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A Few Bad Apples

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A novella finished in a tad over three months. The town of Little Loop, Idaho, is entirely fictitious – but the county of Custer is a real place located in the state. I in no way am attempting to replicate any individuals who live in this county and should not be held responsible if any similarities are made as they are unintentional. The town of Little Loop is entirely a part of my imagination. To make slight alterations, my version of Custer County is very different from the real world’s – more populated and “mainstream”. Thanks to Shadowswimmer77 and EmpyrealInvective for the help and tips.

I. A Few Bad Apples Spoil the Bunch

North from Idaho's capital, Boise, there begins a thick string of mountains which hold the sun high above the natural peaks and hiding it as it descends when evening fades into night. Here, great forests are abundant, with many uninhabited acres either belonging to standard forests or state preserves, that dominate the land in for miles. Gorgeous natural lakes exist that descend hundreds of feet deep with not even so much as a soul around for many kilometers. Upon one of these great natural spectacles is the town of Little Loop, Idaho.

Residing in Custer County, near the state’s center, the town’s history for the main part is shrouded in moderate normalcy; nothing more than a drive through Idaho State Highway through Lemhi, and you will come across this friendly little woodland neighborhood deep in the vastness of the northern mountain state’s heartland. In 1899 the town was founded under a locomotive company and middle-aged couple named Muriel and Heighton’s and over many decades eventually sprung into one of those “everybody knows each other” neighborhoods that Idaho itself was expectedly so familiar with. With a population of 1,137 and the nearest college campus three miles further in the larger mountain town of Windhand, it was safe to say that the town of Little Loop was secure and alone.

The town itself is not much to behold. Upon the grass in the far reaches of Idaho State Highway, a certain slope will turn you slightly up the mountainside, not uncommon for the hilly overtones of Idaho's geographical layout, until you reach the tiny hamlet. This fairly remote, but fairly friendly mountain town area of Custer was merely nothing more than a miniature woodland village in the mountains. Houses were generally scattered, many in between peaceful wilderness and flowing streams and rivers. Farther out into the town, the woodland opened up and revealed the Little Loop suburbs, complete with aplenty of homes that stood under the blue of the immortal sky, overshadowed by more mountains. There was a small private high school in the area by the name of Highway High, which branched off from the state highway, of course derivative of the name of the long, lonesome stretch of road that connected the thick Idahoan mountains to the town. The hamlet had earned its name due to its circular structure of six woodland miles in total, ‘looping’ around a good deal of the portion of the forest. At the end of Windhand, past the end of the campus, a peak stretched slightly out of the mountain where one could overlook the vast forests below. So the townsfolk nice, the atmosphere free, the landscape a spectacle, the town overall – normal.

Until the post-Y2K days had hit and everything was altered drastically.

In the pre-winter of 2000, the first occurrence in a chain of incomprehensibly strange events ravaged Little Loop unexpectedly and with no warning. Over a period of slightly more than a month about half a dozen townsfolk had disappeared without a trace leaving no evidence behind of their existence whatsoever, save for irregularly shaped dirt gaps. Mabel Barrington, superstitious widowed eldest resident of the town had of course spouted monologues about the occult and the otherworldly, but other townsfolk even after these events remained skeptical of her yarn. Later on, The Loop's most recent death-by-assault would occur, after some equally unexplained murders - committed by the father of a family of five - a few years prior. For all the trouble it had seen, though, Little Loop never seemed to lose its steam. The residents could not forget the hell that ravaged it in the past, but they could suppress it and move on.

Hell would return to Little Loop on November the third, 2009.

On Roans Central, which was the suburban, more open portion of the town that revealed the sky overhead, a graduated university student previously attending Windhand Academy three miles down the road in Windhand was roused from his slumber by beams of morning light filtering through his window across from his bed. He moaned and stretched, propping himself upward onto the sheet and staring out into the open space of fields beyond his window. The grass rustled and weaved under the morning light, the rising sun lifting itself over the mountainous horizon casting the shadows of distant pine trees and the woodland that they belonged to. The sun beamed also onto the number of homes, lights off and quiet inside. The young man in nothing but his undies yawned fiercely and squirmed out of bed before trudging over to the blinds and grabbing each end harshly before pulling them together. Annoyed that he had been awoken so early on a Saturday by mere forget of closing the blinds the night before, he pried open one of his drawers and grabbed one of his standard articles of clothing; blue jeans and a plain white t-shirt, which he hastily applied. His clothing was often scattered disorderly in his drawers merely from a lack of care. Clothes were clothes.

He flicked the light on shuffled over to his Blackberry where he and Milly’s conversation from last night lay when he snapped the phone’s screen on. Something about volley ball practice to which he had responded to passively in his mind, but sounding rather sugar-coated on his phone. He gazed down at it, read Milly’s “luv u hun ^_^” message that she had given right before he went to sleep and pocketed the cell.

No matter her ditziness and godawful communication skills when it came to social media, sometimes his love for that girl could go beyond what he thought was even remotely possible. Nathan Hoffman and Mildred Lawrence would be together for three years come March 9th; a relationship that had begun in Nathan’s junior year and Mildred’s sophomore at Windhand University. But Mildred hated her given name and would correct as “Milly, if ya please,” which she’d say in that slight drawl, inherited from her southern parents, that had driven him wild whenever they were together, especially in the sheets. Milly may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer out here, or maybe even in the north as a whole, but to him it bore no significance. Whilst some would pass him off as ignorant for it, he never understood why the idea of intelligence mattering in relationships was so important to society; “his heart is bigger than his brain” was something his parents had always told him about him when they were still around, so why couldn’t the same apply for a woman?

Nathan had graduated from Windhand a year ago at age the age of twenty-three, a year only added to his high school years because of a not-so-minor setback in tenth grade (which included urination and the principle’s quarters).

Hunger rumbled from within. He groaned, his need for breakfast unsatisfied since his lack of a decent meal last night – nothing more than a handful of lame breadsticks and salami. In and exhaling, he stepped out into the hallway and trailed down to the stairwell where he descended.

Nathan made a right turn into his kitchen to be met with the pearly white floorboards and dullard wooden cabinets. The room was a whole was both a mix of dining room and kitchen - his fridge lay off in a corner, but a table was placed near the window that overlooked the grassy fields beyond. He tread over to it and clicked it open, letting a gentle breeze flood in. Grabbing his stomach, he hungrily turned over to the kitchen and groaned in relief when he saw the fruit bowl lying idly off to one side, precariously close to the edge. He shambled over to it, and a fly buzzed about frenetically in the air only to be swiftly swatted away by Nathan’s incoming hand.

Figuring the fly had not planted its eggs in any of the fruit, he reached for an apple and gripped it bringing it quickly up to his mouth. He noticed faintly that his home phone had begun to ring far off in the distance but food came first for him. He’d never felt this starving in weeks, it seemed. Nathan was no stranger to food and had put on a good ten pounds in the last few months, but he was 198, so as a whole it wasn’t an atrocious weight. Over two-hundred pounds would be far worse, but he was getting fairly close.

Whatever. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, he thought passively.

He wrapped his lips around the apple and when his teeth punctured the fruit’s red membrane and his taste buds were hit with the flavor, he reeled back in hard hitting revile and dread, yakking up the chunk of fruit with a nauseating thud on the kitchen floor, covered in a thick sheen of his saliva. He coughed violently, looming over the sink and firing spittle into the drain nearly to the point of vomit. The apple had slipped from his hand, thumping once, twice on the island table until it bounced onto the floor and rolled out of sight. With no regard of the ice machine he almost instantaneously nabbed a plastic cup off of the counter and ran tap water into it, shoveling it fiercely down his throat. Soon the taste had ceased but faint glimmerings of it remained in the back of his throat, gnawing.

He went back to the drain to discharge the last remaining bits of his spittle. Christ, he thought, what the fuck was that?!

The apple emitted no odor, but as soon as his teeth sunk into its flesh it had hit him; a foul concoction of what, it seemed to his taste buds, was the flavor of the most repulsive of rotten eggs and human vomit, overall making it seem like he had just dipped his head in the sewer and took a hearty swig. His eyes red and wet from the sudden shock, he swept the remaining sprinkles of spittle from his lips with his sleeve and leaned back against the kitchen counter, panting. Through his surprise he failed to notice the phone had stopped its series of rings and now sat silent on one of the tables in his living room.

His panting ceased. With a relieved “whoo” and a thump of his fist on his chest he leaned forward and onto the island, arms crossed. He had never tasted something so awful before but the water had relieved the dreadful feeling on his tongue quite quickly, which came to his surprise; usually water had done nothing but intensify his thirst when something tasted crappy. Now it flushed the taste away. Still, shock remained – his tongue had never laid upon something so foul in his life, and from an apple, no less. He remembered that the batch was fairly old and now realized it was probably his fault for not remembering it, and not dumping them earlier, no less.

After he had finished gathering himself up he grabbed the bowl and dumped it into his pullout trash bin, the fruits thumping over one another until the last had plopped out into the bag. Before he closed it he trudged over to the apple that he had taken a bite out of that had bumped onto the floor. He picked it up from its underside and, with mild disgust, tossed it in the bin before kicking it closed.

Putting aside the rotting surprise, he opened up his freezer and decided to go for something that wouldn’t repel his taste buds. He grabbed a pack of Eggo waffles and threw two in the toaster, also grabbing a couple strips of bacon and leaving them on the pan to sizzle. Almost immediately after this his phone began to go off again.

Hastily he made his way from the island table to the living room. The flat screen lay mounted on the wall off to one side; the fireplace was unlit, and he could have probably afforded a fake one, but a central heating system did a good job of fighting off the crisp November weather. In the center of the living room was furniture that, when looked at resembled a square, with a coffee table in the middle. In the back was his office, a doorless entryway that lead into a large room with a high roof and a bookshelf, complete with several tennis posters and photos of both he and Milly or memorabilia of when his parents still walked the earth. His computer lay on the desk and, for the moment, his manuscript of As the Cities Fall sat next to it, piling up in all its 352 page glory.

The final copy of As the Cities Fall had been sitting there for days, untouched, and Nathan knew it was better that way as of now. He’d completed the climax of the novel (which comprised of its final eighty-four pages) in one painstaking, strenuous weekend half a month ago and it had been sleeping cozily next to his computer ever since. The rest of the book was revised fully except for those last eighty-four pages; he’d get to it sometime later this month, but there was that overwhelming feeling of accomplishment you got when you finished a story, especially if it was a novel, a feeling that he didn’t want to throw away too quickly by getting back to it immediately.

