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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Encounters, Inc. Part 2 of 2

       Begin with part 1.
The way it’s going to go down is that some detective will show up at the local headquarters of Marcus’s phone service provider, produce the necessary documents—or the proper dose of intimidation—and in return receive a stack of paper or a digital file listing the numbers of every call and text sent both to and from his phone. The detective will see that my own number appears in connection with the ill-fated outing enough times to warrant bringing me in for questioning. So now I’m wondering for the first time in my life if I have what it takes to lie to police detectives. Does a town like Fort Wayne employ expert interrogators? Of course, if I happen to have mentioned the murder in any of the texts, I can’t very well claim I didn’t know about it. Maybe I should call a lawyer—but if I do that before the detective knocks on my door I’ll have established for everyone that I’m at least guilty of something.

Then there are the emails, where we conducted most of our business. If the NSA can get into emails, it can’t be that difficult for the FWPD to do it. But will they be admissible? If not, do they point the way to any other evidence that is? Just to be safe, it’s probably time to go in and delete all of Marcus’s messages in my inbox—not that it will do much good, not that it will make me feel much better.

Hey Jim,

I love your ideas for the website, esp the one about a section for all the local lore by region—the stuff about how you cross this bridge in your car and turn off your lights to see the ghost of some lady (Lagrange?), or look over the side of the bridge and say some name three times and the eyes appear in the water (Huntertown?). People love that kind of stuff. It may not appeal to grownups as much, but we can still use it to drive traffic—or hell we could even sell the ebooks like you suggest.

You may be getting carried away with the all independent publishing stuff tho. I’m not sure, but it sounds like it’s just getting too far afield, you know? Let’s just say you haven’t sold me on it yet. Is there some way you can tie it all together? My concern is that if we start pushing out fiction it will detract from the… what’s the word? Authenticity? The authenticity of the experiences we’re providing our clients. I don’t know—tell me more about your vision for how this would work.

Anyway, love the dream stuff. You’re cranking this stuff out faster than I could’ve anticipated. One thing—and I’m very serious here—don’t go down there. Don’t go anywhere near the base of the Thieme Overlook. I’ll just say you don’t have all the details, don’t know the whole story yet. Patience my man.


Lol. Well, I’m glad you didn’t come to any harm on your little trek down to the Saint Mary’s. That’s all I’ll say about it for now—except you’ll just have to trust me that there not being anything down there doesn’t mean we don’t have a story. You’ve obviously caught the inquisitive bug that’s going around. But I have to say we should probably respect Tom’s wishes and leave Ashley out of it. Let’s focus on the ghost story and not get too carried away with the sleuthing. Besides, you need to have something ready in just a couple weeks for our first outing.

As far as the final details of the story go—I believe Tom might be eager to do some further unburdening.

I had a hard time accepting that Ashley would do anything as outright sadistic as she’d done that night when she provoked those two men—not without giving Tom at least some indication of what had prompted her to do it. Again and again, he swore he really didn’t know what could’ve motivated her, but as I kept pressing him, throwing out my own attempted explanations one after the other, his dismissals began to converge on a single new most likely explanation. “It was like when I yelled at her that same night,” he said. “I always got this sense that she was slightly threatened by me. I’m pretty opinionated and outspoken—and I’m nothing like the people she and I both used to work with at the restaurants.”

Tom had the rare distinction among his classmates in the MBA program of being a fervent liberal. His views had begun to take shape as early as his undergrad years, when he absorbed the attitude toward religion and so-called family values popular among campus intellectuals. The farther he moved ideologically from the Catholicism he was raised to believe, the more resentful he became of Christianity and religion in general. “It’s too complicated to go into now,” he told me. “But it was like I was realizing that what was supposed to be the source of all morality was in reality fundamentally immoral—hypocritical to the core. You know, what’s all this nonsense about Jesus being tortured and executed because Eve ate some damn apple—this horrible crime you’re somehow still guilty of even if you were born thousands of years after it all happened? I mean, it’s completely insane.”

The economic side to Tom’s political leanings was shaped by his experiences with a woman he’d oscillated between dating and being friends with going all the way back to his sophomore year in high school. In her early twenties, she started having severe pain during her periods. It got so bad on a few occasions that it landed her in the ER. She ended up being treated for endometriosis, and to this day (Tom had spoken to her as recently as a month and half before she came up in our interview) her ability to conceive is in doubt. The ordeal lasted for over a year and half, which would have been bad enough, but at the time it began she had just been kicked off her dad’s insurance coverage. Try as she might, it wouldn’t be until five years later, after she’d been forced to declare bankruptcy—and after Tom had devoted a substantial chunk of his own student loans to helping her—that she’d finally have health insurance again. “It’s inhuman,” Tom said. “Tell me, how does supply-and-demand work with healthcare? What’s the demand? Not wanting to die? And how the hell does fucking personal responsibility come into the equation? Do republicans really think they can will themselves healthy?”

Over the course of all the presidential and midterm elections that resulted in Obamacare becoming the law of the land, Tom acquired a reputation as someone to be avoided, particularly if you were a conservative—or maybe I should say particularly if you were only halfheartedly political. And it wasn’t just healthcare. He was known to have brought people to tears in debates over economic inequality, racial profiling, education reform, wage gaps between men and women, whites and minorities, corporatism, plutocracy, white warlike men wearing the mantle of righteousness as they persisted in wielding their unwarranted power—just in ever more subtle and devious ways. Even though I, your humble narrator, voiced no opposition to his charged declamations, he still managed to make me slightly uneasy. I could even see a type of perverse logic in the way Ashley expressed her exasperation, forcing this saintly advocate for all things rational and humane to kick the shit out of a couple white trash wastoids.

It was a lesson for me in the power of circumstance over personality—he’d originally struck me as so humble and mindfully soft-spoken, or perhaps simply restrained—and it set my mind to work disentangling the various threads of his character: fascinated with combat sports but loath to do harm, a marketer with an MBA who rants about the evils of capitalism, a champion for the cause of women and minorities who gives no indication of having a clue when it comes to either. I even weighed the possibility that he may have been less than forthright with me, and with himself, when he spoke of having no blood in his eye. Had he just been trying to prove something?

On the same night he told me the story of the two men who’d attacked him and Ashley outside Henry’s, Tom told me about another encounter he’d had a year earlier that could also have ended in violence. He was clearly trying to prevent an impression of him as a violent man from becoming cemented in my mind, and he was at the same time emphasizing just how impossible it was to figure out what Ashley ever really wanted from him. But it came to mind after I made the discovery about his ardently fractious inclinations as possibly holding some key to his paradoxical character.

