Leaves and Circles is a book and multimedia art project featuring writing, photography, photo composites, music, and animation. You can read the first nine chapters right on this page for free. Just scroll down.
No time to read it now? You can always bookmark this page or send it to yourself to read later.
It’s available as a full-color paperback, an eBook (Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, and B&N’s nook) and as a downloadable PDF on Gumroad. All versions features fifty-one photos, screenshots, and composites in full color.
You can email me with questions or comments about the book: email@example.com
Written by: Spencer Thomas
Produced by: Spencer Thomas
Editorial assistance: Tom Flood
Editing: Katherine Stephen
Photography: Vivienne Gucwa
Compositing: Michael Herb
Music: Spencer Thomas
Cover: Nina Tara
What I write here constitutes a continuation of part the work I’ve done — we have done — since we started our “research” last year. Some part of the work is based on news reports, personal discussions, and social media postings. Other parts are based on memories of personal experiences, my own analysis, or just conjecture. At times the text may jump back forth, interjections thrown in as I remember important things, though I’ve tried to put dates in where I have them to reduce reader confusion. This work is a synthesis of the information contained in the copious notes I’ve kept since it all began, which I’ve tried to put it into a higher-level, more narrative form for better understanding. I assume that anyone that has access to this work will also have access to the raw data.
This is likely the only record of what’s happened here.
Ch1 — Komorebi
It’s been over a year since it all began, a series of events that altered everything so dramatically, so completely, upending thousands of years of human society. That’s what the stretch-banded digital watch-slash-calendar I’ve been using implies; I’m not actually sure how long it’s really been. Ever since late last autumn, time has seemed to sometimes behave in unpredictable, disorienting ways. No laws of causality or thermodynamics have been broken, and time’s arrow has been in its usual forward motion, but there have been punctuations and mismatches that have tested my view of things, my view of what’s real. If other nearly incomprehensible events hadn’t occurred since then, I might be questioning my perception, and possibly even my sanity. However, due to the things I’ve observed and continue to observe on a daily basis, I have to believe those perceptions are correct. For instance, the makeup of days and the weather have changed in noticeable ways. I’ll start with those.
Nights are longer than they used to be, seeming to last until seven or eight AM on typical days, though not all days are what I’d call “typical” anymore. Dawn starts later, and goes on much longer, manifesting as a gray, limply hanging half-light that lingers until around noon. Thankfully, I have a healthy collection of digital watches and those little batteries that you might associate with old-school, tube-sided hearing aids, that allow me to continue to determine and record the time.
Days tend to be heavily overcast; the last time I saw the sun itself until very recently was during the middle of last fall. A blanket of brooding clouds are ever-present during most days, and some form of falling precipitation is not unusual. Most days and nights themselves are dank and soggy, with cottony fogs and mists swirling through the streets, reducing your range of vision to essentially nil. Visibility wasn’t something that people in the modern world (which I’ll call old-world) that weren’t behind a steering wheel or the bow of a ship generally needed to concern themselves with. In new-world, however, it’s become more important for the day-to-day.
Daytime is warmer than other times, but the thermometer never reads above seventy anymore, even on the balmiest of days; most hover in the fifties, occasionally pushing into the lower sixties. Overall, it’s warmer than it used to be during times you’d expect it to be colder, but never hot, and never quite reaching that Platonic ideal of temperature and humidity that the west coast always seemed to manage and some east coasters secretly envied; certainly no San Franciscan ever spent any days living above anything like the concrete-and-steel quasi-swamp that this place has become. What passes for “full” daylight rarely lasts past six or seven PM, with one exception, and six hours of steady illumination are now standard.
The black and blueness of twilight, at first pale, then a darkening periwinkle, finally giving way to a deep ink-like indigo, stretches on for five, sometimes six hours; always my favorite time of day, the best time to wander the streets without any particular destination in mind. Why the angle, amount, and duration that the sun hits the earth can have such a strong emotional impact is still somewhat of a mystery. Sure, we understand Circadian rhythms and light levels affecting mood, but there’s something more to it. Why do certain times of day feel like magic to some people? Why does it seem the perception of the world to one filled with secrets or hidden, ill-defined powers? How does it create the feeling of excitement and possibility, but with a lining of fear? In new-world, unlike the old, twilight has become the time to take shelter and get out of the streets rather than a time to wander, as those secrets and ill-defined powers have become dangerous realities.
The darker parts of days, ominous before widespread use of gas lighting and electricity (as during the times of “Nightwalking” and city watches in London) have once again become associated with threats. I would say I have some inkling of what they experienced, but new-world is far beyond the comparatively benign one of cutpurses or highwaymen. That, and the fact that daylight eventually returned them to a softer reality, relatively speaking.
Nighttime tends to start at nine or ten and end at the aforementioned times, when the dead gray sky returns to finally push it back aside. Nights are also often cloudy, a hazy round ball of bone hanging cold and silent up in the amorphous blackness. Occasionally, however, cloud cover breaks up so that you can glimpse our smaller neighbor clearly, now impressively eerie due to the lack of light drowning it out; the electricity went out last winter.
There have been a few notable exceptions to the above: periods where a languid daylight hung around for days on end, the new-world version of a midnight sun, and a crystal-clear, moon-flooded night lasted for more than week, patterns only familiar in those northern countries that birthed Black Metal and government that actually worked. Two things you wouldn’t expect to see in the northeastern US, but you could say that about a lot of things now.
Humidity is near-constant. There’s a dampness to everything that seeps into you, grips you. Sometimes I think I dream about lying spread-eagle in the middle of a dry, ruddy desert, like the Killpecker Sand Dunes with its sagebrush and stubby slabs of granite just to counteract it. I’ve never actually been there, but what I’ve read makes it fit for purpose; my own version of “think happy thoughts” is “think dry thoughts.” Streets are perpetually slick or at least damp, matted with leaves of maize, deep orange, or woody brown, exquisitely pretty in their autumnally grim, waterlogged way or floating in unevaporated roadside ponds or riding next to curb edges on tiny, oft-flowing rivers in miniature. Trampled castoffs from every deciduous forming a squishy carpet underneath your feet, looking at times fused with the asphalt and concrete.
Preparation for surviving in this altered environment, as you may have already guessed, is very important. For example, layering clothing: generally a long sleeve thermal shirt and a hoodie under a thinnish overcoat does the job. Or you can double up on the hoodies. I tend to go for those wicking, super-thin, insulating thermo-tech fabric coats that were all the rage, as they seem to work as advertised. Considering the state of things, you really have your pick; one giant department store with every style, fabric and color you could ever dream of, and none of the acrid mixes of perfumes and colognes that seemed to follow you from escalator to food court and back again. (It’s easier to get used to the scent of soaked literfall and Inceptisols everywhere you go, if not rain-soaked piles of garbage of every kind.) A high quality canvas backpack or solid gym bag are must haves, too, for both your peeled-off layers and all your standard equipment: plastic water bottles, police-style flashlights, and dried snacks, among others.
The locations and basic edifices of the city remain largely the same: buildings, streets, sidewalks and other trappings of an urban landscape — excepting those that were destroyed outright — are in their proper places, though many are in a state of disrepair, which, without regular maintenance, happens faster than you might think. The perpetual dampness probably doesn’t help, either. Vehicles sit, usually haphazardly and hastily abandoned, idle and uncared for, and have become so commonplace and familiar in their arrangement that you could almost forget that they weren’t always part of the landscape, like rock piles made of steel and wet, round rubber. The city is still a city in the strict sense of having the basic physical and topographical features that define what we think of constituting “cities,” but run through a filter with unsettling, often difficult-to-fathom qualities.
New-world is both telluric and alien. It elicits the feeling of visiting a place you’ve known inside and out for your entire life, but that has had key things rearranged, shifted, twisted; a house once lived in with the furniture swapped out and different scenes depicted in the art on the walls, but still surrounded by the same picture frames. Expected objects replaced by similar, but not identical objects. A conflicting feeling: the deeply familiar mixed with the deeply unfamiliar. Disconsonant.
I don’t understand much of what we’ve observed at a deep level, as we have had only rudimentary abilities to perform tests; that means I’m forced to speculate on certain aspects of what’s occurred, especially root causes. Our ability to try to do anything resembling modern science has been extremely limited; nearly everything now is based on direct, high-level observations and reasoning. We’re far from the world of microscopes and high-performance computing clusters, and we aren’t scientists in any case, though one of us has had some formal training, which has helped.
Until very recently, I’d studied it all with a measure of enthusiasm; now my interest is a bit more subdued, more utilitarian, even though in some ways it’s more interesting now than it’s ever been. Getting a better understanding to aid in survival was a large motivator, but plain curiosity and the desire to unravel the what, how, and why of the many strange changes played a large part as well. At present, my time is spent on organizing and synthesizing the data I’ve collected into this work, trying to transform it all into something resembling a coherent whole, rather than just a haphazard collection of notes.
I feel sad today.
Ch2 — Niche living
It’s funny how you can remember what things felt like before you really understood them. How you can compare that certain feeling, the feeling of having only a fragmented, disconnected version of the truth to the more complete one you have at the end, and can peel back each layer of understanding, seeing where connection was made and each nugget of enlightenment showed up. What I write here reminds me of that periodically, giving me brief moments of satisfaction when I mentally deconstruct and reconstruct the things I didn’t understand, but now do. My understanding of the overall picture remains incomplete, however.
