Crawford, Indiana. Population 4362.
When he first saw the circle, or at least its plain, chalky circumference outside the dilapidated house, Sheriff Stuart Stuckey was compelled to consider the issue from two different perspectives, that of a husband and one of a policeman. As a husband, he thought of finding the love of his life, Deputy Jane Stuckey, and taking her as far away from this town as possible—far from the storm of panic and blood that would run through every street of Crawford as things were to unfold.
That was the first thought, and the Sheriff did well not to act on it, given the way those sparse news stories and conspiracy theory websites had reported the fates of those who found themselves encircled.
The second thought, that of a duty to the law, understood that with any crime there was a perpetrator. Stuckey believed he knew the culprit, a face that up until two days ago he hadn’t seen in Crawford since high school, Thomas Holt. This town had not been nice to Thomas Holt and Stuckey suspected Thomas wasn’t back in town for nostalgic tidings.
Stuckey realised he’d been frozen on the sidewalk gazing at the circle for a good number of minutes, deliberating his duties, before a girl riding her bike along the sidewalk toward him, mere feet from the circle, sprung him into action. He pulled his gun, a very un-Stuckey thing to do, and rushed the girl, who instinctively veered off the path towards the very circle he was trying to ward her from. He caught her just in time, while the bicycle rolled itself into the circle. It was a long while before he could calm her hysterical screaming. The neighbours soon came out to see what all the fuss was about. Stuckey turned to see Stephanie McRae out on her porch, squinting her eyes in confusion.
“Everything OK, Sheriff?”
“Stay right where you are, Steph! I’m coming to you,” said Stuckey, taking the little girl by the arm and telling her she had to come with. When he got to Steph’s porch he told the girl to go back home.
“But my bicycle!”
“Leave it! Don’t touch it!”
The girl was shocked, on the verge of tears, “But why?”
Steph was also confused. “Yeah, why?”
“It’s contaminated,” said Stuckey, “I want you to go home and stay home. In fact, tell your mother to keep the doors locked.”
“What the heck is going on, Sheriff?” asked Steph, her anxiety building as she saw Stuckey’s harried face begin to sweat all over.
“I’m not a hundred percent sure what’s going on,” he said, “but I think we may be under attack.”
After rolling the police tape around the house, specifically the circle that surrounded it, Stuckey grabbed Ralph Riggins’ phone number from Steph and called the man inside the circle.
“Who’s this?” said the gruff voice.
“Ralph, it’s Sheriff Stuckey here.”
“The fuck you want?”
Charming, thought Stuckey, before the gravity of the situation roped him back in. “Listen, are the kids with you?”
“Yeah, it’s the weekend.”
Stuckey cringed and turned back to his vehicle, only to find a note stapled on a tree by the sidewalk, facing the house. Stuckey honed in on the note, an old parchment of paper nailed into the oak. Written in ink with cursive were the words:
A food circle:
Once you start
You cannot stop
A hunger never satisfied
Is a dangerous hunger indeed.
A small baseball
A worn glove,
An object loved,
An object loathed,
The rest was cut out, torn off deliberately. Stuckey understood the ingredients portion. They were the keys to Ralph and his children’s salvation, but their display was merely a means of false hope. Stuckey remembered from those news reports that the ingredients required to make the circle could also be found and gathered and then taken out to break the circle. But this was just the beginning, a taunt. Ralph’s assailants didn’t need to leave the note there. Ralph, none the wiser, would have walked out of that circle and undergone an unspeakable fate, or broken the rules of the circle and suffered a similarly awful end.
One time in middle school, Ralph Riggins stole one of the science frog cadavers and waited till after school before he force-fed a young Thomas Holt the little dead frogger. Thomas didn’t come to school for a week after that.
“The hell’s going on, Sheriff?” Ralph growled.
Stuckey rubbed the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. “Okay, I need to you come outside alone, very slowly, and I will explain the situation. I also need you to ensure that your children stay right where they are and it is very important that they don’t eat anything.”
“You telling my kids not to eat? What kind of bullshit is this?”
“Come out slowly and we’ll talk.”
Ralph came out in his wife beater and a disheveled head of hair that said he was carrying a hangover. He saw the Sheriff standing all the way back on the sidewalk and noticed the yellow police tape surrounding his house that cut him off from the world. He carefully walked out till he got to the police line.
“What’s the tape for?”
“Do you remember Thomas Holt?”
Ralph thought deep within himself and this slowness to register made Stuckey sick. How wrong that a bully could forget the awful things he did.
“Middle school.” Stuckey clarified.
Ralph’s eyes lit up in recognition. “Oh yeah! Thomas Faulty! The hell you bringing him up for? And really, what’s with the goddamn tape?”
Stuckey left soon after he carefully threw Ralph the note. He knew he should’ve spent more time explaining things to Ralph, but he had to be blunt and quick even though he was certain Ralph was going to break the one rule imposed by the circle sooner or later. It didn’t seem like Ralph believed, but a frantic Google search later would dispel that doubt. And when he did come to believe, how was he going to explain to his children that they couldn’t have their cereal, nor their lunch or dinner, lest they wanted to spark an appetite that would not stop when the fridge was cleared and the stomachs were full. Thankfully Stuckey had never seen what happens to a body forced to eat itself to death. And if he made it through this impending storm, he knew enough to never step inside that house for as long as he was to live. He called the hospital to get an IV drip thrown to Ralph as a last resort (maybe that didn’t break the rules?) and then informed the hospital that he was calling in a Code Brown.
“What’s this about?” the hospital admin had asked.
Stuckey called Jane when he got back in the car.
“What’s up, hon?”
“Where are you right now?”
“Still at the shops—What kind of meat you want for the Bowl Charity Drive?”
“Listen.” Stuckey cleared his throat, the thought of telling Jane to pack and skip town weighing heavy on his mind, “Something’s happened. You remember me telling you how I saw Thomas Holt walking down Main Street with Jimmy DuPont a couple days ago?
“Yeah, I hadn’t heard those names in quite a while.”
Stuckey sighed. “And you remember how I got a little obsessed looking up that magic circle phenomenon that happened in the Ukraine a while back…”
There was a pause on the other line.
“I just left Ralph Riggins’ house,” said Stuckey. “It’s real. The circles are real.”
“I’ll be at the station in thirty minutes,” said Jane.
“Be careful. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Behind every great Sheriff Stuart Stuckey there was a Jane Freeman (now Jane Stuckey). High school sweethearts, Jane had wanted to join the force and convinced Stuart to join too. He was the youngest Sheriff in Crawford’s history and commanded great respect within the community, even though he knew that it was really Jane who ran the show. Why she never took the head job herself, Stuart never got a full confirmation, though he sensed the mayor preferred it being a man’s job, in keeping with the town’s slow march toward change. Right now, Stuart knew that the Stuckey the town really needed was currently in their slippy little Toyota corolla, gunning it into the station to answer the call of duty.
