I am floating in a sea of darkness…a stygian darkness…
What does that even mean, a "stygian" darkness? Where the hell did that come from?
Where am I?
I can't feel my arms or my legs…I can't feel much of anything, in fact.
Who am I?
Ny name is Staff Sergeant John Corben, United States Marine Corps, Special Operations, 35 years old, born in America...
No, that's no quite right…I'm former Staff Sergeant John Corben, United States Marine Corps (there are only former Marines, no 'ex' Marines, remember). I'm a civilian now, or am I? I need to wake up...or...maybe I'm still in Afghanistan? Lying unconscious in the dirt, or in a hospital bed? Maybe we hit an IED after all…shit! I thought all that was over…but I still don't know where I am. Think...I have to think, think back…what was the last thing that happened to me? I have to remember...
It's daytime, hot, blazing light filling the world. All of us wear protective glasses. An explosion. My Marines are all around me, our rifles raised. We kick in the door and rush in, shouting. We are clearing a building. My adrenalin is up, and we're going through room for room, searching for Taliban. We're careful, we know there might be women and kids around, and we see them huddled together, crying. The bastards use them as human shields. That's not what I'm worried about, right now. I'm running through the building, and in the back I find it.
There is a room, stacked from floor to ceiling with books. Qur'ans. A decrepit old man in dirty robes is crouched in front of a book on the dirt floor, desperately trying to flic his Bic, he's trying to set fire to it. He hears me but he doesn't look up. Instead he frantically keeps trying to get his lighter going, babbling something I don't understand. I roar at him and charge forward, kicking the sonuvabitch in the head with my boot. He topples over, still jabbering in his weird dialect. He scrambles madly for his lighter. I stomp on his hand, relishing hearing the bones in his hand crunch, along with the cheap plastic lighter. He stops squirming, clutching his broken hand, crying. He looks up at me desperately, pointing towards the book on the ground, imploring me in his annoying tongue. I can't understand him, he still wants to burn it even after being caught in the act. I boil with anger.
Two of my corporals appear, they grab the old guy and drag him away for the interrogators. I turn around to see the private detailed to escort our interpreter, "Kevin," around. The interpreter wears a clout over his face in case he is recognized by any of the locals. The boot private is staring at me, at the room full of books.
"What was that about?" he asks, confused.
"You don't know?" I realize I have to educate the boot quickly. "He was trying to set these Qur'ans on fire. Then they'll put the blame on us, claiming we're insulting their religion, and there'll be a shitstorm that we'll be the ones paying for! You better keep your eyes open for shit like this. That asshole won't be doing anything like that anytime soon."
I pick up the book that the old bastard was trying to set on fire, first. It's old and beat-up, bound in some kind of leather. There's Arabic writing on the darkened leather cover, barely legible. I hand it to the interpreter, who takes it reluctantly. He clearly doesn't want to be here, with us.
"A Qur'an, right?"
"Kevin" only looks at it for a moment, then hands it back to me, as if he doesn't want to touch it anymore. He shakes his head.
"Not Qur'an," he mumbles. He's supposed to be our "translator," but his English is hardly any damn good. "Not a good book."
Whatever. The next couple hours are spent gathering intel. "Kevin" seems in a hurry to get out of here, he probably doesn't want anyone to know he's helping Americans. Again, I examine the leather-bound book (I'm not sure what kind of leather it is, it sure doesn't feel like cowhide, and I know the Muslims wouldn't use pigskin), in case it might be a terrorist guidebook of some kind. It's all written in Arabic I guess, but the words, and the way they're written, sure doesn't look like the writing they taught us in our basic Arabic class. Also, there are drawings in the book (incredibly strange pictures at that) and other scribbles that almost look like Nordic runes. So I know Kevin is telling the truth, it couldn't possibly be a Qur'an, or any other holy book. They don't put pictures in those. The book repulses me. At first.
We get the call to head back to our FOB. Without thinking, I stuff the book in my rucksack. I'll leave the Qur'ans to the intel guys.
Why this memory? Why am I remembering this? The book...I remember...the book...something about the book...there's a buzzing in my head...
