Episode 11: TAMAGOTCHI/THE DEAD MALL

Published: June 28, 2021, 4 a.m.
Duration: 32 minutes 38 seconds

A letter writer reminisces about his strange childhood pet. Conway explores the guts of an abandoned mall and finds someone he wasn't looking for. Wren gets chewed out for something they can't control. (CWs: body horror, brief mention of violence and death, alcohol, dead animal, whispering, some strong language) TRANSCRIPT: Hello, this is Wren, claims adjuster for the Dead Letter Office of *******, Ohio. The following audio recording will serve as evidence for Conway’s case. Public release of this or any other evidence is strictly prohibited. Some names and facts have been censored for the protection of the office.  As we’ve previously established, forward and backward are not necessarily stable concepts. So let’s begin today by looking at the next letter in Conway’s backlog, which may give me insight into what happened to him. Dead letter 14417, a long note written on several folded pieces of printer paper, sent by a Stephen ***** to his mother in late 2016. The letter reads as follows.  NARRATOR STEPHEN: Hey mom. Did I ever have a pet growing up? I know dad never wanted one and then Dave was allergic. It’s getting harder to remember if this actually happened or if it’s a vivid dream that’s stuck with me through the years. Before high school hit me like a semi truck, you’d let me bike up to the arcade at the Deerland Mall on the weekends.  LOUDSPEAKER: “WELCOME TO THE DEERLAND MALL, YOU’LL GO BUCK WILD FOR THESE DEALS! Our store hours are: 9am to 7pm” *slowly fades out* NARRATOR: I remember the huge globe of stale gumballs loitering in the foyer. I’d chew on them even though I knew they were rock hard and would probably cut my gums up. Sorry about the quarters missing from your purse. Then I’d stop by the candy store and get a big bag of sweaty gummies that had been sitting in the foggy display case for god knows how long and a tall cherry coke from the concession stand.  The light gun shooters and fighting game cabinets there were cool enough, but my favorite was the racing game. It had a whole mock driver’s seat that moved side to side as you steered. It was also more expensive to play than the others, so I’m sorry about the missing dollar bills. Whatever change I had leftover after a few laps of hairpin turns went into the vending machine full of capsule toys. Since I couldn’t get a dog, I was desperate for one of those new Tamagotchi toys. But where was I gonna get a whole twenty dollars? Coincidentally, the top prize advertised on the machine was a bright blue Tamagotchi. I was old enough to know there was probably only one in there, if any at all. I knew I’d probably end up spending more than twenty dollars trying to get it, yet here I was pouring money down the slot anyway instead of saving it up to buy one. On a particular lazy afternoon, the arcade was empty: not too uncommon for a summer weekday. I put two quarters in the slot on the capsule machine, twisted the tough old crank, and out dropped a peculiar toy. The capsule itself was identical to the others: a translucent plastic casing, a bubble with a colorful top that popped off. Almost like an acorn fallen from a petroleum tree. But what was inside the case gave me pause then, and still makes me uneasy today. I cracked it open under the flickering lights of the arcade. Inside wasn’t a Tamagotchi, but rather an egg: bigger than a robin’s egg but about the same color with a few white spots, and surprisingly heavy for a toy its size. What’s a thirteen-year-old boy want with a plastic egg? Waste of 50 cents, I thought. I put it in its case and set it on top of the claw machine so I could go play a game about shooting aliens in area 51. I was winding down a blocky corridor when I heard something behind me. I had thought I was the only one in there. I froze, and a bead of prickly sweat rolled down my neck. I turned my head to the entrance of the arcade. Nobody there. I scanned the stained carpet for anything out of place. Spilled on the ground near the rusty change machine was the capsule I’d just won, split up as a cracked egg. The toy that was inside sat upright among the wreckage. I took a step closer, still gripping the orange gun tethered to the cabinet. The egg on the ground shook. A tiny wobble. I shut my eyes hard for a few seconds, inducing those familiar mental fireworks, then looked again. Another teeter. I pointed the light gun at it and fired. Kid logic would state that if this toy came to life, it could similarly be brought down by a toy gun. By then my connection to kid logic was hanging on by a single synapse, constantly threatening to disappear from my thought patterns forever, on the precipice of the bigger, darker realizations that the adult world foists upon the unsuspecting teen. Well, sometimes kid logic doesn’t hold up to real world testing anyway. But now this blue egg had my interest: it was a curiosity, an oddity, and nothing sparks the young imagination quite like oddity. I picked it up gingerly and put it under my baseball cap. Under the blinding sun outside I hopped on my bike and rode home. Back at the house, I breezed past you and Dave without a word and stomped up the stairs. Looking at my prize in the familiar light of my room, it didn’t seem to be moving at all. Once again in the mundane, away from the caffeine surges and sugar crashes and flashing numbers, it was just a plastic egg. Maybe it had actually moved, or maybe I just really hoped it would. I set it on my bedside table and forgot about it for the rest of the day. I woke up in the middle of the night to something scurrying around my room. I didn’t see it at first. Too dark, too small, too quick. I only heard the chattering and scuffling. I stood up on the bed and surveyed my room. There was something moving in the pile of dirty laundry in the corner. I crept over to the clothes and peered into the moving sleeve of my sweater. Inside was a tiny, fleshy thing. No bigger than the palm of my hand, barely more than a tan blob with black eyes and a wide mouth. It had glommed onto a green army man I used to play with all the time, some years ago forgotten in the halting dust of my adolescent closet. It was gnawing on the soldier’s helmet, content with its prey. I reached in to gently pull the toy away, but it was hanging on with thin, fingerless limbs. Under its round body were small nubs planted firmly to the floor. When I managed to wrestle the toy away, it let out an odd chirp, like a strained baby bird. The little guy was probably hungry. If it sounded like a bird and came from an egg like a bird, maybe it would eat like a bird. So I gathered some seeds and nuts from the pantry and scattered them in front of it. The thing poked around a bit with its probing mouth, but it didn’t seem that interested. Then it hit me: momma birds chew up the food for them when they’re young. I mashed a handful of peanuts around in my mouth and leaned over the blob to spit. I’ll tell you it didn’t go well. I tiptoed to the darkened kitchen for some paper towels to clean the thing off. When I returned to the pile of dirty laundry, the creature had found another favorite childhood possession: a blue gameboy game. I’d spent dozens of hours playing it to collect all the monsters, but I hadn’t touched in a while. The creature had the corner of the plastic cartridge in its mouth. I figured it probably couldn’t do much to damage the game, seeing as it didn’t have any teeth, so I let it gum on for while. Big mistake. It closed its mouth around the cartridge, and I heard a muffled snap. It set down the game, the corner roughly broken off and missing. The creature swallowed the chunk and chittered with joy. Arcade bird eats arcade games. Made sense at the time. I brought it another game, a game I wouldn’t mind losing. The tiny blob ignored it and wandered over to my binder full of baseball cards. It ducked its head under the cover and started nibbling on the corner of my Ken Griffey Jr rookie card. I rushed over and pulled it away. Never have I been more thankful for a thin plastic sleeve. So what did this thing want if not games? Well, after an hour or so of testing its palette, I had some promising results. My favorite gameboy game? Yes. My pillowcase? No. Baseball card? Yes. The small tv in my room? No. My lucky hat? Yes.  I slowly put together over that early morning that this creature only wanted to eat things I had an attachment to. It could sense my emotional connection to certain objects, and sought those out. I let it finish the game cartridge it had started eating since it was functionally useless now anyway. It seemed satisfied, and passed out in the laundry basket. A few days went by. The creature wasn’t just a blob anymore: it had a bigger torso, longer front limbs, and extended legs. It looked more animal now and less like a ball of skin. I started calling it Creech, short for creature. Real original, right? Hey, I was thirteen, cut me some slack.  You remember the “imaginary friend” I would hang out with? That was Creech. We grew together for a time, though it much faster than me. It got taller, longer. Its head rounded out. Creech started standing mostly upright and used its fingerless arms to manipulate objects and simple tools. It would respond to my calls, and chatter back in a manner a parrot newly learning to speak might. As its body grew, so did its hunger. There were only so many old toys and games around my room that it would eat, and only a few left that I was willing to part with. I couldn’t buy it food or sneak scraps from the kitchen, it wouldn’t touch them. Lucky for us, late summer is garage sale season around here. So every muggy August morning, Creech and I hopped on my bike, the little guy barely concealed under my yellowing cap, and rode the neighborhoods searching for pieces of other people’s pasts. Yeah, you guessed it: sorry for the missing 20s. A faded picture of a deceased husband. A ratty teddy bear from a relationship gone stale. Worn kid’s shoes. These things seemed to have an aura, some weight to them that Creech could sense, and it pointed me to the most potent objects: dated comics, grimy games, scratched records, vessels for fond memories ready to be consumed again.  We played together in the park, had pizza in the mall food court, won rigged games at the county fair. Creech was my secret pet, my friend. We spent the whole hot summer together, enjoying my last long days before high school started. While Creech consumed these bittersweet artifacts that boiling summer, it started looking distinctly more humanoid. It grew rudimentary fingers, long toes. Creech stayed pretty hairless, and its eyes still stared endlessly, round and black. Its long mouth hung open, and took up the lower half of its face, sans nose. It was cute, in the way a pug’s cute. As the last days of August crawled sweatily on, Creech needed more to feed on, stronger emotions, objects loaded with more joy, or more pain. And it was almost up to my knee by then. I felt the scratching of a bad idea at the back of my mind. An echo deep within a cave, or a fuzzy radio signal you can almost make out if you tune it right. A violent movie you can nearly see through the garbled static of a channel you’re not supposed to get. I looked at that screen for a moment, anxious but deeply curious. Could it feed on more than old toys and trinkets people used to love? Could it feed on a connection a little more...potent? Something a little more...living? But that signal was too garbled, too big for my mind at the time.  As the season’s credits started to roll, I reflected on my own past, on the people and things I used to care about so deeply. Why did I shove my stuffed animals in the closet? Why couldn’t I feel the same way watching Power Rangers that I used to? Somewhere deep inside, I felt my first blustery wave of nostalgia. I was about to transition to high school, another unskippable cutscene, another click up the rollercoaster, leading to the inevitable drop into adulthood. Into game over. I wanted to get off, to stop for a minute and really take in what I had--what I was--before then, but I was already past the platform. No getting off now, no slowing down. When you’re young, every moment is always ahead of you: the myriad loves, disappointments, triumphs, and failures are further up the track. It’s not until something’s behind you that you can anticipate how sweet it was, and how sweet it must stay. Or maybe that’s how I see it now that I’m old, my perception of time stretching out and compressing. So many things I’ll never get back. How sweet it all seems now.  Mom, if I told you about Creech, I knew I’d be grounded, but I couldn’t keep feeding it alone. I didn’t see my teachers during summer break, and I thought the cops might kill it, or take it in for military study if I showed them. I couldn’t keep hiding it and hoping no one would get suspicious of a 13 year old boy constantly rifling through antique shops. It wasn’t fair to either of us. It was time to let go. So Creech happily climbed into my backpack that simmering day like any other, one leg at a time, hungry and eager. It barely fit in there by then, even curled up, and it was getting heavy to carry around. We peddled out of town for a while, way out past where the asphalt veins break down into gravel arteries that wind around brutalist cornstalk ribs. Into the limitless moony analog heartland. Past where Old Lady Carruthers fed the stray cats that howled at her window every morning. Where the Baldridge brothers--who grew up good christian boys like their small town bigshot daddy--beat a guy half to death on Cottonwood Road cause he looked a bit funny. They ended up at Case Western. Where the adults turned to stone and the kids either left or drank and drank until their guts fell out and they fossilized too, because what else is there to do when the horizon ahead of you is so damn flat. Where I’d learned how to swim when I was 6, had my first real crush at 12, crashed my car into a pole at 17, left for a better life at 24 and came back at 30. Out where Creech had no clue that after today, we wouldn’t see each other again for 16 years.  We crossed Holcomb road and slowed beside the gray picket trees. I figured it’d be safe out here, no predators and plenty of space to roam and get big. I opened the backpack and let Creech out in the tall grass. It looked at me, then around at the rising branches and leaves. It hadn’t been this far out of town before, probably had no idea that trees got this tall or this plenty.  I pointed into the still gloamy woods, streaks of bloody sunset banding across our faces. “Go on, bud. I can’t take care of you anymore.” Creech simply stared at me. It saw the tears welling in my eyes, but didn’t know what they meant. “Go!” It winced, and said what was almost name, in the best way that its toothless mouth could. Sparse clouds painted contusions overhead in thick pink blocks. I wanted to stay here with it forever, to remember this for all time. I wanted to carve my initials into the support beam. But if I stayed much longer, I’d never leave, and we might get spotted. I pulled my hat low against the burning punctured yolk of sun dripping yellow across the field. I straddled my bike and sped off in a cloud of dusty stone, leaving Creech alone and unmoored in Holcomb Woods. Mom, I have to confess something. I’m not just writing to check up on you or jaw on endlessly about my childhood. See Creech came back today. I saw it out behind the Green’s house, eyeing their precious terrier through the screen door. Then it saw me. Creech got big. Real big. It looks different from before, too. When it was treated well and eating our stuff, it started looking like us: human. But its eyes are harder, its posture more hunched and bestial.  I had hoped that writing this out would imbue the letter with enough feeling to pack a real punch for it. But Creech isn’t buying it. Creech wants something more. Now that I’m done, I’m actually having a hard time remembering what I wrote. Guess I wore myself out getting flowery near the end, huh. Seeing Creech brought up so many memories, but it’s hard to think. What was I saying? Well anyway, I’ve got a last ditch, hail mary idea. Something that might have enough ambient nostalgia to sate it: the Deerland Mall. With its shuttered storefronts, empty theaters, and abandoned junk, there ought to be enough memory impressions and lingering ghosts of the past for it to stay full for years. Now it’s hungry, mom. Real hungry. I don’t think it’ll hurt me, it remembers me. But I’m not sure it’ll have the same courtesy for others. That reminds me... Wait. What was I thinking of? Keeps happening today. Brain zaps. I’m remembering something then Creech is there and it’s gone. Ah, nevermind.  All my love, Stephen   WREN: While I can’t intuit a direct line from the content of this letter to Conway’s disappearance, I have to wonder if the theme of this story is relevant here. A thing once fondly recalled has been twisted and offered for consumption. Something dark within revealed. I believe I have some insight into Conway’s headspace the day he left. He was remembering something. But memory can be treacherous. If you bring the wrong thing back from the past, you can alter your life forever. I suppose we’ll keep this letter in our vault for the time be-- *old phone rings* WREN: Oh.  *Wren answers the phone* WREN: H-hello?  *Static on the other line*  WREN: Is anyone there? *whispered* Conway?  *phone hangs up* WREN: I guess it was a wrong number.   CONWAY:  I arrived at the dilapidated shopping center thirsty and weary. Lettering on the facade indicated that this was the Deerland Mall, though most of the letters in Deerland had been busted or stolen by wayward youth, leaving only “the D E A D Mall.” The glass doors were rusty at the hinges, covered in reaching fingers of ivy. The signs plastered to the glass had been bleached almost white by the sun. About as good a natural “do not enter here” signal as it gets. The doors weren’t locked but they did take a bit of doing to open. The place wasn’t in much better shape on the inside either. Most of the lights overhead were burnt out. The foyer--or is it foy-ay?--was gently illuminated by some waning daylight peeking in through the glass ceiling. Something crackled over the speakers. *Mall greeting from earlier plays, but glitched out* CONWAY: A huge gumball machine sat in the center of the open area, still half full of candy. The treats had lost a lot of their luster, but to their credit they still looked edible. Lord knows what chemicals made that possible. In front of the machine was a coin operated carousel of shabby horses. The steed in front had an anguished look on its face, you know the kind of wild expression horses get sometimes, where their lips curl up in a grimace. It’s gaze was aimed backward, desperately trying to look behind it. As if it was being...pursued. I poked my head around and looked at the other horses on the ride; all of them were similarly horrified by something behind them. But they went in a circle. So. Huh.  A sign on the coin repository read: “Money changer in the game room.” Below that someone had crudely written in sharpie “game changer in the money room.” Okay, Banksy, calm down. Beyond this pale circle of light near the entrance, the abandoned corridors were pitch black besides an occasional flicker from whatever animating force remained in the few viable bulbs.  I fished out my phone. No reception, but I could at least use its flashlight and maybe see where I was going. I pulled the map out of my back pocket and shone my phone’s light on its faded surface. Down the central strut, past an arcade and a shuttered JC Penny was the mall security office. I hoped there’d be some tools there to get this briefcase off my wrist, and if nothing else it was a decent place to hole up for the night. I led with the LED light and crept down the dark, damp corridor. The tiles overhead were blackened in large circles with water damage and mold. No doubt loaded with enough asbestos to shred my lungs just by looking at ‘em. You’ll go buck wild for these deals, indeed.  I walked by a play place on my left that blinked with dim light. “Come play in Bucky’s World” the dingy sign said in three different fonts. A reeking odor from the place gut punched me and halted my breath. Fetid water stood covering the cheap linoleum flooring, and grime oozed up the legs of kid’s chairs and slides. The stars and stripes dangled limply in the stillness of the scene. Salty choking stench spilled from the playroom as flies buzzed around a deer’s head decomposing in the middle of the puddle. Come play.  Being in this place called to mind my own, very different experiences of my local mall. Went almost every weekend to see movies with friends once I was old enough to drive. But unless you were looking for dated clothes or illegal firearms and shady sports memorabilia, there wasn’t much there anymore. I can still remember the smell, though. The way voices echoed off the high ceilings. The scratchy fabric of the theater seats. The gaudy carpeting, somehow always sticky with something. My first kiss in the parking lot after a matinee. It was all flooding back at once, stronger than usual, one image, one scent connecting to another. Packs of japanese pokemon cards, uncomfortable slacks, greasy pepperoni pizza. These vivid memories here cracked open and rotting like a black tooth. And that’s when I heard something moving in a vacant storefront. A weird slapping and squeaking, close to bare skin dragging on tile. I had hoped maybe it was an old couple on their usual morning mall walk, I guess barefoot, amazing what the mind will conceive to paper over reality. I turned the direction of the noise and shone the flashlight into the room.  It was an old arcade. Most of the machines missing, leaving a brighter spot on the wall where they stood. A claw machine sat crumpled near the entrance. Through the cracked glass case, I could see a few mildew-covered plushes laying face-down like waterlogged corpses in a lake. The floor was littered with these empty plastic capsules. In the rear was a storage room. The door was hanging open. I pointed the light that way and saw a broken face. It was yellow, missing a rounded ear, with cracks up its face and under its black eyes. It was reaching into a jar of something. Was it...honey? This was a busted winnie the pooh ride that must have been shoved into storage before the mall closed. Something else was on the edge. A long fleshy hand gripping onto the plastic exterior. From inside the ride rose a thin, reedy thing. Half-human, with spindly limbs, a bulbous head. Its toothless mouth was dangling impossibly low. It stood probably twice my height, and stretched a leg over the rim. I didn’t stay long enough to see the rest of it. A guttural screech echoed through the mall. It almost sounded like language, but I couldn’t understand it. I turned tail and ran. Something boomed over the loudspeaker. MAN OVER THE LOUDSPEAKER: “When the twilight is gone, and no songbirds are singing, God comes through the lines and sits in the streetlights. He waves but you can’t see it. Should we all be so lucky as to be touched by the waving man in the light.” CONWAY: The fluorescent bulbs in the play place across the hall flashed. Now the deer head rose from the rancid pool, hanging skin and nylon flag draped like vestments across the bone, exposed teeth stark dealership white. In its wake were shadowy figments, jittering out of the bulbs overhead in bursts of sickening light. Their forms were sketchy, vibrating lines. One reached a palm my way and buzzed like a guitar plugged in wrong. Come play in Bucky’s World. I could feel my chest aching as it drew closer, a lightning bolt salvation. Come play.  I was sprinting now, holding tight to the damn empty briefcase as it flopped and bounced at my side with each step. I was heading straight for the security office. Are mall cops allowed to have guns? For the first time in my life I hoped they did. I wound down a narrow side path, avoiding the public restrooms and pay phone covered in stickers, the buzzing and wheezing following close behind. At the end was an office. I struggled with the sweaty doorknob for a minute, then slammed my shoulder into the door and stumbled into the room. Gone was the miasma of mildew and lucid nightmare. The gentle two-tone mint and white walls invited me in. The door shut behind me with a click, and the commotion outside ceased. The office was small and tidy. In the center was a wooden desk accompanied by a lacquered chair. A pristine rotary phone sat atop the table, warping the spacetime around and drawing menacing attention like a gravity well. A corkboard sat centered behind the desk, with a couple old flyers and a key ring pinned to it. I moved to the desk and slid open the side drawers. No guns, but I did find a lockpick and got to work on the cuffs. Not 5 minutes and they were off, and the briefcase dropped to the carpet.  I rubbed my sore wrist and looked around the office again. That damn phone, inescapable, ringing in my head. A barn on fire on a moonless night. I kicked around a thought. Maybe if a phone got me into this, another could get me out. I picked up the sleek mint receiver and dialed the number I had called before, my old phone number, with a trembling hand. I waited and waited and listened. Nothing. Hm. Maybe in a better story it would have worked. What about my office number? Maybe someone was filling in for me today. I gave it a shot, but all I heard was some static. Then the line cut out. While this little office seemed relatively safe, I couldn’t just hang out in here forever. Especially if those things were still outside. I pored over the old map again and planned out my best route to the exit from here. It was going to be a close one. I crept out through the door and toward the end of this narrow hallway. Didn’t see any sign of the things that were pursuing me earlier. Of course that’s always what they say right before they get got, huh.  A screech rang out from the stinking guts of the gangrenous mall. More volleys of low droning from the other way, the dissonant warning bell of place already dead, that doesn’t know it’s dead yet. An air raid siren from a collapsed empire. I took off in the direction of my planned route. But you know what they say about god and plans. The sinewy flesh giant was already nearly on me by the time I crossed the peeling wildlife mural in the kid’s food court. In a desperate attempt at distraction, I threw the old magazine I’d been navigating by into what used to be a pretzel store, if the tattered twisty signage was anything to go by. The creature suddenly turned and leapt over the high counter with its long limbs to gnaw on the coupons and photos inside. I still had yet to contend with the shaking shadows and the offal deerhead priest. I was puffing and winded. I rounded the last corner on my route and felt my stomach sink. Rather than a door out of there, I found a closed gate. They must have built an addition to the mall since that magazine came out. Nothing can ever just stay the same here, can it? Gotta always be growing, always making more, and more than more. Or maybe the mall did this itself, continued to slink and slither through the clogged arteries of the midwest even after everyone left.  The hairs on my neck stood cornstalk straight and goosebumps sprouted across my arms. My chest tightened from the electric pull of the visions behind me. There was a sharp hot pain in my core, as if my heart was about to catch fire and burn hollow. A barn ablaze deep in the indigo dusk. The decaying godhead wreathed in stars stretched its exposed tendons as if to speak. *incomprehensible whispers* That’s when the gate in front of me rose, with the clanking, grinding brash of machinery that’s sat dormant too long. I was baptized by a deluge of corporate light. Blue and yellow franchise lettering plastered the walls, below which hung shelves lined with black tapes. A man sat behind a counter, surrounded by rows of rainbow candy boxes and expired popcorn on sale. A video store. He motioned for me with a fishing rod in hand. “Come on in, Conway, and come quick. I’ve got something that might interest you.” WREN: Now that I’m done cataloguing my findings for the day, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the people who make all this possible. Thank you to our brave carrier Flo, and to our wonderful receiving clerks Jessica and Gadz. For the Dead Letter Office of ******* Ohio, this is claims adjuster Wren signing off. *click* *off mic* WREN: Oh, hi. I didn’t see you come in.  *static from The Boss*  WREN: No, I’m done. *dissonant static* WREN: No, look, it’s fine, the light’s off. Hey, I got a call earlier that might-- *static* WREN: Did I do something wrong? I get the feeling that you-- *intense static* WREN: Right. Well if anything like that happens again, I’ll--I’ll report it to you right away. Okay. I’ll just...keep reading the old mail then. *long static* WREN: See you then. WREN: Might as well not even have me here if this is all I’m allowed to do. How am I supposed to do my job if I just sit here and read all day and get yelled at for answering a phone? I could use a drink. Maybe I’ll head to the Song B-- Oh shit. The mic’s still h--.  *CLICK*

