Sunday, April 10, 2016

Do You Have What It Takes To Survive A Zombie Apocalypse?

A rag-tag group of survivors is huddled within the crumbling ruins of a burnt-out building. Outside, hordes of the walking dead shamble through the streets in their relentless pursuit of human flesh, drawn by the slightest sound.  From the safety of neighboring rooftops, unknown snipers take potshots at your crew every time someone hazards a peek through a window.  Return fire might thin out the snipers’ ranks, but would also draw the undead’s attention away from the roofs and lead them directly to you. Yet something has to be done…and soon. One of your companions caught a bullet in the leg and is bleeding out through the femoral artery.  Time is of the essence.  What do you do?

This is the type of situation players in The Wolf Pack face on a regular basis.  Falling under the banner of online roleplaying, The Wolf Pack might be more aptly described as “collaborative storytelling”.  There are no complex rules to memorize, no dice rolls or stats to keep track of; those who immerse themselves into this alternate universe move the plot along in short, first-person posts told from their own characters’ perspectives.  Typical updates usually consist of a four to five sentence paragraph, meaning that the time investment to play along is minimal; yet the twists presented in these posts often send the game into unexpected areas, keeping the action fresh and interesting.

The brevity of the updates also means that players aren’t required to be eloquent writers whose prose borders on literary greatness. In short, anyone who can imagine themselves struggling to survive in a hostile wasteland has what it takes to play. Even better, for those who join and find that it isn’t quite their cup of tea or that even the minuscule time investment is too much for their hectic schedules, dropping out of the game is easy. It is, after all, a zombie apocalypse; and—like in the movies and novels which inspired The Wolf Pack—characters die.

The Wolf Pack is hosted by—an alternative social media site for horror, survival, and apocalypse enthusiasts—and free registration with the site is required to play. The registration process, however, is quick and easy, allowing new players to join in on the mayhem within moments. Interested parties can also click the following link to be taken directly to The Wolf Pack page; the current and previous “chapters” of the ongoing story can be read without registering by visiting the Forum section of the group. The Wolf Pack

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Plundering the Vaults: The Top Ten Most Popular Six Demon Bag Posts

So I’ve been posting on Six Demon Bag on and off for quite some time;  longer, in fact, than any of the other blogs I’ve attempted. This is partly due, I think, to the fact that I don’t put any pressure on myself to ensure it’s updated on a a regular basis.  Sometimes months may go by without a single post.  Other times there may be a flurry of activity spanning several days. It’s much easier to delve into the bag when the mood takes me rather than force myself to pen something new every few days. I’ve also purposefully kept this blog from having a specific theme.  Writing, observations on life, sci-fi, horror, personal experiences, movies, books, and games:  the contents of my six demon bag are varied.  What follows, however, are the most popular posts from this blog, ranked in descending order.

(click on the titles to open the original posts in a new window)

10.  Life Inside a Suburban Hot Zone   Documenting my family’s battle against a highly contagious, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Life Inside a Suburban Hot Zone is one of my more personal posts. This was a very challenging period of our lives and occasionally I return to this post and think about the lessons learned from the experience. Since this entry was penned, my father has since passed away and I miss him dearly.  It was the cancer which got him in the end...not the nasty little microbe I've written about.  We finally succeeded in kicking its ass once and for all.

9. In Progress Game Review: White Noise   I think this was the first game review I posted, though I could be mistaken about that.  In some ways it seems like a lifetime ago that I downloaded and played this little game.  Who knew that a review of a game I hadn’t even finished playing at the time would wind up in the Top 10?

8. The End is Nigh: 06/17/13  I’d actually forgotten about this collection of mock-PSAs I designed for the second-edition of Apocalyptic Organ Grinder.  Looking back, I’m rather pleased with how they turned out.  The "Know Your Enemy" theme, I feel, is well suited for that particular book.

7. Fighter’s Bite (a free short story)  My work first started gaining an audience when I wrote zombie fiction, partially because I happened to be working in the right genre at the right time.  When I penned The Dead & Dying, I never dreamed that zombie-mania was only months away from sweeping the nation.  By the time my fascination with the topic waned, I’d published two novels featuring the living dead, a short story collection, and had my work represented in a gaggle of anthologies. Fighter’s Bite was the last story I wrote which featured these particular creatures and it remains as one of my favorite pieces from that era.

6. Book Review: Blood Legacy by Carl Hose   I consider myself fortunate to have a lot of creative and talented individuals within my circle.  Though he’s turned his outlets more toward music than writing as of late, Carl Hose is one of these people.  That being said, I am not one to heap praises upon a work of fiction simply because I consider the author a close and personal friend; this book earned the accolades contained within this review and I stand by every word in this review. I would still have considered it a well-crafted, engrossing read even if I hadn’t known the person whose name appeared on the byline.

5 Author Interview: Vincenzo Bilof  Coming in at the number five spot is my interview with Vincenzo Bilof.  A couple years back, I had the opportunity to sit down and pick the brain of this respected friend and colleague.  It remains as one of my favorite interviews and its spot in the Top Ten is well-deserved.  Read the interview.  Read his work.  'Nuff said.

4.  Searching for Hannah: My Experiences as a Volunteer  When college student Hannah Graham went missing in 2014, my family and I volunteered to be part of a search and rescue operation whose unified goal was finding this young girl and bringing her home. Sadly, as anyone who followed this particular story is aware, this goal was never realized. It was more emotional than I expected and, in retrospect, I’m glad I sat down and documented the experience.

3. A Place Not So Unkind   When I originally wrote The Seven Habits of Highly Infective People, it was meant to be the first novel in a seven book series which would follow my protagonists from the time Ocean was 14  to when she was an old woman at the end of her life.  I still know the rest of the story; I know the answers to the unresolved questions a lot of readers have posed after reading the book.  However, I simply don’t know if I will ever actually write the rest of the tale. I still love these characters dearly, but my creative processes have simply been pulling me in other directions.

2. Traveling Sex Pig of the Apocalypse   A very short post I wrote about a genius piece of viral marketing devised by my wife.  So short, in fact, that I really don’t want to say too much about it here.

And The All-Time, Most Popular Post On Six Demon Bag Award goes to….

