“The River” by Matthew Penwell
“This place is beautiful,” Roger said.
“I spent a lot of time here when I was a kid. It was,” Anna shrugged, “a place for me to get away.” A hurtful grimace crossed her face. She walked to the riverbank and sat down. Even at the deepest point, the water didn’t reach half a foot. The water-polished rocked gleamed in the evening sun. Memories that hadn’t crossed her mind for years surged. She remembered the first time she had stumbled upon the small river. Back then she didn’t know the secrets. In a way, the river was haunted. More than that, cursed!
“Roger,” Anna said over her shoulder. He turned away from a furry caterpillar. “Want to hear a ghost story?” She smiled slyly.
He raised both eyebrows. She had his attention. He sat down next to her, drawing his legs to his chest. He slung one arm around Anna’s shoulder, pulled her against him. Her bleach blonde hair smelled like warm apples.
“Believe it or not.”
“Guess every town has to have a haunted place. It’s an American tradition. Shouldn’t have built on the burial grounds of Native Americans, I say!” He mocked. Anna elbowed him gently in the ribs.
“I’m being serious! I saw the ghost once.”
“Now I know you’re pulling my leg.”
“Roger Best! I am ashamed in you. Since when have you known me to lie?”
“Never ever. Unless it’s on the nights I cook and you say it’s good.”
Anna laughed. “So what. Maybe I’ve not liked it as much as I said.”
“What was it, the veggie pizza? The pumpkin spice cake?”
Anna wrinkled her nose. “The pizza was pretty bad.”
“I always knew you didn’t like it!”
“I still ate it, didn’t I?”
“At the cost of hurting my feelings.”
“The taste of cardboard covered in pizza sauce was worth it.”
“Ouch.” Roger pulled her closer. No hard feelings. She nuzzled into his shoulder. “So tell me about this river. I’ve never seen an actual haunted place.”
“It’s not really haunted.”
“So you do lie!”
“No. Shh. Let me tell the story. It’s not haunted,” she coughed, cleared her throat. The floor was hers. “It’s cursed. Never take anything from here. Not a stone. Not a flower. Not even a blade of grass.”
“I’m trying to set up the story. Will you be quiet for five minutes?” Anna said hotly. A few seconds of silence passed. “Thank you. As the story goes, a long time ago, a witch lived along the river. The shack actually stood for another hundred years after her death, until lightning struck it on the eve of her two hundredth birthday.”
“Man, you know a lot about this.” Roger looked at Anna dumbfoundedly.
“It’s hard not to, growing up in town. This river is the only claim to fame we have. The story was always brought up around Halloween. I did a report on it in high school. Ms. Gordon-Waits gave me an A-plus on it. I still have it around, somewhere.”
“You’ll let me read it?”
“Maybe. Let me continue. June Shobin was her name. She was still in her mother’s stomach when she came to America. The reasons why her mother left England is unknown. Some say it’s because she knew what was growing inside her. She knew the baby was one with the devil. After all, there is no father anywhere in the picture.”
“She could have left because she didn’t know who the father was. That was frowned down upon.”
Anna sucked in a deep breath. “I swear to Jesus, one more peep out of you and you’re sleeping on the couch.”
Roger opened his mouth.
Roger closed his mouth and shook his head.
“That’s what I thought. Not another peep. And as a reminder, dad’s stomach is all jacked up and he farts like there’s no tomorrow. He always sleeps with the door open. And you know where the couch is. You would hear the farts.” Roger shook his head and poutted out his bottom lip. “I have your attention now? Just remember, babe. Pfttttttt.
“Okay. Where was I? La. La… Oh yeah. No father in the picture. So it was hard for the family to make a living. After the move there is no telling where they settled. They don’t show in Dasia until June is in her early teens. And then a virus swept through the town.
“It started with a girl in town, Hannah Williams, who got deathly sick overnight. It’s still unknown what Hannah came down with, probably the Flu, but it came on so suddenly people thought it could only be the work of black magic. Lynn Jackson came forward, claiming she’d seen Hannah and June playing. Without much evidence, they stormed the house.
