December 13, 1903

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     Marceline Leon’s imagination was terrible to witness.

     Her dreams were the stuff of nightmares, and if she told them to you, in her soft, sweet voice, you would wish she hadn’t.

     Born in 1895 to a French family which consisted of the mother, father, three daughters, and four sons, on the outskirts of town. Marceline spoke both French and English passably well, enough to terrify the listener.

     Her words crafted images, and breath breathed life into the visions.

     Between 1898 and 1902, six people were hospitalized, four more placed in sanitariums, and at least three committed suicide, all because of what Marceline spoke of.

     She would whisper into people’s ears and pour out her fears. In a matter of moments, those fears would become realized.

     Goblins and trolls, giants and wicked kings. The stuff of fables and myths, they would vanish once blood had been drawn.

     On December 13th, 1903, Marceline screamed from her room at the top of the stairs, howling about the presence of a great and dark goblin beneath her bed.

     When her parents reached the room, Marceline and her two sisters were gone. Blood was splashed across the walls, and trails of the same lead beneath the bed, vanishing into the shadows.

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December 12th, 1872

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     Born on January 1, 1855, James Madison Whitmore never felt as though he belong fully in Cross. His parents were both active participants in the First Congregationalist Church, and they attempted to instill in James the same faith and religious convictions they held.

     James, however, was fascinated with tales of the orient. When he read of Russia and the power it held, his interest in the world far from the borders of Cross only increased.

     He was a remarkably intelligent child, and as he grew older, whatever he put his mind to, he accomplished. By the age of 10, James could speak Latin, Greek, French, and Portuguese. His parents, hoping that their son might one day take up the mantle of missionary work, allowed him to study Russian and Arabic.

     Concerned with his son’s physical safety, Mr. Whitmore employed the services of several combat hardened veterans of the Civil War to train his son in the use of firearms and swords. Not surprisingly, James became an expert shot, and was undefeatable when armed with a cavalry saber.

     On his 17th birthday, without a word to anyone, James Madison Whitmore vanished. His sword and a few belongings were missing, but there was no letter or explanation of any kind.

     His parents believed, firmly, that James was in the Orient, proclaiming the word of Jesus Christ to those who had not yet heard it.

     On December 12, 1872, a letter arrived from James, the envelope bearing any number of curious stamps upon it. His parents brought it to church, where they hastily opened it and showed the photograph James had included. Happily, his parents started to read it to the congregation, and his mother and several others fainted moments later.

     “My dearest mother and father,” James wrote, “I am in the employ of the Khan, and have executed 300 men, women, and children to date.”

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How Much is Enough?

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     ‘How much is enough?’ is a question that crops up often in regards to many ventures, but especially when the focus is on writing.

     Writing shouldn’t be a painful act.

     Some elements of what you write may be painful (memories of abuse, struggles in life, and a slew of other triggers), but the act of putting thought to paper shouldn’t pain you.

     What you need to do is strike a balance between how much you believe you can write, and how much you want to write.

     These can often be two vastly different numbers.

     The best way for you to find the happy medium – the amount you can reasonably produce – is to pick a subject you like, estimate how many words you believe you can write, and then write about it for half an hour.

     Focus and write.

     That’s all. Don’t set up your music.

     The only task you should focus on is your writing.

     When those 30 minutes are up, stop and take a look at what the difference is between your estimated ability, and the actual amount you were able to produce.

     Let’s say you were able to write 500 words in those 30 minutes. And let’s say you thought you would be able to write at least 1,000.

     Split the difference.

     For this instance, I think that 750 would be a reasonable number to strive for.

     In my experience, increasing your writing a little at time is better than becoming frustrated with an inability to meet an unrealistic expectation.

     Next time you sit down to write, set a goal for yourself. If you’re going to write for half an hour, try to reach 750 words. An hour? 1,500.

     Remember, life happens. It’s cliché, I know, but it’s also the truth. You’ll be interrupted by the phone, by family, by just about everything under the sun. Roll with those disturbances and keep your eye on number of words you’re striving for.

     It can only make you a better writer.

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December 11, 1920

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     Dane Young marched off to glory along with hundreds of his New England brethren when the call went out in 1917.

     By 1918, Dane was in France and regretting the decision that had thrust him deep into the horrors of warfare, but he fought on until he was wounded by an artillery shell.

     A piece of shrapnel tore away part of his skull, and left his brain exposed.

     Dane, who had been a quiet, unpresuming lad when he left Cross, returned as a discouraged man who rarely spoke. Slowly, Dane recuperated under the ministrations of his mother, and slowly a strangeness settled over their home.

