Bourbon Penn 21

Unnamed Government Agency

by Josh Pearce

The three agents were created white for this assignment, given the ability to blend with and elicit help from the locals. A woman acting as the Ear, one man as the Voice. The other man always acted as the Eye, no matter what. He just had that bearing about him. No one would ever open up to him as Voice or Ear.

There’s a device called a brain stethoscope — originally invented to detect focal seizures — that can convert the jagged waveform of thought patterns into sound, into something resembling a human voice. Murmurs, nattering squawks in the background as the questionings proceed. The agents accepted any form of offered refreshment except alcohol. The Voice-man had undergone special training to match regional accents. In this area of northern Iowa he sometimes slipped into odd Minnesotan vowels.

They were there about a missing boy.

Tornadoes murmur to themselves before they strike. To monitor and predict them, the town of Cloud River had a giant dish pointed at the sky which translated the subsonic rumbles of gathering storms into something resembling a human voice and pumped it out through the old air-raid speakers wired up throughout town. The agents passed the weather station on their way in from the regional airport, its gleaming domes appearing on the horizon, fata morgana, like fresh undiscovered planets one could climb up to and colonize. Fresh start, the Voice thought, watching them recede in the car’s mirrors away from this job of uncovering secrets and then covering them back up again. But to actually reach faraway worlds would require such an incredible expenditure of energy that the very fabric of reality would show effects of it. He’d been on hundreds of assignments, but for this one was given a rookie form younger than the other two agents.

“Did our media priming go out on schedule?” the Eye asked. Silver in his hair, gold somewhere in his dental work that he claimed could pick up radio signals. For three days prior their arrival, the federal government bought up local airtime and flooded it with old Twilight Zone episodes. Reruns of Children of the Corn, Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. Stories about small Midwestern towns under foreign threat. Even bought out the front pages of every supermarket tabloid, running stories of abductions and hybrid babies.

They introduced themselves by codename, from an unnamed government agency. That tall man in the corner has eyes like the gravel quarry pit, Shelly Turner thought, as they questioned her. “I heard the raccoons in the trash again,” she said, “digging pieces of corn out of the baby’s diapers.”

The Ear was driving, Vox next to her, the Eye directly behind her, and she could feel his gaze on the back of her neck, on the downy strands that escaped her bun and drifted across her skin like feathery tendrils of some tidepool creature. The car stopped at a rail crossing just as the gate came down and the lights flashed red. The atmosphere within the car shifted as if the sun had gone behind a cloud. Agent Voice looked back to see that the Eye had closed his eyes tightly. Like a lightbulb burning out. The freight train went by one slow car at a time, blowing its horn at the crossing. It was a long train. It took a while. The Eye trembled slightly and didn’t relax or open his eyes until it was fully past, the lights and bells stopped, and the gates went up. They didn’t ask, and he didn’t offer.

The Ear sat alone in her motel room with the lights off. She’d reverted to a childhood comfort — milk and cookies. There was no room service. This necessitated a walk to the corner store, a quarter of a mile away or more. The smallest size milk was half a gallon and her room had no fridge. For five minutes she stood in the harsh aisle lighting staring blankly at the snacks, trying to decide between Famous Amos or Mother’s Taffy, settling instead for Chips Ahoy!, seeing only the Eye’s blood. Back in the room, she decanted a careful amount into the smudged water glass in the bathroom — still bearing the lipstick smears of someone’s affair — and poured the rest down the sink. Used the provided hair dryer on hot setting to warm and soften the cookies. The Olympics were on, gymnasts on floor routines, and the trailing ends of their ribbon dances reminded her of the Eye unraveling into the tornado’s funnel. The Ear undressed, got under the sheet, and masturbated lightly until her muscles unhinged enough for her to fall asleep. Disaster vehicles still filled the night with their wolf howling, their lightbars bouncing off the window glass. Red sky at morning.

A very young corporal in BDUs met them at the sheriff’s station with hardware requisitioned from the nearest National Guard armory. Agent Ear signed her name and badge number. The gear went into the trunk of their rental.

