Cruel Summer

They stood behind the front desk as Jonathan entered the lobby, still and smiling, like they were mannequins and his entrance was the switch that brought them to life. They were both prototypical Swedish Barbie dolls: tanned skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, attractive and fit. There teeth were so white they seemed a light source unto themselves. Despite the summer season, they were dressed as if they were about to go skiing in a bad 70s porn: light blue turtlenecks, insulated white vests, dark blue pants, and big furry boots.

The lobby was ultra-modern in design, like if IKEA had a “winter lodge” section. Bananarama’s ‘Curel Summer’ played quietly over the lobby sound system.

“Hello, I am Maklolm!” said the male, and waved.

“Malcom?” asked Steven, sitting his bags down near the front desk.

“Maklolm.”

“Malcom.”

“No, MAK-lolm.”

“I’m sorry I’m still hearing Malcom.”

Maklolm grabbed a small piece of paper and a pen, scribbled something down and slid it across the counter. Jonathan picked it up. It read simply MaklJlm.

“Oh.”

The female waved as well. “I’m Malin! You are staying here?”

“Just for a short time. I actually have a friend that is currently staying here. Nicole? Nicole Brothers?”

She nodded. “Oh yes! She is currently our only guest!”

“You only have one guest? This place is huge.”

Maklom smiled (or smiled more, if that was possible). “We like to give a very personal experience. You like dancing?”

“Dancing? I mean, I guess.”

“Oh good you come with us!”

“Don’t we have like check-in stuff to do?”

Malin took Jonathan’s hand. “We can take care of that later.”

They led him through a few large, well-furnished and decorated rooms. The further back into the facility they went, the louder Bananarama’s ‘Cruel Summer’ sounded. Finally they entered the entertainment room, the source of the music. Some of the furniture had been cleared to the side for a make-shift dance floor. In the center danced Nicole, wearing an outfit similar to that of Maklolm and Malin, her brunette hair pulled back into a ponytail. She smiled when she saw him.

“Jonathan!”

She ran to him and gave him a hug. This Nicole Brothers was much different from the one he had last seen in California, crying on the floor of her apartment, high on who knows what and screaming that she just wanted it all to end. Some of Jonathan’s initial doubt faded. Maybe the Swedish Instutitute for Rehabilition and Other Endeavors was all the internet promised it would be. She looked like a completely different person. Even physically, she looked slimmer, toner, healthier. He could have sworn her hair was a few shades brighter than when he had last seen her.

“Wow. You look great.”

“I feel great! This place is amazing! You were totally right. Coming here was the right move.”

He opened his mouth the say something but Maklolm cut him short. “No more talking! Dancing!”

Something didn’t sit right to Jonathan. Maklolm and Malin stared at him, smiling, urging him to dance. He wasn’t sure they ever blinked.

“Dance!” said Maklolm. “Dance until your souls have departed from your body!”

“What?”

“Nothing! Dance!”

Nicole grabbed his hands and he danced. He had forgotten how much he liked this song, it was kind of hypnotic.

Eventually they went up to their rooms to get ready for dinner. Malin led Jonathan to his room. Upon arrival, he found that none of his luggage has made it to the room. He opened the door back into the hallway to go grab his luggage, only to find Maklolm and Malin whispering to each other serious-faced in the hallway. They stopped as soon as they saw him and quickly regained their smiles.

“Is there something we can help you with?” they asked in unison.

“Uhhh, I didn’t see my luggage in the room.”

Both their faces showed concern, but it was Maklolm who spoke. “Oh, we are so sorry. There was a terrible accident and all your luggage was lost.”

“What?”

“Yes, we are so sorry. We definitely did not lose it on purpose as part of some scheme. We will replace everything, but for now there are some clothes you can wear in the closet of your room.”

“Yes,” said Malin. “You should wear the clothes in your closet to dinner.”

“Oh…okay.”

They smiled and stared at him as he shut the door. He waited a moment, then opened the door again. They stood in the place, still smiling and staring. He closed the door again, more slowly this time.

Inside his closet hung an outfit like Maklolm, Malin, and Nicole wore. He debated with himself for a moment, but decided it would be best if he went along with it for now. The outfit was a bit tight for his liking, so he was still adjusting it when he met Nicole in the hallway before dinner.

She smiled when she saw him. “You look great! Isn’t it great here?”

“You just said great twice in row. I don’t know if anything is good enough to deserve that.”

Her smile was playful. “Don’t be such a fuddy-duddy.”

“Since when do you use terms like ‘fuddy-duddy’?” She shrugged. “Doesn’t this place seem kinda…weird to you?”

For a second the smile faded from her face, and she looked confused. But it only last for that second. Her smile returned. “No, it’s great!”

