“I’ll have you know I don’t normally show up to luncheons wearing designer sequins carrying a toolbox.” The woman wasn’t just wearing designer sequins and carrying a toolbox, her hair was frazzled and sticking about in all directions. There was definitely glitter in it too.
”Oh?” I asked, uncertain. I didn’t know who this woman was or what she had wanted but I had been sitting at the Sammy’s Sammiches minding my own business when this woman had plopped down across from me.
“May I?” The woman held the toolbox over the table where my notebook and cellphone were sitting.
I moved most of my stuff out of the way just in time for her to drop the toolbox loudly on the table top. The only casualty was my half-eaten sandwich. The other patrons of the sandwich shop looked over, some annoyed, some concerned. I tried to form some kind of verbal protest but the woman opened the toolbox and pulled out a stack of loose papers. Was she using a heavy tool box for a briefcase? All things considered I guess that wasn’t the strangest thing.
The woman eyed the papers like she couldn’t quite make out what they said and then leaned over the table at me conspiratorially. “How about forty acres?”
“Mars?” She said this as if it were obvious.
“What are you, fifty?”
I squinted at her, confused. “Twenty-three.”
“My apologies, it’s hard to tell these days. You’re a young lady, you are a lady right? Last time I assumed I misgendered someone and they were not happy. I felt terrible about it for days, I’m absolutely determined to never do it again.”
I just nodded. “You’re right… this time.” Was this woman for real?
“I know forty acres on that dustball of a planet doesn’t sound all that great, but listen, terraforming is only a decade away, what costs you pennies on the dollar today will get you a thousand times the investment.”
“Wait a second. Are you trying to sell me real estate on Mars?”
“It’s what we agreed to!”
“Uh, I didn’t agree to anything.”
“Look, I know you might be having second thoughts–”
“I’m not having second thoughts, I haven’t even had first thoughts. I’m just sitting here trying to enjoy a sandwich between my classes and you turned it into a pancake with your toolbox.” I pointed to the pitiful thing, half-eaten and half-squished.
The woman peered around the toolbox and frowned. “Why ever would you put your sandwich under a toolbox?”
“That’s…oh my god.” I ran my hand across my face and tried to find an escape route without being obvious about it.
“Listen here Miss Cargill–”
“Thomas,” I said absently and regretted it the second I did.
“My last name is not Cargill; it’s Thomas. Dany Thomas.” What was I doing?! Run away you fool! Abort! Abort!
“Are you sure?” She looked mildly alarmed.
I pointed to the student ID clipped to my collar.
“Oh my.” The woman leaned back and stared at me like she we seeing me for the first time. “You’re not the person I’m supposed to meet.”
“No…shit,” I said with heavy sarcasm. “You owe me a new sandwich.”
“How should I know?”
“I was supposed to meet them here.”
I lifted my hands in a shrug and then waved my open palms in a half-circle to indicate the rest of the sandwich shop.
“Oh, this is bad! I’ll lose my commission over this!”
“Listen, don’t worry about it. I won’t tell anyone.” Lies! I’m telling everyone this bonkers story!
“Oh no, you don’t understand. It was certain, for sure, the contract is right here! It’s supposed to be signed today! If I don’t have a signature and a buyer, I’m toast! I’ll be banished to live on Mercury! Oh, what a world! The worst. No margaritas anywhere!” She genuinely looked on the verge of tears.
“Are you okay? Humans have only been to the moon. No one is going to send you to Mars, much less Mercury.”
“Oh you poor human girl, you don’t get it do you?”
“I’m obviously not getting something, no, so please enlighten me.” Why? Why did I keep encouraging her?
The woman wiped at a nonexistent tear and seemed disappointed there was nothing there except specks of glitter. “I’m from a small backwater planet about fourteen light years from here. This was supposed to be my big break into interplanetary real estate. This pilot program was going to boost our economy and everyone in my family was going to be able to afford all the finest luxuries.”
I was nodding encouragingly until the entire thing percolated through my sleep deprived, over studied, hyper caffeinated brain. “What?” I said stupidly.
“You wouldn’t know it, I think it shows up as being about fourteen light years from here on your star maps.”
“You’re an alien?”
“For better or worse.”
This lady was either on the fast train to crazy town or already there. Or she was telling the truth. She seemed legitimately upset that I wasn’t the person she was supposed to meet. I honestly didn’t know which direction I wanted to believe.
“Alright,” I said and crossed my arms across my chest. “Assuming that you’re telling me the truth. How do I know that I’m actually going to get the forty acres after I pay?”
I think she got glitter in her eyes while wiping at invisible tears because suddenly they were sparkling. “You’re interested?”
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” The lady started frantically going through her toolbox. “I’ll have to amend the contract but that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“First, what’s your name?”
“Your name is Unpronounceable?”
“Oh! No! I mean, yes, but when I’m here I go by Chuck.”
“Chuck. Okay, Chuck, my last question…”
“How do you know you’ll get the forty acres?”
Chuck readjusted herself and a new demeanor took over her posture. She was cool, confident, and sparkly in her designer sequins.
“I am not of this world. However in two years’ time the Galactic First Contact Association will be contacting your world and providing technological advancements, assistance, and personnel. Your species has been selected for a pilot program to determine if near-space faring species can be contacted and enriched without destroying themselves.”
“It is isn’t it? I’ve seen the reports, even if you do destroy yourselves the chance that another sentient species will rise on your planet is at nearly 88%! Those are great odds.” Chuck didn’t seem to realize that wasn’t encouraging at all.
“So in two years we get contacted and then we get to go to Mars?”
“Yes! We give you the supplies and provide transport and a 25 hour help desk!”
“A Martian day is almost an hour longer!”
My phone beeped and I pressed my finger to the near-silent alarm. It was almost time to head back to class. I could miss one class of Special Topics in Anthropological Literature. I could probably write a whole essay about what I was experiencing right now. If it was real.
“Now, since you are being introduced to this fresh, I don’t want to force you into a contract you know nothing about. May I see your cellular device?”
I clutched my phone close to my chest and frowned at her. “Why?”
“I need to call in a transport.”
I reluctantly handed over my phone and she fussed with it for a moment before awkwardly holding it up to her ear.
“Karen! I need a transport from my location to the prospective acreage. Yes. Yes. That too. New inductee! Byeeee!” Chuck handed me the phone back and smiled happily.
“So…where are we going?”
I didn’t have a second to question that idea because the air around us started to glimmer and a feeling of warmth replaced the cool sandwich shop AC. The chair under me disappeared and I fell to the floor. But not the floor of the sandwich shop, the floor of a UFO.
Chuck appeared next to me and lifted me up onto my feet. “Apologies, our gravity is heavier than yours.” Once I got my feet under me and stable enough I got a good look at the rest of the room. A wide window looked out on Earth and in the distance I saw a sliver of the moon. Other than the window, the room didn’t have many other features. There was a wide doorway that led into a hallway and a single console in the middle of the room.
Chuck tapped the floor with her foot and the area opened up. A couch lifted up and Chuck pushed me to a seat.
Okay, up till now, I had just been playing along, looking for a good story, and not really taking Chuck’s antics seriously. But I was sitting on a purple couch IN A UFO! I was looking at the southern hemisphere of the Earth. Australia and New Zealand took up the length of the window.
“Ready to see your new plot of land on Mars?” Chuck asked.
I just nodded, at a loss for words.
Chuck took up a position in front of the window and tapped her foot on the floor again. A control panel lifted out of the floor and Chuck tapped happily on the buttons. “Here’s hoping I don’t bring this back to Karen dented!”
“Dented?” I asked. The view out the window shifted as the ship turned away from Earth. I felt no movement or momentum. The only indication that we were moving coming from the track of stars across the viewer as the ship turned. The view went white and colors streaked as the ship zoomed forwards. In seconds we were no longer in orbit around Earth. The rust red surface of Mars filled the window and I gasped again. The pictures I had seen of Earth and Mars from space did nothing to compare to seeing them with my own eyes. I gingerly got up off the couch and went to stand next to Chuck at the window.
“Amazing isn’t it?” Chuck asked.
“I can’t believe it.”
“Seeing is believing!”
