Vision

📅 Published on June 20, 2021

“Vision”

Written by Soren Narnia
Edited by N/A
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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ESTIMATED READING TIME — 25 minutes

Rating: 10.00/10. From 2 votes.
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My name is John Gray. I was once chief evidence analyst with the Oregon State Police. A half-hour past sunset on September 7th of 2013, a volunteer at the visitor’s center inside the Qualls Nature Education Park on the edge of the Columbia River Gorge in northern Oregon locked the building and prepared to go home for the night. She was Elaine Mossworth, age sixty. As she closed the doors, she scanned the small parking lot, and she was surprised to see another vehicle besides her own. It was a dark red SUV. She knew it belonged to a man who came to the park often on late afternoons to catch the sunset from the main overlook, but now it was dark, and she wasn’t permitted to leave the grounds unless they were empty of visitors. Before she put in a call to the part-time security guard, she decided she would take a quick walk to the overlook to see if the man, whose name escaped her, was there and just straggling longer than he ever had before.

Elaine went back into the building and got a flashlight. She would have to walk a few hundred feet down Blue Robin Trail to the overlook, and suddenly she felt a heightened awareness of her solitude on the park’s heavily wooded thirty-acre grounds. They fed the gorge and forest around her through five different trail systems. The overlook was absolutely as far as she was willing to go before calling the guard. She started down the unlit path into the woods a little nervously. A woman camper had been murdered not three miles from this spot, six years before—the very same woman who had overseen the renovation of the visitor’s center in 2004. The path wound toward a steadily trickling small stream; Elaine could hear it, but she couldn’t see it. When she turned around she saw that even the small aura of light from the parking lot had been completely blotted out by the trees. The overlook bordered a dramatic drop into a wide, tree-choked valley bordering the river. The horizon was a dark purple, and stars were now gleaming through tiny gaps in the clouds.

Several benches ringed the overlook’s edge, and Elaine noticed a form sitting on one of them. A man, sitting in the dark. As she approached him, Elaine suddenly remembered the name of the man who she hoped this was, and she called it out, but there was no response. Before getting too close, she pointed the flashlight directly at his face, and she recognized the park’s frequent visitor right away. He was staring past Elaine, but his eyes were motionless and unresponsive. Moving in front of him didn’t cause his eyes to follow. His breathing was calm and even; his chest was rising and falling normally. Elaine placed a hand on his arm; he didn’t react to it. She dared to shake him, saying his name again and again, but she may as well have been shaking a doll. Strangest of all, his face bore several thin black marks that looped and crossed on his cheeks and forehead, later found to be from a felt-tipped pen he’d had in his shirt pocket.

It was then that he slowly raised his right hand with great, ponderous effort. After being held there for a moment, it then dropped all at once to the wooden bench with a thunk. Elaine was crying now; she got on her cellphone and called 911, and she told them a man was hurt and immobilized in the park, maybe a stroke victim. When she disconnected, she noticed something was beside him on the bench. It was the remains of a paperback novel. For some reason it had been torn in half along the spine, then again and again and again, and the man’s left hand held some loose pages very tightly. Elaine couldn’t do anything but touch his arm and keep watch as the man with the marked face remained catatonic, the wind blowing his hair around his head, his eyes watery and unblinking in the silence of the woods.

That man was me. They had to lift me off that bench to get me to the hospital. I remained in that twilight state, defenseless and unaware, for six full days before I began to recover. My vital signs were all completely normal throughout. I had suffered no stroke, no visible injuries. After all that nothingness, my recovery began with images in my mind of my mother dressing me for school on a winter’s day. My eyes began to follow people around the hospital room, and I slept less. Coherent thought returned on day seven, and speech the next. By the ninth day after they found me on the bench, I was speaking and behaving normally. My last memory was of pulling into the parking lot of the nature center a half-hour before sunset, intent on a quick hike down the shortest trail after a twelve-hour day at work, and maybe a bit of reading. Then, it all went black. If anyone else had been on the overlook with me, no one ever came forward to say. The only fingerprints on the pen that had marked my face were my own. I’d done that to myself.

