By Skotti Kawasan

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Part III

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Scroll

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Her face is still stinging at the sudden blood rush where Riser had slapped her, hard, right across it.

She had said she was being hysterical. Panicking.

And screaming out like a mad person.

“But I can’t wake up,” she repeats

They both stare at her, blankly.

She sighs, trying to slow her breathing.

As simple a thing here, as at…

Home.

She tries again.

“Look. You know when you go to sleep at night…”

She looks at her surroundings. A section of Mt Sinai Medical Facility, embedded in a lucid dream.

“You guys don’t sleep, do you?”

“No.” Answers Riser, flatly. “We are Stalkers, only the others may sleep.”

“fuck.”

“Let me look at your face. I’m sorry I struck you. But you were placing us in grave danger with your strange lamentations.”

Her composure returned, she goes on. “Look – the main point is: I’ve been here before. To this room. It’s a…waiting room.” Even the sound of the words, smarts somewhere within her.

“Bad things happen around here.” She is struggling a little again. “And they happen over and over. “

Her voice cracks at the last, and she stops.

The look they both give her is of concern, if not warmth.

“I think we best take her back to the encampment.” Says Newell. “She’ll be safe enough there. Maybe Scroll will know how to help her. She is obviously strange.”

“I agree,” replies Riser. “Scroll will know what she is.”

She turns to Jay and holds out a slow hand.

“You should come with us now,” she says loud and clearly, as though Jay were an imbecile.

Jay takes the woman’s hand and allows herself to be gentled back out of the room. They take to the stairs once more, going down this time.

After a confusion of twists and turns along steps of different kinds, they head gradually down to an area where it opens out. They set foot into a vast, cavernous space. An enormous gloomy emptiness, dimly lit through shafts in the ceiling, far, far above.

Everywhere are stairs. Steps and doorways. Up to high galleries lost in shadows, Stairs off to the side and down. Dark doorways showing wide stone flags leading up into nowhere.

Against the distant wall she can see a campfire, with a group of figures huddled around it. She follows Riser and Newell, who hail three other people as they pass near. Two men and a woman. They too, are dressed sparingly, and appear fit and strong.

“Those are Joist, Spindle and Easing. Stalkers like us. They are going to try a new way; thirty two down.”

The three figures are swallowed soon by the dark of a vast doorway, which she hadn’t noticed. One of them has lit a torch, and she sees the light descend.

As they approach the fire, there are several dozen people or more standing about. They are dressed in all manner of bits and pieces; of clothing, and cloth, from a multitude of eras and objects.

Two are dressed more elaborately than the others, in rich draped robes, and brocades fashioned from upholstery; a man and a woman.

Both are surrounded by three or four heavy-set individuals, armed with spears, in hunks of leather, and padding. These regard all who pass near with suspicion.

“Hai, Newell and Riser,” says the richly dressed man. “Did you find a new way?”

“No,” says Riser dourly. “But we found a small find. Fourteen up, a while back.”

She opens her backpack and draws out some field dressings, a number of colouring in books; as well as what appears to be an actual set of steak knives. The man looks greedily at her catch.

“But it’s chaotic, and the dark swallowed it,” Newell says. “There’s no going back there.”

The man looks disappointed. He indicates Jay. “A stranger?”

Riser says, “This is Jay.”

She notices the man narrow his eyes slightly.

“We met her three levels, five subs; down, across on the other side.” adds Riser.

“These two are Pin-top,” Newell indicates the man, “and Gooseneck. They are Scroungers.

“Jay? It is strange.” says the woman, Gooseneck. “How did you come by that name?”

Some of the other people, poorer, more scrappily dressed, have come closer to listen.

Telling them that it was actually short for Josephine, does not seem very helpful at this point.

“It was my mother’s, mother’s name.” She says, lamely.

There are one or two shocked gasps.

Some look amazed and curious; the scroungers regard her skeptically.

“OK, so…, my grandmother, her name was…Jay…” she spells it out slowly, to see which part caused the amazement. But they are simply staring now.

“It was also the name of one of my mothers, a hundred mothers ago, or so.” She hopes they like that.

One or two ooh and ahh

“And she went mad, and cried out, in a well lit room” says Riser, less helpfully.