Jane took several shortcuts at speeds that drew the ire of local Craig Greene, muttering to himself the hypocrisy of law enforcement in this damn country. She screeched into HQ and got changed, relaying to the other sleepy deputies the news. The APB had been signalled only moments earlier.
“Thomas Holt?” asked Deputy Reid.
“He went to Crawford High, a few years above you. Stu saw him a couple nights ago, looking suspicious.”
“That black magic terrorism coming into our town,” Deputy Harris shook his head in disbelief. “That’s real awful business that.”
“What the heck we gonna do, Jane?”
“Well, I think first we need to see if we’re already trapped. One of you should take a cruiser and head over to Brimley, but drive real slow, in case we’ve been encircled.”
“What happens if we drive through the circle?”
“Unless you want your skin to explode, you’d best be reversing back inside.”
The other deputies gulped.
“Okay, Gaines, how about you take that?”
Gaines’ reluctance was palpable. “Uh, sure, okay, I guess.”
The rest of the deputies regarded one another, lost for thoughts. Jane rolled her eyes. “Ok, we need to think up a list of accomplices for Thomas and I want each home checked. I also want, if you can remember, the people who weren’t so kind to Thomas and his friends back in school.”
“Should we get search warrants?”
“It may be the case that we are trapped in some unholy magical circle set up by demented lunatics… but if you think we have the time, then yes.”
“So…was that a yes or no?”
Stuckey’s town-wide search for Thomas Holt ended in Clancy’s Milk Bar. It wasn’t much of a search, to be fair. Thomas was by the booth along the corner window enjoying a milkshake. Thomas had kept his long grungy dark hair from his youth but had added a few neck and arm tattoos to the picture. Much to the horror of all the other diners, Stuckey did not hesitate in drawing his gun, though this didn’t seem to faze Thomas. He just kept sipping his milkshake and smiled at Stuckey’s drawn barrel.
“Never used to like this place. Was always full of douchebags,” said Thomas.
“Still is, allegedly,” said Stuckey.
“Do you have any particular reason for pointing that thing at me?”
Stuckey cuffed Thomas without further word. On his way out, Thomas nodded at the diner owner, “No one puts cherries in their shakes anymore?”
Jane decided she’d go to Thomas’ old place among the pines. The Holt’s were a family of squandered fortune; only Thomas’ senile old mother had stayed in town and nobody saw much of her until she’d passed a couple of years back. Thomas was unreachable and hadn’t shown up to her funeral. In high school, Jane had heard teenage spook stories that a witch lived in the Holt place. She’d dismissed such things as the purest nonsense, just kids being mean, but driving through the pines that day, thinking about all the things Stuckey had told her about the circles, Jane felt like she was Gretel about to find the cabin…
She got out of the car three hundred yards from the house and began her careful walk forward, her eyes peeled to the ground, searching for chalky little boundaries that could allegedly trap her forever.
While Stuckey drove in silence to HQ with Thomas in the back, Deputy Gaines was making his way westward along Miller’s Ridge, the main way out of their town and the best way to get to neighbouring Brimley, he was well out of the suburbs and just over the crest of a hill was where he saw two cars rolled off the side of the road. There were two charred bodies outside each car, though the cars seemed relatively intact. Trying to contain himself, he edged towards the wreckage. Distracted by the arresting sight of human remains, his foot crossed a hot pink line in the road and his foot found all its nerve endings seize up before being engulfed in flames. Gaines jumped back and howled till he rolled the flames out.
It was a long time and a lot of screaming before he regained his bearings. When he did, he crawled back to the little white chalk and found two parallel lines, one hot pink and one white, going off as far as the eye could see in either direction.
Trying to dismiss the fact that he could now smell his scorched foot, Gaines studied the lines with great reverence, and it was in this fearful contemplation that he saw it with his own eyes, like the second hand moving the minute hand, those two lines shifted inward and Gaines scrambled backward as fast as he could.
Stuckey got out of the car and had two other deputies help him take Thomas inside HQ. When they reached the inside, Anne from reception flew out of her desk with more bad news. “Geoff Francis called. A lot of people have been calling him about being able to receive signals on their phones but not being able to send anything out. I thought you should know because he mentioned that all the calls they were trying to make were for people outside of town…”
Stuckey got the deputies to turn Thomas around to face him. “This is you, right? You cutting us off? You want to screw with all of us, you think all those people deserve that?”
Thomas simply smiled, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. The reception has never been good in this town, especially that reception.” Thomas then jerked his head towards Anne and the reception desk. “Asshole” she spat and Stuckey told the deputies to move Thomas along. Stuckey then took Anne aside, “Ask Geoff what he can do to fix it, see who he can reach, if anyone at all. We got anyone seeing if they can make it to Brimley?”
“Gaines is on his way now.”
“She said she’d check out Thomas’ old place.”
Stuckey froze up, as the urban myths of the old Holt place whispered in his ear. He shook it off. “I said on the transmitter we got Thomas. Try get onto her. Tell her to withdraw until we know more.”
Stuckey left to go beat the answers out of Thomas, and as he left the police reception, Anne was once again inundated with calls from all over Crawford describing these strange circles and even stranger feelings…
Thomas was taken to their little-used interrogation room. His hands were cuffed and his pockets searched. They found a wiped phone and Stuckey told one of the deputies to take it to Geoff Francis, the local phone guru. “Gee whiz, I’m surprised Geoff didn’t decide to up and leave this place. Could have done more with himself…”
“Like what, join a satanic cult?”
Thomas smirked at Stuckey. “Now, what’s all this about, Sheriff? I’m getting the sense you think I’ve done something?”
Stuckey rested his arms on the table and stared deeply into Thomas’ cold eyes.
“Ralph Riggins has his children in that circle you’ve trapped him in. I’m asking that you help me get them out. Whatever your gripe with Ralph, fine. I know he was awful to you. But there are kids in there. Two little children who didn’t get to choose Ralph Riggins as a father, and two kids you’re condemning to die because of it.”
Stuckey studied Thomas’ expression as he waited for an answer, and though he sensed Thomas was taken aback somewhat, it wasn’t enough to steer him away from his mission. Thomas leaned back in the chair as best as his cuffed hands would allow. “Ralph Riggins has children? Isn’t there a law that stops pigs from breeding in town?”
The other deputy in the room had seemingly had enough, and he cocked his hand back, ready for a punch, but Stuckey leapt across the table and stopped him. “Check his other pockets.” The Deputy reluctantly checked Thomas’ pockets as Thomas blew his sordid breath on the deputy, making him shudder in unbearable discomfort. Eventually the deputy pulled out a parchment of paper, much like the paper Stuckey had found outside of Ralph’s doomed place.
Stuckey told the deputy to give him the paper. While the paper was passed,
Stuckey exchanged a glance with Thomas, the man showing no fear.
Stuckey held the old parchment with delicate care. The parchment contained the conjuring word for one of Thomas’ circles, Raha Galda Vera Dulichi Malaayan.
