There is a rule in my town: one day, you will go missing. You will never return. Those that go looking for you will suffer the same fate, whatever yours may have been. There’s a two-month grace period to make sure you haven’t simply gotten lost, or had an urgent visit to someone out of town, or been in an accident. After this, all of your goods will be sold. No one, for their own sake, will speak of you again, no matter how great or terrible you may have been.
Jenny always said I was bad at following the rules.
Tromping through the streets, I held my jacket closed tight around me, my other hand pressing my phone to my ear. Her last message was my only clue. “Hey sweetie, it’s me. Just wanted to say I’m leaving work now, stopping by the pharmacy, and then I’ll… wait, what’s… I think someone’s hurt.”
To date, no one had witnessed another person disappear, nor been able to collect any evidence. Even so, when I heard her car pull over, her door open and shut, I knew there was serious trouble going on. “Ma’am, are you… Oh my god, Lisa? Lisa what are you doing, where have you been?”
Fabric rustled indistinctly, though it may have been wind against her speakers. When her voice returned, it wasn’t frightened, or even alarmed. She was calm, with the steady tone of someone who knows what’s coming next is inevitable. A faint rasp, the breathing of someone afflicted by pneumonia or some other respiratory distress, hissed in the background, then Jenny’s phone hit the ground. One quick scrape of a heavy object being dragged along pavement was my last clue to her location.
The message ended, and I was tempted to listen to it for the seventh time. My hands were getting cold, though, so I put the phone away. She worked at Weissen’s, a printing service only a few blocks from our house, near the Old District; the pharmacy was in the Old District itself. Her car was along that relatively short route, yet in the dark, freezing cold of our New Jersey winter, even a few blocks seemed like an eternity.
“Jenny?” I yelled, not wanting to attract attention. Being targeted by whatever took her didn’t scare me. Every so often, a citizen would go looking for someone who’d disappeared, and the police usually caught them. Protecting them meant locking those people in the drunk tank and having “friendly chats” until that person decided not to keep searching. Kindness isn’t always the same as niceness. They definitely saved lives, though some didn’t have lives to return to.
If the police were to pick me up, it’d be over. I’d lose whatever chance I had of finding her. That was far more horrible than any fate I could’ve imagined. I was never exactly the creative type.
That message kept bothering me. She couldn’t really have meant Lisa. Jenny wasn’t a risk taker, not like me. I dropped out of college to start my own business; she worked her way up from a part time office clerk to middle management at one of the most uninspired businesses in town—her words, not mine. I’d encouraged her to pursue a passion, like painting, or teaching yoga, but she said, after what happened to her sister, she didn’t want to push her luck.
Lisa, her sister, had disappeared when she was a sophomore in high school. It’s why she got the job at Weissen’s. No one found Lisa, or their parents. Jenny was left on her own, with little inheritance, and no family. They hadn’t gotten life insurance policies; said it was tempting fate. I suppose it was.
Jenny’s car loomed in the distance, just two blocks away, so I started jogging. “Jenny?” I called, thinking about how we really should’ve moved. “Jenny!”
There are plenty of reasons to stay. Amazing tax break, great schools, fertile soil, generally fair weather from spring until the end of fall, even a hot spring nearby. Most of the residents—the ones untouched by our town’s odd circumstance—agree it’s been blessed.
As I approached, I could see Jenny’s phone, smashed yet otherwise untouched, in the street. Torn fabric led toward the nearby manhole, which had been left ajar. “I’m coming, baby,” I said under my breath, grabbing the edge and straining to move it.
“Hey,” a voice said. “What are you doing out here?”
I turned to see Morsooth, an older fellow who’d been here since birth. His family had been here since the founding of our town. He was a gruff sort, in his sixties, serious but not ornery, still well-built from a life living off the land. No one else chopped down trees to make their own furniture.
Looking between him and the metal disc, I fumbled for a reply. He held up a hand to silence me, then squatted to help. Together, we got it free. Laying a hand on my shoulder, he said, “There’s nothing for you down there. But, there’s nothing for you up here either, is there?”
Wind stung my eyes. At least, I told myself that’s why I was tearing up. “Good luck, son,” he sighed. “I’ll close ‘er up after you.”
And he did. The tunnel below was lit by a few emergency lights, but my visibility was reduced to almost nothing as he slid the cover back in place. I’ll admit, I was never a strong man, not one inclined toward physical fitness. I’d have no way to move it back on my own.
The trip down the ladder was short. Once at the base, I found, rather than sewers, I was in an old service tunnel. The walls were rounded, leading in to another series of passages. Each seemed darker than the last, with lights a little dimmer, a little grimier. Every so often, a burned-out bulb threatened to cast me into darkness, but my phone provided enough light to get by. Using it too much would kill my battery. That didn’t matter. I could feel myself getting closer.
Following the progressively darker pathways, I started to notice gouges on the walls. They led through a door, down a corridor, through another door; beginning to run, my feet smacked against the cement floor, sending harsh echoes through the tunnels until it sounded like an army was charging toward me. Cracked walls and broken floors surrounded me, the air filling with dust from unrepaired infrastructure.
