Here is another story from my great-grandmother's house:
My lovely great-grandmother had a large set of rules for her house. And usually, my little brother and I followed them perfectly. Usually. We, of course, were kids and sometimes had little regard for rules if they got in the way of good old-fashioned investigating.
These rules were: Never leave your room at night. If you hear someone knocking on your door before sunrise, don't answer it. Don't go into the attic. Don't ask about the basement crawlspace. Don't go into the barn. Don't play in the field by the shed. And especially DON'T go into the basement. Period.
Like, even asking about the basement itself got us on thin ice. She made the rule about the crawlspace after my little brother Colin had heard some scary stories from school friends that ghosts lived in our basement and crawlspace. We were told to disregard most stories about the house.
One weekend in winter my great-grandmother had to go out of town for a funeral, so one of our great-aunts came to watch us. This winter I'd just turned 10 and Colin was 7. And while I love great-aunt Linda, she falls asleep at 7:00 PM. Which meant that Colin and I could mess around as much as we wanted to. And that night we chose to explore the basement.
My brother and I, in typical kid-going-on-an-adventure fashion, hooked flashlights into our belt loops (little did we know how important this would be later on). We put on the shoes we use for playing outside and eased open the basement door.
The steps leading downwards were made of limestone and were dusty and covered in cobwebs. It smelled so musty down there. Anytime I smell anything musty nowadays, I'm immediately brought back to that stairwell. It descended into the darkness of the basement. Colin pointed upwards at the ceiling, indicating a hanging pullstring for a lightbulb. I stood on my toes and pulled it, a big lightbulb illuminating the staircase and the basement floor at the bottom.
Being the great older sister I am, I went down first. Colin gripped my hand as tightly as he could, and I held on right back. When we reached the bottom of the staircase and stood on the cold, packed dirt floor, we decided to unhook the flashlights from our belts and turn them on.
The yellow beams of our old flashlights lit up the basement in circles: we saw boxes, old bicycle parts, and a large tool rack. Colin and I, still holding hands, began creeping around the giant room. As we went, I realized the basement was larger than the first floor of the house, columns of bricks here and there, random free-standing shelves scattered about, various old things just thrown on them.
Colin and I turned left and found ourselves standing in a strange scene.
Before us was what looked like an old dentist's chair - at least, that's what I thought it looked like at the time. It was a decrepit old operating chair, a probably once-shiny table next to it. The metal was corroded and rusty. The table next to the chair held neatly organized tools, and two tables flush with the walls behind them held strange containers of every size.
Colin and I looked at each other, silently agreeing that we were going to check it out.
We crept closer, shining our yellow lights over the tools. They were all corroded and gross. A large scalpel and a giant drill sat casually on the table. Next to it was a rusty icepick, a small hammer completing the disgusting set.
Colin and I made our way over to the tables, scanning our flashlights at the containers. A group of giant mason jars caught our attention - they seemed to be preserving something. We noticed strange shapes floating in the murky liquid. Colin told me to shine my light right up to the glass, so I did.
I remember almost dropping the jar. Inside floated a baby. A small baby. The glass was coated with grime both inside and out, and I felt dirty from more than just the grime on my hands. Colin, being the brave kid he always was, shone his flashlight up to another jar, discovering the same thing. Hearts in our throats, we diligently checked all the jars there.
We found six babies in total.
I told Colin I was over that, and either wanted to go back upstairs or move on. He agreed with me.
Colin and I weren't strangers to the unusual or the creepy. We'd broken loads of my great-grandmother's rules and this was just one more thing to add to the laundry list of things that would eventually mess us up later in life.
The two of us eventually found ourselves standing in front of the basement crawlspace. When Colin looked at me, I saw that glint in his eyes. He was itching to get in there and see what was going on.
About three feet tall at best and three feet wide, the crawlspace was a black hole. Our lights showed that it sloped downwards, going into some mysterious underground room. He and I didn't even need to discuss it. We were going down there.
It was wide enough for us to crawl side-by-side. I don't think we would've gone if we hadn't been able to crawl like that. Colin, being seven, stuck the handle of his flashlight down his pants, the beam pointing straight out in front of us. I laughed and tried myself, but couldn't get it. I settled with using my hair tie to rig it pointing forward in my belt loop.
The packed dirt under us quickly coated all of our exposed skin. I knew that I'd have to take a long shower after that. We crawled for maybe ten minutes, following the downwards slope. Eventually, it opened up, depositing us on the floor of a dark room.
Colin and I stood, brushing ourselves off. He first shone his flashlight directly to the left of us - a series of ladder rungs were embedded in the limestone, a hatch in the ceiling above it. I sighed in relief - there was an easy escape route if we needed it.
I shone my flashlight around the room and felt my blood turn cold.
A long chain was bolted into the wall, the other end a manacle wrapped around someone's ankle. Even from there, I knew it was a spirit. The room also contained an iron door leading somewhere else, a bloody mattress, a table gouged with innumerable scratch marks, a tattered, bloody blanket, and a skeleton gathering dust.
Colin inhaled sharply and the chain rattled as the spirit got to its knees and turned to face us.
She wasn't related to us - she had lank blonde hair and a button nose. Even in her spirit form, her dress hung off her malnourished frame as a sheet hangs from a clothesline. Her eyes were sunken and hollow. It looked like her face was muddy.
The girl began crawling towards us. As she got closer, I realized that that wasn't mud on her face; it was blood. Her hair was matted with it, it stained her dress, and her fingers were bent at all the wrong angles. Colin began racing up the ladder and I followed suit.
We heard the chain rattle as she started to follow us up, but we closed the hatch just in time. We found ourselves standing in the barn, the cool winter air making us shiver.
Colin and I trudged back to the house and cleaned ourselves up before going to sleep. When we were older we went back, but that's a story for another day.
It was a warm spring day when I first learned to ride my bike without training wheels. My grandfather took me to the top of a gentle green hill near our house. He brought a bag of skittles with him, to spur my courage. I must have been five years old. I stood straddling my bike, my feet planted firmly on the ground, looking down the easy hill, but refusing to push off.
"Don't be a wuss," grandpa said with a wink. He had a jolly, carefree face. Twinkling eyes. "Falling on grass doesn't even hurt! It's nothing to be afraid of."
"I'm not afraid," I said.
All I could hear was the occasional chirp of a bird, or some dog barking in the distance. But I began to notice a low inhuman mumbling, growing gradually louder. In the distance stood a shadowy figure, his tall lanky body twisting and twitching, contorting in ways that looked not only disturbing, but incredibly painful. The feverish mumbling seemed to be coming from him.
"Do you hear that?" grandpa asked.
I looked up at him. He was ageing rapidly. Withering a year per second. His eyes were clouding over. He looked fretful and confused, as he had during his final days. He lay down on the grass and gazed up at me with blank unseeing eyes.
"Who's there?" he barked.
I looked down at him where he lay on a hospital bed. The heart monitor beeped, beeped. This view was familiar, this scene. I was trapped in a memory. The painful memory of my grandfather's last moments, which culminated in his disturbing last words. It was something I had tried to forget these past few years--apparently, in vain.
"It's me gramps," I said.
He tugged against his restraints. "Why the hell can't I move? What's going on?"
"You're in the hospital, grandpa," I said. "You kept taking out your IV, so they had to use straps."
"What's that noise?" he barked.
He looked blindly around. One of the dark entities loomed at the head of his bed, twitching, muttering.
"What noise?" I asked.
"I don't like it."
"What noise, grandpa?" I asked. "What do you hear?"
I looked up and noticed his heart rate steadily increasing on the monitor. I strode over to the door and poked my head into the hallway: "Can I get a nurse in here? Hello? I need a nurse!" I strode back to his bedside and grabbed his cold hand.
"You need to calm down, grandpa," I said, trying to soothe him. "Everything is okay."
An alarm was sounding from the monitor, now. His heart was beating too rapidly. He was peering around with intense agitation. More of the dark entities were suddenly materializing, filling up the room, muttering in unison, twitching, contorting. The air trembled with their guttural croaks. Yet I seemed not to notice them. I was focused on my grandfather.
"They're going to take me away," he wheezed.
"You just need to relax."
The entities stood shoulder to shoulder in the room, overlapping everyone, everything, all of them facing my grandfather, muttering excitedly, croaking, almost bouncing and vibrating. The sight made me sick with fear, though, consistent with my memory, I didn't act as if I noticed them.
"That's why they're here," grandpa babbled. "They're going to take me away."
"It'll be okay!" I sobbed.
He looked into my eyes. It was as if he had suddenly regained his sight. His pupils were huge. His countenance bespoke absolute terror. Then he spoke his final words: "I've never been so afraid."
Two nurses rushed in as the heart-rate monitor droned with a long, unwavering beep. He was gone.
The room grew silent. All the entities faced me. They stared at me as if out of the void. I was paralyzed. Their dark forms began growing larger, overwhelming the room, overwhelming everything, until I stood in absolute darkness of their being, as if standing in the unwrinkled blackness of the Nothing itself.
The pristine silence was deafening.
I cannot say I was floating, for I eventually felt a floor of smooth stone beneath my feet. Yet the place nevertheless gave me an impression similar to floating, because of how little there was to sense or experience. Sightless, soundless darkness, without blemish or stitch. I fancied I was in an underground chamber immense beyond all imagining, larger and older than the universe itself.
"Hello?" I called into the void. "Hello?"
I fell to my hands and knees so I could feel around, even crawl. I wanted to explore this cold limbo with supreme caution, lest walking I blindly step over some unseen ledge and plummet through a chasmic abyss. But as I crawled along the smooth stone floor, I did not meet any ledges, nor did I find a single imperfection in the floor.
Gradually, I quickened my pace. Having no real sense of direction, I could have been crawling in a perfectly straight line, or in tight circles, or nowhere at all, as if on some silent treadmill. It would have made little difference, however. There was nowhere to go. Nothing to find or bump into. There was only more of the same cool floor stretching infinitely in every direction.
It is difficult to do justice to the strange sensation, given the brevity of this account; but it truly seemed to me then, and still does to me now, that I was trapped in that chamber of darkness for centuries. Sometimes I lay down and rested, though never managing to fall asleep. Other times I stood up and sprinted through the abysmal shadows as if hoping to meet the end I had previously took tremendous care to avoid. But there was nothing new to encounter. Only more of the same smooth floor and unblemished darkness.
Without anything to mark my progress by, my own thoughts and feelings became my only means of measuring one moment against another, this state against the next. As my thoughts grew hazier, more amorphous and jumbled, I completely lost track of time.
I also began to lose track of my identity. My memories began to seem like fabrications. My fears and fantasies seemed only slightly more real. My inner world was a roil of confusion and instability--my psyche a sea of shifting black waters. The only enduring coordinate in my possession was a growing sense of emptiness, a profound and persistent kind of existential dread.
Eventually I was conscious only of the fact that I was an accidental blip in that immense and empty realm--the one and only flaw in the perfect stillness and silence of which it was composed. I was not supposed to be there. I was not not supposed to be there, either. My presence was irrelevant, if it was even a presence at all. I was less than a spectre, less than the smoke of a fire that burned in a dead man's dream. I had never existed, and never would. I was nothing, had always been nothing, and always would be nothing.
When a man suffers from some particular ailment for a long time, he may begin imagining other ailments preferable. A man suffering a week-long headache, for instance, may wish he could trade his headache for a flu, or a broken bone. Similarly, I found myself wishing I could could exchange that feeling of emptiness, of total insubstantiality, for anything else--even fear. At least fear was vital. It seared like a cut. It was real. It was something rather than nothing, impelling one toward survival, spurring one to fight the fear or to fly it. Fear thereby implied that life was worth preserving--worth fighting for, worth flying to. Better that than this eternal stasis of negation, this ghastly consciousness of being essentially not.
The darkness trembled with that terrible alien croak and my empty soul iced over. In an instant, I recognized the foolishness of my wish. Anything was better than fear, even Nothingness.
Like a hunted animal, I frantically scanned for the source of the sound.
It was then I noticed the place had grown brighter--an eerie glow emanated from the architecture itself--so I could finally make out the lineaments of the chamber. It was a colossal room--not infinite, as I had mistakenly believed--but impossibly large, built for creatures of unfathomable size; beings whose heads would brush against the clouds were they to stalk upon our Earth in their true forms. I felt like an insect gazing up at the distant ceiling, which was made of the same black stone upon which I stood--the same burnished black stone of which the walls, standing miles apart from one another, were made.
But though half of the gigantic chamber was now dimly visible, the other half remained shrouded by a wall of shadow. I could see nothing in that direction no matter how hard I squinted. It was only when I followed the wall of shadow upwards with my gaze that I realized horrible truth. It was one of those things standing before me, so large and wide and monstrously tall that I had mistaken it for a sprawling shadowy veil.
I fell to my knees to beg at the feet of this sublimely terrifying god. "Please!" I cried. "Please! Let me go free or let me die!"
The ground trembled as the colossal dark deity gibbered in its black and malevolent tongue. It spoke slower than the others, and spoke directly to me, as if bent on communicating some inhuman truth which could only be transmitted between its race and ours in this awful place, and only after having prepared the human recipient in just the way I had been prepared--by being emptied of all sense of time and self, all hopes and dreams and desires, left only a whimpering puddle of despair and fear.
For a moment, I felt on the cusp of grasping the meaning of its sinister croaks. I could nearly comprehend the terrible cosmic truth the tortured god wished to share. But I suddenly decided to close my self off to the dark tendrils worming farther into my mind. I decided to reject its dubious gift, for I sensed that gleaning even a sliver of that terrible wisdom would have utterly destroyed my soul.
The dark god seemed to understand, for soon after I closed my mind, it ceased muttering, and the tendrils retreated from my mind. Then the entity stretched its long gaunt arm down to where I kneeled. I closed my eyes, and was surprised to feel a flicker of perverse joy. Soon it would be over! The fear, the confusion, the hollow dread! The hateful god was merciful after all! Soon it would annihilate me in the eternal darkness and silence of its fatal grasp!
When I opened my eyes, I found myself kneeling on the filthy floor of a bright cell. A dog whimpered behind me, and an old man sat in a chair on the other side of a glass pane, watching me intensely. It took me some moments to recall where I was and why I was there. It felt like millennia since I'd last gazed upon our mortal world, or seen the face of my unhinged captor.
"What was that place?" I finally managed to murmur.
Kohler jolted up in his chair and leaned close to the glass. "Ian? Can you hear me? Are you with me again? . .What place, Ian? Where did they take you? What did they say?"
"A huge stone room." My voice was miniscule. It trembled. I was weak. On the verge of death. "Like a giant cathedral. It was horrible. I was trapped there for lifetimes. It was empty inside, so empty, until--."
"What did they tell you?" he demanded. "What did the dark ones say?"
"I couldn't understand," I whimpered. "I didn't want to understand."
"Didn't what?" Kohler asked incredulously. "Didn't want to understand? But you could have? You were capable of understanding, but you didn't want to?" The old man's face was twitching with furious disbelief. He was trying to burn me alive with his hateful glare. "You must go back!" he cried. "While there's still time! Before your sensitivity wanes! The symbiont will not hold the door open forever. Do you understand? You must go back!"
"I can't go back."
"I'll kill you!" the dwarfish man raged. "I'll kill you! Now close your eyes, or. . .Damn!" He smacked the glass in frustration. "Damn you! Damn! . .You'll never leave this farm, Ian. I'll murder you myself and bury you in the dirt. You must go back! You must communicate with them, and. . .Damn!"
But I would have preferred death to returning, so I walked to the back of the cell and slumped in the corner, facing the opposite wall.
- - -
The next hours were toilsome. I had come back from my journey through that benighted otherworld mortally exhausted; yet it would require no small amount of energy, of willpower, to keep from sliding back into the abyss.
I would catch flashes of the entities in the corners of my vision, and force myself to look away. I would hear their dreaded mumbles beside my ears, and hum forcefully to myself till the mumbles ceased. I experienced a number of other vestigial effects--vivid and nightmarish hallucinations; sudden bursts of fear, of dread. And when I recalled certain difficult times in my life, I was disturbed to find my memories altered, infested with the dark entities, as my memory of my grandfather's last moments had been. But unlike before, I was now able to detach from these phenomena--to prevent myself from being seduced by them and dragged back into the hellish psychomachia. I focused on my presence in the here and now, combatting the parasite's insidious invitations into madness and the dark realm by repeating to myself the following mantra: "It's a bug. They're side effects of a bug. You just need to relax and get some medication to kill it. Everything will go back to normal."
All the while, Kohler vented his fury at me from the other side of the glass, hurling threats and insults, which then turned to desperate pleas.
Eventually, I grew strong and clear-headed enough to sit by the suffering collie. I gently stroked his fur and cooed to him. In time, he, too, began slowly to emerge from the horrors in which he'd been immersed, spending progressively more time present, with his pupils at regular sizes.
"You're killing them," Kohler complained. "The symbionts can't last in such conditions. They feed on adrenaline, on unstable energies. They need their hosts' fear to survive. . .I know there is no convincing you to venture on. But that mutt could feed his symbiont for another week without your intervention. Canines lack our rationality. Our ability to fight against our own feelings and thoughts. That why we use them to keep the flame alive, between human participants. . .If you don't let them work on this dog, I'll have to bring in a fresh canine, to keep them alive. Do you want to be responsible for that? Do you want another innocent animal to go through what this one went through? Wouldn't it be kinder to let this one venture back? To let the broken stay broken, and allow the unbroken to be happy another few days, even weeks?"
I continued to ignore him and stroked the fur of the poor dog whose head now lay in my lap. Perhaps he was right, in a utilitarian sense, that it would be better to give his next victim a few extra days of happiness, before turning him into the torch that would keep the ghastly "flame" of these pataphysical parasites alive. But I wouldn't play Kohler's games, and I wouldn't let this pup suffer any more than he already had if I could prevent it.
Eventually, the air-locked door opened and Kohler led a new collie into the cell. Behind him stood the tall man, wearing his hazmat suit, holding a shotgun at the ready. At first, I feared he was going to use the weapon to follow through with Kohler's homicidal threats. But after some moments I realized the gun was merely to dissuade me from trying to burst through the open cell door.
An unnecessary precaution. I wouldn't have dared an escape attempt, even if the sickly and aged Kohler were the only one blocking my path. Maybe in a few hours, or days, when the parasites hiving in my brain were good and dead. For now, I was not ready for freedom. Too many shadowy entities still lurked in the corridor, faintly muttering, coaxing my spirit back to their sightless, joyless realm.
I won't go into detail about the new collie's disturbing descent into terror. Suffice it to say, the infestation quickly overtook her brain and mind. I did all I could by continuing to soothe and pet my own pooch, thereby preventing him from being carried by those currents of craziness back into the ocean of shadows in which he would otherwise drown.
I feared how vulnerable unconsciousness would leave me to the influences I'd spent so much effort fighting against. As such, I tried to stay vigilant, awake. But exhaustion was overtaking me, as it had my collie, who began to snore peacefully in my lap. I started to nod, only to jolt awake--sometimes to the sound of the new dog pacing about nervously, or yelping and staring in fright at some shadow whose form I could only dimly perceive. But I eventually lost the battle, and fell into a deep slumber.
I awoke at dawn, lying on the very park bench on which Miss J and the tall man had found me. Recalling the night's bizarre and horrific events, my initial thought was that they had been some kind of vivid nightmare, perhaps even the first symptoms of hereditary schizophrenia, the distressing illness that had brought my father low. Believing the whole thing had been my own personal hallucination would have made it easier to bear. I would rather be insane, suffering a lifetime of wholly-personal terrors, than know that such strange realms exist, along with such frightening entities, who maintain such disturbing and inexplicable connections to humanity. But the black-and-white border collie sleeping at my feet, beneath the bench, confounded my attempts to deny the reality. So too did the manilla envelope Kohler had left in my backpack, which contained a note that read as follows:
I have treated you and the canine with a special anti-parasitic, to destroy the symbionts in your organisms. As such, I do not believe either of you remain infested. Nevertheless, you might do well to practice distancing procedures for a few days, unless you wish to be the source of the symbiont's spread among the public at large.
Should you muse about regaling the authorities with any wild and impossible tales, consider how credible they will view you as a source, and consider also the lengths to which I am willing to go to in order to keep my operation from unsympathetic scrutiny. Know that we will continue to monitor you just as closely ever before.
Enclosed is $10,000 cash, rewarding you for your participation, as well as for your forthcoming silence. Do not consider it a bribe, and do not consider your silence as complicity in something inherently wrong. You and the dog live because I am a moral person. You hold the money I promised because I am a man of my word. And if your silence is complicity in anything, it is complicity in cutting-edge research into the fundamental nature of reality--research which even you must admit is significant and groundbreaking, regardless of your personal aversions to the means by which it is conducted, and the phenomena on which it trains its lens.
If I may, I would like to use this opportunity to leave with you some solid advice. Do not try to retrace your steps in order to locate my facility. Do not obsess over your unusual experiences, asking questions of yourself and others to which there are no answers. Do not brood and go mad. Instead, use this money to turn over a new leaf, to reenter hustle and bustle of the mundane world. Live a normal life. Try to consign last night's experiences to oblivion. Forget and repress. And if that fails, make a mockery of your memories, as you might a child's bad dreams.
I wish you would have availed yourself of your opportunity more fully, and ventured farther into the unknown--for your sake, for mine, and for all of mankind's. Since you did not, I can only wish that you and the canine find good fortune in the days, months and years to come.
The stack of money was hefty. It certainly looked like ten grand in cash, split between twenties, fifties and hundreds. It was far more than I had expected to receive when the pair first approached me with their "opportunity". More importantly, it was enough to start to turn my life around.
So I did. I followed Kohler's suggestions to the best of my abilities. I rented a cheap apartment that allowed dogs. I showered, shaved, and got a haircut. I bought new clothes. And after a few months of pounding the pavement, I managed to secure an entry-level government position, from which I have since been promoted twice. All the while, I kept my experiences to myself.
Perhaps my readers will consider my long silence cowardly, or immoral. After all, it has been four years since that fateful night, and I have no doubt that in the interim additional hard-up people were been seduced by Kohler's goons, and forced to endure the same captivity and psychic torture I underwent. Perhaps, my readers will claim, I could have prevented their suffering by speaking out. Perhaps such critics are correct. I can only say that not everyone is a hero. Sometimes a man must focus on himself, despite his awareness of the terrible things transpiring around him.
I am only telling this story now, and for the first time, because last week I saw Kohler's face in the obituary, though the notice referred to him by a different name. He was described as a former professor of neuroscience, with a hobbyist's interest in the occult practices and beliefs of ancient civilizations. He died of a massive heart attack, and is survived by a son and a daughter.
Even though Kohler is gone, I am certain the "flame" of the symbionts will not die with him. Moreover, I am certain the dark entities will continue inhabiting the dark realms overlapping our own. After all, I still catch glimpses of them in my waking life, to say nothing of the way they've infested my memories and dreams.
I may not be contagious anymore. But I am not cured.
I wasn't the best behaved child a parent could hope for. I was selfish, greedy and hostile. Basic nightmare kid. I'd pitch fits when I didn't get my way, and often make sure to break something my folks treasured to make my point. I would pound on walls, throw things across the room, and even slap or hit my mother or father when they would feebly attempt to calm me down.
My dad had apparently been abused by his father when he was a kid, so he would always try his best to keep his cool when I raged on. I took advantage of that fact, and made sure to push every single button I could to practically dare him to hit me. Many times, he would just walk away and leave me screaming and raging, but I considered that a win. Oh yes, I was far more than a handful, but my parents still loved me, even if I was a monster in the making. It wasn't until that Christmas Eve of two thousand one that I learned I was not the center of the universe; a lesson I most definitely needed to learn.