1. Conjuring the Devil: A True Story   It is unbelievable how many people out there are searching for information on how to either conjure demons or the Devil himself.  If I made a similar list of Top 10 search terms that led people to my blog, eight of those spots would be claimed by some variation of “conjuring demons”.  This single post—a true story about trying to summon the devil when I was a kid—has generated so much traffic that even if I add together the hits from the other posts in this list, the total doesn’t even come close to the numbers this entry has garnered.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Raising Hell: Thoughts on the Hellraiser Films

Most people would probably say I live a lackluster life. My days consist, almost exclusively, of the following activities: writing, hiking/geocaching, sleeping, listening to music, working, and watching movies.  I watch a lot of movies. Recently, I’ve begun holding mini-film festivals for an audience of one where all of the selections share some sort of common theme. Over the course of several nights, I’ll settle down with a tub of popcorn and indulge in all the films Quentin Tarantino directed; or perhaps I’ll treat myself to several days of Asian horror, classic sci-fi, or 70’s era exploitation flicks.  Currently, I’m watching the Hellraiser franchise, all nine movies viewed in consecutive order.  I distinctly remember seeing the original on the big screen back in 1987, had vague memories of the second installment, and caught the very end of Part IV on cable several years back.  However, the other six films are entirely new to me—mainly due to the wariness and mistrust I harbor toward sequels.  What follows are my thoughts on not only the individual films, but the series as a whole.  These aren’t exactly reviews.  They could probably be better referred to as musings.  So take them as you will.

Hellraiser:  In the 80s, our horror movie villains mainly came in two flavors:  A) Silent psychopaths who stalked and murdered their victims without uttering a word and B) Wise-cracking maniacs who punctuated each kill with a cheesy one-liner (which, personally, annoyed the shit out of me).  Pinhead, however, was something completely different.  If you listen to his dialogue, he’s actually quite eloquent at times.  Take, for example, his reply when Kirtsy asks who he and his fellow Cenobites are:  “Explorers in the further regions of experience. Angels to some; demons to others.”   In these two sentences, he not only tells us how the Cenobites view themselves, but how others see them as well.  It also distances them a bit from the Judeo-Christian trappings of the terms being employed.  Angels to some, demons to others implies that the Cenobites don’t really belong in either of those classifications…that such distinctions are entirely left to the realm of human perception.  This leads me to something else I found refreshing about Pinhead and his bizarre crew: they weren’t the embodiments of evil.  Yes, they did horrific things to those who summoned them; but their intent wasn’t necessarily evil, per se.  If anything, the Cenobites were amoral more than anything else. They existed in a realm where right and wrong were foreign concepts; there was only the pursuit of pleasure, even if that pleasure was found in the most extreme forms of sadomasochism imaginable. Which brings me to my final thoughts on the original movie; I also loved that the tortures they employed weren’t designed to punish people.  The Cenobites weren’t agents of divine retribution; the people they inflected suffering upon sought them out.  When Frank Cotton tries to buy the puzzle box at the beginning of the film, it is freely given to him, accompanied by the explanation, “Take it.  It’s yours…it always was.”; this seems to imply that certain individuals are called to the box, that their destinies are inexplicably intertwined. When Kirsty inadvertently solves the puzzle box, Pinhead’s explanation is simple cause and effect, as if it was fully expected that the person summoning the Cenobites knew exactly what they were doing: “The box… you opened it. We came.”

Hellbound: Hellraiser II  As far as sequels go, this wasn’t an entirely horrible film.  I liked the surrealism of some of its scenes and thought its depiction of “Hell” as a labyrinth was really cool.  I put Hell in parenthesis because at this point in the overall arc of the series, the Cenobites still aren’t exactly demonic, which—as previously stated—is something I really enjoyed about the first movie.  We see evidence once again that the realm the Cenobites reside in calls to a specific type of person, in this instance Dr. Channard, who was obviously obsessed with Cenobite lore. Frank Cotton is being punished, true, but there’s a certain logic to his imprisonment.  He escaped the Cenobites in the first film, essentially rejecting the “pleasures” they offered, though his dialogue indicated these tortures weren’t entirely unwelcome: “The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits... pain and pleasure, indivisible”; “Some things have to be endured. And that makes the pleasures so much sweeter. “  For turning away from them, he is punished with an eternity of frustration in a manner which is reminiscent of classical Greek mythology:  a lustful man tempted by erotic women he can never touch, devoid of both the pleasure and pain he rejected.  In other places, however, the internal logic between the two films breaks down. For example, when Dr. Channard resurrects Julia from the bloody mattress she died upon, she comes back as a hideous, corpse-like creature.  That’s fine.  After all, that’s what happened with Frank in the first film.  Dr. Channard then begins to offer victims to Julia to help restore her to a human form, just as she had done for Frank in Hellraiser.  When the time came that Frank needed a skin, however, he had to kill his brother and harvest his, the end result being that he looked like Larry Cotton .  So why then did Julia look like Julia after it was time to get her skin?  Another piece of faulty logic that bugs me is when Dr.Channard uses the mute mental patient, Tiffany, to open the puzzle box while he and Julia watch from a hidden room. The Cenobites are prepared to take Tiffany when Pinhead stops them, stating, “It is not hands that call us, it is desire.”  This is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it reinforces that the Cenobites come for those who desire what they offer; but in the first movie, Kirsty inadvertently opened the puzzle box while toying with it.  Though she lacked the desire, they were prepared to take her anyway, believing that she must have known what she was doing.  Besides internal logic, I also didn’t particularly care for the Channard Cenobite. His lines came too close to the wise-crackery I mentioned in the opening paragraph and, overall, I found him to be a rather uninteresting monster.

Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth  I didn’t like Pinhead’s characterization in this one at all.  He was portrayed in a more stereotypical evil fashion, complete with diabolical laughter, the desecration of a church, and even the claim that he exists to force humanity to recognize the darkness in their hearts.  When investigative reporter Joey watches a videotaped interview of Kirsty Cotton in a mental hospital, Kirsty says she can only describe the creatures as demons…despite the fact that she consistently referred to them as Cenobites in earlier films.  While I did feel that debaucherous nightclub owner JP Monroe was the type of person who would be drawn to Pinhead, I thought Pinhead’s seduction of Terri—who up until that point was portrayed as a rather tragic, naïve character—was too easy.  I also cannot stress this next bit enough:  I hated the new Cenobites Pinhead created toward the end of the film.  Strike one: they were simply too gimmicky.  Strike Two: The original Cenobites were hideously deformed in ways that implied extreme body modification and radical fetishism.  The pins which gave Pinhead his name and the female Cenobite, who basically had a vagina carved into her throat, are prime examples of this. These new ones though felt more like cyborgs than anything else.  Strike Three:  the Doc Cenobite had cheesy one-liners.  My feelings on that have already been made clear.  All in all this was a really disappointing movie.

Hellraiser: Bloodline  I have mixed feelings about Bloodline.  As a standalone, it’s a really good movie.  The acting was much better than in the previous sequels and I liked that the plot spanned millennia.  Plus, the wrapper story was set in space (anyone who knows me, or has read my work, knows that I have a special love of that borderland where sci-fi and horror intersect).  In addition to this, the newest Cenobites have returned to the repulsive naturalism of the originals.  However, my beloved Cenobite mythos—amoral explorers into the further regions of experience—was shot to Hell.  The Cenobites are now expressly referred to as demons and enmeshed in Judeo-Christian trappings. No longer called by specific types of people, they seek to open a permanent gateway to Hell. While I did enjoy a lot of the dialogue between Pinhead and the Princess (is it just me or does that sound like a bizarre children’s book?), he spoke with intimate knowledge about how Hell had changed since she left.  So intimate, in fact, that if not for the other films, one would naturally assume he was an eternal demon who’d personally been there with her.  However, she was summoned and trapped centuries before he was ever created.  So that’s why I’m torn:  I enjoyed the film immensely, but have seen—and liked—so many other movies about demons trying to open a portal to Hell and it pained me to see the more unique aspects of the underlying mythology changed so blatantly.

