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Monday, October 31, 2011

Hound's Tooth

A new piece of flash fiction.  The prompts:  (1) a photograph of railroad tracks leading toward a mountain; (2) has to contain the phrase "I didn't see this coming;" and (3) must include a reference to the extinct dog species Borophagus, which apparently looked a little like a hyena on steroids.  Maximum 500 words.

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Hound's Tooth


The tracks led straight into the jagged peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, through dynamited rock cuts. Soon they would curve into the sky, following the ridge, before plunging into the valley that held Frame Strike Mine.

Frame Strike dated from Gold Rush days, now forty years past, and in any case Carlson wasn’t interested in gold. Frame Strike hadn’t brought up much gold – some silver, more copper, but copper was plentiful in Arizona and didn’t pay for keeping miners busy. The mine closed, the valley abandoned – until Heinrich Jaeger found Miocene fossils scattered in the limestone outcroppings like raisins in fruitcake.

Carlson felt the engine straining as the ascent began, and looked down into his hand at the shiny enamel surface of a tooth. Borophagus – the bone-crushing canid predator that lived here ten million years ago. A young paleontologist seeking a research project could do worse than a rich, unstudied deposit of mammalian fossils.

Carlson spent the next hour studying Jaeger’s letters, reading their stilted, precise English. “Assemblages nearly intact, close to surface… Remarkable preservation… minimal degradation from weathering.” When the train squealed to a halt at the station in the old miners’ village, Carlson was the only one who got out.

Camp conditions were primitive. Jaeger lived in a tent, its space more devoted to books than comfort. He seemed hesitant to talk to Carlson – odd, considering the pages of correspondence they’d had over the preceding months.

“Superstitious Mexicans and Indians,” Jaeger scoffed, when Carlson asked him about the work crews. “As likely to feign illness as do a day’s labor. Afraid of the dark, most of them.”

“You have them in the mine?”

“The richest fossil layers are there. Why not use what has already been uncovered for us?”

“Can I see the dig?”

Jaeger shrugged. “Come. It is a short walk.”

It was dusk when they got to the mouth of the mine, yawning black and empty, darkly beckoning.

“Have the workmen quit for the night?”

Jaeger frowned. “Three men were here earlier, their shift ends at nightfall.” He walked to the cave mouth, where a lantern hung, glimmering in the half-light, lifted it, called into the blackness.

“Come up! You must meet Dr. Carlson…” He paused, and his breath caught, as if he’d gagged.

“What is it, Jaeger?” Carlson said, and stepped to his side.

“I didn’t… I swear, you must believe me… I didn’t see this coming,” It sounded like a plea.

The bodies of three workmen lay fallen on the floor of the cave, near the mine shaft. Their throats were torn out, arms and legs gnawed on, bellies ripped open. The nearest lay awkwardly, like a damaged doll, his femur neatly bitten in half. His unseeing eyes stared at the two scientists.

Carlson rounded on Jaeger. “The teeth… bones… they’re not fossils, are they?”

Jaeger swallowed. “How could I have known?”

The only response came from deep in the cave, where a guttural growl gave them all the answer they needed.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bad Blood

Be careful who you piss off.

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Bad Blood


           Melba Crane looked up as Dr. Carlisle entered the room.  She smiled, revealing a row of white and undoubtedly false teeth, and said, “Hello, doctor!  I don’t think we’ve met yet.  How are you today?”

            Dorian Carlisle looked at his new patient.  She was tiny, frail-looking, with carefully-styled curly hair of a pure snowy white, and eyes the color of faded cornflowers.  “I’m fine, Mrs. Crane,” he said.   “I’m Dr. Carlisle – I’m looking after Dr. Kelly’s patients while he’s on vacation.”

            Mrs. Crane nodded.  “My, you look so young,” she said.  “It’s hard to believe you’re a doctor.”  She laughed a little.  “I’m sorry, that was rude of me.”

            “Not at all,” Dr. Carlisle said, lifting one of Mrs. Crane’s delicate wrists and feeling gently for a pulse.  “I take it as a compliment.”

            “It will be even more of a compliment when you’re my age,” Mrs. Crane said.  “I just turned 87 three weeks ago.”

            “Well, happy belated birthday,” Dr. Carlisle said.  “I hear you had kind of a rough night last night.”