They told me it was dissociative amnesia, the type most often seen after a traumatic event, though mine had been more pronounced and warranted further caution and observation. But there was little more they could do for me. They’d completed an embarrassingly thorough physical examination but found no injuries of any kind. A CAT scan revealed nothing either. Blood tests were negative for evidence of insinuated drugs. They ruled out even a brief concussion resulting from a fall. I was given any number of options for private therapy to get my bearings back, and I paid to have more brain tests done than I even should have. After I met with my department chief, it was decided that I would take some leave from my work. I welcomed it, feeling wholly unfit, worried I might unexpectedly slip back into that fugue.

* * * * * *

It was on the third night of that leave that I got a call from the estranged ex-wife of an old acquaintance of mine, Doug Knorr. Her name was Kelly; she was worried because Doug hadn’t shown up that weekend to take their teenaged son to the movies, and wasn’t answering his cellphone. Doug was nothing if not reliable. Kelly thought he had mentioned going out to his small cabin on the north side of the river gorge for the weekend prior to this one. She asked if I could possibly drive out there, about twenty miles north of my townhouse, and check to see if he was there; I was the only friend she’d ever spoken to who’d been out to the cabin before. Kelly had no idea what had just happened to me, and I wasn’t about to explain it to her. I said yes, I’d go out there, of course I would. I immediately felt that pang of sick fear we all get when we hear that suddenly, someone we know has gone totally, mysteriously dark.

I hadn’t talked to Doug in almost a year, and I just barely remembered the way to take to get out to the cabin. The country roads became progressively steeper as the hills became more scenic, and then there was an indifferently maintained state route winding up past summer tourist cabins to lesser known areas, coyote country. I passed almost no one as I climbed and climbed. After my catatonia, and now this suddenly on top of it, it felt like my life itself had taken a very strange road. I’d always been a nature lover and clung to wild places, but driving up that road, I could almost see it as outsiders often do, as a path into dark, uncaring, even hostile territory. It gave me no comfort now. Something about it had changed for me permanently.

My final turn was onto a bumpy dirt path winding between rows of trees crowding in on the car. Two hundred yards down, there in the glow of my headlights was the cabin in a clearing, a little wreck of a place suitable only for drinking and telling stories before going out hiking or hunting. I felt a surge of relief when I saw right away that Doug’s Land Rover was sitting there in the dead grass, and there was a light on inside the cabin. But something about that one light on in there struck me as meaningless. It wasn’t the warm glow of a desk lamp, but a single ugly uncovered ceiling bulb, the kind of light I associated with crime scenes I’d worked in slum apartments, crack dens, and also of grim interrogation rooms or that dank corridor where a corpse might wait before being rolled into the state forensics lab for an autopsy. When I parked my car and killed the engine, I considered taking my old service revolver out of the glove compartment, but I didn’t do it, ashamed and confused at my sudden weak stomach for mystery. I walked up onto the creaking front porch. There was no answer when I called out Doug’s name. The cabin was unlocked.

The interior was just like I remembered it: one large room with an efficiency kitchenette, a bed in one corner beside the front door, a very small bathroom whose plumbing Doug was always working on toward the back. The overhead bulb hung from a chain that dangled all the way down to my head. The first warning of a real problem was a foul smell. I closed the door behind me, feeling exposed and unnerved by the wind. There were dishes in the sink, a large backpack on the floor, clothes on the unmade bed. On the table near the kitchenette was a half-wrapped collection of Deer Park water bottles. Empties were all over the floor, maybe a dozen of them, not thrown into the trash, but littered everywhere. I walked over to the bathroom, rapped on it once, opened it. No one inside. That was when I heard a slight shifting sound from behind me. I turned and saw nothing, but then it came again, and my eyes went downward. Something was under the bed. It moved again. Slowly I crouched, tilting my head.

