North Shore Horror Anthology: The School


Danger lurks in every corner. While we dream of madmen waving chainsaws in the air and other disturbing monsters, the real culprits of savagery are sometimes the most unexpected ones. That friendly neighbor who waves at you every morning with a big grin on his face – maybe he has a bunch of bodies in his basement freezer, waiting to be delicately consumed piece by piece in a series of elegant dinner parties.

The lady who rings up your purchases at the grocery store and asks about your day – is she the one who slowly poisoned her family until they all died of mysterious circumstances? Or what about that mail carrier? Is he the one breaking into houses he knows will be empty on his route and leaving bizarre stick figurines behind, like he’s obsessed with The Blair Witch Project?

Who can say with any certainty which of us is secretly a demon scratching and growling underneath the guise of a civilized human being?

Haley Wilson, New Trier High School, Class of 2010. That’s who.

Major Griffin went from unknown commodity to trailblazing teacher within a matter of months when he first started at New Trier. Students, parents, and faculty all adored the man, noting his kindness, intellect, and ability to connect with people. Women lovingly gazed at his handsome, Hollywood-destined face while men begrudgingly admitted Griffin had a certain appeal to him.

It seemed like he could do nothing wrong. Everything from his teaching competence to his impeccable fashion sense received high marks from all who encountered him. Very few people didn’t like him, but it’s worth noting at this point that those who didn’t like him could never really say why – at least in the beginning.

“I mean, knowing what we know now, I guess it’s easy to see what was so suspicious about him,” says Debbie Winchester, a mom who has seen three of her kids graduate from New Trier. “But at the time, it was very difficult to see underneath the veneer – the front – the man was putting up. If only we had known[…]”

Indeed, if only more people had realized the truth. If only more people had listened to what Haley Wilson had to say, or rather, plead. Instead, Wilson’s cries for help fell on deaf ears and blind eyes unwilling to even think about a man like Major Griffin being flawed in some way.

But to call him flawed is a criminal understatement. What he did to Wilson during her last year of high school is tantamount to torture – both physical and psychological. But perhaps the most disconcerting observation to note is the lack of action from those in a position to help her; instead of helping her, they stood by and watched her crumble into a million little pieces.

Of course, to get a full and complete grasp of exactly what happened, we should take a look at Haley Wilson’s diary, which was recovered by authorities before disappearing under sketchy circumstances. Several of her entries turn up in the leather notebook discovered on elementary school student Adrian Wozniak.

They are transcribed below (with minor editing for content and grammar).

ENTRY #221

Wow! I am finally in high school! I am super excited! But I’m a little nervous too.

Good thing a bunch of my friends are in all my classes. There are so many other kids around (am I a kid still?). I don’t know most of them. But I think everybody is nervous like me.

Had a good day today. Nice first day. One of my teachers said my last name wrong. She was like, “Um, is Williams here?”

Nobody said anything. She asked a few more times. Then she did this weird blinking thing and looked really close at the attendance sheet. Then she blushed. Then she softly said, “Excuse me. I meant is there a Wilson here?”

I felt really bad for her because some of the other kids were giggling. She looked super uncomfortable! So I tried to be nice and raised my hand and smiled at her. But she didn’t smile back. She just looked at me with a weird glance before moving on.

It made me feel kinda bad, but I’m sure it wasn’t anything.

I’m excited for tomorrow! Yay!

P.S. One of my teachers is really hot.

ENTRY #294

I still can’t believe how boring high school is. And there’s so much work, especially because it’s almost time for finals. I feel tired.

A lot of my friends and I don’t really hang out anymore. They have new friends and I have… well… my own things. I guess.

But wait! One bright note: Mr. Griffin is being super nice to me. I feel like sometimes it’s a little creepy because he’s always so nice, but I guess it’s better to have a nice teacher than a mean one.


ENTRY #358

I gave Mr. Griffin another apple today. I joked I would get him one every Friday almost a month ago.

That’s, like, four apples. He always takes it with a big smile and takes a huge bite, showing off his perfect teeth and perfect everything.

He’s so cool. Sigh.

I know it’s not right, but I wish Mr. Griffin could be my boyfriend. All the girls do, even the cool seniors that are about to graduate.

There are just so many girls who are better than me. I just wish the impossible would come true.

Crossing my fingers. Hard.

ENTRY #400

Here goes sophomore year. I wish summer had lasted longer. Still, Florida was nice. Really humid though (I know, I know, but future Haley, when you read this, I want you to never forget how sticky Florida is).

It sucks school is starting, but the worst is that Mr. Griffin won’t be my teacher this year (but he did transfer over from the East campus, which I find very interesting teehee).

We have some real chemistry. I love how he always paid attention to me when we had class discussions and he appreciated how smart I am.

He appreciated me and what I had to offer.

Maybe I can hang out with him during his office hours. Just have to figure out what they are.

ENTRY #429

Mr. Griffin and I hang out all the time. Sometimes he jokes around and calls me his secretary. He makes me blush.

Maybe he is a little uncomfortable with how much I see him though. Sometimes when I walk into the English department office and over to his desk, I see him glancing around at the other teachers who are around.

But if they look back at him, they’re usually smiling. Maybe he doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea though.

I know I’m too young. Sad face! 😦

ENTRY #453

I took a little break from visiting Mr. Griffin. I don’t want people getting suspicious and spreading rumors. People know I’m not in his class this year.

It’s been a couple of months and I haven’t even seen him in the hallway. I really miss him!

But I am getting super good grades in all my classes and even in Kinetic Wellness I’m being active. My parents are happy with me and my new friends like me too because I’m obviously super smart and funny.

It’s really early for me to think about college, but I guess now’s a good time to start.

(But I’m really just trying to impress Mr. Griffin.)

ENTRY #588

So Mr. Griffin and I decided we should start seeing each other. Secretly though, for obvious reasons.

We have to be really strategic about it and it can get a little complicated at times. But he said I’m finally old enough where he can be comfortable and he said he knows I had a crush on him.

I’m really excited! But sometimes I do wonder why he picked me… he could have literally anyone he wants.

I don’t think he’s trying to use me though. He’s just way too charming and nice to me.

I know he’s a good person.

ENTRY #700

This diary has been with me forever. It’s holding all my darkest secrets and nobody can ever get a hold of this. If Major (yeah, first-name basis now, deal with it!) even knew about this, he would be fucking furious.