Almost immediately after he turned twenty Heaven had been published, a psychologically dramatic debut that had taken about two-hundred entries to publishers before it had finally been accepted, only to be met with overwhelmingly unremitting backlash. Heaven was a two-hundred page, chapterless drama honing in on the traumas of war – something Nathan had never experienced for himself – and the effects it can have on a man. Most critics had amended its message but tore it apart for various other issues, such as its notably stale characterization that, according to critic Marcy Henders, couldn’t decide whether its characters wanted to be “flamboyant or melodramatic – or both”. Also attacked was its flat plotline, or lack thereof, that followed a disjointed structure, only made more difficult to read by its lack of a chapter formula.

Looking back on it Nathan knew it was a shitty book ("Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor" level debacle", as Nathan had humorously put it when speaking about his writing to others), not because of the critics’ reactions, but because of his own mistakes regarding it; writing what you didn’t know could certainly work for many authors, but not for him and he unfortunately did not realize this until after the novel was published. That’s why he’d stuck all of his short stories set in places either in New York or Idaho or places he had visited, on vacations or otherwise. The vast majority of the novel was set primarily in Vietnam’s jungle. Even through months of research his progress had proved not to work very well in the final draft.

He’d found more success with Blood Brothers, published two or three years later, that departed from the antiwar propaganda melodrama that had festered upon an ignorant Nathan Hoffman’s computer documents for three years prior to Heaven 's publication. Blood Brothers, at nearly five-hundred pages, had been his longest work of fiction to date, a novel that he had begun writing drafts for when he was less than sixteen. The novel in question was a crime thriller set in the industrial backdrop of 1960s Manhattan, focusing on two brothers in poverty who, not knowing the identity of their parents, fought to survive in the slums of New York City’s deepest locations. The brothers, Marty and Ernest, struggle to put the pieces together of their lost lives and discover just who their family really was. Overall the novel had received a much higher critical praise than his previous. As the Cities Fall had been something of a sequel to Blood Brothers, though not directly. It took place in the same universe (or “’verse”, as Nathan had liked to call it), but that was about it - it followed a different story arc entirely.

He had been enthralled by the idea of writing since he was as wee as he could remember; in diapers, even. According to his mother, the first thing that had appealed to him about books was the feel of the page on the skin of his fingers; she’d told him stories when he was a preteen and he was at his peak of interest in books about how he’d run the flat surface of his fingers over stuff like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and do nothing more, seemingly not even listening to his mother’s words when she read off the blunt little sentences to him as he sat in her lap, less than three feet tall at the time.

He quickly diverted his attention from the picture hanging above the fireplace. God, it was almost too much to bear. He’d grown up with his mom and dad pretty much a thousand miles away, born a little further downstate in New York’s semi-urban area before they moved out of their filthy apartment to a nice little home further upstate in the town of Dovel, Dutchess County, only a few miles off from New York’s heartland. Dovel was a pretty little semirural area, with a nice amount of rolling greens and a forest beside it that, if you trekked through, would lead to the highway, which you knew you’d be approaching once you heard the distant sound of vehicles ricocheting on the wind. But even in the day, one would be a fool to travel further than fifty-yards into those woods; apparently there was an unincorporated, tiny settlement named Pepperton somewhere deep into the thick brush, where sunlight would fade under the looming canopies in eternal night. Pepperton, odd little name for a town. Nobody had been there, at least no one in Dovel had. In Dovel, Nathan's father had owned a small restaurant in the town, pretty low class and beaten down, but it had gained its reputation from the bar and its relationship with the town men.

To this day he had seemed to make bizarre connections to both Dovel and Little Loop. Both rural towns, both in the middle of nowhere, and both had something strange surrounding them; for Little Loop it was Barry Balton’s “legend”, for Dovel it was the legend of those woods that shrouded it.

They gave him shudders when he recalled both the events; there were legends that lived in both of the towns that he had resided in. And despite the superstitions surrounding Pepperton – implying if there really were dark things in those woods, or if the one man who ever ventured in there, Wallace Clainey, simply got lost in the thick brush and never found his way out – he could not help but feel a degree of nostalgia for the town. He was born in the town’s small hospital a few miles from his first home, where he would be taken to. His earliest memory went back to when he was five when he had snuck into his parents’ bedroom and nabbed their photobook (which had a long history ahead of it) and scribbled crudely the word “FAMILY” on to it with a permanent marker to greet them when they woke up. After his parents died, he brought it with him to Idaho, a place he had flown to in order to attend Windhand Academy, and those four years might have been the greatest of his life.

During his time in university he rarely went a day without thinking about his mom and dad. Growing up with them, playing ball with his dad when he was only a lad, getting his first crush at age twelve, his mom discovering the magazines he hid under his bed when he was a teen, and finally heading up to Sunset Lake, New York for a small summer vacation in his grandparents’ car, looking out and seeing a car speeding violently from the opposite direction, seeing his mother and father’s minivan swerve off the road when the car skimmed them, seeing it barrel off the highway through the road’s guardrail and into the trees, seeing it burst to pieces as it hit a tree-

He swiped up the phone to distract him from the thought. Thinking about it hard and long made him dizzy. He held it to his ear. “Hello?”

It was Milly, and her voice brought him instant comfort. The thought from before was relieved. “’Lo? Nate?”

Nathan instantly smiled. “Yeah, Milly. Hey. It’s me.”

“Ohey,” she said casually, a finger intertwining with the blond of her hair, which Nathan obviously did not see. “My girls and I won the game last night. Jus’ thought ya should know.”

Ah, yes. That game. Guilt overcame Nathan for not being able to make it to Milly’s volleyball game the night before, but he had an excuse, and that excuse was that he had a technician over to fix his upstairs television which had somehow busted. That was excuse enough, he thought.

Anything for not going to a volleyball game, he thought with a bit of hostility, but forced it out of his mind. Milly was a part of the local volleyball team, a game that had little standing in a state as barren as Idaho, but the whole volleyball syndicate was tiny. Milly had been on the volleyball team in the university, so when she graduated she knew about the opportunity and snatched it up as fast as possible.

He continued. “Hey, that’s great. You against the Cherry team, right?”

“Yeah,” she confirmed, “nine-nothing. Nine-nothing’! That’s the first time anyone on our team’s gotten something to nothing since the sixties…” She went off in that little monologue world for a while, one that Nathan was familiar with and used to. It annoyed him to no end at first, but it didn’t bother him anymore. In fact, nowadays he kind of liked it. Finally when she seemed to stop for a second or two, he took his opportunity.

“So anything else you wanted to call me about, hun?”

“Oh. Yeah.” She coughed a little, though it sounded more like a grunt over the buzz of the phone. “Maybe we could, ya know, go out tonight. Dinner for two. Wine for two, too. Or beer in yer case. For celebration. Sound good?”

“Yeah, that’d be great!” Nathan said with a bit too much enthusiasm, attempting to withdraw the excitement at the last second to make it sound more natural, but the final word slipped out. Truth was he hadn’t been out to eat in weeks, was feeling deprived of it. There was a nice steakhouse up the road and it would have fit perfectly for a fancy dining experience between a man and woman. “I mean, uh, sure, that sounds great. Any suggestions? We should try the Amora up the road, but it’s up to you, babe.”

“Yeah. That’s what I was thinkin’ too. Any time good for ya?”

“Any time you want, Mill.”

“Alright. Eight-thirty. Nah, too late. Eight?”


“See you there, big guy. Love ya.”

“Bye, Milly. I love you.”

She hung up, leaving only the dull buzz of the phone that rang in Nathan’s ears. He placed the phone upon its receptor and collapsed immediately on the yellow armchair, recalling a day that was, even before going out, pretty eventful. The gut-punching shocker when he chomped into that apple had been a major contributing factor. Maybe the only one at all. Milly calling about the volleyball game? Not that important. Her team had won before.

Still, that apple.

A sharp shudder thrilled down his back when he thought of it, not because of its concept, but because the faint, lingering remnants of his taste brought it back up like steaming bile when it passed through his mind. He’d tasted sour milk before, eaten a chunk off of a rotten egg with tabasco sauce at a particularly wild college party, and maybe the latter had tasted worse but he still felt as though that apple had been something he had never tasted before – an amalgamation of not only vomit and sewage but of something that he could not quite put his finger on, an alien flavor entirely.

Without warning he began to smell the faint aroma of burning. He looked instinctively across to the kitchen and he realized that he'd used so much time thinking he'd forgotten he'd even thrown anything in the microwave. Irately, he picked himself up and trudged back to the microwave, seemingly failed. The waffles were dark now, and his spine tingled with disgust. He dumped them and tossed the bacon too.

He collapsed back on the couch inside. Belching once, he snuggled over onto the armchair on his side, tucking his arm behind the pillow and pressing his head gently down onto its fluffy surface. A bird chirped away in the chilly Idahoan air. The buzz of the heater droned faintly. Every few minutes, the house creaked as if it had a mind of its own. Within these minutes Nathan had found himself asleep, and surprisingly, no dreams came.

He awoke with a start, despite his mind being a black void of nothingness in his rest. He thought that perhaps it was realization that had woken him up, as he had jolted with a gasp and almost fell in a heap onto the floor before gathering himself and lying down. Christ! Did he miss his dinner with Milly? He hoped to God he hadn’t. Frantically he glanced over to the clock, almost forgetting where it was for a minute.

5:32. Phew.

More than two hours were allotted until the get together. That gave him plenty of time to get some downtime done. Clean the dishes, throw in some laundry, use the bathroom.

He picked himself clumsily up off of the chair and headed for his workshop.

Milly applied the last bit of her makeup – she shut the pad, discarded the mirror, and fingered the lipstick lightly before throwing it sloppily in her drawer. Her parents fussed about downstairs, something about car repairs (which her pops’ buggy definitely needed) giving the house a bit of a livelier feel. Chubby, her cat, curled up in a ball on the windowsill of her blue-painted bedroom. He stirred, purring quietly in his relaxation time. The November breeze spilled in like a natural steam in a hot spring from the small crack of opened window. With a final, gentle yank of her locks with her hairbrush, she stood up and stretched, the early evening setting in outside, soon to become deep dusk.

