Changes

And so it ends.

That might sound a little bit dramatic, but like anything in life, change is inevitable.  Which is why this announcement shouldn’t come as too much of a shock:

I’m doing away with the scheduled blog posts.

 

This isn’t to say that the blog is now dead.  I still plan on posting on it from time to time, but more when I feel inspired to actually write something for it.

If you remember, back at the beginning of 2018 I said that I was shifting away from posting once a week to once a month.  After the insanity that was 2017 (one short story a month as well as a post every single week…yikes), I needed to scale back so I could have more room to breathe so to speak.  And once again, that is what I am doing here.

I came to a bit of a realization over the past year or so.  Far too often, the deadline for my monthly post would creep up on me and I wouldn’t even realize it.  And then, once I did, it felt more like drudgery than anything inspired.  There would be times where I would sit in silence for a brief period of time just trying to brainstorm what I should write about that month.  When something starts to feel more like busy work than anything creative, that’s a problem.

And one I tried to ignore for far too long.

 

Again, this is not a “so long, blog is dead now, farewell” post.  Nothing of the sort.  But I needed to take a step back and re-examine my method and reason for doing this in the first place.  Initially, the whole point was to keep me practicing my writing.  And for a while, it served that purpose very well.  But as time passes, it becomes more and more difficult to find new topics to write about, or find something different to say about a topic you’ve already covered.  I’m sure I repeated myself far too many times about certain subjects.  I began way too many posts with “Like I said back in this post, blah de blah blah blah”.  And then I would go on the say essentially the same thing, just with different word choices.

Part of being a writer is being able to snag inspiration where it might not come easily to you.  But at the same time, a writer needs to be able to recognize when their regular method is no longer producing the results they want.  A writer needs to be able to embrace change, regardless of the direction it takes them.

So from this point forward, I will not be adhering to a schedule when it comes to posting to this blog.  This means that some months could see multiple posts, and some months could see none at all.  I won’t make any promises as to the frequency of my posting.

Besides, I feel like six years of consistent posting is a good run.

 

Now I know that this might disappoint the legion of thousands that follow my blog (sarcasm is fun!), but at the same time I feel that this is a necessary step in my own personal evolution.  Inertia is a hell of a thing.  It’s far too easy to get stuck in that rut of doing things the same way over and over again.  There is comfort in the routine, but the routine can also be a trap.

So thanks for sticking with me for this long.  Stay happy, and most importantly, stay safe out there.

Once again, you can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow my personal Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Disjointed Chronology

Last month I talked about “In Medias Res”, a Latin term meaning roughly “in the middle of” and referring to when a story begins with some action that usually occurs later on in the story.  I mentioned how I, personally, enjoy stories with disjointed chronologies.  So I wanted to expand upon that idea.

A beginning, middle, and end.  That’s how it goes right?  Every story has them.  But what if the end is at the beginning?  That’s what “Memento”, a movie by Christopher Nolan, did.  It starts at the end of the movie, and basically plays things out in reverse order.  Although I’ve never seen the movie, I love the idea of a plot that is told out of order, that is pieced together bit by bit.

One of the most common disjointed chronologies occurs in stories where the main character has amnesia.  For example, the video game “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” begins with the main character stumbling through the halls of a castle, struggling to maintain his memories of who he is and where he lives.  By the end of the intro, he can barely manage to utter his name.  He then wakes up on the floor of a hallway and the game begins.

As you wander through the castle, you eventually come across a note written by yourself, revealing that the amnesia was self-inflicted, caused by a drink your character consumed.  The note tells you to descend into the depths of the castle and kill a man named Alexander.  It doesn’t explain why, but insists that this is the only course of action left to you.  And as you work your way through the castle, scattered notes help you piece together your past and what, exactly, led you to this place.

The idea of finding notes is a common one in video games, sometimes replaced by audio or video recordings, telling a narrative in pieces.  Often, these pieces are out of order chronologically, and it’s up to you to put together what happened and when.

Last time I talked about how the game “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” used a set piece that occurred later in the story as a means to hook the player at the outset and keep them engaged and interested in what was happening.  But disjointed chronologies have more power than just getting the audience interested.  They can also highlight the mental state of a character.

This is an idea expressed in “Memento” where the main character suffers from “anterograde amnesia”, a form of memory loss that occurs after an accident, leaving the sufferer able to recall details before the event but unable to form new long-term memories after.  This is reflected in the main character of the movie, Leonard, who uses a sophisticated series of photos and tattoos to remind himself of where he is going and why.

In this way, the out-of-order events help us identify with the main character and his plight, creating a unique story experience that would be missed if everything were told in simple, linear order.  Not that there is anything wrong with a linearly ordered plot.  But there is something to be said for a story that jumps around in time, keeping you guessing as to what happens next.  Disjointed chronologies can be very powerful, acting to engage the brains of the audience and make them work for a cohesive narrative.  Unfortunately, sometimes a storyteller goes too far with that idea.

“Primer” is an indie movie about two engineer friends who, in the course of inventing things, accidentally create a means of time travel.  While it sounds like an intriguing premise, I could not for the life of me tell you what the hell happened by the end of that movie.  I have nothing against a good, mind-bending plot, but “Primer” took things too far, deliberately making the plot obtuse and hard to follow.  In the end, I was barely paying attention because I was mentally exhausted trying to follow what was happening.  This wasn’t helped by the fact that the writing was also obtuse.  You would often enter a scene where the main characters were already in the middle of a conversation, making it difficult to follow what they were talking about.

In the end, “Primer” seemed like it tried to be too intellectual, and ended up missing the point altogether.

When it comes down to it, some people love disjointed chronologies, and some people hate them.  It all really depends on the context.  They can create a unique narrative experience that lets the audience really connect with the main character and craft a story that engages the imagination.  Or they can purposefully obfuscate details to the point of confusion, creating a plot that might only make sense to the one who wrote it.  Like any tool for a writer, a chronology told out of order can be very powerful, but destructive if wielded improperly.  Telling a story out of order simply for the sake of it is usually not a good idea.  There has to be some reason behind it, a method to the madness.

Otherwise, all you will have is madness.

Let’s Talk About In Medias Res

“In Medias Res” is a Latin phrase that roughly translated means “in the middle of”.  It’s a common technique in fiction of all types to begin a story in the middle of some kind of action that occurs later on in the narrative, before cutting back to the story’s true beginning.  It’s a very effective tool for a writer to use, because it catches their attention with some kind of spectacle or tense moment that makes them want to know how the character or characters got into said situation and why.

A really good example of this comes from the Uncharted series of video games, specially Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.  The game opens with the main character, Nathan Drake, waking up alone on a train with a gunshot wound in his chest.  As if that isn’t bad enough, Drake soon realizes after looking out the window that the carriage is dangling over the edge of a cliff.  Seconds later, falling debris knocks him out of his seat and nearly plunges him straight off the cliff.  Fortunately he manages to grab hold of the rear railing just in time.

The reason this opening sequence is effective is because it isn’t a trick or some kind of cheat.  This is actually happening to the character at a later point in the story, a point that players then slowly catch up to as the play.  But what makes it even better is that, for the opening hour or so, the game cuts back and forth between the beginning exposition and the train wreck, keeping players engaged with the story without making it drag on.  The only thing I think that could have made this introduction better is if the train wreck scene was used a few more times throughout the game before players caught up to it in terms of the timeline.  But that’s less a complaint and more of a personal wish on my end, as I’ve always enjoyed disjointed chronologies when it comes to storytelling.  Telling a tale out of order is so much more interesting to me.

In Medias Res is a very popular tactic in storytelling, one that you’ve likely seen used many times without really realizing it.  But it’s not always elegant.  Sometimes, it ends up feeling tacky or even downright deceitful.  It can feel contrived, meant only as a cheap trick to hook the audience with a scene that has little to no impact on the rest of the story.

Which brings me to the first John Wick movie.

At the beginning of John Wick, we see the titular character clambering out of a car, battered and severely wounded.  Sitting down on a sidewalk, he pulls out his phone and watches a video clip of his wife before collapsing unto the pavement.  The movie then jumps back in time to the beginning, exploring Wick as a character and his motivations.

While I appreciate that this opening scene sets up Wick’s attachment to his wife, the whole “is he dead or not” ploy fell flat for me.  It’s too common a trope in movies and television shows.  Usually, it just ends up being there solely to trick the audience into being interested.  Eventually, you discover that the main character doesn’t actually die or was even all that injured in the first place.  Part of my dislike of John Wick‘s use of the trope is likely due to the fact that they made two sequels, which would be impressive if they made an entire trilogy about a character who died in chapter one.  But even despite that, it still feels a little cheap, especially when later you find out that he basically just stands up and walks away without much of a problem.

By the way, John Wick is a fantastic action movie.  I feel like I should mention that before I give the impression that I thought the movie sucked.  My gripe with the opening scene is one of the only minor complaints I had with the movie.

