the quaking aspen genre: literary horror style: series - book one One year after the death of his daughter, a drunken plant geneticist accepts a volunteer firewatch role in the aspen woods of southern Utah. But as strange occurrences turn sinister, Mitch, with the help of his charming supervisor, must fight to save his sanity from an unknown entity hellbent on punishing him for dark deeds committed in his past. For the first time in fifteen days, Mitch opened the front door. What motivated the sudden break from his self-inflicted vicious cycle, he was unsure. There was a wide array of distractions to be had within the confines of his house, including but not limited to the towering bookcases bursting with literature and scientific magazines in the office. But something about the newspaper drew him in. Called him. Crooked a finger, winked, and whispered: read me. Instead of looking at the same page of a book for however many hours, Mitch found himself glaring down at an ad in the classifieds, one that glared right back up at him with double the ferocity. Mitch had never been known for backing down from a staring contest. Funny thing about printed words, though. They never blink. FISHLAKE NATIONAL FOREST Sevier County, UT Seeking full-time FIRE LOOKOUT for IMMEDIATE HIRE! 3 months, duration of fire season starting June 1 terminating September 15 Unpaid position. Meals, supplies, room and board provided. No kids. No pets. NO SMOKING. Valid driver’s license required! After pouring the greasy coffee down the drain and shoveling the congealed yellow slop into the bin, he picked up the phone, dialed the listed number, and accepted the job. No interview. No details. Few questions asked. “Do you drive?” “Yeah.” “Can you climb stairs?” “For the most part.” “Do you smoke?” Mitch glanced at the tray crowded with ash and cigarette butts in varying states of decomposition. “No. I don’t smoke.” Good enough for him. People weren’t his strong suit. Never really had been, even before. Exchanging nods of recognition and passive goodbye grunts with the liquor store clerk was about as much as he could tolerate nowadays. But professional and polite conversation? A nightmare straight from the vile small intestine of his own personal hell. He set the phone down with an unsteady hand and a sigh of relief. The philosophy behind his snap decision was relatively simple, in hindsight. Mitch knew that there existed many types of solitude, like different species of the same plant. They may look similar, act similar, even smell similar, but certain genetic variations made them undeniably different; sometimes in the smallest of ways, other times in a manner so drastic that setting the two side-by-side would be akin to comparing apples and oranges. The solitude under this roof was at once crushing in its oppression and suffocating in its emptiness. Devoid of presence. Filled with remnants of her. On those nights he made it upstairs, or managed to pick himself up from the bathroom floor, he passed by Lavender’s room on his drunken stumble to bed. He paused every time, swaying in a scotch-fueled haze. He never could bring himself to touch the knob, nevermind open the door. He’d imagine the layer of dust coating the sheets. The mothball stench of a closet left unopened. The smell of that perfume he bought the Christmas before she died, the pricy one that reeked of roses doused in gin. Faint, now, but still there, molecules of it clinging to the bedspread, windows, and walls like an olfactory cancer. This new solitude—the one in the woods, in an ailing tower in the middle of Bumble-Fuck, Nowhere—had to be better. Any solitude had to be better than the one lurking in the shadows of a house that used to be a home, rendered permanently incomplete without the other half that made it whole. In this godforsaken two-story box, Mitch’s sorrow had become a parasitic monster. The grief was fungal. Viral. Carcinogenic. And it never stopped spreading. He wasted months floundering in the gaping, raw-skinned hollow dug by the absence of her mischievous grin and delighted giggle. He steeped himself in a bath of self-pity and booze and other deplorable things, too exhausted to climb out, too comfortable to pull the drain plug. It was the life he’d built for himself. Around himself. Shutting himself inside with no hope for escape nor means to fashion a lockpick or key or chainsaw to get the hell out. Every day the cage shrank. Every hour the metal bars cinched tighter, stinking of iron, alcohol, and unyielding guilt. He needed a change—a change of scenery and a change of solitudes—and he grabbed it the moment he’d grabbed the phone; sealed the deal the moment he’d said yes instead of nevermind. He sighed, pouring himself another cup of scotch too fine for his singed taste buds. Tonight, it would be a year. He checked his watch. Thirty-two minutes to the hour. It was then, as he curled back into the Mitch-shaped depression in the couch, that the clouds at last decided to fulfill their promise. Rain fell. Mitch cringed. He drank himself into a sleep so deep, not even the nightmares could reach him.