I guess if I were in his shoes, I would be really mad too. But he won’t find this – even now, we only do things at school. It would just be even more dangerous somehow to try and meet up for coffee or a romantic date

There are only a couple of weeks left until I graduate. I can feel this weird tension just flowing off of Major’s body. He still acts the same way towards me, with his megawatt smile and tender touch, but there’s this odd edge to him.

Maybe there’s a hidden darkness inside Major – a side nobody else knows about?

ENTRY #703

So Major asks me today what I see in the future. It seems innocent enough, but he looks at me in a weird way, like he expects me to give him the answer he’s looking for. Which means, of course, that for him at least, there’s a right answer and a wrong one.

I do some “hemming” and “hawing” before I clear my throat really dramatically to indicate I get the significance of his question. I tell him once I graduate I’m going to be hanging out over the summer – with him, duh – and then I’m going to Northwestern.

He stares at me a little longer so I quickly add, “And obviously I’ll still be with you while I’m at college.”

He nods slowly and said, “Obviously.”


ENTRY #707

Okay so that was fucked up. Major smacked me in the face today.

He immediately apologized and helped me get up, but I will never forget the face he made right before he hit me. I’ve never seen someone look that twisted, that evil. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. For real.

My cheek still stings and I’m worried I’m going to have a black eye or some crazy bruise. I’m not sure how I’ll explain that, although I guess I could just stereotype the whole situation and say I fell. I don’t know what to do.

Major is becoming more and more unstable, I feel like. But nobody else can tell. He’s still putting up this front like everything is okay and he’s still the cool and handsome teacher he always was.

But he isn’t.

ENTRY #713

I made the decision to tell my best friend about my relationship with Major. She immediately twitched violently and yelped, “Oh my god! That’s insane!”

I nodded and then she excitedly started asking me dirty questions, like how he is in bed and his… size (hey, it’s my diary but I’d rather keep it somewhat clean).

Here I thought she would care about my terrible situation and instead she’s jumped right over it and now she’s asking superficial bullshit. Some friend I have.

I’m running out of options here. Graduation is right around the corner and Major is becoming more and more physically abusive. And he’s being smart about it too.

After that one time when he smacked my face and he saw how fast my cheek started to puff up and turn an alarming shade of red, I guess he learned his lesson and started to hit my body where it’s usually hidden behind at least one layer of clothing.

Sometimes it’s really small stuff like aggressively pinching my stomach or my thighs, but he’s mastered it completely. It fucking hurts like a bitch and barely leaves any mark.

Another time he “jokingly” said he was going to staple me in the chest and then he really goddamn did it. He actually slammed a stapler into my boob, the freak.

This is my last resort, but I think it’s time I talk to my parents. I don’t want to get the cops involved, but I’m worried about my safety.

ENTRY #714

I sat down with my mom and dad and told them I had something really important to tell them. They were so innocent, sitting there with concerned eyes and caring smiles on their faces. I was their perfect daughter – the one who excelled at school, athletics, and every other aspect of life.

Oh, were they in for a real treat.

I calmly told them, “You know Mr. Griffin? I’ve been in a relationship with him for the past two years. We’ve done things together. And now I’m scared, because he’s been hurting me and once I graduate, I think he might try to kill me.”

I expected a number of emotions. Anger? Sadness? Understanding? What I didn’t expect was laughter; they laughed and laughed, my dad clutching his side and howling into a sofa cushion while my mom, ever the dainty and polite lady, heartily giggled into both her hands as her cheeks flushed from the exertion.

What choice did I have but to just glare at them and wait for them to stop. If I had to be the adult here, so be it.

And yeah, eventually they did stop.

My dad whimpered, “Honey, I know you’ve had a crush on that man for almost half a freakin’ decade now, but this is really too much!”

Mom nodded in agreement and said, “Your imagine was always a real pool of zany ideas!”

And there I was, sitting stoic and poised in my chair, and I solemnly said, “I am not lying.”

Then we had like a miniature staring contest, which I won.

It started to sink in for them. They calmed down from laughing. They looked at me for a little bit in silence. Then they looked at each other.

ENTRY #715

My parents decided they should talk to the school first, see if we can resolve this in a quiet manner. But when they contacted the school, they were stonewalled. My parents got nowhere and they were constantly put on hold or transferred to another department.

This went on for hours until it became clear to us the school had no intention of indicting their most popular and competent teacher in a scandal.

We contacted the police next. I was interviewed at home (they wanted me to be “comfortable”) before I was taken to the station. I was questioned further, but I began to notice a disturbing trend: nobody seemed to actually care.

That’s the scary thing about Major’s influence; it goes far beyond the school’s proverbial fences and extends over the entire community. He’s done a lot of charity work (because of course he would) and, you know, he’s an incredible guy for the most part.

I still don’t understand what’s going on between us, like why he’s become so dark, but I also can’t understand if there’s this pressure, how is he coping with that and acting like nothing’s wrong with everyone else?

ENTRY #716

I’ve been crying for a while now. Obviously my parents have said I can’t see Major – Mr. Griffin – anymore. But I miss him. I’ve loved him for almost half a fucking decade. He did so much for me.

I wouldn’t be the writer I am now without his persistent guidance to make sure I would achieve my full potential. But I’m also not a moron; I know I can’t be with him because he’s so unstable with me. I think he’s just becoming overly possessive.

Maybe I tried too hard to get him to like me, or maybe it just worked too well. Imagine that. Out of all the girls in the world, somehow I made Major Griffin possessive of me. Normally that might be thrilling or send tingles down the back of my legs, but now I just want this to all end.

My parents and I have a weird relationship now. They barely talk to me and I have this gnawing feeling inside me that they’re going to tell me not to go to Northwestern the following fall, and instead take a year off to recover.

Also, graduation is coming up in a few days, and I get the unsettling feeling that rumors are starting to spread. It’s a small community. People talk.

And I’ll sometimes catch other kids staring at me, heads tilted like they’re thinking, “Her?”

This is all a nightmare. Meanwhile, my friends tell me Mr. Griffin has been more cheerful and upbeat than ever. Somehow he’s achieving peak “perfection” while I’m drowning in misery. Nobody has given me a life vest and I just want someone to reach out and yank me from the pitch black water.