“A case like this makes the whole town afraid,” the Eye said, “everyone except the perpetrator, the killer. He feels like an apex predator. Invincible. So we come in and make him afraid, too. We make everyone afraid. Fear causes mistakes.”

They dug up a grave in the woods. The bones of a young boy. The grave looked too old to hold their missing kid, but then the DNA results came back positive. They found another, and a third, and more until there were six scattered graves each filled with the complete skeleton of, according to the labs, our young J.J. Sterns, twelve years old, missing 48 hours and somehow buried 30 years. Sheriff Priestley accused anyone within earshot of crime scene contamination, tampering with evidence, planting false leads.

The Eye gave Priestley a static-filled smile, a business card printed with AGENT IRIS, UGA, and said, “What are you afraid of, Sheriff?”

Rodney Hawkins said, “I was taking the trash out that night. The corn butts right up against my property — you can see it out the window there, it’s taller than my fence. I felt something watching me. The corn, hanging over the fence, looking at me.”

“I called him in,” said Rodney’s wife, Tessa, “’cause I was watching from the kitchen window so I could see further over the fence out into the field. And I said to him, something’s moving out there.”

“I said, ‘Where?’”

“And I said, ‘Out by the scarecrow.’”

“Well, let me tell you, I didn’t see no scarecrow out there anywhere, and I don’t remember there ever being one.”

The brain stethoscope they had on their interrogation subjects sounded like squabbling songbirds or agitated monkeys, a reminder that they were all just frightened primates. Iris the Eye said something in a language older than Sumerian. Agent Ear wrote it down.

The two witnesses to J.J.’s kidnapping, his friends Curtis and Andrew, told the police that as they were walking along Country Route 45, 9:36 p.m., after dark, a man stepped out of the corn in front of them. A man-figure, faceless, all in black. The man-figure grabbed J.J. by the arm and pulled him back into the corn. Then it told them to run. “In what language?” asked Vox. The boys hesitated. “English?”

“No, it was too many words to be English, but it meant run.”

The Eye said something in the old language and Andrew said, “Yeah, that was it,” looking over at Curtis for confirmation, but Curtis’s eyes had already turned black with blood, flecks of foam on the tip of his tongue. The Eye kept speaking. Andrew’s eyes rolled back the same, leaking red tears. Both boys stood and shambled out of the room, walking back to their homes on the other side of town, their brains screaming from the stethoscope the whole way. They awoke in their beds the next morning with vision restored and no memory of the events.

“It wasn’t a man,” the Eye said, voice of experience. “They saw the fear too great to comprehend and their minds filled in the gap afterward with something that made sense.” Agent Vox smoked a cigarette in Marlboro .38 caliber, which the Ear knew he did only in times of great stress or after sex, like the good cliche he was. One of these days it was going to ruin his ability to be the Voice, though. “Did you hear the ‘scope?” the Eye continued. “Their brains had unknown onset temporal lobe seizures, which adds to the hallucinations and dissociation. You can probably account for ninety percent of all close encounters with brain seizures. And they lapsed right back into the same state under questioning.”

The skeletons in the graves all showed a single gunshot wound to the head, large caliber, powerful weapon that shattered the entire skull. Did Mr. Hawkins have any weapons in the house? A deer rifle, perhaps?

“Well, no, I don’t hunt. I’m vegetarian. Don’t like the cattle, don’t like the corn. It’s a sustainability thing. It takes [x] amount of water and produces [x] amount of carbon to grow [x] pounds of beef, which you could feed [x] people with if they just ate the grains themselves. This here’s all cattle feed. Suffocating, isn’t it? All that corn, peering in on you from every side. Anything could be hiding in there.”

The agents knew all about him already because Shelly Turner had told them about ol’ fruitcake Hawkins, “He don’t fit in here too good, like some kind of communist. He’s sure up to no good.”

The Ear, the Eye, and the Voice appeared at the abduction site within hours of the initial 911 call, dead middle of the night, just as the manhunt started. Dogs out in the fields, cops and volunteer firefighters with flashlights, even a helicopter with a spotlight. “We can do better than this,” the Voice said, voice of experience. He put on sunglasses and made a phone call. Thirty-five minutes later, a star appeared overhead, growing steadily brighter until the field, the town of Cloud River, the whole county even, was flooded in artificial daylight. The satellite unfolded reflective solar panels and turned into a second sun. Confused cocks crowing. People coming out onto their front stoops in their pajamas, blinking stupidly in the light, one-something a.m.

