Louise’s eyes welled with moisture as an animal cry shook her house, and she found herself shivering as it died away. She shivered in a very different way when she wiped at one eye and her fingertips came away crimson with blood.
It’s the hallucinations, she told herself. She winced and held a hand to her lower back as she rose to a standing position, blinking the blood out of her eyes. Has to be.
Again, the cry echoed through the town of Kennet, not a dog, not a wolf, nor coyote. It echoed as though it came from far away, bouncing off of the nearby mountains, but it had a volume better suiting something just outside of Louise’s home.
The doctors said I might see or hear things, she reminded herself. When the body’s in rough enough shape, the brain starts to go too.
It was a strange mix of emotions, feeling her heart race at the same time she felt at peace. She had been bracing herself for this since months ago.
She hobbled over to her kitchen, found her pills, and checked that the compartmentalized box with sections for each day of the week was in order. She hadn’t taken too many or done something wrong.
Disappointing. It would have been nice to have a simple, tidy explanation.
Thirty-five and having to double check my medications in the same way a woman twice my age might.
Her thoughts were disturbed by bloody tears dripping down onto the plastic pill separator and her kitchen counter. She tore off a paper towel from the roll and wiped it, and saw the blood streak, bleeding into the paper.
Too real. She would have expected things to add up less if this was fake, for the paper towel to wipe away the blood and then to have nothing on it, or for it to turn into something else. The only weirdness was that her eyes didn’t really sting enough. Shouldn’t blood in the eyes sting?
It was disconcerting, doubts bouncing around in her head at the same time she was calm and prepared for the worst. She had been warned about these hallucinations. Until tonight, they had been limited to fleeting shadows resembling shadowy monkeys or rodents in the corner of her vision, each of them darting away before she could meet them with her eyes.
Her cigarettes were by her pills. A sticky note was stuck to the carton, a note to herself scrawled on it:
One a night!
Might as well, while I’m up, she thought, and her thoughts had a tremble to them in the same way her voice might, if she were to try to speak. Feeling that tremble, she had to fight for a moment to keep the strangeness in her head divorced from her heart and her feelings.
She tapped the carton against the counter until a cigarette slid through the opening, placed the carton beneath the plastic pill separator, and grabbed her lighter.
She lit her cigarette with one hand while using the other to let herself out onto her front porch. She had to twist a bit to keep the wind from outside from extinguishing her lighter, and she felt a pain in her side like she’d been stabbed. The first time she had felt pain like that, it had dropped her to her knees. Now it was everyday.
The air was chilly and the wind blew directly in her face, forcing her to close her eyes. When she opened them again, she saw that the moon was bleeding.
The smoke from her first puff of her cigarette and the fog of her frozen breath mingled in the night air. The moon hung heavy in the sky, and blood welled out along the edges where it met the sky, heaviest toward the bottom, with trickles periodically running down the face of it, changing the light it reflected to a dull red. A thin trickle stabbed down to earth from the bottom-most portion of the moon.
Louise’s eyes traced the path of that trickle, and she saw a beast atop one of the forested hills. It was canid, red furred, and barely visible in the dark, against the backdrop of the mountain behind it. It was tall enough and massive enough that its furred belly traced the treetops. The blood from the moon met the creature’s head, ran between and around its pale eyes, down a throat with a heavy fur ruff, and down long, thin legs, out of sight.
Its back was hunched, its tail hanging straight down. That cry earlier-
Almost as if it were completing the thought for her, it raised its head, and it howled. It was so far away, but the mournful cry was still loud enough it made her worry the windows would rattle or make something break.
That was the same noise as before. As it carried on, Louise’s eyes welled with moisture once more, with blood instead of tears. Sympathy made her heart ache, while other pains erupted across her body. That spot at her lower back, off to one side, was the worst, a pain that had become too familiar in the last year.
Joints ached, her head pounded, and she found she couldn’t breathe or connect her thoughts.
When the pain subsided, Louise found herself doubled over. Bloody tears joined the still-burning cigarette on her front porch. Grabbing the railing at the boundary of her porch to steady herself, she scuffed the cigarette out with the toe of her boot, smearing the drips of blood around in the process.
The thing was still out there. Each step it took seemed to be an effort. It had moved, and now it slowly made its way into the town. The moon remained directly above it.
Just a hallucination, she thought. I shouldn’t change what I’m doing or get anxious because of it. The doctors warned me.
Driven by impulse, she stepped off her front porch, and climbed into her car, wincing at the pain in her midsection. This wouldn’t be the first time she hadn’t listened to her doctors.
She pulled onto the lonely mountain road that saw perhaps one car an hour, each property separated by a few minutes of driving.
She chased the colossal beast, using the bleeding moon to keep track of it when the tall pine trees or the dips in the road put the great beast out of sight. For long stretches of her trip down the isolated road, only her headlights provided any illumination. For the other stretches, the fact the moon was tinted red cast the entire city in crimson hues.