Chuck tapped a sequence into the console in front of her and the ship began to descend. I watched with amazement as the Martian landscape filled the viewer and Chuck landed the ship on a flat, rocky bit of terrain. In the distance, huge mountains broke up the horizon line.
Chuck led me further into the ship and at an airlock had me pull on an overlarge EVA suit. I felt like I was wearing a tent. “Why is this so big?”
“This is the suit that was made for the previous contract signer. We had their measurements prior to this flight. After we visit your plot of land we’ll have to have to get your measurements.”
“My measurements? What for?”
We have to make sure we get the right habitat for you. We can’t be trying to put a human sized person into a cat sized habitat now can we?”
“Wait, are you selling Martian real estate to cats, too?”
“Well, of course! They have every right to be there just like you!”
The image of a cat habitat with cats in little cat jumpsuits was unavoidable. I snickered.
“Come along!” Chuck had her own suit on, and of course, it had sequins and glitter all over it. We walked out onto the Martian surface. Chuck used a little red laser pointer to show me the area of land I was being sold.
“How much?” I asked after a minute. It was too much to take in. As soon as I got back I was going to skip class and go home and sleep.
“One US dollar an acre.”
“A dollar…an acre? That’s really cheap.”
“Like I said, pennies on the dollar!” She clapped and then wiggled her fingers outwards like she’d just performed a magic trick.
Forty dollars wasn’t that much if this all turned out to be real, but forty dollars was a weeks’ worth of groceries for my poor college ass if it wasn’t.
“What’s the chance this all falls through and I don’t get to come to Mars?”
“Oh! The money is held in escrow until successful integration and introduction is complete.” Chuck seemed really proud of that.
“Wait, why do you even need money? Earth money isn’t going to be good on other planets.”
“On the contrary. The galactic economy is built on the economies of every species in it. If your planet successfully enters the galactic society your Earth money will be incorporated. One of the reasons my people are doing this is because the sooner you get a jump on and initial standard of another planet’s money the more profitable you’ll be.”
“Well that sounds really complicated.”
“It is.” Chuck nodded.
I looked out on the barren desert and tried to imagine it lush with gardens and greenery. “Two years?”
“Two years. I believe they will try to aim for a slow news day on Earth. They have some algorithm they follow but that is not my forte.” Chuck smiled at me through her helmet.
“Alright. Sure. Let’s do it. I can eat ramen for a week.”
“You can come by my apartment and have some if you want.”
“I would enjoy that. I’m very fond of the chicken flavor. It’s very ubiquitous.”
I laughed. “That’s one word for it.”
So I signed the contract and handed over forty dollars. Chuck joined me for a ramen lunch and two years passed with little trouble. There were only a couple times I regretted the purchase. But the ride to Mars alone was worth it. I graduated from university, got a job as a programmer, and found myself sitting in a cubicle typing code for hours on end. Above my monitor I had a postcard with a picture of Mars on it. Chuck had given it to me after I’d signed the contract. I had put a sticker of a cat in a spacesuit on it at some point.
Chuck had never given me an exact timeline of when Earth would be contacted by aliens but I really wanted it to be today. It was slow, the news was just stories about a goat rescue in China, reforestation in Chile after a forest fire, and every baking show was a rerun.
I guess whoever was in charge was listening, because every screen in the office flickered and a message appeared on the screen.
“Everyone in this trip been camping before,” Joe assured his girlfriend Renee. “There’s nothing to worry about, babe.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that I haven’t. And you haven’t, either, by the way,” she coolly reminded him. “Backyard camping doesn’t count.”
“Yes, it does. I know how to set up a tent. Well, my dad did it, technically, when we camped in our backyard. But I helped him with the pegs!”
Renee rolled her eyes and tucked a loose strand of her auburn hair behind her ear. “I’ll continue reading my book, thanks.” She had been reading The Outdoors Survival Handbook for two days now and hadn’t looked up from it.
Joe smiled at his girlfriend’s quirks and continued driving the Jeep through the narrow road that would take them to the clearing where his friends should be waiting already. The sun was about to set; they were running late, and it was Renee’s fault (she’d packed like a royal going to a month-long trip to the most remote location on Earth). But, she had agreed to come camping with him and she was freakin’ hot, so Joe wasn’t going to complain about it.
This was going to be the best trip ever.
The aliens stepped out of their small capsule and looked around as they took a deep breath.
“The readings are correct, husband.” Ha-Mas declared, glancing down at the screen of the portable computer in her hand. “This atmosphere is agreeable to us.”
“Indeed, my wife; a most satisfying fact,” Pa-Fin replied. He took another deep breath. “The air smells different than the air in our planet Aspia, but not as unpleasant as we were warned it would be.”
“Remember, husband, that the air quality reports we studied were based on our mission destination, which is a populous city full of humans and their primitive transportation and air filtering systems. Yet we have been forced to land our capsule in this wooded area to procure Fermium for our troubled ship.”
“Ah, you are correct, my wife. As ever.”
Ha-Mas acknowledged his compliment with an awkward smile and then said, with another glance at the object in her hand, “According to the meter, the Fermium is very close.”
“Let us begin our search, then, but it is imperative that we remain vigilant. We do not know what dangers lurk in these Earth woods.”
“Agreed, my husband. Let us camouflage the capsule” —with a touch to the screen and a soft bleep their transport seemed to vanish— “and turn on the camouflaging feature of our suits.” Another tandem set of bleeps and their space suits appeared to blend in with their surroundings.
“Onwards,” they declared in unison.
Staying close to each other, the aliens moved towards the marker pulsating softly on the map in their device.
“So, we gonna kill them or what?” Brandy asked Brian as the unsuspecting couple pulled up to the camping site and parked their Jeep next to Brian and Brandy’s stolen car.
“Probably. But only after they give us some useful information; maybe their PINs or something like that. Those last idiots were hardly worth a shit,” he added with a scowl at the cliff behind them where they had dumped their two latest victims.
“They told us about these rich shits,” Brandy reminded with a nod at the two who were now getting out of their car. “And their truck is pretty cool.”
“That’s true. Too bad we’re gonna have to ditch it soon. Once they’re suspected missing, after this weekend.”
Their last victims, a guy named Mark and a girl named Kelly, had supplied Brian and Brandy with a pickup truck full of all sorts of things, from small luxuries like ketchup and barbeque sauce to useful things like sleeping bags and tents. Sadly there had been hardly any money, but at least the couple had provided the criminals with valuable information about where they were going and who they were meeting up here. Brandy was the one who got all the information out of the overly chatty girlfriend after they were picked up pretending to be distressed hikers. As soon as the Mark guy parked the truck, Brian and Brandy got out of the backseat and opened the front doors, dragged out the gullible couple and slashed their throats. There was no time to properly dispose of them so they rolled the bodies off the cliff, then went around enjoying their newly acquired stash of beer and food. Neither of them had ever been camping before so they didn’t even bother pretending to set up the tent. Not even ten minutes later they heard the Jeep coming up the road.
Now they were eyeing the approaching couple with little dollar signs over their eyes. The recently-dead Kelly had gushed about how rich their friends were, and filled Brandy’s head with fantasies of loads of cash and expensive jewelry. Brandy hoped the girl had been right.
Time to find out.
A minute after stepping out of the Jeep, Joe felt his phone buzzing in his pocket several times in quick succession, alerting him of incoming texts and other notifications. He smiled as he reached for his phone.
“Check it out!” he said to Renee excitedly. “We have reception up here!”
But his smile immediately froze and very quickly degraded into a frown as he read the texts from his friend Mark. “What the hell?”
“What’s wrong?” a worried Renee asked next to him, searching his screen for clues.
“Mark’s not coming! Says he’s sick and had to go to the hospital!” He immediately called back Mark’s number, but received a busy signal.
“So whose car is this?” Renee asked.
Joe examined the silver truck they had parked next to. He thought Mark drove a similar model, but he’d never laid eyes on Mark’s car so he wasn’t sure. Mark and Joe had been best friends since forever, growing up in the same hometown; but despite keeping in touch quite frequently, they hadn’t really seen much of each other since they left for different colleges two years ago.
