Your feet: They're sore. Your boots are hearty, but the mist has crept into your socks. Now, everything is damp. We met in a small woodland clearing, you and I. You've hiked a long way. Rolled in like a tuft of freshly mowed grass caught in a gust on the sidewalk. Came in off the main drag, you did. Were you a wanderin’? Fella, you lost? What's left of the forest trail behind you has faded into root-work, amber leaves, and pockets of pine needles. It’s growing dark. An honest promise: It's not safe where you came from. These woods? They're pitch black past sundown. Them Loblolly Pines—the Red Pines, too—are taller ‘n hell. You can’t see the moon. Not even the stars. The clearing we're in? It’s tucked away, nice ‘n neat. You're safe. Don't worry. Why don’t you stay for the night? The place smells like rock dust for some reason. When you stumbled across it, I was right here: lounging on this hammock. It's one of them portable ones. Walmart, if my memory serves. Honest to god, you gave me a fright. Christ on a rocket. Bones damn near leapt from my skin. See, it’s quiet here; your boot snapped a twig. You saw the post too, huh. Yeah. It’s something strange. In these parts—‘round the bend, just after the valley—the woods are littered with ‘em. Just all these sign posts, stuck in the dirt. Each one with its own name. To tell you the truth? The things make my heart skip a beat. See, there’s somethin’ right queer about them posts. The names on ‘em, that is. They say every name—one per sign—is owned by a dead person. Llewelyn. Charlie. Malcom. Each 'n every one of them. I can’t lie: It’s a little funny you’re in these woods after dark. Most folks? They glimpse one o’ them oddball signs from the road ahead. Or, maybe they miss ‘em entirely. Few get curious enough to push back the brush, take to the trail, ‘n head into the deep pines. Who knows what one might find. Me? Yeah, I’m a bit of a hypocrite 'fer being here. I like these woods. They’re quiet. Spacious. As for the posts…well…let’s just say they’re harmless. For now, at least. Don’t get me wrong, friend. I’m no superstitious fella. I like facts. Fact of the matter is: Some posts are missing. Truth be told, it chills my blood. Why don’t I leave? No, no. It’s a good question. I ain’t take no offence to it. Like you, I spotted them posts. Saw them names peaking out from the thicket. “Hell,” I said, “Something about those posts just ain't right.” Maybe it was the lighting. I don’t know. All I know is I was hiking the trail—like you—when one of them dead-man signs caught my eye. Before I knew it, I got lost. Hence this clearing, here. Hence the hammock. Oh, I’d leave if I could. Those Red Pines don’t move an inch when the wind picks up. These parts are still. Too still. Something about that loud silence don’t sit well with me. Not one bit. You seem like a smart soul; I don’t got to spell it out for you. But I will say this: The longer you stay here, the stranger things get. The harder you look, the more things don’t add up. That there spot is good as any. Go on ahead. Unroll that sleeping bag. See them high branches? They’re thinned out. It’s a good place for the campfire. No, no. Don’t get up. I’ll get the kindling. You got a light? Thank you kindly. There’s a pond, over yonder, but no fish. It’s an odd thing, that. Place is deader than dead. Not even a bird on a branch. At least there’s plenty of stretch room. Here. Make yourself cozy. While we're here, I've got a story to tell. It's one you might have heard of. Or, maybe you haven't. Stories are like sticks in a thicket. Some are a little too green. They’re too fresh for the fire’s tongue. Try as you might, you can’t split them apart. Can’t tell fact from fiction—and neither hold a flame as neither is grown enough to tell the full truth. Other stories are too old. They’re too dry. Too brittle. If left alone for too long, these tales take on a wind of their own. They may catch fire, but they’re used up quickly. Good for kindling, they are, but lacking in meaning as hindsight is no tool to be used on times which are long gone. I suppose that leaves our story. It’s somewhere in its middle years. It’s young, but it’ll light. It’s old, but not too brittle. This tale: Well, it’s best if you take it as is. I don’t know all them facts. I don’t know what else has been said, neither. But I do know one thing. This story is a Red Pine branch. No matter the breeze, it’s stiff n’ still as a board. Much like the Red Pine branches around us, this one gets stranger, and quieter, the more you stare it in the face. It’s the story about a man from the city. So it goes, he was a bit of a tumbleweed himself: the type of man to show up only when needed—and who would leave while he’d still be missed. This tumbleweed-man, he was a sum of many parts. He was a storyteller himself, sowing seeds wherever he’d roll. Yeah. I’ve heard of his name. Bob. That’s what they called him, at least. These days, you never know who’s who. Since it all started, I reckon there’ve been plenty o’ lies and illusions. Here’s an honest question, and I’d like an honest answer: Do you ever really know someone? Here’s another: Can someone know you better than you know yourself? This Bob fella’, they say he was a doctor. Brain surgeon, if I’ve got the facts straight. Before things fell apart, this ‘Bob’ was in the public eye. Before streetlights became flashlights, and before flashlights became campfires, he’d had somewhat of a following. As much of a following as a doctor could have, anyway. They say he was a talker. A real grandpa type, because he was old. Had a cane and everything. Now, don’t take my word as fact, but I hear he didn’t need it. I don’t know why. Maybe he was acting. Maybe he was playin’ a pity card, goin’ camp to camp for protection. A few times? In the late hours? He could be spied standing straight as an arrow. Not a single bend in that old back of his. No. I don’t buy the pity card. This ‘Bob’ had made himself useful. Doctor, and all. Can’t for the life of me figure why he’d put on a long con, due to the state of things. You’d think, at some point, whatever purpose it served woulda passed. Then again: The cane wasn’t the only lie he ever told. It’s worth mentioning once more: This Bob was a real class act. He had his own group, surely, but the old-timer got around. Door to door. Shaking hands. Now, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting 'round a lot of fires, and I’ve heard a lot of stories from a lot of folks. In nearly every Bob story, though, there’s always one exact same damned trend: Whenever disaster struck—whenever someone hurt needed helpin’—it wasn’t long before Bob tumbled on in to help. Record time. Even if it was stormin’. Even if the roads were flooded. Even if hell itself was freezing over. Bob, he’d be there quicker than lightning. And he’d always have just the tool for the job. As if he’d planned for it. Even still, a surprisin' number of his patients didn't make it. He’s gone, now. Either dead or missin’. The way it’s told, the man up and vanished. Not all at once, mind you. It was little by little. It was day by day. Things got strange just before the bombs. Those still breathin’ from the military compound can shed light. The old man had been actin’ weird. He always was an eccentric fella’, mind you. Ain’t nobody said he wasn’t. But, as time passed, Old Bob didn’t talk so much. He’d seemingly lost his quick-witted spirit. Somewhere down the line, he’d lost some of his luster. He stayed up late. Left dinner a little too early. Started sayin’ names wrong. In the odd-angle telling of things, sometimes Bob could be seen holdin’ his cane in the opposite hand—leaning hard against that same limp, only it was on the wrong side of his body. Then, some rumors got out from closed doors. The old guy was slow as a snail. Still, everywhere he wound up found itself with small supply shortages—even when the man, himself, was never left alone. Even stranger was the old man’s persistence ‘bout seemingly unrelated topics. It was much as if a butterfly’s flapping wings in Africa could create a hurricane in Florida; the limping man had a knack ‘fer saying some small word—some odd sentence—which would then tie into somethin’ altogether horrible down the line. As the old man left obscurity, some odds and ends started showing. It’s a he-said-she-said thing, but I’ve heard him be called a puppeteer of sorts. Strings pulled when berries were plucked, it’s suggested, might’ve tickled a finger around a nail gun trigger—even if indirectly. After all: The wrong thing said at the right time can make all the difference in the world—especially when people are at the throats of one another. In the same vein, somethin’ correct don’t mean it’s right. There is the odd whisper which tells of a red-haired boy who was a misfit toy. It was a ‘Lad’ who’d become something of a puppet himself, influenced to dance in sad, sad ways—only fer’ the puppeteer to drop the curtain on him. A play’s every Act is, after all, a tool of misdirection which lets the puppeteer's fingers conduct trickier feats. A discarded puppet has no place, once it's been used. It's got no merit. Doesnt deserve a home. Don’t ever say a toy with a gun can be correct and right, either, for aiming at the puppeteer's hand. The audience: They're getting hand-fed as it is. This fire. It’s been holding light. But, eventually, even old flames die down. No one knows what happened to Old Bob. I doubt it was the red-haired boy who’d done him in. I’ve shared a fire or two with men n’ women from those parts. Hell, even a man who said he was part of ‘Pathfinder’—a group ‘o souls who saved countless lives. Who could believe Bob was with them for a time? Peddled around the warehouse, he did. He loved his warehouses, Old Bob. One morning—it was raining, windy, and cold—the warehouse’s patrons returned home. It’d been a long night. The front door, normally secured, was hangin’ wide open. Everythin’ indoors was intact. Not a nail out of place. Not a single window broken. Bob, he was missin’. Those who knew him, they looked around. And they found nothin’. Nothin’ except for Bob’s medical supply bag, that is. They say it was ripped and spilled just outside the front door—which, they found, had been propped open with a piece of cardboard. Ain’t no one been by since Old Bob seemingly got swept up by a morning storm breeze. Some papers, pamphlets, and plastic had been set free from the pack—tossing and turning across the pavement, as if they were one. I’ve heard some say Old Bob simply got snatched by an infected. That he’s just another invisible number ‘fer the books. No real answer needed. Others say Old Bob might’ve gotten what was comin’ to him. Despite his secrecy, it seemed several saw somethin’ in them old eyes others couldn’t. I’ve heard one version o’ the tale in which Old Bob only got close with females. Kept a teenage ‘Lass’ close at all times. Female medical partner. Female nurse. Bonded with a military woman. Which is righ’ strange, if you believe the other stories about Bob Bell which came before this whole mess: That the man had caused the death of his own mother, indirectly, over an insurance dispute back in the ‘80s. It’d be a lie to say a particular account of the man, one from the FEMA camps, didn’t do a similar job ‘o keepin’ me up at night: When the FEMA rescue groups found the man at the start of it all? During the city evacuation? He’d been doubled over in the dark, locked in one of his medical building’s wards. Bell Surgical, these days, is nothin’ more than a burned-out shell of broken glass, hallways, and bad memories. The FEMA logs don’t cover this, as I suspect Old Bob—or someone he’d met—had it left out: Bob Bell was found, in the small medical room, next to the body of a dead woman. These woods? The posts? The Red Pines? Yeah. I don’t like ‘em much after dark. Stories are just stories. Facts…well…they ain’t always paint a full picture. I still say the signs around here are all screwed up. But maybe I’m just paranoid. I can’t say if those things about Bob Bell are true. I can’t say, for certain, that ‘Bob Bell’ even existed. I’ve walked a lot of roads these days, however, and I’ll be the first to say there are things out there far stranger than an old man who faked a limp. But: Do yourself a favor. If you don’t take any ‘o this story to heart, I mean. Just know that ‘Bob Bell,’ whoever he was, probably was real in some way, shape, or form. Not because the people say so. Not because it’s safer, that way. But because I’ve done my due diligence. I’ve followed some ‘o those paths. Saw the Pathfinder warehouse. Saw the older warehouse, too. The golf course, or what’s left of it, is just through the woods. All these places exist, I tell you, and each holds a piece to a very strange, very disjointed story of somethin’ deeper. It's somethin’ the average Pathfinder story-spinner won’t say: Bob Bell’s medical bag carried some unexpected things. Jars. Two, to be exact. Each filled to the brim with green-yellow vinegar, encasing fist-sized hunks of meat per container: in one, a human heart; in the other, the section of a human brain. It’s said the jars are both labeled with tape and black ink. Darin “Dekker” Erebus. Some things in this world may indeed never add up, I’m afraid. But I know these woods, however frightening, are safer than others. Particularly those surrounding the golf course. Back in its heyday, somethin’ horrible happened there. A man was executed. Killed by puppet people. Got buried next to a parking lot. In the same woods, a red-haired puppet boy. He was shot through the chest. Dumped. Left for dead. You couldn't pay me to spend a night there. Not ever. The posts in these woods? They might be strange. Some might even be missin'. But in those other woods? The trees around the golf course parking lot? In those trees, What's dead don't stay dead. In those trees, Graves get dug up after two days.