Milly Lawrence was graceful, of that everyone else was sure. And of course her body, but that was not what Nathan desired about her. Well, he did, but that was only a fragment of why. When she walked the blondeness of her hair swept across her face and whenever her hair did that, his eyes dutifully followed its movement. Her ditzy tendencies to Nathan made her, for lack of a better word, sweet, with an air of innocence. Good figure, but Nathan didn’t care much about that. At least, he tried not to. Milly despite her inherent niceness was pretty prone to some notable personal issues. It was mostly her parents’ doing, whom she had still lived with even in her late twenties. Damn, she wished she could just be out. She had taken interest in a university out northeast in Vermont, but she’d decided to stick around for a bit with her parents. She’d wished she hadn’t made that mistake. All the two did was bicker, and if they never stopped then she would get involved. Never much luck in a household like that. Sure, Milly had raised some decent pay, but not enough to get her own home. Nate worked hard on his first book, and despite it being a critical flop, it still raised him enough money to buy him a decently sized house.

Milly took a gander at the clock on her wall. Almost six. Twilight would set in soon, that comforting glow as night descended, an amalgamation of the cool blue of the early dawn and the blood red of the sunset. In just two hours she’d be out of her house away from her darned parents and in the arms of her boyfriend. She hoped maybe they could go up to the peak today.

Her parents had fortunately treated her like an adult now, however – they’d let her go on dates and go to the movies alone (as long as she brought pepper spray, her mom had said) and take walks and shop (also, once more with emphasis, pepper spray) by herself. Her dates with Nate were in the triple digits by now, given how long she’d known him. Another number would be added soon.

She quietly tiptoed out of her bedroom to spare herself the annoyance of bothering Chubby, who had a tendency to be rather grumpy. She closed the door firmly shut attempting to make as little sound as possible and trekked downstairs, where she was met with her parents bickering about the same old crap. They both gave her a passing glance and, with a shout of “I’ll be back!” she hastily marched out the door.

Day had descended into twilight, which had descended into dusk, which soon gave way to night. It was especially in the Idahoan nights that the cold really gripped and tightened with a vice-like squeeze; even in late spring, it could get blisteringly cold once the sun disappeared over the horizon. In the early foreshadowing of winter like on the night of November 3rd, 2009, this was especially apparent. It’d be literally one-degree Fahrenheit tonight. Not even December – by January it’d be below fifteen every single time the sun had dipped beneath the mountains, and by February, who knew and who cared. Milly had been used to it; she’d lived in Little Loop all her life, rarely ever venturing into the outside world. Nate had gotten shorter winters living up in New York, though they were still fairly harsh. Compared to Idaho, though? Almost scoff worthy.

Nathan was the first to arrive at the restaurant. It was a well-received dining place down the road from Roans Central, a bit nearer to Windhand. He’d ask the gal at the reception desk for a booth for two and she gladly seated him.

When he sat down he felt the atmosphere oppress him for a few seconds. He’d been here before, enjoyed the food immensely, but now it seemed distant; alien; strange. The restaurant was busy, it was inhabited, people were talking all around him – but he seemed like he was the only one here right now, trapped in an obsolescent bubble of worthlessness and meaninglessness for apparently no reason whatsoever. The restaurant was dimly lit; and the lighting dimmed his mood itself. The 55” televisions mounted up on the restaurant’s walls did nothing but contribute to his suddenly depressive state; on the screen was a news channel, people talking with no faces, no identities, just men and women on a screen. He heard the faint sound of a heater bzzzz off somewhere, probably close to him.

Depression was a dark feeling, something he seldom experienced for himself – even in his teenage years – and had only come up once in a while after his parents were taken from him, which was basically as soon as his teen years had ended. So Milly had anger issues and Nathan had grief-related depressive issues. But there was no reason to be depressed now, so why? His mood did almost a total three-sixty when Milly walked in the door. Immediately her clothing nabbed his attention; tight jeans, a tank top, and a small cap placed firmly on the golden of her hair. Man, she looked good. She gave Nate a small wave and he exchanged the gesture. His depressive attitude was completely gone, and Nathan internally thanked Milly for the service. She tread over to Nathan’s table and collapsed down on the opposite booth. They leaned over the table and both gave each other a quick peck on the lips. Milly said “So how’s yer day been, Nate?”

He hesitated telling her about the apple, and hoped the uncertainty did not show. Instead he said; “Just fine. I took a nap after you called me, so I don’t remember much. H’bout you?”

“Doin’ just the same,” Milly said. She then smiled. “Maybe a little better. Because of the game, n’all. Sorry you couldn’t come.”

“No no no,” Nate insisted with a wave of his hands, “I should be sorry. It wasn’t…” What was the word? “Right”? It wasn’t right? No, that didn’t seem right in itself. Nothing really was “right”, he guessed. Subjective perceptions, "right" and "wrong" opinionated concept in and of itself. Was it? Whatever. It wasn’t important now.

Milly cut in anyway. “It ain’t your fault. I wasn’t sad about it. You had it deadlined anyway. Who cares?”

Nathan hadn’t wanted to go to a volleyball game, but he would have went to Milly’s because of his love for her. But if she wasn’t guilty, then he shouldn’t have been.

I didn’t do anything. I’m overthinking it.

The waiter came by, a tall man of apparent elegance, but maybe that was only because of his attire. The place really was dreamy, both in atmosphere and style. So why was it giving him a chokehold on this particular night? What gave? There was no reason. He thought there wasn’t. He shook the feeling off and asked for a glass of water, followed in succession by his girlfriend who asked for a glass of champagne. The waiter nodded with a smile and headed off.

The uncertainty in the back of Nathan’s mind still lurked like a creeping shadow, but he did his best to ignore it. Soon they had ordered a shrimp appetizer (which only Milly ate, as Nathan had no taste for seafood in her contrast) and not long after they had ordered their meals – Atlantic salmon for Milly and a bone-in rib eye for Nathan.

Milly went up to use the woman’s room a couple minutes before their entrees arrived. God, he was so damn hungry, he didn’t want to wait for Milly. Would she consider it rude? Maybe. He didn’t care. He needed a bite to get that damn rotten taste out of his mouth once and for all. It had kind of lingered there the whole day, but he mostly assumed it was his mind. Power of suggestion. He dug the fork crudely into the steak’s sizzling flesh, digging the knife’s faintly serrated edges into its skin. The red and dark chunk plopped out onto the dish, and he dabbed it with steak sauce. He held it up to his lips.

He sniffed, admiring the charcoal aroma of tender steak right off the grill. He wrapped his lips around it and pulled it onto the flat of his tongue.

Not until hours later did he think of it, but his mouth hadn’t reacted to the taste until about a second after it had connected with his tongue. The taste had burned like a mouthful of hot oil, like a mouthful of sewage, and the chunk of moist meat rocketed out of his jaws, which were agape in a silent scream. He wretched several times, and in an attempt to be discreet as possible he dug himself into the thick leather of the seat and hiding his head under the darkness of the space below the table. He attempted to vomit, he really didn’t want to but he had to and still, nothing had come out. Nothing but pools of saliva that splattered onto the squeaky leather of the booth. The saliva cascaded gently off of the booth, dripping down into the trench below the table. He scrambled onto his buttocks, face red, flushed, disoriented.

The same taste. It was the apple, and it was back for round deux.

Gasping for air, he grabbed his glass of water with quivering hands and chugged as hard and fast as he could. It didn’t take long for the taste to be gone – the water worked all sorts of wonders. The steak sauce had given the predominating pungency of sewer water a tangier feel, but in the worst way possible; the flavor’s “tang” was in the taste of bark on a tree. Exploding into a coughing fit as the last of the taste died down, he noticed a few seemingly concerned (or, more realistically, just irritated) folk from a few tables over staring at him blankly. He turned away from them. The coughing stopped.

His mind was a jumble of questions, an entanglement of twisted wires. His head lolled listlessly from side to side, the flavor’s remnants still itching, grabbing at the back of his throat for more. After all the questions he went through – What is the exact taste? What’s in the food? Is it some sort of poison? – they all harked back to what seemed to be the simplest pair of questions; What is this? Why is this happening?

When Milly arrived ‘round the bend from the lady’s room, relief had returned though only partially. He saw her in those clothes and immediately he cooled down a bit, though the questions remained in a maddening pattern. Why? What? Before she got close enough to see him, he quickly swiped at his tearing eyes with the handkerchief and threw it back down on the table in a crude heap. His eyes remained red, but hopefully she wouldn’t see in the dull five-star restaurant dimness.

“Don’t ya just love it when ya come back from the bathroom just to find your food waitin’ for ya?” Milly asked rather casually as she sat back down upon the booth. She picked up her utensils, twirled the fork, cut into the salmon. He attempted to ignore her slightly incorrect Pulp Fiction quotation. He hated seafood and even then he stifled a gasp with envy as he watched her dine delightfully in front of him. His stomach groaned and faint jealousy welled in his heart.

Milly seemed to take notice. “You alright, Nate?”

He immediately tensed up. What was he supposed to say? I woke up this morning and everything I’ve eaten since tastes like a fast food restaurant's bathroom? She’d think he was out of it. Or a nut, in Up North Speak.

He lied. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said ruefully. “Just not very hungry.”

She took this with stride. He made a mental note to himself that “just not very hungry” was a lie that Mildred Lawrence wouldn’t perceive. “Want me to pay, then?”

“No no no,” he insisted immediately, as an attempt to make up for the lie. “I’ll pay. This is a celebration for you, after all."

She shrugged and got back to eating. He tried his best to divert his attention from both his own plate and hers.

Just what the hell is going on here? he thought.

The two sat in silence for a bit. Milly finished her salmon. Shortly afterward she finished her champagne - Nate no longer touched his water. They ordered the check.

“So am I comin’ back to your place?” Milly abruptly asked when the two were at their peak of silence.

Nathan blinked. “Yeah. That was the plan from the start, wasn’t it?”

"Don't wanna go up to the peak?"

The peak at the edge of Windhand was a sanctuary of sorts for them both. In one of the first weeks they had been together, they walked up the path as a form of "date", when they had come across a surprising cliff that granted a panoramic view of the great displays of nature below. They kept the promise to come back there on occasion throughout their relationship.

He shook his head. "Nah, I'm exhausted. House sound good?"

“Mhhhm. Sounds good.” The tone of her voice made him realize exactly what she was talking about and he stirred.

That was a good idea on her part. He could use it after a day like this.

The sex was good, but to Nate it somehow felt empty and loveless and he assumed this was because the acknowledgment of his hunger had clawed at his insides the whole time. He attempted to suppress shudders when thinking about it, but he failed. He was sure there was some rational conclusion to the sudden malformation in his taste buds, but he dared not think about it. And he’d never submit himself to a doctor; they’d almost killed his father once during eye surgery.