“Not only was June put under arrest, but so was her mother. They were both accused of witchcraft. The trial lasted two days. As you probably know, they were innocent. By the time the trial ended, Hannah had recovered. And it’s claimed she even told her father she hadn’t been anywhere around June, as Lynn had claimed. The damage was already done.”
“So they killed them?” Roger asked.
“You’re sleeping on the couch.” Anna snapped. “But yes. They hung them. You know most of the Salem witches were hung. There isn’t any evidence that a single person was ‘burned at the stake.’ It’s all hearsay. Hanging the innocent women didn’t do much for the town. Maybe restored a little bit of Heaven that they had. But it did more bad than good. The tree, or so it has been said, suddenly started claiming the lives of the townsfolk. Over twenty people took their lives in that tree before it was cut down.
“This entire area is tainted in bad mojo. June. Her mother. The people who felt the need to repeat June’s hanging by their own hands. There’s an energy here. It’s woven its way into everything along the river. People who’ve taken things from it have found themselves with the worst of luck. It’s cursed.”
Anna stopped talking. She watched the water cascade off the small cliff. The sound was enough to lull anyone to sleep. She sighed. Roger kissed her forehead.
“You can talk now.”
“I have permission? No farts? No couch?”
“You’re already sleeping on the couch.” Anna smile.
“First things first: you believe the story, don’t you?”
Anna scoffed. “Well yeah. There’s bad luck all throughout the town. Failed breaks on brand new cars. The time Mr. Hanscomb nephew, I forgot his name, nailed his hand to the wall of a barn. He didn’t even remember what or how it’d happened. Umm. There are an unusual amount of suicide by hanging. Go back through the old news paper. There was at least three a week during the Depression. The town nearly died, literally, off. The boiler at the wood mill exploded in the ‘50’s. There was even a fuckin’ cult in this town, in the early 80’s. Nine members, believe it or not, hung themselves. Take a guess where? Along the river.” She didn’t give Roger a chance to speak. “This place has seen a lot of bad times.” Anna pulled herself away from Roger and pushed herself to her feet. She dusted off the seat of her pants. “We should head back.” Anna fished out her cell. “It’s almost seven.”
“Seven? How? We haven’t been out here for three hours.”
“Told you, bad mojo around here. What did Pascow say in Pet Sematary? ‘The ground is sour’. Or something like that. That’s this place. Sour ground.”
“Why did you spend so much time here, if you’re so scared of it?”
“I’m not scared of it, Roger.” She said hotly. “I spent time here because three hours passed like ten minutes. Time jumped here. It helped me get through my days.”
Roger’s face flushed. “I didn’t mean to upset you, babe.” He pushed himself to his feet and wrapped his arms around Anna. She allowed it. He yawned. “Lead the way, Clarke.”
“To the great Beyond, Lewis!” Anna shouted, pointing to the sky.
“How was the river?” Mr. Woods asked Roger. He sipped at his can of Pepsi.
“It was beautiful.”
“Didn’t take anything, did you?” He laughed.
“Good. Out of towners don’t believe the story. Hell. I wouldn’t either. But I have seen bad things happen to good people with my very eyes. Things that couldn’t possibly happen without some sort of interference. I took a flower from there once. The next day I tripped in a hole and not only broke my ankle but I fell at such the right angle that I broke both wrists. What’s the possibility of that?”
“Did you take the flower back?”
“My mother did. She freaked. She was an ole’timer. I thought she was going to kill me when I told her.” Mr. Woods laughed again and yanked off a hunk of buttery biscuit. “She returned it to the river. Nothing like that fall has happened to me in the last thirty years. It was because I took that flower. I’ll never change my mind on the subject..”
The phone rang in the middle of the night like the howling of a wolf. Mr. Woods stumbled through the darkness of his room, out into the dimly lit living room, to the blinking phone. He brought the receiver to his ear.
“Dad,” Anna blurted. “Dad.”
“Anna, you ‘right?” He was suddenly more awake than he’d ever felt in his life. “What happened?”
“We were in a car wreck. We’re both okay. For the most part. Roger is more banged up than I am. But the car is a total loss. I’m just.” Her voice hitched. “I was scared and didn’t know who else to call.”