Listed in: Fiction

Episode 10: SONG BIRD

Published: June 7, 2021, 4 a.m.
Duration: 32 minutes 32 seconds

Previously... Receiving Clerk Conway was asked to look into an angel statue and a missing mail carrier named Kenji on behalf of the Dead Letter Office. During the investigation, Conway encountered a strange lost fisherman and some odd postcards with unsettling connections to his past. After finding Kenji's body holding a phone, Conway called the phone number on one of the postcard and received some disturbing information: he couldn't recall his own last name, and realized he was being set up. And what did the lost fisherman mean when he said Conway isn't real? At least not yet? Now, a new face has arrived at the DLO to sort through the mess Conway left behind: claims adjuster Wren is on the case. On their first day at the office, karaoke night at a dive bar turns weird and Conway finds himself somewhere he shouldn't be. Some lyrics from Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads "Fool" originally by Frankie Cosmos (CWs--mild spoilers: birds, bugs, brief blood, alcohol, smoking, brief harassment, very mild body horror, some strong language, romance?) TRANSCRIPT:  CONWAY ON TAPE:...gonna pick up the phone and dial this number. WREN: Now you’ve heard everything I have. Conway’s vanished, leaving only a trail of disconnected audio memos for me to follow. His last known location was here, at the Dead Letter Office of ******* Ohio. He was supposedly asked to investigate a large package in some other post office, but the DLO has no record of this request, and no idea where he went. Hello, I’m--wait, am I supposed to introduce myself, or is this more of a formal...Okay. Then let’s start at the beginning, where I come in. I want to be as thorough as possible. No loose ends. I had just hung up a bird feeder on the front porch. I like watching all the little birds stop by. The robins, the jays, the sparrows, their colorful plumage and vibrant songs. They take turns plucking seeds out of the holes in the cylinder and sing their small hearts out.  It was an afternoon, still a little chilly. Summer hadn’t quite hit full swing. A couple of Carolina Finches were pecking at the small bugs and shells left by their brethren on the concrete. The birds weren’t aware of the hawk landing in the tree behind them. They’re not aware of the movements of empires, the fluctuations of markets that destroy their homes. They only see what’s in front of them: the sky to the ground, the egg to the dirt, is now. A moment later and the raptor descended on the surprised prey in a flurry of chirps and flaps. The small birds scattered in a panic, one slammed into the window then took off and the other found itself tangled in the freshly torn mesh on my screen door. Having missed its chance, the hawk turned, soaring far out over the houses down the block. None of these birds would be lunch that day. This was a relief. I didn’t want to see my visitors get eaten. I mean, I eat chicken already, it’s not all that different, but I still feel bad for the little birds. I figure if I were an animal, I’d be like them, picking at seeds and singing my little song. Noteworthy to those paying attention, but a background detail--a bit player in the grand scene--to others. Realistically, though, I could just as easily be a hawk. Hungry, waiting patiently on the sidelines for my chance, disliked by most. Reaching out and missing. Chronic bad luck.  I heard my phone buzz on the coffee table, but I had to get this finch out of my screen first. I opened the heavy door and found the thing flapping and screeching, its foot caught in the screen. I gently unwrapped the fabric from its leg, despite its vociferous protestations, and it burst free, tearing through the air to join its friends on the telephone wire. I went back in and answered the call. It was the DLO. I was being transferred to some nowhere post in Ohio. Supposedly a temporary assignment, though I guess they all are in the long run. There was a case there that needed an expert’s opinion. They always manage to have the worst timing.  Yes, if I were an animal, I’d probably be the scrappy songbird. Or maybe the hawk. Or maybe I’m just the beetle lodged in the finch’s beak, surrounded by a vast unknowable world, an ocean of interconnected things and events totally beyond my comprehension, then summarily devoured without a second thought. *Intro music* WREN: Hello, I’m Wren, claims adjuster for the Dead Letter Office. I’m here to determine if Conway disappeared on the job, and to judge if the DLO is required to make an insurance payout to his next of kin. I’ll be examining his audio memos and the dead mail backlog in his inbox for any clues as to his whereabouts.  The following audio recording will serve as evidence for his case. Public release of this or any other evidence is strictly prohibited. Some names and facts have been censored for the protection of the office.  Now in cases like this, it’s important to take in more than just the events. I need a feel for the atmosphere, the scene, the anxieties. I need to understand not only where Conway is but how he is. And how he got there. What was ahead of him in his work pile may have influenced what was in front of him: the past outlines the future, and the future colors the past. So with this simple understanding that what’s to come is sometimes the driver of what was in mind, let’s begin with the next piece in Conway’s backlog. Dead Letter 17216. This was found on a review website, written by a civilian named Mel. An unconventional entry to be sure, fitting for an unconventional case. She wrote the following: MEL: "And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself, "Well... how did I get here?" Friday night, dive bar on the north side of town. Easy to miss from the outside, unmistakable inside.  Like nearly every friday, I pushed through the swinging door and was enveloped in neon light and pulsating music. I was cleansed of my stress by giving in to song, to cheering along and dancing arm in arm, to reunions and meetups. Friday is karaoke night at the Song Bird, the premier queer dive and diy venue in town. Stickers for a thousand defunct bands with names like “Two Dog Folly” and “Slumgrinder” cover the walls and pillars. Even if all they did was play a couple house shows in the fall of 2013 before disbanding, their legacy will live on here, until it’s composted in the churn of revolving vinyl and covered by hopeful new names and faces sprouting forth from the paper loam. Local artists hang their weird paintings up for sale, and greasy food simmers in the kitchen in the back. On karaoke night at the Bird, I’m alive. It’s the one time each week I get to pretend there’s something more to my boring life, more to me, than the usual routine. To reach out for something, anything beyond ordinary. Or to drop the poetic language for a while, I like to blow off steam after work by singing really loud at strangers.  I came in that friday, and a woman I’d seen a few times before was sitting in the last booth. She had been coming to the Bird for a few weeks, but never met up with anyone, never sang, never even said hello as far as I could tell. She would quietly watch people sing and pick at the duct tape on the peeling plastic booth before leaving without a word. What was her deal? She had jet black hair, the kind that’s almost blue or green in this light or that. Big dark eyes. Always wearing a black choker with a little pendant on it. I assumed the whole mysterious silent thing was intentional, part of her vibe. So on this sweltering august evening, I was going to find out exactly what her deal was, and maybe finally have something interesting in my life. It was slow at the Song Bird that night despite the weather. The bar was only half-full by 11. I had just finished my second song, and saw the woman in black head out the back door where the smokers congregate to shoot shit and blow smoke. I stepped off stage and went out for a smoke, too. And there she was, looking up at the moon and taking in the hot summer air. Someone else was under the awning, letting out a plume of vapor into the sky. The woman in black turned my way. Her hair shimmered under the tangerine light as she moved. I locked eyes with her, but her gaze was intense, her eyes absorbing all light and thought. I hesitated. Her attention was almost too much. MEL: “Smoke?” I managed to spit out as I fished for the gold pack in my bag. She gently nodded.  I told her I’d seen her a few weeks in a row now, but I never heard her sing. She pursed her lips, and spoke softly.  AVERY: “I don’t really like being on stage like that. I’m just here to listen.” I had an eerie feeling I’d heard her voice before, but I couldn’t place it. Did I actually know her and I just couldn’t remember it? Because God, that would be embarrassing. MEL: “You sound so familiar. Do you know Jackie, maybe?”She said she gets that a lot, and the corner of her mouth inched upward into a slight smile. I finally grabbed hold of my pack. I pulled out a cigarette and lit it, inhaling deeply. I grabbed another and held it between my fingers, offering it out in her direction. A lock of her hair fell onto her cheek as she leaned forward. She swept the dark strand back behind her ear, where it hung just partway down her neck below dangling silver earrings. Her parted lips touched the cigarette. I was about to let go and offer the lighter when her teeth clamped down, snapping the cigarette neatly in half. She tilted her head back, half of the thing still in her mouth, her form illuminated by the incandescent glow above. She swallowed it, then looked back at me. The half-eaten cigarette fell from my limp hand. My mouth was hanging open, my own cigarette stuck to my lip and smouldering. I gawked at her for a moment, just totally stunned. The woman behind me tucked her vape into her pocket and hurried inside. A section of ash that had been building up fell, and I realized I’d been holding my breath. I let it all out at once with a cough. I held the pack out to her with a shaky hand. MEL: “Okay, uhhm do you want another?” I wasn’t sure if I was joking.  She held up her hand politely and shook her head, as if she was declining an hors d'oeuvre, and not like she had just eaten a cigarette out of my hand. I took another drag, and then stomped it out under my boot. I was feeling a little light headed. She was a little bit taller than me, in a black skirt with matching tights and collared shirt. I asked her name. She said Avery. I opened the door for us to head back in. MEL: “Well, Avery, I’m Mel. I’d love to hear you sing some time.”  I smiled and gave her the awkward finger guns I do when I’m nervous, then turned to go back inside. The dizzy purple stage lights and sneering guitars dazed me as I entered, and also conveniently masked the look on my red face. I heard a rush of air, peered back through the closing door, and she was gone.  Next week a group of friends and I walked to the Song Bird. I was fidgeting with my lighter in my jacket pocket the whole way. I was secretly hoping to see Avery there again, despite what had happened last time. It was a strange first impression, sure, but a strong one. When we got there, she was in her usual spot, cool and collected. I tried to play it cool, too. I nodded and waved as we walked by, my lighter tucked between my thumb and palm. Her eyes intently followed the shining metal as it moved. Then she blinked hard a few times and gave a brief wave back. I asked her if she was going to sing tonight. She looked down at the table and tucked her hair behind her ear. She ran a fingertip along her neck and gave some noncommittal answer. I told her she could join us any time, if she wanted to. A few drinks and a few songs in, the bar was pretty packed. I pushed my way through the crowd at the counter to get a refresher when I saw two men near Avery in my periphs. One was resting against the table and pointing at her necklace. She looked uncomfortable. I took a sip of my new drink, slammed a few dollars on the bar, and jostled through the dancing throng in her direction. The guy pressed one hand on the table and leaned over her. He reached for the black ribbon around her neck with his other hand. She physically recoiled, but he didn’t move. I shoved my way through the crowd and yelled over the tone-deaf crooner on stage. MEL: “Leave her the fuck alone!”  The men looked up with a start, then chuckled when they saw me, small, alone. I glanced toward the bartender. He understood. He slowly made his way out from behind the bar and toward the table. The guy hassling Avery held his hands up. The two of them scoffed and slurred under their breath as they left through the swinging door.  MEL: “God, Sorry Avery,” I spoke loudly over the woozy atmosphere. I asked her to sit with us. She didn’t seem to be listening. Instead, she furrowed her brow and her eyes lit up. She rose, then swung the door open and stepped out. I could see the two jerks loitering under the chalky streetlight. The door swung back, and I could see her approaching them. A shorter swing outward and they had some kind of twisted up look on their faces, but I could only see the back of Avery’s head. As the door did its final bow and closed, they were running, screaming. I swore I saw streaks of red running down their faces. But again, a few drinks in and a few songs in, so... Then in stepped Avery, calmly adjusting her choker and dusting off her skirt. She gave me a nod and followed me to where my friends were sitting. I introduced her to the crew. When she spoke, one of my karaoke pal--Sam--gave me a weird side-eye. I shrugged it off. Avery’s chill, I thought, they’ll figure it out. She’s a little eccentric, maybe, but cool. She’s got her own thing going. Kind of jealous, honestly. I don’t think I have a really distinct vibe or unique look, but Avery certainly did. I wanted to be like that, to be like her. Or was it be with her. I don’t know. Samantha was looking at me as I stared off into the projector. They thought I’d said something, swore they heard my voice. Sam asked Avery what she does. Sam, you angel, you knew I was desperate to learn more about our mystery woman.  AVERY: “Oh I uh...collect things. I fly pretty often, too.”  Ah, a trust fund kid. I should have known. You don’t usually stay that effortlessly hot working the graveyard at Wendy’s. Before I could learn much more, it was my turn at the mic. Avery stopped me for a second. As I stood up, her nimble fingers pulled some unseen fuzz out of my hair. I tried to thank her but my throat went dry for some reason. And then I was up on stage, yelling about yearning or anarchy depending on the night, and my friends were on their feet, mingling and swaying. Avery was still sitting among the empty chairs. She was watching me, bathed in swirling dots of light, now pink, now blue. Her lips were moving slightly along with the lyrics. I shut my eyes and belted out a chorus. When I looked into the crowd again, Avery was gone. Afterwards, my friends said she had to go. Early morning. Bummer. Next week, the booth at the back was empty. I gotta be honest, I was disappointed, but not too surprised. Nothing interesting ever happens to me. She was too good for me, anyway. She’s probably out doing something cool, maybe with a boyfriend. Another work week slurry slipped by, and we checked into the Song Bird again.  I hit the notes, but my heart wasn’t really in it. When you’re doing karaoke, heart’s what matters. No one’s here for a concert, they want to sing along to the fun songs they know. If you get up and do some jokey track or esoteric stuff, everyone’s gonna think you’re a jackass. You have to be sincere. And wow did I turn achingly sincere when I saw Avery filter through the crowd mid-Blondie song. She stood and hopped back and forth among the rippling crowd and vivid afterglow. I pointed to Avery as I recited the lyrics, and she beamed and turned a little red. It didn’t last, though. She winced, and her fingertips felt for the ribbon on her neck. She darted out back. I pulled Jackie on stage and handed off the mic. I trailed after her. I didn’t want her to slip away again. I pushed through the back door. The air was heavy and hot on my skin. I asked if she was okay. She was facing away from me under the awning. Around us, the city was busy with late summer reverie. I heard firecrackers somewhere a couple blocks away, and sickly houses lining the road overflowed with rancid frat energy.  AVERY: “I just...I don’t know why I came back. I shouldn’t be here. YOU shouldn’t be here, with me.” I started to ask why, but she didn’t look like she wanted to answer. She just studied the gravel under feet and her hand went instinctively to her neck. MEL: “Whatever it is, it’s fine. I just shouted bad french at a room full of strangers. Do I look like I have shame? It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a bunch of dirty money or a boyfriend or whatever, I’m not here for that.” I gently took her arm. Her skin was a little clammy despite the heat, but she didn’t withdraw. MEL: “Let’s go. I think it’s just about your turn...if you’re comfortable.” I didn’t want to pressure her, but I figured it may do her some good, help her break out of her shell. She sighed. Her shoulders sank. She kicked a few pebbles near her feet. AVERY: “Okay, one song.” I led her by the arm back into the bar. I gave her a small card and pen in case she really did want to request a song. We sat together quietly for a while, me throwing back my fizzy drink and her slowly dipping her head down to take tiny sips at her dark concoction. Eventually, I saw her covertly write something on the card and sneak off to deliver it to the host. Samantha whispered something to me when Avery was out of ear shot. Sam had apparently just figured something out. They saw Avery at Queen of Cups a couple months ago and thought she sounded just like this other girl. Some asshole who always did like 7 minute songs there. Hadn’t seen her in a while though. Then they said something that made me uneasy. They said that Avery sounded just like me now, but...quieter. I didn’t quite understand, or didn’t want to. I thought she sounded weirdly familiar, but really? Me? No way. Jackie leaned over Sam’s shoulder, and confirmed it. I stared at the small glass in my hand, or rather through the glass, through the smudged tile floor, through the concrete foundation laid sometime in 1996, through the dirt and the fossilized skeletons of extinct things slowly rotting into fuel for our own extinction, through the earth’s burning anxious core, and stopped just short of actual introspection. They shut up when Avery made her way back and drank the dregs of her cocktail. I bought her next drink. The hazy dayglo hands of time crawled on drunk toward the inevitable cursed sunrise, until I heard the host announce the next singer. It was Avery. She looked like she didn’t expect to actually have to sing. I told her I’d do it for her if she felt like backing out, but instead, she asked me to hold her drink and hopped on stage.  Avery stood awkwardly behind the microphone. The drum machine kicked in, the speakers rattling the bottles around the bar with every quaking bass and twinkling cymbal. She held onto the mic stand, her feet close together. Then came the seismic synth, bubbling up from some deep unknown. She swayed gently along to the music, her black skirt sweeping site to side. The lyrics came up on the backdrop. She took a deep breath on the last rest and pulled the mic close to her mouth. Too close. It bumped into her chin, and feedback squealed through the bar. Surprised by the sudden shriek, she shoved the mic away. But the pendant on her silk choker was caught on the microphone. The ribbon tore from her neck and fell to the stage floor. I saw the small charm glint in the stage light. It was a silver feather. She reached for it so fast I could hardly register what was happening. But something was already in her hand. Something dark.  No, not in her hand. Coming FROM her hand. A black feather. Then several more. They sprouted from her skin, ran up her arm and rose above the collar of her shirt. They burst forth and covered her body almost entirely in downy black, slowing in a ring along the edge of her neck where the choker once was. Her black shoes split open, revealing four sharp talons. She screamed and backed away. The music thrummed and wobbled in the background. I looked sharply to my left and right, maybe for help or maybe just for confirmation that I wasn’t losing my mind. But the patrons were no longer around us, and the rest of the bar beyond the stage seemed to vanish entirely before me. It was just Avery, the microphone, and me under the spiraling multicolor spotlights and crashing cymbals. She hid her face in her newly formed wing and shouted. AVERY: “GO!” I didn’t budge. AVERY: “Well? Are you not afraid? Is this not when you call me a monster? I told you you shouldn’t be near me! And you were concerned about wealth. I...I only watched you sing so I could take your pretty voice. Every month, I must roam the city, seeking tongues to add to my collection or else be silenced. I stole your song! Don’t you get it? I’m a beast, a thing that shouldn’t exist, cursed to sing a thousand songs in a thousand voices but never my own. So run now, while you can, and never speak of me, never think of me again.”  She was towering above me now, her voice--I guess my voice?--echoed through the room. AVERY: “Fine, if you won’t go on your own, Mel, then I’ll make you.”  She stepped toward me, her claws smashing into the stage and sending splinters flying. She spread her wings, easily twice my height. She was angry, but she was shaking. There was something more there, wasn’t there? This wasn’t just about stealing my voice or whatever. She was afraid. I moved toward the stage. I reached up and took the tip of her soft wing in my hand. Time to call her bluff. MEL: “Avery...you have to understand...this just makes you even cooler. Have you ever heard of Howl’s Moving Castle?” She tilted her head. She didn’t know what to say. So I climbed onto the stage beside her. Tears streamed down her face in lines of streaky black eyeliner and trickled into the down where her shoulders used to be. MEL: “Nevermind, come on, let’s finish the song. I’ll do it with you.” I started moving to the music, clapping and faking my way through the lyrics to a song I didn’t know very well. She locked eyes with me again, and there was her deadly gaze. It made my knees feel weak. Made me feel like I was the only person in existence. Then she let out a bitter laugh. She sidled close as we shared the mic and closed out the track, shoulder to wing. As the last of the twinkling keys faded out, I picked up her choker and held it out to her. She motioned with her head at her wings and looked apologetic. Ah, no hands. Right. I wrapped the smooth black silk around her. My heart jumped into my throat. My mouth was dry. She looked down at me and spoke softly. AVERY: “And I don’t have a boyfriend.” As I finished tying the ribbon, I pulled her close and kissed her. As the black band closed around her neck, the talons receded, the feathers disappeared in a whirlwind and she was once more the mysterious girl in black. The bar materialized before us, and my friends cheered in the audience. They apparently hadn’t seen any of what just happened. I pulled away from her lips, feeling a little on the spot now. I stepped off the stage and helped Avery down. We got back to our chairs and sat in the pulsing silence. She looked terribly exhausted but I was humming with adrenaline. She rested her head on my shoulder. Her dark hair unspooled from behind her ears in circles, like minutes dripping ever onward into pools of dusky hours on that buzzing summer night. That was a year ago, and we’ve been dating since. Sure, cleaning up the feathers can be a pain. Yeah, sometimes she’ll mimic my friends or enemies to get a rise out of me. And it can be hard to pull her away from the mirror when I need it in the morning. Yes, she loves to preen. I file her talons and she paints my nails. Never a dull moment.  Mom is pretty chill about it, dad doesn’t really get it. You know, usual relationship stuff.  And I’ve never been happier. Anyway, 4 / 5 stars for the Song Bird, would recommend, just wish the bathroom wasn’t missing ceiling tiles. Melody’s review on Ye**   WREN: Nothing to be found here relating to the disappearance, unfortunately, but I think I do have a deeper understanding of this office itself. It’s lively, unpredictable. Prone to kick or bite. An unsteady bridge over a raging river. Why did you stick your hand in the current, Conway? I believe the higher ups will also want to take a look at this. I’ve scrubbed all information surrounding this review from the site. I will forward a printout to the appropriate parties for further investigation by the DLO. As a side note, I have also bookmarked the Song Bird’s address for...independent study later. OUTRO CONWAY: The winged creature stood before me, wreathed in smoke. It didn’t speak, but my mind was nevertheless flooded with images and sounds: a small town, waves breaking on the shore, an old mall, a video store, a lighthouse turned upside down, a hand reaching through the dark, a busy signal, a cave. After the smoke cleared, I shook my head, and the thing was gone. I coughed and went to cover my mouth, but found more resistance on my arm than expected. I looked down and saw a briefcase handcuffed to my right wrist. Old battered tan leather, heavy as all hell, with one of those little three number locks. I spun the dials around a few times, trying all the obvious numbers and then the funny ones (I’ll leave which those were to your imagination). I was hoping through sheer luck it would pop open, but no dice. The woods were dark, and I could hear the crickets singing in the tall grass around me. The foliage overhead was too thick to see the stars, and I had no phone or compass on me. I couldn’t just stay there, so I heaved the briefcase up and started walking in...some direction.  My mind still felt a little hazy, and the chilly air nipped at the raw skin under the cuff. I wandered around the woods for some time, no trails and no end to be found. Eventually I came upon a clearing, and in the center of that clearing was a red leather chair. Little cuts and dirt scattered its surface, some various grasses and vines growing up its legs. It looked like it had been out here a while. On the seat was a puffy little bird. It was tearing long strands of paper out of some old magazine. I approached slowly, and the bird didn’t seem to scare. It took one of the long shreds of paper up into a nearby tree. I reached for the magazine. A cheap local publication, now soiled and sun-bleached, advertising all of the amazing stores and products on offer at a new mall. A grand opening. The date on the cover was 1980-something. I flipped through the remaining pages, crinkled and stiff as they were from being soaked and dried over time. Pretty typical stuff inside: an arcade, a theater, a Sears. The last page caught my attention, though. It was a blown out photocopy of one of those mall maps. You know, a little star saying “you are here” and everything. But the star wasn’t in the mall like usual, it was outside, among some clip art trees. I was getting mighty thirsty by then, and had no real clue where I was going. This map was my best bet, so I rolled it up and stuck it in my back pocket.   I surveyed the path ahead of me in what was hopefully the direction the map intended. More tall grass, snagging branches, and thick woodland. By this point the weight of the case had worn on me, and my wrist was irritated from the handcuff. What the hell was in this thing? What exactly had I gotten myself into? I trudged forward, wearing on into the night for what seemed like hours. Dark foliage still expanded in every direction, stretching as far as I could see. My right shoulder was sore, that arm sagging with the heavy case. I swiped some thorny branches out of the way with my free hand, but the branch swung back, catching me in the abdomen. The thorns tore through my shirt and left a gash on my stomach. Blood slowly trickled down and soaked into my shirt. Certainly nowhere near life-threatening but it sure stung like hell. I tried heaving the briefcase in front of me with both hands to give my poor right arm a break. I held it close to me, closed my eyes, and took a step forward in my best estimate of the mall’s direction. That’s when I felt the air change around me, a breeze hit my face and soft dirt crumbled under my shoe. I opened my eyes and looked around. I had just stepped out of a corn field, the rich dark earth exposed from the season’s plowing. I dropped to my knees. I was so happy to be out of those woods I didn’t notice the three figures in front of me at first. I looked up with a start, and saw three people in dark robes standing about 5 yards away from me in the middle of the field. The morning sun had just started peeking over the flat horizon, and the dark figures stood out in sharp contrast to reaching stalks of corn. They had animal masks on, dark things with long beaks. Like those plague doctors wore in the middle ages. Each one was holding some kind of paper. CONWAY: “Did you do this? What do you want from me?” They didn’t respond. CONWAY: “All I did was call a phone number. I was just looking for a coworker who’d gone missing, I wasn’t looking for trouble.” But apparently trouble’d I indeed found. The three birds stepped closer to me in unison, then flipped the torn papers they’d been holding. They were pages ripped from the magazine, each one with one big number on it. I pulled the briefcase in front of me and spun the dials to those numbers. The lock clicked open. Finally I could see what was in there that was so damn important it had to be handcuffed to my wrist and dragged around the woods. I lifted the lid and it was rocks. Just rocks, of various colors and sizes  Regular, usual stones. You know, sometimes you have to laugh because well...you could finish that one. I dumped the rocks out into the field. I still couldn’t get my wrist free, but at least the case was lighter. When I rose to my feet again, the bird people were gone. And in the distance, I saw a building, surrounded by a vast gray sea of empty parking spaces and rusted street lights. A tall sign at the entrance used to show all the stores inside, but now it was just empty scaffolding. It looked like I’d found the dead mall. WREN: Now before I sign off, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the people doing all the work in our field. So thank you to intrepid carrier Flo, and to our lovely receiving clerks Jessica and Gadz. You are what make the DLO function. For the Dead Letter Office of ******* Ohio, this claims adjuster Wren signing off. *WREN, slightly off mic*: Okay. *indecipherable noise* What? No, no, it’s off. You can see the little red light’s not on anymore. So! How was my first record here? *indecipherable noise* Not bad, I hope. Not used to being directly on mic, I’m more of a behind the scenes kind of thing, you know. *indecipherable noise* Yes, he did sound strange in his early recordings. I wonder if he was worried about his accent coming off a little too folksy so he kind of toned it down. *indecipherable noise* Yes, okay, I will do that. Just the, just the backlog, okay, yes.  I can do that. See you tomorrow.