            Mrs. Crane gave a little tsk and a dismissive gesture of her hand.  “Just a few palpitations, that’s all,” she said.  “Nothing this old heart of mine hasn’t seen a hundred times before.”

            “Still, let’s give a listen,” Dr. Carlisle said, and pressed his stethoscope to her chest.  Other than a slight heart murmur, the beat sounded steady and strong – remarkable for someone her age.

            “How long will Dr. Kelly be away?” Mrs. Crane asked, as Dr. Carlisle continued his examination.

            “Two weeks.  He and his family went to Hawaii.”

            “Oh, Hawaii, how lovely,” Mrs. Crane said.  “Such a nice man, and with a beautiful wife and two wonderful children.  He’s shown me pictures.”

            Dr. Carlisle nodded.  “They’re nice folks.”  He pointed to a small framed photograph of a somewhat younger Mrs. Crane with a tall, well-built man, who appeared to be about thirty.  The man was darkly good looking, with a short, clipped beard and angular features.  He wore a confident smile, and stood behind Mrs. Crane, who was seated, her legs primly crossed at the ankle.  The man had his hand on her shoulder.

            “Your son?” Dr. Carlisle asked.

            Mrs. Crane nodded, and smiled fondly.  “Yes, that’s Derek,” she said.  “My only son.”

            “Do you get to see him often?”

            “Oh, yes,” she said.  “He visits me every day, especially now that I’m here in the nursing home.”  She paused, and sighed a little.  “His father was Satan, you know.”

            Dr. Carlisle froze, and he just stared at her.  She didn’t react, just maintained her gentle little smile, her blue eyes regarding him with grandmotherly fondness.  He thought, I just misheard her.  What did she say?  His father was a saint.  His father liked satin.  His father was named Stan.  His father looked like Santa.  But each of those collided with his memory, which stubbornly clung to what it had first heard.  Finally, he just said, “I beg your pardon?”

            “Satan,” Mrs. Crane said, her voice still mild and bland.  “That’s Derek’s father.  Lucifer.  He used to visit, too, quite often, when Derek was little, but I expect he has other concerns these days.”  She giggled a little, and said, “And I’m sure he’s had dalliances with other ladies since my time.  Quite a charmer, you know, whatever else you might say about him.”

            “Oh,” Dr. Carlisle said, a little thinly.  “That’s interesting.”

            “Well, of course,” Mrs. Crane continued, “you couldn’t ask him to be faithful.  He isn’t that type.  I did have to put up with a great deal of disapproval from people who thought it was immoral that I had a child out of wedlock.  But after all,” she said, and gave a little titter, “what else could they have expected?  He’s Satan, after all.”

            Dr. Carlisle cleared his throat.  “Yes, well, Mrs. Crane, I have to finish my examination of you, and see a couple of other patients this morning, so…”  He trailed off.

            Mrs. Crane gave her little wave of the hand again.  “Oh, of course, doctor.  I’m just being a garrulous old woman, going on like that.  I’m sorry I’ve kept you.”

            “It’s no problem, really,” Dr. Carlisle said.  “And I wouldn’t worry about the palpitations – usually they’re not an indication of anything serious, especially if they don’t last long, as in your case.  Your blood pressure is fine, and your last blood work was normal, so I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

            “I tried to tell the nurse that,” she said.  “But she insisted that I see the doctor this morning.  I’m sorry I’m keeping you away from patients who need your help more than I do.”

            “No worries, Mrs. Crane,” Dr. Carlisle said, hanging his stethoscope around his neck.  “Take care, and have a nice day.”

            “You too, doctor,” Mrs. Crane said.  “It’s been lovely talking to you.”

            Dr. Carlisle opened the door, and exited into the hall, feeling a bit dazed.

            He stood for a moment, frowning slightly, and then seemed to come to a decision.  He walked off down the hall toward the nurses’ station, and set his clipboard on the counter, and leaned against it.

            “Excuse me, nurse…?” he said, smiling.  “I’m covering for Dr. Kelly this week and next.  I’m Dr. Carlisle – my office is up at Colville General.”

            The nurse, a slim, middle-aged woman with gold-rimmed glasses and short salt-and-pepper hair, gave him a hand.  “I’m glad to meet you,” she said.  “Dana Treadwell.  If there’s anything I can do…”

            “Well, actually,” Dr. Carlisle said, “I do have a question.  About Mrs. Crane, in 214.”