But I digress.  There are even cheaper forms of In Medias Res.  And one of my biggest pet peeves with the trope goes a little something like this:

“Oh no big action scene!  SPLOSIONS!  BANG BANG shooty shooty!  Oh no, main character got hit!  He’s gonna die!  Nope, just kidding.  It was all a simulation or a practice drill of some kind.”

I absolutely hate this version of In Media Res, primarily because it has barely any impact on the rest of the plot, if at all.  It usually functions to reveal a character flaw or failing that they will overcome sometime later in the episode, in the midst of a situation that somehow happens to mirror the opening simulation or drill.  Far too often, it just feels lazy and tacked on, especially when the character only has the failing for that one episode and it is never brought up again.

Television shows are guilty far too often of lazily using this trope.  There are so many episodes of television shows that either begin with “oh this character might die” or “big action scene is revealed to merely be a training exercise” that I could probably fill a small book with them all.  And while tropes can be used effectively (such as with Gothic architecture in horror movies), oftentimes it becomes little more than a cheap fallback for writers who can’t think of something better.

And especially nowadays that television has gotten more serialized and complex, this type of bland writing really stands out.  It’s one of the reasons I don’t really care for procedural-type shows anymore, because you could almost make them a case study in tropes just based on how often they use them.  In fact, the show Robot Chicken made a skit making fun of Law and Order for how formulaic it is by replacing all of the characters with chickens.

The fact that you can actually suss out some of the details of the “story” in that skit makes it even funnier.

But much like other writing tropes, In Medias Res has great power, but it has to be used responsibly and correctly to truly have an impact.  It works best when used to highlight a poignant or climactic moment for a character, which emphasizes the contrast of how said character was in the beginning of the story compared to how they have changed during the event and its aftermath.  But it’s also far too easy to use as a crutch, as a gimmick to entice the audience into paying attention, only to realize that they’ve been played when it’s revealed that said event barely even mattered at all.

Because after all, even in the lightest of stories, we like events to have meaning or importance for the characters.  Otherwise, the journey is pointless.  And the audience is left unsatisfied.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of December for my next post.  Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and stay warm out there!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Shadows in the Forest

It’s that time of year again!  The spooky time.  And what better way to celebrate than with a spooky short story?  Enjoy!

Content warning: swearing, violence, general spooks.  Story begins after the break.

 

Fuck,” Bruce Thompson yelled as hot grease hit his hand. He threw the spatula onto the counter and rushed over to the sink, turning cold water on full blast. As he rinsed his hand under the ice cold water, he cursed himself.

“God damn it….stupid, stupid.”

He had been cooking some bacon and hadn’t been paying attention to what he was doing. As he flipped one of the strips over, it splashed hot grease onto his hand.

After a minute or two of running his hand under the water, Bruce turned the faucet off and looked it over. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be any scaring. It was just bright red for the time being. Regardless, as he lifted his head and stared out into the line of trees beyond his kitchen window, he chided himself for making such a dumb mistake.

His uncle’s old cabin wasn’t much to look at. Faded wood donned the outside, with a ramshackle wooden roof capping it off. Old wood met new in places where Bruce had done some repairs. After the previous winter, it needed some work to keep things insulated and warm.

A smoky, burning smell reached his nostrils.

“Ah shit,” he cursed to himself as he returned to the stove and scooped the strips of bacon out of the pan. Parts of them had been blackened, left to burn while Bruce had been daydreaming.

It’ll have to do, he thought to himself, pulling a plate out of the cupboard.

As he sat at the rectangular wooden table in the kitchen and ate, Bruce once again lost himself in thought. Eight months. Eight months since he’d moved out here. Eight months since he left civilization behind.

Now in his late forties, Bruce had never been anything particularly special. At six foot two, he was only slightly above average height for a man. But his hard-edged face, combined with his deep blue eyes, gave him an intimidating sense of authority. That was probably why he became a police officer.

Bruce served on the force for nearly twenty years. Then, he shot a kid. And that was it.

It had been nearly two years ago. That night had been quiet until his radio buzzed with a report of an armed robbery in progress. Bruce responded to the call and rushed to the scene, a local gas station convenience store. He entered with his gun drawn. The suspect had a gray hooded sweatshirt on, baggy blue jeans, and white sneakers. Bruce raised his gun and commanded him to put his hands in the air. The suspect wouldn’t comply and Bruce was forced to fire upon him.

Turned out the suspect was a twenty year-old still in college. It was a bad situation. The fact that the kid happened to be black only made things worse.

The trial went on for nearly a year, media circus and all. For a while, Bruce Thompson was all over the television and the papers, referenced on the radio and in blogs. In short, everyone knew him. And everyone had an opinion on him.

Eventually, it ended in a acquittal. But the fallout of the situation was that he was forced to turn in his badge.

One moment. All it takes is one moment for everything to fall apart.

Bruce shivered, drawing his light flannel jacket closer to his chest. Aside from the jacket, the long-sleeved white shirt and blue jeans did little to fight the chilly weather, even inside. Looked like a fire would be in order. After he finished eating Bruce threw on a heavier fleece jacket and made his way outside.

The cabin sat in a small clearing, surrounded on almost all sides by trees. The only exception was a small dirt road that led from the gravel to his cabin. You had to travel a while down the gravel road before you hit pavement. But that was how Bruce liked it. He wanted to be as far from people as possible.

Even after the trial was over, the chaos still continued. Someone spray painted the word “pig” on his front door. The local TV news station did a story on it and plastered his address on-screen for everyone to see.

It was only downhill from there. Eight months ago, Bruce decided he needed to get away. For how long, he didn’t know. He had remembered his uncle’s old cabin that had been gifted to Bruce when he passed. It was two states over, but that was fine. The farther, the better, he had thought to himself at the time. He still felt that way.

Bruce made his way around the side of the cabin. There was a large blue tarp off to the side, held in place by two large stakes impaled into the ground. He removed the stakes and lifted the tarp, revealing a collection of wooden logs he had gathered recently.

There was a small wooden shed nearby, a ramshackle little thing that look more like an outhouse than a tool shed. This was where Bruce kept all his tools, namely his axe and chainsaw, along with some extra cans of gas. He stepped around the black wheelbarrow sitting tipped upside down and made his way to the shed. Opening it, he found his tools right where he had left them. A spider had spun its web in the back corner of the shed and skittered away as the outside light hit it. But Bruce ignored the spider and grabbed his axe.

An old wooden stump sat nearby, which he used for his wood chopping. He dragged a couple armfuls of logs over to the stump and set to work, the thunk of the axe splitting wood echoing through the chilly fall air.

Once he was done, he moved most of the firewood over under the tarp and staked it back into the ground so the wind wouldn’t blow it away. He picked up the rest in his arms and began to make his way back inside. But when he got to the front door he paused, his eyes drifting over to the forest beyond the clearing.

He could never explain why, but it had always given him the creeps, especially on gloomy days like today.

Sometimes he thought he heard noises coming from the depths of the woods at night. But he assumed it was just nocturnal animals or his imagination. Perhaps it was even some late night revelers having a campfire. Probably getting high too, he thought to himself with an arrogant smirk.

Once inside, he loaded the wood into the fireplace. Compared to the rest of the cabin, the old stone fireplace had actually stood up well to the test of time. Aside from a covering of dust on it when he had first arrived, it was otherwise intact. It had a round, black chimney and shot up and through the roof, belching smoke whenever there was a fire. Shoving some crumpled newspapers along with some kindling into the fireplace, Bruce struck a match.

Soon enough, he had a roaring fire going.

Sitting down on the plushy old couch, Bruce picked up a book and began reading, resting his feet on the coffee table. The book wasn’t anything fancy, just a typical fantasy story of good versus evil featuring wizards, fairies, goblins and the like.

Sometimes, simple is better, he thought. Sometimes simple is what you need.

The fire crackled as he read, pulsing warmth into the living room and kitchen. Bruce lost himself in the story so much that before he knew it, he looked up and saw through the large back window that the sun was getting low in the sky. Sliding a bookmark in between the pages, Bruce set the book down and got up. He glanced at the empty wood holder near the fireplace. A small pile of wood chippings lined the bottom. Might as well stock up before it gets dark, he thought to himself. He went outside, retrieving a couple loads of split wood and depositing them into the holder. He put out the fire in the fireplace then retired to his bedroom.

The bedroom was a small affair. It hung to the left at the end of a short hallway with a window leading off from the living room. There was a small sliding closet door to the left of the bedroom entrance, and a window on the right. The bed was directly at the opposite end of the room from the doorway, small bedside tables on each side. The leftmost table had a lamp and alarm clock set on top. The red display of the clock read “9:30 P.M.”.