He opened his mouth to respond, but once again he was cut off.

“Monathan! You found your clothes, I see. They look good, ya?” Maklolm patted him on the back.

“Did you say ‘Monathan’? Like with an ‘M’?”

“Of course not, that would be weird. Let’s have dinner!”

Swedish dishes of all kinds covered the dining room table. The smell hit Jonathan’s nose, and his stomach grumbled. He was hungrier than he realized. They took their seats and piled food onto their plates.

“Oh I know what’s missing,” said Malin. “A little mood music.” She pulled a small, white remote out of her pocket and pressed play. ‘Cruel Summer’ poured out of the speakers. Jonathan was about to ask if they knew any other songs, but found himself nodding his head instead. He plucked a meatball with his fork. There was a lot of food at the table. Too much food.

“Did you guys make all of this food? This is a lot of food for two people to make, and we were only apart for like 20 minutes.” He sat his fork down.

“It doesn’t matter, just eat up,” said Malin.

“Yes, eat the food, and let the effects take hold.”

“What effects?”

“Who cares?” asked Nicole. “This food is great!”

“THAT IS TOO MANY ‘GREATS’ FOR ONE NIGHT.”

Still smiling, Maklolm cocked an eyebrow. “Listen to Micole. Just eat up, it’s not like the food has secret, evil ingredients in it that will slowly transform you mentally and physically.”

                  Jonathan stood. “Okay, that was clearly an ‘m’ at the beginning of her name. I think I know what’s going on here. The two of you are trying to brainwash us for some reason and transform us into copies of you!”

                  The smiles disappeared from both of Maklolm and Malin’s faces. “How dare you. We try to help your friend in her time of greatest need, and this is how we are treated? We will not stand for this. We must ask that you both leave. Immediately.”

                  In a moment of doubt about his suspicions, Jonathan actually did feel a little guilty. He didn’t want to deny Nicole the help she needed.

                  “Look, I-“

                  “IMMEDIATELY.”

                  Nicole put up a protest, and actually cried a little as they gathered their things and called a taxi. Jonathan ushered Nicole into the backseat, and as they drove away she stared back at the institute, weakly waving goodbye.

                  Maklolm and Malin watched them go.

                  “That was close. I guess we’ll just have to lure another male and female here to slowly transform them into our replacements so that the curse passes to them and we achieve the sweet release of death, which at this point is a smiling hell.”

                  Malin smiled. “Yeah.”

Nick’s Journal 9/22/14

Sometimes in life, you’re tracking down a globe-trotting storyteller entangled in a worldwide conspiracy that threatens to collapse society as we know it. Other times, you have to drive to Frisco to buy some bookshelves for your apartment at IKEA. This was one of the other times.

Clouds overtook the sky as I made my way north on the North Dallas Tollway, making the day outside as gray as my mood. Driving to Frisco was bad enough, but driving to Frisco and traversing the Swedish labyrinth of value-priced furniture? A man can only take so much, and I barely crack the surface of boyhood most of the time.

I walked through the siding doors and felt the cold, slightly wood-scented air conditioning breeze sweep over me. Couples, most of them already arguing, passed me by on each side as I stalled, trying to decide which entrance I should go in. Furniture displays? Straight to the warehouse? No, if I was going to make it through this, there was something I needed first.

I could smell them before I even got off the escalator: Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce. The line went quick and before I knew it, two helping were in my stomach. As I slid the emptied contents of my tray into the trash bin, the receipt floated down to the ground next to me. I bent down to pick it up, only to discover words written on the back. Meet me in the Dining Room/Kitchens displays. My heart began to race. My Borgsjo or Liatorp would have to wait. The Collector was trying to contact me.

I walked as briskly as possible without breaking into an actual jog or run. One by one I searched each of the dining room/kitchen displays, until finally I came upon one in the corner, hidden away from the rest of the show floor by a fake apartment wall.

All the furniture in the section was white. The table in the middle had a glass top, and at seated at the end opposite from where I entered was a brown-haired woman in her mid-forties, wearing a tight red dress, smoking a cigarette. It was clear that she had once been really attractive but things had gotten rough for her. She looked like someone who attended a cocktail party then had partied the whole weekend without going home.

“Are you Nick?” she asked, her accent some kind of European something.

“I don’t think you’re allowed to smoke in here.”

“Sit your ass down in Idolf,” she said. I glanced quickly at the tag hanging from the chair to make sure that was what she was talking about, then I sat down. She put the cigarette in her mouth, got up, and walked over to one of the cabinets. She pulled out a bottle of vodka, then grabbed a display glass before sitting back down.

“How did-do you live in this IKEA?” I asked.