Stuckey tried to recall if the tear matched with the torn page describing Ralph’s circle, but the tear and length of parchment didn’t seem to be a match. Stuckey then tried to recall his passing phase of obsession looking up the circle phenomenon. Were conjuring words also the same words that broke the circle? Fuck, he couldn’t remember, all of it a useless mush he’d passed and failed to retain like all the other things on the internet he’d scrolled through.
“Is this for Ralph’s circle?” he asked.
“No. It’s for Broden’s.”
Stuckey froze. Broden was a good friend of his, since High School. He was a carpenter, a man with huge hands that used them hard and fast without thought back in high school. This fared well when he protected Stuckey on the football field, but like Ralph, there had been incidences of cruelty, teasing, more so of DuPont than Thomas, but Stuckey also remembered that after high school, after Broden had that breakdown, he mentioned to Stuckey the apologies he had sought and the forgiveness granted. Had Thomas been one of the lucky few?
“What have you done to him?”
“I rewarded him for his repent. He called me several years ago in tears and said he was sorry for what he’d done and I accepted it. He will be safe from the carnage that follows…”
Stuckey grew deep in thought, a plan forming. He then stormed out the door as forcefully as he could to intimidate Thomas.
He went and found the waiting deputy and Detective Morales. “Broden’s on Thomas’ hit list. Send a cruiser to investigate—be careful where you step though, comprende?”
The deputy nodded in fear but Morales was still sceptical. Just then Anne came running through the hallway. Her eyes were at breaking point, the deluge of calls inundating her mind and turning it to mush. She had two walkies. “I’ve got Jane and Gaines on the line.”
Stuckey grabbed both and froze, unsure of who to speak to first. Anne decided for him.
“Gaines is hurt real bad.”
Stuckey took the walkie with Gaines on the other line. The walkie crackled. “It moved… It’s getting smaller…”
“What’s getting smaller?” Stuckey shouted into the walkie.
“We’re surrounded! We’re in it!”
“Where are you?”
“Top of Miller’s Ridge.”
Stuckey threw the walkie at the deputy. “Find out from Gaines how quickly it’s moving in. Morales, you check Broden out and report the conditions of his circle. If Thomas is telling the truth and Broden is safe in his circle, we may be able to use that to our advantage. If not, stay clear.”
Morales was unmoved. “You really think this circle bullshit is real?”
Stuckey clenched his teeth. “Don’t believe me? When you see that circle, don’t hesitate to walk on in.”
Stuckey then threw Jane’s walkie up to his ear and walked away from Morales, who puffed off to Broden’s. Stuckey found a corner and buried his head into it. He whispered into the walkie, “Tell me this a nightmare, and I’ll wake up next to you.”
Jane was 20ft from the entrance of the old Holt house when she heard Stuckey’s voice. The pines covered the sky and the sun did not reach this place. All windows were dark souls that told stories of torment not just through Thomas’ childhood, but hundreds of years of slow colonisation and the broken spirits that came with it. She thought of the house the Holts had built and wondered who made Thomas’ mom the real witch, was it the house itself or the people of this town?
Three feet from her was not one but many chalk circles, perhaps up to six different colours, each with their own set of deadly rules and traps waiting for Jane to foolishly enter. Strangely, the prospect of plunging into the unknown was exhilarating.
When she heard Stuckey’s voice, she remembered what was at stake and recoiled.
“I’m at the Holt residence. There’s all kinds of rings surrounding the place—it’s as scary as I remember it.”
“Jane, don’t go into the circle! We have Holt, he’s in the interrogation room.”
“I know, Anne told me. She also told me about other rings in town. Something real big and nasty is going on here and I think we need to start talking about a town evacuation now.”
Stuckey sighed on the other line. Jane was always one step ahead, but she was now up against by a force just as smart and cunning. “Gaines was up on Miller’s Ridge. He’s hurt real bad, and he says the town is enclosed in one big ring.”
Jane dropped her head.
“There’s more,” said Stuckey, “the ring is shrinking.”
“I have an evac plan,” said Stuckey, “it may be a last resort. Want to hear it?”
“Thomas said Broden would be spared because he asked for forgiveness. I think Thomas put Broden in a circle safe from whatever goes down. If it’s set in his house like Ralph’s was, I think we can use that circle to save people.”
Jane laughed. “We’ll keep it in the back pocket, though I’m not sure how Broden will fit four thousand people on his property. His porch is big, but not that big.”
“Jane. Come back to HQ.”
“How do we get them out of the circle? Has Thomas given anything else up?”
“There are parchments of paper. Ingredients for the circle, some magic spell words or something to seal and break the circle. I can’t make sense of it. You’ve got to come back and help me figure it out, please.”
Jane knew what Stuckey was doing; trying to protect his girl. But they both knew who wore the pants and the stakes were too damn high. “We don’t find DuPont within the hour I’m going into Holt’s house,” declared Jane.
“Jane!” Stuckey screamed into the receiver, but Jane was already running back to her car.
At first, Morales rolled over to Broden’s at a leisurely pace. It was just hysteria, he figured. Country folks whipped up into a frenzy about the latest teen trend. Morales heard Stuckey had pulled a gun on Thomas at the milk bar, in front of a bunch of kids. Now what would those kids be saying to their parents? Anything calm and civil to keep the peace? Not a fucking chance.
Morales had been an outsider ever since he stepped foot in this town. He was only here because Crawford PD needed a detective and he needed the experience. And what a sleepy existence it had turned out to be. Not a single homicide case, and very few armed robberies. The peace had softened his belly too much. Morales had passed stir-crazy. That phase was over for him, and this disturbance didn’t excite him in the slightest. A few people saw his cruiser and waved him down. You’ve got to go to the fire station, something really weird is going on there, they said. So Morales made a detour and rolled up next to the fire station.
The fire station. Morales braked hard when it came into sight. One of the fire trucks was halfway out the station driveway, its front completely smashed in like it had hit a brick wall. There were firemen standing by the fire truck, banging their hands in the air while some kind of liquid kept pouring out of their mouths. They looked rabid from a distance, and it wasn’t until Morales rolled up closer and got out that he saw it clearly. The men were screaming, howling, trying to plead their predicament, but all that came from their mouths were blast after blast of water, blubbering out their speech and making it unintelligible. Shaken, Morales approached closer and studied the ground these men nor the fire truck could seem to pass. There were two lines of chalk in the ground, one the colour white and one the colour of silver, or as Morales soon deducted (once he had to accept that Stuckey was indeed telling the truth) that the white chalk was for the people while the silver circle was for the trucks.
One of the fire men held up a hastily-written sign of SOS, and waved it aggressively in Morales’ face. Morales stepped back slowly, shaking his head with his hands at a loss of how to respond. What the hell was he going to do? Where in the detective handbook did they explain situations of impenetrable, inexplicable horror? Morales got back in the car and sped off from their desperate eyes. His only hope now was that Broden’s circle was nothing similar to the horror suffered by the firemen.
