April 27, 2020.
‘–Now I know a few of y’all will already know what’s what. News travels in Harville, ‘specially these days, I guess. Now I want to tell you the facts before all that speculation gets to your head, such as we know ‘em. At – Uh, approximately half-past-eight yesterday morning, a tourist found the body of – the Jonson girl, his youngest, up in the National Park. She was dead. She’s dead. She’d been dead awhile when she was found from what we could tell. Now we got no reason to suspect foul play just yet, I want to make that absolutely crystal. As of yet, it’s officially been ruled an accident. I talked to the guy who found the body at length and we have no cause to believe there was no likelihood of foul play. We don’t want to start throwing accusations about between us neither, ‘til we know just what happened to that little girl. This is a time when our community gotta pull ourselves together. For the Jonsons, and – for us.’
Nic had never seen the gymnasium so full. Must have been thirty people. It certainly was a multifunctional space. Come to that, she had never seen so many of the Harville population in one place. She kept an impassive watch over the crown as Haplan continued, his voice too close to the microphone with every lisped syllable.
‘Now I know y’all know our Congressman-elect Martin Beaumann was in town yesterday on one stop of his election campaign, and we thank him for cancelling his events up in Baltimore to be with us today. We all appreciate a bit of inspiration in times like this. Now he’s assured me if any of y’all have concerns about the situation, or about the society, he’s gonna be here all afternoon if he has to. And of course, if you got any information on what happened, you seen anything at all, you call myself, Officer Vorpal or Officer Gyre. We’re all here for you. We’re all here.’
Haplan seemed to run out of things to meaningfully say. Beaumann, meanwhile, was poised at the end of the front row of chairs like a greyhound in the slips and, sensing a lull, he bounded up to Haplan and beckoned to receive the mic.
‘Now I’ve been speaking to my good friend Terry.’ Beaumann pointed to where his new buddy was sitting out among the ranks of mostly empty chairs. Traitor. ‘And his little boy Niall. Say hi, Niall.’ Niall stood on his chair and waved.
‘Niall and his daddy asked me – Are we safe, here? Are we protected? We in Harville don’t have a big, professional PD like up in Baltimore or DC.’ Fuck you. ‘Can I play catch with my son, in our own front yard? Now I can’t stand up here in front of you and give some pretty speech that’s going to answer that question for each and every of you. But I’d like to talk to each of you personally about it, if you’ll speak. So I suggest we adjourn, Officer–?’
Haplan having conveniently already adjourned himself in the direction of the refreshments, people broke themselves off to rise in twos and threes and ring around Beaumann like a pope giving out blessings, murmuring with a faint, collective dismay. Nic approached Haplan’s stooped back while he filled a polystyrene cup from a coffee keg.
‘You don’t mind him herding the geese? I mean – shouldn’t that be us, up there?–’
‘Nah, fuck it. If he wants to answer the same fuckin’ questions over and over all damn day, I’m with it.’
Nic nodded, and looked back to where Beaumann was stood, mobbed by anxious families. ‘Toxicology come back?–’
‘Yep. Neg. All known opiates. Less she was getting’ high off of that moon fungus I’d stay she was stone cold – sober.’
‘Classy, Dwayne. Sister’d be a different story, believe me.’
‘Yeah. Ray told me ‘bout that shit. You know, junkies normally take bad news with a lil’ more grace. Worst’s already happened, y’know?–’
‘I hear that. It’s just–’ Nic tailed off into nothing. Theory. Connections, connections. Strings and pins. Hearsay and specious gossip. Where did it all go? Every day was a bad day, when you were tired.
Haplan checked his phone. ‘Let’s get back to the station. My ass is hurting. Ah, fuck me–’
Paterson Gill Gimlin, of all humanoids, veered out of the milling crowd of suddenly upright people in their direction. Nic was starting to viciously dislike his capacity for spontaneous appearances.
‘Mr. Gimlin. How might we help?–’
‘I was hoping I might be able to help you.’
‘Oh I hope so.’
‘Officer Vorpal – ma’am – I just have something that might be relevant to what we were talking about yesterday?–’
He came in close, lowered his voice, raised his odour load – ‘It’s real.’