I was in Iraq in '04, a tough year. I'd already been in the Corps three years. Iraq was my first combat deployment after Denise and I got married, and she had a hard time dealing with my being gone for nearly a year. We almost divorced then. We probably should have, but she wanted to be married to a "hero." Whatever that is. So we went to a marriage counselor and saved our marriage, for awhile. Then I get called up for Operation Enduring Freedom. Denise was alternately arguing for me to get out, then berated me for not being a "real Marine" when I tried to. So I went, just to not hear her yammering anymore.
After that mission, I'm detailed to babysit three journalists from the Daily Planet newspaper for a couple of weeks. Personally, I can't stand these embedded reporters, they're all a bunch of media-whores, but these ones at least aren't being a colossal pain in the ass, which is some consolation. They ride around on convoy with us in the MRAP, traveling from FOB to FOB, even into the Afghani villages, but only the ones where we don't have trouble. One of them, a big guy named Kent, is different from the other reporters I've met. He actually takes the time to get to know the troops he's writing about. He isn't asking a bunch of dumbass questions (and yes, Virginia, there are stupid questions, like "how does it feel to kill a jihadi?"). He says he wants to write his story about people, and that he's not pushing any political agenda. After my initial hostility, I end up talking to him about me and my wife and how the war affects us. He's genuinely interested. For some reason, I feel comfortable talking to him. I can tell Kent really doesn't like the war, or any war, but what the hell, he's a civilian. At least he's adjusting to being in a war zone better than that lady reporter with him, a Miss Lane. I learn from the female Marines escorting her that she is really bossy and complains alot! I confirm this, seeing how whenever she's with Kent she bosses him around, too. He just takes it, poor guy. The photographer with them, whose name I can't remember, tends to keep close to Kent, especially the one time we did come under fire. Our convey came under ambush after our lead MRAP hit an IED - a big one - and then we took RPG and small rounds fire, all at once. During the firefight the lady and the wimpy little photographer look scared shitless, hunkering down in the back of the vehicle. I glance over at Kent, expecting him to be shitting his pants too - the Kevlar body armor and helmet looks ridiculous on him - but to my surprise, although he's also in the back, I can see his eyes, behind his nerdy glasses. His eyes are surprisingly calm, and...there's something there, something that tells me that if things took a turn for the worse, he wouldn't be cowering behind the Marines...but I must only be imagining it. Kent even refused all our attempts to issue him a firearm, even a sidearm pistol.
The firefight is over in only minutes. We get our embedded reporters back to the FOB safely. We did lose that boot private and our interpreter - they were in the lead vehicle when it took the explosion, and there wasn't much left of it. Lane and that photographer kid seem shaken up, but Kent calmly takes charge of them as they return to Kabul. He thanks me for my help, and shakes my hand. He has a strong grip, and I can tell that he's stronger than he lets on. He invites me to visit Metropolis, when I return. Months later, I see the article he wrote, and it is one of the better ones I have read - one that was written by a civilian, that is. He mentions me and Denise, and I smile. However, it is buried in the back pages - apparently celebrities and the Justice League take center stage over the war.
My Marines have mixed feelings about this Justice League. Some believe that they will make a move to take over the United States and then the world and we'll be called on to fight them sooner or later - some of them relish that possibility. Others support the Justice League, think they're the best thing since sliced bread for ending war and bringing about world peace, even though those costumed weirdos stated they don't get involved in "foreign policy." A few, crazy others think they are a part of a conspiracy to bring about the new world order, or the apocalypse, or whatever. I just laugh at it all, or ignore it...because now I have the book.
I remember I had kept it in my rucksack, and never turned it in - I guess I forgot to. I take it out again. Something about the book fascinates me, I can't explain why. Since I can't read the squiggly language, I content myself with looking at the pictures. I've always been a visual learner. The pictures are...I don't know how to explain them...they're strange. Arresting. I can't even explain what they're pictures of, only that the author must have had access to the premium poppy grown here, to draw such things.
The buzzing in my head...it's getting stronger...am I regaining consciousness? But how can I be unconscious if I'm thinking? Why can't I FEEL ANYTHING...
Oh yeah, the book. Soon I'm spending all my free time looking at the pictures, thinking about them, wondering what they mean. Some of them are ugly and terrible, yet fascinating still in their hideousness. I trace the ancient inks with my fingertips. I give up playing video games, lifting weights, even nearly missing formations and meetings, but I can't think of anything else other trying to make some sense of these pictures. Mythical gods, or monsters? Is this book telling a story? Some of these look like diagrams, but of weapons, cities? Realities? I almost feel I can drift into another world...they invade my dreams. I can't remember them when I wake up, only that I feel strangely drained yet exhilarated when I awake. My gunny is worried about me, thinks I might have PTSD. How can you get PTSD from a book, though? I shrug him off.
