Saturday, December 9, 2017

Too scared to scream

  I was fifteen years old when William de Soto escaped from USP Marion, a maximum security penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. I remember watching a short segment about the escape on the evening news, but not paying any particular attention to it. The penitentiary was six hundred miles away and the escape posed no threat whatsoever to the people in the little town I was living in. At least that’s what I thought.
  William de Soto was serving five consecutive life sentences when he assaulted and killed a doctor in the hospital wing of the prison in early November 1982. He then took the doctor’s clothes and security pass, and casually strolled out of the complex and back into the free world. Once on the outside, he stole the doctor’s car and drove it all the way to St Louis. By the time the police found it, located in a parking garage in the downtown area, five days had passed. 
  By that time, I had forgotten all about the mass murderer’s unorthodox departure. There were other more important things on my mind back then, such as playing ice hockey down on the frozen pond behind the town hall. Growing up in a small town in Minnesota that was pretty much the only thing young boys were interested in during the long, cold winter months back in those days.
  I used to walk from our house, on the northern outskirts of town on the narrow gravel road that cut through the forest and eventually hooked onto the grid patterned network of paved roads in the centre of town. The battered hockey stick resting against my shoulder, the skates tied to the base of the blade a foot or so above my head, slicing through the frigid, winter air. 
  As soon as I got home from school, I would walk the two miles into town. Then late in the evening when it got too dark to see the puck, I would return home. I didn’t mind the walking, but I always found the last half a mile, surrounded by nothing but the forest and the dark unnerving. There were no street lights on that road, and although it never got completely dark due to the snow reflecting the ambient light, it always got my heart racing. And this particular evening was no different. 
  I paused when I reached the start of the road, something I always did. Then I took a few deep breaths and reminded myself that there was nothing to worry about. In six and a half minutes I’d be home, safe behind the walls of our two story, timber clad house. Then I began walking.
  I kept to the middle of the road, where the snow had been cleared a few days earlier and compacted into a thin, hard white layer. There was very little traffic on that road, and especially during this time of the day, so there was no real danger of being run over. Besides cars were easily detected by their lights and the noise of their engines. 
  The first driveway I passed was the Jeffersons’ about a hundred yards up the road on the right. I turned my head and could see a faint light glow from between the trees. Most of the residences were set back a fair distance from the road to give the owners the desired privacy they had requested when the houses were built. And even though you couldn’t see them from the road, it was still nice to know they were there and that the area wasn’t entirely deserted. 
  A minute later, I passed the Schultzs’ property and as I looked down their driveway, I could see the same faint light drifting up toward me. And I remember feeling relieved to have reached the halfway point. Only two more houses to go now and I’d be back home. The road formed another bend up ahead, then there was a gentle incline and a hundred yards beyond that, on the left hand side set back a hundred yards from the road was our house. I started walking a little faster and half a minute later I had cleared the bend and could see the incline up ahead. 
  And that’s when I heard a noise coming from somewhere inside the forest. I stopped and turned, facing the area where I thought I’d heard the noise. It had got my heart racing and I was breathing heavily. It had been a quick, dry sound as if someone had stepped on a twig. I stood completely still, staring into the dark forest, my mind working in overdrive to try to find a rational explanation for it. 
  Ten second passed without anything happening, and I was about to continue on my way, convinced that it must have been an animal, when I heard another noise. And this time it was much closer. I subconsciously took a step backwards and grabbed the hockey stick with both hands and held it out in front of me like a giant sword. The skates slid down the stick and fell to the ground, but I paid no attention to them. All I could focus on were the sounds coming from behind the trees. I took another step backwards. The frost was coming out my mouth in rapid bursts and I was starting to get really scared. I tightened the grip on the stick, ready to lash out if anyone or anything was trying to attack me. I wanted to shout out and ask who was there, but I just couldn’t get the words out. Then I heard yet another noise and saw a shape step out of the forest, and I felt my heart rise up to my throat and my blood go cold.
  It was a man, and he just walked out into the middle of the road and was standing there absolutely still facing me, less than thirty yards away. He was dressed in a red lumberjack jacket, and on his head was a brown sealskin hat with earflaps standing out at ninety degree angle. But what made my skin crawl was the axe he was holding in his hand.
  I was too perplexed to do anything, and we ended up just standing there staring at each other. Then after what must have been half a minute, he started to walk toward me. I took another step backwards and tripped. I flapped my arms to try to regain my balance, but to no avail. The hockey stick flew out of my hands and hit the road at the same time that I landed on my side. I tossed my head around and could see the person was still coming toward me, walking in a slow, steady pace. The axe was hanging down his side and swinging in tandem with the movements of his arm.
  I let out a whimper and jumped back up, and started running back toward town like I had just seen a ghost. My heart was pounding against my ribcage and my mouth felt bone dry. The only thing I could think about was to get away as quickly as possible. I made it around the bend and saw the Schultzs’ driveway on the right hand side about fifty yards away. If I could just make it over to their house I’d be safe. I slowed down and turned right, and as I did so I cast a quick sideways glance and felt like someone had just thrown a bucket of ice cold water in my face. Because the man with the axe was running too, and he was closing the gap fast. I increased my speed and noticed I had difficulties breathing. I drew in several big lungfuls of air, but found it almost impossible to exhale. I could remember falling on my back when I was six years old and having all the air knocked out of my lungs. And that was how I felt right then, like a little kid lying helplessly on the ground, convinced he was about to die any second.
  I cleared the bend in the driveway and could see the house up ahead. Ten more seconds tops and I would be there. The thought must have given me some extra strength, because I was able to kick it up a notch and not long after I was barrelling up the staircase, hammering madly on the door. At the same time I twisted the doorknob and felt an enormous relief wash over me when the door began to swing inwards. Thank fucking god for small favours! I ran inside and as I slammed the door shut, I could see the man with the axe through the little diamond shaped window on the top of the door. He was less than fifteen yards away, axe held high. I lowered my gaze, found the deadbolt knob and twisted it, but it didn’t budge. I felt the blood rush down from my brain and I let out an unintelligible sound. I put both hands on the knob and twisted it as hard as I could but still it didn’t move. A horrible thought entered my mind at that exact moment; I wasn’t going to be able to lock the fucking door. The axeman would come bolting through it in a couple of seconds and do god knows what to me. In a last desperate attempt, I threw my body against the door and heard the sweet clicking sound that told me I had finally managed to manipulate it. I stood back and let out a hysterical laugh, then I turned around, sprinted away from the door and shouted at the top of my lungs that there was a madman after me.
  I ran down the hallway and into the living room, but there was no one there. Upstairs, was all I could think. The Schultzs’ had to be upstairs. I turned around and ran back again. Out toward the entrance area and up the staircase on the left. And as I passed it, I could see the guy was twisting the knob and throwing his weight against the door. 
  The only thing going through my mind at that moment was how far away the police station was, and how long it would take the cops to get here. I ran up the stairs, taking two steps at the time, while shouting for someone to call 911. When I arrived on the landing, I saw the door at the far end was open and I rushed toward it. I was able to breathe properly again, and I no longer felt like I was about to faint. At least not until I arrived at the room and saw the dead bodies of the Schultzs’ lying in pools of blood on top of the white wall to wall carpet. 
  I stopped and my eyes locked onto the gruesome scene before me. Their bodies were lying face down on the floor, their arms tied behind their backs with white electrical cord. But what I remember most clearly was their heads, or rather the area where their heads were supposed to be. I stood there completely dumbfounded, sweat running down my face, absolutely terrified. Then I slowly raised my head and looked over at the bed. And there on top of the pillows were two heads staring at me with blank expressions. I screamed and ran out of the room and back toward the staircase, where I once again stopped dead in my tracks. Because there at the bottom of the stairs, I saw the man with the axe looking up at me. His face hard and expressionless, and for a fraction of a second I thought I’d seen that face somewhere before. But that was as far as it went, because at that very instant he started running up toward me, axe held out in front of him, ready to strike. Just like he had struck the deadly weapon against the necks of the Schultzs’.
  I threw myself around and ran back toward the open door and the room I had just exited. The thumping sound coming from the treads in the staircase, and the knowledge that the person causing them was out to kill me, eliminated any qualms I had about returning to the murder scene. I flung myself forward, slammed the door shut and locked it. I could hear the thumping get closer, then I could hear the weight of a body slamming against the door. I felt completely helpless and feared my legs would give up on me at any second. I jerked my head around, and tried desperately to think of a way out.
  The window! It was my only option. I ran toward it, not looking down at the bodies and for the second time that evening I tripped and fell. My hands and my upper body crashing into the pools of blood that had started to coagulate on the floor. I swore and jumped back up, and managed to get over to the window where I tore the curtains aside. Then without giving it a second thought I undid the lock, pushed the sash upwards and felt the frigid air rush into the room. 
  I didn’t even bother to look down; I just threw my legs over the lower frame of the window, wiggled my upper body through the opening and took a few deep breaths. From the other side of the room, I could see the axe smashing through the flimsy door panels. Then it stopped and I could see a hand appearing through the newly created hole, reaching for the lock. And that’s when I pushed my legs out from the wall and felt my body free falling toward the white blanket twelve feet below. 
  I hit the ground and was thrown forward, but luckily the snow dampened the impact and I did not hurt myself. I flipped myself over and looked back up and could see the person with the axe looking down at me, his head and the scary looking hat poking out of the window. And for a second or two we locked eyes. Then he quickly pulled his head back and I could once again hear the thumping noise his feet made when they hit the floorboards. And that’s when I remembered where I had seen his face before. I had seen it on the evening news last week. It belonged to the mass murderer who had escaped from that maximum security prison in Illinois. It only took a fraction of a second for my brain to reach that conclusion, and I didn’t dwell on it. Instead I jumped up on my feet and started running. 
  I was aiming for the timber fence, which was about fifty yards away or so. On the other side of it was the Anderson’s house. I could no longer hear the mass murderer’s footsteps from inside the house, and I wondered what side he was going to appear from. If he decided to turn left when he exited the house, he would be able to cut me off. But if he turned right, I still had a fighting chance of getting away. I hoped with all my heart he would choose the latter. 