Just as he was about to call Mark again, a blond guy and a fake blond girl stepped out of the tree line and into the clearing.
“Hey, there,” the unknown guy called. “Are you guys Joe and Renee?”
Joe and Renee looked at each other briefly before Joe replied. “Yeah.”
“Cool. I’m Dave, Mark’s roommate, and this is …” he looked at the girl next to him as if forgetting what to call her. “Brandy,” he finally said.
“Oh, okay,” Joe said as they all shook hands. “Yeah, Mark’s told me about you, Dave.” He didn’t add that Mark had never mentioned a girlfriend because the girlfriend might take offense to it. “You’re the one who loves camping, right? Ever since you guys went camping in the summer he’s been asking me to do this trip. I didn’t realize you guys were coming too, though.”
“Oh well, it was a last-minute thing. We drove up here together but when we stopped for lunch, he got food poisoning. Real bad. So anyway he wants you guys to stay; he and his girlfriend Kelly are at the hospital in Morristown, it’s like only twenty minutes from here, and I might go pick them up later if he feels better.”
“Wow, that sucks,” Renee said, a hint of something like disbelief in her voice. “But no one else got sick?”
The other two exchanged a quick glance. Then the fake blonde, Brandy, replied, “Yeah, he had the Roman lettuce in his burger, that’s what it was. I told him to take it off, you know, but he didn’t; and bam, ten minutes later he was hurlin’. None of us got the lettuce, so it must’ve been that.”
The Roman lettuce? Joe wasn’t sure Brandy knew what she was talking about, and next to him he could see Renee eyeing up the girl. Joe could tell Renee was skeptic, but she didn’t question them any further. She only said, “Well, I hope he feels better soon and can come join us.”
“You’ll see them soon enough,” Dave promised with a big smile. “Let’s get this party started!”
The aliens approached the moonlit clearing quietly and crouched behind a large bush, examining the scene before them. Four humans were conversing while attempting to set up a fire directly over the spot where the small rock containing the Fermium should be, according to the aliens’ meter.
Pa-Fin gasped. “The tall dark-haired male just told the short yellow-haired male that they intend to stay two nights here, wife. We cannot wait for them to leave. We need the Fermium immediately to continue our mission.”
“I agree with you, husband,” Ha-Mas replied. “We will have to immobilize them and sedate them while we work to recover the Fermium with our suit tools.”
A small asteroid containing the precious metal had impacted Earth a century before and had created this luminous clearing. The aliens needed to unearth the rock now to transmute the Fermium into energy for their ship, whose battery cells had suffered some damage while entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
“I will immobilize the two on the left, and you take the two on the right,” Ha-Mas directed, aiming her wrist-weapon at the first of her chosen targets. “Is that acceptable?”
“Agreed. Then we can—warning, behind you!” Pa-Fin detected the slithering reptile behind Ha-Mas too late, as it lifted its head and attacked her exposed hand.
Ha-Mas cried in pain and stumbled back onto Pa-Fin, losing her stance for a second; but she expertly readjusted and fired her wrist-weapon at the creature, immobilizing it. “There is venom in this bite, husband. I need to neutralize it before we can proceed with our mission.”
“I will take care of it, my wife.” Pa-Fin reached up his arm and extracted the emergency healing salve from his suit sleeve. As he applied the cure-all ointment over the swelling punctures in Ha-Mas’ hand, he heard a voice.
“Who’s there? Are you okay?”
It was the auburn-haired female approaching their hiding spot, followed closely by the tall dark-haired male, who appeared to be her mate.
“Do not be alarmed,” Pa-Fin called out in response. “We are humans just like you, camping.”
The humans looked confused. They were close enough now that they could see Pa-Fin leaning over the injured Ha-Mas. The male human said, “Uh, we heard a scream. Was that you?”
“Yes, we apologize for having disturbed you. It was just a scare—”
But the female gasped as she noticed the immobilized creature at their feet. “That’s a pit viper snake! I read about them in my book! They’re super poisonous! Did it bite you?” Her eyes focused on Ha-Mas’ wound, which was healing from the inside out, unbeknownst to the humans, but still swelling noticeably on the outside. “Oh no! We need to help you. Come with us. I have a first aid kit. Where is your gear?”
“Can you walk?” asked the human male. “I can help.”
Ha-Mas and Pa-Fin were touched by the young Earthlings’ desire to help. Ha-Mas stood, hoping to convey that she didn’t need help anymore, and Pa-Fin followed suit.
“Thank you for your offer, young fellow campers, but I am well. The animal must not have delivered poison with the bite. I am not in danger of dying.”
The humans frowned in renewed confusion. Ha-Mas thought something must be wrong with her translator, and decided it would be better to accept the offered aid, to ease their suspicions.
“But I believe I will accept your offer to help.”
The female smiled. “Great. Please come with us. I’ll bandage your hand, at least.”
As they walked to the humans’ camp together the male noticed Ha-Mas’ portable computer, which Pa-Fin was carrying, and said, “Whoa, dude. What kind of phone is that? And where did you get those camo suits? They’re out of this world.”
The aliens looked at each other in alarm. They know?
But no one got a chance to reply, as the other two humans, the yellow-haired couple, rushed at the approaching group; each grabbed a human and pressed a knife at their throats.
The aliens stood there, exceedingly confused. Is this some sort of game that Earth friends play? What an odd example of entertainment.
“Whoa, whoa! What the hell, Dave?” the dark-haired male asked the male that held him while his auburn-haired companion whimpered in surprise and fear in the yellow-haired female’s grip.
“We weren’t going to do it this way, but now you’ve gone and done a stupid thing and got these weird fuckers involved,” the yellow-haired male said with a nod at the aliens.
Weird fuckers? Ha-Mas looked at Pa-Fin, puzzled.
“What’s going on?” the auburn-haired female cried.
“What do you think, princess?” asked the yellow-haired female restraining her. “This is a robbery.”
Despite the awkward situation, Ha-Mas was now deeply humbled that she had been offered help by an Earth princess.
“Oh … Joe,” the princess cried between labored breaths laden with panic. “These people aren’t Mark’s friends. They … they must have … Oh, God.”
“What did you do to Mark and Kelly?” asked the dark-haired male named Joe.
“None of your goddamn business,” the yellow-haired male replied, at the same time the yellow-haired female replied, “We rolled them off the cliff.”
“Don’t tell them that,” snapped the male.
“What does it matter?” the female replied.
“Alright. Whatever,” he said. “Yes, we robbed your friends and then slit their throats. You’ll join them soon enough if you don’t hand over all of your shit to us.” Then he nodded at the aliens standing awkwardly in front of the struggle. “And you two, hands in the air!”
“Please clarify,” Pa-Fin requested. “Our hands are already in the air.”
“Hands up, asshole!”
Again the aliens exchanged a confused look. Was the human asking them to lift their wrist-weapons?
“Alright,” agreed Ha-Mas, raising her hand and aiming her wrist-weapon at the female holding the princess, while Pa-Fin did the same to the yellow-haired male.
“What the fuck are you doing? We’re going to kill these two!” The yellow-haired male was livid, pressing the knife closer to his captive’s throat.
“But why? Aren’t you … friends?” Pa-Fin asked, confused. Earth friendship was not at all like Aspia friendship.
“No,” the dark-haired male, Joe, answered. “We don’t know these people at all. We were supposed to meet my friends here, and these two … criminals … murdered them!”
With that, Joe threw his elbow behind him and managed to hit his captor in the temple; the yellow-haired male yelled in surprise but tightened his grip on his target, and his knife cut into poor Joe’s flesh; Joe screamed, the princess screamed, and all four humans were screaming over each other.
“That’s right we did!” yelled the yellow-haired male above them all. “And now we’re going to kill you, too!”
The aliens exchanged a purposeful look and a quick, easy nod, and shot their wrist-weapons at the two not-friends restraining the nice humans. Red beams hit their chests in tandem, and the criminal couple froze for a second before collapsing at their own feet.
“What … what just happened?” cried the now-free princess. Then she looked at her bleeding mate. “Joe!”
“He … he got me, babe.” And the nice human, Joe, dropped to his knees holding his hands at his neck.
“No, Joe, don’t …” the princess Babe sobbed.
