RAVENNA

The responsibility of a journalist is not a strenuous one. We go to the person, the location, the event, whatever it is that people should like to know about. We look at it, look into it, and ask it questions. And then we write a few words about it, send it in to our bosses, call it a day, and then move on to the next point of interest.

That isn't why I took the job. I would have preferred to be a reporter on the front lines of conflict, or in one of the uglier places in the world that people like to pretend doesn't exist. I wanted to be more than an observer for once. When I reflect on and analyze my own behavior - like anyone with regrets does when they lay in bed at night - I think I wanted it because of my childhood. I had the most controlling parents, and it became impossible for me to do anything more than buckle in for the ride. But it probably didn't matter. After all, who doesn't blame their personality on the way they were raised?

Somewhere in my teens I realized I was good at writing. I had my grandiose dreams of affecting things around the world, and it seemed like reporting was compatible. I went to college for a few years and I did alright. So I got a job at a newspaper, expecting it would lead to greater things.

A decade later and I'm still with the same newspaper. Observing things and never participating in them. It doesn't pay very well. It's just my luck that nobody wants to hire journalists anymore, much less send them to dangerous places that could get the journalist hurt and the company sued. I'll never find a better position than this.

My boss held out his hand, waving a map with a dot circled on it, intending for me to take it. He said, "Go check out this town. It creeps out everyone who visits or passes through. Who knows? Maybe it'll make a good story." It was typical of him to do that. To keep it concise, and to shoo me out of his office ten seconds after he called me in.

I live in Austin and the town circled on the map, Ravenna, was a solid two-hundred-fifty miles away. Traveling so far for an assignment was infrequent, but it wasn't unheard of. I spent the evening after work packing some things and I left the next morning. I found a hotel at the larger, nearby city of Bonham, unloaded my things into a room, and phoned the woman who called into the newspaper about the town.

I said, "Mrs. Jackson?"

She said, "Yeah. Who is this?"

I said, "This is Rachel with the Chronicle. I'm calling about Ravenna?"

She said, "What do you want?"

I cradled my forehead in my hand. I was used to people I interviewed being difficult, but it was still an annoyance. I tried to forget the bile in her voice. "You called in about the town, right? What did you have to say?"

"I already told you people."

I said, "You spoke with someone with the Chronicle, I know, but you haven't spoken to me. What did you tell them?"

I heard a raspy sigh. It was easy for me to imagine that the sound could be better attributed to gargling. She said, "You're really gonna make me have to think about this again?"

"Ma'am, just recount it once more for me. Okay?"

She hung up and I didn't call her back. I didn't try to get an explanation out of my boss because I valued my job. He would have been upset that I called after office hours and he would've been upset I didn't get it out of her in the first place. I showered, tried unsuccessfully to relax myself, and I fell asleep with the TV on.

I woke to a hot sunrise and I remembered how the girl at the desk had told me the air conditioning was broken. I listened to the local news on the TV while I cleaned myself up and dressed. I stopped for breakfast at a place I saw out the window of the hotel earlier, it was a chain I ate at in Austin sometimes. I sat down and I scanned the menu.

The waiter found me at my table. His face was covered in red splotches and he tapped his foot incessantly, and he stopped in the middle of sentences to swallow spit. I thought I would make conversation with him.

I said, "What do you know about Ravenna?"

He only gave me a strange look.

"You know, the town nearby? Just north of here? What can you tell me about it?"

He said quietly, "We don't really talk about that here." He swallowed, and it was louder in my ears than his words were. He looked around, swallowed again, then continued. "It weirds people out."

I said, "I'm a journalist. I just want to know why everyone acts so odd about it."

He shook his head. He forced a smile and he said, "Can I get you something to drink?"

I got a coke and I ordered a platter of pancakes that had more butter soaked into them than I would have liked. I worked on them slowly while I watched the other customers, which didn't number very many. I thought that I might try asking one of them about the town on my way out. I wasn't eating very long, though, before who I assumed was the manager came out and confronted me.

He said, "Did you ask one of my employees about that town?"