Slipping into his blue pajamas, Bruce pulled the brown covers off the queen-size bed and crawled in. Fortunately the bedroom was the best insulated room in the entire place, something he made doubly sure of after his first couple of months here. Arriving at the tail end of winter, he nevertheless had to deal with some seriously cold nights. At one point, Bruce thought he might even freeze to death in his sleep. But he made it through, and spent most of the spring and summer patching up holes in the roof and generally updating any broken fixtures in the place. One such fixture was the light in the bedroom, which was so caked with dust that it refused to function at all. Bruce replaced it with one that had a ceiling fan built in, and never looked back.

Bruce couldn’t say he was exactly nostalgic for the place. His only real memories of it were from when he was just a kid. Back then all he wondered about was when his uncle was going to get an actual working TV. But now he appreciated the quietude of the place. It was a welcome change from the constant roar of passing cars, the constant jeering of the protesters outside…

Bruce laid his head down and soon drifted off to sleep.

 

Snap

The sound jolted Bruce out of deep sleep. Still groggy, he glanced over at the bedside clock. It was just a little after two in the morning. What was that sound he heard exactly? Almost like the sound of a twig snapping.

Then his ears picked up on another sound: crunching…like someone walking around in the grass outside.

Now fully awake, Bruce sat up and opened the drawer on the bedside table opposite the lamp, retrieving a black flashlight and a silver revolver with a brown grip. He flipped open the cylinder just to check. Six chambers. All loaded.

Bruce made his way back into the main living area, straining his ears. The crunching noise had stopped. Nevertheless, he went around shining his flashlight out of every single window in the cabin. He saw nothing. Not content with his brief investigation, Bruce stepped out the front door, swinging his flashlight from left to right.

Nothing but a cold fall night.

He began to feel silly, standing there in his cloth pajamas as the crisp air chilled his face and feet. He was just imagining things. That’s all it was. It had to be.

As he turned, the flashlight beam shined onto the entrance of the forest. For a moment, Bruce paused. A wave of intense unease crept up his back, making the hairs on his neck prickle and stand on end. But he shook it off as quickly as it came and stepped back inside, locking the front door behind him.

 

The pitter-patter of rain on the roof woke him up the next morning. Bruce sat up in bed with a groan. He had planned to head into town to grab some groceries. Looks like that’ll have to wait, he thought to himself as he went into the bathroom to take a shower.

The bathroom was on the other side of the short hallway, and was one of the most extensively renovated areas of the cabin. When he first arrived, the floor was little more than a moldy carpet and rotting wooden walls. Now, it had a clean, white tile floor with patterned, white tile walls. The ceiling had been redone with newly varnished wood that still shined in the light.

It was truly the place that reminded him most of his former house.

Stepping out of the shower, Bruce pulled on a pair of blue jeans and a brown sweater. He stood in front of the bathroom sink: a typical, white basin with a silver faucet head and long, brass handles that read “hot” and “cold”. Bruce looked himself over in the mirror. The once black luster of his hair was starting to fade, but hadn’t yet turned gray. He knew it was coming though. His family had a history of early onset gray hair. The fact that it hadn’t happened to him yet didn’t make him feel any better.

He opened the medicine cabinet and pulled out a small, orange container with a white top. “Haloperidol”, it said on the label. “Take two in the morning before or after breakfast”. He unscrewed the cap and shook out two circular orange pills, popping them into his mouth and downing them with a glass of water.

Things had not gotten better after the trial.

Bruce’s mental condition had deteriorated significantly in the intervening weeks and months. It became so bad that one day, while grocery shopping, he broke down sobbing and couldn’t stop. The next thing he could remember was waking up in a hospital bed. The doctors told him he had a nervous breakdown and recommended he see a therapist.

His therapist – a young male with short-rimmed glasses, medium-length brown hair, and a tweed suit coat – prescribed him Haloperidol after a few scant sessions.

He felt pathetic…weak…like less of a man. But he took the pills anyway.

After he moved to the cabin, he switched pharmacies to one in the local small town of Auburn. He had gotten tired of all the staring, the hushed whispers. At least here people didn’t recognize him. Or, if they did, they left him alone.

After a quick breakfast of cereal and coffee, he put on a rain jacket and decided to investigate outside to see if there were any signs of a trespasser from the night before.

The rain was pouring hard. His coat was drenched before the front door had even closed. He made a quick circle around the cabin, checking near the wood pile and the shed. Nothing. He moved around to the back of the cabin, where a stone fire pit sat. Nothing but damp ashes. He completed his round, ending back at the front door. There was no trace of anyone from the night before. But he didn’t expect there to be. The deluge pouring from the sky would have erased any leftover signs of a person’s passage.

The rest of the day was uneventful. He spent it reading on the couch, listening to the rain batter his tiny sanctuary. It didn’t let up until the sun had practically dipped below the horizon. Periodically, he got up to check for leaks from the roof. Fortunately, he found none. His renovating skills were evidently better than he thought.

The sun went down and darkness laid a blanket over the land. Bruce had a late evening snack, then retired to bed. Laying his head down on the pillow, memories of the previous night surfaced again, and he laughed at how silly he was. It was just his mind playing tricks on him, just the darkness putting him on edge. Tonight would be a much better night…

 

Crunch…crunch…crunch…

The familiar sound woke him up. Only this time, it was much closer. It sounded like it was right near his bedroom window in fact.

Bruce sat up in bed, listening intently. The crunching grew louder and louder, likely amplified by the fresh rainfall on the grass. The noise got closer until it sounded like it was just outside his bedroom window. Then abruptly, it stopped. Bruce sat there for what felt like minutes, but nothing else happened. He let out a sigh of relief, certain his mind was just playing tricks on him.

Nothing prepared him for the shock of seeing a silhouetted figure in a hood stroll past his window, shadow etched onto the curtains by the pale moonlight.

Bruce felt his heart jump into his throat. Panicked, he practically ripped open the bedside drawer to retrieve his gun and flashlight. Bolting outside, Bruce raised the gun and shined the flashlight ahead of him, slowly making his way around the cabin perimeter. He was breathing heavily, sweat clinging to his hands and face. Darting around the corner towards his bedroom, he shined the flashlight along the cabin wall. Nothing. His heart sounded like it was beating inside his eardrums. His hands began to shake, the gun twitching in his grip.

Damn it Bruce, get a grip, he scolded himself.

“If there is someone outside,” he shouted, remembering his police training, “make yourself known!”

His voice echoed into the night. But only silence greeted him.

Bruce made his way around the back of the cabin, then back around to the front. Nothing. He saw no signs of anyone.

For a while, he could do nothing but stand just outside the front door, confused. He had seen the shadow walk past his window, hadn’t he? Was it possible that it was just a tree blowing in the wind? No…couldn’t be. The trees are too far away from that side of the cabin. It was definitely a humanoid figure. But why would someone be pacing around the place? Were they casing it for a robbery? Were they just some punk kid looking to mess with people? Too many questions, not enough answers.

He stood in thought for a long time before he became aware that his feet felt cold and wet. Looking down, he realized he was still in just his socks. He had forgotten to put any shoes on. Grumbling, Bruce walked back into the cabin and went to the bedroom. He returned the gun and flashlight to their storage place, stripped off the wet socks and placed them in the nearby laundry basket before going back to sleep.

 

The next day’s weather proved to be much more accommodating. After breakfast, Bruce made his way into Aurora to shop at the local grocery store, driving his old blue pickup truck. It was roughly a thirty minute drive through the countryside, trees as far as the eye could see. Bruce enjoyed the drive. It took his mind off the previous couple of nights and made him feel relaxed. The radio chattered away as he drove, rattling off different pieces of news.

Bruce suddenly became aware that the radio was talking about a police shooting. He turned it off.

The town of Aurora wasn’t big. Its population was only around a few thousand people. Most of the city’s businesses and social areas were centered on a single main street, with the grocery store sitting at the end of it. Bruce pulled into the parking lot and went inside. After grabbing the necessities, he perused the shelves looking for anything that struck his fancy. He eventually picked up a pack of chocolate-covered almonds and called it good.

On his way to the counter, he passed some six-packs of beer. He shook his head. Not now…not later…not ever…

He greeted the old man at the counter and began unloading items from his basket. The store was one of those old mom ‘n pop stores that are always in these small towns. The locals loved those places, loved the friendly atmosphere they always gave off.

“Gotta support the local businesses,” they always say. Like it made a damn bit of difference.

It was only a matter of time before a Walmart or some other big chain store plopped down nearby. And then ma and pa would be closing shop.

Everybody loves the free market, Bruce thought, until it screws them over.

After he returned home and unloaded the groceries, Bruce went outside to chop up some firewood. Bruce dragged over a load of wood to the old stack, grabbed the axe from the shed, and got to work. He actually enjoyed the task of wood chopping. Aside from it being good exercise and keeping him in shape, it allowed him a sort of relaxation through repetition. His body and mind were occupied with the task at hand.

