The Book of Counted Sorrows
Little white lies make the world turn smoothly. You lie to your friends about their outfits. You lie to your boss about his hairpiece. You even lie to your spouse about why you sometimes get home so late... and then lie to yourself so you can sleep at night.
I am but flesh... and flesh is weak. I am a liar and I am a fool... and I am her chosen. Every action has a reaction, every cause an effect... every decision a consequence. Sitting here, locked in this tomb of secrets for the last time, I can only hope that whoever finds this place will never understand these actions I have taken... but still forgive me.
All I can do now is tell the truth... and the truth is that the road to Hell is far shorter than you believe...
New York City
7:53 pm EST
"I'm telling you, Omar, this could be the greatest discovery in archaeological history," Professor Hanley said as he dropped his hastily-packed duffel bag on the conveyor that ran it through the X-ray scanner. His excited voice could easily be heard above the throng of people who filled the airport concourse, a fact which his assistant Omar was starting to regret.
"I know, professor. You've only been spouting off about it constantly for the last two days," Omar replied, trying to keep his tone pleasant. It had been a long trip; almost a full day driving out of the mountains of Turkey, followed by hours of customs inspectors tearing apart every piece of gear they were taking back to the U.S., a seven-hour flight, and a similar customs experience upon landing in New York. The worst part was that for the entire journey Hanley had been babbling about how 'earth-shattering' the artifact would be, what it could represent to historians and theologians worldwide. It's enough to drive a lesser man mad, Omar thought as he picked the bags as they exited the X-ray scanner.
"This is finally it, what I've been searching for my entire career: proof that a civilization existed on Earth that predated all others by almost ten thousand years." Hanley mopped the sweat from his balding head and took his bag from Omar. "It's the brass ring, Omar. And we found it."
"Yes, professor. We found it," Omar said quietly, quickening his pace.
Hanley continued to babble, finally talking to himself as he tapped at his dataflat, scrolling through the lists of tests he intended to perform on the artifact. Omar led him through more and more deserted concrete corridors, eventually reaching a nearly empty parking structure where their vehicles had been parked almost two months earlier. Brooks was already at the van, securing the artifact's crate in the cargo area with several plastic straps. "Hey, boss, Omar. How was the flight?" Brooks had flown on a cargo aircraft that had brought the gear to ensure that no harm came to the artifact.
"Is it secure?" Hanley asked, ignoring the heavyset man's greeting as he pushed past him to check the straps.
Brooks opened his mouth to reply, but instead of words all that emerged was a startled gurgling noise as the point of a knife penetrated his voicebox and through his adam's apple before being pulled back, spraying Hanley with blood as he turned to see what was happening. Hanley staggered back against the open van door as Brooks flailed at the wound in his throat, the blood pouring over his hands and down his body as he fell to the concrete. Standing over the body was Omar, a wickedly pointed, blood-covered knife clutched in his left hand. He glanced down at the body, then turned his gaze to Hanley as his face broke into a huge, terrible grin. "Secure enough," he said, taking a step toward Hanley.
There was a flash of light, a thunderclap... and then Omar fell backward, a red stain spreading across his white shirt from the shot had struck. Hanley barely noticed as another man stepped into view and knelt by the body before he pulled the blade from Omar's hand, wrapped it in a cloth and stuffed it into his trenchcoat pocket. He looked around casually, balancing the short-barreled police-issue shotgun on his knee as his gaze finally settled on Hanley. "The artifact, professor."
"Wh... what?" Hanley mumbled, his eyes flickering between the bodies on the floor and the man holding a gun in front of him.
"Unload it. Get it out of the van." The gunman began searching Omar's pockets methodically, spreading their meager contents across the concrete. When there was nothing left to search the man stood again and said to the still motionless Hanley, "Move." The gunman took a step toward him... then he stopped, his head cocked to the side, listening intently. Then Hanley heard it: the dry scraping of rubber soles across rough concrete, the rustle of cloth, the clink of metal on metal. People in the darkness, Hanley realized. A lot of people.
The man raised his weapon but even before he could level it a dozen shapes emerged from the shadows, their curved daggers easily visible in the dim fluorescent light. The gunman barely paused before pulling the trigger again and again, cutting everyone in front of him to pieces with lethal clouds of razor-sharp projectiles. The shotgun roared over and over, finally falling silent as the striker fell on an empty chamber. The gunman dropped the shotgun and pulled a large black pistol from a shoulder holster, aiming it at the now-motionless bodies that littered the ground a few yards in front of him.
Hanley heard a door slam, then felt the van tremble as its aging pre-electric-hybrid engine rumbled to life. There was a screech of tires as the van - and the artifact - accelerated away from Hanley and the gunman, disappearing around a corner as the gunman emptied his pistol at it in vain.
Hanley felt a strong hand grab his jacket. "Move," he heard the gunman say as he was dragged into the darkness. "They'll be here soon."
"Who? Who are you? What the fuck is going on?" Hanley blurted, trying to peel the man's fingers from his shirt without success.
The gunman turned and looked at him with eyes like stone. "Understand me: I do not need you. Slow me down, and I will leave you for them. Am I understood?"
Hanley nodded and the gunman let him go, walking quickly into the darkness. The gunman pulled a Vox from a trenchcoat pocket and said into its pickup, "Ivan."
After a few seconds Ivan's voice said, "What happened?"
"They had someone on the inside. They got the artifact."
"What about Hanley?"
"He's safe... for now."
"Get back here with the professor, as soon as possible."
"What about the artifact?"
"We know where it's going. Be careful."