Broden’s was on the other side of town. Morales got there in record time, his chest tightening every time someone tried to wave him down. The people were in a panic; the internet was extremely patchy and rumours were spreading like wildfire about the digital and phone blackout. He put his siren on whenever they came near, as if to say there were worse problems he had to attend to, as if these were problems he could solve when he reached them. Morales turned into Broden’s street and slowed down to a crawl. His eyes trailed the ground until he spotted the circle, this time coloured gold. Morales parked the car right next to the circle and got out, getting on his car megaphone. He cracked the megaphone in the car and asked Broden to step out for a talk. It was a long while before Broden swung open the door in a seeming daze, his face doofy as if he were high. “What’s going on, maaan—Wow, the colours are really colour-y out here,” mumbled Broden, a big dopey grin on his face.
Morales took a step back. “Uh, Broden, have you…been smoking something?”
Broden stepped back, his head ruffled, and he sincerely tried to remember if he gosh darn had. “Gee, I don’t think so?” he eventually said.
“You feeling OK?”
Broden beamed. “I feel pretty fantastic.”
As Morales kept up the talk with the seemingly blitzed Broden, across the street Jimmy DuPont watched on with another of Thomas’ disciples. They wore black punk clothes, a wooden ring placed respectively on their left middle finger. Jimmy DuPont did not agree with Thomas’ decision to give Broden any shred of happiness; some would say Jimmy had it worse than Thomas at the hands of Broden. But it was all part of Thomas’ plan and Jimmy trusted Thomas more than anyone else. They drove off before Morales had a chance to notice Jimmy.
There was a crackle on the radio. One of the scouts from Thomas’ house called, murmuring in Croatian, “She-cop has left, permission to leave and capture? The disciple re-iterated the next step with DuPont. “Yes. Take her. We’ll go get Thomas. I’m sure he’s had his fun by now.”
Stuckey re-entered the room and sat down opposite the grinning Thomas.
“You like sitting in a jail cell?”
Thomas shook his head. “It’s not my kind of environment, really. I enjoy more kind of rounded shapes…”
“But you seem to be enjoying yourself.”
“Well, when you’re in the exalted company of the former ’04 star Quarterback, who wouldn’t be?”
Stuckey sighed. “You sure hold onto things, don’t you? Why’d do you have to come back. You left this place for better things, but you sure aint come back that way. Seems like you didn’t find what you were looking for out there, so you came back to hurt the people who first hurt you.”
Thomas stopped smiling. “And how about yourself? Didn’t think you could make it out of here? Didn’t even try? Who’d you end up with? Was it that Jane Freeman?”
Stuckey remained silent.
“God I remember she was one hot piece of ass, I think when this is done I’ll go find her for a roll in the hay…”
Stuckey kept silent, though one of his fists visibly clenched.
“Do you think Deputy Mrs Stuckey would like a roll in the hay, Stuart?”
Stuckey’s eyes widened, and for the briefest moment he considered shooting Thomas on principle, the town’s survival be damned. But that would be foolish, vengeful, just like Thomas was being right now.
Still on the long lonely snaking road from the Holt place, Jane quickly deduced she was being followed. She’d had a stalker in high school before she’d met Stuart and, in conjunction with her five years of policing experience, she smirked at her follower’s lack of keeping distance. She waited until the perfect bend allowed her time to set up. When her stalker came rolling through, Jane was by the side of the road, behind her parked cruiser, weapon drawn. The small Toyota hatchback slowed down, Thomas’ disciple clearly caught off guard, before the Toyota lined its wheels straight towards Jane.
The Toyota burned rubber and launched itself at Jane, her parked cruiser insufficient as a barrier. At the last moment, Jane dived off to the side, rolling down through the vegetation before the Toyota made its brutal impact. The Toyota blitzed through the side bonnet and careened down the slope into the vegetation, finally stopping after collecting several thin trees. Smoke rising from the bonnet, the disciple emerged, dressed all in punk black. Dazed, he pulled out his bamboo blow dart and scanned the trees for his target. When Jane came into view, her weapon drawn, the disciple blew his poison dart, but clearly short of breath, the dart swirled to the left of Jane.
Jane then put two bullets in the disciple’s chest. She advanced and dodged another poorly aimed blow dart. “You know, just because you’re all about weird black magic torture circles doesn’t mean you should discard good old-fashioned firepower,” she quipped.
The disciple coughed up blood and then tried to swallow something he’d had in his hand. Jane saw this and she pounced on the man trying to get him to cough it up. Whatever it was, it had gone down the wrong way as the blood was coming up and the man then started biting down on the thing before a swift right hand from Jane sent it spitting loose. Jane picked up the object as the young, brainwashed man whispered his magic words, some old dialect that Jane couldn’t understand. Jane was transfixed by the object, forgetting the threat of her attempted kidnapper. It was a wooden shard, one half of what appeared to be a ring. Jane then looked at the man who had gone still. She checked his pulse and then shuffled away, swallowed the ramifications. After taking a moment, she pried open his mouth and fished out from the back of the throat the rest of this man’s wooden ring. She wiped off the blood and slobber and connected the two shards to form the remnants of the disciple’s wooden ring. This ring he’d tried to keep from her must have made them impervious to the power of the circles.
Jane searched the rest of the man afterwards and found in his pocket two copied notes of a circle conjuring (one where the trapped participants were forced to keep turning in circles indefinitely) and another image of a snake eating its own tail and the materials needed to make it. It was titled string snakes, whatever the hell that meant.
She was soon on the phone to Anne.
Stuckey left Thomas’ room barely restraining himself to take Jane’s call. “Why aren’t you back here yet?”
“I caught one of Thomas’ boys.”
“Bring him in. I want to see you…”
“He’s already dead.”
There was a pause on the other line as Stuckey came to the reality that his wife had now just killed someone. “I’m sorry you had to do that.”
“I’m not, he tried first. Listen, He was trying to hide something from me, a wooden ring. I think that helps them pass through the circles they create… There’s more, I found a copy of one of their circle blueprints, similar to what you found at Ralph Riggins’ place. This one’s also missing whatever magic phrase you’ve got to say to break the circle. I think there’s a master copy of these circle notes in Holt’s house—“
“—You’re not going in there!” ordered Stuckey.
“We may not have a choice. How quickly is the town circle shrinking?”
“Slow enough,” Stuckey lied. Gaines had confirmed a rate of two yards a minute. That circle was dropping into the valley and they’d be done by sunrise the next morning. “Those wooden rings, you just have to put them on and that’s that?”
“No, I think there’s something you need to say. God. I can’t believe this shit is real.”
“We checked Thomas, I don’t remember seeing any wooden rings.”
“Well, dear, maybe it’s like your socks, you’re going to have to check again.”
Stuckey rolled his eyes. Jane always found time for a quick jab. “Just come back here. We’re going to regroup and send out a team to track down Thomas’ men. I’m also calling it, Broden’s circle is the sanctuary and Morales is directing people there.”
“Any contact with the outside?”
“I haven’t heard any update. Get back here, Jane.”
Jane looked back in the direction of Holt’s house. She knew it was the inevitable endpoint, but this would have to wait.