I stop answering the emails from Denise. At first she wrote about how much she missed me, loved me. It soon became complaints about her job, which she quit, cutting our income in half (real smart move). Then she began bitching about the other military spouses in our housing area, then that the command wasn't doing enough for the families back home, that my paycheck (going into our joint account) wasn't enough to pay the bills. All stuff I had no control over. I don't need that shit, not here. I ignore her whining demands, her pleas that I come home right away, right now. What does she think, that I can just book a flight home out of here? Dumb bitch.
I find that this ancient book with its bizarre, wondrous pictures a relief from her nagging emails. When our deployment finally ends, I find a way to smuggle the book back in my gear - it's illegal to take "war booty" but I know I can't part with it. Then I'm back in the States, on the parade deck, surrounded by other Marines and their happy families waving "Welcome Home!" signs. There are tearful reunions, guys seeing their wives and girlfriends, and even kids for the first time, but I'm alone. Denise didn't even bothered to show up. Figures. I get a buddy to drive me and my gear back to my house. The lights are dark. When I enter the home I haven't seen in 10 months, it looks like a pigsty, totally trashed. Empty beer bottles, ashtrays overflowing, nasty shit I don't even want to know what it is, strewn everywhere. Denise had been partying it up in my absence it seems. I turn on my heel and go stay in a motel.
This buzzing...it doesn't stop! It almost feels like there is something else in my head. Where am I? But if I'm back in the States, I was home, how could I have been injured there? Then it wasn't an IED after all...it didn't blow off my limbs like that guy in "Johnny Got His Gun." But I still can't feel anything. Something, some force is making me remember...to keep remembering...
I get a nasty and ugly divorce from Denise. She did her best to ruin my career. I am pulled off the next deployment cycle, to deal with all my legal issues from the divorce. She accused me of dealing drugs, which was false (turned out she was the one actually dealing), but it became a case of he-said, she-said. My chain of command, which should have supported me, turned on me. So much for standing by your man. I was reassigned to a desk job, checking out gym gear. I had to pay part of my paychecks to Denise, and I knew she used them to pay for her new boyfriend's drug and booze habit, and her own too. I know now she did same thing she did when she cheated on me during my first deployment. I confront her. I admit I lost my temper, but I only shoved her after she hit me first! I didn't even leave a bruise but she had me arrested and charged with assault. Domestic violence. That was the final straw, the Corps apparently only wants to keep guys with squeaky-clean records. I was lucky to get out with an Honorable Discharge, only because my Colonel actually liked me and refused to give me the Bad Conduct Discharge my lieutenant, a no-ball wonder from Annapolis, wanted. But that was it for me, after only 10 years in my Marine Corps, not able to make it to retirement, or even to gunnery sergeant like my father had (even though he was an asshole and never there, at least he was a Marine), I was out on my ass, back to a world which hardly knew or cared that we were still at war. Some of my buddies had gotten out too, and had turned to the bottle, or meth, or the gun to deal with it. Myself, I wasn't going to go down that road. I had plans. Good thing we never had kids.
And I still had the book. I had kept it hidden, all this time. Not even Denise knew I had it. She wasn't going to get that, even if she got everything else!
But even though I had plenty of time to peruse the book, I had to find a job. Denise had always been after me to get out of the military (even though she bragged about being married to a "hero") and start what she called a "real" job that made "real" money. She had suggested that I go into the contracting business and make twice the salary I was making as an NCO. Although a long time ago such people were called "mercenaries" or "war profiteers", I didn't care. I thought I could do the same thing. All the good names were already taken, but Denise came up with a name.
