Wren recounts their first case. Conway watches some tapes and has a decision to make. Something is coming. Are you looking carefully at the ripples?
(CWs: mentions of death and sex, strong language)
Wren recounts their first case. Conway watches some tapes and has a decision to make. Something is coming. Are you looking carefully at the ripples?
(CWs: mentions of death and sex, strong language)
WREN, driving: The duty of every claims adjuster is to look at the facts. To sort through the clues and piece together a narrative. What really happened here, who’s responsible. My methods vary quite drastically from the typical adjuster, however. I can’t simply read police reports or look for oily rags. I have to taste the air like a serpent, listen to the leaves forwards and backwards, pan the river for omens and portents. I’m as much oracle as investigator. Take my first case, for example.
WREN, narration: I was assigned to a suspected break-in at a local post office. Someone had gotten inside the warehouse where they stored lost mail before sending it off. Whoever got in broke numerous packages and scattered mail to the floor and then left. Or so we thought at first.
Winter was creeping in at the edges after a humid choking summer. Before this assignment, I’d only ever covered the paperwork side of things: checking ledgers and filling in dates. The fallen leaves had begun mouldering dark and damp under occasional dustings of fine snow. The postmaster met me in the slushy parking lot. We exchanged the brief introductions and hollow pleasantries required by matters of business and then he led me to the room in question.
The scene in the warehouse was more disturbing than the initial call had let on. Packages and boxes were smashed, their contents scattered across the floor, but so was an industrial shelf, solid iron rent in two. Most of the fluorescent lights overhead were busted. There was damage to the building itself, too, long gashes on the walls that left deep scars. Knife? No, too small. Sword? Possible, correct length and approximate width, but it would require some horrific strength to do this kind of damage. That left the postmaster with one other logical culprit: machinery, like the forklift in this warehouse. One look at the forklift disproved that hypothesis from several angles. Marks too high on the wall, not enough hydraulic pressure, no damage on the machine outside of the usual wear. So then what could it be? I later understood that this puzzle was exactly why I had been called instead of my superiors.
What’s that Doyle quote? When you’ve eliminated all which is possible, then whatever remains must be the truth. Something like that. Which left me with the impossible. To my eyes these long, parallel incisions looked like claw marks. But what kind of animal would be capable of such damage? After scouring the rest of the warehouse for clues, it seemed like my hunch would be proven correct: I found a small tuft of strange brown hair stuck to a ripped shelf. It was unusually shiny, nearly translucent, and very thin. I had it sent off to the lab for analysis. At the moment I had a bigger mystery on my hands, though: there were no signs of forced entry, and apparently no clear route of egress. A creature of this size and strength certainly wouldn’t have used the front door. Given that planar shifting and astral projection weren’t in my investigative repertoire yet, that left me two options: someone working at the post office was responsible (unlikely, given the previous clues), or whatever monstrous thing did this was still in the warehouse.
I crept through piles of crinkling paper and torn packages, my flashlight illuminating any areas that the remaining lights couldn’t reach. I shouldered my way through collapsing towers of cardboard, searching every corner of the room for man or beast. I found nothing further, and so the plot thickened.
I had the remaining boxes and papers transferred to the closest storage unit for further study, and issued caution to those loading the mail, just in case.
I’ve always felt a little...odd. Like I’m tuned to a different station than most. I notice things others miss, make connections in my head that others find incoherent. I embraced this as a child, hid it as an adolescent as we are forced to hide so many things, and buried it as I entered the workforce. Not that I wanted to, mind you, it was out of necessity. Survival. Schools, jobs, governments, they don’t like difference, or what they might term deviance. It’s all a very binary way of thinking, of living. It’s stifling. Yet at the end of my first job in the field, I realized that it wasn’t a tomb I’d buried this part of myself in, it was a reliquary. I wasn’t profane, I was holy, to be displayed and admired. A faberge egg. I saw that our time here is so short, our understanding so limited, that to waste it wearing a mask for others is folly. Farce. And so that farce came to an end, the egg hatched, if I may continue to mix my metaphors, and the little wren emerged as the case continued.