Tom and Ashley had walked from West Central to the Three-Rivers Natural Food Co-op and Deli (which they referred to affectionately as “The Coop”) for lunch on a sweltering summer afternoon. As he stood in line to order their sandwiches, he let his eyes wander idly around until they lit on those of another man who appeared to be letting his own eyes wander in the same fashion. Tom gave a nod and turned back to face the counter and the person in front of him in line. But the eye contact hadn’t been purely coincidental; after a moment, the man was sidling up and offhandedly inquiring whether Tom would be willing to buy him a pack of cigarettes. Tom leaned back and laughed through his nose. “What’s so funny?” the man asked, making a performance of his indignation. After Tom explained that they were standing in a health food store that most certainly didn’t sell cigarettes, the man said, “You can still help me out with a couple bucks” in a tone conveying his insufferable grievance.

Ashley appeared beside Tom just as he was saying, “I’ll buy you a sandwich or something, but I’m not giving you any money.” She was either already annoyed by something else, or became so immediately upon hearing him, making him wonder if the offer of the sandwich had been inadvisable, or if maybe he hadn’t rebuffed the supplication with enough force.

“I don’t need no damn sandwich,” the man said, making an even bigger production of how offended he was. He stood watching Tom for several beats before wandering off in a silent huff, like a chided but defiant child appalled by his mother’s impudence in disciplining him.  

By the time he was sitting down on the steel mesh chair across from Ashley at one of the Coop’s patio tables, Tom had decided the man was an experienced, though unskillful, grifter. A middle-aged African American, he’d planned to take advantage of Tom’s liberal eagerness to buddy up with any black guy. When that failed, he did his enactment of taking offense, so Tom might feel obliged and be so gracious as to make monetary amends. Finally, he must’ve considered making a scene but considered it unlikely to do any good now that Tom was stubbornly set on giving him the brush off. Ashley and Tom hadn’t even finished unwrapping their sandwiches when the guy emerged through the glass doors, walked a few steps to the bike rack on the sidewalk, and half-stood, half-sat with one leg resting atop the frame, glaring at Tom as he drank Sprite from its gleaming green bottle in tiny sips. So now the goal has shifted, Tom thought, to saving face.

The guy had a film on his skin that, along with the trickling sweat, evoked in Tom’s mind an image of rain misting in through a carelessly unclosed window onto a dusty finished-wood surface. His clothes looked as though they hadn’t been washed—or even removed—in weeks. With little more than a nudge, Tom figured he could knock the guy off the bike rack, his spindly legs having no chance of finding their way beneath him in time to keep him from landing on his face. Could he have a weapon? Tom considered his waxy eyes. Even if the guy has a gun or a knife, he reasoned, he wouldn’t be able to get to it in time to stop me from bouncing his head off the parking lot. Assured that the guy had no chance of winning a fight, Tom gave up the idea of fighting him. So the guy stayed there staring at the couple almost the whole time they were eating their lunch. As annoyed as Tom was, he was prepared to dismiss it all as a simple misfortune.

But that evening Ashley let him know she didn’t like how he’d handled it.

“What do you think I should have done?”

“I don’t know. I just didn’t like the way you handled it.”  

            “What I loved most about being with Ashley,” Tom said to me, “was there was always this sense that whatever we came across or encountered together held some special fascination for us. One of the first times I had the thought that things might be getting serious between us was when she took me to visit her grandmother up in… Ah, but you know, I’m going keep her personal details out of this I think. I’ll just say there was this feeling I had—like we were both kind of fusing or intertwining our life stories together. We would go on these walks that would end up lasting all day and take us miles and miles from where we started, and we’d never run out of things to talk about, and every little thing we saw seemed important because it automatically became part of the stories we were weaving together.”

            When Tom and Ashley had been together for a couple of months, soon after the visit to her grandmother, he drove her to Union Chapel Road, in what had until recently been the northernmost part of the city, to show her the house he’d lived in for years and years, the place where he said he felt like he’d really become the man he was. After parking on a street in Burning Tree, the neighborhood whose entrance lies only a few dozen yards from his old driveway, they went for one of those walks, heading east on Union Chapel, the same way Tom used to go when embarking on one of his routine runs down to Metea Park and back, a circuit of about nine and half miles. Already by the time he was introducing the area to Ashley, he knew they would encounter a lot of construction and new housing developments once they crossed the bridge over Interstate 69. But he wasn’t sure if the one thing he most wanted to show her would still be there.

            The area across from his old house had long since been developed, but once you crossed Auburn Road you saw nothing but driveways leading to single residences on either side of the road all the way up the rise to the bridge. On the other side of 69, Tom used to see open expanses of old farmland, but the steady march of development was moving west from Tonkel Road back toward the interstate. Back in the days of his runs, just down the slope on the west side of the bridge, a line of pine trees would come into view beginning on the left side of Union Chapel and heading north. “I ran past it for years and never really noticed it much,” Tom said. “I always go into these trances when I’m running. I think I may have even realized it was a driveway only long after my run one day, when I was back home doing something else.”

            The pines, he would discover, ran along both sides of a gravel drive that took you about a quarter mile up a rise into the old farmland and then split apart to form the base of an enclosed square. “It’s the oddest looking thing, right in the middle of all this open space at the top of a hill you almost can’t see for all the weeds. I can’t believe how many times I just ran right by it and never really thought about how weird it was.” In the middle of the square stood an old two-story house, white with gray splotches, and what used to be a lawn now overtaken by the relentlessly encroaching weeds. Tom had finally decided to turn into the drive one day while on his way back from Metea, and ended up remembering it ever since, even though he never returned—not until the day he walked there with Ashley.

As August was coming to an end that year, Tom had begun to feel a nostalgic longing, not for the classes and schoolwork he’d been so relieved to be done with forever just the year before, but for the anticipation of that abstract sense of personal expansion, the promise every upcoming semester holds for new faces, new books, new journeys. As long as you’re in school, you feel you’re working toward something; your life has a gratifying undercurrent of steady improvement, of progress along the path toward some meaningful goal. Outside of school, as Tom was discovering, every job you start, every habit you allow yourself to carry on, pretty much everything you do comes with the added weight of contemplating that this is what your life is and this is what your life is always going to be—a flat line.

            Back in June of that year, the woman Tom had been in an on-again-off-again relationship with almost his entire adolescent and adult life, the one whose health issues had forced to declare bankruptcy, had moved to Charlotte to live with her mom and little sister. He wanted to see his freshly unattached and unencumbered life as at long last open to the infinite opportunity he’d associated in his mind with adulthood for as long as he could remember, the blank canvas for the masterpiece he would make of his own biography. Instead, all summer he’d been oppressed by incessant misgivings, a paralytic foreboding sense of already knowing exactly where all the paths open before him ultimately led.