ENTRY #721

So, I walked up to receive my degree and nobody clapped. Which is fine. We’re not supposed to clap for anyone until the end, but the tradition is we always clap for one or two kids everyone liked who weren’t necessarily the most popular in the usual way.

We didn’t clap for Kiefer Cromwell-Johnson, who passed away not too long ago in a creepy tunnel, but instead we all stood and bowed our heads in a tremendous moment of silence.

Eventually my name was called. It was quiet, as it should be, until someone in the back yelled out, “Whore!’

It echoed through the stadium (New Trier has a ton of kids – my graduating class was over a thousand) and floated up and into the air and disappeared. But not really. People shifted around uncomfortably while I yanked the diploma and quickly walked off the stage.

When I looked up to try and see if my parents were there, their seats were empty. Turns out they had left to wait in the car. I guess they’re ashamed of me.

ENTRY #739

I feel lost. I am all alone. Everybody knows about the relationship I had with Mr. Griffin now. Nobody is by my side though.

All my friends have left me. My parents don’t talk to me. The police refuse to pursue any leads and call me a liar. And the worst thing is that Mr. Griffin is getting away with everything.

Just like I suspected, my parents said they’re not paying for my tuition. That means I’d have to pay everything by myself and we all know I can’t do that. Which means this is just their cruel way of saying they don’t want me going anywhere.

I mean, god forbid I start fucking a Northwestern professor, right?

I don’t know how much more of this I can take. It’s funny how life can seem so amazing and then almost immediately, just with the snap of your fingers, everything goes away.

ENTRY #750

I’m done.


That was the final diary entry from Haley Wilson. Her body was found shortly after, in her bathroom tub. She had slit her wrists and bled out.

She died with her eyes closed, so one can’t say what her finals thoughts were. Perhaps she was just relieved it was all going to be over soon.

North Shore Horror Anthology: The Tunnel


It’s 6:45 AM and New Trier High School senior Kiefer Cromwell-Johnson is in bed, staring at the ceiling. He’s internally counting every second before his alarm goes off in fifteen minutes because this is a day he would like to delay as long as possible.

Cromwell-Johnson has two weeks before he graduates and gets to enjoy one last summer at home before he starts “real school” in a different state, free from the parental leash that is wrapped around his neck and suffocating his ability to just do whatever the fuck he wants.

For the tennis team captain who is affectionately called both “KC” and “CJ” by his friends, it’s just a waiting game before he heads to Arizona State University, where it’s hard to tell what’s more gorgeous: the weather or the girls.

Yeah, things look pretty peachy, but there’s one little problem. Actually it’s a very serious problem and he has to address it today. He made a bet a few weeks ago in a misguided attempt to impress a junior considered to be the most attractive girl in school. Normally, a bet wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but this was something on a whole different level.

There’s a tunnel at the corner of Willow and Green Bay, right next to North Shore Country Day School’s soccer fields. It’s a narrow tunnel for pedestrians should they have business on Wilson St (and vice versa). Nobody seems to use it and there is an abundance of urban legends that revolve around the mysterious tunnel and they all inevitably involve grisly deaths and such.

Cromwell-Johnson has no reason to be particularly frightened – it’s a tunnel available for public access and as far as he knows, nobody has literally died in it – but he can’t deny the heavy feeling of dread that has permeated through his entire stomach. His arms and legs are leaden and he just wants to stay in bed all day.

Alas, fifteen minutes is nothing but a drop in the bucket and it’s time for him to get up. So he does and he goes through his normal morning routine. When he rides his bike to school, he has to pass the tunnel and he usually rides with a friend or two. Today it’s just one friend and he enlists this friend to wander into the tunnel to take some pictures.

It’s daytime, so the (perhaps naive) assumption is that nothing will happen. But nothing does happen. Cromwell-Johnson’s friend takes some pictures for him to stare at all day and this is a small sample of what he gets:

A tunnel is just a tunnel at the end of day and Cromwell-Johnson can take some comfort in knowing that the tunnel is not very long and more importantly, it doesn’t look bad at all. Of course, this is where we need to talk about the logistics of the bet and how they probably led to, well, a grisly situation.

Cromwell-Johnson said he was going to not only walk the length of the tunnel at midnight, but also stay inside the tunnel for fifteen minutes. Nobody would be in the vicinity; it was expected of him to record the entire incident on film and his peers trusted him to go through with it anyway.

The mistake he made, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is that he did this all alone. There were no witnesses and nobody to help him, save him, or even call the police. It was just Kiefer Cromwell-Johnson, a high school student with decent, affluent parents who were perhaps a little strict, but not overly so.

There’s no footage to be found either, if you’re morbidly curious. It looks like the killer took it with him (or her) to do whatever with. Precious few answers are to be found, whether it’s from the authorities or any crackpot conspiracy theorist you talk to.

People can agree on a few things, however:

  • It was messy. While his body was never found – as of this writing at least – skull and brain fragments of various sizes were in abundance and concentrated on the Willow side of the tunnel.
  • He might be the first known death of an unknown serial killer who has targeted the few individuals who ever enter the tunnel at night; after Cromwell-Johnson’s death, police have been finding signs of other malicious activity within the tunnel at a rate of almost one every four months.
  • It was probably one person, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if some type of bizarre cult was involved. The blood splatter seemed too organized for Cromwell-Johnson’s death and the blood became increasingly complex in design for every ensuing murder.

Kiefer Cromwell-Johnson’s death is a tragedy, as are the deaths of those other unfortunate souls who had the misfortune of using the tunnel at the wrong time, but they are just one big example of the many sinister occurrences in the North Shore. For such a quiet and allegedly peaceful place, there’s a lot of evil lurking in the shadows.

“The School” is here

North Shore Horror Anthology: The Prologue


When they found Middlefork Primary School student Adrian Wozniak under the Willow Park bridge next to Hyde Park Day School’s parking lot, he had been missing for almost three days. He was grimy, incoherent, and completely mute. He was also clutching what appeared to be a leather notebook close to his chest with violently purple fingers swollen from prolonged pressure. It took three firefighters to get Adrian to let go of the notebook, and that’s when – excuse my French – shit got real.

One of the more astute paramedics on the scene immediately noticed something odd about the notebook, namely the fact that it wasn’t leather in the traditional sense at all, but rather something of a more disconcerting material: human flesh. And that’s when Adrian broke his silence. He said, “It’s all true. He told me. It’s all true.”

