Jesus. Charlie muttered, sliding a hand down his face in utter disbelief. What madman would come up with such a game? What sick mind was lurking out there in the growing darkness, waiting, and hungry for blood? And furthermore
What did he steal? Anson asked, pacing the laundry room behind the rest of the band. His jet-black hair glistened in the damp air of the basement. He looked ragged again, like he was being eaten slowly from the inside by some Lovecraftian parasite.
Something valuable. Becker sighed as he began to massage his temples. Okay, let's work on these clues. As far as we know, we only have tonight to retrieve our items.
Fine. Jason said. He took the paper from Charlie and read the clues aloud once more.
Eric Where Innocence Died.
Hell, my old house is miles away. Eric noted. His curly locks looked oddly out of place; more so than usual.
Okay, so where innocence died? Charlie asked. Okay, welluh
Good load of help you are! Eric cried, flinging himself into Charlie and gripping him by the collar. Come on, think!
The Garden. Jason announced. It's where you nearly got killed, remember? As far as I'm concerned, that's enough for innocence to be killed, so long as the rest of you wasn't.
Right. Eric replied, running out through the garage. Becker watched him go, wondering how he was going to get to the Garden by foot.
Becker First strike witnessed.
Easy. Becker stated. The Bakery. It's where I first saw the Shredder's signature.
Wrong. Anson said. Karen's Party. The cable.
And with that, Becker flipped his own keys out into his palm and nodded to his friends. They would now have to separate from each other. After all their team building and the newfound friendship, they were splitting up. Perhaps, Becker thought, this was the Shredder's plan all along. Or perhaps it was just coincidence. Either way, they were on their own now.
Becker soon disappeared into the black horizon, while the remaining three tried to figure out their particular clues. They too would take off into the night like bats out of hell. Except here, they were diving head first into hell.
You're kidding me. Eric sighed, looking down at the concrete in front of the Garden. It had closed a mere fifteen minutes ago, but the lights were still on, which meant someone was still inside. As Eric traced the lines of the sidewalk, he could barely keep his mind straight. What had he stolen? What was so valuable?
But then he realized: where exactly had he been when he was attacked? The alley. Apprehensively, he walked into the black void of the alley, shrinking before the massive concrete walls that stood like phantoms on the edge of his sight. Any moment, he expected them to close; crush him like a damn bug. But his head was playing tricks on him again. Surely nothing was waiting for him.
Standing in the alley, Eric became frustrated. What was the Shredder's plan? This oddly Saw-esque plot of his was rather droll and not the classical Shredder's style. Slightly worried, Eric began to look back and forth and over his shoulder. The paranoia was uncontrollable. Something had to be around. But then he got the brilliant idea: he hadn't looked up yet. He followed his brain, and looked up.
A sparkle shimmered from the rain gutter nailed to the side of the building above him. Eric grinned. That must be it. But then he realized he had just smiled. Why would he smile at a test the Shredder had left for him to take? The tests he had taken in school were meager distractions, while this this was something entirely new. But where was the test? This little gleam from the gutter couldn't be his examination. There was no scantron sheet, no test, and no answers.
He got a running start and leapt for the edge of the gutter, but regretted it immediately. The razor sharp, rusty edge of the gutter ripped into his palm, tearing it a new Grand Canyon scar. But Eric held tight and pulled himself up, and was eventually able to slide onto the flat stone roof of the Garden. He took a quick breath and leaned over the edge, peering into the muck of the gutter. Lying there in a pile of wet leaves was a key. Tied to it was a gift tag-style note, which Eric quickly grabbed and read.
Excellent work. Guess what? There is no test, but I highly suggest you solve this riddle: A boy of deep notes and deep thoughts has no relief from the land where he lost his mind.
Eric sighed and rolled over onto his back. Above him, the night sky twinkled in its absent watching. Forever knowing, forever alone.
