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FROM: n.case

Tuesday, 3:11 pm

more crap from our bogus leaders

Hey Dave,

Usual crap at the meeting so you didn't miss anything. District heads are giving the go-ahead on that math program. Nobody saw that coming, right? Thirty kids to a classroom, no time to work with any of them individually, Career Ladders busywork in addition to grading classwork and putting together lesson plans and progress reports, and now first thing after Christmas Break we'll also have to organize songs and dance routines and plays and crafts that'll help teach our kids math. This job was so much fun in the eighties. What the hell happened?

And this Sandra Barnes crap on top of all that. Sixth grade is already short one teacher without George getting the boot, and all for giving a female student a congratulatory pat on the back, which I WITNESSED as a harmless gesture. Yes, Judy brought it up again, and the district jackasses were dodgier than last time. You, me, Judy and Al are probably the only ones in the district that know he didn't molest her. Not sure Sandra even knows anymore with how her parents carry on. But you'd think they'd listen to me at least! What the hell, I've only been here fifteen years. What do I know? Hear George's wife is divorcing him? She actually believes the allegations! I'd say "good riddance" if she wasn't taking the house with her.

His last day today, by the way. Throwing him a farewell party tonight at Judy's place. He'd be real happy if you came. He's in awful shape. Seen how pale he is now? He'll probably never teach again (by choice, I mean -- he's had it at this point, and I don't blame him). He's pretty short with a lot of people, especially Wright and Stratton. Seems to have it in for Babs Dunnewick, the new music teacher. Caught him tossing dirty looks her way in the lounge. Was she the one that fingered him?

Just another pleasant day at Aspenvale Elementary!

Saw yet another example of what a terrific sportsman Jerry is: Wesley sprained his ankle running for second base, and Jerry was first in line to help him hobble to the nurse. Always pats the other boys on the back after a game and congratulates them for their performances. See why George liked him so much. Thought he was just a timid eighth-grader that couldn't make eye contact. He transforms when he puts on a jersey.

Stop by my room when you got a minute and tell me about your class presentations. Colton was telling me all about his at recess.

Neal

==

FROM: j.tanita

Tuesday, 3:30 pm

greetings from grade 8!

looong day but worth it. you've GOT to see the sea critters little Eddie Sands drew for his biology report. i'm trying to convince him to submit it to the art contest. should've seen how he beamed when i told him how good it was. i think he's my favorite student this year. he's a favorite to a lot of teachers. such a sweet kid.

i'm staying late to get some work done. feel free to stop by and say hello. otherwise John and i will see you at the party. maybe party is a bad word for such a sullen occasion. i know for fact we'll be hurting for a baseball coach as good as George. he knew how to inspire the boys. he was like a mentor to poor Jerry Jacobs. Jerry's warming up to Neal as his replacement, though, so maybe it's not a total loss.

oh it's byob, fyi. we're on a budget.

J.

==

FROM: n.case

Wednesday, 1:18 pm

talk to george?

Hey Dave,

Been trying to get a hold of George but he's not talking to anybody. Acted strange at the party, all things considered. Looked like he hadn't been sleeping. Hands shook badly like he's got no nerves left. Judy thinks he was just suffering overexposure to the politics of Aspenvale. Can't blame him if that's all it was. Don't think that's all it was though. Seemed upset about things other than the Barnes disaster. Wouldn't say what.

Remembered it was Hanson that fingered him, not Dunnewick. Noticed Hanson doesn't talk much to a lot of us since George left. Pathetic how this whole thing has cleaved the faculty into little cliques. Good thing for Hanson, otherwise she wouldn't have any friends here. Never liked her. Too uptight and kind of mean to Miss Wiley and Miss Dunnewick, like her contempt for a person is equal to how friendly the person is. She must loathe Dunnewick.

Lunch almost over. See you at bus duty.

Neal

==

FROM: k.wiley

Thursday, 12:45 pm

FW:RE: art hilarity

lol I got you beat! Check the attachment for the inspired drawing that Sean turned in. We were drawing animals, too!

I actually haven't been to her room. But I can't blame the kids. A doll-faced thirty-year-old brunette who can sing like an angel and light up any room she walks into has a certain effect on people of all ages. She's a breath of fresh air after three years working up the hall from the Wicked Witch of the West (Mrs. Wright lol)

==

original message from m.preston

"i haf 2 dugs, the like to ressle"

Translation: "I have two dogs. They like to wrestle."

Student: Ritchie Sawyer

Assignment: draw a picture of your pets and describe them in three complete sentences

Picture: one dog vigorously humping another

Bonus Points: I saw his mom in conference today and got to share it with her. She went beet red. xD

Had to share that before class goes to music. Kids are getting restless. Always excited to play Dunnewick's games. Wish they'd listen to me like they listen to her.

She needs to throw her food trash away in the cafeteria though. Her room smells like oysters just a bit. D:

==

FROM: j.tanita

Friday, 1:31 pm

trouble

Jerry Jacobs is in the office again for fighting. he sent Corbin to the nurse with a bloody nose. so unlike him. any news how it happened?

J.

==

FROM: j.tanita

Friday, 1:59 pm

more trouble

Corbin had a concussion too! Jerry's going to be suspended. can you talk Sinclair out of it? he's really mad at Jerry but Jerry hasn't been himself. i think he's still angry about George being fired. he was crying about it yesterday.

J.

==

FROM: n.case

Friday, 3:25 pm

don't feel bad

Al Sinclair is a hard rock to move, especially where fighting is concerned. Frankly I think Jerry needs time away from school. Couldn't get much out of him.

"You have a little trouble with Corbin today?"

"Yeah."

"You guys have an argument?"

"No."

"Then what was the problem?"

"I dunno."

"You telling me you beat him up for nothing?"

"No."

"Then why'd you beat him up?"

"I dunno."

Not the first time I've had this one-sided talk with him. Got the same answers last time he sent a boy to the nurse. Seemed genuinely frustrated this time, like he really didn't know why he beat Corbin so badly (you should've seen them going at it: I didn't think it was Jerry at first). Little Debbie Walters saw it happen and she was more than a little shaken up. She's known Jerry since kindergarten as the nice boy who BREAKS UP fights. Some of the faculty are a little rattled too. Alison hasn't blinked since recess. Dunnewick looks pale and squeamish. You'd think they never saw a playground fight before.

Judy was right about Jerry's complexion. He looked sick and sleep-deprived and agitated. Had a twitch like his left cheek wanted to leave without him. Something else wrong with him but I couldn't place it. Anyway a week off from school will be good for him.

He did something strange before he left with his dad. I put my hand on his shoulder and told him I'd see him at practice in a week. The moment I touched him he flinched and shuddered just a little, as if my hand was made of cold wriggly worms! He left without making eye contact. Is that bizarre or what? Did he seem squeamish in Social Studies?

Worried about him. Remember Ethan Baker and the drug trouble from two years ago? You think Jerry would mess with any of that stuff?

Neal

==

FROM: j.tanita

Monday, 10:15 am

FW: scary update

this sort of rumor-mongering needs to stop. we're not in high school anymore.

==

original message from m.preston

Babs Dunnewick let it slip that George Keller was spying on her after school a week or so before he got the boot. She actually threatened him with her lawyer if he didn't stop. I even remember catching him peeking in her door once when nobody was around. D: Cree-pee! Anybody know anything about this?

==

FROM: n.case

Thursday, 3:11 pm

more gossip

Younger percentage of the faculty has a habit of suddenly remembering unsettling things about George. Judy's ready to talk to Al about stopping it. Getting out of hand.

Here's what Meg sent me today:

"I don't mean to be a rumor monger. George was a great guy. But this could change our perspective on the Barnes debacle. Dunnewick says George was always watching her after school and that's gross enough. But it doesn't end there. I told Alison about it (I know, I shouldn't have, but I was kind of laughing it off) and she went WHITE. She lives up the street from Dunnewick's place and swears on her mother's soul she saw George driving around the neighborhood not long before the Barnes debacle. George's house is in North Hill fifteen miles away! What if George really was stalking Dunnewick? Would he do something crazy if he couldn't get to her, like take it out on someone more accessible?"

The idea has no logic to it. Don't know what his beef was with other faculty members, if he had any, but I know for fact he didn't hurt Sandra Barnes. Anyone can know a person for years without really knowing them. But our rooms were connected! We chatted after class every day while grading papers! Sandra only came to his class after school to wait for her parents, and he always kept her busy the whole time cleaning and organizing! Even if he wanted to hurt her, he didn't have the opportunity -- I was always right there!

Still can't reach him. Doesn't answer his phone. Talked to him lately? Should be in Seattle by now.

Neal

==

FROM: a.sinclair

Friday, 7:45 am

email abuse

In the future anyone who uses the email network to gossip about George Keller, the Barnes Family, or the private affairs of faculty members will answer to me. This is an elementary school, not a public forum.

Thanks,

A. Sinclair

==

FROM: Neal

Texting from practice. jerry like old self again. healthy complexion, friendly attitude. patched things with corbin. will send him round to drop off copies you wanted.

MON. 4:00 PM

==

FROM: j.tanita

Tuesday, 8:15 am

babysitting ventures

hi Dave!

i need a great big favor. Alison has late conferences on friday and i'm babysitting her kids that evening, BUT they can't have dogs because their HOA is run by nazis. John has been working late at the office all week so my poor Dilbert will be home all alone, wondering where his mommy and daddy have gone. would you be willing to stop by the house and check on him? just say hello to him, check his food and water, and help yourself to the fridge if you like. i'll be heading straight to Alison's house after school friday morning so i can give you my key then. thanks in advance!

J.

==

FROM: j.tanita

Wednesday, 11:45 am

trouble again

nobody's hurt thankfully, but i'm frightened now. Jerry's become unnecessarily aggressive in class. the slightest mistake in his work makes him physically violent: i had to ask him twice to calm down, and on his third outburst he actually threw his textbook across the room. i told him to go stand outside and he practically hissed at me and gave me this look like he was thinking about taking a bite out of me! he looks exhausted and malnourished again, and his skin is very pale, and he smells AWFUL. i sent him to the office and had the nurse meet him en route.

he should still be there. can you ask Neal to go talk to him? what is wrong with that boy?