Nothing of J.J. was found that night, but the light brought out other things. Multiple people approached the sheriff’s office, claiming psychic visions of the boy’s fate. Some had a history of interest in the paranormal, some a history of mental illness. Throughout the next week, they individually led the agents and other law enforcement to J.J.’s scattered bodies. “Bones recognize bones,” one claimed, as he dowsed with a petrified dinosaur furcula. Another cast runes carved on pieces of old tombstone.

Sheriff Priestley received complaints about the light. It had been on for three days straight. Agent Iris said, “All that there is to be revealed by the light has been revealed. Fear creeps along at night. We must draw it out.”

So the Voice made another phone call. The second sun faded away. The sky returned to its normal shade of blue. But then a different satellite positioned itself between the Earth and the Sun and spread its wings to cast a shadow over the whole of the county. Birds screeching. Dogs and cats yowling as the sky went red, and then gray. Bats and owls flapped aimlessly in the surprised streetlights like lost moths.

They excavated a new grave, out in the woods, but found an adult male body inside it. “That looks a lot like you,” the Ear said to the Eye, matching his dental work.

“Let’s not tell the sheriff about it, okay?”

One psychic took them to Rodney Hawkins’s backyard, but there the corpse dogs wouldn’t do anything more than bark at the corn on the other side of the fence until Hawkins came out and told them all to either get a warrant or get the hell off his property.

Maybe it was the change in light, maybe something else, but forty or fifty head of cattle broke free at a thin point in the Ardencreek farm south fence and stampeded into a nearby cornfield where, in a cyclone of horns and hooves, they bit off each other’s udders, genitals, ears, and eyes — all the soft parts — whirling in a tight herd until they collapsed, a pile of mutilated cattle in the middle of the crop circle they themselves had trampled.

Mr. and Mrs. Sterns, recently bereaved, offered the agents Kool-Aid and no answers, eyes like cratered earth. “Every night,” Patty Sterns said, looking directly into the Eye, “I stand on the front porch and call his name, call him in for dinner. Every night I make his favorite, so it’ll always be ready.”

“Broccoli chicken cheese casserole,” Jerry Sterns agreed, “five nights straight and counting.”

“Please stop fucking with the sunshine,” Sheriff Priestley said when the Ear picked up her motel phone. “Don’t you think I have enough to deal with already?” The agents allowed the sun to come back, but so gradually that nobody in Cloud River noticed that the satellites were still up there and that they’d reversed the day-night cycle. People driving over the county line had their sense of time absolutely ruined, even more after the agents programmed the light to change at irregular intervals. Standard interrogation technique. Nobody inside the umbra, other than the three agents, had any idea how long it had actually been since J.J.’s abduction.

The media prep was also having an effect. In solidarity, the radio stations played J.J.’s favorite song nonstop, “Come Sail Away,” by Styx, without commercial interruption. The civil defense alert PA did, too, full blast, 24/7, to let J.J. know, wherever he was, that he had not been forgotten. This one goes out to you, bud.

The Voice knocked on her door and she opened it in T-shirt and underwear. The light outside made it difficult to sleep at any reasonable hour. The rock ballad hit its piano trill for the fourth time that hour. The windows had to stay closed because of the smell of rotting cow. Her A/C would only run at half-power. He said something to her, called her Aural. “Not tonight,” she told him. “Not this incarnation, sorry.” She shut the door. Vox went next door to the Eye’s room. Aural ate a cookie. Her bathroom shared a wall with the Eye’s. While she brushed her teeth she heard steady thumping and, later that night, the abattoir smell drifting in under the threshold was tinged with cigarette smoke. Discarded cigarette filters on the ground outside her door in the morning like spent brass.

“Do you hear that?” Agent Eye said. “The sky. It’s muttering.” He had a brain stethoscope pressed against his head. It wasn’t making any noise.