  Making my way across the garden was hard, and even though I was running for dear life it felt like I was standing still. The snow reached up to my knees and it was a real struggle to lift my legs and make any headway. When I passed the corner of the house I turned my head and saw there was no one there. The realisation filled me with hope. Had he decided to turn right when he exited the house? I kept on running, kicking the fine, powdery top layers of the snow each time I lifted my legs. The fence got closer and could be no more than twenty yards away now. All I had to do was to scramble over the top and alert the Andersons’, who I knew had firearms in their house. If I could just manage to run another hundred yards, I’d be safe. I cast a quick glance behind me and felt the hope turn into pure, cold fear. The axeman had just rounded the corner on the far side of the house and he was running just like me. I flexed every muscle in my body and willed myself to run faster. And oh so slowly the fence got closer and closer, and then I was finally there. 
  I didn’t waste any time, I just grabbed hold of the top of it and threw myself upward and managed to get both arms over the top of the vertical timber palings. Then I swung my right leg toward the top so I could push my lower body up and throw myself over onto the other side. But I didn’t swing it hard enough and it ended up back where I started. I let out a desperate gasp and tried again, but with the same result. I pinched my eyes shut and swung my leg for the third time, and this time I finally managed to get hold of the top of the paling with my heel. Then I pushed as hard as I could and felt my body start to slide upwards. A few seconds later I was free falling yet again and landed in the snow on the other side. As I got up on my feet, I could see the axeman less than ten yards away. He had raised the axe above his head and he had a disturbing look on his face. I turned around, my heart hammering in my chest and began running toward the house. I could see its contours quite clearly through the pine trees. Then I heard loud swearing from behind me, and what I assumed was the axe smashing into the fence.
  I kept on running and before I knew it I had made it out from behind the trees. And that’s when it hit me. The house looked deserted. There were no lights coming from any of the windows. I felt the exhilaration of having made it over the fence, turn into desperation. What the fuck was I going to do if there was no one home? I ran over to the front yard and stopped, not knowing what to do next. There was no point in knocking on their door. If the Andersons’ were out, I’d be a sitting duck up on that porch. I turned my head and looked over at the driveway and thought about running up to the main road. Would I be able to outrun the guy? I didn’t know, but I had a feeling that I wouldn’t.
  Then I looked behind me and saw the door leading into the garage, and I didn’t even think twice about it. I just went for it. I pulled the door toward me and to my relief I noticed that it was unlocked. I let out another whimper, ran inside and locked it. Then I took a few steps to the side, so I was positioned between the door and the small rectangular window on top of the wall. Then I turned my head quickly and snuck a peek outside, but there was no one there. The guy was still making his way across the lawn. I placed my head back against the exposed timber frame and closed my eyes. My breathing was hard and laboured, and I was afraid it could be heard from outside the garage. I filled my lungs and exhaled slowly, noticing that my teeth were chattering. 
  Then I could hear the footsteps. They were getting closer, and then they were right next to the door, accompanied by breaths coming out in quick short bursts. I clenched my fists and closed my eyes again, wishing I could sink through the floor and just disappear. That I could just get away from this nightmare I had run into. I was convinced the guy would start smashing the door with his axe and make mincemeat out of me. But he kept on running and I felt an enormous relief, which lasted for a whole two seconds until he stopped. I opened my eyes and very, very carefully moved my head so I could look out the window, and felt like I had just been kicked in the stomach. Because there he was standing completely still, less than twenty yards away, back turned toward the garage. He was studying his new surroundings, obviously trying to ascertain which direction I had taken off in.
  I stared at his back with terror stricken eyes, and saw he was alternating his gaze between the house and the driveway. He was moving the axe from one hand to the other, and in the light shining down from the pole at the end of the front yard, I could see it was covered in blood. Run up the driveway you fucking monster, I thought. Run toward town and leave me the fuck alone.
  Then what I feared most of all happened. He slowly turned around and faced the garage. I threw my head aside, closed my eyes and pressed the back of my head up against the wall. I could hear the footsteps approaching the door. Then there was a moment of silence, before he began twisting the doorknob. Then he began rattling the door. A few seconds later the noise stopped, and I could see the shadow on the floor as he stepped in front of the window and looked inside. By this stage I didn’t breathe at all. I just stood there, like I was frozen in time, terrified about what he would do next. Then I heard a light tapping on the glass, and my heart skipped a beat. He was tapping the axe against the window. Did he realise I was in here? Was he doing it just to tease me? 
  Then came the words that sent me into a state of panic.
  “Hey little boy, are you in there? Why don’t you come outside so we can have a chat?”
  This was followed by a brief silence, before he continued.
  “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.”
  My entire body was shaking now and I realised that this garage would be the place where my life would come to an end. I also realised it would be a very violent and painful end. I began scanning the garage, frantically trying to find a way out, or see if I could find something I could use to defend myself with. 
  There was a workbench pushed up against the back wall, and a pegboard with various tools hanging from it. But there was nothing I could use to incapacitate the guy with, such as a gun. Then the axe struck against the door, and I jumped. Then I ran over to the bench. I don’t know why I did it, it would have made a whole lot more sense to open up one of the big garage doors at the front and just take off and try to get away. 
  Then the second blow came, and I could see some of the light from the front yard spill inside. By now I was manically throwing things off the bench, tearing tools off the pegboard and throwing them at the door, as if that would somehow change the guy’s mind and make him leave. But the axe kept striking, and now there was a sizeable gap in the door panel.
  I kept rummaging around the bench like a madman and that’s when I saw the green plastic can. I stopped as if someone had just pressed pause on a DVD player. A thought entered my mind and I knew what I had to do. I grabbed the can, opened the lid and felt the sweet odour of gasoline hit my nostrils. Then I ran over to the door. I registered the splinters of wood flying into the room, but paid no attention to it. It was like someone else had taken control of my body, and I was observing the incident from afar. Then I started emptying the gasoline on the floor next to the door and began making my way back toward the front of the garage. The noise from the axe hitting the door was deafening and I knew it would fly open any second now. 
  I must have poured a gallon and a half on the epoxy treated surface, and what was left I poured into a plastic tray I had found on the bench. Then I flipped the lid on my Zippo lighter and squeezed it in my free hand. This was my only chance. Then I just stood there shaking. Would I be able to go through with it, or would the fear completely paralyse me? The axe kept hitting the door, and then all of a sudden the horrible noise stopped and the door was kicked inward. And a terror that I have never experience before or since washed over me. Then I saw him, the axe hanging down, swinging gently in his hand. 
  “Oh, hello there little boy,” he said in a mocking tone. “I knew I’d find you in here.”
  He turned his head to the left and saw me standing against the big garage door. Then he began walking toward me. 
  “It’s time for you to go to sleep now little boy.” He lifted the axe, placed his other hand on the shaft and began swinging it back and forth through the air like it was a sword.
  The sweat was running down my face and I had problems breathing. The hand holding the plastic tray was shaking so badly that some of the gasoline spilled over the sides and fell down to the floor. Just let him get a little bit closer I thought, just a few more feet. Then all of a sudden he stopped and looked down. He must have finally realised that the floor was wet. And that was the cue I had been waiting for. I lit the Zippo lighter, threw it down on the floor and then I ran toward him and threw the rest of the gasoline on him. 
  It all happened very quickly, but I could see his perplexed face staring at me, the gasoline hitting him and hear the explosive sound it created when it caught fire. And then the fire swallowed him up. The flames shot up from the floor and covered every inch of his body in a fraction of a second. I quickly ran back to the garage door, pressed my back up against it and listened to the horrible screams coming out of his mouth. His arms were desperately trying to extinguish the flames, but to no avail and he looked like a dancer, spinning around, moving from one side to the other. I looked at him transfixed and felt the heat from the fire burn my skin. I had to get out of there, if not I would burn too.
  I looked up and saw the red rope hanging down from the engine attached to the ceiling and pulled it, and heard the two garage doors come to life. When they were a quarter of the way open, I leaned down and squeezed through. Then I began running up the driveway without looking back, and the only thing that followed me were the god-awful screams coming from the human torch performing its death dance inside that garage.
  When I got back home, I was hysterical and it took my dad a good ten minutes to calm me down enough to get a clear picture of what had happened. When he did he called the cops and the fire brigade, and I spent the next four hours recounting what I had gone through to two very stern looking local police investigators. 
  The fire brigade were not able to save the garage, but they managed to contain the blaze and prevent it from spreading to the house. William de Soto, the escaped mass murderer who tried to kill me that evening was found dead in the front yard, face down in the snow. It had eventually occurred to him that the best way to extinguish the flames was to roll around in the snow. Unfortunately for him, by the time he realised this it was too late. The fact that he had died actually came as a relief to me. It meant I never had to worry about him breaking out of prison again and come looking for revenge. 
  Why he had decided to come to our town, and why he had decided to kill the Schultzs’ remains a mystery to this day. As far as the police was able to establish, he had never visited the area, nor did he have any acquaintances here. It was just one of those unexplainable events that occur every now and then. 
  It took me a long time to come to terms with what happened, and for the next two years my dad would always come and pick me up in the evenings after I finished playing ice hockey in town. I guess he felt guilty, even though it wasn’t his fault that I had to go through what I did that evening. I don’t really blame him. He almost lost his only son that day. That is something that is very hard to come to terms with for a parent.
  William de Soto was also a father. He had two sons, and they lost their dad that day. I watched a clip where they were being interviewed on one of the late night news shows. And even though they claimed they held no grudges toward me for killing their dad, I was left with a bad feeling after watching it. In their faces I saw the same expression I had seen on their dad’s face when he walked through that door with his axe held high, ready to kill me. There was something about it that I quite couldn’t put my finger on, but which filled me with a sense of dread. I just hope they don’t decide to pay me a visit sometime in the future to try to settle a score. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but you never know. 
  If you kill someone, no matter how justifiable it is, you always have to live with the threat of retaliation. It’s just a cross that those of us that have taken a life have to bear until the day we die. But don’t get me wrong, the alternative; being killed by an axe wielding maniac was obviously a whole lot worse. I am truly grateful to be alive. But still, that niggling, worrying feeling is always there in the back of my mind and sometimes it makes me incredibly paranoid. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Don’t ever agitate the spirits of New Orleans.