“No matter.” She poured the drink. “What matters is that you tell your Collector friend that this is it. I owe him no more.” She took a drag from the cigarette, drank the whole glass of vodka, then exhaled the smoke.

“I don’t even know how that was scientifically possible,” I said. “Who are you?”

She put the glass down and stood. This time, she opened one of the drawers and pulled out an IKEA catalogue. She slid it across the table to me. “You tell him that he and Veronika are EVEN.”

A pimply-faced kid with glasses in a bright yellow IKEA polo walked into the display area. His eyes went from me to Veronika (I assumed she was Veronika and wasn’t referencing some third party). “Awwww man, not again,” he said in a voice that couldn’t decide if puberty had happened or not. He pulled a walkie-talkie from his belt. “Guys we have a two-one-eight in Dining. It’s her again.”

Veronkia grabbed the bottle of vodka with one hand and pointed at me with the other. “EVEN.” Then she ran. I watched her long enough to see her removed the heels she was wearing and throw them at the three IKEA employees chasing after her. “YOU’LL NEVER GET ME YOU SONS OF BITCHESSSS!!!”

The IKEA catalogue she had slid over to me had a yellow post-it note sticking out. And grabbed it and saw the now-familiar writing of The Collector.

Sometimes those you appear to help can pose the greatest threat. Page 92.

-The Collector

 

Henry

The cat was so tiny. He was sitting all alone in the back of his little kennel cage, shaking and staring at Andrew like it was raining in there. He was grey and white—only a couple months old, really. Andrew loved him the moment he saw his tiny black eyes. 

The adoption didn’t take long, a couple forms and a few more dollars and Andrew was on his way with his new little friend in a cardboard box. He bought all the supplies, took him home, and named him Henry. 

Henry took a few days to adjust to his new surroundings. He was nervous and skittish, running from Andrew when he entered the room. Henry spent a lot of time hiding under the couch. He wouldn’t even eat or drink if Andrew was in the room. Andrew chalked all that up to being in a shelter for his little life. He’d had an adopted cat as a kid, and he knew that sometimes those tendencies and fears don’t go away easily. Andrew knew that if he was patient, everything would be just fine eventually.

A month in to their newfound relationship, Henry started sleeping in Andrew’s room. Under the bed, of course, still mostly hidden away. A couple weeks later, Andrew spotted Henry in the bathroom while he took a shower. He said some kind words, and Henry didn’t look terrified, so he took that as a good sign. A month later, Henry slept on the foot of the bed. Then, next to Andrew’s feet. Then hip. Chest. And finally, Henry was sleeping peacefully every night on Andrew’s pillow with him. He was learning to play with Andrew. He allowed Andrew to hold him and cuddle him. 

Then Andrew found a knife on his pillow. 

He found it because he cut himself, just a nick, when he reached up to give Henry his morning pets as he did every single day. At first, Andrew thought it was Henry reacting with claws to being startled, but when he sat up to comfort him, there it was. A 7-inch blade from the knife block in his kitchen. 

Andrew wasn’t really all that forgetful, but he figured, somehow, that he must have either A) brought it to bed and forgotten or B) become a sudden sleepwalker who also had homicidal and/or suicidal tendencies. It was all that made sense, really. 

He slipped in the shower the next day. He didn’t notice the bottle of conditioner that was popped open, squirted all over the floor. Andrew just stepped in as he always did, then felt the thud of his head against the tile floor of his bathroom. He had a concussion, and didn’t sleep well for a couple days. 

On Saturday, Andrew lodged a sewing needle in his foot walking down the hallway. Andrew didn’t remember owning a sewing kit. 

Monday, Andrew nearly tore off his cornea on a tripwire in his closet. He never saw it as he reached down to grab his laundry basket. 

Everything else he might have been able to pass off as a silly memory issue—some stupid things all happening at once. No need to look into coincidence! Some things just happen. Right? 

The tripwire was well-rigged and anchored deeply into two studs in his walls. It was metal, and so thing he never saw it until it burned a white-hot cut into his eyelid. When he turned to go to the bathroom and clean up his eye after the investigation, he noticed Henry there, starting at him contemplatively. 

Henry had drywall dust on his paws, and Andrew had a crazy thought that he shoved immediately out of his brain. His eye was swollen for days. 

The next day, Andrew woke up with a pillow on his face and Henry laying on top. 

The next day, his brakes were cut. 

Andrew was afraid to do anything in his home. He found knifes in sofa cushions, and hydrochloric acid bottles next to his Brita. Henry often followed him around, watching. Waiting. 

No, that’s crazy. Right?

One night, after Andrew had fallen ass over elbow downstairs to his car thanks to a well-hidden ice sheen in June, he sat watching Henry from his couch. Henry sat directly in front of him in the floor, staring deeply into his terrified eyes. 