“I don’t hear anything,” said the Ear. Shootings were up since the abduction, sporadic gunfire day and night like popcorn kernels. Domestic tensions finally resolving themselves, or people coming home late in the dark mistaken for intruders. The sheriff’s department, overwhelmed by all the calls, put J.J. on the back burner. The agents took the case, brought it to a boil.

It was, by their reckoning, the tenth day. Another day of lobby coffee that tasted like burnt tongue. “Deus ex macchiato,” the Voice joked, handing the Ear a Starbucks.

“Cafe diem,” she replied, smiled at him. They interviewed neighbors, some for the second or third time. The witnesses seemed agitated: Why won’t you leave us alone? Haven’t I already told you everything I know?

Federal agents always work in tight teams during questioning. One agent to ask the questions in a calm friendly voice, never looking up from his notebook. One agent to write everything down in cryptic shorthand. One agent to watch faces, unblinking, gathering clues from their reactions or suspicious lack of. The brain stethoscopes wailed like colicky babies and the Ear wrote down their noise. It was after their fifth interview of that morning that the Voice, driving, suddenly said, “Scarecrows don’t move.”

Agent Iris: “Of course they don’t.”

“So what did the Hawkinses see in the corn that night?”

“They saw their fear. They filled in the gaps with television and childhood nightmares. When you give someone free rein to project reality, what do you expect they’ll come up with?”

“It’s the closest we’ve gotten to the actual crime scene. The closest thing to a story that makes sense.”

“Well, then?”

Vox nodded and said, “I’ll take care of it tonight.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Sterns saw the fear that night, too,” said the Eye.

“They saw nothing.”

“That’s right. Their nightmare — nothing coming up the drive.”

Long ago, the Eye was a little kid of four or five, living on the wrong side of the tracks. Didn’t have much besides holes in his shoes and a stray dog that came to him when he offered it bologna. He could see the tracks at the end of his street, could see the dog nosing around a homeless man’s tent down there. The dog was mostly deaf and paid no attention to the bells, the sudden rushing wind, the Eye’s screaming himself hoarse, and then the commuter train went by and the dog was vanished.

“Guess ol’ Hawkins had a gun after all,” said Sheriff Priestley, looking down at the body of Tessa Hawkins lying in bed, quilted house robe, pillow slip soaked red. Skull completely shattered. Rodney Hawkins was nowhere to be found and neither were his keys, wallet, or suitcase. “Guess we got our man. Well, don’t got him yet, but we got some answers. All those graves? Figured he must’ve gotten J.J.’s DNA on him from the gunshot — atomized brain matter, spread it to his other victims when he buried them.”

“Nice theory,” the Eye agreed. Didn’t say that meant they still didn’t have J.J.’s body. Didn’t say how Hawkins got the DNA of his freshest kill inside decades-old graves, but time was a funny thing. Aural and Iris found their rental abandoned a half-mile from the Hawkins residence. No sign of the Voice. Interrogations would have to be put on hold. Aural checked the trunk. Still there. Sharp smell of cordite when she opened the lid. Not the smell she was afraid of, the smell of offal and tobacco.

The school bus driver knew every car along her route ‘cause she had been doing this for near on thirty years now, so when she saw Rodney Hawkins’s brown Buick pass by her heading into town she pulled over at the next stop and used a kid’s cellphone to call the sheriff’s.

Now we got him,” the sheriff said. “Bastard commie pervert.” The two agents followed his squad car in their rental at a respectful distance. They could see the shape of a man in the driver seat. Sheriff Priestley put on his lights once the Buick reached the edge of “downtown” Cloud River, such as it was. The brown car drifted to the side, bumped a few times against the curb, came to a stop outside the cleaners which was usually closed Mondays but was closed today because nobody really knew what day it was anymore and they were all so tired. Priestley ran up to it, gun out, screaming something the Ear couldn’t make out over the constant music, and then recoiled. He staggered back to the Ear and the Eye. The Eye rolled down the driver’s window. “You’re going to want to see this,” the sheriff said. Then he said, “Well, maybe you won’t.”