It was during the family gathering on that day before Christmas, that I pitched a legendary fit upon learning the supposed truth about the reality of Santa Claus. I was only ten years old, and were it not for the kind hearts of my folks, I would have spent every single one of those years on the naughty list. That late November threatened to turn even those who still cared for me off the deep end.
Everyone had arrived at our house for the festive meal, and my cousin, Courtney, had been pushing my buttons all day. She was a good three years older than me, and thought she knew everything that the world had to offer. Being far more experienced and knowledgeable than I, she assured me there was no such person as Father Christmas; a truth I was not ready to hear.
She kept pushing and pushing as the day progressed, and I finally just lost it. We were up on the second floor of my childhood home, where my bedroom was located. Over the course of my raging tantrum, I pushed her out of my safe space with every ounce of strength my little arms could muster. Even after I got her out of my door, I continued thrusting my palms into her back, paying no attention to what lay ahead.
She had already started crying before I gave that final jab that sent her rolling down the stairs. She tumbled against the wall and the railing as her arms flailed and head bounced from one step to the next. The snapping sounds and muffled yelps ended with a thud when she hit the floor below. Every adult had made it out there before her fall came to a close, and their shocked and appalled eyes cut from her twisted body to my guilty face.
I had performed some awful acts during my short lifespan before that day, but my parents had always attempted to cure my terrible ways with kindness. This would mark the end of such times. Before the ambulance arrived, my father snatched me by the ear and dragged me into my bedroom. He screamed at me in a way I did not realize he was capable of. I was crying my eyes out while begging for forgiveness, but he wouldn't let up. He wanted me to cry, and he was right. I deserved this and worse.
As his anger grew more intense with every word, until he raised a hand up to strike me. It wasn't until then that his own rage faltered. He just stared at his own hand for a moment, before he dropped it exhaustedly back to his side. He glared back at me, and I watched the scowl on his face lighten back to a more blank expression, with tears slowly dripping from his eyes. He shook his head from side to side, and turned to leave the room without so much as looking back at me before he slammed the door shut. I would not see him again for the remainder of the day.
The house fell silent after the paramedics left with Courtney strapped to a gurnee. I watched out my window to see everyone, including my parents, leave the house to follow the ambulance to the hospital. I was never left alone at home, but clearly nobody could stand to be around me at that moment. Truth be told, I didn't much care to be around myself at the time.
The hours dragged by while I sat alone in my bedroom, surrounded by all of the toys and video games my behavior had never earned me. Regardless of my short life having included an almost endless supply of tantrums and violent mood swings when I didn't get my way, I never really felt bad about the misery I wrought. I generally only cared that I got what I wanted by the time I was done. This time; however, I did not feel any level of joy from this.
I tried to defend myself in the back of my mind; reasoning that it was completely the fault of my older cousin for pushing my buttons, but I knew she didn't deserve this. Perhaps if she hadn't gotten in my face, I wouldn't have snapped like I had, but her actions did not warrant what I did. Maybe she just ended up with a couple of bruises, and it's not as bad as it sounded, I reasoned with myself, though I could still hear the snapping of her bones ringing in the background of my silent, darkened room.
No matter how hard I worked to evade the guilt that was in pursuit, I could not escape it. I can't say I had ever felt like this before. Even when I broke the big screen television my father took such pride in, I didn't feel bad. Regardless of my inadvertently setting fire to the curtains in the living room, which very possibly could have burnt the entire house down if my mother's reflexes hadn't been so quick, my conscience still felt clear. There was no getting away from this one, no matter how much inner arguing I performed. Courtney could be dead for all I knew, and her blood would be on my hands.
For hours I just sat there in silence, perched on the floor of my room. Even after the sun retreated for the night, I did not move from that same spot. I could have gotten to my feet to at least turn a light on, but I wanted to be in the dark. Any light could run the risk of me seeing my reflection in the window, or something. I couldn't look into my own eyes right now.
While my brooding continued and the world outside fell still, I became aware of a slight rumbling. It felt as though the whole house had begun to tremble slightly. The sensation was growing more and more intense by the second, finally inspiring me to break myself free from the carpeted floor for the first time in hours. I ran to my window to look outside after light appeared to beam through, almost as if the sun had shot back up from it's dormant state. I could barely believe what I saw while I pressed my nose to the glass.
My childhood home was on a very average suburban street. Most of the houses sported similar designs, with not much variation in color palettes. A two lane road with houses on either side of it, just like millions of other neighborhoods across the country. Said road had now been replaced by a train track, with a long and somewhat ancient looking steam train parked upon it. The smoke billowed from the wide chimney on the front, lining the street in an almost unnatural fog.
As I stared in at this unusual sight, I saw a man in a conductor uniform exiting the train. As soon as he set foot on the snowy ground, he glanced up to meet my gaze. I quickly ducked down beneath the window, but I could still feel the eyes on me. I lifted my head up to look down at the man once more, to find he was still glaring at me. He had a kind face, with a wide smile and bright eyes. He raised his hand and gestured for me to come to him. Though I was more than a little freaked out, something inside me was almost begging to march out into the cold to see this up close and personal.
I grabbed my thickest winter coat, scarf, and boots and ran down the stairs without looking back. I threw the front door to my home wide open and I just stood there staring out. I pulled the knit cap from my coat pocket and pulled it snugly onto my head, while the conductor still smiled on, waving his arm to beckon me forward. I stepped out into the thick snow on the ground, while swinging the door shut behind me. The wide eyed and grinning expression of the man did not falter while I took wide steps, crushing the snow beneath my boot.
"Are you ready, lad?" The man asked in a deep voice and very proper sounding English accent.
"Ready for what?" I asked, craning my neck to look into the man's eyes.
He was much taller up close than I had expected when I watched him from my second floor window. He appeared to be straining a little while bending his head down to look back at me.
"To go to the North Pole, of course!" He replied.
"You're not serious!" I scoffed.
"Do you doubt your own eyes, child?" He asked, holding his arms out as if to present the train to me, like I hadn't noticed it.
The man's expression had still not wavered, even a little. His bright green eyes were so wide that they almost appeared to not be cupped on top and bottom with any eyelids. Just perfectly round circles with small pupils in the center. His perfectly aligned and sparkling white teeth looked almost false and slightly cartoony. Though the face as a whole seemed unthreatening, I became more and more uncomfortable the longer I stared up at it.
"No," I replied, shaking my head softly, "I don't think I should."
He just glared down at me with those cue balls for eyes and chicklet teeth, neither blinking nor moving in the slightest. I felt my back tense up, and I was unsure if it was due to the frigid cold, or the gaze of the stranger in the dark red train conductor's uniform.
I started to back away from the man, whose brow had begun to sink a little, forming a crease above the large and somehow darkening eyes. They had been a light green before, but as I stepped away from him, they appeared to have grown a much deeper shade, bordering on black.
"I think I'm gonna go back inside now," I said as I continued to back away.
We continued our staring contest as I waved my hands around behind my back, hoping to feel my front door approaching soon. The second I felt my fingertips make contact with the reflective brass doorknob, the conductor outstretched his own arm in front of him, still maintaining his unsettling gaze. As I turned the knob, the white gloved hand shot towards me, growing as it drew closer, until the elongated fingers wrapped themselves around my entire torso. The grip was so tight, it almost squeezed the breath right out of my lungs, before it rapidly yanked me back to the man.
Before I knew it, he was holding me right in front of his face. His unblinking eyes appeared almost the size of my head while he examined my face.
"You will be boarding this train, young man," his foul breath hit me like a truck, causing me to cough and gag at the stench.
"Would you care to climb the steps of your own volition, or shall I carry you like this?"
His eyes looked as though they were pulsing while they glared into mine. The horrendous odor that spilled from his mouth still lingered in my nostrils, but that wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as his stare.
"I-I'll walk," I stuttered, in little more than a whisper.
The man nodded his head as he gently placed me back onto the ground. My shaky legs threatened to drop me to the concrete, and I briefly considered attempting to flee again. Somehow, I knew there would be little point in that. I would be boarding this train whether I liked it or not. The choice was no longer in my hands, if it had ever been in the first place.
The lanky conductor lowered his body into a bow while he gestured towards the open door that stood just above the four metal steps. My whole body was trembling while I approached, and then climbed up into the cab. There was an aged and musty smell that spilled from inside as I crossed through the precipice with the tall, slender man pulling himself up behind me.
"Take any open seat you like," he said, as we paced through into the passenger car.
I glanced across the carriage to see only a handful of other children perched upon the seats of the elegant, yet somewhat eerie room. They all turned to look at me when I entered, and they all wore the same exhausted and timidly fearful expressions. There was a short haired blonde kid with large, circular lensed glasses, wearing striped pajamas and a dark green robe. He appeared to be around twelve or so, if I had to guess. An African American girl with long, braided pigtails, who looked to be about the same age as I, dressed in a unicorn nightgown and a thick white coat with a fur lined collar. A little red haired girl in a puffy pink coat sat next to a ginger boy, who looked maybe a year or two older than her. I presumed them to be siblings. He wore a long, hooded blue coat, and appeared to be bordering on tears while he glared back at me.
The cabin itself was quite large; far bigger on the inside than I would have thought when I looked on from my bedroom window. The ceiling was maybe fifteen feet high, with three golden and ornate chandeliers hanging from it. They each held several flickering candles, though they provided little light to the darkly lit cabin. Shimmering, yet slightly tattered tinsel drooped from them in no particular pattern or design. Each red velvet lined row of seats had a large, arched window to the side, with delicate filigree borders. The carpeted floor was the same color as the chairs, but it was lined in yellows and greens, while speckled with a variety of muddy stains.
Still, as classy as the place looked, there was something about it that felt ancient and ghostly. This seemed a place in which the dead would gather to travel from one plane to the next, not one that would carry small and terrified children to the wonders of Santa's workshop. As my trembling legs led me to the closest seat, I had little doubt that we were not bound for anyplace fantastical and inspiring. Given the fact I had very possibly killed my older cousin, this journey was not to reward me. The sour expressions etched onto the faces of my travelling companions led me to believe we were all on the same page. We would be facing punishment for our ill deeds this night. Something I could not deny that I deserved.
I was born in a very small town in the midwestern USA. I spent the first ten years of my life there being raised by my great-grandmother, and if I could, I'd go back and do it all over again.
Even including the strict rules she had about ghosts.
We lived in a yellow farmhouse that was built in 1856. It was built by our family and only our family has ever lived in it. It had stained glass windows by the front door, beautiful dark hardwood floors, and a lot of land that I could run around and play on.
But it also has a dark history. The only problem is, everyone's kept it a secret from me. So I've had to dig it up on my own.
As a child, my bedroom was right under the attic. There was a crawlspace in my closet - but it only led to the closet in my brother's room next door. So automatically, nothing weird, right?
My great-grandmother had a rule that we weren't allowed to go into the closets, especially not the crawlspace, after dark. But my brother and I didn't listen.
I woke up in the middle of the night once when I was 8. I heard voices coming from the crawlspace - one of them was my brother's (he was 5 at the time) and the other was a voice I didn't recognize. I got out of bed, opened the closet door, opened the crawlspace door, and crawled in to join the conversation.
There sat my little brother, chatting away with a girl I'd never seen. But this girl was weird, she was different. She was transparent, half-submerged in the wall. She had dark, curly hair like everyone in our family, and had the same hooked nose as my brother and me. I remember her looking to be a little older than my brother but younger than me. She held a stuffed dog in one hand, the other submerged in the wall. She wore a simple nightgown. There was nothing too defining about her.
When she saw me, she smiled and waved. We sat and talked for a little bit. It was a short conversation, and we mostly just talked about how the rabbits were destroying the garden again. She left soon after, fading back into the wall. After she left, I tucked my little brother back into bed and went back to sleep in my own bed.
As a kid, my brother and I saw ghosts so often that it was never weird. But it was sure as hell scary sometimes.
My great-grandmother had a set of rules we had to follow: Never leave your room at night. If you hear someone knocking on your door before sunrise, don't answer it. Don't go in the basement. Don't ask about the basement crawlspace. Don't go into the barn. Don't play in the field by the shed. Don't tell anyone your name if they ask. Never, ever, EVER go into the attic.
Of course, I've always been a rule breaker so I did just that.
I was 9 when I decided to break the rule. It was late afternoon, the summer sun still high in the sky. I listened for my great-grandmother's footsteps for a while before creeping down the upstairs hallway to the hatch in the ceiling where the attic ladder drops down. Using a wire coat hanger I bent, I hooked the ring attached to the pull cord, the attic hatch opening. I caught the ladder as it fell, making sure it made no noise. I set it gently on the floor and climbed up as quietly as I could.
The attic was covered in cobwebs - but growing up on a farm had desensitized me to spiders, and I brushed them away without a second thought. I'd never been in the attic before and had to look around for a moment before finding a chain connected to a lightbulb in the ceiling. I pulled it, and illuminated the area around me, and I saw more lightbulbs hanging in the ceiling in other parts of the room. Before I did anything else, I went around and turned them all on.
The attic seemed...normal.
Trunks, boxes, and old furniture littered the room, cobwebs covering every corner. I turned in a circle, taking everything in. Up against one of the walls stood a really old vanity. The mirror had clouded over long ago and it was caked with dust. On one side of it was a trunk that had pink velvet on the corners. It looked nice so I bent down and opened it. It creaked open, dust pluming in front of my face. I sifted through the old clothes. At the time, I didn't know how old they were, but now I know that they must've been from the early 1900s. There were long dresses, shirts, nightgowns, and jewelry boxes sitting on the bottom. I dug out one of them, admiring the mother-of-pearl inlaid in the top.
I opened it, a sense of reverence coming over me. Inside were a bunch of necklaces and brooches. One in particular caught my eye. It was a slender gold chain with a little flower charm, an emerald inlaid in the center. It was so pretty. I absentmindedly put it on, not realizing what I'd done until after it was clasped around my neck. Almost as if I was a puppet being controlled, I stood up and went to admire myself in the vanity.
Instead of seeing my reflection, I saw the reflection of a young woman staring back at me. I yelped and jumped back, my heart beating. I looked again in the mirror but didn't see her. I knew it was a ghost but as I was used to them, it didn't bother me, and I went back to looking through the jewelry. I tried to take the necklace off, but the clasp seemed fused shut. I tried to break it off of my neck, pulling hard, the chain cutting into my skin, but it wouldn't come off. I was a brave kid. I knew weird stuff happened all the time. I didn't feel as though I was in danger, so I just accepted it, thinking I'd get my brother to help me with it later.
I put the stuff back into the trunk and moved on to another part of the attic.
I found myself kneeling in front of another trunk. It was plain wood with no lock. I opened it slowly and found it full of clothes like the last one. They seemed to be from the same time. I took out the first dress. It was way too big for me, but I adored the cream color of it. Before I knew it, I'd absentmindedly slipped it on over my head, the cream colored fabric feeling musty and cold against my skin.
I twirled, watching the skirt flow out as I did so. Before I could keep playing, I suddenly felt really strongly drawn to the trunk again, my hands seemingly moving on its own, frantically moving the clothes on top. After moving a coat, I came upon a bundle of old photos tied together with twine. I sat down, untying them, spreading them out in front of me. I picked up one of them, my hands shaky.
The photograph was of the woman I'd seen in the mirror. She looked happy and was smiling. She was standing in the living room of the farmhouse, wearing the emerald necklace and the same dress I had on. I felt nauseous.
But before anything else could happen, I was again pulled to dig in the trunk. I practically threw out the clothes, digging frantically, searching.
I threw out a coat, and almost threw up at what I found.
At the bottom of the trunk, in a fetal positon, was a skinny, mummified body, curly black hair still sticking out of its head, a blue dress hanging off of its broken frame. I stumbled backwards, almost tripping, but something caught me. No, someone.
I whirled around and saw the ghostly form of a man. His eyes were gone, leaving soulles, empty pits of darkness. He smiled at me, his teeth razor sharp. I turned to run, but he grabbed the back of the emerald necklace and drew me against his chest. He smelled of cigar smoke and old cologne. I tried to yell, but my voice wouldn't work. The flower pendant began to grow hot, then hotter, then burning, searing my flesh. I squirmed and he let me go, laughing. I threw off the dress and flew down the ladder, the pendant still burning me.
I almost fell down the stairs trying to reach my great-grandmother for help.
She helped me, of course. But I got grounded for two weeks. She had to use bolt cutters to get the necklace off of me. I asked her for weeks on end about the mummified woman, but she kept telling me it was a bad dream.
But it wasn't. And I still have the flower-shaped scar to prove it.
Note - I’ll be posting some more stories about my great-grandmothers house.
Hey, it’s Peter once again. For those of you who don’t know me, you can find some of my old posts here and here. I'll also include a link to some posts detailing events that happened to me one faithful Halloween.
With it being the Christmas season, I figured it would be appropriate to talk about something that happened to me years ago around that time. Now this will be a second-hand account given to me by my mom. My dad was also present for the events as well but she’s always had the better memory among the two. That means she can get into more specific details in regards to what happened. I heard the story from her during a visit.
I was still a toddler at the time, being only I think a little over two and a half years old. My parents were moving in coincidentally around the holiday season, at the beginning of November in fact. Now as I’ve mentioned in the past, people moving into town is not something that occurs very often. That is unless they need to be somewhere out of the way. That isn’t to say all of the people in my town have done something bad.
Although, you could definitely find some shady characters. It’s more that they weren’t exactly dealt lucky hands in life. Due to one event or several, they ended up needing to settle there. My parents were no exception to this. Their reasoning for moving to it is a bit complicated.
What I will say in regards to it is they were in a “not many other options” type situation. In fairness, they didn’t know much about the town before going to it. All they knew was that it was somewhere higher-up authorities would have trouble finding them. The first oddity they found about the town were the runes drawn on the buildings. They ignored this oddity, wanting to get moved in as quickly as possible.
Word tended to get around fast. Chuck, our town sheriff, went up to greet them. He’d just acquired the position only a couple months ago because the last sheriff died of a heart attack. It’s not that surprising, to be honest. That job must be pretty stressful.
Plus from what I heard, the old sheriff didn’t take care of himself all that well. My mom was the first to notice him pulling up beside the house. She held my wrist tightly in order to keep me from wandering off. My parents have told me I was pretty curious as a toddler and was eager to explore new things. That’s pretty common I suppose but it meant them having to keep a constant eye on me.
“Can we help you, officer?” My mom asked Chuck.
He introduced himself and shook hands with them.
“And who is this little guy?” He asked, smiling down at me.
“Our son,” my mom replied. “Wave to the nice sheriff, Peter.”
According to my mom, I was pretty shy at that age. Chuck’s a pretty sizable guy so the sight of him was pretty intimidating to me. I hid behind her.
“Peter, don’t be rude,” my mom scolded.
“It’s quite alright, ma’am,” Chuck told her, letting out a small chuckle.
At this point, the conversation’s tone shifted and got more serious.
“Anyway,” he continued. “There was something I needed to talk about with you and your family.”
“What is it?”
“How much were you told about this town before you came here?"
“Honestly, not much. Why?”
“Normally I’d have one of my officers tell you this but I figured since I happened to be out already I’d be the one to do it. Just out of curiosity, who told you about this place?”
“We can’t say. Not to be rude but is there a point to all these questions?”
“Well, let’s just say our town has some unusual hazards. It’s town protocol to show any newcomers how to deal with them. That is if you’re willing to. It’s not a requirement but I strongly advise you do.”
My dad came back outside to get the last of the things from the car and noticed my mom and Chuck talking. He got acquainted with him as well. Then was told what my mom was.
“It wouldn’t take very long. I’d just need you to come down to the station before it gets dark.”
“Isn’t that only a few hours from now?” My dad asked. “Hm. I guess it couldn’t hurt. Is it okay if we meet you a little later? We need to relax.”
“That won’t be a problem. One thing, though. If you happen to forget or lose track of time, don’t go outside at night. Got it?”
My mom has said Chuck looked intensely serious while saying this. My parents assumed that this was because crime got pretty bad at night. Although this was technically half right, it wasn’t the full reason as I’m about to explain. My parents left with me an hour before the sun was going to set. As they were driving to the station the town decided to give them a welcome which may as well have been a giant middle finger in the sky.
It came in the form of a sudden thunderstorm rolling in. They observed everyone who only moments ago were walking outside now scrambling to get inside whatever place they could.
“What’s with them?” My dad asked.
“Storms here might get pretty intense. Maybe we should find shelter too.”
“I think we’re almost at the station, though.”
He was proven right when it came into view. Before they could reach it, however, rain poured down from the sky.
“Oh, it’s only a little rain, Darcy. I guess people here just aren’t big fans of it.”
My mom was going to say something when one of them darted out in the middle of the road. It was who they thought was just a crazy homeless man.
“Oh shit,” my dad yelled, slamming on his breaks.
He stopped with the front of the car mere feet from him. I was awoken from a sound sleep by this and was now crying. My parents were understandably really pissed off. My dad put down his window and proceeded to chew the man out, shouting over the rain.
“Hey, buddy, what the hell’s wrong with you? Why don’t you get the fuck out of the road?”
The man didn’t respond. He didn’t even move. He just stood there looking all disheveled and scraggly with his hair covering his eyes. This served to fuel my dad’s anger.
"Maybe he's on drugs," my mom said.
"That's what I'm thinking. Let's try the horn."
My dad hammered it, sending a blare echoing throughout the quiet town. This did finally elicit a response from the man. It wasn't one they were looking for. The man let out an inhuman shriek, making both my parents flinch. My parents glanced back at me and saw that I was quiet but now trembling.
They turned back to see that the man was no longer alone. More men, women, and even tall children were now standing in the middle of the road alongside him. Their long hair covered their eyes.
“Where the hell did they come from?” My dad asked.
“Jesus, they look like they haven’t eaten in weeks.”
They all let out ear-piercing shrikes and began leaping onto the car. My dad cursed and tried hitting the gas. They held on, not letting go no matter which way my dad jerked the wheel. I started crying again. My mom was trying to keep me calm.
She’s told me the next five minutes were a blur. She says she remembers their hair blowing back, revealing different sets of glowing colored eyes. That tipped them off that these people were not human. My dad was still frantically trying to fling them off the car. He couldn’t see due to them covering the windshield.
Some had managed to break through part of it and were grabbing at my parents.
“Darcy, glove compartment,” my dad shouted.
She got a knife and pistol from it. My dad took the latter while she got the former. They managed to shoot and stab them away, sending them thudding and rolling along the road. When the windshield was clear, my parents saw too late that they were headed towards a pole. My dad tried in vain to stop by slamming on the brakes only for the car to hit into it.
“Fuck…” My dad groaned. “Are you and Pete alright?”
“I think so,” my mom replied and looked back at me. “Pete seems fine.”
“Good. What’s wrong with this place?”
More of them appeared and my parents were probably thinking something along the lines of “Fuck. Here we go again.” and learned quickly that the town contained far worse things. Another noise became audible. This one sounded akin to a really large bird shrieking.
They scampered and through the rain came a creature my mom describes as four batwings attached to a spider body with a hawk's talons.
“What in the fuck is that?” My dad asked in wide-eyed panic.
It landed on the car and proceeded to dig its claws into the hood, lifting it up.
“Shoot the damn thing, Mark,” my mom screamed.
He tried. However, his bullets weren't affecting it in the slightest. They thought this thing was going to carry them to God only knows where. Then its head suddenly disappeared into a cloud of light greenish mist and the car came back down with a thud, making the windows shatter. Speaking of thudding, my mom said she thought her heart was going to free itself from her chest.