Listed in: Fiction

Episode 9: THREE OMENS/MAN OF CONSTANT SORROW

Published: April 19, 2021, 4 a.m.
Duration: 38 minutes 12 seconds

A freighter on Lake Erie experiences heavy storms. A salvage goes wrong. Conway reminisces about his past, and has a revelation about his present. (CWs: death, dead animal, brief gore, blood, body horror, insects, alcohol, derealization, deep water) Lyrics to "Farewell Song" originally published by Dick Burnett   TRANSCRIPT: CONWAY ON THE PHONE: Omens always come in threes. The dead rat on the porch should have been number one with a bullet. I put some water on the range for a pot of coffee yesterday morning. I was looking out the back window at the leftover frost glittering in the pink ribbons of early sunlight. I saw it lying there on the cement and couldn’t let it just decay. I went out the back door and looked over the scene. Pretty big thing. Probably lived a nice long life eating from my garbage, all things said and done. It had a serious bite on its leg and its stomach was uh...well you know how sometimes your imagination is worse than anything you actually see? This wasn’t one of those times. The kettle bubbled in the kitchen, letting off a trail of steam, and a fly buzzed around overhead. I fixed to move the poor deceased critter. Scooping it up with a shovel seemed awful undignified, though. I rummaged through the kitchen drawers and cabinets. I waffled between a paper bag and a shoe box. The kettle screeched and plumed on the stove behind me. I couldn’t just dump the little guy in the trash, so I grabbed my garden trowel and made a small hole in the backyard. I laid the box in the grave, then covered its fur in soft earth. In time, it’ll be earth itself once more, and plants will grow from its back that new rats eat. Needless to say, I’m out a pair of tongs and a shoebox now. Yeah, omens always come in threes, but not because of any natural or supernatural law. Humans are real good at pattern seeking, sometimes to our own detriment. It’s just that it takes three strokes of bad luck for us to really pay attention; one bad thing--well, it is what it is. Two bad things? That’s a coincidence. But three, and now you’ve a pattern. A chain of events. A story.  By then, Kenji’d been missing two weeks, and the angel was still in storage. It'd been a hell of a month. A missing person, an small town, mysterious letters and unexplained occurrences. It all felt a little...familiar. Almost cliche. But I’d been doing this gig for 6 years now and I wasn’t about to give up my healthcare over that. Besides they pay me to read, not to think. And so I did read, one last time, for the Dead Letter Office of Somewhere, Ohio. *New introduction music* CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the Dead Letter Office of ******* Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is a felony. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public.  Dead Letter 315, a weathered diary sent to the wife of a ship’s engineer. It details the fate of a lost cargo ship called the Oneiros, slated to make a quick trip across Lake Erie in 1913. The entries that contain no pertinent information will be excised from the record. The remaining relevant passages read as follows. NARRATOR: Morning November 6, 1913. Embarking on a short voyage across the Erie, carrying a heavy load of cargo. Some twenty of us boarded the steamer Oneiros, a handsome ship, one of the finest freighters I’ve seen on the Great Lakes. Most aboard are able-bodied seamen, seasoned hands for the weather ‘sides one of the young cargo loaders, a Patrick, or Phillipe I think. USDA weather bureau noted a brisk easterly front, spots of rain for the upper lakes, calmer waters south. Crew seems in fine spirits despite the chill, the 3000 some gross tonnes of cargo, presumably coal and timber, secured below deck. I’m to look after the engine and its various components. Captain Ludic’s a little daffy, assertively old-fashioned. Barking orders like he’s a pirate king and we’re his swabbies. Could have stepped right from the pages of Treasure Island, beard and all but for his soot black buttoned coat and hat. Seems no quack, though, and certainly knows his way round the ship. He’s very particular about his cargo, and ordered that none of us enter the cargo hold unless he gives us his explicit permission. Should be no longer than a day’s trip, then two days more before I see you again. It’s lonely out here, I can only imagine how dire it is stuck at home alone. I pray that upon my safe return, this log of my activities and thoughts of you more than makes for the time apart. And perhaps then we shall marry. I will be thinking of you fervently. Evening the 6th of November, 1913. I’ve settled into my berth for the night after we’ve supped. How I wish you could join me. Captain Ludic took his meal on the deck, and I saw fit to join him. Conversation wasn’t exactly enlightening. We took our meat and bread quietly, until a cold drizzle started pattering his old cap. He looked out at the overcast horizon, then he fixed his glazed eyes on me. His hard roll fell from his lap and bobbled across the deck unevenly for a yard before toppling. CAPTAIN LUDIC: “The Witch of Autumn, she’s coming for us, lad.” NARRATOR: He spoke softly, and his crooked mouth hung open long after his last syllable. A bit of chicken hung from his scruff. CAPTAIN LUDIC: “The boys in the papers said t'would be calmer southward, but these old bones feel it coming. When my knuckles swell, when my teeth ache, and the heavens themselves break open, the winds carrying droplets of death, the witch will crest the white waves. She’ll take us all if we’re not vigilant. You mark my words, boy: beware the Witch of the White Squall, and those who would invite her with their careless yearnings. I fear there’s one such man aboard now. You keep your heart hard and your eyes open, all 5 of 'em.” NARRATOR: He was panting after this warning. His lone gold incisor glittering among the row of stained teeth as his shoulders rose and fell. Then he burst out in laughter, a wheezing squeal that cut through the wind. He slapped me hard on the back. I spit out my whiskey at the impact and forced a chuckle. Needless to say I won’t be spending my dining hours with that walking stereotype again unless I’m yearning for a fairy tale. I figure myself lucky I’ll only be in his company for a short time. I can now hear the cold rain impacting the deck above my wool-wrapped womb. And something below in the cargo hold, though I can’t tell its origin or purpose. Creaking, maybe footsteps. Perhaps something’s come loose and Patrick or Phillipe is checking on it. I’ll try not to fret over it. Until I see you again in the flesh, Caroline, I will continue our rendezvous in my dreams. Morning 7th of November 1913. I took breakfast below deck with Phillipe. The rain’s still coming down and the wind blows cold, but Phillipe thinks it should clear by afternoon, and by then we’ll have gone ashore. Like a bad fever, he says. Just have to wait for the break. The boy’s from Montreal, took the rail down, then rode the canal before hauling lumber across the lake. He seems affable and handy enough. He’s as wary of the captain as I, and he had some troubling news about our cargo. He’s been loading lumber for about 10 months now, certainly not a master of his trade, but he says something was off about our freight. The tonnage is accurate, but one crate in particular severely outweighed the rest. Given the volume of the thing, he’s convinced it can’t be lumber, or even coal. He asked me if I knew any more about our voyage: who’s paying us, where the lumber’s going, but I had little to tell him. I’m not one for accounting. He seems concerned that we may be harboring something dangerous, and the captain won’t tell us. I’d be inclined to agree. Though I’m not entirely convinced Ludic even knows what's down there himself. Whatever the cargo, we should be seeing the beacon from the lighthouse cutting through the fog any moment now, and I’ll just be glad to be off this ship and in your arms. I do grow so melancholy on these trips without you. Evening the 7th of November 1913. We lost Terrence this afternoon. The storm has shown no signs of abating, despite the predictions of the men in the papers. Terry’d gone up top the pilothouse to help the captain navigate, as its windows were awash with rain. The lake was growing angry, waves breaking high as 10 feet. The boat was churning in the drip, swaying to and fro, threatening to take on water. Terrence was calling down directions to the captain when a wave suddenly rose double the height of the others. The ship lurched, and poor Terrence--with naught to hold onto--he was launched backward, slamming his head into the pole behind him. The crew rushed to the pilothouse but another swing of the freighter tossed him overboard. We scoured the waters for some time, until Captain Ludic ended the efforts and sent us to bed like a disappointed father.  Still no sign of land. We should have come ashore in Ohio by now, even at our slowed pace. At night, I imagine the two of us together once more, holding hands by the lake. It's only a drean, but...until then. Afternoon 8th of November 1913. CAPTAIN LUDIC: “I think we’ve got a rat problem aboard this vessel!” NARRATOR: The captain shouted over Neptune’s angry bluster. He’d gathered the 19 of us that remained on the darkened deck in the freezing downpour. CAPTAIN LUDIC: “I know one of you’s been below deck. Couple of the crates been pried open.” NARRATOR: He had us standing side by side, and walked the line up and down, hunched and frantic, his breath visible in large puffs. CAPTAIN LUDIC: “Who among ye disobeyed yer captain’s orders?”  NARRATOR: He narrowed his bright eyes. CAPTAIN LUDIC: “Or so bereft were you of a woman’s touch that you consorted with the witch? Ye accepted the company of the devil herself onto this freighter? Have ye no sense, lad? Must ye look death in her viscous eye and spit in it? Aye the witch draws near, and she’ll scarce be satisfied with you, now she wants the whole crew, and all that we carry. Your base lust has pinned us all to Satan’s dartboard.” NARRATOR: He had me and Phillipe take our boots off. He inspected the soles. We were the newest members of his crew, and apparently the least worthy of his trust. Rainwater poured down the front of his cap and trickled off his nose. The engine chugged and the steamer groaned against the bracing waves. He threw my boots back at me, squarely impacting my chest. I stumbled backward on the slippery wood. He stood upright in front of Phillipe and drew a long blade. CAPTAIN LUDIC: “Aye, that’s about the size of it. Yes we’ve got a rat problem aboard this vessel and I aim to remedy it. Do you know what’s down there, lad? Do you have any idea what that is we’re hauling?” NARRATOR: Phillipe was shaking, shivering. His dark hair was matted, wet and stuck flat to his skull.  CAPTAIN LUDIC: “I’ll not see it sink to the lake floor. Our cargo is more precious than any coin, or any of you scoundrels and lowlifes with your lascivious thoughts.”  NARRATOR: I propped myself up on my elbow, none too eager to draw Ludic’s ire. CAPTAIN LUDIC: “White witch, take the boy! Let the thousand tongues of the deep rise and writhe! Let Neptune’s breath whip the tide into knives, all cutting wind and choking froth. Come, come on your pelagic locusts, black as the moonless crusted tide. Take him to the sunless fathoms, entombed in barnacles. Stuff his mouth with algae and feed his eye jellies to the worms. Let your nautical insects drink his ichor and sup on his hair. Drag him down, drag him below the surf, where his soul will fester and rust among the reeds, forgotten in the scrap of a hundred ships, a thousand lives, hallowed out and timeless, unmoving as cold pitch. Take the boy who called to you and leave the Oneiros be.” NARRATOR: Spittle dotted his beard. He panted for several tense moments as freezing rain pelted the ship. The engine burbled and the stack belched black fire into the twilight. Then the captain thrust the knife forward, straight into Phillipe’s core. I shot upright and charged the captain, but three other crewmen held me back: the captain had a pistol at his side, revealed as his thick coat swung open. Ludic slid the blade upward, gutting the poor lad from neck to navel. He burst like a beached whale onto the deck. The captain roared for someone to tie brick to the corpse and toss it overboard, where it sank unceremoniously out of view. I dreamt of you last night. You came to visit me in the bunk. You leaned over me and gently pressed your sweet lips against mine. I felt a jolt through my system and woke up. I shall hardly sleep this evening, and I shall hardly feel a more forceful loneliness in all my days. Afternoon November 9 1913. Mutiny. Of course mutiny was on the lips of half the crewman on this cursed freighter, myself included. The cold rain gave way to thick globs of snow overnight, now stinging in the hurricane winds. The ship is barely remaining upright among the massive waves. Everyone’s freezing, hungry, furious. I gathered a few similar-minded seamen and huddled below deck as we planned our next move. The captain has his pistol, but we have numbers on our side. And a few blunt instruments could certainly bash some sense into him if our pretty words can't. This is for Phillipe, for Terrence, and for our miserable woebegone souls. Morning November 10th 1913. I could scarcely see my hands in front of me, nor the plank of lumber I was wielding. I and four others approached the pilothouse, now almost entirely coated in frost and long, sharp icicles. I pounded on the door and demanded to see Ludic. No response. I wrapped the door several more times. Nothing. The men and I shouldered the door open, only to find the wheel jammed the pilothouse empty. We’d been left rudderless by a craven fool. Then the winds fell silent, the snow diminished. The waves began to sink back into the lake. Several of the men aboard took to the lifeboats. They liked their chances better in a vessel they could actually steer now that the storm was clearing. JONATHAN: “It’s a sucker’s hole.” NARRATOR: One man, Jonathan, confided in me. JONATHAN: "Those buffoons are going to capsize and freeze out there as soon as the wind picks up again.” NARRATOR: I looked around at the frozen steamer. Ice hung from every surface. A westerly wind blew over us. I went below deck to check on the engine. While in the dark of the hold, I heard sleet impact the deck once more. The wind began howling, and the storm proceeded at such a force I could imagine the boat cleaving in twain. Unless we find a way to maneuver or god forbid find any sign of the captain, I’m doubtful we’ll make it to shore. I shall be thinking of you even as I draw my final breaths and pray you visit my nighttime musings again. Evening November 11th 1913. I can hardly believe what I’m about to write myself, Caroline, but to the best of my storm-battered and hungry mind, it’s true: Captain Ludic was right! The witch came for the Oneiros. I awoke to the sounds of heavy footfalls on deck. My head was hot and I felt a deep chill. Someone was shouting. I shook my hazy head and rose from my berth, coughing. A scream rang out. I crept along the hallway and neared the ladder. A wet, slurping slither, dragging along the ground. I hesitantly peered above. There was a sight I shan’t forget for the rest of my life, for as long as that may be. Some manner of creature was on deck, a massive wingless insect with long, segmented legs. It had a small, pointed head and enormous round body, like an monstrous tick. One of the men on board, Jonathan I think, had found a harpoon and launched it at the beast, but it couldn’t penetrate the thing’s thick hide. It turned the man’s direction, and a long, thin tongue unspooled from its head. The pink tendril slithered and writhed on the deck with frightening speed, extending dozens of feet and ensnaring the man. This slimy appendage wrapped around the crewman, tearing his flesh and exposing deep red blood. The beast rushed him, seemingly drawn by the blood. He was screaming, but he couldn’t move. The tongue coiled around him, cutting him badly at every point of contact, opening his skin like a rotten orange peel. The giant thing squirmed and lapped at the blood spilling from the poor crewman, whose cries became weaker, quieter now, blending with the fury of the storm until they ceased completely. It pulled Jonathan’s head to its mouth and began feasting on the damp strands of his dark hair. From the other end of the steamer, another insectoid rose, its legs clattering over the metal and wood as it climbed onto the deck. It joined its kin, its whip-like tongue probing the air for others to feed on. That’s when I saw the pile of bodies behind them, all shredded and drained of their essence, scalps bald and raw. The bloodbugs began patrolling the freighter for stragglers, and it seemed I was the only one left.  I fled down the hallway, toward the cargo hold. Whatever the captain had said be damned. I hoped that the strong odor of the pine and coal would mask my own reek. I heard one of the things’ legs trying the stairs. I frantically panned the room for somewhere to hide. I spotted a huge crate with a few planks pried off. I wormed my way through the opening and held my breath in the box. I heard the tongues slithering down hall in my wake. I clasped my hands and silently prayed to god with the fervor of a hundred choirs that I’d see you again once more. But my prayer was interrupted by a sound behind me. In the crate I could see a looming shape.  *Crackling and rumbling noises, same as in the Lighthouse* A sort of metallic invention, like a massive steam engine. It was smooth, dark, containing strange protrusions and angles unlike anything I’d seen before. It was quietly humming, with an occasional clang or thump. There was something else, too. A fleshy hand reached out into the light filtering in through the missing slats. A hand robed in a dark wool coat. A neck stretched out behind it, attached to a crooked bearded head. It smiled, and a gold incisor flashed in the dim light. I could see that it was Ludic, or part of him anyway. His hands and neck were elongated and stretched beyond man’s limitation. His flesh gray and malleable, like putty. My gaze followed his distended arm down to where his shoulder should be, but all I found was iron. He had somehow...melted into the engine, or soldered himself to it. Metal and flesh twisted and fused, stringy skin hanging between folds of steel. I think he tried to speak, but all that came forth was a buzz, an electrical chattering like a broken telegraph. I felt sick, and ran from the crate. I sprinted past the sleeping quarters and up toward the deck. I was hit full force with the blistering might of the storm as I went topside. My eyelashes froze, my nervous sweat crystalized. I could barely see the bloodbugs at the other end of the deck through the blizzard. My vision went completely white as I dropped to my knees, violently ill and nearly frozen solid. Then through the pale wall she stepped, the Autumn Witch, the Woman of the White Squall. She bade her pests retreat, and stood before me. Her skin was glistening, and she wore not a single scrap of clothing to defend against the chill. Her hair shimmered and waved as if she was underwater. Her feet never touch the ground. She brushed her hand against my cheek, and an icy jolt shivered down my back. I looked into her eyes and saw wild, radiant love. A love conjured by a lonely sailor, now requited. A fevered love so bold it would kill. She leaned down close, and I could smell the salt breeze on her breath. She pressed her blue lips to my forehead, and I blacked out.  I woke up 12 hours later in the dark, soaking on my back in the falling rain, adrift in the infinite waters of Hades. Morning November 12, 1913. I awoke to a distant horn. I thought it at first a dream, a hopeful hallucination. Then the horn sounded again a second time. I sat upright, shivering and soaked through. I saw a beam of light cut through the rain: the lighthouse! I yelped, a sound as much of agony as celebration, and stood. I laughed, dry and bitter wheezing. The ship was drifting toward the shore after 6 long days in hell. I ran down to gather my things and wrap myself in something dry. Then I ducked into the pilothouse and stared out at the light. A smile dared cross my lips. I could make it after all.  Then came a horrible rending, a piercing shriek of metal on rock. The ship lurched, and I tumbled forward in the cabin. I was so enthralled by the beacon of the lighthouse that I’d missed the sharp rocks in the shallows. Now she was sinking, taking on icy water. Metal groaned and beams bent and snapped. The stack chugged and spit wet smoke over the scene. The rear of the freighter began sinking. Among the rocks I saw a lifeboat, the very same from the Oneiros, filled with skeletons picked clean and bleached by the sun. I laughed again, a wailing peal like the whinny of Death’s very steed.  There may yet be time for rescue, but the frigid waters or the phlegm in my lungs will likely take me before the sailors do. And so I bid you adieu, Caroline. Just one more sob story for another sailor’s widow. As trite as Ludic himself. If the intrepid rescuers do happen to find these scrawlings and wish to know my fate, I’ve gone to join the Captain. CONWAY: Records at the time indicate that several other ships went down in this storm, including several hundred crew, but the Oneiros and its men were never found. Given its contents and its age, the DLO has deemed this diary, DL-315, undeliverable. It will be stored safely in our vault.  CONWAY ON THE PHONE: I’ve been thinking a lot about the past lately. Old friends, old regrets. I suppose it’s my approaching middle age catching up onme.  My time with the office has been uh...illuminating. All those wild things I saw as a kid? The things my parents sent me to see serious adults about? Well maybe some of them weren’t so wild. You know how I started working here? I used to be in public radio, the local affiliate down in Cincy. I studied art when I was in college, but well, that didn’t pan out like so many other things. I worked a bunch of odd jobs, making 6 dollars an hour slinging coffee or double that if I was willing to break my back. I eventually got lucky and I guess somebody liked my cadence. I’m sure it helped that the station was underfunded and I was willing to work late and cheap. One day about 6 years ago, two suspicious gentlemen in suits dropped by my little studio on my lunch break. They asked if I wanted a job with the post office. They sure as hell didn’t look like mail carriers, looked like stone-cold feds to me. I politely declined, praying the cuffs didn’t come out. They just handed me a card. I told them if I was ever out of a job, I’d give them a call. After they left, I looked over the card. No names, no phone number, just three letters: DLO.  Next morning, I get a call. Boss says the studio caught fire last night after everybody left. Electrical malfunction. Whole place up in smoke. Not enough money to rebuild or move studios. Just gonna shut down the affiliate station. What a coincidence. I looked at the card again and thought of Lucy. Then I got a call. One more chance to reconsider the offer. Yeah, Lucy and I did almost everything together when we were kids. We were pretty much inseparable, at least until the cave incident. I haven’t heard from her in a long, long time. I don’t know why I haven’t reached out. I guess I was afraid too much time got between us. That I wouldn’t know what to say. We might even hate each other now. My memory from that time is a little fuzzy, too, just bits and pieces, blurry impressions. It’s funny, I sometimes wonder if I made her up, y’know, like an imaginary friend. Those early memories feel about as real a dream most days. Like something that happened to someone else. Like scenes from a worn out VHS tape. But look at me, I’m rambling again. Back to the story. The teeth should have been the second omen. An unmarked box showed up at the office the same morning as the sailor’s journal. I picked up the small parcel and shook it like a kid at Christmas, though my approach was rather more apprehensive. Lifting the folds revealed a jewelry box. I flipped the lid open with a creek of its rusty hinges. Underneath was a mirror long ago marred by the grit and grime of age. The plush interior of the box was covered in dark stains, and it smelled like a wet basement. Sitting in one of the compartments were about a dozen human teeth, dark and worn. One reflected light underneath the others: a crude golden incisor. CONWAY: Dead Letter 18316, an application for worker’s comp from ******. The applicant’s name has been redacted. Looks like he suffered a leg injury during a salvage job. Included with the application is a photo of the injury and testimony from the worker. His testimony reads as follows: WORKER: I hereby swear upon penalty of perjury that the following statement is true to the best of my knowledge. We were supposed to pull up some cargo from a ship that recently went down in the area. Apparently whatever was in there could leak, causing some serious trouble to the watershed. The algae’s bad enough, we don’t need some oil spill or toxic waste leak or you know anything like that. We were given permission by the state, and were funded by some tech startup to help clean up the lake.  I boarded the boat around 6:50am. I got out to the marked location around 8. I put on my wetsuit, grabbed the hook, and hopped in. I swam down and found the boat we were looking for. I was about to check the cargo hold when something grabbed hold of me. Something bit my leg and pulled me really hard. Must have been some fish. Maybe even a shark. I’ve heard some bull sharks can live in fresh water for a while. I paddled and kicked, but my leg wouldn’t break free. It dragged me some distance, and then let me go. I saw a different ship ahead of me underwater. Much older, covered in rust. I broke the surface and signaled for help. The boys pulled me aboard and the EMT got to work on my leg. Someone else went down to secure the cargo. I tried to tell them it was a different ship but I’m not sure I was making sense. I was in searing pain and losing a good deal of blood. I was looking up past the hanging cables and into the clear sky. Then the wires started moving, waving on their own and spiraling above me. I weakly lifted my hand to point, but the medic just placed it back down and told me to relax. The wires weaved and twisted into form: an angel. Not just like a lady with wings, it was all fingers and eyes and mouths. It told me I needed to find it. That it was in some museum somewhere south of here and needed to be freed. I know it sounds real loopy, but that’s what I saw. Someone shouted that they got the cargo up, but it wasn’t what we were looking for. I was close to passing out by then of course, so not sure what it was. Then I woke up in the emergency room with a bunch of stitches.  CONWAY: Inspecting the photo here, it’s a serious injury of the left calf. It’s certainly no fish bite. I’m no biologist, but if I had to guess, I’d say the bite is primate in origin. Likely human. Multiple bites overall, very deep punctures and a few tears. I’m gonna send the photo and this box over to the boys in the lab. Maybe they can work out a match. In the meantime, I’ll have the higher ups approve his application and send him a nice check, on the condition that he doesn’t mention the incident again. We’ll be keeping the application letter and associated paraphernalia in our vault.  CONWAY ON PHONE: The Midwest is so big, it’s sometimes hard to imagine there’s anything outside of it. Like I see pictures of the ocean, and that might as well be a continent away at this point. You drive for hours and somehow you’re still surrounded by cornfields and flat land. You take an old country route and pass the same intersecting road 3 times. It’s like a magic trick. Every time I try to leave, something keeps me here. It’s a curse, or maybe that’s how I justify it to myself. Believing some paranormal interference is the reason I’m stuck in a rut makes it a little easier to swallow than the reality: the reality that there’s a pit at the center of the state, a gravity well that pulls you in and keeps you here. The fire burning forever underground. You can fight it, but you’ll always be pulled like the snap of a rubber band back home. There’s like a vampiric presence here, a specter of collapsed industry and apathy, poverty and vast distance, that haunts the condemned buildings and provincial small towns of Ohio. There are good people here. Solid folk of all kinds. And there are stories to be told here. But who’s listening? And who’s allowed to talk? Anyway that’s when the last postcard showed up. Just like the ones sent in by the Lost Fisherman from the nonexistent town. The name on the card read Lucy. What a coincidence. But the number beside the name’s what shook me, gave me that tingling feeling in my brain that sometimes comes as a corollary to dread. Like twisted deja vu. It was my home phone number from when I was a kid. They disconnected that line ages ago. I thought about calling it, but the DLO was sending me out for one more field trip. A package too unwieldy, too fragile to be shipped out of the tiny post office that was storing it. Of course it was my job once again to drive out to some location and stick my snoot into whatever nonsense they’d cooked up. Of course it was 2 hours away. But I’m nothing if not dedicated to the job, so I tucked the postcard into my shirt pocket, took a swig of cold coffee, and got in the car. CONWAY ON TAPE: --down to a small post office, to check out a very large crate. Apparently it was a little too fragile and a little too um...unwieldy to ship out of that small post office given its resources. Now any time they send me out somewhere like this I’m a little suspicious, so let’s find out what I’m about to get my nose in. *click* --the back room here, and it is a fairly large crate, I’ll give them that. I’ve got a crowbar here, let’s see if I can get this thing open. *Wood snaps* All right. *Conway coughs* Dear god, it’s a body. Oh dear got that is a body. That...that’s Kenji’s body. That’s Kenji. Oh my god. Oh god. And if I...His leg, oh my god. Well, that’s those bite marks. Oof. Oh god Kenji, what did you get into. Okay. And he’s holding something, he--Kenji’s got a hold of a-an all white rotary phone. Old spin dial, you know you gotta twist the numbers around before you can input the number. Oh god Kenji. Based on the decomposition of the body, I would estimate he’s been dead for quite some time, though the preservation is uh impressive. Perhaps the sea air or perhaps a mummification process was used on him. But god, lord if it don’t stink. Now...gonna pick up that phone and dial this number. *click* CONWAY ON PHONE: Well anyway, that’s when I called you. LOST FISHERMAN: “Jeez, that’s all fascinating. You’ve had a quite a ride today. But do you mind if I ask you one thing? I want you to think real hard about this one, don’t just blurt out an answer. What’s your last name, Conway?” CONWAY: I uhh I don’t see what uh...Now wait, now don’t you do this. I know who you are, don’t you do this. LOST FISHERMAN “I know it’s rough, your mind wants to reject it, but I promise it’s all gonna make sense. CONWAY: Oh, Ken and Lucy, very clever. You knew I’d tie it together eventually. Now don’t you do this. Let me stay here. Let me-- LOST FISHERMAN: “You’re not real, not yet anyway.” CONWAY: Let me stay. LOST FISHERMAN: Now I want you to look at your cellular telephone. What time is it?” CONWAY: I can’t…I can’t make it-- *Dial tone* CRACKLING VOICE ON THE RADIO: If you make the margins big enough, you can see him in the dots and waves. He comes through the wires. He’s a frequency, an atom bomb’s worth of electricity. ANTONY: She said they’re not real, they’re just fictional characters. CONWAY: It all felt a little...familiar. Almost cliche. What happens in that missing second every million years? LOST FISHERMAN: We’ll be waiting for you at the top of the lighthouse. *Overlapping voices say “this is Conway”* *Scratchy, old folk song, singing the following:* I am a man of constant sorrow, I’ve seen trouble all of my days; I’ll bid farewell to Cincinnati, The place where I was born and raised.   For six long years, I’ve been in trouble No pleasure here on this earth I’ve found, For in this world I’m born to ramble, I have no friends to help me now.   Oh, fare ye well my native country, The place that I loved and loathed so well, Fo-- *record scratching, forest ambience, crickets chirping* Then I was somewhere else. A place I’d heard of but never been. Surrounded by fireflies underneath the canopy of red oak boughs. There was something in the trees ahead. Two glowing spots like headlights in foliage. They were moving, attached to something about a foot taller than me, coming my way through the dark. It strode on long, thin legs bending backwards, like a hulking stork. Powdery wings spread from its back and there was a...skunky smell on the air. And he had something to show me. *lighter flicks several times, drums kick in, jam begins* *forest ambience fading out*

