1.19: The Festival, part 3

“What the hell took you so long?” Clair spoke out of the corner of her mouth, all of her attention focused on the glimmering metal pipe in her hands, and the pair of wolves snapping at her heels. Neither of them looked away from her weapon, even as he stood exposed in the clearing.

She was the last person he expected to see, and for a moment Henry was dumbfounded. After her dramatic appearance at his apartment, she hadn’t shown herself again. Had she come straight here? Was she trying to help? His own trio of wolves hadn’t followed him into the clearing, but the angry red welts they left across his body still stung. Above, the sky was a still and uncompromising grey—one of the apparent effects of the growing storm which had engulfed the park, at the center of which he now stood. “How was I supposed to know to come here?”

“I told you,” she said. With every swing of the pipe, she took a single step backwards, and the wolves advanced. In this way, they slowly circled the old oak tree in the center of the clearing. “Through your window.”

“I couldn’t hear anything you said.”

Clair’s eyes flicked toward him, and her attention broke. The larger of the two wolves hooked its snout beneath the pipe and jerked it aside, allowing the second to close in on the opposing angle. She took several stumbling steps back, feigning kicks at the drooling set of teeth lunging for her abdomen.

Henry brought his foot down on a stick. The snap finally caught the wolves’ attention, and both of them turned. Clair swung forward hard, driving the pair back together, and their balance was restored. One swing, one step back. One swing, one step back. “It’s that charm around your neck,” she said. Her voice was strained. “Were you really that scared of me?”

“I don’t know how I feel.” He watched her swing wide—too wide—and be forced to kick out again to keep the wolves away. “I don’t think those things are exactly real.”

“Real enough to me.” She jerked her leg, exposing torn cloth and blood streaking down her calf.

“Okay. Real.” He swallowed. “How do I stop all of this?”

“You have to bring back Emmaline Cass’ locket.”

He held it up. “Ahead of you there.”

“Try putting it back in the ground.”

“Are you making this up as we go along?” Henry waited for Clair and the wolves to round the far side of the tree, then darted forward. How scared were they of her metal pipe?

“I found that locket buried here,” Clair said. She spoke loudly, almost screaming, and the wolves stayed focused on her. “It wasn’t part of my stash, and I had the good sense not to move it. I might have figured you were an idiot, or a thief, but it was my mistake to think you wouldn’t be both.”

Henry fell to his knees at the base of the tree, and dug his fingers into the dirt. Fire shot through the welts on his arms, and his shoulder screamed in protest, but he knew he had to move fast. There was no other option. Clair slowly came around the other side of the tree, her assailants desperate in their attempts to push her back. 

The hole grew. With an almighty effort he heaved aside fistful after fistful of earth, opening the space a foot deep, and dropped the locket inside. He held his breath. Nothing happened. “It didn’t work!”

“Go deeper.”

“What?”

You have to trust me,” she shouted, “dig down deeper!”

He threw everything of himself into digging. He clawed, scraped, and tore, until he was coated in mud and three of his nails hung loose from his fingers. Blood flowed freely from his hands and his shoulder, streaking up and down his arms with the muck.

Clair backed up to the edge of the rapidly deepening hole, and there held her ground. Her heels sunk in, and her body twisted left and right with her increasingly desperate deflections. The wolves fanned out, flanking her, striking out with less fear now for the glittering weapon.

Several feet down he ran into thick, twisting roots. He tore through them with the remainder of his fingernails, until they too peeled back off his fingers. Then he bit in with his teeth, whipping his neck back and forth like a dog, swallowing mouthfuls of damp and wormy earth. The roots gave way, and the bloody nubs of his fingers met rotted wood as Clair screamed above him.

There was no time for distraction. Henry peeled back the board like paper, uncovering a casket. He stared into the empty eyes of a flesh-less skull within. The tattered fabric of a decorative hat clung to her crown. Emmaline Cass. Buried beneath the tallest tree in the park which bore her name.

With another strangled cry, Clair fell. Her body crumpled into the hole beside him. Blood dotted across her shirt.

Henry reached forward with shaking hands, clasped the locket closed around the skeleton’s neck, and closed his eyes. Any second, he was sure the weight of a wolf would come crashing down on him. Its teeth would sink into his neck.

Nothing came. No weight, and no teeth. 

He opened his eyes to the full light of day, and the fresh scent of grass. The sky was clear. The storm was over. Clair crawled atop him, her body trembling and frail. Blood dribbled out of her mouth. 

She pressed her hand into his chest, and a bizarre look came over her weary face. Questioning, and then awed. The pressure of her hand increased, and then she was lifting off of him, raising into the open air like a feather caught in the breeze. “Thank you,” she said. She soared further into the air, finally disappearing into the obscuring treeline. 

***

Henry pulled himself out of the grave, and lay sprawled on the ground. He looked up at fluffy white clouds. His hands bled, pulsing with spasms of pain. His shoulder was cold. His legs twitched. In the distance, there was a siren. Much closer, a rustling in the leaves.

That’s it, he thought, they’ve come to finish me off. 

The rustling continued, but came no nearer to where he lay. Henry shifted his head, fighting fresh nausea at the movement, and looked across the way to a figure poking through the trees.

The man looked back. He was tall, and old, with receding hair and a plain grey suit. Despite the extra years of lines on his face, Mathas Bernard was unmistakable from his photo. There was nothing in his eyes, and nothing in the slight smile that lifted his lips. He stepped back into the foliage. 

Henry let his head loll there on its side, musing idly to himself that he should be having a greater reaction. The man was dead—yet there he was. And what of it? Perhaps it seemed blasé, compared with the other things he’d seen that day. Perhaps he was rapidly losing blood. There was no feeling in his hands. He listened to the sirens approach, and watched the flashing colors reflect on the bright green leaves.

“Don’t move him. We have to be careful. Call Teresa, and tell her what happened. Yes. Now!” Sheriff Leia Thao’s face materialized in front of him, coming together like a fuzzy jigsaw puzzle. Henry tried to turn his head, and a pool of black washed over his eyes.

“You’re going to be fine,” she continued. Her voice sounded confident, which he found soothing. It also sounded very far away. “But I wouldn’t look forward to it, if I were you. We have some questions that need answering, down at the station.”

1.18: The Festival, part 2

There is no place safer that you could be, than here at the Anderson with me.

Henry hadn’t meant to fall asleep. At Kara’s insistence he sought out the makeshift bedroom in the guttyworks of the Anderson Warehouse, dried himself off, and pulled on a baggy change of clothes. Then he sat on the cot, and found that he could keep his eyes open no longer. No matter what is chasing you, it won’t be able to find you here.

Now he rose, disoriented and exhausted. The rain had stopped, but not more than a couple hours could have passed. There was a tiredness in him that went beyond the physical constraints of his body. Magic was real. It flowed through the village every month. Clair knew how to fly. Kara made charms that actually worked. The crimson brand on his clavicle bore witness to that truth. How much deeper did it go?

Henry stepped out on the scaffolding, beside the wall-length mural of the boy smoking a cigarette, and surveyed the empty floor below. Kara’s voice trailed down to him from above. She sounded weak. “Up here.” 

He followed her voice to a ladder against the wall that led him onto the roof. Dawn was fresh outside. Milky yellow clouds covered the sky, pushing back the fledgling purple of night. “How long was I out?”

 “Not long.” Kara sat on the edge of the building, her back propped up against a length of ventilation, looking out at the village. The bags under her eyes were darker than ever, and her skin shone nearly translucent in the yellow light.

“Did you haul yourself up here?”

“I’m not as bad off as I look.”

He sat down beside her. “Didn’t you sleep at all? Aren’t you tired?”

“Exhausted. But every time one of my charms activates, I can feel it. I won’t be sleeping today. Nor will I be leaving the warehouse,” she said, nodding toward the horizon,” and I recommend you follow suit.”

Henry followed her nod, and realized that he’d been wrong about the sky. It wasn’t a case of dawn’s light pushing out the darkness. The sun was fully risen, but it did not shine down on the park. There, and only there, was something that he could only think to call a storm, swirling like a tornado, blotting out all light in its vicinity. “What is that?”

“Nothing natural. I’ve been watching it for a while now, and all I know is that it’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen before.”

A looming sense of dread settled over him. What were the chances that something like that would just happen to occur over the park? What had Clair been mouthing to him, only a few hours before? “So this is weird, even by your standards?” he asked.

“Weird, and getting bigger.”

And it was. Even as he watched, the edge of the black cone—the storm—reached out to cover a few more trees. Beyond the park, the wind scattered garbage and detritus down the vacant streets of Tortus Bay. “Kara, why are we the only people watching this thing? Where is everyone else?”

“Folk stay inside on festival day. It’s an old tradition. They have their own things to do, or else they’re frightened of what they might see.”

Henry thought that wasn’t entirely unreasonable. “Isn’t there someone we can tell?”

“There are no people left who would come.”

“What’s going to happen? Will it just keep expanding?”

“I’m afraid it might.”

There were a thousand questions he wanted to ask. A thousand things that he needed to know. The storm raged on, expanding, its interior hidden by obsidian gusts of wind. “Clair can fly,” he said.