I said, "What? Ravenna? I brought it up with the waiter, yeah." I began to ask if there was a problem, but he interrupted me.

He said, "I'm going to have to ask you to leave." His lips quivered nervously underneath a week-old beard. When I reached into my purse to find money he said, "No, just get out. Now."

I obeyed and I didn't look back until I was in my car again. I could see that the rest of the staff seemed anxious, too. I resolved that I would check out the town without delay.

The first thing I noticed when I reached Ravenna was the smell. It wasn't like the countryside aroma of pollen and wildflowers that saturated the air on the drive up. It had a hint of something I couldn't recognize, and it made my nose tingle as if I was smelling freshly spilled blood. But I saw nothing to suggest the smell actually was blood, and I didn't think the hysteria I'd seen would have been caused by the place's scent alone.

I spent some time exploring the roads. I found the town's post office among some dilapidated buildings and beside the minuscule town hall, and I parked and ventured a look inside. It was dusty in there, and dim. Half of the light bulbs looked to be burnt out. There was a boy at a small desk and sitting in a folding chair. I had assumed he noticed me when I entered, but when I got closer with the intention of breaking him out of his silence, I realized that he was napping. He was sickly-thin, and he looked like he was only a few years into his teens. The colors on his teeth matched the stains on his ripped overalls. I'd thought I might have better luck learning about the town from a resident, and I imagined the boy might be less tight-lipped than the adults I'd already spoken to.

I said, hoping to wake him, "Hello?" He didn't stir, so I tried again, louder. "Hey, kid?"

He moved a little, but he still wasn't awake. I decided it was a lost cause, so I looked around and took account of the office around me. It was small, much smaller than any other post office I'd been in. The boxes on the walls had transparent fronts, and I could see that none of them contained more than dust. There was a folding table in the center of the single-room building, and it had an empty bin labeled "mail" with a red plastic cup of uncapped pens resting next to it.

I opened the glass door to leave, and I heard the boy call from behind me. "Who're you?" I was surprised by the hostility in his voice.

I turned around and let the door shut. The sun beat down through it and onto my back, and I noticed that I was sweating. I lied, "I'm just passing through." He seemed unsatisfied. I said, "I heard unusual things about this town and I wondered what it was all about."

He stood, and he was taller than he appeared when he was sitting. He said, "You should leave." I thought that it was fear rather than anger that made his voice tremble as it did, but I didn't think that I was in any position to doubt he would react violently if I pressed.

I said, "Okay! Okay, I'll leave." I hurried out and back into the safety of my car. I watched through the door while the boy returned to his chair and sat down. He stared at me until I drove away.

I was unsettled, but I wasn't any less determined to wring a story out of the place. I continued a short way on the road until I found a short man in front of a white house with a telephone pole intruding on its lawn and a pickup truck with a flat tire rusting in its driveway. I parked on the edge of the road in front of the house and I approached the man while he watched me with something like suspicion. He wore faded jeans and a red plaid shirt, and there was more hair on his knuckles than I might have expected to see on his arms.

I stopped a cadaver's-length away from him and before I could ask any questions he demanded, "What do you want?"

I said, "I just wanted to ask you some questions."

He said, "I don't reckon you'd want my answers."

I said, "I'd like to ask them anyway, if you don't mind."

He said, "Fine. But only if you go inside with me so I can get me lunch."

I prayed that I wasn't going to regret going in the man's house with him. I said, "Sure. Will you make me one, too?"

"Fine."

I followed the man in. It smelled like cigarettes in the house, and there were stains on the carpet and on the ancient furniture I could only hope weren't piss. There was thick fur on everything like a dog lived in the house, though I didn't see one around. He led me to the kitchen and I declined his invitation to sit on the cement blocks he used for chairs at a dining table.

I said, "What's your name?"

He said, "Jon."

I said, "It's nice to meet you, Jon. I'm Rachel." I stuck out my hand to shake his, but he ignored it and went to searching for bread in the pantry. I said, "Nobody wants to talk to me about this town. Why not?"

"People don't like the things what happen in this town."