A babble of confusion and muttering breaks out. The people slowly start to drift away again, murmuring amongst themselves.

The two Scroungers turn to each, and start speaking in hushed tones.

“What are Scroungers?” she asks Riser, who squats and rummages in her backpack, bringing out some small tools.

“Whenever we find a good find. A stable one. We take whatever we need, and leave the rest to the Scroungers.”

She is unscrewing the head of a broom, which she had found, and carried back with her spear;

“They move in with their guards, and their pickers and they pick it clean. They carry it all out, with the help of slaves; and then trade it for barter, or favours.”

“And they drive a hard, often dishonest bargain.” says Newell. “But if they swear to get something for someone, they’ll always get it for them, or die trying.”

“If they give their word, they’re bound to it. They’re sworn to look after the stalkers for life, to give us whatever we need if they have it.”says Riser.

She is fastening a wickedly sharp, and jagged shard of metal, onto her new spear haft.

Looking up at Jay, she says, “Don’t ever trust them.”

Standing alone, on the edge of the firelight, Jay sees a woman, whose eyes neither blink, nor seem to leave her. She stands with her feet slightly braced, and one hand on the hilt of a long, and wickedly sharp dagger, worn at her hip.

“That one is Scroll,” says Riser, “She’s a Stalker as well.”

“And a Knower.” says Newell, “And many other things besides. You have her attention already, it seems.”

As the woman slowly approaches, there is an unmistakable fluidity, and poise of muscle in her every movement.

“Scroll is a formidable fighter.” says Riser. “It is well that she is here. Searching the main encampment for her, would have taken time.”

Her eyes steady, and wide open as she grows nearer, her approach becomes as much a feeling, as something Jay can see.

Like the old woman.

The feeling brings a flashback.

In a dusty street once. And a mountain, a time before that. And a small cell.

What the fuck?

Scroll stops in front of her, and is all person again. A person only slightly taller than Jay. Her hair is shorn but gray, her face, broad in shape.

Jay meets her eyes and feels slightly light-headed. They too, are gray.

You are not from here. You are some kind of traveler.

Unable to tell whether it was spoken, she is finding it hard to pay attention, all of a sudden.

She feels as though her mind is thinning.

A wave of feeling washes through her, bringing something of memory along.

You’re a traveler then, like me?

It is the voice of a man, quite deep, but husky.

A monotonous sound as well, a rhythmic pulse.

I suppose you could call me that. She hears her voice saying.

Coming back with a lurch. “What the fuck…Just happened?”, rubbing her eyes.

“Welcome back.” She hears Scroll’s voice. “So. It seems you are a Knower,

“But you don’t belong here.” She continues. “It is very dangerous for you, in this place. You are a wrongness here. Of late, the world seems… unwell, and perhaps you are a symptom. Things are breaking down. Darkness spreads and Chaos increases.

“You can only draw more Chaos while you are here. And you endanger all of us. You need to return to your everyday place.”

Jay looks up into uncompromising eyes.

“You need to leave this place.”

Scroll is serious, but not unkind. Her look changes to a frown then.

“But the only way I know, is through the dark.”

*

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Joker

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Dying.

Oh god I’m dying.

He hurries back to the safe zone.

All of his emergency lights are flashing. There is pain. There is too much pain.

He is riding waves of awfulness.

He performs a quick recon first; but there are no hostiles in the area.

He is alone.

Finding the equipment right where he stashed it earlier, his breathing is laboured as he checks again that no one can see.

All cooked up now, he stares at the syringe, and wonders where he’s going to find a vein this time.

The big one under his forearm, again.

He pushes it.

Jesus.

Sweet relief.

Like an icy surge of life; spreading through his dessicated bag of bones, the improvement is vast and instantaneous.

He slumps and sighs.

The slick sheen of death leaves him once again.

He cleans up then. He is always careful.

There’s that nice lady.

He is slouched against the wall of the McDonald’s, his usual spot. The traffic loud in the afternoon glare.

The one gave me five dollars, just the other day.

The crowd of people are throbbing in periodic exodus, up and down the subway steps nearby. Too many people around, and too broad a daylight, for anything dangerous to threaten him.