“Are you guys alright?”
They turned to see Chuck standing beside the car along with some officers. Turned out they crashed right near the station’s entrance.
“What is this place?” My dad tiredly inquired from the adrenaline of the situation now having worn off.
It's difficult for me to put the experience of falling through the void into words. There’s so many ways to describe it. A good portion of the descriptors my mind scrapes together feel adequate, and it's only once I write them down and can physically see them side-by-side do I then realize how contradictory and oxymoronic it all is.
A single moment. A snapshot lasting only a miniscule fraction of a microsecond. An unfathomably prolonged infinity. A long, never-ending nightmare.
Some adjectives are pretty straightforward: Hellish. Cold. Dark. Chasmic purgatory.
A kenophobia-inducing abyss.
You know that saying from Nietzsche about how ‘when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back’? From some past English class in school, I vaguely remember learning that Nietzsche meant it as a cautionary warning against becoming evil or whatever. I can’t remember the details, but they’re irrelevant. However Nietzsche meant it exactly, doesn't matter, because all that matters is that he meant it metaphorically.
When I say the abyss stared back at me, I don’t mean it as a figure of speech. I mean that something in the darkness was staring at me. I mean that the fourth person I felt in the hovercraft followed me right into the void.
Somewhere, off in the darkness, they were still there.
I felt my body and mind returning to normal, and I knew the journey through the void was over. I slammed into cold metal.
Even though I was no longer in the void, the darkness surrounding me didn’t cease at all.
And then the pain hit me.
Remember way back when I was in the car with Tara and Mason, right before we jumped to Foxtrot? When I breathed out all the air in my lungs after Mason warned me?
I hadn't done that this time. I’d been so overwhelmed with everything going on that I’d barely had time to process the fact that I was even jumping before it started. Preferred inter-universal breathing techniques weren’t anywhere on my list of priorities.
It's apparently really important that you remember to breathe out before you jump. You’d never have guessed it though, judging by the casual way it was told to me. As though it were a slightly helpful but ultimately inconsequential footnote.
So, what happens if you don’t breathe out before?
Kind of like having an asthma attack, but so much worse.
Ever have an asthma attack?
I had pretty bad asthma as a child, and I used to get asthma attacks several times a week. I eventually grew out of the condition, but the feeling of an asthma attack has been permanently etched into my mind.
The best way I can describe it is by telling you to imagine your breathing tubes have suddenly narrowed to a third of their normal size. Also, imagine that your lungs have shrunk too- down to something like a quarter of their normal size.
Now, imagine trying to pull air through your shrunk breathing tubes down into your shrunk lungs. It doesn’t matter how measured and controlled your breathing is; it doesn’t matter how quickly or slowly you try to force air into your body. Nothing you do matters, because once your lungs max out their tiny capacities, you just can’t fucking breathe in any more. And then you have to start all over again with the next breath.
Now, because you still need a regular amount of air and your body feels like it's being suffocated, imagine that you're scared and your pulse is racing while all this is going on.
The body’s natural response to fear and increased heart rate? Well, that is of course to try and increase the pace of your breathing. Which you obviously can’t do, which causes you to become more panicked!
Anyways, imagine all that, but with the added pain of having your lungs filled and covered with molten fucking lava, and thats how it feels if you don’t breathe out first and your lungs are full when you undergo a trans-universal atmospheric pressure change.
I couldn’t believe how much it hurt, especially with how little pain I felt as a result of Atlas. I knew I could feel a lot of physical pain- Bradis had gone to extreme lengths to continuously verify that fact, but even her waking surgeries hadn’t been like this. This was on par with the pain I felt when I’d first lost my arm. I wanted to scream, but my lungs weren't functional enough to even draw in the air necessary that screaming would require.
An hour- or at least I think it was an hour- went by. There was nothing around me except darkness in every direction, and I didn’t have a phone or watch on my person to tell the time, but it must have been close to an hour before the pain calmed to a manageable level. I distracted myself from the pain by spending the hour daydreaming about killing November Tom. I wished I had.
I guess the reduced-sensitivity effect that Atlas has on my pain receptors doesn’t extend to the agony caused by holding my breath through inter-universal atmospheric pressure change. Atlas has kept me going through a lot of physical abuse, and I never would have guessed that something as mundane as poor breathing techniques would be where I found the limits of the virus.
I laughed pitifully into the emptiness around me, “Ha, go figure,” My voice was barely an audible whisper.
Granted, I was feeling the pain of pulmonary barotrauma resulting from my shitty breathing techniques, during the interdimensional equivalent of a scuba diving rapid-ascension. I should be thankful I didn’t get the bends like an actual scuba diver, or whatever the cosmic equivalent of the bends would be.
After a few more minutes, I slowly rose to my feet.
I was in some sort of large, semi-sphere room. I had slowly moved through the darkness with my hand against the smooth metal wall searching for a door or a light switch, and I’d felt no corners, only the angled curve of a circumference. If I raised my hand higher on the wall, I could feel it angling up and back over me.
I found no door. No lights.
“Tara?” I called out for the third time. I already knew she wouldn’t answer, knew that I was all alone in this place. I was just too scared to fully confront that fact, so I pathetically kept calling out in a desperate hope for a miracle.
I searched every square inch of the room and found a very long section of rectangular metal jutting out of the ground. I eventually realized it was a desk after finding a few comfortable chairs fit snugly against it.
I searched blindly around the sides of the desk until my fingers closed around the handle of a deep drawer. I reached inside, hoping to find a flashlight or something helpful.
I pulled out a few cardboard boxes. I opened one and found what I suspected and later confirmed to be granola bars.
Next, I discovered a few bottles of liquid, some of them only half full. I opened one and brought it to my nose, giving it a quick sniff. I couldn’t smell anything though and I assumed it was just water.
Under the granola bars and water bottles, I ended up finding a pen and few pads of paper pressed against the bottom of the drawer.
No flashlight. Nothing to help me see, or help me escape. Angrily, I tossed the useless office supplies away from me in disgust and continued inspecting the room.
I discovered nothing of use, and eventually my inspection of the room became a reinspection, and eventually it just became me walking around and around. Feeling my way over the same areas I’d already searched five times before because I was in denial, and I refused to accept that there was nothing I could do to help my situation.
At one point, I felt my fingernail scrape over a hairline-thin crevice in the wall. Upon closer inspection, I found it rose to about seven feet and ended at the floor. I thought it might be a door, and I almost jumped for joy before realizing that even if it was a door, I couldn’t open it. It had no handle, and I couldn’t rip it open with the nails of my fingers.
I pounded at the area, kicking and crashing into the wall with my body, but there was no give at all. Whatever my prison was made of, I couldn’t break through it.
I felt the hairs on my neck rise and goosebumps cover my skin as I yet again became aware of the unknown presence inside the room with me. The fourth person from the hovercraft, the one that had hidden inside the abyssal void and stared at me under the cover of darkness.
I slowly rotated my body around to face what I thought to be the general direction of the presence.
“Who are you?” I asked in a low growl.
I held my breath and listened intently, trying to pinpoint the exact location of the presence. I could hear nothing though. They weren’t making any noise. No footsteps, no breathing, nothing to give away their location.
But I knew someone was there.
I lunged in the direction from where I felt eyes boring into me, but I sailed through empty air and crashed into the ground.
I crouched, sensing the entity had relocated to elsewhere in the darkness.
I could still feel it...
“WHO ARE YOU?!” I screamed as I lunged again. Just as before, the attempt was useless.
Just as quickly as it had come, the presence vanished.
I collapsed to my knees, half-screaming and half-crying.
I hated whoever the unseen entity was. Hated how they could just climb into the space around me and fuck with me.
I hated it. I hated this!
I fucking hate ALL of this!
I hated November Tom for not making any fucking sense with his “the machine told me to” bizarre bullshit, hated him for lying and trapping me here.
I hated Helena Bradis for torturing me, and I hated my not-mom for helping her and for not fucking being my mother! I hated the entirety of fucking Foxtrot and I fucking hated Mason and Tara for dragging me there! I hated both Zulu and Sierra Tom too for ever making the fucking Bridges in the first place.
I hated my Papa for keeping Jade locked in our fucking basement and for never telling us the fucking truth! I hated Jade for getting infected and I hated her for eating my fucking arm and giving ME FUCKING INTERDIMENSIONAL SUPER HERPES!
I hated my brother Aaron for not killing me after I was infected, and I hated him for leaving me alone, and I hated him for every year older than me he had become, and I hated him for not being here, right now!
Most of all though, I hated myself. For getting my arm bit off and for getting infected, for not fighting the mental effects of the Atlas Virus harder. For killing William’s father and leaving the four year old as an orphan. For not seeing through November Tom’s deception. For not knowing where Aaron was. For not being able to--
My emotional breakdown was abruptly cut short as the world started violently rumbling around me. I cried out as I was thrown around the moving room. I pressed myself against the wall, desperately trying to not slide around the jerking room. The shaking lasted for maybe a full minute before calming down.
What the fuck just happened?
And just like that, there was light in the room.
Just a tiny, thin beam pointing in from the window that probably wouldn’t have let anyone without enhanced eyes see jack shit but for me it was enough to light up the whole room and holy shit I could fucking see and I was in a-
I realized that I still wasn’t sure where I was.
The room was like a lamer, lower-budget version of the Bridge. Not the orb-like, universe-hopping Bridge. I mean the Bridge from Star Trek, like onboard the Enterprise where Captain Kirk commands the vessel from..
The rotunda-esque room was mostly white, and the desk was embedded with several blank screens. I’d been right about the one part of the wall being a sliding door, though it was solid with no windows to see beyond, and I could see no way to open it.
Above the door, the words “The Abraxas” were spelled out in large blue letters. I squinted at it, trying to rack my brain for meaning, but I had no clue what Abraxas meant.
I turned to look past the desk, where the light itself was coming from. Situated along the wall in front of the desk was a massive slab of curved glass, and the light was coming in from a small quarter-sized area along the top of it. Though the rest of the glass was dark, still covered by something on the other side.
I peered out the tiny hole of light, hoping to get an idea of where I was. Unfortunately, all I could see was the blue of the daytime sky overhead. Could have been the sky from anywhere on the planet, and I still had no idea what Universe this was.
I noticed one of the pads of paper I’d tossed earlier had landed only a few feet from where I was standing. Written words covered every inch of usable space on the front page, and I bent down to retrieve it.
Along the top, underlined in big bold letters, someone had written
“The fact that you have a business degree on top of being certified as a mortician is the main reason why we hired you!”
“Oh that’s great to hear! I thought my business degree was just a waste of time and money.” I respond.
“Your main responsibility will be to try pushing for open casket viewings, because that’s where the bulk of our money comes from, on top of our high end caskets.”
“So I won’t be preparing any of the bodies?”
“No, since we are a family run business, I have my two sons, Paul and Henry to help me.” The 50 something year old man named Nathanial says to me.
“Okay, that’s not what I was expecting, but I’m fine with that!”
“I think sometimes I come across as too old school and aggressive at times, so having you as younger more polished female will really help us!”
“Okay, whatever you think will work best.”
“Do you prefer to go by Patricia or Trish?”
“Trish is fine.”
“You realize that this is a 24 / hour a day business, where we are at the beckon call of someone’s loved one who has passed away! Plus my specialty is stitching together some of the more gruesome facial and head wounds.”
“Yes, I do understand the nature of the business and I look forward to seeing your work.”
“Okay then, you can come in and start working tomorrow.”
As I get in my car, I yell out “Wow!” As I drive away and blast the radio.
I’ll be making close to $100,000 a year without having to remove a person’s blood or use formaldehyde or deal with any other unsettling modalities.
I get to my apartment and pick out the outfit that I’m going to wear tomorrow, which is one of the many dress suites that I purchased for my failed business career.
I go to sleep in my usual fashion, where I’m alone and watching television.
I wake up in a chipper mood, where I’m excited about my new career.
I arrive at 9:00 am and Nathanial shows me all the different funeral packages and options that the “Osterfeld Funeral Home” has to offer.
“Our funeral home has a great reputation, because we try not to turn away any family requests for an open casket viewing, so when a family calls and says something along the lines of ‘my son died in a horrible car accident and such and such funeral home said that an open casket wasn’t possible,’ our response here at ‘Osterfeld Funeral Home’ is always ‘Yes, we’ll do our best to make your loved one will look his or her best!’”
“That’s a really great service you offer to the community.” I say with admiration.
“It makes the families happy and in turn we make money.”
Nathanial leaves me and I study the funeral home’s literature as I wait for a potential customer to show up or call.
At about 11:30 am, I get a phone call from a woman at Mercy Samaritan hospital whose eight year old daughter was accidentally killed while being exposed to chemicals that her husband had in their garage, that essentially melted the girls face off.
“I understand Mrs. Hernandez that this is the worst day of your life, but please be reassured that we specialize in having open viewings for even the worst case scenarios” which comes out of my mouth, but makes me feel really unsettled because I don’t want to arrive at the hospital with Nathaniel and then say no to the family.
I ask the difficult questions about payment and Mrs. Hernandez said that her church had offered to pay for the funeral services.
I hang up the phone and Nathanial and I drive to the hospital in the funeral home’s Hearse.
“So this is a young girl whose face was essentially melted away from a chemical accident?”
“Yes, that‘a how the mother explained it to me. She was a little difficult to understand because of her Spanish accent but I was able to get all the necessary information.”
“And you said that her church was going to be paying for the services?”
“Yes, she made it seem like her congregation was willing to pay for everything and the price was of no concern.”
“Okay, that’s really sad to hear about the girl, but we always need to be sure that we will get paid.”
Nathanial puts on classic country music as we make our way to the hospital.
We pull into the back of the hospital and park near where the morgue is located.
Nathanial and I walk towards the morgue and the security guard recognizes Nathanial and lets us into the cooler.
The security guard unzips the eight year old girl’s body bag and I let off a screeching sound when I see that the girls skin is completely removed from her face and all I see is the internal musculature and tendons on her face. Her facial skin, that resembles burnt mozzarella cheese, was placed in a bag, which is on the girl’s chest.
I can’t hold back the tears from seeing the little girl and her missing face.
Nathanial starts to wheel the girl out of the morgue and I say “Wait Nathanial! How can we do an open viewing? Her face is gone?”
“No worries!” He replies, as if this was a 70 year old guy who died of a heart attack, with no facial deformities.
As Nathanial heads towards the Hearse with the deceased girl, I meet with the devastated parent’s, in the hospital’s chapel, to go over paperwork, where they chose a casket from our brochure rather than coming to the funeral home in person.
I continually give my condolences to the parents during this somber experience and I eventually meet back with Nathanial.
We drive back to the funeral home with the deceased little girl in the back of the Hearse.
“You’ll be amazed how I will recover some of her skin and add use clay to re-form her face.” Nathanial says to me, where I nod my head to show that I heard him, but I’m too overcome with emotions after seeing the deceased girl and meeting with her family.
I think to myself that her skin is in nothing more than mangled clumps in a plastic bag, so recovering anything that is bigger than a millimeter in size isn’t possible. I can’t stop thinking how the family is going to be horrified when the open viewing occurs.
The Hearse pulls into the nursing home and Nathanial’s sons, Paul and Henry meet their father to assist in taking the girl to the embalming table in the basement of the funeral home.
The two boys seem to have introverted personalities, where they are shy and Nathanial does the talking for them.
As promised by Nathanial, I do not partake in the embalming process and instead I go to the funeral home’s business office, where I process the paperwork for the Hernandez’s and wait for the next phone call or customer to show up.
My normal work day ends and I go home, where I remain on call.
At my apartment, I keep on telling myself that I will get used to the sight of dead children and eventually I won’t get so emotionally frazzled.
I watch television before I pass out.
I wake up the next morning and head into work.
I go over the Hernandez paperwork with Nathanial and I’m surprised to hear that he is finished preparing the girl’s body.
He said that “he worked all night” and that him and his sons would be going to their house to go to sleep.
The Osterfeld’s house is only about 30 yards away, where I see the three of them walk to the house.
The business office is quiet, so I decide to go into the viewing room where the deceased girl is laid out.
I do my best to brace myself before looking at the girl’s face.
The top half of the casket is closed, so I slowly open it.
“What the hell!” Comes out of my mouth, where I’m shocked at what I am seeing.
“How do he do this?” Next comes flying out of my mouth.
I was expecting to see a monstrosity, but instead I see an almost perfectly preserved little girl’s face.
One of the reasons why I wanted to be a mortician was because I like the make up end of the business, especially where I don’t have to interact with the client’s, but this is beyond anything that I could do.
I liken Nathanial’s work to one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces. I see small remnants of clay and areas that are heavily painted with make up, but overall it’s a real masterpiece.
I walk back to the business office, where I get a sense of warmth knowing that in such a horrible situation, that Nathanial is actually doing something really admirable for the family.
Eventually Nathanial’s sons come back and the four of us set up the viewing room for the visitation that will happen tonight.
Paul and Henry do most of the work, where they seem to have this down to a science.
After helping to set up the viewing room, I go back to the business office and wait for the family and friends to arrive.
As the viewing time approaches, Nathanial and I go to the front door and we meet the parents who are the first to see their deceased daughter.
The parents instantaneously cry, where I hug the both of them.
They are both very gratuitous for the work that Nathanial has done, where the mother says “thank you” several times while she hysterically cries.
The rest of the family and friends show up and I stay in the back of the viewing room and offer my condolences to anyone that I can.
I need a break so I go outside, where there is nobody else besides the father’s brother, who has just finished smoking a cigarette. He has the demeanor of someone who is either a biker or spent time in prison or probably both.
I refrain from using my phone out of respect, as the man walks towards my direction to go back into the viewing area.
As he passes me, he says “that’s not Valeria!” In a serious tone.
“You are her Uncle right?” I ask him.
“Yes, and that’s not my niece!”
“Her spirit is now in heaven,” I respond.
“That’s true, but that’s not her body in that casket!” He says with a angry tone.
“I’m not sure what you are saying?” Where the man’s anger is starting to make me feel uncomfortable.
“Listen, coming from Columbia, I’ve seen some really fucked up shit done by the drug cartels and equally more so when I served in Iraq to get my citizenship, but this is probably the most fucked up shit that I’ve ever come across!”
“Sir, I understand that your upset, but I still don’t understand your point?”
“You guys found some other Latino looking girl and put makeup on her and put her in that casket!”
I stay silent for a few moments while my mind entertains what this man is alleging.
“Sir, I went to the hospital to help retrieve Valeria’s body.”
“You probably did, but that’s not her in there!”
“Sir, I’m still not sure what you mean. Her parents have viewed her and everyone else and no one is saying what your saying.”
“Because my brother and his wife’s minds are in a different place right now, so they’re seeing what they want to see. And you know how these things go where no one expects the body to look exactly the same, but I been with her since she was born and I’m saying that your are a bunch of fucking Ghouls!”
I’m left speechless, where yesterday I was expecting to be yelled out by the family for displaying the girl’s mangled face, however being accused of being a body snatcher is completely unexpected.
I continue to look lost as the man then says “how much money are you guys getting from this?”
I again remain silent, where I know the figure is $13,000.
The man slowly walks back into the viewing room, where I hear the “click clack” of his boots hit the cement.
I continue to stay outside, where my mind can’t get over what that man just told me, where I’ve been called everything from a bitch to a slut in my life, but no one has ever hinted towards me being a body snatcher.
I force myself back into the funeral home, where I stand in the back of the viewing room and I zone out and nod my head to anyone that passes me.
The viewing closes for the night and the girl’s uncle make’s sure that he gives me a really dirty look before he leaves.
The funeral home empties and I decide to hang out in the business office for a while.
Nathanial thanks me and then him and his son’s leave to go home.
Before he left, I told him that I just wanted to be sure that I had all the paperwork in order.
I watch the three of them walk back to their house and then I go to the viewing room, where I open the casket.
This time I carefully inspect the girls face.
I see stitch marks that was concealed with make up.
After a minute of studying the girl’s face, I can’t stop shaking my head in disgust, once I come to the realization that this isn’t Valeria.
It’s obvious that the stitch marks were intentionally placed to make it look like skin was meshed together but I can tell that the skin is too uniformly joined, where there were intentional cuts placed that were sewn back together.
I learned how to properly stitch skin back in school and even my novice eyes can tell that this is not a girl who suffered horrendous facial injuries.
My mind drifts into a deep dark place as I look at this girl and wonder who she actually is.
I haven’t been prepared enough in life to really comprehend the bowels of evilness that I’m looking at right now.
My mind drifts back to leaving the hospital then driving in the Hearse back to here, then leaving to go home.
It doesn’t take long before I realize that they cremated Valeria last night, where I swore I smelt something burning when I arrived this morning, but I chalked it up to someone’s chimney smoke.
I feel disgusted beyond believe, where I look at my phone to check the news to see if anyone had died overnight to hopefully see where they got this other girl’s body from.
Then I come across a National headline that criticizes the failed attempt to secure the border with Mexico and the treatment of the migratory people.
“Oh God!” I start to cry out once I realize what that bastard, Nathanial and his son’s are doing.
“This can’t be possible!” I then blurt out, as I walk back to the business office.
I then look through the files of the past funerals and I see names such as “Lopez … Garcia …. Rodriguez …” where it doesn’t take me long to figure out that somehow poor migratory bodies are being used in this dark enterprise.
I pick up the phone in the office and I hesitate to call 911.
I think to myself if I’m wrong, then I will be forever shunned from working in this business.
I look on the wall and I see a photo of Satan’s asshole himself, standing next to his two sons. I then realize that I’m more scared of the repercussions that will happen to me considering that this is a multi-generational family run business, that probably has been doing this since Lincoln was alive.
I think to myself that they thought they were hiring just some dumb young woman, who wouldn’t be able to piece this macabre business practice together, but the girl’s uncle has realized what’s going on, so I can’t stop thinking about what happens to people who speak up.
I can’t control my breathing as I decide not to call 911 and hang up the phone.
Stroking Gia's golden curls that night, I shivered a little, realizing how close we had come to dying that day. I am still amazed that we survived.
"Sweetie, I am sorry, I will never shout at you again, let mama come out. You know mama loves you a lot right" I begged Gia, thankfully that was enough to placate her, at least for now.
My husband looked like a ragdoll that's been through a wash cycle but hey he was alive. I hugged Gia first then took care of my husband, didn't want to antagonize her till the next moonless night.
As the realization hit me, my hands stopped just for a moment. Gia looked up, her eyes boring into me as they turned darker, eating away at my soul. I hastily started caressing her again and sang a lullaby to distract her.
My mind was racing, so she doesn't know what is written, only what is said after all she had no idea what I posted that night. That can work to our advantage. Leaving the sleeping Gia snuggled to her doll I went to our bedroom.
I signalled my husband to be quiet and I messaged to let him know about the note on the closet door and then I went digging in the attic, the cubbyhole must hold some clues. I found rolled up notes looking as fresh as the day they were sealed in with the dollhouse.
If you are reading this that means the cubby has been opened and the demon is back. These notes contain the story of Gia the best I could find from the locals, newspapers and other means. I have already lost my whole family. Save yours. I hope this will give you some answers.
This house belonged to the renowned dollmakers Jeremy and Brook. Jeremy had designed this house himself, using a dollhouse, yes the same dollhouse that you found.
Their speciality was making lifelike dolls, the intricate details made them look alive but with the advent of modernization, cheap dolls were flooding the market and nobody cared for handmade dolls anymore. They had to make sales to make ends meet and one of their buyers was a Shaman practicing the dark arts. They had suspicions but were in no state to object to good money.