Jay knew exactly what the Shredder had meant by the field where men's blood stains. The outcasts of the town were once used by the Union as a resting point. Yes, according to the town history (and Jay's father), a small regiment of Union soldiers had chosen the old church outlook as a resting point for the night. Later that same night, a battalion of Confederates had come across them and killed them as they slept. Not an honorable way to go, but history nevertheless. Jay was a bit of a history buff.
Wading now through the waist high grass, Jay saw the outlook in the distance, with its gray stone bricks and old stained glass windows. However, Jay immediately noticed the light radiating from behind one of the stained glass windows. No one went to the outlook. Ever.
Stumbling at the door, Jay pushed against the heavy wood, and it swung open into the small church. A deviant echo sounded throughout the chapel, sending a chill down Jay's spine. The stately cross stood like a sentinel on the opposite side of the room, staring Jay down with cold, invisible eyes. He shivered in the unusually cold summer night air and entered, looking up at the stained glass window just behind the cross. He could see the radiating waves of light, but not the source. The cross was a massive shadow before him, guarding the truth. He was an Arthur without an Excalibur; a man without a God.
His faith had abandoned him long ago, and he was almost sure he was walking on the face of an earth with no ultimate consequences. If there were a heaven, would he be welcomed there. On the other hand, if there were a hell, would the Shredder burn there for all eternity? All the existential questions looming before him were not answered by what he saw scribbled on the cross in green spray paint.
There is no test. Jay read aloud. But there is a point. Climb the cross, learn the truth.
He sighed, looked up at the cross, and climbed onto the pulpit before him, using it as a height to grab the lower part of the cross hanging from ancient chains. His old childhood memories of climbing trees in the church lawn came to him, and then his later memories of climbing up onto the steeple to think blasted him. He was sprawling up the cross like an ape. As he neared the light, he could see it was radiating from an old-fashioned black lantern hanging from a small ledge next to the cross, just barely glowing with the last drops of its oil. Jay took a deep breath and leapt onto the ledge, crawling toward the wall to feel secure again. He recomposed himself, and then grabbed the lantern. As he grabbed it, the light shimmered off another message written on the crossbeam of the giant cross. Jay lifted the lantern to read it.
Be your own God. Save the disturbed one.
Jay growled. All that for some stupid message like that? He suddenly tossed the lantern at the cross, and it shattered upon impact. Little embers floated softly to the floor. Jay traced their flight pattern with his eyes, then stopped to realize.
How am I going to get down?
Anson had thought the place to think was the school at first, but as he drove through Harmony Hill in his purple Saturn, he realized that the Shredder was much more clever. He or she knew Chagrin, inside and out. The rapid streetlights passing through his windshield and into his face must have caused some sort of epileptic epiphany. The attic.
He parked a block away from his former home. It was probably nearing midnight by now, and everyone must have been asleep in the Fordyce house. Anson had no trouble scaling the back ivy and climbing into the attic without a sound. All that remained was finding what the Shredder wanted him to find. He needed to venture into that dreaded wavelength again. Think like the madman. Know the truth; fall into the pit.
He crawled like a soldier in Vietnam across the floor. He didn't want to be there; he didn't want to die. This was for his country; this was for his people. But most of all, this was for him. Closure. A little bit of a conclusion would make his life complete. To know what made the universe turn and men butcher their wives in the night. He wanted to know what the cats knew that made them scream bloody murder at midnight. He wanted it all. The black hole over Harmony Hill was building up and ready to swallow it whole. Anson had so much time.
He crawled over to the boxes he had been sorting through a day earlier and flipped its contents onto the floor in front of him. Some bottle caps, old snowboard bindings, a package of crazy bones, and a large empty bottle of Jack Daniels clattered gently on the wood. But then he shook the box and the infamous family album he almost stole bounced open. Anson squeaked slightly and grabbed the book. Using the flashlight he had dropped nearby, he flipped open the book to find a message in red sharpie scribbled on the front page.
There is no test. There is, however, a photo I have inserted in this book that will tell you where to go.
Anson, now distressed, flipped through the pages furiously, looking desperately for a photo that seemed out of place. His eyes darted helplessly across the pages, turning his eye sockets into blurs on his face. What was wrong? What didn't belong, besides him?