I said, "What things happen that they don't like?"

Jon finished fishing things out of the fridge before he responded. I occupied the minutes by counting how many ants I could see marching along the floor. Then he looked directly at me, and I wondered what it was I saw clouding his eyes and distracting his thoughts. He said, "We don't think about death here the same way the rest of you folks do."

I said, "What do you mean?"

Jon only shook his head. He gave me a sandwich on a crusty paper plate and I forced a bite down my throat to be polite.

I grimaced from the foul taste of the sandwich as much as from the unsatisfying answers. I said, "Thanks for the sandwich." I left it on the dining table, and I tried not to look at Jon's expression of disappointment. I contemplated forcing myself to vomit after I was in my car again. My stomach was churning and I thought I would return to Bonham and find someplace peaceful to think over what I saw, and to find myself a more satisfying dinner.

I turned the car around to go back the way I came, and I passed the post office again. I slammed the brake when it registered in my mind what I'd seen through the door in my periphery. A fetid scent played faintly on my nostrils. I shifted into reverse and my mouth gaped once I accepted what I saw.

The boy in the post office was hanged by a noose from the ceiling. I'd seen death before, but never like that, never something I felt so invloved in. It made me sick to realize how he'd been living and healthy what must have been less than twenty minutes prior. I fought panic and I decided that either I was hallucinating - damn that sandwich - and I needed to get myself out and take a break, or I wasn't hallucinating and I needed to be somewhere else before suspicion fell on me for being stopped next to an undiscovered hanging.

I drove straight for the hotel while nausea tugged at my stomach. Once I arrived I couldn't stop myself from running to my room, and I threw myself into the bed and I shook with tears.

I had to go back. I was becoming more sure of what I saw, and there was no way in hell I was going to give up writing the story after the death of a teenager had inserted itself into the situation. But it could wait until tomorrow. I found a nice restaurant with bright lights and lots of happy people and I sated my hunger with a hamburger and cheap beer.

I returned to the hotel that evening with a renewed determination. It faltered a little when I sprayed reeking diarrhea into the toilet, but a little food poisoning from an ant-infested sandwich wasn't enough to kill it entirely. It was a productive first day, I thought, once I had managed to detach myself from what I'd seen. I thought that with such strange news as an unexpected death the town would have to be more forthcoming.

The ceiling appeared in my vision like a sledgehammer; I saw it falling down on top of me and smashing me like an insect. I jolted up and realized it was only the sheets on top of me, and I touched my forehead and found I was feverish. I knew I'd awoken from a dream, but I couldn't remember anything except that it was grotesque and terrifying. I rinsed the sweat off myself in the shower and I readied myself to face the day.

While I was walking past the lobby on my way out of the hotel the receptionist called, "Rachel? Can I talk with you a moment?"

I said, "Sure," and I approached the desk she sat behind. The woman's breath smelled like garlic and her curly hair was unkempt. Her wide eyes avoided focusing on any one place for more than a few seconds. The nametag on her breast said her name was Kate.

Kate whispered to me, "I was told you asked somebody about that town. A waiter?"

I said, "Which town?"

She said, "Don't play dumb with me." Her eyes kept darting, and I gave up trying to keep track of what she was looking at. She said, "Don't go there. You hear me? You don't want to go there." After I didn't answer for a moment, she sighed and shut her eyes. "You already went there, didn't you?"

I nodded.

Kate looked steadily at me and said, "Don't go there again. You understand? Don't do it. Stay away from there."

I nodded again, and I left for my car. I drove to Ravenna.

The boy wasn't hanging in the post office anymore. I parked in the lot, just as quiet and undisturbed as it had been the day before, and I crept inside. There was a boy - a different boy - sitting at the chair by the desk and looking at his lap. There were still frayed fibers of rope stuck in the ceiling. I realized then that there had been no police in sight since I came back to the town, and that there didn't seem to be any hubbub besides.

The new boy was shorter than the previous, and his hair was a greasy mop of dirty blond. The t-shirt he wore must have been a size too small, it hugged his shoulders and chest so tightly it was almost comical. I cleared my throat and the boy looked up, noticing me for the first time.