     Without effort, Dane seemed to know what everyone in and near the house was thinking. He knew when people were coming to visit, and when death would claim a victim in the township.

     When people whispered of his new, curious ability, Dane would smile, and do nothing to set their minds at ease.

     On December 11, 1920, his mother prepared the home for a small gathering of friends. They were working out the niceties to help out some of the poorer citizens of Cross. Dane sat in a back corner of the parlor, eyes closed and smiling at thoughts only he and the thinkers were privy to.

     At 7:01 PM, the doorbell rang, and Dane’s eyes snapped open. He screamed at his mother not to answer it, but his cry went unheeded.

     When she opened the door, she later told her friends, cold air rushed past her, and Dane let out a terrified scream. Turning around, she saw her son slump in the chair, a rigid smile on his face.

     His healed head wound was torn open, his brain exposed to the world once more.

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Branching Out

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     Jobs often offer something terrible: security.

     Mind you, security can be absolutely wonderful. I worked – full-time – as a trash-man for seventeen years, and the safety of that position (the steady pay raises, the health insurance, the vacation days, and the sick days), kept me there. So did my attitude at the time. I had a chip on my shoulder, and it took a debilitating injury for me to realize that I had done my family and myself a disservice by staying in a job that I hated – and one that had no possibility of growth – for almost two decades.

     For the past three years now, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working as both an editor and as a ghostwriter. I’ve been able to fine tune my writing with the help of some exceptional editors and my publisher. While I intend to remain with this company for as long as possible, I’ve discovered that I have put my own writing on hold, much to my own detriment.

     So, I’m branching out. Or going back to my roots. However you want to look at it. The point is, I am at last able to recognize when I need to do something, and I have the confidence to do it.

     And that means getting back into writing my kind of story. A little horror. A little fantasy. A whole lot of ‘what the hell’ was that?

     Now, I’m not telling you to drop your job and run for your writing space. Far from it. What I am suggesting is that if you love to write, if you are driven to write regardless as to whether anyone reads it or not, then it’s time to start focusing on that.

     Carve a little bit of time out of the day for yourself. Don’t cut into family time, or those precious few moments with your spouse.

     If you are an early riser and you function best first thing, then set your alarm a little earlier.

     If you’re like me, and the night brings out the best in your writing, then stay up a little later than you would.

     Time for you to work is there, you just need to find it, and stick to it.

     I know you can do it, so, go ahead, start writing.

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December 10, 1891

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     For decades the Von Epp Bookstore was a staple of the Cross business community. The owners, always members of the family, were active in the town and its various programs. While the proprietors spoke German with one another, they always spoke in English when in front of customers or non-family member employees.

     Beginning in the middle 1800s, a curious, annual event began to unfold.

     Children disappeared within the store.

     On the 10th of every month, if there was a child in the shop, that child vanished. They were never found again. No trace, not any sort of clue.

     They were gone, and although the police and residents tore through the building, no child was ever recovered.

     Soon, residents of Cross kept their children away from the store on the 10th of each month, and the store would close as well.

     In 1891, a new relative took over the business, and since there had been no disappearances for 25 years, he felt it safe enough to open the store again.

     On December 10th, 1891, the store remained open. Several families visiting from out of town paid the store a visit to inspect postcards and small prints.

     At 11:31 in the morning, Joseph Danforth – age 12 – of Cambridge, Massachusetts, wandered over to the history section of the store and vanished.

     Amelia Harding, the shop-girl in the photo, was watching the boy when he vanished, and when she was calm enough to speak, she told the police what she saw:

     A  hole had opened in the bookstore, and a devil had snatched the boy out of this world and into darkness.

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December 9, 1905

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     No one has seen the child’s face.

     Since 1876, there have been 17 railroad accidents with trains that have stopped at the Cross Station. The fatalities have been high; the survivors marred with hideous injuries.

     And at the scene of each incident, whether it was in Worcester, Massachusetts or Bangor, Maine, Washington, DC or Jacksonville, Florida, those few individuals who remained unscathed asked after the girl.

     She is described as pretty and polite, a child riding to see her family and holding on tightly to a beloved doll. The child has given her name as Sarah, Melanie, Rose, and Cherie, to name but a few. She has spoken in the perfect English of the Queen, and the bitter, sharp bite of the New Yorker. At some periods, she has spoken only German or French, Russian or Polish.