Pa-Fin knelt next to Joe and said, “You are a brave young human, one she calls Joe. Let us tend to your wound.”
“How?” asked the distraught princess. “You don’t even have a first ai—”
But Pa-Fin was already applying the healing salve over the wound, which would mend the damaged muscle and tissue; and Ha-Mas followed right behind, closing the wound proficiently using her micro surgery laser tool that they all carried in their mission suits.
“Ready,” Ha-Mas announced. “Your pain should be diminishing quickly.”
“Uh …” a bewildered Joe attempted to speak as he touched the minimal scratch that was all that was left of his wound. “It … feels … gone.”
“But how?” the equally mystified princess wanted to know.
“It’s basic healing in our planet Aspia,” Pa-Fin explained.
“Your p… planet Aspia,” repeated the princess.
“Aspia revolves around a star that humans have yet to detect in what you call the Orion constellation,” Ha-Mas said. “There is much to tell you; however, your real friends are in urgent need of healing. We must go tend to them.”
“But … you … they … are dead?” attempted Joe as he was forced to expand his views of the world.
“We can hear their labored breaths,” Ha-Mas explained. “They are heavily injured, and might have expired within the hour, had we not been alerted to their presence and condition by these two not-friends currently lying here stunned.”
The Aspians had already silently agreed that they would need to collaborate with the humans to procure the Fermium. So with a mutual nod, they went in search for the only humans that had actually ever been camping before.
From the creators of the #1 bestseller The Box Under The Bed horror anthology and its #1 bestseller sequel Dark Visions, comes Nightmareland . . .
A horror anthology with 23 stories from 14 authors!
In a rundown shack deep in the woods, a high school girl dares herself to try the strange new drug all the kids are talking about. One injection of “Nightmareland” is all it takes to unleash a person’s biggest fears to them – and then they are on their own! But rebellious Jessica thinks she will prove herself to her peers and parents.
Tremble along as she is strapped into the chair and becomes a lost child on a Florida party island, an investigator looking into a circus’ bizarre side shows, an abused prisoner locked away in a desolate concrete cell, and much more as Jessica faces the most terrifying ride of her young life.
Compiled by USA Today bestselling author Dan Alatorre, this anthology of horror once again unites the minds and pens of more than a dozen amazing authors.
Nightmareland will send you into the foggy twilight of the eerie and macabre, with heart stopping stories from:
The chilly October sky turned cerulean and sanguine as the sun dipped below darkened clouds. Thirteen bats flew across the sinister backdrop, signaling the arrival of Leah, my level-headed, put-together boss, to my chilling abode.
Leah stepped out of her SUV, paying no attention to the avian warning high above her head, and gave me a joyous wave before holding up a bottle of wine. She was just as at home here in my dark den of shadows as she was in her high-rise.
“Welcome to my home.” I greeted while motioning for her to enter. The front door of my ramshackle Victorian home gave a squeeeaakkk.
“Thank you for hosting our monthly dinner, Vivien. The renovations are almost finished, but my house is certainly not ready for company.” Leah kissed both of my cheeks before she stepped over the threshold and took in my Gothic décor. I waited for her to flinch, but her smile remained intact.
“Please make yourself at home. Dinner is almost ready.” I pointed towards the living room and waited for her to be seated. “Would you like something to drink? I’ve some vintage Blood Wine.”
“Yes, Blood Wine, what region is that from? I don’t believe I’ve heard of it.”
“It’s a rare blend. Transylvanian, of course.” I hand her an empty skull filled with wine and gestured for Leah to take a seat on one of my matching scorpion-shaped chairs.
Leah took a deep sip. Her face turned pallid then flushed scarlet. “Viv, this is a thick wine but is full-bodied. You must share your source with me.”
I nodded and headed back to my kitchen. I’d slaved all day cooking my favorite foods to share with Leah. We were complete opposites but had always worked well together. Sharing this part of my life with her pleased me.
I used my trusty hack saw to slice thick pieces of brioche and then topped them with bat brain jelly, laying them out prettily on an old silver tray. To go with this, I made a delightful meatloaf macabre, filled with all manner of chunky, crunchy surprises. And, of course, to drink, I had plenty of Blood Wine. A most filling meal, I believed.
“Come, Leah,” I beckoned her towards the dining table and smiled pleasantly when I noticed traces of the Blood Wine dripped from her mouth.
“Oh, Viv! You’ve outdone yourself. I must make a video to share with our friends.”
My forehead scrunched. To her, “our friends” meant work colleagues. To me, “our friends” meant all of those that lurked beneath the ground of the cemetery out back. But I enjoyed my boss and would humor her eccentricities. After all, unlike me, she was still part of the living.
Trickles of murky water danced between shadows and fractures on the underground wall. Flickering candles twisted wilted blooms and innocent stone angels into a jungle of goblins.
“If you’re still fussing, you should have started earlier.” A redheaded vampire flashed through the arched doorway and scowled at his watch. “This space will never be anything but a tomb disguised as a fancy courtyard.”
“Like the desolate streets above us, masquerading as our city?” A man in a tuxedo slicked his mohawk straight up and adjusted his bow tie. “I thought you said rebirth was near, Mister Steven.”
“It’s so close, I can taste it. You’ve followed my instructions to the final detail?”
“Haven’t I always, sir?”
“As much as humanly possible, I guess.” Steven pointed to a steaming carafe. “Pour.”
The man’s shoulders slumped. “What am I now, your waiter?”
“I didn’t mean…that came out all wrong. Pour me a taste, Zachary. Pretty please.” Silence and a smirk followed his lingering sip. “Ah, silky smooth with a viper’s bite.”
“One coffee blunder was humiliating enough.” Zachary tipped his chin in the air. “That other swill tasted like it was blended with the ashes of the dead.”
“Sure wasn’t chicory.” Steven shuddered. “Ick.”
“Don’t worry. The tool who sold it to me, is at the bottom of the river.”
Steven planted one hand on his hip. “So, where did this brew come from?”
“Cross’ the lake.”
“Hope you’re taking my bodyguards when you leave the French Quarter.”
“So much gloom, even your soldiers can’t tell where the safe zone ends and enemy territory begins anymore. Sun hasn’t come out in years.”
“Yet, the dreadful humidity remains. Just to remind us we’re home.” Steven snapped the cuffs of his dress shirt. He inspected the linen tablecloths, uncovered serving dishes, smiled at the scent of peppermint and turned his nose up at licorice. “My chocolate?”
“All your favorites.” Zachary bowed in front of the dessert tower. “Amaretto, raspberry, almond hazelnut…but, the hazelnut still sucks.” He tapped the artery in his neck. “How bout’ a taste of this?”
“Later. Be available,” Steven said. “Eat a little cinnamon.”
“You…are damn bossy.”
Steven waggled his finger. “Leaders delegate, Zach.”
“Oh well, excuse me.” Zachary plucked a sugar cube from the pristine buffet and dropped it on his tongue. “Will it be the usual guest list tonight?”
“Yes, and I’m sure you’ll hate them all.”
“They turn the room frigid. Swear I can see my breath.” Zachary pointed to the fountain. “Your snooty, light-up water feature was frozen solid after last week’s festivities.”
“There’s a method to my madness. We’ll need the allegiance of all the coven leaders, from every corner of the globe—even the villains—to take back New Orleans.”
“Hmph.” Zachary crossed his arms. “Bastards do seem impressed. You’re still the king of decadence, like in the old days.”
“Just wait for the new days.” Steven leaned over the pastel bubbles and watched glittery fish spinning in circles. “When our family is back in power, all this melancholy will be a distant memory.”
“What about that man with the sapphire eyes?”
“You mean the warrior?” Steven sighed dramatically.
“He’s more than politics to you, isn’t he?”
“Is that a hint of green demon I hear in your voice?”
“After so many years of us…” Zachary shuffled his feet and stared at the fish. “Never mind.”
“His fire, his army—that blood.” Steven spun and pumped his fists. “The warrior is our savior. He holds the keys to an empire.”
Zachary stepped back, but not in time to avoid Steven patting his cheek as if he were a petulant child.
“My empire.” Steven flashed back through the arch. “All mine.”