It was eight in the evening, which meant most of the buildings in Kennet were closed. Below the mountain road, shops were dark, and half the lights across the main road through town were off. The gas station was the first lit building she came across, garish and bright in the dark. It was the first thing she’d seen since she’d stepped out onto her porch that had light strong enough to cut through the dull red glow of the bleeding moon above. There, she caught up with the beast, a creature so tall that the roof of the car blocked her view of everything above the bends in its long, thin legs. The blood that ran down the legs seemed to disappear into the darkness of the fur that grew darker lower down, to claws that were as black as anything she’d ever seen.
Just outside the gas station, lit by the fluorescent lights from inside and the neon red Mushie sign, teenagers were gathered around a car. They didn’t seem to care or notice as the beast’s leg touched ground in the middle of the empty road, foot shifting and clawed toes parting as the leg took more of the creature’s weight, then picked up again, almost disappearing in the midst of the dark sky. Their attention was consumed by the snacks they were parceling out between them.
She couldn’t put a name to the children, but she was pretty sure she could name the families one or two of them came from. Kennet was that sort of town. Five thousand residents, two schools, two gas stations, and a theater that closed for the summer months because they didn’t get enough customers.
She slowed as she caught up with the creature. This close to it, everything about the world seemed to have a red tint, even the light from her headlights. Fascination overrode her everyday pain.
She could hear it now. The huffing breaths, the low sounds it made in its throat. Even with windows up and a windshield in the way, that throat higher above her than any treetop.
All of this felt like a dream.
It’s a hallucination, Louise, she told herself, as she leaned into her steering wheel, craning her head to look up through the windshield. Frustrated, she leaned back, steered to the side of the road, and shifted the car to park. She paused to look in the rear-view mirror, and saw her face, her eyes wide, blood running thick from the lower eyelids to her chin. Some of the blood stained her shirt collar.
She deliberated her next actions. She wasn’t wearing a winter jacket, because it hadn’t occurred to her in the moments between when she’d stepped off her porch and when she had started up her car. She was wearing boots, but that was because it was hell to keep her feet warm these days, more hell to bend down to pull the boots off. Endless health problems, and the boots offered better stability than her feet did. She took them off for bed and put them on after showering and drying her feet. That was it.
Underdressed for the weather as she was, she climbed out of the car, grunting at the pain in her back, shut and locked the door, and then followed the great beast on foot, leaning heavily into the railing that ran beside a set of concrete stairs. The stairs connected the straighter parts of the winding mountain road, so people in the town who wanted to travel up to the gas station on foot didn’t have to zig-zag their way up the lonely road. The fact the gas station was at the top would be why there was so much litter on either side of the staircase, including a half-full plastic bottle standing up on a stair that she nearly tripped over on her way down. She stopped herself mid-fall by catching the railing with both hands.
Embarrassing. It felt like yesterday that she had been one of those teenagers outside the gas station. Now she was a wreck, chasing a hallucination, and holding a railing with both hands because she was so infirm. Still only thirty-five.
She looked back to see if anyone had seen her stumble, and she saw a tiny figure crouched at the top of the stairs.
Small, like a chimpanzee in size and posture, it was lit from behind by the gas station, its features obscured. The same sort of thing she had seen out of the corner of her eyes, in what she’d thought and hoped would be the full extent of her hallucinations.
It wasn’t alone. Now that she looked, she saw four in total. The original one, two in the bushes, and one taller than she was a few stairs down from her.
With the way the light struck them, they were mostly silhouettes, to the point she couldn’t tell where they were looking or what they were doing, but she had the impression they were watching her or reacting to her.
All together, according to some signal she couldn’t see or hear, they ran off, in the same direction the beast was traveling. Before she realized what she was doing, she joined them, following down the stairs, both hands on the railing, crossing an empty road, and hobbling past a restaurant that was loading stuff into the back door from a dilapidated van.
The restaurant employees stared at her, but they didn’t run up to exclaim about the blood on her face. One young woman raised a hand in greeting, which would have been nice if she didn’t lean over to say something to a colleague, the look in her eyes wary.
I must look like a crazy person.
Because I am a crazy person, now.
One of the small shadows disappeared beneath the van. Three seconds later, someone dropped something, eliciting a cascading series of crashes.
Louise’s heart pounded as she left the scene behind, feeling guilty somehow, but feeling even more that she should follow the beast. It was long-legged, huge, but slower and slower to move, as if it had to gather courage or strength to steady itself before it could take the next step. She was just slow. These companions of hers that stuck so close to the shadows quickly passed her and scampered ahead.
She and her hallucinated companions reached the heart of Kennet, where the houses were close enough together that people had to worry about neighbors, and there was actual separation between business and home.