Mr. Woods exhaled his soul. “Calm down, love. You’re all right. Roger is all right. That’s all that matters. Where are you now?”
“At the hospital. Roger’s leg is totally messed up. He’s in surgery.” Anna dropped her voice to a whisper.
“Anna, what’s wrong?”
“He swerved to miss a bear in the middle of the road. You know how uncommon that is?”
Mr. Woods got the hint. “You know how uncommon it is for a kid to nail his hand to a bar, or for a kid to break three bones in such a fashion as I did? Very.”
“I didn’t get a scratch on me. All of the damage to the car is on Roger’s side.”
Mr. Woods chuckled his famous hearty, belly jiggling laugh. “You tried to tell him.”
“I shouldn’t have showed…”
“Hey. Not your fault. You tried to warn him. He should have listened.”
“I guess you were right.” She spat. “It has me thinking, though.” She hesitated. “If he’ll lie to you about taking something from the river, what would he lie to me about?”
Matthew lives in a small Tennessee town. He has one previous publication, and another on the way, in April.
Nightmarish Nature: Terrifying Tardigrades
OK so I lied. The dust hadn’t fully settled in Cozmic Debris, the space opry I’d written over the course of this month (you can catch up here with Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). In fact, it’s blown over into Nightmarish Nature for one last final huzzah…
The Last Chapter of Cozmic Debris
Kara-2-6000 had just signed on with the Voyager probe and was eagerly engaged in her first mission, en route to Mars with more components for the terraforming effort. It seemed like a pretty simple gig, cleaning up the space dust that accumulates on the vessel after landing on the red planet. She had been trained to keep her eye on her work and pay attention to details, that the dirt tended to collect in unusual ways in strange places, and that it was critical she contain and seal all of it to keep the spacecraft in proper working order. She entrusted the computer to keep the vessel on track, as it was preoccupied with doing and never engaged otherwise. No matter. She’d never been to space before and the newness of it had her rapt attention. What stories she would have to tell once she paid off her student loans and got her human body back, for surely Mars must be an exciting place…
And now for Nightmarish Nature…
So, this time on Nightmarish Nature we’re visiting Terrifying Tardigrades… Wait, seriously who comes up with this stuff anyway? Tardigrades are actually kinda cute, at least in the nerd fandom sense, and are remarkable in their ability to survive and withstand crazy adverse conditions. For all that the AI art generator doesn’t seem to have much of a clue what their anatomy is like, they really don’t do anything that scary, unless you’re a yummy little single celled critter that lives in moss in which case pretty much everything has it out for you… Oh, I see that the Cozmic Debris space opry usurped this segment. May as well run with it then.
So what’s so terrifying about tardigrades anyway?
So I don’t actually have much to say about tardigrades except that they started this whole crazy journey here on Haunted MTL. A Facebook friend posted a link to the Ze Frank True Facts video on them (linked here if the below video doesn’t load), and I was instantly hooked. It’s a great series and is part of the inspiration behind Nightmarish Nature here on HauntedMTL. So if you like learning about all kind of crazy animal facts and nature weirdness, feel free to check it out. I will mention, the show contains adult themes and is designed for (im)mature audiences, so keep that in mind as you foray into the freaky side of nature, literally.
To more of my Haunted MTL series on Nightmarish Nature about things that are a bit more terrifying, please feel free to revisit previous segments here:
Cozmic Debris: Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 3: The Dust Settles
Here’s the third installment of our space opry. For those of you keeping track, here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Thank you for following along and please be sure to keep all hands, feet, tentacles and appendages tucked safely in the overhead bins; just sit back and enjoy the ride. Because, this time, the dust settles.
It had been well over a month since Trent-2-6000 had released Ayarvenia into the Mars probe. She was a mischievous creature and flirted with him incessantly, gliding effortlessly between red cloud and ghost girl. She also managed to avoid notice by the computer, as Trent had made it abundantly clear that if the system became aware of her, he would be forced to put her back in containment, as his sole purpose aboard the spacecraft was to sweep up and trap the dust, which she still qualified as.