There was a man under there, flat on his stomach in the dark. He was slowly making his way out into the light, crawling like an insect. A hand appeared from under the bed, then an arm. I moved very cautiously forward. Finally Doug Knorr came fully out. He still did not respond when I spoke his name. He was wobbly as he staggered to his feet, like a boxer after having taken punch after punch to the head.

His condition was dire. He was unshaven, thin, and deathly pale, and he looked like he had suddenly lost a lot of weight, but it was his expression that was truly alarming. His eyes were bloodshot and wide, his mouth hanging open idiotically, his eyebrows furrowed severely as if experiencing an all-consuming silent rage. All at once, Doug lunged at me. Before I could react he had slammed his hand down on top of my head, grabbing a handful of hair. I shouted at him to stop, but he wrenched my neck forward and brought his free hand down on it with a closed fist. My knees buckled and I fell to the floor; he never let go. Before I could rise to my feet, he dropped hard beside me, and with that same crazed expression still on his face, he lifted his left arm high, preparing to bring it down again. I lashed out with my leg, dodging his blow, and the second he lost his grip on my hair I rose and shoved him backwards. His head struck the floorboards, empty water bottles skittered in all directions, and just like that, he lost consciousness, his body going completely limp. In his weakened state he couldn’t take even the slightest blow. It took twenty minutes for help to arrive.

* * * * * *

Doug was catatonic for another day or two. From what he later described as his last memory, which was walking through the woods nearby on the first night he’d arrived, listening to his iPod, he’d been in the cabin for almost two weeks, keeping himself hydrated by drinking bottled water but eating very little of the food he had brought with him, as if its preparation were beyond his capabilities. Like me, he’d suffered no visible injuries. Like me, tests and a CAT scan told the doctors nothing they could truly work with. He was kept under observation for a while and was left with nothing but the mystery of what had happened. For both of us, the most undeniable fact was that we seemed to have been afflicted on the same evening, separated by just a few miles.

During my leave I used the resources available to me as a member of the police department to rather aggressively contact area hospitals, inquiring about similar cases that had occurred in the same time frame. But I wasn’t able to come up with any truly workable information, even when I expanded the radius of my inquiries. There was a borderline case of a woman found by the side of the road near Seneca Fouts State Park on the very same night I was discovered. Seneca Fouts was on the other side of the gorge, a good twelve miles from the nature center. She had some of the same symptoms, but it was thought her brief catatonia was brought about by a bad mix of medications she was taking for schizophrenia.

I thought I was going to be all right, I really did. I told myself that people who endured severe car crashes or other traumas often had their memories blacked out, and it was for their protection, but this was different. Those people were informed of what had happened to them. For me, for Doug Knorr, that awful gap would never be explained. I found myself on edge and nervous every night before sunset, needing to get up and leave the house, going out into the cold just to get moving. But when I did this I got scared and didn’t feel safe unless I was ensconced in my car. I decided I would enroll in therapy but wasn’t sure what I needed. Reading about catatonia and amnesia just confused and depressed me. I called Doug a couple of times. He was dealing with the same issues more or less, though his symptoms of ill ease took another, even stranger form, which he told me about very reluctantly: he had been running the clothes dryer in his house for hours each day since he’d left the hospital because that particular sound calmed him down. At the end of our last talk he told me politely but firmly that this would be the last time he wanted to discuss what had happened with anyone.