People probably thought he was asleep or drunk.

Ha!

He is always alert. Always scanning the crowd, keeping an eye out, and watching. Watching for others.

He adjusts his cardboard sign, to stop the sunlight striking it in a glare; when a shadow covers it completely. He looks up to see a small boy, roundabout four or five, stuffing a dollar bill into his cup.

“Well, thank you my man,” he says with a grin.

The little boy smiles, and so does his mother, as she calls him, and leads him off by the hand.

He can sense someone else’s eyes on him now, crossing the street.

A guy in chinos and a pale shirt. He’s wearing sunglasses, but he can still feel the disdain; the utter detachment, with which the man examines him, like an unpleasant specimen. He reaches the nearby curb. An other

Sitting up a little straighter, he braces as best he can in case of trouble, but the man has passed by with a final smirk.

A shit-eating grin, implying he had bigger prey in mind.

He waits for his heart rate to slow, and begins breathing again.

Sure could use a cigarette, right about now, he thinks. But he knows he doesn’t have enough yet. No need to look in the cup.

Then he sees her.

She is small. Maybe five or six years old. Crossing the street with a quiet confidence, not an adult hand in sight.

No adult at all, in fact.

He follows her with his eyes, while she heads directly his way, and rounds the corner in a stride. Her small sneakers squeaking on the sidewalk, as she passes; appearing to know exactly where she’s going.

But still.

He pushes his sign to the wall and tips his takings into a pocket and is around the corner following, at a safe distance. No need to alarm the child.

Just to see her safe, to wherever the hell she’s bent on heading.

Several lesser known twists and turns of street later, he follows her into a dead end alleyway. She proceeds past trash, and heavy doors, right to the end.

Stopping, and turning slowly around.  She appears to be waiting for him.

“Hello there, Joker.”

He freezes; his body flushing cold, and slow burn, at the same time.

“How…How you know my name, little girl?”

Se looks up from eyes as dark as his. Her hair is braided into ludicrous hoops. Her tiny face sombre.

“Shouldn’t have followed me, Joker. That was a really stupid thing to do.”

Then blur. She’s gone.

As though by strange and twisted dance; a thousand years or more, captured in an instant.

Blink.

Gone.

“What the fuck?” He thinks. How’d she know his old army name?

But then, he’s been on the street a while now. Ever since he got back; wounded in every which way, and things took a turn.

He’s watched the numbers of homeless multiply, and begin to comprise more and more whole families, with kids.

He’s seen weirder shit than this.

His money is still safe.

He heads on back.

Later, the sunlight is warm and nourishing.

He stretches out, taking up more room in it, feeling actually comfortable for the first time, in a while.

The police had shaken him down some, earlier in the day. But they were harmless enough.

His mind loses itself in the turbulence of foot traffic. Staring at the pulse and eddy of passing legs and feet, his thoughts a vague cloud. Eyes get a little heavy now.

“Hey man.” a voice is saying.

“Hey!”

His leg is kicked.

“Audie Gage?” Says a voice. There isn’t much question in it. He looks up at sunglasses guy. In the chinos and polo shirt. Green, he sees.

“Huh? Sorry what was that you just said?”

He’s stalling.

But two other men, in suits, have joined him.

A photo is thrust at him, by Chinos.

A small girl…

“Seen her?”

“Nossir,”

“Really, you sure about that now, Gage?” Says one of the suits.

“Take another look at the photograph, Gage.”

“You better come with us, Gage.”, Chinos snaps his fingers, and the other two men spring on him.

He tries to dodge, but they’re too fast. His mouth covered by a beefy palm, he can’t even cry out.

But looking up, he sees the street is totally deserted anyway.

On a mid-afternoon Monday.

“Let’s go, Gage”

*

In the photograph, the young girl’s face is caught in a half smile. Secretive. The hoops of her braids, mostly out of shot.

“Her name’s Lashonda Rhyme.” He says. “Five years old, reported as missing, just yesterday.”

Another child, this time a boy; staring at the camera as though trying to figure it out. Eyes a wide clear, blue.

“Timothy Heard. Aged six.”

Then another. A young Asian girl. “Jacinta Li. Seven.”