Nic retreated. ‘How about somewhere else, eh? Officer Gyre–’ the Officer looked far too curious. He didn’t want to know. ‘Back at the station, alright?–’
She took Gimlin to the Crab Shack. He said he hadn’t tried it, and they had macha. After she’d checked online, it was fine by her. They took a chequered booth by the window. Even mid-afternoon, it was deserted, apart from the two of them. They were served by a shaky, absent-minded waitress with a throat tattoo and track-marks down her arm, before Gimlin got right down to brass tacks.
‘Well Officer–’ he paused dramatically, like a judge on a talent show. ‘I can exclusively reveal to you–’ he produced his phone and cued a display ‘–My particle detector has absolutely skyrocketed in the last eighteen hours. Skyrocketed. Tachyon rates in particular–’ Nic unfocussed, and let things descend into a blur. It hadn’t been a smooth night, and this was a big ask, this early.
‘–Mr. Gimlin, why did you say ‘It’s real’ to me, just now?–’
‘It got you here, didn’t it?–’
‘Please. Your macha’s on the way. I’m buying.’
He had a strange persuasion to him. Nic didn’t know what it was. The prospect of running back to the station at such a time was as big a factor as any. And so she allowed Gimlin to run through some extent of his copious knowledge of the county folklore, albeit in entirely factual format, with the aid of a website accessed by phone screen and an annotated birds-eye view of the area by satellite. It was a shame, Nic reflected absently as he spoke, sipping macha, that fiction had lost the ability to identify itself as such. When did people start believing everything they heard, she wondered? Hadn’t we learned all the things that couldn’t possibly be so, by now?
The facts, as some saw it, were these –
Three hundred years before, the spot where they sat had been a primordial swamp, with dense forestland to the horizons. It was inhabited for eons by Natives whose customs and beliefs left no trace in their wake when they were gone. That part wasn’t important, apparently. The area had then been settled by German immigrants in the mid-eighteenth-century. The earliest surviving accounts from white communities describe settlers being terrorized by a monster they called the ‘Schneller Geiste’. Translation rendered this as ‘quick ghost’ – due to the fact, as Gimlin stressed, it could disappear and reappear at will while maintaining metaphysical presence, and move through objects and across dimensional planes not accessible to conventional physics. The most the settlers knew at first was that slowly, but repeatedly, their youngest children would show up dead, and the town as a whole began to receive frightful visions at night. Hard to imagine, but there it was.
Descriptions were mixed, to say the least. The earliest incarnations blended the half-bird features of a siren with the nightmarish features of demons and ghouls, and essentially whatever else could be projected onto a vague, malicious presence. The Snallygaster, as later corruptions bastardised it, was variously described as half-reptile-half-bird, or vice versa, with a metallic beak lined with razor-sharp teeth – occasionally with octopoid tentacles thrown in, mucus-oozing pores and a hideous stench accompanying its materialisation. It swooped silently from the sky at times with blood-red eyes and throbbing ventricles to pick up and carry off its victims in its frightful claws. Though it left no trace and gave no warning to its approach, this monster was known by the fear it inspired, the sheer act of its apparition and horror of its appearance was enough to literally inspire madness. Seven-pointed stars, which apparently functioned as a kind of demon-begone symbol used ritualistically to keep the Snallygaster at bay, could still be seen painted on the walls of local barns. Gimlin ascribed this merely to hysteria. He could talk, Nic thought.
Slowly, those settlements became abandoned and dilapidated, reclaimed by the forest. Once slaves had been brought in to tame the land, the stories stopped for a while. But then some slave owners keep the old tales going it to frighten slaves away from going off the chain. The only place you can run is the forest, but bears weren’t much scarier than a branding iron, Gimlin said. This place still carried that raw fear. Even after all the Natives had been cleared out, most of the trees felled, after everyone had settled comfortably the land of the open and free – the fear was still there. The owners needed the fear. It was as simple as saying so – ‘To be free is to fear’ so easily turned into ‘to fear is to be free’ that no one even noticed when slavery was abolished. And in order to fear, you have to be ignorant, and to not know the real from the imaginary. Nothing was covered up, anymore. It was only sold as fiction.