There were seven men who surrounded police headquarters as the rest of the town descended into panic. Almost all of the other deputies (there were six of them) were now out helping Morales direct people to Broden’s happy circle. Aside from Anne and Stuckey, there were only two other deputies and a visiting parole officer situated at HQ. None had ever discharged a firearm at another human being.
It was Anne who first noticed the men standing menacingly out the front at the start of the empty police car park. She called Stuckey over immediately. Stuckey and the other deputies lifted the blinds and watched the people in black tip a hessian sack upside down. short cuts of rope fell to the floor. “Is that rope?” asked one of the deputies. “Are they armed?” asked the other. “Can you see DuPont?” Stuckey asked to himself.
“Do we go out there?”
Stuckey thought about it then fearfully said no. “Anne, call Morales and everyone else back here.”
“What’s he doing with the rope?” asked the deputy, his weapon now drawn. Soon, all their weapons were drawn.
“Morales is still at Broden’s coordinating,” said Anne, “Harris and Benson are 6 minutes away. Tomlin eight minutes.”
One of Thomas’ disciples leant down to the dropped rope and began talking to it.
Stuckey grabbed his receiver, “Morales, get your ass back over here. We need backup.”
“What’s he going to do with those—holy shit!”
The two deputies took a step back from the window and Stuckey squinted to see that the ropes, maybe each 4 feet long, had suddenly come to life and started slithering along the ground like snakes towards HQ. The parking lot was soon filled with them. Stuckey ran up to the front door and locked it just as the ropes reached the wheelchair ramp. Everyone in the reception backed up against the wall and then when the ropes started climbing up the walls Stuckey figured they were going to enter through the air vents on the roof. Stuckey told one of the deputies and the parole officer to keep an eye on the disciples, while Stuckey and the other deputy raced over to Thomas’ room to see if the ropes were trying to free him.
Thomas was still sitting still with his eyes closed, humming a skin-chilling tune of an old western tragedy.
Just as they did, they heard a scream, followed by gun shots. They hauled ass back to the reception to find Anne and the other deputy scrambling back to the office, the deputy shooting at the ropes that slithered along the floors, walls and ceilings with seemingly only one thing on their mind. Stuckey and the other deputy followed the others back into the office and also opened fire.
Hitting the damn things was nigh impossible. The deputy screamed that they just kept coming and he wasn’t lying. They’d shoot them in the middle and split them, only for the split parts to then start attacking as two. It was hopeless. One of the deputies was on his desk when the ropes rose from the ground and encircled his feet, locking him in a circle. They all saw it and the deputy panicked, losing balance and falling from the circle. His entire body was immediately engulfed in flames. They tried to put out the fire but were wary of the ropes. Now the room was getting smokey. The parole officer was encircled next and Stuckey warned him not to leave the circle. The ropes came slithering from every angle. One of the deputies was backed into a corner. Stuckey was running out of options. The guns weren’t cutting it, they needed to be completely eviscerated, and when Stuckey looked back at the deputy still in flames and the rope circle burnt to a crisp, he had his answer. Stuckey ran to Morales desk and swiped the large bottle of nasty-ass cologne Morales like to spray on thick. Stuckey then swiped a lighter from Gaines’ desk and threw the bottle at the deputy’s feet. The bottle smashed and Stuckey yelled for the deputy to jump away. He did so and Stuckey threw the lit zippo at the corner and the entire corner was set alight along with most of the ropes. Retreating back to where Stuckey stood, both of them then turned to Anne, who had gone with a different method and trapped the rest of the ropes in waste bins.
They got the fire extinguishers and tried to save the deputy but it was painfully obvious he couldn’t be saved. The parole officer, still entrapped, asked what the hell he was supposed to do.
“Well, let’s hope these things are breakable.” said Stuckey.
Stuckey retrieved some scissors and carefully cut the rope like he was cutting the green wire on a bomb. When nothing happened and Stuckey flicked the rope away cautiously, the parole officer asked if it was OK to move now and Stuckey said, “Not until we’re a safe distance away.” Everyone watched with baited breath as the parole officer took one sweat-dripping step forward and breathed a deep sigh of relief.
If only that relief was to stay.
They returned to the front to check on the DuPont gang and found a walkie by the front door. Stuckey carefully unlocked and fished the walkie inside before locking the door again. There were no signs of the DuPont gang.
The walkie crackled. “Hello, Stuckey. I would like to speak to Thomas, please.”
Stuckey’s teeth clenched. “Now listen here you piece of shit. I’m going to make you pay so hard for what you’ve done. I’m going to boil your fucking testicles in a deep fryer so you can experience the burning you’ve caused you greasy fucking fast food shit for brains.”
“Thank you for your kind words, Stuckey. I only want to speak to Thomas, but I could just as easily send more of my snakes if you’d prefer.”
Everyone else flinched. Stuckey motioned for Anne to get an ETA on their backup.
“And find out how far off Jane is,” he added. Anne hurried off and the others tried to reinforce the waste bins holding the rope snakes.
Stuckey returned the walkie to his mouth. “You can talk to me.”
“Aren’t those accused supposed to get a phone call?”
Stuckey scratched at his head, trying to scratch out his nerves. DuPont’s tone was calm and in total control, not like back when he was a deadbeat working in that dead-end Wendy’s. Stuckey knew him as that, and the fact he’d clearly changed so much under Thomas’ tutelage unravelled Stuckey. He got the deputy to follow him to the armoury and got one of the bolt-action rifles and shotguns. The deputy was essentially a rookie; he’d only been in the job for five months. “You keep an eye out for DuPont, you see any outlines, any chalk in the distance and you see them, you start shooting.”
The deputy nodded, trying to be brave, but his body was shaking, and the rifle he took soon starting shaking as well.
Stuckey then headed to Thomas’ room. He stared down Thomas and then cocked his pistol. He brought the walkie up to his mouth. “You can talk to Thomas. But you say any of that magic bullshit and I kill him.”
“You kill him, and no one leaves the circle. Not even your pretty little wife…”
Thomas grinned. “I’m sure he just wants to talk to me about the weather, Stuckey.” He then raised his hands in innocence, as much as the cuffs would allow. “No funny business, I promise.”
Reluctantly, Stuckey held the walkie up to Thomas, who never took taking his eyes or his grin off Stuckey. “Master?”
“Have you had enough fun?”
Thomas took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, those eyes never leaving
Stuckey saw what it meant, DuPont was coming in to retrieve his master—his master, who had let himself be captured in order to get a front-row seat to the chaos.
Thomas said his magic words just as Stuckey threw the walkie away, not that this would stop the cementing of the circle he was now sure they were trapped in. The sound of the walkie being smashed against the wall was then followed by the sound of gunfire, which shocked both Thomas and Stuckey.
Stuckey rushed outside to find the deputy shooting the rifle at will through the window by the burned-out corner, Anne fending off more snakes in the reception and the parole officer once again trapped by some rope snakes.