“I know.”

“I think she might be dangerous.”

“I know.”

“And she broke out of jail last night.”

Kara looked at him. “She did?”

He did not return the look. His eyes were locked on the vortex. Every now and again, it cast out sheared leaves and shorn branches as evidence of the veiled damage it wrought on the park. “I stole the locket she had hidden there. One with the name ‘Emmaline Cass’ inscribed on the side.”

“I see.” She breathed out one long, slightly uneven breath. “When an object becomes strong enough, it can come to belong to a certain person or place. I imagine that necklace I made you wouldn’t fit so comfortably around another’s neck. It knows you well enough, by now, that it would try to find its way back. And perhaps if you lost it, you would try equally as hard to reclaim it.”

“I have to go in there, don’t I?”

“You have to make a decision,” Kara said. “Keep in mind that people can just as easily belong to their places. You were brought to Tortus Bay by feelings that you couldn’t fully understand. I was the same way. Now, I belong to this village so deeply that I think the leaving might kill me. If you go into that park today, the same will happen to you. This village will become a home to you like a prison is to others. So you have to choose—but whatever you do, do it quick.”

***

Henry wasn’t sure if he was going in.

For as long as he’d held onto an inkling that there was something different, or bigger, about the world than what he’d ever known, he never once imagined anything as different or as big as what loomed before him. The storm of obscuring darkness now encompassed the entirety of the park. It blotted out the sun, and scattered larger debris than ever: bushes, stones, and a small tree complete with upturned roots. Up close, the sound of the howling wind was deafening. So close, the black of the impossible storm was impenetrable and complete.

Nothing would stop him from leaving. He was alone; there was nobody to see his cowardice. Thousands of other similar villages existed, and they would all be blessedly bereft of reality-shattering weather anomalies and magical jewelry. But he remembered, with perfect clarity, the sense of unshakable unease that had followed him on his journey away from home. He remembered the pain in his shoulder steadily growing worse, as the wound widened and bled. All of that stopped in Tortus Bay.

Henry wasn’t sure if he was going in, but like that day in front of Frida Middle School, his feet moved faster than his brain. Wind whipped his clothes against his body and stung his eyes. Dirt and leaves plastered his body. Then he crossed the threshold of the storm, and everything stopped.

The wind died. Everything stilled. There was no storm here, wherever he was. It was dark, but he could see the towering trees which stood before him. He turned, and there was the village behind—but somehow muted. The yellow of the sky became a light grey, the facades of the buildings all uniform black. All was calm. Simple. Then, the howling of wolves rent the silence.

First one, then another, and another, until the trees sang with the sound. They were too far away, for the size of the park. Henry shut his eyes and told himself that there couldn’t be wolves, until their howling trailed off on a single, mournful note.

It was like a dream. The wilderness rung in the silence left by the distant wolves. He walked through dense undergrowth until he was certain he would have passed through the length of the park twice over, but no matter how deep he went there was ever only the endless forest ahead. The leaf-strewn dirt underfoot shone grey in the faded sun, and none of the trees cast a shadow. He thought he might be going in circles. Then, another strange sound.

Metal displaced air, followed by a faint grunt. Henry turned toward it, and the howling resumed. Louder. The wolves were close.

He ran. The noise of swishing metal continued, but it was quickly overcome by the howling and the bone-chilling noise of claws ripping through dirt. When the first wolf leapt from the shadows, he broke into a sprint. The first one missed him. The second did not.

White fur and yellow fangs hit him, but did not take him down. A powerful maw wrapped around his arm, and pain coursed through his body, but after a frenzied moment the wolf dropped back. His shirt, and flesh, were left intact.

Again and again wolves leapt out at him, fur white and black and grey, tearing in turns at his throat and his legs. Angry red welts sprang up on his skin. A burning sensation radiated out from the marks, leaving him shaking and stumbling, but still he did not stop. One foot in front of the other. He slowed. The wolves cried. His saliva ran thick, dribbling out of his lips. 

With a furious coordinated attack on his hamstrings and red-raw throat, the wolves reached their crescendo. Henry took another step, and half fell out of the vast sea of trees into a small clearing.There, the world resolved slowly through the tears in his eyes and the ringing in his ears. 

A great old oak stood in the center of the clearing, a section of displaced dirt at its base. Beside the tree, Clair swung a metal pole wildly through the air. Two lumbering wolves snarled at her, haunches raised, ready to strike. But when she swung her weapon, they leapt back from its arc. Something at the tip of the pole glimmered, a light unlike anything else in the grey landscape, and the wolves treated it like fire.

1.17: The Festival, part 1

Waves of shock and horror rippled through Henry’s body, compelling him away. There was no thought. There was no plan. He scrambled back out of the broken window, half fell and half slid down the crumbling lighthouse wall to the ground, and took off running toward the village. Blinding flashes of lightning lit his path. A deafening tattoo of thunder urged him forward.

The image was burned into his retinas, so that he saw it with every blink: dried blood on the walls, gleaming daggers on the floor, and those symbols inscribed in that ceremonial circle. He re-lived it every time his foot came down hard on the broken, muddy street. Rain soaked him through. He didn’t know where he was going. There was nowhere he wanted to be. Nobody that he wanted to see. He wanted to be alone. And that was something he could do.

Henry fumbled with the keys for a second in the downpour before he swung open the front door of the cherry-red house on Second Avenue. He emerged into the same skeleton of a building that it had been, but the portion that would be his apartment—the third story attic—was completely transformed. The floor was clear of clutter, the roof was sealed, and the walls had been scrubbed down and varnished. A bed sat in the corner, beneath the slope of the ceiling, and a small dresser stood beneath the circular window. 

He stripped his clothes off, let them fall in a pile on the floor, and crawled into the sheets. Kara didn’t have to give him sheets. She didn’t have to do any of the things she had. Henry curled into a ball and tried to focus his thoughts on Kara, or the apartment, or Niles, or anything except what he knew was sitting back in the abandoned lighthouse. Rainwater soaked into the bed. He’d seen worse things. By far. Shouldn’t that have made him tougher? Didn’t the experiences of the past leave a callous?

Outside, the storm raged. Wind bent the trees and lightning lit the sky. As it passed midnight, the day of the Golden Gull Fest dawned. Henry had long since forgotten seeing a reminder for the festival on the cafe bulletin board. It hardly seemed important at the time. If anything changed about the village, it was a subtle thing. Perhaps the ferocity of the storm ebbed, by a fraction. Maybe the air cooled. 

If he had managed to settle himself, he might have slept through the day and never known it to be different. Instead he tossed and turned, shivering, and sometime in the small hours of the morning rolled over to see Clair through the window.

Clair, through his third-story window, floating unsupported in the air.

Her face was placid. Determined. Then, almost curious. Her clothes blew back and forth in the wind, and her hair was plastered to her skull.

Henry was no stranger to nightmares. He was familiar with persisting dreams and night terrors. This was none of that. He was awake. Questions flooded his brain, but in entirely the wrong order. How did she find him? What did she want with him? Did she know what he’d seen? How did she get out of jail? How was she flying?

Clair was calm. She reached out to touch the glass of the window with two fingers, and the pane opened inward. With a smile she made to move forward into the room, but then stopped. She was repulsed, as though the window were still firmly shut. Her smile became a confused grimace, and she tried again—only to be rebuffed a second time. She opened her mouth to speak, plainly mouthing the words ‘what did you do?’ but no sound came out.

Kara’s protection charm burned against Henry’s chest. It seared into his skin. Clair’s silent speech morphed into silent screaming, her eyes pleading. He stood, legs shaking, and took a step toward the window. She flew back as he did, as though pushed by a giant hand.

“Did you kill him?” he asked. “I saw the lighthouse. After all of this, was it you?”

Another step, and she was forced further back. Her lips moved with desperate speed, but if her words made a sound then it was nothing to him. He strode to the edge of the window, naked save for the burning necklace, and she flew deep enough into the dark and the rain that he could no longer distinguish her form. 

For a time he stared after her, into the night. His mind was clear.

***

Kara would know what was happening. She had to. And she had always been a friend. She would tell him what was happening, if he asked. She had to.

Henry raced through the deserted streets of Tortus Bay, wearing nothing but a sheet hastily wrapped around his shoulders, with the single-minded determination that he would find her at the Anderson Warehouse. As he ran he kept a wary eye to the sky, but nothing bothered him from above beside the storm clouds. 

He knocked on the side door of the warehouse, and Kara answered it. She looked awful. The bags under her eyes from earlier in the night had stretched down through her cheeks, giving her entire face the impression of a bruise. Her hair hung in clumps. Her shoulders shook, and her knees knocked, with the apparent effort of opening the door. Everywhere her skin was paper-white and thin.

Every other question left his head. “Are you okay?”

“Get inside,” she croaked. She closed the door behind him, then leaned on it for support. “Are you naked?”

He glanced down at the thin, drenched sheet clinging to his body. “A lot has happened tonight.”

“Up top,” she said, “Ray keeps a spare set of-” and she collapsed, toppling over sideways.

Henry sprung forward, and caught her before she hit the floor. She felt light in his arms. “What happened to you?”