"Henry? What did I ever do to you?"

Henry winked. 

Henry was rehomed thought a foster facility a week later—he was too adorable to not be picked up quickly. Andrew felt a little ridiculous, but also safe. No more obstacles. No more threats.

Several months later, Andrew noticed a smudge on his mirror, only hours after he cleaned it meticulously. 

A cat’s paw. 

Bloody. 

And that’s how Andrew ended up living for several years abroad. 

Noa’s Journal 9/15/14

Clearly, very clearly, things were not what I thought they were. Things were not what Nick thinks they are either, but here’s the thing: Nick probably still thinks we’re playing a giant game of Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego instead of a life-and-death scenario.

He was always kind of a sucker for adventure movies. I can’t blame him. I’ve tried.
I moved. First thing I did when I got home. Moved to a new place in a new town in the DFW area, in the cover of darkness. I told no one, which sucked because my bed is made of iron, but I did it. I had to protect myself somehow. Had to be safe. 
I didn’t even tell Nick, which he reminded me of when I got a text from him Thursday afternoon.
“Your house is on fire?”
“Oh is it? Ok, that’s really not a surprise.”
“Are you still inside?”
“No. I can’t tell you where I am just yet. I just had to get out of there.”
“I get it. But—all the maps, all the notes, they were at your place.”
“I have them, Nick. I’m trying to connect some dots right now. I’ll get back with you soon, but for the next few days, don’t contact me, ok?”
“Ok.”
Before me on the floor were 6 maps, detailing most of the world and a huge map of Texas as well. We had just begun to track the people who had already contacted us, just started to put together the pieces. All of them were dead ends. I had been staring at the maps for hours. Then through. Then over them. Nothing. No connections.
Then, just like the way your brain works, writing in the bottom left corner of the map of the Greater Southwestern Area of the US, I spotted The Collector’s Handwriting.
“It’s never where you expect it to be. It’s never what you think it is. In life, we’re either horribly or pleasantly surprised by every experience we have. You have some digging to do. Page 55.”

Nick’s Journal 9/10/14

My war room, as I call it, is complete. Well, complete in the sense that it is as update to date as it can be at this moment. It will only be complete when I’ve found The Collector and I have all the answers. For now, it’s not a full room exactly, just most of my living room with all the furniture moved away and a bunch of maps and papers on the wall. I’ve only been able to pinpoint a few locations I think The Collector has been recently based on the stories he sent us, but I took great pride as I placed each of those push pins on my giant map. I brought in a couple of folding tables to put my research and computer on (I even bought a printer! Just for this!).
It may look a little crazy right now (a girl came over to hang out the other day, but left quickly, backing out of the room, eyes darting from one pinned-up clue to the next), but sweet vindication will be mine when I blow this whole thing wide open. And Noa and I may be one step closer.
Last week, I was at a stand-still right now. All my leads were cold. I tried Dr. Blanchard at SMU, but the department’s administrative assistant said he was on leave. I tried to find out more about that club on Lower Greenville. Nothing. I contacted Tinder about Alexis’s account. No dice. I went back to the graveyard where Noa attended the funeral. I tracked down the family of the person that was buried to see if I could find out more and the priest and funeral organizers. A lead as dead as that body that was buried.
And speaking of Noa, she wasn’t returning any of my calls or texts. Jerk. Here I was busting my ass trying to figure out this whole Collector thing, and she was probably off doing whatever or getting frozen yogurt or something. Oh, frozen yogurt, I thought. That sounds delicious. Sometimes when you’ve hit a wall, you just need to go relax and have a frozen yogurt, and hope that something will come to you. So I rode my bike (it’s good for the environment and it’s bonus exercise) over to one of my favorite frozen yogurt places off of McKinney. I loaded mine up just how I like it: chocolate yogurt with chocolate chips and chocolate brownie bites on top. Then I thought that I should probably go back and eat it at my place, just in case something did come to me while eating it, I would have my notes right there. So I got on my bike (it’s hard to steer a bike and hold a cup of frozen yogurt) and headed back toward my apartment. As I was riding I realized that it would probably melt before I got to eat it. I may have veered off the road a bit (steering a bike and eating from a cup of frozen yogurt is even harder) and didn’t see the cop car coming.
Luckily, it saw me and swerved. Swerved a little too hard. It went up on two wheels, then slammed into the wall of an apartment building. I caught my balance, but I’m sorry to report the frozen yogurt didn’t make it. Its final resting place will be the hot pavement where it landed. It deserved better.
The doors of the cop car were ajar. Smoke rose out of the dilapidated engine. The smell of burnt rubber assaulted my nostrils.
“Hello? Is anyone conscious in there?” I asked. No response. I approached slowly, only to find that there was only one body in the car: Noa’s. “Noa? Did you get arrested? Did you steal this cop car and were trying to drive it from the back seat?” There was no response from her. She was out cold. Or dead. I didn’t have time to check. There was a crack and then the back window of the cop car shattered. Another crack was followed by a ping on the side of the car. I dove into the car on top of Noa. Or what used to be Noa. AT THE TIME I DIDN’T KNOW. The shots continued. I peeked up over the back of the car and saw a cop, the right side of his face and right arm covered in blood, gun raised right toward my face.
“Just come out and I won’t hurt you,” he said, his voice booming.
“If that was true you wouldn’t be shooting at me. You’re a cop! Why are you even doing this?”
“Just come out, Collector-boy.”
Ohhhhh, I thought. Now it makes sense.
I definitely wasn’t going to do what he said now. I scanned the immediate area for an escape option. There was only one. A beer delivery guy, earphones in, wrote something on his checkboard and pulled the back door of his truck of his truck down. He didn’t lock it. I watched as he climbed in the front cab and started the engine. This was my chance. I threw Noa’s body on my back (I could feel her still breathing, so whew), jumped out of the car, and sprinted toward the truck, screaming the first thing that came to my mind.
“FFRRRRRROOOOOOOOOYOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”
The cop got a few more shots off, but luckily he was tired and injured. They missed and I was able to pull open the back of the truck and get both of us in just the driver drove away. The door slammed down right as the cop fired again. It hit the back of the truck, but the truck just kept on going. He must have kept those earphones in.
In the back of the truck were some towels, and a small refrigeration unit with some beers in it. Probably for samples or something. I grabbed an ice-cold beer wrapped it in the towel. I placed it on what was becoming a pretty serious bruise on Noa’s forehead. Her eyes opened.
“You’re welcome,” I said.