            Dana smiled.  “She’s an interesting case,” she said.

            Dr. Carlisle nodded.  “That’s my impression.  She’s here because of advanced osteoporosis, but is there anything else that you can tell me that might be helpful?”

            “Has periodic mild cardiac arrhythmia,” Dana said.  “She had a full cardio workup about six months ago, showed nothing serious of note.  Some tendency to elevated blood pressure, but nothing that medication can’t keep in check.”  She paused, gave Dr. Carlisle a speculative look.  “Some signs of mild dementia.”

            “That’s what I wanted to ask you about.  Is she… delusional?”

            “That depends on what you mean,” Dana said.  “Mentally, I hope I’m as with it when I’m 87.  But she is prone to… flights of fancy.  Particularly about her past.”

            Dr. Carlisle didn’t answer for a moment.  Should I mention the whole Satan thing? he thought, and decided against it.  “She does seem to like telling stories,” he finally said.

            “That she does,” Dana said.


            The following day, Dr. Carlisle was making his rounds, and passed Mrs. Crane’s room, and heard a male voice.  Curiosity did battle with reluctance to talk to her again, and curiosity won.  He stepped into the room.

            Mrs. Crane looked up from a conversation she was having with a man who was seated at the edge of the bed, gently holding her hand.  When the man turned toward him, Dr. Carlisle immediately recognized him as the man in the photograph – noticeably older, perhaps in his mid to late fifties, but clearly the same person.  He still had the same carefully-maintained short beard, the same dark handsomeness, the same sense of strength, energy, presence.

            “Oh, doctor, I’m so glad you’ve stopped by!” Mrs. Crane said.  “This is my son, Derek.”

            “Dorian Carlisle,” Dr. Carlisle said.  “Nice to meet you.  I’m going to be your mother’s doctor for the next two weeks, until Dr. Kelly returns.”

            Derek got up and extended a hand.  “Derek Crane,” he said, and they clasped hands.  Derek’s hand jerked a little, and a quick flinch crossed his face.

            “Sorry,” Dr. Carlisle said, almost reflexively.

            “It’s nothing,” Derek said.  “Three weeks ago, I hurt my hand doing some home renovations.  I guess it’s still not completely healed.”

            “I didn’t mean to…” Dr. Carlisle started, but Derek cut him off.

            “It’s nothing,” he said.  “Mom has been telling me about your visit yesterday.  It sounds like she talked your ear off.”

            Dr. Carlisle smiled.  “Not at all.  It was a pleasure.  I’d much rather chat with my patients and get to know them a little – otherwise, all too easily this job starts being about symptoms and treatments, and stops being about people.”

            Mrs. Crane beamed at them.  “Well, it’s so nice of you to take time from your busy schedule to stop in,” she said.  “I haven’t had any more palpitations.”

            “That’s good,” Dr. Carlisle said.  “I just wanted to see how you were doing.  Nice to meet you, Derek.”

            “Likewise,” Derek said, and smiled a little. 

            Was there something – tense? speculative? about the smile?  Don’t be ridiculous, Dr. Carlisle thought.  His mother just primed me to be wary of him because she’s delusional.

            Dr. Carlisle exited the room, and then stopped suddenly, his face registering shock.  He looked down at his hands.  On his right ring finger he wore his high school class ring, from St. Thomas More Catholic Academy.  He raised the ring to his eye, and saw, on each side of the blue stone in the setting, a tiny engraved cross.


            That night, Dr. Carlisle told his girlfriend about Mrs. Crane over dinner.

            “Now I want to meet this lady,” Nicole said, grinning.

            “Can’t do that,” he said.  “I can’t even tell you her name.  Privacy laws, and all that.  I probably shouldn’t have even told you as much as I did.”

            “Well, it’s not like I’m going to go and tell anyone,” she replied.  “And I have to hear about your job.  It’s a big part of your life.”

            He took a sip of wine.  “And this one was just so out of left field.  I’ve dealt with people with dementia before; but they always show some kind of across-the-board disturbance in their behavior.  This was like, one thing.  In other respects, she seems so normal.”

            “You didn’t talk to her that long,” Nicole said.

            “No,” he admitted.  “But you learn to recognize dementia when you see it.  There was something about the way she looked at you – you could tell that her brain was just fine.”