“Stay right there!” Stuckey yelled at them before joining the Deputy at the now shattered window. “Backup is taking fire!” the Deputy screamed before shots started raining down on HQ, sending them both ducking. Stuckey then kicked at a yellow rope snake making its way towards them and threw a waste bin on it, before turning back to see the deputy take a bullet to his temple. Stuckey stepped back and fell over the waste bin, tipping it free and sending the yellow rope they probably sold at Daniel’s Hardware for less than $1.50 slithering toward him, trying to make another fucking circle. Stuckey grabbed the rope by its frayed head and forced the rope to make a circle with him outside it, turning the rope solid and lifeless.
More shooting outside drew Stuckey’s attention and further spliced his nerves. Stuckey then picked up the rifle from the deputy and aimed through the window. He looked through the scope. Morales was still alive and Stuckey saw the sniper atop the roof of the donut diner had just switched his attention to Stuckey. The scope glinted as the sniper lined him up. Stuckey’s breathing slowed. His exhale came first and so did his bullet, which dropped the sniper out of sight.
The gunfire continued, but Stuckey couldn’t see who else was left. His head flush and his concentration straining, Stuckey returned to free Anne and the parole officer. When he saw them both standing there, helpless, they each shared a tired look. Stuckey was about to get a pair of scissors from one of the desks and was about to cut the parole officer’s circle rope when he heard the voice of Thomas in the other room. “DuPont, where are you? Get me out of here!”
Stuckey halted his scissors quest and turned away from the parole officer at the last second, storming swiftly off in the direction of the interrogation room while copping a stream of fury from the parole officer. Stuckey swung open the interrogation door and found Thomas had shifted the entire table over to the downed walkie, one of his shoes off, as he tried to operate it with his toes. Stuckey raised his pistol, but before he did, the warnings of the parole officer and Anne finally hit him.
He looked down and only just managed to get one of his feet out of the tiny rope’s way. The rope coiled around his left foot and cemented itself.
All of his body was free, except for the foot, but that was cruelly enough.
Thomas and Stuckey exchanged shocked faces, as both their circumstances had equally degraded in the tiny room. Thomas looked down at the table and decided to charge. He slid the table across, trying to knock Stuckey’s foot out of its circle and into fiery combustion, but Stuckey caught the table and strained to keep his foot in place, only just managing to hold firm, before he fired off a side shot from the table, hitting Thomas in the arm and halting his push.
“Ah, FUCK!” Thomas yelped and a temporary truce was initiated.
Jane approached HQ with shocked eyes. Tomlin Street had become a warzone of lead and red; bodies from both sides hunched over behind cars, their fatal wounds pooling onto the street. She found DuPont, his body lifeless and his wooden ring destroyed. Her heart broke when she saw the arc of another goddamn circle enclosing what she assumed was HQ. She was about to radio in to Stuart, but was interrupted by the sound of someone coughing. She walked around what she identified as Morales’ cruiser and found Morales, sitting against the car, holding his bleeding stomach.
Jane had always liked Morales’ style, an admiration Stuckey had always taken to with thinly-concealed jealousy. She knelt by Morales. “How bad is it, Detective?”
Morales winced a smile. “I’m detecting a few exit wounds and maybe one lodged in my kidney.”
“Holt’s men dead?”
“We did our best. I sure hope so.”
“Can you walk if I help you?”
“Only if you carry me,” Morales joked and Jane laughed. “The hospital hasn’t been encircled, has it?”
Morales coughed again as Jane helped him up and into his cruiser. “Afraid so. They’re all spinning around in circles in there. Can’t seem to stop. Take me to Broden’s, we’ve evacuated everyone we could there; your husband said it would be safe.”
“Did you say spinning?”
Morales nodded. “I don’t think they’ll last much longer.”
Jane took out the copied notes of the disciple she’d killed. Morales asked her what it was but she didn’t respond, lost in her new responsibility. Jane then closed the car door on Morales. “I need to talk to Stuckey.”
She walked up to the circle and got on her radio attached to her shoulder strap.
“You there, hon?”
Stuckey and Thomas shared a glance.
Stuckey picked up the walkie and kept his gun trained on Thomas. “It’s good to hear your voice, bub. Listen, you may need to be careful with what you say right now. I’m stuck in the room with Thomas.”
Jane swallowed this down the best she could. “OK. I’m going to take Morales to the hospital, and I’m going to try and break the circle there…and if that works, I’m going to go to Holt’s house.”
Stuckey and Thomas shared another glance. Stuckey reaffirmed his grip on the gun for Thomas’ benefit. “Jane, I don’t want you going in there.”
“Holt’s house is the key to this. He’s probably looking at you right now trying to persuade you that it isn’t.”
Stuckey strained to study Thomas, who instinctively changed face and looked away, childishly trying not to give anything away.
“But as well versed as he is in his black magic business, I’m pretty sure he’s got a cheat sheet he depends on, and if that cheat sheet is anywhere, it’s in his house.”
“There’s not a chance she’ll be able to make it out alive,” Thomas whispered, “It will be the end of her.”
Stuckey paused for a moment, summing up their options. There was only one.
“I’m the only one left,” said Jane. “I’m our only shot out of here, not just for us, but Thomas as well. All his friends are dead now.”
Thomas took this news very badly. Stuckey placed his hands on the table ready to halt any push.
“Let me know if he decides to cooperate,” said Jane.
“I have to go now.”
“I know. Be careful.”
“I think we should get ribs for the bowl charity drive too. I think that would be good for the community.”
Stuckey shed a tear. “You always know what’s best.”
“I’ll see you soon. Love you.”
And then the room went silent, as Jane set off on what may be her last assignment.
Jane dropped Morales off at Broden’s, his face growing paler and paler, despite his claims that he would be okay. It looked like half the town was crammed into Broden’s, with not a hint of fear among them; instead, she was greeted by a sea of smiles as each chatted to one another as if they were at a party. Morales was welcomed with cheers at seeming odds with his deteriorating state. As he entered the circle and was surrounded by the happy people, Jane came to realise that Morales knew he was a goner, and just wanted to go out happy. And it wasn’t a stretch to say that Jane was a little sad she couldn’t join them in the happy circle. A thought like that chilled her skin, as the weight of her task on her lonesome shoulders seemed to sink in all at once. But she kept going, and made her way to the hospital.
Some were already dead, having spun across the circle and entered a fiery end. Others were collapsed on the grass at the front, unconscious yet still rolling in circles along the ground like rag dolls.
Jane checked her copy of the circle conjuring and got to work. She got on her car speaker, and called for a doctor to meet her at the parking lot. A young resident, still spinning, came out to meet her. The resident’s scrubs were filthy with puke and despite her spinning making even Jane feel disorientated, the resident was able to understand Jane’s perplexing instructions: to find a purple shoe, a toy spinning top and a wine glass filled with sand.