The shadowy figures stopped there, remaining just outside of the light from the streetlamps. Still following them, still hobbling a bit, because her side hurt, she walked into their midst before pausing. Looking up at the swaying, struggling beast, she pressed on alone.
Streets were a maze, laid out because the houses had come first, individual cabins and fixtures that had been set up wherever was convenient, not far from the lake’s edge. The roads had come later, the planners doing their best.
The taller buildings made it hard to keep the creature in view as she kept up with it. It was too much walking for her side, and she shivered with the cold.
It’s going by the Arena. Or to the Arena.
The Kennet Arena or the K-A was like the gas stations, brightly lit at a time the rest of the town had wound down. Here, the parking lot was filled with parents talking to parents, kids talking to kids. A good number of those kids were wearing hockey uniforms. The building itself was one of the largest in town, next to the hospital, hosting a full-size hockey rink and gymnasium. In a town with so little to do, there was usually a practice or a game at the K-A. This might have been one of the last games of the season for the kids.
The beast placed one foot on the roof as it walked over the building. Louise stopped at the street, hesitating at the traffic coming out of the parking lot, which was moving too slowly to let her believe the road would be clear, and too fast for her to make her way across the street.
She saw people looking at her, and felt self conscious. She hadn’t showered today, she realized. She was disheveled, she wasn’t wearing a coat, and she was hunched over a bit, one hand perpetually at her lower back. If they saw the blood welling from her eyes, they might have assumed she had been in a car accident. They didn’t, averting their gaze instead.
The great beast passed over the Arena, while she was trapped on the far side of the parking lot, feeling anxious.
It’s just a hallucination, remember? she thought. She was having trouble convincing herself.
Her awareness of her present state made her cringe more than anything as she heard the familiar voice.
She walked a few feet over to get a better look at Lincoln, an old classmate, leaning out of his truck window. He was heavy, with a scraggly orange and gray beard, wearing a plaid shirt and a plaid hat with ear-flaps.
“Doing okay?” he asked. “Want a ride?”
“Nah,” she said, anxious. She looked over in the direction of the Arena, but the lights above the parking lot were bright and she couldn’t clearly see the beast on the far side. The moon- she looked up. Still bleeding. “No need, my car’s parked near the gas station.”
He was trying to look friendly, but he had an anxious look on his face as he looked at her. More anxious as the cars behind him began honking. “That’s a long way. You don’t have a coat on.”
Someone behind Lincoln honked, long and loud, which spared Louise from having to decide on a response. He was holding them up. Not that he could go far, with the way the road was clogged. She would have crossed, but it was two lanes, and cars were going around him.
“Never been very good at taking care of myself, you know that, Linc,” she told him, her voice artificially light and cheery, even as her heart was heavy. She was aware of the blood, the ‘hallucination’, that Lincoln wasn’t reacting to. “Listen, I saw an animal run this way. Dog or dog-like. It headed around the Arena. I’m just going to-”
She was interrupted by a cry, long and loud, that felt like it could have knocked the snow from trees. Louise’s eyes were locked to Lincoln’s, and she held onto the fact that he wasn’t reacting, that he wasn’t bothered, that the cars around them were still honking, to keep from doubling over again.
She pressed a hand to her lower back.
“-me to come with?” he asked, the first part cut off by the tail end of the howl.
She shook her head, her eyes searching. The lights over the parking lot left deceptive spots in her vision, when she wanted to see through the darkness beyond. The honking continued, distracting.
The look he gave her was worried, pitying. This was the point she’d sunk to, now. If she’d once been one of those teenagers at the gas station, he could’ve been one of the others trading licorice for sour candies.
She saw a gap, started to cross, and a car honked. She stopped. It wasn’t a gap large enough for her to cross and continue to chase.
“Here, let me be an asshole. And if you get too cold, you get inside the Arena, okay?”
He steered his truck, inching into the other lane, so he blocked both lanes that led out of the Arena. The honking increased in intensity.
Louise gave him a wave of thanks as she jogged across the road, an action that almost took her breath away with the pain it brought. She saw a glimpse of the worried look he was giving her. Then he momentarily squealed his wheels in his hurry to get moving again.
She fast-walked between parked cars, stopping and taking the long way around here and there when people opened doors to get into their vehicles. She wanted to get to the back of the Arena.
She first tried to go around the left of the building, but the traffic there made navigation too hard, with several minutes of waiting as she hoped for a break in the traffic there.
She walked to the doors, and peered through, but the crowds were too thick, too many parents, too many kids, the route through the building too winding, and too many others who might stop an unwashed, unhinged woman. Unsure, she walked around to the right side of the building, and found a path littered with the cigarette butts from a hundred smoke breaks, a bit of a squeeze between the building and the dense foliage there. She had to duck her head and shield her face from branches as she cut through.