J.

==

FROM: Neal

Boys room in 6 grad hall. get here fast. jerry dead. need help keepin kids out til police arive.

THURS. 9:22 PM

==

Aspenvale Post Headline

"Tragedy at Aspenvale Elementary: 1 Dead, 1 Hospitalized"

Aspenvale Elementary School closed early Thursday afternoon when Jeremy Jacobs, age 12, was found dead in the boys' bathroom from self-inflicted injuries.

Jeremy violently attacked childhood friend Deborah Walters, age 11, in an apparent drug-induced mania prior to his suicide, police said. Deborah has been confined to Halcyon Peak Sanitarium, where doctors are helping her recover from her shock.

The coroner reported several crude injection wounds on Jeremy’s body, which yielded very faint traces of an unidentified chemical similar to flunitrazepam, known colloquially as the “roofie” drug. Deborah appeared to have the same marks, police said, but in her present state could not verify whether they were self-inflicted or the result of Jeremy's attack.

Police suspect Jeremy's drug use was not limited to this substance, and may have led to his violent behavior and ultimately to his suicide, though to date no paraphernalia has been found in the Jacobs house.

Flunitrazepam has often been used in teen suicides, but it is not yet known if Jeremy had suicide or recreation in mind on the day of his death, nor if the chemicals were produced by Jeremy himself or by an associate.

Chief Cuddy promises a thorough investigation of the Aspenvale neighborhoods to prevent further tragedies. No faculty members were available for comment.

==

FROM: j.tanita

Saturday, 12:40 am

why didn't you pick up?

George lied about going to Seattle! HE WAS HERE ON ALISON'S STREET! i was playing with the kids in the front yard and saw him cruise by in that clunker of his, looking up and down the sidewalks like he was house shopping, stony-faced like it was the most important part of his day. and that's not the weirdest part. we made eye contact: he froze with his mouth wide open like he'd seen a ghost in me, and then he tore up the street and vanished around the corner!

well i tried to call you about eight times. i didn't see him again, so i called Alison and told her what happened. she got worried about Miss Dunnewick and i thought i'd check on her and ask if George had been harassing her. the street ends in a cul de sac with four houses and i'm told Miss Dunnewick lives in the quaint little white one with the red roofing and the red birdhouse out front. i thought i saw her pale little face peeking out one of the windows when i walked up the driveway but nobody answered when i knocked. if she was home she was probably scared out of her wits.

i feel like i should've called the police, but i didn't know what to think. i still don't. Dave, i think George is genuinely disturbed! what can we do? there's got to be some way we can help him!

forward this to Neal will you please? i know the last thing he needs right now is more unnerving news but i feel like he ought to know about this. George was his friend after all.

J.

==

FROM: a.sinclair

Monday, 7:46 am

recent tragedy

We've all had a long weekend to gather our thoughts and pay our respects. The Jacobs' loss is felt by everyone here, so this morning I will make an announcement and ask for a moment of silence for Jerry. Mrs. Wakely is collecting donations for the Jacobs family and I encourage everyone to give what they can. Mrs. Tanita is additionally collecting donations for the Walters family to help Debbie through her illness. At present she is not receiving visitors.

The grief counselors will be available throughout this week to speak with any students who need them. The D.A.R.E. officers are due to arrive after second bell. The assembly will be at 1:00. Accompanying police officers will be inspecting the campus and asking questions and I expect everyone to give their full cooperation. I don't need to reiterate that the school email is not a bathroom wall for scribbling gossip. Please refrain from discussing anything unrelated to the curriculum.

Thanks,

A. Sinclair

==

FROM: j.tanita

Monday, 3:40 pm

neal

something's really bothering him. he acts like he's crawled inside a shell and won't come out, like a little boy who's woken from a dream too terrible to share. has he spoken to you or emailed you at all? please let me know.

i've asked Al to consider giving him a week off.

J.

==

FROM: j.tanita

Tuesday, 7:30 pm

FW: jerry

i've seen her. she's jittery and pale and has grocery bags under her eyes. keeping up her cheerful demeanor seems to wear her out. i wonder how much of it has to do with George. i'm afraid to ask.

==

original message from m.preston

I stopped by the Jacobs house to give my condolences. They hate how the police have handled this mess, especially the drug allegations. The investigations have accomplished nothing apart from hurting the school's reputation as well as Jerry's.

They tell me Jerry couldn't have been using drugs because he spent too much of his free time with videogames and after school stuff, like baseball practice and helping his teachers clean their rooms. He really liked Dunnewick and helped clean her room like clockwork after last bell. xD

She must miss him more than any of us! No wonder she's such a mess! She's got to be the sweetest woman on the planet!

==

FROM: n.case

Tuesday, 11:48 pm

confidential

This is for your eyes and Judy's eyes ONLY. Nobody else will appreciate it or even understand it. Frankly don't think you'll understand it either. Sorry I've been so distant but it's taken me a while to arrange my thoughts into something coherent, and I couldn't decide if I ought to tell anyone or keep my mouth shut. Maybe you can help me convince myself that the horror of it distorted my perception at the time or my memory post-trauma.

I lied to the police about Jerry. I lied because Debbie Walters was pumped full of meds and locked in a nuthouse for telling the truth.

Here's exactly what happened before I texted Dave. Second recess had been on for ten minutes. Was short on Rikki Tikki Tavi papers and heading to the office to print more. Was three steps into the Centrum when a long, shrill howl bowled out the 6th grade hall doors, Debbie Walters hot on its heels. Her face was chalk white, gleaming with sweat, straining itself to express confusion, horror, and disgust all at once. She crashed headlong into me and screamed again. Held onto her and tried to calm her down. Noticed a bloody welt on her neck and red stains on the collar of her blouse. She sobbed and hyperventilated and barely managed to say,

“There’s a monster in the girls’ room pretending to be Jerry!”

Her speech became incoherent. She nearly passed out from lack of breath trying to give details. Only understood a few words and phrases: gone to wash up, Jeremy followed looking sick, backed her into a corner, slimy eels pawing her, needles in her skin, light-headedness, running. Mid-way through her rambling she fell to the floor in a faint. Eddie Sands peeked out of the gathering crowd of children. Sent him to get the nurse and told the others to give Debbie breathing room. Ran to the 6th grade bathroom.

Know now what that inexplicable thing was about Jerry when I talked to him in the office two weeks ago: a sharp aquatic stench like clams or crayfish sitting in the sun. Nearly strangled me when I opened the bathroom door. Fought for consciousness and stumbled in. Mirror over the sink was shattered and Jerry was on his hands and knees, contorting as if fighting the urge to vomit, shirt torn to ribbons, a large glass sliver in his right hand. My brain told me to grab him and take the weapon before he hurt someone else. Horror froze my limbs and held me back.

I can't find words that do it justice. Jerry’s skin changed between hamburger gray and feverish white like an octopus unsure of its mood. Flesh on his arms and back rippled as if infested with thousands of angry worms. He sat up, glared at me through wet, pain-wracked eyes and drove the glass into his throat. He was dead in moments.

Went on autopilot. Called the police. Blocked the bathroom so the kids wouldn't go it and see it. Police got there and my safety brake finally gave and dropped me into darkness. They couldn't question me for at least an hour. I had nothing to give them they'd accept. Their assumption was that Jerry was already dead when I arrived, and I just nodded my head. What else could I tell them? "He had to do it, Officer, or else he would’ve turned into a worm-monster and been very unhappy."

Now Jerry's labeled a psychologically disturbed young man by adults and “the emo kid that killed himself in the bathroom” by his peers. Police scurrying around the neighborhood looking for adolescent drug labs. Is there some new ultra-violent worm drug on the market now?

Tell me I'm not crazy. Better yet tell me I AM crazy. Then I'll know what I saw wasn't real. I'm hoping the police do find something that explains it all. In any case thanks for listening. Come talk to me after last bell when you find the time. Again, I'd appreciate it if you'd both keep a lid on this, but if you feel the need to report it or avoid me like the plague, I'll understand.

Neal

P.S. Heard from George, meeting with him this week, sounded urgent.

==

FROM: j.tanita

Friday, 3:31 pm

greetings from grade 8!

it's surprising how quickly Aspenvale has recovered from Jerry's death. life goes on, i guess. everyone seems back to normal. Alison is neurotic, Miss Wiley is bubbly. Miss Dunnewick is as cheery and radiant as ever (and i guess she's got other boys willing to fill Jerry's shoes -- she's become quite popular). the boys on the baseball team are showing some of that Bluejay spirit we've missed so much. most importantly the gentle teddy bear we know as Neal has returned to us, though i don't know for how long. he's supposed to have that rendezvous with George today. they're meeting in a public place but the idea still worries me.

i am in the meantime a busy little bee arranging the science fair. hopefully we will have more variety this year (volcano models are off limits -- i put my foot down). Eddie Sands has a marvelous shark exhibit in the works. he's doing detailed drawings of shark anatomy, shark diets, and what all. he's got a pet shark that will make a very nice centerpiece. i admire his ambition and his diligence but i wish he'd take it a little more slowly. he's pale and a little irritable from lack of sleep. i encourage him nonetheless.

J.

==

FROM: Neal

At starbucks. george a no show. called and said something more important came up. he contact you?

FRI. 4:16 PM

==

FROM: n.case

Wednesday, 1:03 pm

latest headlines

Make no mistake: it was George. From what I gather, Babs Dunnewick and Alison Travis were talking about weekend guitar lessons for Alison's son Teddy. Alison was giving her a ride home. They got to the parking lot when George came out from behind Stratton's SUV and tried to pelt Dunnewick with a molotov cocktail, of all things. Apparently Alison's being in the kill zone fazed him not one bit. Alison wrestled him for the bomb until the janitor came and took it away. George was snarling and raving like an animal.

They got him up at the police station now, but it looks like he'll be going to Halcyon Peak instead of prison. He's damned lucky Dunnewick isn't pressing charges. He's double-damned lucky someone was there to stop him.

