It hadn’t been long since I started at my second Furlong’s. I’d only been back in Northern Nevada for about a year and a half before I’d accepted the position. Like any other restaurant chain that suffered and rejoiced in the trials of underpaid waitstaff, arrogant cooks, edgy bartenders it fit every box on the movie restaurant trope list. Eight years in the industry and I’d found myself at a carbon copy of the place I’d just tried to leave. A piece of advice, it pays to know more about the world than how to take orders from drunk businessmen.
Still, Arni Furlong’s was different than the one I’d worked at up in Portland. Something about the environment was more complete. Junco Furlong’s was eerie, always had been. After the guy who started the franchise got bought out and some slimy real estate suit took over, the whole thing went to shit. I’ve been in the industry long enough to know that not everyone should run a restaurant but this guy bought it for his kid and turned control over to him immediately. The staff just crumbled and fell out one by one when he took over, checks bounced, schedules were ruined. The customers watched us dissolve to almost nothing. Eventually, I left too. Made my way back to Nevada to stay with my sister and pick myself back up. Maybe figure out what to do with the rest of my life, unfortunately, I didn’t have long to make a decision.
Arni’s was like most grills, Sunday was our busiest day because of football and all the miners made our schedule unpredictable. We couldn’t tell who was on long change and who was trying to get fired for being drunk on the job the next day, but that’s small-town Nevada for you.
After a few days back I found out that an old friend of mine worked there as well. I’d been friends with Jay for most of my life. Back in high school, his older brother was a good friend of mine and I got to know Jay over countless nights pounding Red Bull and playing video games in his parent’s basement. With an old friend to work with, the chaos of the move didn’t seem so harsh.
It wasn’t long before we got back to our old patterns. A few weeks into the new job he invited me to go up into the sticks for the weekend. I took the bait and as soon as the door locked we were flying up the back roads out into the sagebrush-covered hills to the north of town. We’d brought beer and weed and whatever else you could have wanted. I couldn’t help but laugh that I was back in my hometown in my late twenties doing the same thing I’d done in high school but the break from reality was nice. A big part of the reason I’d come back was leaving Junco’s. Sure, there are plenty of other places I could have gone to work. It wasn’t that. Really what sent me home was Tracy, my ex. I couldn’t get him out of my head. Everywhere I went I saw him, but I knew better. He’d been gone long before the relationship ended. Our breakup wasn’t even really a breakup. He just… changed. I couldn’t tell you what happened, it was a chaotic couple of months for both of us. He’d been going through stuff he didn’t want to talk about and I didn’t know how to comfort him. A while after that, his cousin died after a soccer game and he just kind of… drifted. He was a shell of himself. He kept getting worse despite my attempts, and his family’s attempts at reaching out but eventually he shut us all off and disappeared. I tried to reach out still but it was like he stopped existing. I have no idea what happened to him, and that’s really when it started to bother me. I looked everywhere, checked all of our local haunts, and never saw him. A few weeks after our “breakup” someone found him dead next to the river.
After a few weeks of crying and trying to drag myself out of bed, coupled with the exhaustion of trying to please our manchild supervisor, “Mr. Cane” something cracked. I was seeing Tracy everywhere, in reflections, at our favorite bar I’d see him from the corner of my eye seated down a few chairs and when I’d look back he’d be gone. After a point, I just looked around all day like I’d never seen the outside world hoping I’d get a look at his face again. His mom eventually pulled me aside and told me that I needed to talk to a therapist, but unfortunately for me, servers don’t make therapist money. So I packed my stuff and set out for the next best thing, which turned out to be a late-night trip up into the Nevada desert with some old friends.
We made our way up the foothills until the lights from the town were hardly noticeable and the sky stretched over us like a painted velvet robe. God how I’d missed night time back home.
I’d caught a ride in my friend Liam’s Jeep and he spared no throttle as he bucked us over divots in the road and the odd cattle guard before our caravan had found our home for the weekend. We parked our cars in a ring as the five of us stumbled out and started a fire to ward off the cool air of early fall. I was taken away by the landscape before I’d even set up my tent. Nevada isn’t famous for its trees, but if you get out of the city far enough you’ll find some beautiful little groves pockmarked around the otherwise grey landscape of casinos, sagebrush, and prostitutes. The first night we all cracked open beers and caught up, unfortunately, I quickly realized I wasn’t the only one who was struggling. Danielle, Jay’s girlfriend caught her mom cheating on her dad and was trying to work out how a marriage 30 plus years could implode so quickly. Liam’s grandparents were having health problems and Austin still wrestled with the death of his brother back in high school.
