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Pareidolia

dark starry sky

Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

I, Angela Obenauer, professor at Mount Adeth State University, being of competent and sound mind, hereby present my findings, on paper, into the deaths of Gregor Segal, Kyle Randolph, Tate McCain, Rhea Wilterman, and Destiny Wilterman.

Allow me to propose a question: If you were to observe the stars at nightfall, what might you perceive? Now I admit, this question is peculiar but one, like the phoenix, that has consistently revived itself over the last few millennia. Moreover, this question best serves as a heuristic to understanding the facts to follow. So, if you are determined to consider my forthcoming account, I strongly encourage you to partake in this simple exercise. Go outside, at night, and look at the sky. What do you perceive?

The question is purposefully ambiguous so that responses will consistently vary. But you see, in this variation we’re offered a glimpse at the mind. For it is impossible to encapsulate the entirety of what was seen but we can begin to describe what was perceived. And perception is wholly dependent on the individual. So, you see, we learn less of the subject but rather more on the one who studies it.

Your answer could be entirely empirical. Certainly, it was back then, before man had any concept of atmosphere or space. As such, the scope of your response would be refined to the senses. Perhaps the nocturnal colors called to your consciousness as they did Vincent Van Gogh one Starry Night.

Or perhaps it is precisely the lack of color that struck you. Your attention might have been alerted to the intensifying effect of global pollution; the world drowning in artificial light, the clouds fornicating with poisonous smoke. Certainly, Van Gogh had little to no awareness of the Earth’s rising fever.

Have you gone outside and looked? Look at the stars. What do you perceive? Do you see the spiraling coalitions of chaos, planets and stars scattered across the universe? Or do you see the tapestry of ancient legend, painted through history onto the heavens like the Sistine Chapel? You might see the stars, the anchors that hold images to the night…

But do you see the lines that connect them?

I confess, my introduction has been drawn out and perplexing, but I assure you, it is relevant to my report. Finally, let me address the essence of this exposé.

Over this past week, five individuals, the same five I previously named, have all died in seemingly separate incidents. The police have failed to identify any of their deaths as connected. However, I tell you they are more interlinked than those ancient constellations. And their manner of deaths go far beyond accidental. If you are unfamiliar with any of these victims or the tragedies that befell them, then let me provide you the facts of each case.

Gregor Segal.

Mr. Segal was a college senior of twenty-two and a student enrolled in my

A102 Intro to Astronomy. He was hardly an industrious student, as having failed my course once already. But I was not disposed towards him. In fact, I rather hoped he would overcome his failures and learn a sense of maturity before being released from the juvenile scene of fraternity life.

His absences were frequent and unannounced. As such I was hardly disturbed when he missed my lecture on Olber’s Paradox. But when he was still missing, by his midterm exams the following day, I took notice.

It was not until the next morning when I was informed of the grave news.

Gregor Segal had passed away from an extreme overdose of opioids. He was discovered beneath an overpass on Clemmings Street. The area is infamous for attracting needle junkies and unwanted characters. While I do not contest the official medical report, it fails to describe the events which led Mr. Segal to the scene of his death.

It was a few days after hearing what happened to Tate McCain that I investigated the site myself. According to Rick Layman, a handicapped man with one leg, a shopping cart full of hubcaps, and a minor addiction to ketamine, he remembers seeing Mr. Segal that day he died. If I am to trust this questionable source, supposedly Mr. Segal was showcasing signs of extreme anxiety. Mr. Laymen said the young man arrived in the evening and stayed beneath the bridge the entire night.

This behavior is insanely curious for a fraternity student who, as his peers have confided in me, would only use during parties. Why might he have decided to use then? Was he so impatient that he could wait not a minute more to sample his poison? Was the comfort of the damp concrete as alluring as a Hilton Suite?

Or did he feel pressured to cower away, beneath that bridge of Styx, by some overwhelming and enigmatic force?

Kyle Randolph was the second victim during that week of tragedy.

I was not formally acquainted with Mr. Randolph but was familiar with his face. I’d often see him toeing behind Gregor Segal, after class, as they collected into a loud group of young men.

He was an offensive guardsman for the university’s football team, the Mount Adeth Mountaineers. He often sported his red and black jersey with pride. I suppose it is poetic he would die in it.

It was late in the day when the Mountaineers were holding a training session. Mr. Randolph had already endured a full day of physical exhaustion when finally, he was made to do one last lap around the track. Even the cool night air could not quell the raging fire in his chest. He was less than halfway in when he began to lose control of himself.

He stumbled forward and onto his back, eyes wide with horror as his heart gave in. Almost immediately, paramedics were called to his aid. But nothing could be done.