     Her clothes are always immaculate, expensive but not tawdry. Despite her apparent youth, she speaks with a maturity well past her years.

     Only one picture of her exists, and her back is to the camera. This image was taken on December 9th, 1905, shortly before the train left the Cross Station.

     In less than eight hours, the majority of the people in the car were dead, and the girl was missing.

     At present, the Cross Station continues to serve the commuter community, and each station master is taught the history of the unknown girl. While they do not know what the child looks like, they know she carries the doll, and it is the doll they look for.

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A Silver Anniversary

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     “Why the hell is the radio playing at seven thirty in the morning?!” Frank screamed, pulling the sheets over his head.

     Celeste didn’t answer him.

     In fact, Frank couldn’t even hear her breathing.

     He sat up, hope racing through him.

     Frank frowned.

     Celeste wasn’t dead, just up and about somewhere in the house. Frank inhaled, smelled the stench of his oxfords and felt the heat of the room. Muted sunlight drifted in through the open curtains, the bedroom spotlessly clean save for the trail of clothes he had left the night before. He could hear the radio playing on the first floor.

     Frank swung his large fat legs over the side of the bed and stretched.

     The radio’s playing, he thought in amazement.

     He had told her never to play that thing when he was home. Cheerfully Frank stood up, grabbing his bathrobe from the closet and pulling it over his fat frame. Now he had an excuse to hit her. Normally, Celeste never gave him one.

     But today, today seemed different. Frank could feel it.

     Feels like a good day, he thought, rubbing his hands together. Whistling he put on his slippers, ran his hands through his balding hair, and headed out of the bedroom.

     Halfway down the stairs Frank paused.

     The smell of roses and mothballs hung in the air.

     Frowning, Frank continued on his way, stopping beside the door into the den.

     It isn’t the radio, he thought, it’s the record, player.

     Over the speakers came the sound of Mick Jagger singing about how all of his love was in vain.

     Frank’s frown deepened. I’m really going to have to work up a sweat.

     Slow steps brought him to the kitchen, where his breath hissed out in amazement.

     Hundreds of white candles burned on every available surface. The smell of roses washed over him, accompanied by a sharp, piercing chill. Black cloth hung over the windows as well as the door to the living room. Celeste stood at the sink wearing her wedding gown.  The fabric was held together precariously by safety pins. She washed something, humming along with the Stones, her back to Frank. On the table, a crystal vase housed two dozen long dead roses in cloudy water.

     Frank surveyed the scene before him, shaking his head. Maybe I can get her committed.

     “Good morning, Frank,” Celeste said. She kept her back to him, still scrubbing away.

     “What the hell are you doing?” he demanded. He cracked his knuckles, anticipating the first blow.

     “Washing the frying pan,” she answered.

     “I don’t see my breakfast on the table, Celeste.”

     “And you won’t.”

     Frank blinked, opened his mouth several times then managed to ask, “What?”

     “I said, ‘And you won’t.’ Are you going deaf?” she asked sweetly, “Or has the fat finally seeped into your ears?”

     Frank shook his head in disbelief. “You can’t be talking to me.”

     “But I am.”

     “I’m going to.”

     Celeste didn’t let him finish. “Go, Frank. Get out. Now while I’m giving you the chance.”

     “The hell I will,” he snapped. “This is my house. What I say goes. Now get out of that damned dress, get those candles out of here, turn off that music, and cook me some damned breakfast!”

     He raised a foot to step in.

     “Don’t,” she said coldly, straightening up. “Do not step into my kitchen, Frank, because you will never, never leave it alive. Do you understand me, Frank?”

     Frank brought his foot back to the carpet of the hall, eyeing the tile of the kitchen.

     “Do you know what I cooked this morning while you lay sweating in that bed?” she asked, draining the water from the sink.

     Frank, stunned, remained silent.

     “I cooked up something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a coin in my shoe,” she said, laughing. “And do you know what I thought of? I’ll tell you, Frank, what I thought of. I thought, and none too fondly, of the many times you’ve beaten me, raped me, and all of the other pleasantries you’ve seen fit to bestow upon me.”

     “You’ve been talking to that women’s shelter, haven’t you?” he snarled.

     “No,” Celeste smiled, turning around to face him. “I found an old cure-all in my great-grandmother’s cookbook.”

     Frank gasped and clutched his chest, a shooting pain lancing through him.

     “Oh no, Frank,” she whispered. “You won’t get away that easily.”

     She walked forward and helped him into the kitchen, easing him into his chair.  He sucked desperately for breath.