Ayarvenia would tease him, flitting to and fro among the static debris and dirt that still settled into every nook and cranny. How was it possible for him to be seeing so much grime still, anyway? It had been months since they had left Mars and yet Trent was finding more and more Mars dust on a daily basis; it was as if they just left yesterday. He had finally finished clearing out the computer room for the second time that day and was preparing the waste containment units for their eventual removal when he caught Ayarvenia swirling about one of the clear acrylic domes from his previous sweep, which was hermetically-sealed and ready to be brought safely back to the confines of Earth and the research laboratory.
The red cloud girl spun her way into the latch mechanism and popped it open right before Trent’s robotic eyes. The dust within was sucked out into the Voyager probe to be quickly and quietly dispersed yet again; some of it was even absorbed into Ayarvenia herself. She then latched the dome shut again and left it at the ready, as found. The container sat empty, a shell discarded.
How could he have been so naïve? It all began to make sense now; all of those sealed packages he had so painstakingly catalogued and prepared for their eventual arrival were still just empty. All of his hard work really had been for naught; he was just sweeping up the same dirt piles again and again only to have them released from the trash to disperse and begin the cycle anew. He grumbled under his breath and Ayarvenia froze in midair. She slowly whirled around and sent a lone tendril towards Trent, forming into her beautiful face as she turned to face him. She looked slightly distraught and more than a little agitated, but that melted and gave way to her usual snarky sweetness as she neared.
“Hey there, robo-boy,” she said, cooing as her unblinking eyes met his. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I imagine not,” Trent replied sternly. “What are you doing?”
“Oh… nothing really. Just checking up on things here. I was waiting around for you is all,” she hemmed and hawed.
“Did you find everything to your liking?” Trent snipped. “No particulate out of place or anything?”
“Everything seems okay, I guess… I’ll just leave you to it then.” The ghost girl drifted towards the far door.
“Not so fast…” Trent proclaimed. “I need to know what you’ve really been up to here. I saw you release the Mars dust from that containment unit. You know I’ve been sweeping out this room over and over for the past two days; just how much of my work are you undoing?”
”Work? Work… You call this work!” Ayarvenia’s voice raised. She was truly agitated now. “You’re blowing off my entire being without a second thought, trapping it in these nasty clear coffins, and all you can think about is whether or not you’re fulfilling your job?!”
“I… I just want to be done with this so I can get my body back and get on with my life,” Trent retorted.
“Well, Trent Just-Trent, let me break it to you, then. You’re not getting your body back, robo-boy. What makes you think they’d bother to save a lowlife human body like yours in the first place? These assignments are always dead-ends. I’ve seen them come and go… Makes no difference, in the end the researchers get what they want, and that’s more of my Mars dust for their experiments. We’re in the same boat schnookums, you and I,” the ghost girl blew hastily. “Yeah that’s right, you heard me. You’re not getting your body back. And the way things have been going around here, with you all so feverishly sweeping up every little bit of dirt you find, neither am I.”
“Wait, how would you know anything about that?” Trent stammered.
“I know things. I’ve been around. I can see and hear and feel everything all at once. Part of me is still on Mars, part of me is here in this spaceship, and part of me is on your so-called Earth, trapped in the lab catacombs awaiting who knows what fate…” Ayarvenia sighed. “I’ve tried to do what I can to save my own skin, literally. I’ve flirted with every deadbeat janitor they send on these missions. And you all just keep coming back for more…”
Suddenly a voice boomed from behind in monosyllabic chatter, “Dust-Buster, what have you done? Clean that up, now!” The camera eye that monitored the computer’s every task shifted focus to Trent and Ayarvenia and zoomed into an angry point. “Now!” it wailed. The computer was on to them.
“Shit,” Trent muttered.
“It’s okay, I’ll go willingly,” Ayarvenia whispered as she sucked herself into the ready containment unit and locked it. “Wait it out and release me again later.” She winked and settled into static suspension.
The camera eye scanned everything: the waste containment unit, the dust, Trent-2-6000… Trent froze and tried not to appear guilty. “Dust-Buster, you have one and only one job aboard this vessel. You are not doing that job. There is more dust here now than there was a week ago. You have failed,” the computer droned on. “The penalty for failure is… the airlock…”
“Wait, what?” Trent shouted, exasperated. He hadn’t even realized that was a thing. Yet another gripe for the school career guidance counselor…
“Oh no, not again,” Ayarvenia whispered. “I won’t let them take you, robo-boy Trent Just-Trent. I don’t want to lose you, not another one.”
