“I really despise this couch. Everything about it. You need to get a new one, or I’ll stop coming to these little chats.”
“Focus, Daniella,” the therapist’s voice is low and colorless, like a forced kind of calming. “You were going to tell me about that night in the village, please, let’s just stick to talking about what happened that night.”
Daniella fidgets, her lithe frame squirming as if her tattoo-covered skin is crawling with insects. She leans forward, legs slightly spread, one elbow perched on her bent knee. She raises a palm to slowly run it over the stubble atop her shaved head. It isn’t so much the couch making her uncomfortable as it is the quelled memories now being forced back to the surface.
“My mother had always dreamed of a fairytale wedding. Even when we were kids, it was like a fucking obsession with her. She would dress up my younger sister in a white chiffon princess gown and make me wear a necktie to stand in as the groom. We should be tackling that repressed nightmare instead...don’t ya think, Doctor?”
“You’re deflecting. That night, Daniella, please.”
As she takes a steadying breath, Daniella Hargrove’s eyes seem to sink, deepening her stare, penetrating through the poised therapist as if she is just an apparition. Her words come out slowly, void of any real inflection or emotion, and barely above a whisper:
“Travis was new to the company so they assigned him to my platoon.”
“Had you known him or had any interaction with him prior to that point, military or other?”
“What were your immediate impressions of him?”
“Guy’s guy. Sports, hunting, cars, blah...blah...blah.”
“So, someone very similar to yourself?”
“I suppose. Minus the cock and balls.”
Doctor Hansen eases back in her leather chair to reach behind for a rounded switch on the wall, lowering the office lights. She dims them just enough to still afford her the ability to make notes.
“Go on, Daniella.”
~~ * ~~
It seems some towns have certain mysteries. Little tragedies that get passed over, explained away like they were simply accidents. Nuanced to the point that no one seems to care enough to investigate. Yet the accidents, as they become labeled, still happen.
And they continue to happen. Over and over. Spread out by a slight passage of time of course, so as not to draw too much attention. Just enough distance in between events to let them fare undetected; a swimmer drowning during an early morning swim, a hiker getting mauled by a bear, a gardener swarmed by a disturbed nest of wasps — all just tragic mishaps.
Surprisingly, it never affects the town. Not in the damaging sense. Sure, there’s a period of remorse, followed by a funeral procession, a ceremony to remember the dead, a burial service, a time for mourning. Then the people in the town mend and remold, resuming their daily routines. Going about their normal business, carefully living life. Some come, some go, most stay. Happy. Wary to that subtle little force of nature. A force that needs them just as much as they need it.
Breathing, sleeping, feeding.
Another tragedy. Another death. Another mourning.
Eventually, the town begins to take on a life of its own. An energy that pulsates through the streets, like veins feeding a beating heart. It will do anything to nurture and protect itself, to the point that if and when it feels threatened, it lashes out, emerges, and beckons to be reckoned with. A force that is mobile. A force that can drift between the shadows, navigating where you or I cannot.
The ultimate bloodthirsty survivalist...and I have seen it with my own eyes.
We were stationed out in a far northern region of the Mohave, just below where it converges with the Great Basin Desert along the border of California and Nevada. It was remote, hence the reason we were sent there.
The mountainous terrain and the weather patterns were as close as you can get to that of Afghanistan where we were soon to be deployed. We had two months to train, prepare, mold as a unit. Twelve men and me, their leader.
I didn’t give a shit that I was the only woman. I didn’t rise through the ranks to get to where I was by painting my fucking toenails and playing with Barbies. I never let the difference in a couple of gender-driven body parts affect my ability to be a soldier, a killing machine. The guys respected me for that prowess. That, and the fact that I could put any of them to sleep faster than they could reach for a weapon.
Travis Dougal was new. He needed to learn.
I had sent the rest of the men out on a maneuver that I knew would take them at least four days to complete. I planned to take Dougal with me to circle up to higher ground, intercept them as mock combatants, test their awareness.
The weather at the time was not ideal by civilian standards, cold days that turned into frigid nights. It was, however, perfect to assess the men's resolve.
It was nearing the end of day two when Dougal and I reached an odd valley cutting straight through the top of a massive crest. By all accordance, it shouldn’t have been there. I saw no evidence of a river that could have cut it, nor any signs of man-made tool markings. Nevertheless, we had a mission, and to get to the intercept point, we needed to pass through.
We had reached a rather broad expanse, just where it seemed the canyon was nearing its end. Dougal was out ahead of me and called back that he needed a piss break. Deciding I could use one too, we split up. I doubled back around a bend and Dougal trudged ahead into some pine trees off to the left.