Finally, she emerged in the back parking lot, and her first thought was that things were too bright, too white.
When she looked up at the moon, it was so bright compared to what it had been that her eyes hurt. No longer strange, no longer dripping.
The great beast was gone, and she felt lost, like a child that had seen her birthday come and go with nobody remembering. She didn’t know why and she couldn’t put it together in her head with the visions of blood.
It couldn’t have, wouldn’t have gone far, she hadn’t been delayed so long that it could have left.
Feeling unfulfilled and still heartbroken, the feeling of the howling still heavy in her chest, she walked this way and that through the parking lot behind the Arena, aimless. A few people who had taken the shitty parking spots furthest from the building got in their cars to leave, girls in teal or orange hockey jerseys piling into the back with big sports bags.
A group of twenty-something men were packing up from their game of hockey on the outdoor rink, including Tom and Arnold from the ski hills. They were roommates, sharing the house two minutes down the road from her. Back when she’d been healthier, she’d caught their runaway dog and brought it back to them. They’d been good neighbors ever since. Helpers when she’d needed a lot of help, putting up a rod in her shower, checking in.
“Leaving already?” she called out, feeling very out of place.
“Hey, Louise,” Tom greeted her. He was dark haired, with the stubble kept even with a razor. “Ice is a mess. Everything’s thawing.”
“Yeah, too bad,” she said.
“Last outdoor skate of the season, I think.”
“I hope it was a good one.”
“Was alright. Need a ride?” he asked. His forehead creased in concern.
“Nah, thanks.” She waved him off.
At least he didn’t stop or insist.
She walked over to the rink, bounded by wooden boards that held up badly abused sheets of plexiglass that kept the pucks inbound.
Yeah, the ice was a mess.
Across the rink, she saw, there was a loose silhouette shape stained into the ice, matching a leg and paw of the great beast. It extended, she realized, into the trees at the back of the rink, and onto the mountain of snow that had been built up over months of the parking lot being plowed and the ice of two rinks being cleared off. It could well be the very last thing in Kennet to fully thaw. On that mountain of snow, if she walked around, she could see the general shape of the thing’s ear and muzzle. More of the stain extended across the outer perimeter of the parking lot.
All crimson. Blood.
She hugged her arms to her body, shivering, as she walked the length of it, around three-quarters of the parking lot’s perimeter. The red stain was thickest where the beast’s neck would have been. Blood was sinking into frozen ground and snow in a pool as large around as the rink was.
It was only now that she finally felt cold.
What had just happened? If this was a dream, was it supposed to symbolize something? Was she finally dying?
If it was something else, if it was actually important… she didn’t know who to turn to, who to ask.
The cars gradually emptied out of the parking lot. All but one of the lights shining down on the outdoor rink were turned off. There were only stragglers now. Girls talking while parents patiently waited. Parents talking while their children scuffed snow with the toes of their boots, skates hanging from their necks by laces that had been tied together.
She trembled, turning occasionally to try and find someone, or figure out where to go. She wiped at her cheek, and the blood had stopped flowing, starting to dry instead. It came away in flecks.
“Did you just get here?” A man’s voice.
“Yes.” A woman’s voice.
Louise turned her head to look. On the far side of the rink, standing between trees and the rink’s boundary, there were several people. Two women and a man, and two children. One of the children might have been humming or singing. It was hard to hear.
“We’re too late then,” the man said.
“Clearly,” said the woman standing by the rink. She was dressed well, with a nicer scarf and coat than most shops in Kennet sold, but she stood between the plexiglass and the trees, and a combination of scratches on the glass and the glaring reflection of the light above the rink obscured her from forehead to chin.
“What a mess, what do we do?” the other woman asked. Louise was pretty sure she’d seen her in town. Short, wide hips, maybe thirty. She had bleached blond hair underneath a toque, and the lights caught her eyes, making them seem too bright. Her expression was very serious. Worried.
“We do what we have to,” the woman with the hidden face said. “Everything by the book.”
“By the book, our lives will be turned upside down,” the man said. He was… Louise couldn’t place the name. He worked at the tackle and hunting shop. Friendly, easygoing. Twenty-something, broad shouldered with a rounded jawline that made him look slightly overweight, even though he wasn’t. The short beard he’d cultivated to suggest a jawline didn’t really do the trick.
He went on, more agitated. “By the books we’d have to invite outsiders in to handle this, and in the best case scenario, I’m pretty darn sure they don’t leave after. Most likely case, we’re goners. Murder doesn’t get any passes.”
“Calm down,” the woman with the toque said, putting a hand on his arm. “Don’t panic.”
One of the children grabbed her sleeve, holding a finger to his lips. All went silent, but for the distant chatter of people and youths just outside the doors to the Arena, and the faint singing, which wasn’t one of the two children here. Louise looked and saw more children in the dark between the trees.