He looks out; at a room of faces, mostly atop uniforms of short sleeve. Bulky arms rest across chests, or one or two suit jackets and blouses present, as well.

“There are at least a score more cases like this, that stand out, for reasons which you will see. And which we will be investigating. Welcome to Task Force Wormwood, you have all been seconded here until further notice.”

Crowley waits until the murmuring settles down before introducing Velasquez, and himself.

He continues. “Becky Landers, I’m sure you’re all familiar with.” The viral photo is projected on screen, to further comments. “And the famous trail camera pic.”

“Weird shit,” someone comments.

“Well, whether it’s weird like this. Or like Lashonda Rhyme, whose weird shit was actually observed…by a witness, who has subsequently disappeared…”

A murmur begins.

“Or like Doug Parkinson, here.”

A slide of Doug, from the DMV, shows him looking uncommonly happy. “Doug vanished, in the middle of the day, in a suburban street; whilst on the phone to his therapist. Leaving behind only a pile of clothes.”

The room is buzzing with talk and debate now. The phrases “paranormal bullshit” and “X Files”,  heard more than once.

“Yo! Quiet!” Shouts Velasquez.

The arguing dies down to a murmur now.

“It doesn’t matter how these people went missing.” She continues. “Weird or not. There’s gotta be other things that connect them; or that point to something. That’s what we’re looking for here.”

“Right.” agrees Crowley. “This isn’t the X Files and we are not the FBI. We have a number of Missing Persons here, with similarities in their manner of disappearance. We need to know what, or who, led them to that point. And who, if anyone, benefitted.”

“So we’re treating them as Homicides?” asks Riggins, one of the uniform guys.

The muttering breaks out again, spilling loud around the room, when the door opens and all are interrupted by Lieutenant Kellerman’s loud Bronx burr.

“Detectives,” he says. “I thought you might wanna know. One of your Misspers, Douglas Parkinson. He’s been found.”

The Room falls silent. Crowley simply says, “Sir?”

“He’s unconscious but alive.”says Kellerman.

“Where they find him?” Asks Velasquez.

“Montauk,” replies the lieutenant. “Washed up on a beach. Being attacked by seagulls.”

*

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Tommin’s Peak

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Rural NSW, Australia.

It’s weird, she thought; the way the fog just kept on coming and coming like that. Rolling down
the mountainside, like a slow motion avalanche.
Mists sometimes gathered there in the winter, or the peak hid in cloud; but nobody had ever
seen this before.
The fog was swallowing the mountain whole, top down. Billowing and boiling, with a high rolling
bank like a wall.

The entire community of Tommin’s Peak had turned out to watch. All 580 of them. Except for
Jim Whelan, of course. Taken off last night. Gone; on another bender, most likely.
“Kath!” Cried a voice in the crowd.
“Ka-ath!”
She turned to see her best friend, Justine barging through; a triumphant grin over her face. She
was drawing attention to a packet of cigarettes, clutched in her hand. “Let’s go, man.”
They skipped off.
It was late, when the spectacle finally ended. The fog had stopped at a line, not far out of town.
The wilderness was utterly lost in white now.
Everyone had left, save these two; sat staring from a park, at the sky.
“At least you can still see the stars,” said Kath.

“Yep.” Justine drew in some smoke. “But that fog is totally weird, man. It was like smoke or
something…alive. I dunno. And now it’ not moving at all. Fucking. Weird.”
“Yeah.”
“Fuck this. I’m gonna crash. No school tomorrow. Let’s get up, and outta here early.”
Justine agreed, crushing out her cigarette. They went their separate ways, to go sleeping.

Kath sat on her bed, once home, looking out of the window. The view from her house was
dominated by the peak every other day. All she could see now was white.
She sighed and flopped down. The house had trapped in all the heat again. It was going to be
sticky to sleep.

Four hours later, a too bright light burns into her eyes.
And she’s awake now.
“Mnhh… wha?” She squints at what’ shining. Why is there light? Who?
Raising her head, she looks out the window. And stares.
And then stares more, a slight whimper escaping.
“Dad!” She yells. “Da-ad!”
“Daaaaaaaad!” And now she is yelling it over and over. Bright sunlight aglow on her face.

