It was painfully obvious: as the trip went on, the nightmares intruded. And then they grew worse. Warren had only kicked and twitched in his sleep, at first. But now he called out things that Kateri could tell from his tone might be names, might be pleas.
She would be dead asleep, and suddenly Warren would yelp like an animal being hit. She had stopped sleeping in the same bed as him nights ago, trooper that she usually was. (His snoring was common, expected. It was cute, and almost charming. These canine yelps were neither, and they left a knot in her gut.)
So the road trip was exhausting, even if all the investigations they were doing were simple enough. Just “debunks”. Creaks upstairs, lights flickering, tables shaking . . . all thoroughly bogus. Warren called them “no-shows,” as if whatever entity they were supposed to be seeing was just camera shy. In reality, a house inspector could help these people more than two college dropouts who met on the internet ever could. But they drove to the house of one superstitious family after another, night after night.
The nature of the jobs wasn’t surprising, considering how Warren was finding them. She’d caught him a week or so earlier, hunched over his laptop, posting ads on Craigslist, of all places:
IN NEED OF PARANORMAL EXPERTISE?? HERE 2 HELP.
V.EXPERIENCED AND IN UR AREA NOW. SAFE N SANE.
Ridiculous. Yet people responded. The demand was there, and so Kateri tagged along, peeing on the side of the road and eating motel food. The jobs were stupid, but they were also raking in good money . . . and the company wasn’t bad.
She smiled to herself, and turned her attention out the barred window.
Tonight’s seedy room was on this particular motel’s second floor. An ugly cement walkway jutted out from the front of the building, like a balcony connecting all of the second story rentals. Looking outside, she could she that Warren was sitting out there on the ground.
His legs were woven through the thin bars of the metal safety railing. They dangled over the side. He kicked them back and forth, slowly. In that moment, she swore he looked like a child. Leaning against the railing haphazardly, cradling a drink in one hand, despondent and quiet.
Warren was a thin white man, and he was devoid of all his healthy color now. He lookedgaunt rather than thin. Gray rather than white. Even from a distance, she recognized the look on his face: he had been woken by one of his nightmares, but he was too afraid (and too proud) to ask for help.
She looked down towards the parking lot. Dark, like everything else. There were no street lamps this deep into Nowhere Land, USA. The yellow light from the motel’s office downstairs was the only thing keeping the lot illuminated. The lot itself was still empty, with the exception of their car (a faded teal 1994 whatever, courtesy of the aptly named Wrent-A-Wreck).
Kateri was still wearing her day clothes: sweat pants, big ugly T-shirt. She shrugged on her loosest zip-up hoodie, a black, ratty old thing. At the door, she slid on worn boots.
She stepped out into the crisp night air. Mountain weather. Crickets chirped loudly, desperately. Aside from that and the low electric buzz of the motel’s flickering VACANCY sign, there was nothing. No one around to judge.
Kateri made her way over to Warren, and sat down to join him. She stuck her legs through the safety railing, but changed her mind when the vertigo set in. Her fear of heights was strong as ever. She opted to cross her legs pretzel style. Looks more casual, anyway, she reassured herself.
She glanced at Warren. His hair, like hers, was messy. But it didn’t look like her ownbed head. It stuck up in unusual tufts at the sides. It was wild looking, pulled at, and not at all like his usually well-groomed self.
Kateri waited until he sighed before she ventured to speak.
“Now that we’re both conscious, mind telling me what’s up?” She gestured vaguely at their surroundings. “I heard you talking in your sleep earlier. I know the Bates Motel here isn’t super ritzy, but we’ve seen worse. This is nothing worth having nightmares over.”
Warren didn’t look at her. “It’s not the motel. It’s . . . nothing. Really.”
“Try me.” She pulled her hoodie shut and zipped it. “Look, Warren, I’m all comfy now. Story time.”
Warren closed his eyes. He took a deep breath, then exhaled. When his eyes fluttered open again, he glanced at Kateri, then away and past her, dodging her gaze. His voice was quiet.
“When I was a kid, I lived out in the middle of nowhere.” He made a half nod at the woods beyond the parking lot. “Someplace like this.”
“Uh, yeah,” Kateri replied. “I don’t know much about baby Warren, but I know that. Well, that, and that your dad was a . . . redneck Renaissance man, or something.” She paused. “And a shit head.”
Warren nodded. “Ye-up, all of the above. Hunter-trapper-fisherman extraordinaire. He really was pretty good at it, for what it’s worth. I’ll give him that. We lived on the stuff he killed for a long time.” He let out a strange, shuddering breath. Kateri had never heard anything like it from him before. At the nape of his neck, sweat caught the light of the neon sign. Crisp air, cold air, and shining sweat, all the same.
Suddenly, a shift in mood was palpable. She watched him gather his resolve before he continued.
“He had these dogs . . . big, stupid looking things he didn’t even bother to name, let alone train. They were good enough for spooking prey out into the open, at least. Practically feral. Just sort of roamed around when he wasn’t using them for anything. And I guess their prey drive was high. They’d hunt things on their own time. For fun.” He stirred his drink with a finger, letting the ice clink against the sides of the glass, still staring off into space.