  I’m an old man now, nearly eighty four years of age, and I’m riddled with diseases that there are no known cures for. These diseases have weakened my body to the point where I’m now confined to my bed 24/7, and it will be here that I eventually draw my last breath. I know the end is near, but before I start on my journey to the other side, there is something I need to get off my chest. It is something that has been haunting me for many years, and something that I’ve never mentioned to another living soul. It’s just too horrific, and I suspect, too farfetched for anyone to put much credence in. But nevertheless, it did happen and I will gladly swear on my mother’s grave that what I’m about to tell you is the truth, and nothing but the truth. You will be the first one I confide in. So please bear with me for a few minutes so I can get this heavy burden off my chest, and get some peace of mind before I finally leave this world. 
  My name is Jean Baptiste, and I am what is popularly referred to as a voodoo doctor. The correct term is Voodoo Priest, but I’ve never been too concerned about titles as it has no bearing on my actual work, which is to deal with the spirits surrounding us. Most people don’t realise that they are there, and few people actually get to see them. But nevertheless they are all around us, and they influence our lives to a much greater extent than we are willing to admit. 
  I have always known about the spirits, and I have never been bothered by their presence. It’s not all that strange considering that members of my family have always been deeply involved with Voodoo. It was something my ancestors brought with them from Africa when they were shipped over to the new world to slave away on the tobacco and cotton plantations, which there are plenty of here in southern Louisiana. 
  Everything I know about the spirits comes from my father, who taught me when I was a young boy. And everything he knew, his father taught to him. It’s how traditions and knowledge have been preserved throughout the ages, and not ended up on the scrap yard of history when the older generations move on.
  My family has always lived in New Orleans, and it is where I grew up. As a matter of fact I’ve never left the state of Louisiana. Business has always been good here, and my services have always been in high demand. The clients I have assisted over the years have come from all walks of life. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not just the poor black folks that want demons expelled from their lives. The descendants of the plantation owners have been just as eager to knock on my door. The spirits aren’t picky, and they will just as gladly meddle in the lives of the wealthy. That is how Monsieur Laval and I eventually crossed paths.
  He is as rich as they come here in New Orleans, his family is eighth generation plantation owners. Not that I hold it against him. It’s something he has as much control over as I have control over my skin colour. He came to my house distraught one hot and sticky evening in mid August. He had just buried his youngest daughter, Eloise, who had died from a heroin overdose a few days prior. I could tell he was distressed and I could tell he was surrounded by evil spirits the moment he stepped out of his chauffeur driven limousine that had pulled up outside my house. I also instinctively knew that it was going to be a challenge to drive his spirits away. 
  The source of his family’s woes was his maternal grandmother. She had haunted them since the late thirties and was responsible for more than ten deaths in the family since. After his daughter’s tragic passing, Monsieur Laval decided that he’d had enough and wowed to put an end to the curse once and for all. He had laid his hand on his daughter’s tomb and promised in a teary voice that he would release the ghost and set his family free. It had been going on for too long and it had to stop. 
  Madame Chantal Laval, the spirit in question had been the victim of an abusive and very violent husband, Monsieur Laval’s grandfather. And years of mental and physical abuse had eventually culminated in him killing her in a fit of rage. He had struck her with a severe blow, and as she fell backwards she hit her head on the corner of a table. And that was it. She never regained consciousness and a few days later she succumbed to her injuries. And that was the start of the family’s misfortunes, with death and misery following in their path like a shadow.
  I could feel her presence as I listened attentively to his story. Madame Laval was doing her utmost to try to get him to leave. To make him change his mind so she could go on and haunt the family in perpetuity. But Monsieur Laval was able to resist her mind games, even though I could tell it was causing him considerable physical pain. 
  “Help me,” he said with pleading eyes. “Help me end this devilish spell that my grandmother cast upon my family. I’ll pay whatever you want.”
  I sat back and pretended to mull it over, although I already knew what had to be done. When I stood up a few minutes later, I placed my hand on his forehead and whispered a silent Creole prayer. Then I told him what had to be done. 
  “There’s only one way to break the spell sir,” I said. “And that is to convince the Madame to move on to the next world. Currently she’s stuck in the middle. She’s got one foot in this world and one in the next. That’s why she’s able to get away with the things she does.”
  Monsieur Laval removed a white handkerchief from the breast pocket of his suit, and dabbed it against his forehead that was drenched with sweat. Then he looked up at me with a guarded expression. 
  “And just how do you suggest we accomplish this task?” he queried.
  “By entering her tomb and give her the push she needs, sir,” I replied and watched him sink down in his chair. The thought obviously made him uncomfortable, but he didn’t object. There was no handshake to seal the deal or signatures signed on a piece of paper, just an imperceptible nod of the head, and a quiet, “let it be so.” And that’s how I ended up spending the night in Madame Chantal Laval’s tomb in St Louis cemetery number one here in New Orleans. 
  The cemetery was cast in semidarkness the evening we headed over there. The only light breaking through the intermittent clouds that hung low over the city came from the full moon. It hit the tombs and crucifixes at a slanted angle and created long, menacing shadows. But it didn’t scare me. I’m used to dealing with the dead, and contrary to popular belief, the dead act the same regardless whether it is night or day. 
  We were walking down the cracked, concrete footpaths, navigating an area where dead and living spirits rest side by side. Monsieur Laval and his personal assistant Monsieur Robespierre led the way, aided only by the narrow beam of a flashlight. I was following behind them, my backpack slung casually over my shoulder. 
  I could feel the presence of the dead, and in my head I could hear Madame Laval demanding we turn around and leave. It was like having a radio receiver inside my head, and the closer we got, the stronger the signal got. The pressure inside my head increased and I had to place a hand on my forehead to try to alleviate the pain. But I kept moving. I had important business to attend to, and now was not the time to back down. 
  Eventually we turned right and there in front of us stood her tomb. An old stone structure that looked neglected, and which blended in nicely with the weeds that surrounded it. The grey lead paint was peeling, the front section leaning forward and the unruly bushes were climbing up its sides, making it appear that the ground wanted to swallow it. It was obvious for anyone to see that Madame Laval was not a cherished member of her family. 
  Monsieur Laval stopped in front of the metal door leading into the tomb, and turned around and looked at me. I could tell from his facial expression that he was very uncomfortable being this close to his grandmother’s final resting place. 
  “I haven’t been here since I was a little boy,” he said. He was about to say something else, but thought better of it and instead nodded to his assistant. 
  Robespierre took a step forward and quickly unlocked the big padlock attached to the door. The hinges let out a loud dry wail when he pulled the metal structure toward him, and as he did so Monsieur Laval walked away and stopped beside me. 
  “I trust you will take care of this business once and for all?” he said as he put his hand on my shoulder. 