Bruce…

He had become somewhat of an expert in wood chopping over the past few months. The arc of his swings and his form were very good, and he was usually able to cut the log in half with only two or three strikes. Some of the wood had gotten damp from the previous night’s rain, which made things just a tad more difficult. The tarp had kept out most of the water, but it wasn’t perfect.

Bruce…

A satisfying thunk accompanied his every swing. There were a lot of things he disliked about living here, the winter being one of them. But he couldn’t deny a sort of appreciation he had gained for the art of chopping wood.

Bruce

He stopped mid-swing, axe dangling over his head. Slowly, he let it fall to his side and turned toward the forest. Surely he hadn’t…?

The stillness in the air was suddenly apparent. The wind seemed to have disappeared, the trees were eerily still. A knot formed in Bruce’s stomach, and he could feel the hard thump of his heart beating.

The voice had been deep and male in tone. There was a strange familiarity in it that he couldn’t deny. Like an echo…a fragment…

“Hey neighbor!”

The voice coming from down his driveway interrupted his reverie. Bruce turned to see a middle-aged man jogging toward him. It was his closest neighbor, Roger Whatever-His-Last-Name-Was. Bruce hadn’t really bothered to try and remember. He was a nice enough guy, a little chatty at times, but well-meaning. He had short brown hair (Bruce noted with no small amount of jealousy that it hadn’t yet lost its color), deep green eyes, and a healthy physique. He was only a couple inches shorter than Bruce, wearing a light brown jacket with jogging pants and a pair of ear buds hanging loosely down the front of his coat.

“How about that rain yesterday,” Roger asked with a light smile. “Came down pretty good didn’t it?”

“Yeah…it did,” Bruce said, a little distractedly. Roger took notice.

“Hey…something wrong?”

Bruce turned and gazed at the forest for a moment.

“Did you hear a voice from the woods a moment ago,” he asked, turning back towards the trees.

“No…I don’t believe so,” Roger said, his tone shifting to one of concern. “You sure you’re good?”

Bruce shook himself a little and returned his gaze to Roger, managing to contort his face into a friendly smile. “Yeah I’m fine,” he said with a chuckle. “I thought I heard someone calling me from inside the forest, but I must have been hearing things. Probably just the wind.”

But there hadn’t been any wind.

“Hah,” Roger laughed. “Yeah that’s probably all it was. People hear things out here all the time. Sound travels quite a ways in this area. Maybe a group was walking through the woods and you heard their voices in the distance.”

“Could be,” Bruce replied with an exaggerated nod. “Could be…”

There was a brief moment of silence. He was keenly aware of Roger looking him over, almost like a psychiatrist analyzing body language, looking for any hints of trouble. Bruce felt embarrassed, and it took all his willpower to prevent himself from breaking eye contact.

“I hate to be a bother,” Roger began, “but is everything okay? I normally see you out and about when I’m on my late afternoon jog, but lately you haven’t left the cabin much.”

“No I’m good,” Bruce insisted. “Just been taking care of some inside stuff. Preparing for winter…that kind of thing.”

Roger seemed to accept that answer.

“Ah…gotcha. I know after last winter you weren’t exactly looking forward to it this year. You did good work on the place man. I bet this winter will be a breeze for you.”

“That’s the plan,” Bruce said with a wink, resting the axe on his shoulder. The unease he had felt just a moment before had evaporated. Despite his occasionally irritating nature, Roger was good at making people feel relaxed.

“Well hey, if you ever need help with home improvement this winter, just give me a holler. I’m just down the road a ways, as you know,” Roger said.

“Will do.”

“Good man.” Roger lifted one ear bud to his ear as he started moving back toward the road. “Well I should get going. The wife will be mad if I’m not back in time for dinner.”

“Hey,” Bruce called after him, pointing the axe in his direction. “Say hi to Nancy for me will ya?”

“Sure thing. If I don’t…you gonna come after me with that axe?”

Bruce slapped the axe head against his free hand in a mock threatening gesture.

“We’ll see…” he said with a mischievous grin. Roger laughed.

“Well gotta go! See you later Bruce!”

“Later.”

Roger turned away, putting the other ear bud in and jogging lightly down the road. Bruce watched until he disappeared around the corner, blocked from sight by the trees. About five minutes later, he had finished his task. He moved the cut pieces of wood back over to the pile, pulling the blue tarp over them.

Bruce…

Bruce rushed back inside, letting the front door slam behind him.

Bruce

 

The rest of the afternoon went by without incident. The sun had dipped below the horizon by the time Bruce started cooking some burgers on the stove. The scent of searing meat reached his nostrils and left his mouth watering for more. It had been a while since he had eaten hamburgers, and tonight was a long time coming.

He wasn’t sure what time it was, but at some point he became suddenly aware of a flicker of orange light behind him, reflecting off the wooden wall. He turned, not really sure what to expect.

His jaw dropped. A hooded figure sat outside, with a fire roaring in the pit.

For a brief second, Bruce couldn’t move. His legs felt like stone, rooted to the spot. He just stared at the silhouette outside. He could even hear the faint crackling of the fire. The figure seemed to be unaware of him, intently focused on the roaring flames.

Then, the fear vanished, replaced by a red flash of anger.

Bruce stomped into his bedroom, retrieving his firearm and flashlight. He rushed out the front door without hesitation, raising the gun as he stormed around the side of the cabin.

“Look, I don’t know who the hell-”

But his words and the anger that fueled him vanished as he rounded the corner. There was nothing.

No hooded figure.

No fire.

There wasn’t even any sign of a fire. Blackened ashes still lay in the fire pit, left over from the last time Bruce had used the pit.

That had been weeks ago.

The world suddenly felt like it was tilted, making Bruce unsteady on his feet. He stumbled forward, nearly slamming his shoulder into the cabin wall. He felt almost like being drunk, unable to think or walk straight.

But no, he was not drunk. He hadn’t had a drop since that night almost two years ago, that night he had been slurping on a bottle of whiskey when the dispatch radio crackled to life…

Bruce…

He felt a creeping shiver rush up his spine, tiny electric needles pricking his back. Spinning around fast, he accidentally lost his footing and fell. He ended up sprawled on the grass with a yelp, staring out at the darkness of the trees.

Bruce…

“No…no no no,” he mumbled to himself as he got up from the ground. He hurriedly made his way back to the front of the cabin, holding his hand against the wall to steady himself. Bruce ripped open the front door and rushed inside. He leaned against the door, panting.

Bruce, it’s only-

“Shut up shut up,” he screamed aloud, covering his ears with his hands. “You’re not real! You can’t be real!” He panted heavily, his whole body shaking. He slid down the door until he was sitting on the ground. The urge to cry was overwhelming…an intense wave of raw emotion rolling over him.

Seconds felt like minutes. Minutes felt like hours. But eventually, his breathing became steady. He pulled his hands away from his ears and listened.

Nothing.

And then, Bruce laughed at himself. So stupid. So fucking stupid. Voices in the woods? What is this, some cheap b-rate horror movie? Bruce got to his feet with a chuckle and moseyed his way back to the kitchen.

His good humor only lasted for a moment when he laid his eyes on the blackened pieces of meat still cooking away in the pan.

“God damn it,” he muttered to himself, picking up the spatula and removing the slices of meat.

It wasn’t quite the meaty reunion he had wanted, but surprisingly, despite being a little crunchy, the hamburgers actually tasted just fine. Add in some lettuce, tomato, and bacon, and he could’ve had himself a regular BLT. But for now he just plopped some cheese on top. He sat down and ate at the kitchen table, the fear a distant memory. Of course it had been his imagination. What else could it have been?

Denial is a powerful motivator.

When he had finished eating, Bruce got up and set his plate in the sink. Turning around, he found the revolver staring at him from the kitchen table. He had forgotten to put the gun away, had just set it down on the table along with the flashlight after getting back inside.

“You’re getting on in years old man,” he told himself. “Your mind’s going and you’re starting to see and hear things.” He picked up the gun and flashlight, making his way toward the bedroom.

He had almost forgotten there was even a window at the end of the hallway. When the hooded figure suddenly loomed up from behind the curtains, Bruce uttered a startled cry and stumbled backwards, falling onto his back. Gasping heavily, he sat up and pointed the gun at the window But the figure was gone.

Suddenly, Bruce found himself wishing he had his service weapon from back on the police force: seventeen-round clip, semi-automatic…much better than the clunky revolver with its six-round cylinder and obnoxious recoil. But he was stuck with it.

Young Bruce had thought the gun looked stylish and cool.

Old Bruce thought Young Bruce was a dumbass.

Still shaking, he nevertheless managed to pick himself up off the kitchen floor and make his way to the bedroom. He set the gun and flashlight down on the bedside table and collapsed into bed, not even changing into his pajamas before falling asleep.