On paper the circumstances around Mr. Randolph’s death were obverse to Mr. Segal’s. Unlike his friend, Mr. Randolph died of natural causes, in a familiar environment, and among dozens his peers. Had I put no effort into investigating these incidents, I too would have thought Mr. Randolph’s case was extraneous.

Afterall, Mr. Randolph was a larger young man and his family had a long history of heart disease. Surely, his health was just a winding clock ticking down to disaster. Still, as young as twenty and as fit to play on a university team? Hadn’t he done those same exercises a hundred times before? But I digress.

Tate McCain.

[sigh]

Truly a tragedy… Mr. McCain was one of my most promising students. He enrolled in nearly every course I taught and excelled through each one like Hercules to the twelve labors. The night prior to his unfitting end, I was conducting a lab for A304 Astrobiology. Mr. McCain asked to stay late, so that he could run a few extra models. I would never discourage the curious mind, so I told him it was acceptable so long as he locked up the lab. When I left, I bid him farewell and said that I would see him in the morning for A311 Archeoastronomy.

Come that morning, however, there was no McCain. I might have been able to ignore Mr. Segal’s extended sabbaticals, but Mr. McCain’s absence had me considerably concerned. I checked the lab and found it had been properly locked and equipment, put away in respectable order. This did nothing to alleviate my puzzlement, for I still was without knowledge to his leave. But his whereabouts would not stay a mystery for long.

If you are local to the university area you have likely already heard the rumors. And if you are of sensible mind, you were probably quick to disregard them as fiction. But those there that day, who saw the body before it was quickly concealed by university staff, know that the rumors were in pale comparison to the truth.

I know because I was there too. And had I not recognized the very same outfit he wore that day prior, there would have been no way for me to recognize his horribly gored face.

I was put under speculation for a while. Having the last recorded contact with Mr. McCain, it was only reasonable. But the case was quickly turned around and closed. The overwhelming evidence on the scene proved that Mr. McCain had performed fatal self-mutilation. Campus surveillance captured the dreadful scene from several angles. According to the Wyrd County Police, every one of Mr. McCain’s final moments were rigorously captured on video.

For the sake of his family, the Wyrd County Police have not publicly released the film but a few of the faculty, myself included, have been allowed to view it.

After I had left that night, Mr. McCain worked in the lab for another hour before cleaning up and locking the room. It was 9:42 PM. He left the Northside building and was heading in the direction of the dormitories when he started to display a strange behavior. Still heading the same direction, he suddenly began darting from tree to tree, crouching his head as though something might fall on top of him. It was beneath one of these trees, where Mr. McCain began to ruthlessly claw at his eyes. He eventually collapsed and died from blood loss.

No theory to his suicide has satisfied me. Conventional drugs cannot be blamed, for the police found no traces within his system. It’s true, Mr. McCain was enrolled with twenty-two credit hours and even employed part-time on the weekends. But if he was so overwhelmed with work to the point of self-destruction why- why would he have asked to stay for an extra hour in the lab?

Had I not taught him since he first arrived at the university? Would I not have seen the signs of strain on one of my most intelligent students?

It was precisely when police concluded their investigation that I began my own.

I started by questioning his friends, a few of which were also my students. After class, I interviewed each of them separately. Their questions were as numerous as mine and their statements, typically unenlightening. But it was one Lilly Porter, who informed me of the party Mr. McCain had been present to 5 days prior. Miss Porter explained that she and Mr. McCain had gone together to the party at a campus fraternity house. The same fraternity house as Mr. Segal attended.

I asked Miss Porter if there were any incidents at this party which dealt Mr. McCain stress. She stated no, but rather he was having a pleasant time and even began flirting with a young girl from another school.

This young girl, I would later learn, was Destiny Wilterman.

Rhea Wilterman was Destiny’s older sister of three years, a senior at a community college near Copps Hill, and the fourth victim after Mr. McCain.

Unfortunately, I know less about Rhea Wilterman than any of the others. She was mostly local to Copps Hill, so I had never seen her face nor did her obituary appear in my morning newspaper. Through my own research, I learned that Miss Wilterman was driving home one night, from her part-time job at the Ferris Family Coroner’s Office, when she steered off road and crashed into a tree. According to the very same establishment Miss Wilterman was returned to, she died instantly.

Dear Destiny Wilterman was such a delicate soul.

Like a white begonia her caring heart is something to see in brimming light. Yet there, she is so vulnerable; burning, away from the shade. I had the pleasure of meeting with Miss Destiny Wilterman while she was still alive. Unfortunately, I came too late to see her sister.