     “This isn’t right,” he hissed, looking at her fearfully.

     “What?” she asked.

     “You.”

     Celeste no longer wore the haggard mask of twenty years of fear and overeating. The gray had vanished from her soft brown hair. Her straight back, free from its previous hunch, no longer revealed her years of physical suffering. Fingers were no longer twisted with arthritis. Her breasts, absent of the sagging of age, stood with the vitality of youth.

     I don’t know her, Frank thought.

     Celeste stood with pride, her hazel eyes shining. Her lips, full and red, smiled playfully, her face now well-defined and attractive. On her flat stomach she splayed her thin, graceful fingers. Celeste wore an expression of satisfaction and pleasure.

     Smiling, she stepped back to the sink and took up the large black cast-iron frying pan. She dried it with a red checkered dishtowel.

     “I found that cookbook this morning, cleaning out the basement like you told me to do. And there was the recipe, the first one I opened to. I can’t really describe it, Frank, but I knew it would do what I wanted. What I needed it to do.

     “I found the candles from my sweet sixteen and had something old,” she said, smiling. “I peeled a scab off of my forehead, supplied by one of your more recent displays of affection, and I had something new. I took a lock of what little hair you have left and had something borrowed. The coin,” she said and tapped her right foot, “is a wheat penny.

     “And the something blue,” she said, winking, “that’s the secret part. The special part.

     “I cooked it up in wine and roses, dear Frank, and this is what occurred.”  She motioned to herself with the frying pan. “What do you think?”

     “I think that I’m still dreaming,” he whispered.

     “Good dream or bad dream, Frank?” she asked.

     “Neither.”

     “Well,” she said, grinning, “we can’t have you sitting on the fence like that.”

     She blew him a kiss.

     From the crystal vase the roses leaped, thorns biting into his ample flesh as the stems bound him, hand and foot, to the chair. As he opened his mouth to scream buds plunged in, gagging him.

     “There,” she said, leaning back against the counter-top. “All set to go, aren’t you, Frank.”

     Frank whimpered, praying that he could wake up and beat the hell out of her right there in bed.

     But he did not wake up, and he did not hit her. He sat in the chair, tied down by roses.

     Celeste hummed along with “The Midnight Rambler” as it came across the speakers. Finishing with the pan she set it down on the stove, dropping the dish towel into the sink. She walked by Frank, patting him on the head as she left the kitchen. A few minutes later she returned with an armload of old newspapers.

     “You know,” she said as she knelt down beside him, “tomorrow’s our twenty-fifth anniversary. Our silver anniversary. Not that you’ll see it.”

     Celeste laughed, spreading the papers out around him on the kitchen floor.

     “Blood is so hard to clean off between the tiles.” She stood and pinched his cheek playfully.

     Celeste walked back to the counter, opening a drawer and pulling out a box of black plastic trash bags. She took the cleaver down off of its hook.

     “You know,” she said, turning to face him, “I feel really good about myself, Frank.”

     She set the bags and the cleaver on the table.

     “It’s too bad. This is what I looked like when I was sixteen. You missed out.” She cocked her head to one side and patted her behind, giggling.

     “Oh God, Frank! I am so happy! I’m going into Boston for the day, and then I’m taking a train to, well, anywhere. I’ve got the bank card, and there’s an old friend out west who’ll give me a hand getting re-settled.”

     Frank listened in fear, pain dancing along the fatty flesh of his arms and legs. He threw up into the roses, and was forced to swallow the burning bile.

     Celeste’s eyes blazed in the candlelight. “I had so many dreams, Frank, and I smothered them for twenty-five years. But not anymore.”

     She smiled. “I suppose that you’re wondering what I’m going to do.”

     Frank nodded painfully.

     “Well, Frank, when I remembered all of your gentle caresses this morning, I realized you hit me the most over meals. ‘It’s not cooked enough!’ Whack! ‘It’s cooked too much!’ Whack! ‘It’s cooked!’ Whack!” Celeste grinned. “Get the picture, Frank?”

     She lifted the frying pan up off of the stove, holding it pensively as if testing the weight. She nodded in satisfaction. “Yes, I think that this will do. Quite nicely actually.”

     Moving her hips suggestively, Celeste walked forward, swinging the pan from left to right. Stopping inches away from him Celeste’s smile fell off of her face.  She lifted the pan up into a batter’s position.

     “I know that it’s not silver, Frank,” she whispered, “but we’ll work with what we’ve got.”

     The pan came crashing down.