 

The local park in Auburn afforded a good view of the surrounding area. Trees waved back and forth in the breeze, and the sun was high. The nearby lake sparkled in the sunlight, gleaming white. As Bruce casually strolled through the park, he knew it was just what he needed.

He had felt so cooped up in the cabin the last few days that he just need to get outside and take a walk, needed to get some distance between him and the forest. The day was perfect. It had actually warmed up for once, and Bruce was able to get away with just a light jacket. The breeze wasn’t too harsh, and the sun felt warm on his skin.

As he walked, he noticed a small family playing in the grass: a mother, father, and two boys. Bruce had never bothered to settle down and have a family. He never had the time for it. His job was his life in that regard. Never married either. Sure, he had a couple of flings over the years, but nothing serious ever came out of them. He made certain of that. No need to get tied down, Bruce thought to himself.

Nevertheless, as he watched the father and the two boys toss a ball back and forth, a pang began to form in his stomach, a type of yearning. He wondered how things might have been different if he had taken the time to develop a serious relationship. Would he have ended up in the same place? Would it have lasted?

Bruce shook off the sudden feelings of regret and continued walking, basking in the warm light of the afternoon. After about an hour of strolling around the park and surrounding areas, he returned to his car and drove back home.

As he pulled up to the cabin, he couldn’t shake the sensation that it had transformed into a prison…

 

Bang bang bang

Three loud knocks shook him out of his sleep. Well that’s new, Bruce thought to himself, still so groggy that the seriousness of the situation hadn’t yet set in. Bruce got up from his bed and went to take a look, leaving the flashlight and gun behind. As he entered the kitchen, the banging sounded again.

It was coming from the front door.

Now fully awake, the fear began to grip him. Who the hell is knocking at my door at this time of night? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer. Without even being aware of having done so, Bruce found himself standing in front of the door, hand outstretched toward the door handle.

He blinked. Why in the hell would he do that? There was no one out there that he’d want to talk to, not this late in the night.

The knocks came again, this time quieter but more insistent.

Knock knock knock…

Bruce flew from the door and rushed back into the bedroom, slamming the door shut behind him and locking it. He clambered into his bed and pulled the covers up over his head. His whole body shook, in the grips of ice-cold terror.

The knocking came again…only this time it was coming from right outside his window…

Knock knock knock…

Bruce scrunched his eyes shut. He didn’t want to look. He didn’t want to see.

The knocking continued in intervals for what felt like hours, but was probably only ten minutes. Eventually, it stopped and the oppressive feeling in the air vanished. Bruce stopped shaking and his breathing slowed down to normal.

He didn’t remember falling asleep, but the next time he opened his eyes there was light streaming into the room from the slight opening in the curtain.

 

Fuck this, he thought to himself as he haphazardly threw clothes into a suitcase. Fuck. This. I was a cop for nearly two damn decades. I’m not gonna let some damn noises in the dark be the end of me. I’m not gonna let my imagination get the best of me.

That morning, he made the decision to get away from the place for a little while. He wasn’t sure where he was going to go, but he figured he could find a cheap motel for a few nights.

Once everything he needed was in, he slammed the suitcase closed and latched it. Making his way outside, he threw the luggage into the back of his truck. The air had chilled again, and he shivered a little as he climbed into the truck. He put the key into the ignition and turned.

He turned it again.

And again.

Nothing…

The engine didn’t even chug. The truck was dead.

Bruce sat there staring in disbelief. How was that possible? He couldn’t be out of gas. He had topped the car off just yesterday. Could it be the battery? He checked to make sure he hadn’t left the headlights on or anything else. Nope, everything was off, just as he had left it. Even the overhead dome light was turned off.

He was silent for a moment, utterly still like a statue. Then, without warning, he began furiously punching the steering wheel, cussing and screaming. This lasted for a good ten seconds before he fell silent, his hands aching. He unclenched his fists and looked at them. They were bruised red, raw from the sudden rush of anger that had overwhelmed him, that had driven away all common sense.

As quickly as it had come, it passed. Rationality reigned once again.

Roger…Roger would be on his jog this afternoon. He could ask him for help when he passed by. Suddenly his situation did not seem so dire.

But a realization hit him, and his heart sank like a stone. He was out of firewood. And the only way to get more – his eyes moved slowly toward the treeline – was to go in there.

Intense trepidation filled his entire being. He still hadn’t been able to explain his irrational fear of the place, nor the strange apparitions and voices he had seen over the past week. He wasn’t yet ready to accept a supernatural explanation. But there was definitely something wrong with the forest…he knew it deep inside every time he looked at the trees.

Now, staring into its depths, the knot in his stomach only grew tighter.

The way he saw it, he had two options: either risk freezing to death, or face his fears. As he open the car door and stepped back outside, he decided on the latter. He grabbed the chainsaw from the shed, dropped it in the wheelbarrow, and made his way into the woods.

 

Bruce kept his eye focused straight ahead, didn’t want to look to either side, didn’t want to see if there was anything watching him from behind the trees. He was in the grip of full blown paranoia, sure that everything in the forest had eyes on him. He gritted his teeth and kept pushing forward, the wheelbarrow rocking and jostling over every little bump in the ground.

Eventually, he came to a small clearing. It was here that he found his target: a couple of large oak trees that had been struck down by a storm. He had scouted them out the last time he went in the woods to chop up some logs. He parked the wheelbarrow and ran his hand along the bark of one of them. He was relieved to find it completely dry. That should make the job easier, he thought to himself as he pulled his ragged work gloves on.

A buzzing roar ripped through the air as Bruce started the chainsaw’s motor. It made quick work of the fallen tree, cutting it into nice, thick logs. In a short time, he found himself done with one tree and began work on the other. It felt like barely any time at all had passed before he found himself with a wheelbarrow full of logs, ready to be split.

Bruce found himself looking forward to the feel of a warm fire in the fireplace as he swiveled the wheelbarrow back around, making his way back along the path through the trees. In his current state of mind, he felt so silly about everything that had come to pass over the past few days.

Bruce…

Damn, he thought to himself, I should’ve bought some marshmallows at the store. He always enjoyed campfires as a kid, making s’mores. Maybe that was what he needed, a good reliving of the past.

Bruce…

He was in high spirits as he pushed the wood-filled wheelbarrow down the trail, the crisp fall air filling his nostrils. Yellow and red leaves were fluttering down from the trees above, as they shed their foliage in preparation for the coming winter. This year would be different. This year he would keep a good stockpile of wood going. He would have a fire every night, and wrap himself up in a nice, warm blankets.

He wouldn’t let the cold get to him. And, if anything went wrong, he could always call upon Roger for help.

Bruce

His mood came crashing down the moment he heard the voice. He stopped the wheelbarrow and turned around, eyes quivering as he scanned the treeline. No…no no no…this is not happening again, he thought to himself. This is NOT happening.

Bruce…it is only natural that you feel this guilt after all that has happened…

The familiar voice echoed, wispy and faint, but distinct at the same time. He was beginning to place it in his memory, but how could it be possible…why was he hearing him all the way out here?

Your mental state is hardly surprising…

His psychiatrist…that goddamn tweed wearing shrink. Why here? Why now?

Wait…don’t shoot!

Another voice yelled out into the forest. His heart began to beat rapidly, thundering in his chest. He stood frozen on the path, staring into the darkness of the woods.

All units, we have a 10-65 in south end…

A distant voice…a radio from another place, another time. Memories…shadows…resurfacing…

Just another “good guy with a gun”, right?

“No…shut up,” he said aloud, putting his hands over his ears.

Jail the pig! Jail the pig! Jail the pig!

“Shut up shut up shut up,” he shouted, his voice becoming more hysterical.

JAIL THE PIG JAIL THE PIG JAIL THE PIG JAIL THE PIG JAIL THE PIG

The voices were so loud now…they were practically screaming in his ears.

JAIL THE PIG JAIL THE PIG JAIL THE PIG

SHUT UP SHUT UP FOR FUCK’S SAKE SHUT THE FUCK UP,” he screamed at the top of his lungs.

Almost immediately everything stopped. Bruce pulled his hands down from his ears and looked up. The silence was deafening…everything was absolutely still. It was as though time itself had been stopped. There was no movement, no noise, nothing.

But he could still feel it…deep in the woods, watching…and waiting…

One second, everything was still. Then, without warning, an inky black mass erupted from the treeline in front of him. It surged forward like a massive wave…liquid darkness…shadowy evil…

Bruce wasted no time. He abandoned his wheelbarrow and sprinted as fast as he could back towards the cabin. His lungs were burning hard as he ran. He could feel the darkness behind him, keeping pace, maybe even moving a little faster than he was. He broke free of the trees into the clearing and sighted his cabin…his comforting, warm cabin. Bruce rushed toward the cabin as the darkness continued to ooze toward him from the forest. When he reached the front door he took one last glance toward the forest.

