CHAPTER ONE - GETTING IN
Flynn Haggerty sat hunched over his laptop in one of the carrels in Miskatonic University’s library. He wasn’t sure what time it was. His hazel eyes felt gritty as if they were filled with sand. He moved his right arm and there was a clatter as half a dozen Red Bull cans toppled off the carrel and onto the floor. Flynn winced. The sound jangled his already shredded nerves and he half-expected Niale, the single-named librarian, to come over and shush him. When he reached down to pick up the cans, he saw the forgotten piles of discarded wrappers from fast food places that surrounded him like a moat of oily paper. The air stunk of cold French fries and ketchup. Flynn was pretty sure that his own aroma didn’t add to the ambiance either.
He knew for certain that he hadn’t showered in at least three days. Maybe longer. The library was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year. From the greasy feel of Flynn’s dark blond hair, he might have been here that long. But this was the price he had to pay if he wanted to be one of the graduate students to join Professor Xavier Fall’s expedition to Hamilton, Wisconsin.
And I have to go. I can’t keep living with this black hole in my life. As a member of Professor Fall’s expedition I’ll have a chance of figuring out what happened.
He had been feverishly writing a paper on Hamilton for Professor Fall for these three lost days in the library. His paper had to show his knowledge about the town, but also to prove he would add value to the expedition. He was finding he could easily do the first, but the second … well, the thing he could really add, he didn’t want to reveal. That was why the paper was taking so damned long. He rubbed his eyes, hoping to somehow clear the need for sleep from them physically. He looked back down at his computer screen and the words blurred.
Normally, a small town like Hamilton would never have drawn any interest from a prestigious professor of Occult Studies from Miskatonic University. It likely would never have interested anyone other than those who happened to live there, except for the fact that the inhabitants of half the town had mysteriously disappeared in a single night.
Flynn read the opening paragraphs of his paper out loud to make sure he had gotten the facts right, “Hamilton is a town divided. First, it is divided almost perfectly down the middle by a river, but it is also divided by life and death and light and dark. The west half is the empty half, the dead, dark half. No one lives there. Not anymore. The east half is the occupied half, the living, light half. It has been this way for fifteen years since what the locals call the ‘Incident’. The details of the Incident are sketchy, but what is known is simply this. One night in October, the electricity for the west half of town went off during the early evening hours and never came back on again. Sometime during the blackout, almost all the people who lived there vanished.”
Not that those who were left behind could tell anyone anything. I was still there in the morning, but I don’t remember anything about that night.
Flynn was one of half a dozen children that were found in the suddenly empty west half of town. None of them had memories of what had happened to their families or anyone else in the suddenly depopulated town.
But it’s not just memories of that night that are gone. My memories of the whole summer before are missing. A blank. I’m betting that something happened during those missing months that explains what took place that October night.
If Flynn were honest to himself, it was more than the summer that was missing. All of his childhood memories were hazy. He had trouble remembering his parents’ faces and he had no idea who he had been friends with or what his interests had been. He was literally a new person when he was discovered by the sheriff, crouched in a closet in a bedroom he hardly recognized as his own.
Flynn went back to reading his paper, which, consciously, did not contain the crucial information that he was one of the children left behind, “Hamilton is surrounded by thick woods on all sides. The nearest town is over seventy-five miles away. Only a slender two-lane highway snakes through Hamilton and then drifts out the other side for another hundred empty miles of trackless forest. Hamilton is, for all intents and purposes, isolated. Search parties scoured miles of this forest, looking for the missing people, but none of the west half’s inhabitants were ever located. Not even a trace of them was found.”
How could a thousand people go missing without there being something to show where they’ve gone? Or was there something that the police covered up or ignored like they did with so much else?
“What was left to investigate were the abandoned houses, the unoccupied cars, and empty lawns. Like the famed Marie Celeste or the Lost Colony, the police discovered full meals on the tables, televisions blaring, showers running, laundry half folded, and beds rumpled from sleep, but no people and no overt signs of violence. Even the pets were missing. The only signs of something out of place were the piles of rocks and sticks in the backyards, which defied attempts to classify them into any known religion or spiritual practice. Unable to see any connection, the local police ignored these clues.”
They ignored lots of things. They didn’t want to know what happened. And no matter how weird things got in the west half, they refused to see it.
Flynn’s paper next detailed some of those weird things. He read, “When the searching had stopped after only two weeks, an abnormally short time considering the tragedy, strange lights appeared over the town. Will-o-wisps in a rainbow of colors floated throughout the perpetually dark west half of town. Other than the sun, they were the only illumination in the west half. The crews for the local electric utility tried to restore power to the west half, but nothing they did worked. Eventually, they stopped trying. No one was moving into the west half anyways.”
But there are rumors of people having gone there since the Incident and, just like the former residents, disappearing, too. But the police claim that no one has gone missing and that the rumors are just rumors. Maybe no one has gone missing from Hamilton, but what about other towns? The west half attracts people like a moth to a flame.