Listed in: Fiction

Episode 8: HUNTED/HAUNTED

Published: April 5, 2021, 4 a.m.
Duration: 17 minutes 5 seconds

Conway sorts through some old--and possibly haunted--video games. The office receives a letter from someone with a peculiar ghost problem. Happy (late) April Fools! I certainly hope no major video game publishers listen to this show! (CWs: alcohol, brief blood, implied death)   TRANSCRIPT: CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the Dead Letter Office of ***** Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is a felony. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public.  Dead Object 2513, a box of old video game cartridges. Let’s see what we’ve got. The label appears to have been weathered off on this first one, and someone’s written a name on the front in permanent marker. The games arrived with some other belongings, the leftovers from an estate sale that just couldn’t find a buyer. I’ve got an old system set up, paid for out of pocket of course, just on a lark. The interior of this cartridge looks pretty corroded, so I guess we'll see if it even plays. All right, looks like the logo’s coming up. There's the title. Select a file. We’ve got one file with a person’s name, probably the old owner, and another file. Let’s choose that second one. Okay, on the screen we’ve got the main character, all in green, lying all twisted up in some kind of dark atmosphere. I can’t move him, and can't really do much else on this screen. There’s an eerie looking gentleman with a large backpack nearby smiling at me. Seems he’s got some masks on his bag. Oh, we’ve got some text coming up at the bottom now. It reads as follows: “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” Nah, I’ve seen this one before. Not interested.  Let’s try this one. OLD-FASHIONED NARRATOR: You are about to travel to another place, a place not only of truth but of allegory. Beyond this title screen, you will see a nightmare, a reflection, a fiction more real than any photograph.  You’re looking at a nondescript bar in the middle of a town in the heart of America. The exact location of this town is not important, for it’s not the place you must consider, but its people. A people in dire need of change to stave off collapse. Unfortunately for the people of this place, there will be no drastic change from those at the top, only distraction, diversion, entertainment. STORYTELLER: Condensation covers the windows as heat from the patrons inside cools on the chilly glass. A tall man in a green hat sits by himself at the bar, looking forlorn over his thick mustache into his nearly-empty glass. The noises of the night--murmurs, clinking glasses, cars passing outside--melt into a gauzy hum behind him. He drains the remainder and wipes his mouth with a white-gloved hand. He fishes into his pocket for his wallet and gives a sharp sniff to stop his bulbous nose from running. He’s out of cash. He puts the glass down in front of him, wobbles in his stool for a moment, and then wraps his knuckles on the counter for another drink. The bartender turns to face him. The man behind the bar tips back his green hat and tugs on his suspenders as he looks the patron over. The bartender shakes his head and twists his mouth up under his full twirled mustache. The man at the bar doesn’t like this answer. His eyebrows furrow and his mustache twitches. He slams his hand on the counter. This catches the attention of the rest of the patrons sitting at tables around the bar. They all turn toward him. Everyone’s on edge tonight. Despite the chilly weather, the patrons are similarly dressed in blue overalls with brass buttons, green shirts, green lettered caps, and white gloves. All tall, all mustaches. A football game plays on the television in the background, lines of mustaches in shoulder pads facing off. The angry patron at the bar, feeling the eyes of the others, hangs his head. He shrugs and makes a remorseful gesture with his hands. He slides his hat off his head and holds it to his chest as he slinks out of the bar’s side door.  Outside, gentle snowflakes drift and fall onto the chartreuse hats of two figures kissing in the alley beside the bar. A cart darts by in the road, a blur of emerald as its roar cuts the still winter air. The drunk man from the bar stumbles through the side door into the alley, and the two lovebirds freeze and look anxiously his way. After he passes them by, they embrace again, giggling. One shushes the other playfully with a gloved white finger to his lips through visible breath.  Then another noise disrupts the alley pair, this time deeper in the freezing darkness ahead. Something is rustling in the dumpster. They nervously peer ahead, with shortened breaths puffing and disappearing, goosebumps pricking on their skin. Something wholly different suddenly bursts from the cans, someone clad in purple with a ruddy nose and thin pointed mustache. His dark eyes dart wildly below the brim of his indigo cap. One of the men in green points and gasps, his blue eyes wide in shock. The other screams to alert the patrons of the bar. From among the ripe trash and fetid wastewater the lithe purple man rises. He scans his surroundings, trying to figure out where, exactly, he is. One man in green takes a step forward, putting himself in between this sudden antagonist and his sweetheart. He doesn’t see the fear in the purple man’s expression: he sees only the beady eyes, the gangly form, the difference. One of the pair rushes to the mouth of the alley and peeks into the street, looking around for any help. Sensing the cruel intent of these olive adversaries, the man in purple takes this moment to flee from the trash cans. He bursts upright, taller than any other, and sprints past the lovers. He knocks over a few trash cans in the city and disappears into an adjacent alley, discarded food and wrappers flying in his wake. The two in green outside the bar open the front door and call to the others. The patrons rise and murmur excitedly. Several take out phones to make calls or record the event for posterity. The television in the empty bar interrupts the game to announce the breaking news: the purple man is loose. The hunt begins. This lone stranger, this shadow of man, is propelled by nervous, nauseous adrenaline. He’s not sure if it’s the cold or the fear making his teeth chatter. The streetlights cast the snowy sidewalks in a sickly pallor. He sprints through the empty streets, taking to the darkness when he can, peering around building corners to spot trouble before it spots him. He passes stores, ads, billboards, all green, all alike but him. He slows his pace for just a moment as he takes in the situation. The purple man pauses in front of a display window for a clothing store. He stands in front of a pale mustachioed mannequin, his reflection mismatched against its form. He compares his dark overalls to the ones in the window. He presses his hand gloved against the cold glass. He himself is a reflection. He is shaken from this contemplation by a pine line forming across the street in hot pursuit. The purple man alights again, pushing through occasional pockets of green that eventually join the growing crowd following him. He cuts through alleys and across an empty campus. The bright lamp posts illuminate the sidewalks but also cast deep shadows on his path. There are flyers that he doesn’t understand attached to poles around the school grounds. He tries the doors of several buildings--a dining hall, a large auditorium--but they’re locked. Near the edge of campus, he frantically tries another door. It begins to give, but a mustache appears from the shadows inside and slams the door shut. There will be no help for him here on the night of the hunt. Past campus, the man in purple sneaks into a quiet residential area of the city. He uses his long limbs to clamber up a fire escape near an empty playground. This time he is in luck: the door at the top of the stairs swings open as he pushes the bar. He sneaks into the apartment building, quietly walking through the halls, looking for a stairwell or closet to hide in for the night.  Then he hears a sharp *psst* behind him. One of the handlebar-ed men has a door propped open. He lets the purple man into the apartment, his eyes roving nervously for trouble and then closing the door. The smell of simmering vegetables fills the air as two children play on the floor with toys that look just like their father, who’s wearing a white t-shirt and sweatpants. The man with the inverted letter sits down on crossed legs. The kids are excited to have company this time. The television flashes with color and noise, a cartoon of two men in green battle suits fighting a giant purple monster. The father brings out a steaming bowl of soup and breaks off a piece of bread for the man in purple. He’s so excited for real food he starts shoveling the soup into his mouth. The father moves to caution him, but it’s too late. The soup is too hot. The purple man lets out a pained “WA!” and then covers his mouth, spilling soup all over the carpet and the father’s shoes. All are tense and silent, staring at him.  Next door, a large television is playing a dramatic report about the purple man and what danger he poses. A phone number streaks on the screen: a reward for any reports of the man in purple. The man in overalls watching sits its up in his recliner when he hears the shout from across the hall. He doffs his green cap, picks up his phone, and starts dialing the number on the television. The thin man with the pointed mustache grabs a cloth from the counter and wets it. He kneels down and begins wiping the soup off of the floor, and cleaning the father’s shoes. The father peers out the window behind his guest and sees the green tide coming, gathered with flashlights outside the playground. He darts to the room farthest from the park and quietly slides up the window. He motions for his guest to come into the room. The purple man looks down--it’s a bit of a drop, but he doesn’t have much choice. The front door of the building bursts open as light and sound pour in like a hull breach. The father looks back one more time to the odd man in odd colors and heads to the door. The purple man jumps out the window and lands awkwardly on his leg, his ankle twisting. He grimaces and muffles his pained groan with his white glove to his mouth. A few eager figures in the mob reach the helpful man’s door. They kick it down and filter in uninvited, searching the apartment and overturning furniture. One happens to notice the open window. They knock down the father and back rush outside. The cartoon glows silently on the television as their silhouettes exit, and children cry in the bedroom.  Only half-running now, pain coming in waves as he puffs with each cold step, the purple man tips over trash cans behind him to slow the wave of blue overalls. He must keep going. The green contingency continues to grow as bystanders join the group. The man in purple lumbers toward the only haven available to him: the stadium downtown. He ducks around the corner, seemingly far enough ahead of the pack, and enters a side door. The man in purple is even slower now, wading into the pitch-dark building and dragging his broken ankle behind his good one. He sighs as he hears the voices and footsteps rush past the side door he entered. He tilts back his hat and wipes the anxious sweat from his forehead. Then blinding light explodes into view from above, flooding the arena. The man in purple is standing in the middle of a basketball court, and the seats are half full of men in green hats, more filing in every second. Lime lines of mustachioed men stretch out to block the door that he came in from. In a panic, he lunges for the main entrance, barely able to breathe through the stress and pain. The scoreboard is alight with platitudes about sportsmanship. He takes a step, but crumbles from the agony in his ankle.  Television cameras set up around the court zoom in, broadcasting his pain live. Screens in homes, bars, shops, phones glow with video. Some channels have identical men in green L hats discussing the merits of the hunt. They ultimately decide: who can say? Who can say something’s bad when it’s so good for business? Who can say there’s another way? Who can say what violence hides in the hearts of others? Some viewers sadly shake their heads from their couches, some cheer. But the hunt goes on. The green cloud of men in the stadium move on the man in purple, carrying bats, chairs, chains. He raises his hands to protect his face from these implements of violence. The crowd cheers as his blood spills into the cracks in the wood. The scoreboard blares the national anthem. It is still and silent outside of the stadium. Tiny pools of light glow in the trees as fireflies circle the leaves in the dark. The purple man replays these events in his head, a repeating nightmare. His last nightmare. OLD-FASHIONED NARRATOR: It is near dusk again, a month after the preceding incident. In a metropark in a town in the heart of this nation, two older gentlemen in slouching green hats are playing chess. One takes a pawn, the other considers his next move. A purple hat drops down from the tree behind them. The two in overalls lock eyes and stand up slowly with grins under their mustaches. They’ve forgotten life before all this. That better things are possible. Who has the time anymore? Besides, he’s not like them. The game is afoot. CONWAY: Now that’s a bit more interesting. I suppose in my spare time I’ll go through a few more of these cartridges and see what all this box has in store. For now though, Dead Object 2513 will be stores safely in our vault. CONWAY: Dead letter 14114, a letter addressed to...well let’s just dive in and you’ll see how it plays out. ANTONY, NARRATOR: I need help and I figured you’d be the one to ask. For the last year, I’ve been haunted by a mischievous spirit. I’ll be sitting in bed and hear a crash downstairs. I go down there and there’s dishes broken all over the floor. I see his spectral body float through the window and he goes, “Did I do that?” You see I’m haunted by the ghost of Steve Urkel. Not the actor, he’s still alive. It’s Urkel. It’s Urkel! It's Urkel. Or I go to the bathroom and hear him shout “whoa mama!” then there’s green slime all over my friggin walls! And it’s not just him either, he’s just the worst of it. Sometimes Frasier drinks my booze when I’m out. It's not cheap hooch, either. When I put my car in reverse in the garage, the Toolman grunts and steps on the accelerator. Now, I already talked to a psychic, but she thought I was pulling a prank. She said they’re not real, they’re just fictional characters. But I sure sure as hell see a lot of them for not being real. If they ain’t real, how come they’re on tv, on t-shirts? How come I can buy a poster, or a dvd? Why do we talk about em if they ain’t real? Now this may sound a little funny, but I tried binding them with a circle of their dvds of their shows, but it’s no use. Maybe I need the blu-ray or the 4k steelbook. These retired characters have made my house hell on earth, but I’m the one being punished. It’s taken everything I've got not to scream and burn it down. You've got to do something about this. Get an exorcist, get the army--hell, get a producer friend of yours to get their show started again, just get them the hell out of here. They’re going to put me in an early grave.  Thank you for your time, Mr. President. A loyal voter, Antony ****** CONWAY: Well, considering that the president addressed in the letter is no longer in office, I think the DLO will hold onto this one. Dead Letter 14114 is therefore deemed undeliverable and will be stored in our vault. For the Dead Letter Office of Somewhere, Ohio, this is Conway, signing o-- *Outro music interrupts him* *Ahem* This is Conway, signing-- *Outro music interrupts him again* What the hell is this? Is this another postcard? This is the lighthouse again...and I know that number... *Real outro plays*