Perhaps it was my subconscious, aware of the flower’s final bloom, that warned me time was short. But I contacted Destiny Wilterman almost instantly after Miss Porter’s testimony. When I did, I offered my full and uncensored desires for meeting. She had every right and sensible reason to ignore my requests and yet, she agreed.

I visited her family home the next day. She was frightfully distraught, as can be understood to a sister in mourning. But behind her grief I also sensed a very primal fear.

Discussion took to that night, at the fraternity party. She explained it had been her sister’s idea to go. Rhea’s bolstering confidence was often gravitational; Destiny orbited about her every decision. If her big sister thought they should go to a college party, then they went. And it wasn’t like they were complete strangers; Rhea had some old friends at Mount Adeth University.

The two had a few drinks and mingled. Soon enough Rhea was off spending private time with some boy and Destiny was left adrift among an alien crowd. At some point she was approached by Tate McCain. They talked and laughed for a while until Rhea came stumbling down the stairs, crutched on the shoulder of Gregor Segal.

Rhea then tells Destiny that Gregor is going to show them a movie. Destiny reluctantly follows but not before convincing McCain to join them. He agrees and the four meet with Gregor’s friend, Kyle Randolph, in the theatre room.

And so finally, our stories converge. Five victims of seemingly unrelated tragedies are found all alone in the same room just days before they die. What happens in that room sets forth a series of irreversible calamities.

Destiny said the room clung to a smell of pot and liquor. She was nervous, worried Gregor might try and pressure them into using drugs. However, this was not the case. Kyle, apparently familiar with the proceedings, took a bag of chips to one of the loungers. Rhea fell to a bean bag chair as Gregor drunkenly paced a shelf full of video games, blue ray dvds, and football memorabilia. He looked into a cupboard just below the shelves and pulled out a few classic VHS tapes.

The covers, according to Destiny, were all white but had a ribbon of color along one side. Most were green, but one was purple. Gregor boasted his small collection, passing them one of the green striped tapes. The cover had the silhouette of a Swordfish and scribed in marker was the title “Green-Swordfish-12”.

Destiny asked if this was the “movie” they were going to watch but Gregor shook his head and said they were going to try a “new one”.

He set all the tapes aside except for the one with the purple ribbon. Destiny said the name of this film was “Purple-Moon-4”.

Destiny Wilterman could not tell me what was on that tape. Either she couldn’t remember, or she refused to remember. But she said they left the party after finishing the film.

It’s not clear whether those five felt any adverse change upon finishing the tape but just then, as I looked into the hollow eyes of Destiny Wilterman I pictured the canyons of carnage carved into Tate McCain’s face.

Such as I struggled to formalize my questions, Destiny searched her words to express some insoluble secret. Her next words would forever be like a leech to my mind. She leaned in, desperately, and whispered:

“Do you see the lines that connect the stars?”

Try as I did, I could not apprehend her thoughts. And so, we were both left to despair. For I was alone without understanding, and she was alone without anyone to understand.

As I left, I promised to return her call the next day.

Destiny Wilterman committed suicide that night, hanging herself with the curtains that defended against the stary night.

–           –           –           –           –           –           –           –           –           –           –           –

If you were to observe the stars at nightfall, what might you perceive?

In the times of the Ancient Greeks, the constellations were not just legend but divine. Their positions in the sky were chosen by the gods themselves. To suggest anything else was heresy.

Today, the opposite is true. The stars were set by a random displacement in the universe. Their existence is natural and far removed from our lives. And their constellations are but delusions of the mind. Afterall, modern science proves that the stars are lightyears apart.

Do you see now? Do you see how they are all connected?

Certainly, they were all present at that party, in that theatre room that dreadful day. But it’s more than that. It did not come all at once, but it unraveled itself. They all saw it. The same thing they witnessed on that tape, I suspect they witnessed it before they died.

Gregor Segal, hiding beneath a bridge, beneath the sky, escaping into drugs, into death.

Kyle Randolph, pushed to exhaustion, but struck down by fear, down by the night.

Tate McCain, running, running underneath the sight of stars, a sight he could no longer bare.

Rhea Wilterman, driving home, catching a glimpse of the black, and in a glimpse her life is done.

Destiny Wilterman, surrendering before her window, before the dark.

If you were to observe the stars at nightfall, what might you perceive? Does it compare to all that’s there? Does it hold a candle to the stars?

I went searching for Gregor’s collection, for Purple-Moon-4. But all the tapes were gone. Someone took them. So, I am forever alone without understanding.

I can’t stop wondering whether what those five saw on that tape made them mad or made them see…

When often, I’m plagued by this thought, I must go under the night sky and look up. Were the ancient Greeks so wrong to perceive the divine among the heavens? Certainly, they are lightyears apart…

What do you see?

You see the stars…

But do you see the lines that connect them?