Then, his eye caught it: the one photo. Everything made sense. Only one person could have taken the photo. He quickly tore it from the book and stuffed it in his pocket. He knew it all now. Sensibility: the thing that makes cats screech in the night. The very knowledge that allows the serial killers to thrive in thinly populated Wisconsin communities.
Charlie had pondered his clue for a good twenty minutes before he even barely understood. Real life meets fantasy? Where else?
The Harmony Hill Regional Library. It had closed hours earlier, but Charlie knew that nobody worried about a break in at the local library. What was there to steal, besides books upon books? No one wanted to read anymore, especially in a podunk town like Harmony Hill.
Charlie had no problem fiddling with the feeble, outdated door lock to the library. In a matter of moments, the door flung open and Charlie peeled in, heels ablaze. He wanted his challenge.
But he found nothing. The library was devoid of any oddities. No living thing stirred in the dark. No books shuffled, and nothing exploded. Charlie sighed. He had to admit, he was rather disappointed. There was nothing here. He wanted his adventure.
Then it struck him: what if he had guessed wrong? He was never particularly bright, but did that mean he couldn't figure out the riddle? The Shredder was smart. They knew that. But what could they rely on? His knowledge of all things evil?
Charlie gave a groan and sat at the librarian's desk, wondering how he could have confused the clue. But as he sat, he saw that there was a disturbance in the perfect layer of dust covering the desk. A message.
No test. But a clue: 312.04 TWA
Charlie blinked. Another damn riddle. He couldn't figure these things out! But then he realized that he had solved the first riddle. He was here, wasn't he? He was in the right place, at the right time. With his newborn confidence, Charlie began scouring his brain for an answer.
312.04? A locker combination? No, that would just be two digit combos. Then how about TWA? Two way advent? No. Third World Association? Nah.
He sighed, but then his eyes lit up. He was in a library. It was a call number. He quickly scoured the desk drawers for a scrap of paper and drew a pen from the cup on the surface. He scrawled down the number in a fury and scrambled out into the 300's section. It only took him a matter of minutes to find the book.
As he scooped it out of the shelf, he realized it was much lighter than he had expected. Sure, it was the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but shouldn't it feel a lot heavier? As Charlie opened the book, it became clear why it was so light: a hole had been cut out of the pages. What Charlie found in the square cutout would tell him all he needed to know. He immediately dropped the book and ran for the door. He had somewhere to be.
Becker pulled up to the house and gulped. What terror awaited him inside? What little test did the Shredder set? What fearsome mind had sent him here? Who? Why?
These questions scalded the inside of his head. Becker groaned audibly as he stepped out of the car and gently closed the door. The headaches were starting again: the headaches he had escaped in his childhood. Perhaps his visions of imaginary rabbits were starting to fuel the fires in his mind. The continuing madness starting up where it had left off. Where had the time gone?
He stepped up to the door of Karen's house and knocked. Why, he had no idea. She had gone off to college and her parents were on an indefinite vacation. But he supposed politeness gave way to necessity. When no one answered as he suspected, he tried the door handle. To his surprise, it was unlocked. He stepped gingerly into the house, as if expecting some IED to go off. He swung the door shut behind him, and before he could react, heard it click locked. He turned back to it and pulled at the doorknob. It didn't move. How could something lock from the inside? Unless of course the Shredder knew basic engineering, which he probably did.
Becker cursed his own stupidity and fumbled for the light switch. The room was immediately illuminated. Nothing to see, really: a normal living room/parlor. Becker nodded and continued into the main area, with a staircase to his left and the kitchen to his right. But then came the screeching sobs from the top of the stairs. Becker turned his head, but he couldn't see up the steps, as it was too dark. He took a deep breath, shoved his fears into the back of his deteriorating mind, and walked slowly up the stairs.