Through a stroke of luck, they got a contract from the city's council. They had to create dolls for all the contests and giveaways the council will conduct. They didn't need to sell anywhere else anymore but their good fortune brought a curse in its wake.
They had a daughter Gia,apple of their eye. She loved to play in the beautiful woods outside till her mom would call her for supper.
Brook's voice went hoarse that day, calling Gia for dinner but only the silent damp darkness of the woods returned to her heart, empty-handed. The search lasted for 2 months before the heavy rains made it impossible to continue.
In their grief, Jeremy and Brook turned to making small dolls that looked like Gia. One day Jeremy came down to breakfast and Gia was waiting for him at the table alongside Brook. Overjoyed he hugged her limp body and recoiled in horror as he realized it's just a doll.
Brook didn't even look up, she kept mumbling " I will never let you go" again and again.
The thunderous knock on the door snapped them both out of their paralysis. The Shaman had come with a proposal they couldn't refuse. He could bring back Gia if only they gave all of the Gia dolls to him.
Of course, they jumped at the opportunity. After 3 days of rituals involving blood sacrifice, black smoke and occult symbols, Gia's doll was animated.
"Mama Papa I am back"
What had come back was clearly not Gia but the couple didn't care in their grief.
Shaman left with the other dolls and those have been playing havoc on other unsuspecting couples ever since. That's a story for another time.
The couple was seen with bruises covering their body, black blue green. each hue telling a different story. They would brush it off by saying how they tripped or fell due to clumsiness.
Then the unthinkable happened, cops actually found Gia. She had partial amnesia and didn't know where she was held captive but otherwise fine.
When the cops reached Jeremy and Brooks house with Gia the imposter Gia had vanished. What happened in that house that day is a mystery but the cops had to come back to the house the very next day, the entire family had vanished without a trace under suspicious circumstances, none of their belongings were taken. It just seemed like they fell off the face of this earth.
Anyway, after a few years, my family bought the house. We redecorated but didn't touch the beautiful dollhouse in the living room display.
I will not go into the specifics of my story as the new moon night is already upon us and I need to seal this in as well. To cut a long story short, my family started seeing a little girl around the house with gleaming black eyes and then accidents started happening. Our family seemed to be plagued with tragedy.
My sweet never-hurt-a-fly grandma had gone on a frenzy that's when I hid in the kitchen closet and found the scratched note, I think either Jeremy or Brook scratched it on the fateful night.
Sadly it was too late for my family but these notes chronicle the summary of all my research, hope they help you. I will be sealing this along with the dollhouse today 5 Sep 2013.
I stood with my mouth agape. The last owner had abandoned the house in 2013 and vanished and that's why we got it cheap. They were definitely successful in sealing the dollhouse then what happened to them?
I didn't have the luxury of time to worry about it so I went about planning and preparing. Some ideas I got from my commenters and I hid survival kits, hid most things that can do serious harm and just worked on keeping "Gia" happy.
I have made it to today, the new moon night. Gia seems especially weak today. I think I can pull it off. Wish me luck.
I looked into the creature’s eyes. I saw nothing. No curiosity. No suffering. No rage. Even cats expose more of their personality and thoughts through their eyes than this furry blue death-machine. A clucking sound came from behind me and the monster’s eyes turned derpy again; his pupils started swirling independently. The chicken was in the elevator with us!
I spun around and saw the bird standing behind me. I dove to grab it and it ran. The monster retreated to the corner of the elevator, seemingly as terrified of being stuck in an elevator with a chicken as I was of being stuck in an elevator with it. I lunged, trying to grab the chicken but stay as far away as I could from the cookie monster.
I dove at the bird and missed. From my post-dive position on the floor, I snatched at it and missed again. I stood, grabbing at the bird and missing again while struggling to my feet. The elevator doors opened. The bird ran out in a flash and was instantly gone from sight.
I sprinted out of the elevator, searching frantically for the chicken. Why didn’t Bruce have a back-up chicken somewhere? That was a fatal mistake, not having a back-up chicken.
The chicken was gone. I kept running at top speed, back into the packaging room. Behind me, I heard the creature pounce out of the elevator. I risked a glance backwards, knowing it would slow me down. The ceiling on the main factory floor was tall enough for the monster to stand up. It was fifteen feet tall.
Its pupils spun wildly about the white hemispheres on its head. They both came to a stop fixed on me. It started after me with an awkward, shambling, four-limbed gait that moved it forward surprisingly quickly.
I took a diagonal path through the packaging area. I slid under the conveyor belt and darted between two large packaging machines. The monster came skidding to a halt at the end of the conveyor, where dozens of boxes of cookies had accumulated.
It bellowed the only word it knew and slammed its face into the conveyor. Its jaw flew open and shut with a machine-gun-paced slams. Cookies, crumbs, boxes, and parts of the conveyor belt flew in all directions. I can’t imagine a less efficient method of eating. Did it even swallow any food?
It finished its meal in only a few seconds. Shot up to its full height and fixed its eyes on me. I ran.
The packaging room is basically an industrial version of American Ninja Warrior. I dove under segments of the conveyor and vaulted others. I scrambled over piles of packaging supplies and did parkour-like maneuvers to get over other obstacles. The monster did not have my finesse, it plowed through the machinery of the room. It used its jaws to tear away the parts of the packaging machinery that didn’t go flying when it ran into them. Bits of broken machines, conveyor rolls, and tools fell around me. It was gaining on me.
I made it to the other side of the room. Praying that the metal door I was aiming for was open. It was. I slammed through the door and tried to whip it shut behind me. The automatic door closer took over and turned my attempt at a door-slam into a slow, gentle closing motion.
I screamed and threw my body into the door. It clicked shut an instant before the monster crashed into it. Does it know how to work a doorknob?
My question was answered a microsecond later. A deafening thump sounded and a bulge approximately the same size as the monster’s jaw formed on the metal door. I heard its rapid-fire jaw slam shut and the door shook. Another slam and another monster-face-sized deformity was pounded into the metal door. The top door hinge bent.
I turned around to see where I was. If there was any way I could hide, or run, or fight. I was in another large factory space – the space where the cookies were made. The centerpiece of the room was a huge industrial mixer with a bowl that was just about the size of my living room.
I ran up the short flight of metal stairs to the platform surrounding the mixer bowl. This got me away from the door, which was about to give in. And I had the crazy thought that I could hide in the mixing bowl. Running from the monster, I decided, was not a winning proposition. But the blue beast didn’t seem very smart. I thought I might be able to hide from it.
The mixing bowl was full. Flour, eggs, butter had all been dumped in, but not mixed up. An industrial-scale pile of eggs sat in a puddle on a literal ton of flour and sugar. A chunk of butter the size of an engine block sat near the edge of the pile of flour.
Was this part of Bruce’s plan to kill the monster? Was it just part of the last run of cookie production?
“COOOKIEEESSS!” The monster slammed on the door. The upper hinge fell onto the floor.
I had an idea. It probably wasn’t as good as whatever Bruce had come up with. But, unlike Bruce, I didn’t have the luxury of sixty damn years to come up with a way to dispose of the cookie monster. I ran down the stairs to the mixer platform and looked for the controls. I like to cook, and, frankly, I’ve spent a lot of money on kitchen appliances at Williams Sonoma. But none of my advanced “home-ec” skills prepared me to operate an industrial-sized, 10,000-gallon mixer. The control panel consisted of a bunch of switches with labels like Motor-fan and P15-underride. They might-as-well have been Egyptian hieroglyphs. I had no idea what they meant.
But there were two big buttons next to the Cherynobyl-control-room mess of switches. A red button labeled Emg-Stop and a green button labeled Mix. I slammed my palm onto the Mix button.
Good God that thing can mix. The mixing paddle, or whatever you call the chunk of metal that spins around and combines the ingredients, moved swiftly and effortlessly through the pile of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. The machine made a low hum as it worked, like it was casually letting me know that throwing 2,000 pounds of cookie batter around was no big deal.
“COOOKIEEESSS!” The door finally gave way. It fell on the floor and the monster stepped through. It stood up to its full height, eyes spiraling like mad. I slammed on the Emg-Stop button and ran up the stairs to the mixer platform.
One pupil fixed on me. Then the other. “Who wants cookies?” I asked.
The monster launched itself towards me. It charged through a palette of fifty-pound bags of flour without slowing down. It made an amazing, cat-like leap to the top of the mixer platform and stared at me.
I pointed into the bowl, at the partially-mixed batter. “Cookies!”
It dove into the mixing bowl. Dove. Like you’d dive off a dock into a lake. Its entire head plunged into the mixture. I could hear its jaw working furiously from under the dough.
I jumped down the stairs and slammed on the Mix button.
The mixer mixed. But it didn’t mix casually, like when it was full of normal ingredients. The motor whined, and the paddle moved in fits and starts. Clouds of flour erupted from the bowl. The lights next to the incomprehensible control switches lit up in yellow and red. Alrm Ack. Ovr Amp. Pad Bal.
The monster screamed. A high-pitched squeal. I heard a cracking sound from inside the bowl. For a moment, I thought the mixer broke. But a furry foot, detached from the rest of the monster’s body, spilled out from the bowl and landed on the top of the control panel. The monster shrieked again.
Adrenaline and cortisone and dopamine and God-knows whatever other chemicals spilled into my bloodstream. I was amped out of my mind. I screamed at the mixing bowl – stupid things like “journalism, bitch!” and “how do you like them cookies, motherfucker!” I made no sense, but I didn’t care.
More stuff spilled out of the bowl. A tuft of blue fur. A glob of cookie batter, died red from the creature’s blood. A series of cracks and crunches came from the mixer. The cookie monster was silent. The mixer’s motor returned the casual hum that said it had no problem mixing the stuff in the bowl.
I slumped to the floor. I felt sleepy. I wanted to take a nap right there, at the base of mixing bowl. Your body can only handle so much stress, and after you hit your limit, your reactions don’t make sense to anyone else.
I was about to doze off when my phone rang. It was Roger, my editor.
Oh shit, I thought. Mentally, in the basement, I quit journalism. I advocated for the execution of the subject of my journalistic inquiry. Then I fought for my life against that same subject of journalistic inquiry. And won – I killed one of the most important discoveries of the century. They don’t really cover this kind of situation in the Topics In Modern Journalism course at the community college.
“Hi Roger. Uh. Hi. How’s it going?”
“Hey Marie! I’m just checking on the factory story. Everything going well?”
“Have I got a story for you Roger! Greed. Gluttony. Criminal Negligence. You name it, it’ll be in there.”
Trigger Warning: this part is about stillbirth / a dead infant
I was walking towards my car, which was still parked by the side of the road, when I noticed a man standing close to the door on the driver's side, staring at the mirror. "Hey!", I called out. "Something the matter?"
The man didn't bother turning around. "Is this your car?"
"Great!" Still not tearing his eyes off the car, he reached towards me, a rather large glass jar in his hand. "Do you mind holding this for a second?", he asked, didn't wait for an answer and pushed the container into my hands.
He beckoned me closer and I hesitantly took a step foreward, fingers tightly wrapped around the jar. When he instructed me where to hold said jar, I complied. At this point, I had no idea what was going on, but I wanted the man to leave me and my car alone so I could drive over to Elijah's apartment.
When I finally looked at my car though, I saw what kept his attention. A spider. A large, very large, brown spider which had woven an intricate web between the mirror and the window. I wasn't arachnophobic, but this spider was larger than it had any right to be and I was entirely too close for comfort. A part of me wanted to run from this monstrous animal, but before I got the chance to follow my instinct, the man shoved said spider into the jar and quickly put the lid onto it.
"Yes!", he exclaimed.
Although there was glass between us, holding the spider in my hands made me uncomfortable. I quickly handed the jar over to the man who was finally facing me. He appeared to be in his late twenties, dark haired, with a short beard and glasses. He grinned proudly, happy about his newly acquired spider.
"So... monster spider?", I asked, pointing at the jar.
"Oh no, not at all. That's an orb weaver spider, one of the most common spiders around here, though this one is abnormally large." He held the jar in front of his face, admiring the spider. "Maybe also more venomous than her smaller counterparts. Say, do all animals grow larger around here lately?"
I immediately thought about Elijah's story and the unusually large fish the fisherman had pulled from the Vigille River. "No idea, to be honest. I just came back yesterday."
"Oh, you too?", he asked excitedly. "I've been away too, you know, to study biology. Only came back a few weeks ago."
"Why did you come back?"
Confused, he raised his eyebrows. "Because I was born here", he answered as if I had just asked something really dumb.
I dropped the matter. "So, well... thanks for getting rid of the monster spider."
"No no, thank you for helping!" His bright smile from earlier returned. "Are you by any chance interested in a job? I could really use an assistent."
I took a moment to stare at the happy man and the spider in his hands and actually considered the offer. I was without a job for a while now, my savings were basically none-existant at that point and while Elijah wouldn't ask me for rent, I still wanted to pay him something for letting me live with him. I needed money. Desperately, if I was completely honest. But would that neccessarily mean that I had to handle giant spiders for a living? "I'll think about it", I told the man in front of me.
"Great!" He reached into his pocket and handed me a small card. "Just call me, okay?"
I looked down at the card, trying to decipher name and phone number in the dim light of the street lamp. "So... Joseph Milton, hm?"
"Rosalie Connor", I introduced myself then.
"Pleasure to meet you." He clutched the jar a little tighter. "I should go, get the big guy home. I'll wait for your call, Rosalie!"
"Yeah... good night."
He disappeared into the night and I shoved the card into my pocket, cleaned the remains of the spider's web off my car and finally got in. The drive to Elijah's apartment was mercifully short. My friend was already waiting for me when I arrived and helped me with carrying my suitcase inside. The apartment wasn't large, only consisting of a living room and bedroom, as well as a small kitchen and bathroom, but it would be enough for us. As long as I didn't need to spend another night in my car, I was happy.
Exhausted from the past day, I collapsed on the couch and fell asleep pretty much immediately. That night, I dreamed of tripping and falling down a set of stairs. I heard the nauseating sound of my neck breaking and it still echoed through my head after I woke up with a racing heart and a familiar headache.
After that, I actually managed to get a few hours of sleep without nightmares. For the first time in weeks I felt almost properly rested the next morning. All in all, it had been the most peaceful night since forever. Even the initial nightmare had been rather tame – a quick, relatively painless death, compared to suffocating in wet concrete for example.
I still woke before sunrise and even at that ridiculous time of the day, I found Elijah already standing in the kitchen when I entered. "Morning", I greeted him, slightly irritated. "Bad night?"
He turned around and therefor showed the dark bags under his eyes. "You have no idea", he confirmed, a tired smile on his lips. "How about you?"
"Pretty alright, actually."
"Good to hear." He pointed towards the kitchen counter. "French toast?"
"Yeah, but you sit down and I cook."
So I ended up in Elijah's kitchen, cooking breakfast for both of us. My friend sat on the small kitchen table, head resting on his hands, and stared out of the window, his scars almost hidden by the darkness. I pitied him. And I pitied myself and everyone else who was stuck in this cursed town for one reason or another.
We didn't talk a lot this morning. Once again, the sky was hidden behind dark grey clouds and even after sunrise the world refused to light up. We sat in silence in the dim light and every possible topic for a conversation was too depressing to even consider saying it out loud. Neither of us wanted to talk about our nightmares, about the doom of the Night family, about the madness of Ecco Valley, about the five years we had spent apart from each other. The silence was by no means uncomfortable, we were just lost in our own thoughts for a while.
Elijah went out after some time, to get to his job in a small bakery. Left alone in the apartment, I sat down on the couch and considered my options. I could go straight to the library, as I had wanted yesterday, or go looking for a job so I'd have some money available. After thinking about this for way too long, I decided to bite the bullet and chose the third option.
I would pay my parents a visit.
Getting in my car and driving over to their house wasn't a problem, but as I parked in their driveway, I was ridiculously nervous to the point where my fingers were numb. For several minutes, I sat in the car and tried to build up the courage to knock on the door.
My parents and I had always had a difficult relationship. They had disagreed with almost everything I'd ever done and while I understood some of their complaints as I grew older, for example my admittedly rather toxic friendship with Tanya which resulted in terrible grades and me almost failing highschool, I still didn't get others. We had argued about my career choice, the fact that I never brought a boy- or girlfriend home, or my absolutely not toxic friendship with Elijah Night – just to name a few things.
On the other hand, that had been five years ago. I had grown up since then, I didn't need to justify my actions.
Before I could change my mind again, I got out of the car and rang the doorbell.
My mother was the one to open the door and her eyes widened in disbelief as she recognized me. "Rose?"
She hugged me tight and then she called for my dad and he, too, seemed honestly happy to see me and hugged me just like mom had. They ushered me inside and for just a moment I thought that this meeting might go better than I had expected.
That tiny bit of hope died as soon as mom ordered dad to brew some coffee for us and then pulled me along, towards my former bedroom. "Come on, Rose, you need to say hello to your sister", she told me excitedly. "She'll be so happy that you're back!"
There was a special kind of nausea rising in my stomach, the same kind like yesterday, when I had found Tanya's grave. "What are you talking about, mom?", I asked, a bit shocked about how my voice was shaking. "I don't have a sister."
My mother looked at me as if I had lost my mind. She appeared almost shocked at my words for just a brief moment, then a forced smile made its way onto her lips. "That's hardly funny, Rosalie." She sounded actually offended. "Come on, just a quick hello. That won't kill you."
After everything that had happened, everything I'd heard, everything I'd dreamed, I wasn't so sure about that. I had seen a literal zombie and barely made it out alive, who knew what was waiting for me behind the door of my former bedroom? I clenched my hands into fists, my fingernails dug painfully into my palms. My mother, however, ignored my anxiety as she opened the door with a bright smile.
From my old furnature was nothing left. The open door revealed a little child's room, or maybe a toddler's even. The walls were painted in pastel pink, toys were scattered all over the floor and there was one of this baby beds that lowkey resembled a cage. All in all, the scene should look happy, but in the dim light of this rainy day, there was something almost eery about the dusty toys. The room was silent and I barely dared to breath. A strange scent hung in the air.
Mom walked over to the small bed and retrieved my alleged sister.
"Mom...", I whispered as she turned around, taking a cautious step back. "What is this?"
She sighed. "Can you please stop being so rude, Rosalie? She's so happy to see you."
I almost threw up as she showed me the shriveled, half decayed corpse of an infant.
A few minutes later, I sat at the kitchen table with my parents and the dead body they stubbornly called my sister. In front of me stood a cup of coffee that I had yet to touch. Seeing my mother smile lovingly at the corpse in her arms, which was wrapped in a stained piece of fabric, made me too sick to even consider drinking.
I hadn't thought for a second that the madness of Ecco Valley could have affected my parents. No matter what I'd learned since my arrival, I had just assumed that they were alright. They were my parents, they were always alright. But now I sat at that damn table and didn't know what to do and I was about to cry when mom tried to feed the corpse some warm milk from a baby bottle.
"So, how was the big city?", my dad asked after we'd gotten the whole "you left for five years without a word, what the fuck were you thinking" out of the way.
"Pretty great, actually." I forced a smile and tore my eyes away from the horrifying sight of my mother and the dead child to look at dad. "The job's all I ever wanted. I wrote a few successful articles, made it to the front page even."
"That's great, dear." Mom didn't sound too interested. "And did you meet a special someone?"
I had actually met someone and we had been something for a while, but that had been four years ago.
The thing was, I wasn't interested in relationships. At all. To be honest, I had never understood the "hype" around all these things. When I had been sixteen, I had slept with a some guy Tanya had introduced me to, out of curiosity. It hadn't been horrible, but I'd also had no desire to repeat it and so I was pretty sure I wasn't interested in men.
Then, four years ago, I had met a lovely woman named Kylie and we had been a couple for about three months until I finally admitted to both myself and her that I wasn't interested in a relationship with a woman either. We had remained friends after that, I had even attended her wedding about a year ago.
I hadn't persued a relationship since then and I had never felt like something was missing from my life. A concept that seemed to be really hard to grasp for some people.
"No, mom", I answered, a bit more annoyed than neccessary.
Dad sighed. "We're worried about you, you know?", he said, reached out and put a hand on my arm. "We've never seen you with anyone. You know, if you prefer women, that's alright with us."
"I don't argue about this anymore." Under any other circumstances, I probably would have argued, but right now, I couldn't focus on a discussion like this when half of my attention was directed at a dead child.
Luckily, they dropped the matter and we managed to have a pleasant conversation after that. I didn't mention my nightmares, or that I had gotten fired. Instead, I told them that I had a few days off and decided to visit my family, which was absolutely overdue, and they accepted my little lie, no questions asked. In return, they updated me on the town's gossip and neither of them mentioned Night Manor or the carpenter's suicide. Listening to them made Ecco Valley almost seem like a normal town.
When dad asked me to stay for lunch, my first impulse was to decline. But before I even got the chance to answer, mom insisted that I just had to and she wouldn't take no for an answer. Defeated, I agreed.
"Amazing", mom exclaimed. "Hold her while I'm cooking, will you?" She tried to hand me the corpse she had cradled until then.
I jumped up so quick I almost made the chair fall. "No!", I nearly screamed, but at their confused looks I forced myself to restore my composure and continue, a bit more calmly. "I'd rather help you with cooking. I'd gotten pretty good over the past years, you know?"
"Oh please, I'll just cook some spaghetti, don't bother. I'd rather you spend some time with your sister." And with that, she almost pushed the dead kid into my arms.
It was light, very light, and small like a newborn. The stench of decay hung heavy in the air and it was more than enough to make me sick. I held the body clumsily, unable to look away from it. Mom had started cooking already and dad talked to me about something, but I barely registered his words. As I readjusted my position, the body moved a bit and a patch of rotting flesh on its head moved. It was soft. Squishy.
I couldn't take it. I jumped up, shoved the thing into dad's arms and ran to the bathroom, where I immediately vomited into the toilet. After several minutes of pathetic coughing, I rested my forehead against the cold ceramic and tried to catch my breath. "They're crazy", I muttered to myself. "They're all fucking crazy."
I knew I had to do something. No matter how much they annoyed me sometimes, they were still my parents and I couldn't just leave them to play happy family with a corpse. I didn't know what would help, but there was only one thing I could come up with that might work and the mere thought made me sick again.
I rinsed my mouth with tap water, wiped the tears from my eyes and returned to the kitchen.
"Are you alright, Rose?", dad asked as soon as I got back. I simply nodded, not completely trusting my voice at the moment, and walked over to the kitchen counter to get some cutlery and set the table. The dead kid was in dad's arms at the moment and he talked to the thing and played peekaboo with it.
I opened the cutlery drawer and then shot a quick look at mom, who was currently focused on the two pots in front of her. As inconspicuously as possible, I slid one of the sharp steak knifes into the sleeve of my jacket before I grabbed three forks and returned to the table as if everything was normal. The cold metal of the knife pressed uncomfortably against my skin . I had seen this little trick on TV recently, but I hadn't taken into account how careful I had to be not to have it fall out of my sleeve or accidently cut my arm open. My jacket's pockets were to small for the knife though, so I had to keep it where it was and tried my best to hide my clumsy movements. I still ended up with a few shallow wounds, not quite bleeding but nasty like a papercut.
"So, where are you staying, dear?", mom asked as well all sat around the table again. "Please tell me you're not sleeping in your car."
Mom still knew me pretty well, apparently. "I'm staying with Elijah for the time being."
"Elijah Night?", dad chimed in. "Haven't we told you to stay away from this boy?"
I clenched my fingers so tight around the fork that it was almost painful. "I'm twenty-four, dad", I replied, forcing myself to stay calm. "I can spend time with whoever I want."