She’d been waiting for nearly an hour.
The paintings and portraits in the entrance to the convent were all the indication that she needed that she was where she should be. She was dark of hair, skin, and eye, a strange beacon in a place that put so much emphasis on purity in the form of light colors. Porcelain angels were clothed in a white so clear they looked like they were covered in fresh sparkling snow, their hair was the color of straw, and the image of their Lord was burdened with eyes so blue they could have been fragments of the sky itself.
She plucked a pomegranate from the bowl of assorted fruits on the table. The thing was red, firm, and in her hand it felt like a hardened heart. A selection of biblical scholars believe that Eve took a pomegranate from the tree of knowledge and not an apple. They would be right.
The symbolism around the fruit is as numerous as its seeds but the truth of the matter is far more sinister. The pomegranate was the literal and figurative representation of knowledge and wrapped up in that was woman’s agency. A pomegranate was not just the beginning of knowledge but the very representation of the feminine.
Was it evil for woman to know who she was? In a patriarchal society, power, agency, and knowledge for the woman, by the woman probably was evil. And that’s why the man who called himself God took woman’s agency away and turned it into a forbidden fruit.
A door behind her opened and a man stepped through. She put the fruit back down in the bowl and turned to face the man. He was dressed in a drab habit and most of his hair had fallen away in his old age. His skin was pale from years of walking the halls of the monastery.
“Friar Lenn,” he said by way of introduction. He did not extend a hand for a shake. Instead he looked her up and down as if examining a reptile that he wanted to squash.
“I was told I would meet with Sister Ruth.”
“She is otherwise occupied at the moment. Follow me, I’ll show you to your quarters.”
The friar didn’t ask her name and she didn’t offer it.
Knowledge is a heavy burden to bear. Ignorance is bliss. This man and everyone in this place would know her name soon enough.
The hallway beyond the main entrance was wide and long. Tall, stained glass windows drew out epic scenes from the Bible on one side and on the other a series of archways built into the wall opened up into a courtyard. A large kitchen garden was being attended by a handful of friars and nuns. At the end of the hall was a statue of Mother Mary herself, her stone gaze downcast with some semblance of sadness and kindness. Her hands placed together as if she were praying. On either side of her were two more stained glass windows butted up against doors. One was Mary Magdalene and the other was John the Apostle. The friar led her into the doorway next to Mary Magdalene and down yet another hall.
She glanced back at the statue of Mother Mary and wished her eyes held more of the kindness and happiness that had been there in her living days.
The new hall wasn’t as bright and colorful as the last instead the walls were lined with doors and small electric lights. Most technology had moved into the realm of LED lights and even plasma filaments, but this monastery was at least twenty years behind.
The friar led her to a door that looked indistinguishable from any of the others.
There was a small pallet with a mat on it. A simple pillow and blanket folded on top. There was an end table with a plain, brown leather bible on top and a little reading lamp next to it. She set down her things on the bed.
“You will attend to Sister Evelyn until you are oriented and given tasks and chores. She will be by shortly. There is an outfit in the closet. Change.” The friar turned and left the room with barely a nod goodbye. She couldn’t tell if the grumpiness was his normal state or because he was probably taken off his normal tasks to retrieve and deliver her to her room.
She took a moment too examine the room closer. There was a painting of Mother Mary on the wall. Again the sad expression on her face. What did the painters think they were capturing by making her look like that?
There was a small closet opposite the bed and she opened it. As the friar had said there was indeed a nun’s habit inside. She took it out and quickly changed. The fabric was rough but well worn. It was probably handed down from nun to nun, so she would not be the first to wear it, but she hoped she would be the last.
There was a knock at the door and it opened. A woman stepped in and stopped in her tracks. The recognition on her face when they locked gazes was apparent.
“Evelyn, I assume? You really need to be more creative with your names Eve.”
“I don’t need to hear that from you. What are you doing here?”
“Exactly what you’re doing.”
“No. You are doing the exact opposite of what I’m doing!”
“Eve, we are both trying to dismantle an institution that has corrupted itself.”
“Be that as it may, Lil, at least I am not going around turning the nunneries into cabalistic epicenters of feminist rage.
“You have to admit that my methods have been more successful.”
“Faster and more explosive but I don’t know about more successful.”
“What are you trying this time?”
Eve rolled her eyes and closed the door behind her. The illusion obscuring her true appearance faded away and the woman who had been created to be Adam’s subservient wife, and unquestioning sex slave after Lilith had rejected those prospects appeared before her once again.
“I’m quietly telling the nuns to follow their dreams.”
“And how’s that working out for you?”
“Some of them honestly believe their dream is to be married to the church.” Eve sat on the end of the bed and sighed heavily. Her hair was a bright blood red, and her skin nearly as pale as bone. The signs that she was created from the blood and bone of another. A smattering of freckles, one for each of the hundreds of children she bore to Adam, crossed her nose and cheeks. Adam and Lilith had been created from the dust and clay of the earth and were both dark featured. Eve hid her pale skin and striking red hair under an illusion that made her look like a plain woman with mouse brown hair.
Lilith, Adam, and Eve were all direction creations of God and therefore perfect in every way and their appearance alone was enough to stop any person in their tracks. Lilith only softened her features a bit. Looking like a supermodel going into a convent usually got more attention then her dark skin so she made it easier.
“If you had let me continue with the free love movement in the 60s all this would probably be a moot point.” Lilith sat on the bed next to her friend.
“You were losing control of it.”
“I had everything under control. You weren’t thinking big picture enough.”
“Big picture? Lil, I have been on the same page with you helping me dismantle the church from the inside but I can’t sit by and let you hurt my children, even if they do it to themselves in misguided hedonism.”
“Even after all this time you still think of them as your children.”
“They don’t know you. You’re a side note in their religious texts, and most of your story has been erased from even the apocrypha.”
“What about you? Some of them are your children too!”
Where Adam had been made from the ridgid rocks and dust of their homeland, Lilith had been created from watery clay. Her adherence to gender was fluid and she could transition between the two as easily as the moon crossed the sky.
At one time, Lilith had walked the earth as a man named Joseph. He had fallen in love with a woman named Mary. They had had a child, and God had punished him for assuming to think he could live a human life, and had changed the narrative around the birth of his son to fit into some prophecy. And then that prophecy had killed their child.
The images of Jesus didn’t even look like the real Jesus. Her real son had been dark of skin and hair as she was. His brown eyes had been bright and intelligent and he had always known more than he should have. Jesus had never had a child of his own, but his brother, born ten years after Jesus had gone on to have many children. She could see it in the faces of some people, reflections of her sons long past, and sometimes even worse, she could see Mary in their eyes. Especially the compassionate ones.
“That’s why I want to free them so badly from this… this dogma of isolation and adherence to a god that no longer exists Their church corrupts, and allows more corruption to rise in the absence of compassion or understanding. They exist saying that they are all children in the eyes of God and yet act as if they are the chosen ones.”
They fell into a mildly uncomfortable silence. This argument wasn’t new. Every couple decades they would cross paths and inevitably have the same argument again. There never seemed to be any middle ground they could reach. Even though they wanted the same thing Lilith thought Eve was too soft and Even thought Lilith was too hard.
“You know,” Lilith said. “We’ve only been going after the small convents and churches, don’t you think it’s time to go bigger?”
“We haven’t messed with anything higher than the Bishops in decades, we ought to try to go after the Pope himself.”
“I did that. Who do you think got Pope Joan into the papal house?”
“I thought that was fiction.”
Eve’s smile was grim. “The Archbishops killed her and replaced her. Like you and me her story was scrubbed out of the history books.”
“Joan was said to have hid her gender and that’s how she got in, we have to get someone in despite her gender.”
Eve shook her head. “These zealous men are hard to work with.”
“So we shouldn’t try? Eve, I’ve never known you to give up! Even after Adam–”
“Leave him out of this.” Her tone was sharp and her expression left no room for argument.
Lilith raised her hands in surrender. “Apologies.”