I entered a period of fruitless web research, trying to click my way to understanding dissociative amnesia. That research ended at a very specific moment. On my laptop in the middle of the night, I was working my way through a list of links I’d stumbled across, a list on an otherwise featureless Web page apparently set up as part of someone’s master’s thesis on doctor and patient interactions during long-term psychiatric care. Clicking on one of the links brought up a page covered in Japanese text, indecipherable to me, but in the center of it a fuzzy video began to play. The time code on it dated it June 7th of 1984. I began to watch a therapist’s attempt to draw out a hopelessly insane young woman as she sat at a table with an untouched Diet Coke in front of her. Her name was Albertine. She and the therapist spoke in French, of which I knew just enough to follow along. The colors on the tape were faded, and it was damaged in several spots. Albertine was either totally silent under questioning or she would ramble on and on about a lost bicycle until she had to be interrupted. Something had happened to her recently; she had apparently been unconscious for a month. The therapist tried several times to get her to repeat what she’d said once about what she saw before she ‘went to sleep.’ Albertine was evasive until the therapist basically threatened her with isolation. At that point she was silent for a moment, and then said, very matter-of-factly, ‘J’ai vu le Diable.’ Meaning, ‘I saw the Devil.’ I stopped the video at that exact moment. I didn’t want to know anymore. I left my laptop on my dining room table and got ready for bed. Yet I was drawn back. It was only a half hour later of lying awake that I got up, walked back through my dark house toward the glow of the computer screen, and sat down in front of it again. After a moment’s hesitation, I clicked play so the video would resume. It did—but only for a couple of seconds, and then the tape broke up. The original recording had simply ended after Albertine’s strange statement.

* * * * * *

During my sixth and final week of leave, I got an email from someone I didn’t know named Clark Poole. He introduced himself as someone who’d formed a support group for locals who had suffered dissociative amnesia. This Clark wrote that a colleague of mine had given my name to him. That could have been almost anyone, so I didn’t worry about it just then. The next meeting of this support group would be in Portland in five days, and I was being invited to come and share my experience and meet others like me. Despite the email’s unknown origins, I was tempted to go.

I thought I knew the city very well, but the group met in a neighborhood on the industrial side of the Williamette River I didn’t have many dealings with; to call it working class would have been a kindness. At eight o’clock on a Monday night I parked on the street near a grungy apartment complex. Clark Poole had sent me a door code for the building, and I let myself into a dimly lit lobby with a mostly empty vending machine in one corner. I looked for a door leading downstairs and I took it, casting an eye on a bit of graffiti someone had scrawled on the staircase. Obviously no one was coming along to clean it away anytime soon. The heavy door boomed behind me. I went down one flight and came out into a long, silent hallway. A couple of the numbers on the apartment doors had faded to almost nothing and had to be written over in marker. I walked all the way down into an open room, the building’s rec room, whose décor consisted of an old sofa, a ping pong table, and two card tables. Clark Poole was there alone, sitting at one of those. He got up and greeted me.

He was short and balding, but muscular, about my age, forty or so, with a face that seemed familiar. Although I was ten minutes late, no one else was there yet. We sat down. In front of him was what looked like a thick notebook augmented and overstuffed with extraneous contents. I asked him who had recommended me for the group, and he gave me a name that I almost didn’t place at first and only recalled faintly as someone who worked in the property department in Gresham. That confused me. Clark immediately changed the subject before I could follow up, asking me if in the course of my work I had ever encountered anyone who had experienced what I had. I didn’t mention Doug. He spoke like he wrote his emails, in a flat tone without any real personality but with unusual pauses, as if he were constantly trying to catch up with his own thoughts.

He asked me to indulge him in his own theory of my affliction, for he too had blacked out for six days as a teenager, twenty-six years before. He wanted me to accept as a premise that we had both been driven insane, lost our minds; after all, this was a clinical fact, just not traditionally defined that way. What then, he wondered, could cause a sane human mind to snap spontaneously, without warning, and snap so badly that it had rendered us immediately mute, our minds blacking us out for days to protect us? Because emotional trauma was never enough to cause such a catastrophic event; humans were capable of witnessing murder, genocide, the violent death of a loved one, and yet still remain conscious and functional. What if we had heard something, seen something, somehow worse than all that? Would anything be terrifying enough to break us, send us skittering into the darkness of our own subconscious?