After a delay of a few seconds in which he seemed unsure how to react, his face turned to rage and he howled at me. "Damn you, woman, what're you doing here again? Get out! Go away! Don't come back!" He pushed himself up from the chair and he grabbed it as if he was going to bludgeon me. I backed away and fled to my car. I gripped the steering wheel hard and tried to stop myself feeling dizzy. Finally I gathered myself, and I went again to see Jon and hear what he might have to say.

He wasn't in his yard so I parked in the driveway and I knocked on the door. There wasn't a response, but it was the same time of day as I'd seen him before and the same pickup truck sat unmoved from the driveway. After spending some minutes knocking, I walked around the back of the house to see what I could see.

I saw Jon's pale body in his back yard, there was dried blood caked along his wrists and forearms. He wore the same jeans and the same plaid shirt. His eyes were open and vacant and I couldn't stop myself standing over him and staring into them. I saw a rusting pair of scissors in the grass near his stiff hand. One of its blades was covered in red. I felt a moment of gratitude that I hadn't eaten breakfast that morning; it made the ordeal of vomiting briefer and much less disgusting than it might otherwise have been.

I wiped my mouth and I turned around to put myself back in my car, but the boy from the post office had since appeared from around the house's corner. He held one of the pens from the cup I'd seen inside, beside the mail bin. He screeched at me wordlessly, and he thrust the pen into his throat. The screech came out as a whine, and then a rasp, and then he collapsed. His eyes still followed me while I backed away and tripped over Jon. I scrambled away and back to my feet, and I watched the blood seep out from his neck and disturb the ants that crawled under him.

My heart pounded while I sat in the car with my head in my hands. I raked my skin with my fingers until I drew blood, and then I kept doing it. I should have heeded the warnings that everyone gave me. But how could I know? Ignorance was no excuse. A mixture of blood and tears dripped down my hands and elbows and onto my slacks. What did I do? What was I going to do? I slowed my breathing and I assured myself that I was going to be alright. I started the car and I found my way out of the town.

I wanted to melt back into the room unnoticed, but the receptionist saw me and she saw my face. She said, "Rachel?" It was almost a whimper.

I went to her desk and I leaned on it. I wanted to say I was okay, but I couldn't get any words out.

Kate said, "I told you not to go there. God, why didn't you listen?" She came out from behind the desk and she held my sholders. "Shh, it's going to be okay. You're okay. Come on, let's get you to your room."

She brought me there and she unlocked the door for me. She helped me to the bed and sat with me on it. I said, "What the hell was that?"

She said, "Maybe a curse, maybe a cult, maybe they're all just insane."

I said, "I don't understand."

Kate explained, "They kill themselves if any outsider sees them. Nobody knows why. And nobody talks about it, either, because nobody believes us. And anyone who gets curious just ends up making more people die." After a while of silence she said, "I really need to get back to the desk. I'm so sorry. Once I'm off my shift we can talk more, if you want."

I shook my head to decline, and then I watched her leave the room. I put on the TV in hopes it would clear my head.

I needed to decide what I was going to do. My boss was expecting to get something out of me, but if I wrote about the town it'd only arouse interest. And interest was what led to deaths. I wondered whether there was anything I could do to help. But if I went there again, I realized, it could only cause more damage.

I spent some time thinking on what the receptionist said, that maybe it was a curse. None of those people had seemed especially insane - excepting the suicides - and I couldn't remember seeing any telltale signs of a mass cult. Why couldn't it be a hex? I ordered some wine from the room service to help myself relax, and then I found a phonebook for the city in the nightstand beside the bed.

I flipped through it while I sipped wine, and I looked through the mediums and psychics and priests. I'd never considered the supernatural as a reasonable explanation for things like what I'd seen, but I was shocked and confused enough that I was open to the possibility. I noticed that one name had shown up under all three of the headings I looked through, so I dialed the number and frowned in the mirror at the scratches on my face while I waited for it to pick up.

The woman on the line said, "Hello?"

