Rage Of The Earth

Volatile. 

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. 

She was angry. Angry all the time. She was angry when people didn’t do what they said they’d do. She was angry when she wasn’t good enough. She was angry when her pizza rolls were too hot and burned her tongue. There were some days that Milla didn’t feel anything but anger.
It scared her to feel this way. She knew she couldn’t survive like this but here she was, nearing 30 and still so angry and mostly, without a cause. Her family had been trying to get her to ‘just calm down, sweetheart’ for that entire time, which is why she was here, now, in paradise, and just so miserable.
Her mother had ’surprised’ her with a week stay at the Ka’anapali Yoga Retreat in Hawaii. Milla smiled and said thank you so much this will be so nice oh my gosh how wonderful, but a quick Google search when she got home let her know that Ka’anapali was a World Leader in Stress Reduction and Management. Milla wondered what the governing board for Stress Reduction and Management was and how one would be considered World Leader to begin with. 
Milla’s mother had sent her to places like this before. Church camp was one, which just led her to be hot and angry. Girl Scouts was next, but when other girls lagged behind sales or whined too much, Milla was kindly asked to find another activity. Sports went well for a while, but as her coaches said, “Maybe Milla should find a solo sport. Have you tried Boxing? She’d be a great boxer.”
This made her a formidable leader. She did not take less than the best, and people were genuinely afraid not to give it their all anyway. She tore through school, college, every project she’d ever been involved in. She was a hurricane, but her vicious exterior kept everyone away. 
Milla had felt her whole life like she was a bull in nursery, waiting to hurt someone, but she never had. She would yell, yes, but she never felt like she didn’t have reason. She refused to belittle. She’d never resorted to violence. She could, however, tell that people were waiting for her to crest that ridge into violence. Into pain or something much more drastic. 
Milla didn’t know herself, anymore. She feared the resort to violence. She could feel that desire within her and didn’t know how much longer it would be contained. She didn’t know when she’d be pushed over the edge and ruin her life for good. So, she caved. She went on the rage-cation her mother bought for her.
Milla laid in Downward Dog for the 5th time in 3 days and felt that familiar bubbling rising in her chest. She felt the heat sing down her arms and legs. 
“As you lay forward, pressing your heart towards the earth, feel the ball of stress behind your neck and pull it downwards through your arms and into the arms of Mother Earth.”
This is the dumbest thing I have ever heard, Milla thought. She chastised herself for her rage, and tried her best to focus, to reap the rewards of what she felt might just be another failed attempt at curbing her. 
“Yes, good, feel that power in the base of your spine, and send that down your legs to Mother Earth as well. Give her not just your stresses, but your power as well. Do not abuse Mother Earth. She is a a gentle, old soul.”
Has this bitch ever seen an earthquake? Nothing gentle at all about Earth.
“Okay, now push through your arms, bringing your heart to touch and be one with Mother Earth, as you were in the womb with your own mother.”
Milla might have laughed if she weren’t so angry at how stupid this all sounded. She could be doing anything right now. Anything productive. Or destructive. Anything at all but this. 
“Feel Mother Earth guiding your heart towards enlightenment. Towards happiness. Towards peace.” 
Milla smelled her mat and cringed. She saw the woman next to her crying sweetly onto it, hugging the shiny wood-plank floor and the mat like she had just literally been birthed by Mother Earth.
Milla sighed quickly and stood, snatching her mat from the floor and half-ass tossing it into the bin before stomping away from here. If she was going to find peace, she knew for a fact it wouldn’t be here. 
2 hours later, Milla was lost, badly so, in a mountainous area. She’d started walking to calm down as she usually did, but her head was so clouded with rage she didn’t take note of where she was headed. Now, she was desperately lost, out of sight of the resort and even the water, and angry about it. 
She sat on a rock, threw her head in her hands, and screamed. Tears began to flow, and she slammed a fist down on her own yoga-power-riddled thigh again and again. She was so sick of this. So sick of feeling this way, sick of feeling other’s fear at her. She wanted, more than anything, to be normal. 
“Whoa wahine, don’t hurt yourself like that.”
Milla’s head snapped up. Standing next to the rock was an old woman in traditional Hawaiian dress, her gray hair held up in a bun, with a cigarette in her hand. 
“Where did you come from?”
“Around here. I live here. You don’t. So why are you here?”
“I’m lost.”
“I know that part. Nobody screams and cries in the mountains if they know where they are going. What are you doing on Hawaii?”
“I’m staying at Ka’anapali Yoga Retreat.”