Hellraiser: Inferno  There was a lot to like about this movie. It was very dark, surreal, and contained film noir overtones which appealed to the classic movie buff in me.  As a crooked cop who rationalizes adultery with prostitutes as a means of keeping his marriage alive, Joseph Thorne is also the type of person that would be drawn to the puzzle box so the consistency there was nice. While Pinhead’s screentime is limited in this film, the Cenobites we do see are exquisitely fetishistic; but , like a good burlesque act, you only get hints and glimpses without really being able to take everything in with a lingering stare. They also embodied the pleasure/pain principle in ways not depicted in the previous films. Rather than simply elevating pain to the point that it is indistinguishable from pleasure, the Wire Twins (as I later learned they were called) blend the two in manners that aren’t quite as extreme as Pinhead’s hooks and chains.  Speaking of Pinhead, his characterization in this movie changes once again.  No more the diabolical demon, he now seems to take the role of guiding condemned souls to self-realization, exposing their sins so they have an understanding of why all of this is happening to them.  While this depiction still shows the Cenobite leader in a Judeo-Christian light, I didn’t find it quite as annoying as the fully demonic manifestation in the last couple films. To be honest, my mind kept drawing comparisons to the ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol...without, of course, redemption at the end.  In my opinion this is one of the better films in the series

Hellraiser: Hellseeker  I thought this movie was similar to Inferno in a lot of ways.  Once again, we see Pinhead  in the role of “guide”, there are surreal breaks in reality, and also a mystery element to the plot.  It wasn’t quite as dark as Inferno, however, and the other Cenobites depicted in it were literally forgettable… I’m writing this less than twenty-four hours after watching the movie and really can’t recall anything about them, so much so that I’m now second-guessing as to whether or not there actually were any other Cenobites in the film. I have to admit that I got kind of excited when I saw Ashley Laurence appear in the opening credits; I thought the return of Kirsty Cotton might also indicate a return to the original film's Cenobite mythos, but alas this wasn’t to be.  Something I didn’t like was how easily Kirsty acquiesced when her husband demanded she open the puzzle box.  She knew all too well what would happen once that box opened…and yet she did it anyway. The argument could be made that it was all part of her master plan; but the way the scene was played made it seem as though her deal with Pinhead was a spur-of-the-moment act of desperation. This line of thought, though, does confirm that other Cenobites were present in the film.  I remember them being with Pinhead in this scene, but I still can’t recall anything about them.  This wasn’t a horrible film.  It was much better the Hell on Earth, but not quite as good as Inferno.   All in all, I thought it was a “middle of the road” kind of movie.

Hellraiser: Deader  Initially, I thought this was the weakest subtitle I’d ever heard.  Within the first fifteen minutes, however, I understood exactly what was meant by the term and that prejudice was wiped away.  I found the concept of the cult highly intriguing and thought Amy Klein was a much more interesting reporter than Joey Summerskill from Hell on Earth.  As a whole, though, I thought the movie came across as somewhat muddled.  I still don’t understand what gave Winter LeMarchand the ability to bring the dead back to life.  If you take the series as canon, his ancestor didn’t possess any special powers; he was simply a toymaker who created the puzzle box. While I knew that LeMarchand was waging a war he could not win (to use Pinhead’s words) I also wasn’t entirely clear on what the goal of this war was until I read a wiki for this movie.  The acting was good, it had an interesting premise, and a few particularly chilling scenes; it’s just a shame that it didn’t live up to its full potential.

Hellraiser: Hellworld  The best thing I can say about this movie is that Lance Henriksen was in it. I like Lance Henriksen.  But even he couldn’t redeem this travesty.  Hellworld felt more like a teen slasher flick, complete with attractive young people being picked off one by one, a car which wouldn’t start when our heroine was trying to make her escape, and that same heroine fleeing into the woods.  The movie adhered so much to slasher film standards that I even knew which two characters would still be alive at the end, due to them refusing the alcohol offered by the party’s host. I also didn’t like the way the movie made references to the previous films as films; I understand what the filmmakers were doing with it, I just thought it came off as kind of cheesy.  Especially when you bounce back and forth between “are these films based on something real?”, “no, they’re not.”, “oh wait, yes they are.” Definitely my least favorite of the series.  But I’m wasting my breath.  This film can actually be summed up quite succinctly by a quote from Lance Henriksen’s character: “It’s like a bad horror movie, isn't it?”

Hellraiser: Revelations  I don’t understand why so many people hate this film.  I’ve heard it referred to as “a piece of garbage”, “witless”, and “dancing on the grave of a cinematic classic.”  In my opinion, however, it took the series back to its roots.   The Cenobites here are the same amoral “explorers” from the original film; they’re not out to punish the wicked, open a permanent gateway to Hell, or any of the demonic hokum that’s plagued previous films.  If any of the sequels danced on Hellraiser’s grave, it would be Hellworld; the plot of Revelations was tighter than Deader, the Cenobites more integral than in Hellseeker and Inferno, the scope more refined than Bloodlines, and the acting far superior to Hell on Earth. Yet, I hear that Revelations makes the other sequels look good in comparison.  Sure, it was kind of strange seeing someone other than Doug Bradley in the role of Pinhead, but I cannot fault an entire film simply because an actor didn’t play a role with which he’s become synonymous.  The argument can’t even really be made that Bradley captured “the essence” of Pinhead since the Cenobite leader’s characterization throughout the sequels has fluctuated so wildly.  Reviewers also consistently point out that the movie was made quickly and cheaply to ensure that Dimension Films didn’t lose their rights to the franchise.  I’ve seen a lot of films made quickly and cheaply, but  this one honestly didn’t look like a third-rate B-film quickie.  As indie filmmakers consistently prove, you don’t need massive budgets and mind-blowing CGI to make an effective movie. When the puzzle box is opened, it doesn’t crackle as electricity zips around it like in previous installments, but I actually liked the light radiating from within it better to be perfectly honest.  If the Lament Configuration serves as a doorway between dimensions, it makes sense that the box would glow with the same light that spills through cracks in the walls when the Cenobites are summoned; and this otherworldly glow makes the opening of the box far more creepy in my opinion.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Losing Control: The story that inspired Crossfades and Bleedovers

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With the publication of Crossfades only days away, I thought I would share the short story which inspired not only that book, but also its sequel, Bleedovers (September 2015, available for preorder now). I'd toyed with the idea of expanding various stories into longer works many times, but none had ever kept a grip on my imagination like this one. Written for an anthology entitled Bloody Ghost Stories, the original idea for the tale was a "reverse haunting"; in most ghost stories, spirits of the dead enter into our world... but I wanted to explore what might happen if we entered theirs. Drawing upon over a decade of experience within corporate America as well as interests in metaphysics and science, the world of Crossfades, Whisks, Sleepers, and The Institute (called The Agency in the short story) emerged. This world established the bones which would later be fleshed out into Crossfades, Bleedovers, and potentially a third book, Juju Horse. 