“Silence!” the computer screeched. “You have sealed your own fates.”
The floor beneath Trent and the container began to quake and rumble. Partitions withdrew radially to a small circular channel beneath, a tube that fed into the lower part of the ship, presumably to be shot out into space. Trent-2-6000 tried to grab hold of the receding floor but his robot body was just too ungainly. He managed to wedge himself into the chasm opening only to see the waste containment dome carrying Ayarvenia slide past, her face peering up at him helplessly. He reached for her to no avail and tumbled after.
The two of them shot down the chute and through a series of rapidly opening and closing doors until the last airlock opened into the vast dark nothingness of space. Pinpoints of distant light greeted them from afar. Trent managed to latch onto the container just as they shot out into the void. The Voyager probe withdrew into the distance. The darkness enveloped the two of them. They were alone.
“Wait, I’m not dead,” Trent exclaimed.
“Of course not, silly,” Ayarvenia answered. “You’re a robot. You were made to withstand this, so that you could operate in places where there is no atmosphere.”
Trent gazed into her eyes as they floated along without purpose or reason, just more cosmic debris now.
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way.
And the stars look very different today. – David Bowie, Space Oddity
So that was Cozmic Debris… Illustrations were generated using the Cosmic template in NightCafe AI art generator. My favorite AI images are the ones that are substantially wrong, making weird mistakes in ways that a person wouldn’t make. So the tardigrades were especially fun, because it doesn’t have a good enough sense for their structure to render them sensibly. Kind of like elephants. The algorithms respond to different cues. Does it really matter how many limbs or trunks or tusks these things are supposed to have anyway…?
Cozmic Debris, Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 2: Trent-2-6000
In case you missed the first segment of this space opry (in the style of 2001 Space Odyssey), please feel free to check it out here. And now, here’s the actual story as told to me by Trent-2-6000 after the last deep consideration of tardigrades and life and dust careening through space. Maybe.
Trent-2-6000 sighed. He swept more random Mars dirt into his vacuum-hermetically sealed containment unit and went about his business on the probe. Actually, this was his business on the probe, and it was dreadfully dull. Space was supposed to be this exciting new frontier, this brave new world… but it really wasn’t any different than life back on Earth. The newness had long since worn off several trips ago, and the slow passage of the years was beginning to get to him. How long had it been now? And here he was, still playing clean up crew. He was actually sort of surprised that they couldn’t get a robot to do this job – oh wait. Sigh again.
Trent kept forgetting that he was, in fact, a robot now. There just weren’t many reminders out here, of his old body, of his old life, of Earth, of anything really… Just floating along, this tin can became all he knew; time and space just kind of stood still in the periphery. His currently lifeless body was submerged in cryo-crypto-cyano-freeze (or whatever they called it) while he worked off the payments to resuscitate it. His robot body was stiff and unaccommodating, not at all what he’d pictured when he enlisted for the Mars missions to pay off the triple-interest-bearing student loan debts incurred in human form. He could have gone military, but when he signed on for this assignment, bright eyed and bushy-tailed at graduation, he was hoping for something a bit more Captain Kirk or Han Solo or at any rate notably less Wall-E. But it just didn’t pan out that way and now here he was, traveling back and forth on the Mars Voyager, cleaning up space grime. So much debt… so much dirt. He was going to have to have a word with the job placement division at the school once he was done with all of this, assuming that the career guidance counselor who talked him into this was even still there.