“Why do you stay at that place? That’s a stupid place. They say they can connect you with the earth and her spirit but only you can. Only you can connect yourself. They charge you money for something you shouldn’t have to pay for.”
“Capitalism.”
“It’s stupid.”
Milla laughed in spite of herself. This old lady had a crack to her. 
“Have you lived here all your life?” She asked, suddenly feeling stupid, then racist, then stupid again. 
“Yeah, wahine, I have. I live here with my husband Kamapua’a and our children. Hawaii is my home.” 
“It’s beautiful here.” 
“It’s dangerous here. That’s how all beautiful things are, they are wonderful and frightening all at the same time. Having babies is like that. Falling in love. Living a full life—all beautiful, all terrifying. Safe things are ugly.” 
“Is that some Hawaiian folk tale or something?” Stupid. Racist. Stupid.
“No I’m just old so I can say what I really feel. I always have, but now I can get away with it because I am so old. You know the feeling?”
“I do. I—I always say what I feel. I’m here because I’m alway angry at people, at the world. I want things to go perfectly for everyone and they never do. I yell and push and prod and people get pushed away and they’re scared of me. I…I have no idea why I told you that. I’m so sorry.”
“You say what you feel, but you have to apologize because you’re young.”
“Fair enough.”
“You feel angry because you want to control the world? Why?”
“Because people screw things up. They don’t do what they’re told, even though it’s for a reason and not just to make them mad. They get hurt or fired or behind because they just don’t listen.”
“Do they listen when you yell.”
“See, that’s the problem.”
The old woman laughed and tapped the ash off her cigarette. 
“People are born with one of four things in their souls. Souls of Earth are steady and dependable. Souls of Water can smooth anything over, can flow around anything. Souls of Sky are wanderers, the ones who lead the way into the unknown. You have a soul of Fire.”
“Without fire, Earth, Water, and Sky are fine, though. Fire is unnecessary. Fire clouds sky, evaporates water, chars Earth.”
“Stupid girl, let an old woman talk. Fire shakes Earth, strengthens it, gives it new life and shape. Fire boils water, helping it feel when it needs to and creating rains for the Earth. Fire lights up the sky and drives it higher, helps it nurture Water and Earth. Without Fire, the other three are boring. Safe.”
“And safe is horrible.”
“You learn quick. Fire souls often do.”
“But they are destructive. That’s my problem, I don’t know how to help with my fire, only how to hurt.”
“The best Fire souls know that the Fire within them is precious. Fire does not last forever like water, like earth, like sky. It is fleeting, and must be kept safe until it’s time to feed it. Fire knows that the power within is used to drive them to keep the other three safe because they make the world go round. You take your fire and you use it to power you and you alone. You push yourself to be better, stronger, tougher. You are forged in flames, and so you can take any challenge. You were made to be a fighter for the people, not of them.”
“What happens when it overflows though?”
“Use it wisely. Destruction is part of life, part of every cycle. We cannot be reborn without destruction, so remember that. Use it only when you absolutely must to do the job of a Fire Soul—to charge the others and lay waste to those who threaten them.”
Milla sat there for a while, on the rock next to the old woman. It was as though the old woman had brought her a lamp with which to contain her fire. Before it burned through her body like a wildfire, but now it sat brightly and securely on the wick, burning strong but controlled.
“My mother paid a ridiculous amount for this trip and you’ve done more for me in 5 minutes than she has her whole life.”
“Other souls think Fire Souls are frightening. She fears you. Now she doesn’t need to. Your resort is still boring.”
“Think they’ll notice if I just ditch the next 4 days and see the rest of the Island?”
“Do you care if they do?” The old woman said, turning and beginning to walk away. “The resort is just one mile away, that way,” she said, pointing down a path. “Use your fire as a torch, not a wildfire.”
“I will. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. If anyone at the resort asks where you’ve been, just tell them you had a chat with Grandmother Pele. I’ve been here my whole life. They’ll know who I am.”
Grandmother Pele disappeared into the jungle-like foliage, and Milla set down the path. When she arrived back, the receptionist at the Front Desk looked relieved to see her.
“We’ve been looking all over for you!”
“I got lost on a walk. I’m ok, thank you. A lady named Grandmother Pele told me which way to get back—she said you’d know her?” 
The receptionist dropped the phone she was holding and it clattered loudly on the desk. The manager peeked his head out from his office and gave Milla a strange look. 
“Do you? Know her, I mean?”
They both nodded in unison. Milla said thank you and went back to her room, where a quick Google Search revealed that Pele was the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire, the ruler of the Volcanoes, and her husband, Kamapua-a, a God of The Sea. 
Fire Souls know Fire Souls. 