I said, "Hi, I'm calling because I saw your number in the phonebook. This is Nina's Counseling, right?"

She said, "Yes! This is Nina. Would you like to set an appointment?" Her voice was soothing and nasal.

I said, "Sure. Can you have me this evening?"

There was a sound like she was flipping through pages. She said, "I have an opening at five, if you can make it." That was in a few hours.

I said, "That'll work. Thanks."

Nina said, "No problem! I'll see you later." She hung up.

I was nervous about seeing someone who called themselves a psychic. I thought I would function better if I ate something. I passed through the lobby and smiled at the receptionist and I drove to a restaurant that looked sedate and lonely. I could tell the marks on my face were drawing attention, but there was nothing to be done about it. I greeted the waiter when he came.

His hair was long and it looked like his clothes had been recently ironed, and he wore gauges in his ears. He spoke with a voice lower than I thought would befit his stature. "What can I get for you this afternoon?" I sensed that he was making an effort to ignore my face. At the same time, I realized I hadn't put on new clothes, either, and that the ones I wore were stained. I tried to ignore the feeling of embarrassment.

"I'd like a coke, and a steak." I pointed to a specific steak on the menu. He leaned in reluctantly to see which.

He said, "How would you like it cooked?" He had stepped back to a more comfortable distance.

I said, "Well-done, please."

He said, "What dressing would you like on your salad?"

I said, "Ranch, thanks." I gave him the menu and he scurried away.

I waited a half hour in the empty restaurant before my food arrived, and at the hands of a different waitress. She apologized for the delay and she ran away as fast as the previous had. Before I finished the steak I'd run out of coke to wash it down with and I didn't suspect I was going to get any more. I left cash for the bill and I left.

By the time I'd navigated to the address the phonebook gave for Nina's Counseling it was nearly time for the appointment. I went into the minuscule building and sat alone in the cramped waiting room. A moment later a door opened and Nina invited me into her office, which was only slightly less imposingly small.

After we both sat in cusioned chairs she said, "I have to ask. What happened?" She made a gesture at her own face.

I said, "I was stressed and it just happened, it's not important." I asked her, "What is it you do, exactly?"

Nina was overweight. She had curves like box, and the clothes she wore didn't match. She said, "I'm a conselor. That's my title. I help people however I can, it's what I love to do."

I said, "I found you under categories like 'medium' and 'priest'."

She nodded and said, "I consider myself to be both those things. And I'm an ordained priest of more than one faith."

I was tempted to challenge her about how it was possible to reconcile any one faith with another that way, but I resisted since it wouldn't help me getting the answers I needed. I said instead, "I ran into something bizarre and I wondered if, maybe, it was something supernatural."

She said, "Go on." She leaned in closer.

I said, "I assume you've heard of Ravenna."

Nina sat back in her chair and I saw contempt in her features. She answered calmly, even sweetly despite it. "I think most of us here have. What about it did you want to know?"

I said, "I went there. I just need an explanation."

She said, "I don't think there is an explanation. It's just terrible, and it is what it is."

I said, "But I don't understand. Why would they do that? What reason could they possibly have?"

Nina shook her head. "I don't know." It seemed like she was holding something back. I cautioned myself from reading into it and reminded myself that she made a living off convincing her customers she knew more than she did. I didn't ask anything more and she broke the silence. "Why do you want to know?"

"It's like I said, I'm just trying to find an explanation."

She said, "I think people who are just trying to find an explanation are only happy if they hear it isn't as bad as it seems. It lets them sleep at night. You're not going to be satisfied with that. You want more than just an explanation."

It caught me off-guard. I said, "I wonder if there's anything I can do about it." It occurred to me that Nina must be very perceptive.

She said, "There isn't. If you tried to help you would only make it worse."

I said, "It sounds to me like you speak from experience."

There was a pause. Her voice faltered while she talked. "I grew up in Ravenna. I escaped. I don't think anyone else escaped before." I noticed that I was warm and I wiped at my sweating forehead with my sleeve. She said, "There's a man there. A horrible man. Maybe he's a devil. He kills everyone who tries to leave the town, and he torments anyone who's seen by someone from outside it."