I remember taking in the awe of the surroundings as I squatted against an outcropping of stone. The sun was low in the sky, so we were in its grey-tone shadow, yet the walls around me seemed to be glowing. It was like they had absorbed enough light during the day to shed an amber hue even in the gloomy pre-dusk air. I felt protected, like I was under a giver of shelter. It would have made a good place to camp for the night so I finished up and headed over to the woods to find Dougal.
As I approached him, he had his back to me, hands hanging freely to each side and he was standing completely still staring off into the distance. I figured he had finished whatever business he needed to tend to, so I walked up next to him.
“Can you feel that?” he asked in a whisper.
“I don’t know. Feels almost like we’re being watched.”
“Not possible.” I pulled out my map and confirmed our position.
We were still miles away from the intercept point. So, unless my men had diverted from their course, it was not possible that they would have been in the same location as we were. I took another glance at Dougal. He was scanning the treetops. I obviously hadn’t known him for very long to that point, but I’ve always been able to read people. He looked genuinely concerned.
“Let’s go, it’s probably just something harmless, like a bear. They’re good climbers, you know.” I laughed and pressed forward slapping him on the shoulder. “You’re not afraid of bears, are you, Dougal?”
Opting to cover as much ground as possible, we decided not to circle back to my precipice of safety and rather pushed deeper into the wooded area. Hunger and darkness started to slow our pace so we decided to stop and set up camp for the night.
I remember how dark it was that night. Moonless. The kind of black that felt like someone had wrapped every square inch around us in thick velvet, as if I could reach out and run my fingers over and feel how soft it was. There were stars but any light they offered was being choked out by the thatch of pines. The glow of the fire was all we had, and even it seemed to struggle against getting absorbed by the night.
“You know what a eidolon is, Sarge?”
“An eidolon? No. Never heard of it before.”
“You ever seen something that you swear on your life was there but it turns out to be nothing?”
“Like an apparition? Do those radiant, water-looking waves that you see in hot tarmac count?”
“I’m talking about seeing actual people. Spirits and shit. Do you believe in all that?”
“Look, Dougal. We are in the woods in the middle of bum-fuck-nowhere and you want to start telling fucking campfire ghost stories?”
“Nah. No ghost story, Sarge. Shit is real. Could be a strange shadow or something out of place that catches your eye, a figure that one minute is right there in the dark but gone once you flip on the light.” I could tell he was serious.
“Most everyone has seen an eidolon at some point in their life, Sarge, they just don’t say nothin’.” He paused. “Cuz, to tell someone, to try and describe that feeling that chills you to your very core, well, most folks just swallow it, too scared of the ridicule. That...or they are just plain too scared.” Dougal stood up.
The flicker of the flame underlit his face in an ominous orange, severe shadows outlining the creases of his eyes and forehead as he stared down at me. He was about three feet from where I was reclined against the base of a tree. He just stood there towering over me, staring like he was assessing, calculating, planning.
A sudden pop from of the dying flames sent ash and glowing embers streaking into the air, breaking the eerie silence. He didn’t even flinch. His eyes were steadfast, angry. Even in the dim light of the flames, I could feel his mind switching gears. Nerves and angst were driving him into soldier mode. For the first time since I could remember, something other than physical exertion was making my pulse quicken. I felt it thump in my chest.
“We need more wood,” he finally spoke out. “You stay here, Sarge. I’ll be right back.”
I watched him turn and slowly walk away; that thick velvet night fading in behind him like a curtain being drawn closed. It didn’t strike me at the time, but he seemed to navigate with ease despite not having any guiding light. It was as if he was moving not by sight, but by memory. I tossed the last two pieces of pine onto the flames to chase back the tendrils of cold that were continually creeping in.
Dougal had been gone longer than it should’ve taken to gather a few more logs. I pulled a flashlight from my rucksack and tried to scan the area. But any illumination just reflected off the smoke being held down by the cold, lighting me more than the woods. I extinguished the light and stepped in the direction I saw him disappear.
I called for him in a hoarse whisper, “Dougal.” I wasn’t sure why I didn’t shout it out. Something in my bones forced the hesitation, like I was afraid of alerting anyone other than Dougal to my presence. “Dougal goddamit, where are you?”
My pace was agonizingly slow, sliding one foot in front of the other along the path of naked earth. I was making my way by feel more than any ability to see in front of me. My hands traced along the trunks of the trees, caressing their skinlike bark, guiding me with their spirit. Large towering silent ghosts, blind and oblivious to any dangers lurking about.
“Dougal!” I called out a bit louder this time.
I heard a rustle off a few feet to my left, like something being dragged over dead leaves. “Dougal...that better be you. Stop fucking around, we need to get back to the fire and rest.”
“Over here, Sarge.” His reply came in my same hoarse whisper but not from where I heard the rustling.
I inched my way in his direction until I could start to see the outline of a figure, like a black void.