Always, the gunman thought as he closed the Vox and slid it back into his pocket, vanishing into the shadows with the professor close behind.
From the journal of Michelle Foster Dallion
Recorded March 21, 2022
As with most things in my life, it began with a funeral.
Ryan and I had been married for just over five years when we got the call from Rashid. After we had closed Curious Goods and went our separate ways, we had gradually fallen out of touch with Jack Marshak; although he traveled extensively, his heart would always belong to Chicago, while mine needed to be near the oceans of California. As the years passed, the telephone calls grew infrequent, as did the letters from distant corners of the globe. The lives of all of us who had worked to thwart the Devil's plan took on their own shapes, strayed down unique paths. Then the call came.
Jack Marshak had died while returning home on a Portugese cargo ship. The ship's doctor said that it had been a heart attack, certainly nothing out of the ordinary for a man of Jack's and physical condition. He died on June 14th, but the funeral had to wait until the ship docked in Baltimore and the body could be transported to Chicago... plenty of time to notify the many friends Jack had.
At the funeral, I remember looking at his body... it seemed so small, but he had always seemed so much larger than life. Jack Marshak had done almost everything in his life; he had always been the wise one, the sage who we turned to for advice. Now, he was gone... and I had never felt more alone. I had lost my parents, my sister and her little boy during out final days at Curious Goods, and I had considered Jack a sort of father-figure even before that. Without him, I had no family left.
The night after the funeral was the first time I had the dream... the same dream I had almost every night for years afterward. I am standing at the edge of a cliff, dark but with just enough light to see the blackened, dead stone and soil beneath my bare feet. The sheer rock face of the cliff vanishes into oblivion. I know something is waiting in the darkness below me... but I will not go to it. I can't.
That's when I hear her voice, soft and silky and warm, like mother's milk to my doubt-filled mind. "I can end your doubts, your fears... all you need do is accept me." And I wanted it...
But I always turned away... and then I would feel the blades bite into my flesh as the voice screamed: "You will die for my sins." Then I would fall into the blackness, forever falling, screaming, dying for eternity...
That first night, when I awoke screaming, something else happened. Unknown to either myself or Ryan, a child was growing within me... until I awoke screaming, the bedcovers awash in blood. I had lost the baby, and doctors said that it was unlikely I could ever bring another to term safely.
That was the night I lost my child... and began losing my mind.
Joan Kelleigh woke to a dull throbbing pain that shot through her head with every heartbeat. In itself, a not uncommon event; for most of her life, she had been plagued by headaches resulting from an injury she'd sustained as a young girl. What made the pain unusual was nothing she could define in words, just a feeling of uneasiness.
She sat up and rubbed her temples, more of a reflex than an attempt to alleviate the pain. After a minute she stood and pulled on her silk robe, then stepped into the hallway. From the kitchen she could hear the occasional clack of a typewriter key from Johnny's study down the hall as she poured herself a cup of coffee and added a generous helping of sugar and creamer. She shuffled back into the hall and down to Johnny's study, squinting at the bright morning sunlight that filled the room. Johnny was hunched over the ancient typewriter, pressing a few keys before stopping again and gazing out at the Chicago skyline. "Morning," she said, sipping at her coffee.
"Morning, sleepyhead." Johnny leaned back and Joan settled into his lap, setting down the mug and giving him a quick kiss. She ran her fingers down his bearded jawline, trying to put the pain out of her mind. "Hey, that tickles," he said.
"I know." She kissed him again. "That's why I love you."
"Because I'm ticklish?"
"Because of the beard." Joan glanced at the half-filled sheet resting in the typewriter. "Any luck?"
"Not really; just trying to hammer out a few ideas." Johnny wrapped his arms around her and rested his head on her shoulder. "Maybe I'm just tapped out."
"Or maybe you're just trying too hard. The words will come; they always do." Joan's gaze floated across the huge oak desktop; the piles of notes and half-filled pages of type, the Mason jar of sharpened No. 2 pencils, the aging photo of Johnny, Joan, and Ryan that Micki had taken following Jack Marshak's funeral in 1998. Then she paused on something resting at the far corner of the desk, a photograph in a simple silver frame. The pain in her head sharpened, became almost blinding as she focused on the picture.
Yesterday the photo had been of a bald eagle in flight over a forest in autumn, the snowcapped Rocky Mountains making a perfect backdrop; Micki had taken it several years before and had sent it as a spur-of-the-moment gift. The frame had been engraved with 'Born to be Free', May 16, 2018. Now, though, the original image had faded to almost nothing, replaced by a crumbling red brick wall. What the hell? she thought.
Then the center of the image turned black as if scorched by a flame, but there was no heat or smoke. Joan's eyes widened as the blackness consumed the image and began creeping like liquid over the frame, spilling onto the desk. Joan's mouth worked uselessly, opening and closing with no words coming out as her mind went blank with fear. Her heart began to hammer in her chest as the blackness began to creep toward her and Johnny, wisps reaching into the air like living smoke as they sought out life. "Honey, are you okay?" Johnny said as the first tendril caressed his unknowing lips.
A piercing scream tore from her throat as she struggled to stand, to get away from the horrors coming from the picture. A wild swing of her arm sent the coffee mug crashing to the hardwood floor; her kicking and struggling made Johnny lean back and try to get hold of her. The chair tipped backward, sending them both to the floor and knocking the wind out of Johnny. Joan crawled back against the wall and got to her feet, wanting to run and hide, her eyes fixed on the blackness in the room... but then a very small voice in her mind said that it really was of no importance.
