The sound of jet engines blared in the tiny rooms. Victor plugged his ears and waited for the howling to stop. He really hated to be the one to do this. But there was really no one else.
Those Servers needed rebooting, and that’s all there was to it.
He pulled his fingers from his ears. The worst was over. Soon the Servers would drone into the back as just white noise. Now the tune of John Denver’s Country Roads – that was a sound he could never ignore.
He pulled his phone from the belt clip. It was illuminated by Mary’s photo. She wore an exasperated smile and black strands of hair hung in her face. It was the first photo he snapped on the phone; she had just woken up from a nap.
Victor sucked his lower lip, his thumb hovering over the big red Decline button. He walked over to the window behind his desk. The phone reported no bars, and the call disconnected. He clipped the phone back to his belt and his hand went instinctively to the white band around his finger. He twisted the skin between his thumb and forefinger — his personal worry stone.
He rested his forehead on the windowpane. It was damp with cool condensation from the mist hanging in the air. He almost wished he could stay here forever. Opening his eyes, he could almost make out the distant lines of Sweetbrook Hospital, a wraith in the distance. The blinking blue light of the heliport told him where he was.
This was his lighthouse. If he ventured too close, he’d wreck himself on the rocks. Mary would be getting off work right now. If she pulled the night shift. No. He would stay over here. His office was on the upper floor of what used to be a Haelig Meyer department store, its floor cluttered with deceased computers. He’d stay over here in MIS. That’s where they preferred him anyway.
“My friend,” said a voice from behind accompanied by a hairy brown hand landing on his shoulder. “I got you tickets for speed dating at Sharkie’s. They have karaoke!”
“I’ll have to pass… my heart will always belong to Mary.”
“That is the most melodramatic thing I have ever heard,” Ramir scolded. It always amazed Victor — the only place he’s ever actually seen the cliché Indian systems admin was here in the Falls, of all places. “And yet they make fun of arranged marriages. Look, they work. The secret is that the husband and wife lead separate lives…”
Victor chuckled. “Hey, want to take a ride today?”
“And if the hospital needs us?”
He patted the pager on his hip. “They know where to find us.”
It always surprised people to find out that there even was an IT industry in Ichor Falls. Half of the town was still on AOL, assuming they had any Internet at all. Even facilities the size of Sweetbrook Hospital were wired. There were no actual paper trails with medical records, thanks to Bill Clinton and HIPAA. Some nurse left a senator’s STD screeen out in the break room one too many times.
The real issue here is that prior to 1998, Sweetbrook had no records.
Victor pulled his truck into the dirt lot in front of Amaranth Mental Hospital. Ramir whistled when he dropped out of the passenger side. Victor couldn’t blame him — even at high noon it was creepy as hell. He decided the mist might actually help the old folks in the New Haven Rest Home right across the hospital. Wouldn’t have to look at the thing.
Darkness descended on Avery like waves. She watched it dance and shift on the walls of her bedroom, growing darker and darker the longer she watched it. The shapes undulated and swam never keeping a form for longer than a second. Sometimes she could recognize the shape. A person. A bat. Other.
People recognize patterns. That is what the eyes do. That is what makes art something than just a series of lines and colors. A TV show more than a splatter of dots. We find patterns everywhere. A fluffy bunny floating down a lazy path in the sky. A face in wooden paneling. Nothing new. Nothing strange. Just something the brain does to make sense of the world and to comfort itself.
But what was ever comforting and sense-making about the shapes on the wall?
Avery rolled over and pressed against her boyfriend’s naked back. She hated the feel of it. She had heard before that we choose our mates by scent. His smell nauseated her. She wondered if she should wake him up before her mom got home. She wondered if she even cared anymore.
She closed her eyes, and the shapes kept dancing on the backs of her eyelids.
Her mother didn’t care about Mike staying over. Or didn’t notice. Or just never came home. It wouldn’t be the first time.
They walked hand in hand through Lower Alethia not making eye contact, because that seemed like the thing to do. The eyes are the window of the soul. Also the first thing to decay. It had occurred to Avery that Alethia would have been the town’s eyes.
They climbed a tree in front of the parking garage and skipped pebbles over the hoods of oncoming cars. No school today to fill the void. So today’s agenda was petty vandalism and pot.
Mike launched a stone. It crunched into the passenger side window of a passing Lincoln. A corner of the glass spider webbed into tiny squares. The car halt to a halt with a piercing screech.
There are no wolves in the Stillwood.
The gray wolves of Virginia were made extinct over a hundred years ago. According to the regular surveys by the National Forestry service, no sign of any such animal has been found since 1900. The occasional reports of large predators, just after dusk or late at night, usually by the occasional hiker or party of campers in the Stillwood (residents of Lower Alethia, nearest the woods like myself, know better than to try), receive the same tired reply from Animal Control.
“There are no wolves in the Stillwood.”
When a pet gets lost in the dark of the Stillwood and never returns… or worse is found, mauled, the blame falls on the usual suspects: foxes, wild dogs or teenagers with too much time and too little compassion. A few years back, when the Bradleys, a little family brand new to the Falls, had their boy David go missing from their own backyard, never finding more than scraps of his jacket and a little blood at the edge of the forest, the official response was adamant: this was a kidnapping, not an animal attack. Old-timers like me just shook our heads and muttered to ourselves:
“There are no wolves in the Stillwood.”
So, if you want to sleep at night this close to the forest, keep your doors locked tight and your shutters closed fast, if just to buy some peace of mind, to stop you from catching a glimpse of the Stillwood late at night. And should you somehow find yourself walking near, or God forbid through, the woods some evening, head home as quick as you can. Try to ignore the sounds of the night wind, howling as it does… it will only make your imagination run wild, after all. And should you see what cannot be polychrome eyes, shining through the mists from the underbrush or somehow in the branches above, or even through your gauze of your windows should you be blessed enough to make it safely home, take what comfort you can in this thought.
There are no wolves in the Stillwood.
In 1806, settler Elijah Brown became lost for two days in what would later be named the Stillwood Forest, a deceptively-small wooded area southwest of Ichor Falls proper. When he returned to the town, Brown was gaunt, dehydrated and starving to the point of near death, and insisted that he was lost not for two days but nine. He also had carefully kept journal entries with the rise and set of the sun, and indeed he had made nine of them. Exhaustion and confusion clearly played a factor in augmenting Brown’s story — and of course, after a hard winter, there’s no record of how dehydrated and starved Brown may have been before getting lost.
Later expeditions into the Stillwood showed that the forest floor is incredibly thick with vegetation, with tall, rail-thin trees making most passage exceedingly difficult. Add to this three similarly-curving creeks and streams flowing off the Erytheia, the natural sound-dampening of the trees, and foliage sometimes so thick that it blocks the sky, and you have a recipe for losing one’s way quite easily.