It was on a day when this foreboding weighed on him with a runaway self-feeding intensity that Tom determined to go for his customary run despite the forecasted rain. By the time he’d made it all the way to Metea and more than halfway back, finding himself near the entrance of the remarkable but long unremarked tree-lined driveway, after having been all the while in a blind trance more like a dreamless sleep than the meditative nirvana he’d been counting on, he was having hitches in his breath, as if he were on the verge of breaking into sobs. The sky had gone from that rich glassy blue that heralds early fall to an oppressively overcast gray more reminiscent of deepest summer, the air ominously swelling with a heavy pressurized dankness that crowded out all the oxygen and clung to Tom’s chilled and sweat-drenched shoulders in a way that made him feel as though the skin there had been perforated to allow his watery innards to seep upward in a hopeless effort to evaporate. It was a sensation indistinguishable from his thwarted urge to escape this body of his he knew too well, along with the world and everything in it.

Turning into the drive, he maintained his stride and continued running until he was about halfway up the rise, where he surprised himself by pulling back against the rolling momentum of his legs and feet, tamping down the charged fury of his pace, until his numbly agitated legs were carrying him along with harshly chastened steps. “As I walked up to the house, I wondered what the story of the people who’d lived there was. And, seeing how rundown everything was, how the weeds were growing up all over the place, you know, it was just like, what does it even matter at this point what happened here? I had actually thought about showing the house to some of my friends, like one of those old spooky houses you’re fascinated with when you’re a kid. But, I don’t know, somehow it got folded into my mood, and all I saw was a place someone had probably loved that had gone to seed.”

Having lost all interest in further exploring the place, Tom was gearing up to start running again once he reached the end of the driveway. But just when he was about to turn back something caught his eye. “I remember telling Ashley about it as we were walking along the bridge over I-69 because she gave me this weird look. See, I explained that the flowers looked like some you see all the time in late summer and early fall. But whenever I’d seen them before they were always purple. These ones, I told her, were ‘as blue as the virgin’s veil.’ We’re both pretty anti-religion, so she thought the comparison was a bit suspicious. I had to assure her it was just an expression, that I wasn’t lapsing back into my childhood Catholicism or anything. To this day, I have no idea why that particular image popped into my head.”

Sure enough, when Tom returned that day years later with Ashley, the tree-lined drive, the graying house, and the blue wildflowers were all there just as he remembered them. Ashley recognized the species at a glance: “They’re actually called blue lobelias, but you’re right—they’re usually much closer to purple than blue.” Tom went on to recount how when he’d first discovered these three clusters near the head of the driveway he’d been feeling as though his whole body, his whole life, had somehow turned into a rickety old husk he had to drag around every waking hour. Setting out for his run that day, he’d experienced an upwelling of his longing to break out of it—to free himself. The heaviness of the atmosphere and the sight of the house only made it worse though. He’d felt like he was suffocating. When he saw the lobelias, it was at first simply a matter of thinking they looked unusual. But after squatting down for a closer look he stood up and took this gulping breath deep into the lowermost regions of his lungs.

“It was like I was drinking something in, like I no longer needed to escape because my body was being reinvigorated. All that dead weight was coming back to life. The change was so abrupt—I couldn’t have been in that yard for more than a few minutes—but I ended up running the rest of the way home with the cleared head I’d set out for in the first place. Even more than that, though, I experienced a sense of renewal that brought me out of the funk I’d been sunk in for weeks. It was only a few weeks later that I started working at the restaurant.

“Oh, and I can’t leave out how the rain began to fall just as I was within a hundred feet of the driveway at my own house.”

It was after conducting the interview about the old house on Union Chapel that I first started thinking about pulling out of Marcus’s haunted house business. Was I doing all this work for a story about a house that wouldn’t even be there six months from now? As far as knew, construction had already begun on a junction connecting Union Chapel with I-69. Hadn’t Marcus thought to consult with any locals about the location? And how would using the story for some other location affect the “authenticity” he was so concerned with? But the bigger issue was that, while I didn’t yet know the whole story, I was getting the impression it wasn’t really over—and now I was smack-dab in the middle of it. Looking Marcus up on LinkedIn again, I found that since the time he’d first contacted me, which was apparently only about a month after he moved to Fort Wayne from Terra Haute, he’d opened, ironically enough, his own coffee shop on Wells Street.

Back when he’d told me about the money he had saved up for his business venture, I imagined him sitting on a big pile of cash which would allow him to devote all his time to it. Now I was thinking that the whole endeavor, for all his high-wattage salesmanship, could only be a measly side project of his. Yet I was getting all these emails urging me to hurry up and get the story ready to send to all the people who’d already signed up for the first outing the weekend before Halloween. And then there were all the questions surrounding Tom and how he’d ended up coming into Marcus’s ambit. Tom had given us his consent to use his story, his sharing of which I had interpreted as an attempt at unburdening himself, to make of me and Marcus his surrogate confessors. But now I was no longer sure that what Marcus and I were doing met the strictest Capitalism 2.0 standards. I kept asking myself as I listened to the recordings, am I making myself complicit in some kind of exploitation? Should I be doing something more to help Tom—instead of trying to make money off of him?

In the days after Ashley broke up with Tom, as he settled into the new apartment by himself, he went nearly mad from lack of sleep. No sooner would he lie down and close his eyes than he would be wracked with jealous anxiety powered by images of Ashley with myriad other men he couldn’t help suspecting were the real motivation behind her decision to abandon him. The searing blade of his kicked-in rib, which flared up as if trying to tear free of his body whenever he lay flat or attempted to roll from one side to the other, robbed him of what little of the night’s sleep was left after the jealous heartbreak had taken its share. Desperate, he contacted an old friend from Munchies who came through for him with some mind-bogglingly potent weed. Over the next week, Tom managed to get plenty of sleep, and mysteriously managed as well to gain seven pounds.

One Sunday, Tom heard a knock on his apartment door, which meant one of his neighbors from the three other apartments in the house wanted something. When he opened the door to a tall, very dark-complexioned black man, he couldn’t conceal his surprise. “It’s okay my friend,” the visitor said with a heavy-consonanted accent Tom couldn’t place. “I’m Sara’s boyfriend—from across the hall.” Tom introduced himself and offered his hand. The man’s name was Luca or Lucas, and Tom would later learn that he’d come from the Dominican Republic or Haiti as a high school student, a move that was undertaken under the auspices of the Fort Wayne diocese of the Catholic church. “I noticed the smell of marijuana coming from your apartment the other night and I was wondering if you’d be willing to sell me a small amount.”

