That’s often what people said about Milla. They said she was quick-tempered at least, and dangerous at worst. Milla said she was passionate. She knew, largely, that that was a bullshit cover for what she knew was the truth.
That’s often what people said about Milla. They said she was quick-tempered at least, and dangerous at worst. Milla said she was passionate. She knew, largely, that that was a bullshit cover for what she knew was the truth.
You know, it’s just like Nick to get to go to a lecture for free, sleep through the whole thing, and still get to meet someone who knows The Collector.
Once, we met Neil Gaiman, and Neil Gaiman was so tired he could barely look at me (understandably) but he drew a monster for Nick and called him a very nice young man. Nick has the best luck of anyone I have ever met.
Not that I’m bitter.
Ok. I am bitter.
Because while Nick got to meet someone awesome, The Collector chose to relay his latest message to me by injuring me. I mean you would think you wouldn’t want to hurt the people you’re counting on to relay stories to the world, but here we are.
I was standing in a bar with a friend, waiting on drinks so we could join up with the rest of our group out on the patio. It was a beautiful night for Texas in July, and a great night out. We’d had tacos, seen a show, and now we were rounding out the night for a friend’s birthday at Twilite, everyone’s go-to bar.
The bartender handed me my glass of Shiner and smiled as he took my card.
"Having a good time tonight?"
"Yeah, actually. Nice weather, good beer. Can’t get better than that!"
He nodded and handed my card back to me.
"I’m David, by the way," he said, sticking his hand out towards me. I shook it and introduced myself, and then the pain set in.
When you get burned, it doesn’t feel like a burn right away. First it’s just nothing, then it feels cold. Ice cold—like ice falling on your skin when you don’t expect it.
Then, searing awful pain.
I yanked my hand back. I grit my teeth, seething with anger in the immediate response to pain. I turned my hand over, palm-up and saw it.
It’ll Heal. Page 33.
"Holy shit," I said, and pressed my palm against the cold glass.
"Yeah," he laughed, "Nothing soothes like cold beer." He turned away and started helping other customers. The rest of the night, he didn’t even glance my way.
No clue who he was, or how he even did it.
Enjoy your awesome Collector encounters, Nick. I’ll be here with an icepack and rage.
Sam, known more frequently as Dr. Carroll, placed his hand over his eyes and stared into the cave. He squinted, some misguided instinct telling him that doing so would allow him the telescopic vision needed to see deeper into cavern before him.
“And what’s in there?” he asked.
The short, dark tribesman standing next to him wore only a loin cloth and some tribal jewelry. The walking stick he leaned on was taller than he was. He looked impossibly old, and his teeth showed no signs of ever visiting a dentist. Many warned Sam when he first arrived about the numerous fake witch doctors or natural healers preying on the people of Namibia, and he was the first to say they didn’t have to worry about him getting suckered into some superstition. Yet here he was, ready to enter a cave at a witch doctor’s behest.
“Only what you take with you,” the witch doctor said in a thick accent. “Also many evil spirits. And probably bats. Maybe snakes and spiders.”
Sam’s heart stopped. A little blonde girl stood at the entrance of the cave. Not just any little blonde girl. His little blonde girl.
“Dani!” He took two steps toward her then the witch doctor grabbed his arm. His grip had unexpected strength.
“You will see many things.” The little blonde girl took a few steps back and the darkness swallowed her. “Remember why you go into the cave.”
Sam nodded, not wanting to take his eyes off the spot where he had seen Dani. With one hand he grabbed the lighter out of his pocket, and with the other he lit the top of the homemade torch given to him by the witch doctor.
He nodded to the witch doctor. “I’ll be back.”
“Let us hope so. Be wise, Doctor Carroll.”
Even so close to the flame of the torch, the air cooled as Sam walked further into the cave. It was always so goddamned hot in Africa. The sun cooked everything. The heat has been inexcapable from the moment he stepped off his plane and onto the bus, which might as well have been an oven on wheels. At the time he wasn’t sure if he would make it. Perhaps he would just pass out and not wake up, and that prospect wasn’t the worst scenario for him.