It was a mantra, if you will, that he would repeat over and over again, all the way to Glenbrook Hospital. He kept saying it through the number of tests he received and it didn’t stop while his emotionally distraught parents calmly walked into the room – at first – before breaking down, running over to him, and hugging him, crying on him, and generally acting like any good parents would do in that situation.

While his parents were certainly happy to see him, they couldn’t help but notice the difference in the new Adrian versus the old Adrian. Trauma was to be expected, of course, but there was something unsettling about the formerly gregarious and sociable third-grader, almost like he was an empty shell of himself.

The doctors told Mark and Mary Ellis Wozniak that only time and therapy would tell what kind of things little Adrian had been through. His parents and even the authorities were very worried, of course, because it’s not a normal thing at all, really, for anyone to be discovered holding a book made out of human flesh.

So naturally an investigation was opened, the whole case made national news, and before you could even ask what happened, the entire Wozniak family was found hanging from their rafters. The police couldn’t find any signs of foul play, and the whole thing was ruled as a suicide. But the leather book was the gigantic elephant in the room and conspiracy theorists enjoyed ruminating among themselves that the book had played a part in the family’s collective demise.

Rational individuals scoffed at the idea and suggested the psychological trauma had simply been too much for a family that had, up to 2015, been living a mostly perfect life. But nobody really had an answer for Adrian’s appearance while his tiny, precious body dangled in the air next to his parents; Mark and Mary Ellis had blank expressions on their faces almost like this was all really no big deal, but Adrian’s face was contorted beyond belief, mouth unnaturally agape and eyes bulging incredulously.

It was the kind of look that caused hardened veterans to retire forever. And it was the kind of look that made guys like me travel to sleepy and affluent Northfield, Illinois to figure out what the hell was going on in a town of less than six thousand people. I was allowed access to the aforementioned leather notebook thanks to some connections and let’s just say I found some things inside.

I’m not sure what to call them. Stories? Anecdotes? Pure fiction? It’s hard to say, but if anything in that notebook is true, I need to get the hell out of this godforsaken town.

“The Lagoon” is here.

Hold Your Breath and You’ll Hear the Devil (Part 4)

For a friend who has been waiting a few years for this. Here’s Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 if you missed them (or want to refresh your memory, give me a movie deal, nitpick the ridiculous plot… so on and so forth).

“Hello. My name is Ted Phoenix. I am the Chief Liaison of Dream Communications here at AYNIK.

What you have witnessed is an unprecedented method of accessing the human mind. Some may say we were inspired by Inception, or any type of medium that addresses layered realities.

That’s a fair assessment to make.

The people in charge were admittedly intrigued by the premise put forth by Inception. They realized the vulnerability of the human mind when a person was dreaming – or believed he or she was dreaming.

Anything can happen in a dream. You know this from personal experience. Only when you wake up do you realize how many impossible things occurred.

Who knows? Maybe we’re all in a dream right now. A dream that never ends until we die. How do we know anything is true? Even the simplest things may be completely different based on our perception of it. For example, we generally acknowledge the sky is blue during the day. Well what if, in reality, it was not only a different color, but something completely different?

And the only reason we think it’s normal is because we’re dreaming.

Or what about things like physics? Is gravity real? Or is it just a product of our dreams?

I know it’s not entirely provoking to put forth this idea. As I said before, this exploration of what “reality” really is has been done many times before. Of course, this is real life – as far as we know – so the stakes are much, much higher.”

“At the core, the idea here is to make the subjects believe. Since nobody truly knows what Hell is like – or whether it even exists or not – we can work from a blank slate.

We put forth a series of events that can’t be proved to be true or false simply because nobody really knows the ultimate answer. If we all died right this instant, could we say with any certainty or credibility what we will experience next? No.

That’s why we decided that death was the ultimate blank slate. ‘Kill’ the subject and anything is possible.

The subject you observed today was one of many brave volunteers who agreed to undergo a protocol session with our neuro-respirator. Therefore, some of the events he went through were a little more… dubious than what we would use in the final product.

But you can see the effectiveness. A tarantula is on your face when you wake up? No questions asked! Your wife inexplicably guns you down in your garage with an M60? Oh well!

We believe the total immersion will only go higher and higher as our death introductions become more and more realistic.

As you saw, the transition into ‘Hell’ was also successful.

That’s the beauty of the unknown – you can manipulate it into whatever you’d like.

Of course, saying we manipulate anything might be a tad strong. You could say we really just ease our subjects into a certain mindset. In any case, the potential is high, and we believe this technology can be used for the greater good of humanity.

From the beginning,  one of our chief concerns was the ways in which neuro-respirators could be abused. Our minds are sacred – they are private and should stay that way.

It would be truly heinous for anybody to take such power and use it for negative reasons. What we have in mind is doing things like helping solve crimes and rehabilitate people with various issues, both mental and physical.

For example, if someone is in a coma under suspicious circumstances, we could theoretically use a neuro-respirator to access that person’s mind and try to find some memory of the events preceding the coma.

Navigating the mind is tricky, of course, which is why we’re only doing the most basic of things at the moment. With our current volunteers, we’re doing less probing and more suggesting – seeing the results from suggestions we place into the mind, you might say.

In dangerously simplistic terms, you could almost call it hypnosis. But I beg of you, please don’t think the two things are interchangeable.

What we do here will change the world. Hypnosis is nothing but a gimmick.

With this, AYNIK will provide a means to make the world a much better place.

Thank you.

Without your contributions, none of this would have been possible.”

He walked off the stage as the audience members rose in unison and clapped enthusiastically. He looked up, flashed a dashing smile, and gave a casual salute as he disappeared behind the curtain. The lights slowly eased back on as the audience clamored amongst themselves with uncontainable excitement.

Ted Phoenix strolled into the dressing room and plopped down onto a plush leather sofa. He leaned back, stretching languidly in all directions.

The CEO of AYNIK, Nikolai Kirilenko, was waiting on the adjacent sofa. His face was tense as he stoutly asked, “So?”

“It was a rousing success.”

“Are you sure? I mean, are you absolutely positive?”

“Hell yes! Do you hear those fools out there? Still clapping. I guess they want an encore or something.”

“Well they don’t matter. He matters. Did you find what you were looking for?”

“As a matter of fact, I did.”