Since I have only fragments of information about what happened to the world outside of New York (and really just Brooklyn and Manhattan, the only places I’ve been able to reach or observe), I’ll be starting this account with what I have direct knowledge of: where I am now. I don’t know what form the changes in other places may have taken, but it seems unlikely to me that they could have gone on as they were, with people sipping their macchiatos and juice blends, strolling through parks and snapping pictures of cupcakes on top of dogs on top of trees and posting them to Instagram. What I’ve seen here is just too radical for that to be a possibility.
Where am I? A quaint, riparian little part of southwestern New Brooklyn is the area I presently call home. Here I’m surrounded by bronze steel encrusted cranes; dilapidated, crack-laden cobblestones; and narrow, two- and three-story brick-built structures of mahogany, cherry, charcoal, and white. Not the old Red Hook, a sleepy, but still completely recognizable place of human settlement, with the rare trundle of car wheels on uneven stone, or the semi-frequent rumble of a van picking up another order of Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies. Red Hook felt less changed than many other places; it wasn’t free of the after-effects of what’s transpired by any stretch, but it was more limited, muted. It was comforting.
The lack of subway access, small population, low number of stores and street activity, and occasional stone road all contributed, in old-world, to the feeling of it being a place out of time (the rest of the city now feels, in one way or another and to varying degrees, as somewhat of a place out of time, but that’s for different reasons), and that feeling remains. One thing that it does have in common with other neighborhoods is a lack of presence of actual human beings. Red Hook, New Brooklyn; known Human Population: one.
In addition to its relative remoteness and the fact that it was less affected by the events than some other neighborhoods I could have chosen, proximity to water was one of the reasons I decided to settle here. They — and I will detail who they are and what they do at length in the coming text — studiously avoid entering bodies of water, and not, I think, because of something to do with the salt content or unprobed worries about fish. They don’t display any particular fear of it, nor any noticeable aversion to water or wetness itself, as they operate round-the-clock in the ever-present damp and frequent drizzles. They simply seem to lose interest once they’ve gotten near any body of water that isn’t inland, as none of the “work” I’ve seen them engage in involves it.
On an occasion that I observed one of them fall in (accidentally), something strange happened: the robe-clad body landed on the water surface (with no languid arm tosses or flailing as you would expect of a drowning victim, as many of their reactions to things are often what might be considered robotic), and after a short pause, disappeared beneath it, rather than slowly being carried on down east, right past old-world beasts of transport and commerce, steel-toothed and rusting, that dot the waterfront. None of that is what you’d expect to happen after a person drowns: we sink when we’re alive and float when we’re corpses. After I witnessed this, I decided to test the physics involved in this puzzling, worrisome phenomenon. I picked up a jagged piece of wood that looked like it was once part of a shipping pallet and lobbed it underhand into the East River and watched the event repeat itself. Something about the water isn’t right. There’s virtually no surface tension after a brief moment of normalcy; any ideas I might have had about attempting to swim away or build a boat to leave were dashed in that moment. To this day I have no idea what may have caused this change in the behavior of these bodies of water, nor what purpose, if any, this phenomenon serves.
Finally, parks and other urban pockets of nature, the seeming hubs of their activities, aren’t found in abundance in this neighborhood, giving me much-needed distance between me and the bulk of them, contributing to the aura of relative safety. All these apparent advantages, taken together, made the choice to reside here seem sensible at the time.
About where I live, specifically: my building. It has cherry red brick on the top two floors, with a black gated-up first floor that houses, or housed, an uninspiring antiques-slash-knick-knack shop. Inside of the store itself is fairly sparse, just a few old tables with items of no present utility or particular visual appeal. An odd collection of items, the kind of quasi-kitsch appreciated in certain quarters as having a sort of oblique appeal that might wind up at a yard sale or nailed to the wall in a quirky Bushwick bar: an old rectal thermometer with its mercury removed; a coffee “percolator” with no cord; a misshapen tan mug with an insipid inspirational quote and a jagged crack running down its side. The store was left abandoned early on in my estimation; whoever owned it was likely not a resident of the area and never bothered to come back.
The gates securing the front doors weren’t even pulled across when I found the place. Only a simple, unremarkable lock kept anyone out, though it was probably redundant: no one else, similar to myself, likely saw much value in this place, as it was completely untouched when I first found it. The slide-across gates serve as my current doorway. The north side on the first floor has no window, thankfully. It appeared to have had one at in the past, but it’s been covered over with thick horizontal slats of well-worn wood painted a dull, charcoal black. The other side (and street-facing) window also has a gate on the inside part of it, obviating the need for much additional fortifying. That one was down and locked for some reason and so I’ve left it as-is. The first floor mercifully has no other windows to defend, and there’s no fire escape in this, nor many other buildings around here, so all access is through the gated front.
The area has many buildings identical to this one in nearly all basic respects: two or three stories high, brick, pretty, quaint. Precious, but with a hint of past Brooklyn grit filled with eggs-and-sausage breakfasts; stale coffee and the hint of fish-washed cigarettes; and rough hands performing rough work with cranes, wood, steel. Coming to this place even back then felt like being on the edge of the world, even though so much was happening just a river-width and change away. That effect is magnified in new-world.
I’m on the second floor just above the shop, near a window, shut tight, thick black curtains drawn on all but the one I sit by. Mine is halfway open to give me light and a good view of the street at all times, though my worries about actually being spotted up here are presently subdued. I probably have enough food up here to last for three months if I’m careful, and in my experience, they give up far sooner than that anyway, though I wouldn’t characterize them as impatient by any means. Far from it.
It’s still outside today, with no wind to speak of, dead silent. All the sounds of the city, which you would expect to hear an occasional smattering of, even in this typically sedate area, are totally absent. No blaring car horns or foghorns; no gentle whoosh of passing cars or buses, that comforting sound like an oscillating floor fan, set to rotate on low speed; no sounds of others coughing or the persistent hum of old incandescent streetlights. No hint of birds, squirrels, or rats, nor anything else small and furry anywhere. That’s not to say there’s no life. There’s plenty of it again, having all come thundering back after an extended semi-disappearance. Just not any that makes noise here, at least today.
Ch3 — You’ve got to start somewhere
Early April, year one
The first signs of the events that were to come began in the spring of the previous year, though at the time — and certainly at the very beginning — no one took them as a sign of anything other than the strange, disquieting behaviors of a certain brand of unsavory people; the usual, or sometimes less-usual suspects; or potentially explainable, if notably odd, natural phenomena. The unpredictable product of the thousand shards of desire, played out on the streets of one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Things that could happen almost anywhere. That particular assessment wasn’t wrong, per se, just utterly inadequate. Based on what I know it didn’t just happen anywhere. No, I believe that it started here. Right here, in fact. In Brooklyn, New York, the borough right next to the one of my birth, and the place I spent many of my early years.
Something about that fact, or maybe assumption, struck me as outré, fanciful, like there was no possible way that it could be here that all this would begin. Brooklyn? Manhattan, maybe. London, sure. Los Angeles? Okay. But Brooklyn? The place where GIRLS was filmed; where Paul Sorvino grew up; or where Last Exit… was written. The place that birthed Jay-Z and late night punk shows, and brought artisanal-handcrafted-everything to the world stage. The place that once had black and boot-clad teenagers lined up around the block in Bensonhurst to see their favorite bands, and that gave us one of the world’s first rollercoasters. This was the place where events seemingly so inexplicable and macabre would originate? The incongruity and surreality of it amused me, drowning out any revulsion when I first considered the idea.
It all started with animals: they began going missing. Squirrels, those furry little creatures that would follow you around waiting for some bits of fresh pretzel or a soggy, grease-soaked French fry, regarded alternately as a nuisance and an adorable symbol of urban naturalism, were to be the first bellwether for what was ahead. Then it was pigeons, our “rats of the sky” no longer delivering their slimy white gift to unsuspecting park-goers or the windshields of cars. Then insects: one by one parks fell silent, no more songs of grasshoppers after dark, nor those crescendoing spin sounds from bugs everyone called locusts, but that were actually cicadas. Bees vanished. No flies hovered around hot summer garbage piles outside fruit stores, the source of the quintessential eau de summer, trying to get another meal.
The local media characteristically delighted in faux-end-of-days speculation. Crass, but morbidly entertaining stories and gallows humor based on an amalgam of popular apocalypse tropes presented by the heads-in-boxes with a glossy, tongue-in-cheek tone and barely contained laughter. Just like The Seventh Sign! Except animals died rather than disappeared in that one. How many variants of “Which Sign of The Coming Apocalypse Are You Most Excited About?” listicles were written that month, I wonder. No one in the media seriously, or at least openly, believed anything was really wrong, but I thought I could detect an underlying sense of unease. There was worry behind all the jokes.