Nothing stood out about the cave, just a typical long rocky tunnel burrowed back in the rocks and underground, its walls flickering in the torchlight. The air went even cooler, but Sam didn’t think the temperature had dropped one degree. It was an unnatural cool. A tinge of sulfuric scent invaded the earthy smell that permeated the cave. Great, he thought, I’m smelling things. I’m probably having an aneurism.
A little girl’s laughter echoed through the cave.
Yep, definitely an aneurism.
Then there were whispers. He stopped and stood perfectly still to listen. Only bits and pieces made any sense, but Sam heard one phrase clearly. “Why did you leave me alone?”
He rushed further into the cave the light of the torch only reaching the walls in some places. The whispers grew more constant and he continued forward, but never seemed any closer. He stopped and walked to his left until he found one of the walls and leaned against it. This fucking place. He no longer knew what he was doing there. The problems that imprisoned him back in the States held him here as well, except now it was hotter and the mosquitoes were the size of a baseball. Of course the place was terrible, he had in no uncertain terms asked Doctors Without Borders to send him to “the most disease-ridden shithole” they could find. The place no other doctors wanted to go.
It wasn’t long after arriving at the clinic in southern Namibia that he confirmed that was exactly where he had arrived. There was only one other doctor at the clinic, and she was overwhelmed. Villagers were dropping like flies (which there were also plenty of in Africa) and nothing seemed to be able to stop it. So many villagers were sick that beds were set up in tents surrounding the clinic to house all of them. Their skin dark skin turned a deep green. Oozing sores covered their bodies. And all of them died. Not one single villager that came to the clinic with the unknown disease lived. Blood work came back negative for any sort of aberrations. Everyone was at a loss, including Sam. Sam, who had a box full of medical awards and accolades in a storage unit back in Texas.
After one trying afternoon in which he has lost three patients, he stormed out of the clinic and threw his gloves to the ground. The witch doctor sat on a rock a few yards away.
“You will never cure them. Not how you are doing it.”
It was then he learned who the witch doctor was, and what the witch doctor thought Sam needed to do.
“Why don’t you just go in the cave yourself?”
The witch doctor shook his head. “No. No one puts faith in witch doctor anymore. They come to you. You must go. You will never cure them otherwise. It is not sickness. It is Gaunab.”
“Gaunab. He is evil spirit. Long ago my people trapped him in that cave. As long as my people trusted in me I could protect them. But my power fades. So they get sick. Now they trust you. You must face Gaunab or they will keep dying.”
After weeks of losing patient after patient and hearing about the cave from the witch doctor, Sam agreed to go, if for no other reason than to prove it wouldn’t do anything.
Which is how he found himself here, alone is a dark cave with only a stick with fire on the end.
A scream echoed through the cave. Then another. Then another. Screams of all kinds came from every direction. The sounds became so loud Sam had to cover his ears, then abruptly, they stopped. Sam removed his hands from his ears and for a moment the only sound was of his own breathing.
Pillars of fire shot up all around him, then spread and combined into a ring, trapping him inside. A figure stepped through the flames toward Sam. “Help me,” it said. Then another figure. “Help me.” Then another. Then another. Each said “Help me” over and over. They were villagers. Patients. The one who had died. Rotten flesh hung from their frames. Puss oozed from the sores all over their body. They encircled Sam, grabbing and his clothes pleading for help. He tried to fend them off by waving the torch in front of them to no avail. There were too many. They encircled him. A stream of blood shot out of the mouth of one of the villagers. Soon all of them vomited blood, covering Sam. He fell back onto the ground, eyes closed, and lost his torch.
When he opened his eyes, there was nothing. Only darkness. For a moment he thought he had gone blind, then the realization that there just wasn’t any light in the cave washed over him. Even his torch was no longer lit, and besides, he didn’t know in what direction it was and based on his last experience he wasn’t going to just crawl around to find it. He reached for the lighter in his pocket and unable to see his own tried to light it.