Tom gave Lucas all the weed he still had gratis. He would recount to his landlord two days later the story of how he’d been startled by the big black guy knocking on his door (without of course revealing the reason behind the visit), and in return hear what little the landlord knew about him, but, aside from that, he thought nothing further about it—until the following Sunday when he heard another knock on his door. Impatient, Tom opened the door prepared to explain that he had no more weed and didn’t know Lucas well enough to give him his source’s contact information. But Lucas barely let him open the door fully before thrusting a small green pouch into his chest. “Just a little thank you my friend. You’ll only get a couple of hits from that, but trust me. Save it for when you have no work in the morning.” Tom was ready to refuse the gift, but Lucas withdrew his hand and rushed downstairs and out the front door of the house so quickly all he had time to shout after him was thanks. It turned out Lucas and Sara had just broken up. That was the last Tom ever saw of him.

            Marcus’s coffee shop was smaller and more dimly lit than Old Crown, but it had a certain undeniable charm. When I got there at a little after four in the afternoon, the place was completely empty except for the two young women working the counter. I asked the taller of the two if Marcus was around, but she responded by casting a worried look at her coworker. They both looked to be in their early to mid-twenties, and they were both strikingly attractive in a breezily unkempt sort of way. The shorter one seemed the sharper of the two, exuding a type of evaluating authority, sizing me up, silently challenging me to convince her I was worth the moment of her attention I had requested. Most restaurants and shops like this have a matriarch or two who are counted on to really run the place, the all-but-invariably male general manager’s official title notwithstanding. I guessed I was looking at just such a matriarch—and I suspected she might be romantically linked to Marcus too, an intuition I couldn’t rationally support, except perhaps by pointing to her seeming defensiveness at mention of his name. “No, he’s not in,” she said. “Is there anything we can help you with?”

            I told her I was a friend and had learned about the coffee shop from Marcus’s LinkedIn profile, but leaving a message or even giving my name would be unnecessary. “I’m sure I’ll be back sometime.” I quickly scanned the chalkboard menu on the wall behind her for something to order, hoping to distract her enough to ward off any further questions. “Could I have a pumpkin spice latte please?” I browsed around while the taller barista made my latte and the shorter one returned to what she’d been doing before I arrived—it looked like she was reading from something concealed behind the counter, a book or a magazine perhaps. I constructed an image of her and a sense of her bearing over the course of several nonchalant sweeps of my eyes. She had what the guys in my circle call a monster face: rounded cheeks that lift high on her smoothly protrusive cheekbones when she smiles, pushing her outsize eyes into squinting crescents, a tiny chin topped by an amazingly expandable and dynamic press of lips. As pretty as she was, her face, especially when she smiled, bore the slightest resemblance to the Grinch’s. All in all, she seemed to have a big and formidable personality animating her small, even dainty body. I could see why Marcus would like her.

            I took my latte over to a couch and set it on a coffee table so I could remove my laptop from my backpack and do some editing for the writing project you’re currently reading. Taking a moment to acknowledge the pumpkin spice’s justifiedly much-touted powers of evocation, I scanned line after line, simultaneously wondering how much Cute Monster Face knew about Marcus’s side venture. I realized that I couldn’t enquire after it though because I was worried about the legal ramifications if Tom’s deed came to light. And that realization transformed quickly into frustration with Marcus for getting me involved without properly disclosing the crucial details of what I was getting involved in. After finishing, as I stepped outside onto the sidewalk running along Wells Street, I considered going back in and penning a message:

I don’t appreciate you getting me tangled up in your shady operation. I’m out.

But I decided against it because I thought I should be fair and wait until I knew the rest of the story. It would be pretty low of me to leave him high-and-dry this close to the event. And, I admit it, I was just too damn curious about what had happened to Tom, and too damn curious as well about how Marcus’s endeavor would pan out. I went home and prepared for what would be my second-to-last interview with Tom.

“I’ve heard so many times about how I supposedly like to bully people,” Tom was telling me. “But I’ll never forget the feeling of my knuckles hacking into the flesh right behind that guy’s jaw. It all happened so fast with the two guys outside Henry’s, like it was over before I knew what was happening. With this guy, though—I’d been thinking about Ashley, about how much she misunderstood me, and how she of all people should’ve been able to see past what on the surface probably did look like bullying. I admit it. But that’s not what it was. That’s not ever what it was. Then I started wondering who she might be with at that same moment—I couldn’t help it. You know, you’re mind just sort of goes there no matter how hard you try to rein it in. I had all this rage surging up. All the streetlamps are leaving these slow-motion trails, my heart is banging on my ribs like some rabid ape trying to break out of its damn cage, and I keep closing my eyes—and it’s happening right in front of me. Ashley and some guy. Then I smelled somebody’s menthol cigarette—that’s when I opened my eyes.”

            It had begun one evening in June while Tom was out for one of his nightly walks in West Central. What he found most soothing about these listless meanderings of his was being able to look straight up into the sky and see nothing but endless blue, an incomprehensible vastness the mere recognition of which created a sensation like an upward pull, as if the sheer immensity of the emptiness inhered with its own vacuuming force to counter the gravity of the solid earth. He liked going out when the drop in temperature could be most dramatically felt, when the vibrant azure of the day faded before his eyes to the darker, richer, fathomless hues of twilight—the airy insubstantial sea of white-cast blue drawn out through the gracelessly mended seam of the western horizon, a submerged wound which never heals and daily reopens to spill its irradiated blood into the coursing streams of air as they seep out over the edge of the world. Tom, stopping at the overlook each day for weeks to watch the molten pinks and oranges and startling crimsons bleed away the day’s final residue, was always surprised to be the only one in attendance.

            But one night as he stood resting his elbows on the concrete railing he heard someone addressing him. “You guna jump?” Tom looked back over his shoulder without bothering to stand up from his leaning position and saw a heavy-set man with a bushy mess of a goatee waiting for an answer on the sidewalk behind him. He was shortish and had the look of a walking barrel. “He looked,” in Tom’s words, “quite a bit like Tank Abbott from some of the earlier UFCs.” Seeing that no one else was around for the man to be addressing, Tom turned and said, “Probably not today.”

            “Oh, well, I think you should,” the man said, taking a couple of steps forward. He had a backpack slung over one shoulder and looked to be returning from work somewhere on the other side of the river.

            Tom was reticent but couldn’t help asking, “Yeah, why is that?”

            “Well, you’re probably thinking maybe things will be better tomorrow. But it doesn’t work that way as far as I know. Tomorrow, you’ll still be just as much of a faggot.”