Kirilenko palmed his bald head in relief and said, “That’s great. That’s fantastic. So we’re good to go then?”

“We sure are. AYNIK now has two revolutionary technologies. Who is going to stop us? Google? Facebook? The government? Please.”

Kirilenko smiled tightly and said, “Don’t get too confident. And don’t get my hopes up. Because you know what happens when I feel disappointed.”

Phoenix stared into the murky green eyes and nodded.

Both men got up and walked out. After going through a complex series of hallways, corridors, and tunnels, they arrived at the neuro-respirator laboratory.

Three men and two women were laying on beds. Each had a simple device over their mouths and noses, like a more elegant version of a commercial plane’s oxygen masks.

Each individual had classified information about a rival company.

AYNIK had everything.

Nothing would stop them.

Ted Phoenix and Nikolai Kirilenko looked at each other.

It was time to set the volunteers free.

AYNIK owned a number of campuses that each served a unique purpose. This location was simultaneously one of the more secretive ones and one of the more public ones. In fact, this particular location had been built explicitly for the more shadowy aspects of what the company did. Nobody even suspected anything, mostly because the building was minimally guarded and in a heavily populated area. Surely something sketchy couldn’t happen in almost literal broad daylight?

While this type of deception had been done before, AYNIK took it to another level. The most sensitive location also happened to be one of the only campuses with a tour guide for media members and a reception hall. That mean guys like Ted Phoenix could lie to journalists right to their faces even as industry secrets were being stolen right beneath their feet, under the green marble tiles and in the labs below.

As for the media tour guides, those served to feed the public a little bit of delicious information at a time. It was always just enough to amaze on a profound level to the point where journalists had to write about what they saw, instead of doing any type of real investigations. That’s what happened in the neuro-respirator lab.

When they were looking at Volunteer #3, they observed the beginning to the part where he receives a mysterious laptop out of thin air. They never saw his memories about the tree, or his dead wife.

They also never saw his memories on what his wife had been working on.

AYNIK had a reputation for being completely transparent, which CEO Nikolai Kirilenko privately joked was “only the illusion of transparency.”

Now, they were in position to completely dominate the technology industry – possible even the world.

The best part was this: power would come with the benefit of goodwill. After all, good and bad are subjective terms. They can also switch roles in an instant. While some may think a monopoly on technology would be bad, that power would be used with great responsibility. That’s what Kirilenko told his people and that’s what Ted Phoenix reiterated.

The rise of AYNIK would be the rise of humankind all at the same time.

One neat package.

I blink and the next thing I know, I’m in a bed somewhere.

At first, I believe it’s some kind of dreaded trick from Hell, where I’m supposed to believe I’m “free” or something, only to get transported back into my white room.

But then… I remember. I remember why I’m here, in this bed and in this laboratory with four other people. Then I see two doctors walk over to me and that’s when it’s all confirmed.

They can see I’m still shaken from the test, so they give me some time to get my thoughts together. I’m not sure what their results indicate, but I hope it all worked out. It was the worst nightmare I ever went through, and I find it bitterly ironic that it happened during a clinical trial for a do-it-all cure for sleeping disorders.

After they take the device off my face, they help me sit up and tell me I’ve been asleep for about two hours. I shake my head in mild disbelief and say, “It felt a lot longer. In fact, it felt like a month. I’ve never felt anything like it. It was the worst sleep I ever had – even worse than after my brother died. And my wife.”

The bald guy, Dr. Nick, nods sympathetically and says, “Well you’ve done the right thing by accepting our offer. With your contribution, hopefully we’ll be well on our way to providing a cure for people like you who face troubles when trying to sleep.”

The other guy, Dr. Ash, cuts in and says, “So, how are you feeling? Ready to get to the next step?”

“Yeah, sure. I mean, I just get paid and it’s basically a waiting game, correct?”

Dr. Nick says, “Yep! Say, what did you dream about anyway? If you don’t mind me asking?”

“Oh, it was about family. And Hell. That was definitely a factor.”

For some reason, the doctors exchange a quick look of relief. I guess they’re just happy it wasn’t anything even weirder. I don’t know.

I ask, “Why is everybody else still asleep?”

Dr. Ash says, “They started the test later than you. Wouldn’t want to mess with the consistency, you know?”

I nod. Even a kid in high school could tell you that.

After dressing and getting paid (a tidy sum of $5000), I leave the lab and go outside. For a moment, I’m shaken, and I lean against the wall to make sure I don’t fall over.

Even though it was a dream, it all felt so real. I’m just glad I can breath fresh air again. Looks like I’m going home with a spring in my step.

Things are looking good.

That’s what you think.

What the – !? Isn’t that the narrator from my dream?

Yeah, it’s still Barrett. And unfortunately for you, this is still a fictional story. Which means I’m in complete control here and you’re nothing but a product of some words on a screen.

I fall to my knees. That’s it, all hope is lost.

I look up at the sky as people walk by and stare at me with morbid curiosity. I thrust my hands up into the air and scream, “KHAANNNNN!!!”

Hi there, this is Barrett.

Since you know it’s me, I’ll switch to the regular font right… now.

I’d just like to thank everybody that read this quirky story from the beginning all the way to the end. I went into this without a plan and I’m somewhat pleased with the results. The story took me where it wanted to go, which is why the beginning is like a comedy and the rest is much more somber in tone.

For several years now, I’ve been writing nonfiction almost exclusively, so it was nice to get back into the world of fiction.

I would also like to thank my friend Amey for being so patient. She waited only, like, three years for this and I hope it made her (or you, if this is Amey reading at the moment) happy. Most importantly, I’m no longer in your debt – at least for helping me with that massive pile of Logic homework way back when.

Assuming is always risky, but I’d also like to thank the person who will undoubtedly give me a lucrative movie deal for this story. Please make sure the following are involved with the movie for the wackiest cinematic smoothie in history:

(in no particular order)

  • Tom Cruise
  • Tom Hanks
  • Tom Hardy
  • Tom Hiddleston
  • Tommy Lee Jones
  • Tom Cruise (again)
  • Bubbles, the actual character, from Trailer Park Boys
  • An egregious number of attractive actresses
  • Matthew McConaughey (the apex of his career must continue!)
  • Tom Cruise (not running)
  • Tom Cruise (jogging)
  • Tom Cruise (sprinting)
  • Tom Cruise (running so fast he flies off the planet)
  • A rescue mission to save Tom Cruise
  • Random blood splurts directed specifically by Quentin Tarantino
  • Just passing time with the camera courtesy of Nicolas Winding Refn and David Lynch
  • Some Koreans (I’m thinking Choi Min-sik and Jang Hyuk)
  • A continuous shot of Woody Allen walking the streets of New York while he does nothing but stammer for fiteen minutes, directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Um, make sure you get the budget for that.