The prepper industry was a different story; they probably had their best quarter in years when it all started, people buying up fortification materials, bottled water, canned goods, and solar chargers, not to mention more guns and ammo than at any time since the last president was elected. The big gun organizations were all over it, too, switching the rhetorical flavor to a more eschatological (rather than political) one, always in sync with the times, always ready to pounce on the latest scare or tragedy. Media organizations had become masters at capitalizing on the latest horror story or crime-wave, able to turn on a dime when the tragedy-of-the-week broke, even if they themselves weren’t buying it. Scientists and conservationists were brought in for interviews to proffer their own theories, from city noise to some kind of cross-species Colony Collapse Disorder to El Niño to climate change. Fire-and-brimstone preachers were in virtual orgasm on kook-radio with every announcement, trying desperately to fit the facts to their preferred narratives, and raking in donations that would have made a presidential candidate blush. The rumblings and speculation continued, enthusiastically and unabated into early summer, everyone trying to make their nut with a wink and a smile while the spooky was still going down.
On the streets, the sudden lack of nature sounds was unsettling, alien, their absence especially glaring in leafier parts like parks and quasi-suburban areas where you’d usually only hear the sounds of passing cars or people. No nervous little bodies scuttling through leaves or cooing noises from underneath rattling, precarious-looking window-unit air conditioners, those objects of every New Yorker’s Looney Tunes-inspired nightmares. Those were still the early days, though, so the impact and reaction was limited for the person on the street, more flavor-of-the-month or “well, that’s the zeitgeist,” rather than a cause for widespread alarm.
Things got more serious once summer arrived.
Early June, year one
People’s pets (in addition to the aforementioned city wildlife) began disappearing, just a few scattered ones at first. The news stories in tawdry local rags jumped right on the occurrences with their typically clever headlines: “Napping Terrier Nabbed” or “Pug Thief Now on the Lam.” Stray cats, too, began to vanish according to some short-run alterna-press papers and local blogs, though how that particular piece of data was verified or quantified, I have no idea. Things deteriorated further just days after the first reports, starting with a rash of break-ins in apartments and houses with nothing taken except the family pet. Doorpersons and security cameras alike gave up no useful clues, though one widely hate-read shock-media web site claimed the former were being bribed to allow entry in order to support “a booming underground dogmeat trade in the city’s Chinatowns,” the veracity of which turned out to be completely unsupported by a subsequent official investigation.
Houses wealthy enough to have in-house servants, like some of the tonier parts of the Upper East and West sides were hit in the pet-theft wave, with said servants being charged by their owners with everything from negligence to conspiracy, rapidly followed up by actions like firings and “anonymous” calls to ICE; you do not want to be in the line of fire when someone’s favorite Retriever disappears, especially when said Retrievers are liked more than the households’ actual children. A hint of alarm was starting to grow citywide, moving the worry level from yellow to a light orange in short order, though the actual color-coded national terror alert system was long gone. People started walking their dogs in pairs, then larger groups. Veterinary practices and pet stores started offering boarding services in lieu of grooming, converting every inch of empty space in their establishments into areas for “safe” pet housing. Cats and dogs in dwellings were put in heavy metal cages secured with locks while their owners were at work; local pet shops ran out of them in days. The police formed an “Animal Investigation and Protection Unit” with a dozen officers spared to look into the cases. Headlines started taking a more serious tone, with local blogs dispensing with the joke headlines. Reporters began to look somber during their broadcasts.
Next up were pet store break-ins, with no living creatures other than fish left behind. Animal health clinics were hit daily. The newly launched boarding services themselves became prime targets and were often emptied out. The Bronx Zoo didn’t have a tiger or bat left in it after June. Community and local religious groups, most of whom openly rejected apocalyptic explanations for the events, asked for donations and began to pool funds for private security, and the latter were the first to float the idea of round-the-clock neighborhood watches, exhorting fellow believers to all become “watchmen on the walls.” Inter-hood and interfaith cooperation was at an all-time high, though a few unexpectedly eschatologically-minded Christian evangelical groups, ones that traditionally tended toward symbolic interpretations of scripture, unexpectedly banded together to pick up sticks and head upstate, perhaps thinking their Messiah would be more likely to rapture them if they were on their knees in East Syracuse. It all seems so outlandish, even knowing what I know now: mass pet theft, funds for private security, gorillas just swiped from the zoo like they were a brand-new iPhone sitting on the lap of a dozing straphanger. Interestingly, these efforts seemed to work, at least for a time; I think it was because it forced people to pay attention, to become fully engaged with what was happening around them. The five boroughs almost felt like a unified community; as overused as that term was, it really applied, more than any time in my memory. It felt real. Or maybe that’s all wrong, and I was just projecting. I was certainly fully engaged (with every scrap of news I could find.)
Soon after that, pet disappearances dropped significantly, something like eighty percent in a week according to media sources. The police investigations had so far gone nowhere, occasional discovery of animal bones by a park notwithstanding, but at least no more were going missing for the moment. By the latter half of June things felt like they might finally be under control again, and everyone certainly wanted it to feel that way, that’s for sure. Worry was there, but receding, if very slowly.
During that period, things felt tentative, transitional, not completely defined.
Ch4 — Detour: destination important
I’m going to back up here and add some things about two incidents that predated all the previously described ones. One is a popular story about an incident from before the start of the events proper (but it could be that said incident was the start of the events), but that nobody, including me, connected to any of the subsequent occurrences. The other is something I personally witnessed, something unnerving, but that I wasn’t able to realize the significance of until later on.
Back in the nineteen-eighties and -nineties, and especially the mid-nineties, there was a semi-underground revival of interest in the United States around nature-oriented belief systems like Wicca and dozens of semi-personalized or regionalized variants of what’s loosely called “Neo-paganism.” Devotees ranged from groups of music fans that had a spiritual awakening or thought it fit well with their forest-goth aesthetic, to teenagers disillusioned with their parents’ restrictive form of quasi-suburban northeastern Catholicism. They’d engage in informal rites based on something they’d read on Usenet in places like Prospect Park or Flushing Meadows, things like practicing Handfasting or Cone of Power invocations, or even the occasional leaf-necklace-only orgy under a copse of sycamores. Mostly an obscure, if oddly appealing, footnote to the era.
Six months prior to the start of the events, five twenty-somethings were discovered mutilated in the area near the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Park. It was initially called a mass murder-suicide, then a murder after further analysis, which caused a larger investigation to be launched. On the scene, authorities discovered an Athame, a traditional tool in Wicca, covered with the blood of all five victims. The bodies had full autopsies and medical inspections performed, and bodily fluids were found in and on all of them. No fingerprints were found on the blade, but bits of latex residue were found along the hilt, which is what helped change their minds about the first theory. After an extensive investigation involving a multi-borough search, interviews with everyone close to or living in proximity to the victims, and a second set of autopsies, along with a trace of the tool used (which led to an eBay listing from a novelties seller, some kind of neo-hippie surfer making his living out of a beachside house in Far Rockaway), the authorities were stumped. The victims were practicing Wiccans (notably, one of the group was a social worker for teenagers with drug addiction problems, another was an environmental sciences major), had no known enemies, no history of violence, and were apparently well liked. Inter-Wiccan feuds were essentially unheard of, with others in that community expressing shock and even holding a semi-public memorial in the area of the murders in the aftermath. It stopped making sense, and no longer fit any popular narrative.
There was an iconic photo taken at the scene, the sole one related to the investigation that was released to the public: the unmarked upper quarter of a porcelain-skinned girl, with long, curly, fire-red hair laid up against a tree, looking strangely peaceful; it was shown on every story in every newspaper and online post about the case. The other bodies were apparently in such grisly condition that no photos were released, and the details of their disposition were kept purposely vague at the request of those close to the victims. The story petered out after a few months of speculation and rumor, then faded from public consciousness.
The other incident occurred in Prospect Park, the less storied and smaller, only marginally less compelling sibling to our Central Park in upper mid-Manhattan, itself nestled next to the regal stone pads of the rich and occasionally famous. Though dwarfed in size and prestige, it had its own set of attractions like dense thickets of old-growth trees, unexpected clearings, a hand-shaped peninsula, and an abundance of wildlife. It was a gem of the borough, majestic and haunting, a mix of the semi-wild and the civilized, something attractively gritty about it, just along the edges: Stranahan’s masterpiece. It had a magical quality about it, difficult to define.
I was there exploring an area in the central part of the park dense with elms, accessible only by simple dirt paths. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular that day, or any day, really; I frequently spent time wandering New York’s streets and parks, looking for the unseen, the unexpected, and the haunting, but nothing more specific than that. At one point during the jaunt I heard voices close by, to my right, past a thicket of trees still dressed in full summer green. Guttural, throaty, with long, ragged breath-sounds and streams of repeated syllables, spoken softly. Hebrew, maybe Arabic? I crouched down, listening intently, trying to aurally pattern match the sounds. Having heard both languages on plenty of streets and in countless bodegas before, I was pretty sure it wasn’t either of those. I wasn’t scared at that point, though I probably should have been. Instead I was intrigued, eager to identify the maker of the gutter-babble, and to discover its nature and possibly its meaning. As gently as I could, I moved aside a small handful of low branches, half-kneeling then, squinting, and peeked through, trying not to make a sound, wary of interrupting.
Curiosity vanished, poof, turning to frozen horror and naked, dry-heaving revulsion. Five individuals were present: a person kneeling on a blanket, covered in a hooded, crimson cowl, facing away from me, that was doing the babbling. Two others, also in cowls of muddy brown and a deep, earthy pine, sat next to a pile of short, neatly cut logs, which they were carving with machine-like precision into perfectly round circles, hollowing out most of the center area of the wood without so much as a ruler, cutting them roughly as thick as a horseshoe. Another of them, also in a muddy brown cloak, was face down in some longish, unmanicured, red-stained grass with haunches up in the air. Near those doing the carving was a pudgy, mustachioed, olive green-uniformed parks department worker leaning against his deep forest green truck adorned with the white leaf logo. He was the only one not robe-clad, and the only one with a visible face. Then there was the dog.