“Need to sit.”

He helped her onto the warehouse floor, and eased her into the nearest chair. “Is there anything I can get you?”

She shook her head, and reached out for the charm around his neck. “I thought you might try to find me tonight. This has been used, no?”

The necklace was still warm. “I don’t understand what’s happening.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. Please know that I wanted to, as I’m sure Niles and Clair wanted as well, but… there are difficulties. Most of the people who come to this village only pass through. They leave, or are called away, well before the day of the festival.” Her voice grew weaker the longer she spoke, and her eyes drifted shut. “They never get to see what makes it special.” 

He drew in a deep breath. “Magic is real here, isn’t it?”

“Is that what you need to hear? Magic is real everywhere; you should have learned that when you got that wound of yours. Once a month, for a single day, it becomes more powerful here. We call it the Golden Gull Festival. Before you ask: no, I don’t know why it’s called that; and no, I don’t know how it works. Only that it does.”

“So everyone in the village gets superpowers?”

“Not exactly. It comes to everybody differently. It doesn’t come to some people at all,” Kara said, finishing the sentiment with a hacking cough.    

“Does it normally hit you this hard?”

She smiled, but her eyes remained closed. “I make charms. They do nothing, for the majority of the month. They’re only trinkets. Then on the day of the festival, every last one of them wakes up. All of that energy comes straight out of me.” She sighed. “I know that’s a lot to digest. It’s understandable if you need some time.”

It was a great deal, but somehow hearing Kara’s words made everything snap into place in Henry’s mind, and it wasn’t overwhelming. Frightening, and new, but no longer crushing like the weight of an old secret. “I didn’t suspect, when my wound wouldn’t heal,” he said, “but like you say, it should have been a clue. The thought started building in me, when I left my home. My trip wasn’t a straight shot to Tortus Bay. I had no idea a place called Tortus Bay existed. But everywhere I stayed, I never felt settled. There was always the voice inside of me, telling me to move on. Giving a direction, but never a destination.

“Even in Yungton, not too far from here, things weren’t right. The unease followed me, so much that I began to consider that it was just a new part of my personality. But I talked to people. Eventually one of them mentioned Tortus Bay, but even with the name this place is hard to find. Not on any maps, is it? After a while I found a taxi driver who thought he might know something, and was willing to take the chance. I knew I was home, the second I stepped out of his car. Even in the pouring rain.

“So yes, I needed to hear you say that magic is real—but I’ve known since I got here. And besides, I don’t know if I have a lot of time for processing. I think I might be caught up in something dangerous.”

1.16: Crime Scene

Clair murdered Mathas Bernard for revenge. She killed him in a fit of jealousy. She hit him by mistake, thinking he was his wife toiling away in the garden. Actually, Clair did it on the instruction of the beleaguered wife. She’d always been a violent person. She was prone to sneaking out at night. After the burial, she dug the corpse back out of the earth.

Those were the things Henry heard during his shift at Horizon Foods that afternoon. He suspected that the townsfolk were swinging through for little reason other than to try out their theories. Tod, the portly man from the Hiking Club, quietly asked how long he had known, and if there were any more surprises out there that he should be anticipating. Not a single person floated the idea that Clair might be innocent.

“You can’t trust people anymore,” Howard, the store manager, told him. He leaned up beside the register, pointedly declining to assist in the growing line of customers. “Those officers marched right in here, and took her out in handcuffs. Mid-shift! Can you imagine? Now she’s really bitten the both of us.”

“Both of us?”

Howard nodded. “Me, obviously, because it’s bad for business. And you, because now there’s nobody else to do the re-stocking tonight.”

Henry focused on getting through his line. Red cans of beans, orange blocks of cheese, boxes of cereal and crackers and nuts. He scanned, smiled, and made change, trying to tune all of the words out of his head. Again and again and again, for second after minute after hour, until “they’re not letting anyone in to see Clair.”

Niles stood on the other side of the counter. “The jail’s locked up. Nobody’s getting inside without a good reason.”

“Is that unusual?” He pretended to forget the code for the loaf of bread that Niles was purchasing, punching in random keys.

“Normally visitors are allowed. I don’t know, it seems like they’re really taking this seriously.”

“Would they let family in?”

Niles looked haggard. “She doesn’t have much of that left.”

“We have to keep trying to talk sense into Leia.”

“She’s never going to take us seriously.”

The line was growing restless. Henry keyed in the correct code. “Then there’s nothing else we can do.”

***

The only problem with that verdict was that Henry himself did not believe it. He knew that there was one last thing he might try, but he reminded himself that the last time he’d gone grasping for straws all he found was a useless locket. Uneasily he put the reckless idea out of his mind, focusing instead on the maddening task of re-stocking the grocery store. Whatever other virtues Clair might have possessed, organizational prowess was certainly not among them. Not a single crate in the storeroom bore any kind of indication as to what it might hold. Howard, smiling, simply dropped a key by the computer and left with the vague instruction for Henry to “lock up behind himself.”

He thought about walking out early. The job was demonstrably unworthy of the stress it had already caused. But then there was Clair, let go from a position she loved and afterward unable to find any other decent work. He knew how the village saw him already, a distracted outsider who couldn’t handle or didn’t need a serious job anyhow; would that image be indelible? A vision of his future self, still living off Jamal’s generosity in room number 5 at the Tortoise Shell Inn, flashed into his mind. He shuddered, broke open another crate, and set to work trying to figure out whether he was dealing with potatoes or beets.

When the main door opened, he assumed it was Howard coming back around to check on his progress. Kara’s voice surprised him. “Henry?” she called.

“In back.”

“Howie around?” she asked.

“All clear.”

Kara entered, a frazzled look about her. Heavy bags hung under her eyes. “I was waiting at the bar for you, until I put two and two together. Should have checked here first. It’s a grim scene down there.”

“I thought everybody would be celebrating.”

She shook her head. “Clint’s beside himself. Vowed to never drink as long as Clair was locked up. That lasted about an hour and a half, then he changed tac and vowed to never stop drinking again. Things were starting to get out of hand when I left. Speaking of, why are you sitting on the floor in front of a crate of baby squash?”

“Baby squashes,” he breathed, rotating one of of the ribbed fruits in his hand. “Of course.”

“You really are from the city, aren’t you?” She put on a mocking accent. “Those are cucumbers on your other side, cauliflower on your left, and about fifty cans of baked beans behind you. Those ones have their names printed right on the label, so you can’t get confused.”

Henry laughed. “I suppose I deserve that.” She laughed along with him for a moment, but there was a distant look in her eyes. And that exhaustion, written all over her face. “Are you feeling alright? You look a little rough.”

“I’m fine. Do you still have that charm I made for you?”

He pulled the chain out from under his shirt. “Haven’t taken it off. Is that why you hunted me down here?”  

“No. And it wasn’t for gossip, either,” she said, crossing her heart. “I’m sure you’ve had as much of that as you can handle, and you know I’m around to talk whenever. No, I bring you something much better: an opportunity to avoid the shit-show currently developing down at the bar.” With a flourish, she produced a set of keys from her pocket.

“The apartment?”

“All yours.” Kara tossed him the keychain. “You did have locks where you came from, didn’t you? Big one’s for the outer door, small one’s for the inner door.”

“Shut up.”

“Sorry, couldn’t help it.”

Henry’s eyes stung. He swiped at them uselessly. “Thank you.”

“I would do a lot more for a friend. And no matter how recently we met, I know that we’re friends. That’s something you can feel right away.”

***

That night the black clouds that swirled over Tortus Bay broke into heavy rain, forcing Henry to pull his coat over his head as he made his way down the street. Past the park, the village ended. There were no more lawns, houses, or businesses; only the snaking street, which led him closer with every step to the crashing waves of the ocean. Wells of mud bubbled through the cracked asphalt.

He drew up to the squat, abandoned lighthouse amid the onset of crashing thunder. This was where Clair claimed to have found Mathas’ journal. She may have returned the offending article to hide her crime. Or, there might be something more interesting inside. More likely, there was nothing—but he could not know until he checked. And if she could get inside, that meant he could as well.

The heavy iron door was not only locked, but barred. Henry circled the structure, trying to figure out how Clair had done it. There was no evidence of any previous entry. Had it all been a drunken lie? Besides the door, there was only a small, cylindrical window, about twenty feet off the ground. He began to climb.

Crumbling stonework provided ample, if precarious, handholds. In the streaking rain his hands slipped against the jagged surface, his blood mixing with the sodden chalk. He angled himself atop the door-frame, sprang upward, and scrambled the rest of the way to the narrow windowsill. There, he stopped to breathe. Then he pulled the stone out of his pocket, and smashed the glass.

Peels of thunder masked the noise. Henry slipped inside, finding purchase on the steps of a winding staircase. He flicked his flashlight on, and cast the beam of light up, where he saw that a good portion of the roof had collapsed. Fractured stone littered the stairs. He followed the detritus down to the base of the lighthouse, and more peels of thunder masked the noise of his scream.

Thick, red-brown splashes stained the walls. Puddles of it gleamed in the exact center of a chalk circle on the floor. Books, daggers, and jewels lay scattered beside. The circle was surrounded by a dozen symbols, one of which Henry recognized immediately.   