So we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, drinking and crying and somehow still laughing at the odd joke here and there. Everything felt good for a while, we tossed our empty cans out of the campsite and climbed into our tents but I was having trouble sleeping, so I tossed and turned for an hour or two before I decided not to waste waste a good night. I found Austin sitting in front of the fire, having long since died down, and snoring quietly. I took a quick second to brush his long dreads away from the smoldering pit and took a seat beside him to stargaze.
With my eyes turned up to space, and my drunken exhaustion starting to weigh me down sometime later, I juggled whether or not I wanted to stay up all night or not. While I debated the choices, A crack echoed through the underbrush on the other side of our vehicles. I whipped around to face the noise and found a coyote prowling in the underbrush. It’s cold eyes staring, unreflective in the night as it prowled around our campsite. I watched as it continued in an arc just far enough away that I could make out its head from the dim firelight. I stayed still, remembering what I’d been taught when I was a kid at camp. “Make yourself bigger than they are.”
So, I stood up and puffed my chest out, never breaking eye contact with the thing as I stepped forward and huffed. It didn’t react and continued slowly circling the vehicle as it watched me. Behind me, Austin was still slumped by the fire pit, gently wheezing in his sleep. I tried again, hoping to shoo it away without waking anyone up but it barely noticed me. It stared at me for a long time, creeping around the outer perimeter of our campsite without making so much as a huff. I focused on it against the dark backdrop, I couldn’t take my eyes off the wily little bastard. Meanwhile, I edged closer to Liam’s rifle in the back of his Jeep.
We stayed locked in our dance for a half hour or so before I gave up worrying about waking my friends and hoisted the rifle out of the back, by the time I’d pulled the barrel up the coyote was gone, his feet cracked through the sagebrush beyond the treeline outside of camp. I stayed for a while longer, scanning to see if it would return. When it didn’t, I put the rifle back in the Jeep and left Austin to his oncoming backache.
When the following morning came, I climbed out of the tent to hear Liam and Jay arguing. Danielle was bundled up beside a new roaring fire with all of our sweaters over her shoulders. The whole campsite smelled like Danielle’s perfume. It smelled like sagebrush and lavender. I caught up to Jay and Liam and by the tail end of the argument.
“He isn’t here, and neither is my rifle, Jay. What do you think happened?”
Jay looked around and shrugged before replying. “Why don’t you lock your shit up, Liam?”
“Why would Austin take my rifle in the middle of the night?” He rolled his eyes.
Both of them noticed that I was standing a few paces away eavesdropping before they turned to me.
“You see Austin go to bed last night?” Jay leaned against his car and glanced into the back. “Liam’s rifle is gone.”
“So Austin went to shoot some ground squirrels.” I shrugged. “Not a problem.”
“Big problem.” Liam swatted my shoulder. “Why didn’t he tell anyone?”
I shrugged. I’d known Austin since before he’d adopted the dreads. Back when he was the high school soccer star and not a Bob Marley impersonator. Back then he loved to hunt.
“He’s around here somewhere, maybe he’ll come back with that coyote that was creeping on us last night.”
“You heard me, a coyote crept up on camp last night. I couldn’t sleep and Austin was out cold beside the fire so I kept him company. The little beast almost walked right up to the fire to check us out.” I turned then, taking a seat across from Danielle and motioning for my sweater back.
“No, no. Coyotes don’t do that.” Liam took a seat next to me, his eyes wide.
“Out here they do.” Jay shrugged, sitting beside his girlfriend. “Let’s just keep going with our day and when Austin gets back you can lock the gun up.” He cracked open his third beer of the morning and took a long gulp. Liam remained silent.
Austin didn’t come back.
We waited three hours, by noon the morning chill had died down. Finally, one of us said what all of us were thinking.
“Should we go look for him?”
Liam, still pissed about his gun, called all of us into the Jeep and he took off into the sticks with his foot to the floor. His knuckles white against the wheel as he took us to the base of a nearby mountain trail when he slammed on his breaks and shouted. We jumped and followed his arm with our eyes as he pointed out towards a dirt clearing in front of him.
“We need to leave,” Liam muttered under his breath.
Jay and I barely heard him as we jumped out and ran to the pile. It was Austin’s long blond dreads, covered in dried blood and stuck together.
My hands went numb as I realized what I was seeing, a group of flies buzzed around the matted hair and picked dead flakes of skin from between the tight-knit fibers. Jay turned back and ran to the Jeep, myself not far behind him. When I’d gotten in and managed to close the door Liam had already begun peeling out towards town.
“We need to call the police.”
I couldn’t disagree. I grabbed my phone and began dialing and waited for dispatch to connect. When they finally did I blurted out what I thought I knew about what happened. Getting to the clearing, Austin taking the gun, then finding his hair in the dirt. She promised she’d send someone out right away and Liam turned us back. When we returned we spared no time packing our things up and tossed our stuff all into our vehicles as Danielle remained quiet in Liam’s back seat. We threw all of our shit into the cars and put out the fire when Liam put a hand on my shoulder.