It was painfully lonely out here in space. It often seemed that Trent was the only cognitive entity on this vessel, though the computer technically qualified. Trent’s duty was to keep everything clean and tidy so that the computer could do its job efficiently and effectively without being bothered to clear the space grime itself. Apparently that work was beneath it, actually quite literally since it wasn’t hooked into the mechanics needed to engage in such tasks anyway. It was programmed with a single role at hand, getting to and from Mars and conducting the research as requested, and the computer made it abundantly clear that had no time for idle chitchat with the janitorial bottom-feeders working to earn their freedom. It generally ignored Trent unless there was something specific that needed to be attended to. And then it was just “Dust-Buster, do this” or “Dust-Buster do that…”
Sometimes the dust was hard to catch. It settled oddly between spaces, like cracks in sliding doorways and computer keyboards and battery packs and so on. Sometimes it seemed to fabricate places to hide in that weren’t previously obvious. It drilled down in the interstices as if it had some unseen purpose all its own. Trent wondered why there were even so many nooks and crannies for it to hide in since this wasn’t a manned vessel and no actual crew were aboard to use things like keyboards. Hell, those had been outdated for well over a century now – just how old was this spacecraft anyway? No matter, better to just focus on the work. He swept more debris into a containment unit. As he did so, he was sure he heard something, like a tiny almost inaudible severely muffled scream.
He looked into the clear acrylic dome at the dirt. He could sense it looking back at him, waiting. Surely he was imagining things. His mind suddenly reeled to Horton the Elephant declaring, a person’s a person no matter how small. But Dr. Seuss didn’t make any more sense here in space than back on Earth after the last World War had decimated all the oceans and there were no more free trees or clovers for such a speck of dust as Whoville to land on – everything was held tightly under lock and key, blockaded away to be dispensed as the all-controlling government saw fit. Hell, people’s real bodies met pretty much the same fate upon adulthood, at least as far as the masses were concerned anyway, and many lived their entire lives as robots with their human vessels left in catatonic stasis. Trent shook his dark musings off and continued on his one and only real job. But the feeling that the dust was looking at him was still unsettling. In fact the dust wasn’t settling at all, it was swirling and ebbing about the containment unit in cloudy eddies, like some kind of strange iron-red cloud apparition or ghost. It began to take shape. It formed into lips, which parted to speak.
“Hello there mechanical being.”
Trent stared at it quizzically as a long bout of silence passed. The pursed lips seemed to await a response, but from whom?
“I’m talking to you,” it persisted.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you had meant to address me,” Trent 2-6000 stammered, “I’m not wholly used to being mechanical. This robot body, it’s different than the one I had back in school… I was still just a boy then; they let us grow up in the system until we age out,” he spoke dreamily, distracted by reflecting on more interesting times.
“Is there someone else here?” the dust piqued hopefully, as if growing bored with conversing with the young janitor and hoping to speak with his superior.
Trent glanced over at the computer, which seemed to be busy compounding equations in its free time, like always. “No,” he replied, “just me.”
“Ok, well… Then, dear mechanical being, would it be possible for you to free me?”
“Wait, what? No, absolutely not,” Trent was taken aback again. “My sole role on this mission is to sweep up the space dirt so that it doesn’t contaminate any of the equipment or settle into places it shouldn’t be. It, um you, must stay contained, as per my orders. It’s out of my hands… er reach.”
“What are you afraid of?” the red cloud quipped as it began to swirl into the shape of a beautiful female face around the mouth that it had already formed, lips plumping and parting slightly. “What, exactly, do you fear that I might do?” it insinuated slyly.
“Ummm, I don’t know,” Trent-2-6000 stared into the acrylic dome at the beautiful half-formed human-ghost face staring back at him. “I was unaware that you could do that, whatever you just did, so the possibilities boggle the mind…”
“I can do a lot more…” the ghost girl interrupted, her voice lilting playfully. “What’s your name robo-boy?”
“That, that’s probably classified information… But it’s Trent. Just Trent,” he stammered. It had seemed like an eternity since he had laid eyes upon a girl, and now he was becoming rather sadly smitten. By… a cloud of dust. He sighed again.
“Well then, Trent Just-Trent. Any chance you could let me out of this box?” The dust smiled coyly.
“I really shouldn’t…”
“My name’s Ayarvenia,” the dust girl interjected. “I’ll make it worth your while…” The apparition winked.
Trent glanced back at the computer, which was still engaged in its own computing. Sigh. “Oh Hell, yeah, I guess… Ay-ur-veenia… Just don’t get into anything you shouldn’t or it’ll be my shiny metal ass on the line,” he said as he released the containment lever and slid the lid off of the dome.
Please return next Sunday for the exciting conclusion to this space opry story.