I was mostly silent as Clark went on. Every sentence he spoke further drew a picture of what some of us in the police department called a mummy, meaning someone of limited social skills whose very specific type of verbal cadence revealed a damaged upbringing. Often, I’d found, these vocal patterns lay on the surface of a borderline criminal or even sociopathic personality. Still no one else came into the room for the meeting. Imagine, Clark said to me, imagine just for a moment what could be beheld by our eyes to do that to us. It would have to be something that not only promised the absolute certainty of our imminent death—we could survive even that with our minds intact—but the certainty that death would not be the end of our pain, that we were in fact staring at something that represented fears that went far deeper, fears that there could and would be punishment for our souls, eternal punishment, beginning in that instant. Imagine all that certainty pouring into us in one second, after a lifetime of having tried to deny such a damnation could be real. But there it was before us, in the flesh, revealing itself by accident or by design. Maybe that could destroy our sanity in the blink of an eye. Maybe that could.

Clark turned to the notebook before him and opened it. It was mostly a collection of assembled doctor’s notes about specific catatonia patients. I asked Clark how he’d gained access to them. He gave me an odd smile and said it had not been easy, but once certain password information was acquired, he’d been on his way. He wanted me to go through the notebook and read everything—the notes, the newspaper clippings. There was so much more research that needed to be done, and that where I could be of immense help, I as someone who could ask questions of people and go places where others weren’t welcome. My badge could be of great use.

I opened the notebook to a random place near the beginning. What I saw first was a photocopy or perhaps a computer scan of a letter written in hand, dated March 7, 1950. I turned a few pages. I then found myself looking at a long handwritten list of names. I asked Clark who these people were. He told me this was a table of contents of sorts, a list of the names of those whose cases he’d managed to fully document. As he spoke I took many of those names in; there looked to be almost a hundred of them. And I saw my own name near the bottom: John Gray. Clark said, ‘If it makes you feel better, I’m on there too,’ and he pointed himself out. The handwriting that spelled out his name made something click for me vividly and terribly, and that instant mental connection decided my course of action.

Yes, I told him, I would take the notebook, and read it, and think about whether I could be of help. I was telling him exactly what I thought he wanted to hear in order to protect myself, in order to leave that room without him suspecting I was inwardly scared to be sitting across from a man who was only walking free because of a legal loophole instead of being locked away where he couldn’t kill anyone else. In my trepidation I wasn’t as convincing as I needed to be. I could see in Clark Poole’s eyes that he wasn’t sure whether to believe me. Working hard to create the illusion of calm, I added that once I would have refused to accept anything I couldn’t prove, but the catatonia had forced me to turn anywhere I could for answers. I told him I might not be able to help him at all, but I was definitely curious about what had happened to others like me. This he seemed to accept. I even sat there longer, asking for a detail or two about his own incident, and volunteering a few of mine, to steady my nerves and make it seem like I was on his side.

Our meeting ended with me taking his heavy notebook and heading toward the door. I said I would send him an email in about three days. He stood and watched me go. The urge to look back as I walked down that dimly lit hallway toward the door that would lead me back up to the lobby was immense. No residents came out of their rooms; there was not a sound but my own footsteps on the tile. I pushed on the door and was soon back out into the night. Clark Poole, whose real name, I knew the instant I saw his handwriting, was Christopher Pondehill, did not try to stop me, did not try to attack me. He was much heavier and stronger than he’d appeared in old photographs, when he’d had long hair and glasses.

I drove not back to my house but directly to Portland’s north precinct. I got there at 9:30. To my good fortune, detective Toby Eklund was in his office, working, and it was directly to him that I gave Christopher Pondehill’s notebook. Toby had been involved in assembling the original murder case against him eight years before. I told Toby that maybe the notebook had information that might be of some use if there were ever a retrial, or an attempt right now to put him away for something else, at least possibly evidence that Pondehill had illegal access to private computer networks in which were stored patient files. Toby would start to go through it right away.