Listed in: Fiction

Episode 7: DANSE MACABRE/IT'S AN ANGEL, CONWAY

Published: March 22, 2021, 9 a.m.
Duration: 18 minutes 48 seconds

The office receives a grisly letter from the early 20th century about an experimental composer. Conway muses about his past and present. (CWs: blood, body horror, knuckles cracking, death) Music: Purcell - Rondeau From Abdelazer Vivaldi - Concerto for Two Violins in A Minor Saint-Saëns - Danse macabre, Op. 40     TRANSCRIPT: CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the Dead Letter Office of ***** Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is a felony. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public.  Now this is an old one. I feel like if I’m not careful opening this, the whole thing’s gonna tear. Dead Letter 312. A letter addressed to a Mr. Markos. I’m not entirely sure how it made it into our backlog, given it’s about 100 years old, but there appears to be no address for this Mr. Markos. The letter reads as follows.  EDGAR, NARRATOR: "Malicious. Obscene. Substandard. Most disagreeable and indigestible. The proverbial Dickensian crumb of cheese splattered on the stage by an ill-tempered mind, one assuredly perverted by rhythm and reason hitherto unknown to polite society. A complete aesthetic and moral failure for Monsieur Edgar, and a black spot on all contemporary English works. Perhaps Edgar should have retained his study of internal medicine, whereby he could make messes of the human form as he sees fit, sans audience."  These “kind words” and more you levied at my first premiere in Paris one year ago, Monsieur Markos. Certainly your confidant Madame Stein has long ago heard the tale of my ballet’s misfortune and ensured all the other aesthetes gathered in her gilded salon from Apollinaire to Matisse know my shame. I can imagine you poring over this text now, after my second premiere, in a frenzied allegro--perhaps accompanied by the horns of bobbies--seeking any news of your daughter’s health, any drop of comfort for your troubled heart. Though my frame shudders with mirth at the mere thought, that revelation must come in due course, monsieur. First I should like to give you a thorough recounting of the creation of my latest, and final, piece. One evening the 25th of October, 1915. Deep in the trench of a gas-laden graveyard, a medic stood just outside the range of an artillery shell detonation. Three other medics within the radius were torn apart and died instantly, along with several soldiers a touch more slowly, leaving just this lone medic as the frantically bandaging witness. It was in these trenches that the medic saw the true barbarity of our race, the needless suffering we undergo and inflict for the benefit of our supposed betters. We, merely the chess pieces of our modern gods callously tossed off the board for a coin. He saw the very threshold of what man’s body can endure, and what Herr Freud might call the collective psyche of a nation can withstand--or bury. You, Monsieur, championed this war in your paper of record and seem determined to bury its atrocities.  At the time of my release from service, a friend apprised me of the goings-on at a salon in Zurich, of Mr. Hugo Ball and his associates at the Cabaret Voltaire. I was divinely inspired by their destruction and reconfiguration of the old modes into new ones, of the unseen grotesque discovered. The absurdity of our modern condition, in the twisted forms in a Braque, or a Duchamp, were not so dissimilar to the horrors of the Great War, to the bodies out of joint and out of space strewn across Europe. I spent the majority of my cached income to bring these radical new movements to the orchestra, to replicate the impossible bodies in dance, and to never let us forget what they have done to us, and what you and yours encouraged; the grinding of our bodies into dust in the gears of imperial war and industry. As for Stein and all: I hadn’t the slightest interest in their approval in any case. However, since my premiere, your words had rattled around my mind like a sharp stone in my shoe. I thought I’d be rid of it only to be sorely reminded of its presence by a prick in the heel. I did not seek your approval, yet your critique soured me on my own work. I was driven to rework the piece entirely, to transmogrify it into a ballet that would test the very limits of the form itself. The fruits of this labor you were witness to this very night.  I began the process many months ago. I would spend hours in my parlor with my mandolin, plucking out atonal melodies and discordant passages derived from sources both holy and profane. Dominant sevenths with no tonic, tritones without resolution. I found these enlightening, but not fully to my taste. There was a rhythmic certainty to even the most foul tonal combinations. My purpose then became to create rhythmic oddities. I tried playing in time with my metronome with the right hand and freely with the left, ensuring the notes were never fully in sync. This produced a most curious push and pull, a feeling of always being off balance and many missed notes. Yes, something akin to this might do well. Throughout the period of composition, I would snatch pieces of unrelated sound, the babbling of a river, the whistle of a shopkeep, and turn them into notes for my tone poem. The piece’s vacillations and rhythmic intricacies would demand top-tier performers. I scoured the city for musicians who could perform my work. After numerous failures and a handful of misunderstandings, I hired two of the finest players in our county and filled the rest of the cast with novices. With my orchestra assembled and my score as completed as necessary, it then came time to select my ballerina. I met the prospective mademoiselle for tea one hazy morning. Her demeanor was most agreeable, and we got on fabulously. I had little money left, but my enthusiasm for the work convinced her to join our motley group. I found in her initial routines that she wasn’t one of the many children of artistic figureheads given praise simply for a name, devoid of their progenitor’s talent: quite the opposite, in fact. I found her skill astounding regardless of her parentage, and she held none of the contempt or pretense so often found in the offspring of great men. I gathered them all together the following day for our first rehearsal. The mademoiselle moved beautifully to the arhythmic flow, but the musicians left something to be desired. The performers all played off tempo and off-key, but not in the intended manner. I tried to reign in the chaos, but the novices grew frustrated with my demands, leading to a swath of musicians walking out of my studio. I was left with only a violinist and pianist. The capital was gone, so this would have to do.  Oh, what accidents lady fortune brings us from time to time which illuminate the importance of a thing overlooked. With merely the two musicians and the mademoiselle--a truly sparse arrangement--the work came alive. The keys and strings battled and tangled, swaying in and out of time, leaving empty space in which the dancer could play her part. I watched her gyrations with keen interest, an interest I must admit grew beyond the professional. She was the fairest collaborator I had ever known. Not only could she aptly perform the steps I laid out, she absolutely understood them. The only apprehension she had was when I occasioned the rehearsals always to cease before the finale. Separately I worked with the players so that they may know their score, but never the mademoiselle. This, I told her, would shroud the final movements in mystery, even from the performers. Before we were ready to perform, however, it was inevitable that the finale be practiced. I took the mademoiselle through the steps slowly, half-tempo and half-intensity: I showed her the proper angles and bends, and she showed me her exquisite techniques. She found the choreography most unnatural and quite difficult even at such a speed, which I admit now is the intent, and I instructed that she not under any circumstances perform it at its full force before the premiere. To do so carelessly could be fatal: an imprecise leap, stumbled stretch, or ill-guided fold may land one in the grave rather than the headlines. Watching the Mademoiselle move recalled for me the impressive feats of which man’s body is capable with the proper care and training. My medical studies gave me a superior mechanical knowledge of man’s carriage, and I am also schooled in dance, yet her capabilities outstripped my own. As we practiced day by day, I was smitten first with her dance, then with the woman herself, though it was an affection that was largely kept hidden lest it destroy the very thing we on which we worked. I know not whether she felt the same, but it hardly matters; the yearning of a love unrequited is a literary gift all its own. After some weeks of rehearsal and revision, the piece was ready to be consumed by the public.  We were given a small space in a local hall. We began sending out invitations. Yours, Monsieur Markos, I trust found you well. And whom else should you find advertised on the bill that evening but one of the finest dancers in our fair city, Mademoiselle Alice Markos? Is it not fitting that the daughter of the preeminent critic and writer of our time should perform in the next historic ballet? Now that you have been made privy of the history of this piece, Monsieur, I would like to briefly prognosticate its future. It is the very morning of the premiere as I am writing, and if you and the  piping peelers would be so kind as to indulge my fantasy, I shall tell you how the performance no doubt went.  You entered the concert hall, dressed in your black finery and hat, cane in hand. You sat near the rear of the theater, the better to disguise your presence from myself lest I mistake your appearance here for serious interest in my little farce. The house went quiet. Two performers hardly make an opera, you thought! Then the music began, a series of jerky, stilted lines, seemingly in constant struggle to be held together. Your daughter took to the stage next, dressed in naught but red bandages, a black cloth over her eyes. Her movements came quickly and suddenly, as if she herself wasn’t aware of her next step. Murmurs arose from the audience, displeasure and confusion mingling. The mademoiselle’s gestures were all raised knees, thrown elbows, more akin to the vicious maneuvers of illicit prize fighters than dance. Her arms swung side to side, twisting her torso, dark hair flailing in the light. She dropped to the stage floor curling and writhing her limbs violently as if on fire. Several patrons scoffed and rose to leave, others chuckled nervously or began booing. The dancer crawled across the open space, pulled by some malicious invisible presence. The music paused as the ballerina spun on knees and elbows, gesticulating outward with such force, the only remaining sound on stage being the scuffling and squeaking of bare flesh on the varnished wood. One arm flung outward toward stage-left as the pounding music swelled once more, then the body followed, jolting that direction and leaving the audience. By this point, the viewers were surely in a feverish excitement of various emotions. I can already hear the shouts and jeers, the pounding of fists on the seats, the gnashing of teeth and covering of eyes. If I may badly misquote the American Williams: Aircrafts slamming joyfully into the earth, youths throwing themselves into the streets to be run over wailing, “Someone has written a ballet!” But out stepped the dancer in all black, with a white mask obscuring every form and feature. The piano and violin crescendoed toward the finale. The dancer swayed back and forth, farther and farther, until they fell, collapsing faceward to the stage, unmoving. At this point I’m sure you leaned forward, straining to see if your daughter was ill or injured. Then the dancer’s limbs began bending backward, twisting as if under the spell of Mephistopheles himself. Legs and arms folded and cracked like twigs underfoot. The spine stretched and curved. The dancer curled themselves into a knotted ball, then suddenly jerked their head. The dancer was very still, and the audience went quiet until dark red liquid began seeping through the mouth of the white mask, staining in its wake and dripping onto the floor. Blood pooled and dripped down the side of the stage. The audience erupted into a panicked mob, many running for the exits, the others climbing over the chairs to check on the dancer, and you paralyzed with fear, spirit sinking. Then the floor dropped beneath the dancer, the curtains closed, and the composer fled from backstage into the alley. It’s quite impressive what can be done to the human body with the proper training. Yes, Monsieur Markos, the curtain calls for every one, even your precious daughter. The dance of death unites us all, from the nameless soldier to the illustrious writer, from the lowly Edgar to the mighty Cezanne, and tonight I have made this fatal ballet quite literal. Though it is not your daughter’s day to die. No, Monsieur, I am no murderer: my beloved Mademoiselle is safe at my studio in my conductor’s garb. Remember I am established in dance, myself, Monsieur, and rehearsed daily with your daughter. She taught me all I needed and more. For the final act of my final piece, I exchanged roles with the ballerina, so that the composer became the dancer vice versa. Make messes of the human form, indeed, monsieur. Now if you would open the door behind this note and check beneath the stage with the enclosed key. You may still find me barely clinging to life among the black kegs if you’re fleet of foot. And bring those constables, I’m sure I’ll have quite a bombshell waiting for you.  Yours in the Danse Macabre, Monsieur Edgar CONWAY: Quite the grisly anecdote, if I say so. There’s no address, and even if there was, I doubt any of the involved parties would still be around to receive it. Its contents have been archived regardless, and there’s nothing in here that warrants storage in our vault, so...I guess I’ll see if our local history museum has any interest in it.  Heat. CONWAY: Atomic clocks are the most precise keepers of time that we’ve made so far. They measure the radiation given off by an electron in a cooled cesium atom as it changes energy levels. A second has passed when the device’s oscillator measures 9,192,631,770 cycles of radiation. Light. I was good friends with her growing up. We played together a lot, shared secrets. She lost her arm when she was 10. Now that’s not just a figure of speech either. She actually lost it; no one knows where it went. We were out in the woods near Springfield climbing in trees, throwing rocks, and whatever else kids with busy parents did at that age. We found a cave, a small hollow spot in a wall of shale. She went in. I was worried about getting in trouble, so I waited outside anxiously. Decay. Eventually the oscillator’s measurements will be a little bit off. One second every few million years, or something like that. You know, everything breaks down; entropy gets the best of us all. She came out without her left arm, no pain, no tears. Doctors were surely flummoxed. There’s really nothing written in stone that says decay has to go that way, though. What happens in that missing second every million years? Hey, have you tried to shove a handful of cereal in your mouth but drop some, then look down in disbelief as the puffed circles form a pyramid on the ground instead of scattering everywhere? You ever make a little sandcastle in the sun only to watch the wind sweep it away, piece by piece, and make it into an even bigger sandcastle a few feet away? Well, I hadn’t either, 'til then. 'Til she lost her arm. I’ve been with this office for 6 years, but it might as well be a lifetime. Sure, I’d seen some weird stuff before, that’s why I got the job in the first place, but the sheer volume here can’t be a coincidence. They got me sorting through old mail looking for god knows what. I’ve got criteria, I’ve got a list, but it all seems pretty arbitrary if you ask me. I mean like, “If the letter evokes sad memories of your childhood, it must not be delivered.” Yeah, okay, sure. “If your nose itches while reading the letter, it may be delivered.” I just don’t get it sometimes.  UNKNOWN VOICE ON PHONE: “Jeez that’s neat and all, but what does it have to do with the statue, Conway?” CONWAY: I’m just trying to figure out what it all means. What it is. UNKONWN VOICE: “Uhh It’s an angel, Conway.” CONWAY: Well, yes, but...but why? Why Kenji? What’s the symbolism? What do angels do? UNKNOWN VOICE: “I don’t know, like guide you up to heaven? Aren’t they the sort of like the go-betweens for god and us?”  CONWAY: You know, you may be onto something. They’re a connection, right? A bridge between the realms of heaven and earth. They hang around at the boundary between worlds, and they take you somewhere else. Somewhere different. But where, though? Where...where's Ken-- *DIAL TONE, followed by BUSY SIGNAL*

Listed in: Fiction

Episode 6: GONE FISHING/MISSING

Published: March 8, 2021, noon
Duration: 24 minutes 51 seconds

The Dead Letter Office receives a series of postcards from a place that doesn't exist. Conway takes a trip to his local art museum after some pieces go missing. (CWs: beer, derealization)   TRANSCRIPTS: CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the dead letter office of ***** Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is a felony. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public.  A series of postcards, collectively titled Dead Letter 6910, postmarked May 17th 1980. The post office that initially received these cards were unable to determine the intended address and no return address was provided. They were apparently left on top of a cabinet for a few decades until that office closed. Agents clearing out the remaining equipment flagged these and sent them our way.  The front of the cards feature a white lighthouse, somewhat faded from exposure to the sun. Small cursive handwriting covers the postcards back to front. I’ve been able to place them in what I believe is the correct order. The messages read as follows. LOST FISHERMAN, NARRATOR: It’s real easy to lose yourself fishing, to forget your troubles. It’s like a daydream. Now Lucy, I know fishing stories get exaggerated, but you’ve got to hear this one, sweetheart: it’s a real humdinger! Me and Ken were out on the boat, cruising for fish. We had talked about going out on Lake Erie to nab a few meaty walleye last winter. All season I kept having the same dream: we’d be out on the drink, passing the hours doing a whole lot of nothing. I’d be almost in a daze when I’d hear the plop of my bobber dipping. I’d anchor my foot against the side of the vessel and start slowly reeling in the line. I could feel something pulling on the other end. Something big. We’d fight over the wire for minutes, then I’d finally hoist it out. A big, glistening golden walleye, almost as big as, jeez, my whole torso, you could say. But then Ken would hold up this weird upside-down painting of a lighthouse. While I was distracted, the walleye would wriggle its huge body and slip into the lake, disappearing into the deep. I’d peek up at the sun above the scattered clouds, sigh, then check my watch. But no matter how hard I tried, no matter what angle I’d look at it, I just couldn’t make out the time. Then I’d wake up. Well since the weather’d warmed up, we figured it was about time. So me and Ken were out on the Erie sitting on opposite sides of our little watercraft. He had this big orange life preserver on, which I still think’s a little showoffy, and his nose was white with zinc. He was gazing out over the calm water before he cast his line. It was a cool late spring morning, a little bit of haze still resting above the surface before the sun comes up and cooks it away like fat on the griddle. I flicked my wrist and sent my hook out into the lake, then reclined in my seat. I stuck my hand into the blue cooler at my feet and felt around for some jerky. Ken was still just scanning the lake, as if he was trying to find something that wasn’t there. He got this weird expression like he’d been pricked, then finally also cast his line. We spent a while without a single bite. The morning bugs were starting to come out and swirl around the water’s surface. You know, in a way, fishing is kinda similar that new age meditation I saw on tv. You forget yourself and just be one with the fishing rod. Having a few brews handy helps with that, too. I reached into the cooler for a beer and cracked the bottle open with a satisfying fizz. Well that finally caught Ken’s attention. LOST FISHERMAN: “You want a cold one, buddy?” I offered. KEN: “What brand did you bring?” LOST FISHERMAN: “Well…” I turned around bottle in my hand, but the label was gone. It must have sweat off in the ice. “Something light. Don’t need to be getting sauced out on the lake in the middle of the day!” Ken shrugged and took the slippery bottle. I peered over the edge at my reflection in the lake. The rippling water around the edge of the vessel distorted my face. Then the slack on my line went taut and the reel started unspooling. I shook myself from my thoughts and picked up my rod. I clicked the handle forward and started reeling her in. The drag was fierce, this must have been some fish! I braced my legs against the side of the boat and anchored the butt of the rod under the lip. I pulled and reeled in succession, but the more I struggled, the harder this thing was to reel in. My arms were getting weak, my face turned beat-red and no doubt made that strained expression you always laugh at. Ken sat and watched in shock. KEN: “That must be some fish!” LOST FISHERMAN: He muttered, then rushed over to me, pulling my shoulders and helping me keep my balance. We waged war with this fish, tug of war, that is, back and forth for what could have been 20 seconds or 2 hours. Eventually the line slackened, and we figured we’d worn this monster out. I puffed out a sigh, straightened my hat, and prepared to haul her in. I thrust my arms up and the line snapped, splashing me with lake water and sending me careening for the port edge. I landed on my backside with a crash. I dabbed the moisture in my mustache and rubbed my dinged elbow. Ken laughed and fished around in the cooler, pulling out another drink for me. KEN: “Come on, I think you’ve earned it.” LOST FISHERMAN: We sat quietly again for a time, waiting for another bite or just enjoying the little peace away from home. The bugs mostly left us alone once the sun was high. The warm rays of the afternoon combined with the sedating nature of the suds made me liable to doze off. My eyelids grew heavy and sank, blurring the glinting sun on the water into a band of soft light. The rocking boat lulled me into a trance, and my head dipped.  Before I could actually catch some Zs, Ken spoke up, real gravely. He was in front of me, his hand on my shoulder. KEN: “Have you seen the duck yet?” LOST FISHERMAN:“Which duck?” I asked. He closed his eyes and sighed. KEN: “It’s rusting. Look this might sound boneheaded, How did we get out here again?" LOST FISHERMAN: I blinked hard and pushed up the brim of my hat to get a good look at him through my sleepy eyes. “What d’ya mean, Ken? We drove out to the dock then motored out here.” He turned his gaze out over the water and shook his head. He asked if I remembered actually doing that and, well, now that he mentioned it, no. I just remembered being on the ship. “It was early, Ken,” I reasoned, “we were barely awake. I just can’t think on it right now’s all.” He didn’t seem satisfied with that. He bent over the old cooler and rooted around to scoop out the rest of the bottles we had. He turned them my way. KEN: “Look, no labels. You think every single one rubbed off in the cooler? You really can’t remember which brand you bought?” LOST FISHERMAN: “C’mon Ken,” I said. “You’re acting funny. Not haha-funny either.” He took a step toward me. I was starting to get a little anxious. KEN: “What’s my last name?” LOST FISHERMAN: He asked. Lucy, I swear, I felt older than granddad. I knew what it was, but in that moment I couldn’t say. It was on the tip of my tongue, but nothing would come out. I felt prickling sweat running down the back of my neck. My hands were clammy and my mouth was bone dry. “Jeez Ken, w-what’s this all about? I thought we came out here to relax, not play ten thousand dollar pyramid together.” My stomach felt uneasy. Ken kneeled to my eye level and took off his hat. KEN: “What’s your name?” LOST FISHERMAN: What’s my name? What a damn silly question. He sounded serious though. What’d gotten into him? “I’m not playing around anymore, Ken.” I let out a bitter laugh. “Cut it out. You must be drunk, or seasick, or both. Yeah, that’s it. You know how you get off balance when we’re on the water. Here, lay flat on vinyl, it should cool your head down.” KEN: “I’m not seasick, and I’m not drunk. Quit avoiding the question.” LOST FISHERMAN: He had a queer kinda glint in his eye, and his mouth was screwed up in a grimace. KEN: “What is your name, Lost Fisherman?” LOST FISHERMAN: I wiped my sleeve across my upper lip to sop up the sweat that was beading under my mustache. I scratched at my neck with a shaky hand. I blinked hard a couple of times against the stinging sweat and sunlight. My poor gut was twisting itself up in knots. I was ready to go home and forget this ever happened. But Ken wasn’t about to let this go, not without me without answering his frankly asinine questions.  “Whatever’s gotten into you, Ken, I promise me saying my name’s not gonna help you. We have to get you to a doctor.” I got up on my wobbly feet and started toward the engine, fixing to speed us back to shore. KEN: “Your name!”  LOST FISHERMAN: I raised my index finger and opened my mouth to yell, but nothing came out. I shut my trap and sunk my head. The world was spinning around me, my thoughts were swimming like fish in the lake. I couldn’t even remember my own name. I started coughing, almost heaving. I looked up again at Ken, who was just watching me. I tried to ask him to tell me what the hell was going on, but the words wouldn’t come together. I couldn’t remember a damn thing from before we were on that damn boat. My eyes darted around in a panic for any sign of familiarity: but there was no shoreline, no other people on the horizon. The jerky I brought was in a blank plastic baggie, the beers just brown bottles. My heart stuttered and shook like mice were chewing through my wires. “Is...is this a dream?” I asked Ken, almost accusing him of something, though not sure of what, exactly.  KEN: “If this were a dream, we’d be in that boat instead.” LOST FISHERMAN: He held out his hand, pointing starboard. I turned my head slowly, then I swallowed hard and looked. About a hundred yards off I saw a small canoe, Ken and me sitting in it, pointing back at us.  I swiveled my head back toward Ken in the painted canoe, then down at the wooden panels under my feet. Two oars were attached to the boat, and our fishing rods sat under the little seats near my boots. He asked one last question. KEN: “Do you have the time?” LOST FISHERMAN: I turned my wrist over and tried to check the time on my watch. But I just couldn’t look at it. Everything was so as maple syrup. KEN: “What time is it?” LOST FISHERMAN: He repeated. I fought with all my might to glance at my watch. Its face was distorted, blurry and rippling in the corner of my vision. That winded me. I gasped and faced Ken. He leaned down to a panel in the floor of the boat and lifted it open, similar to a hatch for a crawl space. He flatly motioned with his hand to step inside. So me and Ken climbed into the hole and stepped down a steel ladder below. At the bottom, we found ourselves standing in a dark, open area. Some kind of metal scaffolding was holding up a matte painting of trees over the lake. A spotlight was hoisted above a catwalk, its light shining onto where we were. Up above us I saw the wooden boat prop sitting on weighted rigging. It was surrounded by a plexiglass tank full of water no bigger than our rumpus room. It looked like we were backstage, or under the stage, of a theater.  I was totally flummoxed, unable to say or do a whole lot of anything. I heard something moving to my left. In my peripheral vision, I saw something dark, a figure in pure black, parting a set of curtains at the edge of whatever we were in, then it disappeared. Now Ken started walking slowly toward the curtains. I stood there, mouth hanging open like an ass, then hopped along to catch up to him. Behind us, I heard more of those silhouette people moving and muttering as they dismantled the lake set.  Ken stepped through the threshold and I followed. We ended up at the foot of an inverted lighthouse, hanging from God knows what and going way down below into the abyss under our feet. It was long, crumbling white stucco’d brick, covered in sharp gray icicles. There were a few cement stairs down to the stark black door leading inside. Ken extended his hand, signaling that I should go first. I stood in front of the dark door, and slowly turned the handle. I glanced back and Ken was gone. Beyond the door was a spiraling staircase downward toward the bottom--er well, top--of the inverted lighthouse. I was surrounded by exposed red brick, and held onto the cold metal rail to steady myself. It was a narrow, claustrophobic descent, each step my rubber boots squeaked on the iron stairs. Moments passed in silence as the space got smaller and smaller.  I made it to the end of the staircase and saw an opening into a dark room ahead. Having nowhere else to go really, I stepped inside. There was Ken again, tall, lanky, still in that silly orange vest and nose all white. He was standing next to a huge metal device, taller than he was at parts. Its surface was smooth and dark, maybe polished black iron. Its shape was curved and irregular, thick here, thin there, odd angles. Not a square or cylinder, nearly impossible to describe. It was humming, and letting off thick steam in slow curling ribbons. Its rancorous clattering and rumbling made me wince. It sounded like I was under the hood of a mean car. Ken was standing straight up with his hands folded neatly in front of him, clasping onto an empty golden picture frame. He locked eyes with me one last time and reached one hand out to this nightmare machine. His fingertips touched the sleek metal, and in a flash of light, he was gone, leaving just his lifejacket behind. I slowly moved closer to this machine, investigating where Ken just was. I could feel whatever this was giving off heat as it worked. My rubber sole depressed the corner of Ken’s foam vest as I stood next to the whirring thing. I put my shaking palm forth, and made contact with the Lucid Engine. Now honey I know this sounds like nonsense, and this next part is gonna sound extra funny. You should be sitting for this last bit. Go grab a seat in the kitchen. I want you to think real hard on what I’m about to ask you. What’s my name? What did you do today before I wrote you this card? Yeah, I thought so. Now look up at the clock on the wall. What time is it? We’ll be waiting for you at the top of the lighthouse. CONWAY: I’ve searched for the address on these postcards, and not only does the street not exist, neither does the town. It’s supposed to be delivered to Aisling or Ashline? Ohio, which does not show up in any of our state records dating back nearly a century and a half. There only addressee is a “Lucy” something--the last name is smudged, indecipherable. The Ken figure was similarly elusive. Given the contents of the cards and the nonexistent recipient from a fictitious town, these postcards are undeliverable in quite a literal sense. DL-4910 will thus be stored safely in our vault.    CONWAY: A number of pieces have gone missing at the ***** museum of art. This only began after they received a strange new acquisition in the mail last week. As a dutiful employee of this venerable organization and art history major--or perhaps more pertinently the closest member of the Dead Letter Office to said museum--I’ve been assigned more field work.  *on tape: car door shuts, car starts, driving noises* CONWAY ON TAPE: Now from what I’ve been told, a large crate showed up in the museum’s storage last Monday with no prior indication as to who may have delivered it. Rather than look this particular gift horse in the mouth, the museum accepted the donation and set out looking into its provenance. They found it historically noteworthy, I suppose, and set up a display for it. Since that time, 2 nearby oil paintings have completely vanished from the museum without a trace. I’m heading to that museum now to investigate with my trusty government-issue tape recorder. *CONWAY singing on tape* I am a man of constant sorrow, I’ve seen trouble all my days. I bid farewell to Cincinnati, the place where I was born and raised. The place where he *indistinguishable lyric* *click* CONWAY ON TAPE: So they’ve got this exhibit cordoned off, and brought up all the packaging for me to look over along with the statue.  Let’s start with the piece itself. It’s about 6 feet tall, a carving of a winged woman, presumably an angel or perhaps a seraphim of some kind. Looks like marble. Her hands are clasped in front of her chest. Her features are smooth. The finer details of this sculpture appear to have been weathered by some time outside. Now nothing too exceptional, and not really my taste-- *click* Nearby, I can see the former displays for the oil paintings. The info placards are still here, but the frames and canvases have vanished without a trace. Apparently the authorities weren’t able to find any any signs of theft and security cameras at all the exits show nothing out of the ordinary. It’s as if simply vanished into thin air. Now interestingly enough, there are several chairs nearby, closer to the sculpture than the paintings were, but none of them have been disturbed. So it’s either a standard theft--albeit one committed by an expert--or this sculpture has some kind of intrinsic definition of art and a penchant for larceny. Now I’m not one to judge. Carpentry is certainly an art, as is furniture design. Maybe the sculpture sees things differently. Well let’s put this to the test. I’m sure the docents wouldn’t be too keen on trying it with anything from the collection, so it looks like I’m going to be doing my best impression of Picasso on my notepad. *click* All right I’ve placed my crude sketch at the foot of this statue, and uh, ten minutes later there's still nothing. So it’s looking like theft is increasingly likely and my time is being wasted. And here I was excited to see a statue versed in aesthetic theory. The return address on the packaging doesn’t indicate a name, but it does list some address out in Cali-for-ni-ay. A quick search indicates that it’s warehouse for shared by a CEO for a company called Thanatech. Now that sounds familiar, but I’ve got no reason to believe that this is anything our office should be involved with. Time to-- *click* *on the phone in the car* CONWAY ON TAPE: What do you mean he’s missing? Well it certainly would have been nice to know that an employee of ours is gone, yeah!  So--fingerprints were found all over this thing, and you didn’t think that was pertinent? Christ, all right, I’m turning around. I’ll be back in 10. *click* CONWAY ON TAPE: Jesus his prints really are all over this thing. Like head to base covered, all in different directions. Now we’re talking my language. What the hell was he doing? *click* CONWAY ON THE PHONE ON TAPE: Yeah, you got a description for me? Okay, tall, dark hair. Got a name? Kenji Ta***. Right. I’ll get back to you. *click* CONWAY ON TAPE: Let’s try something else. Maybe my scribbling didn’t cut it for this thing. Maybe like the chairs. I wonder about facsimiles or forgeries. I’ve pulled up an image of Undergrowth with Two Figures by van Gogh on my work phone. I’m going to set it next to the sculpture and observe. *Clattering noises, buzzing, same as in the lighthouse* Well, damn, that’s no good. I guess this thing disagrees with Bemjamin about a reproduction’s uhh authenticity. Well that's-- *click* CONWAY ON THE PHONE ON TAPE: Yeah, it’s Conway again. Sorry my other phone is...indisposed. Now you’re going to want to box that thing up tight, make sure you wear gloves, and bring it out back. Keep it as far away from other pieces as you can on the way out, I want to emphasize that. I’ve got one of our guys coming with a truck to pick it up soon. Yeah. No! No, don’t call them, we’ll take care of it. We’ll update you as soon as we can. Yup. Okay, okay. Bye, now. Mm-bye-- CONWAY: We’ve catalogued this sculpture and assigned it the label Dead Object 07811. Further study will be necessary to determine its exact provenance and nature. For now, it will be stored safely and securely in our vault.  For the Dead Letter Office of ***** Ohio, this is Conway, signing off.