No flame ignited, but on the third attempt a glowing face appeared a few feet away. Face was a nice way of putting it. It was a skull, a warped one at that, the mouth was too big and nothing was symmetrical. Pieces of skin hung from it, and two dark eyes, like they were made from black lights, stared down.
“Doc-tah Carroll.” The voice was deep and melodious and thick with the accent of the region. “Welcome. I did not think you would come.”
Sam rose to his feet, but didn’t speak.
“It is not often that I get to share my cave with a murderer such as yourself. You know I can take all that guilt and pain away? Die here and that guilt and pain will become the least of your worries.”
“No. I came here…I came here to help the villagers.”
“That is unfortunate. Because, see, I can offer you a release from your pain. Is that not what you want? Perhaps I can convince you it is.”
“I don’t think there’s anything in this cave that would convince me of that.”
“We will see, Doc-tah Carroll. This we will see.”
The face disappeared.
Two torches lit up against the wall. A little blonde girl stood there. “Daddy?”
“Dani.” He ran to her and put his arms around her. She smelled like the same kids shampoo she always used.
“I missed you,” she said.
“I missed you too.”
“Don’t leave me again.”
He squeezed her again and closed his eyes.
Then he was no longer in the cave. He was back at their old house. Dani and her father were playing the pool. Jennifer, his wife and her mother, was at an event for one of the charities that she helped organize events for. Today was a daddy-daughter day and the setting was perfect. Sam and Jennifer had the entire pool redone to look like a jungle oasis. Everything looked like real rocks and stone, complete with a hot tub with a waterfall that flowed over some rocks down into the main pool.
Dani only recently found the bravery needed to swim without floaties, and Sam couldn’t be prouder. “Careful, if you look anymore natural in the water you’ll become a fish.” Dani smiled. Sam’s phone rang. “Come over to the shallow end. Stay in the shallow end while I’m not in the pool.”
He jogged over to the table, dried his hand and answered the phone. Jennifer spoke on the other line, explaining that she forgot to bring some files with her, they were on her desk in the study, and she needed some information from them.
“Dani, I have to go inside for a minute. You can either get out or sit in the hot tub until I get back. Dani smiled, she loved the little hot tub, and walked as fast as she could that way without breaking the “no running by the pool” rule. “Don’t climb on the rocks. Use the steps. The rocks are not meant for climbing.”
Sam went inside for just a moment. The information Jennifer needed was easily accessible, and she had to go as soon as he gave it to her. The silence coming from the pool area should have set off some kind of alarm in his head, but it wasn’t until he walked outside that he saw what had happened in just the few moments he had been inside. Dani had climbed on the rocks.
Sam opened his eyes, tears rolling down his cheeks, and by the torchlight in the cave, looked down at his dead daughter in his arms. She looked the same as she had when he had pulled her out of the pool that afternoon.
He hugged her body close. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
He was. He would do anything to take it back. To take back the months after, when he and Jennifer’s marriage degenerated. But he couldn’t. Just like he could never forgive himself.
An ice-cold hand rested on Sam’s shoulder. When he turned in that direction nothing was there, but Gaunab’s voice boomed from every direction. “You could join her.”
If he wasn’t honest with himself, he wanted to. But he was in the cave for a reason. “No. I came here to help the villagers.”
The body in his arms melted into shadow and those shadows formed into snakes that crawled up Sam’s arms. He got to his feet, slapping and grabbing at the shadow snakes, stepping backwards as he did so. He took step after step back until one of his feet didn’t find anything to step on. It was a ledge. He fell.
He snapped awake, and it took a moment for him to realize he was in the clinic. The witch doctor sat next to his bed.
“How did I get here?” Sam asked.
“I brought you here. After you stumbled out of the cave and collapsed.” The old witch doctor looked at him as if he didn’t trust his own vision, as if he was trying to discern if Sam was a hallucination.
