“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.
Ppppfffftttt, an RPG story by Jennifer Weigel
Poised Potion Poison Potential, an RPG story by Jennifer Weigel
(There – I finally said it! Second time’s the charm. Can we move along now?)
So I think Barbarella is losing it. Like she’s been sneaking healing potions. We never did manage to get to an alchemist before she downed one of those unmarked flasks we got off the goblins when we took their lair. Yeah, we all know they’re healing potions but I can’t help but think the goblins weren’t getting their goods legit. I mean, they are goblins, ‘nuff said. And I’ve heard some of the black market varieties have other weird properties too, so I fear maybe she’s gotten a bad one or something.
Anyway, she’s been acting strange, spending a lot of time by herself. And not working out, like usual, but rather rifling through the treasure trove. Not that she’s at all sneaky about it. I mean c’mon, it is Barbarella after all. She’s kind of the polar opposite of discreet. She’s always been more of a don’t-tread-on-me and mess-with-my-buddies-mess-with-my-war-axe kind of a girl.
It’s making Squidge suspicious. Yeah I know, Squidge is a bit edgy anyway, but they’re acting even more so now. They seem to have an even tighter grip on whatever things they’ve stashed away all up in that cloak of holding or whatever it is that they never take off and that makes it hard to remember much of anything about them. Hell, I don’t even know what gender they are, not that it matters anyway. I don’t concern myself with what Squidge is or isn’t up to so I don’t really care; generally the best is to assume the worst and move on. Nosing around in Squidge’s business is like begging for a stab wound to the back in your sleep, if you know what I mean. But they’ve been acting even more paranoid than normal, so I think they’ve noticed that something is off too.
You know, it’s been a long time since I’ve even had to down a healing potion; I tend to stay in the far back and let the other two hack n slash, it’s safer that way. And health elixirs aren’t my cup-of-probiotic-smoothie-protein-tea (it’s all too snake oil salesman fad craze diet antioxidant stuff for me). I’m more of a freewhellin fireball flingin kind of spell-slinger. The healing arts magics are a bit too… mushy gushy lovey dovey for me.
We aren’t a goody-two-shoes fixer-upper team, more of a nice-fill-in-the-blank-I-think-I’ll-take-it kind of ensemble. You know the type. #thuglifeforever. But times like this do make me wish we had a paladin or a cleric or even a druid to tag along. Where do you find the moral high grounders when you need them anyway? Sure, I guess I could go to a church or something, but some of the lesser evil critters I’ve wagered pacts and bargains with may not take too kindly to that. And the nature nice guys are all save-the-treants which generally doesn’t mesh with the whole fireball jive.
I guess Squidge could ask someone, but they only really talk to The Guild and just in that you-don’t-stab-my-back-I-don’t-stab-yours kind of sense, so we don’t have anyone to consult with on these kinds of things. It’s certainly not worth seeking out a 100 gp pearl for a wizened old wizard to snort for further clarity, even if the relative scarcity and exchange rate has made them significantly smaller and easier to haul around at this juncture, assuming you can find them at all. I swear, if the alchemists didn’t need to get high to get anything done it’d be a whole lot easier for everyone. And don’t even get me started on the Oracle, that nympho dominatrix bitch. Suffice to say I will NOT be going back there anytime soon, for ANY reason.
So here we are. Maybe whatever it is’ll pass on its own. But I noticed a couple more of those goblin healing potions have gone missing. We all know they don’t work if you aren’t hurt. And I swear I saw Barbarella take her own axe to the shin before she downed one when she thought I wasn’t looking during my nightly séance with the campfire flames. My cohorts don’t realize I can actually do more than it seems from my ritual state. The demonspawn that grant me my powers aren’t always all-engrossing, especially if I’m channeling things I’ve done a bajillion times already and not trying to harness something new. Frankly sometimes it’s best to tune the spirits out since they pontificate at length for no reason, but I suppose I’m not one to talk.
I keep coming back to this thought though. Why would Barbarella hurt herself just to chug a stupid goblin potion anyway? Usually those dares go the other way. Goblin potions taste like bad grog two days following a dwarven ale upchuck hangover, and that’s if you’re lucky. Often they’re worse. And they’re not even that good as far as healing elixirs, mending maybe a minor flesh wound at best. They’re crappy, no getting around it, and a last resort at best. Why would she deliberately go out of her way to drink that shit?
You know, there’s a whole stash of the things left, and I am a bit down on health myself. Maybe I should try one to see what the allure is. Perhaps the camaraderie and shared experience could help me get Barbarella to sober up and leave the toxic sludge alone. Or at the very least, maybe I’ll understand what she sees in them. Perhaps they’re new and improved, but I seriously doubt it seeing as how they’re still just ill-obtained swag we got off some low-level goblins. You know, no one ever really gives goblins anything worth having unless they’re trying to exploit them in some way, and even then it’s really not worth it, seeing as how the goblins don’t have anything anybody wants to barter…
I swear those potions were in this satchel here; we had like over 100 of the things. Oh, here’s one, way down in the bottom of the bag having fallen under some of the other crap we looted that wasn’t worth much of anything. Wow I really had to dig deep to fish that out, and it’s only been about a week since the goblins’ lair… In the light looks like the same ol’ ordinary purple black pink tinged sludge we normally find, a tad more sparkle factor but not enough to care. Now why are Barbarella and Squidge both looking at me like I’m holding the golden goose egg of everlasting mana and fingering their weapons?