Adam had abandoned Eve after she had taken Lilith’s side after the death of Jesus. Despite knowing herself and her freedom she had still followed Adam across the earth, indulging his hubris and never taking anything for herself. Until the day after Lilith’s son had been crucified and the heaven and the earth had literally shaken. Lilith had called on the angel Lucifer, her long time friend and companion, and he had helped her storm heaven in her rage. Lucifer had been God’s favorite angel in spite of Lucifer’s love of humanity. In the end, heaven had been broken, God was missing, and the angels still on God’s side out for Lucifer’s blood.
“What did Sister Ruth say to you about your stay here?”
“She didn’t. I was led here by a friar.”
Eve’s eyes widened and she stood. “A friar? Where was Sister Ruth?”
“He claimed she was occupied.”
Eve cussed uncharacteristically and her illusion of being a plain woman reformed. “I’ve been found out again.”
The door opened and the friar and a man in a black outfit stood in the doorfarme.
“You, demoness, I shall exorcise you and this woman! May God have mercy on whatever souls you have left” The man in black said and pushed forwards.
“Stop this, friar! I am no demon!”
“You come into this sacred place and whisper poison into the nun’s ears, who else could you be. Especially knowing that you associate with… that.” The friar pointed at Lilith.
Interesting. Did they know who she was?
“How do you know who she is?” Eve asked.
“We were notified to keep an eye out for her and a red headed witch. We got one of them and you shall both be removed from this world.”
“Adam,” Eve hissed.
“Adam?” Lilith asked.
The exorcist turned the pages of his book quickly reading the words. The poor fools. Lilith and Eve had been created outside the confines of the natural world. Exorcism spells held no power over them regardless of the fact that Lilith and Eve weren’t demons.
The friar realized pretty quickly that nothing was happening and reached into his habit and pulled out an ancient pistol.
Lilith moved quickly and stood in front of Eve raising her voice above that of the frightened exorcist. “I am she that came before Eve, I am she that was cast out of the Garden of Eden for assuming I was equal to Adam. I am she that would not bow, or bend, or break. I was called a demoness, and I was the one who entered the Garden of Eden as a serpent and told Eve to take her freedom back.”
Eve didn’t argue, but Lilith knew the declaration annoyed her. After all these years Lilith knew her like a sister.
The Friar and the exorcist stared at Lilith in horror as she began to change in a dragon. Her form filled the room and broke through the walls. The men screamed in terror as a pair of huge wings arced over them. The dragon licked its lips and snorted at them as if sizing them up for a meal.
Eve didn’t wait for an invitation and dropped the illusion as she climbed on the dragon’s back. The dragon leapt out of the hole in the top of the monastery and flew up into the sky. Eve hugged the dragon’s neck and whispered grateful words into its ear.
“Adam knows what we are doing,” Eve said after they landed in a parking lot behind an outdoor movie theater. The film showing on the screen was a children’s movie about dragons. Appropriate. None of the humans noticed us. We were invisible to their eyes for now.
“So what do you want to do?”
Eve stared at the screen, the light flickering in her eyes. “How keen is Lucifer to come out of hiding?”
Lilith grinned. “You know he’s sweet on you, he’ll come running as soon as you lift your finger.”
Eve nodded and visibly blushed. “Call him. It’s time to go to war again. For my children, and yours.”
A crooked little coffin-shaped sign hung rather creepily and just a bit off-center, somewhat hidden beneath eerie Spanish moss from an ancient tree that draped over a tiny coffee shop where cemetery workers and the occasional mourner would stop in after passing time in the famous Southern graveyard that was just a few yards across the street.
Delia adjusted her purple work shirt that sported their shop’s unique logo. The owners of the shop were two best friends, “Miss Charlotte” and “Miss Cordelia”, and they had hand drawn themselves the symbol of a tiny tomb upon which a tiny coffee cup sat. Above this, in silken threads, the name of their shop, the words Burial Grounds were embroidered on the left shoulder. The concept of the shop had been the brainchild of her best friend, Lottie and had somehow taken their after-college plot of turning a mountain (unemployment) into a more manageable molehill, (becoming entrepreneurs!) with some quick thinking and a few old Southern recipes. The two best friends combined their attributes and somehow had managed to stay out of the red in their first year of business. The shop provided everything that after-funeral crowds might need: water, coffee, teas, pastries, biscotti, bagels and breads, panini and fruit, as well as tasteful cemetery souvenirs such as photography coffee table books of the cemetery that the tourists were just gaga for. Just recently they had also added a very small lunch menu so that the groundskeepers and out-of-town visitors (here to see the book-and-movie-famous gothic nuances that lay by the river just across the way) might be tempted to drop in during the noon hours. A late sleeper, Lottie came in most days after lunch, to prepare the next day’s soups, and sandwich fixings while Delia took great delight in early-hour baking and the opening of the storefront doors each morning.
On this stifling September day in Savannah, Delia was hoping to inspire a few customers into trying her new recipe for Pumpkin bread. As she switched on a coffee pot, she peered out the rippled glass pane of the old storefront. An Autumn fragrance called “Something Wicked” filled the small dining area that was dotted with small black café tables and chairs the girls had found and refurbished from the flea market. The dining area possessed a slightly witchy aura in a Practical Magic sort of way. Delia suddenly observed that a rickety, white-haired, very tall, hat-wearing gentlemen (whom she immediately secretly named “Papa Justify”, she had heard that creepy name in another movie once) was slowly making his way inside from the empty parking lot. She was unsure of where he came from, but it seemed awfully hot for a man of his years to be out and about, walking around alone in the September heat at 10:30 in the morning.
The man creakily made his way to the counter, his loveless face was daunting in the bright morning light, but Delia stood ready to take his order, despite his frightful countenance. Holding a pad, and slightly biting the eraser at the end of a pencil, Delia smiled and said, “Good morning, Sir. What can I get for you?”
He leaned his ghoulish face towards Delia, his large teeth protruding from his thinly-veiled face and replied.” I would love a large cup of coffee, black, and 2 of your old-fashioned tea cakes, please”.
Delia carefully wrapped the two sweets in a glycine treat bag, then poured freshly-brewed liquid glory into the recyclable-yet-insulated to-go cup, it was an aromatic and steaming brew. She dribbled a rich, dark splash onto one of her sneakers as she placed the carafe back on the burner.
The customer appeared to be delighted, thanking Delia as he took his purchases, and left a twenty on the counter. “Keep the change, doll”, he whispered. A shiver ran up Delia’s arms.
It was then that Delia heard a key turning the lock in the back door of the shop. “Lottie, quick! Come here!” Delia called. Delia turned her back to the window that looked over the parking lot just for a moment, motioning to her friend to hurry and observe the unusual customer who had just left. Delia had never seen anyone like him before in her life. Lottie sat down her purse, and quickly was standing by Delia’s side. As they both looked across the parking lot, no one was there. Had the small tourist bus silently picked him up without their hearing it? Surely, he couldn’t have walked completely out of sight in that short amount of time.
Back to the business at hand, the phone rang, orders were placed and work demanded the two friends’ attention and soon the entire morning had flown by. Now the girls were both busy packing up 15 box lunches which they had promised to deliver over to the Cemetery Visitor’s Center across the street by 1 pm. Lottie stayed behind at the store making up a fresh batch of pimento cheese and Delia walked over with a large cardboard box filled with the smaller box lunches, and cold drinks to give to Mrs. McGuire, the docent. She told Delia they were having a Civil War reading near the war monuments later today with guest speakers and so the workers wouldn’t have time to go out to get their lunch. The coffee shop was happy to oblige them. The Visitor’s Center tipped quite nicely.
As the sun pelted down upon the shell-lined pathways, and the hushed Spanish moss gently swayed, swishing ominously throughout the bent and gnarled limbs of the ancient trees, Delia walked past graves and headstones, and statuesque obelisks, headed away from the old grey house that now was designated as the Visitor’s center, and on back towards the shop. Thinking what a lovely blue sky hugged from above, Delia was taken aback as she noticed that someone had thoughtlessly littered the beautiful resting grounds. An abandoned coffee cup sat upon an ornate rock headstone. Intending to clean the trash up herself, she reached to grab the debris, and was taken aback to see that both the sack and coffee cup were imprinted with a little symbol, the coffee shop logo symbol, and the words starkly stated Burial Grounds captured in a sickly red ink made her gasp. A glycine treat bag was also crumpled up with the paper sack, and these were laying over the grassy and sandy grave of a man who had mysteriously died in 1832. His name…Jasper Justify Jacquemin.