A stupid name, I scoffed to her. She ignored me, said she thought it sounded cool and that I was a fucking idiot. SinceI couldn't think of anything else, so I used it. I made up some business cards, called myself a CEO, but really I didn't know much about business or marketing. I figured it'd come to me, eventually. But money was running out, and after Denise divorced me, I was really looking at the possibility of living out of my truck. Then I had to sell the truck, and only got around on my Harley, bought in better times. Then I was facing the possibility of living under a bridge. I didn't want to end up like veterans of the last war, so I sold all my possessions - the economy was in the toilet, but I wasn't going to go from highly trained sniper to burger-flipper. Finally, I even thought about selling the book. I hated to, but I was that desperate. An old book had to be worth something to somebody. I took it around to several antique shops and antiquarian book stores. A few of them had no idea what it was, weren't interested and said it probably wasn't worth much. I kept trying, feeling my wallet getting thinner. I got some weird reactions: some old bastard at a used book store took one look at it and told me to get the hell out of his shop. Another guy looked at the cover, lifted it and saw the illustrations; then he quietly said,
"Young man, I'd like to offer you $500 for this book. That is all I have in the till."
I pursed my lips. Was that all? "What will you do with it? Resell it at markup?" I was upset.
"No. I'm going to burn it."
That's all I needed to hear. I grabbed the book and got the hell out of there. I spent the night staring at the pages, frustrated, angry. The mysterious drawings and diagrams remained as inscrutable as usual. I wasn't getting anything out of this, after all. Maybe it ought to be burned! Just as Denise had betrayed me, this book was betraying me too. Finally I found another bookseller, a seedy looking creep who smelled of stale nicotine and Crisco, sitting amidst a hoarder's pile of moldy old books and yellowed magazines, who said he could put me in touch with a private buyer that he had sold to before. After that, a Will Richardson called me. Professor Richardson, of Arabic studies at some no-name college. He asked if he could examine the book before purchase (I named a high figure). I said where. He mentioned a town: Smallville. Where the hell was that? Kansas. Not far from where I was. He said he would reimburse my gas mileage, even if he didn't buy the book. I agreed. Rode my Harley and met him there in Smallville, which turned out to be a little farm town, and looked like it had seen better days.
The buzzing in my head keeps intensifying...grows stronger...what is happening here?
Will Richardson looks like a typical college professor to me, well-dressed and delicate, no doubt he never fired a gun, or had to do anything harder than lifting his grading pencil. But he greets me cordially at the coffee shop we've agreed to meet at, and seems very eager to see the book that I've described to him over the phone. His eyes follow my every movement as I reach into my bike's saddlebag and pull out the book, wrapped in a protective, rainproof covering. I watch him carefully as he unwraps it, his eyes shining. He touches the cover tentatively.
"Incredible!" He exclaims, delight and disbelief in his voice. "A Kitab al Azif! The original Arabic!"
I am stunned. "You can read that?"
"Of course." He carefully turned the pages. "Very old Arabic. Not quite the kind used today. Only a few people know it. I'm one of them."
I can hear the pride in his voice, and I know I can sell him on this. "So, you'll buy it?"
"Don't you know what this is?"
From his tone I can tell he think I just fell off the turnip truck, so to speak, and that he hopes that if I don't know, I will settle for alot less than he can pay.
"What I know," I reply cooly, "Is that it's very rare and valuable - to you. If you want to find another copy, you are welcome to go to Afghanistan to look for it."
"Afghanistan!" He ignores my retort, and stares at the book even more intensely, if that's possible. His expression is odd. "That means...this could be a first generation copy! Within Alhazred's own lifetime, if not during! My God! This is...historic!" He seemed on the verge of blurting out something else, but then he calmed down. He made an offer that was beyond even what I was expecting; still, I decided to try for a higher price and to my surprise he agreed to it on the spot. I wondered if college professors could actually make that kind of money to spend on books. Maybe he had something on the side. It wasn't my business. I needed the money. He agreed to pay in cash also.
Before I left him with his now most prized possession, I asked him, "That book...what does it mean? I mean...what is it about?"
Richardson only looked at me, and this time he I could see barely-masked contempt in his face. No doubt he thought I was nothing more than a dumb jarhead who could barely count to twenty without taking off my socks, but he gave me a reply:
"It's an instruction manual. That's all. Thank you for selling to me. Good day."