            Nicole raised an eyebrow.  “So, you think she really did have a fling with Satan?”

            He scowled.  “No, of course not.  But I think she believes it.  But then…” he trailed off.

            “But then what?”

            “Her son jumped when I shook his hand, like he’d been shocked, or something.  Then he made some excuse about how he’d hurt his hand a couple of weeks ago.  But I noticed afterwards – I was wearing my high school ring.  It’s got crosses engraved on it.  And it was probably blessed by the bishop.”

            “You’re kidding me, right?  I thought you’d given up all of that religious stuff when you moved out of your parents’ house.”

            “I did.”

            “Maybe you didn’t,” she said.

            “All I’m saying is that it was weird.”

            “And you’re acting pretty weird, yourself.”

            “I just wonder if it might not be possible to test it.  See if maybe she’s telling the truth.”

            “You do believe her!  Dorian, you’re losing it.  Satan?  You think she screwed Satan?”

            He sat back in his chair.  “I dunno,” he finally said.  “All I can say is, she believes it enough that it made me wonder.”


            The next day, other than a quick walk down the hall in the early morning hours, Dr. Carlisle avoided that wing of the nursing home until after lunch.  When he finally went down the hallway toward room 214, he found that his heart was pounding.  But he was stopped in the hall before he got to Mrs. Crane’s room by the nurse he’d spoken to two days earlier, Dana Treadwell.

            “You missed some excitement,” Dana said.

            “What happened?”

            “A bad spill.  Broken leg, possible fractured pelvis.”

            Dr. Carlisle swallowed.  “Which one of the patients?”

            “Not a patient,” Dana said.  “Mrs. Crane’s son.  Slipped on wet tile right outside his mother’s room, and fell.  Hard to believe you could be so badly hurt from a fall.  They brought him to the Colville General – I heard he’s still in surgery.”

            “That’s too bad,” he said, trying to keep his voice level.

            “Mrs. Crane was really upset.”

            “I’m sure,” Dr. Carlisle said.

            Dana seemed to pick up the odd tone in his voice.  She raised one eyebrow, and said, “Yeah.  She was completely distraught.”

            “Really?”

            Dana nodded.  “Especially after her ex-husband came by.  We finally had to give her a sedative.”

            Dr. Carlisle tried to think of something to say, and finally just choked out, “That’s too bad,” and turned away, hoping that Dana wouldn’t notice the ghastly expression on his face.  He stuck his hand in his lab jacket pocket, and fingered the small glass bottle, now empty, that he’d filled early that morning at the font in the nursing home’s chapel.

            “Oh, and Dr. Carlisle?” Dana said, and he turned.

            “You might want to know that before we finally got her to go to sleep, your name came up.”

            “Me?” Dr. Carlisle squeaked.  “What did she say?”

            “Something about your ‘needing an ocean of holy water.’  You might want to let Dr. Bennett handle her case from now on.”  She smiled.  “Just a suggestion.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Xenophobia

I just entered a flash fiction contest with the following piece.  There were four rules: (1) maximum of 200 words; (2) the title had to start with the letter 'x'; (3) it had to contain the phrase "nothing left to" somewhere; and (4) it had to have some connection to a photograph of a flooded city street.  The rather outrĂ© story that follows is what resulted.

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Xenophobia


Nothing left to do.  I finished sandbagging today.  I can’t get out.  The highway’s submerged except for a “No U-turn” sign, sticking above the water as if there were cars to warn.

It’s still raining.

They’ve tracked me for years, since the scuba diving trip in Belize.  They almost got me that day, but I made it to shore, turned and looked – and saw fifty pairs of eyes, half-hidden in the surf, saying: Don’t think you’ve escaped.  You haven’t.

I’ve seen them many times since.  I thought it was only oceans, until I saw one watching me from a river as I crossed a bridge.  It was submerged like a crocodile, only its unblinking eyes and the top of its head visible, long hair swirling in the current.  I kept walking, didn’t look back.  Don’t let them know you’re afraid.

I thought I was safe, a thousand miles from the ocean, no rivers, lakes, ponds nearby.  But now water is seeping through the sandbags, lapping against my door.

I sit, shotgun across my lap, as night falls.  Their eyes reflect the streetlight’s glow.  There must be a hundred of them out there, waiting until the water comes in.