When they got him on the slab in the coroner’s office and cut all his clothes off, the two agents could see the full damage to the Voice’s body. “Sex organs and anus eaten away,” the coroner said. “Along with, you can see, his lips, tongue, eyes, and ears.” They’d found him belted to the driver seat of the Buick, fully dressed, hands at ten-and-two. All the doors locked and the windows up. The car was out of gas, the engine cold, keys missing. No one else, certainly not Rodney Hawkins, was in there with him. The empty pits of his eyes looked like the eighth and ninth circles of hell, the Ear thought. They slid him into a drawer next to Agent Iris’s body, the one they’d dug up from the woods.

Long ago, the Eye was a little kid of four or five, living on the wrong side of the tracks. Didn’t have much besides a stray mom with needle holes in her arms. He’d shake her awake on the couch and offer her a bologna sandwich. He could see the tracks at the end of his street, could see his mom crawling out of a homeless man’s tent down there. She swayed with a loping gait he recognized as the onset of three pills washed down with a wine cooler and she paid no attention to the bells, the sudden rushing wind, the Eye’s screaming himself hoarse, and then the commuter train went by and the bitch was vanished.

“The fear is coming nearer,” Agent Iris told the Ear. “I want you to be ready at any time, now.” She nodded. From then on, she kept a pair of noise-canceling headphones around her neck, even while asleep.

The sky went black, drawing another angry phone call from the sheriff’s office. This wasn’t the agents’ doing, though. They were right in the scheduled middle of a full eighteen hours of sunshine. No, this was cloud cover, a subsonic tremor overhead that caused the Eye to clutch his head between both hands. “You’ve got to be able to hear that!” The power ballad cut short and the civil defense system filled once again with screaming. Agent Eye went outside. On the horizon was a single star, and he watched it grow larger and larger. The wind increased, blowing tears from his eyes. Silver strands of hair pulled loose from his head like he was a dandelion. The star grew larger, or brighter, or closer, he couldn’t tell, almost the size of the moon! The wind so fierce now that he choked on blood from torn esophageal membranes whenever he breathed. The brain stethoscope on his forehead emitted a full-throated howling. If his thought waves could affect these external noises, then couldn’t external noises also affect his thought waves? If he was having a seizure right at that moment, could this be an aural hallucination? But then, that imagined sound could be affecting his thought waves, creating more hallucinations. His mind went into a spiral, like the storm clouds above him were beginning to do —

The star struck him like the headlamp of an oncoming train. He recognized the shape of his fear in the darkness a split second before it turned him into a smear, just long enough to shriek his final denial.

At the window of the motel room, the Ear pressed her hands against the glass to steady it so she could watch clearly. All the rapid cooling and heating air from the artificial sun and false nights had stirred up a supercell over Cloud River. She saw the tornado touch down right atop the sheriff’s office, ripping open the morgue like a bear rips open a beehive, pulling out pale corpses like larvae, embalming fluid like royal jelly. Agent Iris stood at the edge of the funnel, squinting up at something in the clouds. The ripsaw whip of the storm edge stripped him bald, pulled all his clothes off in rags. Then his skin came away in one broad strip like an apple peel, followed by the laundry line of his intestines and circulatory system on which were clothespinned each organ. As he dissolved, he looked up into the eye of the storm and saw the bright light there and felt his body pulled up into it.

The Ear walked calmly to her bathroom and threw up her milk.

The tornado dissipated quickly. The sheriff, undersheriff, and coroner were all missing. Special elections were immediately put forth. Gone also were most of the bodies in the morgue, including Vox and the Eye. Without either of them, Aural could not control the deployment of satellites, nor the weather.

During cadet training, she was often assigned to dig ditches — firebreaks, latrines, foxholes. They gave her astronaut training — vomit comet flights, centrifuges, a full eighty-seven hours in a sensory deprivation tank. An entire course reproducing each of Houdini’s escapes, chained upside-down underwater, dangling from a crane, buried alive. These, and other things, testing every conceivable phobia, burning them out like ticks with a match head. But waking up that morning without her eyes or voice frightened her. She knew the fear was nearby, doggedly inching closer. From whatever bottomless ocean trench or dark-matter nebula where it had spawned, the fear had come to the cornfield. From the cornfield, it had come here, downtown, within a few blocks of where she slept. If she wasn’t vigilant, it would come closer to her heart like a worm and she wouldn’t even recognize it until it burrowed in.