Thank you so much.

Hold Your Breath and You’ll Hear the Devil (Part 3)

For a friend who has been waiting a few years for this. If you missed Part 1 or Part 2, click away!

She is 26. I am 28.

We listen to the doctor, but not really. It’s too much. Too. Fast. Her hand is squeezing mine so hard the tips of our fingers are violently purple. But then, she relaxes. She turns to me and silently says, “I will beat this.”

Her green eyes are narrowed – not in fear, but in reckless confidence. She is gorgeous, stunningly so.

She is 25. I am 27.

I find her sitting on the bathroom tiles with her back pressed against the light blue wallpaper. I drop to my knees and lift her head as silky strands of brown hair cascade over her shoulders and partially obscure her face.

I brush them aside and notice a thin, quivering line of dried blood at the corner of her mouth.

She is 22. I am 24.

We sit across from each other and I watch her eat, laugh, and talk. Her petite nose twitches in rhythm with her mouth. It’s hypnotizing. Before I know what’s happening, I lean over and kiss her, only I mess the timing up and her mouth is partially open. I wince and she blushes.

Then she leans in with closed eyes and a tantalizing smile. And this time it’s just right.

After returning home from college with a journalism degree, I decided a long vacation was in order. I recruited some of my friends to join me and we ultimately decided on Las Vegas; it was June so we expected good weather and bad girls.

We departed from O’Hare International Airport (in Chicago, for you knuckleheads) and the highlight of my flight was a girl who ended up sitting next to me. Although, if I’m being completely honest, I never said a word to her the whole time. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re sitting next to somebody who can make you care less about all the girls in the world, even the ones in Sin City.

As the saying goes, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but I wanted this girl to be with me until the end of time itself.

Even as I was being a huge chicken, I think she noticed me staring at her like a creep every five or ten minutes. She could see me in her peripheral vision – just an awkward dude peering at her a little too intensely in short bursts. Indeed, when the plane landed in McCarran International, she looked right at me and said, “So?”

Oh crap. I looked at her forehead, deliberately avoiding her eyes, and innocently asked, “Huh?”

To my immense relief, she smiled and said, “So are you going to ask me out?”

Guys, forget about asking her out – I almost passed out. I smiled back, desperately pleading with God to make sure there was nothing stuck between my teeth. I eagerly said, “Why, I think I will!”


We exchanged names, contact information, and were about to go our separate ways when I said, “Why don’t we do something now?”

She frowned – which made my heart skip a series of beats no big deal – and said, “I should probably look a little better than this for a date.”

I shook my head and this time I looked right into her sublime eyes and said, “No. You look absolutely amazing. And besides, it would just be pretty casual. Or something. Maybe we could grab a bite to eat?”

“Aw, that’s really adorable. Okay, if you really think I look fine, we can totally get something to eat.”

Meanwhile, my buddies were snickering in the back like a bunch of goons. I turned to them and introduced her with a dramatic bow. She blushed as I said, “You guys go do your thing. My plans have changed.”

Then they weren’t so silly. After all, we had been planning for this to be the most exciting week of our lives; we were even making bets to see who would end up committing the most felonies in seven days. This was a pretty lame thing for me to do, I admit, but I wanted to spend every second with her. What could I say?

She could tell they weren’t too happy. I glared at them and said, “Why don’t we all go out to eat? Should be fun, right?”

And just like that, everybody was happy again.

So we eventually found our way to a restaurant. And that’s where I kissed her for the first time.

I messed up a little on the first kiss, which of course made my friends howl with amusement. She took it all in stride though and our second kiss was relatively uneventful, apart from all the other diners looking at our table with the type of facial expression that says, “I’m here, in the same general area as those people, but in no way am I related to them except through the most tenuous connection of being human.”

 Allen Iverson bounced violently off the dribble and launched a fadeaway.


Game over.

“Are you sure this is your first time playing a video game?”

I couldn’t believe it. She had beaten me. I mean it was just barely, but still! She shrugged and said, “Yeah, I mean it’s pretty easy.”

That shrug… I asked, “Did you just do the Jordan Shrug on me?”

She laughed and shrugged again.

It had been a few years since we’d been together. She moved in with me and immediately found the tree in the front lawn to be quite the delight. Now, instead of my brother, it was her that sat with me on the porch.

Sometimes we would sit out there and talk about anything and everything. I remember one conversation we had that revolved entirely around the concept of Lego bricks for an adult audience.

I don’t remember exactly what was said, but we basically concluded that movies like American Psycho and Saving Private Ryan should definitely get their own Lego sets. I mean, can you imagine a massive Lego version of D-Day? People might actually care about history if that happened.

Other days we wouldn’t say much. We would just hold hands and drink sweet tea, the Southern kind where there’s so much sugar you think your teeth will directly contact the dentist and make an appointment.

On one of those quiet days, I proposed to her. I wasn’t even nervous – I knew she would accept. And she did!

She was pretty emotional, obviously, and ran off to tell everyone in the world the good news.

After a few months of planning like maniacs, we finally had our glorious wedding.

It was pretty small, although at that point in time, my writing career had taken off. She had her share of friends and family, as her work as a porn star was quite popular among a fairly young demographic.

Wait… my wife was a porn star!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Haha, I’m just busting your balls. Calm down.

If you think this Barrett guy is an asshole, please raise your hand.

Hey now. Don’t make me ruin the story.

Well isn’t it ruined already? I mean, we all know my wife dies. How could you do that to me!?

I don’t know. It’s dramatic. It’s not like she was a real person. This is all fiction, remember?

So you’re saying I’m fake? I’m nothing to you?

Yep. Now back to the story we go.

No… must resist…

Anyway… she was really involved in nanotechnology. Yep, she was smart and beautiful. Oh man, I miss her so much.

Our wedding was pretty great, which seems to be a fairly common theme. Weddings are usually dreams come true, or complete nightmares. I can only thank the weather gods for making the night sky look absolutely sensational.