The sunlight dimmed and the room seemed to vibrate, as if some titanic being had just taken a step right next to the building. Black clouds, not the gray of storm clouds but black like a moonless night, moved quickly across the sky and then began to descend toward the city, wrapping themselves around the buildings and flowing like water toward the streets below. Her feet moved her forward now, unhearing as Johnny spoke, uncaring as she passed through the darkness in the room until she was at the window and looking down into the busy morning streets of the Windy City.
The crowds below were engulfed in writhing, flowing tendrils of black, oblivious to what was around them. She could see the darkness sliding across them, tendrils picking people like one would pick a nice shiny apple at the market. Some people had fewer than others; a few had far greater concentrations than most. Even from here she could see the darkness flowing into their eyes, their ears; she could see them eating and breathing it, many smiling, all ignorant. She raised her eyes, looked out across the city and saw that everything was covered now.
And she heard a thousand, a million, countless voices speaking as one directly to her mind: Come to us. Be with us.
Then the blackness rushed at her, took a form, became a face that she knew. She tried to scream, tried to move, but then some mental switch flipped and her consciousness mercifully shut down as she fell to the floor.
"What do you remember?"
Joan was sitting on the living room sofa, a mug of coffee clutched in her hands. Her eyes darted around the room constantly, moving from one patch of shadow to another. "Not much. I saw... what I used to see, back when we first met. Only more of it, a lot more." She took a deep swallow; the liquid almost scalded her throat as it went down. "It was everywhere, a sea of evil everywhere I looked. But that was after the picture changed."
Johnny looked down at the silver-framed photo in his left hand; it was no longer the image of the eagle, just a crumbling red brick wall covered in peeling tan paint. In front of him on the coffee table were the four other photos that Micki had given them as gifts over the years, all of which now showed nothing but some sort of crumbling building with few, if any, clues as to where they had actually been taken. "Anything else?"
Joan shivered violently, almost spilling her coffee. "It... called to me, Johnny. It wants me." She turned away, looking at the apartment walls, avoiding his eyes.
Johnny carefully removed the photos from their frames, trying to line them up in some order that made sense. What sense? he thought. None of this makes sense. The images were of different walls, if not different buildings altogether; besides the brick wall, there were two pictures of cracked plaster half-covered in peeling green paint, one of a half-rotten piano left to the elements, and (the one that disturbed him most of all for some reason) an image of a lone tree taken through a shattered window. Three curved stone benches had been set around it at some point in the past, but two had been tipped and only one remained upright (although with a dangerous tilt). A few feet away sat a small birdbath filled with stagnant water and dead leaves.
He set the photos down and looked at Joan. "We have to call Ryan."
"What's happening, Johnny? What the hell is going on?" is all she said in response, and then the mug slid from her grasp and spilled its black contents across the carpet. Tearless sobs racked her body, as if she had none left to give to Johnny as he sat beside her and held her in silence.
After a while, after she had stopped shaking, Johnny pulled away from her grasp and retrieved the Vox from his study. "Call Ryan - Vox," he said into the pickup, and then his Vox tried connecting with Ryan's, wherever it might be in the world. After a few minutes with no response he disconnected, tried calling again, and got more of the same. He tried connecting with Ryan's house telephone, e-mail and instant messaging service, but got no answer from any of them. He paced back to the living room, a cold and heavy feeling growing in his gut. "I can't reach him. Joan, we've got to find him."
Joan did not respond as Johnny began connecting to the airport to get tickets to California. "Joan?" he said when she did not reply. He looked up and saw she was looking at the pictures he had left on the coffee table. "What is it?"
She picked up the photo of the tree outside the window. "I remember that tree, the benches... the birdbath. There was this old guy without any teeth who would spend all day sitting out there, throwing bread crumbs he'd smuggled out of the cafeteria to the pigeons. But there weren't any pigeons..." She shook her head, trying to grasp the memory firmly in her mind.
Finally she looked at Johnny and said, "I know where this was taken."
The road was easy to find, despite the fact that it had not been maintained in over two decades. After that length of time the asphalt had deteriorated into a spiderweb of cracks through which every weed imaginable had taken root, making their journey oddly colorful. Johnny could see that the weeds - some of which grew two or three feet tall even in the middle of the road - had grown evenly across the road, which meant that no car had driven this road in quite some time. The trees and brush that lined the road, which should have been brilliant with green leaves and blossoms by this late in spring, barely had any life at all.
"I spent almost ten weeks here in the spring of 1987. I had a breakdown at college because of the things I could see, so my family sent me here. I spent the first week doped on Thorazine; everyone was covered in evil, it was in the food, the water, crawling down the walls. This was the closest facility specializing in the treatment of injury-induced mental illness... and it used to be one of the best." Joan looked down at her hands, as if she had forgotten they were there. The photos were still grasped in her fingers.
"The Crittenden Institute was close enough to let my family visit... and far enough away to let them forget about me when they left. They came for two hours every weekend while I was here. The rest of the time I was either doped up, talking to a psychiatrist... or I was in isolation. I was bad off, Johnny, a lot worse than I ever told you."
Johnny looked at her and squeezed her hand gently. "You had your reasons." Maybe Micki did, too, Joan thought.
The hospital building was a sprawling structure some fifteen miles south of Chicago, an area which had largely been abandoned for some twenty years following a major chemical spill that had killed over fifty people. Even though the spill had been cleaned up, many original residents believed contamination remained in the soil and groundwater and had refused to return. Vast stretches of land had remained unsold and unused as the economy had deteriorated in the first decade of the twenty-first century, until everything was left to the elements. The hospital - which had been facing closure anyway, according to the few news stories she had been able to find on the net - had been abandoned since 2006, its patients either transferred to other facilities or released onto the streets.