Kateri attempted patience, but the silence of this place wore on her. It carried more weight than she thought it should. “Aaand?” she pressed.
“Aaand . . . they were vicious. They’d just flush out a duck and rip it apart. Or injure a rabbit, watch it hop around. Dad fed them enough, I guess, so they never actually ate any of it. Sometimes they didn’t even finish the job. I’d bury the pieces of the ones they killed. And I’d try to nurse the not-dead-yet ones back to health. You know how kids are.”
“Yeah. They’d all die in the end, though. Wild things are more fragile than they look. When they inevitably croaked, I’d put them in a shoebox or a cigar box—don’t you ‘awww’ me, Teri, I’m a grown-ass man—and then I’d seal it shut. We lived down by a big, big lake.
“So I’d push them out onto the water. And eventually it would carry them away.”
Kateri was quiet for a minute after Warren stopped. She stifled her usually playful demeanor. He had purposely buried his face in his drink, but his eyes were still visible. They were unfocused, hazy. She was familiar enough with him to know that look: he was lost in the memory of something she didn’t understand.
“Shit, Warren,” she finally said. “Everyone’s parents mess
them up in the end.”
He snorted into his glass. “Ha, yeah . . . But that wasn’t all.”
“Well, what else?” she asked.
“They’d come back,” he replied.
“The bodies?” She could imagine the toll a sight like that could have on a little kid.
“Not the bodies. The animals. The dead ones. A few days later, they’d come back. Decidedly not-dead.”
“What? Warren . . . You said it yourself. You were a kid. I’m sure—”
“I started marking them,” he blurted. “Like, say it was a bird. I’d draw something on its beak. Or if it was a hare, I’d tie a ribbon to its ear. I’d mark them, I’d give them their pseudo Viking funeral, I’d wait a few days . . . and they’d come back. Same drawing, same ribbon . . . just running around again. Alive and well.” He concluded all this in one breath. Warren looked her right in the eyes then, and she took a good hard look into his. She couldn’t detect any kind of deception. Instead there was a sort of childish wonder. When he spoke again, his voice was stronger. “One week, I swear the dogs killed the same pheasant three times, Teri.”
“I love you like a brother. You know that. But I’m gonna go ahead and call bullshit.”
He didn’t look hurt. He raised a palm in a sign of defeat. “Just what I saw. I was a kid, but I wasn’t an idiot. Christ, I took notes.” He took a long slurp from his glass and unwound his feet from between the bars of the railing, standing. He walked back into their room. She twisted around to watch him, but couldn’t see anything in the darkness. She heard him rummage through his belongings.
When he returned, he tossed something at her lap and sat back down. “Notes,” he repeated.
Kateri had grabbed the object he threw in mid air, acting on sleepy instinct. She looked down at it then, baffled. It was a manila folder, thick and full of paper. Rubberbanded shut. She eased the band off the folder, and flipped it open.
A child’s journal. Newsclippings. A polaroid of a skinny, sad-looking wild dog. Another of a skinnier, sadder looking young Warren. Kateri closed the folder back up, unsure what to make of it. THE LAKE was hastily scrawled on its front. She looked at him.
Warren averted his eyes again.
The penny dropped, suddenly, and she shoved him. “Oh my god. Please tell me this shit isn’t the reason we’re out here.”
“ . . . No can do.”
“This is so not okay. You know you could’ve told me beforehand, right?” she said, glaring. “And I would’ve been cool with it? And then you probably would’ve never had guilty nightmares in the first place, you dork.”
Warren moved to speak, but Kateri saw his mouth flap open, and she kept going.
“All the backwoods, schlocky Craigslist gigs were . . . just to get me out here? To the middle of the set of Deliverance? For this? What exactly is this?” she demanded, exhausted.
“Have you seen the news lately?”
“What? I really don’t—”
“About that little boy. Chase Harrow.”
“Oh. Yeah, of course. Disappeared, up in the boonies.” Young couple, young boy. The story was everywhere this week, inescapable and heartbreaking. She’d caught snippets of it on the car radio, heard whispers around the fountain soda machine at complimentary motel breakfasts, seen fuzzy interviews on gas station TV sets. “Where are you going with this? His mother saw him drown, Warren. It was awful.”
“She did, and it was. But have you seen the new news?”
“I knew it.” Kateri shoved her hands into the pockets of her hoodie. “She did it, didn’t she?”
“No. Wow, no. Holy shit, you really are my Scully, aren’t you?” Warren grabbed Kateri’s shoulder, and she looked at him. Really looked.
He appeared as exhausted as he had before, but there was a renewed strength there, a glimmer. She had the thought that it was as if coming clean to her had lifted a weight off his chest. Guilty nightmares, Kateri told herself. Exactly like I thought.
A wry smile tugged at his lips.
“I have the incident reports, Kateri. Mom watched him slip, crack his skull, go under, and get swept away.” He continued in sing-song, obviously enjoying drawing this out. “But a few days la-ter…”
“ . . . he came back?”
As the words left Kateri’s mouth, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up like the hackles on a dog.
Caitlin Rivera is a senior Illustration major at SVA and an aspiring writer and poet. She has a fascination with the paranormal and the unknown.