But nobody wants to hear about weddings – they’re all the same, really.

My wife’s work involved a fair amount of secrecy, which was the only tough part of our relationship. As a writer – and a naturally curious person – it almost literally made my nose bleed to have to refrain from peppering her with work-related questions. All I knew was that it didn’t involve military and it didn’t involve anything sketchy.

According to her, it was simply a matter of staying ahead of other nanotechnology companies. And you know what? She was telling the truth.

When she died, the company revealed everything to me. All they requested was that I sign some waivers saying I would never reveal the information I learned. Now that I’m dead, I guess it’s okay.

Basically, she was involved in a microscopic version of Transformers, in that the company was involved in the creation of nanobots that could interact with each other to create larger formations with more capabilities. I don’t even know if that’s the right analogy. But look: for example, trillions of nanobots could theoretically work together in a disaster (like a hurricane) to rescue people and do other important tasks.

It was amazing work. That meant swarming nanobots could temporarily form into the shape of a raft, transport people, then turn into a shelter and keep them out of danger. The most optimistic researchers believed they could make edible nanobots, increasing digestive efficiency and performing medical tests at the same time.

The work involved risk, however, and it mainly had to do with the process of working with many tiny little particles and new energy. Honestly, I couldn’t understand everything the company gave me, but basically she got some type of rare disease that messed up her lymphatic and cardiovascular system.

The learning process began when I found her on the bathroom floor. She wasn’t really unconscious; I would say she was just sleeping deeply from exhaustion. Either way, it was truly disconcerting and that sensation was only exponentially heightened when I saw the blood on her face.

She woke up before I could call an ambulance. In fact, she got up and waved me off like it was nothing. Surprise, I got pretty pissed. I said, “You might want to tell me about that blood.”

I guess she didn’t know it was there, because she got all flushed and stammered, “Blood?”

“Yeah, it’s that red stuff that’s really important for that ‘living’ thing. And you’ve got some on your face.”

My sarcasm was not appreciated, as she said, “Don’t be a jerk.”

Duly noted.

Then she smiled and said, “I’m sick. But I’ll be okay.”

Yeah, that didn’t convince me. In fact, I said, “Yeah, that doesn’t convince me.”

After almost two hours of relentless begging, she finally agreed to see a doctor. And then almost a year passed. I’m still not sure what happened, but it basically boiled down to her being at work all the time. I never had a chance to get her to the hospital earlier, and I was certainly not going to pursue her like Liam Neeson for that. I respected her too much.

Maybe that was my mistake.

So we finally went to the doctor. Her tests took forever to come back – I ordered every test possible.

And, as you already know, she had some kind of lymphatic/cardiovascular disease. Her outcome was not good: approximately 6 months.

Suddenly, our relationship had a time limit.

She was confident she would beat it, which made me feel confident too. Not that I wasn’t confident or anything. I mean, she was so perfect I thought for sure she would eventually stop traffic one day like Mitch McDeere’s wife in The Firm.

But, since this was real life, that never really happened. Although I did catch guys giving her “The Look” – you know, the one where you see their facial expression and just know filthy things are going on in their heads.

The fight began, or continued, and she made it to about 5 months. Then she went into the hospital full-time. She died just before hitting the doctor’s prediction: 5 months, 25 days.

In the end, I couldn’t help but think of Scrubs. There’s this scene in one of the later seasons where Dr. Cox is sick of hearing JD worry whether he’ll be a good dad or not. JD keeps blabbering about certain statistics and Dr. Cox finally stops him short and basically says, “Fuck statistics. They mean nothing to the individual. You’re either going to be a good parent, or you’re not.”

Then he implies JD might be a good dad, which of course causes JD to almost ejaculate from pleasure.


But that’s what I thought when she died. In the end, she was going to make it, or she wasn’t. And she didn’t make it.

Right before she died, she told me, “See you on the other side.”

Then I kissed her one last time, ending a sequence of thousands of kisses that all started in a Las Vegas restaurant. At her funeral, I recited a little poem, even though I always believed poems sucked. She didn’t like them either, but I knew she would be laughing wherever she was seeing the reading from.

In fact, I tried to make it as pretentious as possible, just for her:

Thy dagger hast not an edge,

Nor doth a point,

For when it t’was a’fixed into mine chest,

I found no pain – forsooth!

But joyous aggravation in the bright shining light of thy love,

Beseech the treachery transfixed unto mine eyes,

Could it be, dear Holy Trinity, that thy divinity has been bested,

Mere mortals dare to arrogance upon thee collective formulations,


She probably ruptured a spleen from laughing so hard. The people at the funeral were less sure how to react – until my step-dad burst out laughing. While he was crying. Always a strange sight to see.

You know, now that I think about it, I’m curious where she is right now. If I’m in Hell, surely she’s in Heaven.

I look up from the laptop. Is she in Hell too?

I look down.

TED_PHOENIX: There is no Heaven. There is only Hell. Nobody is perfect enough to deserve a Heaven. Everybody has done something wrong.

ME: Well that hardly seems fair to certain groups of people. Are you saying if I stole candy as a child and did nothing wrong for the rest of my life, I would still come here?

TED_PHOENIX: Well, yeah. You would. And the concept of wrong is subjective anyway. So everybody just comes here.

ME: Does that mean I can see her?

TED_PHOENIX: Of course not, you moron.

ME: Fuck you, Ted. Who the fuck do you think you are? I’ve just about had it with this shit.

TED_PHOENIX: Tread lightly.

I throw the laptop at the wall but it disappears just before making contact. I glare at the spot it was supposed to hit, waiting for something, anything.

There is only silence.

Part 4 is here!

Hold Your Breath and You’ll Hear the Devil (Part 2)

For a friend who has been waiting a few years for this. If you missed Part 1, click the link!

I’m not sure how long it’s been since my induction into Hell. There’s no clock in my room and I can’t focus long enough to accurately keep the time. I don’t know if it’s day or night – or if those concepts are relevant anymore in this predicament I find myself in. My thoughts have been all over the place, just like my emotions.

I like to think I’ve evened out a little bit, but my mind is a little fragile right now. People get flustered when their plans don’t work out, or when their daily routine gets interrupted in some way. I not only got shot a billion times by my wife and died (obviously), but I just as obviously ended up in Hell.