Losing Control
William Todd Rose

The first warning in the handbook states, in no uncertain terms, that there’s some malevolent shit out there. This isn’t a job for the timid or weak. To work in this profession, a man needs to be carved from stone; he has to continually face his own mortality and somehow not go insane when out there in the crossfades. That’s what we call The Divide, see. Crossfades. It’s like that moment in movies where Act One and Act Two briefly coexist. They touch one another and melt into a composite before one asserts its dominion over the other. The same thing happens with what we tend to think of as Life and Death. There are borderlands, like little pockets of stasis dimpling the surface of eternity; most departing souls pass over them so effortlessly they don’t even notice their existence. But some specifically look for these warrens. They refuse to let go of the physical and hang on with everything they’ve got, sometimes creating their own cut scenes where previously there were none. Others simply become trapped.
            For reasons we haven’t quite figured out, the majority of these snared spirits come to inhabit the bodies of moths. Johnson, the head of Theoretical Positioning, told me once he suspected these creatures have the ability to flutter through both dimensions simultaneously. He compared them to bees in a field, picking up pollen along the way, but openly admitted the math to prove his hypothesis dangles maddeningly out of reach. Jewell, who should have been a poet instead of an assistant, insists this is why moths continually bat themselves against bulbs: these quantum hitchhikers know their paths have diverted and try, time and time again, to cross into The Light.
            The handbook warns against this as well. We’re not supposed to attach any emotion to the things we see and do. We’re supposed to balance the stoicism of a scientist with the resolve of a soldier. Romantic notions are bad enough in the labs, but they can get your ass in serious trouble in the field. The slightest hint of emotion is like striking a match in the darkness: all things previously hidden are brought to light. With a mind of pure reason, you can see them. But illuminated with the passions of the living, they can also see you.
            Which is where I come in. My official title is Recon and Enforcement Technician, Level II. When wooing recruits, the Agency makes it sound like you’ll be some sort of cosmic cop, patrolling the beat and extending mankind’s reach over the kingdom of the dead. After six months of mentoring you go solo and discover the truth. You’re a glorified janitor, sweeping cobwebs from the corners of infinity. That’s why, despite the handbook’s recommendations to the contrary, we refer to ourselves internally as Whisks.
            As such, life becomes routine. I wake up at six AM, have coffee and buttered toast over the morning news. I catch an unscheduled subway at an abandoned station whose lock is shiny and new, perfectly matching dangling from my neck.
            My office is fifteen stories underground and is the nest in a tangle of wires that siphon energy from structures above. It’s a vast network of relays, switches, and humming transformers that most eyes never see. We take just enough power from each home and business that the owners never notice. Distributed between hundreds of thousands of buildings, we steal enough electricity to power a small town without as much as a bill.
            The handbook highly recommends keeping a journal such as this, but it also warns against mentioning specific cities. I could be in San Francisco or New York. Paris or Moscow. Like those I hunt, I exist nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. So instead, I’ll describe my office.
            It’s a fairly small room with cameras perched in each corner. The walls are painted in soothing pastels and water gurgles over a stone fountain in the corner. I have potted plants that I never water, their needs tended by Maintenance, and instead of a desk there’s a long, plush couch. Behind the couch are monitors and leads, all the equipment which tracks my vitals when I’m in the crossfades. And across the room is my partner.
            I’ve been working with him for a year now and have never known his name. His body is frail and shriveled and the hum of the respirator keeping him alive is a rhythmic constant. An IV drips nutrients into his withered arm, ensuring he never awakens from his induced coma. Being under isn’t like sleeping, you see. There are no dreams, no REM, none of the brainwaves you’d see in a functioning brain. Anesthesia is the little death people plunge into daily without realizing what lurks within those murky depths.
            This much about my partner I know. He was terminally ill. They all are, when first approached. With medical bills mounting, the scouts paint a picture of financial ruin for those left behind. Wives, husbands, and children: in addition to grief, they’ll need to deal with the strain of treatments insurance stopped covering long ago. Staying alive is akin to selfishness, but it can all go away by signing a simple contract. One signature and the patient “dies” in the night. He’s whisked away to our labs and grieving loved ones are surprised in days to come by a settlement from a life insurance policy they didn’t know existed. A very sizable pay-out that ensures their continued comfort while coming to terms with grief.
            These Sleepers are the most important part of our operation. When tuned to the proper frequencies, their bodies act as conduits. Dry lips move so slightly that it almost looks like a trick of the light and the thin wheeze from their throats could pass for the body desperately trying to breathe on its own. But in reality, the dead speak through them. Once, these people had loved and laughed and lived; but now, so close to the end, they’re nothing more than eavesdropping devices and the snippets of captured conversation are dutifully recorded.
            Position can be triangulated by the strength of their voices. The more clear and distinct the words, the closer the crossfade is to physical space. Algorithms I don’t fully understand calculate a coordinate from this data and cross reference it with heart rate and brain activity. This, in turn, creates the equivalent of a pushpin in the topography of Space-Time. That pushpin is both my focus and destination.
            As a Whisk, I’ve been trained in the art of meditation. I’m not the fastest by far, but I can guide myself into Theta in the same amount of time it takes most people to mumble their bedtime prayers. At that level, visualizing the golden cord is a snap. I let it out like a guide rope tied to my mortal body. A little at a time, taking tentative steps into the unknown. Laymen call this astral projection; but to a Whisk, it’s simply The Walk.
            My Walks correspond with the messages my partner broadcasts and most are simply routine assignments. These are the spirits who long to cross The Divide. They sense the mystery and know the trappings of the flesh are no longer a concern. They’ve just become sidetracked on their journey and need a little help.
            But, occasionally, things can go very wrong.