            Tom leaned back, resting both elbows on the rail, and leveled a steady glare at the man as he affected the profoundest boredom. The walking barrel responded by leaning slightly to the side and spitting on the ground between them. Then he continued walking down Thieme, leaving Tom free to wonder what had prompted the insult. His first thought was that this man might know one or both of the two guys he’d beat up that night after leaving Henry’s. But if that were the case he probably would’ve gone further than calling him a faggot. Tom figured it was just one of those things, and set to trying to push it out of his mind. He’d noted the knife clipped to the outside of the man’s right pants pocket, and he reasoned that since he was alone and hence not putting on a show for anyone, his goad must have been a genuine invitation to fight. Tom would have to watch out for him in the future.

            But, as was his wont, Tom had gone into one of his walking trances some minutes before he encountered the barrel a second time. It was later that same week, which made Tom realize afterward that he could probably avoid further encounters by heading out for his walks at a different time of night. This second meeting had them crossing each other’s paths as they headed in opposite directions on the sidewalk along Thieme. “What’s up, faggot?” the barrel called out in greeting. Emerging instantly from his trance, Tom glared back at him. When they were face to face, within striking distance, the man jerked forward with his shoulders, trying to trick Tom into reacting as if he were lunging at him. Tom indeed turned sideways into a subtle crouch, flinching, which produced a broad self-amused grin on the barrel’s scraggly, egg-shaped face. “See you tomorrow faggot,” he said continuing past.

The barrel thus began haunting Tom while he was still very much alive, in the way that all men are haunted by insults they fail to, or choose not to redress. His strategy of avoidance felt like a breed of forced effacement, a step toward submission. He was going out later, missing the crepuscular displays over the treetops on the facing side of the Saint Mary’s, returning to his apartment just before going to bed, aggravating his already too wakeful condition. Every time he rounded the corner from Wayne Street onto Thieme Drive, Tom felt like he was stepping onto a sidewalk in a completely different city. Some evenings, he could even close his eyes and reopen them on an entirely different world. Behind the line of trees across the street, there was a type of void, a pressurized humming emptiness hovering over the imperceptibly slow-coursing river separating his neighborhood from the motley houses beyond the opposite bank. You could often hear the throb of bass in the distance, faraway rhythmical percussions made to seem primitive or otherworldly, catch whiffs of smoke from far-off bonfires, or pick up the tail end of some couple’s shouting match. It all resonated through that strange hollow space framed by the trees on each facing bank, making it seem somehow closer and at the same time farther away.

            The old sycamores and random oaks along the walk, compared to all the other new-growth trees in the city, seemed prehistorically gargantuan, their branches reaching up like monstrous undulating tendrils toward the firmament of a world in which no human rightly belongs, at least not one whose flesh has been scoured under gas-heated water, who dons fabrics composed of meticulously complex fibers weekly cleansed in a chemically stewed machine vortex. Bats lurched and dived to snatch unseen prey, crowding the air with hectic, predatory pursuits which mirrored and amplified the groping chaotic alarm of Tom’s most desperately savage thoughts. Into July, he was becoming increasingly frazzled and gnawed at, beset from all sides by silent curses and unvoiced hatreds.

            Then one Friday he saw Ashley at Henry’s with a group of people he didn’t know, a group which included no less than three men who each might’ve been the one who served as his replacement. They played polite, but Tom told the friends he’d arrived with he was feeling ill and excused himself. Walking back to his apartment, he felt his soul building up the volatile force to explode out of his body through a howling roar whose rippling shockwave would shatter every building and house for miles around him, wipe the slate of the earth clean of this taint permeating his existence down to each individual blood cell and neuron. Up the stairs and through his door, he collapsed to his hands and knees, sowing half-imaginary, half-planned destruction on every object his eyes lit upon: the couch that used to be hers, the picture she’d given him as a birthday gift, the old-fashioned TV she used to tease him about. The wooden shelf beside the door, where he dropped his keys and his wallet when returning home—the middle shelf he never used, with forgotten odds and ends, and the little green pouch his friend from the island of Hispaniola had given him as thanks.

            “I don’t know if it was just the state I was in before I smoked it, or if the shit was laced with something,” Tom said. By the time he was taking the second of three hits, he knew he had to get outside. “I was queasy, claustrophobic. Every time I moved my eyes the light and colors would streak. I thought I should sit still and try not to move, but it was like my skin was on fire. Now it’s hard to remember what actually happened—I don’t remember leaving the house, or where I went at first. I remember turning onto Thieme and stepping into this alien world, this jungle hell that shouted back in flames at every shouting thought in my head. And I wanted to burn. I wanted to be flayed. I needed something to sever my mind from the fucking sinkhole it was trapped in—no matter where I went I was still back in Henry’s, in her apartment, in some guy’s apartment. No matter where I went Ashley was fucking some guy right in front of me.

            “I smelled his cigarette before I saw him. He probably called me a faggot, but if he did I never heard it. I turned and saw him sitting there on that step. Though all I could really see was the orange light of his cigarette. I think I would’ve just walked past him if my eyes hadn’t locked on it, glowing, swaying, bouncing along with the words I never heard. I must’ve walked right up to him. Then he lunged, thrusting his face at me like he’d done before, trying to get me to flinch. Only I didn’t see his face. I saw something more like a bat’s face, something like an African tribal mask. I saw something with blue and red teeth like broken shards of stained glass trying to bite me, to devour me. I was so charged up with rage, and now with fear, and he was coming up from his sitting position. I came down with a right cross, my whole body twisting, all my weight. I probably smashed his jaw with that first punch. But what I saw was this bat’s face with the shards of stained glass for teeth still trying to bite my face off.

            “I remember a lot of pulling and dragging. And I remember pummeling him in the middle of the street, bouncing his head off the pavement. I kept at it because I was sure somehow that I couldn’t really hurt him. I thought I heard him cackling even after his body had gone limp. It made me think it was all part of some trick he was playing on me—and it was infuriating. When my mind first started to clear, when I looked down and saw the guy—the walking barrel—with his face staved in, we were near the overlook. I knew he was dead. He had to be. But then I heard the fucking cackling again—and it scared the hell out of me. I dragged him to the bank and rolled him down, staying long enough to see his body come to rest at the base of the monument just on the edge of the retaining wall. And I ran.”

            The lobelias were the last piece of the puzzle—or maybe the second to last. Tom had no faith in the law to expiate his sin. He needed to enact some form of penance, and he believed his demon-haunted dreams were guiding him toward it. “I drove my car over there in the middle of the afternoon, in broad fucking daylight. I figured the whole point was to sort of bring what I had done to light, so if someone saw me and called the police, well, so be it. I popped open the hatchback, took a breath, and went down the bank. I was still holding out the hope that I had hallucinated the whole thing. But there he was, rotting, covered in maggots and swirling flies. But you could still see what I’d done, how I’d smashed in his face. I’m afraid that I’ll be seeing that face every time I close my eyes until the day I die. And the smell… I can’t even look at meat anymore. The smell of fish makes me retch.”