  I nodded, wet my lips, walked forward and gazed inside the tomb.
  “I’ll do my best, sir,” I said without turning. Then I pulled out the flashlight from my backpack, turned it on and stepped inside. A few moments later I could hear the door shut behind me and hear the padlock click shut. Shortly thereafter Monsieur Laval’s voice filtered through from the other side of the door.
  “We’ll be back in the morning.” 
  I could just barely make out the words as they were competing with Madame Laval’s, which were playing inside my head at full volume by this stage. 
  “Leave, you son of a filthy whore,” it shouted furiously, and in my mind I could see her face, seething with rage, hissing at me. 
  I tried to ignore it as best as I could and focus on the task at hand. I took a deep breath and felt the stale, trapped air of death and decay flow into my lungs. Then I placed my backpack on the damp ground and pulled out the items I had filled it with a few hours earlier. 
  As I touched the white skull, a flash of lightning shot up from inside the stone coffin and hit the ceiling of the tomb. Then there was a deafening boom that knocked me to the ground, and I could see the heavy lid on top of the coffin begin to slide aside. I reached out and grabbed the skull that had slipped out of my fingers and began reciting the spell that had placated unruly spirits since the dawn of time.  
  The lid eventually came all the way off and fell to the ground with a loud bang. I jerked my eyes open and stared at the coffin and saw a bright light emanating from inside it. Then the tomb filled with white smoke, and I could see several faces rising up like feathers caught in an updraft. There must have been five or six of them altogether, and they were looking at me with vacuous expressions, their rotted mouths reciting some kind of incantation. 
  I closed my eyes again, pressed the skull closer to my body and raised my voice, shouting the spell out into the confined room, urging the spirits to leave the Laval’s in peace. But my words had no effect. A force that I have never felt before, nor since began to pull my eyes open and I saw the faces before me turn into skulls with fangs, blood gushing out of their mouths. This was followed by another loud boom, and I was pinned to the floor by invisible arms. I kept reciting my spell, willing the forces that had temporarily taken control of my body to stop, to leave me alone and go to rest. 
  Then the voice inside my head died, and I could see a shape rise slowly out of the coffin. It was dressed in a long white robe, and when it turned to face me, I could see that it was Madame Laval. 
  She gazed down at me with raw, unadulterated hatred. Her hair as white as the smoke that was rising up toward the ceiling, the nails on her fingers the size of talons and her face as ugly and cold as death itself. Then she started drifting toward me. She stopped next to my shoulders, knelt down and spoke. Her face no more than a few inches away from mine, and I could see the maggots that were crawling around inside her mouth.
  “How dare you come here and disturb me, you filthy whore son?” she said in a coarse voice. “Why didn’t you heed my warnings to stay away?” Her voice gradually increased in strength.
  I didn’t allow her to intimidate me, and I replied straight away.
  “It is time for you to move on to the next world, Madame Laval. It’s time for you to leave your family alone. They have suffered enough.”
  “No!” she shouted furiously, maggots and spittle flying out of her mouth and landing on my face. 
  “I will never leave them in peace. My work isn’t done until they’re gone, every last one of them. I’ll make sure their vile DNA is forever cleansed from the human gene pool.”
  Then her arms shot forward, and she wrapped her hands around my throat and started squeezing, the nails digging deep into my flesh. An intense pain shot up through my head, and blood started trickling down my throat. I tried to lift my hands and push her arms away, but I could barely move them. It was like someone had severed my spinal cord just below my neck. The air supply was cut off, and I felt a crushing sensation in my Adam’s apple. I started to get dizzy, and I realised that panic was about to set in. Why wasn’t the spell working I thought desperately. It had never failed me in the past. It had always sent the spirits on their way. Why didn’t they listen to me this time?
  I looked into Madame Laval’s face, and saw the glee in her eyes. The evil joy that she experienced, knowing she would soon kill me and win another victory in the battle against her family. The white skulls where dancing around in the background, cheering her on with their ghoulish prayers. I felt I was beginning to drift away. My hands were flapping against my thighs, performing their own little death dance. And that’s when my left hand brushed against the rectangular transmitter in my pocket. 
  The water, I thought. That was my only chance. There was no way Madame Laval could resist its power, no spirit ever had. I used the last strength in my body and managed to push my hand inside the pocket. Then my fingers wrapped themselves around the battery operated device, found the button and pressed it. I was only seconds away from slipping away now, and I could feel the maggots rain down on me and falling into my open mouth that was gasping for air. Then I heard a loud bang reverberate between the walls and felt the water hit me like a fire hose. The hands around my neck immediately relinquished their grip and I heard a loud, piercing wail fill my head. Then I sucked in a lungful of air and noticed that some of the maggots followed along down my throat
  The water I had placed in the side pocket of my backpack had saved me. I had strapped one eight of an ounce of C4 to the two plastic bottles along with a small receiver. The water inside them had come from a hole my father had dug in my backyard before I was born. You see the dead in New Orleans are buried above ground, due to the city’s soggy soil. Burying a coffin here is like burying a coffin in water. It’s just not possible and it will eventually float back up to the surface. Hence the dead never come into contact with ground water, and that’s why it takes such a long time for them to move on. A few handfuls of water is all it takes to send them on their way, but no one sprinkles water on the dead bodies here in this city, and hence they float around in the air instead and influence the lives of the living.
  After the water stopped raining down on me, I opened my eyes and saw the white creature in front of me begin to fade away. Then what was left of Madame Laval was sucked back into the coffin and the heavy lid slammed shut her stony grave. But she managed to make one final remark before she disappeared. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but given what happened afterwards, it has always haunted me. She said she would make the residents of New Orleans pay for their actions, and bathe in their own sins. Then the tomb fell silent, like someone had just paused a tape and I just lay there on the cold ground, happy to have defeated the spirit, happy to still be alive. 
  When Monsieur Laval and Robespierre unlocked the door the following morning, I assured them that everything had gone according to plan, and that the Laval family’s curse had finally been lifted. Then I went back home and spent the rest of the day in bed. 
  But it wasn’t over yet.  Madame Laval had one last ace up her sleeve, and I guess you could say the last laugh was on her. Because two weeks after we sent her off to the next world, Hurricane Katrina hit and wreaked havoc on the city of New Orleans, inundating large parts of the city when the levees protecting its shorelines were breached. In the time since I thought a lot about what Madame Laval said about the residents in this city bathing in their own sins. 
  What is even more chilling is that her tomb in St Louis cemetery number one was untouched by the water. I actually saw live footage of her tomb on one of the local TV stations in the days after the hurricane. The water was about a foot away from the metal door leading into her crypt.
  I can still remember the newscaster’s remarks when he saw it. He said it was almost like someone had decided that the water shouldn’t rise any further. Like some divine power had intervened and commanded the water to stop. Little did he know how right he was. Little did he know.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Death Fjord, Alaska