Right now he sat on his back porch, flesh on his chest bare and his back pressed against the cold metal of the cushionless patio chair. Tiredly he rolled a thin cigarette between his fingers up and down over the web of his index and held it up to his lips, taking a puff. He held it there. The twilight was in its final minutes, the sun’s bloody orange glow now only faint slivers through the dead autumn brush behind his house.

The cigarette hadn’t tasted bad. It tasted the same as any cigarette should have. Good sign? Maybe. He released the tiny muscles in his finger and let the paper stub fall before he smushed it. As he gazed up over the bleak zenith where the dying sun met the tips of the trees, he felt an inexplicable pang of guilt. He wasn’t sure why. It was probably because of Milly and missing her game. Remnants still remained of feelings throughout days, even over the course of months. Case in point? Dreams.

Who gives a shit? he thought savagely, knowing his girlfriend hadn’t cared because, well, she was a great woman.

A better woman than you’ve ever deserved, something in the back of his mind was telling him. He told it to piss off.

Christ. That was why he was self-deprecating? Because of some food that just out of pure circumstance happened to taste bad? Yes! That was it. Circumstance. Nothing more. If there was a concrete explanation, then it was probably that the apple was rotten and the steak was overcooked. There. Done. He felt satisfied with the conclusions he’d drawn. With that, he stepped back into his home.

He shut the sliding glass door. He decided he’d give it one more shot. It would work this time. So to give a gigantic middle finger to his taste buds he rummaged through his refrigerator and tossed the fresh cold cuts on the counter, followed by fresh sweet peppers, mayo, mustard, and a bag of barbecue chips he’d grabbed from his pantry. For good measure, he doused them in salsa. Whatever diet he may have been taking could fuck itself; this was a meal of victory.

He cut open a sub sandwich and applied the cold cuts – honey maple ham, turkey, genoa salami, Swiss cheese – and doused the rest on (including the peppers and the chips) into one scrumptious hoagie. He took a knife and cut it vertically into two halves, poured some coke, set it on the table. He collapsed onto the chair in a fit of hunger and swooped up one half with a triumphant grin. This food had been brought from a market he trusted; there would be no complications.

To good food, to great flavor, to fresh meals that don’t taste like they’ve been festering in the trash, to mom and dad, to the love of my life and finally, a big middle finger to anything that gets in my way. Victory!

His lips opened and he bit in.

The sounds of the coughs and the wretches tore through the vents, through the heating system, through nearly nonexistent slits in the windows, through insect larvae squiggling in wall crevices. In her early sleep, Mildred Lawrence shuddered and stirred, as if the stars in the night sky had aligned just for her. The shuddering stopped and soon her unconscious body returned to normal, lax cozily on her pillow.

In reality, her boyfriend’s screams began not long after.

II. Winter Thoughts

On that night Nathan Hoffman had a dream.

He dreamed he was in a vast apple orchard. But it was not akin to the apple picking spots of his childhood, which were fairly moderate in size and suited his adolescent love for the autumnal seasons in those times. Instead of short, stubby trees, these trees were gargantuan, bearing the same height and width of any redwood located halfway across the continent, but from what Nathan could see the trees had a standard apple tree feel to them – he saw no apples in the trees as they stretched up over the skyline, but the branches were jagged and dead, spiking out of the tree’s trunk which seemed to be a thousand years tall. A few apples were on the ground, but they appeared to be normal sized. In the dream world Nathan had seemed to take this with stride – in dreams you never seemed to take much seriously. At least that was in his experience.

He began walking and when he had walked a few yards or so he saw it. Above the fog in the cyclopean apple orchard was an almost perfectly rounded black shape, stretching for impossible size above the skyline. The fog’s sudden and unnatural dissipation at one point, where it had cut off completely in a perfect diagonal line, fully unveiled the eldritch substance. It was a full black sphere of incomprehensibility, and Nathan could discern no immediately noticeable earthly feature. For a second panic had actually set in the dream – something Nathan had never experienced in the outer realms before. Or just “realm”, because as far as Nate knew dreaming was the closest thing to an outer reality. He could not react bizarrely because as soon as he had taken in all of the anomaly’s features he had awoken with a jolt.

That dream was three weeks ago. December was now approaching fast. The chill of autumn had blossomed into the freeze of winter, and the cold would soon transcend into endless night. A night that seemed endless, anyway. When day ended at four, it could truly seem like the darkest depths of hell in the season and on a winter like this Nate had known that.

Nathan had over the weeks experimented with each food group. His eyes had reddened with deprivation as the days dragged on, but he was making do. Any explanation for it yet? Of course not. He didn’t have a permanent doctor, because he knew it’d probably be the same old shit; “drink lots of water and take aspirin every day”, insert rational explanation, blah blah blah.

He hadn’t told Milly. He’d been wasting away by himself, and besides if he told her he’d get the “loon” reaction. No doubt about that. He had the notion that the taste would disappear with time, or at least fade until it was only a sliver, and he held on to this hope. Time, he knew, healed all wounds. He’d listlessly experimented with different food groups until he found the ins and outs. Meat, vegetables, and fruits were all toxic, poison to his taste buds. Strangely, wheat was only just barely edible and dairy had a faint disgust to it, but carbohydrates, namely sweets, tasted the same as ever. Certainly not a good sign; he’d given no acknowledgment to his weight in a long time, but it would soon make him consider.

When he spoke to Milly he'd attempted at normality, but difficulty came clearly. His voice droned and trailed off, and it had become faintly hoarse, raspy, and unclear. His eyes began to redden and sometimes his walking limped. Hallucinations, either visual or auditory, had not yet started, and that was because of his twisted new "diet" forced unwillingly upon him. Milly had noticed a personality change in him as well but she said nothing, presumably figuring he was just in another one of his "weeks" (thinking too much about his mother and father).

On some nights he remembered that dream. He couldn't clearly make out the entity and strangely enough only remembered the apparently irregular cluster of the stars that lay eons behind it. These stars were not spread out, rather, they seemed to gather in a jumble all across the sky. He did not immediately see any recognizable constellation. On some nights he thought of that dream and wondered why he couldn't make out what the unknown anomaly was. But why the stars? Maybe it was their strangeness in that particular dream, their irregularity, and the dream had told him to only comprehend what his mind could. But he should have been able to comprehend some mental entity in a dream, should he not have?

He'd been making do with his strange new "diet". Soup of any kind seemed to have no effect on him whatsoever, even with toppings or add-ons. French onion, even with its Swiss cheese topping, didn't make any alterations to his taste buds. Bread did nothing, but other wheat did, despite being only slightly edible. His writing had slowed considerably - less than half a page a day. He'd attempted to get back into the swing of it by writing a needless story he thought from the tip of his mind about a man buying a pet mouse and becoming attached to it, but it slumped. The writing had been faulty, and each word sounded as though it had been coming from a telegram as he typed them. He wrote four pages, printed it, read it, then tore it to shreds, making a meal for his fireplace.

Meanwhile, Milly was having trouble sleeping. She'd remembered stirring on that supposed first night. Vaguely she recalled a dream she had where she had attempted to bite into something but a foulness came over her, and it ended there. When she woke up she felt as though the dream had lasted much longer than it truly had. Following this, the dreaming had progressed worse and worse to the point where she woke up in cold sweats on darkened nights, often past the midnight hours. She'd often woken up even if she did not remember the dream in a state of surreal panic; when she woke up she constantly diverted her attention to the entrance to her closet, which was always open a crack. Child superstitions coming back to haunt her, she assumed. But also she had dreamed of some incomprehensible things, like the universe in a strange shape at night. And she often dreamed of Nate being considerably more irate; something he never was, as he always maintained his laid-back attitude. She'd seen a decline in him, but she just figured it was another one of those moments.

She had also dreamed of her and Nate's "garden", the peak at the end of Windhand overlooking the endless forests below. She dreamed of this except it was upside down. The night was bright, starry, but these stars were strange. No moon existed then. And when she walked up to the edge, she could see a shapeless form in the distance, unfathomable, nameless. And the dream died out soon after that.

Suddenly while lying in her bed she had pondered; "Who's opened it?" The closet that is. It was a sliding closet-door. The only way it could have opened was if someone had manually came in when she was asleep and fiddled with it. The thought chilled her to the core, but she knew it was improbable. But when she felt that lingering presence...

She was over-thinking some sort of obvious cosmic explanation that flew over her head, that she was sure of. What it was eluded her. What she truly could not describe was the feelings of profound despair that washed over her when she looked over there. The more dreadfully obvious possibility was that the reason for this was that there was someone in there. But who would hide in the same person's closet, night after night, with seemingly no motivation, doing nothing? And how would this person have gotten past her parents? More often than not, they both stayed up downstairs long after dark, drinking wine, probably getting into the liberal versus conservative argument the whole family was so familiar with. It was because of her parents that Milly gave no shits about politics whatsoever.

It was on the morning of one of the first days in December when her concern for Nate had truly kicked in, and with reason. She was strolling down Roans Central's sidewalk, coat wrapped around her chest. A few bikers were out, but other than that it was devoid of any human soul. Soon all bikers were gone. She gazed up at one of the mountains far off from this one and a shudder thrilled down her spine, distressed but almost impressed by the sheer emptiness of it all, despite the otherwise uplifting light of a sunny day. No movement seemed to be made in the slightest behind the drawn shades of the houses, and nothing made a noise outside, except for the solitary chirping of a lone bird somewhere. No sounds ricocheted from the highway; what else would you expect in Custer County? Three cars on the road here was rush hour.

She remembered a line from an old RHCP song. “Nobody out there, hard to believe that I'm all alone.” She bellowed a sinister laugh, knowing she was thinking far too much. The town was small, yeah, but it wasn’t empty. It was never empty.

Nate’s house had been on the lane that bordered the woods, as opposed to the houses that were aligned further out on Roans Central, adjacent to each other. She gripped the railing and took up the stairs to Nate’s porch. A drained bottle of scotch – it had been there since forever – lay dormant on the glass surface of the white porch table, and she observed a medium-sized beetle, one of the last of the season, scuttle over it and down beneath the porch swing, where it hid in the dark. The swing was adorned with a yellow design and rocked gently from the light wind. The paint surrounding Nate’s doorknob was splintered and chipped, but she attempted to pay no regards to it; she’d been bothered by the sight of splintered wood, it was just one of those irrational dislikes. She shivered again and went for the doorbell.