Johnny drove up slowly and parked on the far side of the turnaround that allowed cars an easy way to drive back to the highway. There was minimal space to park; presumably, employee parking was located somewhere around the back of the building. They got out of the car slowly, looking up at the massive red brick building that loomed before them, its shattered windows staring blindly at the landscape. "Charming," Johnny said, trying in vain to shake that feeling in his gut even as it grew.
Joan had walked over to an ancient, knotted tree with a trio of tilted stone benches near its trunk... the tree from the photo. "The other bench fell over, probably years ago," she said, kneeling down to clear away the debris that surrounded it. The stone was weathered and broken, both by exposure and by the roots which had pushed out of the ground. The tree itself was so massive and rotten that a strong wind could potentially bring it down.
Johnny turned his attention to the building, trying to figure out where the picture had been taken from. It was taken above the ground, maybe from the second or third floor... somewhere in the east wing, maybe, he thought, looking down the length of the wing. There were dozens of possible rooms just in that area, hundreds throughout the entire structure. "Are you sure about this?" he asked.
"No, not really. I'm not very comfortable being here, even after all this time."
Johnny walked back to the car and opened the trunk, pulling out a few items: battery packs for their Voxes, two small cylinders of pepper spray, flashlights, and a small locked box with a keypad. He pressed seven keys, opened the box, and pulled out his father's .38-caliber police-issue revolver. Joan came up next to him as he made sure the pistol was loaded. "Do you think we'll need that?"
"Hope not, but there might be squatters or animals. I just want to scare them," he said, closing the trunk.
The front doors hung open, the glass long since broken by who knew what. Inside, the lobby was well-lit by the afternoon sun; a reception station sat abandoned, the once-silver bell now tarnished black. The hospital had been left quickly, it seemed; the remains of a sign-in book still sat on the desk by the bell, and what might have once been file folders were scattered about the floor behind the desk. At the back of the room was a wide staircase that led to the second floor. Johnny went first, carefully putting his weight on the creaky floor to make sure it would not give way.
The spots revealed by their flashlights revealed rotting carpet and peeling paint; one or two mice scurried out of the light (along with more than a few cockroaches), but that was all the animal life they saw as they stepped onto the second floor. Johnny shone his light down the right-hand corridor; the floor appeared intact, but there was very little light from outside. The doors here were almost all closed, and had tiny observation slits built into them. "What was this wing used for?" he asked.
"Isolation. This is Ward C... the padded cells." Joan spoke low and chose her words carefully, already spooked by the surroundings. "Crittenden was famous for treating cases like what happened to me, but their main type of patient was sent here by the state after being judged criminally insane. All the walls and floors are soundproofed, but when it was bad their screams could echo through the whole building. Sometimes they were all screaming at once; the staff called it the Devil's Choir."
They were halfway down the hall when Joan pressed a hand to her left temple and sagged against the wall, her strength suddenly gone as pain flashed through her head. Her flashlight dropped to the ground and rolled away, illuminating Johnny as he rushed to her side.
Visions... memories... dreams... she did not know. The ground was burned black, as were the sun and sky. Nothing was moving here; everything had died long ago. She was on her knees, her hands torn and bloodied from digging at the stony soil, not knowing what she was digging for and not caring anyway. She pawed at the earth, scooping handful after handful away until she touched something soft and yielding. She pushed the dirt away, brushed the pebbles aside until a face was revealed.
"Joan?" he said, not knowing what else to say as he eyes rolled back into her skull, leaving nothing but white showing as her eyelids fluttered.
The face was a woman's, not old but ancient at the same time, as white as bone bleached by the sun. Wisps of white hair dangled occasionally as she pulled away more soil. She was reaching down for another handful when the eyes opened and focused their pitch black irises on her own. The mouth moved but no words emerged, only a high, piercing screech that drove into her thoughts like a railroad spike: The door opens wide... there is no return. You will die for my sins.
Blood began flowing from both of her nostrils, her ears, even the corners of her eyes.
The pain was terrible, hot pokers shoved through her eyeballs and into her frontal lobe, razor blades whirling about in her skull, tiny mouths filled with sharp teeth devouring her mind. She tried to move, tried to talk, but her body would not respond as pain filled her being. She could feel each heartbeat thudding in her brain; every breath was an ordeal. The pressure mounted like a balloon ready to burst, and all Joan could think at the end was That's funny... she sounded like...
"Oh, Jesus." Johnny grabbed his Vox as blood poured over his hands and onto the floor. He started to call for an ambulance, but then he felt a hand touch his shoulder and heard a gentle voice say "Shhh..."
Then the world slipped away from him.
From the journal of Michelle Foster Dallion
Recorded March 21, 2022
I knew I was in trouble when I began hearing the Voice while I was awake. That's what I called it; what better name for a voice that had been haunting my dreams for weeks. It was the middle of August, 1998; I was washing the dishes when, very clearly, I heard the Voice whisper: "You will die for my sins."
My sleep had been broken since the funeral...and the miscarriage; Ryan was getting more worried every day. At first I told myself that it was just sleep deprivation, that a normal, healthy night's rest would make it stop. I laid down on the couch, closed my eyes... and then it spoke again: "You will die, and I will wake." When I opened my eyes I saw someone sitting at the end of the couch, a woman with white hair and the blackest eyes. "My time is soon at hand," she said, and that's when I started screaming.