All, child and adult, seemed to be looking at Louise now. The woman with the obscured face walked around her companions, her hands in her pockets, and stopped by a tree, her face blocked at first by their heads, and now by a low-hanging tree branch.
All were tense. Guarded.
“Do we know you?” the man asked.
Louise shook her head. “I know you work at Buckheed.”
“Yep,” he said. “You’re local?”
“Louise Bayer. I live up by Blue Gas.”
“I’m Matthew,” he said, and his smile was wide, friendly. He approached her. “You have blood…”
She touched her cheekbone. The blood was cold and entirely dry now. She brushed it off.
“Yeah,” he said. “You look frozen. Here…”
“You don’t have to-” she told him, remembering the talk of murder, backing up. But he was already pulling off his coat. He held it out.
She took it, if only to keep things friendly-ish. She winced as she reached out.
“Here,” he said. He held her hand through the coat, and she felt a note of panic as he led her away from the others, toward the center of the nearly empty lot. Uncomfortable and bewildered, she let him walk her away. It wasn’t like she could fight, in the condition she was in.
He helped her put on the coat as he continued leading her further away. “There.”
He backed up a few steps, his hands at his side. The look he gave his companions was anxious, but the look he gave her was kinder, set beneath eyebrows that were up and drawn together.
The fact he’d backed off, at least, helped keep this from feeling menacing.
The coat was warm. “Thank you. I’m… bewildered. I… you see that?”
She indicated the rink.
“I could try and make it all make sense for you, if you want,” he told her.
“Sure,” she said, hesitant. “That would be appreciated, hon.”
He nodded. “Tell me, are you one to lie? Never? Sometimes? Often? Do you know what I mean when I ask you that question?”
“I sure lie sometimes, more to myself than to others. You’re doing a bad job of making this all make sense with questions like that, Matthew.”
“Did you happen to bump your head? Brain tumor? Bad trip?”
“No, no, and no.”
“Early onset dementia?”
“I have diabetes. I had the warning signs, I ignored them for far too long, then I had full blown diabetes and I didn’t take care of myself after the diagnosis. Now my body has crapped out on me. Kidneys… I go to the hospital three times a week to get five hours of dialysis each time, and it’s not enough. Hurts like-” she noted the children. “-fudge.”
The damn children weren’t talking, weren’t playing. They just stood here and there. None of them matched in the clothes they wore or the groups they came from, none reminded her of locals she’d seen, and none moved their lips, though the singing and humming in the background persisted. The words of the song were indistinct.
“That kidney problem, or the diabetes, does it mess with your head? Or did you come back from the very brink of death?” he asked, gently.
“No brink for me. But when your kidneys go, you can start seeing things,” she answered. She watched him carefully, and saw him nod, as if this somehow added up. “Are you going to tell me this is all in my head now, Matthew?”
“You could say anything any of us see or experience is in our heads. But no. Listen, bear with me, and I think I can make it worth your while, and I don’t say that lightly.”
“And the world will make sense again, Matthew?”
“About as much sense as it did before you started seeing these things. Tell me, you saw her? Big, red, scary?”
“Big, red, beneath a bleeding moon.”
“That would be it.”
“But not scary. Sad. The blood on my face… I cried, hearing it.”
“Something that big, in your face, you’re not equipped to handle it,” Matthew said, and his voice was gentle. “That’s why you had the bleeding.”
“It was real?” she asked, and her voice was barely a whisper.
“That’s a very tough question to answer and I’d worry answering it would just lead to many more questions.”
“Not doing a very good job of making this make sense to me, Matthew.”
“I know,” he said. “Trust me. How long did you follow it?”
“From the hills by the bigger ski lodge to here. I only lost sight of it for a minute or two.”
“You tracked it here?”
“Followed it. Sure.”
The women were talking behind Matthew. The one with the obscured face broke away from the conversation. He noticed Louise looking, and turned his head.
“We can’t tamper with the witnesses too much,” the woman with the hidden face spoke, raising her voice a bit as she made her approach. The course the woman took kept Matthew between Louise and her. Louise started to step to one side to get a better look at her, and a pain in her side made her look down.
Matthew raised his voice as he asked, “What are you thinking? I was thinking we could do things another way. Not by the rules others have set. Keep certain other authorities out of it. Handle all of the witnesses. See if we can’t cover this up.”
“No. That invites its own problems,” the woman said. She walked up behind him, and leaned over his shoulder to murmur something in his ear. His head turned, perpetually blocking the woman’s face.
Three times, at least three different ways that Louise couldn’t see the woman’s face. Louise hadn’t yet caught a glimpse of it. It made her nervous, and felt wrong.
The woman whispered to Matthew for a few moments.
“Yeah,” Matthew murmured, in response.
“What… what is this?” Louise asked, unnerved by the secrecy and the weirdness. “What are you?”