Oddly, the young resident nodded away and said she already knew where two of those three things were, and set off to retrieve them. She returned almost an hour later, still spinning, and Jane then gave her the next few steps, to pour water over each while reciting these strange black magic chants. The resident took a while to master the chants but when she did, the objects seemed to fizz like boiling water leaking out of the pot, the magic work of Thomas undone. The young resident, Sandra, then merely had to throw them out of the circle while reciting more lines. One by one, the items were thrown and when the last one touched un-circled ground, Sandra’s world stopped spinning.
Lifted by this small victory, Jane set off for the Holt residence, the afternoon sun beginning its descent.
There is a darkness in every man, and standing in front of the Holt residence, those dark windows staring back at her, Jane got the chills of all the lambs slaughtered in the name of this eternal darkness. She wanted to say one last thing to Stuckey, if it was going to be her last words. A simple I love you—the truth, the light, to carry her in the darkness. But she thought better of it. Just do it. She switched on her Maglite instead, much more practical that way.
The circles were many. Six colours in all. She’d gather all the wooden rings she could find that weren’t destroyed, even though they seemed lost causes and stood once again at the edge of the circles…
Call it cold feet, but Jane decided in a split second decision to try a few things before making that first step.
She got out a shovel and tried to dig under, but the shovel head got stuck and couldn’t be pulled out.
She got out the body of one of the disciples with their wooden ring still attached and flopped the body over the circles, like a human bridge. She then tied a severed hand to a rope and cast the hand over her body bridge like casting a fishing line…but like the shovel head, the rope would not be tugged out, the circle now its home.
Sighing, Jane stepped to the side of the body bridge and took a deep breath. The wind was picking up, fallen leaves swirling around the snow globe that was Thomas Holt’s dark soul.
Last chance to talk to Stuckey for courage.
But once again, she thought better of it.
She raised her leg and closed her eyes, the thought of those dark windows watching that first step too much to bear.
And then it was done. She was inside.
Jane then tested all possible means of escape to rectify this cold and lonely mistake. She dragged the rest of the disciple and tried to tip the body the other way back out. This time the body fell and hit the invisible wall, its face sagging against it.
“Shit,” she muttered, her first word in over an hour.
Since she’d stepped inside the rings, she’d had her back to the house the entire time, almost trying to ignore its presence, but this was truly foolish; like turning one’s back on the ocean. Jane had only been to the ocean once, on a trip to Atlantic City with Stuart. The water was calm in New Jersey, but she had heard the saying said once before on TV and it kept with her when she sat with Stuart in the early morning after a night of flashing-light revelry. And it was thinking of this she realised she’d probably never see Stuart again, let alone the ocean, now that she’d stepped inside this cruel place. Before she stepped inside the house and crossed another threshold, she gazed into those dark windows and promised she’d burn the house down if all else failed.
It was lucky she’d kicked the door down the way she did. Coming clean off its hinges and falling flat, Jane used her flash to cast out the position of where she was going to slide the door frame. She slid it forward then checked her left and right sides; on what would have been covered by the open door was a circle on the wall, its requisite items nailed and hanging within it. Jane made sure to avoid its projected circumference traveling across the entrance by getting on her hands and knees and crawling under. Once passed, she wiped the sweat from her brow and took every next step with the greatest care. All rugs were treated as if they concealed circles, and most turned out to be concealing the white chalky traps. Her light shone on framed family photos, the smiling Thomas and his aging mother in better times, twisting her hatred and making her uncomfortable intruding into another person’s home.
She crept and crept and crept along, shining the light on dusty surfaces.
She checked bookshelves in each dark room on the first floor, and when she came up empty, she’d topple the bookshelf onto the floor in frustration. In truth, she knew where the book would be: Thomas’ childhood bedroom, surely. She figured it would be upstairs, and lo and behold, when she finally shuffled into his room, there it was, a fat and worn hardcover book, encircled in a silver circle (stopping objects from removal) and a black circle, which Jane had not yet seen. She approached with caution, and studied the rest of the room for traps. The black circle had been burnt into the carpet, the burnt fibres sticking up like thorns, and had a dark menace to it, unlike the playful chalky circles that spotted the town.
She walked carefully back down to the kitchen and got her some cooking utensils, with the aim of dragging the book to the dark circle’s edge and carefully reading it until she found what she needed to save the town. Unfortunately, this effort proved fruitless and clumsy, the book would not open or be moved other than the touch of human hands. How Jane figured this out was unknown to her, just a feeling, but of course this had to be the case; there was only ever going to be one way to get that book. Sighing, she tried to call Stuckey, but there was no response. Nothing seemed to be getting through. Finally, she simply said, “I love you Stuart Stuckey, I’m sorry if I fail.” And then she stepped into the dark circle, sat down and crossed her legs like a child in the quiet corner of a library.
When she opened up the book, the explanation for the dark circle slid out as a loose page. It was titled The Reading Circle.
Ingredients: A single book.
Nature: Each word spoken, as it is written. First page to the last.
She looked at the book and flicked through its pages, they were not numbered but there had to at least have been 200 pages…
Each word spoken, as it is written.
What other choice did she have?
And so Jane dug in, with everything she had. She had her Maglite, but no water to quench her throat. Each exasperated word like drops of poison to her mind. She tried to forgo understanding and simply recite the words divorced from their meaning. Interspersed with the recipes of circles deadly and absurd, were the tales of Thomas Holt, his life snaking through the pages. The story of a young boy cursed by a town that didn’t understand him and punished mercilessly for this difference. She tried not to empathise, to fall for his sad tale knowing what he’d become. But as her vision blurred and the mind grew weary, Jane’s couldn’t help but think of Thomas Holt and slowly begin to understand…
She kept reading, her throat dry and her eyes fried, learning the dark secrets and immense power of the circles that surrounded her…
Soon after Stuckey’s last conversation with Jane, the parole officer had lost his balance when he unsuccessfully tried to free himself from his rope circle and burned to death in between the main office and the front reception. Stuckey and Thomas could do nothing but listen to his screams and Anne’s wailing as she had to keep herself from collapsing out of her own circle.
Thomas may have mastered the dark arts, but he was still of human flesh and the lack of food had him curling up in his seat.
“She won’t make it,” Thomas rasped, clearly getting desperate.
Stuckey raised his weapon as a reminder, though the strength in his arms and legs were fading. “You don’t know, Jane. She’s a smart cookie…” Stuckey cursed using the word cookie, knowing how it made his mouth salivate.
“She’s walked into a house of six circles, each with conditions that all but guarantee death to the uninitiated.”
“I trust her, she’ll make it back.”
“And when she doesn’t, all those people will die when the sand in the hour glass reaches its end.”
“They’re safe,” triumphed Stuckey.
“And what makes you think that?”
“Because they’ll be in other circles.”
Thomas laughed. “Some circles have more power than others.”
“Are you saying the circle we’re in now is one of those…vulnerable circles?”
“Precisely. If you’ve stepped in the shrinking circle at any time during its existence, then you will burn once outside its circumference, whether it is the size of a continent or a small pea. I’m no exception in this case.”
Stuckey gripped his gun.