                                                                      Part 1

  Humans have one big advantage over all other living creatures. We have the ability to dream and picture ourselves in a better place when things get tough. This ability, or I should perhaps say gift, help us to get through periods of extreme hardship and keep us focused. It gets us out of bed in the morning and it reminds us every evening before we crawl back beneath the sheets that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that all we have to do to get there, is to put our heads down, grit our teeth and soldier on.  
  Then if we're lucky we get the opportunity to fulfil those dreams. And sometimes they turn out to be even better than we had imagined. But they can just as easily die before our eyes and turn into our worst nightmare. The vision that we had, turned out to be nothing like the reality that we ended up with. I know, because it happened to me a few years ago. My dreams turned sour and I found myself trying to break free from the nightmare I had been entangled in.
  I was stuck in the city, working a dead end job that just barely kept me afloat. The days were reduced to numbers on a calendar that kept repeating itself every month. I would get up early in the morning, commute to work, crammed inside tired and foul smelling carriages with people exactly like me, modern day zombies working long hours for bosses that take personal pleasure in demeaning you and making your life as unpleasant as possible. But I had one thing that got me going through all the hardship and misery that my life had become, and that was the dream of going up to Alaska and kayaking around its majestic coastline. To live off the grid, pitch my tent wherever I felt like it, paddling next to mountains that rise out of the fjords like gigantic fangs and caress the clouds. To be truly free, enjoy life and be the master of my own destiny. And luckily for me, I wasn't alone. My best friend Anthony had the same dreams. 
  We used to watch movies and TV shows set in Alaska, and for a few blessed hours we were able to shut off reality and picture ourselves in the thick of it. Living the dream, breathing in the fresh air and live life like it was meant to be lived. We had talked about going up there for a couple of years, and eventually we sat down and made serious plans. We lived frugally, put aside every cent we could and then one day, we finally stood there with the tickets in our hands, ready to head off on our adventure. The first leg of our journey was the flight up to Stewart in B.C, in early April. We were going to follow the river that ran through town southwards, then cross the border and make our way up through the Alaskan coast for the next four months. Our goal was to get jobs up in Anchorage and hunker down there through the winter months, then continue onwards in the spring. The end of the line was Nome up on the west coast, which we hoped to reach by the end of September the following year.
  We had all the equipment we needed, apart from the kayaks, which we had arranged to buy from a guy in Stewart. We had also acquired fishing rods, rifles and a small crab pot, so even if we got lost, or strayed too far off the beaten track, we would be able to live off the land.
  The first few days were spent familiarising ourselves with our new surroundings. Then we set off on our adventure, and began paddling down the Portland Canal.  Our dreams had finally become a reality. The weather was nice and the scenery spectacular. The snow capped mountains and the dense forests gave the area a magical ambience that is hard to beat. At times I felt like we had entered a fairy-tale world and been given the roles of the protagonists. Gone were the misery and boredom of the city, and in its place were the magic of Mother Nature. 
  During those initial days we got our first glimpse of the local wildlife. We saw bears on the shoreline, moose, deer, wolves, and plenty of eagles riding on the air currents making their way through the mountains. It was a completely new experience for the both of us, and we savoured every moment of it. We spent six hours paddling every day, stopping only for lunch and dinner. Then towards the end of the day we would pitch our tents on the shoreline and settle down for the night. 
  We always made sure to eat and store our food away from the campsite, and strung tripwire connected to flash bangs around the tents to scare away wolves and bears that were tempted to try to get a closer look at the two city slickers that had showed up in their neck of the wood. We also made sure that there were ample amounts of firewood in the campfire to keep it going through the night.
  It took us five days to reach the end of the river and make our way over to the US side. A few days after that, we reached our first major city, Ketchikan, where we got some more provisions and had a day off. Then we set off again, hoping to reach Juneau in about three weeks time. Up until that point, we had followed a very regimented schedule, where everything revolved around eating and paddling. And I guess we both felt it was time to break up the routine a little bit, and to take a slightly more laidback approach. After all we were on the trip of a lifetime, and there was no need to rush things. If we wanted to make a detour, or explore a certain area we should just go for it. It was the reason we came up here in the first place. It was time to be more adventurous and a little less conventional. 
  Looking back at it now, I wish that we hadn't made that decision. I wish that we'd just stuck to our original plan and gone straight up to Juneau. If we had, we would probably be sitting in a bar up in Fairbanks right now enjoying a few beers, rather than me reliving the events of that fateful April day. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and engaging in it is an exercise in futility. And besides, when you have a serious case of the exploration bug, and the wilderness is whispering your name, caution is more often than not thrown to the wind.
  I guess the fact that it was Anthony's idea makes it easier for me to accept what happened. I don't know if I would have coped otherwise. 
  But anyway I'm digressing.
  Three days after we’d left Ketchikan, Anthony told me about a fjord a few miles north of our current location. It was by no means a big fjord, it only continued inland for twenty miles or so, and going in there would delay us by no more than a few days at the most.  According to the travel book he was reading, there was supposed to be an abandoned fishing village at end of it, and he was keen to check it out. And the more he told me about it, the more I started warming to the idea. I had been thinking about writing a book about our journey for some time, and the possibility of visiting a ghost town would make for a great chapter. So I did what most people would have done in my position, I agreed to his suggestion. I felt both exhilaration and anxiety as we set off, telling myself that I would stay in the kayak if I didn't feel a hundred percent comfortable about going ashore. I could always take a few pictures from the fjord and then head back out again. 
  We reached our new destination early in the evening the following day. A tiny abandoned settlement tucked up against the mountainside, scarier than anything Hollywood could ever produce.  I guess the weather added to the effect. It had taken a turn for the worse in the last hour, and the paddling was anything but pleasant. The wind was sweeping down from the mountain tops, whipping our faces and whistling a sinister tune as it travelled through the numerous holes and openings in the buildings. And to add to it all, the dark clouds directly overhead gave the area an almost apocalyptic gloom. I could hear a loud intermittent sound coming from somewhere in the background, and I figured it had to be a door slamming or a branch hitting a wall. 
  I let my paddle rest on top of the kayak and studied the scene before me. I was about forty yards away from the shoreline, and about sixty yards from the village, but still my heart was hammering away inside my chest. The place consisted of twenty buildings or thereabouts, and it had a dilapidated wooden dock running along its entire front. The dock ran for about a hundred yards and continued between the buildings toward the back as narrow walking paths. The entire structure was supported by massive wooden pilings driven into the ground below the water surface. Some of them were leaning precariously, and several of the floorboards had snapped in half, or were sagging between the joists. From my vantage point it didn't look particularly safe.
  The buildings were in an even worse shape. The paint had peeled off from the walls a long time ago, exposing the grey, weathered timber underneath. Several of the roofs had caved in, and the ones that hadn't, had corrugated sheets covered in rust and holes of varying sizes. The wooden siding was missing from large sections of the walls, and the glass in the windows were broken, except for a few jagged slivers here and there. And pushing up against the buildings was the vegetation. Grass that reached up to your waist, and bushes and trees that clung to the walls and reached well above the roofline. 
  Nature had made its way down the hillside and started devouring everything in its path, doing its utmost to eradicate the last vestiges of human activity from the area. In a few decades, all that would remain would be bits and pieces scattered among the trees and grass
  The empty houses made me realise that we were all alone, even more so than when we were paddling down an empty section of a fjord, or were exposed to the open ocean. I guess the state of the buildings really drove home the point. There was no mistaking that this was the middle of nowhere. There would be no one to turn to for help if anything should happen while we were ashore. We would have to deal with any eventuality ourselves. When we reached the other end of the village, Anthony turned around and gave me a sheepish grin. He pointed up at the dock with his paddle, and asked me if I was ready to go ashore and have a closer look. I could see he was pumped up and eager to go up there and find out what was hiding behind the facade. 
  I however, didn't share his enthusiasm. To be quite honest, all I wanted to do was to get away from the place and set up camp somewhere else, preferably as far away as possible. It wasn’t just the fact that the place gave me the willies, I also had a real concern for the weather, which could turn at any moment and make a retreat a very unpleasant proposition. But I didn't want to come across as a wuss, so I nodded and gave him the thumbs up. Hopefully there wasn’t anything to see, and we’d be on our way again before the rain started pouring down.
  We secured our kayaks to a rusty metal ring driven into a crack in the rock a few yards from the end of the dock, and just stood there for a moment, taking it all in. What we were looking at had once been the home of a small colony of fishermen and their families, and I found myself wondering what had driven them away. Whatever it was they must have been happy to see the back of it. I know I would have. I was breathing heavily, and the hand holding the camera was shaking ever so slightly as I raised it up to my eyes and snapped a few shots.
  Then we got moving, and as we were climbing up the rickety staircase leading up to the dock, we heard the first loud thunderclap coming from somewhere farther out in the fjord. I stopped and cursed, and gazed out over the water. When Anthony turned around to see what was holding me up, I told him we should get going before it started pouring down, but he just shook his head, turned around and kept going. And before I got another word out, he was testing the floorboards with his feet. They made a loud squeaky sound as he put his weight down and the old planks started rubbing against the rusty rivets that had once secured them firmly to the beams. The sound reminded me of chalk being scraped across a blackboard and it made me flinch. Then I took a few deep breaths and followed him.
  The buildings closest to the water had been used as storage facilities. There were old wooden barrels and plastic crates scattered across the floors, and the occasional beer bottles and cigarette butts indicating that the place had seen its share of visitors after the original inhabitants had moved out. There were rotten nets hanging from exposed beams in the ceiling, which no doubt contributed to the nauseating smell of kelp and decayed fish. 
  It was dark in there, so we moved slowly, and that turned out to be a good thing, because it prevented me from falling through a big hole in the floor. When I knelt down next to it to get a closer look, I could see the slimy rock a few feet below. And once again it struck me what a stupid idea it had been to come ashore. I was in no doubt that I would have broken my leg if I had fallen down there, then what would we do?
  I looked up at Anthony and told him once again that we should head back, but like before he just shook his head and kept walking further into the building. He eventually ended up at an opening at the back, where there had once been a door. He kept looking to his left as he stepped outside, turning his head slowly toward the right as he studied the surroundings and began walking in the same direction. Then he disappeared, and that's when he started screaming. And he wasn't holding back. It was a loud scream that had the capacity to create permanent hearing damage, and make your blood go cold.