Noa’s Journal 9/8/14

The thing about being an member of an international ring of people who want to murder unwitting members of a resistance is that you’re not gonna be super nice.

That’s what I’ve learned this past week, at least.

I was about to hit post on my latest translation from The Collector when my vision went dark. I don’t react well in situations where my vision is suddenly taken from me, so I started hitting things. I connected with something solid, and heard my fist thud against it.

"Don’t. Don’t make this hard on me. Then I’ll have to make it hard on you," a voice said. I recognized it—the man who helped me defend my home not so very long ago.

"What? Why are you here?"

"I have to extract you."

"May I ask—"

"No you may not."

"May I post—"

"This time? No. Not this time."

With that, he wrenched me to my feet and frog-marched me out my back door and into the backseat of some anonymous car. I heard him pace around the front, tap twice on the back window, and felt the seat shift down as he sat beside me.

"Go."

The car began to move, slowly. 

"We’re in danger? We’re not moving very fast."

"Yeah they’ll be looking for that, girl."

"Don’t call me that. Look, what the hell is going on. Who’s on their way now?"

"They are."

"Oh thanks. It’s all clear now."

His fist connected with my chest. My breath choked out of my lungs and tears welled up behind my blindfold. It felt like a car crash—dull and bone-shaking all at once.

"I could do without the attitude, girl.

I struggled for breath, tried to grab hold of the door latch. I knew I had to get out. I found nothing. Cop Car, I thought. Cop cars don’t have door latches in the backseat.

"Are you a cop?" I wheezed.

"For now, yes."

"You set that up. The attack. You aren’t with The Collector."

"Can we do this not talking, girl?"

"Look, what do you have to gain by taking me?"

"Gain? Nothing at all. You’re not my target. Not y—"

My body crashed hard into his, and I blacked out into darkness. The next thing I knew, I was in the back of a van headed God knows where, with an icepack on my head and Nick kneeling over me.

"You’re welcome," he said.

Noa’s Journal 8/25/14

For the next two weeks after I was nearly murdered by a pack of strangers thanks to the interference by another stranger, I was a little jumpy. 

I hit Nick a few times. I apologized for most of them. A couple of times he snuck up on me and he really should have known that something was going to happen.

One night I went for a drive, hoping to get away a little bit from the chaos of my life. Something about loud music and fast cars always calmed me down. Always drowned out the chaos of everything else. 

I noticed the black car following me. I just didn’t acknowledge it.

I noticed when the second one drove up beside me. I drove faster, shimmied onto an exit too quickly for them to follow.

I saw the text that said, “They’re from me. -TC.” I just didn’t respond.

I pulled up to my house and a red X had been painted on my garage door. 

I slammed my hand down on my dashboard and screamed. 

"WHY? WHY THE FUCK IS IT ME? WHAT DO YOU NEED ME TO DO? WHY AM I IN CONSTANT FEAR OF DEATH? IS IT REALLY WORTH IT?"