After that, the Voice was my constant companion. She whispered to me whether I was asleep or awake, always in that same honey-sweet tone until I refused her... and then she would scream. Ryan found me curled up in a ball on the floor, hands clamped over my ears, utterly terrified.
That was when we decided to seek help. Ryan felt that being close to friends would make a significant difference, so we relocated to Chicago for a time to be close to Johnny and Joan, along with Rashid. The Crittenden Institute, while mainly serving as incarceration for the criminally insane, had an excellent theraputic record for cases of acute schizophrenia... like what I thought was happening to me.
I spent almost two years there; two sessions daily with my psychiatrist, various medications, occasional visits to the padded room down the hall... but nothing made the Voice go away. Just when I thought I was getting better, the Voice returned... and she laughed. I'd see her sitting at my desk, lying next to me when I awoke, and the cycle would begin again.
Ryan and Johnny and Joan all came to visit every weekend; that was the only time the hospital allowed. Ryan stayed with Johnny up in Chicago, working for an advertising company and trying to pay for my extensive psychiatric care. My only friend in the hospital was Alex, a little girl I met not long after I arrived. She had burned her family to death while they slept, apparently the victim of severe physical and sexual abuse. My doctor thought it might help both of us if I formed a connection with her - I could be a mother-figure for her, and she could serve as some kind of surrogate child for me. For a year and a half we were close, closer than I'd been to anyone except Ryan.
When the Voice came to me on that night in June of 2000, I thought she would just say the same things, that the cycle would begin once again. But this time she just stood there at the foot of my bed, looking at me with those black eyes... and then she reached her hand out to me. I was so tired of seeing her, so tired of her words... I just wanted her to stop haunting me. So I reached out to her as well... and that's when I knew exactly what I had done.
That's when I knew I was damned.
It was cold, and it was dark. The wind was howling through the nearly black corridor as Johnny slowly opened his eyes. He instinctively pulled his jacket around him as he sat up, his memory of where he was unclear. Looking around, he saw he was alone in the corridor.
The image of Joan bleeding as she lay in his arms came back abruptly, and Johnny's stomach lurched. He looked around frantically, but she was nowhere in sight. Getting to his feet, Johnny's increasingly uneasy stomach got the best of him and he retched, leaving a wet trail behind him as he followed the wall back toward the front door. He got as far as the door of Ward C before his legs gave out and he fell to the floor, clutching his stomach as his guts began to burn. He spat, his mouth filling with the taste of copper, and even in the dim light he could make out that it was blood. Helluva way to go, he thought bitterly. Alone in a goddamn looney bin. "I'm sorry..." he croaked, rolling onto his side as he vomited again.
"Shhh... you'll be okay," came a voice from the darkness, and Johnny lifted his head far enough to see a figure standing in the shadows, just a silhouette against the wall. He struggled to stand, to speak, but his strength was gone and all he could do was lie there as footsteps approached. "You're going to be very sick for a while, but there won't be any lasting effects." A cool damp cloth brushed across his forehead.
"Eff... effects?" he wheezed.
"Quiet, now. I'll explain all I can... but not now." She brushed her hand against his cheek, and then she was gone, taking with her the pain.
The next time Johnny awoke, the sun had risen and the pain was gone. His stomach remained unsettled, but anything was better than the burning he had felt before. Looking around, he saw he was in a small dormitory-style room; the walls were covered in peeling green paint, and the mattress he was lying on was tattered and filthy.
A clean bowl of clear water and a folded blue washcloth had been left on the floor next to him. He wet the cloth and ran it over his face and hands, then tried getting to his feet. No problem, he thought. Got a plan. Gonna get up, find Joan, and get the hell outta here. He took a tentative step, then another as his balance returned.
He looked up at the doorway and saw a woman standing there, holding a plastic mug; steam rolled from the top, as did the unmistakable aroma of coffee. Instinctively he stepped back and reached into his coat pocket for the pistol, pulling the weapon and leveling it at the woman. "Where's Joan?" he said.
"She's close. She'll be okay." The woman took a step forward and Johnny thumbed back the hammer.
"Where is she?" he repeated.
The woman pointed over her shoulder, back down the hallway. "In there. In the waiting room."
Johnny pushed past her and into the hall, looking at where the woman had gestured. There was a heavy steel door at the far end of the corridor. Johnny walked toward it but stopped when he heard a strange noise... like a woman screaming at the top of her voice but very far away. He rushed over and fumbled with the door, but there was no way to turn the lock, no keyhole, not even a plate he could remove to get at the mechanism. There was no way he could open it.
Turning to point the gun at the woman, Johnny said, "Let her out!"
"Bullshit! Open the door!" Johnny pointed the pistol at her chest.
"I can't," she replied. "The door only opens from inside. She'll come out when she's ready. I know you're scared right now; the first time I did this, I was too. I promise that she'll be okay."
"She was bleeding, she might be dying -" Johnny's voice trailed off as the anger faded, replaced by cold fear. He slowly let the gun fall to his side and lowered the hammer. "The first time you did this... you've locked yourself in there?"
"No... I did what I'm doing now. I waited for the vision to pass, and then I took care of her while she regained her strength." She offered him the coffee mug. "Come on... it's a long story."
Johnny took the coffee and slid the pistol back into his pocket, following the woman as she led him to a lounge a few doors down the hall. The counters and table were filled with ancient file folders, canned and dehydrated food, a coffee maker, and several beat-up dataflats, among other things. It was clear she had been staying there at least a few days. She poured herself some coffee and sat down on a green leather sofa that was covered by a comforter. "This is going to sound strange, but I... I've been waiting for you for all my life, I think... and I don't even know your name."