“If you want,” said Thomas, “you can kill me right now. Or, we can negotiate.”
“What’s there to negotiate?”
“She’s in one of your circles. You said she’s dead anyway.” Stuckey grimaced at his own words, the pained expression telling Thomas he was getting somewhere, and despite Stuckey realising this, there was no denying that Thomas had his leverage plain as day.
“But you said she’s smart,” mused Thomas, “a smart cookie, and if you truly have faith in her skills, you’ll come to see that it will be the death of her. Because when she breaks the circles of my old family home, she will be exposed to the shrinking circle and nothing will save her from engulfing in flames.”
“Your book of magic—she’ll figure it out.”
Thomas laughed. A big great, exaggerated, maniacal laugh. “She’ll figure out a lot of things. But there are some things I’ve omitted from the book, some torn out and others committed to memory. The one page she needed, page 234, was destroyed by the flame of a cheap convenience store lighter in Leipzig.”
Stuckey’s gun took on a greater weight, the weight of his universe, as his finger slotted against the trigger. “You’re lying.”
“Shoot me then.”
Stuckey raised the gun. “Why should I trust you over my wife?”
“Because if you don’t, she’ll die.”
Stuckey dropped the gun. And then he did something Thomas did not expect. He cried. Bawled his eyes out. For a good ten minutes.
And then there was silence. Thomas knew all he had to do was wait. Let his story sink in. Stuckey was the hero quarterback. Even back in high school he had that glint in his eyes that he could do something special. That he would save the day.
“What do you want,” the hero meekly whispered.
Thomas smiled, this time with restraint.
“I want my freedom. And your life for hers.”
Stuckey looked at him blankly and Thomas briefly thought Stuckey would object.
“Saving the woman you love must come with sacrifices… Think of it as an honest transaction. An honest, fair payment…”
Stuckey stared Thomas down and then reached for his radio, “Jane, can you here me out there?”
There was no response.
There was no response.
“What about the rest of the town? Anne? What will you do with them?”
“Once I free Jane, she will be able to save them and allow me enough time to disappear.”
Stuckey clenched his teeth at the thought of Thomas Holt escaping, yet his honesty filled him with hope that he would keep his promise.
“What’s the deal with the circles anyway?” Stuckey asked, the curiosity having gotten the last of him.
“Why circles? Why not triangles?” Thomas jeered.
“Why you need shapes at all?”
Thomas shrugged. “Maybe it’s just how I was taught. Maybe I thought the feeling of being trapped in a dead-end, dying spot was something the people of this town needed to experience, if they hadn’t already.”
“Don’t you realise there’s probably someone in this circle who is struggling just like you were, who could go on and make something of themselves?”
Thomas swallowed his guilt. “Not for long.”
Stuckey sighed. There was no getting through. “Sure,” he relented. He then lifted the radio to his mouth the tears welling up again. “Jane Freeman, I love you. I’m sorry if I’m wrong.”
The first thing Thomas did was find a vending machine with cookies in it. He got the dried yoghurt with apricot and a Gatorade. He then returned to the interrogation room and pried Stuckey’s wedding ring from his lifeless hands. He then placed the ring on the table and went and cut his own hand with a letter knife and allowed the blood to drip into the inner circle of the ring, creating a miniature pool of blood. He then began his chanting, the dialect an ancient mix of Sumerian and Latin. The louder his chanting grew the more the blood started to boil until at its peak the blood all infused with the wedding ring, turning it into a bronze shade.
When Thomas put that ring on he felt the freedom fill his body. What a lovely relief it was. He walked out to the lobby and the sight of him sent Anne shrieking. Thomas approached her slowly, his eyes wide.
“What did you do to Stuckey?” Anne asked, her face welling up, about to cry once more. “What are you going to do to me?”
Thomas pulled out the letter knife and Anne flinched. He slowly advanced and her whole body shook, and when he bent down, she thought about jumping on top of him and letting her flaming skin engulf his own, but when Thomas started cutting the rope away, Anne stood in shock. Thomas left her there, speechless.
He walked over to the remnants of the shootout and muttered a few solemn words for his downed disciples. Brushing this unpleasantness aside, Thomas then walked through the town he’d made his revenge on, whistling away on the empty streets. The coyotes of the night howled and Thomas howled with them. He walked past the town square, where the large hourglass had been laid in plain sight in the middle of the central gazebo. There wasn’t much time, maybe only around two hours left before the shrinking circle surrounded only the hourglass.
The night sky was growing lighter, the dawn of a new day and a cleansed town emerging—well, after Thomas ran a few errands…
He walked his way to Broden’s, past circles of dead occupants—he checked on the man who force fed him science frogs and pissed in his drink bottle and called it apple juice. Ralph Riggins and his children had finished everything off in their fridge and then with little control had moved onto the closest next thing that passed for edible: they ate all the cleaning products and succumbed slowly thereafter.
Thomas made a slight detour to the school that had been his first prison and lit a small fire that, left unimpeded, to naturally spread and eventually turn it all to ash.
Broden’s property was no more than 400 square feet, yet when Thomas reached its edge and looked into the spaced, partied-out eyes of more than a thousand residents, packed in like sardines and unaware of their grim circumstances, he found himself impressed by Stuckey’s quick thinking in trying to shelter these pathetic hicks. Thomas entered the circle and had to push his way through many a people until he found Broden. Broden was in a dopey daze yet still recognised Thomas, who squeezed his chin affectionately. Thomas hugged Broden and said he was glad Broden repented and this was why he and his family were to be given a peaceful end to their lives. Thomas then went into the backyard and had to part the sea of people standing over the fresh mound of dirt Thomas’ disciples had placed one of the circle’s qualifiers in. Watched on by a crowd of curious onlookers, Thomas carefully dug out the totem, Broden’s high school championship trophy, and held it aloft to the people, who joyfully clapped away. The glory Broden had felt lifting this trophy almost 13 years ago had been the emotion pouring through the happy circle since its inception.
In its place, Thomas dropped Stuckey’s gun, the one Stuckey had reluctantly handed over and received five agonising slugs in the gut for. And as Thomas walked through the crowd and left the circle with a dark, twisted grin, the wonderful feeling of joy that had been inundating all those people’s brains was replaced with the violent vibe attached to Stuckey’s gun. They began to bicker, and this bickering turned to arguing, and this arguing turned to fists, and these fists soon flew everywhere until destroying one another seemingly became their only logical solution…
The falling sands of the hourglass had ceased by the time Thomas reached his old family home. Dawn was here. Thomas got out of Stuckey’s police cruiser and stepped eagerly over the six circles. He rose up the stairs and slowly opened the door to his childhood bedroom.
There Jane sat, her eyes tired, a sizeable chunk of Thomas’ circle book read, though nowhere near close to being finished. Jane turned her head and then locked eyes with the man who had murdered the love of her life and turned her town to ash. A man who’s intimate past she’d read aloud these past few insightful hours.
“Do you understand now, Jane?”
Jane smiled. “Yes. Yes, I do.”