            The day Albert Lewis was executed, my Sleeper screamed. His vocal chords rattled as neck muscles bulged and his body arched off the bed while his hands reflexively clenched. Beads of sweat dotted his brow and for a moment I thought I heard the sizzle of electricity accompanying a whiff of singed flesh. His instrumentation went haywire, spiking like a seismograph placed on the epicenter of a major fault as his face screwed into a grimace of clenched teeth and spasming muscle. To the untrained eye, it probably looked as if he were in the throes of an agony so intense that Death would seem a welcome friend. But I reminded myself that it was just involuntary contractions, no different than making a dead frog twitch with the application of current. I remained professional and detached, just as the handbook says I should.
            Two weeks later, the other screams began. A dozen voices moaned through a single mouth, alternately pleading for help and yelling wordlessly. I could feel their pain and fear as clearly as my clothing, which suddenly felt too tight and constrictive. Loosening my tie, I leaned over my Sleeper’s writhing body and peered at his charts before staring into one of the cameras.
            I knew what this was. I’d read about it in case studies, but never actually witnessed the phenomena. I felt like a child who’d begun doubting the reality of Santa Claus only to awaken to a jolly fat man in red.
            The handbook calls it a Vertices Collision Scenario; but to us, it’s bad news.
            “Chuck, it’s nearly 3:30. Jarvis left an hour ago. Rollins hasn’t come in yet.” The female voice came from a speaker embedded into the ceiling. The familiar lilt sounded strained and I imagined stress creasing a face I’d only ever imagined.
            “Alone, at last.” My attempt at humor fell flat and the woman I’d only ever known as Control let it hang in the air. In perfect silence, I looked up at the camera as I ran my fingers through my hair, weighing the consequences of the situation.
            According to the handbook, it shouldn’t have been a decision at all. Protocol dictates the data be handed off to a Level I Whisk, who’d have more experience in the field. Someone who’d passed the exams instead of continually screwing up the translocation equation.
            “So what’s it going to be, Chuck?” Control’s husky voice always reminded me of a film noir heroine; I pictured her within the booth, masked by shadow as crimson lips parted just above the microphone.
            I’d get my ass chewed and a mark in my file at worst. Or a promotion, if I played my cards right. What can I say? I was ambitious but it seemed like that damn equation would never give up her secrets. If I had any hope of making Level I, it would require a bold and decisive move in place of exams.
            “I got this, Control.” I was so naïve, I actually believed it.
            What I’ve never understood is why Control gave me that option. She knew the handbook as well as I. Part of her duties was safeguarding my wellbeing. And perhaps that’s what it was. Maybe a bond had formed over the years; maybe she realized my eagerness, my drive to rise to the top, and didn’t want to disappoint me. Or maybe she was just bored.
            Whatever her reasons, Control allowed me to walk to my couch with its assortment of tasseled pillows. She let me slip the Halo onto my head, an insanely expensive piece of equipment that looks like a hard hat’s webbing. She let me close my eyes and open my chakras as I slipped from this body like a balloon from the grasping hand of a child.
            She should have stopped me, damn it.
            She should have stopped me.

            Here’s the thing about crossfades. Usually, they’re simply void space. Unless you’ve actually stood in the heart of a singularity, you can’t possibly understand the true meaning of desolation. In a place where the laws of physics no longer hold sway, your golden cord is your lifeline. It connects you to another place, a world of things and events. Without it, you’d never find your way home. Drifting through dead space for all eternity, neither alive nor dead but subsisting somewhere between. That, my friend, is my personal definition of Hell; and it’s precisely what Albert Lewis strove to create.
            Albert Lewis, as we all know, was an evil man. He existed at a crossroads between sadism and black magic, choosing to torture his victims for weeks on end before performing the final rite. Their suffering, he claimed, was like energy flowing into a battery. With every puncture, burn, and scream, he grew stronger. The field behind his farmhouse was a garden of corpses, each one dropped into a shallow furrow sprinkled with lime. Severed hands sat upon his mantle, clutching various ceremonial objects in their withered fingers: a dagger, a bell, the mummified heart of his mother. They say he’d painted murals in blood upon his walls, tortured landscapes of such detail museums would have displayed them if done in any other medium.
            When a person as willful as Albert Lewis gets their hooks in a crossfade, they refuse to let go. Instead of being an empty pocket of nothingness, they exert their determination and create personal realities. The more convincing the crossfade becomes, the wider it expands. Textures, smells, and tastes take hold and the illusion of time reasserts itself. If left unchecked, it can become an entire world with thriving ecosystems and complex weather patterns.
            My job, in a nutshell, it to keep this from happening. We try to clean up these transient dimensions before they become too real and the megalomaniac at their core is convinced of his own divinity. If allowed to grow indefinitely, a crossfade will draw other souls like filings to a magnet. Maybe they’re fooled into thinking it’s the Promised Land. Or maybe it’s governed by the laws of attraction. The point is, once others believe in the reality of this custom crossfade, they’re stuck there. Like flies in a web. And that convergence constitutes a Vertices Collision Scenario.
            Albert Lewis had created a world of darkness. Storm clouds flickered with lightning above a scorched landscape of cinders and ash. Hot winds carried the scent of carrion on their wake and left an oily patina over what I thought of as my skin; my golden cord streamed from my belly button and trailed off into a blank horizon.
I stared into that black, empty space and closed my eyes. When opened again, my cord snaked like a phantom through stone walls. The blocks glistened wetly by torchlight and condensation dripped from beams overhead, plinking into puddles on the brick floor.
            I seemed to be standing in the curved stairwell of a medieval turret. Windows shaped like tombstones lined the wall, the stone frames surrounding them slick with algae as lightning bathed the structure in electric blue. Flames sputtered in the wind and drops of molten tar hissed from the orange glow of the torches. From somewhere up ahead, a woman wailed. Her sobs sounded as if they came from the far end of a long tunnel and I glanced back at my cord again, searching for reassurance in its presence.
            “Remember the feel of warm sand against bare feet. Your 10th birthday, surprised with a trip to the beach. The smell of saltwater and gulls squawking overhead.” It was Control’s voice, seeming to radiate from somewhere within my mind. “Remember cutting your heel on broken glass, how the wound stung as your blood dripped onto wet sand.”
            She was good. With nothing more than my vitals to guide her, Control skillfully reinforced my bonds with reality, summoning memories from the physical details notated in my file. Her ability to capture emotion, to build a sense of time and place, was just as important as the golden cord. Without that, my cord would fade. Without her, I’d be lost.
            Instead of succumbing to this false world, I turned and faced the spiraling, stone stairs. I heard other voices now, as well, lending their distress to a symphony of suffering. Whimpers, weak pleas for help and mercy, hysterical crying, and strained, warbling wails: their pain and fear swirled around me like an invisible demon. It raked the back of my neck with cold talons and chased chills down the length of my spine. It coiled around my throat like a tightening constrictor and plucked at my golden cord as if testing its resolve and durability.
            Part of me didn’t want to ascend those stairs. In the pools of shadow, I sensed danger, as if some lurking creature followed my every move. My feet had become leaden weights and I channeled every all my willpower to muster the strength required for that next step.
            “Remember your training.” Control again, establishing a link to a world of sunshine and flowers, of fresh spring breezes and laughter. “It’s only as real as you make it, Chuck.”
            Another step and the keening of tortured souls grew louder. My palms felt as moist and cold as the stone walls surrounding me. My instincts screamed to go back, to follow my cord home and turn this assignment over to a Level I Whisk.
            A spasm tremored my thigh, making the muscle twitch and jerk, and yet I still placed my foot upon that next stair. Ignoring fluttering wings of panic in my stomach, I focused on the next bend, the next flickering torch.
            “Chuck, you have to keep that emotion in check. For God’s sake, don’t expose yourself. Commence Kundalini Breathing in three… two… one…”
            Drawing a deep breath through my nose was like snorting a line of decayed flesh. The stench watered my eyes and infected my sinuses, seeping into my saliva glands and flooding my mouth with the sickeningly sweet taste of rotten meat. My diaphragm hitched in protest, expelling the tainted oxygen through choked gags that left my trachea feeling as if I’d belched fire.
            “That’s it. I’m pulling you out.” Control’s words were a panicked babble, shouted so loudly into her microphone that they crackled and popped with static.
            “Negative, Control. I’ve got it covered. Mission proceeding.” I tried to sound confident and relaxed, but even my own ears couldn’t ignore the tremble in my voice.
            The top of the stairs loomed closer and it sounded as if Hell existed right around the bend. So many voices calling out, such much prolonged agony erupting from their souls; for a moment, my head swam with the combined force of their anguish and I steadied myself against the wall. The roughhewn stone seemed to sigh at my touch and the torches wavered as if their flames danced with a gust of air.
            Snatching my hand away, I waited for a reply from Control. But only the cries of the damned answered me. I pictured her dashing from her console room, fumbling with the convoluted override codes that would grant access to my office, and finally letting me see what she really looked like.
            The problem is the passage of Time is a human perception. It would take Control three minutes to open that door and remove the Halo. Two if she were half as good as I suspected. But that seemingly short period can translate into days within a cut scene. Each construct has its own rules governing existence. Time, like matter, becomes putty to be molded and shaped at will. Help was two minutes away; help would not come for millennia: in The Divide, there’s no difference.
            My golden cord fluctuated like a fluorescent bulb on the verge of burning out. One moment solid, the next hazy and indistinct. I knew this meant my perceptions were taking hold, that this tower was integrating into my existence paradigm with each frantic beat of my heart.
The handbook says in a worst case scenario, Whisks can implement an escape technique we call Crashing. I’ve never had to actually utilize it in the field, but mastering it is required to pass the Level III exams. An abrupt change of focus, like shifting a speeding car suddenly into reverse, and your body falls. All the different dimensions making up our universe become like intricately detailed stained glass windows stacked upon one another. Shattering one after another, the Whisk crashes through reality until hitting his own physical body with a jolt.
I knew I could Crash. I knew I could escape from that hellish tower and the nightmares that awaited, so close now that the stench seemed to emanate from the very molecules of the air itself.
I knew I could be free.
And yet, I chose to trudge on.