Going up there tomorrow to talk to him. You hear about extramarital affairs going bad and ending in violence. No secret George didn't get along with his wife, and Dunnewick is so secretive about her personal life. Will keep you and Judy updated.

Also need to borrow your stapler again.

Neal

==

FROM: j.tanita

Thursday, 12:21 pm

jerry all over again?

today in the office i overheard Al and the nurse discussing a raw welt on Eddie Sands's neck just below his shirt collar. he says he doesn't know where it came from and looks embarrassed and ashamed when asked about it. the nurse is convinced his dad is slapping him around at home. she thinks the welt is from a belt buckle biting into his skin.

it's just one abuse rumor after another at this school isn't it? Tom and Wendy Sands are good friends of mine. they have never hurt a child in their lives. they don't even believe in spanking! it's not abuse. it's the same as with Jerry, i know it. Eddie's gotten aggressive in class and snaps at his classmates like their every word is an attack on him. he destroyed a perfectly good shark drawing for not being perfect enough! and my goodness, he can't STAND when i touch him. i tried to take him by the hand and lead him outside to cool off and he LEAPT away from me in what i can only describe as squeamish terror, flattened himself against the wall and stared blank-eyed at me.

Eddie should still be at the office. i'd like Neal to see him and give his opinion. whatever Jerry was fooling around with, it's got Eddie too. i'm sure of it.

J.

==

FROM: n.case

Thursday, 6:49 pm

all sorts of weirdness

I saw George and Eddie today. Nothing makes sense. Or everything makes perfect sense in a logic pattern alien to me.

Last bell came and I went to the office to see Eddie. Eddie wasn't there. Carol said he'd gone to the music room to help Miss Dunnewick. Walked down to the music room and found it deserted, but with lights still on. Knew he'd been there because of Jerry's spoiled seafood musk (going by what Judy said). Eddie walks home from school so I assumed he went home already. Appeared Dunnewick was still on campus because her office was locked and dark, but I could hear a deep hum inside like she'd left the computer on. She'd probably be back any minute. Skipped my grading and drove up to the police station.

Station has a cold crypt of a basement with several holding cells. George was sitting patiently in the third one. They wouldn't let me in with him so I stood and talked through the bars at him. He wouldn't answer when I asked if he meant to kill anyone. Sympathized with his situation with females -- his wife treating him like a dog, the trouble with the Barnes family -- and it seemed to soften him a little. Asked him if he had been seeing Barbara secretly, and promised that I would understand if he had. He guffawed and pulled his lips into a mad, leering, sardonic grin.

"Only once. Saw her at night in all her naked glory. Beautiful pheromone-spewing beast no one can resist. But I'm not good enough for the succubus's tentacles! I'm not fresh enough for the lamprey's fangs!

"I can prove it! Hear much of the rifts, Neal? The rumors of chasms in space like a hole between apartments? Tears we're not yet evolved enough to see except at just the right angles? They exist! They exist, and some things find them and skip between apartments, you believe it! The police have all my things. I'll release them to you if you'll only read and believe.

"I don't care where they send me, prison or asylum. I'm not safe anywhere. I'll be skipping between apartments soon in my own way. I KNOW, you see, and am therefore a threat. Read the papers and you'll see. Read the papers and decide if you'll stop this madness or save yourself. I won't judge you. God damn this town."

Couldn't get anything useful out of him. All his replies from then on were, "God damn this town". Police gave me his personal effects (they filled a single cardboard box) and I drove back to school.

Saw Eddie in the hallway getting extra chairs out of Skip's supply closet. He nearly jumped out of his skin when I called him. Then it was my turn when I saw his pale hamburger-gray skin and caught a whiff of that seafood stink.

"Thought you'd be home by now," I said. Tried to smile but couldn't manage it in the stench.

"I'm still helpin' Miss Dunnewick," he almost mumbled.

"You feeling okay?"

He walked off with the chair like he didn't hear me.

Only looked through a little of George's stuff. He's been very busy. Looks as if he's been putting together a manuscript on completely random subjects. Will text or email any interesting bits I find.

Tell Judy I agree with her about Eddie.

Neal

==

FROM: Neal

Copy of dunnewick's employee profile when first hired by district. odd note scribbled in margin by george.

"teacher wanted, must love children."

george didnt print copy of her fingerprint clearance card. or it doesnt exist.

THURS. 7:17 PM

==

FROM: Neal

Old headlines about evergreen elementary in seattle.

may 1990 jeff ellis takes gun on campus but no one injured. doesnt explain why he did it or who he wanted dead. spent six months in juvenile hall and came out normal.

feb 1991 joey jones attacks 2 girls in p.e. locker room. girls make wild claims about joey not being human. one girl sent to nunnery by parents. joey unable or unwilling to remember incident.

march 1991 brent baugh shoots self with dad's gun in bedroom. had been suspended twice for violent behavior in class.

journalists note increasing violence on campus in each article. drugs also suspected in each. circular welts on all boys involved. sound familiar?

copy of last years yearbook in here. no signatures.

THURS. 8:40 PM

==

FROM: a.sinclair

Friday, 9:01 am

justice prevails

Aspenvale Police arrested a 30-year-old couple known for dealing drugs to minors. Both looking at very lengthy prison sentences. Campus drug abuse drawing to a close.

Rejoice!

A. Sinclair

==

FROM: Neal

2 addresses, seattle and aspenvale. notes on both houses histories. first abandoned in 1986, remained deserted til condemned 2001. second hasnt had occupants for last 10 years.

FRI. 1:10 PM

==

FROM: Neal

examined yearbook closely. seven boys circled in red ink. boys circled in grade 5 are darius tonachio, todd sears, ken galloway. in grade 7: gary yee, eric harms, eddie sands, jerry jacobs. x-out on jerrys picture. code next to each like 15m r1 m-f, 30m r2 t&th. 30 minutes, second recess, tuesday thursday? jerry and eddie marked TAKEOUT.

what was george doing with these kids? ask around and find out if george keller seen around these boys or if he contacted them in last few weeks.

FRI. 3:20 PM

==

FROM: j.tanita

Friday, 3:24 pm

creepy stuff

Neal is making inquiries on the stuff George left him. he asked me to send you a few of those newspaper clippings (attached) so you can read them in detail. don't show them to anyone else. he's got some weird idea in his head and he won't tell me what it is. i'm afraid he'll end up an obsessive lunatic like George. what reason could he possibly have to drive out to Aspenvale University?

hope your day has been pleasant and cheerful. i've got a headache and my stomach is unsettled. i went to get my class from the music room before the bell and the oyster-ish smell in there made me think of Jerry and i shuddered. i regret i was short with Miss Dunnewick when we left. i should apologize. it wasn't her fault.

there's more rumors going around, too, and they make sleep difficult. i see nothing terribly unusual about George's disappearance considering the living conditions at Halcyon Peak. my cousin had a room on the second floor for three years. i wouldn't want to be cooped up in that zoo either. but Meg won't shut up about how he screamed and how they turned the place inside-out and never found him.

just wait, i may retire this year. i've simply got to get out of this demented town.

J.

==

FROM: n.case

Sunday, 2:00 pm

AU interviews

Had to check up on some details. George did some serious digging into Barbara Dunnewick's background that leaves me simultaneously in awe and terror of him. The end result, even with my contributions, doesn't make an ounce of sense.

Turn the clock back to 1988. The Aspenvale University Department of Science hired a brand new research assistant, a stunning young brunette named Barbara Dunnewick. Her degrees were in biology and physics. Her hobbies were astronomy and art. She assisted the science professors in research for every scientific field. The professors I spoke to (those few who knew Babs back then and are still employed and alive) described her as a smart, creative woman with unbreakable optimism. She had no family and never spoke of her parents.

Move ahead to late 1990. Dunnewick adopted skittish, restless behavior. She did as she was told without so much as a word, losing herself in her work. She seemed desperate to escape the outside world for as long as she could. She skittered home at the end of the day like she was afraid of being seen and disappeared into her apartment until the next day, her teary eyes darting and bulging at the slightest movement within a hundred feet of her. She only spoke to the psych professor, and only once, about awful recurring dreams where the ghastly voices of nameless things whispered at her from across the cosmos -- voices that sometimes reached her while she was wide awake. He suggested all kinds of Freudian interpretations but she wasn't happy with any of them and skittered out.

Three weeks of this went by. Then she came into the lab one day, cheerful demeanor restored, and cheerfully quit the university to pursue other interests. Off she went to the west coast, settling in Seattle where she became a teacher. She just up and changed professions on a whim, and the universe played right along. Waltzed into her first teaching job without so much as a background check, much less a fingerprint clearance card. Easy as replying to a want-ad.

Teacher wanted, must love children.

Other oddities included her never owning another car after hers broke down; her reclusive streak limiting her friends to coworkers at school, who she rarely met with outside of school hours; her never dating or being married despite her youth, good looks, and obvious charm; and her sudden transfer from Evergreen Elementary in Washington to Aspenvale here in Colorado.

Have to be careful I don't fall into George's obsessive mentality.

Neal

==

FROM: j.tanita

Tuesday, 12:45 pm

FW: internal affairs

we spoke to Al about all this. he refused to do anything about it for fear of legal reprisals from Dunnewick! i guess there's nothing we really CAN do: no one had seen her exhibit inappropriate behavior with the children. anyway he says her sunny presence boosts the children’s interest in school and it would be a shame to lose her.

he's got a point though. whether or not she's a drug dealer and a child molester, the evidence is pretty circumstantial. i don't know how we can get the kids to talk about what they do in her room when nobody's around. just think of it! that part of the building is practically deserted during recess and after hours! George must have suspected her all this time! that makes his forced retirement all the more depressing!

all we can do is keep an eye on the boys. i'll try to reason with Al later. he should at least look into it.

J.

==

original message from n.case

All the boys circled in the yearbook exhibit Jerry's symptoms: sickly gray complexion, aggressive behavior, one or more circular welts at the nape of the neck or elsewhere on the torso. Alison, Meg, and others confirm all six boys are alone with Dunnewick at some point during the day for at least a quarter of an hour. That's what the codes mean: time spent "assisting" Dunnewick.