No one answered, of course. No one was listening. I was furious. I got out of my car and slammed the door. 

"WHO ARE YOU?!"

A hand clamped down on my shoulder and spun me back against the car. 

"You’re gonna die if you keep this up. Just take the note. Just shut up. Just do what you need to do."

I never saw his face. It was as if he wasn’t there, just the disembodied hand. Voice. 

The note was crumpled in the leaves in front of me.

"Soon. Keep your cool. I still need you. Page 115."

A Friend For Gregor

Gregor Diefenbaker lived in a large castle atop a rocky piece of land that was somewhere between a hill and mountain. He lived alone, unless one counted the servants, who certainly did not count him. They rushed through their duties, cooking (though Gregor rarely ate), cleaning, doing yardwork, then retreated with much haste to the servants quarters. They always locked the door behind them.

A village nestled against the base of the hill-mountain. The village was peaceful and serene, with a market that bustled just enough. Nearly every person that lived there was friendly and generous, quick with a smile.

But the servants in the castle and the people in the village were only bustling or cleaning in the daytime, and Gregor was a creature of the night. The sun seemed ill fitted to light the activities that he took part in.

Gregor walked down the flight of stairs toward his lab, his hand holding a dim gas lamp to light his way. His body was thin and sharp, a pale (sickly, you could say, and many did) knife cutting the the darkness of the stairwell. The steel door that led to his laboratory crawled open, shrieking and moaning in protest, as if it was trying to contain what was inside. Gregor felt along the wall until he found the large switch, then pulled. The lights flashed on all at once. The village didn’t even have electricity yet, and Gregor’s laboratory was the only place in his castle that had it. The villagers didn’t trust it, and the servants wouldn’t even go near the room, though that may have had more to do with what went on the rooms than the electricity.

Machines whizzed and crackled as they powered up, filling with electrical energy. Gregor walked from station to station, nothing inspiring him. Finally, he sat on a stool in the middle of the middle of the laboratory, shoulders slumped even more than usual. The truth was, he was lonely. Gregor was surrounded by servants and a whole village of people, but had no friends. And it wasn’t for a lack of trying. He tried bringing villagers up to the castle. But the villagers didn’t share the same interests as him. They didn’t enjoy cutting open cadavers and rearranging their insides. They thought his collection of jars filled with body parts and fetuses in embalming fluid was grotesque. His electric iron maiden was “painful,” his dinners of boiled bat organs and fox brains were “too garlicy.” Even his favorite hobby, taking different parts of animal bodies and combining them into hybrid beasts, failed to garner anything but terror and disgust.

He had applied on multiple occasions for membership to the Evil Mad Scientist Coalition and Summer Handball League, hoping to attend some of their social events and meet some like minded people, but they rejected him time and time again. Though he showed great potential, they said, the most evil thing he had accomplished so far was finance the killing of the many trees it took to supply all the paper for his applications.

Without thought, he walked among the fresh cadavers that were delivered that afternoon from down in the village. Some unruly cattle had led to the deaths of three men, now stretched out before him. He looked over at the tables a few feet away, where the carcasses of an ibex lay on one table and a lynx on the other. The gears inside Gregor’s brain turned. Perhaps if he couldn’t find a friend from another source, he would do what he always did: make one himself. He set about his task. He took the man and transferred him to the main table in the middle of the laboratory. He removed the arms and replaced them with the arms of the front legs of the lynx. He replaced the human teeth with lynx teeth. From the ibex he took the long horns atop his head and grafted them to the skull of the man. The cows made a mess of the internal organs and bones of the three men, so Gregor did his best salvaging and combining the best of what hadn’t been damaged. Gregor considered the brain. Not just any brain would do. He wanted this new creature to have a brain akin to his own. Over along the wall was a shelf holding jars that contained the brains of most of his late family members. He grabbed the most recent, his cousin, who had died in an unfortunate accident when experimenting with attempting to attach new limbs to those who had lost them. The accident had occurred when the husband of one of his former patients that had died from infection stabbed Gregor’s cousin repeatedly for “killing his wife.” Gregor’s cousin had accidentally forgotten not to get stabbed.

Gregor removed the brain from the farmer’s head and replaced it with his cousin’s. The stich and staple work holding the body together was some of Gregor’s best, if he did say so himself. He was always meticulous about such things. With the body assembled, Gregor hooked up the wires from his generator at strategic points around it. He gripped the switch that would funnel volts and volts of electricity into the newly assembled body, then stopped. What was he thinking? This was stupid. This never worked. He had tried many times before. Create a friend? Never gonna happen.