At the time I didn't care. I had a huge chunk of money again. I could get started on my contracting business. But then the weeks and months passed and nothing happened. I kept thinking about the book...about what was in the book. I had made photocopies of the illustrations before I sold it, but somehow the copier didn't catch all the nuances and details of the originals. I hang around Smallville, run into Kent and his wife. So he lost his job, too. Things were tough everywhere. I should be investing the money I'd gotten for the book, but I'm starting to have second thoughts. I realize it had been a mistake to sell it. Then, that night, the dreams started. Dreams of space, of vast stretches of endless desert, of great but abandoned cities littered with innumerable lifeless bodies, with black suns hanging in a starless sky. Nightmares, but instead of waking up in sweaty terror, I relished these dreams. I wanted to see more, the hallowed temples to unnamed gods that littered the empty void of what had become the Earth...I knew with certainty now that I had made a mistake selling the book.
I was behind on the rent on the shitty apartment I was living in, not because I couldn't pay, but because I didn't bother to write the checks. Angry notes were left on my door by my non-English-speaking landlord. I didn't read them. I missed VA appointments, my answering machine was full, I'd given up my cell phone. I didn't have anyone to call, I'd lost touch with all my friends, and I never had any family that I'd bothered to keep in touch, after Mom died. Dad had disappeared ten years ago, probably dead too. Denise was the only one who'd even tried to keep in touch, if only because she wanted and expected more money. She was a full-blown addict now, needed to feed her habit. I wasn't interested in any of it any longer. I could only think of that book, and that it had the key to the dreams. I wanted to get it back from the professor, but I knew he would not sell it back - I knew he would be just as drawn to it as I was. It had that kind of power. It was a power. The only power. I didn't know how I knew that, but I did. It could answer all my questions...about everything.
So I returned to Smallville. I found out where he lived. I truly didn't have any intent to hurt him, only to get my book back, but I was going to get it back! You must believe me...I had no other intention...but then...then...
The buzzing rises a hundredfold, and then the pain! It hurt! But it was all in my head! I tried to cry out, but no sound came out.
Who are you?
Who. Are. You?
Is that me? Or...who is that?
What has happened to me?
My last memories: I remember going to the Red House. I remember seeing that thing that came out of that place. I shoot at it, even though I knew it would be useless...I see Denise...no that wasn't her...Kent's wife, maybe, or was it Wonder Woman? I am pulled into the shoggoth (shoggoth?) a searing pain in my hand as I can no longer hold onto that glowing rope...then...blackness...and an incredible pressure as I feel I am suffocating, my ears, mouth, nostrils, something pouring in like I am drowning in a sea of darkness...then...nothing.
Am I dead?
Who said that?
I start to see again. Something is coalescing in front of me, lights, shapes. I realize my vision is coming back. Perhaps I am in the hospital after all! Then the form becomes definite. I see someone, lying on a slab of black stone granite. Someone's lying hurt, my military instincts kick in, and I try to go to him, try to call out corpsman up! but I still can't talk. Then my vision clears, suddenly, and I recognize the body on the slab.
It's...me. My body. Not quite intact. The head...the top of the head has been removed. The brain is gone. I've seen injuries like this before, during my tour, but now...that's...me.
What the hell? I am dead! This is hell!
What?! Who is that here? Who are you?
As if in response, I can see beyond the body (my body!) on the slab - there is a reflective surface beyond him, and then I see where I am. I'm...in a jar. No, a canister. My brain is in it...I've become a brain in a jar.
I would scream if I had a mouth, but I don't.
My mind reels, but then the voice comes again. It is not an unpleasant voice. I don't actually hear it as feel it. The sensation is...soothing, like a shot of morphine, or a dose of oxycotin.
Do not be afraid. We have you.
I feel as if I've gone mad, but...I listen to the voice. I ask - demand - again. Who. Are. You?
That name doesn't mean anything to me, but then I feel the buzzing in my mind again. I realize it's their voice. They are the ones reviewing my memories, like someone going through a book...the book...they know I've seen the Al Azif. If I've seen the Al Azif, then I know them. I've known them all along.
Where are you?
My vision clears again, the buzzing stops. The body (my body) disappears, and I feel, no sense, somehow, the canister turning. And then I see them. Even after all this time, I remember that sensation upon seeing such beings. My brain in its stabilizing fluids must have churned and writhed at the sight, roiling at the sight of the living Fungi from Yuggoth. For that was what they were, and where I was.
Yuggoth. Their world.