Listed in: Fiction

Episode 5: THE GREAT BLACK SWAMP

Published: Feb. 22, 2021, 1:34 p.m.
Duration: 22 minutes 12 seconds

Conway receives a water-logged manuscript from a midwestern monster hunter of questionable character.  (CWs: mild drug use--cannabis, fire,)   TRANSCRIPTS: CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the Dead Letter Office of ***** Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is a felony. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public.  Dead Letter 10609, a manuscript for some kook’s autobiography or memoir, sent to a less than reputable publishing company that shut its doors years back. It was flagged for inspection before it could be delivered due to some unknown fluid leaking from the package. Inside the package was the previously mention manuscript and a broken test tube. The most pertinent excerpts from what remains of the water-logged manuscript read as follows.  NARRATOR: It started, as so many terrible things do, in rural Ohio. You drive out deep into the flat midwest farmland, past the intersection of McCutcheon and 199, down narrow roads covered in gravel and framed by a split sea of cornstalks. You take the turn onto Holcomb road, and one way or another you’ll eventually hit Holcomb Woods--regardless of which way you’re going. Holcomb road cuts a straight line through the foliage. You can see one end from the other, given clear enough conditions. Every kid in the area’s heard of Holcomb woods. The legend varies from school to school, vivid details emerging when the tale’s in the hands of a particularly clever storyteller, but some commonalities emerge: a vehicle, an accident, a tree, and some ghostly headlights. Some say it was a bus full of kids and a mad driver, others whisper of intoxicated teens. No matter the details, the story ends with a warning--or dare, depending on who is listening--drive down Holcomb road at night and you’ll come upon the passage through the dense trees. Before you pass under the arced branches, you’ll see a pair of headlights coming at you from the opposite direction. You can try to swerve out of the way, but they’ll pass right through you, then disappear. Some say you can still see the driver’s face in one of the trunks if the moon’s angle is just right.  Growing up, I wanted to work with animals. I was fascinated with animal behavior, with their taxonomies and eccentricities. I planned to go to the nearby state university after high school, study biology, zoology, whatever it took to get my dream job. That was until three friends and I took a trip down Holcomb road. It was the final day of our last summer break before graduation. We were bumping along the rough country roads in an old Buick, blaring the kind of music specifically designed to make our parents wince. We slowed down when we saw the woods ahead, the black void in the center of the trees inviting us in. Of course, we’d all heard the stories before, each of us with our own personal vision of the fateful event that we would passionately defend. We stopped at the very edge of the trees and shut off the engine. Mosquitos tapped at the windows in the humid air. The only sign of our presence that remained was the gentle clinking of empty beer bottles rattling around in the backseat. We sat and waited. Somebody cracked wise about a ghost driver needing a ghost license. We were haughty and skeptical in the headstrong way that only teenagers--so sure of their own immortality--can be.  The driver was getting impatient, eager to return the rusty sedan to his parents before midnight and get inside in the central air. He reached for the keys, fixed to run the engine again, when two points of bright light emerged from the other end of the woods. We all went quiet, transfixed by the glow. The two points were close together, and smaller than headlights. They drew closer at a startling pace. The driver fumbled with the keys while the rest of us shouted at him to get it together. The keys hit the floor with a pathetic clink and we fell silent again. The lights were right in front of us now, standing about seven feet in the air. Each was about the size of a baseball, casting an eerie pall across our stunned faces. These lights were attached to something bigger: they looked like the eyes of some strange creature. The hulking beast stood on two thin legs, leading up to a wide body covered in dense fur. It took a step toward the driver-side window and tilted its oblong face. Two long feathery tendrils twitched atop its head. A hooked claw tapped at the door. I made eye contact with this thing from the passenger seat and felt a deep churn in my gut. Dread crept through my body. I could see every anxiety, every worst case scenario I’d ever imagined, play out in my head at once. The others burst into action simultaneously, all scrambling and reaching to find the keys under the seat. This entity seemed unsettled by our sudden movement and stepped back on its spindly legs. A huge pair of powdery wings spread out behind it. It flapped several times, then took off over the pale moonlit trees and disappeared. The driver snatched the keys from below the seat and we sped home. After what felt like a century of silence, somebody in the back made a joke about the fuzzy bird man, assuring ourselves that it was probably just an eagle or local crackpot in a costume. I didn’t say anything the whole way. I was replaying the horrible visions in my head over and over. Classes would start next week, our last year of mandatory schooling before we all went our own ways in the adult world. That Wednesday, the high school caught fire, taking the lives of the driver, the two passengers in the backseat, and several other students and teachers. From that moment, my interest in zoology vanished, and I became deeply fascinated by cryptozoology. I’ve been all over this great state searching for signs of the paranormal and the cryptozoological. I’ve taken a dive in Lake Erie looking for Bessie, the South Bay monster. Didn’t find much there apart from some sunken boats, a lot of trees, and a weird skeleton with a human skull and fish tail. I’ve journeyed into forests and nature preserves for sightings of the grassman, also known as the skunk ape or the woodland sasquatch. There are places here that are almost supernatural on their own. Small towns isolated in time, one-road-hamlets with ice cream stands across the street from stark white churches, 50s style diners and cash-only single pump stations. You’ll meet some of the friendliest, most earnest folk in the world in these towns. You may think you’ve finally died and gone to heaven. I’ve also come to know that a lot of places here in Ohio are about as close to hell as we humans will see. Little pockets of distilled hate, of insular folk hostile to anyone or anything different, rotting from the inside. Places that drain your spirit and crater your faith in humankind. Pretty towns full of mundane demons who would rather bleed their kids to death in plain view than acknowledge the world outside. Horrific poverty and destitution wrought by business and encouraged by politics with no fix in sight. Of course this isn’t isolated to any town or any state. It spreads and it festers across the midwest, through the rust belt, from coast to coast. With enough time on the road, you learn to keep mostly to yourself until you’re sure which you’re dealing with.  It was at one of these previously noted ice cream stands on one of the aforementioned grassman journeys that I overheard a possible sighting. It was early August, hot as all get out. I was about 15 minutes out from the largest nature preserve in the state. Sitting on a bench under a big plastic cone, I was trying my damndest to keep my chocolate vanilla twist from dripping onto my hand. Church was just letting out across the road. According to the sign out front, next week was chili week. A small family in dated formalwear trotted over for a post-worship treat. The kids squealed and ran off with their cones. Their parents sat on a bench not far from me. The father said he had a friend who went hiking yesterday and came across a strange clearing. It seemed to be a campsite, but there was no camping gear, no sign of a fire. The clearing was surrounded by odd broken branches, tangled and tied into dangling arcane symbols like wicked Christmas ornaments. Then there were the weird indentations in the dirt. Throughout the site was a sour, skunky smell. He didn’t give many clues as to where this site was, but given the description, I could narrow it down to a couple square miles of land. Besides, what other leads on the midwest bigfoot did I have? As any seasoned hunter knows, sasquatches, swamp apes, Ohio dog men, the Loveland Frog, and other paranormal phenomena are most active in the early morning. I loaded my camouflage, german-engineered tactical backpack full of the usual supplies: a 1978 Canon F1 with several lenses (which many experts attest is the best camera for capturing the paranormal), 6 rolls of monochromatic 35mm film, motion sensors, an EMF reader for when I’m feeling so inclined, a hiking pole adorned with bells, a compass, a first aid kit, and of course clean water and snacks.  I set out on the trail just before dawn, camera in hand, looking for the possible hideout of the grassman. After several hours of pleasant hiking in the estimated area, my eye stopped on a small trail running from the main path. Of course this could just be any random trail, but In my years of searching, I’ve learned to discard logic and follow my instincts. And my instincts said this trail was it. I screwed on the telephoto lens to my camera and crept forward through the tall grass and gnarled roots of towering hickory trees. I could hear something ahead, and through the first sluggish rays of hazy daylight saw snapped and hanging branches. Gnarled bundles of thin twigs twisted and tied into complicated, unrecognizable shapes. A ring of trees ahead cordoned off a small clearing. I could hear faint rustling, and picked up a distinct skunky aroma wafting from the site. I gently set down my pole and backpack. I went prone in the grass, resting my forearms on the backpack to steady my camera, and looked through the viewfinder.  I saw people. Several young people in tie-dye shirts and flared jeans, passing around a cigarette. I turned my gaze from the viewfinder to the site itself, but saw nothing. They weren’t there. Back to the camera and there they were. I adjusted the aperture and snapped a photo. They must have heard the click and turned my way. I froze, and looked up from the camera. There they were, in the clearing, plain as day. One of the men held out an open hand in my direction. I slowly rose, my breaths short and quick. I started in their direction and breached the clearing. There were 5 of them, 3 girls and two guys. These people were completely silent, all in dated psychedelic clothing. Two of them were kissing on a log near the edge. The man before me had long hair bound by a headband and small round glasses, tinted a light shade of green. He wore a denim vest over a cream-colored turtleneck. A pendant dangled from his neck in the shape of a white butterfly. And his hand wasn’t so empty after all: in it rested a small, hand rolled cigarette of some kind, the ends twisted shut. I reached for it. It was solid. I took it and put it in my pocket. The man smiled, and pointed north. I understood the meaning of his gesture implicitly. Whatever I was after, it wasn’t here. No, instead of finding the midwest bigfoot, I found some teens making out and smoking grass. I thanked him, and he nodded quietly. I turned to leave the clearing, and when I looked back, they were gone again. I felt my pocket and yes, indeed, the illicit substance was still there. I shook my head to clear my thoughts. This was not the place I was looking for. The man pointed north. So that’s where I would go. A vast swamp once covered much of northwest Ohio and parts of Indiana and Michigan, a shallow wetland carved eons ago by the slow retreat of glacial masses across the region. Thick patches of sycamores rose high over deep muck, flat marshes extended from Erie to the Maumee. Much of this swamp was drained in the 19th century to make room for cornfields and easier overland travel. Some segments of the swamp remain intact, however, and one such preserve was to be my next stakeout. I readied my usual gear and drove the old van north, through the featureless heart of the state, the land of a thousand antique shops and cheese barns. I only stopped occasionally under the harsh fluorescence of gas station limbo to refresh my caffeine supply or stock up on protein bars. As I drove down the side roads and country highways, the sun sank into the earth, the tall cornfields hiding its parting rays. I spotted a vacant motel with no name. I pulled into the lot and booked a room. Moths and flies drunkenly swayed around the bare fluorescent bulb outside, dancing and stumbling in their reverie. Once I settled in for the night, I figured what better place to smoke a mysterious joint than a derelict motel? I am a man of science (in some definitions), after all, and by this time it had been a few decades since my last indulgence. I put my lighter to the bent stick of dope and inhaled. The smoke was palatably cheap, skunky, stale, almost earthy, like it had been abandoned in a pair of bellbottoms for a century and was later uncovered and subsequently consumed by some groovy professors on an anthropological dig. Halfway through, I put it out. I felt pleasantly toasty for about 30 minutes before dozing off. Around midnight, the rotary phone rang on the bedside table. The old clanging felt nostalgic, but not in the good “remembering the smell of your favorite gum” kind of way. More like being reminded of the day your pet died, or how your dad reacted when he found your stash. Familiar dread, I'd call it. I reached my hand out through the bleary darkness for the white plastic receiver and hesitantly put it to my ear. I spoke, *Hello?* but my voice echoed back at me. I made a clicking noise with my tongue *click*, which once again came back through the line. I pressed down the hook to hang up, and the line went quiet. I lifted my hand, and through the earpiece I heard keys gently jingling on a chain, the stutter and rumble of an engine, the buzzing of assorted insects. I pressed the switchhook once more.  Then I was sitting in my van with the engine idling, pulled off a gravel road and parked parallel to the boundary of some thick woodlands. The window was cracked to let in some of the humid vegetal air. I absentmindedly batted at the keys hanging from the ignition. Crickets played the hits in the tall grass ahead, while mosquitos vied for dominance over my arm. The receiver was still in my hand, tethered via coiled wire to cradle in the passenger’s seat. I hung up the phone and peered into the dark. This was North. In my line of work, you can either just accept the strange things you see and hear as-is, just go with the lunatic flow of the universe, or drive yourself mad trying to explain it all. I had decided long ago to stick with the former. So I grabbed my bag from the back, shut off the engine, and stepped through the threshold into the Great Black Swamp. Now if you’re not well-versed in wilderness exploration, it’s easy to get lost in a place like this: the boughs of the tall sycamores obscure the stars, frequent marshes and flooded plains render tracks impossible. Even easier still to get lost if you’re a little buzzed on a puff of ghost grass. Getting lost in the woods in an unfamiliar area at night is dangerous, reckless, and yet it’s also the genesis of nearly every cryptozoological, supernatural, and scatalogical tale this side of the Rallys-Checkers divide. I hid my compass in my pocket for the return trip and set about getting lost. Every couple hundred yards or so, I would pluck a leaf from a tree and drop it, spinning and twirling, to the ground. Whichever way the tip of the leaf pointed was my new direction. This method requires patience and some trial-and-error, but produces results that are most unpredictable. So in this manner, I trudged through the thick muck and tangled undergrowth of the glacier’s footprint. I mostly stayed on the drier land when I could: sasquatches surely don’t like waist-deep swamp water full of leeches and who-knows-what-else anymore than the rest of us. The night was still and hot, and prevented any natural cooling. I wandered in random directions in a humid hazy odyssey. Clouds of mosquitoes buzzed at my damp ears and neck. Trees before me looked ominous and infinite, the swamp stretched under my feet to unknown horizons. The muck held onto my boots with every step and threatened to pull me deep into the black earth, as if the land itself was fighting my presence. I figured myself much like the early loggers and settlers in the area. I was unwelcome here, and the local flora and fauna were eager to let me know. It went on and on like this for hours, until I heard a bubbling to my right. Exhausted, drained of a not-insignificant quantity of blood, and still a little fried, I wondered at first if it was my imagination. This notion was quickly dispelled when a hanging bundle of twigs hit me in the forehead, just like the ones I’d seen before. Ahead, I spotted a patch of ripples. I waded into the turbid water toward the troubled bubbles.  Rather than getting deeper with each step, the swamp around my feet receded, and the rippling spot ahead rose. Dark water rushed in toward the center as it peaked like a cresting wave. The swamp took shape, a towering obelisk of wet mud, clay, branches, and vines, resembling the twisted woodland decorations. Small alien spheres bubbled to the surface and roots reached out like the tentacles of some alien being. I extended my hiking stick to poke at one of the spheres. The mud lifted from its surface like a lid, and below was a yellow eye with a slit pupil. The other spheres opened, an assortment of different sinister eyes in all manner of shapes and colors. Frothy swamp water babbled from its center as it rasped, gurgled, and screeched a crustacean free jazz boogie. This was no skunk ape, no grassman or Loveland frog. It lurched toward me. I tried to turn and run, but I was stuck: the thick sludge and vegetation left under the water had trapped my boots for real this time. My ragged breaths came more erratically as I struggled to pull at the straps on my shoes, hoping to free them from the muddy midwest’s toxic grip. I nearly got one free when my hand slipped from the wet strap and flew outward, brushing against one outstretched tendril of this creature. Thousands of words and ideas instantly rushed through my hand, into my head simultaneously, overlapping and combining into a soup of confused imagery: bread juice, cowboys holding hands underwater, The Great Gatsby but every page is alive and hostile. A wave of images zoomed out so far they’re just dots in a complex pointillist wave. My mind was completely overwhelmed, endlessly repeating and synthesizing nonsense phrases and patterns. In a burst of colored light and dust--a negative image of the scene before me--I exploded and I died.   Or so I thought, until I realized I had just been closing my eyes too hard. I rubbed at them with my sweaty fists and received another round of mental fireworks, then looked ahead again. The murky obelisk was still there, creeping toward me with malicious intent. But so was something else. Something familiar, standing on spindly legs, strange antenna atop its head, and powdery soft wings. Here it was again, some decades later. It flapped its wings at this muck monster and the abomination fell, the water returning and filling the land around my feet. The winged creature turned back to me, its wide glowing eyes locked unblinking with mine. It pointed with one of its clawed feet to my thigh. Oh god, I thought, this is it. Am I going to lose my leg? Gangrene, trench foot, gout? I yelped and stumbled, my boot coming loose from the wet earth, then fell backward into the swamp. I looked up into the twisted canopy and saw the gentle light of the moon peeking through the gaps in the branches. Then the eyes were above me again, and the clawed foot pointed at my leg once more. I felt at my thigh for any sign of injury or interest. That’s when I felt it: the last half of my occult reefer cigarette. My fingers fished into my damp pocket and pulled out the crushed, half-smoked spectral spliff. I extended my open hand toward this fuzzy creature. One of its hooked feet bent upwards at an unnatural angle and took its prize, its token for sparing my life once more. Through all my journeys, it turns out the mothman was pretty groovy and just wanted to be smoked out and relax for once.  By the time I made it back to the van, I was soaked in grimy water, bitten head to toe, and totally sober. I sat in the van for a long time in silence. I rubbed my oily, stubbly chin and thought for as long as I could tolerate. Then I picked up the receiver in the passenger’s seat and dialed my mother’s number. It ended, as so many surreal nightmares do, in rural Ohio. You drive out through the soy fields owned by one company full of patented seeds, past the poison miasma of suburbia and into the real deep country night, under the blistering stars and spires of rock and steel and into the Great Black Swamp, where there yet remains a sliver of the unknown.  CONWAY: Tests run on the inciting liquid returned a rather mundane result: particles of dirt, vegetation, and microscopic lifeforms suspended in water. In other words, a simple water sample, likely from a swamp or marsh. As such, this letter, DL-10609, has been deemed undeliverable due to both contamination and an invalid address. The manuscript will be dried and subsequently stored in our vault. For the Dead Letter Office of *****, Ohio, this is Conway, signing off. 