Hanging above a wooden container by both legs, split open from neck to tail, was a full-grown greyhound, thin, yet muscled, with bloody, dog-spaghetti insides just hanging down towards the ground. It was mangled, having the vacuous look that dead things have in its solid black eyes, and what was left of its blood dripped down in intermittent plops into the container below it: a short, half-barrelish thing that resembled those baskets that crabs were forever trying to make their escape from on every corner of Chinatown, but thicker and sturdier.
I was immobilized for a good minute-and-a-half, knee joints locked in place. Once my muscles began cooperating again, and without a breath, I did an immediate one-eighty. I walked on the tips of my toes, gingerly, slowly, trying not to perturb a speck of dirt. Straight ahead. Slowly, slowly, one deliberate, considered step after another. Then, as fast as I could, I ran, unable to remember a time prior to that moment where I had any reason to move that fast. I dashed west, hopping low iron fences and barreling through shrubs, everything a green blur until I reached the edge of the park, where I nearly bowled over a couple of children just beyond the tree line who were sitting on their bikes. I was out of breath, heaving, shaking, shaking, bent over, arms akimbo. The children were terrified then, too, and pealed away from me, away from the park. Away from that. Good. Good. Run the hell away from this, I remember thinking.
At other times, I probably would have alerted the authorities like a dutiful citizen, but at that moment I just wanted to get as far away from there, away from that, away from them, as fast as I possibly could; civic duty wasn’t anywhere in my thought process just then. As was typical in that area, there wasn’t a yellow cab to be found, and I was shaking too much to hold my phone straight enough to summon one in an app or make a phone call. I also couldn’t fathom the idea of waiting for a train anywhere near the park after the dog-show-gone-wrong I’d just witnessed.
I caught my breath and did another run straight down Prospect Park West, almost blindly, until I saw a shiny, new, blue-and-white city bus, one of those long accordion-style ones, idling for a brief moment at a stop right near maple-lined Bartel Pritchard Square, which isn’t square at all. More of a fancy park-cum-traffic circle. I ripped my Metrocard out of my wallet and leapt up past the entry steps, landing right on the solid bus floor with a semi-hollow thud. I must have had the maddest look on my face just then, grimacing, terrified, brow creased as far inward as it could possibly go, probably aging my forehead roughly a year in just minutes.
Those drivers had likely seen everything in their days — from IPA-soused late night revelers to old, disheveled men smelling of cheap whiskey reciting their theories on who really got JFK or how you-know-what was an inside job, so he barely paid me any mind, hardly even looking up from under his MTA baseball cap. I popped the card into the fare slot, nervously tapping my foot during the half-second it took to come out, then sat in the seat closest to the driver, trying to put as much space between myself and the park as I possibly could, though I think I would have preferred flattening myself against the windshield to get even further. I sat there without moving for the rest of the trip, until I was satisfied I was finally far enough away to think, brain refusing to cooperate until we crossed some arbitrary distance threshold that only it knew.
The bus was nearly at Coney Island by the time I felt safe enough, far enough, to disembark from it. The driver gave only the slightest nod as I jumped out, just another nut getting off the bus on his late-ish, typically sleepy little route. Never before had I so badly wanted for Coney to be an actual island again, filled with rabbits and a stretch of water between me and the mainland, detached from anything touching that shambles made of trees and benches and butchered greyhounds. It took several minutes to regain my composure, and I realized that I’d been kneading my phone between my palms like a plastic rock between two pieces of hard dough while squatting down on a street corner. I probably would have looked like a madman, but not many people were outside there at the time, as it was starting to get dark, the liminal tail-end of a ghostly blue hour tapering off, ruining every local photographer’s day. I looked up to the sky, which was unclouded, serene in its ghostly blue, and saw a leaf float down from a tree I didn’t see. It transfixed me, that leaf, bisected into equal parts deep orange and sienna with veins matching on both sides, vacillating from side to side before falling down into a sewer grate in front of me, causing me to bend my head down to look for it, a sense of deep fascination, but it had already faded out of view, making me feel a gentle sense of mono no aware.
Shaking a feeling of enthrallment, I exhaled a long breath through the tiny “O” I made with my lips, hoping to will out all anxiety that was suspended for a moment from my body. I then tapped “Kat” on my phone contact list. She picked right up.
Ch5 — Kat
Kat, short for Katherine, had been a close friend and itinerant companion of mine for the past several years. Kat worked as a paramedic, which, strangely enough, is what led to us meeting initially. I got doored one day while walking down a seemingly empty back-alley side street in Chinatown, one of those places that always looks like a movie set in a cop show, one where they open the first scene with the coroner placing a body bag over a bullet-ridden corpse or the big bad’s secret hideout containing a weapon stash large enough to supply a South American paramilitary. The only vehicles you’d typically see there were vans for some video production company or ones delivering donuts to offices of companies you’d never think would even be there, because you wouldn’t think that there’d be offices there in the first place. It always seemed like the kind of place that existed in a kind of hollow nether-state, having no inhabitants or actual function except to serve as a backdrop.
There was a stout tan car with a hand-painted white stripe painted sloppily around it on the horizontal, and no plates. It was a Yugo, of all things, probably the best car to get doored by if you’re planning on getting doored at all, which I don’t recommend. No one appeared to be inside it when I first saw, but as soon as I approached, wham, a flash of white-striped metal slamming right into my torso, knocking me flat on my back and causing me to see spots. The door closed and they sped off.
No one was ever caught despite an actual investigation, with a detective following up with me just days later proving that one had taken place. I’d guessed that the usual alley parkers were helpful in ensuring the investigation happened, putting pressure on the cops; they apparently hated having anyone park there who wasn’t part of their crew, especially their neo-paparazzi competitors trying to get fresh shots of the local mini-celebrity for their Instagrams. Yugo ninja probably thought I was paparazzi, too, and wanted to send a message or maybe return the favor for a previous slight; the competition in that business was apparently fierce, and I inadvertently got in the middle of it.
I wasn’t hurt too badly, the extent of it being a dull ache in the abdomen and chest with some buzzy ear ringing, more mosh pit injury than hit-and-run. Kat treated me; she was thorough and very patient, staying until she was sure I’d gotten my bearings (and maybe guarding me in case my attacker returned) so I offered to take her out to coffee to thank her, and she said yes. I found out she was a fellow lover of Roasting Plant, Lower East Side’s best coffee spot, and a friendship was born; after that, we were mostly inseparable. We had the strange ability to communicate without saying many words, though it was more one-way; she said she’d learned to read facial expressions and body language by watching TV with the sound off when she was a kid, staying up late after school trying not to wake her father, when he was there at all. Whether that origin story was true or not, I don’t know, but I enjoyed the thought of it. Though initially on the tight-lipped side, subjects like local history, how neighborhoods were changing, or where to get great Pho tended to get her talking back then. I miss those days.
For background, Kat was “raised” by her father, her own use of air quotes, but there’s not much to tell since she was always rather brief on the subject, and I had no desire to push it. He ignored her almost completely as a kid, rarely present, then nearly completely absent when she was a teenager. She wasn’t even sure if he actually still lived at the apartment at all, but someone was paying the rent. She’d been attending school in Queens part-time when the events started, adding some extra medical courses she hoped would help with jobs down the line, maybe physician’s assistant or RN. Always in demand, apparently.
She wasn’t planning on staying at the apartment much longer, either, with it serving just as a place to sleep until she was able save up some money and finish the round of classes she was taking. She had no particular attachment to the place (she was thankful to be living rent-free, though), and she didn’t expect that it would be ghost-paid forever, so she was already planning her subsequent moves. That was essential Kat, always thinking three steps ahead.
After the events got serious our interactions grew more terse, Kat’s microexpression and slash language reader turned up high to substitute for speech, and her EMT procedure training kicked in hardcore. Kat was always extremely organized and focused, which helped us survive, especially at the beginning when I was so unfocused, less human and more William Infovorus. Topics of conversation narrowed, becoming things like where we should sleep, how we should fortify, what supplies we needed, how much food was left, which routes seemed safest, and later, them. She was the exact right person needed, doing the exact right things at the exact right times: the antidote to the chaos and uncertainty unfolding around us, especially for me, who was largely blind to the hard facts on the ground until later on. Kat was the Realpolitik to my academe.
Ch6 — Back on the detour
“William? You haven’t called. Are you OK?” I told her I wasn’t, flipping phone from ear to ear. No, not really. Not at all. After a brief moment of silence, she informed me that she was coming to pick me up, then summoned an Uber with me still on the line to make sure I wasn’t completely losing it. She had the driver race to where I was: “Big tip if you beat traffic,” I heard her say, and she got to where I was in record time; Mr. Nassir certainly earned his Benjamin, and in cash. I sat diagonally across the black leather seats, barely able to hold myself up straight, slipping on the smooth material, head slumped against the window, trying to use it to hold myself up.