            Tom overmastered his repulsion, leaned down over the corpse, and returned to an upright position with it clasp to his chest, surprised by its lightness, by how much flesh had already rotted away. He hoisted one of the perfectly supple dead arms up and twisted under it. He gripped the wrist of the arm thus draped over his shoulder and began the trudge back up the bank. Midway into the climb, the body no longer seemed so light, and his recently mended rib began to prick again. Sweating, panting, wincing against the pain in his side and the stench of putrescence and shit, Tom crested the bank, paused for a breath, and continued toward the passenger side of his car—having decided against using the hatch. He fumbled with the door, and then made a ramp of his body down which the dead one slid into the passenger seat. After making some final adjustments, he belted in the proof of his crime—upright for anyone to see who cared to look.

            Tom walked back to close the hatch, stood for a moment considering the gore spattered and smeared all over his clothes, and then went to the driver’s side door, got in, started the car, and drove away. No one saw him. He made the twenty-minute drive to the north side of town with the raw meat of the walking barrel’s face variously propped and bouncing against the window across from him, made the drive without incident. “I kept having to reach over and keep it from pitching forward, or from rolling over onto me. I thought for sure it was only a matter of time until I heard sirens. But I just kept driving, putting it in fate’s hands. The risk was part of the punishment I guess. Even when I pulled off to the side of the road to vomit, though, no one seemed to care much. I made it all the way to Union Chapel and into the tree-lined driveway without noticing anyone even looking at us funny.”
            I met Tom the week after he’d buried the walking barrel’s body beside the cluster of blue lobelias at the head of the driveway to the old abandoned house on Union Chapel. I tried to work out the timeline. I’d met Marcus at Old Crown only days after Tom had moved the body. How the hell how had Marcus even known any of this was going on? Did Tom have a confidante, another confessor, a mutual acquaintance of Marcus’s? I had by now settled on a policy of giving Marcus the benefit of the doubt and proceeding with the project—at least until I had all the information and could tell for sure whether something was amiss. I wonder how many ongoing crimes throughout history have sustained themselves on just this type of moment-by-moment justification. I wrote Tom’s story as if it were completed, even though I had arranged another interview. I tried to heighten all the ghostly elements, considered suggesting the lobelias at the house had been seen glowing, maybe throw in some sightings of a spirit wandering around amid a cloud of flies, the face stove in. But the leap from fresh wound to fun game was difficult to make, reminding me that all ghost stories begin with personal tragedies.

            Then the final interview: Tom has lost his job at EntSol; the Car-Ride of Horror has failed to quell his hallucinations; he’s seeing the bat-featured, tribal mask face with its mouth-full of broken stained glass hovering outside the windows of his apartment; and he’s returned to the house on Union Chapel at least once—to dig up the body he’d buried there, sling it over his shoulder again, and carry it down to the end of the drive and back as further penance. When he told me he took the knife that was still clipped inside the guy’s pocket and used it to carve and dismember the body before reburying it, I wasn’t sure I should believe him. It was too much.  Or maybe I just didn’t want to believe it. I’d already written up the story and sent it as a PDF to Marcus, who in turn had sent it via email to the seven participants in the upcoming inaugural event. I told myself we could go through with it and concentrate on helping Tom once it was over.

Marcus had invited me to attend—or rather insisted that I do. He’d already sent me a check for the PDF.

From Tom’s description of the place, I’d imagined a desolate beige field with nothing but the pine tree borders marking off the old yard, but there was in fact a stand of aged trees in the back providing enough foliage to encircle the fire pit we constructed there. Marcus’s idea was to let everyone settle in and get cozy until it got dark, when we’d walk as a group up to the spot where the earth was disturbed (what an expression!) and the lobelias bloomed. Once we were all gathered there, I would tell the story, and then everyone would return to the safety and warmth of the fire. And it had all actually gone quite well—I was pleased with my somewhat improvised oral rendition of the tale—but I was getting nervous.

A few of the clients were already there when I arrived, and I hadn’t been afforded any opportunity to pull Marcus aside and put my questions to him. Then the two women I’d seen working the counter at his coffee shop showed up. They were introduced simply as helpers for some of the activities planned for later in the night, and they gave no indication of recognizing me. Still, I figured Marcus must know I’d been checking up on him. After the tale-telling, as we sat circling the fire, strange noises began coming from inside the old house. I confess, my nervousness had less to do with how Marcus might respond to my insubordination or the impropriety of profiting from the ongoing suffering of an imperiled man—and more to do with the likelihood that Marcus had arranged for some hokey theatrics to ensure a memorable experience for his clients so he could count on his precious word-of-mouth endorsements. What ever happened to not being cheap?

There ended up being six clients, two couples and a single of each gender, so with Marcus, me, and the two baristas, we made up a camp of ten, all crowded in a half-circle around the impressive fire Marcus had prudently prepared to keep well fueled long into the night. Now that the principle specter’s story had been rehearsed (hearse?), the ascendency of the walking barrel’s ghost established, I was turned to for more stories to, as it were, get the ball rolling. I told the one about the house in Garrett where men frequently see a gorgeous young woman standing in a second-story window, holding a candle and beckoning to them; as they stand there struck dumb by her spectral beauty, she transforms by imperceptible increments into first an old hag and then finally into an ashen-faced demon. Next, I extemporized a story about a group of boys from Carroll High School who made a game out of prowling through The Bicentennial Woods, a nature preserve up off Shoaff Road, waylaying hikers and ritualistically torturing them to death in the old farmhouse that still stands in the field behind the park; when one of the boys’ conscience got to him, he told a football player about the murders; the football player in turn stalked the killers and picked them off one by one—but of course they still haunt the woods and are thought to be behind occasional disappearances.

Passing the baton to one of the clients—who told the story of the witch in Devil’s Hollow—I glanced over at Marcus and saw that his approving smile was more bemused than amused. His preoccupation increased my worry that he was going to try and pull off some kind of stupid stunt. This was only the second time I’d seen the man in person, and my second impression was starkly different from the first. That smile that contended with the sun was all but impossible to imagine now. Even in his physical dimensions, he looked diminished. There were parts of this story I was not privy to, I was sure, and my mind couldn’t help trying to fill in the gaps. But I also couldn’t help trying to think of more ghost stories in case I was called upon to supply them. It occurred to me then that were I inventing Tom’s story, as opposed to reporting it, I would have him return to hang himself from a rafter in the house—that, or something like it, needed to happen for the story to come full circle, for the seed to be properly sown, for the haunting to be thoroughly, um, haunty. It also occurred to me, as I looked over at the house—remarkably nondescript, fading white siding, boxy—past Marcus who sat in my line of sight, that he didn’t just look distracted; he looked a little frightened. I supposed he too might be nervous about how the event would turn out.