I asked, "Why?"

"For fun? I don't know why. But his tormenting is infinitely worse than death. We would kill ourselves immediately instead of facing what he had in store."

I said, "Isn't there anything to be done to fight back?"

Nina said, "The man is too evil and too frightening. Nobody has dared to try."

I said, "What if I tried?"

She said, "You can if you want, but I don't know if you'll be able to help. I don't know where he stays, or even what he looks like. I only know that he's in the town."

I looked up at the clock, and it seemed like time had passed too quickly. The appointment was past over. I straightened and said, "Thanks for the answers."

Nina said, "You're welcome. Try not to die, okay? Thank you for wanting to help." She ushered me out of the office and accepted her next customer, apologizing for the wait.

I went back to my hotel room and I dreamt of slaying monsters.

My fever was still bothering me, but it seemed to have abated since the previous day. I washed and I put on clean clothes and I covered the scratches on my face with makeup. I drove to a hardware store and searched for things I could use as weapons. I thought it would be best for be to have a gun, but I'd never fired one before and I doubted if I could get one on such short notice anyway. I bought a heavy section of metal pipe and I laid it across the back seat of the car. I drove to Ravenna and I looked for anything I thought might be more suspicious than what I'd already seen.

I found a woman outside, walking on the side of the road. I stopped my car and walked quickly to catch up to her. I said, "Ma'am? I'm sorry, but I'd really like to ask you a couple questions."

When she heard my voice she whirled. It must have been when she realized I wasn't one of the others who lived in the town. She made as if to run away. I said, "Please! I need to talk to you."

She yelled, "What do you want from me?" Her hair was a fiery red and the summer dress she wore looked like it used to be white. She was almost skeletal in appearance.

I said, "Where's the man? The one who threatens you?"

She took a moment processing, like she was surpised I knew. "I shouldn't tell you that! He'll have my soul if I do."

I said, "Please, I want to help." She cowered and I saw that she'd pissed herself. I said, "Ma'am. Please! I can keep you safe." She still didn't respond. "My name's Rachel, alright? What's yours?"

She whimpered, "Sue."

I said, "Sue, will you please let me help you?"

She said, "I don't know." Her knees shook and I worried she would faint.

I said, "Please tell me where the man is."

She repeated, "I don't know."

I said, "Please, Sue. Please tell me where I can find him."

Sue said, "I don't know!" She said, "I mean I don't know where he is."

I frowned. I told her to stay close to me, and I decided I'd leave the car where it was; the town wasn't large enough to make it necessary for getting around. When we'd walked awhile without seeing anyone else, she stopped following me and stood with her hands cupped by her ears.

I said, "Sue? What's the matter?"

She said, "I thought I heard somebody."

I listened with her for a moment. I thought that I could hear rustling, but it wasn't anything I wouldn't expect from the wind.

A body appeared from behind a house, and it sprinted toward Sue. She noticed it running for her and her shriek was cut short by a kitchen knife. The body pulled it out and Sue stared at the wound in her chest while she fell to the ground. The body belonged to what seemed was only another ordinary resident of the town, and he snarled at me before slicing at his own face with the knife and drowning in the blood of his own eyeballs. I watched him twitch in the grass.

I looked away, fought sickness, and continued walking. I knocked on the door of the next house I came to. It was one of the only houses I'd seen with a lawn that had decorations on it. A man answered the door, and I could see a woman and a little girl behind him. He had a big moustache and I saw that he was wearing boots despite being inside. He shut the door in my face. I knew what would happen next. I screamed, "Stop! I'm here to help! Don't do anything!"

The door didn't open when I tried it. I knocked it off its rotting hinges with one adenaline-fueled shove. I stumbled and barely caught myself from spilling onto the ground along with it. The man was there with a handgun pointed at the child.

I said, "Stop! Don't do it!" My eyes tried to adjust to the dimmer light.

The woman looked at me and there was a horrible desperation in her movements. She clenched her face and her fists and she fell upon the man, her husband. She shouted at him, "Not my daughter! You won't have my daughter!" Blood flew from the man's face onto the walls. The girl sobbed and my ears rang.