I’m ready for them.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

"Signal to Noise" - six days till release!

What if you knew the truth, but no one believed you?

What if you hardly believed it yourself?

This is the predicament that biologist Tyler Vaughan finds himself in when people start vanishing from the little town of Crooked Creek, Oregon.  In the course of his research, Tyler has inadvertently captured on one of his thermal-imaging remote cameras a photograph of a creature known as Slender Man -- a faceless humanoid with long, thin arms and legs, whose presence is always associated with abductions, especially of children.

The problem is, who will believe him?  The Crooked Creek Chief of Police Dale Blodgett (short for "Wensleydale" -- his parents were fans of Wallace & Gromit) certainly has no reason to, especially when the missing people return, apparently unscathed, and claiming to have no memory of what happened during their absence.  Chief of Police Blodgett figures that if they're home, safe and sound, there's no reason to investigate further.

Tyler has one person in his corner, however -- flower child and organic herbal tea maker Rainey Carrington, who realizes that the abducted children may not have returned as safe and sound as they seem to be.  Plus, she's got a serious crush on Tyler.  Together, can they put together the pieces of what's happening in Crooked Creek, and stop it... before one of them disappears, too?

Signal to Noise will be available for purchase from Amazon (Kindle) and Barnes & Noble (Nook) for $3.99, on Saturday, October 15. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Walking Alone

A little poem about a rainy night walk.

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Walking Alone


Puddles of spilled light shimmer on the pavement.
I pass a streetlight.  My shadow rotates beneath my feet,
Stretches out in front of me,
Black on silver.
Rainwater snickers and chuckles its way down the gutter
Then tumbles into the storm drain.
Branches drip, drizzle hisses on concrete;
A car swishes past, hurrying to get itself to its garage and its owner to bed,
Leaving me alone with the rain and the darkness --
Time counted not in minutes but in strides,
Each one closer to home.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Cover art - "Signal to Noise"

Here's a proof of my cover art for my upcoming novel release (due out in two weeks!) - "Signal to Noise."  I'd love some feedback!  Any suggestions for changes?  Or would you take one look at this, and say, "Hell, yeah, I'd read that!"?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Sugar Mill

A new short story, set in a place I know and love... and will never look at in the same way again.

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The Sugar Mill


Todd Blackwood took a drink from his pint of beer, and looked down the length of the bar. He gave a wink at Fernando, the bartender, and jerked his head toward his twin brother, Keith, who was hitting on one of the waitresses with a cheerful lack of subtlety.

“Your brother like the ladies, I see,” Fernando said, polishing a glass with a towel and then turning it upside down on a rack. “Bet you do, too.”

Todd grinned and said, “When I get a chance to make a move before Keith does.”

Fernando laughed, and said, “He not gonna have much luck with Maria, I don’t think. She like to tease, nothing much more.” He leaned on the bar. “What bring you two to Lamanai?”

Todd thought for a moment. That was a hard question to answer. They hadn’t meant to end up here, at Lamanai Outpost, an out-of-the-way corner of Orange Walk District in Belize. Lamanai was mostly frequented by birdwatchers and archaeologists, and Todd and Keith were neither. They were identical twins, and had graduated from different colleges on the same date earlier that year – Todd from Cornell, majoring in political science, and Keith from the University of Virginia, majoring in economics. Neither one had any job prospects after graduation, nor any particular plans to continue into graduate school, and one night shortly after graduation they had come up with the idea of traveling down to Central America, together. It seemed a great deal more pleasant that facing the task of job hunting. So they’d packed up a few belongings and left, making their way through Mexico, and then into Guatemala, and finally to Belize, seeing some of the sights, partying whenever they could, and making the acquaintance of as many dark-eyed young women along the way as they could manage.

Todd looked up at Fernando, and gestured around him to the bar, with its bamboo thatch, its slowly revolving ceiling fans, and its wooden railings overlooking the lake, hardly visible in the twilight. “It’s a great place,” he said. “A lake to swim in, hammocks, and cold beer. What else do you need?”

Fernando laughed, revealing a row of perfect white teeth set off by skin the color of cafĂ© au lait. “Look like your brother need something he not gonna be getting tonight,” he said with a chuckle, as Keith walked up.