He wished he hadn’t.

The darkness now towered above the trees, eclipsing the sky. Day turned to night in an instant. The inky mass rushed upward and then started to pour down, toward him, toward the cabin.

Bruce ripped open the door and ran inside, slamming it shut. He stood in the entryway for a moment, panting and terrified.

It was the burning in his throat that made him realize he had been screaming.

Thinking quickly, Bruce locked the front door. He rushed around the cabin, shutting the curtains and making sure all the windows were locked. He could feel the black mass pulsing outside, coiling, looking for a way in. His head began to hurt, as though someone was putting pressure on it. Once he had locked and curtained all the windows, he rushed into his bedroom and shut the door. He retrieved his gun from the drawer and sat down against his bed.

His temple pounded. His forehead felt swollen. He held his head in his hands, rocking back and forth, scrunching his eyes shut. It was the migraine to end all migraines, and no matter how much Bruce tried to ignore it, the pressure only intensified with each passing second.

He could feel it. It was boring into his mind, his soul…

And then, he screamed.

He wasn’t armed! He didn’t have a gun! He never had a gun!”

Almost instantly, the pressure relented. The presence was still there, but for the moment, his body and head felt some relief.

But it didn’t matter. He had said it. After all this time of denial, it had exploded out of him.

The truth was a runaway train that couldn’t be stopped.

Bruce stared ahead blankly, his eyes glazing over as the facade he had erected over his life came crashing down…

 

We love to tell ourselves that we are the hero in our story. The idea soothes us, give us solace when life is bitter and unforgiving. But the reality is that the narrative of our existence is much more complicated.

That night, as he sat in his squad car with a half-empty bottle of whiskey, Bruce Thompson found himself itching for some action.

He had been sitting at the same intersection for an hour now, watching out for traffic violators: speeders, drunk drivers, and so on. It was a boring job and a boring night. Wednesday was not a good day of the week to be stuck alone at a traffic stop. But it was his job, and so he was here.

The crackling radio interrupted his ruminating.

“All units, we have a 10-65 in south end, armed robbery in progress at a local gas station convenience store. Any nearby units in the area, please respond.”

Bruce picked up the radio.

“Thompson, squad car four. Can you send me the address? I’m right in south end.”

The radio crackled with static briefly, distorting the female dispatcher’s words. But Bruce believed he heard the address clearly. He punched it into his GPS and sped off to the location, sirens wailing.

It was only a couple of minutes before he was pulling up to the gas station. He slammed on the brakes, leaving his car parked just outside the front doors. He jumped out, hand already at his holster. In his haste to rush inside, he didn’t even notice the two people sitting outside having a smoke, nor did he see the odd look they gave him.

He burst through the door, drawing his gun into his hand. A quick scan of the store revealed that there were only two people present: the cashier, a young male with brown hair and brown eyes, and someone in a gray hoodie, baggy jeans, and white sneakers.

Bruce caught the confused, scared look of the cashier seconds before he raised his gun. At the time, he just took it as fear from being held at gunpoint by a robber.

“Police! Put your hands up and turn around slowly,” he commanded.

The hooded figure flinched, frozen stiff. Then, hands still close to his side, the figure began to turn around. Something metallic glinted in the light streaming in from outside.

One word flashed through Bruce’s mind.

Gun

“Wait…don’t shoot!” But the cashier had spoken up too late.

BANG BANG BANG BANG

Bruce fired four shots, each one striking center mass. The person in the hoodie jerked spasmodically as the bullets hit their target. The figure collapsed to the floor in a heap, their breathing hoarse as blood pooled on the tile beneath them.

Bruce stood there for a long time, staring…disbelieving…

It was a kid…just a kid…he was probably in his early twenties. He had dark skin, dark brown eyes, and – from what Bruce could see – black curly hair underneath the hood. There was no gun in his hands…just a set of car keys, along with a pair that were probably for his apartment.

He couldn’t speak, couldn’t think. His gun was hanging limply by his side, as the horror of what he had just done washed over him.

Bruce Thompson had the wrong address.

Bruce Thompson had misread the situation.

Bruce Thompson…was a murderer.

 

Everything was a blur after that. He was carted to and from the courthouse every day after the trial started. And every day the protesters were waiting for him.

“Jail the pig! Jail the pig,” they shouted. That was their favorite chant. Even Bruce had to admit that it had a ring to it.

He said nothing during the trial, didn’t want to say anything. He vaguely remembered the prosecutor’s opening arguments. “Just another “good guy with a gun” right? I’ll leave it to you, the jury, to decide. I know you’ll make the right choice.” Then the prosecutor sat down, shuffling his papers. A moment later, his lawyer stood before the jury. He painted Bruce as a dedicated professional, a great cop with a long career. He told them all about how Bruce had served for nearly twenty years, painted him as a pillar of the community.

Was it all lies? Bruce didn’t know anymore.

It was only after the trial that he found out about the video one of the two witnesses outside the store shot on their phone and how it was confiscated by the police. It managed to get mysteriously corrupted shortly after the prosecution requested that the video be turned in as evidence. He didn’t realize how his buddies on the force had surreptitiously removed the half-empty bottle of booze from his squad car, how they had “forgotten” to give him a breathalyzer test on the scene.

He realized none of these things. Or didn’t care. It made little difference.

The trial ended as the jury handed down a verdict of “not guilty”. Evidently the prosecutor wasn’t able to prove that Bruce had intended to kill the kid when he fired.

Had he shot to kill? Even he didn’t know. He just remembered thinking “gun” and then his weapon going off. Regardless of the verdict, he was forced to turn in his badge and was placed on probation.

Months went by, and he stayed in his house as much as he could. He didn’t want to go outside, didn’t want to go into public. The accusing glares followed him, the hushed whispers, the hateful yelling…it was everywhere. He didn’t want to step outside and see the graffiti plastered all over the front of his house. He had given up on painting over it because for every one he covered up, four more would appear in its place by the next morning.

He spent a lot of time with a knife or gun in his hands, sitting at the kitchen table, pondering how easy it would be…

Then, one day when he was forced to go out for groceries, he was wandering the aisle when he spotted a kid playing around with a colorful toy gun. The kid pointed it at him, mimed shooting him.

“Bang bang,” he said. “You’re dead mister.”

That was it…that was the final blow. The tears flooded out and he collapsed into a ball on the floor. The next thing he knew people in white coats and blue uniforms were looking down at him.

He saw the therapist the next week.

“Bruce, it is only natural that you feel this guilt after all that has happened. Your mental state is hardly surprising,” he remembered the therapist saying. “I’ve treated a few cops in my time, and the symptoms you are showing are nothing unusual. Have you been having any nightmares?”

His dreams were filled with gunshots and screaming, were filled with the bodies of dead children…

A few sessions later, he walked out of the therapist’s office, pill bottle in hand. Haloperidol…he had been diagnosed with what the therapist termed as “Post Traumatic Stress-induced Psychosis”. Now he was on meds, just like the rest of the country.

A couple of months went by, the graffiti and the protests outside his house never letting up. Then one night, someone hurled a brick through his living room window.

He decided to leave town the next day.

He packed up his essential belongings and was gone that same day. He drove all day, across state lines, farther and farther from civilization. He slept in a parking lot that night, cold and miserable.

The next day, as he continued his drive, the radio reported that there had been a house fire. It was his house. It burned down the night after he left.. He listened to the news with little more than a cold numbness. He deserved to burn, along with that house.

He arrived at the cabin later that day. It was a frigid, late winter afternoon, and the state of the cabin was pathetic to put it mildly. No one had been there in years.

The first few days were the hardest. Nightmares assaulted his sleep every night, and whenever he woke up he was greeted only by the bone chilling cold of winter seeping in to the cabin through any passage it could find. He was eventually able to procure some firewood for himself. He made a nice warm fire every night and slept on the couch, at least until the weather warmed up.

And somehow, someway, as time continued to march on, Bruce began to change his narrative. He told himself that the kid he shot had indeed been a robber, had indeed been armed and had indeed meant to shoot him. He told himself that he had been in the right, that he had made the only decision he could.

He began to believe it.

The lie became reality.

And the truth became nothing more than a distant, repressed memory.

 

I shot that kid, he thought to himself. Shot him in cold blood…god I’m a miserable, stupid fuck.

Bruce sat against his bed for what felt like an eternity, wallowing in his self-imposed misery. How had he let things get this far? How had he convinced himself that he had been in the right? It perplexed him, but at the same time he knew it didn’t matter. The past was the past. There was no changing it.

Bang bang bang

The intense knocking interrupted his thoughts and broke him out of his trance. Bruce stood up and made his way into the kitchen hesitantly. It was pitch black outside as far as he could see, but somehow he knew the darkness was ever shifting, pulsating, observing…

The banging grew louder and more insistent. It was at the front door. Bruce opened his mouth to say something, but the words caught in his throat and refused to come out.