He looked at her closely. She was a handsome woman with short black hair, though too many sleepless nights showed in her eyes. For a while, back at Curious Goods, they had all shared that same haunted look. "I'm Johnny."
"Alex." She sipped her coffee. "I know you need answers... but you may not like what you're going to hear."
"I don't care. I need answers, and you seem to be the only one who knows anything about what's happening. Please... what the hell is going on?" Johnny set down the mug and leaned forward, his stomach rolling again.
"The sickness will pass. It's just a side effect of your proximity to the ritual's effect."
The word ritual made Johnny's blood run cold. "What ritual?"
"The ritual she put in place to protect you. She was scared that she would do something to hurt you... or herself. She couldn't bear to do that."
"Who... " Johnny whispered, the answer floating just out of reach in his mind. The creative part of his brain pieced together scenario after scenario, none of which gave him any comfort. Then: "Micki?"
Alex nodded, her head bowed in shame. "She always told me that it was her burden to bear, that all of you had endured enough. She never went into details, and I never asked."
"Why? Oh, God, Micki... what did you do? Why?" Johnny pressed his hands to his head as pain shot through it.
"Lie down. I'll tell you." She covered him with a blanket and sat on the floor beside him, wiping his forehead with a damp washcloth. "When I was a little girl my parents died in a fire. I thought they were loving and wonderful people... but they fooled everyone, even me. They did things to me... horrible things... but I didn't remember any of it until one night when I was nine years old. That was the first time I heard the voice. It was so warm, so loving... and it helped me to remember what they had done to me.
"I went down to the garage and found the can of gasoline Daddy used for the lawnmower. I found Mommy's gold lighter that she told me never to play with. I took them both upstairs and poured the gas all around their bedroom as they slept... and then I walked into the hall and lit them on fire. I can still hear them screaming... Everyone knew what happened afterward, but nobody ever said anything. I was remanded to state custody by the courts until I turned seventeen or, if I remained a danger to myself or others, the rest of my life if need be.
"I was sent to Crittenden in 1998. It was strange, being the only little girl in a hospital full of murderers and rapists, but there was nowhere else that would accept me because of what I'd done. I was kept in Ward G, up on the third floor; none of the violent patients were allowed above the second floor. For the first six months I was here I talked to a psychiatrist, had a tutor and never had to share my toys.
"Then, in the fall of that year, another person came to Ward G. She was a tall, beautiful lady with the reddest hair I'd ever seen... but her eyes had this faraway look in them, like she wasn't really there. I heard the doctors saying that she had checked herself in, fearing that she was suffering from schizophrenia. I didn't know what the word meant at the time, but I knew it was bad.
"That night, as I was lying in bed, drifting off to sleep, I heard a woman's voice in my ear. It was soft and warm, and I loved the way it sounded... and I knew it was the voice I had heard the night my parents died. The voice told me that I was very special, and that the woman needed my help. In the morning she was sitting in the common room, looking out the window and crying. I was scared to go near her... I didn't want to listen to the voice, didn't want to do what it told me to ever again... but she looked so lonely sitting there..."
Alex stopped for a minute, and Johnny reached out for her hand.
She was sobbing when she continued. "I brought her crayons... when you're nine and in a mental hospital there isn't much you can give to people, so I brought her crayons and blank paper..." She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and took a deep breath. "And that was all it took for me to make a friend. She said her name was Micki, and that it had been a long time since she had colored with crayons. We spent the morning coloring before it was time for me to see the psychiatrist, and after I got back we colored some more.
"The doctors said it would be good for both of us to spend time together, for me to have some sort of stable relationship... and for Micki to get over the pain of losing her child."
"That's not possible... Micki never had a child..." Johnny said in confusion.
"Just wait; I'll explain the best I can. Micki stayed here for almost two years, and she was the closest thing to a mother I ever really had. When she left in the summer of 2000 I thought my world was falling apart. I became violent, surly; I lashed out at anyone who came near me. But then I heard her voice in the dark, and I knew that she'd never really leave me. It was Micki's voice that had talked to me, you see."
"No, I don't see. Micki was never in a mental hospital, at least not after 1988. Sure as hell not for two years." Johnny sat up, but the lancing pain in his head made him lay right back down.
"That was the idea... nobody was supposed to remember what happened. She wanted to spare you all the pain, to protect you from the truth."
"What is the truth? Jesus, what did she do?"
"She only told me that it was to protect all of you. When the hospital closed in 2006 I was put onto the streets along with dozens of other patients who had no place to go. I was living day-to-day on the streets of Chicago, homeless, but I always had her voice. And then one day, she was there in the flesh. She needed my help, she said. She brought me back here, and we made the room that Joan is in right now... and Micki used it. She was sick, almost to the point of collapse, but she managed to help me get the room done. She was coughing so much blood that I thought she was going to die. I was so scared the first time I heard her scream, even through the soundproofing we put up, that I almost called an ambulance. I waited for almost two days in this room... and then she came out. She looked years older, and she was sick like you are, but she wasn't near death anymore.
"After that she'd come back every four or five months and we'd do the same thing. She always called me before she came, and for a few days afterward she'd stay here, up in the third floor dayroom. She turned it into her private place; we even put a steel door on it, too. She never let me inside." Alex held up a silver key dangling from a golden chain. "I think she wants you to have this."
"What's in there?" he asked, the key cold in his fingers.
"Things that she wouldn't tell even me."