The woman turned, her back now to Louise, and walked away, toward the bloodstained rink, hands in her pockets. She spoke while walking away, her voice almost but not quite bearing an English accent, “The very young, the very old, and the infirm, can sometimes see what others are blind to. This can be very unlucky or very lucky, depending. The kind of luck that changes the direction of lives, or the unluck that ends them.”
“I’m happy to say you’re very lucky,” Matthew reassured Louise.
“I don’t… This doesn’t feel lucky,” Louise told him. Her hands clutched the front of the coat Matthew had given her, over her heart. “I feel… heartbroken?”
She had trouble articulating it, because she’d never experienced true heartbreak, but this was what she’d always imagined it would feel like.
“You’re right,” Matthew said. “This is far from lucky. This was and is a tragedy of the worst sort, the sort that hurts everyone, and you’re exactly right to feel the way you do. But you being here is very fortunate for you and for us.”
“Not necessarily us,” the woman with the hidden face said, her back still turned. She seemed to be studying the red stain from the side of the rink.
“The people who will look into this will be in need of those clues, and we’ll be desperate and in need of them,” Matthew said. “If my life partner is willing to oblige me, I’d like to offer you a deal. Edith?”
The woman with bleached blond hair and a toque took a few steps forward. “She’s in a lot of pain, Matthew. You’re too much a part of this to get involved, and you’re fragile.”
“I know. But she’s dying,” Matthew said.
“That obvious, huh?” Louise asked, and she couldn’t help but feel she was butting into a conversation, even though that conversation was about her.
She wore a half-smile and she didn’t feel at all like smiling. The sadness she felt at finally hearing those words and admitting the reality out loud was a close cousin to the heartbreak of hearing the beast’s howl. Her eyes moistened, and as she wiped at one, the fluids proved clear. An actual tear this time.
“Okay,” Matthew said, smiling. “Here’s the deal, Louise. We’re going to send a person or some people your way, so don’t make yourself too hard to find, it’s important you’re there when they come. They’re going to ask you about tonight. Help them, answer any questions, point them in the right directions, and be honest. You’re going to remember every last detail you can, and I want you to go with the flow, act like it’s a day like any other.”
“Sure,” Louise said, dazed.
“Forget about us, okay? Then, outside of any meetings with us or any other person or people who ask you about it, forget about tonight and forget about… that thing you saw. Make it a total, comfortable amnesia that ends if you’re asked. In exchange, I will take some of your hurt, pain, and suffering, and I’ll give you more time.”
“I don’t… how?”
“All you have to do is say yes, and if you want me to help you out more, again, if my life partner doesn’t disagree, I’ll give you a bit of a kiss.”
“That’s fine,” Edith said.
Louise shook her head, bewildered. “I mean I don’t know if I can make myself forget that conveniently.”
“All you have to do is say yes, Louise. This is, barring any outside intervention, a good deal for you. Say yes.”
“May I kiss you, Louise?” he asked. “There’s nothing romantic to it, but these things traditionally work better with a kiss than with the holding of a hand. Is that okay?”
“Yes?” she made it almost a question, again.
He touched the underside of her chin to raise her face, and then he kissed her. It had been a long time since she had been kissed, and a longer time since she had been kissed in a way that made her heart warm.
That warmth was choked by a sudden hurt, black and bitter. The hurt leaped into her mouth, and it tasted like regurgitated bile, metallic tastes, salt, foul-tasting medications, and the stinging smell of her own body odor when she didn’t shower frequently enough. It filled her nose, and she twisted away.
He held her face, not letting her, his fingers gripping her chin to maintain the contact. The taste and smell dissipated. It was him who wrenched his face away, expression twisting. He hunched over.
Dizzy, bewildered, she swayed on the spot, watched as this man pressed one hand to his lower back.
“You’ve suffered a lot,” he said, grimacing. The woman he’d been with hurried to his side, supporting him.
“Yes. My own fault,” Louise answered, adrift in the moment, her heart pounding. She felt like she was floating.
He grimaced, but the expression became more of a smile, “Why don’t you go home, Louise? Have a rest. It should be a good one. All of the stress and confusion of tonight should slip away as the memories do… and things will make sense again, if only because you don’t remember the things that don’t make sense even to us.”
“Yet, hopefully,” a woman by the rink added, her voice faint.
Louise looked around to get her bearings. She was standing in a half-lit, mostly empty parking lot behind the Arena with a stranger – one of the employees from Buckheed. It was disconcerting, things not adding up. She felt like music had been playing, and her ears now rang from the lack. The only noise was the rustle of wind.
“What’s next?” the stranger from Buckheed asked.
“We handle any other witnesses,” said his companion, a woman wearing a toque. “Talk to the others.”
Why was she here? Where was her coat? Her car?