Minutes before, Nathan Hoffman had sat upon his couch, the lights in his house off, the beer in his hand lukewarm. He slumped down, his eyes red-rimmed, purple bags formed beneath them. The beer slipped out of his fingers, plopped onto the couch, rolled off the sofa and onto the floor. What little was left in the bottle spewed out like a summer hose. He'd tried it and it had been tasteless, with no foulness or appeal of any kind. He hadn’t realized how pale he had gotten, at least not past instances of mere minuscule contemplation that, rather than present itself upfront, scratched at the back of his conscious as though his mind was a window and his thoughts the nameless horror outside that scratched at it, begging to be let in.

His attempted scoff at this thought showed no enthusiasm or humor in it; it was as dead and flat and empty as he felt. It came out as nothing but a seethed breath.

He stood up and shambled clumsily over to the waste bin in the kitchen, dropping the bottle inside of it lazily. He returned to his sofa.

His mind had no energy for questions anymore; now acceptance only shed its light on him. The question was why, but it was moot, empty, meaningless and insignificant now. He knew why. Something had been calling him.

He didn’t know what. He didn’t even know if that was right. He was not religious, and he dismissed divine punishment as nothing more than a fairy tale. He could think of nothing that he had done, because he knew well and truly that he had not. But he considered the possibility of karma, but what good was karma when he had done nothing? He didn’t even need good karma. He’d been nothing more than some boring kid in his early years and now he was a boring writer in his twenties. Just a man.

November ended a few days ago. There had been no significant snowfall of the work year yet, which was surprising for the Gem State, but a slick rain had fallen on November’s final day, as if it had signified that this New Year would be long and ruthless. 2010, the turn of the decade, reared its head and would be here in less than thirty days. Nathan Hoffman, New Year’s resolution: find something that doesn't taste like shit.

He still ate, with the same dreadful diet. His stomach twirled repeatedly in malnourishment. It always hurt him when he was like this, even before this strange new situation. Now soup seemed to have grown tasteless; before it was fully edible and with the same odor and flavor, but now it had none, neither of those. It was as stale and dull as a gray sky. His eyes were red around the rims, seemingly discolored at the pupil (or just dead and flat). His ears rang and it hurt when he got up out of his chair. Visible floaters had begun to encircle the corners of his eyes, little black devils biting at his peripheral vision.

In his sleep he bumbled. After he woke up he got auditory hallucinations, at night or in broad daylight. Sometimes when he lay in bed on darkened nights he heard scratches from beyond the wall. Sometimes he wondered if they really were just hallucinations. He dreamed too, his mind stirring up visions of things he could not explain, things that he could not comprehend and that made him awake in a cold sweat each time he dreamed them. After he awoke his head thumped and drummed, like someone had taken his head in their hands and shook it as hard as they could. A couple nights, he had curled back up and cried.

Sometimes he dedicated hours of his day to make sense of the dreams, or remember them at least, but he found no success. These were things that lay on the dark side of his own frail sense of human perception, and these things sent chills thrilling up his spine. Why did he even try thinking about them? His mother told him once that the things he couldn’t remember are the things one did not want to remember. Having intrusive thoughts in his teenage years however told him that this idea was utterly bullshit, but now he considered it. Maybe for some things, and this was one of them.

He tried to give up finding an explanation, and still he had not told Milly; but why did she need to know? He was pretty certain that she could not empathize with the idea of your tongue practically rotting in your mouth, and he was also certain that she had been seeing his slow physical decline; and he knew he would see one in her if the same thing had happened, so he ruled out any possibility of that happening. He tried to laugh. As if there should have been any possibility at all? Again the laugh basically just plopped out of his mouth with no life whatsoever in it like a carcass being rolled into a shallow grave. However he did sense somehow that Milly would not be alright in these following weeks; it called, whatever it was, the thing that called to him in his dreams that he could not recall and he now realized did not wish to.

This deterioration, he had faintly begun to realize, had stemmed not from the apparent taste bud mutation in itself but from the sheer startle of it all, a feeling of life changing suddenness that, he would have thought before this, should only have come when one’s family member or close friend croaked. When the food itself seemed to downgrade itself – soup as mentioned earlier now was just tasteless, bread had a faint inedibility to it, and candy stung a bit but it still tasted the same. Would this get worse? He hoped to god it would not. His stomach already wept and sighed its disapproval; he ate so little as a whole that the faint outlines of his ribs had begun to become more apparent, however difficult to notice. He figured that soon he would need several layers to hide himself, the lowest form of humiliation for a man who ate like he had. Today his hunger had driven him to the edge; and he would eat grandly with nothing getting in the way. No matter the disgust, it was last night in the darkness as he contemplated to himself that he must nourish himself for the best. Now it didn’t matter what it tasted like; he needed to eat or he would die. The banquet waited in his fridge, but he felt no eagerness to eat it. It would be nothing more than a chore; perhaps the worst he would experience for as long as he lived. But it was something he needed to do.

He found that things had even began to malform themselves further within his taste buds. Plenty of foods, if he could even call them "foods" anymore, had dwindled in sheer texture alone - a bite into a hot dog tasted like sandpaper, bread felt like oatmeal, and some were solidified to the point where he could not even bite them. He truly realized now the sheer hopelessness of the situation but clung on to a faint glimmer of hope that sometime, somehow, it would end.

It was quarter after noon when someone, Milly presumably, rang the doorbell. He didn’t attempt to look his best – nothing that petty mattered, not right now. At most he rubbed the festering crust from his eyes with a napkin in his pocket. He shambled over to his door, hunch-backed, ready for a scream from the opposite party.

But no scream came.

Milly was there in black leggings and a greenish-black winter coat that would have under any separate circumstance looked beautiful, but his sense of attraction, of beauty and ugliness, was dead right now. She only gaped at him with shock, reeling back for a second, her eyes wide with wonder. She spoke after a few dreadful moments.

“Mah God, that’s…are you alright, Nate?”

He’d figured she would notice. He tried to straighten out his arched back and felt the joints click a little painlessly. He tried to smile. “Yeah…yeah, I’m fine. Come on in, girl.” She’d never heard him refer to her as “girl” before. It intimidated her slightly but she said nothing.

She seated herself, quivering a bit, her mind not fully intact for a minute. He collapsed on the couch on the opposite end of the room; they’d played musical chairs and now she sat where he did earlier. She was about to speak but he cut in, in a hoarse and grating half-whisper; “How you doin’, hun? You need anything?”

“No, I just came to visit you. What’s going on? There’s something wrong, I know it.” She figured he was sick but she wasn’t sure; fever had never reddened her eyes and it had never caused her a slouched back, nor did it mutate her voice to that level. “Is there anything that, y’know, I can do?”

He shook his head. It practically creaked as he rocked it to and fro and Milly pretended to not notice – it was probably a mind’s illusion, anyway. He spoke. “No, it’s nothing. Just a little sick. I’m going to try eating tonight.”

“You shouldn’t eat if you're that sick,” she argued. “Your stomach’ll crash n’ burn.”

“Well, I need to put something in it. A little soup maybe.” That wouldn’t do shit, of course, and he hid his true scheme for tonight. Now that he thought about it, he’d do it as soon as she left; get it over with.

“Yar,” she said and Nate thought: what are you, a pirate? “My mum always said to me that if there was one thing worse than anything else it’d be being sick. It’s like hell ain’t it?”

He almost immediately deviated the subject. “Nice day out there? I haven’t been outside at all today.”

“Yeah. Cool blue sky this afternoon.” She shivered. “But it’s empty. Town seems completely dead right now.”

It wasn’t uncommon for Little Loop, Idaho to seem dead – every winter the lights went out, every store died except for the necessities like Moira’s Market, some restaurants, and the one bank that existed. Besides that, the lights went out after Christmas, dead for months. The vacant streets and sidewalks were caked in glistening white, soulless reflections of a town that, in spring and summer, was filled to the brim with happy folks and boys drinking at bars and pretty girls in warm weather clothing, the sun burning high in the air, birds fluttering about. Now the year died, an endless cycle of yearly reincarnation. Soon the streets would be paved with nothing but emptiness and the sky a lead-gray on the bleakest of blizzarding nights and days.

When winter came, he’d thought often, what then? Summer was hot, but it wasn’t oppressive as winter; as the legendary Bradley Nowell once said, summer time and the living’s easy, Bradley’s on the microphone with Ras MG, the same old summers from his childhood. Winter took you in its clawed, freezing grasp and squeezed the life out of you. In Idaho in late January fifteen degrees was a blessing; back in New York the weather could get bad, but you could scoff at it if you were from up here. When winter came how could he deal with the freeze and the taste at once? It would have been like two viruses fighting for the dominance of their host.

“You want a drink or anything?” Nathan croaked out. It sounded like a deranged burp against the scraping soreness of his apparent laryngitis. “I have a few beers in the fridge. Red wine on the counter.” Milly preferred white wine but she could make do with red too; anything to keep her happy.

“No, I’m okay,” she assured. She still looked concerned, her face wracked with worry and also fear. “I…I think I’ll just leave now, Nate. Don’t want to get sick and I don’t want to bother ya. Get some rest, guy.”

He jumped at the idea with far too much enthusiasm. “Yeah! I mean, sure. Thanks, Milly. I love you babe.” He dreaded if she would give him a kiss on that poison tongue, but she didn’t; she kissed her palm and threw the kiss at him. With as much forced cheer as possible he held out his hand and pretended to catch it. She left.

As she walked out of the door she felt no relief to be away from him, but rather an even profounder dread that echoed in her soul. The already chilly air seemed to get colder as if some sort of cosmic heater had been lowered.

Something was not right. Something was not right at all.

It was time.

He waited about an hour after Milly left; he lay on the couch in his writing workshop, strewn over the leather, letting his body sink into it like dirt piling onto a coffin over years of decay. He waited for his mind to come back to him fully and he found no avail – he merely weighed the options and consequences of his scheme, rolled it around in his mind like a stress ball between his fingers. Was it worth it? It was.

He shuffled over to his fridge, suddenly overtaken with a dark enthusiasm, a strange energy building inside him – an energy mixed with hope (what if it tastes good, finally?) and dread (let’s get this over with), and then some.

Waiting gave strange anticipation for him; despite knowing subconsciously this would only be a chore, he was eager not only to end it but also to eat, to somehow savor it, to relish in the hell given to him by his tastebuds. He’d had many strange feelings before, but none were that profound; right now his anticipation scratched at him like a festering sore.

When everything was ready he set up the table at the end that overlooked the outside. His meal lay in front of him, napkin tucked inside his shirt collar, his food on a single plate except for the sandwiches which were in a basket beside him. His chore would begin.

