Party Ghost

​Tyler was the life of the party. More so, he WAS the party. In his five years in college, he was famous up and down Frat Row, the street of nice houses with Greek letter hanging on the outside. Tyler didn’t even belong to a fraternity, but they all did whatever they could to get him to come to their parties. No amount of alcohol ever seemed to phase him, only seemed to make him more fun. The same went for any type of drugs, all of which Tyler consumed on a regular basis. He jumped from roofs into pools. He streaked. He snuck into crazy places. He danced, hard. Songs that were played at every party to no special effect became epic dance tracks just by him being there. He always brought the largest pack of Natty Ice he could find.
​If a person has only a limited amount of times to cheat death in their lives, Tyler burned through all of them in college. The night of graduation he was (where else?) at a house party. He did a keg-stand, threw up some high fives, then went hard on the area that had been designated the dance floor (normally the living room of the house). Then he died. Just collapsed on the floor. Students would say he partied so hard that he died, but the coroner would say that he died because there were more drugs in his system than actual blood. Many would say, What’s the difference?
​Yet the party, as they say, never stops, and so Tyler had unfinished business.
​Tyler’s body was buried across the street from a neighborhood of apartments and townhomes where mostly people in their twenties and early thirties lived. Fall was starting to set in, but Tyler didn’t feel the cool air setting in, and he sat atop he tombstone and surveyed the neighborhood. He didn’t feel much, except for the unquenchable need to par-tay.
​The first thing he noticed was that it took a lot of ghost energy to make himself visible to the living. Manipulating physical items was an energy-suck as well. That he couldn’t do both at once was clear when he stopped by the convenience store to pick up some Natty Ice and a whole case floated out the door. The freaked out phone call the cashier made to the police convinced Tyler that he couldn’t just tote a box of Natty Ice around the neighborhood, as a free-floated box of cheap beer would hardly go unnoticed. He left the beer and headed to the first party he could find.
​Not to say the party wasn’t any good before Tyler showed up, but as soon as he walked through the door (literally, but luckily no one seemed to notice) the party blew up. He was back in his element. Even in death, he could still make a party feel like those parties you see in movies but don’t think actually exist. Things went awry when another partygoer challenged Tyler to shotgun some beers with him. In the heat of the moment, Tyler grabbed the can, punctured it, and put the can to his mouth. The physical exertion made his body disappear.
​“What the fuck?!?” said the other partygoer. “WHAT IN THE FUCK?! GHOST! THERE’S A FUCKING GHOST AT THIS PARTY.” He pushed through the crowd toward the front door. Other partygoers turned to see the floating beer can and beer pouring straight to the ground. Girls screamed. Partygoers scrambled over each other to get out of the apartment.
​“Aw come on guys, don’t be scared!” shouted Tyler over the music. “We can do all kinds of crazy stuff. Later you can run cars through me, or we can freak out some cats or something!” None of the partygoers listened, they were too busy running away. “WHATEVER. I’M A PARTY GHOOOST! PARTY FOREVAAAAA! PARTY FOR ETERNITYYYYY!!!”
​Party for eternity. That was a solid tag line.
​The same thing happened the next week at a rave, when floating glow bracelets and necklaces freaked the crowd out. And then the next week during a keg stand. And then the next week when a girl tried to twerk up on him and him backwards through him. Then the next week when he thought maybe he could possess someone and party that way, but he just walked right through the guy. The legend of the Party Ghost spread throughout the neighborhood and city. The number of parties dropped significantly, and they were harder and harder for Tyler to find.
​One night he floated along the street, invisible to the living, wishing he could just give up on trying to find a party, but of course, he couldn’t. The need to party is what brought him into his ghost state.
Something bumped, in rhythm, in the distance. Tyler followed the sound, the beat intensifying with every block he floated past. Could it be? It was. Someone was having a house party. Tyler dropped to the pavement and concentrated on being visible. He flew through the door (again, literally) of the townhome the music was coming from and ran up the stairs.
“WHO’S READY TO PAAAAARRRTAAAAAAYYYY?” he shouted as reached the top of the stairs, then stopped. The room was full of people, sure, but it definitely wasn’t a party. Everyone in the room wore mostly black, girls and some guys had black eye liner on. Most were teenagers. They had the same depressed look on their faces. One of them turned off the music.
“Are you a real ghost?” one of them asked.
“Fuck yeah. And I died to PAAARRRTAAAAY. So let’s fucking do this thing! IMMA PARTAY GHOOOOOST!”
No one moved.
“I think about death a lot. What’s the aftlerlife like?”
“Who cares? Let’s get some fuckin’ music goinggggg!”
No one moved to turn on music. A girl in the corner (was it possible that they were all in a corner somehow? It seemed like it.
“Does it hurt to be dead? Sometimes I cut myself because the pain makes me feel alive. I bet since pain makes me feel alive that it doesn’t hurt to be dead. I bet it’s like when I take some of my mom’s codeine.”
“What the fuck? Don’t you guys wanna throw back some beers back? Take some shots? Make some bad decisions?”
“Have you spoken to Satan?” This time it was a guy, lots of piercings and acne. “Tell the Dark One his followers await his orders.”
If ghosts could sigh, Tyler would have. Instead, he just floated back downstairs and out into the street. A similar thing happened a few more times. People made it sound like a party was happening to lure him in. One week it was an old lady asking him if he could speak to her dead husband. The next week it was a ghost fetishist. Then next week it was a group of girls having a slumber party, daring each other to summon the party ghost. Tyler left each time, defeated. Eventually, he no longer went into the homes, just stood outside and danced to the music until it stopped. Every now and then, he would chance it, and a real party would be happening. For those precious moments before he did something ghostly and ended the party prematurely, he felt alive again.
If you’ve seen someone dancing outside of an apartment building or townhome that looked like it was having a party, then you’ve seen the party ghost, doomed to wander the weekend streets, looking for the ultimate party and never finding it.