While we sped towards the Williamsburg Bridge, Kat relayed to me some strange recent happenings at her school, and I felt like it was the first real conversation we’d had in a month. Apparently, many people had stopped showing up over the prior weeks: a couple of students in a class here, a TA there, some professor. The school administration was concerned, and had launched a formal investigation into it; they were apparently hoping it was either an illness or some sort of defection to another institution. Something they could either explain easily, or explain easily and get outraged about. On that day, it was discovered that an entire research department, a professor, several grad students, some lab techs, and a group of undergrads involved with the department had apparently disappeared some weeks prior, their research vanishing along with them: hard drives gone, paper notebooks missing, a couple of databases wiped clean, and some unspecified school property stolen. Which department wasn’t named, but Kat said the rumors were about it having something to do with historical research. Of what nature, she wasn’t sure.
We arrived on the street my apartment was on, a rundown studio right on the edge of Chinatown, not far from “Lighting Row” on the Bowery, that glowy, ever-blinking stretch of avenue that seemed to have every possible permutation of lamp and sign display, with names like “Lighting by Jim,” “Lights Give You Lighting,” and “Lights for Lights Sake.” As we turned the corner, a backlit sign the color of dusk pulled me back to that sewer grate and that leaf, such a lonely object, probably not seen as a distinct entity before I glimpsed it in that brief instant before it disappeared into the subterranean void. I felt a flash of pity for it, but the tire screech as the cab came to a halt brought me back to the present, causing me to slide forward on the smooth seat and nearly slip into the footwell.
Not many apartments like mine left at the time, but I lucked out, having once fixed the landlord’s servers at a local gambling joint disguised as an innocuous-looking tea parlor, weirdly stereotypical in an imagined American Chinatown noir-movie kind of way. Definitely not what I was expecting when I answered that Craigslist ad offering “great money to repair a hard drive,” which actually turned into “great money to attempt to get as much illegal book-keeping data off a dying hard drive before it wound up in a blast furnace at a steel factory in Buffalo.” He appreciated the work (and discretion), and so gave me first dibs on the place. I tried not to think much about how the landlord made his money, but I wasn’t going to say no to cash and a cheap apartment in a market like that; I opted to laugh it off, with no small amount of unease, instead.
The apartment itself was a functional, if minuscule, fourth story walkup in a run down, faded-brick building above a restaurant equipment store featuring a huge faux-wood sign printed with bright orange type. Abutting the store’s entrance was the door to my building, which was designed, with some humor, to resemble a door leading to a restaurant kitchen, shining silver with round, criss-crossed windows near the top. The outside looked decent enough, perfectly adequate to impress the local restaurateurs who frequented it, but inside was a different story.
The stairwell had a shabby set of walls in peeling chunks of gray paint, revealing underlying layers of white, lime-green, and mauve underneath. No graffiti or other human markings, but enough dried, multi-colored gum to seal a hole in an aircraft carrier along the edges of the steps. A lack of railings was another less-than-handy feature, especially when ascending six flights straight up after a twelve-hour shift crawling on hands and knees plugging in Ethernet cables. The apartment itself was decrepit, far from the shabby-chic so popular on hip real-estate blogs at the time. No, this one had the real deal shabbiness, with red bricks exposed intermittently from underneath a thin plaster wall of ambiguous white-gray, probably last painted while Clinton was still in office. Two windows were bricked over, exposing no light from outside, leaving the apartment perpetually dim. The others worked fine, not drafty at all, but with a bevy of scuffmarks from endless opening and closing over the years. The place was fairly sparse anyway, with just a mattress on the floor and a shiny new Macbook, whirring softly, with a sleek three-button Logitech mouse on a plain white, wheeled wooden table sitting nearby. It was dirt cheap, too, bookie landlord refraining from squeezing me on the rent, figuring I’d come fix his broken server whenever he wanted me to. Recent events have put that on the “things to never again worry about” list, however.
“What happened?” she asked gently, trying not to show too much urgency, trying not to rattle me further, but she clearly concerned. I was still shaking, clenching and unclenching my fists like I was holding an invisible stress ball made of some inexplicably squishy gel. I told her to wait until we got upstairs, as it was just too much to summarize. I hobbled, one arm around her neck, to the curb, stiff leaves cartwheeling by and crackling, air unexpectedly dry. We pushed through the door, Kat practically dragging me up the steps, then finally into the apartment. I staggered into the bed, eyes glassy, laying down flat across the mattress to face the ceiling.
She did a short bunny hop into the bed and turned herself around to face me, ending in a muffled plop, seating herself cross-legged, leaning forward with her palms on her chin. She listened intently, occasionally nodding or taking a mental note, sensing that I needed to get it all out at once; I didn’t really explain it, more like expurgated it, everything in painstaking detail, reading off memories from a film reel, frame by frame.
It’s amazing how something like that, lasting only a moment could have so much to describe, have so many pieces to ponder and analyze, with every single object in the frame possibly holding a deeper meaning, some clue as to what it all meant. What was the parks worker doing? What was it about a circle made out of wood that had him staring so intently? What were the circles about, anyway? What was the language, and what were they saying? Are we talking psychotropics or some new synthetic drug that the Feds hadn’t managed to make illegal yet, rebel ex-chemists seemingly always a step ahead of them?
At the end of my monologue, she breathed out a long, rounded breath, and didn’t speak a word, her brain in full-on processing mode. A siren wailed in the distance, nothing out of ordinary for New York, dovetailing with a previously unnoticed ear ringing, then collapsing into the cacophony of the city night. I collapsed into the bed, utterly spent, dreamless. I didn’t wake up until half a day later.
She was crouched over my laptop, feet on the chair underneath her, eyes half-squinted, left hand gripping her chin, with a long-sleeved, black-and-charcoal sweatshirt with some kind of half-faded human face on it pulled down past her knees, reading intently. Focused, scanning. She must have had twenty tabs open, all varied sources by the look of the favicons, round and colorful. I sat up, dazed, blinking, but at that moment I was serene, like that feeling you get just after getting over lying in bed with the flu for a week: buoyant, comfortably empty. She was there sitting at my Macbook like she did most weekends when she would wake up before me, like nothing unusual was happening, the same old feelings of comforting familiarity you come to expect when noticing those kinds of unconscious, regular habits. The previous day’s events hadn’t yet entered my mind.
“I did some searching,” she said flatly, eyes still fixed on the LCD. That’s when it all came rushing back: cloaks, circles, running madly, fear, panic, the bus ride, the dog. The dog. Agh. I tend to pet every dog I see on the street, so that particular memory put my stomach on the floor, somewhere halfway between the bed’s edge and the front door. I imagined that she must be reading blog posts with names like “Semiotics of Hood-Robed Dog Murder Cults: A Treatise” just then, wondering immediately what she’d managed to find out.
“I found a bunch of forum posts, people posting about weird shit happening in parks. People in colorful cloaks, dead animals, squirrels, mostly, and — ”
“And what?” I asked, tentative, almost not sure I wanted to know the answer just yet.
“Circles carved out of wood, just like you saw.” At least there were no dogs involved, which had a measure of comfort to it. I sat there, thinking intently, hand across my mouth squeezing my cheeks, lips pursed tight like a politician trying to weather a question on a tough topic they’d rather pretend didn’t exist, trying to make some kind of sense of it all, vexed.
“This is going to be a summer of some kind,” she mused with purposeful understatement and a terse snort.
Ch7 — Midsummer, no dreams
Early July, year one
The middle of summer, quite mild, no scorching ninety-five degree days or record energy use remarked breathlessly by the local heads in boxes. Animals (the few that remained, anyway) had stopped disappearing, but people were still agitated, twitchy. It was long a popular trope to moan about a return to “the bad old days” of the eighties, but no one could have envisioned anything like that. In the span of a few short months, those burned-out shells of buildings, those ghastly symbols of supposed liberal urban policy failure that haunted Democrats for so long would become a reality once again, but not because of fire department cutbacks or alleged insurance scams. No, the old version would probably seem comforting compared to what was coming, since as bad as events were back in those decades, they occurred in a world that was horrible in ways that were at least graspable by anyone who’d spent any time as a functional adult with access to a newspaper in the past century. This was very different.
The lull in the events came to an end early that July, first with the homeless. Those long regarded — or, more typically not regarded at all — as the most vulnerable among us began to disappear from the streets in a pattern no one likely knew and few even really cared about. In waves? In bursts? Drunken park sleepers in Greenpoint, gone. Subway panhandlers who liked to start their speeches with an always-polite, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” were nowhere to be found. Stories about what was happening to them were initially fragmented and scattered, still far from being noticed by mass media, but indicating a clear trend; I picked up this information from small, local blogs and neighborhood-level forums, so it’s anecdotal and very likely incomplete.
The Bowery Mission, with its beautiful stained glass windows and fire-engine red, doublewide door, long a refuge for those discarded by society, was generally filled with people. With the Great Recession and the spiraling housing cost crisis, its numbers swelled almost daily. After the disappearance started, it was nearly empty whenever I passed by it, with few drawn faces, weathered by the streets and long lives of addiction or bad luck. This fact went largely unremarked upon, too, even though actual people were disappearing; the local rags we euphemistically called “newspapers” generally only complained when homelessness appeared to be going up, not down.
