowledge of it.
“No, no. The teachers are all long dead, turned to dust under ruined burial mounds. Those black bones are long lost. The cultists are…” She paused, as if searching for words. “…they try to fold the paper. They follow the old teachings. They want to write ‘Eat at Joe’s’ except that it’s actually saying something so horrible that it turned them all twisted and corrupt.”
“Well, what would you make of it? Suppose you were one of the paper people and someone from our world just went and jammed something through the fabric of the world. Here’s this… this thing. You don’t know what it is, and it just shows up from nowhere and you don’t know what to make of it. It’s strange and alien, and it’s beyond your understanding, and you don’t have any words to explain it because why would you? It’s crazy, I tell you, and it does crazy things to normal people. It turns good people rotten from the inside out.”
I had seen the moon cultists with my own eyes. Even if her just-so story was just-so, I lacked a better explanation. “So, this non-real town, this staple town. Brainbash. It exists. But just not where we can usually find it? It’s not specifically part of our ordinary reality?”
I heard her take another drag. “Yup. Maybe it was at one time. Who can tell? But it’s real, it’s stapled to West Virginia, and the people who live there used to be normal, just like you and me. They want something from our world, and it seems that you and your family are involved.”
I will admit to stifling a rueful grin at the notion of either Gladys or myself being adjudged normal by a fair jury of our peers. “So, these Brainbash degenerates, what, lured me there so they could kidnap a son I never had? As part of their rituals?”
“Oh, dear heart. It gets worse than that. If one of those things came to your house, it means they can get out now.” Her hoarse voice sent chills down my spine. “They shouldn’t be able to get out.”
“Get out of…” I prompted her to continue.
“Out of Brainbash, of course. The thing that holds the worlds together there also holds those cultists pinned there. They should be trapped, like flies in a pitcher plant. Planets in orbit. Something like that.”
“Well, clearly they got out. And how do you know all this stuff anyhow?”
“That’s where I need your help, hon. That’s why I want you to write all this down and put it on your nice little website. That book I told you about, the one I keep in a safe at home? It’s part of a set. I’ve been trying to make sense of it since the fire. That must have been in oh, ’85 or so. I remember it because some of the diagrams in the book reminded me of that Ghostbusters movie from the year before and I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe that Aykroyd fellow knew more than he was letting on.”
It took some effort on my part at this point to refrain from mentioning the surge of elation I enjoy during the solemn act I refer to as bustin’. Instead, I asked, “wasn’t that movie set in New York?”
“Oh, I’m sure there’s a staple there too. And one in, what’d that Rhode Island fella call it? Arkham? And that nice boy whose book got turned into a movie with that man from that wine movie. What’s his name?”
Wine movie? “Thomas Haden Church?”
“No, the other one. With the scruffy beard.”
She was talking about Sideways. “Paul Giamatti? Are you talking about John Dies At The End?”
“That’s it, that’s the one.” I heard her take another drag on her cigarette.
“In the books, the name of the town is ‘Undisclosed’. I don’t know if they mention it in the movie.” I wondered why we were suddenly discussing pop horror.
“Yeah, and Derry, and many, many more. There was a movie in the mid-nineties. That John Carpenter fellow made it. With the young man from that Jurassic Park. Talked all about it, how some extra-dimensional town up and went loop-dee-loo. I think Mr. Carpenter might have one of the other volumes. Him and Steven King and that Wong boy. I can just about guarantee that Lovecraft had one. Probably drove him around the bend, poor man. Who knows who else might be out there?” It occurred to me that something likely had indeed driven Gladys around the bend.
I might be next. Eh, big deal. Won’t be the first time. “So, your hope is that Stephen King will read my blog post that, on a lucky day, might get a thousand views, and what? Have his agent call me to confirm that he’s got a copy of Volume XII of the Necronomicon?”
She belted out another chuckle. This one sounded fairly good-natured. “You should know better than me that something big and important is happening. You can see it in Portland, in Kenosha, in Milwaukee. Keep your eyes on Belarus. There’s a phantom town north of Minsk. Parts of Venezuela should start to rise from the ocean by the end of the year. And that double hurricane? Things are happening, Mister Wilson. People are paying attention. People are following your story.”
I remain unconvinced. Things have always been happening. So much is happening right now that it’s hard to pay attention to any one particular thing, particularly my implausible escapades. “And you can’t figure out exactly what’s happening without the help of Stephen King? Do I understand that properly?” If you listen carefully to the recording, you can just about hear my eyes rolling.
She snorted. “Him or someone like him. I keep that book behind two inches of lead. Anything less and I have horrible nightmares that trouble me something awful. Just like the ones Governor Stevenson described. That book,” she paused, possibly looking for words, “it seems to act a little like one of those world-staples, except it gets inside your head rather than mucking around with the landscape. It shows you things. Makes you see things.”
Another chill ran down my spine. “Like…?”
“Don’t you worry about the specifics. It’s best you don’t know anyway. Not if you are what I think you are.”
“What do you think I am, Gladys?”
“Look, you just write this down in your next article, and let’s hope we get a nibble, okay?”
“Okay.” I was not at the time okay with this, nor am I okay with this now, but as it is my only lead, here we are.
“Now, this is from my volume. Volume Three. Pay close attention and go back over it a few times to make sure you have it exactly right. I will email you an electronic copy of this conversation, and if there are any gaps, I have a cassette tape copy I can send through the Post Office.” Fat lot of good that would do me. “On the Hill Stones place six of soft coal, four of beryl fine, thirty-two of brimstone, twenty six of red lead, forty two of blue lead, twenty six of iron. Encant widdershins through the full light. His throne is lit on 52. 52! It’s coming! 52!”
“That’s what it says, sweetheart. Just write it down. Word for word, just like I said it. Anyone with a different volume should know what it means.”
“52. That’s right.”
“Okay, Gladys. anything else?”
“That’s it, honey. And do yourself a favor and make sure your family is safe. I don’t think they’re after your little girl.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“That’s right. They’re only after you. Carry a gun.”
She hung up abruptly. Five minutes later I got an .mp3 file in the mail containing the above transcript. So, in the unlikely event that the preceding gobbledygook makes sense to you or anyone you know, please comment below or contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, reminder to self: (1) stop by the gun shop and (2) call Itak and see if he’s up for a road trip.