This is the precise moment when Delia decided that this would be a good time to lay off the caffeine.
October is just around the corner and all the coffee shops have already busted out all the fall flavors. Outside the air stirs, still warm but with the occasional chilly draft. The fall equinox is only a few days away. Alex is excited for the change and ready to let go of this dreadful summer haze.
The summer had been awful. Loneliness had been his constant companion; he’d been unemployed; a small-town wannabe actor freshly moved to the big city looking for acting work. He’d had a hell of a rough time, unable to join in with the rest of the city as everyone cherished those precious few weeks of perfect weather.
But then, right at the end of summer, last week, things finally improved: he got a job. Not just any job. He was finally invited to join one the most successful theater companies in the city, Elysium Theatre, and a role in their current award-winning production, The Last Victim.
Today is his first day. During his interview he already decided he loved the company. He’d met most of the actors and the stage crew, although of course he didn’t even lay eyes on the main actors. The big shots were just way too important and busy to ever hang out with the main company. They hardly come out to rehearsals, Alex learned to his disappointment, although he wasn’t surprised. He had especially wanted to meet Ben Morgan, the lead actor in the play, who had been Alex’s inspiration to become an actor, and his motivation to join this particular theater company. But Alex is thrilled nonetheless—he might not even see him, but he’s going to be in a freaking play with his hero!
Alex is the first one in. He came jogging from his studio apartment; he was too excited to sit still. He didn’t know what time everyone comes in to the rehearsals, so he chose to arrive an hour early, to be safe. Inside the designated auditorium, some lights are on but there’s no one around. He sits on a chair in the front row.
“Hello,” he hears a voice above him.
He looks up and sees—Ben Morgan? Holy crap!
“Hi, Mr. Morgan,” he stammers.
“Please, dude. Call me Ben.” Ben descends a metal ladder that’s propped against the lighting platform above the stage where he had apparently been, doing who knows what in solitude. About halfway down he jumps off and lands with uncanny grace on the stage. He sits on the ledge, right across from Alex’s chair.
“Right. Ben. I’m Alex. I’m new. I’m playing the banker, the smallest part, I know, barely two lines, but just the fact that I’m in this company, wow, I’m so excited and humbled. And to have my one scene be with you—well, the young version of Caleb, that’s, well, just, incredible.” Wow. Halfway through that logorrhea Alex knew he should stop talking, but he was so nervous that he just kept babbling on. He takes a breath to steady himself because he feels like he wants to talk some more to apologize, or to explain himself, or just to fill the silence, but he decides it might just be best to never speak again.
Ben is looking at him strangely. In his eyes there is a mixture of pity and humor. “Well, Alex, nice to meet you. But let me correct you, so you don’t go around spreading false statements.”
“Huh? What do y—”
“The banker. He’s not the smallest part. He may have only two lines, but he’s one of the most important characters in the story. He’s the pivotal person in Caleb’s life; the one who changes the course of Caleb’s whole life, when he says those two lines.”
Speechless, Alex can’t reply with words other than reciting the lines he’d already memorized, in a half whisper. “ ‘Young man, I’ve been watching you. I believe I know someone who might be quite excited to meet you.’ ”
“Aha.” Ben holds his index finger up and displays a dazzling smile. “And who did the banker mean by someone?”
“The benefactor. Mr. Lawrence.”
“Yes. And Lawrence changed Caleb’s life,” Ben reminds him. “Had it not been for the banker, Caleb wouldn’t have met Lawrence, and he wouldn’t have risen to where he did.”
“I guess,” Alex stammers.
Ben cocks his head to the side as if considering the young nobody before him. “Did you know that The Last Victim is based on a real-life story?”
“No, I didn’t,” Alex has to admit.
“My character, Caleb, is based on a young man who lived in the 50’s. His name was Charles, and he was an orphan. Just like in the play, Charles struggled in life, had many afflictions; and on one particularly bad day, having almost given up hope, he met the banker. The banker saw past the unfortunate circumstances that plagued Charles and saw only his beauty. He introduced him to his wealthy acquaintance, believing this acquaintance would be interested in Charles. And he was right. The wealthy friend took an instant liking to Charles and became his benefactor. We all know what happens next.” Ben pauses for effect, then he narrows his eyes and smiles that knowing smile of his. “But here is where the play differs drastically from the real story. In the play, Caleb goes back to his hometown as a wealthy man, and he purges the men who spurned him as an orphan, right? But in real life, Charles went back to his hometown, alright… but he killed those men.”
“What?” Alex’s face puckers in disbelief. “Just for mocking him?” In the play, one of the things young Caleb struggles with is being bullied by a few older boys that he works with. Later after he’s rich, he has them convicted and put in jail.
“They did more than mock him,” Ben explains. “They beat him up so bad, he couldn’t defend himself. He couldn’t even beg for his life. They left him for dead in the marsh where they worked. But he lived, he healed, and he persisted. He quit that job, went to a bank to borrow money to start a business. He met the banker. His life changed. And later when he was powerful, he went back and got his revenge.”
“Is that true?” Alex asks, unease creeping up his spine. “And he killed them?”
“Yes,” is Ben’s smart reply.
“But how did he do it?” Alex doesn’t really want to believe the supposed real version of the story, so his words are partially laced with disbelief. He doesn’t know where Ben is going with this, but it sounds like the guy wants to tell this story, so might as well ask him.
“I mean, how did he manage it? There were three of them and one of him.”
“There were eight of them and one of him.” Ben drops that in a deadpan voice. “In real life,” he adds.
Alex begins to get a weird vibe. Is Ben messing with him, or what? “So he paid people to do it, or…?”
“Alex, what the popular version of the story which we act out every night fails to mention is… the so-called benefactor, Lawrence, who in real life was named Lehmann, was actually a powerful vampire who fell in love with his intended victim, the little orphan boy that his banker friend brought to him as a gift. The vampire bestowed the gift of immortality on the young Charles. Not right away. Lehmann saw young Charles as a little pet; well, a pet that you have an intimate relationship with. But after some time he turned him into a vampire. And just like Caleb returns to his hometown as an adult in the play, Charles returned as an adult, albeit a vampire one, and had fun getting his revenge.”
Alex realizes his mouth is hanging open and quickly closes it. Ben is obviously joking, but he sounds so serious, Alex doesn’t know how best to reply. He looks at Ben expecting the face to reveal the butt end of the joke, or some clue as to why he’s hearing this fictional story from one of the most renowned actors in modern theater, but the man remains as serious as if he was retelling a news story from last week. Alex decides to play along. He never dreamed he’d converse like this with Ben Morgan on his first day; might as well roll with it.
“Wow, um. So, how do you know all this?”
“I play Caleb. It’s my job to know his character well, inside and out; what is written in the play, and what is not written.”
“Okay,” Alex says, frustrated with the lack of answers and not exactly knowing how he should react to Ben’s story. “Well, if Charles was a vampire, did he even die, like Caleb?”
The Last Victim is named so in reference to the main character, Caleb. After becoming rich and using his power and influence to get his revenge, his decisions gradually cross into the gray area of questionable judgment. Not being particularly trained in morality or ethics, and being quite young, he chooses to bestow assistance to people or deal punishment as his whims dictate. In the end, one particular bad decision puts the life of another young boy in peril; and Caleb, finally seeing his folly, dies tragically in a fire to save the boy, who reminds him of his former innocent self, in a gallant attempt to redeem himself. Thus, he is his own “last victim”.
“A vampire would’ve survived that fire,” Alex challenges. “He would’ve been fast enough to save the boy and save himself.”
Ben’s expression changes and his voice fills with sorrow. “He did perish in the fire. He started it, and both him and the innocent boy died in it. The boy never made it out. Charles didn’t save him. He watched as the smoke claimed the boy and had no remorse. It was Lehmann who killed Charles, finally realizing he had lost control of his little pet. So you see, Charles didn’t die in the fire like Caleb did in the play, but he equally died because of it.”