People who are still alive are so stupid. They think Hell is a place where fires and demons roar in the face of the dead and perform horrible acts of sodomy and torture to punish those who sinned in life. In reality, this is what Hell is: an empty room.

Economically speaking, it makes a lot of sense. While I have no idea who runs Hell, or even if there’s any type of religious implication, putting people into rooms and making them deal with emptiness is probably more efficient than making a mess. I mean, can you imagine the bodily fluids in a more traditional type of Hell?

Besides, isolation can make the strongest person crazy. Nobody has the ability to withstand this type of nothingness. The thing is, people who claim they’re okay by themselves are sort of lying. Even if they get by without talking with other people, they have things to do. Maybe they like reading, or writing, or killing ants with a magnifying glass. Whatever they do, it’s something.

Here? There’s nothing to do. I suppose you could punch the walls and do some jumping jacks. You could sing to yourself, or talk if you suck at singing. Of course, it doesn’t matter if you suck.

If a person sings alone in the middle of nothing, does he make a sound?

By my completely unreliable calculations, it’s been at least a month since I’ve been in here. The voice that reminded me of Benedict Cumberbatch hasn’t returned and all efforts to remain sane are dubious. My creativity has been forced to work hard, although retaining any sort of result is impossible.

I would write, because I could do all sorts of stupid things like make fake NBA rosters or even jot down some shitty poems. Alas, there is nothing in this room. I’ve even tried to rip my shirt and sweatpants and do something – anything – with them, but they’re made of some ridiculously resilient fabric.

This Hell is difficult to understand. I’m hungry and thirsty (tired too), but not overwhelmingly so. I haven’t washed in a month, but I’m still clean as a whistle (a saying which makes no sense to me, actually). I have not lost weight, nor have I gained any. This is a very subtle form of psychological torture, it seems.

Something about the mind and body. Whatever. I’m not sure how I haven’t gone crazy yet, although I’m sure it’s thanks to the very nice and awesome writer who is writing this.

Yeah, it’s me again! Welcome to Part 2. Yay. Our mutual friend here is so bored; I think we should spice things up a little bit.

I like the sound of that! Right on cue, the voice returned. It was such an emotional moment, I slumped over and sobbed. Then I became defiant, because I was showing such weakness. The voice said, “I am impressed with your progress thus far. Many have broken before reaching this milestone. As a reward for your mental fortitude, take this. Enjoy it while it lasts.”

Right before my eyes, a laptop materialized and softly landed in my open hands. With trembling fingers, I turned the power on.

As it booted up, I called upon the writer to pass the time while the laptop finished doing its thing.

Yeah, what do you want?

I was intrigued as to what was going to happen. Did Hell have internet?

I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, now would I?

Sure enough, the laptop inexplicably skipped forward and went right to some kind of instant messaging application. I stared at the blinking cursor and slowly started to type.

ME: Hello?

The anticipation was killing me (ha) and thankfully a reply came pretty quickly.


Hmm… intriguing. Who was this?

ME: Who are you?

TED_PHOENIX: I am from HR. My job is to jog your memory about some poignant things the reader will want to read about.

ME: What kind of memories?

TED_PHOENIX: Really, it doesn’t matter.

ME: Instead of going through my memories, can’t we replicate a movie or something? What about Underworld, only it’s me and Kate Beckinsale doing all sorts of stuff?

TED_PHOENIX: Please hold.

I waited. Then something struck me right between the eyes so hard, I was sure my head was permanently deformed. Like in a cartoon. As I reeled in agony, the laptop chirped and I looked at it through a salty waterfall.

TED_PHOENIX: Unfortunately, my supervisor has rejected your request. Now, after your demise from the living world, we took a look at your life. We’ve isolated a handful of memories we think the reader will particularly enjoy. Especially one reader we have in mind.

ME: Just one reader? I thought this was in some kind of prestigious book or magazine or something. Where is this getting published again?

Uh, just my personal website.

ME: But you get some good traffic, right? I mean, people read your stuff?

Oh, ya. Ya! Definitely!

TED_PHOENIX: In any case, we thought going in chronological order would be appropriate. Do you remember that tree, on your front lawn…

When I was just a kid, we used to wrap ourselves in soft blankets and snuggle into sturdy chairs on the front porch during the cooler summer nights. Sometimes, while we gazed out at the sweeping front lawn, he would point to the majestic tree in the middle of it all and whisper, “Look at that tree. It has withstood the trials and tribulations of time. Fire, wind, man – nothing can stop it. It was here in the beginning, and it will be here in the end.”

During the day, I would climb to the top of the tree and proudly soak in the surrounding neighborhood. I could see for miles, it seemed, all the way into other states and other worlds. From time to time I would lean back against a sturdy branch and relax, tracing the fluffy clouds with my fingers as I squinted against the bright sunlight.

As I grew older, the tree became a sponge for my pain during times of great sadness. My brother, the one who would whisper cryptic messages to me on the porch, died just after graduating from high school. It was a Friday night and he was off to a friend’s house to presumably go through yet another confounding The Lord of the Rings movie marathon.

On the way, he stopped at a local convenience store, inadvertently interrupting a robbery. He was shot several times.

Before he left, he told me what he was going to get at the store.

A bag of chips.

A few boxes of candy.

The police came to our home. I listened to what they said and ran to the tree. I stared at the bark, taking time to examine the intricate ridges that weaved up into the sky. Then I started punching the tree. I punched it until my hands were raw and bloody and swollen. The tree, of course, didn’t budge. I collapsed at the base and stared back at the house.

Eventually, we all moved on. It was hard, but we did it. I graduated from high school, went to college, got my degree, and came back home to my old neighborhood and my ageless tree. My parents were living in a different city by then, but had kept the house. They said, “Consider this your graduation present.”

Then they moved to Miami where they’ve been having the most relaxing time of their lives.

I don’t live in that house anymore. I mean, I live in Hell now, but I wasn’t living in that house before I died. The last time I saw that tree was right after my first wife passed away. Yeah, can you believe it? You can imagine why I wanted to get away from that place. There was a lot of love there, but a lot of pain too.

You know, the highlight of my life was when I saw her for the first time. I know it sounds cheesy, but it was such an unexpected moment it totally caught me by surprise… which I admit also sounds cheesy.

Whatever. You want to hear what happened or not?

Part 3 is here!