Nick’s Journal 7/28/14

I tried to contact Dr. Blanchard via the phone number listed on the SMU website, but only got his voice mail. He hasn’t called me back, but that may due to the fact that part way through leaving the voice mail message I remembered that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to openly talk about why I was calling or give any of my information, due to The Collector’s warnings, so the message ended up going something like this:

“Hi Dr. Blanchard, this is Niiiii..uhhh..kita. This is Nikita. La Femme Nikita. You..I…we met recently at one of your lectures. We have a mutual friend. If you get what I mean. Wait, that doesn’t sound exactly right. What I mean is that I want to ask you questions about your “special friend.” God that sounds like I am asking about your penis. Sorry. Look, I..I want to ask about The Collector. Fuck. Welp, just call me back. My numberrrr…should not be said in this message. Okay bye.”

Hopefully he has some sort of caller ID on his office phone.

It’s exhausting being hyper aware all the time, waiting for a note or message to come from anywhere at any time. Yet that is how I’ve been for the past couple of weeks. Every time I open my dishwasher or my food is handed to me in a drive thru, I expect it to contain some sort of message from The Collector.

I read Noa’s journal entry where she bitches about me getting to meet someone who knows The Collector, meanwhile completely overlooking the fact that she met someone with either some sort of awesome burning super power, or at the very least someone who owns a cool hand-burning gadget. I guess she was too focused on the pain or whatever.

Eventually I did get my message from The Collector, and from a source I completely did not expect it to come from. I’m really putting myself out there by admitting this, so I ask that everyone be cool about it, but my message came from, well, Tinder.

Yes, Tinder, the dating app on smartphones where you swipe left or right depending on whether or not you think someone is attractive. Yeah, it’s shallow. And populated mostly by the worst people on Earth. But, I’m a single guy that has, at best, poor social skills. I gotta do what I can.