But the sun never shines in her window.
Not ever.
The mountain always gets in the way.
Only now, there’ no longer a mountain.
Tommin’s Peak is gone.
It’s not there anymore.
“Daaaaaaaad!”

Before long, everyone is gathered on the east side of town. Looking at a low lying forest where
the ground used to rise. They all wish their eyes were deceiving, and want proof. But that’s the
problem. Nobody’s phone seems to be working.
In fact nothing seems to be working at all.
“A mountain can’t just vanish,” says Gary Fleming, mayor of the community.
“Well it has, mate.” drawls a councillor.
“Well how the bloody hell does that happen?”

“Look. It doesn’t matter how it bloody happened.” Says Mick Dunning, town constabulary. “One
of us, ie – me, has to now – bicycle down to mount Elizabeth, and get some…help?” He looks
around, uncertainly, raising his palms in want of an answer.

“You all know very well why this is happening.” A rich, baritone reaches them from the
periphery.
People make way for the Reverend Wakefield.
Imposing, at over 190cm tall; his hair is a fiery nimbus of red and sparse white. Stick thin, he is
dressed entirely in black, despite the freakishly hot weather.
“Didn’t I say this was coming?” He booms, and all around look down, or simply elsewhere.
“Did I not warn of this, just last Sunday?”
Everyone is silent.
“Were you not, all of you there?”
The sense of shame is thick, in the sticky air.
“I warned of signs. I warned of wonders.”
“Yes, reverend, but…” Mick Dunning doesn’t know where to begin. He’s not the bloke to figure
out all this spiritual nonsense. This was a freakish nightmare that his daughter, Kath had woken
him into just an hour ago.
Only he can’t wake up from it.
He’s not sure what they all actually need right now.
He’s sure a beer wouldn’t harm him.
“But me no buts, Mick; you’re a good man. You’ve served as protector to the Lord’s flock here
from the threats of evil men.”
He looks around him, at each and every one of them, as he carries on.
“But the threat now comes from evil times. When evil men rule the world in the name of the
Beast. Their voraciousness has the mouths of ten heads, swallowing everything.
“Who then, can protect us from this type of evil? Not Mick here, unfortunately.
We all know the answer. All of us, in our hearts, know there’s only one name we can turn to, in
this, our hour of need. Only one name we can call upon.”

“Batman,” breathes Justine, and now Kath is fucked. She’ll never keep a straight face.
“Jesus!” Cries a voice, and then another. Taken up by a few more.
Before long, the name is repeated again and again; with additions of “praise…” And “… help us.”
Mick is struggling with how to calm them now.
Everybody is staring at the stark blue sky above, crying out to their saviour.

Only Justine and Kath are bowed over laughing, and so they happen to be looking toward the
end of the street, when the road out of town simply vanishes.
But so does the out of town.
The wilderness there is now a featureless white plain, a blank canvas; which is spreading.
Surrounding the town slowly with nothing.
And then the screaming begins, as one by one they look about and realise, and then; one by
one, they go blank.

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[Continues below]

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Dolly Parton, yes sir. He thinks. Now there’s a woman who can sing.
He starts laughing.
Turning up the volume, he beats time on the driver’s side door, singing along.
Even closing his eyes, during the more emotional parts.
He is in a good mood this morning.
After all this time. All this sneaking around, and disappearing all the time; (god only knew what
the gossip in the town was)
She’d said yes.
She would marry him.
Jim Whelan is the happiest man in the world.
Or perhaps the luckiest.

So far.
Now, to just deal with the “towns-flock”, and he can be on his merry way.
But he has to make this lie convincing.
Or the Reverend will never let him leave again.

He enters the town around eleven, wondering why it’s so quiet. It’s a Saturday, the sun’s out and
strong again. Even though it’s midwinter.
Nobody.
Not even parked cars.
Is everyone asleep? He wonders.
But there was nobody around at all.
Not anywhere.
They were all gone.
The town had become empty. And the more he thought about it, as he packed his, and a few
other people’s belongings; and gathered up cash.
The more he realised how wrong that silly old Reverend had been.
Because, in the end; it was his prayers, that had actually been answered.

*

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Monica

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“Becky was new,” begins Monica.