He raised his gun as the door before him began to buckle, the wood splintering as whatever was behind the door continued its assault. Bruce felt his grip on the gun tighten. His breathing intensified, the adrenaline rushing through his veins. He felt focused, ready to take action.

The door broke with a loud cracking noise and fell to the ground.

Bruce fired.

BANG BANG BANG

A moment passed. He let the gun fall to his side. He stared. No…it can’t be…that’s impossible…

Dead brown eyes looked up at him from underneath a gray hoodie, little strands of curly black hair slinking out. It was him…the kid. The kid that he had shot. The hooded figure that had been taunting him at night. The kid was here. But that was impossible. He was dead. He had died nearly two years ago.

He still had the wounds. They looked the exact same as they had that night, meaty chunks of flesh ripped aside from the passage of the bullets.

The darkness quivered outside…laughing…

A stark sort of clarity came over him. Of course it had to be this way. It was always going to be this way. There was no other end for him, no other course. His fate had been decided the night he pulled the trigger. It didn’t matter what he did, how he struggled, what he changed about himself. All paths led him here. There were no more forks in the road.

His hand moved as if it had a mind of its own. Cold steel kissed Bruce’s temple.

BANG

 

Sheriff Terry Turner shook his head as he gazed down at the two bodies.

“What’ve we got here George,” he asked the coroner.

“If I had to guess,” the coroner replied, “looks like we got ourselves a murder suicide.”

The sheriff shook his head again, deep green eyes looking over the corpse with a hole in its head. Bruce goddamn Thompson…so this is where you’d been hiding all this time. He nodded at the other body.

“Who’s he?”

“Roger Freeman,” the coroner replied. “Local neighbor. He was the one that called us last night, said he heard Thompson in the woods screaming his head off. He phoned it in, then must’ve come here to see what the problem was. I’m betting it was him that broke down the door to get in, after he couldn’t get a reply from inside.”

“Little did he know Thompson was waiting on the other side, with a loaded gun,” the sheriff finished.

“Poor fella…he was just trying to do the right thing,” the rookie deputy standing next to him said sadly, his brown eyes twinkling. The sheriff had no reply. He had seen so many scenes like this. What was one more?

“Thompson ran all the way out here,” the rookie mused. “Didn’t someone burn his house down?”

The sheriff shook his head.

“That’s what they thought at first, given all the controversy surrounding him. But in the end, they found it was just a faulty outlet that sparked and set the whole thing ablaze.”

Just then, another officer emerged from the back hallway, carrying an orange capsule.

“Sir, take a look at this.”

The sheriff took the pill bottle from the officer’s hand. He let out a low whistle.

“Haloperidol huh…that’s a pretty strong anti-psychotic right?”

“Yes sir,” the officer replied.

“But from the looks of it,” the sheriff continued, “this pill bottle’s been empty for a while…weeks even.”

“If the last refill date on the bottle is correct,” the officer said, “then it’s been empty three weeks.”

Sheriff Turner looked over the bottle, then back down at the bodies on the floor. He was silent for a moment. Then he shrugged.

“All right, I think I’ve seen enough,” he said, handing the bottle back to the officer. “Bag it and tag it.” He turned to the coroner. “You’ll send me the autopsy notes when you’re done right George?”

“Yes sir…just finishing up here and then I’ll cart these two to the morgue,” he replied.

“Good. Let’s go kid,” he motioned to the deputy and the two of them exited the cabin. Once they were outside, the deputy spoke up again.

“So, what are we putting down on the incident report?”

The sheriff let out a small laugh. The deputy looked confused.

“Did…did I say something funny?”

“No,” the sheriff replied. “I’ve just forgotten what it’s like to be new. I’ve been at this so long that crime scenes just speak to me, you know what I’m sayin’?”

“I-I think so,” the deputy stuttered.

When they got back to the sheriff’s truck, he leaned on the roof, examining the deputy carefully.

“It’s a pretty open and shut case. At some point in the past few weeks, Thompson went off his meds. With his fragile mental state following everything that had happened, it was only a matter of time before he suffered a break. The lack of meds must have accelerated the process. He became paranoid, delusional. Probably thought Mr. Freeman was a robber or something and shot him dead. And then, after seeing what he did, he shot himself,” the sheriff concluded, miming a gun to the head.

For some reason the deputy didn’t look totally convinced.

“What’s on yer mind kid,” the sheriff asked. The deputy paused for a moment before answering.

“It’s just…I’m thinking about Thompson.”

“Yeah? What about ‘im?”

“Well, when we talked to those local shop owners over in Auburn, they said he seemed cheery and normal, like it was just another day for him.”

The sheriff was starting to get irritated.

“And…what,” he said.

“I don’t know,” the deputy replied. “I just think it’s weird that he seemed so normal just days before he shot himself.”

“Look kid, Thompson was off his meds. Nothing he did probably made any sense to anyone but himself. You gotta learn to let things go sometimes. I doubt you’d find anyone too interested in knowing why he did what he did. Thompson was public enemy number one in a lot of people’s books for a while.”

“I just thought it was worth looking into,” the deputy said.

“Well it ain’t. His motivations don’t matter. He was crazy, simple as that.”

Terry…

“I thought we were supposed to chase every avenue of investigation.”

“There’s a difference between avenues of investigation and plain nonsense,” the sheriff replied. “Guess which one you’re going after?”

Terry…

“Sorry…I just thought I was being helpful,” the deputy said, looking downcast.

The sheriff sighed, his anger cooling.

“It’s all right kiddo…you’ll learn to recognize what is useful information and what is just fluff. It’s part of being a cop…learning to read between the lines. Now come on,” he said, pulling open the driver’s side door, “let’s get back to the station and finish this up.”

Terry

The sheriff stopped, one leg inside the car. He got back out, staring at the forest beyond the clearing.

“Hey Sheriff,” the deputy’s voice called, “everything all right?”

“Did you hear a voice just now,” the sheriff asked after a moment.

“No…might’ve just been the wind.”

“Yeah,” the sheriff said. “Just the wind.”

Terry

“That’s all it was.”

The two of them got into the car and closed the doors. The sheriff did his best to hide the fear in his eyes, but his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. He didn’t want to think about the hospital, didn’t want to think about all those nights he chose to work the job rather than visit. He didn’t want to think about that demon cancer, how it took her over and wasted her body away.

He didn’t want to think about how she had died alone in her bed, while he was dealing with a couple of drunk teenagers.

Sheriff Turner put the key in the ignition and turned the car on.

Terry

He shifted the car into reverse and backed up so quickly that the deputy let out a nervous chuckle, gripping the door handle to steady himself.

“Whoa…easy there chief…we in that big of a rush?”

Sheriff Turner didn’t respond. He shifted into drive and sped off down the driveway. He didn’t know why, but his gut was telling him he needed to get as far away from the forest as possible.

Terry

Horror Analysis: The Strengths and Weaknesses of Different Story Mediums

The horror genre is one that has been around for a very long time.  Pretty much since we’ve been aware that things go bump in the night, we’ve been telling stories about them.  Some served a precautionary purpose, to keep kids from wandering around alone late at night.  But some were just for fun, to frighten others or even to frighten ourselves.  There is a morbid curiosity that draws people to the genre, one that continues to this day.

So for this week’s post, I wanted to dive into the strengths and weaknesses of different storytelling mediums, specifically three: books, movies, and video games.

 

Books

Strengths: Books have a unique ability to tap into the human mind, making it spin an image of what it is describing on the page.  Since books don’t have the same visual strength as movies or games, they rely on this ability to engage our imaginations, forcing us to come up with our own visual interpretations of events and places.  And in that sense, books are very powerful.  The mind can weave a web of macabre images much better than any movie camera or video game engine.  Rather than being hamstrung by the limitations of visual production, books leave it up to the person reading to generate the movie in their heads while reading.  This means that a person’s own fears or anxieties can feed into the power of the narrative, making something spookier than perhaps even the author intended.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, this reliance on the imagination is a bit of a double-edged sword at times.  The mind is a powerful thing yes, but if it isn’t given enough stimulation then it won’t generate as spectacular an image as it could.  This makes it necessary for the author to be exceedingly good at descriptive writing, particularly in horror.  If you can’t evoke emotions of fear or dread in the reader, they won’t buy into your story.  You can’t just say “the house was creepy”.  You have to show them the house was creepy, like saying “the old, dilapidated swingset creaked forlornly in the backyard, caked under years of orange rust.”  That evokes some feelings in the reader.  But it’s a tricky balance.  Show them too much, and it gets boring to read.  Show them too little, and they won’t be invested.