Next, older people started vanishing, with an article here or there about an independent elderly person mysteriously gone missing from their apartment or someone at a care home wandering out due to “dementia” and simply never returning, a few choice quotes taken from some distraught relative to round them out. Concerned that people might still be raw from the previous incidents, the police, the city government, and unusually, the local media started to take great pains to try to separate the new spate of disappearances from the prior ones, dialing back the hysterical headlines, taking on an uncharacteristically balanced and sober tone, trying to manage the public’s reaction (alerts from the municipal Silver Alert system were telling a very different story.) Reports on the homeless and elder disappearances, though initially sparse, continued percolating up from the local level to the mainstream. Not front page material at that point, but working their way up, and increasing in number on a daily basis, squeezing through a news-pipe that was being throttled to the width of a straw. It didn’t work, though.
People knew something was up.
Mid-July, year one
Cracks in the info-dam started to appear. It was clear that the administration and media were coordinating, increasingly keen on preventing outright panic, providing daily messages of reassurance and constant updates about the efforts of authorities. They made careful use of language and tone, a throwback to a previous age of the media, Cronkite-esque; “Criminals” rather than “Terrorists” was the standard moniker used in titles and copy to describe the abductors — a conspicuously understated choice. That instinct was probably a good one, but the bleak tone of user-created posts and comments belied the under-control narrative of officials and reporters.
The city mood was by measures sober and tense again during mid-month, wound just tight enough to keep people alert, but without yet spilling over into the streets, though things were deteriorating daily. You could see it people’s faces, in the way they looked at you, looked over their shoulders, held their bags just a little bit closer, a little bit tighter. As the month progressed, the mood darkened, and a twitchy, quivering fear became palpable, everyone wound tight, suspicious, like we were all expecting everything to just suddenly come apart at any moment, ready for the metaphorical blood in the streets. The Guardian Angels, long dormant, were patrolling neighborhoods around the clock, in addition to the aforementioned ad-hoc watch groups. Many members were young, obviously new, membership rolls swelling along with the crisis. It was a new-old era, with all our troubles compressed into the short time period of a few months rather than building to a boil over most of a decade, when the blackout gave way to the crack epidemic and people watched the inexorable slow-motion slide.
Things really started to turn as the month wore on. It was no longer just some person no one knew anymore, a stranger, a hermit, a derelict, or a shut-in, living alone. Children were disappearing. Teenagers. Adults. No one was immune, and we all knew it.
That was the point when the mayor ordered parks and beaches closed and cordoned off, with a two-block buffer zone erected around them. People living in buildings nearby were part of a mandatory “temporary” relocation to tent housing in places like the Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory or at expanded city shelters, many of which were being used by the homeless that still hadn’t disappeared. There were howls of protest at City Hall from people living along Fifth Avenue or Central Park West, but the mayor held firm. There was no small measure of schadenfreude expressed at this turn of events, and the major opinion pages jumped all over it, making frequent use of the word “hypocrisy.”
The buffer zones were surrounded by police lights, the large, round, bright ones you’d normally see hanging off some sort of crane-like contraption in Hell Square to deter drunkards or in high-crime areas to prevent street violence, and steel barricades topped with some kind of taut, “humane” alternative to barbed wire, a kind of mesh. Police were already wildly overstretched, so members of neighborhood groups were deputized ,and auxiliary cops were given a one-day training course, armed with batons, a flashlight, and a hand gun. This prompted one of the first waves of departures, many of them high-profile, but with numbers small enough to not cause too much alarm, though I doubt the mayor would have been able to count on many donations from the museum-and-collector set after that. The head of one of the major museums by Central Park, a local resident on Central Park West forced to move, resigned in protest in an open letter to City Hall, and outrage from others in the city’s elite similarly uprooted began appearing in local Op-Eds. An iconic photo of a group of officers in full body armor standing back to back in a circle atop a pile of multi-hued leaves while the barricades were being erected near the Apple Store defined the moment, however brief it was.
So did the cordon work? Sort of, but I think it actually did more to delineate and outline people’s fears, rather than lessen them. Intrepid pedestrians who passed by the edges of blocked off areas would report and record the sounds of faint whispers carrying through the air coming from within, and more than one officer asked to be relieved of duty because of it. Lower-ranked staff at multiple security agencies asked to be allowed to investigate, but were blocked from those higher up the chain, with superiors citing an inability to spare additional resources with all the other crises occurring, concerns for officer safety, and a bad risk/reward profile. The mayor reluctantly backed the bans despite well-publicized personal misgivings, but the city council and most top ranked security officials were adamant about them. Helicopter overflights were also banned. Drones equipped with cameras were sent inside the zones by amateurs and professionals alike, but none were able to stream anything for more than a few minutes before the devices were disabled or destroyed by unseen attackers. Most footage that was recovered just showed some greenery or the occasional pile of chopped of logs similar to the ones I saw that day with the dog in Prospect Park.
Stop-and-frisk came back with a vengeance, with all restrictions on the rules of engagement lifted, and there was little pushback that time, though I don’t think even a single one of the abductors was caught that way. Checks were completely random, as the security services didn’t have anything they could even use for profiling. Searches were more or less constant at movie theaters (even though those were nearly empty by then anyway, a complete waste of resources); subways and bus stops; and right on the street, with no major traffic arteries without a checkpoint of some kind. That was the beginning of nightmare traffic worse than any rush hour you could imagine. Manhattan was generally bad enough before the changes; after the new policy was put in place, we became more Lagos than East Coast, and people were urged to stop driving into the city altogether, which many did. A congestion pricing measure, something that had little traction in the past, was hastily approved by the city council, and the response was mostly just muted grumbles due to the severity of the situation, and the unsurprising fact that fewer people were driving into the borough in the first place.
Cameras, too, were put up on just about every mountable surface, with consultants from Britain’s BSIA brought in to assist with the deployment. Stocks for facial recognition software companies skyrocketed that week. Protests by local civil liberties groups, much more tepid than in the past, weren’t even paid lip service. The head of the ACLU, usually paid some respect by city officials, was escorted out after raising a rather mild objection to the particulars of a certain policy at a Q&A with the mayor. That’s how far things had gone.
Scattered flyers for missing persons began to pop up on light poles, like so many band ads in the nineteen-nineties East Village, telling you about ten-band Grunge Night at Coney Island High, and a trope of practically every movie involving the living dead over the past two decades. Most posts, though, were actually made online, where more people were likely to see them.
“Missing Wife,” “Have you seen my son?” “Help Me Find My Niece.” Facebook was flooded with messages like those, and dedicated pages and groups were being created and updated at a rapid clip; Instagram seemed to have nothing but missing persons reports, and no cats or snapshots of food in sight; Twitter, too, was filled with “last seen” reports, accounts popping up to track missing people by borough, neighborhood, and eventually block, operating twenty-four seven. Dedicated missing persons web sites popped up like so much digital kudzu. Some helped, I think, but far too many wound up being attempts at phishing or money transfer scams. Painful to think that in even in a crisis of that scale, people were still ready to pounce on the vulnerable and unsuspecting. Grassroots efforts were largely encouraging, if not terribly effective. I wonder now if even a single person who went missing was ever found; I certainly never heard of any. It did help keep people engaged, though, which in retrospect seemed very important, both to slow the rate of disappearances and to keep people away from the metaphorical ledge. The supply of hope was shrinking along with the population.
It was all out in the open then, front and center, pushing out any and all other concerns on the national stage, with round the clock speculation, analysis, expert commentary, psychic predictions, and offers of help from mediums and just about anyone involved with paranormal “studies.” Ex-CIA, NSA, military, doctors of everything from sociology to anthropology were asked (or crawled out of the woodwork all on their own) to provide an answer. Distant conflicts, migration and refugee issues, even terrorism concerns no longer registered with people in the face of the crisis, one with visible effects, but invisible causes.
How exactly enormous numbers of people were disappearing without a single witness or suspect was as puzzling as it was chilling, so collectively, New York was dazed. Police patrols were out in full force, with spotlights and mobile vans running twenty-four seven. The city council passed an ordinance allowing unlimited overtime for emergency services. They also asked for help from the federal government, who ordered military units in, and from the state government, who called up the National Guard. The Sullivan Act was suspended for the first time in its history. New York suddenly had its own version of open carry: bats, blackjacks, pipes, knives, and just about any household object that could be wielded as a weapon were soon seen at everyone’s sides. Seeing a rail-thin fifteen year old wearing a pair glowing black and green Nikes, walking around with a piece of rebar swinging at their hip might have turned some heads just a few weeks earlier, but now no one was batting an eye.
Near the end of July, the NYPD announced that they’d caught a group; finally, we had something.
Ch8 — Gitmo on the Hudson, or actually, the East River
Late July, year one
Three men in Midtown, not far from Times Square, were caught trying to grab a forklift worker from the loading dock of a well-worn warehouse building, one of those probably-was-once-a-Vaudeville-theater ones that looked like it hadn’t been washed since that era. Nothing about the three screamed sinister, dangerous, or even remarkable, beyond the fact that they were two blocks from the M&M store dressed up like Friar Tucks. This was Times Square, though, home to a hundred furry red Elmos and walking pieces of candy, so three nondescript people in robes would have barely registered. That is, until they were spotted trying to snatch up one Juan Diego Garcia, thirty-eight, of Corona, Queens, trying to load up boxes of sequins into an off-white box truck destined for a fashion business near FIT. The group tried to escape from the crush, to break through a solid wall of furious humanity, but it was futile with people wired on caffeine and bloodlust. People rushed from the Square, mobbing the scene, with many recording the entire thing with their phones. It was standing room only, a tangle of legs nearly crushing the group underfoot, a mass of people grabbing and tearing the group’s cloaks, kicking, stomping, whaling on them with their improvised weapons, channeling the entire city’s desire for vengeance, justice. The whole block was a PG-13 version of a Tarantino movie, with the blood splatters to prove it.