Listed in: Fiction

Episode 4: HEARTS AGLOW/SAVIOR

Published: Feb. 1, 2021, 2:24 p.m.
Duration: 28 minutes 53 seconds

Valentine's Day comes early as a city in California replaces its old sodium-vapor streetlights with LEDs, and Conway receives a sign from above.  "My Prayer" originally composed by Georges Boulanger, Carlos Gomez Barrera, and Jimmy Kennedy, covered by the Platters, covered by me. (CWs: some strong language, brief phallic language, food/brief crunching, death)   TRANSCRIPTS: CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the Dead Letter Office of ***** Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is a felony. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public.  This case begins with a letter, Dead Letter 135707, and a recorded radio broadcast of unknown origin. Our research indicates that after a series of complaints regarding faulty streetlights in July 2016, a city in California formed a commission to replace their aging sodium-vapor lamps. City council partnered with a local tech company to quickly remove the old lights and install bright new LEDs. They sent out a notice of the planned change to all residents within city limits. This prompted the aforementioned letter in response. The letter and the radio broadcast were sent on different days, the broadcast recorded before the plan was even public, but arrived at the commission at exactly the same time. It...spiraled out from there.  A carrier noticed the mail buildup at the listed address of this supposed commission--a burned out church--and sent it our way to sort through. These are the collected letters, voicemails, emails, and other communications surrounding the days following in summer 2016.  MARY: Dear City Council, I’m a zoologist with the University of ******. I just heard about your proposal for our streetlight issue, and I have a few concerns. First, it should be noted that the views presented here are strictly my own, and do not reflect the opinions of the university or its administration. From what I’ve read about the commission’s plans, it seems that the city will be removing the low-pressure sodium bulbs we use now and replacing them with high-efficiency LED lights, funded partially by Thanatech. While I do think it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars to upgrade our city’s infrastructure, and efficiency is definitely desirable, my concern lies in the LEDs themselves. Our old sodium-vapor lamps may not be the brightest or most aesthetically pleasing, but these supposed deficiencies may be important. Inside low-pressure sodium bulbs, metal is heated, causing it to emit a yellowish light. This warm, relatively dim light sits around or below about 2200 kelvin, significantly warmer than natural sunlight. The LEDs you’re planning to use sit somewhere between 4000 and 6000k, the approximate color temperature of actual daylight.  So why does any of this matter, you may be thinking? Well, although these lamps aren’t great for helping us see at night, they may be better for our furry friends. It’s theorized that brighter, bluer light, like that provided by LEDs, can trick segments of the brain into thinking that it’s actually daytime. I worry that replacing our whole grid with these bulbs could have a negative effect on our local wildlife. If a bunch of birds, bats, raccoons, and skunks think it’s daytime when it’s really midnight, we could have more problems on our hands than flickering street lights. The wavelengths of light emitted by these LEDs could disrupt their behavior, and may throw off their circadian rhythms. Disrupted sleep can cause serious problems, from common irritability and sluggishness, which we often see in ourselves, to memory issues, paranoia, aggressive or impulsive behavior, lack of appetite, even hallucinations, and so on. While I think fixing our streets is a good idea, I don’t think it’s worth potentially upending our entire local ecosystems in the process. Surely we can come to some kind of middle-ground and just get new sodium lamps, right? That is, unless you’ve already paid for Thanatech’s LEDs with our tax dollars.  Either way, thank you for taking the time to consider my concerns. Best wishes, Dr. Mary ****, class of 2005 CONWAY: Postmarked July 11th, 2016, arrived July 12th 2016. The following radio broadcast was sent July 5th, 2016 and arrived July 12th, 2016. CRACKLING VOICE ON THE RADIO: Good evening, ladies and gentleman. I'm here to tell you there’s electricity in the margins on the page, an atom bomb’s worth. In the space between the words, there’s energy. The things we can’t see are made of that energy. They travel through the wires and hide in stoplights. We can’t see them because we are not meant to see them. They come out at night and ride on the electrons in the air. Ladies and gentleman, we are made of electrons. When that twilight is gone, and no songbirds sing, God comes through the lines and sits in the streetlights. He waves, but you can’t see it. Should we all be so lucky as to be touched by the waving man in the light. CONWAY: The following voicemail was sent to the commission on July 17th, 2016. MITCH ON THE PHONE: Hey mayor dipshit, these new lights are so bright they’re going straight through my curtains. How the hell is any of this even allowed? Who’s paying for this? I didn’t elect some CEO dillweed to be in charge of our city, I elected you. And let me guess, they were paid for by our tax dollars? If I wanted this kinda open corruption with big business, I woulda stayed there in West by god Virginia. I haven’t slept in two days, and since the new lights went up in this neighborhood, they’re driving me up a wall. And since when did this renovation deal mean more plainclothes cops? Were those paid for by us too? I’ve seen the same jerk hanging out around my street every night, but no cop car. I can’t get a good look at him, but he’s dressed dark and keeps moving around between lampposts. Seems like he’s patrolling. Maybe like law enforcement, or even a g-man. Can you PLEASE have a meeting with the commission to see if you can do anything about this decision? Name’s Mitch by the way, disgruntled taxpayer number who the hell even knows now. CONWAY: Email sent to To ******* on July 18th, 2016 at 9:15PM Pacific Standard. LIZ: God, I miss you, Priya. I haven’t been sleeping well, or I mean I guess worse than usual. I haven’t been this exhausted since high school track. I hear people moving around at ungodly hours every night. Though, to be fair, I’m sure they hear me up too. The city put in these super bright new street lights everyone hates them. People have been talking about like going to city hall to protest they're that bad. Everyone’s on edge. I came really close to losing it at this girl who cut in front of me at the self-checkout. She didn’t even see that I was there. I don’t know what came over me. While I was there, I heard someone tell the cashier a weird story about people loitering outside apartment buildings. I thought I saw something like that today, actually. Looked like a tall guy, but I mean I couldn’t make out any features or even like his clothes. He kinda shifted around and then went away. Just disappeared. I’m pretty sure it was just somebody’s shadow from the balcony, though. Like with the lights these bright, you can make some pretty sick shadows. You’d have freaked out. Hope Munich is treating you well now that you’re settled in. Call me in the morning. Morning my time or yours I guess, it's not like I’ll be asleep anyway.  <3 <3 xo Liz MITCH ON THE PHONE: Hey, Mary, it’s Mitch, I know you screen calls but you should recognize my number by n--Oh shit, I can hear the cops outside somewhere. Sirens going, maybe an ambulance. I guess it got ugly at city hall. Doesn’t surprise me given how everyone’s been acting. I’m gonna see if I can maybe like...I can kinda see somebody through the blinds. Not sure if it’s that cop, he’s just standing there. Can’t really make out...hold on...what the hell? It’s like I can’t really see him. Just all dark. Looks like a shadow or something. I keep thinking he’s moving closer, but Mary, he’s not moving. He’s just...rippling. No, no this can’t be real. Okay, I need to sleep but by God, it’s so bright. What’s he...okay he’s gone. Call me as soon as you get this. Stay safe down there, please don’t get arrested, and hurry on back now.  MARY: Christ Mitch, just got your message. Can’t call, too loud down here. Have to text. Ducked out of the crowd for a minute before some people in black showed up. Sounds like they’re down here, too. Not sure what they’re doing, just head-to-toe black standing under the streetlights. National Guard? FBI? Too far away to tell. Was getting a major headache, stepped out for some water and air. May head home soon. Not sure. Doesn’t seem like anyone’s listening to us anyway. Some sirens nearby. Have to go. CONWAY: To ******* sent on July 19th 2016. LIZ: Yeah, some people marched downtown today. I was gonna go but I had to work. It’s getting wild down there now, kinda glad I stayed home, actually. So Yeah I’m safe, but I think I’m losing my mind without you here. The power in the neighborhood just went out. Of course it didn’t take the street lights out with it. OF COURSE IT DIDN’T. One of the Thanatech bulbs was smashed a few buildings down, but it’s not enough, I still can’t sleep. On top of that, I keep seeing people in front of our building, dark figures gathered under the streetlights. I thought about ordering banh mi, but nah. Mac and cheese and the Sims for me tonight. I wish I could have come with you to Germany. I bet the mountains are just gorgeous, and I bet they don’t have street lights so bad people protest over it there. It just feels like one long day here that never, ever ends. Well, I took some melatonin and put up the new blackout curtains. They’re hideous, you'll probably hate them. But they were the only ones in stock, so eh, not much choice. Wish me sweet dreams, I’ll call you whenever I wake up, assuming I can sleep at all. Xs, et cetera, Liz MITCH ON PHONE: I didn’t hear my phone buzz til now. The power is still out up here. I figured you’d be home by now, Mary. Are you okay? God why is it so dark in here? I just saw him outside again. He looked like he was flickering, like his body wasn’t totally solid. Oh god. Maybe it was real? That just can’t be, unless the government’s testing out some new stealth technology or whatnot. The streetlights are still on but God it’s pitch black in here. Wait shouldn’t the sun be up by now? Clock says it’s 9 in the morning and it’s still dark out. My phone must be broken, right? What does yours say? It can’t be this dark at 9. And you should be home by now. God damn I could hear him, crackling like a live wire. Man it’s so hot. My head feels fuzzy. I must be paranoid. I’m paranoid. I need to calm down. I called you for a reason. Why did I call you again. Oh my god there’s more of them out there now. God, I can see them through the blinds. They’re just...moving around, jittery and shaking, following people down the sidewalk. I gotta get out--I’m getting the hell out of here while I still can. Don’t come back home yet, I don’t think it’s safe. Just get inside somewhere, anywhere, please. Okay, I’m on the road. Traffic’s shit like always, but I’m heading for that church, not our usual one but you know the one we went to for pancakes that one time? They burnt yours something fierce but you ate 'em anyway. They’ve got a backup generator. They might still have regular lights on. People keep running in front of the cars. Are they running from those things? Christ, it looks like a zombie movie out here. Just saw a fistfight, a carjacking, and a guy biting somebody’s arm in the span of a block. Then a person fell out of a palm tree onto the median. There are people outside just...gone buck wild, Mary. I don’t know what’s going on, but there are these shadowy people keep coming out under the streetlights from the dark. I don’t know if they’re cops or FBI or or terrorists or what but they scare the hell out of me. Make my reflux act up something fierce. Looks like the traffic lights are out, I gotta stop and see *buzzing sounds* Oh no no no, there’s one close now and here I am stopped. He’s reaching out to somebody, his hand is it’s shaking and sparking. *GASP* He touched the guy and oh god oh god his body went dark and his heart was...I could see it, glowing like it was on fire from the inside...and now he’s gone. What the HELL is going on. I gotta get to the church, could be people there, safer in numbers, you know? Where the hell are you, Mary? Get inside and CALL M-- CONWAY: To: ****** sent July 19th 2016 at 12:06PM Pacific Standard Time. LIZ: I woke up to the sound of electrical humming in our apartment, a bright light in the kitchen. I peered into the kitchen and saw one of those...things standing there and touching the outlet. This wasn’t a shadow. Not this time. Which means what I saw before... Its shape was flickering and undefined. Like a shadow haloed in white light, like a swirling mass of black wiring on fire. My hair stood on end as a sick shock ran through my body. I felt dizzy, like I couldn’t look at it without getting vertigo. Every time I tried to look, my vision went blurry and I heard that terrible buzz. I don’t know how, but I knew in this moment, Priya, that this thing was going to kill me. You know I’m not big on religion, but I prayed. To whom exactly? I can't say, I just sent out a plea into the ether to see you one last time before the end. This crackling hum started to get louder as this thing drew near. As voltage ran through my fingers and toes. I could feel my chest getting hot. All I could think of was you. The entity warbled and shook like a vibrating waveform as it reached for me. Then there was a crash outside, loud rending metal on metal, that shook me out of it. I ran to the window and flung it open. I was fully gonna jump out, if necessary, height be damned. Someone’s car ran into the streetlight across from our building, the one right in front of the church. The lamp bent, the bulb exploded, and glass rained on the crumpled hood. The light went out, and the hum in our kitchen stopped. The thing vanished back into the outlet when the light went dark. Then the driver fell out of his crashed car with a shocked look and stumbled into the church, where lights were still on. I tried to put my boots on but my hands were shaking too much to tie the laces, so--sorry--I just crammed my feet into the slippers you left and ran out the door. The heavy door swung open and the cacophony of the street fully hit me. I could hear people in the building yelling, crying out their windows. Cars were honking, voices screaming and laughing. There was a fire somewhere, and smoke drifting gently over the hedges. Some guy on the sidewalk heard the door creak open and turned my way. He pulled out a switchblade, the sleek metal gleaming in the hot still air. He started running, knife ahead of him. Then I saw another one of those things under a light. As the knife guy passed under the light, this shadow thing touched him. He screamed, and his voice echoed down the street into a bassy inhuman hum. Glowing white light shot from his mouth, and his heart lit up through his chest like a flashlight. His whole circulatory system sparked with this light, then he was dust. I can't say I've seen anything like it, and I don’t think I will again. Two more hissing in the other direction brought me back to reality. I ran straight for the church. At least I knew there were people there. Like real people. I shouldered the heavy church entrance and busted into the main hall. I saw the guy from the car with a gash on his forehead. He looked up with a start. Blood dripped onto the floor in a thin line from his forehead. There are about a dozen people here in total, all terrified. The guy in the crash has seen those things too. I told him what I just saw. That they don’t just hang out in the lights, they’re somehow connected to the lights I think. Told him one disappeared when his car broke the streetlight outside. He’s been on his phone a lot since I’ve gotten here. I mean, everyone has. I guess everybody’s got somebody to check on, someone to worry about. A few of us are gathering what little supplies are here so we can ration them out. Some water bottles, a bag of chips, some communion wafers, a phone charger. The driver--his name's Mitch, by the way--asked us if we had any guns, preferably long guns. He wants to knock out the lights before it gets any worse. Jesus, Priya, you sure picked a hell of a time to leave. My phone says it’s noon, but it’s still dark. I guess I accidentally set it to Munich time. Oops, shows how much I want to be there. Please god, please, Priya, be safe. I don’t want to have to pray again, especially not in a church.  MITCH ON THE PHONE: I made it to the church, car’s toast though. If we’ve still got jobs after this, we’ll worry about it then. If you’re still downtown, get out of the streets. It’s the god damned lights. Young girl, Liz--real nice--said these things come out of the lights or wires or something. Not sure I understand it let alone believe it, but after what I’ve seen today, I’ll believe just about anything. Some other people are here at the church. None of them got guns, though, so we’re gonna take these lights out the old fashioned way. I’ve seen what those things can do, and I don’t want to see it happen again. I mean, there’s kids here, Mary, no older than 10.  *MITCH TO GROUP* All right, now I’m not trying to appoint myself disaster dictator or anything, but I was a union boss for 14 years, so I’m used to wrangling people and what the bosses call uhh “delegating tasks”. Anybody got a problem, just say so and I shut my trap. No objections? All right, so anyone play baseball? Throwing rocks ain’t too different, to be honest with you. Same fundamentals. You two, check the back rooms for any bottles, bricks, hell even shoes, anything hard we can throw. And you, go out back and see if you can hit the one along the east. Don’t go too far, and take someone with you to cover your six. These guys are quick, and they’re quiet, until they’re right on you. We’ve got a few supplies. Get these snacks to the kids, I’m sure they need em more than I do ha. Anybody still got people still out there? Yeah...yeah, me too. Look, I’m gonna say everything’s fine. But if what Liz said is true, all we gotta do is break some glass, and wait for help to arrive. I’m sure if we could figure it out, others have too. So let’s-- *buzzing, humming noises* MITCH: Oh shit, there’s one here now. Everyone back away from the door and don't touch it! These things are deadly to the touch. Back into the corner, check if there’s a lock on that side door. Okay, maybe WHAT ARE YOU DO-- *loud buzzing* MITCH: Oh god, oh godI’m gonna be sick...All right. No time, no time. Since that thing’s gone, grab some pews, let’s blockade the do-- *click* CONWAY: Sent to ***** July 19th 2016 at 1:58PM Pacific Standard Time. LIZ: Hey, how is Munich this time of year? To be honest, I’ve never been out of the country. Really wish I could have visited while you were there. Listen Priya, I don’t don’t know if I’m going to make it much longer. One of those things is in the church, more gathering outside, and my battery’s low. I think this is really it. This is the end. Who knew we’d go out like this? I kind of figured you know global warming or some kind of nuclear fallout was gonna be the thing. But here are kids crying in the pews wrapped in their moms arms, voices in the distance howling. Pops of gunfire echoing down the streets. The sky is so dark, no moon, no stars. The tile floor is still streaked with blood and I can smell tires burning down the road. Just constant sirens, and the ominous thrum of a helicopter somewhere. Everything we built for so long fell apart so fast. Listen, I love you, and I’m sorry I forgot to wash the dishes and always left my socks on the floor. I’m sorry I didn’t spring for the international data before you left. I know it’s dumb, but I can’t stop thinking about the time I accidentally dropped your phone in the pool. You were so mad, but you probably don’t even remember now. I still feel bad about it. I was going to ask you to marry me before you left, but...I chickened out. I guess it’s too late now, but will you anyway? The only thing I want is to see you one more time, to spend one more day together before it’s all over. I’m not going to die in this church, though. I'm gonna make a run for it. I used to be pretty fast, maybe I can get the cops, or whoever and we can help these people out of here and bring down the streetlights together. So consider this is one last prayer from the atheist. Let’s hope I’m wrong. If I don’t make it, I’m sorry about that too. CRACKLING VOICE ON THE RADIO: If you make the margins big enough, you can see him in the dots and waves. He comes through the wires, he’s a frequency, an atom bomb’s worth of electricity. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe the whole city has seen him tonight. He’s spoken through the lines. He says it’s the end of the world, and no one’s coming to save us. He says it’s too late for prayer. At the end of the day, turn up the volume on the airwaves and listen. You’ll hear the the end of the world in the crackle of vinyl. Listen closely, it sounds like this. *music begins* LYRICS: When the twilight is gone and no songbirds are singing When the twilight is gone, you come into my heart And here in my heart you will stay While I pray   My prayer is to linger with you At the end of the day in a dream that's divine My prayer is a rapture in blue With the world far away and your lips close to mine   Tonight while our hearts are aglow Oh tell me the words that I'm longing to know My prayer and the answer you give May they still be the same for as long as we live That you'll always be there  CRACKLING VOICE ON THE RADIO: Listen closely, and you’ll hear the end of the world. CONWAY: Given that the sun did indeed come up for the rest of the state, official reports have determined this incident one of the rare recorded cases of actual mass psychogenic illness, sometimes less sensitively titled mass hysteria. This was seemingly brought on by severe sleep deprivation among the city’s residents, further spurred by the odd radio broadcasts. We at the DLO tried to contact those involved with the city’s commission, but most information regarding this streetlight project has been wiped clean besides a false address and the initial missive. Representatives for Thanatech have declined to comment. Our research showed no signs of the several people who went missing that night, and no remains have been found. One odd report did contain a blurry image of a married couple somewhere in Leipzig that resembled the posters, but no further information was provided. Per the DLO, all of the preceding communications have been deemed undeliverable, and all physical devices containing records of said communications have been collected for storage in our vault.  CONWAY: Well this one ought to be quick. A small package, Dead Object 06908, addressed simply to “Ripley.” A carrier tried to deliver it to a nearby aquarium, but it was no longer in business, and was thus forwarded to us. A short note accompanies the box, which reads: “I believe this item will be of interest to you. I put a slice of bread in the toaster one morning--Just a regular old toaster!--and wouldn’t you know it: when it came out, the spitting image of our lord and savior was burned into the toast. I think this is important somehow.”  All right now before I even open the package, this sort of thing is so commonplace it’s downright cliche. Elvis showing up in a piece of cheese, or a wine stain in the shape of Princess Di’s face. Whether it’s faked or some poor sap reading too much into random dark spots doesn’t really matter. The point is it’s hardly unusual. Hell I bet now they’ve even got toasters just for this purpose. Well, let’s just see what we’ve got anyway. *box opens* CONWAY: Good lord that is phallus...for lack of a more scientific term. Um, very lifelike, burned onto what appears to be a thin slice of white bread. No mold visible, *sniff* no sour smell. Now I must admit, this is highly unprofessional, but it’s almost lunchtime and my curiosity is mighty piqued. *Toast crunches* CONWAY: That’s white bread all right, branded with a big dick. Well this package certainly seems deliverable, I’ll make sure the rest of this little curio gets to Mr. Ripley’s estate. For the Dead the Letter Office of ******, Ohio, this is Conway, *crunch* signing off.

Listed in: Fiction

Episode 3: HOLES/THE KING HAS LEFT THE BUILDING

Published: Jan. 18, 2021, 2 p.m.
Duration: 18 minutes 19 seconds

The Dead Letter Office receives a series of emails from a college student with recurring nightmares. Conway takes a trip to investigate a kitschy painting. Don't forget to rate, review, and subscribe if you like the show! (CWs: trypophobia, alcohol, finger damage, depictions of depression)   TRANSCRIPT: CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the Dead Letter Office of ***** Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is extremely felonious. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public.  Dead letter 13905. A series of emails were sent to the Environmental Protection Agency of Ohio over the course of many months in 2015. There was some concern among the higher-ups at the agency that these emails may be more pertinent to our work at the DLO rather than the EPA. They were intercepted and forwarded to us, and have been subsequently opened and read. The emails read as follows: KARA, NARRATOR: Dear Rick, I’m a senior at um **** ***** State University. I’ve been dreaming about holes--dark caves, coves along the shore, deep black as far in as I can see. This may not seem relevant at first, but I promise it'll come up, keep reading. I dream about sinkholes opening in a busy city street; gaps in clusters of coral growing from a sunken boat; a bloody bullet-wound in my leg; a honeycomb. This isn’t the first time I’ve dreamt about holes. There’s something I find revolting and unsettling about their emptiness. Maybe it’s ingrained in our lizard brains that holes are not good. Maybe that’s why aliens in our movies and comics always have those giant, endlessly black eyes. I dream more dreams about holes. I dream about trying to fill an infinite pool with a small garden hose. I dream about empty pomegranates. Others are deeply upsetting: confused imagery, lotus pod faces, choking revulsion, claustrophobia. I haven’t been sleeping well, and I can’t seem to focus on my schoolwork at all. My grades are starting to slip and I’m not sure how to proceed. I haven’t told anyone about the dreams yet. Talking about dreams to other people is pointless anyway; either they get it and nod along with you or they don’t get it at all and just nod along out of courtesy. It’s like having to explain why a joke is funny, it kills the whole prospect. After days of restless nights dreaming about holes, it’s hard to not notice them just...everywhere. Pupils are just holes in your eyes. Don’t look at close-up pictures of eyes. Empty spaces on bookshelves, open windows. Pores on peoples’ faces yawn wide. Cavities burrow into teeth, worms dig through soil. Anyway, I was doing some much-needed vacuuming on a Sunday morning and had to move the rug in the middle of my room to sweep under it. I pulled at the fabric, then paused. Two of the wooden planks underneath seemed a little farther apart than they should be. I tried to remember what the floor looked like last time I vacuumed. It had been a while, but I don't think they were that far apart. After all of these dreams about empty spaces, I figured I was just imagining things. I put the rug back over the boards and continued cleaning. Over the next few weeks or so, I didn’t really think about the space under the rug. I carried on with my dull work and repetitive life for a few weeks. That is, until a tube of chapstick fell off my coffee table and rolled strangely toward the center of the rug. Where it stopped, the slight weight of the tube made the rug sink. I hesitantly moved the table and reached out for the edge of the rug. The gap between the floorboards was definitely bigger this time. I started looking for answers online. Wood warping, leaky pipes, sinkholes, fracking quakes, ball lightning coming through electrical sockets; all manner of strange natural incidents can occur in your house, but none of this seemed to quite fit the symptoms. Anyway, now that the wordy preamble is out of the way, this is why I’m contacting you. I figure ODNR or the Ohio EPA should know something about this. It’s probably fine right? I think it’s just some kind of geological event or seismic oddity. My address and phone number are enclosed in case you think this sounds serious. Best, Kara KARA: Hello again Rick, Thanks for getting back to me. I don’t hear any water, but it has grown. In fact, one morning I stumbled blearily downstairs and nearly fainted. The hole had widened, and seemingly swallowed my area rug and coffee table. The edges were perfectly smooth, as if something terribly sharp cut through the floorboards and into the earth. I froze in a panic on the stairs and spent what felt like most of the morning paralyzed, numb, staring at the hole from the dark steps. Where did it come from? Where did it lead? Should I call 911? Eventually I got brave enough to leave the stairs and go near it. I strained to see in from a few feet away, but it was no use. I smelled for rotten eggs like you suggested, but I don’t think there’s any gas leaks. I leaned in and listened. Nothing. As I inched closer, the urge to stick my hand in was strong, but my survival instincts proved stronger. I haven’t told anyone else about this hole, either. Who would I call? My dad? The cops? What would I say? Now that I think about it, maybe I can take care of it myself. I’ve fixed a lock  and caulked a shower before, so maybe it won’t be too hard to replace some floorboards. Or maybe, if it’s some freak geological occurrence, it’ll just go away on its own, just as suddenly as it came. I’ll just be extra careful not to drop anything for the time being, and I’ll cover it up if anyone comes over. I’ll plan around it. No big. Sorry to bother you. Thanks anyway, Kara KARA: At first it was a pain. I was stunned anew every morning that I came down from the bedroom to see chasm in the floor before me. My heart raced as I tip-toed around it, trying not to look down. Soon I’d forget about it for a few minutes when I was busy. I wouldn’t notice it while I was watching entire seasons of show at once, or staring at the dishes that somehow keep piling up.  But it always nagged at me, gnawing at some part of my brain, conscious or otherwise. I’d go out with friends, and they’d notice me staring into space. They’d ask what’s wrong. Nothing, I’d say. And in a sense, it was true. Holes are just an absence, a lack. When I’d lay on the couch for days without moving, it was an absence, a lacking. It was nothing. I stopped going out with friends. I’d make and break little promises to myself that I would check my email and get back to you, that I’d talk to someone about it if it wasn’t gone tomorrow. Then next week. Then if it was still around next year. Eventually I got accustomed to its size, its edges, to the point where I could just side-step it by muscle memory. Avoiding it became an unconscious routine like anything else. I didn’t feel worried about it, and in fact didn’t feel much at all anymore. If I drank and slept enough, it was nothing. I trudged through all this and by some miracle graduated. I got a new job and moved out of town. Yeah, I just left the hole there for the landlord to deal with. It’s not like I was getting my deposit back anyway. The presence of the new city gave me a rush. There were new places to explore, new food to try. I was getting more rest, had more fulfilling work, better hobbies. Better relationships. My new partner moved in. But new things only stay new for so long, and bodies refuse to stay buried, so to speak. Just a small crack under the bed. Just a sliver at first. Probably shoddy flooring. I covered it with a storage tub and didn’t tell my partner. Why should they get roped into worrying about a tiny crack in the wood? It's ridiculous. My partner later found it, of course, and wanted to call the landlord. I convinced them not to. Said I’d seen something like that before, and that it's fine if we just ignore it. The crack got bigger. Its presence festered. My partner was shaken from their sleep one morning when the bedframe slipped and fell halfway into the hole. They insisted that we call someone, but I fought back again. My partner got irritated, told me off. Said they were tired of the waiting, the excuses, the growing gulf between us. Then they went quiet, and confided that they had heard something scratching and whispering in the hole when I wasn’t home. They thought it was their imagination running wild, paranoia, or just loneliness. But not anymore. They grabbed a flashlight out of the closet and tentatively peered over the edge of the silent void. They didn’t say a word the rest of the night. My partner moved out less than a week later. I like to look into the hole for long stretches. I think about the scratching. I blankly drop in something just to see if it hits any sort of bottom. I want to climb in and see how far it goes. I want to see if I can survive a head-on confrontation with the dark. When I’m sitting in my living room absently staring at my phone, in the dead drunk grey of winter, I swear I can hear something. Faint whispers from the other room, drawing me in, tempting me to slide inside. Then I hear the chatter, the dragging, and the sound of bone grating on rock.  I don’t leave the bedroom. I have to keep an eye on the hole to make sure nothing falls in...or comes out. It fills everything with nothing. I can’t move away, I can’t blink. Sometimes I think I can see a hand reach up, not more than a shadow, fingers ragged and bloody. I shakily crawl to the edge on my hands and knees and peek in, my hair dangling just past the edge. I reach in up to my elbow, feeling for something, anything. I hear the scratching again. I hear the whispers and the clawing at the walls and I feel wet, clammy flesh brush up against my arm. I recoil and pull my arm back. I don’t look into the hole for a long time. I only dream about holes. About voices, calling from inside. Telling me that it’s not really that bad down there. It’s not hot or cold, there’s no noise, no pressure, no light. It’s nothing. There are ways to get down, they assure me. I rely more and more on alchemical liquids and arcane herbs to drown them out, modern witchcraft to forget the nothing. But these also make me slow. Vulnerable. After a night of particularly heavy alchemy, I wake up stranded on the kitchen floor, unable to move or speak. I feel something pulling me by my ankle, and I can’t turn my head to see it. It is pulling me toward the bedroom. My body lurches across the smooth linoleum with each tug. I feel the hardwood floor below me, then it vanishes, and the hand lets go. I feel myself falling for a long, long time. I come to in the abyss. I’m looking up at the ceiling of my bedroom from the bottom of a well. As if chained in the dark to the back of a sea cave straining to smell the ocean, it’s so distant. I remember what it was like before, and I think I want to get back there. I reach out into the void and my hands find purchase on rough stone. I grip and claw my way up, drawing closer to the light even as my hands bleed and nails break. I approach the light and see someone, the silhouette of a woman my age haloed by humming incandescent light. Her hair hangs over the opening, her arm thrust into the black. This is my chance. I reach my hand out for hers, gasping for her to pull me get out. My chilly damp skin brushes her hand and she reels her arm back. Her silhouette disappears. I don't think I can get out alone. My phone is dying, but I’m ready to ask. I’m ready to accept it. Can you help me? CONWAY: Per the policies of the DLO, we have looked into the whereabouts of the sender. Emails were sent to her university address, but we received no responses. We contacted the school to see if they had any updates on their alumna, but they knew nothing of consequence. The aforementioned Rick, formerly with the EPA, declined to comment on the case. Thus the Dead Letter Office has verified that these emails, collectively called DL-13905, are undeliverable. A flash drive containing these emails will be stored in our vault, and our guys in IT are working to clear the caches or cookies or something out of the related devices. *brief music over the radio* CONWAY ON TAPE: All right, this entry’s gonna be a little different. For some god-forsaken reason, they got me heading out to a warehouse up in ******** to check out some package they’ve got there may need archived. Now the government's not known for its...spending habits and this is no different. Instead of my usual setup or a lav mic, they've got me with an old cassette recorder and a used tape, so I apologize for the quality of this missive. Anyway, back to that package. Seems to be some kind of painting they found, the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis himself. The package handlers there found it torn open with no address and no return address, so they took the painting out and hung it up in their break room. Since then, a few of the handlers there swear they can hear his songs playing early in the morning, even if none of em turned on the radio. They only started hearing this after they hung up this Elvis painting. Some of the other employees have complained about the morning crew acting weird, getting defensive about it and saying odd things. Don’t know why the hell they picked me, I’m not much of a Presley-head myself. *click* CONWAY ON TAPE: All right we're on 71 north, should be there before too long. Looks like we are about right on time to arrive at this warehouse. *click* Okay, we're here in the break room. The thing's about 4 feet high, 3 wide. Painted on black velvet, maybe with some kind of acrylic, not sure. Looks pretty new, must have been made recently or else stored well. I suppose it looks enough like the king. He's all in white, microphone clasped between his hands in front of his chest. Hair's dark, hanging a little bit wilted under the crown. Not his usual pompadour. Does have the sideburns, all right. He's looking up and into a light. There's a tear rolling down his cheek. Now below this painting, there's a small table. Seems like uh some kind of light--maybe plywood--covered in veneer. Situated on top of the table are a few candles. Looks almost like a votive. Small rug situated in front. Looks like...almost looks like a uh...well nevermind what it looks like, let's check the back of the frame here. All right, there is some text here, written in the same paint used to paint the Elvis. It reads as follows: “THE KING ISN’T DEAD, HE’S IN THIS PAINTING. HE WAS TIRED OF THE FAME AND WANTED OUT, SO HE FAKED HIS DEATH AND USED THE ELECTRICITY ON THE AIRWAVES TO TRANSFER HIS ENERGY INTO THE VELVET."  Yeah, all right then. No names, no addresses. Well, suppose the only other thing to do here is listen and see if we hear any Elvis. *Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton plays faintly in the background* CONWAY: Well I don't hear much of anything. Hey, Benny, was it? Yeah, do you hear it now? Any of y'all back there hear it? All right, well somebody hears something, but I'm not hearing any rock and or roll, so uh. Jeez...I don’t know. I guess we'll take it to the DLO, have some people also give this painting a listen and review the tape later At least if I take it, we’ll stop getting complaints from this particular office's management. Well, for this parcel, this is Conway, for the moment, signing off. *Distorted music on the radio* CONWAY: The tape has been reviewed, and we have assigned this parcel the code DO-06206. We have determined, given the lack of information and the findings on the tape, that this package is indeed undeliverable. It will be stored safely, and quietly, in our break room. For the Dead Letter Office of ******* Ohio, this is Conway, signing off.