Noa’s Journal 7/21/14

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. 

Page 51 of The Collector’s Journal, as discovered by Nick. Corresponds with the story, “The Cure In The Cave.”

Page 51 of The Collector’s Journal, as discovered by Nick. Corresponds with the story, “The Cure In The Cave.”

The Cure in The Cave

​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?”
“Dani.”
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.”
“It’s what?”
“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.
Gaunab smiled.
“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.”
“Very well.”
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?”
“Two days.”
“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.”

Nick’s Journal 7/14/14

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.

“Sir? Hello?”

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…”

“Nick.”

“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?

 

Page 8 of The Collector’s Journal. Correlates to Ryuha-San.

Page 8 of The Collector’s Journal. Correlates to Ryuha-San.

The Shrine

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.

Japan, in general, had not been what Mara had been expecting. Part of it probably had to do with some misguided racism, like when white people from Ohio go to Honolulu and they’re expecting to see grass huts. Mara had grown up reading about geisha and samurai and ninja and in a way honestly expected that Japan would still look like that. Logically, sure, she knew different. Mara knew it was one of the most technologically advance and population-dense nations in the world. Knew that it was a booming country, modern in incredible ways. 
Still though, a little old charm might have been nice. 
Mara’d come to Japan to backpack. She’d saved up since she was very tiny to do just this. She wanted to see real Japan. She wanted to be Japanese. She wanted to relive everything she’d grown up hearing and imagining. She wanted the geishas and the samurais and the daimyos like other little girls wanted princess and princesses and…she didn’t know…whatever stupid animal was on the cover of a Lisa Frank TrapperKeeper. 
Mara had been in Japan for 2 weeks and what she’d seen had depressed her. Tokyo was basically Blade Runner now. It was cool and all, but not what she had wanted.
Kyoto still had its own kind of old-style charm, but in the same way that Six Flags Old West is just like the old west. Too many tourists, too much…too much.
Mara had been abusing her Japan Rail Pass for the past few days, trying to get somewhere that was far away. Somewhere with trees and monks and nuns and statues and some peace and fucking quiet.
She’d scoffed at people in other countries who weren’t prepared for the modernization. People in Italy who wanted Romeo and Juliet. Now she was among them. She hated herself and she’d hated this trip so far.
She ended up at Mount Ryuhan out of nowhere. It was the end of the line on her train, so she got off, found a hostel, and spent the night trying not to cry. She wanted to feel like this wasn’t all a waste. That her dream and her imagination were sound.
That’s how Mara found herself walking into Ryuha-San Shrine, near the top of Ryuha-San. The pathway had been lightly dotted with people. They had been wearing kimono. All looked good.
And yet still the plaza was swarmed with Tourists from all over. Children were screaming and running. People were snapping photos and shouting. 
Mara trudged up to the front of the shrine and tossed in whatever coin yen she had in her pocket and walked up to the courtyard. It was blocked off for the spirits the Shrine held to roam free within, to see the beautiful rock garden and the people. She placed her hands on the cool wooden railing, worn smooth from hundreds of thousands placing their hands just there. She closed her eyes, tried to blot out the people around her, and took a deep breath. 
When she opened her eyes, she heard nothing. She tried to turn her head to see who was nearby, why it was so quiet, but she was unable to do so. Everything was still, not even a breeze around to rustle the small shrubs in the rock garden. The sun shone, but a darkened haze formed a frame around Mara’s field of vision. She could only see the courtyard.
From a doorway on the other side of the garden, a figure came into view. A woman, maybe a little older than Mara stepped out onto the garden. She stepped lightly on the rocks, wearing dark wooden geta sandals and a sumptuous white kimono, the color of mooring. She held strong eye contact with Mara, who dared not look away from this woman. Mara knew she had something to say to her. Something to share. She knew better than to second guess this woman walking towards her.
She did not feel threatened, necessarily, but more deeply respectful. She knew turning away from this woman would be a great insult to her. 
The woman placed her hands on top of Mara’s and smiled at her, a small, hidden kind of smile. Mara suddenly felt light, calm. Happier. She bowed slightly, so slightly, at the woman, who did the same in return. 
Mara felt the kid crash into the back of her legs and she nearly screamed. Her hips crashed into the wooden railing and she apologized to the woman in white, and tried to hold a hand out to steady her before she realized the woman was not there. The child apologized and ran back to it’s mother but Mara didn’t hear it. She scrambled and turned, looked everywhere. There were no footprints in the rocks. There was no woman. No one, surely, had ever been there.
If Mara had not seen her, had not known she was there, then she’d have thought she was crazy.
She walked quickly back out of the shrine, down the path, and back to the hostel avoiding eye contact and feeling nothing but confusion. Why…why had she seen the woman? Was she imagination? Tourist attraction? 
Mara lay in bed for a long time awake that night, and fell into terrible, fitful dreams of ghostly figures sliding around screens and across wooden floors, quick and quiet and looming. She couldn’t rest. What had it all meant?
But did it really matter…what it meant? If the vision was real? Did it matter that the woman was, in fact, all in Mara’s head, a slice of psychosis in order to deal with reconciliation of the mind and the reality? 
Or did it matter more that Mara saw what she needed to? That Mara got from Japan what she needed to remember it as magical, as exactly what she needed it to be?  

Noa’s Journal 7/7/14

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. 

Noa,

Pretty good trick right? Repay me. Page 8.

Letter #2 From The Collector, 7/2/14

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.

The Collector

Collector Journals, Nick and Noa, 6/30/14

Noa’s Journal

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.”

Nick’s Journal

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