1.14: Digging Up Dirt

Henry tried to convince himself that the two drawings were not the same. The first he’d seen for only a second, while drunk and overwhelmed. The second, he could barely make out in the windowsill of the Bramble’s kitchen. They were only leaves, above all; but somehow he was certain. Teresa bustled around, still wrapped in her colorful quilt, asking seemingly disconnected questions while she pulled various ingredients down from her shelves. How old was he? Where was he born? What was his grandmother’s name? Did he enjoy the taste of peppermint?

He answered them all automatically, his mind occupied with a more important question: how could he have forgotten that he saw the journal of Mathas Bernard? At the time, it had been a half-interesting curiosity from a recently deceased public figure. Now, it seemed a lot more important. Clues to the man’s death—his murder, as it now seemed—might be within those pages. And Clair had mentioned nothing about it.

Sofia, the elder of the two Bramble daughters, re-entered the kitchen with a tub of translucent paste. She handed it off to her mother, then perched by the window once more. Teresa piled the salve and her gathered assortment of ingredients into a bowl, and began mixing it all together with a large wooden spoon. “I’ve never heard anything quite like your situation before,” she said. 

“Hm?” He pulled his mind back onto the topic at hand. “Oh, right. Do you think you can help?”

“Today, I’m going to give you something topical, to help with the discomfort, but you’ll have to come back to me so that we can reassess.”

“I appreciate it,” he said. In the windowsill, Sofia resumed flipping through her book, and try as he might to stop himself his eyes repeatedly strayed to those pages.

“I’m not promising any miracles,” Teresa said. “It might take us some time to figure out what makes this thing kick.”

He couldn’t contain his curiosity any longer. “What are you reading over there?”

The look the girl gave him suggested that he had failed in keeping his voice casual. She flipped the book over to display a brown leather cover, complete with an ornamental brass latch. “An old diary,” she said. “I like to draw.”

Lola looked back and forth from Henry to her sister, mouth slightly open. He coughed. “That’s great.”

Teresa scooped her mixture into a small container, and pressed it into Henry’s hand. “Apply this to the front and back of your wound, once in the morning and then once again before you go to sleep. Keep your bandages fresh, and it should at least ease the pain. We can go from there.”

“Thank you.” He pocketed the salve and pulled his shirt back on. “Do I owe you anything?”

She smiled as she took his elbow and guided him back through the hallway to the door. “The Brambles have lived here for a very long time, doing what we do. We have never charged for it. The village pays us back in different ways. Perhaps you will stick around long enough to see what those are yourself.”

***

The biggest advantage to having a cashier position at Horizon Foods was the unobstructed time if afforded Henry to think. At any given moment his job was to stand behind the register, and wait for a customer to appear. This was interrupted only ever briefly by the actual function of ringing someone up, taking their money, and engaging mild small-talk. The people of Tortus Bay, or at least that subset which came in to shop that day, seemed interested solely in sly remarks about how much nicer it was to pick up their groceries now that Howie wasn’t involved in the process.

Howie (or Howard, as he preferred to be called) was the biggest disadvantage to having a cashier position at Horizon Foods. The man made himself more scarce that second day, especially after learning that Henry had somehow figured out how to operate the register himself, but every five minutes in his presence felt like an hour. He’d given up the jabs at his new employee’s lack of intelligence, and moved on to self-congratulatory speeches—into which he inserted long pauses to allow his audience time to produce the appropriate verbal reactions.

“Never married, myself. Had plenty of opportunities, and plenty of committed women, but none of them were right. It takes a lot of experience, and a good lot of wisdom, to realize that the women around here will never be right. Out there in the world, things are different. You couldn’t imagine. Here, there are no more values. They want me to give them everything. And for what? Ah, it’s nice to have another guy around for a change. No girlfriend, right? I’m sure you’ll find a woman soon enough.”

Clair arrived a few hours earlier that day, and took over from Howard. Apparently she was trusted enough to deal with the keys and the inventory herself. She set to stocking and organizing the shelves, her demeanor so much different at work than in the bar, and Henry watched her while he chased his thoughts in circles about what to do.

Perhaps nothing at all suspicious was at play. Sure, Clair had access to the journal of Mathas Bernard—but there was nothing to tell him that she hadn’t already gone to the sheriff with what she knew. Moreover, maybe what she knew was nothing. The journal looked a lot like it may have been an art project, or a piece of fiction. On the other hand, she had admitted to stealing it. Plus she had more or less claimed to despise the man, on the evening of his funeral.

He could ask her, straight out. That would be the simplest way… but what if she did have something to do with the death? She wouldn’t tell him, and he honestly wasn’t sure if he would even want her to, but it would certainly get him involved either way. It would show his hand. At best, it would call into question one of the few friendships he’d managed to cultivate so far.

By the time he swiped out that afternoon he knew what he had to do, even if the idea still sounded insane in his own head. He had to see the journal again himself. That way, he would know what was happening without having to involve anybody else. And most likely, it would be nothing.

Henry whiled away time at the bar. He sat beside Clint, but the old man was in one of his gruff moods and didn’t want to talk. The action of repeatedly raising glass to lip consumed him. Jamal was still busily explaining to anyone who would listen how he was the first one in the village the sheriff trusted with important news. True dark fell outside, Henry made a point of excusing himself to his room, and then snuck out the back way.  

Few people roamed the streets at night, but his heart thumped in his chest regardless. Nobody could possibly know what he was doing. Except Clair. He made fast time stealing through the village, and entered the park with a few furtive looks back over his shoulder. If anyone in the surrounding houses noticed him, they would be liable to notify the sheriff. That was an incident he was keen to avoid a second time.

It took an hour for him to find the spot. His memories from that night were hazy, and crowded by more dramatic trappings. But by weak and occluded moonlight, tripping over exposed roots and repeatedly circling back on himself, he finally found that particular gnarled tree and the subtly displaced earth at its base. There he dug, and after a few minutes unearthed the old leather satchel.

Inside, there was only the locket. Plain silver, with an emerald inlaid where a picture might have been, and the name Emmaline Cass engraved on the case.

He dug a little deeper, meeting only worms and compacted dirt. He circled the tree, displacing bushes and removing sticks in the vain search for a second hiding place, but it was clear that Clair’s cache had been emptied. Had Clair herself done it? Was this proof that she had brought what she had to the sheriff? Or was it emptied to keep him from doing exactly what he’d just tried? Either way, why had the locket been the only thing left behind?

What had Sofia told him about the book she’d been reading? An old diary. Not necessarily her own. Henry tried to blink away his exhaustion. It was nearly one in the morning, and all he really wanted to do was sleep, but he knew that he couldn’t leave this unresolved. If he had stumbled onto something important, it was his duty to report it as quickly as he could.

Those were the things he told himself. They sounded logical. But as any night wears too long into morning, the power of the brain in the decision-making process weakens, allowing other entities to have their say.

***

Henry trudged up the walk toward a small, but respectable, single-story bungalow in the northernmost part of the village. He hesitated on the walkway. Some small part of him knew that he was being rash. Nothing would change, if he left it for tomorrow. Then a light came on in the window, the warm glow of a living room cast forward on the blinds, and he was knocking on the door.

The first reaction was the deep booming of a dog, followed by the scrabbling of nails on tile as it rushed to investigate the disturbance. A few moments later there was a voice, the sound of man and dog negotiating a small area, and then Niles’ face appeared through an opening crack in the door.

“I’m sorry to come over so late, but I needed someone to talk to.” Henry pulled the locket out of his pocket and held it out like it would be some sort of explanation.

Niles seemed to accept it, still wrestling with the dog behind the door. A slightly stubby snout made it out of the crack, snuffling madly. “Do you want to come in?”

“Is that okay?” he asked. “Would I be disturbing anyone? Wife? Girlfriend?”

He might have imagined it, but he would have sworn that Niles’ mouth brightened into a smile for some fraction of a second. “No. No wife, no girlfriend. Only me and Bruce here. Come on in.”

1.13: Rambles and Brambles

Henry learned several important things the next day, at his brand new minimum-wage job. Some of them came hard and fast, like the exacting intricacies of Mrs. Fevra’s monstrously long monthly grocery list, and others came over time, like the reason the position of cashier at Horizon Foods had been so long vacant. Howard, the manager, met him in the morning with a wary look, and proceeded to treat him more like an adversary than an employee. Relevant details came out of the man like food from a starving dog’s mouth, while anecdotes streamed out like water from an open tap.

“I’ve lived in Tortus Bay my entire life,” Howard said, “and I’ve never been one of the chosen ones of the Brihtes or the Gauthes. Never had money. I’ve watched a lot of people like me fall flat on their faces. They pump gas; they take tickets at the Plex; they wipe tables down at the bar. I run a grocery store. The only grocery store.”

Later, he went on. “What are you, twenty years old? Did you do a couple years at a Community College, or did you figure you’d skip it altogether? Normally a job like this would go to a teenager, you know. How do you feel about achieving as much as a thirteen year old?”