Thus far Gimlin got by the bottom of Nic’s macha. It hadn’t been particularly fresh, but she frankly hadn’t had high expectations for the Harville Crab Shack. She was about to thank Gimlin and split, before he played his trump card –
‘Why d’you think the Capitol was founded where it was? At DC?–’
‘It’s the fear. It has to be cultivated, Officer. Like a natural resource. Channeled from the land. Stocked up now for surprises. Kept flowing, to get people dependent. Stop people running off the chain. I know you work for the government, in theory–’
‘I work for you, Mr. Gimlin. The taxpayer. In theory.’
‘I pay my taxes. I live in this country, and I’m proud. I just don’t believe any higher institution has a monopoly on the truth. Or a monopoly on belief. But reality – knowledge – information – data – has always been political.’
Nic crossed her arms. ‘The government isn’t efficient enough to swear anyone to silence, Gimlin. There is a lot of injustice in the world, but trust me, it is caused by ineptitude. Neglect is the evil brother of intent.’ This conversation was getting a little intense for Crab Shack. Nic stood.
‘Fuelled by ignorance? – Yes. Selfishness? – Yes. And fear. Don’t you think fear is a powerful enough thing to get someone to kill?–’
‘Fear, yes. Not theories.’ She turned to go.
‘You know who likes theories? That poor girl’s father.’
‘Who do you think put me onto this site? The funny thing is, I was only visiting the valley on his recommendation. Hell of an expert on the area and the history of the sightings.’ There was a distant and inaudible clack. The sound of ships colliding on some distant ocean.
‘–No shit.’ Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. How was she so stupid? How did it take this freak to break it to her? ‘–Thank you, Mr. Gimlin.’
‘Thank you, Officer. I hope I’ve helped.’
‘Maybe.’ Something was boiling inside. Fuck.
‘We both want the truth, Officer.’
‘Yeah,’ she allowed. ‘–Just different truths.’
Old Sunshine had once been as keen on conspiracy as poor Gimlin. His own online authorship on the history and phenomenology of the Snallygaster would have shamed even him. No cryptozoologist would have had the social stretch or the cultural imagination to insinuate this one myth into every facet and observable event in American history. Sunshine hadn’t let that limit him, though. He ran deep dives on a variety of the continent’s cryptids – Bigfoot, Chupacabra, the wendigo and Jersey Devil and countless others of description unbelievable, all of whom seemed to have contributed something to the potluck of myth that was the elusive and reclusive Snallygaster. Sunshine’s edicts on mothership manipulations and occultish ceremonies in the back-lodges of the National Park Service all seemed to irradiate from this single central source, the invisible axis to and from which this huge web of conspiracy both borrowed and contributed. The old coot didn’t seem to spot any kind of contradiction on blaming 9/11 alternately on Venusian mind-control and as a concerted distraction by the Government to divert attention from deforestation in the Amazon. As a theorist, he wrote strictly in the subjunctive. The possibilities did not clash, only compounded until they cumulatively began to look something like certainty. In this it seems he found his zero event, the black hole at the centre of the spiral galaxy of an exploded philosophy. Behind the man behind the man behind the woman behind the man behind the throne, there was the Snallygaster.
‘Whole crusade burnt out after the accident,’ explained Gyre. ‘Something just flagged in the old guy after that. Benz never stopped. And he had plenty of ideas of who was behind the wheel, of course. Al Gore to the Mayan God of Rain. But eventually, even he had to admit – Shit just happens.’
Nic considered this information while pretending to be scanning reports. ‘Didn’t seem that stoic yesterday, did he? You buy that act?–’
‘Yeah. I bought it, Vorpal. He ain’t the same wacko we used to buy drinks for down the Rabbit Hole. He still has his stories, but they’re real stories.’
‘What did he say when you were on the porch, yesterday?–’
‘Said what everyone says when they lose someone.’
‘That it happened for a reason.’
‘I think you’re getting a little paranoid, Officer. Thinking irrationally.’
When in Rome. If not now, then when? Nic had powered off her screen, but was still pretending to be absorbed in what she was reading so she wouldn’t have to reply out loud. She couldn’t take more than an hour before it all started to blear and blur together illegibly.
Eyes rub. Tea sip. Take it moment for moment, Nic. Focus on facts.