The next day, I examined and catalogued the contents from the warehouse in my new storage unit slash office. Old books, children’s fad toys, clothing, appliances, even a tire. I was cramped among stacks of musty paper and dead objects, hunching over a secondhand desk in a dark cell. Hours of work yet none of these items yielded any meaningful results. It was all just...junk. I sighed and rubbed the drowsiness from my eyes. I was getting nowhere with the traditional methods in which I’d been trained. It was time for something completely different.
I returned to the post office after everyone had left for the evening and poured myself a stale cup of coffee in the break room. Each sip was cold and bitter, but the ritual of it comforted me. I allowed my mind to wander away from my work. I resisted the urge to focus on anything. Oh what virtues boredom brings, this enemy of productivity--if the managers of capital are to be believed. Your mind finds ways to entertain itself when there’s nothing external to do so. I subconsciously tapped into the part of myself I worried I’d lost. I tuned into that strange station again.
My thoughts floated beyond the break room, beyond the burnt taste and sore back. I remembered the first time I tried coffee as a child. I hated it, but I was always looking for ways to prove my maturity. So I lied. That lie led to countless mornings of more coffee and trying not to grimace. I lied about my grades once or twice, too. I lied when I said I wouldn’t cry about the cat. I can almost still feel her fur between my fingers. She was a puny little thing, easily startled. Always scared by any of my toys that moved or made noise. She was especially terrified of…no, it couldn’t be.
A phone somewhere in the office was ringing. I snuck through the dim nightblue hallways lit only by intermittent slits of moonglow through blinds. Who could say why I picked up the phone in a closed office that wasn’t even mine. Call it professional diligence, cosmic curiosity, or deep fear. The call wasn’t intended for me but it was for me.
It didn’t take long for the lab to identify the clump of fur I’d found among the wreckage. No, it didn’t come from an animal. 100% acrylic fiber, dyed light brown. Synthetic.
She was especially terrified of…no, it couldn’t be.
I thanked the lab assistant profusely and hung up. I don’t think I said goodbye. I sloshed through the lot outside and sped back toward the storage unit. The flashlight on my keyring jingled in the ignition with each bump in the road. I was exhilarated and horrified in equal measure. The silly idea that had been planting roots somewhere in my subconscious was now blooming. The eggshell was cracking.
I parked, ran for the unit, and turned a sharp corner. My shock at the sight of what had happened to the storage space threw me off balance, and my feet slid through the icy muck. I fell and landed seated in the melting slurry. I was soaking and sore but didn’t notice. My attention was fully on the storage unit. The metal door was bulging outward in the center, as if struck by something with significant mass from the other side. Yet the lock was still firmly attached to the door.
No signs of forced entry, no clear route of egress.
As I approached the door I heard some noise within. A melodic sound, like a soft voice singing a wordless song. I stood for a moment, enthralled by the eerie beauty of it. In that instant, I forgot about the smashed iron shelf, the now convex door. I felt compelled to open the door and witness whatever was making this ethereal music. I removed the lock and lifted the door, but its warped shape prevented it from rising above my knees. I crouched and slid quietly under the door. What scant light followed me in stopped just beyond the door, barely illuminating my streams of panicked breath dancing in the air. At the back end, I could see a dim red light, floating just above my eyeline. About the size of a quarter, shaped almost like a fan or seashell with three ridges. The light moved toward me.
Then from the darkness emerged two glassy eyes, piercing blue shining in the silvery moonlight near the entrance. A yellow beak came into view next, then pointed ears, then the full round face covered in fur. It was almost cute. The face swayed back and forth gently. It didn’t blink, didn’t speak. But the wondrous music continued. I had the creeping sensation that I was a worm drawn out by the rain, watched by a hungry bird. It suddenly dawned on me how careless I’d been to let myself become vulnerable. I took one step away still facing the thing, two steps, my back then against the metal door. Its chilly presence was a small comfort. I slowly raised the flashlight on my keychain and clicked it on.
This was when the shell broke, the walls collapsed, the farce of reality ended.
100 % Acrylic. Synthetic.
The face recoiled from the light, winding backward on an elongated hairy neck. Down, down far from the face, was a horrible amalgam of hair and hardware intertwined. At its base were two huge paws, arrayed with vicious claws. It had no arms to speak of, just gears and wires surrounded by fur. It was a twisted vision of a toy I’d had as a child.