                                                                       Part 2

  When he came running back through the opening a second later, his eyes were the size of golf balls. He was trying to make his way over to where I was standing, but tripped on a piece of junk and fell flat on the floor. He cursed loudly, jumped back up on his feet and backed up against the wall. Then his eyes found mine. He looked like he had just seen a ghost, his shoulders rising and sinking in tandem with his breathing. He jerked his head around again and stared at the opening. Then there was another thunderclap, followed by the bright flash of lightning and then the rain started bucketing down.
  I snatched the rifle from my shoulder and aimed it at the opening, yelling at him to tell me what the fuck was going on. The fear was rushing through my body, my hands squeezing the weapon so hard they hurt. I shifted my gaze between Anthony and the opening, wondering what had caused his reaction.
  “What the fuck’s going on?” I shouted at him again.
  He waved his arm frantically toward the opening, screaming that there was a dead body out there. The words came flying out, and as soon as he had uttered them, he bolted over and hid behind my back. His hands were tugging at my jacket, and I could feel his breath on the back of my neck.
  I just stood there, looking at the rain falling down. My legs felt like they weighed a ton and to be honest I can’t remember what I was thinking. I was just holding the rifle, not knowing what to do next. Then there was another lightning strike, and I started moving slowly toward the opening. The floorboards were creaking under my feet, my heart racing away, and I braced myself for the sight that would meet me on the other side. I took a deep breath and stepped outside. I saw it right away. It was a skeleton clad in a rotten pair of jeans and a dirty fleece jacket. It was lying on its back, staring up at the sky with its skull twisted sideways ever so slightly. My heart almost skipped a beat, but I forced myself not to look away. Then after the initial shock, a wave of relief coursed through my body. It wasn't the real thing. It was a fake skeleton. Some pranksters must have left it there for people like Anthony and myself, clowns who venture ashore searching abandoned fishing villages for imaginary ghosts.
  I turned around and shouted to Anthony that it was just a plastic skeleton. Then I walked back inside again and saw he had sunk down to the floor, his head bent forward resting in his hands. The initial cockiness was no longer there, and I didn’t blame him. The incident had shaken me to the core, and I couldn't wait to get out of this place. I walked over to him and started pulling at his lapel, telling him it was time to get moving. And this time he didn't need to be persuaded.
  We hurried along the old boardwalk running parallel to the dock, back towards the kayaks. I don’t think anyone of us really cared about getting soaked. The only thing that mattered was to leave this place as soon as possible. And that's when we got our second major shock of the day, and this one scared me a whole lot more than the fake skeleton. Because when we turned the corner, we saw our kayaks drifting towards the other side of the fjord.
  I felt like someone had just hit me in the face with a baseball bat. We looked at each other for a split second before racing over to the mooring point, where we got our third shock, and this one filled me with cold, pure unadulterated fear. Because it wasn't sloppy knots that had set the kayaks adrift. The ropes had been cut off with a knife. There was no doubt about it, the heavy duty nylon ropes had been cut in half with surgical precision. We weren’t the only ones here.
  We looked at each other, and I could see Anthony's face turn bright white and I imagined he was able to see the same transformation on my face. We had not seen any boats on the fjord on our way in, nor were we able to see any boats out there now, apart from our own kayaks, which meant that whoever had cut the ropes had to be somewhere nearby in the village. I instinctually turned around and lowered the rifle, and started sweeping it from side to side. My body was shaking and my breath was coming out in quick sharp puffs. It was one thing placing a fake skeleton in the grass trying to prank someone, it was a completely different story to set someone's kayak adrift in the middle of nowhere. Kayaks that contained vital equipment and provisions. Cutting those ropes was akin to attempted murder. There was no other way to look at it.
  The evening had crept up on us, and it was becoming difficult to see. The rain was bucketing down, and the only external light source came from the occasional lightning bolt further out on the fjord. Our situation had just become extremely dire. We didn't have any food, nor did we have a torch or a lighter. In addition there was someone nearby who wanted to harm us. Anthony was still looking at the cut ropes and I could tell he was about to lose it. He was hissing and cursing, his arms and legs moving erratically. Having Anthony panic on me was the last thing I needed right then, so I put my free hand on his shoulder and told him to take a few deep breaths. Then I told him that we were going to get through this. It seemed to calm him down a little, but the words sounded hollow, and I knew I had just told him a lie. We were really up shit creek here.
  If the kayaks had been closer to shore, I would have dived into the water and swam out to retrieve them. But the water was too cold, and the kayaks were just too far away. If I didn’t drown on my way over, I’d certainly end up with a serious case of hypothermia. I cursed to myself. All my instincts told me to get the hell away from the village, to head into the forest and try to make it over to the other side. But I realised that wasn't a viable option. It was raining too heavily. We would be in real trouble after only an hour in weather like this. Our only choice was to get out of the rain and find some shelter, which meant we had to return to the village. Hopefully the rain would ease soon and we would be able to sneak out later on and recover the kayaks.
  We started making our way back. I was breathing hard and it was a real physical effort to put one leg in front of the other. Horrible thoughts started appearing in my head, and I could see newspaper headlines about murder victims killed in the wilderness flying past my eyes. One part of me felt that Anthony should take the lead, after all it was he who had got us into this mess, but I was the only one carrying a weapon, so the task fell on me. I kept turning my head from side to side like a hunted animal, expecting someone to come charging at us at any second, but all I could see was the rain, the vegetation and the buildings. We made it safely over to the dock and followed it to the front, the floorboards squeaking loudly every time we put our weight down.
  Then half a minute later we reached the opening in the building we had left five minutes earlier. I stopped and looked inside. The room appeared to be empty, and I gave Anthony the okay signal and we walked inside. We headed straight for the corner on the right-hand side and pushed our backs up against the wall. I was aiming my rifle at the opening, not even daring to blink my eyes. Then we just stood there without saying a single word. The four openings, two windows and the doorway at the front, and the doorway leading out at the back, had our full attention. If someone was going to attack us, that's where they would be coming from. And by this stage I was ready to shoot at anything that had two legs and arms and was capable of moving. But nothing happened. No one tried to storm through the openings, shoot at us, intimidate us or whatever. And eventually we calmed down enough to be able to have a conversation.
  No one had followed us to the village, of that we were certain. We’d had the fjord to ourselves. Nor were there any other settlements in the area. Whoever had cut the ropes must have been waiting for someone to come along, and unfortunately that someone just happened to be the two of us. Our top priority, besides not getting killed by some crazy psychopath, was to retrieve the kayaks, even if it meant walking back outside and getting soaking wet. By now I had realised it had been a mistake to return to the village. We should have just gone after the kayaks immediately.
  The only positive thing was that the tide was incoming, and it would continue to be so for a few more hours. Hopefully it would push the boats up against the shoreline further in. But we still had to make our way back across the dock.
  I knew our best option was to wait until it was pitch black, then try to sneak away. But that wasn’t going to be easy, and I certainly didn’t look forward to it. I started thinking about the person or persons that had set our kayaks adrift. Did they want to kill us, and if so why? Surely they must have seen my rifle, and at least assumed we were willing to defend ourselves? Wouldn't that make them reconsider their plans? These thoughts were racing through my mind as the last remnant of ambient light disappeared and the darkness descended upon the area. 