She waited until after dark, true dark, despite what the outside light insisted, then drove the rental past the city limits, out to where the satellite’s reflection began to fade and a bleeding dusk turned everything into shadows and the babbling of Styx dimmed. The Ear flicked her high-beams on. She was on a country road between two fields. She drove and drove and then she was at the Hawkins house and parked the car in the center of the road, facing out into the infinite corn. Turned off the engine but left the headlights on. The Ear got out and listened. There was nothing, not even wind. No crows in the field, no scarecrow. She kicked off her low pumps and pulled on a pair of sneakers and then climbed up on the hood and then the roof of her car. The headphones bumped together under her chin.

By standing on the roof, the Ear could see over the tops of the corn, in all directions. She made slow, sweeping revolutions. What form would it take for her? Something made a rustling sound. She turned to face it. A shape came out of the rows right into her headlights, about fifty yards down. The agent kept her eyes on it while she stepped from roof to hood to front bumper. Whatever it was was smaller than she’d expected, maybe the size of a dog. Strange. She wasn’t afraid of dogs. She opened the trunk. The creature took a few steps closer on an indeterminate amount of limbs. The Ear fished out a pair of shooter’s glasses and a rubber mat. Unrolled it onto the flat hood. The thing was now halfway to her. From the trunk she lifted the National Guard rifle in both arms — an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon in 5.56x45mm NATO. She flipped the folding bipod down, braced its legs on the grip of the rubber mat, and finally put her ear protectors on. The thing coming toward her was hard to see clearly when she looked down the radium-painted sights. Inhale. Braced against the weapon’s stock. On the exhale, the Ear squeezed the trigger and held it until half-a-dozen shots kicked up asphalt from the road wide to the creature’s left. If it had been an actual dog, it would have gone running away from the noise, but instead kept coming toward the car. She readjusted her grip and sighted closer to its head.

It stepped fully into the light. A young boy. Eleven or twelve years old in muddy clothes, arms and face slashed by all that razor-edged cornsilk. Whatever was happening here had already happened. The agent saw his face and felt her heart seize. She restarted it by squeezing off two more rounds and felt the recoil kick her sternum. The boy clamped his hands over his ears as the supersonic rounds made sharp popping noises when they passed inches from his head. His mouth opened. He shouted something the Ear couldn’t hear through her headphones. The superheated bullets left red traceries in her vision. The boy kept walking, on two legs, though he’d definitely had more than that when she’d first spotted him. She fired again, walking the barrel of the gun sideways, closer, until a round went straight through the middle of his forehead and blew out the back of his skull, staggered but didn’t stop him. The Ear shifted her aim and just unloaded. The fear-thing was much taller than little J.J. there so she shot over his head and connected with something unseen attached behind him and tumbled him into a roadside ditch.

She folded the gun back up, cleared its chamber, put it in the trunk. Her head was ringing from the concussion of the gunshots, but slowly, the sound of crickets and gently waving cornstalks returned to her.

Her pants turned damp with runoff when she jumped down next to the body. She wrapped the boy and all its extra limbs as best she could in tarp and rope, and dragged it down the street to Tessa Hawkins’s vegetable garden. All her past ditch-digging prepared her for the four-foot grave she carved out of Hawkins’s pumpkin patch, filling it with blood and boy. Nobody was looking at the moment, but one day the corpse dogs would find it, case closed. Rodney Hawkins would never be found, taken up by the overhead light so bright it turns you transparent.

Digging for so long, riding the bucking machine gun, and dragging J.J.’s deadweight wrung all her muscles like dishrags. The Ear fell asleep sitting in her hotel shower until the water turned cold. She pulled herself to bed and slept naked and shivering in the A/C. While she slept, something happened to the sky. The satellites had to maintain an exact distance from the Earth in order to remain geosynchronous, but by spreading out their panels they caught the solar wind in their sails and were pushed into unstable orbits, started coming down, breaking up in the atmosphere.