“No luck?” Todd said, and Keith shook his head, a little sheepishly. Fernando pulled another pint and set it in front of him.

“I told you,” Fernando said.

Keith shrugged. “Still gotta try,” he said.

“Damn, you two look exactly alike,” Fernando said, shaking his head. “I never seen two twins so much alike. How your mother even tell you apart?”

Keith grinned. “Even she gets confused, sometimes.”

“We’ve got different tattoos,” Todd said. “I check mine in the mirror every morning, just to make sure I know which brother I am.”

Fernando laughed, and said, “Tattoos? Let’s see.”

Both the brothers turned, and pulled their shirts up to their shoulders – their movements so similar that it seemed that they had to be one person and his reflection. But on Todd’s shoulder was a red and orange stylized dog, its tail twisted into an elaborate knot; across Keith’s back was a Celtic eagle, green and gold.

“Nice,” Fernando said. “So your mother wants to be sure, she just tell you to take your shirt off.”

Todd and Keith both laughed, and tugged their t-shirts back into place.

“You gone up to see the Mayan ruins?” Fernando asked.

“Yeah,” Todd said. “We saw the Jaguar Temple yesterday. Very cool. Any other places we should go?”

“Oh, there’s lots of places. All kind of ruins around here, very old.”

“We haven’t been out to see that place that archaeologist told us about,” Keith said. “That old sugar mill. He said it was an easy walk from here.”

Fernando’s eyebrows went up, and his perpetual smile suddenly evaporated. “That place?” he said. “Why you wanna go there?”

Keith shrugged. “It sounded interesting. The archaeologist guy said so.”

“You talking about Dr. van Fleet?”

Keith nodded.

“Don’t listen to him,” Fernando said, his dark eyes narrowing in a scowl. “He don’t know a damn thing.”

Todd looked at the bartender, and thought, Wow, what’s up with Fernando? Sounds like we touched a nerve. “He seemed like he knew a lot about the history of this place, and all,” Todd said.

“Just what’s in books,” Fernando said, his voice scornful. “He tells all the tourists about how old all the walls and statues and pyramids are, and when the Maya were doing what. But he don’t know, not really. Not what matters.” Fernando gave a little snort. “It keep him safe, all that book learning. At least it does that much.”

“Safe from what?” Todd asked.

Fernando leaned on the counter. “That sugar mill,” he said, his voice lowering almost to a whisper, “it’s a bad place. No one who lives here go there at all. Only reason there’s still a trail is because of Dr. van Fleet and people like him. They keep safe with their dates and facts and history and all, but that don’t mean anyone else would be safe. You stay away from that place.”

“What do you know about it?” Keith asked.

“Why you wanna know?”

Keith shrugged. “Just curious.”

Fernando looked at him appraisingly, and finally said, with some reluctance, “It’s not old. Least, not old like the pyramids are. Some Englishmen built it, back about 150 years ago. They wanted to grow sugar cane here. But the jungle’s no good for sugar cane, and other places grew it better. But that’s not the real reason they abandoned it – Englishmen, they don’t give up a place just because it’s a bad idea.”

He stopped for a moment, and both brothers looked at him, waiting for him to continue.

Fernando looked down, swabbed the bar with his towel, and then seemed to come to a decision. “They built the mill on a bad place,” he said finally. “I don’t know how else to say it. The Maya knew about that place – they wouldn’t go near it. Something is there, where the sugar mill is. You go there – you get changed. Everything changes. It reaches in and rips out a piece of you, rips it out so complete you don’t even know it’s gone. It reaches back into your past, changes everything. The man who built that thing, he found out it was a bad place – he went out there by himself one night, after he knew the sugar cane wouldn’t grow and his business was failing – and when he came back, he just went crazy. He wouldn’t talk about what happened, he just yelled, ‘It’s gone, it’s gone,’ over and over, and finally they took him away and I guess he went back to England. I never heard what happened to him in the end. But the mill shut down – none of the natives would work there right from the start, and after what happened to that Englishman, the rest of the English decided that maybe they shouldn’t go there, either. And now big parts of it have fallen in. Brick walls, they don’t last in the jungle. The vines are pulling it down. Big metal gear wheels stick up through where the roof used to be, and black holes for windows.”

“You’ve been there, then?” Keith asked, and took a drink from his pint.