‘You know who gives me creeps is that Beaumann guy.’ Haplan had somehow picked up takeout between the town meeting and the station. He was digging in, ‘I mean who just dips in to town to take the flak for this sort of shit?–’
‘Politicians. Ain’t that what they’re for? That and pinning donkey tails and conspiracies onto. Hard to know what else.’
‘Some conspiracies are real, Ray. I heard it on Joe Rogan. You aren’t telling me you buy all that moon landing crap?–’
Nic lit the screen again. Dazzled for a moment, she managed to find the search bar and make a vague stab at the keys that autocorrected to ‘Beaumann’. His campaign page was immaculate, the pictures and testimonials aglow. His social media now bore a sombre description of the events of the previous day, and assurances that ‘everyone was doing everything they could.’
That goes for everything really, she thought. At all times. Talk about a unifying philosophy. Christ. The eyes.
The feeds were alight. The itchings of anxiety bearded by comment boards all ratifying the same sentiment. Oh no. Oh dear.
Nic’s message board lit up, suddenly. Terry was online, and he was typing.
‘–Can we get back to the case, maybe?–’
Haplan seemed to be following a private mental track. ‘I still say it was probably just the virus.’
‘No prior symptoms of illness, nothing on post mortem. You even look at these things, Dwayne? They say her heart just stopped.’
‘–Scared to death, then?–’
‘I don’t know if that’s a real thing, man.’
‘Sure it is. My boy sent me this video of his buddy scaring his dad so bad the old bastard had a heart attack.’
‘An old guy, maybe. But a young, health–’
‘–I’m out of here.’ Nic’s purse and jacket were already in hand.
‘At six? You got a guy at home to go back to, all of a sudden?–’
‘Or a gal, Ray.’
‘Sure do. Her name’s Anaesthesia.’
‘You boys have nice night, now.’
Niall had wet his bed. You could tell as soon as you entered his bedroom. You could taste it.
Every visible inch of plaster on his bedroom walls was covered by posters for cartoons, football video games and all the other paraphernalia of adolescence. Nic counted three nightlights, one at every available socket. Terry had messaged her to come straight up when she arrived. He didn’t want to leave his son for a moment, and she had seen why as soon as his wife had shown her through. The kid was inconsolable.
Terry, for one, looked glad she was there. ‘Nicky, thank Jesus. I didn’t know who to call.’
‘Niall knows you, Nicky. Just talk to him. Tell him what’s what. He’s scared.’
‘Yeah. Are you alright, Niall?–’ He didn’t speak. He was hugging his knees to his chest, all but cowering away from his father’s arm. ‘Is it hard for you to speak with your father here?–’
‘Now just a min–’
‘Terry, do you mind taking five?–’
‘Now what the heck d’you think is–?’
‘Nothing at all, Terry. Nothing at all. He might just feel more embarrassed with his daddy in the room, that’s all. Do you mind?–’
‘No – No, alright. You do what you think best, Nicky.’ He split, pack of Old Golds in hand, and Nic closed the door softly behind him.
Without ado – ‘Have you been hurt, Niall?–’ He looked up at her. ‘You can tell me. You can trust me. If anyone’s been doing or saying something to you–’
‘No. No. They haven’t. No–’ Niall started to cry. Bawl, actually. Please, Christ, just tell me Terry’s a fiddler. Just give me this.
‘Why don’t you tell me what’s going on? Just take your time. It’s alright.’
He bubbled down gradually and when he regained breath he seemed ready to embark.
‘In the nights. I wake up in my bed, but I can’t move. It’s dark, and – I can’t see. And there’s someone in there with me. Something. I can’t see them either – Can’t see – It. But I can’t move, I can’t see – And then it comes on me – It comes, it grabs me and holds me and I can’t – and I – Then I wake up.’
‘Mommy says it’s just night terrors.’ His face was clenched in a look that was so out of contour with the room that it compelled her gaze – ‘It’s night terrors.’
‘Yes, Niall. Just a little something called catalepsy. It’s very scary, but no danger. You’re in REM-sleep – dream sleep – just right underneath of being awake. Almost, not quite. But your body still thinks it’s asleep. It’s called catalepsy – that’s why you feel all paralysed like you do. But that – figure, now–’
‘–Whatever it is. It’s a hallucination. Not real, see. Not real.’