Finally, he ate.

III. The Sky, the Stars and the Void

“This will be the plague the Lord strikes; their flesh will rot while they stand on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths.” – Zechariah 14:12

"Turn off your mind - there's nothing to find out here." - Electric Wizard, "Saturn's Children"

December 23rd. Two days before Christmas. Still the question; why?

He thought he should have known why. But he didn’t.

He didn’t know these things.

He didn’t know why the world worked the way it did. He didn’t know how humanity had progressed so quickly over the years; and why did God, if He existed, pick them? Why didn’t anyone else ponder things as crucial as these? And if they did, why so infrequently? He didn’t know. He didn’t know what had caused his parents to make a mistake on the road that was so bad it robbed them of their lives, or rather, he didn’t know what had compelled the offending driver who bumped them off the highway to do it. These were some things explainable; drunkenness, probably. But could he ever really make a solid conclusion? It was likely wrong to think he could. Humanity goes by what they are told, and sometimes, he thought, it is better off to not be told anything at all. He didn’t know why his almost three-year girlfriend’s flesh and blood, Grace Lawrence and Reginald Lawrence, had spent the final several minutes of their existences doing something as mundane as driving out of town to a Kohl’s down south near a tiny city adjacent of Bayhorse, a long deserted town that tingled at his spine. He didn’t know how to react when Milly called him screaming and utterly out of her mind. He didn’t know why the stars seemed to groan and sigh at him when he gazed up at them in the dark of the night. These were things he did not know.

And perhaps he was not meant to know them. Perhaps no one was meant to know them.

It had been the morning of an endless night, one that had started three days ago when he had attempted to sleep and found that insomnia had taken over, that he received the call. It was still almost full dark; the sun only cut in a sliver over the horizon, a reddish orange glow being cast over the blue morning. He had neglected his heater; the winter chill had crept its way in through the crevices in his home and stalked his way into the upstairs until his home was a cold, empty shell. After his binge, in which he had gotten violently sick beneath his porch to the point where he felt as though his stomach would rupture, he had spent most of his weeks curled up in bed, touching no food. It was as if this horrid malformation of his taste buds prevented him from relief, prevented him from comfort, prevented him from dying and ending this nightmare.

The dreams were surreal but at the same time, he could not remember them, and little did he know Milly was having them too; strange, abnormal things that seemingly no one could understand. In these dreams that peak at the edge of Windhand shone to them like the antithesis of Heaven’s gates, a dark and soulless void that shattered their memories. In this void the stars seemed to twist and malform into an uncreation, a shapeless jumble overhead. In Milly’s closet, something still pushed it slightly ajar each night, and in Nathan’s walls in his room something still scratched like a wound that wouldn’t heal.

The call had shrieked through the empty halls, but Nate did not jump; he merely twitched and turned over on his side, eyes directed at his cell which lay on the night-table across the way. He got up and, with a grace that seemed nothing short of zombified, shambled like the walking dead over to his counter. He stared in the mirror. His face was drained of all color, ghastly white and stark with nothingness. He neglected his hair; it was long and unkempt. His clothes were tattered. Clothes didn’t matter. Clothes were clothes. He hadn’t seen Milly since he binged; only talked to her on the phone occasionally. He lied that he was completely ill with a few week virus. He didn’t want her to see him like this. A guilt still gnawed at him; a guilt for something he could not explain. Nathan’s ribs shown like a skeleton; if he had a shirt on it would hover away from him if he leaned down even the slightest.

He picked up the phone to hear her mindless hysterical screaming thrown up from the very depths of her heart and being. Through wheezing and agonized breaths, she told him what happened; they went down out of town to shop for clothes and when they were on the highway they took an exit and flew off the side, killing them instantly, metal and flesh splattered carelessly on the ground-

He hung up. The snow had stopped as soon as the dull throb of his head had set in. It calmed him. He liked it. The snow was thin, probably wouldn’t stick. He thought about he and Milly’s garden. Something drew him there. They’d been there often in the spring, but today something just felt so right, so necessary. He would take Milly, too. And they’d share that view together.

Nathan Hoffman, now unofficially dubbed a sentient corpse, crawled back into bed. She did not call again. The scratches in the walls intensified. He liked them. Very nice. And, he thought, maybe they were just in his head after all. Maybe the apple was merely the same apple as he would have tasted if he had been in another reality besides this one.

Maybe that was it.

In his god given sleep, he saw the thing that he saw in the dreamy apple orchard. It groaned and screamed to him faintly like a thousand churning gears rolling together in twisted synchronicity.

Mildred Lawrence knew in a moment like this that human emotions had, as a whole, an impending sense of meaninglessness in regards to everything surrounding the planet. Sometimes she sat outside on her porch (typically when her then living parents were at their most heated of arguments) and stargazed. She realized then that there were few things that terrified her more than a beautifully picturesque, cloudless night sky. The countless billions of stars contained in nothing more than a single medium-sized galaxy glared down upon Idaho’s vacant fields with spite, their silence more degrading than any sound Milly could think of, and the mountains around Custer County were like monolithic mummies, as though these lifeless mountains were still frames of old gods waiting to wake from their deathly slumber once again. These, she thought, were possibly things so horrible that she never, ever dared to even consider what it would be like when she saw something that could not be properly comprehended by any human perception. She had studied things like this in university, things that, until now, she had not truly gave significance to in an insignificant existence. She realized the real fear came not from the purposelessness in and of itself, but it was the total horror brought upon by the fact of not knowing. Stargazing had given her a helping of this feeling, though it was hardly even a fraction compared to the feeling right now. It was strange – or was it so strange? – that these things did not become supremely considered until a tragedy this sudden, this cold, and this life shattering had come about.

Of course, sheer grief had overshadowed horror – she would not considerably recognize the horror itself until later – but it lingered in the darkest recesses of her mind. Confusion, too, when Nathan had hung up the phone after her ten minute grieving monologue without so much as a word from his mouth, was replaced by sheer anger and hate. Anger that was not only directed at Nate but at herself, at a god whose existence she would lose faith in and spit on after today, at earth, at her parents for abandoning her. The sheer blend of negative emotions made her sure beyond any doubt that because of things like this – the fact that something as cosmically simple as loss had caused a mind shatter such as this one - there was no feasible, even mathematical chance that humanity could ever be superior in the sheer vastness of the universe.

When the officers arrived, conscious refused to accept it until the two officers sat her down in her living room and informed her of the situation. Her mom and dad had driven off the road after getting off the highway and into a smaller lane – her father, in what would have become the early days of his senility had he not been robbed of life, failed to realize that he skidded against the guardrail of the road. At least, that was the officers’ most rational presumption. Her mother had probably seen it but was too late to voice her objection before they burst through the rail and tumbled into the woods. The roads were empty for another ten minutes before a classy modern Chevy sped down the highway, the man inside coming to a screeching halt and turning into the exit after he caught a glimpse of the trashed metal below the trees. He phoned the police before he even saw the two corpses scrunched together in the car for a final embrace. An array of cruisers including an ambulance were there within minutes, blocking off the roads with yellow paper.

The roar of the ambulance siren in broad daylight went unheard – but Milly felt a strange tingle of dread in that moment that disappeared as quickly as it came. Until the officers dropped by.

Her family, some from Windhand and some from further out in the state, had visited after the news broke out; within minutes it became the main headline in the state’s paper. She hadn’t heard about it on the news where it initially cropped up; rather, the cruiser had pulled into her driveway and she first thought with fleeting concern that her parents had done something wrong, forgot to pay an important bill or whatever. No thought of her parents being dead entered her mind. It wasn’t until the two officers rang on the doorbell did she realize; someone’s died.

The officers had remained in her home until long after the rest of her main family had finished grieving. The tears had warmed the mid-afternoon December day - her older brother Vic from Montana had paced back and forth from one wall to the other in a nervous trance, her aunt Lydia had gotten sick on the floor right in front of the cops when they elaborated on the details, and the rest were either out of their minds with sobs or silent and emotionless shells, too shocked to acknowledge what had happened.

At the peak of the evening, Milly gathered herself together and informed her family that she would go and get Nathan. She needed him with her, but she also needed to give him a piece of her fucking mind. She revved up her car and drove away.

Evening had set in. The dying light of day was the only illumination that shown in through Nathan Hoffman’s bedroom window. He did not sleep – he only lay in wait. It called him. Tonight he would turn to the stars, lifting his head up to the immortal sky to see the infinite sprawl of them. It called him to the mountain’s peak – that was its awakening place. It was where he would find out why it had bestowed this fate upon him. There, he could rest knowing why.

All he had to do now was wait until it groaned to him again.

Mildred Genevieve Lawrence thought through clenched teeth and drying tears: Ugh, I'm going to kill him.

She had driven down Roans Central with her sights set for her boyfriend's house - she was too empty and miserable to even take a ten minute walk, and the cold stung her flesh anyway. The thin sliver of dying sun shot in through over the mountaintop, and this contributed to the destructive negativity festering inside of her since the morning. The lifeless orange of the twilight twisted together with the stars of the oncoming night, and since then she had felt no other urge to die as strong as that moment. She tried to hold back the tears. She failed; and let them flow freely.

She turned the corner and pulled up to Nate's house to find that his car was gone - and she stopped the car. This surprised her; he was as sick as a dog according to his own word, so he shouldn't have been able to drive even the slightest without puking on the shotgun seat. Confusion was replaced by anger in seconds; hanging up on her after her parents had just died, not getting with her in weeks, and finally not being by her side for something like this and calling himself a boyfriend-

She saw his car through vision blurred by tears. It sloped clumsily, but at a decent pace, up one of the hillsides on Roans Central - headed for Windhand. She knew subconsciously where he was going, but why?

Wearily, she followed.

Nathan Terrence Hoffman knew it at that moment: the peak of Windhand was the peak of eternity.

It was not the edge of the measly, nearly microscopic galaxy Nathan resided in that his race had dubbed the "Milky Way" - here, for a split second, he saw that he was not standing on the edge of a mountain but at the edge of the universe itself. If he had stepped off, he would find himself plummeting through the dark nothingness of indefinite space, a nothingness which reflected humanity's sole purpose - and embraced the inevitability that they would soon join the void. Now Nate embraced it too. It made him smile, really, just made him happy to think about. There was nothing more comforting to his senses than a blanket of nothingness, an eternal nonexistence lying just outside of reality. Of course it didn't physically look this way - to anyone else under any other circumstance it would have just looked like a rocky cliff overlooking a northern forest, but to Nate the difference was clear.

He knew why.