“Take a look over there,” he said in a low tone, arm outstretched in front of him.
It was hard to make out, but it appeared to be a clearing a few hundred feet up ahead of us. I could barely see what appeared to be a few buildings or structures. There were no signs of life, no lights or sounds coming from within it.
“Whatta you suppose that is, Sarge?”
“Fuck if I know, Dougal.”
“I say we get our rucks and check it out. One of them barns might make for a warmer place to hunker down. We’re comin’ up on zero one hundred hours. If we’re lucky we might get a solid five of sleep before sun up.”
I wasn’t about to argue. Between the cold and the uneasiness of being out in the open, the thought of being inside some protective shelter was promising.
It took a solid forty-five minutes to make it to where we left our makeshift camp, extinguish the fire, and hike back to the point where that footpath opened to what felt like an overgrown carriage trail.
“I’ll bet this is an old settler’s village,” I said. “Must have been a stopover as people made their way from the east to the west coast back in the goldrush days.”
I counted a little over a dozen structures in the village. Most looked to be cabins or shacks that Mother Nature and Father Time had tag-teamed to reduce to uninhabitable rubble. But at the very end of the trail was one building that stood practically untouched; just a few vines and saplings doing their best to strangle out any life that may have been left.
It was a bit bigger than the battered cabins, and it had a rudimentary cross fashioned to the peak of the roof. Clearly a place of meeting for worship or possible education for whatever children may have lived there. It was our only viable option so we headed inside.
The smell that hit us when we entered was as dirty as the outside had appeared. Dank, musty air that was probably riddled with mold spores. The bottom was just dirt as if any wood flooring had been ripped out and all that remained was four walls and a roof. But it was warmer than the outside, oddly warmer and it felt safe. I tossed my sack against a far wall, curled into the dirt, and laid my head down.
I don’t remember falling asleep. It was one of those instances where one second I was staring into the darkness running through tomorrow’s plan and the next thing I know Dougal was shaking my shoulder to wake me.
“Sarge, get up, you need to see this shit.”
“For Christ’s sake, Dougal. What time is it?”
“Still a few hours before sun up. I’m not so sure we should stay here, though. Look.”
He was holding a penlight over what looked to be some parchment being loosely held together by a piece of frayed twine.
“Where the fuck did you even find that?”
“It’s hard to make out, I think some of this is broken English, but from what I can tell, some weird shit went down here.”
I sat up, back still pressed against the wood-paneled wall.
“Whoever wrote this talks about hearing a voice out in the woods,” Dougal continued. “Some folks went out looking for it thinking it was someone lost. They never came back. Says here the villagers found their mangled bodies three days later and it was ruled to have been done by a mountain lion. Well, it says big cat, but what other big cats could be out this way. But there’s more...more stories of the voice or some kind of presence, strange accidents, things happ-”
“All just fairy tales, Dougal,” I snapped. “Now, we have a long day of hiking tomorrow, I suggest you stop with the ghost stories and get some goddamn shuteye.”
But he was like a kid, working himself into a panic.
“I ain’t sleepin’, not tonight, not while we are here. I say we get the fuck outta here. Put as much distance between us and this village and these woods as possible. I told you, Sarge, there is something out there watchin’ us. I can fuckin feel it.”
“Even if that were true, Dougal, our best bet is to shelter. And these walls, as old and dilapidated as they are, are better than trekking blindly through that cold forest. Now, I won’t tell you again, get some sleep. That’s an order.”
I slumped back down, pulled the collar of my coat tightly around my neck, and once again, closed my eyes.
My mind drifted away from the village, away from the woods, from Dougal. I must’ve slipped into a dream because I remember seeing myself as a little girl.
My sister and I were playing in the backyard, one of those blow-up pools you get from Walmart. I looked to be about nine at the time and she was three years younger. Our mom would let us play on our own as she cleaned the house. My sister wanted to play a game, to see who could hold their breath longer underwater.
I went first and dunked my head down. I opened my eyes and could see her above me through the mirky water. It obviously wasn’t that deep. I didn’t last very long under the water, probably less than thirty seconds and my sister laughed when I sat up quickly to take in a huge breath.
“That was so lame!” she had said scoffingly. “Here let me show you how it’s done.”
She took a few short breaths followed by one deep one and slid down.
I stood up behind her, her head between my feet. Her eyes were open just like I had done, and she was staring up at me. There was a little bubble of air stuck in one of her nostrils. I am not sure how long she went but I could tell it was longer than my turn. She stuck her tongue out at me and started to surface for air.
That’s when something came over me.
I lifted my foot and pressed it to her forehead pushing her back down to the bottom of the pool. Her eyes narrowed in panic and I just remember her grabbing and clawing at my foot. Then I saw that little bubble of a breath release from her nostril.