“How long have I been out?”
“And the villagers?”
“They all seem to be making recoveries.”
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
The witch doctor sighed.
“I have not been completely honest with you. You were not supposed to come out of that cave alive. Every few generations the disease grows, and we must send a healer of some sort to Gaunab as a sacrifice. And for that he takes away the disease until he grows hungry for another soul.”
A flurry of angry thoughts at this betrayal, and his own stupidity shot through his mind, but he needed one answer first above all else.
“But if the villagers are recovering, then why am I alive?”
“There is only one reason Gaunab would keep you alive: he thought that for you, being alive would be worse than death.”
Here I am with another journal entry, so clearly I was once again contacted by The Collector. Noa seems to be anxious about the whole thing, but I’ll be honest: I find it pretty exciting. Getting these notes and stories from The Collector is kind of like having the world’s coolest pen pal. A pen pal that you never write back to. And never really tells you anything about them. And consistently tell you that you’re in danger. Really he’s like the world’s worst pen pal. But still, it’s exciting.
The fact that he never says anything about himself is what made my most recent note from him so interesting. It wasn’t a note at all, rather, it was an invitation.
It looked like another piece of advertising litter placed under my windshield wiper, the usual garbage begging me to come to some club called Deluxe to see DJ SkullzMoney drop beats guaranteed to make “dat ass” drop with them or whatever. I put my groceries in my car and grabbed the piece of paper. The flyer wasn’t for a club or party or a dry cleaners, but for a lecture titled “Myth in Southern Africa” at SMU’s Clements Hall the following Thursday, given by a professor in the African Studies department, Ardis Blanchard. At the bottom of the flyer, written in The Collector’s now familiar handwriting, were the words “Your attendance is requested.”
Forgiving The Collector’s jerk assumption that I wouldn’t have plans Thursday night, I arrived on campus and found Room 128, as specified on the flyer. I arrive a little late, so with the quietest steps I could muster I took a seat in the back of the room. Professor Blanchard, a tall black man with a shaved head and gray showing in his beard, stood at the front of the lecture hall. He wore what you would expect a professor to: khakis and a brown wool jacket with patches on the elbows. As he spoke, he referenced images on the projector screen behind him, pressing a button on his computer to change each slide.
I sat with my notepad ready to go, ready to take notes on any pertinent information. Taking notes is what I had planned on doing, at least. What I ended up doing is falling asleep. I know, I know. Not only is it rude to fall asleep during a lecture in general, but also I could have missed a ton of pertinent information that The Collector needed me to hear. I had a long day that day, okay? It just happened.
“Excuse me sir.”
Something hit me in the face.
My eyes opened and I saw the crumbled piece of paper, presumably the object thrown at my face, on the floor by my feet. Professor Ardis stood a few in front me. We were the only two in the room.
“Did I fall asleep? Is the lecture over?”
“It is over. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much.” He spoke in a deep voice with a slight accent of African origin.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Shit, I thought I probably missed all the clues about which page in the journal I should look at. “Did you happen to mention any numbers in your lecture? Numbers that could represent a page in a journal of some sort?” I had to at least ask.
Professor Ardis smiled. “Ah. You must be the one he told to come.”
I sat up straight. “You know The Collector?” Now we were getting somewhere. Sometimes all you need is a refreshing nap and the answers will just come to you.
“I do. Or at least I did. A long time ago. In those days he wasn’t known as The Collector. Not yet.” The professor’s face turned wistful. “I had not heard from him in many years, until recently when he told me you would be attending a lecture.”
“How do you know him?”
“I was starting out in my career as a professor. He was a student. He was a member of my team on what was supposed to be a routine research trip to Namibia. But of course, as was the case with most things he got involved in, it was not routine.”
I had a million questions for this guy. He held many of the answers Noa and I were wondering about. The most pertinent question came first. “So was there a page number in the lecture?”
“Sorry, no. And it is probably not good to speak of these things in the open.” What open was he talking about? We were the only two people in the lecture hall.