Fernando looked at him, his lips narrowing into a thin line. “Yeah,” he said. “Once. Only once. When I was twelve. I went out there because my cousin dared me to. I could feel the place reaching out toward me, and I ran back home as fast as I could. I was sick for a week afterwards.”

“But it didn’t actually do anything to you,” Keith said.

“No,” Fernando admitted. “But it wanted to.” He shook his head. “You’re nice boys, I know that. Stay here, have some drinks, find some girls to party with, go swimming. Stay away from that place.”

“Maybe you could put in a good word for me with Maria,” Keith said, grinning.

Fernando looked at him in silence for a moment, and then his tense face relaxed into a smile. “Hey, man, I been trying myself for two years,” he said. “I think far as that goes, you’re on your own.”


Todd was dozing in one of the outpost’s many hammocks the next afternoon when Keith came up, wearing swim trunks, water darkening his blond hair and beading on his tanned shoulders. He gave a push on the hammock. “Hey, Todd, get your lazy ass up,” he said. “You gonna sleep the day away?”

Todd yawned and stretched, and regarded his brother with a scowl. “I don’t feel like swimming,” he said.

“I’m not talking about swimming,” he said. “I just did that. You want to walk up to the sugar mill?”

Todd’s eyebrows went up. “After what Fernando told us?”

“You’re serious? You believed all that?”

Todd shrugged. “Well, Fernando did.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s all true,” Keith said. “I want to see it for myself.”

“You think we can find it?”

“You heard Van Fleet,” Keith said. “He said it was down that little trail right off the main road to the village.” He grinned. “You’re scared. Look at you. No wonder you never can get any women.”

There followed about five minutes of shoving that finally turned into a wrestling match, and Todd found himself pinned down on the leaf-strewn ground with his brother smiling down into his face.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll let you up if you’ll either agree to go with me to the sugar mill, or else you have to say, ‘Todd Blackwood is a scared little girl.’”

“Fuck you, Keith,” Todd said, and struggled to get his arms free.

“Try again, bro,” he said. “Todd Blackwood is a scared little girl.”

“Dammit,” Todd said. “All right, whatever. I’ll go with you.” Keith cackled and swung himself up off his brother, and Todd got up, brushing the dirt and leaves from his back. “I’m not scared,” he added.

“Good,” Keith said. “Neither am I. I’m gonna go grab my camera, and we can head out.”


The dirt road from the outpost ran straight through a cut in the jungle to a little village three miles distant, but before the village was the trailhead that Dr. van Fleet had pointed out to them earlier. It was barely wide enough for two to walk side-by-side, and Keith went ahead, Todd following. A mosquito whined in Todd’s ear, and he slapped it away, regretting his decision not to put on a shirt before leaving the outpost. Underneath the eaves of the jungle it was as dim as evening; trailing vines hung down, brushing their faces as they walked, and they had to step over huge, twisted roots that crossed the trail, curling along the ground like giant gray snakes. Bird calls were everywhere, and in the distance they could hear the rough growl of a howler monkey.

“How far down this trail is it?” Todd asked, after they’d been walking for twenty minutes.

“Van Fleet said it wasn’t much more than a mile or so,” Keith said. “It can’t be too much further.”

They came on it suddenly; around a bend in the trail, and there was a change in the light – part of the canopy was thinner, and the illumination went from late evening to dusk. In front of them was a dilapidated red brick building, with gaping, arched windows opening onto blackness. Vines crawled up the sides, and had in places brought down the walls; piles of rotting bricks lay at the foot of the building. A great rusted metal gear wheel, of uncertain purpose, protruded through the vegetation.

“Wow,” Todd said.

“It’s awesome,” Keith said. “And it hasn’t stolen our souls yet,” he added cheerfully. “I told you all that stuff Fernando said was superstitious bullshit.” He lifted his camera, and took several pictures of it.

“Okay, so we saw it,” Todd said. “Let’s go back. It’s hot and sticky in here, I think I want to go swimming.”

“You just want to go back because you’re a chickenshit,” Keith said, laughing. He looked up at the sugar mill. “I want to climb up onto the top.”

“Are you kidding?” Todd said. “That wall looks like it’s ready to collapse.”

“It’s not gonna collapse,” Keith said. “Here, hold my camera.” He went up to the base of the wall, and reached up tentatively. “I could climb this. It’s no worse than that rock climbing I did last summer in the ‘Gunks.”