The Ear woke up after fourteen hours and could taste the change in the air. She got a pair of scissors and a disposable razor from housekeeping, answering the door still undressed. Over the course of three hours, she removed every last strand of hair from her body — eyebrows, arms, everything. She still had Hawkins’s shovel in the trunk of her car.

Not long ago, Agent Vox came out of Rodney Hawkins’s house into cricket-heavy darkness and put the SAW away in his rental. Lit a cigarette, the glow of its ember like a tracer round. As he stood at the tail of the car, he heard something heavy in the corn. The sound was moving away from him. He tracked it, stepping sideways to keep the body of the car between him and it. Suddenly, the rental started to roll away. The engine was not on. “Hey!” was all the Voice had time to say before it was out of the driveway and down the street without even a flicker of taillights. The rustling noise sounded again from his left. He looked from it to the darkness that had swallowed his car, then back again, deciding. The automatic door on the garage rolled up, triggering the interior light, and the Voice could see a brown Buick Cutlass inside, Rodney’s car, which he thought was strange because Rodney hadn’t been inside the house. The crickets stopped. A bright light shined upon him. The Voice thought it was coming from one of the upper windows of the house but the angle was all wrong. He was looking up at it for quite a minute and when he looked back down, dazzled, the fear-thing had stepped out of the corn and stood directly in front of him. “Oh,” he said.

Aural went around to each of the town’s churchyards. The stethoscope listening to her brain chanted in the old language and her eyes were blood black. She paced back and forth in a grid, feeling for a tremble in her chest where her wishbone would be if she’d had one. Without hair, she could Braille for the crawl of gooseflesh that would tell her when she stepped on his grave. She found him in the third churchyard, within sight of a major boulevard, but no one stopped her. Long-limbed and smooth-skinned as she dug down, far down, took her a while. Her arms were tired; it felt like she had too many to control. When she finally cracked the coffin, a stench of cigarettes drifted out. Vox had never been good at the Houdini escapes during training. She pulled him to his feet, blind and mouthless. In the car he fished out a fresh magazine of cigarette rounds and kept trying to stick them between lips that were no longer there. The Ear put her stethoscope on his scalp. Nothing.

Oh, thank god, the Voice thought. His fear didn’t take the form of a black man, what he’d been afraid of being afraid of. The fear-thing that was not a black man, not a twelve-year-old boy, not a train, not a scarecrow, and not nothing put a hand over the Voice’s mouth to keep him from saying anything more and another hand over his eyes so that he couldn’t watch it and another hand cupped his crotch. Focal seizure symptoms include deja or jamais vu, amnesia or sudden intense recollection of memories, a sudden sense of unprovoked fear and anxiety, nausea, aforementioned hallucinations, derealization, synesthesia. Vox was hitting checkmarks left and right. He let out a muffled sigh, a question, but then the things he thought were hands, but were actually mouths, opened.

In the car, Aural said, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.” They drove directly to the airport from the church. She didn’t bother looking for Agent Iris. All his graves would be false graves. “I don’t know that everything we accomplished here is worth it.” The cold case graves they’d uncovered. The plausible narrative they’d wrapped around an unsolvable murder-kidnapping. The citizens of possible psychic talent. The anti-corporate malcontent who’d been neutralized. The fears they’d exposed to the light. The culling. From the Voice in the passenger seat, the rising sound of birds.

The Ear dumped everything out of her luggage and folded the Voice into it so she could get him on the plane back to their unnamed government agency in Washington, DC. She left the rental idling at the curb with the M249 in the trunk. The plane flew up into the fiery rain of satellite debris still coming down. When they arrived, the law would take the Voice’s body and try its best to recreate his final moments because the law exists to regulate fear, to control who gets to be afraid and what of, and it does not fear what it doesn’t understand. It would uncreate the Ear and put her back in her box until she was needed again.

Josh Pearce is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area with stories and poetry in Analog, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Cast of Wonders, Clarkesworld, IGMS, and Nature. He currently works as an assistant editor and film reviewer at Locus magazine and lives in the East Bay with his wife and sons. You can find more of his writings at or on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. He can neither confirm nor deny any involvement with a government agency.