And later, still more. “A lot of people get excited by a new face, kid. Something to stir the pot. But trust me, the cheese will settle eventually. It always does. And you got to choose if you want to end up sitting on the top of that pot, or the bottom.”

While Howard talked, he ran his fingers through his thick auburn hair, until it lay flat on his scalp and his fingers shone with grease under the florescent light. Henry was the only other employee in the store, and the man seemed to never run out of things to say. It was unfortunate that not a single one of those topics related to instructions on how to operate a cash register. Questions in that line were met with suspiciously narrowed eyes, and indecipherable grumbles.

So, he rang people up on a notepad. Howard watched, leaning against the wall, shaking his head like a disappointed father. Henry had worked his fair share of lousy jobs in the past. The repetition, boredom, and the constant low-level humiliation; it was like slipping on an old pair of gloves. But he thought he’d left that behind. He never imagined he would be back. There was so much about his life now that he never would have imagined.

People trickled into the store in a slow but steady stream, and Henry realized that he recognized a majority of them—even if he might not be able to recall any specific name. Such was the power of the AM Bazaar. From the way their eyes widened at his presence behind the register, he suspected they recognized him as well. The story of his new job would be known to everybody by the next morning. Would that finally convince them that he was an ordinary person?

By the end of his shift, no matter his composure, Henry was ready to pull his hair out of his head and stick it onto Howard’s slimy dome—and he might have, if a familiar face hadn’t walked through the door.

Kara’s hair was pulled back, and dark black smudges lined both of her bare arms, as if she’d recently been working with ink, or charcoal. None of her tattoos were visible, hidden by clothing or the necklace she wore. She grabbed a box of cheese crackers and a case of beer from the fridges in the back, and jumped up on the counter while he ruefully readied his pencil. “You hit the green button to start a new transaction,” she said.

He jabbed the button, and the machine sprang to life.

“From there you can enter the price of the products, one by one. There are codes to tell it what you’re selling, but you don’t have to worry about that.”

“How do you know how the register works?”

She shrugged. “Worked a lot of jobs around the village, and there aren’t that many to go around. I’m guessing inHale fell through. What happened?”

“Current theories range from ‘I’m still too new to the area’ to ‘she thinks I’m taking the job as a cover.’ I don’t know what happened.”

“If either of those are true,” Kara said, “you could wait it out and try again later. It’s not like you’re going to want to stay here for too long. To make this job last, you have to meet Howie’s obnoxiousness with an equal level of your own. Fight fire with fire. That’s why it’s just been Clair, and a constantly rotating cast of teenagers around here.”

“Well, at least it gives me something to do other than loitering around the bar.” He finished ringing her up and bagged her items, but she did not take them.

“How’s the shoulder doing?”

“Fine. You haven’t told anyone, have you?”

“Not exactly,” she said. “Care to prove to me that it’s fine?”

“Not exactly.”

Kara hopped off of the counter, and scooped up her bag. “I know you haven’t had any luck with hospitals. Lucky for you, we don’t have any in the village. What we have is the Brambles.”

“Is that some sort of home?”

“Teresa Bramble, and her daughters. They might not have all of the equipment, or the modern pills, but they’ve been keeping Tortus Bay going for decades. It can’t hurt to let them look.”

“It can, if they tell everyone my secret.”

She rolled her eyes. “They’re very discreet. Go whenever you like—they’ll be expecting you. 41 Spruce.”

With that she was gone, leaving Henry to stare blankly into space for the last ten minutes of his shift, before chucking off his uniform and wandering into the back. There, he found a truck docking bay and a storage space equally as large as the storefront. It was cold back there. Sitting at a desk by the door, staring into the blue light of an ancient, boxy computer, was Howard. “You think you’re coming back tomorrow?” he asked, not looking up from the screen. “You didn’t exactly take to it quick, did you? I’ve seen worse, but lord have I seen a whole lot better. There’s an art to the process that can take a while to learn, if you’re not the sharpest cookie in the box. It can’t be taught, but it can be observed, if you take my meaning, and…”

At some point during that monologue, Henry quietly said “see you in the morning,” and walked out. He swiped his new time card just as Clair entered through the front door, a knowing smile already plastered on her face. He stuck two fingers in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

***

Henry still had nightmares. Months of therapy helped, but he suspected that they would never fully go away. They were rarely of that horrible event itself, the precipitating memory that introduced the concept recurring nightmares into his life. But the anxiety, and the blood-clotting dread, were the same. Shapes and colors, or familiar faces talking about familiar things, but behind it all would be the dreadful certainty that he was about to round a corner to enter the school and see everything again.

He sat up, drenched in thick sweat and free-flowing blood. Normally the wound in his shoulder kept itself dry, but a day of bagging groceries and lifting crates of pancake mix and peach preserves into Mrs. Fevra’s station wagon had agitated the area. He caught his breath. He closed his eyes, told himself that it had only been a dream, and then he hauled himself onto his feet to get cleaned up. Paper towels and pressure would do the trick. They always did.

Afterward, he was awake for the day. Although the sun had not yet fully risen, the pain radiating down through his arm was too great for sleep. So he sat on the edge of the bed in the hotel room he’d now lived in for over a week. There was nothing to do. No television, no radio, and he hadn’t brought any books along for the trip. He hadn’t brought anything that didn’t fit neatly into his backpack. The bar’s kitchen wouldn’t be open yet. There was simply nothing to do, but sit in pain.

Kara told him the Brambles were expecting him at any time. Perhaps she hadn’t imagined that time being the crack of dawn, but he could always take the scenic route over there. 

Henry bandaged his shoulder, dressed, and headed off down the rickety wooden staircase that wrapped around the bar to the street below. It was cold that morning. Not so much to be freezing, but enough to make fog of his breath. Summer would soon be over; fall rapidly approached. Unperturbed by time, he made his way slowly through the silent village. Not so much as a squirrel moved. As he walked, blue retook the sky.

The house on 41 Spruce was not itself dissimilar to any of the others in Tortus Bay, but its front lawn certainly was. A sense of purpose existed there, beyond the growing and cutting of grass. One third of it was devoted to an overgrown garden, another third to a fenced enclosure with no visible animals, and the rest to a swingset and a set of aged patio furniture that sank into the dirt. Henry stepped over a welcome mat that said ‘Check Your Feet,’ let his eyes rest a moment on the sign in the window that said ‘Fuck Off,’ and knocked very softly.

A woman with a creased face and billowing grey hair, wrapped in a colorful patchwork quilt against the chill, opened the door. “Yes?”

“My name is Henry Cauville,” he said. “I was told you would be expecting me.”

“Come on in then,” she said, “before you catch a cold.”  

If the Bramble House was creaky and old, then it more than made up for it with an abundance of human comforts. Built-in bookshelves ran along the hallway walls. Carpets depicting pumpkins, cats, and fanciful creatures covered the floorboards. Art hung everywhere, of such a variety of style and skill that Henry was sure it had all been painted by locals, if not the Brambles themselves.

“I’m sorry to bother you so early,” he said.

“People come when they are hurting, and we are here to help. Whenever that may be.” She eyed him. “Has your shoulder been hurting?”

“Kara told you everything.”

The woman smiled kindly. “I am not a doctor, but please understand that I take my patient’s confidentiality very seriously. My name is Teresa, as I’m sure you know, and I am glad to meet you.” She ushered him through the entrance hall and into the kitchen. “I’ve lived here in the village my entire life, as did my mother and her mother before that. And possibly her mother before even that, but who’s counting at that point? You don’t mind doing this in here, do you?”

The kitchen was beautiful and white, with windows that caught the morning sun like rounded bowls of light. Fruits, vegetables, and herbs lay arranged around the countertops, and through the open pantry door Henry spied a treasure trove of sugary cereals and snack cakes. “Do what, exactly?”

“Nothing more than you want,” she said, indicating that he should hop up on the dining table. “These are my daughters, by the way. Sofia and Lola. Say hello, girls.”

Henry jumped. He hadn’t noticed the two other people in the room. Sofia, the elder of the sisters, was leaning in the windowsill with a steaming mug and an open book. She had long, dark hair and looked to be anywhere from sixteen to twenty years old. Lola was several years younger, and had a head of frizzy brown madness. She was sitting politely in a chair beside her sister, kicking her legs and watching the new proceedings with interest. “Hello,” he said.

The girls waved at him, and he turned his attention back to Teresa. “Do you believe what Kara told you about me?” he asked. “That I have a gunshot wound that won’t heal?”

She shrugged. “I have no way of knowing, so there’s no reason for me to believe or disbelieve. But you are hurt, and need help. That is all that matters. May I see the shoulder?”

 Lola stared with open interest, and Sofia surreptitiously glanced over the top of her book, as he pulled off his shirt and undid that morning’s hurried bandaging. “It was bleeding when I woke up.”

“Is that unusual?” Teresa asked, circling him curiously.

“It’s rare.”

She reached out, and gently touched the skin beside the wound. Her hand was warm. “It hasn’t healed at all?”

“It closed up a little, at first,” he said. “You can see, the back looks better than the front. Then it just stopped. The pain is always there, but it’s been more bearable since I got to Tortus Bay.”