She is sharing a pizza with Anna, both sitting across her bed. Nearby, curled up at her small desk; her mother, Tania, clears a space for her elbow.

She is in her mid to late fifties, like the Doctor; who sits cross legged; on a space of carpet, in the doorway.

“She came around four or five months ago.” she says. “She was a year older than everybody else.”

“Do you know where she came from?”

Monica, her mouth stuffed, shakes her head vigorously.

“Didn’t you say, she told you Virginia?” Says her mom.

The shake of Monica’s head, becomes a sudden nod, as she chews more rapidly.

Her mouth, now clear of obstacles, says, “Um, yes.”

“OK, so I get the sense, she didn’t make many friends? Is there any reason, the other kids didn’t like her?” asks Anna.

“They said she was weird, and stuck up.”

“And was she?”

Monica looks down for a second, in thought, before her dimples show.

She looks up. “Yeh. Yeh she was pretty weird.” She is  grinning now. “And she totally believed she was way better than everybody else. Not just cos she was really rich, but because of all the weird stuff.”

“Like what?”

“She told me, everybody else was dead.”

“Dead?”

“Yeh.” She reaches for another slice of pizza. “She said that most people, aren’t really real. That only some people, were even really alive.”

“Like her, I suppose,” prompts Anna, gently.”Did she say you were someone who was alive?”

“Yes,” she chews thoughtfully. “But it might have been just because I was her only friend. She said I wasn’t…” but the last word is lost to chewing.

“Wasn’t what?”

She finishes the slice, before replying.

“Unwakeable. She said I can wake up, but most people can’t. She said they’re not even real to begin with.”

“What the..?” Says Anna.

“Unbelievable, huh?” Says Stanley Fung, looking up at her. “Poor kid. I hope her parents were getting professional help from someone.”

“Did did she ever say where she learned all this stuff, Monica?” Anna asks.

“From the man,” she answers, reaching for more pizza.

“Sweetheart, stop for a second.” Says Tania Fung, placing her hand gently, on her daughter’s foot.

“What man?” They all ask at once.

“He was a man, she,…was talking to?” She answers, upwardly. “He used to talk to her all the time.“

She has all their attention now.

“Sweetheart, did she say whether she was talking to him online, or in real life?”

“IRL,” she dimples. “Her parents used to make her go see him.”

The adults look at one another.

Anna reaches into her bag.

Unfolding the paper, she watches the child’s face carefully, as she asks, “Monica, did you paint this amazing picture?”

“Um, yes,” she nods happily; more pleased to see the picture admired, than wondering how Anna has come by it.

“Where did you see this, sweetie?” Anna asks, pointing at the blurred figure.

“I dreamt it,” answers the child.

“You dreamt it?”

“Becky said she would send me a dream. And that’s sorta what I saw. But I’m not very good at art.”

“She sent you a dream, sweetheart?” Tania Fung asks.

“I think so.”

“Tell us what happened, Monnie,” says her dad.

“She wanted to know if I was really real, because, I was, like her only friend. Nobody else wanted to talk to her.”

“So she sent you a dream, to check?”

“Uh-huh.” She nods.

A serious expression; her small face, all eyes.

“She said I’ll send you a dream, Monnie. And I said OK. And then it was two nights later, or something.

“And I saw her, and it was all like, I was awake.

And there were trees, and grass, and it was very windy. And then she did that.” She points at the figure.

“But when I told her about it at school; she didn’t know anything. I could tell. She pretended to know, and told me that she did it, but I don’t think she really did it. She used to lie all the time, I think it was just a dream, really.”

“Um, can I ask you one last question?” Anna says. “Then we can finish this pie, before it gets cold.”

Monica laughs, “Yeh. Gross.”

“Did she ever tell you the name of this man, this  doctor she was seeing?”

“Mandel.” Says Monica, stuffing a slice in her mouth. “..ctor…ndel.” She chews.

“ A psychiatrist? He was always talking to her.” Anna looks at Tania.

“Jesus, telling kids that kind of crap.” She answers. “It’s a short step to ‘If people aren’t real, then it’s OK to hurt them’.” She is scrolling her phone, no doubt searching Mandel.