Eight uniformed officers, full black and blue, flew from a nearby pedestrian plaza, knocking street umbrellas and tables over in the process, then morphed into urban rugby players, piling on top of the suspects, bearing down on them with nightsticks. People hooted and hollered, elated, pumped; they danced in the streets. “Finally!” “Holy crap this is going on YouTube!” “Don’t fuck with NYC!” We were finally getting somewhere.
Or not. According to information leaked to the press from inside sources, the suspects were to be held indefinitely, with Habeas Corpus suspended for anyone suspected to be involved with the disappearances, based on an order signed by the mayor and immediately agreed to by the city council. The suspects were subjected to brutal interrogations, every macabre Cheney-esque fantasy method from waterboarding to Iranian Shah-era de-nailing reportedly entertained. “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” were suddenly back in fashion, with no one in any mood to raise objections this time around. Vengeance, not mercy or adherence to process, was guiding us.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work. We know torture doesn’t work under the most “ideal” circumstances; it certainly wasn’t working with a bunch of mute, robe-wearing, death-cult nutjobs with no known ideology, outside affiliations, or demands who were snatching people out of their beds while they slept. They had a level of discipline other groups could only dream of.
As far as the “leaks” went, some suspected that they were leaked accidentally on purpose in an attempt to mollify the administration’s increasingly strident critics, and to try to boost everyone’s flagging morale. The suspects were held in a secret local detention facility, rumored to have been hastily erected on the disused South Brother Island, formerly the site of a single house and a mass of trees on the East River. North Brother was considered first, in the old smallpox hospital where Typhoid Mary was held, but a team dispatched there found the site “unusable” according to one report, which I suspect meant that something they didn’t want to leak was discovered there.
The group styled orange DOC jumpsuits for nearly a week, but they were impassive, with not a single word uttered by any of them the entire time they were held. Nothing. They were then reportedly moved to another facility (likely run by the feds for a second crack at them, or maybe even renditioned, as one rumor had it) for further “processing.” Everyone knew exactly what that meant.
As a result of the interrogation failures, the mayor’s office and the city council became furious, as they’d been putting serious pressure on the police brass for quick results. People’s patience had grown wire-thin in the city, and formerly supportive civil society groups started grumbling about the administration’s, and particularly the mayor’s, performance. I understood that, with people feeling angry and powerless, but the truth is that everyone probably knew that no one else was likely to accept the job, and snap elections in that environment were a complete non-starter, anyway. What could he do, the mayor, and what could anyone else do better? I didn’t envy him his position, and I think even his harshest critics understood deep down that replacing him at a time like that was essentially impossible, so their reaction was uncharacteristically subdued. They may have wished for his resignation, but they were in no position to ask for it.
The group the police caught apparently had no records, no ties to gangs, no prior arrests, and backgrounds that were stunningly ordinary: marketer. Graphic artist. City sanitation worker. They were nobody, but suddenly they were part of a network thought responsible for the largest spate of kidnappings, maybe the first truly mass kidnapping America had ever experienced. The media excoriated them after that, or tried to, with column after column spent exploring the mundane, largely unremarkable lives of three men no one had heard of until that night. Small peccadilloes, college rumors; everything was dredged up. Nothing substantive, and certainly nothing that would indicate their eventual membership in a mass people-snatching cult. I doubt if they even got to see any of it, they were probably buried so deep. I wondered what happened to them.
Ch9 — Panic at the DUMBO
I slept less those first months than any time in the previous ten years, spending nights poring over forum and social media posts, conferring with reporters and names I’d seen on local blogs a hundred times (but never would have contacted, having no reason to before all this), and updating tracking databases with the latest data I’d gathered. I emailed back and forth with journalists, feeding them updates, and getting interesting tidbits in return, items to add to my own dataset. Lots of people had the same idea, so we banded together, collecting data to source news stories and keep our internal databases (which fed into our dashboards and leaderboards) updated. I consumed interminable posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, trying to synthesize the different sources into a coherent whole, keeping everything in a spreadsheet, hoping to have a local copy in case the many online tools that were serving the same function went down. I’d previously had it in a local database I’d hosted on my own network connection, exposed via a simple interface I’d hastily thrown together, but it got completely slammed with traffic, forcing me to take it offline and go ultra low-tech.
Sometimes I’d spent half a night going back and forth with people on Snapchat or WhatsApp, just feeding people the nuggets I’d gotten from other sources, and emailing around copies of my spreadsheet. Definitely not the best idea from a data integrity perspective, but I felt like I couldn’t trust shared data stores, worried that they could shut down or go read-only at any time.
We called ourselves “Observers,” but that moniker only covered the barest sliver of what we actually did; we were a combination of satellites collecting data, conduits transmitting to and from appropriate parties, and nodes in an organic, distributed computing system, doing our own cross-correlating, synthesis, and analysis work. In China, they had something called a “Human Flesh Search Engine,” a system based on massive human collaboration that was used to find out the identities of individuals being singled out for social opprobrium to dox them, but we transmogrified that idea into something else: a way to try to help find people who went missing (which I think was a total failure); to warn about locations of recent disappearances; to supply people with info on local refugee centers (which did some good, I like to think); and to tell people about where they might be able to get themselves picked up by possible rescue teams. I’m not sure exactly how much of our work actually helped in the end, but I was putting my IT skills to use, real use, instead of just helping small-time bookies save their data from the vicissitudes of magnetic media or troubleshooting someone’s server problems, and I felt really good about that. Proud, even.
It was during that mid-to-late summer period that I started making a connection between the Wicca murders and what was happening at the time. One of my contacts, a “forum-watcher” named “interrobang,” though his real name was Pavel, started sending me screenshots from invite-only Wicca and Neo-pagan forums that he was keeping an eye on. Pavel was some kind of religious studies student working on his PhD, and he’d spend his days on forums run by local religious groups, earning their trust both by professing to be an adherent and having encyclopedic knowledge of the minutiae of everything from the Old Testament to the Book of Shadows, so he had no problem getting in and being accepted as an insider.
interrobang was getting nervous. He began seeing warnings on Wicca forums he was observing: “Refuse invitations to meet with people you don’t know personally.” Prior to that, the Wiccans were a fairly open, welcoming bunch, meeting up with semi-unknowns to spiral dance in the leaves together or to have inter-group picnics-slash-feasts. Pavel said they were going on complete lockdown, preventing new accounts from being created and banning those people that messaged others without knowing them in real life. Word spread quickly after an admin on one forum admitted reading some old message logs, one of which contained an invitation that said admin confirmed was sent to the environmental sciences student that was part of the murdered group of five; the invitation was sent from an unknown party in the days before the incident. Pavel was emphatic about the fact that the people on those forums were gentle and non-violent, and that, in his opinion, the perpetrators were actually outsiders posing as true believers in order to lure their victims, and I believed him. He still tried to keep me up-to-date with what useful information he could glean, but it was fairly scant after the newer scares; most communication apparently went offline, according to him. That probably wasn’t good for his thesis research, but he didn’t even care at that point; he was genuinely concerned for their safety, but found himself roadblocked on both counts.
Another notable thing that happened during the events, and that we Observers were plugged into, was the rise of certain themes in what’s known on the Internet as “creepypasta,” which Wikipedia describes as “often brief, user generated ghost or alien stories intended to scare readers,” which is true as far as it goes, but quite insufficient in describing that particular slice of net culture. Across the genre’s corpus, creepypasta themes and iconography were fairly loosely connected, without a single set of clearly recognizable, repeated motifs; instead, a loose style and distribution methods were what tended to link works in the genre together. It was this fact, and the anomalies that were appearing in relation to it, that caused one of my journalist collaborators, whom I previously only knew by her real name, to contact me.
Apparently a creepypasta aficionado in her spare time, she spent her nights poring over and inhaling the new works that sprung up daily on those ever-present gray-on-black page backgrounds until the sun came up (“the best time to bail,” in her words), and was as close you could get to an expert on the subject. “Pestomancer,” as she called herself on the many genre web sites and forums, informed me that newer submissions had begun to acquire a recognizable thread: the subject of circles.
The plots of the stories themselves were still varied: ghosts, mysterious faceless men, odd messages coming through computer screens, but all seemed to now somehow involve wooden circles in some way or another as a central part of the narrative. The connection to the events became clear soon after her first messages to me about it, but how exactly this common thread came about remained a mystery to the both of us. Not a single author of the new pieces that she contacted about it would respond to questions about the subject. Or could respond. Was there coordination between the authors, or was it just run-of-the mill thematic borrowing, authors feeding off each other, playing with the latest iconographic marker? I suspected neither, but I didn’t have a good alternative explanation.