I couldn’t help mulling over the question he’d begun his pitch with, the one I assumed he began all his pitches with: Why do people really get scared? I thought of all the normal stuff, public speaking, plane crashes, murders, shark attacks. Then I tried to think of the actual statistics on what people should be the most afraid of—heart disease, cancer, car accidents, or, hell, lifelong loneliness and disappointment. But the thing is, when you start thinking about what people fear—what you personally fear—it’s hard to separate thoughts of real dangers from feelings about deserts, as if we simply can’t imagine coming to any end other than the one we most deserve, which is probably why most people don’t believe they’ll ever die, not really, not in the sense of utterly ceasing to exist. So I was thinking of how I probably would die—heart disease, car crash—but then I started wondering how I might deserve to die. My biggest sin is working with this guy, I thought, making money from murder and exploitation, even if my complicity is only indirect. And that’s kind of the sin, isn’t it? The one we’re all complicit in to one degree or another.

I looked around and felt walled off from the intimate little gathering with each of its individual mystified gazes forming a spoke radiating outward from the hub of the stone-lined fire pit, all of our clients basking in the lively orange radiance of the bonfire, sharing in that nostalgic storytelling atmosphere we designed the scene to evoke—a wheeling symbol of death and rebirth, seasons and ages. But for me the fire gradually resolved into an image of a street protest rendered in orange and yellow light, the raving throngs arhythmically bouncing with their hands thrust up, clamoring for recognition, reaching, yearning, wildly stretching their coiled arms upward as if to lay hold of divine justice and rip from it from the sky, sparks and embers variously lolling or sashaying or darting up into the overabundance of moribund leaves, or lifting along the flue of the clearing up over the canopy, taking their leave of our little half-circle altogether, rising up to the black star-specked heavens like so many spent prayers. I could almost hear the protesters’ shouts as I overlay the flames with images I’d seen from Egypt, Pakistan, Libya. I thought of a Bangladeshi clothing factory flaring up into a surging conflagration that was its own symbolic prefiguring of the outrage it would go on to ignite. Whole regions of the world seething and simmering with the bounding rage so eloquent of critical volatility in every language on this disturbed earth of ours—we are here, we want our share too, we won’t be the worshipful crowd at the rock concert of western civilization’s slave-making sabbath—if you don’t acknowledge us we’ll make you watch as we wrap these tangled masses of coiling arms around everything you love.

And press a button.

Then, returning to the question of how any of us deserves to die, I imagined Tom stepping out from under the trees with an axe or a machete, running up and hacking Marcus and me to pieces and then throwing them one at time into the fire like logs and kindling for everyone to watch sizzle and ooze and blacken—how’s that for an experience to pass on by word of mouth? But now my attention was being brought back to reality by a female voice commanding more casual authority than those of any of the males who’d been yammering on, including, I suspected, my own.

“This story began at a house a lot like this one but in a smaller town, not far from here. This house had a ghost story to go with it too, a story that went back for at least a generation to a time when a family lived in it. The story was that the husband started hearing voices telling him that his wife was unfaithful. The man couldn’t believe this about his wife. He realized that he must be going crazy, so he struggled to think of the voices as nothing but hallucinations. But then one night the wife was late getting home, and in addition to the voices the husband saw images of his wife with another man. When she got home, he attacked her before she could explain. He ended up beating her to death right in front of their five-year-old daughter. Then the man got a kitchen knife and slit his wrists. When the police arrived, they were all three dead, the five-year-old having died of fright. According to the locals, some nights you can still hear the little girl screaming.”

It was one of Marcus’s baristas telling the story, the one I’ve been referring to as Monster Face, though in the underglow of the flames she looked more leonine than monstrous. She was leveling a steady, placid-faced glare high into the fire as she spoke. I thought I could glean an edge of intensity to her words, despite the slowness with which she rolled them out. Her storytelling was both playful and deliberate—and somehow, I thought, malicious in that deliberateness. It was a unique, uniquely powerful performance, worthy of Cannes.

“That was the original story,” she went on. “The second chapter would lend some ironic symmetry to the developing legend surrounding the old house. What happened was some kids who’d grown up hearing the story of the screaming girl started visiting the house every year around Halloween. Of course, by then everyone was saying that the man who’d beaten his wife to death wasn’t really insane, wasn’t schizophrenic or anything like that, but that it was a demon who’d spoken to him and shown him those images, a demon who still haunted the place. The kids were terrified—but they loved it. By the time they were in high school and had their driver’s licenses, they were starting what would be a yearly tradition of camping in the yard outside the house the weekend before Halloween.”

I felt my mouth fall open as I involuntarily turned my eyes back toward Marcus, who I realized was the focal point through the flames for the barista’s own gaze. His eyes were bulging open, fixed on hers, and he couldn’t have been breathing because there was pressure building up in his neck and behind the strained flesh of his face. Her voice pulled my eyes back in her direction.

“There was a core group of three, two men and one woman. One of the men was a sports jock, a smooth talker, the type who has all kinds of luck with the ladies. Not long after they all three graduated high school, he and the woman fell in love and started planning on getting married. About that time, the other man, the one with all the business sense, came up with a plan for how they could actually make money with their haunted house camping trips. They started bringing other people with them, started hosting the trips not just once a season, but every weekend in October. They even started arranging trips to other houses associated with ghost stories.

“Unfortunately, the smooth talking jock went on one too many forays into that demon-haunted house to prove his mettle. He became convinced that his fiancée was screwing around with his best friend, the guy with the business sense. He became convinced too that they were planning on pushing him out of the operation and keeping all that money to themselves. One night in October, he showed up for the first outing of the season—and he thought he saw them murmuring to each other, with their faces a little too close together. He flew into a rage and murdered them both. Then he hacked them to pieces and buried them in assorted spots surrounding the house. And then he hosted the night’s guests as if nothing had happened. But afterward, just to be safe, he left town, planning to lie low for a while, maybe get started getting a foot in the door for his business in other nearby cities. The only problem was it wasn’t just business sense he was lacking.”

Marcus was standing. There was movement all about the fire, people standing and backing away, running—but I could hardly take my eyes off of our storyteller. “Does that story resonate, Marcus?” she said, grinning her evilest Grinch’s grin. Hearing him grunt, I turned to see him with someone’s arm wrapped around his neck, the upper arm forming a V with the wrist, the elbow directly under his chin. His assailant was clad head to toe in black, with a mask that erased his features, including his eyes. It was a moment before I realized there were in fact two such black-clad figures wrestling Marcus to the ground as the choke quickly relieved him of his consciousness. I was standing now too, but the guys in masks actually diminished my panic, making me think this really was some kind of stunt after all. Stuff like this doesn’t really happen, does it? Maybe if they’d thrown a black hood over his head.