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December 8, 1840

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     Patience Coffin is the earliest known Cross resident to have been photographed prior to a peculiar event.

     Patience was a young woman of 23, recently wed into the Coffin family, and of good breeding. She and her husband, Abel Coffin, met during a social gathering in Boston. Initially, her family thought of him as a poor country fellow and were not inclined to encourage his courtship of Patience. When it was discovered that he was a wealthy landowner, and well-educated, they changed their tune.

     She and Abel were wed in 1839. In 1840, she was photographed in Boston.

     On the afternoon of December 8, 1841, Patience and the maid, a young girl from an Irish family, walked together toward the center of Cross, but neither ever arrived.

     When they did not return by dinner, Abel Coffin rode out in search of them, concerned that some mishap had occurred.

     What he found did not set his heart at ease, but instead, it drove him to seek the counsel of Duncan Blood.

     Abel had found, on the side of the road in a small bit of grass, a faery ring. The mushrooms were large and misshapen, twisting around one another in some places and reaching to the sky in others. But despite their curious formations, there was no doubt as to what they were part of.

     In the center of the ring, the bonnets of both Patience and the maid could be seen.

     As the two men approached the ring, the mushrooms withered and died, trapping the women within.

     Along the stretch of the North Road that passes by Patience’s Glen, muffled drums and pipes are often heard.

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The Cajun Tap, 1919

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     The bus stopped in a small town called Cross, and Hank Rivers decided he’d gone far enough. He tipped his hat to the driver, shouldered his sea-bag, and stepped out. Once on the sidewalk, Hank took out his pipe, packed it, and lit it.

     As the smoke curled up from the bowl and escaped from the corner of his mouth, Hank glanced up and down the street. A few Fords, all older models, were parked at the curb. But like all the New England towns he had passed through, after 6 PM the center of town was battened down like a destroyer ready to ride out a storm.

     Hank sought out a place to drink and was relieved to see a sign for a watering hole.

     The faded, wooden sign hung from a rusted iron swing pole affixed to a brick wall near the mouth of an alley. Hank could make out the carved images of a mug of beer and a bottle of whiskey, and three words engraved above them.

     The Cajun Tap, he read. Then, with a shrug, he adjusted his sea-bag and made his way to the sign.

     When he reached it, Hank saw a flight of narrow stairs leading down below street level. A dull, orange tinted light seeped out of a large rectangular window set high in an ancient, dark wood door. Hank descended the stairs and caught a glimpse of a small brass plate engraved with the word, Knock.

     He rapped on the center of the door twice.

     It opened a moment later, and an old man who looked like death warmed over stood in the doorway. He wore a battered bowler hat that was ragged and threadbare with age. The man’s blue eyes were sunk deep within their sockets, and lines spread out to either side of his thin face from the corners of his eyes and mouth. He had on a pair of dungarees held up by stained red suspenders, and the boon-dockers on his feet looked older than Hank. The sleeves of a collarless shirt had been rolled up to the elbow, revealing thick scars on the man’s pale flesh.

     “What do you want?” The old man asked in a heavy Louisiana accent.

     “A drink and a meal, if you have them,” Hank answered.

     The old man leaned forward a fraction, his nostrils flared, and then he nodded.

     “Come on in,” the man said, stepping aside. “Straight to the back, you’ll find the bar. Booths are private.”

     “Can I get a booth?” Hank asked.

     The old man chortled and said, “What’s your name, son?”

     “Hank.”

     “I’m Louis Crowley, Hank,” the old man said, closing and locking the door behind them. “And we’ll see if you warrant a booth when you’ve finished your drink at the bar.”

     Hank shrugged and walked along the length of a slim, dark aisle. He could make out the booths on either side, but the angle of the lights above each hid the occupants from view.

     The sound of murmured conversations rose and fell around him.

     At the end of the aisle, the room opened to face a long bar with seven unoccupied bar stools. The bar itself was a long piece of planking that, judging by the scars upon its surface, looked as if it had come from an old battleship. Bottles and jars and glasses cluttered a series of shelves, and candles threatened to gutter out in old ship’s lamps that hung from the exposed beams of the ceiling.

     “Sit down, Marine,” Louis said, going around to the back of the bar.

     Hank set his sea-bag down on the floor, placed his hat on the bar, and settled down on a stool. “How’d you know I was a Marine?”

     “I’ve an eye for your breed,” Louis said. “What’re you drinking?”

     “Whiskey,” Hank answered. He took his pipe out of his mouth and knocked the ashes out into an old brass ashtray.