  My stomach started rumbling and I found myself thinking about food. When would we have our next meal? All our provisions were in the kayaks. I shuddered and brushed the thought aside. At least we had water, or access to water. Anthony had a plastic bottle strapped to his belt, and we were able to share what was in there. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough. We needed more, and that meant walking outside and holding the bottle up against the roof. The only problem was that none of us was very keen on venturing outside.
  In the end it was Anthony who drew the shortest straw, and as he reluctantly got up to his feet, I promised I would be there right behind him and shoot if anyone tried to attack. I realised my words didn’t have the desired calming effect, so I quickly added that I didn't think it would come to that, arguing that the person who had cut the ropes had probably already left. And it wasn't really such a farfetched theory. We had been inside the building for over half an hour, and no one had tried to enter so far. Maybe they had realised that things had gotten out of hand and decided to leave us alone? It was probably the same idiots who had placed the skeleton out in the grass, no doubt thrilled to death that they had managed to scare a couple of city slickers.
  Anthony grabbed my hand and gave it a good squeeze. Then he took a few deep breaths and walked towards the opening. When he got there, he stopped, poked his head through and looked both ways. Then he slipped outside. I went over to the opening and stopped, clutching the rifle tightly in my hands and watching him as he slowly made his way toward the corner of the building, where I could hear the water gushing down like a mini torrent.
  I almost lost sight of him when the darkness swallowed him up and reduced him to a dark blob. Then I turned around to check the other side and the room behind me, but as I wasn't able to see very much, I turned back again and discovered that Anthony was no longer there. I felt the adrenaline hit my veins like an electric current, and I stopped breathing. Where the fuck was he? I strained my eyes and blinked a few times, but he was nowhere to be seen.
  My first thought was that he had just slipped around the corner to see if there was anything on the other side, but deep down I knew that wasn’t the case. Anthony was just as scared as I was, and there was no way he would venture down there with or without a gun. He would have filled that bottle as quickly as he could and come straight back, but he wasn't there. My eyes weren't playing tricks on me. I turned around and checked the room behind me again, but it was empty. Then I turned toward the corner and started whispering his name, but I got no reply. The only sound was the rain tapping against the roof sheets.
  My entire body was shaking now.
  I stood where I was for half a minute, hoping that he was just taking a piss and would come walking back any second. But he didn't. Then I heard the scream, and I went completely numb. It was a loud, piercing wail, of the kind you’ll never ever be able to erase from your memory. I had never heard anything like it before, but knew straight away that it was a sound made by someone who was about to die. It cut through all the background noise like a knife slicing through paper and reverberated inside my skull. It was Anthony's voice, he even screamed my name.

  Then the screams died and yet again the only sound I could hear was the rain. I knew whoever was out there would be coming for me next, and I instinctively backed into the room. My mind was completely numb. I was trapped, miles away from civilisation and someone was out to kill me.  

                                                                       Part 3

  I moved around aimlessly, just waiting for the inevitable to happen. And that’s when I stepped through the hole in the floor. The rifle flew out of my hands and landed with a loud thud about a yard in front of me. I knew I'd hurt myself, but the adrenaline anesthetized the pain and I quickly got my foot out of the opening and raced over and grabbed my rifle. The incident had shook me out of the daze that had been clouding my brain and I now knew what I had to do.

  I hurried over to the wall at the other end of the room, where a few of the floorboards were missing, and without giving it a second thought, I lowered myself down onto the wet rock below. It was pitch black and I couldn't even see an inch in front of me, but I ducked down and started feeling around with my free hand and felt the rain from the mountainside rush over my fingers. I had to be careful, the ground was sloping toward the fjord, and if I didn’t watch my step, I'd slide straight into it. 

  Then I began crawling toward the far end of the dock. I was already wet, but after less than a minute I was drenched. The water on the ground was soaking into my clothes and the rain falling through the gaps in the floorboards were gushing down my back. But I ignored it. My only concern was to get as far away as possible from this place. It was physically draining, but the fear gave me the energy required. I crawled for about five minutes, then I stopped. I had heard something. It was a faint noise coming from the direction of the mountains. I sat completely still, breathing as quietly as I could.

  Then I heard the noise again, a little louder this time and I knew what it was. It was the floorboards squeaking. Someone was walking on the dock. The noise got stronger, and it occurred to me that whoever it was, was heading in my direction. I closed my eyes and very slowly aimed the rifle upwards. Then I waited. 