 

Movies

Strengths: The art of the visual medium is indeed a very powerful one.  Cinematographers can use various tricks and techniques to draw our attention to something or make us feel uneasy.  Strange, tilted camera angles tend to make a viewer feel slightly disoriented or anxious, and darkened lighting only aids in that effect.  In older days, movies relied a lot on lighting and setting to craft its feelings of horror.  As the technology only grew more and more sophisticated, so did the methods of scaring people visually.  Music can also play a key role in this, as it tends to heighten certain emotions in people depending on the type of music playing (i.e. classical music makes people feel relaxed).  Movies can also be sneaky.  They can place something spooky just off the side of the screen, and whether or not a viewer sees it depends on them.  Compare this to a book, which would have to literally describe said thing otherwise no one would know it’s there.

Weaknesses: I’ve bemoaned this a number of times before, but as movies became more and more sophisticated it also become more and more of an industry.  And industries like trends.  So when movies like Paranormal Activity hit the scene and were huge hits, cue the onslaught of movies involving cheap jumpscares and demons.  As I’ve said before, I actually enjoyed the Paranormal Activity movies (the first three anyways).  But the constant influx of similar themed movies gets pretty old.  There can only be so many chapters of Insidious and so many movies set in the Conjuring movie universe before people start wondering “okay, but what’s next?”  You can only do so many movies with characters being stalked in the shadows by some supernatural being before it falls flat.  And then Hollywood is on to finding the next big trend.

Rinse and repeat.

 

Video Games

Strengths: The interactive nature of video games are their greatest asset when it comes to horror.  Things feel a bit different when you are controlling the character being chased rather than watching it happen or reading about it.  There’s a whole new sense of dread that comes from being forced to enter an area you don’t want to go in.  You know you need whatever is in there, but at the same time you know that something could be stalking around in the darkness, waiting to eviscerate you.  Games have a dynamic factor to them that also makes them very enticing.  Take for example, the game Prey from 2017.  The game takes place on a space station that’s been overrun by alien entities.  But some of them have the ability to disguise themselves as ordinary objects.  One second you’re looking at a coffee mug, and the next some shrieking black mass of tentacles is attacking your face.  It’s not scripted either.  If given enough time, they will run away and disguise themselves again as a nearby object, lying in wait for you to come around again.

Weaknesses: Video games’ weaknesses are two-fold.  First, there is repetition.  Take Alien Isolation as an example.  It’s a fantastic game that nails the atmosphere of the Alien franchise.  However, your first time through the game will likely take close to twenty hours to complete.  On top of that, since the alien itself is pretty much invincible, the only thing you can do is distract it or scare it off.  This can lead to a lot of trial and error sections of the game where you are continually killed by the creature and forced to repeat that same section multiple times.  Nothing sucks the life out of horror faster than frustration.

Secondly, it’s difficult to predict what a player is going to do.  A lot of times, a player will miss a scare because they weren’t looking in the right place at the right time.  Developers can use certain tricks such as lighting to draw a player’s eye to a specific spot, but even then it’s not guaranteed will look there when the scare happens.  Even good horror games occasionally wrench control away from the player in order to keep them focused on a particular scary moment.  This can backfire and annoy the player more than actually evoking any sort of fear response.

 

Conclusion

No medium is explicitly better than the other at crafting horror stories and scary moments.  Instead, I prefer to see them as providing different lenses to view the genre through.  I will definitely say that I consider horror movies to be the weakest of the three, but that’s more because of the multi-million dollar industry influencing what movies do and don’t get made.  In terms of potential I think all three mediums have great power.  It just takes the right mind to tap into it.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next week for another spooky post, and have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Two-Sentence Horror Stories

I know what you’re thinking…a post on a Thursday?  What kind of backwards Twilight Zone nonsense is this?

Don’t worry, you haven’t slipped into some crazy alternate reality.  It’s October!  The spookiest month of the year.  Being a fan of horror and all things scary, I can’t help but want to celebrate.  So here’s my plan:

I am returning to my old format of posting once a week for the entire month, this time on Thursday.  That way my last post lines up with Halloween itself.  It will be a special one, I can promise you that.

But to start things off, I wanted to take a stab at writing some two-sentence horror stories.  It’s pretty much what it sounds like, a horror story told with only two sentences.  Here’s an example I found online:

“She asked why I was breathing so heavily.  I wasn’t.”

Short and punchy.  While they might not be particularly deep and some of them will probably seem super corny, they make for an interesting writing exercise.  So what follows is my attempt at writing ten of them.  They might not be anything amazing, but it’s a fun little challenge.  So here we go.

(If you like this kind of thing, here is a link to a whole bunch more two-sentence stories for your reading pleasure.)

 

1. He watched as the paramedics lifted the man unto a stretcher, saying something about a drunk driver.  As they slid the gurney into the ambulance, he caught a glimpse of the man’s face and it was his own.

2. The view from the balcony was always beautiful, he thought.  His vision blurred and wobbled as he kicked the chair out from under him and the rope tightened around his neck.

3. She heard her brother’s voice calling her.  It was coming from the woods he disappeared in two years ago.

4. She tried to scream, but it was no good.  They had already sewn her mouth shut.

5. I can’t leave my house.  Every time I try, I wake up.

6. It was a nice day for a jog in the park he thought, until he heard the emergency warning siren.  A blinding flash caused him to shield his eyes, and the last thing he saw was a tower of mushroom fire reaching into the sky.

7. “Ungrateful brats”, he muttered to himself.  They begged and pleaded as he slid the padlock on the cellar door and locked it.

8. Ten minutes after she left, the phone rang and he answered it.  The cops informed him that her body had been decaying in those woods for at least three days.

9. He had always wanted more time.  Now, the sun never rose and strange shadows shifted in the darkness beyond his windows.

10. He heard the thumping in the basement.  But then he wondered…what basement?

 

Thanks for taking the time to read these.  Let me know what you thought down in the comments and look forward to more spooky musings throughout the month.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Ourang Medan

“All officers, including the captain, are dead.  Lying in chartroom and bridge.  Possibly whole crew dead.

… I die.”

 

This chilling Morse Code message was picked up by two American naval vessels in the 1940’s.  Feeling obligated to investigate, the ship’s location was triangulated with the help of friendly listening posts.  It was then that they realized that the distress call could have only come from one ship:

The Ourang Medan, a Dutch freighter.

After the realization, an American merchant ship known as the Silver Star, was sent to investigate.  It took several hours, but eventually the Ourang Medan was spotted by the ship’s lookout, floating peacefully amongst the waves.  Numerous attempts were made to contact the crew, but to no avail.  No signs of life could be seen aboard the vessel.

A search party was quickly organized, and the Ourang Medan was boarded.  Only then was it apparent that something truly horrific had occurred on the ship, as her decks were littered with the corpses of the crew.  Their faces were etched in macabre images of horror, wide eyes and arms outstretched as if trying to shield themselves from…something.  Even the ship’s dog couldn’t escape, as the poor animal was found to be snarling at whatever had caused the deaths of the crew.  The captain was found, predictably, on the bridge.  The bridge crew were found splayed out in the wheelhouse and the chartroom.  The radio operator, who sent the distress call, was found at his post, hand still clutching the radio in his death throes.

Soon enough, the search party of the Silver Star noticed some odd things.  Despite the temperature of the area being in excess of a hundred degrees, a dark chill could be felt emanating from somewhere on the ship.  The condition of her crew was terrifying to say the least, but no injuries of any kind could be seen.  The Ourang Medan itself had suffered no evident damage, which ruled out any theories of an attack by raiding pirates.

Eventually, the decision was made to tow the Medan back to port.  The ships were tethered together, and the Silver Star began its journey back to land.

It was then that they noticed the smoke.

A fire had broken out in the lower decks of the vessel, presumably in one of the cargo holds.  Odd, because none of the search party had seen a fire or come across any signs of one.  Nevertheless, the decision was made to cut the Medan loose before anything bad happened to the Star.  Moments later, the Medan exploded with enough force to lift the ship clean out of the water.  Then, the ship sunk beneath the waves, taking the remains of her crew and any answers to the mystery of their demise down into the dark depths of the sea.

 

Fascinating story, isn’t it?  But the real mystery is whether or not it even happened.  No records of any ship calling itself the Ourang Medan could ever be located.

There is a possible explanation for this.  A German booklet written in 1954 alleges that the ship was carrying a cargo of potassium cyanide and nitroglycerin.  Such a thing would be considered gross negligence, and if the allegation is true then it could explain the lack of records, as various parties would not want to be held liable for loading a ship with such dangerous cargo.  It would also explain the massive explosion shortly after the Silver Star’s attempt at salvaging.

There are plenty of other theories, ranging from ghostly wraiths to sinister Japanese chemical weapons experiments, but nothing has ever been definitive.  Still, it makes for a very fascinating and haunting story.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next month for another post, and as always, have a wonderful month!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.