Thursday night I received a notification from a girl named Alexis. Her profile featured mostly pictures an incredibly attractive blonde girl showing a good amount of skin, dancing while holding a drink in one hand, glow-in-the-dark bands on her wrists.

This might be forward, my friend is DJ-ing at a club called Deluxe tonight. You should come by! I’ll put you on the list. ;P

The wink and the tongue were a bit overkill in my opinion, and most people would dismiss this immediately as a bot, but what else did have going on female-wise? I let her know I would be there.

I drove to Lower Greenville, and it didn’t take me long to find the club. I parked (a process that only took 35 minutes!) and walked up to the entrance, bypassing the line. I mostly expected it not to be, but my name was on the list and I went inside.

The club was filled with bleach-blonde-haired girls carrying tiny purses and dancing while a bunch of the douchiest guys imagine stood around holding drinks, trying to look cool. Axe body spray coated my lungs every time I breathed in. The DJ was on a stage on the far end of the room, across the sea of people, blaring something that sounded like it was a Backstreet Boys song at one point, before demonically-possessed boom box ate it and shit it out. A huge banner that looked like a dollar bill hung above the DJ, proclaiming him “DJ SKULLZMONEY.”

I was only at the bar for a moment before Alexis appeared, almost out of nowhere.

“Hey! You came!” Yelling was required to be heard over the music. She gave me a hug that lingered. “What do you think of the DJ? Pretty great, right?”

“I would say the music is somewhere between terrible and a weaponized sonic frequency designed to rupture all of our brains.” I said this with a smile, though, because I did still want to sleep with her at some point.

She laughed. Her hand was on my leg, she leaned in right up next to my ear hand rising further and further up my thigh as she did so. “Hey why don’t you order a drink and I’ll be back in a sec?” She said this as sexy as those words could possibly be said.

“Did you want anything?” I asked.

“I’ll get something when I get back.” She reached in her purse and pulled out a CD case. No one had given me a CD in a long time. “It has the DJ’s best mixes on it!” She smiled, kissed me on the cheek and disappeared into the crowd.

The CD cover had the same dollar bill imagery on it as the banner. I shoved it into my back pocket. And motioned to the bartender. He made some acknowledgement of me, letting me know that he knew I was there, but had many attractive women to serve first.

I spotted Alexis at the other end of the bar leaning into some other guy. She pulled out a CD out of her purse and handed it to him, pointing out something on the cover. The guy feigned interest but mostly just looked at her boobs. I had been had. It might as well have been a bot. I had been fooled by the DJ’s super hot marketing department.

The bartender finally made it to me. “What can I get you?”

I figured I might as well have a drink to wash away my idiocy. “I’ll take a Strongbow.”

“That’ll be sixteen dollars.”

I left the bar.

I walked to my car, threw the CD case in the passenger seat, and drove home.

The next day I was reading over some Collector-related materials and checking for any communication from Noa when I came across my last journal entry. Specifically when I mentioned, as a joke, a club called Deluxe and a DJ named SkullzMoney. I thought I had made them up. I must have seen or heard the names somewhere and they just came out subconsciously, I thought. I quickly Googled “Deluxe” and “DJ SkullzMoney.” Nothing came up. I rushed out of my apartment and down to my car. I threw open the passenger door, grabbed the CD case, and opened it. There was no CD inside, just a Post-It note that said “PAGE 67.”

I jumped in my car and drove back to the club. Accept it wasn’t a club. The fancy décor from the night before were gone, replaced with a dilapidated building with boarded up windows, and it looked like it had been that way for a while.

I was in that club the night before, I know it. And I have the CD case, so I’m not crazy. I’m still not sure who exactly The Collector is, what he wants, or what he’s trying to tell us with these stories (particularly not this week’s), but I am sure of one thing: we have to find out. No more waiting around for the next message.

 

Page 33 of The Collector’s Journal, transcribed to the story Rage Of The Earth. 

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?