Flynn cleared his throat and continued reading, “Eventually, people stopped even looking at the west half of town. The three bridges that connected the two halves were left to fill with leaves and other debris. The west half of Hamilton then took on another name: the Ghost Half. No one was sure who originally came up with it, but the name stuck because it fit. The west half and all its mysteries were ghostly images that were only seen by those who truly looked for them.”
And that was what the Professor Fall’s expedition to Hamilton was all about: looking for the answer to those mysteries.
And I have to be a part of it.
But Flynn’s cursor blinked on an empty line. Here was where he should have been writing about his unique skills for the expedition. It would have been natural for him to write about the children that had survived the Incident, to research where they were now, and how they had been affected – and if they were still being affected – by what had happened so long ago. He could have admitted the truth: that he was one of those children. Hell, he could have thrown himself on Professor Fall’s mercy and begged to go because of that simple fact.
But the professor could just as easily say that I’m too close to this to be a researcher. Or worse, I’d become the research. Flynn straightened his shoulders in revulsion at the idea. I won’t be a lab rat. They’d keep information from me so as not to taint their results. I’d never know what really happened in Hamilton. So I can’t use why I actually should be allowed to go. But what else can I say?
The others who were rumored to be picked to go on the expedition all had special skills. Jaela Smith, a vivacious black woman with a quick smile and quicker wit, was not only one of the top graduate students in the Occult Studies Department, but she was also rumored to be a psychic. She was often called in by the FBI and police when leads ran cold. She would be invaluable on the expedition if she could pick up any vibes about what had happened here.
Next was David Kwon, who reminded Flynn of one of those pretty Asian pop stars. David was a whizz with audiovisual equipment and reportedly an empath. As an empath, he might still be able to experience the emotions of the missing people by touching their abandoned things.
Then there was Isabel Aumont, an exchange student from France was only an undergraduate at Miskatonic, but she was supposed to be able to see the dead so having her along on the expedition made complete sense. After all, the people from the west half – including Flynn’s parents – had to be dead after all these years, didn’t they? Maybe she could contact them and find out what happened.
And finally, there was Corey Rudman. He was a member of Miskatonic’s mysterious and prestigious Next Society. That meant he had skills that no one would talk about and would be accepted into any expedition he wanted.
So if all the rumors about these people are true, what do I bring to the expedition?
Flynn tapped out on his keyboard, “I bring obsession and a willingness to do anything to find out the truth.”
That will definitely get me cut from consideration. I sound like some delusional fan boy.
Flynn’s hands rose from the keyboard and moved over to the dark green bag at his side. He could see the edge of the few aged Polaroid pictures of his family. He tugged them out and paged through them like he had thousands of times before. His father Cary was a tall man with broad shoulders, narrow hips and dark eyes. Flynn had inherited his father’s athletic build. His mother Jocelyn was almost as tall. She had a sleek swimmer’s body and the same hazel eyes as Flynn did. His Aunt Nora said he had her personality, too. Not that he would know. He simply couldn’t remember.
“My sister was all sunshine until the clouds came and then you needed to watch out,” Nora had said. “She was a deep thinker and feeler like you, Flynn. I think that’s what caused the highs and lows she experienced so profoundly. Your father was steadier.”
He had lived with his Aunt Nora and Uncle Robert in Connecticut since the Incident. They had shielded him from the media. They had even changed his last name to theirs so that no one would connect him to Hamilton. But they couldn’t shield him from his own interest in what had happened. He had devoured every bit of news he could find on the Incident. For him, it felt like one day he had a family and then the next, he had nothing and there was a huge gap between those two events that gnawed at him.
But I’ve had to hide my interest from them. They don’t understand. They want me to live for now and forget the past.
Flynn stuffed the pictures back in his bag and turned back to his laptop. The words on the screen blurred once more and he groaned. Time for another Red Bull or maybe he could risk a twenty-minute cat nap and then give his paper a last once over?
“I thought I would find you here, Flynn,” Professor Fall’s voice came from over his shoulder.
Flynn nearly levitated off his seat in surprise. He spun around to face the older man, his heart hammering in his chest and fast food wrappers scattering like fall leaves. “Shi—Professor! I didn’t hear you come up.”
Professor Xavier Fall was leaning against a nearby pillar. His classically beautiful face like that of an ancient Roman statue had a bemused expression. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“Ah, no, it’s fine. No big deal. I’m just a little scattered here. Finishing up that paper for you for the Ghost Half expedition.” Flynn ran a hand through his hair. He could feel it sticking up in the wake of his palm and wished he hadn’t touched it.
Professor Fall looked perfect as always. His thick black hair was that stylish combination of shaggy and coifed. He wore his clothes, a pair of gray pants, white button down shirt and dark blue vest, with the effortless grace of a model in a glossy magazine. Even the wire-rim glasses added to his looks by drawing attention to his unique violet eyes. He was the only one Flynn had known to truly have violet eyes. They were a strange, arresting mixture of blue and red. Xavier Fall inspired continent-sized crushes in all of the students. Flynn wasn’t immune to the man’s allure, but he forced himself to keep his thoughts professional at all times. The professor was his chance to learn about his past and attraction wasn’t going to derail that.