I think the reason she sent this information to me was not because she thought that it had a definitive link to anything that was happening, but because she understood well the value of “Aggregating the Anomalies,” or ATA as we called it in Observer parlance. Here’s how it worked: you’d take information that seemed to not fit any existing patterns, then pass it to others who you think could mix it in to their data, run it through their thought processing or software-based filters, and hopefully spit out compelling, original results that could in turn be fed back into the larger body of knowledge, all in the hopes that some of it would lead to some sort of breakthrough or connection to yet something else.
That was also roughly the point when social networks and image sharing services started to see large numbers of uploads of photos of circles, perfectly round wooden circles, painted various shades of green and purple, or not painted at all, just raw wood. The posts in question were from new accounts that didn’t follow anyone and never made any comments, which was always a huge red flag. I’d guessed that photos of circles passed food as the most popular photo subject in less than a month. Many people began to comment on the posts with questions about their origin and meaning, and there was no small amount of trolling, of course, none of which ever received a reply from the original posters. The media had a few articles about the phenomenon, with some analysts trying to connect it to the other events that were occurring, but none of them were successful in creating any kind of link since the content itself was so cryptic, and the posters so unreachable. The police had more pressing worries, too, so queries to them about it was met with “no resources available for investigations” statements, which we could hardly blame them for. Vigilantes that managed to crack the ghost accounts weren’t able to turn up anything useful, either, all of the source posters having used throwaway email addresses (which would presumably have caused them to open new ones when they lost control of the old.) Another Observer, a guy involved with Deep Learning for image processing at Google who was running a program to query photo sharing services’ public APIs and do image object analysis on them, was the one who spotted the upload content patterns initially, and it was he who gave us the counts; I think that may have been the first time either of us were creeped out by a counter value spit out from a program. I wondered if developers who worked on software at human rights orgs had those kinds of moments.
Early August, year one
Worries ramped up to a fever pitch, even though disappearances had slowed after people became hyper-vigilant and heavily armed. Volunteer investigators, in addition to the police, combed the city, combed the Internet, combed everywhere, looking for something, anything to shed some light on those responsible for the crisis. For all that effort, it was a purely serendipitous discovery that opened up a crack into this heretofore invisible, and it turns out, grisly hidden world. A city building inspector, a Mr. Roger Murthy, demanded to be let into a warehouse (also located in Midtown) that was in a poor state of repair, red paint peeling, bricks scuffed, an unkempt sidewalk outside. Rough, uncared for. (It’s also interesting to note that the city still managed to maintain a staff of building inspectors, considering how many other city workers had been transferred to security related work, not to mention the amount of debt the city was going in for security-related services. It turned out to be one of their better decisions.) He banged his fist on the metal pull-down gates, but received no reply. Then it walloped him: a smell. Copper. Feces. Damp wood. He reported it to his superiors, and police were called in immediately. They quickly arrived on the scene with battering rams and K9 units, ready to go full boots-to-doors mode.
That, it should be noted, was a big turning point in the events, the moment when we crossed over from scary, but still fully comprehensible, to ghastly and nearly unfathomable. It felt like we were on the verge of a denouement, but it was actually more of a false ending, a collective narrative tease just when it seemed possible that we’d finally get some closure, or at least progress.
Inside the building Mr. Murthy intended to inspect, rows upon rows of people were found strung upside-down on chains with half-inch thick oblong links wrapped tightly around their ankles, limp bodies swaying over sturdy wooden crab buckets, just like the ones I’d seen at the park during my “encounter” in the park on dog day. Entrails hung out of abdomens and torsos, looking like blood-sodden octopus tentacles, liquid already drained from the bodies. Pallid slabs of human meat, stiffening, mute; most of them already ice cold. Police are trained to see terrible things, things that could test the mettle of even the hardest among us, but that had to have been something not covered in depth in the academy manual. Several went outside to vomit. The rest were frozen in place, eyes wide, faces ashen from horror and disbelief; The Evil Within wasn’t supposed to happen in real life, and yet there it was, swaying in front of them like so much cattle.
An item of note, the purpose of which eluded investigators, was discovered as well: a three-foot circle, made of some sort of wood and carved perfectly round, was found hanging from a girder on a rust-encrusted chain near the bodies. Information about the scene came from a combination of interviews with officers and Mr. Murthy himself, statements and photos taken by witnesses, and of course, subsequent news reports.
After that discovery, inspections were ratcheted up: warehouses; neglected buildings and basements, some of which still had the two-tone “Fallout Shelter” signs from the Cold War era that always seemed vaguely like a good idea and a laughable anachronism; sheds in quasi-suburban areas; and other disused or derelict structures, all resulting in the unearthing of one gruesome people-shambles after another. Always the same pattern, too: strung upside down, bled out into wooden buckets or barrels, with the stench of blood and that distinctive human feces mixed with gingko fruit smell that slams into your olfactory system, making you in turn want to empty out your own insides all over the sidewalk. It was around that time more specific information was leaked to the press about why the original proposed interrogation site on North Brother was rejected: it was a slaughterhouse, the first discovered by the authorities, and that fact was initially hidden even from the mayor; only a few trusted members of the city council and top brass in the local emergency services were made privy. Apparently the council, full of hardliners more aggressive in their response to the events and distrustful of the mayor’s more traditional rights-and-process approach, was keeping the mayor out of the loop. Another report stated that the mayor nearly had a meltdown over that, and almost went public with calls for resignations on the council. Ultimately, he opted to keep it quiet once he was shown the pictures of the site. His animosity towards them and strained relations became an open secret after that, with reports of heated internal disputes, recriminations, and the mayor apparently going on periodic and increasingly caustic diatribes against the council behind closed doors.
Mid-to-late August, year one
The temperature was sweltering, and so was the mayor’s temper after what happened next: several more cultists were caught trying to flee a discovered site, and were subsequently interrogated with the same exasperating results (the administration was by then not even attempting to keep up the facade that the insider reports were leaked accidentally.) Imprisoned, tortured, and newly-bejumpsuited, they remained unshakable in their impassiveness. Silent. Useless. Unyielding. It remained a mystery why any members were caught, considering how the rest went undetected; my completely unsubstantiated speculation is that their cloaking system, whatever it was, had occasional glitches.
It was a frenzy after that latest round of leaks-that-weren’t-leaks. Protests in the streets began to grow, with the main product of them unfocused terror and rage: no specific demands were made, more just a vociferous, if vague, push to find loved ones or for an even more aggressive police response. People were desperate, grasping at straws. What more could officials do? By that point, the National Guard and some special army divisions had been called up, armed to the teeth, and were given virtual carte blanche to deal with (if you could call walking the streets pursuing an enemy you could rarely even see “dealing with”) the threat and detain people. Just about every lay citizen had a weapon on them, and police patrols were twenty-four seven, with hardly a stitch of ground without boots on it.
End of summer. It’s difficult to believe that most of those developments happened in the span of a little over a month. Unofficial tallies put the number of abductions at over fifty thousand in a city of over eight million, with nearly two million that had already left voluntarily out of fear, and seemingly more trying to get out every day. Streets were clogged with people and uncollected trash, property damage was widespread, and outbreaks of violence between armed citizens had started to become a daily occurrence, half out of suspicion, half out of frustration. Traffic was a standstill, with many people camping out inside their cars with others as a perceived safety measure, a re-imagination of stationary carpooling seemingly inspired by Soylent Green; an akraic development considering the scenes from the original movie.
Late August, year one
After two weeks of rising tensions, the bridges were finally closed in a last-ditch effort to restore some semblance of order, with barricades erected and lines of riot gear-clad officers forming a jittery phalanx at the up-ramps and mouths. People continued to clamber out regardless, and protests continued unabated, right out in the open. One day we were a community, the next day everyone was back on their own; that line between civilization and barbarism can be much thinner than you can imagine. The city council countermanded the mayor’s order to not use tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, and water cannons on protestors, after months of incredible citizen cooperation and police restraint; the city was approaching full-on panic mode. Luckily, emergency services were on the side of mayor that time, which was fortuitous, as staying focused on the real threat and talking people down rather than going Gaza on them seemed to work once more: abductions again dropped sharply, as sober heads not caught up in the frenzy noted. Community policing effectiveness wasn’t just Simonian wishful thinking, that emphatically proved.
A slow, nervous exhale was let out of our collective lungs over the next two weeks as things started getting back under control. Nerves were taut, but a fraught calm began to settle over the city, with violence subsiding, and the mood gradually changed to tense-but-stable. The mayor gave a speech one day that August, maybe the best of his entire career, so good it drew praise from his usual critics in neighborhood associations and the city council, which provided some much-needed collective soothing. People were genuinely moved, and I think they needed it at that point. Themes of togetherness were everywhere in the speech, words about being a living whole, of interdependence, of a shared struggle and purpose, allusions to being one’s brother’s keeper. Concern for the most vulnerable, the weakest among us. Resolute phrases about refusing to let “these terrorists” intimidate us (plain old criminals they were no more.) Exhortations for people to continue to go about their business and lines about staying vigilant. Bold reaffirmations about the importance of maintaining our way of life and about not giving in to fear. The news that the abductions had abruptly stopped helped too, though no one was sure why that was happening. It was the collective Xanax we needed so that we could all think straight again. We could breathe. Maybe we could even hope.
That’s when the fires started.
You can email me with questions or comments about the book: firstname.lastname@example.org
Learn more about the book: http://www.leavesandcircles.com/