Todd watched his brother, trying to quell a rising sense of panic. He didn’t want to object any further; he’d been stung by the accusation of cowardice. Todd had always felt himself to be a step behind Keith in taking risks, whether it was physical or emotional ones. He was half envious watching his brother, lean muscles standing out in his bronzed back as he scaled the wall, the green and gold eagle flexing as he moved his shoulders, reaching for ever higher places to grasp.

And he finally made it to the top of the broken wall, and with one final heave pulled himself astride of it, then clambered up.

It’s coming. It’s there, waiting to grab him. 

The thought came suddenly, seemingly from outside his mind, and Todd was seized with such a balls-clenching sense of terror that he was rooted to the spot, watching his brother standing, laughing on top the wall, both fists clenched in the air in a victory salute.

“C’mon, Keith, get down,” Todd said, trying to hide the desperation in his voice.

Last chance. Get out of here.

“Not until you take my picture,” Keith said, grinning.

Todd looked down at the little black camera, the initials “KB” scratched into its housing. He lifted it, zoomed in, centered it on his brother, and the shutter gave a little click as he pressed the button.

“Okay, I took a picture. C’mon, let’s get out of here.”

Keith, with one lithe, agile movement, leaned over and grabbed the top of the wall, and then swung his body down – inside the building.

“Dammit, Keith!” Todd said. “We need to get out of here!”

“I’m coming,” came Keith’s voice, a little muffled. “I just want to take a look inside. There’s got to be a way to get out from the inside.”

Todd ran up to the wall, but bottom edge of the lowest window was five feet above his head. “Keith! You don’t know what’s in there!”

Keith laughed, his voice coming from a little lower. “Just a bunch of dead leaves and branches and shit,” he said. “And it looks like there’s a door or something at the back. Just a minute, I’m almost down.” There was a crunch as Keith’s feet landed on the leaf litter inside the building, and then silence.

“Keith?” Todd said, after a minute had passed.

Too late, you had your chance. 

“Keith! Goddammit!” Todd ran around to the back of the sugar mill, looking for the door that Keith had seen, and saw only a pile of rubble. The back of the building had collapsed almost completely, and Todd scrambled over the crumbled bricks, until he stood on top, looking down into what had been the interior of the building – and saw no one.

“Keith!” Todd shrieked, startling a bird that flew away out of the brickwork with a squawk. Other than that, the only sound was a small noise, thin as a knife blade, that might have been laughter.


That night, back in the outpost, Todd sat in the bar, working on his third vodka and orange juice. He sat at a table in the corner, staring vacantly at the wall, and when Maria came over and tried to strike up a conversation with him, he just stared at her, his gray eyes wide and empty, and finally she gave a shudder and turned away.

Fernando came over, and said, “You drinking a lot tonight. Struck out with the ladies?”

Todd shook his head, and said, “It isn’t that.”

“You look like you got some bad news.” The bartender sat down on a stool across from Todd.

Todd looked down, and didn’t answer for a long time. “I have a brother,” he said, finally.

“Oh, yeah?” Fernando said.

“His name’s Keith. He’s my identical twin.”

“Seriously? I always thought it’d be weird, having a twin.”

Todd shook his head. “No. It’s just the way it is.” He looked up at Fernando, a strange glint in his eye. “Problem is, my mom has never heard of him. I called her up this afternoon, called her collect from the phone in the outpost.”

Fernando gave him a little smile, a look of You’re kidding, right? “Yeah? She must be surprised she got a son she don’t know about.”

Todd didn’t answer. He pulled out a camera that had the initials “TB” scratched into the plastic housing. He pushed a few buttons, called up a series of photographs, and scrolled down to one of them – a zoomed shot of the top of the wall of the sugar mill, the center of the frame showing nothing but empty sky and a bit of the jungle canopy.

“You know where this is?” Todd said, showing it to Fernando.

Fernando looked at it, and a visible shiver ran through him. “You went out to that damn place?” he said. “I told you not to.”

Todd said, “I know.”

“No wonder you drinking tonight,” Fernando said. “Well, at least you came back safe. I can’t believe you went out there alone.”

Todd looked up toward Fernando, but his were eyes focused on a point far distant. “Yeah,” he finally said. “Neither can I.”