“He’ll be okay.”
It was a half-hearted remark, he knew then better than I did that wasn’t true. But in times like that, honesty doesn’t help anyone. I nodded it off and shoved my tent into the back of the Jeep and climbed back in while Jay got Danielle out and into his truck. We sat in our vehicles for a moment, Liam took time to breathe and calm himself down as police sirens sounded across the foothills. They were still quite a ways off, but they were coming quickly. He pulled out of the campsite and Jay followed close behind as we made our way back to the city limits. Eventually, the police crossed our paths and pulled us to the side.
They questioned us, told us to sit tight for a while while they figured out a plan. One of them asked Liam and me to show him where we found it. I could see in Liam’s eyes he wanted to say no, despite how he felt we led the officers out through our old campsite and towards the clearing near the base of the mountain. It didn’t take us long to find the pile of bloody hair a second time. It was clearly wearing on Liam. He pulled the Jeep to a stop thirty or so feet away, on the other side of a group of trees where the botched haircut couldn’t be seen. The officers stepped out and scanned the area for a while while they told us to remain in the vehicle.
Then, the weirdest thing happened. Frogs began croaking.
Whatever spring or river they’d wandered away from had to have been quite a ways away from where we were. The closest public body of water we knew about was on the other side of town. I wouldn’t have thought it was odd as I did if Liam hadn’t let out a relieved sigh when they began croaking.
“It’ll be okay. It’s fine.”
It wasn’t the first time that day I’d cocked my eyebrow at my friend but it was the first time he dignified it with a response.
“In Japan, frogs are a symbol of good luck. Whatever happened to Austin, I think things are about to change.”
It was hard to stomach, but Liam had always been the superstitious type. Hell, he didn’t own a mirror because he didn’t want it to get cracked. I couldn’t think of the right words to say to him then, but I think now that it’s all said and done, Liam wouldn’t have spoken so quickly.
“If there are frogs out here, that means the thing that took Austin is gone.” He reaffirmed his idea between long expanses of my silence. I could see his arms grow less tense as the officers approached the Jeep.
“Boys, you sure that’s all you know about what happened?” One of them removed his sunglasses as he spoke to us. In the bright morning sun, his eyes seemed milky… almost opaque. He looked at me for a long time before he put his sunglasses back on.
“No sir, I was asleep.” The officer nodded and looked at me.
“What about you, son?”
I shook my head alongside Liam. “I don’t know much more. I was up later last night, I couldn’t sleep. Austin had fallen asleep by the fire. This coyote came up to the campsite and walked around for a while. I grabbed the rifle and when I turned back it took off running. I didn’t bother chasing after it, just tossed the rifle back into the vehicle and went to bed.”
The officers shared a drawn-out look before they replied.
“I think you boys should head back to town. Don’t come back out here for a while.”
Liam didn’t argue. He nodded and kicked his engine back on. “Yes sir.”
He peeled out of the clearing and back towards town and the officers stood still in the rearview… smiling.
Liam was mostly silent on the way home. We made it back to paved roads before we saw Jay’s truck parked in a nearby church parking lot. He kept driving.
“Listen,” He started slowly as we pulled onto Main St. “Get in your house, lock your doors, and don’t answer the door for anyone.”
I couldn’t believe the sudden change in his demeanor. His hands were shaking against the leather of his steering wheel. He kept his eyes peeled open, unblinking as he drove.
“Why so scared, Liam?”
“That wasn’t an officer.”
I had half a mind then to open the door and walk, Liam had lost it. “What do you mean that wasn’t an officer? Looked like an officer to me.”
“My grandpa used to tell me these stories, you know. He grew up here. Lived 71 years in this town and he saw a lot during his time here. The only time he left was when he enlisted in the war and he didn’t talk about the stuff he’d seen there like he talked about the things he’d seen here.” Liam coughed and swallowed a lump. “There are things out that far that don’t like us, man. They don’t want us out there. Just promise me you’ll stay inside at night for the next few days.”
“Come on man,” I laughed a little. “I thought frogs were good luck?”
He didn’t respond after that. He just remained in his Jeep staring forward as he pulled to a stop outside my sister’s place. I waited to see if he’d say anything else. When he didn’t I grabbed my stuff and walked back inside.
I didn’t hear from Jay or Liam for the rest of that day, I’d assumed they were both taking time to deal with it however they could, and I didn’t want to burden them. When I got back home, I started looking around online for any evidence of what Liam was telling me. Folklore around there is thick and steeped with mysticism and stories about things that should not be. I’d become so entrenched in reading that I didn’t notice my sister take her kids out to dinner. My night was swirling down the drain as I read eye witness accounts of humans who could become… animals. Their bodies shifted and changed until they walked on the paws of beasts. When I’d finally come up for air, I’d closed my laptop and shook it all from my mind. What was happening to Austin was horrible. I’d let Liam get into my skin and I tried to repress it, but as much as I wanted to rid myself of the thought, I couldn’t. I sat down on the couch and turned on the television, clearing my head of the thought of monsters and mischievous creatures in the night. I’d had enough of that from Tracy.