This is like that moment when you’re dreaming and you realize that things don’t flow together or make sense, she told herself. I’m stuck in that prolonged moment. Instead of jolting awake, I’m being sucked deeper into the mire.
It was the thought that connected everything, stirred her awake. She sighed, releasing a tension she hadn’t known she had been feeling. She opened her eyes.
She sat in her recliner, and a blanket was draped over her lap. The throw from the couch. Strange. She never used it while in her recliner, because she felt like an old woman whenever she did it. She gathered it up, and leaned forward, before wincing in anticipation-
Every other morning, when she had forgotten she couldn’t move like she did before her health problems, the pain of sudden movements could leave her immobilized for minutes, breathing her way through it. Now… it hurt, still. It hurt as a dull and distant, small thing, but she was able to rise from her chair. She walked over to the counter where she kept the pills without hobbling or staggering, her expression clear.
Morning light shone in through the windows, and she felt better rested than she had in months.
She opened the pill container, and collected her pills for the morning. She filled a glass, downed the handful of pills, and then decided to take her daily cigarette early.
Out to the porch. She lit the cigarette, and stood out in the cold morning air, drawing in a full breath of smoke without any stabbing pain in her side. Today was a good day. A matter of minutes in and she knew it was going to be a better day than she’d had in years.
A stamped-out cigarette sat at the edge of the porch. Had that been her? She bent down to pick it up, reveling in the fact she could do so without her knees buckling from the pain. She flicked it in the direction of her car, which she had parked sideways for some reason.
Her eyes found the horizon, searching treelines and the hilltops. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for, but she found herself searching with intent and feeling disappointment when she didn’t find anything.
She kept looking long after she’d finished her cigarette, stopping only when the tips of her ears and fingers started to feel the cold. She stretched, almost trying to provoke the pain she was so used to, and only felt a dull throb, like she was hurting from being punched a day ago.
Shower, she told herself. Then a walk. Get the blood flowing to those feet of yours.
After that, a cleanup. Her place was a mess, and she had a feeling some people would turn up at some point. It felt important that she be ready.
She couldn’t bring herself to go back indoors. She gave the mountains and hills one last glance, then another, then another. The looking felt wistful, with a faint sense of loss she couldn’t put her finger on.
A good quarter or half hour passed, and she spent that time outside. It was something of a relief when she saw the car come up the road, an excuse to break the spell. A truck she recognized. She stood from her seat on the stairs, her butt cold.
Tom and Arnold, together. They worked at the ski hills in winter and scraped by the rest of the year. She waved at them as they pulled into her driveway.
“Louise, hey,” dark-haired Tom said, as soon as his door was open. He slammed the car door. “Everything okay?”
“I think so,” she said, and she smiled. “Why?”
Tom shook his head. “Had a bad feeling.”
“Kind of know what you mean,” she said.
“I mentioned it to Arn, he said he felt the same way.”
“My first thought was maybe something happened to you,” Arnold said. He had light brown skin, his mop of snowboarder hair highlighted with blond. “I remembered seeing you at the rink by the K-A last night. You, uh…”
“I’m fine, boys. Really, you’re sweethearts, but I’m fine.”
“That’s a relief,” Tom said. His forehead was still creased in worry. “I don’t know why I was so convinced something had happened. It’s like…”
The twenty year old trailed off. He looked back out over the town, toward the hills, and toward the Arena. Like her, he didn’t find what he was looking for. Arnold, too, looked worried.
“Come inside,” she told them. “Give me a hand with cleaning up, and I’ll pay you for the trouble. I’m expecting company sometime soon.”
“You don’t have to pay us,” Tom said.
“I insist,” she said, opening the door to let them in. As they walked by her, she cast one last look out over the horizon before letting the door close behind her.
This was and is a tragedy of the worst sort. The sort that hurts everyone. The thought crossed her mind, in a voice that wasn’t hers.
Dutifully, she put that thought out of mind, as per the terms of the deal she no longer remembered making.
Ok so I still haven’t read the chapter, but do you recommend reading pact first or this ? Part of me is kinda excited that I could follow the story from the beginning week by week, I’m currently reading worm(loving it!!) and was kinda sad that I hadn’t read it live back then. So what should I do ?
It’s up to you to decide what you want your entry point to the Pactverse to be. This is going to be releasing relatively slowly (twice a week) vs. the possible binge you could do with Pact.
But this will be written to be an equally valid entry point. Hopefully.
Really looking forward to this! Pact had its issues, but the world is full of potential and I’m always excited to read Wildbow’s stuff.
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So hyped for more Pactverse! (Plus hoping for more queer representation in the story, as always, lol)
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not sure why you’d want that, if it’s anything like the first nations representation in pact they’ll all be soulless inhuman monsters for reasons that make perfect sense given the setting and are unlikely to change for you. slightly less set in stone for ‘queers’ than canadian aboriginals though
I think Pale’s doing pretty good in terms of lgbtq+ and first nations representation
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This is the first time I’ll be able to read a serial live! I’ve read Worm, currently halfway through Ward. Haven’t read any of Pact. Can’t wait for this!