They had retreated from the tiny outpost once they were re-discovered. Many years ago they had brought the Shining Trapezohedron at the behest of the humans there, who were more perceptive than their fellows, and wanted to partake of the knowledge of the Fungi. They had summoned a shoggoth from beneath cold Kadath, but after that, they had squandered their precious knowledge in pitiful squabbling and infighting. The same with any religion. They were no longer willing to heed the call of the Mi-go, so they had left, with those they had harvested to come to dark Yuggoth with them. They had left the shoggoth there, and the Shining Trapezohedron, hidden in the house, until another human had summoned them, through the manual. But he had been prematurely thwarted...
The buzzing begins again. I realize, I understand them...they are...what? Curious? Piqued? At the beings that had stopped the shoggoth. They had never encountered such a thing before. Yes, they are indeed curious. They had taken the Shining Trapezohedron back - along with the remnants of the shoggoth - to Yuggoth, before they could be seen by anyone else. And they took me.
Why? My mind screams without sound. Why me?
You know, Corben. We want you. You read the book, didn't you.
Yes. Yes...I do know. I read the book, didn't I? The book the was called Al Azif, but was better known as the Necronomicon. So had Richardson. But he was dead. So I would have to do. That suited them. I was a martial human. That was even better. They have plans for me. They don't want to be thwarted again. They whisper it to me, in my head. I listen - I have no choice, do I? But as I listen, I like. I said I wasn't going to go from sniper to burger-flipper, remember? Now...I am to be re-deployed again.
They place my brain, in its shielded container, into a metal body of their manufacture. It is not made of any metal known on Earth. Whatever it is, it has the ability to conform to any shape, or size, it could even be alive, or about as alive as the Mi-Go are. The exterior looks like them, crustacean, fungoid, and able to extrude extensions. I try it to modify it myself, with my mind, although I end up wrecking one of their cities in the process. They don't mind. The Mi-Go peel themselves off from the spore-filled walls and grounds of their lightless world (somehow I have night vision now too), and tinker continuously with my new body. I know that they are surgeons too. I guess they have to be, being brain harvesters. They have a bit of a hoarding problem, that way, well so did my Mom. I learn they have been to Earth many times, for that purpose, and to satisfy whatever bizarre curiosity they have with our maddening, grotesque species, which is perhaps how they see us. They are drawn to us, the same way I was drawn to Denise perhaps, because she was a train-wreck and capable of nothing else but drama. I have to admit now I enjoyed driving her to distraction, and seeing her flail and twist in anger and pain...perhaps I and the Mi-Go are not dissimilar. They are willing to use me to their purposes - they do not like the light of Earth, so they will make it more like this world of theirs, like black Yuggoth. All humanity will go through the same - it is what you truly want, is it not? And I want more of their knowledge. No longer encumbered by my weak, aging human body, I have the potentiality for much more. They are willing, very willing, to share their great knowledge. They, at least, recognize my potential! They are very generous. It is all they intend - Iä Cthulhu! Iä Shub-Niggurath!
I am Metallo, First of the New Ones. I will return to Earth, and then there will see an awesome, terrifying, magnificent drama! Then will the Earth become like Yuggoth, dark and black and without light, and the New Ones will become like the Old Ones, free and wild and beyond good and evil. Wait for us.
That concludes "The Red House"! The Mi-go are from Lovecraft's story "The Whisperer in Darkness" (a great b&w adaptation is available on Netflix, and you can see the trailers on YouTube), and if you want to see what they look like (if you dare) there are some great illustrations on deviantArt site.
And please "wait" for the sequel! To come sometime soon (maybe, I hope, if I don't get writers block) after the New Year. Before the actual sequel I may write two connected stand-alone stories setting up said sequel featuring my personal fave Superman baddie, Lex Luthor (guess who has the Al Azif now?), and poor Jimmy Olsen - for a reason. And then the sequel, featuring (for now) Superman (Christopher Reeve), Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter), Batman (Adam West cameo) Hippolyta (Special Guest Star Joan Crawford as MIL from Hades), a familiar name from the WW universe will play a major role, even less familiar names from the Mythos lurking about, maybe Lois and Jimmy snooping around our couple, a whole cast of brand new characters, and lots and lots of Amazons with man-issues carrying sharp pointy objects. But it will be a horror story again, and maybe more intense, if I can manage to write it like that.
As always, reviews and suggestions (nice ones) are welcome!
(Just joking about the casting ;)
And thank you all for reading this!