The chamber was as large as a football field and bordered on all sides by the same stone that comprised the stairwell. Moldy banners hung from the walls with scenes of torture fading into moth-eaten fabric. The glow of torches imbued the crude drawings with lives of their own, creating the illusion of movement in dancing patterns of light and shadow.
There were no windows in this room, nothing to convey that anything existed other than the high ceiling and impenetrable stone. Every few yards a column descended from the gloom overhead and planted itself firmly into the floor. As large as elevator shafts, they lined either side and the cobbled floor became a network of paths leading to each one. Grating covered the gaps between the paths and wisps of smoke curled above the blackened steel, born of the fires raging miles below.
Here, the sounds of agony were deafening and pierced my eardrums like sonic needles. Screams so harsh and shrill that they seemed to vibrate my skull with resonance were punctuated by gasps of pain. Blubbering sobs mingled with animalistic howls and from the far end of the room a man with a child-like voice repeatedly shrieked the word No like a protective mantra.
Underscoring the cacophony was a steady rhythm of clinks and clanks as the tortured fought against their restraints. The iron chains struck the stone columns as manacles scraped away skin, turning wrists into bands of glistening, red tissue peppered with frayed strands of muscle and nerve. The captives hung off so close to the floor that those with the energy stood on tiptoe in defiance of their trembling legs; others, too weak to fight, dangled like limp dolls. With bent knees and bowed heads, they slumped forward. Their body weight supported entirely by the chains, they swung slightly and gasped for breath.
Walking the central path was like strolling through Satan’s personal museum. A stringy-haired woman drooped in one display and her torso had been sliced with surgical precision. Peeled open and pinned to her back, the parted slabs of flesh revealed organs that squished and pulsed as she shifted positions. In another tableau, a rat perched upon the shoulder of a doughy, overweight man and cleaned droplets of blood from wiry whiskers with swipes of its paws before darting in for another bite. Sinking teeth into lips, it pulled away strands of gristle that stretched like rubber before snapping free with savage shakes of its head.
I witnessed things in that chamber no man should ever see. I cringed as roaches scurried from beneath flaps of skin sliced into the body of a tribal warrior. My eyes teared as I passed a woman with an angelic face who was more skeleton than skin; sloughing off her own flesh, the sagging folds held to her frame by hooks and thin twine.
And yet, I persisted.
From the shadows, I a golden throne emerged. Comprised of gilded skulls, femurs, and tibia, it sat upon a riser of writhing people whose distended and mottled skin had been stitched together with silver thread. A tangle of arms, legs, and torsos: it was impossible to tell where one body stopped and another began. They moved as an uncoordinated unit, some scrambling for purchase and slipping in blood, crawling ever forward like a human rickshaw. With bent backs and scraped knees, they carried the throne on an undulating wave of flesh and their suffering rang through the air like fanfare heralding the arrival of dark royalty.
Seated upon this throne, Albert Lewis stared down with watery, blue eyes. His white hair was a disheveled mop of tufts sprouting from a face that looked as if it were carved from stone. With wrinkles chiseled into alabaster features, he pulled his lips into a thin, tight smile devoid of mirth or warmth.
“What have we here?” The voice boomed from the old man’s body as loud as thunder and fresh gales of pain echoed from the prisoners as its vibrations flicked exposed nerve endings. “Have you come to grovel before my Mercy Seat, boy? Have you traveled all this way to present yourself as an offering?”
My golden cord was nothing more than a shadow by now, as thin and tenuous as a mortal’s grasp on life. Knowing that answering would only mire me more deeply into his depraved realm, I focused on my hands as I’d been taught, willing them to be bathed in the white light that is my stock and trade.
“Perhaps you’d like to play with my pet, then.”
As if in response to a command, a thing which was only remotely human scuttled from the darkness. The base of his living litter had been constructed with coarse fibers pulled so tightly that the skin dimpled around each stitch, but this creature had not been so “fortunate”.
The base of its collective body was formed by two burly men on hands and knees with their asses facing one another. Their buttocks had been splayed extensively and then pressed against each other, conceivably bandaged, and allowed to heal into a single graft. Conjoined to them by the same technique was the body of a petite woman. Her legs were extended like a gymnast caught mid-split and the scarring that melded her thighs and calves to the men was like a jagged pink seam. With wrists severed, her hands had been replaced by curved blades whose barbs gleamed in the torchlight like the teeth of a predator. Her face was a contorted mask of insanity, lips pulled back into a snarl, revealing a web-work of needles attached like braces to her teeth.
“This is my domain!” Lewis yelled as he leaned forward. “You think you can waltz in here with your little bag of tricks and usurp my sovereignty?”
His creature scurried forward, surprisingly quick and spider-like. The woman’s hair was plastered to her skull with sweat and her face burned hotly from an infection which made her veins look like roots spreading through reddened cheeks. She hissed as her blades whooshed through the air and I stumbled backward, my hands flailing for the reassurance of my golden cord.
At that moment, I knew all hope was lost. I felt it evaporate within me like a deflating balloon; everything that had ever been good or wholesome was purged from my body with a gasp as my fingers clawed at nothing. No cord. No way home.
Albert Lewis’ laughter echoed off the walls and ceiling, the reverberations seeming to grow in strength and volume as if his guffaws fed off one another like parasitic organisms. The mouths of his victims opened in unison, but instead of spilling more screams and wails, they resounded with the deep baritone of cruel laughter.
My hands tingled as if they coursed with the white light I tried to summon as I backed away from the clattering monster. I tried to narrow my focus, to envision the glow radiating out from them. One concentrated, well-placed blast of healing energy: that’s all I was asking for. But was the numbness due to arcane forces gathering within? Or simply hyperventilation from quick gasps of putrid air?
“Welcome,” Lewis sneered, “to my reign.”
I don’t know why, but at that moment a memory sprang to mind. I saw my grandfather on the sun dappled bank of a stream; squatting beside me, he pointed at the gurgling water and mouthed words I was too young to remember. But that was all it took.
I didn’t need to see my golden cord to know it had returned. I felt it tethered to me like a weight that had previously been missing, anchoring me to my distant body and the world my grandfather had lived in. At the same time, my hands were engulfed in auras of dazzling light. Like the white hot centers of twin explosions, rays burst from central points in my palms and streamed out, dissolving swaths of this false reality in their wake.
The beams of light spun around Albert Lewis like strands of a cocoon, wrapping his body in their brilliance as stone walls quaked and crumbled. I heard his scream, a yell of unadulterated anger amid the rumble of his construct falling away into the void. The monster he’d created stumbled as if the floor had just been pulled out from under and its individual heads glared at their insane creator.
“Die! Die! Die!” They chanted in unison and within seconds the call was picked up by every desiccated soul within the chamber. Some gurgled through a froth of blood, others wheezed from gill-like slits carved into necks, but one voice blared louder than the others; only the raw tightness of my vocal chords clued me into the fact that the voice was my own. “Die! Die! Die!”
Defiant to the end, Albert Lewis fought back. I felt his darkness seep into my beams of light like an oil slick polluting a river. It reached out with malicious tendrils, attempting to trace the energy back to the source as if following its own golden cord.
A tsunami of images crashed over my consciousness. I saw the people he’d chained in his cellar, heard their whimpered pleas as they begged for mercy. I felt organs beneath my fingers, like slippery pouches of warm velvet, tasted the salty tang of blood, and swelled with a god-like sense of dominion. I looked through his eyes, relived his memories, and felt what he had felt.
“Damn it, Chuck!” Control’s voice severed the bond as cleanly as a cleaver and the entire cut scene exploded in a burst so brilliant it could have been the birth of a star.
When the glare faded, I found myself in the arms of a woman with auburn hair. My cheek still stung from her slaps but she cradled my head in her arms as tears streamed from eyes that sparkled like perfectly cut sapphires. The stench of decay was replaced by a slightly floral perfume and she placed a soft, warm hand against my face.
“Don’t you ever pull anything like that again. Do you hear me? Ever.”
And there, in my little office far underground, Control held me and allowed her purple blouse to absorb my tears.