Also, thank you for making her illness not cancer. Signed, someone who has a pet peeve with that trope.
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I figured id make my first comment ever on one of wb’s stories today. I finally feel like I can actually discuss stuff with people now, with this story being brand new and all. I hope to have good convo’s with all of ya
This is my first time being able to read these as they come out. Here’s to another adventure.
Louise’s sympathetic pursuit of the enormous beast made me care about her very much, but her heedless littering of cigarette butts made me also feel super repulsed by her. I selfishly hope that she’ll grow more my style of conscientious during her story.
I loved the beast and the sadness they seemed to represent, I enjoyed all of Pact very much too, I’m so glad you’re always writing Wildbow.
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First of Wildbow’s serials that I can follow in real time! Got caught up with his work halfway through Ward (after reading and rereading nothing except his other stories for an entire year!), and decided to take a break rather than keep myself on tenterhooks. Am starting Ward from the beginning now, and it’ll be interesting to binge that one while keeping up with this one and see how the experience is different.
Thoughts so far; as always, great sense of character in a short space of time, and brilliantly vivid imagery. However, the thing that really struck me as unique in this story is the pity attached to the Beast. There are countless stories featuring a giant mysterious THING that violates accepted reality, has a close link between “understanding” and “madness”, causes eyebleeds and/or other signs of brain damage with its mere presence, has a call that blasts those who hear it with uncontrollable emotions and attracts a following of sinister and mysterious cultists, but here you’ve got all those Lovecraftian tropes presented sympathetically.
Great to see Wildbow applying his particular brand of subversiveness to those conventions, and very striking considering Pact’s demons were memorable for being straight-up horrifying, with the Lovecraftian horror dialed up rather than being approached in a completely new way. Terrific start, definitely got me hooked.
Ooh, new story in Pact setting.
Whoot whoop new serial. I’m liking the bleeding ghost wolf. Thinking mountain deity? Nice to see a practioner being benevolent. Honestly the idea of trading pain as a form of practioning is awesome. I’m going to be reading along the pale reflections podcast. Promises to be a new way of reading.
“Nice to see a practioner being benevolent.”
Louise probably doesn’t have an ungodly amount of bad karma.
I was just wondering, could you add a dedicated “Other Works” page to the main menu of your sites? For a long time I’d been coming to your stories via Topwebfiction, but I wasn’t seeing Pale on there (and now that I’m here, one of the other comments mentions that site’s not working for new stories anymore). I found the link to Pale eventually on Ward’s site at the bottom of the About page, and I’ve bookmarked it now. But I think it’d be nice if it was a bit easier to find. 🙂
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This prologue made me think of Stephen King, in how he grounds the supernatural with meticulous descriptions of the mundane. Wildbow is great at portraying characters vividly in a very brief span of time, and this really helps anchor the surreal delirium of what Louise undergoes. One moment you’re seeing her post-it note for ‘Just one!’ and the next you’re watching the Carmine Beast struggle across town. That contrast is brilliant, and totally works.
This economy not only helps set things up right away, but communicates so much about the characters without the reader realizing they’re drinking down key information about the setting, tone, and the promises Wildbow is making. Mystery is balanced by the quotidian, Louise’s personal tragedy is mirrored in the Carmine Beast’s, and Kennet’s prosaic nature, dilapidated, run down, and so mundane is the perfect foil for the magic and terror that’s to come.
Perfect. Can’t wait to dive in further!
Is ‘fudge’ as a euphemism a generally wildbow thing or a specifically Mags thing? My attention definitely was piqued by Louise’s use of it, just because it felt so particular as a characterization piece. Did she have one round of her prophecy left at the close of Pact, or did that wrap up in the endgame? (ps, wicked thrilled to get to be wicked thrilled by a wildbow story as it happens, since I’ve only found your work in the couple months and have read Worm, Pact, and half of Twig since!)
Yesssss Pact was probably by fav wb book! How the hell did I not know it was getting a sequel?
another Pact story, I’m filled with joy! This is probably -the- single best “magical realism” (if that is a correct definition) bit of world-building I’ve ever seen. this world has a consistency and makes sense like no other similar I’ve ever read. Those Magician books that the sci/fi channel made a series of were talked about as if their world, and it’s magic somehow made sense, but they very much didn’t. this one has a self consistency, rules, that make sense, it’s far more believable. Wish sci/fi or WhoreyWood would have a look and make a series based on these stories. That would be freakin BRILLIANT (if done well by the right people of course).
Does Pale have a topwebfiction page? I couldn’t find one for it.
It does not, as it is for some reason not working for new stories… For the last year and a half..?
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