She was especially terrified of Furbies
It turned my way again with the serene face of god or satan and chirped its intoxicating song. Its neck stretched toward me, its warbly tune coming from somewhere deep within. I wondered how quickly I could duck back under the door. Not quick enough. And based on the damage this creature had done to the warehouse and this unit, there was no way I would win an altercation with it. So I did what I do best: I studied it, I looked for clues, I made connections.
This creature could have killed me at any moment, yet it hadn’t. It just kept singing and staring. What was it waiting for? What did it want from me? It looked like it was growing resentful of my presence.
I closed my mind and let my mind reach out beyond the ordinary, the possible. This was once a toy that mimicked life, mimicked communication. It’s a singer, but its song is lonely.
In the best way my shaking voice could, I tried to imitate its song. The creature tilted its head as it continued its intense stare. I got bold, and tried to harmonize with it. The beast’s ears twitched and its neck straightened up to the ceiling. It howled its song louder and its body shook. Then the song ceased, and it looked down at me with an expectant gaze.
So it’s a singer. A performer. What does any performer want after a performance?
I clapped my clammy hands together several times. Applause. The creature lowered its serpentine neck close to the floor, an otherworldly bow I suppose. Then its whole form retracted, coiling and shrinking almost instantly. In the middle of the ruined office, surrounded by crushed boxes and shards of what used to be my table, lay a small toy, popular once but now forgotten, its eyes closed and body torn. A furry little thing simply looking for acknowledgement, for someone to affirm that it exists, and that it’s beautiful in the way that all things we observe are beautiful. Perhaps that’s what I was looking for, too.
It still sits in my office, next to my computer.
These connections, these seemingly random leaps through time and reason can be seen if you know how to look for them. Five hundred million years ago, magma erupted from the ground in an igneous incantation. Pieces of this lava cooled and hardened into rock. These rocks crumbled over time into smaller pieces, then those pieces formed new stones through intense pressure and yet more time. This new rock sat at the bottom of a lakebed carved by cyclopean glacial movements for millions of years until it was dug up by machines and laid near a lake to form a trail. You pick the rock up and skip it across the pond: you watch each time it jumps, but are you looking carefully at its layers, at the ripples in the water? A fish about to nab a mosquito hovering over the lake is driven off by the impact. The cloud of bugs part around the stone, flying off into the trees in disparate directions. They won’t be dinner today. Three days later your neighbor goes camping near the lake with his family. He gets a small bite on the arm from the lucky mosquito. He becomes gravely ill, and doesn’t live through the week.
Are you looking carefully at the ripples?
Probably not. But if you are, maybe you’re suited for a job like mine.
WREN, in the car: This case gives me that same feeling. Like a moth, flying blind to a flame. But there was also a loneliness, a need to reach out for something. I sat with those postcards for some time. I compared handwriting, looked through old phonebooks and microfiche, made a lot of phone calls. Not much useful information. Aisling linguistically: a dream, a vision, an apparition. Aisling, historically: a genre of poetry. Aisling, sociologically: a popular given name. Nothing about a city. But the gaps in what I found have started to form a negative image: the empty space between what’s known. The subtle gravitational tug from a black hole affecting nearby stars. If I follow the contours of the clues and inch between the facts, maybe--maybe--I can find what I’m looking for.
Going through what Conway left behind, some significant iconography stuck out: a cave, a lighthouse, the end of the world.
And Lucy. Why did she write to me? How did she know about the letter? If Lucy is important in finding out what happened, I’ll have to find her. All that I know about Lucy and Conway converges on a single point in their past, a point that no one is willing--or possibly able--to tell me about. The last time the two were together. When she lost…
I located the woods he mentioned. It was at least a start. So I’m heading there now. I don’t know why Conway used that awful cassette recorded for his memos instead of his phone. It’s so much less hassle.
Now I may not know exactly where I’m going, but I know where I’m going. It’s starting to come together.
Aisling. The Lighthouse. Into the dark. Into the cave.
*sounds of a tape being inserted into vcr*
NARRATOR on tape, poorly dubbed: “...field state park, the home of what some superstitious locals have dubbed the Glancing Cave. No, you won’t find it on any map or billboard. According to some of the sources we spoke to for this documentary, this is because--believe it or not--the cave actually moves. You can only see it when you aren’t looking directly at it. It’s said that those who manage to find and enter the cave come out changed in some way. One resident of the nearby town told us about his experience with the cave.