The first warning in the handbook states, in no uncertain terms, that there’s some malevolent shit out there. What it doesn’t tell you is sometimes it follows you back. Like the hitchhiking souls in Jewell’s moth theory, it tags along for the ride, returning to the world from which it came.
I feel him in me, lurking in the depths of my subconscious and wonder how pretty Control’s head would be if it were missing an eye or two. I imagine her chained in my basement, how vibrant and red the blood would be against her smooth, pale skin… her voice screaming a hymn to the glory of my will…
I fight it with meditation. I fight it with prayer and a hundred little kindness bestowed upon strangers.
I fight it.
But it’s getting harder.
Last night, having pulled the information from her file, I found myself on the sidewalk outside Control’s apartment. I watched her silhouette undress through a lit window and stroked the cool blade of a knife through my pocket.
It won’t be much longer now. I’m as sure of this as I am powerless to stop it. She would be so lovely turned inside out, with her viscera quivering like a frightened pet.
No, not much longer; I feel myself slipping away and know it’s only a matter of time before I lose control…


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Searching for Hannah: My Experiences as a Volunteer

Around 1:20 AM on Saturday, September 13th, eighteen year-old Hannah Graham disappeared. Shortly before this, the University of Virginia sophomore was captured by various surveillance cameras as she walked through the Downtown Mall, a pedestrian area near the university which is home to a variety of restaurants, shops, art galleries, and offices. Even at such an early hour, the eight-block strip still had a decent flow of foot traffic. Yet somehow, after sending a text to friends informing them that she was lost, Hannah disappeared without a trace.

Click to Enlarge
Nearly a week after she went missing, volunteers were sought to perform a massive undertaking: to search the entire city of Charlottesville, Virginia for any signs of the missing student in the course of a single weekend. Being only a few hours away from the University of Virginia, my family and I decided to lend our assistance to the effort. After pre-registering on one of the official sites, we drove up to Charlottesville, picked my sister up from the train station, and made our way to the search and rescue command center, which had been set up in the John Paul Jones Arena on the UVA campus. Once there, a bevy of volunteers directed us to the registration area; after providing identification and signing a waiver, we were given wrist bands which we were not allowed to remove and assigned a time to meet on Saturday morning. After this, we were seated within the arena to await the 7:00 PM briefing.

Having arrived early, we watched the seats fill up over the course of several hours. Around 1500 people had preregistered online with several hundred more showing up to register in person. The turnout was so large in fact, that organizers had to forgo the official registration process for a large number of volunteers until after the conference had concluded. For this same reason, the meeting also started a little later than initially planned.