It was almost six years to the night that a judge had declared a mistrial in Pondehill’s court case before it even truly began because of alleged misconduct by the prosecutor, who had been so overzealous in trying to put the man behind bars that I believe he tampered with key evidence. At any rate, if you had any direct dealings with Portland investigators since 2006, you were likely convinced that Pondehill had killed his father one cold December night in what appeared to be an attempt to get at the old man’s meager assets, claiming the man had gone off to seek treatment for a rare blood disease and disappeared somewhere en route to Chicago. But there was evidence Pondehill, of no fixed address or occupation at the time, occasionally in prison for burglary, assault, and defacing of public property, had researched methods of hanging in the weeks leading up to the vanishing.

My one real contribution to the investigation had been the examination of a piece of receipt tape marked on the back by Pondehill’s distinctive handwriting bearing two words followed by a disturbing and incriminating phrase. The words were steel wire, and the phrase was best to separate the head from the body. This man was now free among us. It was agreed that the book would be copied to the best extent possible, and three days from now I would send an email to Pondehill telling him I would FedEx it back to him and contact him again when I felt up to it. Or if there was enough evidence to make an outright arrest on new charges right now, I’d set up a meeting. Until then, Toby suggested I set up in a hotel, because who knew how much information Pondehill had about me, my phone number, my address?

* * * * * *

It turned out he had quite a bit. I didn’t go to a hotel, and two nights later the phone on my night table rang at a little past eleven o’clock. The voice on the other end of the line was Christopher Pondehill’s. He was very direct. He told me he was disappointed that I had turned the notebook over to others. And so he knew already. Maybe Toby had been too aggressive with it, had made a premature move. I sat up in bed, becoming very aware of how alone I was in my house, despite the fact I had made sure to test my security system. I claimed ignorance, but it didn’t work, of course. Pondehill acknowledged I had a job to do, that I was bound. He said that he only wished I had bothered to read the book’s contents first. For if I had, he said, I would have realized how many of the brains of the afflicted amnesiacs described within it contained deeply unusual levels of ferrous oxide, the substance that aided navigation in birds, and that made me and the other victims extremely sensitive to changes in the earth’s magnetic fields. It also slowly altered the structure of the mind’s pineal gland, referred to in some Eastern philosophies as the third eye, the seat of the soul. Pondehill told me that he had left me something in the place where he’d been living, something very big, if I wanted to come see it. He then spoke an address that was not the apartment building where I’d met him, and wished me a good night. And he hung up the phone.

Toby Eklund and I went together to the new location just ninety minutes later, after he’d quickly secured a search warrant. We drove through the city through a light rain. He cursed himself for too soon making a single contact based on what he’d read in Pondehill’s notebook. Maybe it had been enough to tip the man off, or maybe he’d simply sensed from my behavior in that fetid basement that I was lying to him. I pinpointed the address Pondehill had spoken and was afraid I’d misheard it, for it was a junior high school about twelve blocks from the apartment building where I’d met him. Toby knew of it; it had been abandoned more than two years before, its students transferred to a more modern building after an outcry about the poor conditions. This one had been left to go to ruin until someone bought the land.

The neighborhood where Middle Tree Junior High School lay bordered one of the city’s more blighted areas, and so in its abandoned state, it had taken on a good deal of graffiti and vandalism. It was a T-shaped, single-story building, windows stoutly boarded up since 2012. Toby swung the squad car into the bus drop-off zone of the front parking lot, which was the least visible spot, facing only two auto warehouses across the street. Our plan was to check out the exterior all the way around for an easy way in, and if there was none, Toby had equipment in the trunk to break whatever locks we needed to. The school’s main entrance was firmly sealed, but we pulled on each door anyway in case any of the visible locks had been broken and carefully reattached to give the appearance of permanence. Toby went around the east side of the school, and I went around the west, walking down a natural footpath worn into being by the students who had once gone here. Looking to my left across D Street, I saw a line of silent row houses. Sitting in a rocking chair on one of the dilapidated front porches was an old woman, smoking and watching me.