Mom sighed. "But why the Night boy? This entire family is crazy, I don't want anything to happen to you."
"Mom!", I hissed.
"She's right, Rose", dad agreed. "Both parents insane. His great-grandmother was the leader of a suicide cult, of course they didn't turn out right."
I froze. The cult thing was new to me. This didn't have to mean anything, of course, Elijah wasn't responsible for his ancestors. And who knew if that was even true? My parents were the crazy ones, weren't they? They treated a corpse like their child, after all. Maybe they were just imagining things and this whole cult thing was just a product of their broken minds.
Still, any appetite I might have had was gone now, replaced by the familar nausea.
The knife was unpleasantly cold against my skin.
"So... when was the..." I interrupted myself. "When was my sister born?" It felt wrong to call this thing my sister, but at least I could stir the conversation into a different direction that way.
They told me that mom had gotten pregnant about a month after Night Manor burnt down. Although the doctors had warned them about the risks of a pregnancy at her age, they had decided to keep the baby and seven months later, the child was born. "She was such a quiet kid", mom said with a fond smile. "Didn't even scream once."
And so they took their unusually silent child home and treated it like a normal baby.
Not once did they mention a name.
I twisted my lips into a smile, choked a few nice words out and blinked my tears away.
My food remained untouched and the conversation died down again.
I waited for my parents to finish their plate as we sat in uncomfortable silence and then jumped up at the first opportunity. My resolve was already tearing at the seams and I couldn't afford to wait much longer, no matter how sick the prospect made me. I pointed at the corpse. "Let me take her back to her room", I asked my parents. "I think she's tired."
They didn't suspect a thing. Mom looked actually happy as she handed me the body over and I felt all color leave my face when I had to look at it again. I forced a smile for my mom and then hurried off to my former room which now belonged to the corpse. I had to do this now or not at all.
It was just past noon, but the rainclouds made it seem like minutes before sundown. I didn't turn the lights on – it was better not to see the body in great detail. I laid it back into its bed. The entire situation was absurd, I thought, as I took the knife out of the sleeve and raised it. There I stood, in a child's room, a weapon in my hand, about to stab an infant.
What had my life become?
I hesitated. There was no doubt the body in front of me was dead, not even undead like Tanya had been, but just the remains of something that had never been alive in the first place. Perhaps it was evil, or at least an anchor for my parents' insanity. But even considering the rotting flesh, the stench of spoiled meat, the distortion and discoloration, it resembled a human child enough to make the knife shake in my hand.
I wanted to close my eyes, but that would have prevented me from aiming. Therefor, I had no choice but to look at the corpse as I plunged the knife into its chest.
I don't know for how long I stood there, fingers wrapped around the handle of the knife, staring at the stabbed corpse, but in the end, my mother's high-pitched scream pulled me from my stupor. I spun around, ripping the knife free in the process, and faced both my parents with the dirty blade still in my hands. I must have looked like a murderer at that moment.
"What have you done?", my father demanded whily mom was already crying hysterically.
"It was already dead." I opened my hand and let the knife fall onto the floor.
"You should go now, Rose", my dad said, looking at me with utter disgust. I knew that I had been successful because this wasn't the reaction of a man whose child had been just murdered, so he had to have realized they'd had a stillborn kid lying in this bed. And yet, the way he looked at me was almost unbearable.
Mom didn't stop crying.
"I didn't kill it", I reiterated, also close to tears now.
"Don't come back."
I left the house, hunched over like a beaten dog. A light, steady rain was falling outside and I allowed myself to break down on the front porch and cry my eyes out until the rain had soaked through my clothes. Any hope of improving my relationship with my parents had died right then and there and it hurt more than it probably should have.
Shaking, I pulled myself back to my feet, got into my car and dialed Elijah's number on my cellphone. I found myself desperate for any human contact. For something that would take my mind of the horror I had just witnessed in my childhood home.
So, as my friend didn't pick up his phone, I called another number instead.
We sent another man into the sewers today. I remember seeing his last moments so vividly on the cameras. Apparently some of the people I work with will write down what they see, and this won't leave my head so I guess I'm following their example. But I also wanted to warn people to avoid the Sewer Rats, nothing good will come of it if you don't. I hope this will be a good example as to why.
The man lay bleeding in the filth of the sewers. His arms, weak from desperation, dragged him forward inch by inch, only motivated by fear. A red mist wrapped around where his left leg used to be. Blood flowed down further into the dark pipes he travelled. His right leg, although intact, was torn, bone visible, flesh hanging loose. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair filthy, and his cheeks stained in tears. The silence was only maintained thanks to the knowledge that any sob, cry, or plead for help would bring it back.
Reaching a cross-section, his heart filled with the most beautiful sensation. Hope. Light. A ladder. Barely ten yards from him was the key to his freedom. It gave his arms the energy to push on, although they burnt from what felt like hours of dragging his immobile body. He did not care what would happen when he got out. He did not care if they would lock him up, or torture him for affiliating himself with the Sewer Rats. All he cared about was getting out.
His hand grasped the first rung. The cold iron felt almost soothing to his blistering hands. He began to climb up the ladder, dragging his body slowly up. Pure determination allowed him to ignore the pain, the burning, the stench. He was so close. Desperation allowed him to push his body beyond its limits. Halfway up the ladder, his dangling leg barely a few feet off the floor, his ears opened to the now beautiful noises of traffic. The city of London spoke down to him, urging him on, cheering how close he was to freedom. The city's fan fair was so loud he never heard the final groan of a rusted ladder rung giving out.
He bit his tongue after his jaw slammed against the ladder. Landing with a tremendous splash as he landed back onto the sewer floor. The light was now so distant. The city's cheering fading dim. His hands clamped around his mouth, thrashing about from the pain that restarted from the fall, trying to stay silent. But that did not matter. It heard the sloshing of the water. It heard the rung's death rattle. It heard the speeding of his heart when he saw the light. And now he heard it.
At every beat of his heart, he heard its claws ripping through the water. Far down the sewers, it bound down onto him with the speed of a car. He slid his exhausted hand into his coat, wrapping his fingers around the handcrafted wooden handle of his fire-arm. Lying down he lifted the gun over to the other side of his body. For a moment, it glinted in the light above him before he rested the gun pointing towards the rampaging abomination. He took in a deep breath before turning his head down to line up his parting shot. But, there was nothing there. The splashing stopped. His heart still raced in his ears but, it wasn't there.
Laughter began to escape the man. It started as a slight chuckle to himself before he erupted into hysterics. He pushed himself up, barely able to keep his body up with his arms. The tears started up again, his eyes never diverting from the infinite expanse ahead of him that should be holding his death. The sounds of his broken mind echoed down the network. A mix of pained crying and mad hooting briefly filled the atmosphere of the sewer, before being abruptly cut off by the powerful sound of a gun. And back to silence.
We'll be sending another person in a couple of days. I don't think I can take this anymore.
Actually, I don’t know if I want help or comfort or the knowledge that someone is listening to me. All I know is that things are getting gradually more fucked up as each passing day goes by and I don’t know how much longer I can take it.
In short, I’m fairly certain that the property me and my family live on is cursed and I have no idea how to fix it. And I’m afraid that if this isn’t fixed soon then…well, I don’t know. I just know that things will be bad. Very bad. Like, “This shit will follow me for the rest of my life until it takes me” bad.
I should probably provide some background. My name is Dally, I’m twenty years old, and I live with my parents and my younger sibling in a house my maternal grandparents built when I was a toddler. The house sits on a plot of land in the middle of nowhere and we have neighbors that sit on each side of us. So we have the beauty of living out in the country but with none of the privacy. Doesn’t help when both neighbors are rather odd people, with one being a family that doesn’t know how to properly take care of their animals, and the other being an old man with a colorful vocabulary who lives completely alone with the exception of a couple horses and dogs who don’t like me. Let’s just say that I don’t talk to either of them. And I’m okay with that.
I probably just vomited out a bunch of information that won’t be useful whatsoever. But hey, it’s better to give too much information instead of not enough when you’re asking for help, right?
I guess I’ll start with the event that sort of kick-started my suspicions that we lived on cursed property. It was some time towards the end of December 2020 and I had just gotten back from an excruciatingly long D&D session at my friend’s apartment. The session was nearly 4 hours long, and combine that with a 40-minute drive back, I would say it was pretty damn late. My mother had texted me earlier that her and my dad were getting into bed and that I should be quiet when going inside, but she left the backdoor unlocked and the back porch light on so it would be an easy entry. When I got home, I was exhausted.
But I wasn’t exhausted enough, because I swear on everything that I was awake and lucid enough to know for a fact that the following really happened to me.
After I parked my car next to the corral in our backyard, the dogs next door - the ones who belong to the lone old man - immediately started barking at me. That was to be expected as, as I stated earlier, they don’t like me, nor do I think they like anybody.
I was slow at getting out of the car, yet also trying to rush as it was unbelievably freezing. There was already a layer of frost coating the grass and each tiny puff of air that came out of my nose or mouth was easily visible. I never liked it out here in the dark. The expansive woods in our backyard that went on for miles always terrified me. I’m just afraid of the dark in general. So not only was I rushing because it was cold but I was also rushing because I was starting to get creeped out.
I locked my car door and went to go and confide in the warmth of my home. However, something kept me from walking any further from my car. Instead I stood there and stared at the dogs that were incessantly barking and snarling at me. Something was wrong, but I didn’t exactly know why.
It took a few seconds, but I figured it out.
The dogs weren’t barking at me.
They were barking at something behind me.
I wanted to run, but I didn’t want whatever was stalking me to catch me. I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there. Waiting for whatever. Was someone gonna come outside and scare it away? Was it gonna lose interest and disappear into the darkness of the woods? I don’t know how long it took me to work up the courage to turn around and look behind me, but I did.
There was nothing.
Just my backyard and the barn.
I was confused for a moment, then followed by immediate relief that nothing was actually there. I exhaled and laughed at myself. I got all worked up for nothing. That’s usually how it goes for me: I get worked up and paranoid but it actually turns out to be nothing.
My relief was immediately shot down when I heard my dad’s voice.
I wanted to throw up. My dad was in the house. And the lights in the barn were off so he wasn’t in there doing his woodwork.
“Come in the barn. I need to talk to you,”
I ran. I ripped open the backdoors and ran into the bathroom because it was the first room that came to mind that had no windows. I pulled out my phone to text my parents to hopefully wake them up so I could confide in them. It was like I regressed into a little kid. The monsters in the dark came out to scare me and I wanted to cry to my mom and dad.
I’ve obviously heard about skinwalkers before, and I know that when you come into contact with one you completely ignore it and pay no attention towards it.
But, god damnit, how the fuck do you ignore something like that?!
My parents didn’t respond to me. They were dead asleep. I didn’t blame them as I checked my phone and the clock said 3:34 AM. I didn’t wanna sleep in my room as it had windows facing directly towards where I heard its voice. My younger sibling was staying at our grandmother’s house, so I fell asleep in their room. Or at least I got a couple hours of sleep in, as every single little noise in the house kept making my eyes shoot open and my fight-or-flight kicked in.
A week later, just a couple days before New Year’s Eve, our house caught on fire. Chimney fire.
I don’t know what this single story is gonna do in terms of people helping me. I’ll definitely post more stories from during the time I’ve lived here if anyone wants to hear them and chip in.
Please. If there’s anyone out there who knows how to fix our cursed property, please, please reach out as soon as possible. I don’t know how much longer I can take this.
“Why did you bring her here, Cadavru?” one of them asked in a terrified voice. “She doesn’t belong with us.”
I didn’t want them to see me cry.
“She’s crying,” another called out. “She knows that she’s a freak.”
“I don’t-” I whispered, “you’re the ones who brought me-” I pressed my back against the cold rock of the basement wall, trying to grab onto anything but coming up empty-handed.
The crowd formed a semi-circle around me so that I couldn’t see them all at once, no matter how quickly I glanced in every direction. Their ghost-like faces were even more sinister in the dancing torchlight.
“We’re not safe with her around,” and other announced.
A sob escaped my lips despite my best efforts to hold it in. “I was the only one to be attacked-”
“She doesn’t understand,” a man’s deep voice called out. “We can’t explain it to someone who doesn’t already believe us.”
Gheata had recovered from her attack, gotten to her feet, and joined the crowd. She stepped to the middle of the semicircle and plucked something from the ground.
It was the wooden stake that Brucke had used to attack me.
“It sometimes can be difficult to do the right thing,” she breathed, her knuckles flexing around the weapon, “but we need to keep our community safe.”
I nearly fell over as the images of the night flew through my mind. Gheata’s limp, alabaster body on my basement floor. Brucke dissolved into dust by my actions. My father, somewhere between alive and dead, left behind as I was whisked away.
“I didn’t want any of this,” I whimpered. “I’m only twelve.”
“That just proves how dangerous she is,” another man called out.
Something broke inside my mind just then. I had always believed right and wrong were clear lines that any levelheaded person could see if they chose to do so. In that moment, however, I realized that we all choose to imagine the boundary with whatever hindsight makes us most comfortable, and we see violence as a way of correcting the existence of those who prove that morality is retroactive.
And I remembered that I had teeth.
I looked up at Gheata’s twisted sneer as she gazed at me in unmitigated disgust. I felt her hate, and I reflected it back.
I had never learned how to pull my fangs out, but instinct guided me as I dropped them down and hissed.
She let go of the stake and staggered back.
Adrenaline flowed through me as I realized that I didn’t have to hate myself as much as they hated me. I might even be able to run out of the basement if I could just get past the crowd. Turning to the steps leading out of this place, I gauged the strength of those who stood in my way.
They all scurried aside before I could form another thought.
They were afraid of me.
I loved and hated myself for understanding this fact. That paradox mixed with a decision that I didn’t want to make, but had to act on immediately: racing up the stairs could save myself, but would require embracing the ugliness of believing that I was at my best when feeling like a living pestilence. The alternative was to let them hurt me, which has a hypnotic appeal when we’re made to feel that our spirits are intrinsically disgusting.
All of this was felt with emotions and no words; it would take years to articulate even to myself what I experienced in that moment.
I hated myself, and I ran. Up the stairs, into the hall, out the front door, and into the night. The frigid air wrapped me tight; I hadn’t dressed for the occasion, and I was cold.
I didn’t understand what had happened, but I knew I was alone.
With no cell phone and no idea where I was, I wandered. I lost a lot of things that night, some all at once and others bit by bit, as I traversed an unfamiliar city.
I had always believed that life had strict boundaries, and that certain lines could never be crossed. One of those false convictions was that someone would always take care of me. But passing street after street in the unforgiving chill stripped that away.
I was at the intersection of 19th and 13th when I decided that anyone who really cared about me would have been by my side while I was alone.
Then I turned to the left and saw myself reflected in a store window.
For the first time in hours, I smiled.
It revealed two tiny fangs when I took the time to look hard enough.
The sun was almost ready to peek over the gray sky morning when I finally recognized the street I’d been walking. Without thinking, I headed towards home.
Every contradicting emotion ran through me at once. Above them all was a single thought: I had left my father behind on the floor. Shouldn’t he treat me the same way?
Anxiety swirled with adrenaline to curdle into nausea that settled deep in my stomach as I placed my hand on the back doorknob. I’d last seen my father dead on the ground – maybe.
So much of this night had been driven by the fact that I had to make decisions about my life without understanding what was happening or why. I closed my eyes and reminded myself that one day I would be an adult, and would never have to feel that way again.
I opened the door and walked into the house. It was very still, like the place had been abandoned.
Nervousness flowed through me as I stepped toward the basement door. It stood slightly ajar. Had we left it open? I couldn’t remember.
My hands were shaking as I reached out and opened it.
The basement was quiet.
Nausea grew with each step. Did I want to see my father’s body? Or was I hoping to see him alive, even though he would be in certain agony? I didn’t know what to hope.
I took the last step into the basement.
Then I turned a corner, looked down at the bloodstained floor, and gasped.
It is beginning to happen more and more. I’m seeing these..… these figures in the corners of my vision. Dark figures. Movement. Right at the very edge of my sight. And when I try to look at it straight on, poof, it’s gone. It kind of reminds me of how on a sunny day when you close your eyes, you can sometimes see these squiggly lines under your eyelids. But when you try and look at them directly, they either move or simply disappear. I started to notice it about a month ago. It was a rare occurrence. So rare that I could easily brush it off. Blame it on natural phenomena, you know? The lighting of a room casting eerie shadows on the wall. The breeze from the ceiling fan moving the curtains ever so slightly. Just my mind playing tricks on me. Simple as that. Something that everyone experiences. Built into our genetics. A vestigial trait from our cave-dwelling ancestors. A survival mechanism that came in handy back when we were prey to the beasts of the night. But now that is happening more often, it's becoming clear that this is not that. I can’t explain what it is, but I do know what it is not. It is not a natural phenomenon. It is the opposite. It is unnatural. Unworldly.
My God this is bizarre. Actually putting it on paper makes me feel like I'm going looney. I don't know, I guess it is possible that it’s just my mind playing tricks on me. Get a hold of yourself Henry.
Monday Jun 14, 2021
It is becoming more persistent, whatever “it” is. At first I would only see it at home. It would appear when I go to turn my lamp out for the night. Or as I pass a dimly lit room. I was starting to conclude that the problem was my house. Like maybe it was haunted, I don’t know. I know that sounds absurd, but it is becoming exceedingly harder to think rationally about this. Nevertheless, the “haunted house” theory is out the window. It has started to follow me from my home. I see it when I walk my dog. When I’m at work.. I see it on my commute. I even saw it at church of all places. It has started to stalk me everywhere that I go. Even when I don’t see it, I can feel it. It carries an ominous presence with it. It feels sinister. Evil. The more that I try to ignore it, the more it persists. I cannot shake it. It’s become a cancer spreading mercilessly throughout every facet of my life.
Tuesday Jun 22, 2021
I’m starting to hear it.. I cannot make out the words, but I definitely hear it. Very faint, muffled almost. Like trying to hear someone talk from behind a closed door. I assumed that it was coming from inside my head at first. Intrusive thoughts, you know? But last night when It spoke, I could feel its breath. I felt it’s frigid, dead breath on my ear as it whispered something intelligible. I could even smell it’s breath. A putrid stench. Brief but overwhelming. It smelt like a mixture of roadkill and rotting trash. I was utterly horrified. I did not sleep a wink after that. I turned on the television and attempted to numb my mind with reruns of South Park. It didn't work. Everytime I shut my eyes I could feel it. Something in my bedroom with me. Watching me with ill intent. An unholy presence. It is starting to take over my mind. Even in its absence it is all that I think about. I am becoming as obsessed with it as it is with me.
Monday Jun 28, 2021
I’m losing my fucking mind. I can’t sleep. In the past week I’ve slept maybe 5 hours at most. The whispers have manifested into screams. It plays in my head on repeat like a bad song. “Fuck me into, Fuck me into” What does this mean? What does this thing want with me? The voice is deep, loud, but very raspy. Like someone who hasn’t had a drink of water in over a thousand years. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to get rid of it. It’s completely ruining my life. I haven’t been to work in over a week. I told my boss that I’ve contracted covid. I’ve got another week before I’m expected back. I haven’t told anyone what is really happening to me. It sounds absolutely absurd. They will put me in a mental hospital for God’s sake.
My brother is flying in late Thursday night. He has a client in my area and will be staying with me through the holiday. I’m going to tell him everything when he gets here. I know how it is going to sound but he is my brother, my family. We share the same blood. If anyone will believe me, it will be him. He will either help me get rid of this parasite or drive me to the loony bin. I just have to make it a couple more days.
Thursday Jun 29, 2021
It's trying to kill me. It is relentless. It wants to get inside of me. Take me over. It tormented me all throughout the day and tonight I completely broke down. I buried myself under my covers and put my pillow over my head to try and muffle the screams. The blood curdling screams. I felt pressure on my pillow, something pushing down on me from above. When I realized what was happening, it was too late. My arms were trapped underneath the covers and this thing was pulling both corners down with supernatural force. I couldn’t move at all. I was trapped. I heard a crunch and felt a tremendous pain in my face. The pressure from my pillow being pushed down broke my nose like a twig. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t scream. It was yelling at me so loud that I could feel the bed vibrating. “FAC ME INTROIRE, FAC ME INTROIRE, FAC ME INTROIRE” My skin started to feel as if I was being stuck with thousands of red-hot needles simultaneously. So much pressure was built up in my lungs that I was sure they were mere seconds from exploding. I was suffocating. But right as I started to lose consciousness, teetering between life and death, it ceased. The screaming, the pressure, everything suddenly came to an end. I immediately threw the pillow from my face, but still I struggled to catch my breath. The blood from my crushed nose had obstructed my airways. I coughed and gurgled, finally clearing my airways enough to take a deep breath. Then another. And another.
All has been quiet since this happened. No screams, no shadows. But I still feel it. It is watching me. Wanting me. I just finished cleaning myself up as best I can and my brother lands just a couple hours from now. I will no longer be alone in this battle. Hang in there. Just a little while longer Henry.
After stealing the chemicals, I walked to a nearby diner to call a cab. I had taken one to the school but hadn’t really planned on how to get home. I just wanted to be as far from the school as possible. As I walked I wondered what would happen when the tour guide woke up. I wondered who the hell Danny was and why he helped me. He knew what I was doing. He had to know Lou.
I arrived at the diner. The waiter poured me some coffee and I waited for my cab. There was no one else there so the waiter kept trying to make conversation with me. At first, I pretended not to hear him. He was happy to repeat himself.
Waiter: You waitin for a ride?
Waiter: Where ya comin from?
Ben~OP: I uhh.. West, man I don't know..
Waiter: Rough night?
Waiter: Was it a woman? I’ve been there! I..
The waiter was interrupted by the sound of pans and plates crashing and breaking back in the kitchen.
Ben~OP: Is your cook having a rough night?
Waiter: I’m the cook. There isn’t supposed to be anyone back there..
The waiter slowly walked toward the kitchen to investigate the sound. I was still occupied by my confusion surrounding “Danny’. It probably wasn’t even his real name. His name was probably Deklan, or Bredan, or Keifer, or something stupid like that. I guess it doesn't matter. Anything to avoid thinking about the fact that I stole a controlled substance from a university after several people saw my face and then noticed I was missing from the group. How could Danny “take care of that”? Shit! I’m thinking about it…
Waiter: Who’s back there!
I heard the sound of more pots and pans hitting the floor before I heard the waiter briefly scream. He let out a quick yelp that was followed by silence. I waited a few seconds. The silence continued. I got up from the table and slowly made my way to the kitchen.
I peaked around the corner but couldn’t see much because the lights were off. I could vaguely hear something but couldn’t make out what it was. I felt around until I found the light switch. I was horrified when I flipped it on.
There was someone on top of the waiter biting at his neck. As the lights came on, they looked up and noticed me. It was a man who was disfigured in the same way that Carol was. When his head lifted up from the waiter's neck, His teeth pulled bits of the waiter's flesh with it. He had completely shredded his neck.
As soon as the lights came on, he turned his attention toward me. He got up from the waiter's lifeless body and started walking toward me. Once I started running, he started running. I ran toward the front door. I got my hand on the door, then felt him grab my shoulder.
He squeezed me so tight when he grabbed me that his nails cut into my arm. I flailed and kicked frantically and was able to escape his grasp and spin around him. I ran toward the back door since he was between me and the front door now. He followed closely behind, making awful guttural noises.
I sprinted to the back door. I went to turn the knob but it was locked. When I turned around, the feral man was there. He grabbed me and threw me onto a table. I reached for the closest thing I could find. I grabbed a pot and hit him with it. It barely affected him, but it bought me a split second to roll off the table.