Teresa frowned down at him, her arms crossed. “Sofia, honey, will you grab the salve?” she asked. “Top shelf, next to the balsam.”

Sofia straightened, set her book face-up on the windowsill, and slipped out of the room. From where he sat, Henry could barely make out the figures on the sun-washed pages of the girl’s abandoned book. What he saw was enough.

Diagrams. Sketches. Strange words. And the shape of a curiously constructed leaf, etched out in pencil, that he had only seen one time before—in the journal of Mathas Bernard.

1.12: Employment

That Saturday’s meeting of the Tortus Bay Hiking and Wilderness Appreciation Society (as they preferred to be called) went on as scheduled. A dozen members congregated in the four-season patio of the Brihte Estate, which was as large itself as many houses in the village, and were served coffee and finger foods. They sat arranged in plush armchairs and cushioned dining seats, pleasantly chatting and waiting for their leader to arrive.

For a woman who supposedly knew a damning secret concerning her brother-in-law’s murder, Lucy Brihte exhibited no difficulties delivering the mundanities that the TBHWAS had to concern itself with that day. She was a thin woman, with a whispery voice and the tendency to stare at an unfixed point in the distance while speaking. Compared with her sister’s dramatic flair, she looked mundane in a brown blouse and a faded blue hair-band.

After the catching up and other social niceties, Henry was asked to stand and introduce himself. “I’ve already met a few of you,” he said, “but I apologize in advance if I can’t remember your names. To everyone else: my name is Henry. I’m new to Tortus Bay.”

A few people leaned in to whisper to their neighbors. “What brought you to our club?” Lucy asked, disconcertedly staring at the glass wall behind him.

“Niles invited me. I never got a chance to get outdoors, back where I came from. I figured while I’m still looking for a job, I might as well try something new.”

That generated even more whispers, but Lucy didn’t seem to notice. She thanked him, asked him to sit, and then every other member took it in turn to introduce themselves. The group was comprised primarily of older couples, but there were a few other people his age in attendance as well. They looked bored.

The meeting proper wrapped up with lengthy affirmations of each of the society’s long-term goals: establishing hiking paths in the forest; petitioning City Hall for wild-life protection; and finding better methods to educate the public that there are no wolves living in the trees outside of the village. Lucy disappeared back into the manor during this last discussion, with no indication that she meant to return. 

Affairs then proceeded outside, where again people grouped up to chat. Niles was dragged away to discuss a piece of inscrutable society minutiae, leaving Henry to fend for himself against a tide of people who wanted to know if he would be attending their ‘live meeting’ next week.

“It means that we’ll actually go out into the woods,” Tod, a man with a proud pot-belly and stately white whiskers, explained politely. “There’s a lot to do out there, especially if you’re at all taken with the sport of bird watching.”

He feigned a nascent interest in birds until he heard several loud apologies from across the lawn, and saw Niles extricate himself from the group which had taken him. They rejoined each other by the pond. “I suppose you really must be looking for a job, then,” Niles said.

He nodded. “I had an interview earlier today, but they turned me down after I let it slip that I’ve only been in the village for a week.”

“I’m sure they just wanted to make sure that you would be in it for the long haul. A lot of people who move here end up leaving after a few weeks.”

They found the cobblestone path, and followed it away from the congregation. “Why is that?”

“There’s a lot of things you can’t know until you’ve been around for a while.”

Outside of the gates, starting down the wide avenue of Glosspool Lane, Henry decided they were safely out of earshot. “Was Lucy acting oddly back there?”

“No, that was classic Lucy, I’m afraid. She’s a little better in small groups, or out in the woods, but I don’t get the impression that she cares much about people. At least, not interacting with them.”

“So I suppose confronting her is out of the question?”

Niles shook his head. “She’d cut ties with me. I know she likes my food, but not that much.”

The sun was failing by the time they turned off Glosspool Lane. “She didn’t strike me as someone who’s harboring a secret like that.”

“I know what I heard.”

“Then I think you have to talk to the sheriff, if for nothing else than to clear your conscience.”

“You’re right.” Niles stopped, running a hand through his hair. “You don’t think I’ve done anything bad, do you? By waiting so long to tell anybody?”

“I don’t know.”

He looked at Henry for a long moment. “Do you like hiking?”

“What?”

“I invited you to this club, and I never even asked if you actually care about hiking or not. Are you going to come to the live meeting? I promise to make it more entertaining than this was.”

“If you’re not being hunted like game by Lucy by then, I’ll be there.”

“Here, take this. In case you need to get in touch with me.” Niles rummaged in his pocket, producing another blank business card. “Thank you. You didn’t help how I thought you would, but you helped me all the same.”

Henry turned the card over in his hand, finding a phone number and an address scribbled on the back. “This is unbelievable. Do you just carry these around with you at all times?”

But Niles was already striding off in the other direction, looking back only to wave.

***

Henry returned to the Hell on a Shell Bar with tired legs, an aching shoulder, and a dark cloud hanging above his head. To his surprise, the bar had emptied out. Only the regulars remained. Perhaps everyone else had their fill of the daily gossip. He took a stool beside Clair, ordered a beer, and began stretching out his legs.

“Long day?” she asked. A single half-empty glass sat in front of her. 

“Long day.”

Jamal, who by now had thrown a colorful apron on over his nice clothes, served the beer without comment and then hurried off to help Clint on the other end of the room. There was an exhaustion behind the man’s eyes. “For everyone,” Clair said. “You heard the news?”

Apparently not everyone got their fill. “Is it true?”

“The sheriff herself came around a few hours ago to confirm it in person: Mathas Bernard died due to complications arising from blunt force trauma to the head, and the case has been re-opened as a homicide investigation. She also advised all of us to stop throwing around wild theories. Apparently it was a mixup over in Yungton that caused the confusion. You know, that’s where the examination happened. There’s no coroner here in the village.”

“You believe all that?”

“Don’t know why I shouldn’t. Does seem like a massive fuck up, though.” She sipped her beer. “You were asking about Beth Brihte, the other day.”

“I happened to meet her,” he said. “Only curious to know how you felt.”

“I feel the same about Beth as I do about any of the Brihtes.” She drained her glass. “You’re not here to deal with any of this. You don’t care about Mathas Bernard, do you?”

Henry thought about that. “I never met the man. I never knew him. Mostly, I care that everyone thinks I’m here because of him.”

“Is that what’s bothering you?”

He took a long drink for himself, and then told her about his interview with Aria Bethel. He left out everything that happened afterwards, with Niles and Lucy Brihte.

Clair slapped her palm down on the bartop. “That’s the problem with this place. Once these people think they know who you are, nothing can change their mind. I’ll bet you anything that Aria thinks you’re here to write a story on Mathas, and only want the job as a cover. Good luck making anyone hear reason on that.”

“It might be because she thinks I’m a tourist, instead.”

She waved that idea down. There was a spark to her now that he hadn’t seen since his first night in the village. “You want a job?”

“I do,” he said, nervously, “but not at the orchards or the fishery.”

She leapt off her stool. “Finish your beer.”

Henry upended the rest of his drink. “Just promise me there won’t be any skipping this time.”

Clair grabbed him, hauled him roughly out of his seat, and frog-marched him straight out of the bar and down the street. They ducked into the harsh florescent glow of Horizon Foods, where she released him into the fresh produce aisle. For a grocery store, the building was on the small side, but its shelves were narrowly spaced and densely packed. Most of the food was unlabeled, and there were very few price stickers. Only one check-out lane. “Howie!” Clair bellowed. “Where are you?”

A disheveled man with thick auburn hair and a deep scowl showed himself from behind a potato display. “Your shift’s over,” he said.

“I found you a cashier,” she said, pushing Henry forward.

The man considered him. “I’m Howard,” he said, pointedly emphasizing the name.

“Henry.”

“You have any experience handling money, Henry?”

“He’s good with numbers,” Clair cut in, “and he’s eager to work.”

Howard’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve been looking to fill that position for a long time now. A little longer won’t hurt.”

“Tomorrow,” Clair said, “is Mrs. Fevra’s monthly grocery run. And I’m coming in late.”

Howard’s mouth twisted, but he smoothed it again at great apparent effort. “Okay, Henry, you can have it—as long as you start tomorrow. I’ll see you at nine in the morning.” 

1.11: Conspiracy

Mathas Bernard became the talk of Tortus Bay once again, though not for fond reminiscence or familial condolence, but for wild murder conspiracy. For that is what the village decided upon learning the true cause of the man’s death: it could be nothing but homicide. But by whom? And with whose assistance? Unanswered questions stirred the people of Tortus Bay into a frenzy. How had the coroner missed such a basic piece of information? Was it the sheriff herself, concealing facts? Or the family? By noon, Henry had enough of the whole lot.

He slipped out of the Tortoise Shell Inn and headed not toward the center of the village, as had become his routine, but to the park for a chance to catch his breath. To his mind, there was no doubt what would happen next. He saw the thoughts behind their eyes already. Emboldened by the chorus, people would start asking him what he knew, and demand to know exactly what he was doing in their village. A majority of them believed he was a journalist, and his silence on the matter would certainly now be taken as evidence that he was some sort of undercover reporter cracking a case behind the scenes. 