He knew why.

It had happened so long ago and so far from here that he had almost completely forgotten about it for several years, but right then it had just resurfaced like a sleeping serpent. It was his freshman year in high school - early 2000s - and he and his family had driven down from New York to North Carolina for a family reunion with his aunt and uncle and their son Mort, a greasy, bloated piece of shit who had always liked to push his cousin around whenever he saw him. It went without saying that Nate had hated that piece of shit even since childhood when he first met him in the opposite situation when they had traveled up from the south to the Hoffman home. They had three other kids, all younger than Nathan and Morton.

One weekend at his point of hormonal teenage lowness, his family took this reunion down to a little town south of Raleigh, a village called Onsur.

Whenever they went there it was the same shit - his parents and aunt and uncle talking like chums, the dog that slept so much it might as well have been dead, and Mort being a snarky, snide ADHD douchebag who'd been giving Nate noogies since he was about eight. Onsur was a small town near Raleigh that was founded in the fifties before even good ol' Ike came to power. Line of buildings basically, ice cream shop, candy shop, market, some restaurants and all that good stuff, followed by a line of regular ol' houses. Not too different from Dovel.

In a combination of depression from having a few miserable weeks prior and a particularly bad day with his cousin, his anger and childishness at the time culminated in his scheme he'd go through with the next day. The scheme was akin to a toddler throwing a temper tantrum but he felt no rationality in a mindset like this one - only anger that morphed together with Morton screwing with him as though he was an eleven year old bully on the playground, and sexual frustrations and teenage anger issues and hormonal depression and anything else that came with that package.

Nate knew about Mort's peanut allergy. It was quite severe, an understatement, and he would exploit this. About an hour before everyone else woke up he rummaged through his aunt's pantry just to make sure and found a jackpot - smooth peanut butter by some old outdated company that was probably months or even years old by now. Bingo. He clandestinely put it back into place and returned to his bed, a smile creeping over his lips.

Some time after breakfast Mort had made his own sandwich while everyone was in other parts of the house. Eggs and bacon, which Mort liked, and when he wasn't looking, a bit of peanut butter of course added by Nate - enough to get him sick. And some hot sauce for good measure.

When Mort took a bite he reacted as Nate would have to the apple about a decade later, only this time it was a trip to the hospital for old buddy Mort. It left him there for days with a worried sick mother and father, a concerned Nathan's parents, and a guiltless Nate himself, relishing how good it felt to give that piece of shit such a rotten taste in his mouth. Afterwards people had of course speculated that Nate had done it, but with three other children ranging from eight to thirteen in the house no one could truly ever be sure.

He'd gotten away scot free, laughing all the way back to his house in the northeast.

He hadn't thought about it very much until now, even less with any guilt. But now when he saw this black swirling void at infinity's edge, he was certain beyond a doubt that this had caused it. So long ago, so forgotten, something that - well, should have been forgiven by now, shouldn't it have? But when this happened he realized it wasn't necessary to fight it, to question anything at all in a complex of reality so uncaring.

He tilted his head upward above the darkness of the void and stared billions of years into the past. The stars were not the normal sight of a bright night sky, rather, these stars all seemed to be bunched together like olives in a jar, cosmic mummies created eons before humanity was even a fragment of a glimmer in the universe's eyes.

Nate, on his knees now, dipped his head to the horizon and he saw it - the thing in his dreams. He remembered clearly now. He dared not describe its features, pretty much because he couldn't. Its shapelessness stabbed him in the heart, in his mind and his soul which he now felt as though it was dead, and it likely was. The thing stared down upon him as coldly as Nathan himself would look at an ant. It stretched over the void, and its sheer mass alone was large enough to be almost completely incomprehensible and it swirled and shimmered with the painful slowness of a planet spinning on its axis. Its mass swallowed any remaining light and any remaining humanity in Nathan's once sane mind. Before he fully collapsed into a gibbering mess, ready to join the void, he looked back on his earlier decision.

When he gazed into his reflection, he realized he was gazing into oblivion.

It was a split instant, but here he first truly realized the living husk staring straight back at him. With no soul he still managed to walk, and speak, and breathe. His brain had not died, but his soul had. The sound of light snow in the late, dying afternoon seemed to be amplified in his head while he stood in the darkness of his bathroom, lights out, silver thing laid out on the side of the sink before him. His reflection presented nothing more than a zombie.

He picked up the object. In the dim gleam of his eyes he made out the steak knife he had grabbed from the kitchen. In the dark there was no glow from the silverware, and he could make out the outline and the serrated edge and deadly tip. This was his final action. This was the last thing it wanted. Maybe, in oblivion, he could feel the pleasure of taste again somehow. It called him.

He held it up to his mouth. He felt a brief hesitation, but it faded about as quickly as it had come. This is what he needed. With gathered courage he let his tongue flop out of his mouth and held it up with his free hand, and he waited a few minutes until its violent shaking had mostly ceased. It remained, but he had been able to hold both hands steady now.

The silverware met his tongue, placed on the base right where it met his mouth. He could feel the bumps of the serrated edges rough against the muscle, the metallic taste encompassed by the rotten taste and texture, which now seemed to have infected even inedible objects like an unnatural virus. What little remained of the conscious part of his mind tried to tell him to do something natural, to cry or sob, to show that some of his humanity still existed, but it did not. And so he began.

He started off slowly, but with forceful pressure, by sawing back and forth left and right once every few seconds. Cuts, though not deep, formed within moments, and he felt a warm substance that he knew was not his saliva slip down the sides of his tongue and patter onto the marble floor of the bathroom. It all stung like an incision with no anesthesia, but he did not falter. When he started going too fast, he slowed down. When he started going too slow, he sped up. Mild and steady pacing was the answer. In a subversion of the old adage, mild and steady won the race.

He yanked the blade to and fro, steady, steady. Now the cut was an abyssal gap, split horizontally. His entire body jerked, spasming almost rhythmically the more he maneuvered the blade. Whatever screams he had stifled could not flow out - his unconscious willpower and severely damaged tongue forced any of it back into his throat to the point where he felt like he would choke it down into his stomach. His vision blurred with tears that blotted the darkness around him. And still he did not stop; he was not even close to finished.

After that realization, he realized that the moderate pace had devolved into slowness, and he felt no strong urge to pick up until a burst of willpower to end this nightmare as quickly as possible blasted through him. With agonized determination, he increased the tempo a great deal until his hand jerked like he was brushing his teeth. After several minutes, he had conquered the shallow layer of the body part and faint numbness had set in, but finally only seconds later he reached the true fat and muscle of the tongue. As he cut in, the crushing torture had returned with shattering force, and red body fluid continued to flood into the dark sink. His knees buckled - to prevent himself from falling to the floor he shoved himself up against the bottom sink cabinets. Veiny flesh and fat burst apart as he dug down, shredding apart muscle and fleshy pink skin. Finally, he felt the relieving departure of the muscly mass, his face now unrecognizable.

The pain had not numbed again; it still squeezed like an indescribable choke-hold. Through the self-inflicted carnage he had somehow managed to process the fact that he heard no plop when the slab of flesh hit the floor or sink. And then he diverted his direction toward his mouth - it dangled on a skinny strip.

In a tearfully desperate last resort, he summoned what little might he had left and wrapped his hands around his tongue and yanked. A slight rip occurred upon the first pull, which was light and meager, followed by a stronger second try, which upped his progress, followed by the strongest final yank and it had detached.

That had brought him to the peak. He stood over the sink, eyes wide and empty. His face had been darkened now. He looked ahead into the oblivion again and wept out the last bits of his sanity.

She saw his car parked just in the sandy lot outside the woods and pulled in next to it, letting it shudder to a stop. She wasted no time - she dashed out of her car and into the darkness, a flashlight equipped as night had now fully set in.

The walk wasn't a challenge. Ten minutes at most. She and Nate often took their time strolling down the path, listening to the brooks that flowed somewhere unseen in the woods, the birds and animals that twittered inside the brush, invisible. On the brightest of days they'd both made love when they had made it to the peak and Nate, unbeknownst to Milly, had decided at the second year of their relationship that he would one day propose to her there. Now the walk was sheer dread, even in the cool calm of the night, but this night wasn't either of those things. Now nothing of goodness in her life was present. Things groaned in the darkness of the brush. Terrors skittered beneath her feet in the trench darkness of the path and tapped at her from beneath the dirt. Her hands clenched into fists and sweat trickled at a maddening pace down her forehead.

She made it to the clearing, the peak up ahead. She gazed upward and observed the neverending scope of stars and noticed the sheer jumble of them all, something abnormal, something horrific, something she had never seen before.

Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.

She continued. Her pace had slowed to a crawl now. Her heart rate sped up as fast as her anxiety had halted her to a trudge, and the stars bore down with spite like they usually did. She wondered what was wrong, why Nate was acting like this, why he was doing this above all things, why he had hung up on her in her most crucial time of need, why he had been so distant lately, why he had presumably lied about being sick, why her parents-

She saw him. He knelt there at the edge, face obscured by dark. Ahead of him the sight was the same as she expected from the many days or nights spent here - expansive woods and a mysterious horizon, only this time the mystery was not inviting but rather repulsive. She wanted to turn away, get out of this place, haul and head for her car and never return, but the urge faded when she saw Nate.

She called out his name but received no answer. There was a dark handsomeness in him now, as though the weeks of unexplained deterioration had all disappeared spontaneously. Right now her two thoughts contradicted each other in the harshest of ways: one part wanted to go up to him and hug him, take him in her arms and cry on his shoulder in the hopes that he would caress her and console her telling her that everything would be okay, and the more rational, sensible part of her brain told her that something was wrong, was very wrong, that she needed to turn back now and run-

A cackle broke the dead silence that rose from Nathan's throat slowly and steadily. It began as a low drone before it ascended into a howling nightmare, a rising and falling gibber that instantly confirmed it to Milly - her boyfriend had gone insane. What she heard here wasn't the laugh of a living person but the laugh of a corpse, dead longer than she could have possibly even imagined.

"Nate? Nate? What's happened? What's going on?" She choked this out through oncoming tears and rasped breaths, restraining a wail of fear. Her feet were glued to the dirt.

His head lifted up and it sounded like it creaked. His voice was no longer totally flat and uncharacteristic, rather it was now twisted to the point where it had the same aesthetic appeal as the sound of shattering glass or nails on a chalkboard. It was an agonized croak.

"No, it's nothing. I'm fine, Milly."