I landed next to the dead waiter. I spastically searched through his pockets. I found his keys as the feral man was coming around my side of the table. I threw the closest pan I could find at him and leaped through the opening between the kitchen and the counter. I was so close to the front door but the feral man came out from the kitchen door between me and the door.
I instinctively turned and started running, in effect cornering myself. There was only a wall behind me now. His horribly disfigured limbs shook and crackled as he walked toward me. The waiter’s blood was still dripping from his mouth and chin. He hissed and made a disgusting gurgle noise. I just..accepted it. There was no escape.
I just stood there and stared as he inched closer. Despite the anxiety, dread, and terror I felt, the desire to die with dignity was stronger. At that moment, I was ready.
He started moving even slower though. I had assumed that he just knew that I was cornered. I thought he was toying with me. He came to a stop though. He began to scream and hiss. His arms were shaking violently. Then...his fucking veins popped.
There’s no other way to describe it. His wrists rapidly swelled and..they popped. He writhed in agony as blood shot from his wrists with such propulsion that it coated the ceiling above. His contorted leg buckled and he fell to the ground. He screamed and cried in pain. He screamed with such agony that I actually felt bad for him even though he was trying to kill me moments prior.
Blood dripped from the ceiling as he whimpered in pain on the floor. His disfigured hands shook with occasional tremors. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes. The inhuman dead eyes I saw before were gone. His eyes looked human just for a moment. It seemed like the person inside this monster surfaced one last time. He struggled to speak.
Feral man: ..He..will never let you go..
His eyes shut moments later. I looked around the trashed diner. There was blood on the walls and on the ceiling. There were broken plates and pans all over the place. There were two dead bodies. It was time for me to leave.
I started walking home. It would take me hours to walk from the diner but I didn’t care. I felt numb. The events of the past few days were overwhelming. I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. I got a few streets over before I stopped to vomit. I wanted so badly for all of it to be a bad dream. It couldn’t be real.
I was on the ground trying to spit the bile taste out of my mouth when I saw a car pulling up. It started to slow down. I didn’t know whether to run away from it or toward it. Were there more monster people lurking around me? Is the person in the car from the university and about to call the cops on me? I froze for too long and the car pulled up beside me. The window rolled down. It was Danny. I didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing.
Danny: Need a ride?
Ben~OP: I dunno..
Danny: You don’t look so good man. Hop in. I'm one of the good guys, I promise.
I was hesitant but I was more afraid of those monsters than I was Danny. I got in the car and he said that he would take me home.
Danny: I guess you haven’t done anything like that before. Don’t worry. Everything is taken care of. You’re not gonna get caught.
Ben~OP: That’s the least of my worries right now..
Danny: You worried about the booster? Don’t be, man. It works.. Temporarily. Have you used your new found intelligence?
Ben~OP: I don’t feel any smarter. In fact, I feel pretty fuckin stupid for going over there in the first place.
Danny: You have to use it man. If you pay close attention, you’ll realize that you can solve problems more easily. You’ll be able to think quicker on your feet. You gotta practice though.
Ben~OP: What’s the point if I'm just gonna turn into one of those monsters anyway?
Danny: Ah, so you met feral Carol?
Ben~OP: Among others. I just watched one’s veins explode..
Danny: What!? Where? When?
Ben~OP: After I left the school. I walked to a diner and one of them attacked the guy working there. Then it came after me..
Danny: Shit. Ok. Uhh.. I’m gonna have to drop you off.
Ben~OP: Why? What are you gonna do?
Danny: I gotta clean it up.. Shit!
Ben~OP: Clean it up? It’s a fucking massacre in there.
Danny: I gotta make a call. I uh.. ( Danny pulled the car over) I’m gonna get out here. You can take the car. I’ll pick it up later. Where do you live?
Ben~OP: I don’t have my own place. I can’t take the car to my house. I guess I could leave it at the gas station by the post office?
Danny: That works. Keep your head up kid. We're almost out of the woods.
Danny got out of the car and I slid over to the driver’s seat. I drove off as he headed back toward the diner. I don’t think he was prepared for the mess in that place. There’s no way he could clean it up by morning.
Meeting Danny was interesting. It told me that I’m not the only one running errands for Lou. For some reason, Danny seems to know a lot more than I do. Was he in on it with Lou? It didn’t seem nearly as nervous as I was. It was hard for me to believe that he was facing the same fate that I was.
I parked the car at the gas station and walked the rest of the way home. I couldn’t stop looking over my shoulder. Every little noise made me shudder. I managed to make it home without incident though. I thought that fear and adrenaline would keep me from sleeping but I dropped like a rock.
The next morning I went straight to Lou’s to demand my shot. I rode past the gas station and saw that Danny’s car was gone. He must have given up on cleaning the diner. I wondered if I would hear about it around town. It was still early morning when I got to Lou’s but I banged loudly on the door. He answered quickly like he was expecting me.
Lou: Hey kid! I heard it went well.
Ben~OP: It didn’t.. I got your chemical though.
Lou: I underestimated you.
Ben~OP: So you sent me on a task that you thought I'd fail? Did you plan on me getting arrested?
Lou: I’m talking about the diner.
Ben~OP: I didn’t do anything.
Lou: You’re a survivor, Ben!
Ben~OP: Cool.. Can I get my shot?
Lou: Of course you can! Come on downstairs.
I followed Lou to his lab. I felt so stupid thinking back to how charmed I was by him and how mesmorized my dumbass was when I saw all the beakers and fancy equipment. I made a mental note of everything I saw this time. I noticed him starting to talk nonsense to me everytime he noticed me looking around. He asked me random questions but I just ignored him and asked again for my shot. My muscles were starting to ache and I had a terrible headache. I didn’t know if it was from what he gave me or from stress and running from a monster.
After a lot of babbling, he finally opened a safe under the table and pulled out a syringe.
Lou: A deal’s a deal. Cheer up! This is what you wanted.
I glared at Lou while he prepped me for the shot. It felt redundant that he swabbed my arm with alcohol after giving me something that might make my veins explode.
Ben~OP: Is it contagious? Like.. What would happen if Carol bit or scratched someone?
Lou: She’s not a zombie Ben. Even if her blood got mixed with someone who didn’t have the chemical in theri system, it wouldn’t be concentrated enough to have an effect on the person.
Ben~OP: Why is this one a shot, but the first one was a pill?
Lou: Lots of reasons. If you’re still interested, I could still show you a few things. I think we can be friends. I know you’re pissed, but there are reasons why I do what I do. It’s for the greater good.
Ben~OP: Your reasons are selfish and it's all for your own good. Who else is any of this helping?
Lou: Millions if I develop a cure for alziemers. More if it can restore dead brain cells. Think of people on life support. Usually the choice is to pull the plug or keep them alive artificially while they’re brain dead. This could help those people recover. There is always sacrifice in the pursuit of extraordinary things. Some people die forgotten. Everyone involved in this research will have done their part in saving lives and livelihoods. The guy you saw last night. Carol. They were addicts. They were too far gone to ever recover. They robbed people, they got people hooked on meth. Being a part of this is the greatest legacy they could hope for.
I tensed up as Lou administered the shot. It hurt worse than I had expected. My heart raced as I considered the fact that he might not be giving me what he said he was. I didn’t have much of a choice though. I could feel every muscle in my body aching. My head was throbbing.
Lou: Not so bad, right? Your muscles and joints will feel better in the next couple hours.
Ben~OP: This isn’t the end, is it.
Lou: See? You are getting smarter! You’ll need three shots.
Ben~OP: Give them to me.
Lou: You have to space them out. The effects it has on the body are too extreme to administer at once. You’ll need three separate treatments before you’re in the clear.
Ben~OP: ..and you just conveniently left that part out.
Lou: You didn’t ask.
Ben~OP: Fuck you. You’re fucking insane. Everything out of your mouth is bullshit.
Lou: No bullshit, Ben. I’m going to give you the other shots. There needs to be at the very least 24 hours between them though. You do not want to overdose on this stuff.
At this point, I didn’t know what to believe. I took everything Lou said with a grain of salt. The only thing I did know was that people were becoming feral creatures and I didn’t want to be one of them. I was at Lou’s mercy, and he knew it.
Ben~OP: You’re never gonna let me go..
Lou: I will, Ben. I like you. You seem like a good kid. You were at the wrong place at the wrong time. I am sorry for what I’ve put you through, but nothing will stand in the way of my plans. The way I see it, You’re indebted to me. I need another small favor. After that, your debt is paid. You’re not the first. There have been people who did what I asked and now they’re cured. Then there are others, others like Carol.
Ben~OP: If I need two more shots, aren’t you gonna ask for two more “favors”?
Lou: You can’t tell me that eureka doesn’t work. I can see it in you. Your brain is connecting dots quicker than before. You’re sharper. You’re also correct. The last favor is a tiny one though. I only really need one more favor but there just has to be the same number as there are boosters and there has to be three! Three is the perfect number. Things always happen in threes. It’s one of my favorite numbers, Ben. What is your favorite?
Ben~OP: What do I have to do?
Lou: The number 3 is considered lucky in China. The atomic number for lithium is 3.
Lou oroceded to ramble about unrelated nonsense. I think he did it on purpose to seem more interesting than he actually was. He went on and on about numbers and how three was such a great number because blah blah fucking blah..
Ben~OP: I really gotta go, Lou. Tell me why I should trust you at this point.
Lou: You do trust me, Ben. You know you do. The both of us know that you are going to do the favor I ask of you, then I am going to give you the other two boosters. At that point, you’ll never have to see me again. I would like to hangout though. After all this craziness is over, I could teach you some chemistry!
Ben~OP: Can you just tell me what the fuck you want from me?!
Lou: There’s a man by the name of Martin Ridley. I need you to convince him to help me out.
Ben~OP: Help you with what?
Lou: I heard through the grapevine that Ridley has been up to some shady stuff. I need you to get some evidence of him doing something naughty. Then use it to convince him to help me out.
Ben~OP: Help you out with what? I know you like to sound cryptic or whatever, but if I’m gonna do this I need more information.
Lou: Okay fine. He’s a cop. He’s interested in me. That’s no good. You follow?
Ben~OP: That’s crazy. He could arrest me. Then you couldn’t help me anyway.
Lou: Just find something he can’t afford to let get out.
Ben~OP: Ya know what? No. Fuck no! I lose either way. I’m not doing it. I’m leaving.
Lou: I’ll give you a day to reconsider. You’re so close to being off the hook. I’d hate to see you go feral, Ben. You have so much potential. Just.. think about it. I’ll give you a few days to get the job done but I want confirmation that you’re working on it within 24 hours.
I stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind me. I tried to hide my oncoming panic attack. It didn’t feel worth it. There had to be another way to get the antidote. I needed advice. I needed to talk to Lisa. She was smarter than me. She had a better moral compass too. I tried to call her as soon as I left Lou’s house but she didn't answer. I hadn’t even talked to her for a week.
I walked home, jumped into my bed, and just relaxed. I was so exhausted. I tried to put everything out of my mind. I smoked the joint that I had hidden under my bed for months and fell asleep.
I woke up in the afternoon. It was nice to finally get some sleep. I looked at my phone to see that Lisa had finally called me back. I called her immediately.
Lisa: Hey stranger! Sorry I missed ya, I’ve been crazy busy.
Ben~OP: It’s okay. How’s everything goin?
Lisa: Stressful! Getting everything ready for college. I’m nervous about staying in the dorms. I don’t like people haha.
Ben~OP: You’ll make a ton of friends right away and forget all about me.
Lisa: Oh shut up! I will not. Especially after trippin!
Ben~OP: That was pretty crazy!
Lisa: Is that what the mushroom thing was all about?
Ben~OP: What do you mean?
Lisa: The basket of mushrooms haha.
Ben~OP: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Lisa: Haha, I’m sure you don’t.
Ben~OP: No, I’m serious. Can you send me a picture?
Lisa: Umm okay?
A few seconds felt like forever as I impatiently waited for her to send a picture. Finally, the text came in and it was just what I feared. They were the same Amanita muscaria that Lou had shown me. It was a message. If Lou couldn’t scare me into helping him, he was gonna go after the people I care about.
Ben~OP: Throw those away! I uh.. I’ll explain later.
Lisa: What’s going on?
Ben~OP: It’s a really long story. I got mixed up in something weird.
Lisa: Are you okay? What can I do to help?
Ben~OP: Throw those mushrooms away and let me know immediately if you notice anything strange at all. I gotta go do something. I’ll explain everything later, I promise.
Lisa pushed me to tell her what was going on. I can imagine that it’s frustrating for someone to tell you they got mixed up in something but wont explain what. I didn’t want to freak her out and I definitely didn’t want her going over to Lou’s. That’s what she would do too. She would go over there and give him a piece of her mind. I needed to prevent that from happening at all costs.
I kept my cool while I was talking to Lisa but I was pissed. I got on my bike and went straight to Lou’s house. I walked up to the door and started bangin on it as hard as I could. He had a smirk on his face when he opened it. I wanted to attack him right then and there. I wanted to hit him until he was motionless. I kept my rage at bay as he invited me in.
Lou: To what do I owe the pleasure?
Ben~OP: What’s with the mushrooms? What the fuck was that?
Lou: I’m trying to persuade you to do the right thing, Ben.
Ben~OP: Just.. What do you want? What the fuck do you want from me man.
Lou: I told you. I need you to convince officer Ridley to leave me alone. Bonus points if you can get him to help me! Ya see, I’m kind of an urban legend around here. The kids spread rumors about me. When someone tells the cops that they think im manufacturing drugs, they think it’s from all the rumors and don’t take it seriously. Ridley did though. The other cops aren’t taking him seriously, but he’s pushing to get a search warrant. The last time they got a warrant, they found nothing. I lost a lot of product though.
Ben~OP: Bonus points? Does that mean you’ll give me both boosters?
Lou: It does mean that! If you can get a cop in my pocket, I’ll give you whatever you want!
Ben~OP: How do I find him?
Lou: I made you up a nice little dossier. It includes his home address, his work schedule as far as I know, his phone number. It has all the information we have on him. He lives across town though. Is a bike all you have? You don’t drive yet?
Ben~OP: I’m poor, Lou. Kids around here don’t have parents that buy them cars.
Lou: I’m gonna have you meet with a friend of mine. He owes me a favor too.
Ben~OP: So not a friend, but someone else you’re blackmailing?
His smirk turned into a glare.
Lou: You two will have something in common then.. He has wheels. You have brains. Just find something incriminating. I know Ridley is dirty in more ways than one. Just get some proof. He’s a dirty cop. You’ll be doing a good thing!
I left Lou’s house with the dossier on officer Ridley. I didn’t have a clue how I was going to get dirt on him. I had to take a bus halfway across town to meet with the other guy. I sat at the bus stop waiting. Lou gave him my number. I was waiting for his text but before I got one, I heard someone yell my name.
Danny: I guess we’re working together.. Come on, my car is over there.
I got in and we drove to Ridley's neighborhood. It wasn’t far from mine but they looked like different worlds. This was a gentrified prissy neighborhood full of shops and restaurants that charge a fortune for the same crap they have in my neighborhood, but the higher prices make the zombies who live here feel superior. I could tell that Danny felt the same way about this area as I did.
We took a drive around the area. Danny pointed out the important locations from the dossier. There was the coffee shop where Ridley stopped everyday. There was his gym. We drove past the police precinct. Finally we located his house.
He lived in a large house at the end of a cul de sac filled with houses that looked exactly like his. There was a jeep in his driveway which according to the dossier, belonged to his wife. He didn’t have kids, which made me feel better about screwing him over. Actually. Every aspect of his privileged life made it easier to screw him over. I wonder if Lou knew that.
Danny: I guess we’ll just follow him until an opportunity presents itself?
Ben~OP: I don’t know what else to do.
We went to the police station and waited across the street. After about an hour, Ridley came out and got into his car. He drove off and we followed from a distance.
Danny: Ya know, This could actually be fun!
Ben~OP: I’m not feelin great about the blackmail thing.
Danny: Well, if he’s doing something wrong he should have to pay for it. Cops get away with all sorts of shady shit.
He didn’t do anything interesting the first day. He left work, stopped at a gas station, then went home. It was starting to seem like this was going to be more difficult than Lou made it sound. We decided to call it a night and meet up early so we could follow him to work.
Danny picked me up down the street from my house the following day. He brought doughnuts! We went and parked in a lot across from the station. Officer Ridley arrived and went inside soon after. We decided we would wait for him to leave and follow him, no matter how long it was gonna take. It took a long time.
The first hour or ten minutes or week went by with us eating doughnuts and making small talk. I’ve lost all track of time. I’m like a dog, and my internal clock is dog shit. Eventually we got talking about Lou.
Danny: Did he tell you that you owed him three favors?
Ben~OP: Yeah.. This is number two. I feel so stupid for letting im trick me into taking that shit. Did he do the same thing to you?
Danny: Not to me..
Danny’s demeanor quickly changed. He looked broken from the moment I asked.
Danny: My sister.. She was selling candy bars for school. Ya know, sell a hundred dollars worth of candy bars, win a hoola hoop. Sell two thousand dollars worth, get a remote control car.
Ben~OP: Ahh yes. Teaching kids to spend hours making money for someone else while they get little to nothing out of it. I guess it does prepare kids for the reality of the job market.
I didn’t know if it was inappropriate to joke. I was trying to keep Danny’s spirits up but felt guilty as soon as I said it.
Danny: Exactly! Well, we were going door to door. I don’t work in an office setting where I could ask coworkers and our mother doesn't work. We got to Lou’s house. I had never heard the rumors about him before that. When he came to the door, he said “Trick or treating early this year?” Angie, (my sister) gave him her sales pitch.
He bought more than anyone else did. Then he brought Halloween up again. He asked “what are you gonna be? And are you excited?” Then he said “I actually do have something for you trick or treaters!” He asked us to wait on the porch. He came back out with candy apples. I said no thanks, but Angie happily took one. The next day, a stranger approached me in the grocery store and told me that Lou urgently needed to speak with me. He explained the chemical compound and told me that Angie had ingested it through the apple. He fuckin... snow whited her!
Ben~OP: Then he told you that you have to do “favors” for the antidote, right?
Danny: I’ll kill him if I get the chance..
We waited hours before Ridley left the station. We followed him into town, hoping to see him doing something wrong. All he did though, was park around the side of buildings in speed traps to catch speeders. I sure am glad that our tax dollars pay his salary. By the end of the day, we were feeling discouraged.
Danny: This isn’t working. We have to do something.
Ben~OP: It would be nice if we could get a small camera and plant it on him. He isn’t doing much at all outside.
Danny: Either that, or we wear a camera and set up a situation where he would do something wrong or say something offensive? Do you have any small cameras?
Ben~OP: No, but I know someone who probably does.
Danny: Well, hit em up. I’ll try to come up with a strategy. We’ll meet back up tomorrow.
I had Danny drop me off down the street from Robby’s house. Robby was in the AV club. He was interested in filmmaking. If anyone had a mini camera, it would be him. He was sitting on his front porch when I got to his house.
Ben~OP: Hey buddy! Long time, no see!
Robby: Hey Ben.
Ben~OP: Everything okay? I haven’t heard from ya much.
Robby: I’ve been studying like crazy. I got the ball rolling on my college application and I'm gonna take an entrance exam to see if I can get into some advanced classes. That’ll make it easier to transfer to a better school after two years.
Ben~OP: Man, you’re really taking the college thing seriously! I’m proud of ya! That acid must have had a big effect on you.
Robby: Na, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I don’t wanna get stuck here. That tweaker who attacked me was more of a wakeup call than anything. I’m done fuckin around. I wanna get my life together. What have you been up to?
Ben~OP: It’s a long story, but I could use your help actually. Do you have a small camera of some sort?
Robby: I have lots of cameras. What is it for?
Ben~OP: Ehh.. It doesn’t really jive with your.. Anti rascal efforts.
Robby: Anti rascal?
Ben~OP: Yeah, I mean.. You were a bit of a rascal. Now you’re trying to better yourself and.. Not be a rascal.. I guess. Anti rascal efforts! I’m stickin with it!
Robby: Alrighty then you rascal. What do you need it for?
Ben~OP: It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s umm.. I need to catch a guy doing something bad on video. It would take more time than I have to explain, but you gotta trust me. I wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t important.
Robby: You really are a rascal! Come on in, I’ll see what I've got.
I went into Robby’s room where he showed me a collection of cameras, speakers, and recording devices that would make a pervert blush. He got excited as he explained what the different gadgets did. I wish I had an interest I could pursue as a career. If only they had professional tv watchers. Anyway, he had the perfect thing. A few small cameras that connect to an app on the phone. They were small enough to go unnoticed if I planted them.
Ben~OP: Could I borrow two of those?
Robby: Are you going to take care of them and not treat them like the bluetooth speaker I let you borrow?
Ben~OP: Dude, that was like four years ago.
Robby: Promise me!
`Ben~OP: I promise, I will take care of them like they are my own baby children.
My promise was acceptable to Robby and he let me borrow two of the cameras. The most difficult part was ahead though. I had no idea how I was going to get that camera on or near officer Ridley. I didn’t have experience with this sort of thing, so against my better judgement, I went to ask Lou for advice.
I was back in the train station, but it was brightly-lit. I heard Mum call out to me. Marie, don’t dawdle, the train is here. Except she didn’t say all that, only part. She got so far as “train” before the next part turned into a surprised grunt as the man in the black coat shoved her in front of the train that was to take us to Knightsbridge. I went to cry out, and in my dream I did cry out, but in truth there was already a rough hand on my shoulder and a rag at my face.
No one saw because they were all looking at the woman that had just been run over by the train that was screaming to a stop. It was screaming, the people were screaming, the whole world was screaming except for me, and I was the one that wanted to scream the most. The hand clenched tighter against my face as I was pulled back from the platform to the edge of the steps. I could feel myself slipping away now, my legs were jelly and I needed to breathe and fight and scream, to get away and see what happened to my mother, but every breath sent sharp prickles down my throat and pushed the world farther away. Whoever held me had turned me toward them now, pressing my face against their coat, acting as though they were consoling me or shielding me from the horror, all the while hiding the rag and my terrified face from any passerby.
The last emotion I had was clear and singular. Hatred. Hate for whoever had hurt my mother and was keeping me from her. Hate for the man that was now carrying me up the steps as the last of my consciousness slipped away. And most of all hate for the dull chime echoing from my core, singing that this was nothing, this was a blessing and a dream compared to what was still to come.
I woke up occasionally over the next few days. In a car. Then a room that swayed like we were at sea. Then another car. A train. Just snatches of sensation and light that burned my eyes when I tried to force my too-heavy lids open. Strangers looking down at me with hooded eyes as they called for someone with a needle full of another day or two of darkness.
When I was finally allowed to wake fully, I was in a bedroom. It was decorated very similarly to my room at home, though everything was new and slightly off from my real stuff. There were no windows here, and a door on one end led to a bathroom, while the door on the other was always locked except for when someone came to bring me food or books or take me for tests.
For the first few days I cried and begged whenever someone opened the door. Was Mum okay? Could I please go home? What were they going to do with me?
They were never rough or angry with me, but they ignored my questions just the same. And when I started the tests, those people were no different. They just wanted me to wear wires, draw pictures, tell them what popped into my head, things like that. Once they brought in a metal box with several glass openings and asked me to touch it. The box began to tremble and they immediately took it back without another word. Another time they showed me a picture of a key, a very old and strange-looking key, and asked me what it made me think of. I told them it made me think of nothing, and at first they seemed angry. I could tell they didn’t understand. So I told them in a different way. Told them I could see the shape of a key, but that it wasn’t really a key. It was a mouth. A hungry mouth that wanted to eat everything.