She screamed and yelled when I finally let her up. I told her I was just teasing around, but she went on wailing and screaming. Flailing her arms to hit me and incessantly continuing to scream.
The screaming was what jolted me awake with a sharp intake of air. Once I realized I was still in the village, I flicked on my flashlight burying the bulb end into the palm of my hand. Letting a little light escape, I checked to see if I had startled Dougal. He was not there next to me.
His pack was still pushed up against the wall, so I figured maybe he’d just stepped out to take a leak. I shut the light and folded it on top of my chest as I laid my head back and closed my eyes again.
“Sarge…” I heard a whisper. “Saaarge…” It was drawn out.
I blinked my eyes open. Dougal was standing over me, straddling my waist with a boot pressed to either side of my hip. The fading in and out of sleep must have made me groggy. What I was seeing didn’t really register right away. I clicked on the flashlight.
“What do you have there, Dougal?” I asked calmly.
He was shirtless, holding a knife in his right hand, blood dripping from the point of the forged steel blade. In his left was the severed body of a squirrel. Streaks of crimson covered his chest, arms, and hands.
“I told you. I told you he was following us. I found it, Sarge. I found the voice and I took it out. That fucker won’t be bothering us anymore. It won’t be bothering no one anymore.” He let out a low laugh, his breath forming a grey fog in the chilled air.
“Why don’t you back up, Dougal. Let me find your coat. It’s freezing in here.”
“It wasn’t easy to catch him, Sarge. You have to become one with the environment. Think like they think. Feel like they feel. Draw them in close, close enough that even in the dark, you can see right into their little eyes. Let them feel like they are safe, sheltered and such. Then, once you got them right where you want them...when that fear builds trust…” His eyes widened, “You strike!”
In one motion, he dropped the squirrel and raised both hands above his head, grabbing the butt of the knife with his palms. I rolled back into a crunch, pulling one leg in between his and swiftly kicking up into his crotch with my heel.
Dougal let out a guttural groan as I kicked with enough force to lift him off the ground, shoving him to one side and allowing me to roll in the opposite direction. I grabbed my pistol from the side harness in my rucksack, raised it under my flashlight, and spun on one knee ready to fire.
He was gone.
The room was empty. Nothing but our lingering misty breath still fogging the air. I scanned right, shining the light to the far corner, then to the left. Nothing.
I spun wildly, three hundred and sixty degrees but it was like Dougal had just vanished into thin air. I lowered the pistol and kept the light up high still looking, wondering if it could have been real. The dead squirrel at my feet was proof that it was not just in my head.
Fear. It is the most natural of all of our emotions. Designed instinct. It keeps us alive from the second we are removed from the protective womb. Fear triggers the amygdala, the portion of our temporal lobes deep in the cerebrum, releasing endorphins that change the brain’s chemistry. It traps us in our primitive minds, forces memories to surface, widens perspective and perception opening us up to a broader belief system. But that primitive mind blocks our most sought-after traits, empathy, logic, self-control.
And we become killing machines.
Something terrorized Dougal. Something in that village caused him to snap. As I scanned the interior of that meeting house with my light I could see the representation of what he had become. The walls were painted with a symbol. A small cross atop a circle.
I had no idea what it meant at the time, not until I got back and looked it up. It was the symbol of Chaos. An ancient myth about a location. A space situated somewhere between heaven and hell where the spirits that were not allowed to pass were to be banished. A messy, dark, gloomy place.
A place of pure fear.
“Daniella, can you remember what had happened when the rest of the men from your platoon found you? There is still a rather large gap in your memory that needs to be filled.”
“Bits and pieces. I need a pee break, Doctor.”
“Absolutely, I just need to finish up some notes. This was a good session, Daniella, you are making real progress. Once we piece all of those bits together, we will have a better understanding of the whole picture. We will get there, I am sure of it.”
Daniella stands stiffly and slowly makes her way to the doctor’s private bathroom, just on the other side of the small office. She closes the door and locks it.
Standing in front of the mirror, she stares at her reflection, her eyes heavy with exhaustion and the resurging fear. Reaching into the pocket of her jumper, she pulls a ballpoint pen into view. A ballpoint pen she had swiped from the attendant’s station when they were preoccupied. A ballpoint pen Daniella Hargrove, for personal protection purposes, is banned from having.
She twists the tip, sliding the ink cartridge free from the barrel. Then, she further pulls the ink chamber from the pointed tip, returning the tip back to secure it to the plastic cylindrical body of the pen. The pen is then slipped back into her pocket for later use.
Daniella squeezes a droplet of ink onto the tip of her right index finger and smiles into the mirror as she scrawls a message onto the glass — a single small cross atop a bulbous circle.
Her business in the bathroom being finished, she returns to start the next chapter with the unsuspecting doctor.