Once it began, various search and rescue officials provided an overview of the operation, advising us of exactly what we would be looking for and giving some detail of what to expect when we showed up in the morning. I was most impressed with Police Chief Tim Longo. Though a very stern and imposing looking man, he was very passionate as he addressed the crowd of volunteers as well as optimistic. He, and the others, repeatedly stressed that the point of the search was to bring Hannah home. He did, however, share some legal information pertinent to what we’d be doing. Some of it was fairly obvious, such as not touching anything we found which may be of evidentiary value. However, we were also advised about private property. Though we couldn’t enter private property without risking anything found there being inadmissible, we were free to look into and even photograph the yards if we were standing on a public street or sidewalk.

After the meeting concluded, the remainder of the volunteers stayed behind to finish registration
At the mission briefing
while we went to find some dinner and check into our hotel. Knowing an arduous day would be before us, we called it a night fairly early, ensuring we would be well-rested for the coming day.

Saturday morning, it was boots on the ground at 9:00 AM. We met back at the arena and had to go through registration again, this time also providing the unique ID number printed on our wristbands as well as our names. Once this was accomplished, we were seated in a staging area within the arena. From there, volunteers with previous search and rescue, first responder, or military experience were identified and separated from the pack, being taken to a separate briefing so they could serve as team leaders. The rest of us were advised that that the searches would be divided into roughly two types of areas: wooded terrain and urban. As my family and I are avid hikers, we volunteered for the heavy terrain regions, reasoning that we would more readily be able to identify things which looked out of place or unusual in a forest setting.

From these two distinct groups, we were further broken down into teams of six to ten individuals. Each team had a team leader, as previously mentioned, as well as a communications officer, who was responsible for keeping in contact with the command center, checking in at predetermined intervals, and reporting anything of interest which was found. Our team consisted of my stepdad, mom, sister, and me, as well as three young men from a nearby town who all serve in the army together.

Once assembled, we went over a map of the area we would be searching, an overview of what type of terrain we could expect, and were advised it would take around four hours to thoroughly search our assigned territory. After the briefing was concluded, our team loaded onto a bus and was driven to our drop point.
Some of the terrain we were searching
Our area consisted of a meandering foot path that was roughly parallel to the Highway 250 Bypass. In places the woods were extremely thick with briars and brambles blocking the way as well as steep inclines to contend with. We’d fanned out through the area, moving slowly, methodically, and literally leaving no stone left unturned. We stooped to peer beneath the underbrush, scattered piles of leaves, and shined our flashlights into drainage culverts which fed into small streams. We searched stone cisterns so old that the forest had nearly overtaken them and walked the perimeter of a stagnant pond. A little ways of from the trail, I came across a tent set up in a small clearing with pieces of duct tape littering the ground. With our team leader, we called out multiple times asking if anyone was in the tent and then advising them that we were opening it up. Inside, there were only some flattened boxes. It looked for all intents and purposes to be the encampment of a homeless person, but pictures were still taken and sent back to the command center just in case. Fanning out again, my sister and mom discovered a pile of bones which were eventually confirmed to be deer but had to be ruled out anyway, since at least five girls have gone missing from this area in the last five years with only one ever actually being recovered. While the rest of the team waited for someone to show up to look at the bones, one of the team members and I set out to follow some tire tracks I’d discovered fairly close to the pond and which looked to be approximately a week old. Though that search proved fruitless, we later learned that divers were going to be dispatched to the pond.

I’d volunteered to be part of this search because I felt for Hannah’s family. They are living through every parent’s worst nightmare and if there was anything I could do to help alleviate even a fraction of that stress and worry, I was all in. What I didn't take into account, however, was the psychological and emotional impact these types of operations have. It didn't take long before it almost began feeling like Hannah was someone I personally knew, a friend of the family or perhaps a cousin whom I hadn’t seen for some time. This emotional connection with a girl I’d never actually met sometimes made the task of searching difficult.

The search organizers and police were all extremely optimistic. The official name of the project was “Bring Hannah Home”, but that was also our stated goal: to find this young woman and bring her back. Hannah, however, had disappeared from an urban area, not while walking along the dirt trail which formed the backbone of our search radius. Though no one came right out and openly said it, I think it was probably in the back of all of our minds: out there in the woods, we weren't searching for a living girl who was being held captive. We were searching for a body. We searched with our noses as well as our eyes. We watched hawks as they flew across the sky to see if they began circling. We tried to remain optimistic. We tried to remain hopeful. But it was hard at times.

Once we’d reached the end of the woods, we crossed the highway and headed back toward the rendezvous point, searching the hillside and berm for anything which may have been tossed from a moving vehicle. Every so often, cars would honk their horns and give us a thumb’s up as they passed and this outpouring of community support is what really choked me up. I’m not really sure why. It was just one of those emotional triggers that appear when you least expect it. But that was when I truly realized exactly how deeply this operation was affecting me.

Once we returned to the command center, our team leaders went to a debriefing while we refilled our backpacks with bottled water and snacks as well as hungrily devouring pizza, all thoughtfully provided by The American Red Cross. We’d been combing the woods for four hours and were required to take a half an hour break before being allowed another assignment. Once that half an hour had passed, however, our team reassembled, had a mini-briefing concerning our new search area and objectives, and then it was boots on the ground again.

This time our search area was more urban. While it did include some wooded plots, we mostly
walked through neighborhoods, checking storm drains, dumpsters, piles of leaves and brush, and even shining our flashlights into the commodes of Porta-potties. In this area, our main goal was to find evidence: Hannah’s clothing, her shoes, her iPhone… anything which would help generate leads for the police. However after nearly another four hours our search was complete and we began walking back to the command center. I found, however, that the search is never really complete. As we walked along the sidewalks, our eyes were still scanning our surroundings. My stepdad still checked rain gutters along the roadway and we veered away from the sidewalks to look through areas of dense vegetation. 

Eventually, though we trudged back onto the UVA campus. With only a couple hours of daylight remaining, no more groups were being sent out, so we checked out with the registration volunteers and found a small, English pub to have a bite of dinner. While smoking in the parking lot, however, I still found myself drawn to the hillsides, my eyes searching the trees and creek below for the metallic sparkle of her shirt, her phone’s pink casing, or her white shoes.

We were all profoundly disappointed. We’d wanted so desperately for Hannah to be found; it didn’t necessarily even have to be our group which found her. At the very least, we wanted something to be found. While we did hear several promising reports come over the radio throughout the search, at the end of the day there was still no trace of Hannah Elizabeth Graham. With heavy hearts and minds, we made the long journey home, physically and emotionally exhausted.

A $50,000 reward is now being offered in hopes of soliciting tips that could lead police to Hannah Graham.
The City of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia are each offering $10,000. In addition, some local residents and businesses have contributed $30,000 to the reward.
If you have information that could help investigators, call the special Hannah Graham tip line at 434-295-3851.