He threw the switch anyway. At least he would get to see a body twitch and burn before he settled back into his despair. He flipped the switch and watched the body convulse for a little bit, but even that made him sad, so he turned the electricity off and flopped down onto his stool. But even with the electricity off, the body kept moving. “Uhhhhhhhh…”

Gregor shot up and took a few steps back. The creature broke free of one arm strap, then the other. It used its claws to free its legs. It stood up, taking a moment to find its footing. Its eyes locked on Gregor, and it smiled, revealing its maw of predator’s teeth.

Gregor couldn’t believe it. It worked! It actually worked! He would finally have a friend. They spent the next few days running experiments. The servants were even more frightened than usual and refused to even be on the same floor as the creature. Unfortunately, as the experiments continued, he realized that the creature’s brain was not developed or high-functioning enough to be any kind of real friend. He was disappointed, but at least he could use to creature to get into the Coalition, and gain some friends from there.

When he had enough data, he wrote to the Evil Mad Scientist Coalition and Summer Handball League with his findings. Surely they had to respect him now. They could no longer deny him entry. Soon he would have friends from all over the world!

It wasn’t long before the coalition responded. Gregor ripped open the envelope, unable to contain his excitement, but his face fell as he read the letter.

Dear Dr. (?) Diefenbaker,

While your success no doubt has some great scientific significance, we’re aren’t entirely sure that it is really evil, persay. Maybe if you could get the creature to cause some havoc, or be responsible for a series of brutal murders or something we will reconsider, but for now your application has been denied.

Sincerely,

Evil Mad Scientist Coalition and Summer Handball League

Gregor crumpled up the letter and threw it in the trash. He was furious. Denied again. Fine. He would just have to prove himself to them. He wondered if they accepted beginners on the handball teams, or if there was a beginners league of some sort. If was ever going to get there, he knew what he had to do.

For the next few weeks he set a strict training regimen for the creature, which he decided to call Kreatur. Not overly creative, but direct. So each day Gregor walked Kreatur through ways to terrify, maim, and kill, but something happened along the process. Everything went well except for fire, which terrified Kreatur. As his brain continued to awaken, he and Gregor became actual friends. Kreatur laughed at Gregor’s jokes. He especially like when Gregor would do puppet shows with the cadavers. A few times Gregor threw a cloak over Kreatur and they went down to the village to watch the public hangings. They laughed at all the same parts, mostly when the doomed plead for their lives.

Eventually Kreatur was ready to do some terrorizing. Gregor gave him easy tasks to complete at first, like mauling pets and farm animals in the night, but soon Kreatur graduated to grisly murders throughout the village and surrounding areas. For a moment, Gregor hesitated on even telling the Coalition, but despite his reservations, he submitted his application. I can always use more friends, he thought.

This time the response came not in the form of a letter, but in a knock at the door. One of the servants led the guests down to the laboratory. Gregor sat with Kreatur, going over melee fighting techniques and ways to be more terrifying, when the servant opened the door.

“Guests, Lord Gregor,” he said, then ran away.

There were five of them, all different shapes, sizes and ages, all wearing the official lab coat of the Evil Mad Scientist Coalition and Summer Handball League. It was the tallest, skinniest one, with a long hook nose and jet black hair slicked back that spoke. “We are here to see the creature.”

Gregor gulped, and gestured toward Kreatur, as if to say “here he is.” The representatives from the Coalition inspected Kreatur and spoke to him. Sweat gathered on Gregor’s forehead and underarms at first, but as the inspection went on, the representatives became more and more impressed. Gregor stopped sweating. When the inspection was over, the tall representative walked over to Gregor and handed him a piece of paper. Gregor took it, his nervous hands shaking. The nervousness turned to excitement when he read what it said.

This certificate hereby and forthwith, grants Gregor Diefenbaker, M.D. (?) immediate and full membership into the Evil Mad Scientist Coalition and Summer Handball League.

The signatures of the five representatives were at the bottom of the paper.

He did it. He was in.

“Welcome,” said the tall one. “Now, we must discuss the tour…”

And tour they did. They took Kreatur from country to country, city to city, showing him off to every division of the Coalition. He was a hit everywhere they went. Kreatur was the toast of every party, meeting, or mauling they attended. Gregor, on the other hand, felt like luggage. This may have had something to do with that fact that he was often made to sleep with the luggage. Or because the others dragged him around behind them and ignored him like luggage. Or because they kept trying to open him and put clothes in him like luggage. Everyone was interested in the creature, but not the man who had created him. Gregor grew tired of such treatment and was eager to return home, so he asked Kreatur is he was ready to go back.

“Hmmmm,” said Kreatur. “I think me stay with other scientists. Hang out more.”

“Fine,” said Gregor, and left for the long journey home.