Ardis checked his watch. “I must go. My family is expecting me. Good luck to you…”
“Good luck to you Nick. If you ever speak to The Collector, tell him Ardy says hello.”
I nodded. “Sure.”
As the professor made his way down to grab his computer bag, I sulked in my stupidity. The information I needed was probably in the lecture, which I had slept though. Now what? I didn’t want to flip through the journal and risk the ramifications of hitting the wrong page. The professor grabbed his computer bag and headed out the door. Before the door shut all the way behind him, a piece of paper floated through and landed on the floor of the lecture hall. I hurried down and grabbed it, opening the door and shouting “Professor Blanchard!” at the same time.
The hallway was empty. It felt like the whole building was. He must have really been in a hurry to get home. Or maybe he got his exercise by sprinting from place to place. I looked down at the piece of paper. The page was actually half a page that had been ripped apart from its other half at some point. Some sort of tribal art adorned the page, depicting the head of a snake. One eye was a “5.” The other was a “1.” 51. I had my page number.
I slid the picture between the pages of the notepad I had intended for lecture notes. A chill went down my spine. The building was eerily quiet, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t entirely alone. I checked behind me, but there was no one. I hurried to my car as quickly as I could.
I wasn’t until just now, after going over the story on page 51 of the journal, that a question occurred to me. If The Collector really wanted to remain a mystery and keep us in the dark about what was really on, as it seems like he does, he could have just left me a note himself. Why bother sending me to see Ardis Blanchard?
The sudden derealization of her surroundings had Mara’s heart sinking. The walk up to the gates of the massive Ryuha-San Shrine had been hopefully quiet and nice—a bit boring considering it was a Saturday and every person in Japan felt like getting the hell out of their houses. When she walked through the gates, when she stepped over the foot-thick wooden gate-catch, she caught a sight of the crowds within the walls of the Shrine. Everything she had been feeling up to that moment collapsed in on itself like a universe unmaking itself and the world suddenly felt very hollow. Cheap. Plasticine.
I didn’t sleep very well after reading the last letter from The Collector. Who was after him? Who were these people, who was this force that didn’t want these stories out?
What else was in the journal?
I was terrified of what could be there. Terrified of what would happen to me, to Nick. To The Collector.
I would get to sleep and then have terrible nightmares of a pitch black mass—not a shadow, not a cloud, a mass of emptiness—swallowing me whole. Each time I heard a sinister whisper coming from within it.
"You Will Pay."
The next day I was a zombie, barely shuffling through the day. I drove to all my errands, not really thinking, not really seeing anything. I made two phone calls I didn’t recall making for exhaustion and anxiety.
As I unpacked my groceries onto the counter, I noticed something colorful fall out from between two packages of lettuce. It was a folded paper crane, made from bright greenish printed paper, neatly shaped. I held it in my hand, turning it over and thinking I’d accidentally taken a child’s hard work.
Underneath one wing I spotted a few letters of the Collector’s scrawled handwriting and said out loud, “Are you fucking kidding me.”
I didn’t know how it got there. Who put it there. If I even got it from the grocery store—I could have picked it up anywhere. I needed to focus more.
I unfolded it carefully, trying to remember the pattern so I could fold it back up again.
Pretty good trick right? Repay me. Page 8.
Nick and Noa,
You’re doing well so far. I know this must be an adjustment for you, but keep transcribing my stories. You must. There is a lot at stake.
I assume you’re wanting some sort of explanation as to what is going on, and why I’ve selected you to do this.And an explanation of some sort in order. I’ll tell you what I can, but it’s still too dangerous, and even my methods of getting you these notes can’t be trusted.
I was once young like you two, and I thought that what held the world together were stories. History was nothing but invented stories passed down, the future dictated by invented stories we are passing around right now. Cultures, religions, people—everything was held together with storytelling. And being young like the two of you, I figured the best thing I could do with my life was to travel everywhere and collect stories. I wanted to get everything down. I wanted to know the truth. I find every story that could be found.