Alex, temporarily forgetting this story can’t possibly be real, feels awful for the little boy who didn’t make it out of the fire. The play, despite being a tragedy, is generally liked because this one sweet innocent unnamed kid is saved.
“So it was all a lie?” he demands. “Saving the boy, Caleb’s sacrifice?”
Ben shrugs dejectedly. “The writer didn’t like the ending, so he wrote a different one.”
“Well, he shouldn’t have,” Alex says a bit angrily. “Everyone thinks Caleb was this great tragic hero. They all applaud him, and he was an asshole.”
“He was an asshole, but Lehmann loved him. He had turned Charles into a vampire because he wanted to spend an eternity with him. Lehmann felt guilty, thinking he should’ve taught Charles better, guided him better.” He sighs. “It was Lehmann who wrote the story.”
“Wait, what? Lehmann—Lawrence? He’s the author?” Alex tries to remember the writer’s name. He can think of the playwright, but not the original author.
“Wait.” The author of a real play and the vampire in a fictional story clashing in his confused brain is too much for Alex at the moment. He covers his eyes with a hand, trying to reassess. Of all the things that don’t make sense, the one question that comes out is, “How do you know all this?”
He asked the same question earlier, but in a whole different frame of mind. Disbelief back then, mostly. This time, he wants to know. This time is different.
This time, Ben replies honestly.
He looks into Alex’s eyes, deep into his soul, it feels like. And Alex immediately knows. It’s all true.
“Would you like to know … more?” Ben Morgan hops off the stage and extends his hand down to Alex.
I walked the dusty path that led to the family cemetery located beneath some spindly old cedar trees on the expansive property of the looming Eirewood Plantation. On my way, I stopped to eat a few of the tart bitter blackberries growing there and pondered on how I’d come to such a quiet place.
The sprawling white Greek Revival sat imposing in the sunlight. The tall, thick columns stood stately, supporting the two story gargantuan house while the rocking chairs on the front porch silently invited someone to relax and rock a spell,taking in the beauty of the Southern landscape. Though I had trekked some distance from the house, I could still see the majesty of the house patiently waiting for something, or maybe someone. It’s empty loneliness bothered me very little. At first sight, I was overcome with the feeling of having always been here, having belonged. Whatever the reason, this home was not alone anymore.
Three weeks ago, I received a letter in the mail requesting my presence at McAllister and McAllister Law Firm to claim an inheritance from an anonymous benefactor.
Upon meeting with them, Misters McAllister and McAllister led me to a polished long cherry table in what must have once been the dining room in the old Victorian house they’d converted into their law firm, and there over tall glasses of ice tea, they informed me that I’d inherited the two hundred year old house and the surrounding land that made up Eirewood Plantation from an absolute stranger. Despite my fervent attempt to refuse such a preposterous gift, the McAllisters presented me with the deed, already in my name, and bid me to have a good day.
Now, I stood somewhere between the hulking house and the graveyard filled with crumbling tombs all sporting the name “O’ Brady”, trying to figure out what I was going to do with this unasked for and unusual gift. Unaffected by my presence, a large, husky squirrel bounced from one oak tree to the next as if rejoicing at my arrival.
For a spring afternoon, it was a bit chilly beneath the shade of the trees, and just like the house, this piece of land had a feeling of waiting. A solitary rusted out shovel discarded by the old stone wall surrounding the graves solidified the feeling of a space frozen in time.
“Welcome to Eirewood, Ms. Endicott.” From behind one of the twisted oaks, stepped a nice-looking gentleman wearing light pants, a blue cutaway coat and holding a top hat that he’d just removed from his head in his hands.His cream colored silk cravat accentuated his dapper look. “I’ve been waiting for you to return.”
Startled by his unannounced presence, I took a step back from him but not before I noticed his uniquely light colored eyes. The color of frozen ice, just barely blue, they were visible even in the dappled afternoon light.
“Thank you. Wait, return? I’m sorry, Sir, but I have never been here,” I insisted then introduced myself. “You may call me Eilene I have recently acquired Eirewood Plantation, so I’ve come to see what it’s all about.”
The man moved closer to me. His handsome looks struck a chord in my heart, a memory I couldn’t quite grasp, even if his clothing and manners were two hundred years out-of-date. Perhaps he was here for one of those reenactments I’d heard about history buffs having. Either way, something about his demeanor drew me towards him. My fingers tingled, itching to reach out and touch this mysterious stranger.
“Eilene,” He said my name slowly as if he was savoring his favorite sound. “Then you may call me Jonathan. I’m Jonathan O’Brady.”
“O’Brady?” I recalled the names on the tombstones just behind Jonathan, and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. The intensity he watched me with was unnerving and somewhat alluring. There was just something about him, something I couldn’t exactly put my finger on. “Jonathan, are you kin to the people who owned this house? Do you know why the previous owners would leave it to me?”
“You kept your promise,” was his reply. “You vowed that you’d return, that not even death could keep us apart.”
My heart sped up as I processed this stranger’s words. “You have me confused with someone else.”
“Oh?” Jonathan offered his hand to me. “Then let me show you, my love.”
I should have ran off, gotten away as fast I could and called the cops on this crazy anachronistic man. Instead, without any hesitation at all, I rested my hand in the crook of his offered arm and allowed him to guide me back into the shaded cemetery. We weaved around graves, one O’Brady after another, until we reached a battered Celtic cross. At the base was the epitaphs and memories of two.
Eilene O’Brady Jonathan O’Brady Born April 30, 1832 Born November 1 1825 Died May 14 1862 Died May 14 1862 Eternally Yours
Something in my subconscious stirred, awakening memories of someone else’s life, promises made by a woman I was not. I should have fled. I should have gotten away as fast as I could. I didn’t know what this man was trying to pull, but I wanted no part of it.
Then I made the mistake of looking up from the tomb into Jonathan’s love-filled eyes. Within their pale depths, I saw that he, too, had been waiting. Just like the house and this land, he had been waiting for his love from an old age long gone to begin again-new.
Setting sun trickled through colored glass, illuminating mirrored letters behind the bar until LEGENDS sparkled like lost gold from an enchanted city. The bartender brazenly whistled off key and polished curved mahogany with a vintage rag. According to the calendar, autumn was still two weeks away but last night he felt “it” for the first time this year. That fleeting bite of a rogue breeze and rustle of dying leaves followed by a whiff of fragrant firewood. His favorite season was right around the corner—exciting and bittersweet—ruthless and glorious, all at the same time. Baseball was more than a game; it was a way of life that lasted from February all the way through October. Only one team would win their final contest and then silence would descend until next season.
Behind the bar, numbered beer mugs hung from pegs. The bartender glanced over his shoulder at a still empty parking lot and picked out the prized #7 and #42 mugs for two regulars who would arrive first. Always gleeful Yankees fans. Grumpy Boston #34 would be close behind followed by perpetually hopeful Mets #31. A lucky few would be in attendance at the big ballparks in October. The rest would be on bar stools watching their teams pack up lockers and lug golf clubs through private airports while arch rivals padded win-loss records and secured coveted home-field advantage.
The bartender eyeballed bottles of top shelf bourbon—the perfect elixir to calm nerves that would be frayed moments after the roar of the pre-game flyover faded. As players waxed poetic about fan appreciation and stadium acoustics, experts sounded alarm bells over statistics and injuries. Lifetime baseball addicts agonized over traveling ghosts and whether the powers of aura and mystique would be making a nightly appearance. Despite all the famous curses being broken, from The Bambino to The Billy Goat, dread of the jinx never really vanished, it merely slunk into the shadows ready for ambush on a supremely pivotal play. Innings would crawl by, pitch by agonizing pitch, unless the home team was losing of course…then it seemed to get late early. A wise quote from a true legend so many years ago.
Outside, music blared and tires screeched to a stop on loose gravel. The bartender waited for the door to slam open before he shouted. “Most important pitch of the game?”
“Strike One.” Mug #42 tossed her auburn hair back and slid into her usual seat. “Most exciting two words in sports?”
The bartender picked up the TV remote and grinned. “Game Seven.”
October 18, 2003…2 nights after the Game Seven, Aaron Boone home run…