Amid the bustle and shouting, I hadn’t noticed the other barista, the taller one, the minion, circling behind me. “Oh, you don’t need to get up, Mr. Conway.” She pressed something into my kidney, preventing me from turning around. Was she holding me at gunpoint? It was so preposterous I almost burst out laughing. But then I saw Monster Face glancing back and forth between me and the men dragging Marcus toward the trees. Seeing her now made what was happening seem much more serious—nobody was that good of an actor. “Have a seat please,” the minion said. I sat back down on the sectioned tree trunk that had been my chair. She pulled my hands behind me and bound them with what I guessed was a plastic tie-wrap, and then bound the tie-wrap to another she’d threaded through an eye-bolt screwed into the log. I remember saying to myself, “Jim, this is really happening. You shouldn’t have let her do that.”  

The tree they bound Marcus to was directly behind me, so I had to crane my neck to see any of what was happening to him. Monster Face’s minion was standing behind me the whole time too, occluding my view. I think Marcus’s back was against the trunk, his hands tied with the same kind of cable wraps as mine were behind it. Monster Face slapped him on the cheek a few times to bring him to, but he must have had something stuffed in his mouth because aside from sounds of a sort more apt to emerge from a nose I heard little more from him that night. It was the authoritative, matriarchal barista’s voice I heard—and I heard every last fucking word she uttered.

“Sorry, Marcus. But you’re running this little venture into the ground. I’ve decided it’s time for some new management.” She stepped into view beside me. “You did do one thing right, though, I have to say. Mr. Conway here is quite the artistic man of letters. And a good interviewer too. Believe me,” she addressed me now, “I know how hard it can be to get a straight answer out of Tom.”

Staring at her, I dumbly repeated, “Tom.” My imagination was overwhelmed with the task of going back to all those scenes Tom had described with her—filling in the lineaments of her face, the texture of her voice.

“Oh, now I see you’ve figured it out. Wow. That’s a little disappointing. I have to say with your vaunted intellect and all I figured you had it all worked out by the time you came to the coffee shop. How did you think Marcus even knew about Tom in the first place?” She squatted down beside me. “I know you’re worried about him, Jim. But you shouldn’t be. I’ve got some special plans for him. For both of you.

“Now, Mr. Friedman,” she said standing up and moving to a position where I could no longer see her. “To the question you asked me the first time you told me about your little business. You want to know what scares people? It ain’t the paranormal or otherworldly stuff that scares them—tell them a place is haunted and they’ll be lining up, as you and I both well know. And that’s because what really scares them is their own tiny, pointless existences, the realization that in the great flood of humanity they have nothing special to offer, nothing special to say. Here and gone in a blink and you don’t even leave a mark—not so much as a residue. So they all want to be able to say—they’re fucking desperate to be able to say, ‘You think you know?—well, you don’t know shit. Let me tell you what I’ve seen. Let me tell you what I know.’

“Traumatic experiences leave a trace? Ha! What complete bullshit. You and I both know dark experiences are a commodity, a ticket to instant status. Encounters with evil? Trust me, everyone wishes they could have some. Murder doesn’t scare people. What scares people is the thought that they might not have it in them. Oh, Tom is plenty tore up about killing that tubby piece of trash.” I could tell from her voice that she’d turned and was now addressing Marcus and me jointly. “He’ll lose sleep, bitch and moan, threaten to turn himself in. But Tom—he’s smart. He knows what this means. It means he’s gone far beyond me. It means his life is so much more… interesting. It means, for the moment at least, he wins. And I can’t have that.”

Catching her drift, I began pulling at the cable wraps for the first time, feeling them bread knife into the skin of my wrists.

“Mr. Conway, please don’t scream. I see no need to gag you, as you’re just here to be a witness and chronicler.”

“Tom?” I said. “Why do you even still care about Tom? You broke up with him. Why didn’t he tell me you were still talking to him?”

“Because I told him not to. I broke up with him because I thought he was tame. Christ, you’re all so tame these days. And if they’re not tame they’re just pathetic idiots with no more sense or dignity than fucking gorillas. Tom thought I left him because he argued too much. The truth is, I’d never felt as exhilarated as I did that night when he beat the crap out of those two morons. It was like I was having this revelation, this breaking through to a new type of life—and then instead of sharing it with me he starts going off, telling me how reckless I was, how I could have gotten us killed, or worse. I just looked at him and thought—how can you not feel this? How can I be with someone who’s not capable of having an experience like this? I actually remember thinking, if he doesn’t slap me I have to leave him.”

She came back and squatted down beside me again. “You think coming back here to hack up that body makes him crazy?” she asked. “Well, Mr. Conway, I’ve looked into his eyes, and he looked right back into mine in way he never could before. And you know what I saw there for the first time? I saw blood. I saw the blood in his eye and it made me feel my own blood pumping in my veins. Oh, don’t worry, Mr. Conway. I know exactly what Tom needs. Tom’s going to be just fine.”

 She went back to Marcus, saying, “Now, Mr. Moneybags.” I heard grunting and scraping, Marcus thrashing about against the tree. “Oh, I know. I know. I’m so horrible, so evil. Whatever. All I really am is honest with myself in a way almost no other woman is willing to be. And just so you know—I really do have a conscience. That’s why I chose you.”

I spent the next few hours squeezing my eyes shut, listening to the sounds of a slender young woman of about five foot four experimenting with methods for killing a large muscular man bound to a tree, with her bare hands. I kept thinking one of the fleeing guests must’ve called the police by now, kept thinking I should be hearing sirens any minute. But she’d obviously planned this whole thing out meticulously. When she finally cut my cable tie, I was shivering, my wrists were dripping blood, my legs were so achy I could barely stand—and Marcus half-sat, half-lay against the tree, lifeless.

I shambled toward the front of the house, past the blue lobelias, heading for my car down by the entrance to the drive on Union Chapel. Just as I was rounding the front toward the driver’s side, I heard Monster Face shouting from beside the house. “I don’t need to tell you it would be bad for you if you went to the police. Don’t worry, though, I’ll be good to you. I’ll be in touch. We’ve got a lot of work to do.” I watched her turn back toward the backyard and the tree.

I opened the door of my car, but just as I was about to lower myself in on my wobbly legs, I heard her shouting again, “Oh yeah, and Jim—don’t fucking forget to change the names before you post this story.”