If you enjoyed this RPG story by Jennifer Weigel, perhaps you will want to see some art from previous campaigns or read the Twilight saga, both on Haunted MTL here.
Check out more of Jennifer Weigel’s writing here at Jennifer Weigel Words.
Nightmarish Nature: Vampires Among Us
This is the kickoff to a new series exploring nature that is kind of horrifying, at least in ways. Our first subject is Vampires Among Us. There are lots of animals named for vampires, sometimes due to folklore and sometimes for their appearance (like the Vampire Squid), but most of these animals don’t have blood sucking tendencies.
Bats & Birds
There are legit vampire leaf-nosed bats in Central and South America that drink blood. They feed on mammals and are often shown to feed on livestock. They’d be kinda cute if they weren’t so creepy. There are also vampiric birds: some finches in the Galapagos have developed the taste for blood of other birds, mainly seabirds that flock to the islands to raise their young.
Leeches & Lampreys & More
And then you get into leeches and lampreys and other denizens of the water that are known to attach themselves to larger creatures and drink their blood. Leeches were even believed to have medicinal value (and still are in certain circumstances). And there are also numerous plants that are known to be parasitic and feed on other plants, wrapping their roots or vines around others to steal nutrients.
Now I’m going to drift off into the realm where this becomes truly horrific. Spiders. Now, spiders aren’t vampires per se, seeing as how they actually kill their prey – they don’t just feed off of it while it remains living and wanders about its business. But because of their structure, they cannot eat solid foods, so they have to inject their prey with enzymes to liquefy it so they can slurp it out like a protein shake. That’s sort of vampirism on steroids if you ask me, just the kind that no one is coming back from.
But let’s get back on topic. Now let’s consider mites and ticks and fleas and mosquitoes and the like. Some drink blood for their survival; others do so as part of their reproductive cycle (like mosquitoes which otherwise eat fruit and nectar but need the extra protein from blood to grow their eggs).
Ticks need to feed on blood once at every stage of their life cycle and can pick up diseases along the way (like Lyme Disease) but don’t always do so. Different ticks are more likely to come in contact with different things and often humans are not their preferred meal but they are opportunistic and will feed on whatever is available when necessary. Symptoms of illness from tick bites may take years to develop and can have really weird side effects (like the allergy associated with Lone Star Ticks which makes a person unable to consume mammalian flesh).
Anyway, here are some brief glimpses of vampirism in nature. Thank you for joining us for Nightmarish Nature and may you avoid getting bitten by any true vampires among us… And I still think spiders take first place in the creepy eating category here, even if they aren’t technically vampiric.
Buried Treasure by “Dread Pirate” Jennifer Weigel
This story came to me in a sort of roundabout way from a rather unusual source. So I thought I’d share it with you, dear readership, and see if you can make heads or tails of it. – Jennifer Weigel
Dread Pirate Rum Tum Tugger could tell this was the right spot.
The site, beneath the sweeping limbs of the Live Oak, Spanish Moss swaying gently in the breeze, was a perfect match to the crude map he had bought off that soothsayer Deuteronomy.
The earth moved easily, as if it had been excavated previously. He dug in with greater fervor with each swipe. The sandy soil gave way to reveal something hard. He scooped and smoothed the remaining detritus from the surface as he uncovered a box.
The carton was simple.
No markings; no ornamentation; no writing. Just a plain cardboard crate, brittle from having been buried for so long but still sturdy. He hoisted it from its burrow.
“Ha HO!” he shouted to the passing breeze, rousing a small cloud of birds that erupted from a nearby thicket. They captured his attention for a moment, but he quickly refocused and returned to his task.
The box was locked but no difference.
Any self-respecting ruffian like himself could pick a lock in seconds. And he did so with panache, as was his way. He pried the lid open and licked his lips.
Inside was the legendary Kernel of Eternal Life, a small sparrow’s heart, still beating.
Artwork description: Myself as Dread Pirate Queen Miss Kitty wearing black bell sleeve shirt and black vinyl skirt with strapping leather belt over leopard print shirt and tights, with strapping leather boots, pirate head wrap and leopard cat ears.
Image text reads: Purr! Avast ye mateys, Dread Pirate Queen Miss Kitty invites ye to check out her booty stash and dig ye up a dungbie prize. Seek ye some buried treasure! Just grab ye a plastic litter scoop and dig… dig… dig… to ye heart’s content.
I created this image for a promotional poster for a performance piece in a charity art show in which I, as Dread Pirate Queen Miss Kitty, hawked a carnival sideshow style sidewalk installation. For a mere $5 donation to the animal shelter the show supported, gallery goers could dig around in a kiddie pool full of litter to find a prize: a cheap plastic trinket from the dollar store. I had some takers, including one kid who seemed to really enjoy the digging and whose parents were all in, saying “You know, you can totally do that at home too.”
For more cat antics, we invite you to read C-2747’s logbook here on Haunted MTL. Feel free to check out more of Jennifer Weigel’s work here on Haunted MTL or on her writing, fine art, and conceptual projects websites.