But as the figurative horizon of the top of the stairs came into view, Becker understood immediately what the sobs came from. Darryl lay in the fetal position, tears streaming down his cheeks. He was rocking gently on his side, trying to escape the cruel reality of the drugs coursing through his veins. Becker rushed over and kneeled before him, trying to think of what to do.
The kitchen. Darryl whispered. Becker leaned in closer, but Darryl just screamed it again. KITCHEN!
Becker stumbled backward and got to his feet before running down the stairs at full speed. The kitchen was dark: illuminated by the light from the parlor. Becker stepped in and flicked on the light switch. A rounded dinner table with five chairs stood before him, almost mocking him. On it laid a piece of yellow law paper, scribbled upon in red sharpie. Becker grabbed the paper and read.
You were always the one who knew, Becker. I had always admired that. It's odd how much we've learned from each other. I would like you to know that you are the only one being tested.' It is not really a test. That'd be much too archaic. This is to test your humanity. I have stolen something important from each member of Chagrin. Each item is located in a room upstairs. Time to tell whether you really care about anyone anymore. Yours Truly, Shredder <3
Becker tossed the note across the room. It struck a small pot hanging from the ceiling and clattered to the floor. The pot swung there for an instant, and Becker found himself becoming hypnotized by its movement. The movement of the world was in synch now. Every butterfly's wings flapped in time with the swinging of the pot, Becker's blinking eyes, the sounds of whales singing at the dark bottoms of the ocean, and the hail of gunfire in Africa. The war of the mind was at a head.
Darryl's groaning brought Becker back to reality. The utter insanity of the moment had caught him off guard. Was the Shredder still here?
He nodded to himself and retreated to the stairs. But something odd he had noticed: each step included an odd squish noise, as if he were walking in a swamp. He really didn't have time to think, but Becker just assumed the floor was wet. He gave it no second thought, though in retrospect, he probably should have. What carpets are wet in the middle of summer?
As he climbed the stairs, he called up to Darryl.
What do you know?
Darryl groaned in response, but Becker heard him shuffle on the ground. He soon saw that Darryl had made it to his feet and was bracing himself against the wall with one hand. His eyes were hazy and dull, and they didn't dilate at all. Becker almost feared for an instant that he had died standing up, but the ragged, short breaths coming from the shell of a man told him otherwise.
What is all this? Becker asked Darryl, a hint of rage in his voice.
He told me to. Darryl gasped.
Told you to what? Becker asked, shoving Darryl into the wall. Told you to what?
Gather them. Darryl cried. But he said he'd make this stop!
Them? Becker questioned. Who's them'?
The prizes. Darryl said, then collapsed onto the ground again.
Prizes? Jesus. Becker massaged his temples in frustration. This is f*cking absurd! Who does this? How?
I don't know. Darryl coughed from the floor. He said he'd make it stop!
Do you know how I can get out? Becker asked.
I think the bedroom windows are open. Darryl said quietly.
Becker nodded and charged to the bedroom door at the end of the hall. But as he went to turn the knob, he was met with mechanical resistance. The cold hand of basic carpentry. A lock.
Dammit. Becker sighed, and then tried to slam his shoulder into the door and break it down. But his skinny frame wasn't strong enough, and he was easily tossed off like the door was made of rubber. He landed awkwardly on the carpeted floor of the hallway, slightly dazed.
No use. Darryl whispered from the other end of the hall. He said you have to start from the beginning.
In the dim light, Becker saw Darryl point toward one of the rooms on the right, then collapse under his own mental strain. Becker nodded. Darryl's brain was probably melting inside his head. His perception of reality must have faded hours ago, and he was riding the rails of sanity: fall off, lose the game, the game being life, of course. Becker feared he had lost that game weeks ago.
He stood up on shaky feet and walked toward the door. This, the beginning of the end. Here he stood on the verge of oblivion, about to enter the unknown. And somehow, he smiled. He was rather unsure why. Perhaps it was the idea of closure in his life: an end to all the issues he dealt with. Nothing would bring back his innocence, but perhaps he could revitalize the life he had lived mere months ago.
He took a breath and opened the door.