She stumbled over herself, just barely regaining her balance. She felt the bile rise in her throat, pushing itself up through her esophagus screaming to be purged out. This was not her boyfriend, it was an empty shell impersonating her lover, a sheer opposite of the fun-loving, well-intentioned man of imagination she had known. He wasn't a man now. He was an impostor, a thing from the grave.

Searching for whatever humanity remained in him, she yelled: "NATHAN! What's happening? I need to get you to the hospital, I need to get you to the hospital right now! NATE!"

He swerved his head to the point where she could only see his cheek. His smile was toothy, wide. "Glad to see you, Milly. I wish we could be all alone tonight, just like the good old times up here. But we aren't, Milly. We aren't."


He turned his head.


Her eyes fell on dead ones, his eyes utterly missing a soul or personality. He opened his jaws, still with a grin. Inside his mouth was a motionless stump hidden under rivers of red. He squeezed something that oozed juices - leftover saliva - down the sides of his hand. His tongue, which he spoke without. And now Milly knew beyond doubt - that thing truly wasn't Nathan Terrence Hoffman anymore. It was only the body, and something had replaced the soul.

"Come with me, Milly."

She paused. Her stomach calmed, trembling lessening. "W-wha-?"

"No savior's up there. I tell you that. Listen to me. If he ever was there, then he's been dead for a long time."

She was silent.

"I know. Your mother and father told me. They're together in the void out there." He pointed off the peak. His smile was gone now, replaced with solemnity. "And I'll be soon, too. Bye, babe. You can come and be with me. And them. Always, forever."

The next moments seemed to happen in a blur. Abandoning his kneeling position, he positioned himself to stand over the edge, letting his disembodied tongue into the night air. She rushed to his side, screaming his name futilely, only the tips of her fingernails brushing against his shirt as he flung himself off the cliff, and for a split second Milly seemed to see him as though he was rotting - his clothes seemed to wither away, his skin seemed to expand and flesh itself out, and his hair seemed to shed. But it was only a split moment, for when he hit the ground his body was gone, not a trace of anything left.

And finally she saw it. That nothingness in Nate's dreams that he had just told her about came in her vision, seemingly through her mind, with no warning whatsoever. It engulfed her thoughts like blankness, and she saw that thing - the nameless thing that screamed from the stars and she knew then, she knew, that it had taken Nate with it.

And then she fainted.

The 14th of August. Sitting in wait outside of his office, shoes clicking together, heart rate feeling spiked, stomach churning. He peeked his head out and called her in.

She sat herself on the soft plaid couch and it began.

She'd been told to get therapy. Avoided it for awhile. This was her second session. He asked her if she could truly, truly tell him what happened. She attempted.

She had difficulty speaking, her voice was not quite a stutter but not quite stable either. "Since then I always thought it had started around Christmas time, but now that I think of it, it was before that. It was sometime in November, and I know that without a doubt now. Nate, he...he just started to break apart. Mentally and physically. One time when we were both out to dinner on a date he just kinda started to seem distant, out there, like he'd, he'd...seen a ghost n' couldn't get over it? That analogy doesn't really do it justice. It was worse, but it isn't something I can describe, not even a little bit. I didn't notice how he'd looked at dinner 'till he stopped eating, it looked to me like he'd just taken one bite outta the thing he ordered and called it quits. Actually he seemed pretty upset even before all that, just a sense of depression. I'm pretty good at reading people like that, just from their faces and all. But it was something different with him and it's hard to explain. Something that seemed mental even beyond any sorta depression.

"Anyways, after that I didn't see him too much. He called me a few times, and each time his voice just sounded like it was getting worse and worse. He got all hoarse and choke-y when he spoke to me on the phone. I thought it was just him bein' sick, like he'd told me later. But then..." Her voice began to crack a bit here and she struggled. "Then I saw him in person again and that's when I really realized something was more wrong than I could have ever imagined. He spoke to me all weird, called me things I'd never heard from him before that just sounded, well, off. I felt something like, I don't know, I felt an attachment to him, not our romantic attachment, but like we was both connected via soul or something."

He asked her to elaborate.

"Well," she continued, "I started having all these dreams. Like I couldn't remember much of 'em afterwards, but they was all, ah, what's that word again? Surreal. Yeah that's it. They were all surreal, and I remember seeing things I couldn't have seen. Or shouldn't. I dunno. Felt like I shouldn't be seeing those things, my mind was telling me, "Wake up, Milly, wake up, this isn't something you can grasp." Like the dreams were the devil on my shoulder, and the voice in my head screaming for me to wake up was the angel. Funny how that works when it should've been the opposite or something. But the thing is I felt like Nate was having them too. No, I felt for certain he was havin' these dreams, maybe not the exact same as mine, but he was being plagued by 'em. It's somethin' I know for a fact and I can't wrap my head around it."

She could hardly control herself when she continued - now it strayed into personal territory. "And then I didn't see him for awhile 'till...until after my parents got into a car crash and got killed. Christmas was destroyed forever for me, I won't be surprised if I can never enjoy it again, and New Year's felt meaningless. Anyways, I called him up but he just hanged up on me. I'd never felt so miserable until that moment, the moment when I needed him the most but he just dropped the ball on me. Even before that ah thought losin' my mum and pops was the worst thing that had ever happened but that just made it a hundred times worse. So later I went out ta get him because I needed him and I needed to get him to tell me just what the hell was goin' on.

"So I tracked him to where we'd always go when we just wanted to spend some time together. And there was something wrong, just so wrong. I saw him and I knew something was wrong with him too. And then he was. He turned to face me and he, he didn't have a tongue, it was just a stump and..."

She broke, exploded into one sob, then another, then a fit of them. The man sitting across from her said nothing. Finally after an agonizing minute it subsided.

"That's when he jumped. Just, he just flung himself right off. Right after he told me that there wasn't anythin' awaiting for me, or, him, or anyone, just nothingness, and after my mum and pops died, then I know what he means, I really do. When he fell it was like I could see his spirit and body withering away and then he was gone, lost in the black.

"And there weren't anything right with the universe that night either. I saw something, something big across out there and I collapsed and the stars, those stars up there weren't stars, they were a jumble of what they used to be."

He was silent for a minute. Taking notes. Then he asked her if she'd learned any coping methods for the past months, if she'd seen anyone beside him, if she took any meds, a few other pointless questions and finally that question of whether she'd learned anything or not.

Her face was damp with tears - she held no expression. Her eyes were as blank as an empty shed and for his question she only had one answer. "Learnt anything? Yeah, I'd learnt a lot. I learnt that when we feel like nothing, that's because that's all that we are, and that's all we ever will be."

With that, the session ended. She left for her car in the blistering summer heat and sat down at the wheel, head pressed against the leather of the headrest. She thought about what had happened after she fainted, what she didn't tell him.

On that December night, the search for her had taken about a day. Police in Custer County were running rampant, and what remained of the Lawrence family were ordered by the law to stay in their homes. The first thing her family had thought: suicide.

But as fortunately as you could get after two family members just died, they discovered her after about twenty-six hours, unconscious on her back. She was immediately taken to the Custer County Medical Center, twenty-four miles away. Her family was informed of her survival.

After she came to they found her as a gibbering schizophrenic mess - she'd writhed around glazed in sweat and screamed like none of them had ever heard and sometimes that descended into a maddening laugh before she fell back to sleep. It happened several times.

When she awoke she took a long time to sound coherent in her responses to doctors' questions. Soon she managed with a stutter. She informed them what happened and avoided the last things Nate had said to her before his end. She merely settled in telling them that he had killed himself via jumping. It was enough for him to be declared lawfully dead, but she didn't know.

Of course she didn't know. What was there to know...?

After things had "settled" as much as they could after she returned home, her aunt and her brother began to live with her - her brother left his apartment in Montana and Lydia her own in Boise. The three made a living so numb and dull it could hardly be called living at all. Every morning Vic got up he merely had breakfast and immediately retreated to his bedroom without a word. He was effected most by this, even more so than Milly, mainly due to being a few years older. Lydia was the most vocal - she cried the most and spent hours at the bar and Milly would lie on the couch and stare blankly ahead. Milly herself was physically affected the worst, but perhaps mentally the most as well. Dark bags had formed under her eyes, never fading, and her skin was wrinkled. Her head throbbed and her ears rang in the mornings. When she dreamed, she dreamed of the darkness and infinity hanging above her insignificant little head, just like humanity's place in the universe as a whole, nothing more than a minuscule tick in a gargantuan petri dish.

She still heard things at night in the darkness, often on the most sleepless of nights. Things whispered from beyond her bedroom wall. Wood creaked from the halls outside as though someone had been walking, even when she knew Lydia and Vic were sound asleep. And of course her closet door still creaked open to greet a trembling Milly with nothing-

She stopped thinking. There was never anything to think about anymore. She kicked her car into ignition and drove off.

She pulled in to her driveway. The sun burned only slightly above the horizon now, only peeking over the shadowed mountains. This town still felt dead, lifeless. A light summer breeze had picked up as she pushed the key in her door and stepped inside, greeted with an air-conditioned oasis. But no comfort came and no dread was relieved. Vic was out of town tonight, probably out binge drinking. Or at a whorehouse. Her aunt was out buying groceries; she'd left a sticky note slipped close to the clock on the wall.

Suddenly she felt hungry; she realized before that her stomach had been rumbling for the past three hours or so, but distraction from her therapist and driving had kept her occupied. Until now. With no food but a bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter, she grabbed one and brought it into her room. She collapsed on her bed and gazed out the window; from this bleak angle the sun was gone fully, shrouded by the dead mountains. A hopeless chill crawled down her spine, and she took a bite.

The taste stung like the foulest sewage imaginable. She yakked up the chunk of fruit and it plopped onto the floor with a sickening thud. Spittle fired out of her mouth, choking almost the point of vomit and her eyes stung with shocked tears which dribbled onto a red face. Throwing herself on her back, she began to pant, every breath a wheeze.

Something creaked.

God no, she thought, god no, please don't let it-

It whispered from inside the closet, its voice raspy, solid, with a tone appealing as broken glass or, perhaps, walking on a smoldering pile of trash;

"With me. And them. Always, forever."

As darkness fell, Mildred Lawrence screamed. She awaited the sting - but nothing came.

She turned over painfully in her bed, bones of her back creaking like dry wood. She writhed uncomfortably until she fell motionless, her hands dropping down the sides of her bed. Finally she forced herself onto her back, eyes turned toward the ceiling, and wept.

Started: November 15, 2014, Finished: February 23, 2015

Written by The Koromo
Content is available under CC BY-NC

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