“She said she didn’t like him anymore, anyway.” Interrupts Monica. “Before she went away.”

“The doctor?”

“Becky said that?” asks her dad. “Did she say why, pumpkin?”

“Yes.” She is wiping her hands and face on a serviette.

“She said the people online, they were saying he was a bad man. They didn’t like him. But they were really nice to her, even though they made her go away.”

She tips a tumbler to her face, drinking.

“She told them, she didn’t like him either.”

“Wait a minute. Slow down, for a second, Monnie.

The people online?” Her dad comes and sits by her. “Did she say who they were?”

“Ummm…It was like, a group, where they post and chat. But it was only for grown-ups. Cos they have virtual chat rooms too. That’s why they told her to leave. But she said they were funny, and nice to her. And some of them had really crazy avatars.” she giggles.

“How did she find this group?”

“She was searching for the doctor, as well. Online. That’s when she found the group, cos they’d been talking about him. They were surprised she found them though, and said she was very clever. And she was clever. But she lied a lot, so I dunno.”

“Did she tell you the name of this group?” Asks Anna.

She takes a final slurp of soda, “Ahhhh…,” She sighs. “Um, it was called Madroom.”

“Madroom,” repeats Anna, pulling out her cell.

“Holy crap balls!” Says Tania, whereupon Monica breaks down giggling. “An entire town’s worth of people have disappeared. In Australia. Five hundred and eighty one people. The whole population. Vanished!

Anna sighs. Her part in the humour project, can simply be placed on further hold, she guesses.

*

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The Dark

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“Wait a minute.” Jay is saying. “The Dark? What are we even talking about here? Don’t you people avoid total dark, or is a there a particular Dark, you mean? One where there’s like, some kind of… um, portal?” she chokes on the last word.

Years of cringeworthy Television, has led to this moment, she is certain.

“Why did you cry out in a well lit room?” Scroll’s gaze penetrates. “What disturbed you, so?”

Jay pauses. She has a bad feeling where this is going.

“It’s a very particular, well lit room.” Jay answers, levelly. “It’s gonna be hard to explain to you, but.”

She slumps, sighing. “Ahh what the fuck.”

“It’s a really bad place, OK?” She can feel the pressure building. Just behind her eyes. “It’s where they put, ah…,dead people. Like; when they don’t know…”

She keeps it steady.

“I’ve been there before. Like, over, and over…I kept going back there. Something kept taking me back.” Her voice cracks, but she no longer cares.

“It still scares the fuck out of me! So fucking horrible to have to see that! OK?!  It’s horrible! Fucking…the worst. It’s my little brother. Fuck! Oh Jesus!…and his…his…”

She can’t.

“I saw that.” She moans, helplessly. “OK? In real life! It’s not something anyone should ever have to see. And have to look at…and identify.” she breaks down.

“And then; see again…over and over.”

She catches her breath.

“But isn’t only fear, or horror, you feel.” Says Scroll, with certainty. “Nor simple grief.”

“No?” She glares at Scroll. “Because, I’m pretty certain I know what I’m feeling, motherfucker.”

“And I’m pretty certain there is more. The something that kept drawing you back.”

She looks at the other woman. Scroll’s face is emphatic. Her eyes, however, assert no superiority in her knowledge. Merely concern.

“In this instance, there is a portal,” she says, softly. “And I think, we both know; in which particular Dark it can be found; waiting for you.”

Those doors first?” she indicates the nearest and largest plastic ones. Scroll has turned to face her.

Riser and Newell are with her as well.

Jay shakes her head. “It’s that way.” She says, pointing off to the right. A set of opaque doors. She knows it, all too well.

“If this place has light, and it’s so close to the encampment, why are you only searching it now?” she asks.

“The camps are new.” replies Riser.

“And this wasn’t here before.” adds Newell.

“It changes?” she asks.

“It always changes,” Riser says. “Or it goes dark, or it gets swallowed by the dark.”

“The Chaos,” Newell says, shrugging.

He puts down his firewood bundle, and unties it. It comprises a mixture of scrap wood, and bits from furniture. He hands over a stout table leg.

“You’ll need a weapon.” he says.

“What for?” Jay asks, gripping it like a club.