Listed in: Fiction

Episode 2: SECRET INGREDIENT/SECRET ADMIRER

Published: Jan. 4, 2021, 2 p.m.
Duration: 14 minutes 34 seconds

Conway archives two more odd letters this week. A struggling chef encounters a new customer with unusual tastes. A secret admirer reveals his game. Don't forget to subscribe if you like the show! (CWs: blood, food, stalking, implied death)   TRANSCRIPT: CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the Dead Letter Office of ***** Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is a felony. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public.  Dead letter 12603 was found in a vacant building before demolition on July 22nd, 2011. It was addressed to the ****** Police Department, but was not postmarked or sent. There was no return address. It was forwarded to our office for verification and processing. The letter has been subsequently opened and read per the state’s revised code. The letter reads as follows:  NARRATOR: I’m not sure if what I’ve done--and what I’m about to do--is technically a crime. A sin, sure, one of the gravest, depending on your outlook. But you don’t deal with sinners, do you. This is a confession, regardless; I’ll leave it to you whether it’s religious or criminal. Let me start at the beginning. I’ve been in this neighborhood for over three decades. I built this place, and I’ve stuck it out through fires and floods and all kinds of hardships. I’ve seen this place rise and fall and get back up again. But things are different now. I used to know a lot of the people coming in. I could ask them about their kids or job or whatever. Even if the place wasn’t packed, it could stand on its own. But the old faces just don’t come here much anymore, and the new ones are not the same. It’s all young people in their jumpers and track pants and fancy watches with no numbers. They spend more, but their tips leave a little something to be desired.  The old businesses have vanished along with the old faces. The Fledermouse is gone, now it’s just a store for lampshades. Not lamps, mind you, just the shades. And across the street they’re done building some fancy studio apartments. Used to be a real workin man’s neighborhood, lotta immigrants, real good folk. Now it’s a sanctioned “arts district,” and with that comes “arts district” rent. This city’s too chickenshit for any kind of rent control, so I’m looking at shuttering my business and moving out within the year if things don’t pick up. Well one night we’re unexpectedly swamped, and I hear some chatter about a food writer for some internet website being here. Always looking for new experiences and all that. So I’m in the back sweating up a storm, trying to get these orders out to the good people. I’m dicing up chives for the garnish and I slip a little. No time for errors if I want to keep this place alive. I keep my head down, toss on the chives, and slide the bowl down the line to be taken out to the table. I take a breath, lean back against the counter, and wipe the sweat off my forehead with my greasy apron. Then I can feel my finger pulsing when I press it against my face. And that’s when I see it. The fresh, dark red on the apron, dripping from my finger. When I was chopping, I must have nicked it. I go to pick up a dry towel next to the cutting board, when I see it again. Those same red globs on the chives, on the knife. Holding the towel over my finger, I rush to the kitchen door and crane my neck, straining to see out the window. The guy’s lifting the spoon to his mouth and sipping it just as I peer out. Well, that’s it for me, I figure. I had a good run, time to pack it in and close shop. I take a seat and bandage my finger, thinking about the old times here. I’m stirred from my thoughts by one of the servers, she says the food guy called her “garcon” and says he wants to meet whoever was responsible for the soup. Well, time to face the music, folks. I slip my damp hat off, run a hand through my thinning hair, and amble to his table. I don’t hear much of what he’s saying, I’m looking past him and thinking about the fat fine the city’s gonna stick me with. That is until he holds out his hand for a shake. He says something about a genius reinvention or deconstruction or whatever. Says it was unlike any soup he’s ever had. I’m speechless for a minute, half-tempted to fess up right then and there. Instead, my self-preservation instinct kicks and I zip my fat lip and shake his hand. He says he feels reinvigorated and will be back next week for the same dish.  So next week rolls around and here he is, Mr. Food Blog himself, asking for the soup, exactly as before. I put in the same ingredients, prepared the same way (minus the finger incident of course) and send it out. Not two minutes later, he sends it back. He sends back my soup! Says it’s not the same as the first time, it’s boring, it's missing something. The only difference this time was...well I look around the kitchen for anything bloody I can squeeze into this soup, but nothing turns up.  Now, the first time was an accident. I don’t think that’s a crime, at least not one an attorney would waste their time on. Can’t imagine God getting too upset about a thing like that either. Here’s where it should have ended: he sends the soup back and I let the guy leave disappointed. But this was my business, my life, we’re talking about, on the brink of drowning, and here was a life jacket floating right by. How could I not grab it? Yeah, this second time, I knew what I was doing. Motive makes a difference, don't it? So it was my poor finger’s time to shine again. He loves it. Be back next week. With friends. Next time I’m prepared. It’s pretty easy to get your hands on some livestock blood. I can keep it in the kitchen without too much suspicion from the line cooks. Around dinner time the following week, he comes in, flanked by a few guys in nice shirts and sneakers and two girls with big hats. He orders the soup. Exactly the same as before, he says. For all of them. I finish preparing the soup and sneak a few drips of cow’s blood into each bowl. It's not too different from lard or meat, right? I don’t see any harm in it. I send out the bowls and await the praise. But instead, I’m met with 6 bowls of soup, sent back. “Exactly as it was before,” the guy scowled at my waitress, pointing to the bowl.  I can already see where this is going: he doesn’t just want any old blood, he wants my blood.  Well, what’s running a restaurant if not putting your blood, sweat, and tears into every dish? What’s a little blood if it means I can pay the hiked rent? The problem is, for six bowls, a little finger nick isn’t going to do it. I clear out the kitchen, under the pretenses I’m still upset about the food being sent back and need a minute. Next thing I know, knife meets palm and the customers are raving. Better than ever, he says, a total rejuvenation. The weeks pass by as more and more of my new neighbors stop by for the famed soup and the old customers slip away entirely. More and more bandages show up on my hands, arms. My employees think I’m getting slow, shaky, with my age. But I’m sharper than ever, and business is booming.  It all goes real smoothlike for months. I get some nicer ingredients, tweak the presentation, the whole shebang. None of it seems to make a difference to these people besides how much of uh myself I put in the dish. The more I lose, the more they pay. Sure I get woozy, need a break. Yeah, I’m looking a little pale these days, feel a little weaker. But if it means keeping this place open, keeping some small part of the old days intact, I’ll deal with it. The plan's working. Until last week, that is. Rent’s up again. They’re tryin to push me out for a high-tech gym, or some artisanal dog food joint or something. “Arts district” my ass, it’s just a shopping mall now. On top of this, Mr. Food Website is bored of my stuff. Says it’s stale, wants to move on to other places and take his crowd with him. Says the place could use shaking up. Something big, something truly impressive, truly enlivening.  So now you know what I’ve done. I’m guilty, absolutely. Guilty of caring, of passion, of doing what it took to stay afloat. If that’s a crime, I’ll gladly face my punishment.  He’s coming back tonight, though, the same day I’m writing this letter. If he doesn’t like the dish, he’s leaving and taking all my business with him. If this isn’t the best thing he’s ever, ever tasted, I’m shit out of luck. I’m done, gone. Demolished and forgotten after 30 years.  So this time, I’m leaving nothing behind. Oh, it’ll be big all right. A real shakeup, a total showstopper. I’m putting my everything into this last supper. I’m leaving all of myself on the table, roasted and served on a silver platter.  CONWAY: There were no names or addresses provided, and research into similar events in the area have come up inconclusive. The DLO has thus ruled this letter deliverable. One of our carriers will deliver a lightly redacted copy to the correct address, and the original letter will be stored in our vault. Dead Letter 07104, found cramped and crumbled at the bottom of a filing cabinet at the *****, Ohio police department. It had been opened and read previously, and one of our carriers intercepted it at the way to the dump. The letter reads as follows. SECRET ADMIRER: You were not supposed to see me. We were never meant to meet. You were not supposed to see me, but oh I saw you. I saw so much of you. Alone in the cafe, reading rejection letters from various institutions. You were a meandering, flat person, nothing special inside or out. I saw you in the cafe, and that’s when you invited me into your dull little life, Daniel. All you could have seen was a man in reflective shades and a scarf. It’s a stroke of luck that you did not see behind the shades, nor under the scarf. An unfortunate number of my previous clients have done so and I deeply regret it. I am here to help, after all. Do you remember me there, Daniel? My entire appearance is tailored to ensure that you do not. I trailed you from that cafe. I took countless photos and copious notes as I followed your every move for months. I saw you in your home, at your job, in your car. To any outside observer, your life must have appeared interesting, very interesting indeed, from that point on. Yes, to any outside observer, you were quite interesting. Not because of who you were, or what you did while you were followed, but simply because you were followed.  You were made noteworthy by this very act of following. You see, I believe that in order to be complete, every person must have at least one secret for themselves. And what better way to keep a secret than by not knowing you even have one? To any outside observer, your secret made you fascinating, thrust you from your flat world into three dimensions. Oh, life has dimensions beyond what you could possibly know, and I had only begun to show you. Does it matter that there was no film in my camera, that my notes were unrelated sketches? Does it matter that I will leave no record, and forget you as soon as you leave my sight? I should think not. You have a secret now, Daniel, a kernel of mystery forever in your life. No longer a mannequin, you are now fully rendered. No, I’m not with any government or business, I’m what you might call a free agent. A purveyor of mysteries, an admirer of secrets, if you will. But then you saw me, and foul suspicions formed in your mind. Now I shall take my leave. Before I go, you must admit: I have irrevocably changed your entire life by simply following you. Do not bother with authorities, I'm already long gone. And besides, why would you tell them? Secrets are powerful, Daniel. Remember to keep them when you can. Sincerely,  A Secret Admirer CONWAY: This letter appears to have had quite the history. It was initially mailed and delivered to a Daniel ****, and from there was apparently forwarded along with additional information to the **** police department. What happened to it once it arrived at the police department, we have no way of knowing. But it seems it has not seen the light of day in a number of years. We here at the DLO deem this noteworthy enough to store in our vault. For Dead Letters 12603 and 07104, this is Conway with the Dead Letter Office of **** Ohio, signing off.

Listed in: Fiction

Episode 1: BAD NEIGHBOR/RE:FURBISH

Published: Dec. 23, 2020, 9:49 p.m.
Duration: 14 minutes 33 seconds

Conway archives two strange letters this week: one involves a bad neighbor, and the other relates a short story about a fad toy from the '90s.  Don't forget to subscribe if you like the show!   TRANSCRIPT: CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the Dead Letter Office of ***** Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. We here at the DLO are no strangers to odd parcels and unusual letters, and these two here are certainly unusual. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is a felony. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public.  Dead letter 11501, postmarked October 19, 2009, was flagged by a carrier and sent to the Dead Letter Office for verification and processing. The letter has been subsequently opened and read per the state’s revised code. The letter reads as follows: WILLIAM, NARRATOR: Dear Terry at ***** realty, We’re a small college town, so there will be parties. I grew up here, I get it, I’ve lived it myself. Sometimes the people living above you are loud, and obnoxious. Not much to be done about that. But for the tenant above me, it seems that every night is a blowout. Most lights on our block go dim a few hours after sunset, of course other than the orange halos of the street lights and blue streams of tvs filtering through blinds. One night I’m watching reruns of Frasier or Jeopardy or whatever, the windows open to let the cool fall air in. But I can’t hear a damn thing over the commotion upstairs. Pounding music seeps through the ceiling like a burst pipe. I’d almost rather have a water leak, because maybe you’d do something about it for once. I try earplugs, I try the pillow over the head, I try it all. Eventually sunlight starts to creep through the window. And when the sun does come up, the music just stops. And then I have to go to work exhausted and frustrated.  One brisk evening, as splashes of red sunset coat our building, I slip a small note under his door. Something like “Please keep it down after 10 p.m. Some of us do work early!” Problem solved, I hope. But as the last rays of daylight fade and my grilled cheese is fully melted, the damn music starts again. Some kind of dance music, uncomfortably loud, constantly thrumming like a wicked heartbeat.  That night, I’m looking up at the ceiling, just seething over this guy. It’s past 12, and the music still bleats, a single voice interwoven throughout. So I get up, march out to the hallway, and stomp up the narrow stairs. I knock heavily on his door in three quick successions. The door opens just a crack, as bright multicolored light and hammering drums buzz through the frame. “Hey, my dude, what is the deal?” is all he has to say for himself. I’m squinting against the harsh lighting now as my eyes struggle to adjust. He looks like he’s in his late-thirties, a bit haggard. Wearing neon shutter shades and a few days of stubble. “Did you get my note?”  “What?” he leans in to hear me over the commotion. I clear my throat and ask again, louder this time, about the note. I don’t want a fight, I just want to sleep. “Note? No, my dude, there are no notes here,” he laughs to himself, but his voice is shaky. Eventually my eyes get used to the tacky backlight, and I can see a bit between the slats of his glasses. His eyes are huge, bloodshot, always moving. My gaze trails to the wrinkles creasing around the corners of his mouth and eyes. Scruffy, uneven hair held in place by a faded headband, slick with sweat and grease. The tip of a worn vape pen sticks out of the pocket of his baby blue polo shirt. And the man doesn’t blink. He doesn’t blink the entire conversation. “Well, could you keep it down at night? At least weeknights? I have to work and-- “No can do, my dude. ‘Party all day to keep the darkness away,’ know what I mean? Keep it from clawing its way inside,” I can’t tell if he’s joking or sick, but his red, staring eyes keep darting behind me to the shadowed stairwell. “Okay, well you can do whatever makes you happy during the day, that’s not the problem. It’s the nights that I take issue with.” I look past him and into his apartment, trying to make out any shapes in the room. I see a lot of lights, but no other people. If this was a party, it was a pretty bleak one. “This ain’t just for me bruh, gotta keep rockin’ all night to keep the dark--” he starts, or something to that effect, as he wipes moisture from his upper lip and chin. It’s chilly in the building, but he’s still glistening with beads of prickling sweat. I tell him I don’t have time for this, and that if he doesn’t knock it off, I’m calling the landlord. He says something about he's been here a while and no one's complained, but I turn as he trails off. I rub my temples, and go back downstairs to write you an email. I usually work in the morning, but that day a co-worker had gotten sick and I needed to cover her class. I didn’t finish grading until well into the night and then stopped for dinner. So when I got home around 11:30, of course the one-man-party upstairs was still going strong. On my way in, I passed by our outdoor breaker box and an idea crossed my mind. It may not have been my proudest moment, but I was at my limit. I popped open the breaker cover and switched off the upstairs power. The light from his room disappeared, and the music finally, thankfully, ceased. All was quiet in our building, all dark. I went inside and sat on the edge of my bed, relishing the silence and, admittedly, hoping to hear at least a grumble or complaint after what he'd put me through. I assumed he’d figure it out eventually and check the breaker. If he’s got that much lighting and music and who knows what else going all the time, it was bound to trip someday. But instead I heard a wailing. A despairing, guttural sound coming from upstairs. I could only make out a few words between the shrieks, some terrified gibberings about the light going out and the dark going in, going to him. It dawned on me that there could be some kind of medical equipment in there, some life support or insulin in the fridge, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to be responsible for accidentally killing an aging frat bro by shutting it down. I was slipping on my shoes when I heard a heavy thud from above, which seemed to end the raving, then a long, drawn out scratching along the floor, like the sound of dragging heavy furniture across hardwood. I’ll admit that gave me pause. But I left my apartment and stepped warily up the narrow stairs, straining to hear more. There were marks across the concrete floor and up the wooden stairs below my feet--long slashes and scuffs leading from his room, down the stairwell, and toward the vacant apartment below. You may want to check out the floor in his room, too. This is no fault of my own, so you don’t take it out of my deposit. His door was still partially open, and I could see a faint green glow from beyond the frame. I snuck closer, following the marks and peering in through the gap in the doorway. It was a complete mess. Hundreds of melted candles littered the room, dripping wax frozen in strands and pools on the tables, rugs, even right onto the twenty-or-so lighters and countless burned matches scattered around the floor. Towers of cassette tapes and CDs leaned precariously in the corner, while boomboxes and speakers were nested in coiled extension cords and power strips snaking along the ground. Tall, thin halogen lamps were plugged in at nearly every outlet and aimed at the center of the room, casting eerie shadows along the floor. They were off, but I could still feel the heat radiating from the bulbs. It was hot, stifling, even on this chilly evening. Strings of unlit Christmas lights webbed across the walls in meandering patterns like reaching ivy. Old portable televisions faintly hissed with static from the empty bedroom. I had started to regret flipping that breaker, but I needed to convince myself he was unharmed. So I inched my way farther in. The stench of sweaty shirts overflowing from laundry baskets and the smell of overheated electronics filled the muggy room. Whoever this person was, he seemed desperate to avoid any silence, any ounce of darkness. I trailed the gashes in the floor to the source of the green light: in the bathroom, a huge pile of bent old glow sticks--several hundred at least--filled the bathtub to the brim. Their glow had mostly run out, but a dim sick-green pall still clung to the basin from the few that remained active. The marks ended here, next to the tub. Or maybe they began here. Either way, the man was gone, the only trace of him left in the sty he lived in being a crumpled note by the tub. Finding no medical instruments or any evidence of injury, I left, closing his door on my way out. I was tired, confused, but overjoyed that it was finally quiet, so I went to bed.  That was two days ago, and of course a new problem has arisen: something reeks in the building, probably some food the man left behind in his fridge that’s gone rancid. And there’s the occasional scratching sound downstairs. It is vacant down there, right? You told me on the phone when I moved in not to worry about the basement apartment since nobody lived there. Perhaps some raccoons took up residence. Regardless, they are also not my problem, and the noises downstairs are getting louder. I tried sending you another email about all this, but it bounced back, saying the address was invalid. I know the rent is cheap so I shouldn’t complain, but you really ought to update the email address you give to tenants. I’ve been advised that I should hold my rent in escrow until the odor problem is sorted. I do have some rights, you know. Squatters rights and all that. Now I’m writing all this out by hand, along with the contents of the first email and the man’s note, while fruitlessly trying to ignore the scratching outside my door. Yours, William CONWAY: Per the policies of the DLO, we have looked into the recipient’s address. The realty company was bought out around this time by the Greenwoods and shuttered its old office. We could find no current address for the sender, and the address it was sent from now appears vacant. The Dead Letter Office has verified this letter, DL-11501, as undeliverable, and the letter, along with this note, will be safely archived in our vault. **** CONWAY: Dead letter 08602, postmarked December 29th 1999, was flagged by a carrier and sent to the Dead Letters Office for verification and processing. The letter reads as follows: NARRATOR: To Hasbr** You have to take this toy back. K-Mart will not let us return it on account of it’s been opened and is “technically functional”. Our kids have been goin nuts for this Furby thing, seen it all over the commercials, and we waited in line for hours just to get one. First thing when we got it home, the dog growls at it and hid under our bed. Then the thing would not stop talking, just jib-jabbering that fake furby words all night. Speaking of Furby, this thing don’t got fur, it’s got hair, and lots of it. The kids told me it learned some swears, bad ones, too, so I took the batteries out, you know to reset it, hoping it would resolve itself. I got some new double-As in it, but it just stood there blinking and moving its little beak nonstop with no talking at all. We set there for a minute, just to see what would happen. The kids asked me if I heard what it was saying, but I didn’t hear nothin other than the little parts inside whirring about. I popped the batteries out and put the hairy thing in the closet, thinking that would settle it. But wouldn't you know it, next day my wife swore she found it on the windowsill, looking out the window at the poor dog. My youngest says it sneaks out sometimes, says it sways back and forth sings to him in that made-up language. Older one told me it sat on top of him in his sleep and wouldn’t let him move for hours. Said it stared him in the eye and whispered things only god should know.  Well, sir, whether I believe all that or not my kids had certainly had enough so I took it to K-mart, they said they won’t take it back as long as it works and I don’t got the receipt. So here it is. I’m not fishing for a refund, not fishing for a lawsuit or nothing, I just want it gone. Send it to the dump, send it to the FBI--hell, send it straight to hell for all I care, I just want it to stop scarin’ my sons. CONWAY: The letter was found stuffed in an old PO box years after its postmark, and was subsequently sent to the nearest of the three remaining Dead Letters Offices, which would be ours The accompanying package could not be found. Per the ORC, the Dead Letters Office has verified this mail, DL-08602, as unfit for delivery and the letter will be securely stored in our vault.  For the Dead Letters Office of ***** Ohio, this is Conway, signing off. 

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