‘It is real. You don’t believe me, do you?– It’s real. It is real. Why don’t you–?’
‘It’s not. You old enough not to believe in monsters any more, aren’t you Niall?–’
His voice thinned to a whisper now. ‘I do. It’s in this room. Right now.’
The air somehow became very cold. The hairs on the back of Nic’s neck prickled suddenly, slightly. It took every particle of Nic’s will not to turn. To keep facing forward. To keep a comforting expression on her face. ‘–It’s just me here, Niall. It’s just us.’
Niall pulled his stained rocketship comforter up to his ears. ‘I want my daddy, again.’
Terry was onto his second cigarette by the time Nic joined him on his porch.
He passed it to her wordlessly and she bummed a drag. Terry was tougher than a wall. Sometimes walls gave way.
‘I’m sorry, Nic. I told you how he gets sometimes.’
She didn’t reply a moment. ‘Why’d you text me, Terry?–’
He took the butt back, and sucked long and deep. Neither looked at the other. ‘It ain’t just him, Nic. And it ain’t just our family neither. Tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about. This town.’ The last word formed a statement of itself. Nic forced herself not to look to him, but keep staring down the street where the traffic lights were cycling silently through their turns. It was the street that cut right across town, dividing the poor black neighbourhoods from the part of Harville that was at least nominally prosperous. The traffic between them rasped from afar as they negotiated the junction, nosing through the lights. Red. Green. Yellow. Red.
‘You should try and get some sleep, Terry. You’ve got work tomorrow.’
He dropped the butt and crushed it underheel. ‘Nah.’
‘Still. An idea.’ Green. Yellow. Red. Green. Yellow. ‘You got anything?–’
Harville was a town that had howls to it, strange walls of sound that could occur just at its horizons, along the edges of proximity, arising all at once like thunder heard remote. They startled you from your sleep sometimes, from out of nowhere. Little though anyone ever mentioned it. In every other aspect, of course, it was exactly like every other success-starved little burg in Virginia, in the country, all over, coast to coast. Same chains, same shit-stained streets and shuttered shops broken by the curfews and crisis shocks. It was lonesome all the same, surrounded by its woods and cut and shuttered off from the rest of the visible world. But Nic preferred it that way. She’d spent most of her life in the city, getting woken every morning by traffic instead of birdsong. The shrieks of drills and screaming lathes made a girl yearn for the days before mechanisation and the din of engines overcame the natural tones of life. It had brought its pressure and its urgency here. The kids who’d known nothing else – they slept just fine through anything, up to a point. But Nic barely slept long or deeply enough for dreaming. Even in dead silence, the night became its dread.
Many of the houses on Terry’s side of the tracks were empty and unkempt, with windows as empty as the eyes of amnesiacs. Most of the constructions were new enough that they bore no memory of the town before, of the people who had lived there, the languages that had spoken or the cultures they had kept. Money hid all sorts of evil, but its lack left nothing in its wake at all. Nothing was built and built to stay, or to keep. Poverty had no legacy, no story. No ending. It only went on and on. That said, the rich never seemed to learn much, either. As Nic’s father had used to say – the only thing money changed was hands. And hardly that.
Most of Nic’s neighbours in her ratty apartment block on Sixteenth didn’t know her, and she liked it. The rest just didn’t like her, and she knew it. It wasn’t even that she was a cop. She never even really made the effort to get to know people she didn’t have to, for the purposes of efficiency – and this did give the impression that she didn’t much care for society. This at least was accurate.
Nic was out of her uniform before her purse hit the floor. She stood in her small bathroom, staring into her eyes in the mirror, stooped over her sink with her face less than an inch from its glassy surface. Her pupils narrowed gradually under the fluorescents, pinched by the iris. The sclerae had red threading at their corners and while she removed her contacts, weeping lightly and involuntarily, her gaze stayed locked, resolute, maniacal. Two eyes blurred to one, and started to tremble, and Nic had to look away again, gasping with the prolonged effort. There were mornings she almost took a toothpick and shoved it right between the ball and socket and just ran it around a bit. If only to be sure. Just to try and find – something. But no. Instead, she went to her refrigerator.