Talked to Evergreen principal long distance. He couldn't divulge much for legal reasons, but did state that Barbara Dunnewick was mixed up in the weird goings on throughout the 90's and that her decision to transfer was firmly "encouraged" by administrators. All the boys in those headlines were her after school helpers!

Any rational thoughts? Plenty are entering my head and to even suggest they might be true conflicts with all known laws of reality. Can't get George's babbling out of my head.

Asked Dunnewick about her previous job as a research assistant at the university when I picked up my class from music. She shot a quiet blizzard my way as though I'd asked what color underwear she had on.

Neal

==

FROM: Neal

Eddie gone again. music room deserted like last time. lights still on. office unlocked. smells awful.

have to find him. takeout. jesus i know what he meant. sick sick joke. she took jerry home. she took eddie home. find dunnewick. if she's still on campus keep her there.

TUES. 3:21 PM

==

FROM: Neal

At the cul de sac on alisons street. found the cute house with red birdhouse in front. dunnewick not here yet. call judy ask her whats keeping her. supposed to meet me here.

TUES. 3:39 PM

==

FROM: Neal

Cant see inside. blinds drawn all over. where the hell is judy?

TUES. 3:45 PM

==

FROM: Neal

Pale face in the window peeking thru blinds. not sure if it sees me. probably look like a prowler hiding out here even though still daylight.

TUES. 3:47 PM

==

FROM: Neal

I think its eddie sands!

TUES. 3:50 PM

==

FROM: Neal

Not waiting. going in.

TUES. 3:51 PM

==

FROM: Neal

Front door locked. climbing fence, going in back. tell judy to come in front. will unlock.

TUES. 3:56 PM

==

FROM: Neal

Something very wrong.

TUES. 4:08 PM

==

FROM: Neal

Abandoned. interior is shambles. theres nothing.

TUES. 4:09 PM

==

FROM: Neal

Cant be right. no wallpaper. no furniture. no lights. floor naked moldy concrete. two boxes in corner of largest room by dusty hearth. boxes full of trash and carpet shreds. cant be the right house. nothing lives here. nothing ever lived here.

stench is here. spoiled clams.

TUES. 4:15 PM

==

FROM: Neal

I think judys here now.

TUES. 4:17 PM

==

FROM: j.tanita

Sunday, 7:50 pm

idiots idiots idiots

we should've seen this coming. half-naked first grader rescued from the burning home of his music teacher. the Sandses and everyone from Al in the principal's chair to Skip on barf cleanup knows he had no business being there. what business Dunnewick had taking him there after school hours is just unthinkable! the police have questioned all the afflicted boys and they've got enough clues to Dunnewick's rotten doings to arrest her, if they ever find her.

so what's the verdict at the district office? here's an excerpt from their letter to Al (which i'm not supposed to have but to hell with them):

"However due to the transgressions of George Keller, who is also missing, we feel the district's reputation will not survive a second molestation scandal. Therefore we have resolved to keep the press out of this matter with the police's help. The boys' families have agreed that transferring Barbara Dunnewick to a stricter school district is the best course of action."

TRANSFER is the answer! are they so intent on pretending nothing is wrong that they'll let this disgusting monster go unpunished? or is the state just too embarrassed to admit that a sweet little music teacher outsmarted them and disappeared? how can they lie to themselves like this? how can they be so completely blind? why don't we give Dunnewick the Aspenvale Pride award while we're at it? so we deal swift justice to George and quietly sweep the real monster under the rug to keep the families and the funds coming.

Tom and Wendy are furious now but who knows what the district will offer their son to keep their mouths shut. the other parents are pathetic. they congratulate the boys she preyed upon for their experience! they’re given pats on the back for their trysts with Dunnewick as they assault their classmates on the playground and in the bathrooms! god only knows what horrid substances that whore was giving those boys.

worst of all is poor Neal in the hospital. the few times he's conscious he won't speak to anyone. the news must have hit him hard. there's no justice in this city.

well that's that i guess. school's back to normal tomorrow. John and i are on our way to take Neal home. he emailed me and said he was leaving whether the doctor likes it or not. i can't stand the thought of him being cooped up in there.

J.

==

FROM: n.case

Sunday, 8:01 pm

no subject

Got to get out of here. My god, Dave, a whole week gone! A whole week wasted lying here! A whole week in that closet holding my breath!

My god Dave, that house! The address george found! The star succubus lair! Nobody's name on the papers, no electricity, no gas, no water, nothing! She didn't need any of that! It was the little ones she needed. Ever notice how sick she got after Jerry died? A drug addict suffering withdrawal! Got to keep them away from her. Is that Eddie in the back room staring out the window? Why is his shirt off? What are all those marks on his back? Why is he staring staring staring out the window like a dog waiting for mommy to come home?

Can't text dave. No time. It's not Judy coming through the front door I haven't unlocked yet. Got to hide. The hall closet. Hide and wait. See what she's doing to the boy. Get the drop on her. Get him out.

Door closed and locked. Deep humming like the humming in her locked office. Awful pitch, ears ringing. Whale with a distortion pedal. My god what is it? Flooding like water from the front door, across the foyer, through the hall like an avalanche, past the closet but nothing flows under the door. The STENCH. Don't vomit, don't cough. Strangle yourself! Keep quiet! Don't let it hear you! How big? One couch. Two couches. Three. Should I peek when it's past? Poor Eddie alone in that back room!

Just a crack. Just a crack. Don't cough. Are those my hands shaking like leaves? Lungs crying, sobbing for air. Just a peek. Can't stay here forever. Just a peek. Eddie's not at the window. He's in the center of the room. Profile to the doorway. Right half of the room mercifully out of view. Walls alive with shadows of dancing whipping flagella floor to ceiling. Some whip in view, lick the boy's chest. Stop staring asshole! Get him out! Get him out! Move those concrete feet and get him out of there! George tried to use fire. How does he know if it hates fire? No time. Matchbook in my pocket, in my hand. Strike one. Fold it inside. Box ignites like a flare. Leap out the door, across the hall, into the putrid stinking room. Eddie's looking up at me and he looks frightened now. Flare leaves my hand and burns it. High pitched air raid siren throttles my skull as a burning patch bites into its putrid tarry flesh DON'T LOOK AT IT! DONT LOOK! WHY DID YOU LOOK?

Running down the hall. Eddie's in my arms and I'm running down a barren dirty hallway that stretches across the world. Splintering wood behind me. The siren again. It's flooding the corridor, it's lapping at my ankles. DON'T LOOK AGAIN DON'T LOOK AT IT

Can see the door is closed and locked. Run for the window. Duck head. Jump. Pray. Landed in a sea of black without Eddie. Spent a whole week either staring at a blurry white ceiling or suffering recurring dreams about drowning in rotting oceans while Roman pillars of tarry tentacles and biting bloodsucking child-perverting parasite mouths loom overhead. I woke up in a hospital.

Can't stay here Dave. She escaped through the rift and she's had a whole week to find a way back. She'll come and she'll drag me to whatever writhing tarry hell she saved for George. Or worse she'll do to me what her kind did to the real Barbara Dunnewick. What she did to the boys. What she tried to do to Jerry. I hear her at night rustling and scratching and tap-tap-tapping at the cosmic veil, looking for the weak spots. I HEAR HER AWFUL VOICE CALLING TO ME.

Judy's coming to help me run away. Hate to risk Judy and John being there when she finally comes. She's angry and she doesn't forget. Never interrupt her meals, Dave. She's not above adults, she just loves children best. If you ever catch a whiff of abnormality in this universe write it off as a dream and leave it alone no matter what.

Don't tell anyone what I've said. It's for your eyes only. Delete this and never come looking for me or George Keller or Barbara Dunnewick. Let the administrators have it their way. Their way is nice and safe and sane. I'm leaving and never coming back. If I come back, Dave, douse me and light me up because it won't be me.

Your friend always,

Neal Case

Written by Mike MacDee


The streets, roads and dusty lanes of Colombia have been fertile territory for myths and legends since before the arrival of the Spaniards. Tales of 'La Patasola', a one-legged wailing banshee that forever sought her child, and of 'El Duende', a backwards-footed goblin that led travelers to their doom, nibbled at the corners of journeymen's ease for centuries. Although these stories mainly troubled those living in or passing through rural areas, the growth of cities brought with it a new breed of urban legend rooted in the primal distrust we still harbor, somewhere deep inside, of modern technology.

An example of this is the phantom bus that allegedly roams the city's streets at night. Supposedly, young women who board it alone are found mutilated in overgrown outlying fields a few days later, a frozen look of abject terror illustrating the moment of their last, tormented breath.

That being said, given that you're certainly not a young woman (at least not last time you checked) and that it's 5:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, phantom buses and handicapped gremlins are the last thing on your mind. You've been using Bogota's public transportation system for over two decades, and your greatest concern is that traffic levels have become all but unmanageable since the latest mayor took office. However, home is about 80 blocks away, so your only choice is to wait until the right bus comes along. Walking would certainly take longer than putting up with any traffic jam.

When the bus displaying the route sign you're hoping for shows up, its advertised fare is 200 pesos lower than the standard going rate these days. This usually indicates that the vehicle in question is older and a bit more uncomfortable than most, but no bus rider in the history of the city has ever given a damn about that. Folks that consider themselves richer and "above" this mode of transportation pay seven times as much to get around by cab, and statistically expose themselves to a higher chance of being mugged or robbed. More power to them, right?

Never one to avoid seeking further discounts, you ask the wizened driver if he'll let you on for a thousand. The wrinkled, musty-looking man's eyes never leave the road as he silently takes your bill and slides it in the purse hanging from the bony gear stick. Satisfied, you turn your attention to the cabin; what would make this ride ideal would be an empty seat.

Curiously enough (considering the time of day), there aren't enough passengers aboard for anybody to be standing. A few available spots are in sight, so you choose one on the left, towards the middle. Both the aisle and window seat are free, and you sigh contentedly as you sprawl out on one with your knee nested on the other. This particular trip should be over in no time.