I’d been watching the news for a good few hours before I fell asleep. The day just caught up to me, I guess. When I woke up, I jumped. Outside the bay window, standing on the porch, I saw Tracy again. I shook my head and blinked a few times and he was gone.
“Not here,” I mumbled as I stood and made my way to the kitchen. Taking a long look at the pantry I managed to use the lessons I’d learned from my therapist friend back in Portland, he explained that when my thoughts began to spiral I needed to counteract them. Prove myself wrong. When I saw Tracy, I needed to remind myself that Tracy was dead, it was how he recommended I get back to a healthy mental state. So I stood in front of a box of Golden Puffs and reminded myself that he was dead. He wasn’t around anymore for me to see. The thing I was seeing was my mind working through the pain of our separation, and I wasn’t going to let myself get dragged further down anymore. I’d come back home to get away from that. When I’d finished reciting my mantra to our cereal boxes I closed the door and made my way back to the living room.
“Remember what is real, and what is not,” I whispered to myself as I braved a glance toward the porch. Sure enough, nothing was there. It was another figment of my imagination. I sighed and sat back down on the couch to dive back into another long binge session when someone pounded on my front door. I jumped and stood.
“Who is it?”
There was no reply. Whoever it was, needed in urgently. I checked my phone to make sure my sister hadn’t forgotten her key or someone else hadn’t needed my help. The banging continued, echoing through the house with each bang louder than the last. I approached the door slowly and peeked through the peephole, and my blood ran cold.
Outside, I saw Tracy’ face.
I yanked the door open as the pounding continued, his knuckle swung and missed the door as it moved away from the seal and he paused, then looked at me.
“Hey, Brandon. Can I come in? It’s been so long.”
I looked him up and down, his clothing was ripped and bloody. He was covered in dirt. I passed my gaze across his chest, which I’d laid my head beside every night for three years. It was covered in scratches and claw marks. Up towards his jawline which had been bruised badly, I remembered kissing him. I remembered his smile, a distant memory. To his eyes, milky and reflective against the light from my sister’s porch. I thought of my therapist, Dr. Farr, who somehow spoke as if he knew that I would see Tracy again, like this. So real and so unreal. As if he knew then I would need to remind myself that my loving, amazing boyfriend had died.
As my eyes traced up my his beaten body, I felt my skin prickle.
“Remember what is real, and what is not,” I muttered to myself.
“I don’t think I can let you in, Tracy,” I mumbled, the words coming out of my mouth impossible to believe.
“Don’t you miss me?” His milky eyes switched focus from one side of my face to the other.
“More than anything.”
He grinned, revealing row upon row of black and yellow teeth. His gums were cracked and bloody. He put a cold hand to the door frame and leaned. Then he began laughing.
“You waited six weeks to look for me, and you never called. Why didn’t you call?”
I slammed the door closed and locked it, crumpling to the floor as I dialed my sister’s cell, blurting out the first thing I could think of when she picked up.
“Brianna, don’t come home. Take the kids and go somewhere else for a while. Someone is trying to break into your house. Go stay with some friends. I’ll bring stuff for the kids, I promise.”
Outside, I heard Tracy howl with laughter.
“Brandon are you serious?” She scoffed at me. “I have so much–“
“Listen to me.” I closed my eyes. “Don’t come home for a while.”
I hung up and rested my head against the door.
“Brandon, I didn’t know you had a sister?” He shouted at me through the door. His voice like gravel through a dryer. Grating my ears as he broke out into another bout of howling laughter.
I stood and went to their kitchen while the pounding erupted once more. Brianna was a bit of a green thumb and loved to grow things. I plucked a few leaves of sage from her sunroom garden and a lighter, hoping that it would work.
“I thought frogs were good luck…”
I approached the front door and opened it to see Tracy grinning, holding Austin’s scalp in a bloody hand and a knife in the other.
Beyond us in the dark suburban night time, I could hear croaking.
There will be no end to the screaming.
Thank you, for coming to hear a new story from the Otherwhere. This is only the beginning. I hope to see you back over the next few days until the end of this year. These are not only retellings of a world long ago. They are a recorded history, a warning for all of us. I am merely the vessel they are speaking through. I hope you share these warnings with as many as you can. The time is not long now. Do not be afraid of the shadows.
I’d love to hear from you on Social Media if you have it, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed thus far. I’ll be back with more.
See you soon.