You knew where you were with a glass and a half, at least. It was a cheap mistake. The rewards were obvious and immediate, and booze never once let you down. And it told you it was bad for you, on the bottle. So at least it was honest.
Strictly speaking, you weren’t supposed to partake in anything mind-altering at all if you were on the program. But Nic knew that in any circle, anywhere in the country, that was a load of bullshit. Anyway, the truth was she’d never had a problem with alcohol, until she ran out. But it took less and less to make the pills tempting. In for a penny, one becomes many. Cry for a single thing, cry for everything, her mother had told her. While she was alive.
While Nic had been assigned to vice, she had learned the hard way that committed fact-finding came a distant second to basically waiting up for a witness to grow a pair and come forward. It made sense to wait somewhere quiet, where the Chuckle Brigade couldn’t air their bullshit. Nic’s polarised laptop screen was the silent partner. It gave you more than men ever could.
She logged back into social media, and her stomach churned. Oh no. Oh dear. Top of the feeds was a video that had already been shared hundreds of times. Its thumbnail was the stern face of Martin Beaumann. His arm was around Sunshine Jonson. Nic downed her glass, and reached into her purse where it lay slumped and agape on the adjacent chair. Terry had had plenty of spares.
MARTIN BEAUMANN HALTS CONGRESS CAMPAIGN TO CONSOLE GRIEVING FAMILY IN SHENANDOAH REGION
Nic read the comments first. They were solemn and sympathetic. None of the mockery you usually found raked up on these sorts of posts. It was very frustrating. She played the clip.
MARTIN BEAUMANN, 33, ELECTORAL CANDIDATE
‘Mr. Jonson, I want to be the first to console you in your hour of grief.’ Too slow, cunt. Scoreboard. ‘I am so very sorry for what happened to little Lollypops.’ I’ll bet. ‘I can’t imagine what you’re going through at this very moment.’ But I bet you tried your best.
SUNSHINE JONSON, 52, SPECULATOR. Job or hobby. It was unclear.
‘Oh, man. It hurts so bad. So bad. My girl. Oh, my precious. Shit – Can you see how I’m feeling? Can you help me understand why this is happening to me? Just – why, man?–’
Compelling act, indeed. Oscar-worthy.
‘I believe there’s a devil amongst us, I do. Stalking, like a – like a predator. It’s feedin’ on this town. It’s been feedin’ off us for a long time, sir. Now I’ve never been no friend to the Gummint, nor it I. But I think you’re here for a reason. You’ve been brought here, sir. Is it you can deliver us?–’
Beaumann and Old Sunshine were gone, invisible. Words had a colour to them now. Red. Green. Distinction failed. The air suddenly seemed very full of edges.
‘This much I know. There are forces at work beyond our control and which we don’t understand.’ No there aren’t. ‘But we are all here for a reason.’ No we’re not. ‘And I believe I am here for a reason, too. Your little girl was taken from you for a reason. Now, the police department of this little town haven’t coming up with a single useful thing. I’ve spoken to the state bureau, and they couldn’t give a hoot for poor Lolly. Now I’m not going to stand here and pretend I can put things back the way they were, put things right. But you have my word that you will have justice, as Americans. As your Congressman-to-be, I will be responsible for everyone here today. And as I stand here today, you have my word that by the end of all this, I will stand here before you again. And you will be able to hold someone or something accountable.’
Nic couldn’t believe what she was seeing. It was just good policy for an addict. She rewound, and rewatched. She tried to rewind again, but her fingers fumbled. Her lips were numb. She couldn’t tell whether she could see or not. She rose to her feet, and swayed, and then stumbled across to the bathroom. The light over the sink was still on, twitching. She was sick. It was the colour of rainbows.
Red. Yellow. Green.
When Nic woke, the pain in her eyes felt stiff and acute. The morning light was creeping along the boards towards where she lay on a makeshift pad of chair cushions and accumulated detritus around her drained laptop.
The first thing in arm’s length she reached for was the orange pill capsule. Second was her phone. She flicked on its display, squinting at it with all her might.
9:14 A.M. Fifteen messages. Haplan, Gyre and Terry in equal measure, frantic.
Niall hadn’t been in his bed that morning.
She paused, hand to mouth, then tilted her neck back and swallowed.
She was still tired. She was always tired. But she had work to do, today.