From the journal of Michelle Foster Dallion
Recorded March 21, 2022
From that moment on, I knew I was not crazy. I knew with absolute certainty that I was sane, that I possessed great power... and that I would never be the same again. I finally understood what was happening to me.
Getting out of the hospital was difficult, but not nearly as hard as the task which came after. The Voice had told me who she was... and what she wanted. And I swore to myself that I would never help her. I knew that the coming days would just grow more difficult, both for myself and for everyone I knew. She was within me, growing stronger... but I couldn't let her win.
And so, like Jack had over a decade earlier, I began traveling the world in search of ancient secrets. I used my cover as a photographer to hide my true intent both from the authorities and from Ryan, and for a time I was successful. I journeyed to the pyramids at Giza, deep into the Transylvanian hills, to the edge of ancient Irem, the City of Pillars... all in search of something that would free me from my ultimate fate. As time wore on the Voice grew ever stronger, mocking me, trying to deter me from my goal. So many times I wanted to surrender...
The only thing that kept me sane was Alex. I heard her voice in my mind no matter how far apart we were, and she heard me as well. We drew strength from each other, felt each other's dreams and fears as nobody else could. For seven years I traveled, forsaking the life I had once known, even forsaking Ryan... but there was nothing. I had failed. In the end, as my body was wracked with sickness, I could only think of one thing to do: make my peace with the world and those I would leave behind.
I returned to Chicago, believing death was near... but then something happened. I found myself dreaming of Alex's childhood, the memories created for her by her parents to shield her from the torture they inflicted. She never knew she was abused, not until their false memories were broken one night when Alex was nine... the night they died.
And I knew what I had to do. I was powerful, and now I had great knowledge of the spirit world; crafting the ritual was almost easy. If I could not escape my fate, I could spare my loved ones the pain of living it with me. I crafted a web of memory, a blanket of dreams; I created a life where I had never lost my child, never spent two years in a mental hospital. I wove reality from whole cloth, the Voice screaming at me the whole time as my body began to die. She knew what I planned to do... but she could not stop me.
By the time Alex and I had finished the preparations I was almost dead. She carried me into what I call the 'waiting room', the padded cell that became the center of the ritual. She laid me on the floor, closed the door behind her... and then I began to chant. The Voice screamed and battered my body, ripping my flesh open with her mind... but her power was mine as well, and with the force she used to injure me, I healed the damage. I built a wall between reality and the reality I wanted the world to know, placed every sturdy brick with my thoughts and sealed the Voice behind it.
After two days I was finished. I must have looked terrible, but I felt better than I had in almost a decade; the Voice, my constant companion, was finally silent. The ritual was not permanent; every four or five months I had to return to this place to mend the cracks in the wall and keep her entombed. I thought if I had more time I could find some way to defeat her, to separate our destinies...
But alas, that is not to be.
Johnny found the key turned easily in the lock as he stood before the heavy steel security door in Ward G. He pulled on the handle, and the door pulled away from its frame to reveal blackness inside. He raised his flashlight and turned to beckon Alex to follow him, but she just stood there shaking her head. "She didn't want me to see whatever is in there. It was meant for you to find." And then she turned and walked down the stairs, leaving Johnny alone before the doorway.
He shined his light inside and swung the door wide open, but none of the sunlight from the hall seemed to make its way into the room, as if there were an invisible barrier at the doorway. Stepping inside, he could barely make out the shape of rectangles in the darkness, lining every wall. Shelves, he thought, and for an instant he was back in the Vault, young and foolish all over again. He wanted to leave the room, just close the door and run away from this place... but he had to know.
The narrow beam of the flashlight played over rows of dusty videotapes and burned CDs in gold-tinted jewel cases, each carefully labeled in Micki's handwriting. Some shelves held neatly stacked plastic containers of film; others, various cameras and lenses. There were file cabinets and loose-leaf binders and aging hardbound books, all of which were covered by a thick layer of dust. Nobody had entered this room in years.
Johnny took a few steps forward, then flinched as something struck his chest. He swung his light around and saw an industrial switch hanging from a thick cable a foot in front of him, virtually invisible in the darkness. He pressed the green button, and with a heavy click the room was flooded with light. Squinting his eyes, Johnny slowly turned around and surveyed the room. The walls were covered with sheets of paper, some typewritten, some handwritten, thousands of pages held to the brick walls with sticky-tack. Johnny could just make out some of the words: What has been put asunder shall again be whole... In Hell shall I burn... Her shadow is rising... My destiny is in her hands. A large set of heavy-duty storage batteries had been set up in one corner, providing juice to the lights and the older-style laptop computer still sitting on a table in the middle of the room. Over at the far wall was a patch of exposed red brick and a window covered by plywood. Johnny saw the wood was attached by simple wingnuts that were attached to bolts anchored in the windowframe; he quickly took them off and pulled the plywood from the window.
The view he saw was the one he and Joan had seen in the photo. He turned around to get a better look at the room, and stopped cold when he saw what had been messily spray-painted in foot-high letters on the inside wall:
"My God," Johnny breathed, making the sign of the cross unconsciously. He looked around, but the piles of material were daunting at best. Finally he sat at the table in front of the laptop, looking at the small CD organizer next to it. Each one was labeled Journal / Archive, along with a year. The discs went back almost two decades; the first one was from the fall of 2006. He touched the power switch and the laptop hummed to life, its outdated mechanisms still functional.