     The old man chuckled, nodded and said, “Course it’s whiskey.”

     “Good drink for a thirsty man,” Hank said, grinning.

     “Only drink for a Marine, so’s I been told,” Louis replied. He took a dark bottle and a large tumbler down from their respective shelves and poured Hank a healthy dose of strong smelling liquor.

     “Damn if that doesn’t smell fine,” Hank said, nodding his thanks as Louis slid the glass in front of him. The old Cajun left the bottle uncorked on the bar as Hank took a long drink.

     “Tastes as good as it smells,” Hank announced.

     “Glad to hear it,” Louis said, adding a little more to Hank’s glass. “Where’ve you been?”

     “Up and down the coast,” Hank said. He glanced around the bar, and for the first time, he noticed the curious decorations. A wide array of weapons hung from or were supported by old belaying pins. Hank saw bayonets and swords, trench knives and bowie knives. Pistols and rifles ranging from old muskets to Lee-Enfields and a Maxim machine gun. Hank shook his head and said, “Damn. That’s a hell of an arsenal you’ve got.”

     Louis nodded. “Friends leave them on their way through. Which brings me back to my question, Hank. Where’ve you been?”

     Hank looked at the old barkeep. “I told you –”

     Louis cut him off with a shake of his head.

     “I asked it wrong,” the old man muttered. “Here, what took you so long, Marine?”

     The question chilled Hank to the bone, and his hand trembled as he reached for his whiskey. He managed to empty the glass without spilling any and set the tumbler back on the bar top. Hank felt sufficiently fortified, and he asked, “What in the hell are you talking about?”

     “The wheat field,” Louis said, refilling Hank’s glass.

     A wave of brutal memories crashed over Hank and threatened to drown him with the images of violence. He saw his friends mown down on either side of him by German machine guns. The Marines leaning forward as if they walked into a high wind as they moved through the golden wheat. Over the staccato bursts of the machine guns, Hank heard men screaming in pain, others shouting in English or German.

     He gripped the edge of the bar, squeezing it with both hands, and shook his head.

     “How,” Hank asked in a harsh, rasping whisper, “in God’s name do you know I was there?”

     Louis looked at him not with sympathy or compassion, but admiration.

     “I’ve only met a few men,” the old man said, “who carried on as you did.”

     Louis reached beneath the bar and extracted a large, new grocer’s ledger. The year 1918, Vol. II was stamped in gold-leaf on the marbled cover.

     “Been a long time,” the old man said, “since I needed more than one ledger for a single year.”

     Hank watched as Louis laid the ledger on the bar and flipped it open. The old man turned several pages, nodded and cleared his throat.

     “Gunnery Sergeant Henry “Hank” Rivers. Killed in the wheat field, sixth of June, 1918. Despite death, Gunner Sergeant Rivers led the charge into Belleau Wood. Vanished before collection.”

     Without a word, his mind spinning, Hank reached up with surprisingly steady hands and unbuttoned his shirt. He slid his arms out of the sleeves and folded the garment before he placed it on the bar. Then, with Louis standing impassively in front of him, Hank stripped off his undershirt.

     He looked down at his chest and saw a trio of small, neat circles, one above each nipple, the third between them both. With his left hand, Hank reached behind him and felt the edge of a gaping exit wound.

     Hank sighed and picked up the whiskey. While Louis put away the ledger, Hank finished his drink. With the liquor gone, he put his shirts back on and asked in a soft voice, “How is this possible?”

     Louis shrugged. “I don’t know. Some few can do what you did, but it is a rare feat. I do know that you’ve led them on a merry chase for which they’ll surely call you out on.”

     “I don’t understand any of this,” Hank murmured. “Who’s been looking for me?”

     “The Valkyrie, Marine,” Louis said, pouring the last of the whiskey into the tumbler. “You’re due in Valhalla. Well, past due.”

     “How do you know all this?” Hank asked, confused. “What is this place?”

     “I’ve been around a long time, Hank,” Louis said. “And as for what this place is, that’s easy. This is my bar and a way station for Valhalla.”

     Behind him, Hank heard the door to the bar thrown wide, and the sound of boisterous female voices filled the air. Men cheered from the darkened booths and Louis smiled.

     “Well,” the old Cajun said, “looks like your ride is here, Marine.”

     Before Hank could respond, a firm hand gripped his arm, and a woman said over his shoulder, “Gunnery Sergeant Rivers. You are a pain in the ass.”

     Still, in shock at what had transpired, Hank laughed and said, “Yeah. That sounds about right.”

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