“Things.” answers Scroll. “There are things, in the Dark. You’ll see.”

She follows them across to the swing doors. Beyond is a corridor, well lit, with bare walls and floor; all concrete gray.

There is a single red stripe painted down the middle of the floor, ending in a tee intersection.

They follow it to the end, and turn right.

A long passageway; continues here; featureless , save for the outlines of a few doors, retreating into the deepening dark.

Scroll takes up position, behind Jay, and they move off.

Ahead, the only functioning light nearby, begins to flicker. Flashing; strobing in the dark.

Jay can see her own motion, strewn across the moments, as if frames in a film.

It makes her feel at a remove from herself. Light headed, and more viewer, than participant.

She is struggling to maintain focus.

It intensifies, as they approach, and she peers down the corridor, trying to make sense of what she can see.

It seems too stretched off, into the distance. Elongated, at each pulse of light. And yet dead end short, at once. Telescoping, each overlapping instant to the next. She feels she is in two corridors at once.

And breaks into a chill sweat.

Formless, and fractal shapes, begin burgeoning, in the less certain areas of vision.

“Guys,” she says.

The walls either side, appear to be undulating now. And warping, in a soft rhythmic pulse.

As though the whole place itself were alive, and breathing.

Riser turns to her.

“Can you feel it?” she whispers. “The Chaos.”

She is not even certain that they’re moving at all, anymore, when a door appears to her right.

Set next to it is a window, displaying the room beyond, the light in there is steady, if a little dim. Scroll tries the door, and it is unlocked.

She leads them into a wide space, where everything feels suddenly solid, and three-dimensional again. Jay breathes out, leaning against a bench.

And looks around.

It is a combined office and supply room. Newell has gone over to a large cabinet of drawers, while Riser begins looking around carefully on the desk tops, her spear ready.

“Help us look.” says Scroll. “Anything of use to Stalkers is priority, the rest to the Scroungers.”

She decides she’ll raid the desk. On top of it is a desktop computer and she shifts the mouse hopefully, but nothing appears on the screen.

“This is very good,” Newell is saying.

Going for a closer look, she sees he has found a cache of medical supplies. He is stacking various bandages, packets of gauze, and padding. There is a deep drawer full of it.

She moves to help, when all the lights go out, plunging the room into darkness.

Her eyes strain to adjust.

Visible, are the forms of Scroll, Riser and Newell, and the various blocks of furniture.

Dark shadows, all of them.

But another shadow is forming in one corner. She watches it gather there. The figure of a person, attempting to hide, blending with the dark. She points, raising her table-leg club.

Newel glances at the corner.

“Don’t look there,” he says, holding out a torch for Riser to light. “It is a Skulker. The more you look at it, the more it is there.”

She can see now, the figure starting to resolve itself, into a more humanoid form, with a pale, slack face. Sagging folds emerging, hung from some bony frame.

The two Stalkers manage to light the torch, and it evaporates.

“Let’s go,” barks Riser.

She watches the other woman walk out the door, and freeze, facing down the corridor.

Nothing of what she can see, is visible through the glass.

Now she is beckoning them all; with a careful hand; silently, come on.

Jay exits.

“Whaaaaaaaaah! FUCK!”

She couldn’t help it.

Where once, the corridor stretched off, fading into dark; a wall of pitch black, ends it utterly, about 30 feet away.

Its face is writhing, and seething, with half shaped, and tormented forms. Some of them reaching, and spanning out.

The whole begins shifting toward them.

“Move.” says Scroll.

They turn and dash, for the stability of the light.

Jay turns. The Dark, she sees, is like liquid, dissolving the world, as it advances.

A tentacle like whip, strings out.

Headed for Newell.

“Watch out!” she screams.

He ducks in time, dodging right. And swings his club around, in an arc.

The Darkness explodes into vapour.

They keep running.

The Dark is gaining momentum.

Sprinting hard.

She can see the light up ahead. Where the turn off, left is. Riser has almost reached it. She can see she’ll make it.

But she isn’t looking.

And stumbles.

She hits the floor hard, face planting.

Her last sight, is of Scroll running past her, and with the other two Stalkers, leaving her behind.

And then the Darkness rolls right over her.