And I did find stories. But in the course of doing so I found something else. Something dangerous. Something that led me to leap out the window of my hotel room in Morocco one night and sprint down into the road with the journal and my boots on, and not much more than that. Something that knew that beneath stories lays the truth of humanity. Something that doesn’t want these stories to get out.
I’ve said too much already, I don’t want to put you in any more danger than you already are. This may seem a little over dramatic, but trust me, you’ll thank me later.
You must—must—keep translating the stories, keep logging them, keep putting everything out into the world. The more stories we get out in the world, the less power these other forces have.
One more thing. Remember to look closely within the stories. The devil is in the details.
You’ve done good thus far. Don’t screw it up now.
I can’t really say that I didn’t want any new excitement from my life. I wanted adventure. I wanted travel. I wanted danger.
Of course, that was all really hypothetical.
No one really wants to be put in danger, to have to stake their life on something. But I suppose that kind of responsibility comes to those who want it least. Like leadership, you know? The best leaders are those who don’t really want to lead, they just are thrust into that position.
So maybe I wasn’t seeking out to risk my life for a journal full of an Old Man’s fairy tales, but here I was nonetheless. I had, in the back of my mind, thought that this might be some kind of hoax until I went to the graveyard that day, and saw that headstone clearly carved for my needs. No one spends that kind of money on a hoax, especially not for someone they don’t know. Then it coincided with me reading that page, discovering that story.
When I think about it, that day, I still get goosebumps and an eerie feeling that someone is watching me. I texted Nick what had happened that day, and he didn’t really seem shocked. He elaborated on what had happened when he got his first message post-journal, and I, too, was not shocked.
Who would do this? Why? Why go through such elaborate, expensive setups? Neither one of us knew someone who was truly rich, or who had the will to do this kind of thing. I think both of us were battling the thought of “maybe this is really magic adventure” and “this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever dealt with.”
Several days went by with us receiving nothing at all. No following persons, no letters, no elaborate schemes. It only served to make me more paranoid. Who else was working with him? Were they close by?
Then, on no special Thursday, Nick called me.
“We got a letter from him.”
Noa insisted that we meet immediately, so before I even had a chance to press “END” on my phone, I was in my car and headed to her house. The package I received from The Collector rode in the passenger seat of my car, and the whole drive it kept beckoning to me. My gaze constantly found its way over to the thing shipping envelope in the seat next to me. When you’re in a car, your gaze should generally stay on the road and not on a mysterious package from a possibly dangerous man.
When I arrived, Noa rushed me over to her dining room table.
“So how did the letter get to you? Raven? Ancient scroll in the most unlikely of places? The tattoo of an alluring stranger?”
“No, something much worse than all those things.” I pulled out the envelope. “The U.S. Postal Service.”
“Goddamnit.” Her glare was piercing. “Just open it.”
I gripped the pull tab at the top of the letter with my thumb and index finger and pulled. A light but chilly wind swept through the room and whispered a bunch of mumbled words, on of which I’m pretty sure was “death.”
“Did you hear that?” asked Noa.
“You mean the creepy death whispers? Nope. Definitely didn’t hear those.”
“Yeah, me either.”
She reached into the envelope and pulled out an old piece of parchment or paper with The Collector’s now familiar handwriting on it (Is plain typing paper or notebook paper too good for this guy? It wouldn’t take much effort to just make a quick stop at Office Max).
We each held one side of the letter and we read it. Then read it again. Then again.
On the one hand it confirmed some things we thought about him. But what something was he talking about? What good would warning us of danger do if we didn’t know what that danger was? And what did he mean that the devil was in the details?
So far we’ve been given three stories, and they haven’t shared many details that I can think of. I’ve had a beach show up out of no where and found a corpse in a casino. And this was only supposed to be the beginning?
For now, all we can do is wait for the next story.
Come back Wednesday to read Letter #2 from the Collector