The driver's radio is off and your phone's battery ran out an hour ago, so you pass the time staring out the window and watching vendors ply their wares and car drivers nod along to whatever music they're enjoying. Your position eventually starts taking a toll on your back, so you straighten up and take the chance to examine your fellow passengers. None of them seem to be riding together, given that everybody's quietly facing the front of the bus. They are also all uncommonly old—not in the sense that they're all over 100, but in the sense that nobody seems to be under 75. You find this a bit odd, and for a brief moment the idea that you don't belong there flashes through your mind. It's a silly thought, but combined with the bus's particularly strong (although not necessarily atypical) smell of must and metal it makes you look forward to the end of the trip. Nevertheless, as there are another 30 or 40 blocks to go, you look out the window again, zone out, and let your mind go where it will for a while.

The sight of Pacho's bakery pulls you out of your reverie twenty minutes later. You get up and make your way past your silent companions to the rear exit, where you hunt for the little silver button that will let the driver know you've reached your stop. As you spot it above the door, you realize that nobody’s boarded or left the vehicle since you got on, which is particularly weird for rush hour. Shrugging it off as a weird coincidence, you press down on the button and grab on to the

You are sitting on your seat, facing the front of the bus.

What… what the hell just happened? You look around and see that everybody's still where they were a moment ago. Trying to make eye contact with them is fruitless, since they all seem to be lost wherever it is that old minds wander. The thought of saying something runs through your head, but you decide against it. What would you say, anyway? You were probably so zoned out that you simply imagined getting up to ring the driver's bell.

That's probably it; your daydreams are occasionally so vivid that leaving them is downright startling. Besides, you're already two blocks past your stop. Call it a "weird thing that happened on your way home" or whatever, but for now you should just get off the bus. There's no point in having to walk back too far. You (once again) get off your seat and head for the rear exit, somewhat unnerved by the other passengers' stoic disinterest in everything around them.

There's the button, right where you remember it. Except that you can't remember it, of course, since you've never actually been back here; you probably saw it when you got on. After grabbing on to the guardrail (these bastards occasionally decide to stop on a dime when you ring), you look towards the driver, put your thumb on the button

You are sitting on your seat, facing the front of the bus.

A piercing chill runs down your spine, and instead of fading away, it spreads through every one of your extremities. It's not a shift in body or ambient temperature, it's the chill you feel when suddenly consumed by the level of fear that slightly precedes terror. Something really messed up is going on here. You don't know what it is, but you want out, you don't want to be here anymore. A feeling of bitter solitude is now gnawing at your mind; whatever these people around you are thinking, they clearly don't give a damn about what's going on with you.

Therefore, you once again decide to avoid saying anything and simply lift yourself off the seat, not processing the fact that you did it with less agility than should've been the case. All you want right now is to get off the bus. Besides, it's already advanced more than ten blocks past your street, which suddenly feels like a distastefully long distance to walk. This is all secondary to the point at hand, however; you have to get off this damn thing.

As you make your way back, an old lady in the back row looks up at you. Her expression tells you nothing, but the way it fixes on you—on your torso, to be precise—as if you were just another chunk of the vehicle further spikes the almost overpowering sense of dread now coursing through your veins. Whatever, you can't panic, not now. You stand at the back of the bus and, instead of going for the button, yell at the driver. You yell at him to stop, to let you off, that you've already rung twice, but nothing comes of it. You curse at him, tell him what he will die of and wish great evil upon his kin, but the door remains unmoved. The man is not listening. Or he doesn't care. Or he doesn't want you to get off. But you don't give a damn what he wants or doesn't want, so you grab on to the bars, take a step back for momentum, and send a solid kick right into the column of hinges that

You are sitting on your seat, facing the front of the bus.

It takes a moment to register. Maybe more than a moment, maybe it's a full minute. And as you realize that the bus doesn't want you to leave, you also realize that your right knee hurts with an unnatural, piercing sharpness. It's the same leg you used against the door, and now it feels like it's all but broken. This quickly becomes a distant concern when you attempt to massage it, though, because that's when you notice your hands.

These are not the hands of a 25-year-old. They are wrinkly, set with well-defined veins and even lightly patched with liver spots. As you study your hands and arms, cold terror envelops every corner your psyche. You touch your face and feel wrinkles and whiskers that didn't previously exist upon your cheekbones. Your head is patched with a few anemic strands of hair; as your fingertip grazes your coarse scalp, a spark of electricity shoots through it and down into the most private recesses of your being. Your eyes dry up, opened wide and unbelieving, and you feel a seven-ton lump of horror coalesce in your otherwise paralyzed throat.

You must leave this evil bus, you must leave it at once before it finishes what it's begun. You carefully make your way off your seat—no need for any further injury—and head towards the front, towards the driver. Perhaps you can reason with him, or perhaps you can club him to death with a flashlight or something, since there are always a variety of trinkets and gadgets at the front of t

You are sitting on your seat, facing the front of the bus.

It takes a good five or ten minutes for you to come to terms with what is happening to you, to understand that your life is vanishing before your eyes. Your hands are now like those of your grandmother, your back hurts from its base all the way to your neck, and your eyes can barely focus on the huge signs posted above the windows. Even your mind isn't as sharp as it should be; it takes you a while to determine that you should make another attempt at the exit.

Perhaps violence is not the answer, perhaps you can gently pull it open. Perhaps if you treat the bus like a living, gentle being instead of like a demonic machine it will let you out, perhaps...

The old woman is looking at you again. You notice her blue jacket, which is much too big for her; if it were a blouse of the same size, it would hang loosely off her gaunt frame. A tiny, hesitant tear forms on her frail face, and then follows a meandering path down her ancient features to land on her wrist with eerie finality. There's a red Totto watch around that wrist, the sort that is currently all the rage with kids graduating from high school.

You examine the door. Two panes joined by a vertical line of hinges, coated on the right by a rubber pad to avoid contact damage. The door is slightly bent inwards, and as you notice this a glimmer of hope runs through you. If you can just insert

You are sitting on your seat, facing the front of the bus.

WHAT THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON MY HANDS THEY ARE OLD MY HANDS ARE THE HANDS OF AN OLD MAN, NOT OF MY GRANDFATHER, OF AN OLD OLD THE MAN BEHIND YOU STARTS WHEN YOU TURN TO HIM AND YELL AT HIM AND GRAB HIS FACE AND SCREAM AT HIM TO LET YOU OFF HE MOUTHS SOMETHING YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND HIS TEETH HIS BLOOD YOUR TEETH OH MY GOD MY TEETH ARE LIKE TINY THEY ARE DUST THEY'RE WHAT THE HELL HOW LONG HAVE I BEEN HERE FUCK THIS I'M BREAKING THE WINDOW WITH MY ELBOW EVEN IF IT BREAKS I DON'T WANT TO DIE HERE NO MORE OF

You are sitting on your seat, facing the front of the bus.

After a long time, you glance down at your hands. They are the gnarled, rheumatic, blood-splattered claws of a hag that's seen more than one generation's share of horrors.

A hag? A hag is not the right word. A hag is a woman, right? At least so it was in mother's stories. Like those of La Patasola. Your knee still hurts, but not as much as your elbow. It feels like it is shattered. Ah, yes. This bus. You must get off it. You know you must get off it now. You do not remember why you must, but it is imperative that you do. It is urgent. It was urgent. You are so tired.

You try to lift yourself off the seat but your knee buckles under your weight; it is by chance that you fall back on the bench. You must get off the bus. You remember these buses. They used to take you to work. You steady yourself on the bench. You will try to get off the bus. But in a moment. You must rest. The bus can wait.

You are sitting on your seat, facing the front of the bus.

You are sitting on your seat, facing the front of the bus.

Credited to Lucas Llinás Múnera 


On the 25th March, at 14:57GMT, the world stopped for 27 minutes and 54 seconds. No one noticed at first. Those that eventually did were ordered to keep quiet.

There was no sudden jolt, no collapsing into unconsciousness, no transition into utter darkness and back again. Nothing.

For everyone, time had appeared to pass as normal, one second moving uneventfully into the next. Birds flew, people talked, the wind and the rain blew and fell respectively - nothing had occurred to indicate that anything untoward or unexpected had happened to the inhabitants of the Earth. Only those who looked beyond our planet and its ring of constantly chattering satellites now found that the rest of the universe told a different story.

NASA and related space agencies noticed first. Signals to ongoing missions beyond those in orbit around the Earth were all off by almost 30 minutes. Frantic investigation revealed that the same time discrepancy was occurring for all incoming signals. Naturally they came to the conclusion that the problem must therefore lay not with these external elements, but with the computers on Earth. But this led to a bigger question - one computer glitch was possible, but all of the various space agency’s computers across the globe showing the same failure at exactly the same time? Naturally, a virus or a sophisticated global hacking attack was the next obvious answer. An international team to investigate such a large, well-coordinated cyber-attack was being discussed when the first calls of alarm came in from confused and concerned astronomers, and the true significance of what had actually happened became known.

Using data retrieved from telescopic arrays at Jodrell Bank, Palo Alto, Mount Pleasant and others across the world, confirmed against existing stellar records and computational models of the local galaxy and beyond, it became apparent that for twenty seven minutes and fifty four seconds the Earth had somehow been out of sync with the rest of known time and space. In essence, the world as we knew it had winked out of existence during this period, and then returned as if nothing had happened.

For all intents and purposes during that short window of time, we had ceased to be.

The international investigation team was repurposed, a blank cheque written, giving it its pick of resources and the best minds in their fields, all to investigate this one event and all sworn to the utmost secrecy. None of them needed to be told the panic that would ensue if this information became public before a suitable, and hopefully reassuring, reason could be given for the event. Those that couldn't keep silent were quickly and quietly silenced themselves.

Despite the various project names assigned to the sub teams, those involved began referring to the event in a half joking manner as ‘...the day God blinked.’ In casual conversation between project members this was eventually shortened even further to just ‘the blink.'

After six rings, Ben finally answered the door.

"Mark! What are you doing here?"

"You invited me, remember?"