The thought of himself as a hard-bitten murder investigator made him laugh, but if it could be believed anywhere then it would be in a small, insular community which eschewed newspapers in favor of their local barkeep. Up until that morning he’d thought that the entire thing would blow over. Time would pass, no theoretical story on the death of Mathas Bernard would materialize, and people would eventually forget the entire matter. He’d been wrong. 

A buzzing in his pocket roused Henry from his thoughts, and he accepted the video call without thinking about it. “Am I speaking with Henry Cauville’s… torso?” asked a woman’s angular face. She had a dramatically pointed chin, and thin lips.

“Yes, it is. Speaking.” He hastily tried to right the phone to point at his face while he crossed the street to the park. “Hello.”

“Yes, hello. Can you stop walking for a moment? The motion’s making me nauseous.”

He pulled up short, looked around, and belatedly remembered that there were no benches in the park. Standing it would be. “Is that better?”

“Much. This is Aria Bethel, giving you a call from inHale. I hope I didn’t catch you off-guard—our office is open seven days a week, and we observe flexible schedules.”

“No, not at all.” Henry reminded himself to smile. “That sounds very productive.”

Aria met his smile with a slight frown. “We do our best. I have a referral here from my colleague Kara; I understand that you’re interested in our open Communications Assistant position?”

He told her that he was, and reflected on his past work as an in-house editor. She told him that the aim of her company was to provide clients with ‘a streamlined amalgamation of the latest diets, workouts, food science, and healthy lifestyle tips—personally tailored through clever data aggregation and delivered through a proprietary algorithm. To keep you hale.’ Aria went on in excruciating detail about how proud she was of having founded a successful, local tech company, and how she needed dedicated employees to keep it going.

All things considered, it was a standard interview, up until the very end. “I hope you don’t mind me asking,” Aria said, “but how long have you been in Tortus Bay? The referral doesn’t say specifically.”

“Almost a week now.”

“I see.” She visibly exhaled. “Well, Mr. Cauville, we believe in fast actions and direct answers here. I’d like to thank you for your interest, but at this time I don’t believe that your experience lines up with the expectations of the position. We have your information on file if anything comes up in the future.”

What had seemed to be a pleasant conversation and a hopeful interview was abruptly finished, leaving Henry staring down at his lock screen. It told him that it was already 2:15, and that reminded him of something important.

***

Glosspool Lane was a short jog from the park, but it may as well have been in a different country. Sprawling mansions dominated the wending drive, secluded from one another by stately lawns and immaculately maintained hedges. Wrought-iron gates of silver and gold bore old family names and barred casual entry from the street. It was the sort of place to have a wide street and no sidewalk. Henry walked in the margin up to number 27, to find two surprising things awaiting him.

The first was the name ‘Brihte’ in metal above the gate. The second was a broadly smiling Niles Homer, rising to stand from where he had been sitting on the curb. “You came,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you would.”

They met each other in an unexpected, and slightly awkward, hug. Outside of the bakery, Niles smelled more sawdust than confection. “This is where the Hiking Club meets?” Henry asked.

“Only every once in a while.” He looked much the same as he ever did, from the dark jeans to the bright sweater and that perfect bounce in his unruly hair, but there was something markedly different about his demeanor. No more was he anxiously dodging away from interactions in a fevered attempt to get from place to place; now he seemed to have all the time in the world, and the heart to enjoy it. It was a good look on him. “Lucy Brihte runs the club, and we rotate who hosts. Needless to say, we all look forward to her turn.” As he spoke, he punched numbers into a pad beside the gate, which promptly began to open for them. “Not that the rest of the family appreciates it. This is the family estate, and Lucy has always been the black sheep. Everybody knows it, but don’t tell anyone I said it.”

They entered the grounds and came upon a series of cobblestone paths that cut through the short emerald grass. Niles led them down the left-most path, which veered around the outskirts of the grounds to the left side of the four-story marble manor house. “How does Lucy relate to Beth?” Henry asked.

“They’re sisters. Never been close, but always been blood. Lucy spends as little time around here as she can. When she’s not doing something for the club, she’s running her bookstore.”

“The one that’s always closed?”

Niles laughed. “That’s the one. She only opens it when she wants to sit back and read, and with everything happening lately…”

The cobblestones brought them into a patch of taller, yellowed grass surrounding a shallow pool. Rotund toads hopped back and forth, grasshoppers sang, and there was the flitting of birds from branch to branch in the tree line not far away. It seemed no matter where a person went in Tortus Bay, they could never be far from the border of the forest. “I’m sure all of the Brihtes lead busy lives,” Henry said.

“They do tend to be perfectionists. It’s how they’re raised. I wouldn’t know anything about it; I’m just your typical workaholic.”

A fanciful but weather-worn bench sat before them, positioned to ponder the toads, but neither of them sat. “Is this where it happened?” Henry asked. He’d been looking around, trying to imagine how it might have played out. “Is this where Mathas Bernard died?”

“No,” Niles said. “Emil and Petunia Brihte are still alive, bless them, and they’re the ones who live here—their brood has long fled and all have houses of their own. But I see that I wasn’t as coy about inviting you over here as I thought. I need to talk to you about Mathas.”

His heart beat heavy and painful in his chest. Of course that was the reason they were having this conversation. What else did anybody in the village ever want to talk about?

“That’s part of the reason,” Niles clarified. He was talking fast now, his mood anxious once more. “Obviously I thought it was enough to tell you about even before the news today, but now there’s no way that it’s wrong, and I really think you have to -”

“Please,” Henry interrupted, “let me talk first. And listen. I am not a journalist, a reporter, or any kind of scientist. I have no authority over anyone or anything. If you think you know something about Mathas Bernard, you have to bring that to the sheriff.”

Niles’ face fell. He took a few steps, dropped down into the bench, and covered his face with his hands.

“I didn’t mean to be so direct,” Henry said. “It’s just that people don’t seem to want to hear that.”

“You’re not here to write a story?”

“No, afraid not.”

He uncovered his face, slightly paler than a few moments before. “Everyone said that’s what you were doing, and I thought I’d found the perfect solution. It’s nothing I can prove. It wasn’t enough to cause a stir, but after this morning… now it might be important, and I’ve just been sitting on it for over a week.” 

“Okay.” Henry sat beside him, and briefly considered throwing his arm over his shoulder before deciding against it. “Maybe you should just tell me what it is, and then we can decide what to do about it together.”

Niles nodded, breathed out, and steadied himself. “I overheard Lucy talking on the phone, the day after it happened. She wanted to speak with me about catering the funeral service, but I showed up early—and obviously I know how to let myself in. I don’t know who she was talking to, but she thinks her sister was at home that night. Beth told everyone that she’d been out, that there was nothing she could do for her husband, but it’s not true. She was there. Beth killed Mathas Bernard.” 

1.10: Normality, Briefly

Failing to affect change never makes a person a hero, no matter how noble that person’s intentions might have been. Henry learned that the hard way. He never expected to be lauded for what he tried to do, but the pity caught him off-guard. The embarrassment. Then there were the ones who drew no distinction between him and the shooter. They would never outright say it, but it had been clear in their eyes; if Henry had known what he was doing, how many kids might have been saved?

In their estimation his failure was tantamount to murder, and he couldn’t help but agree with them. There was nothing more he wanted than to go back in time to that afternoon at Frida Middle School, and make things play out differently. Stop the shooter, or be killed instead of injured for the attempt. Short of that, he wanted to be as far away as he could from anybody who knew. But now he’d told Kara.

There was no regret there. She deserved to know, and the weight of the secret had become crushing on his back alone. His wound showed no sign of improvement, looking functionally identical to how it had the day he walked out of the hospital some months ago, but the pain was more manageable in Tortus Bay. He could operate again, like a normal member of society, and that is what he set out to do.

Over the next few days, a sense of routine settled into life in the village. Henry woke up with the sun in the mornings, and took his breakfasts in the bar with a perpetually chatty Jamal. He learned not to bring up the concept of money with the man; instead he sought Diana out in private, and slipped her the appropriate amount of cash. She kept the hotel’s records in a locked drawer in the back office, away from her husband’s prying eyes and questionable business sense. 

He met their daughter, Jessica, who came by the bar with obvious reluctance and treated him with an exacting aloofness—as though he was simply another one of the rundown regulars. That, he supposed, wasn’t entirely unfair.

No word came to him from Kara, except for a parting promise that she would pass his number (and a good word) along to Aria Bethel, and that he could expect a call from her. That drove him to dig his cell out of the bottom of his backpack, whereupon he discovered that he had zero messages and zero missed calls. He supposed that wasn’t unfair either, but it did leave him with a pang of sadness and a lurch of homesickness in his gut.

Kara’s protection charm hung around his neck at all times: in the shower, into bed, and during his midday walks around Tortus Bay. If she could believe his impossible story, then he could believe hers. Sometimes he worried that people around the village saw the silver chain poking out of his shirt, and knew what he wore—for whatever Kara said about selling the things, nobody else seemed to find it appropriate to wear them.