This wasn’t just the work of some outside force. This was conscious neglect. My city, the mayor, the government, they must have known something was down there! To think, they’d had this knowledge the whole time, a complete understanding of where our citizens were going, where my wife, where her sister, her parents, had vanished to, and they’d kept this information secret. It was enough to fuel my adrenaline, pushing me down those halls faster as I channeled all my rage toward the person who’d taken my wife.
The possibilities ran through my head. What could be there—a military installation, a serial killer, a tribe of inbred cannibals? Or maybe a plague of giant rats, waiting to feast on unsuspecting people who wandered too close to their habitat when the sun went down.
My attention was so wrapped up in what I might find that I almost didn’t notice when I found it. Skidding to a halt, I tried and failed to catch my breath as the tunnel suddenly opened up. A stone staircase stretched down before me, ending on a perfectly flat, circular floor of green-gray stone. In the center of a room so vast I almost couldn’t see the far side, a being sat cross-legged, in the center of a series of markings that glowed unnaturally in the darkness. I didn’t recognize them, but I knew they were some kind of runes around a spell circle.
All around me, those markings glowed, adorning the ceiling, and swirling in-between decorations on the walls. It wasn’t until I turned my head to look at my immediate sides that I saw these decorations were human heads. The room was massive. There must have been hundreds, even thousands, of heads, all of them staring, eyes open, mouth gaping.
Breath catching, I whirled about, disoriented. This wasn’t possible; some faces I recognized from years and years earlier. My old kindergarten teacher, who’d vanished fifteen years ago; a girl I dated in high school; the previous mayor; a congressional aide from the first, and last, time a senator came to visit. They were all… perfect. Not merely preserved, but untouched, as if they’d never been killed, apart from a single clean slice that had severed their heads from their bodies.
The sight made my head spin, and the disorientation sent me hurtling down the stairs. I lost count as my limp body accelerated, but there must have been forty stairs, at least. With a hard crunch, I hit the landing, saw the blistering, putrid, reddish-purple color of pain exploding across my vision as my leg broke. I screamed, for myself, and for every person who’d been brought here.
A scuttling captured my attention. Turning as best I could, I saw the being from the center of the incantation circle coming toward me. Then I understood its collection. The beast had no head. Whatever screams I’d let out before fell dead in my throat. The sound was inadequate. All sound was. Looming overhead, it stood seven feet tall, so thin it was nearly a skeleton, with jittery arms and legs, dancing like a spider over fresh prey, yet its neck ended with a mottled stump. It didn’t kill me, though. Oh no, it didn’t kill me, it just hovered over, then darted off to its wall. I saw it scale the smooth surface, adhering through some arcane design, before it plucked a head from one of the many small shelves.
Returning to me, it walked over, then dramatically shoved the severed trophy onto its stump, twisting until it locked in place with a gut-churning snap. It removed its hands. It was wearing Jenny’s head.
“Hello, sweetie,” it said, in her voice, with her smile. Yet, I didn’t know who I’d hurt if I swung. Not that I could’ve done much damage from the ground, but lord did I want to ravage this monstrosity. How dare it touch her, in any way, let alone wear her head and speak with her tongue? This thing, with its pale, putrid body that looked and stank like a week old corpse?
But… it was her face, and when she stared, noticing I wasn’t replying, she looked hurt. It even mimicked her mannerisms, twisting a rotting left thumb in its oversized right fist, her crystal eyes cast down as she said, “I’m sorry I was late for dinner.”
It couldn’t be Jenny, yet everything beyond the desiccated body said it was! Torn between two impossible options—that my wife lived on as a severed head, and that some sick beast could wear its trophies to mock survivors—I turned away, retching. What little I’d eaten for lunch came back, spattering across the stone floor.
“Oh, dear,” she said, two bony arms scooping me up, loose flesh shifting like a bag of cockroaches. “Stomach bug? Did you order from Giovanni’s again?”
I’d gotten sick from that place on two separate occasions, but still loved their meatball subs. They were the best around. Or, maybe the best of the worst. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s okay, I’ll take care of you,” Jenny cooed, but I shook my head, shutting my eyes. My leg throbbed, and I thought of all the people up above the surface, sleeping peacefully, enjoying a life we’d never get.
After a moment passed, when she realized I wasn’t going to look again, she said, “We can be together here. Don’t you want that?”
I didn’t know what I wanted. Then I felt a shift in the way she held me. It was tense now. Restrained. “Fine. I understand.” Two pointed fingers dug into my neck; I croaked feebly against the attack and passed out.
The beeping of a heart rate monitor woke me. White lights blared overhead; a doctor was nearby, staring at a clipboard. When I tried to speak, he hushed me, saying I’d fallen down an embankment and broken my leg, then passed out from shock. “It’s lucky you’re alive,” he chuckled. We both knew what he meant by that. He didn’t realize how serious his joke was.
A week later, I was released. I spent every night dreaming about that place; I spent every day thinking about it. The Headless One, that creature who wears humans for fun, takes on their personalities—even, it seemed, their souls.
It doesn’t matter if that was Jenny, or just something pretending to be her. That’s the only remnant I have of the woman I love. Down there, in the abandoned tunnels beneath my city, lies something horrible and ancient, inextricably bound to the most wonderful woman I’d ever known.
I have to go back. I’m going, tonight. If you don’t hear from me again… don’t try to find that place. Don’t try to bring me home. There’s a reason why no one who goes looking for a loved one comes back.
They decide to stay.