My cellphone chimed; Toby had already found a way in on the other side. I jogged back around the front and turned the corner. I saw his silhouette a hundred feet down, holding a door open. There was a little more illumination on this side coming from lights attached to the adjacent, crumbling pulp mill whose acreage stretched more than a half-mile, forming a lonely ghost town navigable by a grid of meaningless streets with meaningless names. Toby told me quietly that the door had been neither locked nor barricaded in any way. We both turned on our flashlights and went in. The air was stale and heavy, with an odor of spoiled fruit. One step inside, Toby turned around and pointed his beam just to our left. A homemade deadbolt had been fashioned to keep intruders out, something clumsy but large and effective—except tonight it had been left unfastened. Toby closed the door behind us, sealing us in total darkness. He got on his radio and informed his partner, waiting ten blocks away in an all-night diner, exactly where we were. I could hear the man over a burst of static acknowledge the report.

We were in a very short hallway that fed into the building’s main one. Toby told me to keep an eye on whatever was behind us as we moved. He drew his gun and kept it low and loose to his side. Five feet shy of the T-corner, he stopped entirely and we merely listened. The beams of our flashlights would have given us away to anyone watching us from down the hall, so we waited for an audible sign of movement. And waited. None came. Finally Toby pressed himself against the near wall and leaned his head around, looking to the left and holding that position for such a long time that I was certain he must have spotted something. But no. The hallway had locker banks on both sides stretching each way. My beam picked up random graffiti strewn across them. The filthy floor was streaked with dirt and sawdust. Walking to the north, I stepped on an empty bag from a local doughnut shop, and then a little further down I trampled the eight of hearts from some otherwise missing deck of playing cards.

It was I who suggested to Toby we split up, and he nodded agreement. And so it was I alone who found the contents of room 41. It was just around the next T-corner, the door open, almost as if I were being invited in. All the other classroom doors were sealed tight but that one. From the moment I entered I gave Toby a running commentary over the radio of what I was seeing while he covered the rest of the building, making absolutely sure we were alone.

Christopher Pondehill had been living in room 41. Scattered around where there had once been desks and chairs were remnants of a transient’s existence. A beanbag chair in one corner was probably where he slept at night. Several books were stacked near it, a random assortment that included a book on the Battle of Stalingrad, a consumer medical manual, and one outlier called Transitions From the Unreal, an unusually academic study of the paranormal taken from the library at the University of Chicago. A cardboard box on a long counter held what remained of Pondehill’s short-term food supplies. Beside that, something more unusual: three buckets of black paint, all of them open and half-full. The classroom’s windows were still unbroken, protected by the heavy boards that covered them from the outside and blocked virtually all daylight. His notebooks, some filled, some empty, were on a large teacher’s desk that had never been removed. There were more than a dozen such notebooks, and beside those, a laptop computer. Pondehill leaving all this behind for us was a clear sign he was giving up somehow, ready to be apprehended.

Even the contents of that computer, however, turned out to be not as telling as the one object that lay against the wall near the door to room 41. The very first photograph taken of this object as it appeared in a police officer’s flashlight beam less than a half-hour later would be reprinted as the cover of a true crime book published a year later, the color digitally stripped away and the film grain intensified for effect. It was the fingerprints on this object that forensic scientists would use to connect it to Christopher Pondehill and ultimately show how it had been used in relation not only to the burial of his father, but the burial of eleven other human beings in the years 2008 to 2013. It was a shovel whose blade was still stained with the dirt of all those graves, stretching from Hood River to Lincoln City. And I, John Gray, was the first to see it.

The moment I informed Toby over the radio of the presence of that shovel, he told me he was going to call in for backup, as if he sensed it had a meaning. He suggested I stay where I was; he intended only to look into the gymnasium and then sit tight and play it safe. But after a moment of sitting tight I decided I didn’t like the idea of Toby going into a space that large alone. So I left room 41 and navigated through the dark down the hallway. Large droplets of paint, dark blue paint, had spattered in the hall in a wavy line. I knelt and touched the largest of these droplets, the size of a pancake, and I found that it was not completely dry. Almost, just not quite. I got on the radio, and I warned Toby that it was impossible to rule out that Pondehill was still here somewhere.