"Did I?! How odd! Well, I probably had a reason at the time. It's still good to see you anyway. Come on in!"

I’d known Ben since childhood. We attended the same schools for a while, before his crazily high IQ led him onto a fast track of higher education and beyond. We kept in touch though; his parents were sensible enough to realize he needed some grounding in the real world, and encouraged our friendship with the usual sleepovers and camping trips. Their smarts lay in forcing Ben not to let his social skills atrophy completely like a lot of very intelligent kids were wont to do. As a result, whilst he was frequently side tracked and forgetful, he still functioned in normal society with a degree of success.

After our respective schooling had finished we both moved into the IT industry, although at vastly different levels. For myself, I now worked in tech support, mostly maintaining insurance systems for a range of small independent companies. Boring, but it paid well and allowed me to travel. He, on the other hand, was self-employed and preferred working from his 'Apartment of Solitude' as he called it, referring to himself as a ‘Consulting Technician’ (he'd gotten the idea from watching re-runs of ‘Sherlock’). His work was a lot more varied and advanced, and whilst he never openly admitted to hacking, he certainly had enough technical knowledge and experience to have been employed in the past by such names as Google, Microsoft and IBM when they needed someone to test the all new, unshakable security they’d just put in place, or track down those that had subsequently been able to breach their all new, unshakable security. He preferred the latter work he told me; it added the ‘thrill of the chase’, plus it usually paid better.

What was less well known was the work he occasionally did ‘off the books’ for such groups as the Department of Defense and the NSA. He admitted his working for them was twofold: one, they wanted his expertise and brilliance, and two, it allowed them to keep tabs on his expertise and brilliance. He didn’t mind this as he explained once:

“Well, it keeps them happy knowing where I am and what I’m doing. Or at least what they THINK I’m doing,” and then he’d grin and pass me the latest decoded email he’d intercepted. He didn’t do anything with the stuff he found, he just enjoyed the challenge.

To be completely honest, sometimes it was hard to pin down just who Ben was and what his motivations were from one moment to the next. I’d just grown up accepting him and his eccentricities, quickly coming to the conclusion his life was a complex pattern of impulses and ideas, woven together from threads that were as much madness as genius.

There was his belief that every time someone said ‘Abracadabra’, an angel lost its wings, or that the common cold existed as a vast, hive mentality that avoided detection by its elements constantly hopping from body to body. Mad, crazy shit like that. Half the time I thought he was joking; for the rest I just hoped he had enough common sense to rein it in when in public.

Then there were the times he did and said things that ended up on the opposite end of that, when what he said made absolute, unnerving sense. On those occasions he spoke with a lucidity that seemed to cut through all the crap humankind had built around its certainties and beliefs, as if he’d touched on some universal truth we should all by rights know. All I could do at those times was marvel at how someone with such a kaleidoscope for a brain, entertaining such a maelstrom of contradictory thoughts constantly, could suddenly bring all those elements together to produce those single blindingly white lights of truth.

Then he'd suddenly go off on a tangent, accusing his neighbours of being CIA agents trialling neurotoxins on the local cats and we’d be back to normal.

Still, I came at his summons. Despite the crazed theories and odd habits, it was definitely the most entertaining conversation around, plus his library of illegally downloaded films was truly a wonder to behold. That, and he was my friend.

It was during a piece of work for NASA, idling through their secure systems looking for proof of Area 51 during his off time, that led him to first discover and then piece together all the facts concerning March 25th and the ‘blink’ found by the international team so far.

Being his only close friend, he'd decided to fill me in on this ongoing conspiracy, mainly so he could show off his talents once more, hence the invitation. As he spoke he appeared completely oblivious to how my face was gradually growing more and more incredulous. He described what the world’s space agencies and astronomers had discovered, and how a secret scientific think tank was now investigating what had happened. Physicists, Quantum theorists, Mathematicians... the whole spectrum of sciences, all focused on this one problem and the questions associated with it: what had happened, why it had happened, and most importantly, was it likely to happen again, and if so, what was the risk of it being permanent.

He told me of the total news blackout and how any amateur astronomers or similar who now came to the same conclusions were to be either brought on board, treated as cranks, or disappeared with extreme prejudice. Their biggest fear was a mass panic he said, or the world’s religions taking credit on behalf of their respective Gods and several genocidal wars kicking off as a result. As he said:

“There’s nothing more disconcerting I guess then not being able to trust your own reality. We’ve been raised in a world where it’s fine to distrust your government, your employers, even your family, but your own entire existence?! Definitely a recipe for chaos.”

“Places like CERN have been placed on almost permanent hiatus. The governments of the world have no proof experiments like the ones they were doing there are the cause, but then I suppose they had to point the finger somewhere until more evidence showed up. There’s a lot of theoretical work being done now, but pretty much zero practical. I guess it’s only a matter of time before they get the scriptwriters in from Doctor Who to brainstorm a possible cause.”

He sighed at this, sat back in his swivel chair and spun round, gazing at the ceiling seemingly lost in thought, then he slowly came to a stop and returned his gaze to me, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes:

“Then on the other side, you have all the religions...”

At this he paused again, looked around his cluttered desk, and then started building what looked like a tower of various bits and pieces. As it slowly grew in height, he continued speaking:

“Remember our bible classes? I liked the stories, if not the morality. I especially liked the story of Babel…”

The rising structure of books, hard drives, chocolate bars, magazines and other random items his hands could find in reach had risen to a height just below his chin. He added a few more items, adding to the precarious sway it already had. Pausing again, his hands not touching it but spread wide on either side ready to stop any imminent collapse; he attempted the voice of an old English vicar delivering a sermon:

“Man in his hubris decided to build a tower to God, so he may converse with his creator! God though, in his glorious wisdom, decided man should not be allowed to do this and took steps to rectify the situation. So he cursed mankind with the gift of many tongues!”

He smirked at this, his eyes never leaving his tower, and returned to his normal voice.

“Well, many a project, plan or peace has been ruined by the inability of people to understand each other. It might be that humanity is over reaching itself again. With the final proof of the existence of the Higgs-Boson, maybe God’s decided we’re getting too close again, and he’s selfish about his tricks. Time for another lesson perhaps?”

At this he slowly closed his hands into fists on either side of the precarious edifice he had created, then with a single finger gingerly pushed it near the top. With a crash, his metaphorical tower scattered across the table and the floor. He waited until the sound of the books and rubbish falling had died away before speaking again, this time in a thoughtful voice.

“Maybe the ‘blink’ as they call it was God giving us a heads up, a warning to stop encroaching on his intellectual property, else risk the consequences.”

Then he grinned, his tried and true atheism once more reasserting itself.

“Personally, looking at all the facts so far accumulated, I believe the answer lies even further afield,” he said, a knowing smile on his face.

I took a comfort break at this point, shaking my head at this new conspiracy theory. When I got back, he’d moved on already, his head now buried in the side of a PC tower case now perched on a different desk he reserved for ‘mechanical endeavours.’ It was quiet for a while, broken only by his humming as he fiddled inside the case whilst I looked for somewhere reasonably clean to sit. Then abruptly he spoke again, his voice oddly masked by the case.

“As I was saying, I believe the answers they seek lie further afield. I have statistical proof in fact.”

“Statistics?! You?”

He’d often laughed at statistics in the past, and blamed them for 63.75% of the world’s ills (in his mad pedantry, he had indeed worked out a formula that he said proved this figure). That being said, he told me once he could destroy the world with a single spreadsheet, and in my more fatalistic moments I honestly believed him.

“I accept, statistics in all their perceived infallibility, are the most fallible things in the world,” he mumbled from inside the case, reaching aimlessly for a screwdriver on the desk next to him with a hand coloured orange and black from a mix of grease and Cheetos.

“Take a work of fiction and add numbers to it, and suddenly it becomes non-fiction. Add a pie chart and a graph and it becomes an inviolate truth.”

“Bollocks,” said I, only half listening as I lounged on a large dirty bean bag littered with wrappers and the odd wire.

He’d then retracted his head from the case, looked me in the eyes and said with a devilish glint in his own:

“Pass it to the right people in the right places at the right time, and it becomes law.”

“Hmmm,” I replied, deciding not to entertain his paranoid fantasies further in favor of a magazine I’d just found on the floor amongst all the other junk haphazardly discarded as part of his less than ordered, less than sanitary, lifestyle.

He grunted at my lack of enthusiasm for continuing one of his favorite topics, and buried his head back in the tower case once more before continuing anyway.

“However, in those cases I am referring to your basic, biased statistics. Marketing, pressure group, political... that kind of unreliable crap. Now pattern recognition, that element within the field of otherwise exploitable statistics, THAT I do have time for.”

Extracting his head again, he looked around the desk the case was on, shifting papers this way and that as he continued, partially lost in thought:

“You’ve heard of SETI of course...”

“Hold on... if we’re heading into alien territory, you can kiss my ass right here and now.”

He fixed me with a glare, and I threw my hands up in the air in resignation, muttering:

“I’m sorry, please continue oh knowledgeable one!”

“Thank you. SETI, the search for extraterrestrial life, one of their jobs being the analysis of signals bouncing in and around our local galaxy.”

“Of which they have never found any conclusive proof of intelligent life,” I reminded him pointedly. He ignored me.

“What if the patterns they’ve been looking for are wrong? What if you could analyze these seemingly random signals another way. What if there is a pattern, but it's spread over a longer period so you don’t even see it as a pattern. Ah ha!”

Triumphantly his hand came out of a pile of books clutching a pad of post-it notes, scattering the books across the desk in doing so. Fishing a pen from his trouser pocket, I saw him scribble ‘To Do’ on the top note and slap it on the side of the tower’s case, before turning around to face me with an excited grin on his face.

“Have you been watching the Discovery Channel again? Is there a UFO special on this week?” I asked pointedly.

He looked at me indignantly, though I noticed he quickly closed a TV guide that had been open on his desk amongst the mess.

“What if I told you I had written my own pattern recognition algorithm? What if I told you that I had found a message in those signals?”

“Bullshit,” I said quietly, suddenly less sure of myself, now more than a little shaken by what this meant if he had indeed succeeded in discovering a message from an alien race.