The man behind the counter at the Pale Moon Buffet openly stared at his neckline while ringing up his order. Henry ate lunch at the buffet two days in a row, for although it was doubtlessly the most Americanized Chinese food he’d ever encountered, they also served the best french fries and chicken nuggets he could remember consuming. And for that, he would put up with the extra attention. 

He got ice-cream at Pop Up and Scream, perused the shelves of Old Tommy’s General Store, and made a habit of checking the daily schedule down at The Plex. The theater boasted three screens, but appeared mostly interested in playing obscure action moves from the eighties and nineties. Several times he tried to visit Off the Edges, a small book store at the tail end of the shops on Main Street, but their sign said they were ‘out for a minute’ each time he walked by, with no indication of when that minute might end. 

By some miracle he managed to keep the troubling figure of Beth Brihte out of his thoughts, until the exhaustion of a long afternoon walking out to the orchards saw him stopping in to Cycler to inquire about the price of a new bike. It was the owner of the shop, an elderly and well-tanned woman, who broached the topic of the widow by bragging that even so rich a woman as a Brihte bought a bike from Cycler rather than shipping one in from outside the village. Henry regretted his decision to ask for more detail when he saw the anxiety his question wrought in the shop owner’s face.

“I don’t know anything about it,” she said, wringing her hands. “The poor thing, it was a tragedy. She’s devastated. How could she not be? Been locked up in that house of hers since it happened.”

“She hasn’t come out at all?”

“No. Nobody’s seen her since.”

How had the rumor mill of the AM Bazaar let Beth Brihte’s early morning trip to the Double S slip them by? Or had that dark coat she’d worn really concealed her identity? Henry doubted it. If nothing else, Patty had recognized the woman easily enough from behind the counter. With apologies he left Cycler empty-handed, and headed back to the Hell on a Shell bar. That is where he wiled away his evenings, and where he figured he had the best odds of running into Niles.

This had happened a few times, but always in passing. Niles would smile and nod, or say a brief hello, but never stop to chat—and once that man was in the kitchen, that’s where he would stay. He seemed born to cook. More reliable was the presence of Clair and Clint, who were fixtures in the bar in much the same fashion as the tables. By routine they began their drinking at the turn of five, and would still be going long after it was time for Henry to retire for the night. He didn’t get the impression that the two of them knew each other outside of the bar, but their constant adjacent drinking had clearly bonded them within those walls.

Clair’s behavior was more muted around Henry, especially compared to how she had acted that first night. He tried asking for what her opinion on Beth Brihte was, but she didn’t seem interested in the topic. She talked mostly about how tired she was of living with her parents, and how boring her job stocking shelves at the grocery store was. He did not bring up their trip out to the park, or her secret cache therein. They were always surrounded by people, and he imagined that it would be a sensitive topic.

***

On Saturday Henry woke up late, and wandered downstairs in pursuit of pancakes to find a commotion in the barroom. Every table, chair, stool, and solitary stretch of wall was occupied. People spoke with one another in hushed yet hurried tones, occasionally breaking out of their groups to run across the room to another, where they would confer for a moment before returning again. In the middle of it all stood Jamal, his face smiling yet grim, taking random passersby by the shoulder and speaking a few brief words into their ears. For this occasion he wore his finest pressed shirt, and no apron at all. Presumably everyone was too preoccupied to eat.

“Have you heard the news yet?” Jamal asked, as Henry worked his way through the milling mass.

“I just woke up.”

“I thought,” he whispered conspiratorially, “that you might have heard it days ago.”

Henry sighed. “You and I have got to get on the same page about what I’m doing here.”

He held his hands up in faux surrender. “Fine, you didn’t know.”

“And I still don’t. What’s happening?”

“Mathas Bernard didn’t die of a heart attack,” Jamal breathed, his voice a delicate balance between sorrow and self-importance. “I confirmed it with the sheriff myself this morning. The coroner made a mistake, or else didn’t see something until yesterday. Nobody’s clear on that part yet, but Leia says she’s going to get down to the bottom of it either way.”

Henry felt his stomach twist. “Jamal,” he asked, “how did Mathas die?”

“Blunt force trauma. To the back of the head.” 

1.09: Confession, part 2

Henry grabbed a tall yellow can from the bottom shelf of the mini fridge while Kara scrounged up a pair of dusty pads for them to sit on, and they cheersed. It was a disorderly mess in that attic, but nonetheless cozy—and somehow comforting. The beer tasted almost identical to what they served on tap at the Hell on a Shell Bar. 

“I almost forgot the best part.” She swiped a grey tarp off the wall, revealing a small cylindrical window. “The view’s nothing to complain about.”

It wasn’t. From where he sat, Henry could see straight out across the tops of the houses that led to the park, the lighthouse, and the dark glittering ocean beyond. More stars shone in the light above that water than he could remember seeing in his entire lifetime, and he silently resolved to spend more of his time looking skyward in the future. “Is this what you did,” he asked, still staring out of the window, “when you first got here? Odd jobs, like fixing up this house, until you found something bigger?”

“That’s exactly it. And let me tell you, I slept wherever I could. Took advantage of Jamal big time, not that he makes it difficult. There aren’t many apartments around here. Most everyone owns their own home, and most of those homes have belonged to a single family for generations.”

“I’ll take it,” he said, deciding right then and there.

They clicked their cans together again. “I thought you might. I can probably have it ready for you in a week. Depending on how toxic that insulation turns out to be.”

Henry smiled. That was, he thought, the first time he’d heard her make a joke. “I hope it really does come cheap, because I don’t know about finding a job. Everyone seems to think I already have one. Or two.”

“I don’t know if I can promise anything, but I’ll put a good word in for you at inHale. That’s our own local tech startup. Some of us are very proud of it.”

“Some of us,” he echoed.

“The ones who understand it. But as both a scientist and a journalist, I imagine you’re qualified.”

He took a deep drink, and continued gazing at the sea. It was nice, the feeling that he had someone in his corner already. When he first contemplated moving across the country to a small village that he’d never heard of before, it was the prospect of leaving his friends that rankled the most. He’d imagined tight cliques, alienating in-jokes, and months of slowly building trust. None of that turned out to be true. Jamal was willing to house him on credit, Clair cared immediately what he thought of her, and now Kara was sticking her neck out to help him find an apartment and a job. 

So, he told her everything: Jamal’s comedic misunderstanding; Clair’s cache in the park; Mathas Bernard’s strangle journal; sheriff Leia Thao’s request; and his run-in with Beth Brihte at the cafe—he babbled and babbled until he thought there was nothing left inside, and found himself completely off guard for the question she then asked. “What about your shoulder?”

“What do you mean?”

She sighed. “I just spent all day watching you lug stuff around a warehouse. You think I wouldn’t notice you keeping anything that weighed more than about five pounds off your left arm? So what happened? Did Clair get a little too rowdy for you?” The question started with a smile, but it faded when he turned to look at her. “You don’t have to tell me,” she continued, a little more chaste, “but you should at least show someone.”

That seemed fair. Henry set his beer on the ground, pulled his shirt off, and then carefully peeled the bandages off his shoulder. No matter how much gauze he used, it always hurt.

Kara sucked in air. “You were shot.”

“I was.”

“When?”

“Before I moved here,” he said. He hadn’t decided to tell her. He’d decided, in fact, not to tell anybody, but the words came out regardless. “It was my lunch break, and I really needed to stretch my legs. Work had been hell, but I can’t remember why. Normally I would pop out for ten minutes or so, but I went further that day.

“The weather was beautiful, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit back down at my desk. They wouldn’t notice my absence anyway. I made it all the way down to Frida Middle School, about twenty minutes from my work. The front doors were open, and I remember thinking that the kids must have been out for recess. When I walked past them, I heard the sounds. Firecrackers, I was sure, or balloons popping. My feet moved faster than my brain.

“I still have no idea why I did it. I didn’t accomplish anything. I didn’t help anyone. I remember the hallway, then the classroom, and the… the kids on the floor. I remember seeing that fucker’s face, only for a second. Then I was in an ambulance, trying to focus on an EMT.”

Kara was hugging him. Henry was crying. Hot, effortless tears that came more for the words in the present than the memories of the past. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “You were brave. You did it because there was nothing else you could do.”

“It’s a lot.” Henry wiped at his eyes. He was shaking, and his body felt empty. “It happened a while ago, but I’m still not good at talking about it.”

“A while ago?” She pulled away from him, slightly. “This looks recent.”

“It never healed,” he said. “Doctor thought it was normal at first, said my body needed time. That time passed, and I was still wrapping the same wound every morning. Still bleeding.”

“And you never went back to the doctor?”

Henry upended the tall yellow can, finishing the bottom half of his beer in one enormous gulp. The air in that drafty attic had become cold in the deepening night. “Seeing what I saw that day disturbed my mind,” he said. “There’s no better way to put it. It separated me from my family, and my friends. It made me realize that the life I’d been living wasn’t worthwhile. It sounds like maybe you can relate to that.

“But it was this wound that made me leave. It was agonizing pain, for every minute of every day, and it’s only now been manageable since I showed up at the Tortoise Shell Inn. I would love to know why that is.”