The screen flashed and several icons came up; photo manipulators, a word processor, voice recognition software for transcribing audio, and an MP3 recording suite. He used the touchpad to activate the audio but before he clicked anything another screen came up, a video file of the room, even the chair he was sitting in. He looked up and saw a tiny camera set a few feet away on the table with a slim cable connecting it to the laptop.
Then he saw Micki walk into the frame and sit down. She looked tired, but the digital video had only mediocre resolution. She was wearing a blue terrycloth robe, and her hair looked as if it had not been washed in days. A tiny digital timestamp ticking in one corner indicated the video had been made some three years earlier, on March 21st, 2022. "Little white lies make the world turn smoothly..."
Johnny let the audio play as he searched the room, looking through boxes and file folders as Micki's voice filled the space. He opened a thick file folder and saw a stack of glossy photographs, some in color, some in black and white. Some were of the hospital, capturing it as the elements ravaged the aging structure; some were of the landscape outside. Folder after folder held similar images, decades worth of imagery, three file cabinets full of pictures. By the time he opened the last cabinet he was sure that he could not bear to see another picture of the hospital; Micki must have photographed every square inch of the building.
"That was the night I lost my child... and began losing my mind..."
But these pictures were different. The first one showed Micki standing in a person-sized cage, her back to the camera as blood ran down her back from the horrible gashes. In her hand was a short leather whip, dripping with blood. Scrawled at the bottom of the photo were the words: Hell is where the heart is. Each picture in the file cabinet, and there must have been thousands, was of Micki. Some were simple images of her at the hospital, but most were either like the first, capturing her in self-inflicted pain, or were digital manipulations of her in disturbing situations. Johnny saw dozens of images where Micki was portraying a fallen angel, crucified and bleeding; in others she was a puppet, her strings cut, blood pooling around their severed ends. Micki was an angel, a devil, a mythical creature, a monster cowering in the dark, all captured on glossy paper... all created by her.
"...and that's when I knew exactly what I had done. That's when I knew I was damned."
The last image Johnny looked at was of an angel chained to the ground, rings and spikes piercing her body, looking up to the light of Heaven. The caption read: Now I know where I belong! Now I know the way! The date stamped in the corner read 3-21-22... the day of Micki's video recording.
"I thought if I had more time I could find some way to defeat her, to separate our destinies... But alas, that is not to be.
"I'm so tired now... and I fear that I will welcome her, that I will be unable to resist her any longer. Our fates are the same; I see that clearly. All I can do is give Ryan reality instead of illusion, at least for the rest of my life. He won't remember what I've taken, and I can never tell him what I've done, what I am... but I will no longer deceive him. He deserves something real, and even if that pain is too much to bear... at least I will no longer bear it alone.
"Whoever finds this place... please, don't tell Ryan. Let him believe that there's such a thing as happily ever after."
There was a pause, and the voice stopped, filling the room with silence as Johnny fumbled in his pocket for his Vox. "Call Ryan," he said, holding the Vox to his ear. The Vox chimed for almost a minute before an automated message said, "The person you are attempting to contact is not accepting incoming calls. Would you like to leave a message?"
"Yes. Ryan, it's Johnny. Call me as soon as you hear this. I have to talk to you." Johnny looked around and found an empty cardboard box, then began tossing the laptop and CDs inside, along with many of the photos from the last filing cabinet. He did not want to spend another second in this chamber of horrors. As he lifted the computer, he saw a thin file folder beneath it, perfectly concealed under the almost-antique device. He opened it and saw a blurry picture of a man in his thirties, taken from some distance away. Scrawled across the bottom right corner in red marker was Ivan??. The rest of the pages were telephone records and travel receipts, all apparently relating to the man in the photograph... and all from St. Louis. He filled the box to the brim before picking it up and heading downstairs, careful not to trip in the darkness that had fallen over the hospital. He fumbled with his flashlight and managed to get to the first floor without spilling everything, and set the box down heavily when he reached the lounge.
Joan was lying on the couch, sipping at a mug of chicken soup that Alex was holding. Both looked up when he walked in. "Johnny...?" Alex asked, her face etched with worry. Johnny raised a hand to his sweaty cheeks, but realized that the moisture was not from sweat... but from tears.
He went over to the couch and held Joan in his arms. "Are you okay?" he asked.
"Tired... but okay. What did you find up there?"
He looked at Alex. "The truth. God help me, I found the truth." He sat on the floor, his back against the couch, and let his head drop between his knees in exhaustion. After a few minutes he asked, "Can you walk?", not relishing the idea of moving but knowing he had no choice.
"Yeah... I think so."
"Good." He struggled to his feet after a few seconds, then helped Joan up as well. "We've got to get going."
"Somewhere in St. Louis... that's all I know," is what he said, but the words painted on the wall kept repeating in his mind: You will die for my sins.
You will die for my sins.
The throne is tall, carved of black stone and warmed by the souls of those trapped within. Their screams can be felt with even the slightest touch of flesh to stone... a perfect gift for one of her stature.
Her hair matches the reddest flames of my realm, far more fitting than the gray that shell of flesh had punished her with. Humans say it adds distinction... but it just makes them look old.
She looks upon her gift with pleasure; she knows the effort such a creation requires. Ascending the steps she takes her place beside me, red hair beautiful in the hellfire light. She smiles slightly - even I do not know all the secrets she holds - and leans over, offering herself to me. Now, at last, she is to be freed; now at last she is to take that final step and fulfill her destiny...
She opens her mind, her spirit, allowing me to enter her and take her and make her my own... my companion, my lover...
The Book of Counted Sorrows is the creation and property of Dean R. Koontz. No copyright infringement is intended.
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This page was created on March 12, 2003.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.