“Well, it wasn’t easy,” he continued, feigning an air of false modesty, “...and I do have the NSA to thank. Although if they discover I’ve been running this algorithm in the background on their decryption supercomputer, then I may have to leave abruptly, or apologize. You never can tell what mood they’ll be in one day to the next...”

“Ben. What about the message?” I said firmly, cutting him short, standing to face him.

“Oh. That.”

He went quiet, looking around evasively. My doubts quickly returned.

“What was the message Ben?”

“Well, it was short, and it is really rather impressive decoding anything like this obviously...”

“Ben!”

He paused, and then said abjectly: “Hello. Are you content?”

There was a few seconds silence, before I started laughing uncontrollably, mostly out of relief. Ben looked indignant.

“Well, I think it’s a very poignant message. Better than ‘Prepare to be annihilated’.”

“Oh god... hold on a sec... I can’t breathe! You had me shitting myself for a moment there!”

“I take it then you don’t believe what I’ve found is a message from an alien race? Would you PLEASE stop laughing!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Ahhhhhhh... Ben, you’ve got to admit, if you were to imagine contact from another species, I think I’d be looking for something a little more, I don’t know, profound? I mean, we’ve sent out a gold disk giving a snapshot of the human race and our knowledge. Music, mathematics, you name it. And what do the hyper-intelligent aliens send back? The equivalent of ‘Have a Nice Day!’ ”

“You don’t think it’s from outer space then?” he reiterated.

I looked at his pained expression and answered in a more reasonable voice:

“Look Ben, I’m sorry. I think your algorithm found a pattern that wasn’t there, and extrapolated meaning from it.”

Turning, I returned to the bean bag and my perusal of the magazine.

He stood there a few moments, and then he turned and flopped down in a large, comfortable swivel chair behind another desk, this one littered with laptops in various states of construction and destruction, connected by an array of cables in what appeared like haphazard fashion. Pressing the on switches of three of them, his face was illuminated in the telltale glow of their screens. His focus flitting between the screens and his fingers dancing across the keyboard in front of him, he had nevertheless decided to continue, and began outlining his newest theory.

“I disagree. I’ll go even further and state that this is an alien species with an interest in the human race. A species directly involved in the evolution of mankind.”

“Here we go. Are we really back on the ‘Engineers’ theory once more? Has Ridley Scott been sending you secret messages in his films again?” I muttered, not looking up from the page I was now reading.

He ignored this and continued:

“Think about it. The human body is an amazing machine. It regulates itself, heals itself, and has the ability to create more of itself through reproduction…”

“I thought you only believed in things you had experienced for yourself?” I asked; peering over the top of the magazine at him, my voice now openly amused. I saw him scowl before he continued with his monologue.

“As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, the human body is an amazing machine. And that is exactly what it is. A piece of technology, built using biological parts rather than mechanical ones. It is not however, a perfect machine.”

“What do you mean?” I asked despite myself.

“Well, think about it. It has its own defensive capabilities in the form of white blood cells to ward off illness, the ability to heal wounds, etc., etc. Occasionally though, this excellent piece of machinery goes wrong; it functions incorrectly. It overreacts to certain stimuli. It has a faulty piece of code if you will.”

“And what’s that?”

“Why, cancer of course!”

“What?!” I asked, shocked despite myself. It was only another crazy conversation with Ben, but the word ‘cancer’ always sent an involuntary shiver down my spine. I’d seen enough of its effects on friends and family to be adverse to even its mentioning. Ben though, oblivious to my discomfort, had continued:

“Cancer is the body performing incorrect actions, creating cells where it does not need to. It’s not an attack from an external source causing this, but rather an internal failure of the biological system. A mistake nothing more.”

“We have in essence, a design flaw, and if our God or Gods are supposedly infallible, then logic dictates we were not built by a benign omnipotent being, but rather are constructs of more fallible ones. Action should have been taken to rectify these errors. To complain if you will.”

Despite myself, I took another look over the magazine at him; nervous now for a reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on:

“What. Did. You. Do?”

“Why, I sent a message back telling them this of course!”

I hadn’t seen Ben in six months. Work had kept me busy in London, and he wasn’t one for texting or casual telephone conversations to catch up. Then one day he called me up suddenly to come visit.

By this time, snippets of information about ‘the blink’ had begun to leak out onto the internet, on even some of the more respected sites and journals. Most normal people saw it as just another mad conspiracy theory. Having spoken to Ben before though when he’d outlined all the data, the fact that other sources were now relaying the same information sent chills through me. It was one thing for it being just another of his crazy theories, but quite another when a growing number of external bodies were now seeming to confirm the event’s existence.

This time when I rang his doorbell he answered on the first ring, but I wasn’t ready for the sight when he opened the door. He was haggard and tired, like he hadn’t slept in days, and his clothes were rumpled and dirty, even more so than normal. As I stood there I caught a look in his eyes. They were bloodshot and there were large, dark circles under them, but there was a calm I hadn’t seen before, which was echoed in his voice as he welcomed me in. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, but then it dawned on me; I had seen and heard this kind of response before in those who were in the final stages of terminal illness: Acceptance. I felt my body prickle with unease; that chill that ripples across your skin when you stop thinking in the past or the future and all your attention is suddenly focused on the NOW because you know the world you’re used to is about to change in some fundamental way.

I paused in the doorway, and looked him in the eyes. Then without thinking I drew him into a massive bear hug. Ben had never been one for physical contact in all the time I’d know him, but he accepted the hug without question, and I felt some of the tension release from him. We parted after a short while and I asked him sincerely:

“Are you okay? Nothing wrong with you?”

“No... No... Nothing physically at least.”

“Good. Good, because you look like shit.”

He laughed weakly at that, and then quieted. We stood there silently for a few moments, before the thought that had been nagging at my mind since he’d invited me forced itself out:

“I’ve noticed on the web there’s been a lot of noise about this ‘blink’ thing you mentioned last time. I was wondering... did you get an answer?”

He smiled weakly, ignoring my question, inviting me in and simply pointing me to the large bean bag for me to sit, as I had done so many times before. If anything, his apartment was even messier than the last time, but somehow the impression of organized chaos was gone. This was just mess that had been left to accumulate, like the owner no longer cared.

As I sat down, he went over to a desk and fiddled with a laptop, moved some random items on the desk, almost like he was stalling. Then turning to face me, resting himself against the desk, he asked me in a vague voice:

“Do you remember what I was talking about the last time you visited?”

“You mean the alien thing?” I answered, trying to make my voice sound light, the smirk on my face forced and obviously fake. I’d given in to his suspicions and he knew it. Before he would’ve rubbed this fact in my face, but today he didn’t. Such things didn’t seem to matter to him anymore, which made my voiceless fears even greater.

“Not just humanity, but all life on Earth, has been engineered. An external source created it, and maintained it. It is my belief…” at this he laughed a dry mocking laugh at his use of a word he had previously despised.

“It is my belief now that the Earth has experienced various ‘stages’ of life. There have probably been several of these stages, back from when Earth was first formed, up to and including today. Of these earlier ‘versions’ we have no substantial evidence of. The last one before us though, we do have several indicators lying around.”

He left it hanging, waiting for my mind to catch up. It didn’t take long, although I was surprised at how easily I was accepting what was possibly another one of his eccentric theories.

“You mean the dinosaurs don’t you?” I said quietly; his restraint somehow infecting me as well now.

A small smile arranged itself on his lips again, though the sadness never left his eyes.

“Indeed. Those big stumbling sods before us. For the sake of clarity, I’ve classed them as Version 5.0 of life on Earth. We are Version 6.0 I now have reason to believe.”

"What about your message, did you get an answer?" I asked again, a bit more impatiently.

“Not just my message. The Earth’s been sending radio signals and more out for quite a few years now. If we can find their signals as I’ve proven, they can certainly pick up ours, even the unintended ones.”

“What are you trying to say Ben?”

“That they got our messages, and they took action.”

I tried to swallow now in a dry throat.

“What action?”

“You work in technical support. What is usually your first recommendation when something stops working correctly?”

“I don’t know… usually turning it off and back on again does the trick in the majority of cases...”

At this my voice trailed off as I realized what he was implying, what this said about March 25th and the lost 27 minutes and 54 seconds.

Ben started laughing, trailing off into a sad cough as he saw what he’d said take hold in my mind. Then he suddenly went off at a tangent, just like the old days, and I listened despite the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach at what I was now thinking.

“Chariots of the Gods! Chariots of the frigging Gods! Imagine that. Aliens coming down to teach ancient civilizations new tricks. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe Version 6.0 was still under warranty at the time and part of that warranty included on-site maintenance. Hell, my money’s on the Greek gods actually being extraterrestrial consultants sent down to fix bug problems. Makes you wonder which fucked up piece of code triggered Pompeii!”

“SHUT UP!” I suddenly raged. Maybe he was in one of his mad phases again, but I knew that he wasn’t. The sane, logical part of me didn’t want any more truth; knew I couldn’t handle any more.

I looked up, and Ben was staring at me, not in anger, but in sympathy. He settled down next to me on the bean bag, passing me a beer he had obviously just fished out of the small fridge he kept behind his desk. I took a long swig, let my breathing settle, and then passed it back. Taking that as a cue to continue, he did, but quieter this time, less tinged with the hysterical note that had appeared to be emerging in his speech earlier, like he’d reached the peak of his madness and was now trailing off the other side.

“It would explain why so many people believed in pantheons of Gods back in the day. Alien engineers popping down to fix ‘the system’ whilst we were still covered. Just like Microsoft ending support for older versions of Windows though, maybe we just passed the date where Version 6.0 of life on Earth was covered, so they stopped coming.”

He took a swig and passed it back, his voice now wistful, his eyes unfocused, trying to look across the unfathomable void to where he imagined our progenitors resided:

“And now, in this age of radio and microwave signals, the people of Earth are finally sending messages and emails that can be picked up by their 'Gods', bemoaning this and that failure with their bodies, their families and the world around them, demanding answers, and these messages tumble out across the ether of space, picked up by some backwater tech support desk in some forgotten nebula. The number of messages reaches a critical mass, a statistical point where action must be taken, and some alien equivalent of a high school dropout named Gary checks a scrap of paper on his desk for the instructions to an age old piece of software…”

He downed the rest of his beer.