All I’d need would be to start babbling and drooling like an idiot in front of him to end my chances.
He realized that the professor’s violet-colored eyes were looking over his shoulder at the screen. Flynn tensed. He hadn’t had a chance to erase that line about obsession yet.
“I’m glad you’re working on it,” the professor said. “I was afraid you weren’t going to apply for the expedition this summer when you didn’t show up for today’s meeting.”
“Meeting? No, that’s tomorrow, isn’t it? That can’t be today. I had an alarm set on my phone and – it can’t have been today.” Flynn felt panic rise in his chest. He grabbed his phone only to see that it was dead. It had likely died days ago. He had forgotten to plug it in to recharge. The meeting was today and he had missed it.
“You’ve been in here a long time. Too long, I think,” Professor Fall said.
“I wanted to make the paper perfect,” Flynn said softly. He covered his face with his hands. “And now I’ve completely messed up.”
“Not in the least. Your dedication to this project and to my class all year makes up for any – ah, confusion about dates and times. May I see the paper?” The professor extended one long elegant hand towards the computer.
“Uhm … well, it’s … you know … rough. You probably won’t like it and --”
“Please, Flynn? I’d really like to see it,” the professor’s voice rolled over him like warm honey.
Despite Flynn’s desire that Xavier Fall never lay eyes on this paper until he deleted that last line at least, himself nearly leaping from the chair to let the professor sit down and read the paper to his heart’s content. “Here sit down. Please, make yourself comfortable.”
The older man gently pressed Flynn back down into the chair. “No need. I can see well enough from here. And I think you need the support. You look ready to fall over.”
The professor leaned over Flynn’s shoulder and used the touch pad to scroll up to the top of the paper. He was quickly scanning the prose, nodding his head ever so slightly as if ticking off points he had hoped to see in such a work.
“It’s not polished yet and there were a few more citations that I wanted to put in before you saw it. And I didn’t get to add in my own ah, unique qualifications for the expedition,” Flynn rambled. While part of him felt sick about that last sentence, he realized that part of his unease came from the fact that he likely smelled like three-day old sweat socks while the professor smelled of clean pine and snow. He was surprised the older man wasn’t wrinkling his nose in disgust, but though he hardly dared to turn his head to check, he could see nothing but interest for the material in the professor’s beautiful face.
“You clearly have a passion for the subject.” The older man’s breath puffed against the side of Flynn’s face as he continued to skim the paper. “And I think you did put in your unique qualification for the expedition.” He tapped the last line on the screen.
“Uh, about that, I totally have real skills.” Flynn rushed out, “I’m completely familiar with how an investigation like this should go. I know how to set up and use EMF meters, infra-red thermometers, Geiger counters, static cameras, night vision cameras and spirit photography.”
“I’m sure you do, Flynn,” the professor’s voice was low.
“But that doesn’t really interest you, does it?” Flynn felt despair welling in his chest. He struggled to figure out what he could say to really differentiate himself from the hordes of other graduate students that wanted in on this expedition.
“No, but this does.” Again, the professor tapped the screen on the line that Flynn wished to God, he had taken out. “You’re in.”
“I’m in? I’m … do you mean I’m in the Ghost Half expedition?” Flynn’s voice sounded incredibly hopeful, almost begging, in his own ears.
“You are.” Flynn could almost hear the smile in Xavier Fall’s voice.
The professor still hadn’t moved away though he was done reading. The moment stretched out with both of them staring at the screen, unmoving. But then the older man’s hand was gone from Flynn’s shoulder. Flynn nearly fell off his chair. It was as if the professor’s touch had kept him upright and now that it was gone exhaustion beat down on him like an anvil. He used what was left of his strength to turn around in his seat. The professor was several feet away. Again, Flynn hadn’t heard him move or even felt the air stir with his passing. Flynn felt almost dizzy like the world had shifted under his feet.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this opportunity,” Flynn said, forcing energy into his voice. “I will make sure that you don’t regret your decision to take me on. I --”
“I’m sure I won’t,” the professor interrupted him. Those violet eyes regarded him for long moments. He nodded as if answering an internal question. “I think you will be the expedition’s most useful member.”
Flynn felt a momentary touch of apprehension that Xavier Fall knew about his real history.
Maybe he does. He’s supposed to be brilliant … and eccentric, but so is every Miskatonic professor. It’s like a requirement. So maybe he does know about me. But does it matter? He’s letting me go as a member of the expedition.
“I -- I’ll do my best, professor.”
“Xavier, please. It will get so tiresome having you call me by my title for three long months,” Xavier said with a smile that had Flynn blinking and smiling back.
“Okay … Xavier.”
“Now,” Xavier said. “Get some sleep. Take a shower.” There was a stern, but amused look as the professor emphasized that instruction. “And prepare your belongings. We leave in two days for Hamilton.”
Flynn opened his mouth to thank him again, but the man was gone. He had disappeared as silently and completely as Flynn’s parents had. But Flynn pushed aside the strangeness of Professor Xavier Fall. He was going to Hamilton. He was going to discover his past in the Ghost Half.