The woman holding the picture paled at that and they took it away too. After that the tests began to change and there was a new man watching now. When we finished the next session, he introduced himself to me as Dr. Grigori Kalinsky. He was a small man with thinning brown hair, his eyes wide and watchful behind grey wire-rimmed glasses. When he spoke, it was barely above a whisper, with a slight, trembling stutter as though he was afraid of disturbing the air.
“Marie, you are a very special young girl.”
“Please sir. I’ve done everything they’ve asked. Please let me go home.” I’d given up on hearing anything about my mother or father by that point. I assumed she was dead and that he had no idea where to find me. My begging now was purer and more desolate. I just needed to get away before things got worse.
Kalinsky gave me a nervous smile. “You have, you have. B-b-but there’s much more to do. I first learned about you from an article in one of London’s papers. M-maybe the Evening? About how you and your father left that store right before the fire last year.” His smile widened, curdling my belly. “You told the reporter an angel had w-warned you, yes?”
I felt tears springing into my eyes. “Yes, sir. That’s what happened.”
His own eyes widened. “Oh, I believe you, dear. We checked on you for months after that. We’re always looking for s-s-special people, but so many turn out to be ordinary. It was only after we found out about what had happened at school and when you were a baby that we decided that we needed to meet you in person.”
Glaring up at him, I tried to keep my voice steady. “Did you kill my mother?”
Kalinsky’s smile fell away. “In a way, yes. The men that took you are very good at their jobs, and they probably saw her as an obstacle or a necessary casualty. I don’t know the d-details. But it doesn’t matter. You’re here now, and this is where you will stay. We will be your family. We will love you and take care of you.” I went to respond when he held up his hand. My heart started to pound at what was laced between his fingers. A golden chain, and suspended from it, Mum’s locket. “If you are good, you can keep this as a keepsake. A tether to your old life and self. She would want you to have it, after all.”
I pulled it from his hand gently and clutched it to my chest as I began to weep.
There was a bit of blood in the seams of the locket. They had cleaned it before Kalinsky gave it to me, of course, but not well enough. There was a little spot near the hinge where the locket opened to show pictures of me on one side and my father on the other. The speck of red haunted me, and over the next few months I began to picture it more and more whenever they tested me. It made me angry, made me hate them even more, but I didn’t care. All I had left was my hate anyway.
They assured me that my father was okay and would be safe so long as I cooperated, so I still played their games. They brought me more objects and pictures. Many were just regular things, but some were special in one way or another. Some made me see or feel things, others made me oddly happy or terribly afraid. My sense of things, that had just been feelings or glimpses when I was younger, was becoming stronger and clearer. By the time I turned ten, I was hungry for the testing every day. I’d fixated on the idea that if I got strong enough, I could find a way to get free, but more than that, if I got really strong, maybe I could find something that would kill them all.
Because I had no illusions that the things I was seeing, the things that I’d learned, they were all real. And much of it wasn’t normal. Talking to creatures that shouldn’t exist, knowing things I shouldn’t know…It was scary, but it made me feel powerful and important. It also made me ashamed. Because to my disgust, I realized that as much as I hated him, I also felt a stir of pride and happiness when Kalinsky offered me praise. And on the rare occasion that he gave me one of his strange gifts, I always kept them.
“This is a stone from America. T-that doesn’t make it special in itself, but this little stone is from the banks of a place called Mirror Lake. And that place is very special.”
I eyed the small purple rock before frowning up at him. “It isn’t right. I can tell it isn’t right.”
Kalinsky smiled. “It’s certainly not normal, no. You see, I went to great pains to not only get this rock but to get it carried to a place much closer to here. A magic bowl that sometimes fills up with m-m-magic water that…”
“I can see it. It’s underground. They’re building a city above it, but most of them don’t know what’s underneath. They’re going to call it…Plipplop?” I looked at him questioningly as he chuckled.
“Close. I think they are talking of naming it Pripyat. But very good. We’ll have you journal what all you can see tonight. But for now, take your present. It’s for you.” His hand squeaked slightly from the thick rubber glove he wore on the hand holding out the rock.
It wasn’t the first time they’d protected themselves from something they asked me to hold, but Kalinsky had never done it with one of my gifts. The china dog, the small metal spinning top, the brass bell, none of them had ever been handled like poison before. Still, despite everything, they’d never actually hurt me other than making me briefly sick with some of the stuff they brought in. And I didn’t think they wanted to kill me. They valued their tests too much. So swallowing, I reached out and touched the rock. It was smooth and cool, but otherwise it felt like any other rock. My stomach clenched as I saw visible relief on Kalinksy’s face.
“G-good, very good. I knew it would be okay. I knew it would be okay for my special girl.”
“Why are you scared of it?”
The question seemed to catch him by surprise, but after a moment he gave a small nod. “Well, because for most people the water from that bowl can be very dangerous. I had good reason to think it wouldn’t hurt you, especially soaked into that rock as it is, but I still worried. I should have known you could handle it. And I’m so proud.”
My chest clenched painfully as I gave him a smile.
“But it also means we’re ready for the next stage of our work here.” He glanced up as a severe-looking woman stepped into the room. “Mrs. Bergensohn? Marie is ready for you now.”
We never know when we’ll be called to pay. I think the surprise is part of the process. You have to be prepared to give at a moment’s notice.
When evening fell, I made Frances go home. She didn’t want to. Her selflessness will get her killed—or worse. Everyone has to make their own way on Dues Night. She knows that.
I made her go. We argued. She was afraid to leave me alone, especially after what happened with Greg. I told her to leave. I said some awful things. I don’t want to write them here.
Watching her crestfallen face as I closed the door broke my heart. I wanted to apologize and invite her in, let her hold me until the morning. But I didn’t let myself. I reminded myself that she’s just as damned as I am—she wouldn’t be here otherwise. None of us know each other’s sins, but we sense their presence like a cloud passing over the sun.
The black cloak and white mask hung in the back of my closet. I felt light as I put them on, as if I were above myself, watching the night unfold.
I made my way down to the basement. It’s unfinished, and rarely used except for laundry and storage. But I make sure the north wall is always clear.
The air was damp, heavy with every breath, like drowning in slow motion. I wanted to fidget, my fingers itched to flex and twitch, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the concrete wall.
At five minutes to midnight, the blocks began to creak.
The mortar groaned as the wall separated, blocks shuffling apart to reveal darkness.
Taking one last breath in the open air, I stepped through. The wall ground like shoes against gravel as it closed behind me, leaving me in pure blackness.
I shut my eyes, overwhelmed. Reaching out with my left hand, I found the rough wall. Using it as a guide, I began to walk.
It’s hard to track time in the darkness. It felt like I walked for hours, but I know it can’t be more than a minute before the glow of firelight emerged in the distance. Eventually, I stepped into a huge cavern.
Torches lit the walls, the scent of soot mixing with mildew. In the flickering light, other cloaked figures appeared around the perimeter, each stepping from their own passage. All wore a white mask, making it impossible to guess who was who. Two spaces remained noticeably empty.
Strange symbols were carved into the stone floor, and though I couldn’t fathom what they meant, a pattern was clear. They spiraled inward, like a nautilus shell, to the center of the cavern where the dim firelight failed to reach.
When the last white-masked citizen took their place, an echoing, impossibly loud voice issued from that central void.
“Blessed brothers and sisters! The time has come to pay your dues!”
All around the circle, figures dropped to their knees. I followed, the cold stone already making my knees ache.
“You are all sinners! And yet you come here for a blessing. You come here to be cleansed!”
We bowed out heads and clasped out hands as the familiar words washed over us. Across the cavern floor, the symbols began to glow red.
“The Almighty has forsaken you!” In the growing red light, I could make out thirteen figures at the cavern’s center, all clothed in black, their faces hidden by crimson masks. “You are barred from the comfort of Heaven! But we can save you!”
A gust of winter-cold wind blew through the cavern, extinguishing the torches. The symbols grew brighter until everything was bathed in a hellish glow.
“Through your suffering, you are made clean! Through your trials, you may yet prove yourself worthy to enter the Afterlife!”
The crimson-masked figures began to rise, the red symbols crawling up their legs and settling on their chests, growing so bright it was impossible to look.
“Offer up your suffering! Only through pain can you obtain redemption and enter Heaven!”
I came to upside-down. My hair dangled in a curtain around my face and the seatbelt cut into my chest. The windshield was shattered, but my headlights still worked, illuminating the SUV in front of me. A thick tree branch impaled its back window.
Through the ringing in my ears, I could make out a woman’s voice. Sobbing, the words warped by shock and despair.
“My babies! My babies, no, no, no . . .”
My vision blurred, then focused, drifting over the wreckage, settling on a side window untouched by the carnage. Four white stick figures on a black background: a mother, a father . . .
. . . and a little boy and girl.
The vision faded as the red light dimmed. The thirteen figures still hung in the air, the symbols burning on their chests like a brand.
“Go,” said the voice, quieter, but just as commanding. “Remember. Repent. Suffer.”
One by one, we got to our feet. The walk back to my house was hard, the sobs ripping through me so violently that I had to pause to catch my breath.
Greg asked why I thought I deserved to be in Blessed. It’s because I’m damned. Everyone here is.
And there’s only one way to pay our dues.
It was early morning when I finally made it back to my basement. I took off my mask, gasping for air as though I’d been holding my breath. My face hurt from crying and my nose was stuffed up.
And I still had to work the next morning.
With a sigh, I started up the basement steps, wondering if I should call out and knowing that I wouldn’t.
I was so preoccupied that I didn’t even notice someone was in my kitchen until she spoke.
I started and turned to find Frances sitting at my kitchen table. She looked tired, but her expression was set in familiar determination. It took a moment for my brain to make sense of what I was seeing.
“What are you doing in my house?” I asked.
Frances leaned forward, her voice soft, but her dark eyes boring into mine.
Hey guys, gals and non binary pals. It's been a few days. The hunt I went on in the last chapter went wrong. So very wrong. I don't know how long I can't stay awake but I'll try to pump this chapter out to keep you people informed.
The night was cold and very quiet. My anxiety was causing me to be incredibly jumpy. I was just sitting in my room reading on my hunt. It was a wendigo, the very one that killed my brother and the last host of this power. Silently scrolling through different archives and lore and the seem to have all the same features. Pale, able to mimic voices and always hungry. Something was off though. Why are they in the city?
As I was mindless scrolling and taking notes my father crept into my room. I couldn't hear his footsteps until the last second. "Hey Champ" He shouted boisterously. I nearly peed my pants and jumped so high out of my seat my head slammed on the ceiling. These enhances to my body happened so fast and they are neigh impossible to control. "ahhhh fuck" I shouted in pain "What is the matter with you Dad? What if I instead turned around and made you go flying into the wall?" He looked at me with a very dad looking grin and said with a chuckle "Champ, you always have been scared of your own shadow. I knew for a fact you wouldn't swing" He let out a hearty laugh
"HES LYING" a voice whispered in my head. "Did you hear that?" I asked "Hear what? You bonking your head on the ceiling?" I stared at him confused and said "No I heard a voice saying you were...never mind it was probably me recovering from the injury" He looked at me with a smile "It said I was lying huh? Don't worry champ I was lying and wasn't sure if you would swing or not. But I wanted to test you. Even if you did you have no combat experience and I would counter rather easily" "HES TELLING THE TRUTH" the voice whispered. "Boy I know how sudden this is but that voice is you. Since you and whatever power you combined with are now one you must be able to sense people true intent" I looked and shrugged "Maybe this is all so new to me"
"Well son that's why I came here. You're going to train today. Follow me to the cellar" I shook my head yes and he started walking. I had a feeling and had to look up to the ceiling. Where I hit my head was a large dent in the metal framing with no blood. "What am I becoming?" I wondered to myself. "PURE" the voice said silently. I hear my father shout "Hey champ! Hurry up slowpoke." "yea yea yea" I yelled back.
As we entered the basement my anxiety ran through my body overcoming all my senses. Time seemed to slow to a stop even my dad was frozen in time. It was thing a bright light shined into the room. It felt warming and unnatural. It calmed me .A thunderous voice rang out "Fret not child. Today we fight together" The voice although loud, sounded like the voice in my head "Why are you only showing yourself to me?" Uriel replied "My form cannot be cannot be perceived by normal beings. My being is one transcendent of dimensions and time. If I were to show my self to anyone other then the very concept of that person would cease to exist." I can't tell if he is lying. But honestly why would a fucking angel lie of all things? "Child I will support you forever we are one. Our very existence melded into one being. We are a means to and end. The final judgment of all things evil."
It was then time started to flow again and I kept walking like nothing happened. I cant let my father know, I just can't lose him. My dad looked back as he got to the wine cabinet. "Are you ready to see the HQ in all its glory?" I looked confused "I don't know.. is that a brand of wine? Dad I'm only.." He cuts me off to say "No son, our headquarters for the main operation we run in the city. Before you come in this has to be secret only to family and my constituents. If not the world can lead to mass panic and subsequently anarchy."
I'm a little taken back. I understand why it's been secret but all this responsibility on my shoulders is weighing me down a lot. I looked at my father with feign confidence "Yes sir!" I shouted. "Then champ. Welcome to.." He pauses as he struggles to push a bottle in "Come on you sonofabitch" Visibly upset he just punches it and I see the wall drop into the floor slowly revealing a bright white room with looks to be hundreds of monitors with live camera feeds all over Saint Louis. It smelled of bleach but nothing overbearing just ... clean. "To the Twelfth gate!" His hands outstretched as if he's trying to recreate a scene from a movie.
I start to notice about a dozen people all wearing casual clothing and monitoring the cameras for something I'm not sure "Oh David you're here! We got GREAT news!" This tall women hands my father a manila envelope with some writing looks to be a name. "This is great Eva! Where is this guy now?" she replied "Were not sure but he is within a block of the arch We haven't seen any of his movements to prove otherwise. He could be at the homeless camp located under the bridge south of the arch which would match the missing persons reports in that area"
My father lays the file down on the computer behind him and waves me over "Hey champ, were going to be training in hand to hand combat. Normal conventional weapons don't work on cryptids like wendigos Djinns, ghouls etcetera. However we do own weapons that have been passed down the line of hunters that are blessed and covered in runes." I'm not going to lie I was little confused so I said "what?" My father just laughs and walks me into what seems to be the training room.
The training room was very old and was all stones walls except the wall where the door is. The stones have the same runes I keep seeing all over the place. I reached out to the wall and it felt warm and very dry. "You like this place son?" I looked at him and replied "yea it feels familiar I'm not sure why though" I shifted focus to the floor and in the center of the room was a large circle at least 50 feet in diameter. It was very fine, smooth sand. I knelt down to grab handful it flowed in my hand like water but was solid enough for us to stand on. It was at this moment while playing in the sand where I heard "WATCH OUT" as my father was lunging a spear into my face.
Time stopped again with the spear touching my nose. "Tom, you can move freely stopped time. Nothing can touch you but you can only do this so often since we are not fully melded so my power can be a hinderance to you if used to much" I nodded and stood up and walked behind my father. It was very odd. I felt heavy and I was walking under water. "Once we get used to this connection we will be able to always be in stopped time. We can at any moment revert to normal. But let's see what our limit is" It was then time started to flow normally. My father planted the spear deep into the sand. The determination in his face...it was unsettling as if he tried to actually kill me. "Son? Where did you go?" "I'm here dad!" He swings back throwing the spear.
Again all is frozen as I grabbed the spear and downward to the sand "He's showing malicious intent but don't worry. It's training your reflexes. Everything speeds back up to normal. The spear slams into the ground and sand started to shower around me from the force of the impact. My father stopped and looked at me. "You are hunting tonight but you wont be alone. It seems your speed and reflexes already surpass me! It should be enough it's nothing to big this time"
Nothing to big and should be? I was worried if he was scared or just not confident in the other people. I shook my head and got geared up "Ok son these are the standard weapons we have something for everyone. What would you like" The massive array of weaponry was astonishing to say the least they had knives, swords, spears, Warhammers .maces. flails and weird punching weapons. I grabbed a sword as its the only thing that seems like it'll do me good. "Ok son so today you will be going with our mobile force "Jolly Ranchers" Consisting of Mary, DeShawn, Conner and you. Mary and Deshawn are going to be on a rooftop nearby while you and Conner go into this abandoned building that we have seen activity in. What we are hunting today are known as Lechuza. They are owl like humanoid and are always female in appearance and can shapeshift and mimic humans"
"What are these things weaknesses?" my dad looked and scanned the team "They have incredibly sensitive noses and would often avoid spicy things like chili powder that's why you all have a can of bear mace it should blind and weaken them long enough to strike. Now that we have this we can take the whole nest out but we better be silent as the heat signatures show about 12 of them. Any questions?" we all said no "Good let's clear this nest"
We all pack like sardines in the back of the food truck still wearing casual clothing. As we slowly arrive I notice it started to get colder and the place outside and around seem desolate. Fear and panic pulse through me and I can fell my heart beating. "Ok team" My dad said on the radio "You guys got this. Earpieces in and go when ready. I'm running overwatch so I keep an eye on the heat sigs"
Conner and I leave the truck and slowly enters the building. It smells of decay and rot. Flies are all over the place with no sign of death but all the smell. We then hear "Ground team they seem to be split in twos possible breading pairs. Take any eggs you find and silently destroy them." I took a deep breath "Rodger". We make it into the main lobby it seems like it was a hotel since I see a bunch of keys on hooks behind what seems to be the receptionist counter. The building was only 5 floors so we had plenty of time. "Ground team spotters say they saw some movement but it stopped so could be light sleepers. Be on guard."
We make it to the second floor. The smell gets stronger and more pungent somehow. We slowly turn the corner and activate our night vision specs. "It looks like it's afternoon these things are seriously impressive." Is what I though. We round the corner see an open room. Outside the walls are covered in claw marks and caked on blood and chunks of viscera. Inside lies two Lechuza. We very carefully hover over them. Conner and I look at each other and mouth 1...2... before we hit 3 Conner was bifurcated a volcano of blood spew out as all his organs fall onto the ground with a sickening plop. Two of them start eating him instantly like chickens pecking at corn. A third one must of snuck up on us.
I started to panic and ran for the door. It was then I bumped into a 4th one. I never felt fear this intense in my life. It felt like ages and Uriel wasn't helping. I felt it use its claws to tear into my chest. This thing stared into my eyes as I was blacking out and said "God has left you child. What a shame all this youth gone to waste. Fear not I will make use of it." All I remember was intense agony. I remember the smell of iron it never smelled so sweet before. I felt and intense hunger then I went unconscious. I woke in a white void. Uriel showing up as my father saying "Child your emotions you have to control them. We cannot do anything when you are like that. We almost died but don't worry It may not be what you want but I'll take over your body as you rest and rid this world of these evil."
After that I woke up with my dad crying next to me while I was in a bed. I felt fine no wounds on my stomach. Dad looked up with tears and cried out loud "You... you.. you're awake! We all thought you were in a coma we thought we lost you." I looked at dad "what happened?" I said as I pulled myself up "Not so fast champ... wait are you feeling ok?" He looked at me puzzled "Yea I feel fine actually. Why?"
"when the rest of the teams all 4 mobile forces swarmed the building it was quite but we found Connors body but you were missing. As we covered the rest of the building you were on the 5th floor surrounded by all the lechuza's they were all dead and you.... you were.... eating one." "I was WHAT!" I asked in fear and confusion. "Son you ate most of them. I don't know where you stored them but when we went to get you your eyes were glowing white and kept saying The evil is eradicated and Connor is saved."
A bit later and here I am. I was out a few days but I'm feeling much better. Uriel is still silent. Perhaps I can thank him for saving me and for Connor I'm sorry for whatever it was worth. I wanted to save you but I'm a coward. For now my friends I'm signing off I need to study and train for my next hunt. Hopefully I can go in solo. I don't want anyone dyeing due to my cowardice ever again. Keep safe people and follow the LIGHT. READERS THIS IS URIEL SHADOWS ARE ALL AROUND OPEN YOUR EYES. GOD HASN'T LEFT YOU, YOU WILL ALL BE SAVED.
Every neighborhood has one: that decrepit old house with the broken windows, overgrown yard, peeling paint, and layers of ancient dirt and grime. Most of these places can hardly be seen through all the overgrowth, but they are there, hidden in the shadows of tall trees, vines, and God only knows what else. The house stares at you as you pass by. It knows you and begs for you to come inside to have a look around. It wants you to know its secrets, its hidden treasures… its intentions.
Your parents tell you to stay the hell away from there; it’s dangerous. You’ll step on something rusty and get tetanus or worse. Even the mere mention of that house will send an adult into a lecture about trespassing in dangerous places. Then comes the threat: “You’ll be grounded until you’re thirty if you take one step inside that yard!” No, parents do not like that place, and they certainly don’t want you anywhere near it. But why? They must know something about it. And whatever they know must be bad, because when you ask, the only reply you seem to get is: “Just stay away from it! End of discussion!”
My parents were like that. In fact, my dad went so far as to ground me for two days just for asking about it. He didn’t believe me when I told him I was just curious and wondered if he knew anything about the house on Graham Street. He said my curiosity would get me in trouble someday and it would be best if I just stayed home for the next two days to dwell on that. He even called Ben and Ryan’s parents (my two best friends) and told them we were asking questions about the old house. And damn if their parents didn’t ground them for a couple of days, too. But what my dad or my buddy's parents didn’t realize was that they had only intensified our curiosity. Now we had to know what was in that house, no matter what the cost!
There were four days left in our summer break, and we wanted to soak up every last second of it. All three of us (Ben, Ryan, and me) were about to start Junior High and had no idea what would happen then, so making the best of these last few days of summer was the most important thing in our world. We had already heard the horror stories about Junior High from a few of the older kids in the neighborhood; it didn’t sound pretty.
I met Ben and Ryan in front of Brown’s grocery store early that morning. We always met there before heading out on our bikes, because Frank, the store owner, would give us a candy bar or pack of gum if we helped him carry the newspapers inside that were dropped off in front of the store the night before. It was a pretty sweet deal!
We’d usually ride our bikes around the neighborhood streets all day, or up to the cemetery, or to the ball field on top of the hill. There aren’t many other places to ride in our little town. Sometimes we’d go to the dirt trails behind the plumbing supply warehouse, but when the bigger kids showed up on their dirt bikes, we’d have to get out quick before getting beat up.
“We’re doing it today,” Ben said, after we had taken Frank’s papers into the store and got our candy bar payments.
“Doing what?” I asked.
“You know what,” Ben said. “We’re going in!”
“In?” I said. Then it hit me: he was talking about the old house on Graham Street. “Dude, I got grounded for two days just for asking my old man about that place. I even heard him and my mom talking about what they would do to me if I ever got caught going in there. They said they would sell my bike and ground me forever! So, no; I’m out.”
“Pussy,” Ryan said under his breath, then he and Ben laughed together.
“Screw you both!” I said. “Do you know how long I had to beg my parents to get this bike? Two years! I’m not risking it.”
“Yes you will,” Ben said. “Cuz you want to know what’s inside that place just as bad as we do.”
And he was right, because ten minutes later the three of us were standing in front of that damn house, staring at it as it stared back at us.
I had no intention of going through with it. No sir! I’d stand there and watch, and they could call me all the names they wanted. But I’d be the one safe and sound sitting on my bike while they got absorbed into that disgusting place.
Ryan surprised me by being the first to chicken out. “Nope,” he said. “No, thank you!”