  It was hard to tell exactly where I was in relation to the buildings, but I figured I had to be between two of them, judging by the amount of water coming down through the floorboards. The dock was a couple of feet above me, the fjord about fifteen yards to my right. Then I started thinking about what was going to happen. Would the bullet penetrate the thick planks, and would it hit its intended target? I didn’t know the answer to that question, but I knew that the person up there had probably killed Anthony and wished to do the same with me. The squeaking got stronger and then it was coming from right above me. Then it stopped. 

  I was paralysed and for a brief moment I even stopped breathing. Could he sense that I was close by? Was that why he had stopped? Did he realise I was sitting less that a yard away? I closed my eyes and wished that it was a bad dream, that I would wake up as soon as I opened my eyes again. But it wasn't a dream, this was the real deal. The person was still up there. I mustered all the courage I had, and leaned my head backward. And that's when I saw the faint flicker of a cigarette lighter. The guy was having a smoke. 
  I could just about make out a dark contour to my right, standing under the eaves. Then the light died and everything went dark again. It only took me a split second to reach my decision. I aimed the rifle in the direction of the contour, waited until I saw the ember on the tip of the cigarette, then I exhaled slowly and squeezed the trigger, and heard a dry click as the hammer struck against an empty chamber. 
  I couldn’t believe it, I had forgotten to cock the rifle! The shock almost made me fall backwards. I stared up at the person, certain that he would get his own weapon out and start spraying the floorboards with bullets. But to my amazement no such thing happened. The rain must have masked the noise. I closed my eyes and thanked god for having granted me a second chance. Then I just sat there and waited. My legs were hurting, and I wondered how long I could go on before they started to cramp up. But once again luck was on my side and the guy eventually threw his cigarette down and started moving again. I could hear the squeaking slowly fade away, and then there was nothing. I leaned forward, put my hand on the rocky ground and just focused on filling and emptying my lungs. I sat there until my breathing was back to normal, then I started crawling again. 
  After having covered another twenty yards, I finally worked up the courage to cock the rifle. I was going to make sure I was prepared the next time I saw him. And that's when disaster struck. I slipped on the rock and the rifle flew out of my hands. Then a couple of seconds later I heard the distinct sound that heavy objects make whenever they fall into water. I slammed my fist hard against the rock and cursed silently to myself. I'd lost the only advantage I had. It would only be a matter of time before the guy figured out what I'd done and come after me. Without a weapon there was nothing I could do to defend myself.
  Then I waited, convinced that the person up there must have heard the commotion and come running back. But I couldn’t hear any footsteps or squeaky floorboards, so I took another deep breath and continued on my way. My only option now was to get out on the other side and head into the forest. Then try to get as much distance between myself and the village as possible. But as I was making my way across the slippery rock, something happened that changed everything. And looking back at it, I have come to appreciate what an important role coincidences play in our lives. How they can drastically alter the course of events. A random decision, an unintentional word spoken, or a chance encounter can change an individual’s future in the blink of an eye. In my case it was a lightning bolt. It appeared somewhere out over the fjord, in fact it was the first one I'd seen since I crawled under the dock, and it was the last one I saw that evening. 
  And that’s when I spotted my ticket out of this place. Tied to one of the pilings, about fifteen yards away, was a rubber dinghy, bobbing silently in the water. At first I thought I had imagined it. But as I started to digest the information, it began to make sense. This was where the guy currently hunting me had come ashore. I felt a massive wave of relief sweep over me, and the bad thoughts that had plagued me only minutes earlier were all swept aside. I started crawling toward the dinghy, knowing that my life depended on it. If I could get over there, I had a real chance of getting out of this ordeal alive.
  Half a minute later, I was sitting inside it and I knew why we hadn't seen it when we approached the village. Someone had strung a camo-net in front of it, completely obscuring it from the fjord. There was a little outboard engine attached to the transom, and it was equipped with oarlocks and a set of oars. My hands were shaking violently as I undid the knot and started pushing the boat out from underneath the dock. 
  I saw the spotlight shining across the fjord about ten minutes later. The rain had died down, and it was now only a light drizzle. I had managed to get a fair distance between myself and the village, at least three or four hundred yards. Then the spotlight hit the boat, and seconds later the first shot rang out. I could hear the bullet whiz past me on my right hand side. I threw myself down, grabbed the starter handle attached to the front of the engine and started pulling. Two more shots were fired in rapid succession, the last one considerable closer than the first one. 
  I was pulling the handle like crazy, and finally the engine roared to life. I slammed my fist down and let out a triumphant scream, before I threw myself toward the engine and pulled the gear lever into the forward position. Then I twisted the throttle on the tiller and turned the stern of the tiny vessel towards the far end of the fjord, the acceleration pushing my face hard against the transom as the dinghy shot across the choppy surface. 
  A few more shots rang out, but by now it was too late. I was moving too quickly. Any shot fired in my direction would be wasted. I had made it, I had been able to escape. I looked up toward the sky and noticed the clouds had finally started to break apart, and I was able to see the faint glow from a crescent moon.
  I found the kayaks pushed up against the shoreline a few nautical miles up ahead. It seemed that I had miscalculated the outgoing tide, and I realised that I would never have been able to retrieve them without the dinghy. I was relieved to have found them, but it was by no means a joyous occasion. I was happy to have managed to escape with my life intact, but the thought of what had happened to Anthony, and my inability to save him weighed heavy on my mind. And tying the two kayaks to the back of the boat gave me no joy. 
  Then I set my course for one of the big islands where I knew there was a small community and I would be able to contact the authorities. In the end it took me fifteen hours to reach the island. It would have taken me a lot less if I hadn’t run out of gasoline, but there’s not an infinite pool of luck that one can draw down from, so two hours after I left the village, I was back in the kayak, paddling like an Olympic champion. 
  When I finally knocked on the door of the first house I came across, I was exhausted. But as luck would have it the occupants were nice, and after having listened to my ramblings, they contacted the authorities. Then they gave me a hot meal, some new clothes and put me up in their guestroom. 
  My struggle should have finished there and then, and all I should have been focusing on from that point onward, was to tell my story and start the healing process. But things don't always fall into place that easily. The cops never found Anthony's body. Nor did they find the fake skeleton in the fishing village, Anthony's kayak or the dinghy that I had escaped in. In fact they found no evidence whatsoever to suggest that anyone had been ashore in that village in the last twelve months. To make a long story short, I became the prime suspect in the disappearance of Anthony. The theory was that we'd had a falling out and I'd killed him with my rifle. Then I had dumped him, the rifle and the kayak somewhere at sea. 
  The authorities in Alaska were convinced that I was a stone cold killer, and they wanted to try me for his murder. I don't know what I should call it; luck, bad luck or whatever, but due to my refusal to admit to anything, and my insistence on sticking to my version of events, I was found to be mentally unfit to stand trial. And instead of going to prison I was shipped off to a closed psychiatric ward in Anchorage. 
  Yes, I finally arrived in Anchorage in the end, but not in the manner I had hoped. And yes, I’m still here. The doctors and the staff are nice, but they make me take some heavy medication that affects my mood, and how I perceive reality. Sometimes it's almost like I believe that Anthony and I never visited that doomed village, and that it's just a figment of my imagination. But of course I know better. I know that it happened, and the memory of it is still fresh in my mind. 
  I have spent three years here now, and the doctors keep telling me that I've made huge progress since I arrived. In fact it was their idea that I write everything down to try to relive the incident, to see if there were some minor details I had missed. But I don't think so. Everything is still fresh in my mind. I've told my story to the best of my ability. And I've always taken great care to be as accurate as possible. 
  My psychiatrist, Dr Peterson asked me if it was okay if he shared my story with some of his colleagues at the university. And I've told him that it was okay, as long as it doesn’t go any further, something he has assured me it won’t. And that’s good enough for me. I trust Dr Peterson wholeheartedly, and I know he always has my best interest at heart. He wants me to get better. That's why he's prescribing all these strong drugs. 
  Maybe if I get out of here one day, I will write a book about that cursed trip and present my version of events. Then people will see that I'm not crazy at all, but of sound mind. Then maybe I can continue on my journey and head up to Nome. But if I do, I’ll stay well clear of any abandoned settlements. I’ve learned my lesson by now.