I turned right at the end of the hallway. Casting the beam into the distance, I saw Toby, seeming small and insignificant, raise his own flashlight to make sure it was me coming around that corner. He waved me down to him. I picked up my pace. He was standing before three tall doors. Above them, letters on a large rectangular copper plate, now scratched and faded, told us it was the Roberta Neal Memorial Gymnasium.

Almost reading my mind, Toby whispered that he’d decided to wait for either me or the backup; it was too big a space to feel safe about. Two of the doors were chain-locked—no way in—but the third was almost utterly destroyed, hacked at by an axe or sledgehammer until a hole more than big enough for a man to fit through had been made. Splinters of wood of various sizes lay on the floor, as did most of the metal push- bar that had once been rooted in place. This time I went first, stepping high and through the door’s remains, sucking old, lifeless air into my lungs. I waited for Toby to step through before I even raised the flashlight. It threw a glow across a floor crisscrossed all the way to its end with peeling colored tape to represent boundaries for various sports. On the floor were some objects that seemed to have been recently placed: a very large metal extension ladder, a couple of camping lanterns, and again, even more cans of paint of various colors. The beam finally rested on a wall of wooden bleachers, which gave us a feel for the sheer size of the room.

I then turned my body to shine the beam against the wall about seventy-five feet to my left. The north wall of the gym had once been painted white, but it had been altered dramatically since then. Someone had been working on it, an effort of days, maybe weeks. I moved the beam of the flashlight all the way across the wall and back again before realizing I was only seeing a part of the work that had been done. Tilting the beam upward, I saw ever more detail, until my eyes came to rest on the aspect of the work that made it cohere instantly in my mind. And how horrible it must have been at that moment to be Toby Eklund and be standing within ten feet of me, facing in a different direction, and hearing a grown man who you’ve known for twelve years begin to shriek into the darkness at the top of his lungs, the shriek of a man losing his mind, screams echoing off the gymnasium walls as if I were being killed—which I was in a way, coming apart psychologically until what was left of me had to be taken away by the police and brought to the city’s crisis assessment and treatment center.

Christopher Pondehill, whose body they found curled behind the bleachers after having shot himself in the head, had worked tirelessly not just to show me what he had seen as a 16-year-old boy as he sat alone before dawn on the shore of eastern Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. He’d created a clumsy, massive mural spanning the entire north wall of the gymnasium so he could show the entire world what he’d somehow remembered. The lower two-thirds of the mural was a series of cross-hatchings depicting a distant treeline, winter trees with no leaves, skeletal and crowding into each other. And looming behind that treeline, in relief against a dark blue field representing deepest night, was a monstrous presence ill-defined by Pondehill’s desperate paint strokes in the filthy lantern-lit gymnasium. Toby and the police who arrived afterward would be hard-pressed to say that yes, this was the thing’s head and torso, gigantic above the woods, connected to a lower body obscured by them, but I could see it all, including the enormous face Pondehill had depicted in wisps and streaks of red, and the long ropy arms that seemed to go on forever, the indefinable shapes they ended in, and the way they seemed to reach out toward me specifically even as they yearned to encircle the earth itself.

Photographs of that wall have been reprinted in every book about Pondehill’s crimes. To most, the mural seems like nothing more than a crazed but effective portrait of one man’s paranoid delusions. To me it was a rusty dagger to the mind, a revelation of what I and a handful of others had been cursed to see, to actually see, for the briefest of milliseconds: what has towered above humanity since before the beginning of time. He is visible only in the briefest of instances on wide horizons, when the heavens align just so and minds with damaged structures perceive the one true father of darkness, evil, and madness before the light inside them dies forever.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 2 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Soren Narnia
Edited by N/A
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Soren Narnia


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