For a while Gregor tried to keep up with Kreatur. He sent him letters, and Kreatur would respond with pages full of incoherent markings. Writing was outside of Kreatur’s grasp, it seemed. Eventually the responses tapered off. Gregor only heard about what was going on through the Coalition’s newsletter and from reports of strange maulings around the globe. Occasionally he would run into Kreatur at different Coalition events. They exchanged awkward, stilted greetings and continued on. That is, if Gregor could get through the crowd of admirers that followed him everywhere at those events.

Without Kreatur, Gregor’s accomplishments weren’t very impressive, and no one really wanted to be friends with an unaccomplished evil mad scientist. They put him on a summer handball team, but only as an alternate. He tried to creature a new creature, but he couldn’t replicate his results from when he created Kreatur. He tried to cook up some new evil schemes, but then he would see something in the laboratory that reminded him of Kreatur and the sadness would creep in. He tried going to the public hangings alone, but the same thing happened. Same when he did cadaver puppetry.

His castle seemed even more lonelier now than it ever had. Most of his time was spent sitting in his chair, staring into the fire, thinking Kreatur hated fire.

 

Nick Journal 8/12/14

Noa protested, but I sort of insisted on calling the cops. I mean, multiple attackers entering your home isn’t something you just brush off as if they were just haters.

I dialed 911 and the phone rang twice before it was picked up. “This is Nick-“

“Damn it I know who you are. What they hell are you thinking? Don’t try to pull something like this again.” A click signaled that whoever had answered the phone had hung up.

Naturally, I tried calling again but the call wouldn’t go through. It’s clear now The Collector has connections. I just hope he lets my call go through if I have a non-Collector related incident. I helped Noa clean up her house that night then headed home, not having slept at all. I needed to get my head clear if I was going to find The Collector, so I went for a walk to try to put some connections together, and to formulate a clear plan.

And what better place to do that than the German-fest that was taking place at a park a few blocks from my apartment. I wandered through crowds of people wearing leiderhosen, eating bratwurst, drinking beer from ramsteins, and listening to terrible polka music. The smell of the smoked sausage lured me into one of the food tents and I approached the makeshift bar they had set up. I walked through the fold in the tent and quickly found the front of my shirt covered in beer thanks to an impact from running into someone exiting the tent.

“Please forgive me,” he said in a thick German accent without a trace of levity.

“Oh no worries it was probably my-“ I stopped short when I looked at the man. He was tall, with brown slick-backed hair and wore what looked like a military officer’s more casual uniform. But what stopped me was the man’s face. Half of it was burned, and a large scar crossed his right eye. “-fault.”

“No please. Let me buy your food or drink.”

I tried to protest, but he grabbed me by arm and ushered me up to the bar.

“Please,” he said, gesturing toward the girl behind the counter.

“I uhhh, I’ll take a bratwurst on stick I guess.”

“I vill pay for it,” said the stranger as he slid payment across the counter. “I apologize again for your shirt.” I watched him leave the tent, then turned back to the girl across the counter. She smacked her gum, and had her arms crossed on her chest, one hand up in the air, holding a piece of paper.

“We don’t take pieces of paper. We need like tickets or whatever.”

I took the piece of paper from her and handed her to 15 tickets for the Bratwurst On a Stick.

The writing on the paper read simply “Page 32.”

Collector Letter, 8/8/14

Nick and Noa,

For once, I’m not writing in the midst of danger. Well, I suppose I’m always in the midst of danger now, but the danger currently isn’t as immediate. I’m sitting in a café in a small village in Ecuador. The natives here, tribes like the Secoya, Cofan, and Waorani, have given me many fascinating stories. Hopefully these stories will eventually reach you.

You may think me crazy for still collecting stories despite the mortal danger that follows me around, but I can’t forget why I started this journey in the first place.

You’ve done well so far. I’ve kept up with your progress, and we’re right on schedule. I will continue to do my best to protect you, but I can make no guarantees. I regret having to involve you or anyone else, but it has become necessary. You’ll be meeting many of my aquaintences, and you’ll meet more soon. Traditional channels of communication aren’t safe, so the secrecy and passing notes is necessary. These exchanges are to be short and to the point. Do not become or ask a bunch of questions. I ask that you continue to trust me. DO NOT try to find me. Do not seek out information about me. The more you pry into this the harder it becomes to keep you safe.

Don’t trust anyone. Curiosity killed the cat. Whatever other clichés you can think of. Oh also some women that you meet that I know might be a little bitter. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and some have alleged that I have done some scorning. But I just need my space, you know? You guys understand.

A man just sat down across the café. He does not belong. I’m afraid this place has been compromised. They’ll have this place locked down momentarily. I must go, but before I do,: Nick, I’m sorry about your arm. Wait, has that happened yet? If not, sorry in advance.

Keep transcribing the stories.

The Collector