“...and then turns it off and on again.”

Silence reigned for a few minutes, during which he stood up and made another trip to the fridge, this time bringing back several more bottles. He settled back down on the bean bag and passed me one before he spoke again.

“I got a message back you know,” he said simply.

I looked at him incredulously, and then demanded:

“Jesus Ben! What did it say?!”

His eyes were dark, pausing a long while before reaching into his back pocket and slowly unfolding a piece of paper, mumbling something about ‘decryption software’, ‘language analysis’ and ‘Word auto-formatting’ before passing it to me. It read:

Dear EARTH,

Thank you for replying in regard our recent query as to your ongoing happiness with your software. We passed on your multiple concerns to the relevant technical support helpdesk.

Unfortunately ongoing support for your current version of LIFE 6.0 has ended. The initial reboot of your hardware/software attempted previously appears to have not resolved your issue(s). Therefore we will be refreshing your system to previous stable release LIFE 5.3.

Your contract does not include backup/restoration of existing data, so all current data will be wiped post version LIFE 5.3.

Thank you for using LIFE and please contact us if further issues occur.

Best Regards.

“Refresh?” was all I could mutter, confusion and dread dulling my senses.

“Using the version numbering as a guide, my guess is that would be resetting the Earth back to the late Jurassic period,” he murmured thoughtfully, taking another swig of beer.

“I sent a message back of course, asking them not to do anything. I even couched it in the proper terms: ‘We have decided to continue with our current installation, please do not reboot nor refresh the system. Please ignore all other bug reports unless forwarded by me. Ben Glover, Sysadmin of Earth.’ Hopefully they got it in time."

“Bug reports?”

“Prayers.”

“Oh.”

Then I looked at him again, the look of disbelief obvious in my eyes.

“Sysadmin of Earth??”

He didn’t meet my gaze, but rather sheepishly kept his eyes locked to his beer bottle.

“Well, I had to sound like I was in charge didn’t I?”

“Do you think they got your message?” I asked hopefully after a pause.

“I honestly don’t know. We can hope though. By my calculations we’ll know in the next couple of hours or so. It’s why I invited you over I guess. So we can watch the end together. Then again, we might just wink out of existence...” his voice trailed off.

Silence reigned again, broken only by our occasional sips. There wasn’t, in all truth, very much else to say.

After a while he finished his beer, rested it gently down next to him, and then yawned expansively, leaning back on the bean bag with his hands clasped behind his head and said matter-of-factly:

“Well to be perfectly honest, I don’t think the dinosaurs were given a fair enough crack of the whip the first time round. Only right they should be given another go.”

I turned in disbelief to argue with him at this irresponsible attitude, and then saw the barely suppressed laughter in his eyes. When all was said and done, what was there left to do but wait and see what happened, and laugh at the absurdity of it all? He started, and I joined in, till the tears were rolling down our cheeks.

And there we sat, laughing and drinking beer until our world ended... maybe.

Written by CharminglyShallow

Trust


I open my eyes and look up at a ceiling. I'm sitting in a chair, can't move. What feels like a belt is holding my head in place to the backrest. I move my eyes down; I can see most of another man's face there. His head is also strapped down. His eyes are darting left and right, teeth clenched, struggling to free himself. I make my own attempts, knowing they would be useless, but trying anyway. The chair is bolted to the floor, it won't move. The man is pretty close to me, if we could move, we could probably touch. I'm scared. I have no idea how this will play out.

"Hey," I say, "you know what's going on here?"

"No! I went to sleep and woke up tied to a fucking chair with some asshole in front of me who's apparently in the same fucking situation!"

Stupid question I suppose, "Can you move anything besides your eyes and mouth?"

He tries again. "Just my fingers and toes, damn much that can do."

"Ok," I sigh, "looks like we're stuck here until whoever did this decides to do what they're doing. What's your name?"

"Mike."

"I'm Chuck." I'm curious about this man. Why is he here with me? "Can you think of any reason you're here? Did you hurt anyone? Steal from anyone? Anything?"

"Man, I've never done anything," he cries, "couple speeding tickets, that's it. You think someone would at least tell you why they kidnapped you."

"I can't think of anything either," I say truthfully.

I look at him, try to think if I know him, or if I had even ever seen him before today. I hadn't. "Any chance you recognize me?"

"Don't think so."

"Alright, we're two innocent strangers. I guess it's just random. Pick the first person they happen to get, but for what?"

I look around as much as I can. The ceiling is high and I can't see any walls. There is a spotlight high over head illuminating us. All my fingers can feel are the edges of the armrest. I can't hear anything beyond my own breathing and the attempted movements of my newfound companion. What could have brought us here? Is this torture? Is there some psychotic force that brought us together? Whatever the answer is, I can feel in my gut that someone's going to die. Hopefully not me.

"Shit! I just cut myself, I think! Something hard and sharp is around my right arm."

I look back down at him; it's a strain to keep my eyes pointed down so far. He's staring at me, panicking, mouth wide open, and panting. I move my arms as much as I can.

"It feels like straps or something are holding down my left arm and metal bands are around my right."

"What the hell? What are they going to..."

A loud screech. Deafening sounds. Speakers crackle. A booming voice.

"Good evening gentlemen. As you have no doubt discovered, you have been restrained and are now part of our little game. Between you is a table. On this table is a gun. In some time the restraints on your right arms will be released. The first to get the gun and kill the other will win their own life. An associate will put you to sleep and you will be released, a free man. The other will be disposed of and you will never be bothered again. If neither of you shoot the gun within five minutes of your restraints being released, a lethal electric current will be sent through your chairs killing you both, quite painfully in fact. It's better for one to live than both to die."

Silence. We wait for the restraint to be released. It doesn't come.

"What the fuck, Chuck?"

"I guess we'll have to wait. Maybe they want us to get to know the man we have to kill."

"I don't want to kill anyone! But I sure as hell don't want to die!"

I yelled, "Well, would you rather kill me or die!? That's the important question! Is your life worth the death of someone else? Could you live your life knowing that you murdered someone just so you can live?"

"No," he said, "I'd rather die than kill someone, but I'd rather live and not kill even more!"

"I feel the same, Mike, but unless you think we could untie ourselves in five minutes with only one hand..."

He was silent for a moment, then started whispering. "Yeah? What if we could?"

"What?" I yelled, "How can we trust that we actually have five minutes? How can I trust in you? If I reach over to untie myself, how do I know you won't go for the gun?"

"Like I said! I'd rather die than kill someone. A shot at us both living is better than the alternative."

"I guess it's the only way to not be a murderer." I smile, even though he can't see me, "I trust you, you can trust in me too."

So that's our plan, we'll attempt to free ourselves and hope we can do it in time. I know I'm not going to be getting anything off that table before I free myself, and I really think that Mike won't try to kill me. I start going over plans to get myself free. Would it be easier to undo the other arm first? Would I need to see my other arm to free it? If not I would need to remove my head restraint so I could look, but could I do it with only one hand? I decide that when the time came I would just go with my instinct.

"It feels like there are three straps on each limb, one on my head, one under my shoulders and one around my waist."

"So not counting the ones on the right arm, that's," Mike thought for a second, "twelve straps? Or belts? Whatever they are, I'm sure we have enough time."

We wait.

"So, you got a family or anything Chuck?

"No, not really," I say. "My parents are around and I see them every once in a while. I have a few friends, no one really close though. You?"

"I have a girlfriend and a kid, and the rest of the family. I really want to get back to them. I just got a new job, planning on getting a house. Things are going pretty well. Man, why did this have to happen now?"

"Why does this have to happen at all? Why are people so fond of death?"

The life of someone like me against someone like him didn't seem fair. I still want to live though. I don't want to kill him, but I'm not going to offer myself as a sacrifice so that he can live. The only thing a reasonable person would do is our plan. We talk for a while. He tells me about where he grew up, what he does for a living, how he met his girlfriend, about how wonderful his daughter is. He starts getting choked up and I take over. I talk about just anything, school, friends, my plans in life. We keep talking about the lives we very well might lose until we can't bear to talk about it anymore. We wait for what seems like an hour in silence. Still, nothing happens.

Mike started yelling "Hey! Come on! We gonna sit here all day?"

Nothing in reply but silence.

Mike is shaking, as much as he could anyway. "I want to see my kid again. I want to get out of here."

"Mike, just relax. Think about how you're going to get out of here, think about getting your other arm free, your head, your chest, your legs."

"Alright, alright. I'm cool." He doesn't seem cool.

We wait some more. Every time I look down, Mike seems worse. I try talking to him, get him out of his own head, but he won't talk back. I wait a while, hoping that we can both be free of this accursed game. As I look at him, it feels to me that I've been here for years, just sitting here, looking across this table. Eventually he starts muttering, but I can hear him.

"We just assume that we can get out of here. They could have us locked in. They could have people kill us the minute we walk out. I don't even know where we are. Could be the middle of the desert or Antarctica for all I know. Hell, there could be someone six feet to the left and I wouldn't know. They could be listening in the whole time and know what we plan to do. I don't even know what's holding me down. They might have to cut me out of here and there's no way to get out with just my one hand. Someone has to die, and it sure as hell won't be me."

"Mike," I try to reassure him, "focus. Focus on getting out. No one has to die. I know it. You have to know it too. Twelve straps, that's it. We walk out, finally free."

Click.

Restraint is released. I lift my right arm to the belt that's on my head and start to undo it.

I see Mike reach across the table, I know I can't win.

"Sorry Chuck, I have a family. I've got more to live for than you!"

"Don't do this! There's plenty of time! Don't go home to your family a murderer!"

"Fuck you."

The belt on my head is loose, I look down quickly. His hand's waving back and forth on the table trying to find the gun. It's not there.

"Five years," I say standing up, reaching for the kill switch. "Five years of endless variations, and they always reach for the gun."

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