The woman, scrawny but taller than most other people I'd met, separated herself from the heaving man with an unrecognizable face. She stood facing me and said, "What?"

I said, "I want to help you. Where's the man?" I shook my head and I rubbed at it. I couldn't comprehend what I saw. I said, "The man. The one who threatens you?"

She said, "There is no man."

I thought I misheard her. It would have been easy, with the husband groaning on the floor. I asked her to say it again.

"I said there's no man."

I said, "What? I don't understand." I let my weight fall back onto the wall. My legs felt like twigs.

She said, "Maybe there used to be a man. But there's no man now. My mother told me she didn't get hurt when a stranger saw her. And nobody has seen the man. And nobody can agree on what the man does to you when he catches you, either." She looked at her bloodied hands and she wiped them on her blouse. She dispeled my thoughts that she was starting to feel guilt when she spat on her husband. His moaning intensified. She said to him as much as to me, "A right bastard, he is. He deserved it."

I was still dumbfounded. I could only say, "I'm sorry."

She said, "You don't need to be sorry." She said, "We don't have a car. Do you think you could drive us back?"

I nodded.

She held a bloody hand out. "I'm Elena."

I shook it. "Rachel."

She motioned toward her daughter. "That's Lily." Lily's face was a deluge of tears.

I winced as she stomped on her husband's face on the way out of the house. She had screamed something more at him but I decided I was glad I couldn't make out the words. I led Elena and she held her daughter by the hand. We came to my car and I discarded the pipe so they could sit in the back. I started the engine and drove back onto the main road. Elena made no move to stop Lily looking in morbid fascination at the bodies of Sue and the man who attacked her while we passed. I wondered what grief Elena was battling.

I kept searching around, expecting to be accosted before we could make it out of the town. I saw glossy eyes in every shadow and movement behind every bush. We made it out, though, and the drive to Bonham was a silent one except for the girl's occassional fits of distress. I took Elena and her daughter to the hotel and I got them a room. The receptionist understood, fortunately, when I asked her to keep quiet about the blood on Elena.

I met them again outside their room after an hour. Elena had changed into clean clothes of mine, and for the first time since I'd seen her, Lily was smiling. Elena said, "I let her watch TV."

The girl added jubilantly, "I never watched TV before."

Elena said, "What now?" There was anxiety in her voice. I realized she'd never been outside Ravenna before.

I said, "I know someone who I think can help."

I took them to Nina. She was overjoyed to see me again. She said, "Honestly? I didn't think you were going to survive. I'm glad you did, though!" She asked of Elena and Lily, "Who's this?"

Elena explained what happened, and Nina told about her similar beginnings and assured us that she could get Elena on her feet. She remarked how she was direly in need of a secretary.

I left them with Nina and I returned to the hotel.

Kate said, "Well? Did you help them?"

I said, "Yeah. I found them someone who could." I told her about Nina.

She said, "Did you find out what was happening in the town?"

I said, "It turns out it's a myth. You weren't too far off when you suggested it could be a cult."

She looked over my shoulder a customer who'd just entered. She ignored them and said, "Did you put a stop to it?"

I said, "I don't think I could. Everyone is too convinced, and most of them will kill themselves before they get a chance to listen at all."

Kate shook her head. "I'm so sorry. Are you okay?"

I said, "I'll be alright."

I reached my room and I sat on the bed. I still felt a little ill, but more than that I felt victorious. I had done much more than observe. I found a pen and a paper. I wrote. It wouldn't make the front page. But it made me happy, it would satisfy my boss, and it wouldn't disturb the people in Ravenna.

"A woman by the name of Elena and her daughter Lily were saved by an abusive and dominating husband in a northeastern Texas town. Tensions reached a breaking point when the husband leveled a firearm at Lily. Now they are safe and able to make a new start in a nearby city with the help of another woman who previously escaped a similar circumstance in the same town. This reporter is proud to have been part of the resolution."

Written by Sophie Kirschner