LOCAL, live footage: “Wife and I, well, ex-wife, we were in a rough patch. Went out hiking that day, you know, just for something to do together, something nice, you know. Came up on this cave neither of us’d seen before. She wanted to go in but I’m no dummy, I wanted no part of it. That was just like her, going on ahead, you know. Part of the reason we were in a rough patch, see, you know. Well anyway she teased me and went in. Got all quiet for a second in the woods. She come back out with this calm look. Says she’s ready for divorce. Where the hell did that come from, divorce? But she meant it. Haven’t seen her in about 8 years or so since she moved out west. Well good riddance, I say. Shoulda stayed out of business you don’t know nothing...”
NARRATOR, dubbed: So are the rumors of this wandering cave true? Will we actually come out any different if we go in? That’s what we set out to investigate.
NARRATOR, live footage: “Okay, take this. Hold on. Jesus it’s heavy.
*sounds of walking down a trail*
“Wait, did you hear that? Must have been a dog or something.”
“Hey, did you ever call Rebecca back? I know you’re like ...ehhh… on the whole thing, but still. You should.”
“--shit there’s something. Is this one on the trail map? Fuck, of course it is. This whole thing’s bogus. Bunch of hicks making up ghost stories.”
*cut, no walking*
“Should have brought marshmallows. God this bug spray does nothing. Sometimes I wonder what I’d be doing if I finished college...probably not getting eaten by bugs…
Fire’s totally weird, huh? Like what is it? It’s not a liquid or gas right? *laughing* Hey, shut up, I technically passed.
I guess it’s not really a thing at all is it. It’s an act. It’s a by-product. A show. Like love, or death. A show put on by the wood and the air as they burn and fuck and burn until there’s nothing left...Do you ever think about how like tv shows are just like bouncing around us in the air all the time and then we just like...push a button and they appear? That just weirds me out. I’m surrounded by reruns.
Alright. Oh shit, this is definitely it. You go inside first and I’ll record it. Um, for posterity.”
“--esus christ, Evan, you’re...Jesus what the fuck. Are you fucking with me? Where’s...no fucking way. You set this up. You’re trying to scare me. I’m going in.
*walking from grass onto stone, cicadas humming, tape fades and something else begins*
*children laughing and talking*
ADVERTISEMENT ON TAPE: Doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, or if you’re a boy, or a girl. It all comes down to one thing: *indistinguishable*
*lawn mower, children laughing*
PEOPLE ON TAPE: Yes, here. It says happy birthday.
*Sounds of a child’s birthday party*
PEOPLE ON TAPE: Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear--
*tape is ejected*
CONWAY: I’d seen enough of the tapes. I got the picture. I knew my own past, or so I figured. I opened the backdoor of the place that looked just like a blockbuster and there I saw a beach.
Offwhite sand, lush trees in the distance, azure water quietly flirting with the shore. There was a stone archway to my right, like the entrance of a castle was excised and stuck here in the sand. I could see the gentle waves through its opening. And on my left, there it was, stark white against the clear blue sky, suspended in the air upside down by god knows what. The inverted lighthouse.
*Wren gets out of the car, takes a few steps, cicadas buzz*
WREN: When I got to the woods where this cave could be, I pulled off the gravel road and parked in the grass. I was surrounded by dense forest on both sides, only a thin line of fading blue overhead. The little stones under my feet crunched as I stepped out of the car and gazed dumbstruck at the sky. Rather, at something in the sky. Couldn’t be a plane, far far too big, movement vertical. Something falling. From where I wouldn’t dare guess. I dug around in the trunk for the old monocular I hadn’t seen in a year or so. I looked through the scuffed lens. It was enormous, seemingly composed of stone, fingers poised to grasp something. Falling to earth from somewhere I chose not to think about was a left hand.
Out of fiction credits:
Hey everyone, it’s your host here. Just want to give the usual shoutout to all the lovely patrons that help make this show possible. So thank you to carriers Flo and Jessica, and to receiving clerks Gadz, Paul, Spicy Nigel, Patricia, Elena, and Jennifer, and to everyone else sharing and supporting the show.
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