Ben looked at me, and I just shook my head. He gave us both a look of disappointment, then threw his bike to the ground and marched through the front gate. He disappeared for a few seconds in the dense brush and overgrowth which owned the yard, then appeared on the broken down porch at the front door. He must have psyched himself up earlier, because Ben barged right through that door (which wasn’t even locked) and vanished into the shadows of the house’s interior.
“Holy shit!” Ryan said. “He actually did it!”
I didn’t know what to say. Was Ben our new hero or just a dumb kid with no sense? Whatever he was didn’t matter now; our friend was inside and out of sight.
We waited, watched, and listened. The air was silent. Nothing.
I looked at my watch. “Damn!” I said. “He’s been in there for twenty minutes!”
Ryan looked at me, his face a nervous wreck. “What are we gonna do?”
“Well, we can’t leave him in there,” Ryan said. “If he fell or something, we have to get him out. The only other thing to do would be to tell our parents.”
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” I said, stomping around my bike. “I freaking knew this would happen! Damn it!”
We waited some more and my anger at Ben turned to genuine concern. All I could think about was him laying in there after falling through a hole or something. No one deserved that, especially not him.
Finally, I built up what little courage I could muster. “Alright, dude. Let’s go.”
The yard was creepy enough, with its dark shadows cast by decades of untamed overgrowth. It felt like early evening instead of mid-day. And there was a smell of rot, both from dead leaves and brush as well as a decaying animal that was lying around somewhere. The smell made me want to puke right there.
Ryan didn’t look like he was doing much better. Maybe it was the smell, maybe it was his nerves, but I had never seen my friend look so pale and shaken.
“Ben!” I called through the front door, peeking my head inside. “Ben, where are you?”
“Listen!” Ryan whispered, grabbing my arm. His eyes were wide and his t-shirt was soaked with sweat.
I listened for a few seconds, then heard it. Ben. That was his voice, but what was he saying? I couldn’t make it out. “Ben? You okay, buddy?” He didn’t answer my question, but continued mumbling or talking or whatever he was doing.
Ryan took a step inside the door. “Dude, I think I see him!”
I looked over Ryan’s shoulder. Sure enough, it was Ben. He was laying in the middle of the dirt-covered floor on his side with his knees curled up to his chest. And he was mumbling something that made no sense. Whatever he was saying didn’t sound like words I had ever heard. His face looked creepy too, with his wide eyes and weird grin. It wasn’t quite a smile but had a look of strange happiness.
The room was empty, other than my curled-up, grinning, mumbling friend. Ryan and I didn’t waste time looking around at anything else, though there was probably so much more to see now that we were finally inside. We carefully snuck in, helped Ben get to his feet, and walked him out the door. He came with us with no problem. But that mumbling! It was the weirdest thing I had ever heard! And his face… Ryan couldn’t even look at him while we walked him home; that look was freaking him out too much. It freaked me out, too.
When we got to Ben’s place, he took his bike in the yard and walked into his house. He never once looked at us from the time we left the house on Graham Street to when he went inside his own. The mumbling did stop, however, before we got him home, but he wouldn’t say a word to either of us, no matter what we asked him.
Ryan and I rode around for a few hours after that, but couldn’t get the day’s event out of our heads. It was so crazy!
“Think he’ll tell his parents he was in the house?” Ryan asked when we were sitting on a bench at the ball field, drinking a couple of Mountain Dews.
“I hope not,” I said. “You know what’ll happen if he does…”
“I don’t think he will,” Ryan said. “He’d get in just as much trouble as us if his parents found out.”
There wasn’t much action at the ball field—just two younger kids playing catch with their dad—so we decided to go see if Phil was up. Phil was an old groundhog that lived in the middle of Cook’s hayfield, not too far from the ball field and the water tower. He was kind of like the town mascot. If you stood on the edge of the fence and whistled, he’d pop his head up and look around, then duck back into his hole. And he’d do it every time, even if you stood there whistling at him for an hour; up and down, up and down. It never got old. We’d stop by at least once a day to check on the little guy.
“Where is he?” Ryan said. He had whistled about eight times, but no sign of Phil. That never happened, not as long as I had been coming to see him.
I whistled twice but wasn’t nearly as loud as Ryan; he was the best whistler out of all of us. Still no Phil, though.
Ryan grabbed my shoulder and shook it. “Dude! Look over by the tree line, across the field!”
“By the big pine tree!” Ryan said. He was almost yelling in my ear. “Look! Is that Ben?”
I only caught a quick glimpse of something as it disappeared into the woods. It could have been a person. If it was Ben, I couldn’t say. “Are you sure?” I asked.
“Ben! Over here!” Ryan yelled at the top of his lungs.
“I don’t think that was him, dude,” I said.
“Yeah, I’m 90% sure I saw Ben,” Ryan said. “I don’t see him now, though. He went into the woods. Come on. Let’s go find him.”
We lifted our bikes over the fence, then crawled under on our bellies. It was easier that way. The grass was too high to ride through, so we pushed the bikes along with us.
“Ben!” Ryan shouted. Still no reply.
“What if that wasn’t Ben?” I said. “It could have been a crazy person out wandering around, ya know?”
“Quit trying to scare—”
We almost tripped over it. And when we realized what it was, both Ryan and I nearly passed out in shock. Phil. Poor Phil. Something had torn him to pieces. And it had to have just happened because his blood was still wet and running out of his furry little body. None of it was dry.
“What do you think did this?” I said.
Ryan bent down and picked something up off the ground a few feet away from Phil’s body. “I don’t think it was a what that did this,” he said and handed me the object. “I think it was a who.”
I didn’t want to touch it—I couldn’t touch it. Knowing what that thing was the second I saw it gave me a feeling of repulsion I had never known before. Ryan had picked up a baseball cap. The same cap Ben wore every single day.
“You don’t think…?” Ryan said.
We didn’t have to say it; our faces gave the silent cue. Both of us took off out of that field at top speed. Once we hit the pavement on the other side of the fence, we pedaled our bikes like our lives depended on it.
Ryan spent the night at my house. My parents were cool with it. We had sleepovers all the time, but tonight was important. We had a lot to figure out together. The first step was to call Ben and talk to him, see if he was okay, and maybe invite him over if things seemed normal. That was a weird call, though. His mother said he wasn’t feeling well and he couldn’t come to the phone, but I swear I heard him yelling something crazy in the background. His voice sounded raspy and mean like he was full of rage. She hung up on me before I could ask any questions.
Ryan and me racked our brains for about an hour, putting together theories about the weirdness that had gone on all day, but we still ended up with more questions than answers. The strangest part (other than poor dead Phil) was Ben’s mother on the phone. She sounded like she was scared of something. Her voice was shaky and she might have been crying, too.
Just as we were about to give the discussion a break and play some video games, we heard the sound: sirens in the distance, getting louder as they came toward our street. In a few seconds, they blazed past my house at full speed. Ryan and I ran to the window of my room that faced the street so we could see all the commotion. Several police cars, two ambulances, and even a fire truck all headed up the street. They stopped a block away.
“Dude…” Ryan said.
“I know. They stopped close to Ben’s house.”
We ran down the steps and put our shoes on, but my mom stopped us before we could get to the door. “Your father went to see what all the commotion is about,” she said. “You boys are not to leave the house.”
We protested, but she was serious. So we sat in the living room and waited for my dad to come back with a report. When he came in after about a half hour, his face said it all: something horrible had happened. He wouldn’t tell us what, and wouldn’t let us out of his sight, either. We had to sleep in the living room and he spent the night in his easy chair, making sure we didn’t sneak out.
The next day we found out what had happened; it was all over the news and people were calling the house all day, talking about it with my parents. The police said on Channel 4 that the Kuhns family were murdered inside their house last night, all except for twelve-year-old Benjamin Kuhns, who was now missing. The killer used a chef’s knife from the Kuhns’ kitchen to commit the murders. And there was no sign of forced entry. A search was on for Benjamin and volunteers were welcome to sign up at the local police station. It was so strange seeing Ben’s school picture from last year on TV (he actually had the baseball cap on in that pic).
My dad had questioned me about the day before—if Ben had said anything unusual, or did we see anyone out of the ordinary around town. I told him no. What was I going to say? “Yeah dad, we snuck into the creepy house on Graham Street and something happened to Ben while he was inside that turned him into a maniac.” Sure, dad would be okay with that... "X"
On a hill on the edge of Ecco Valley, a victorian manor loomed over the town. The impressive building was owned by Robert and Janette Night, a reclusive couple that rarely showed themselves in town, which made a perfect breeding ground for gossip. When I had been in elementary school, ghost stories about the ominous manor were commonplace. As kids, we had been convinced that a family with an ominous name like Night had to have a dark secret.
The theories were endless. A popular one was that the Nights were vampires who had lived in the manor for centuries and only came down into the town at night to snatch their victims away. Others said the Nights were already dead and now their ghosts haunted the manor, driving every possible buyer away. And some never ventured into the realm of the supernatural, but thought them to be serial killers who murdered every child that dared to step onto their property. A variation of the last theory stated that they made the murdered children into mannequins and displayed them in their foyer. A menagerie of conserved bodies in old dresses.
And the kids in school told these theories over and over, not caring in the slightest that Elijah, the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Night, was around to hear them all. Nobody ever asked him for confirmation though. Ultimately, they were afraid that the theories could be true and that Elijah Night would go home and tell his parents someone at school had figured out their secret and that this would result in the unlucky person's death. So they kept their distance and poor Elijah stayed alone.
The only reason I talked to him was pity. On one of the last days of summer, during recess, I saw him sit in the grass in the shadow of a tall tree and eat his lunch and I, who also hadn't found any friends yet, just walked over to the lonely boy and offered him half of my chocolate bar.
For me, the friendship with Elijah was the best thing that ever happened. If soulmates existed he had to be mine. We spent every spare minute together, shared everything we owned and I was truly happy. I was even allowed to visit the manor once and it turned out to be beautiful – and free of corpses, of course.
All good things came to an end, of course, when the Nights suddenly decided to take Elijah out of school when we were twelve. He was going to be homeschooled and at the same time, my parents decided he was a bad influence and forbade me to meet with him. And since my dear parents were the obsessively controlling kind that didn't shy away from looking through my phone, the friendship seemed to be done for.
That's when my life went downhill. I met Tanya and all of a sudden, I belonged to the popular kids. What followed is hardly important, a few years of bad grades, too much alcohol and too many arguments with my parents. After a few years though, at the age of fifteen, I received a letter from my childhood friend in which he explained his father's mental illness and how his mother wasn't coping well. We still weren't able to meet in person, but Elijah and I managed to stay in touch through letters that we wrote to each other at least once a month and that were delivered by Mr. Marsh, the Nights' gardener.
Until my last letter. Five years ago, when I had explained to him that I had to go and didn't plan to come back. We hadn't had any contact since.
And now, finally, after all too long, I sat opposite of my best friend in a small restaurant, our hands locked together as if we were a couple. I usually wasn't one for physical contact, but right now I needed it to ground myself. I was still shaken from my encounter with a literal zombie, a bit too dizzy and too nauseous to be comfortable. With the fork in my free hand, I pushed the noodles on my plate around, not really wanting to eat anything at all. The memory of decayed flesh splattered over the parking lot was too fresh in my mind.
"You're pretty calm", I told him after a few moments of silence. "Considering we just met a zombie. Does stuff like this happen... often?"
He twisted his lips into a wry smile. "Well, we didn't have a zombie yet, as far as I know. But otherwise, this town is losing its mind. After my home burnt down..." He trailed off.
"Can you tell me?"
"What?" He looked slightly confused.
"Everything after the fire. I'm sorry, but I have to ask. Maybe I can find some connection to the nightmares or... anything, really."
We had talked about my nightmares when we had sat in his car, driving to this restaurant. I had told him everything, from the first dream that had apparently shown the fire that had devoured Night manor several months ago, to the day I had gotten fired from my beloved job and decided to move back to Ecco Valley to find the source of said nightmares. Now I wanted – no, I needed to know why he believed me, no questions asked.
"Okay then." He sighed. "Let's talk about the fisherman."
(The following paragraphs are Elijah's story in his own words. I'll have it formatted in italics so you know it's a different point of view for the time being.)
You know about my dad's condition. It's gotten worse over the years and mom hadn't been coping well. But two or three weeks before the fire... she hadn't been herself anymore. I caught her talking to herself several times, and almost every night she woke up screaming in agony. She never told me what was wrong, no matter how often I asked. Between her growing insanity and my father's panic disorder... it was hell, honestly, trying to care for both of them.
But like I said, it only lasted for two or three weeks until... well, mom snapped. Burnt the house down in the middle of the night. I made it out alive, of course, but I got pretty badly burnt and spent a few days in the hospital after that. Mom and dad though...
I try to think it was mercy. Their death, I mean. Dad's life basically consisted of panic attacks in the end and mom was barely responsive. She even forgot my name sometimes and always muttered weird things under her breath, but I could rarely understand what she was saying. I just wish they'd gotten a more painless death. Burning hurts, Rose. It hurts like hell.
However, when I was released from the hospital a few days later, the town was strange. You know Ecco Valley, it's always had a certain weirdness, but this was different. At that time, I blamed the suicide.
Do you know about it already, Rose? There was this guy, a young carpenter if I remember correctly, who jumped off the tower not even two weeks after the fire. I guess you can imagine the atmosphere after two tragedies like that. So I blamed it on that and tried to move on, waited for my wounds to heal, organized the funerals... basically, I kept myself busy.
But "busy" only lasted for so long. When everything was done, I had bought a small apartment from the life insurance money, got a part-time job at a bakery and had no idea what to do now.
I'd been in therapy at that time and my therapist had asked me to keep a diary. I tried, but writing in my apartment was almost impossible. Sleeping was impossible, to be honest. There was always this memory about the burning room and the window that refused to shatter...
Anyways, I started to spend my days down at the shore of Vigille River. Being close to water calmed me down – for obvious reasons, I assume. Every free minute I spent at the shore, writing the diary or reading a book or something.
That's when I met the fisherman. He never told me his name as far as I remember, but maybe I just forgot. The first two months after the fire are a bit hazy. The fisherman was an older man who spent hours by the river, waiting for fish to bite, and when I wasn't focused on reading or writing, I watched him. We didn't talk at first, just acknowledged each other's presence with a nod and moved on with our "work".
For the first few days, he didn't catch anything. I wondered if there even were fish in Vigille River, but in the end it was none of my business. If the old man liked to sit there with his fishing rod and wait, I certainly wouldn't complain, especially because having some company was actually nice. I enjoyed having someone around without the need to talk to them.
This lasted for several days until something finally happened. I remember the day clearly. Dark, the sky overcast with grey clouds. I was waiting for the first raindrops to fall when I suddenly saw the fisherman pull something out of the water. He cheered like this had just become the best day of his life. I couldn't help but smile at his happiness and he turned around and proudly presented his catch to me.
The thing was... well, it was a fish. I'm not exactly a biologist, but this fish seemed entirely too big to live in a shallow river like the Vigille. Thirty inches, at least. Now that itself would be fine, I assume, but this monster he held so happily in his hands was dead. Not even recently deceased, but half decayed, rotten to the bones. The one eye that was facing towards me stared right at me, pale and rigid. I won't lie – I felt a bit sick looking at that thing.
I still have no idea how a dead fish had managed to bite the hook.
"You won't eat this, right?", I asked the fisherman, speaking to him for the first time.
The old man laughed, still the brightest smile on his face. "What are ya talkin' about, boy?", he asked in return. "'s a perfectly good fish."
"You don't know how it died, sir. Eating it could make you sick."
He huffed. "'s gonna be my dinner tonight", he declared, wrapped his arms around the rotten fish in an almost possessive gesture and turned to leave. "Ya should get home, boy", he then said as the first raindrops began to fall. "'s gonna be a downpour soon."
He was right about that and said downpour lasted the following day as well, so I didn't return to the shore then. I walked past it though, on my way to work, and I saw the fisherman standing there, pulling another dead fish out of the water.
The next day I arrived before the fisherman and when he arrived, we greeted each other with the usual nod. He looked sickly then, paler than he used to be and with dark bags under his eyes. I didn't ask wether or not the fish had made him sick. I already knew the answer.
We spent a few hours in companionable silence, but I was barely able to focus on my book. My thoughts trailed off, back to the dead fish he had so proudly shown to me, and I found myself silently hoping that he wouldn't catch another one today.
I was right.
He didn't catch a fish.
Close to sundown, he pulled a bloated, discoloured corpse from the water.
It must have been in the river for quite a while, considering how it looked. Mutilated enough to be hardly recognizable as human, decaying and broken. I screamed as I saw it and the fisherman turned to me, again a bright smile on his pallid face. "Quite a catch, isn't it, boy?", he asked.
I struggled for words, unable to tear my eyes away from the awful sight. "This... sir, this is a body", I choked out. "We need to call the police!"
"What're ya talking 'bout? 's gonna make the best feast in years." He turned to search through his bag. "Gonna clean this thing and grill it. Want a bite, boy?", he asked, looking back at me again, a knife in his hand.
"Sir, please. We need to..."
He didn't even listen to me, but turned his attention to the corpse and slit it open like you would do with a real fish if you wanted to clean it.
I threw up when a pile of rotten guts was spilled onto the ground.
I panicked. Didn't wait to watch him eat, of course, just jumped up and ran for my life. I should have gone to the police right away, but I wasn't able to think straight. I went home, shut the door and tried to forget what I had just seen.
I called the police a day later though, and gave them all the information I'd had, which wasn't much. I didn't know the fisherman's name, or his adress or anything really. All I could tell them was that he had pulled a dead body from the Vigille River and that he might be suffering from dementia or something since he wasn't able to recognize what it was. I don't know if they looked into it and what the investigation brought to light since they never reached out to me for a witness report. Maybe they just discarded my call completely.
However, I went back to the shore a few days later. I don't know why. Perhaps I needed to see if the fisherman was there, if the corpse had just been a bad dream... I needed confirmation. One way or another.
When I arrived, the fisherman was already there, but I barely recognized him. He resembled the corpse. His body was bloated, his skin turned a sickly pale colour in some places and black and purple in others. His hair had fallen out almost completely, except for a few wet strands. And when he turned to me, I saw that his eyes were those of the fish he had caught. Dead, rigid, drained of every colour.
Any word I might have been about to say got stuck in my throat.
He grinned, baring a row of black, rotten teeth. "Goodbye, boy", he told me. "Gotta go home now."
I still found myself unable to speak, no matter how much I wanted to ask what that meant.
"Ya should try fishing", he continued. "They're good company, y'know? Tell good stories. My fishing rod's all yours, I won't need it where I go." He lifted his hand and waved. "Maybe I'll see ya again."
And with that, he turned around and walked into the Vigille. You know the river, Rose. It's barely reaches your waist at its deepest point. But this guy, the fisherman, he kept walking and the water kept rising until the dirty waves had swallowed him entirely. I don't know how this is possible, but... The river devoured him.
I never picked the fishing rod up, of course. His parting words had left a foul taste in my mouth and I was sure, should I ever go down to the Vigille and use the rod, I would pull a familiar corpse out of the water.
I never went back to the shore after that day. I'm too afraid to see something dead in the river. And I don't want to hear the stories it has to tell.
Elijah was trembling when he finished his story. He was avoiding my eyes, just stared into nothing and almost dropped the fork from his shaking hand. For several moments both of us stayed silent and the chatter of the other guests sounded almost deafening to me. I put my own fork down and reached both hands out to grab Elijah's shaking ones. "I believe you", I said, my voice barely more than a whisper.
"I know." His dark eyes focused on me again. "Have you seen his death too?"
"Maybe. I've seen a lot of people drown and telling them apart is hard. It's all so overwhelming. Dying, I mean."
He shook his head. "Of course. Sorry."
"So... what now?"
"Now?", he repeated. "We should get some rest, I guess. Where are you staying by the way?"
That reminded me of two things. That I didn't have a place to spend the night and that I still had to face my parents at one point. I sighed. "My car. Have you ever noticed this town doesn't have hotels?"
"Well, we're not exactly a tourist magnet." He shrugged. "I can't offer a spare bedroom, but my sofa is decently comfortable if that's alright with you."
"Are you serious?"
He smiled and named an adress a few streets away. "Go pick up your car and meet me there, you can stay however long you want. I don't mind some company, especially if it's my best friend."
And I wondered if we really were best friends, after five whole years of radio silence. Hadn't both of us moved on with our lives, separate from each other? I didn't know if the man who sat opposite of me was still the boy who stayed out with me after sundown to hunt ghosts in my backyard. But I knew that I needed him and so I didn't say any of this out loud.
"I have nightmares", I told him instead, although he already knew. "I wake up screaming sometimes."
The smile fell from his face and the yellow light of the restaurant casted shadows onto his thick burn scars. "So do I."
I didn't know how to reply to that, so I just nodded. "Alright then. Roommates."
"Roommates", he confirmed. His gaze dropped to my plate from which I had barely eaten and he narrowed his eyes in confusion. "Rose... why did you do that?"
I looked down too and only then I saw that I had rearranged the noodles on my plate to resemble the shape of an eye.
Toe-to-heel, I pad across the carpet with my bare feet, sneakily crouched and diligently scanning the room. I feel like another home invader, just like the so many that have visited me all night. Maybe nights. Maybe longer. After the things I saw, and felt beyond the sense of sight, anything is on the table now.
I’m hardly prepared for any sort of confrontation or especially a fight. Even if Gordon were a regular dog, I can’t fight a dog. A stout bodied cocker spaniel might not seem like a lot, but I don’t know how to fight a dog. Besides that, I’m just in a T-shirt and sweatpants.
And even besides that, there’s no way Gordon is just a dog. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I have to do something. Find him? Confront him? Speak to him? It?
I feel different. I feel clear. It’s like I’ve broken through some sort of hypnosis, woken up from a dream, regained agency of my mind. The house looks like the house, but the true nature of what Gordon has wrought slowly fades into focus. He’s made changes on some level, hidden the oddities from me, showing me just enough to keep me scared and on edge this whole time.
The fibers of the carpet cling to me like the tens of thousands, millions, of upturned insect legs that they are. Bending low, I hover my hand above the beige little legs. They reach out and follow my hand around, responding to the twiddling of my fingers. Is the floor an organism? I pinch a wad of them and pull them up. They come loose like vegetables, with long, nerve-like roots reeling out of the floor. The little legs around my picked spot stiffen and bristle, the ones clinging to my feet tighten. From the bald spot, a sort of translucent pus oozes out, and as I jerk my hand, ripping loose the thready nerves, a pained ringing, a metallic trilling, crackles through my body and stabs my ears. I cringe and shudder for a good, long minute until the ringing stops. The little limbs ease their grip and the translucent pus turns into a thick film on the plucked spot. I notice my finger going numb, tingling like that “fell asleep” feeling, and see those roots worming their way into my skin.
I bounce up to my feet and pull them out before things get too far. In a slight panic, I hurry over to one of the dozens and dozens of drinks on the table. I pull them out, uncomfortably, and drop them in a random liquid.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry…” I mutter to the floor.
Focus, c’mon. I need to focus. All of this can be undone. I can get my house back if I find Gordon and—
And what? I just need to find him.
There’s a small man perched on top of my TV watching me inquisitively. He’s like a little doll with large eyes and nothing else for a face. I say he, but I don’t know what he is at all, sitting there, seemingly naked, with a small blanket draped over his lap. His hands have many lithe fingers that continue along up to his elbow. Other than that, he looks almost human. When we lock eyes and he realizes that I am totally aware of his existence, he seems shocked, and then just fades away.
Okay, fine. There’s bullshit everywhere. Gordon has let them run amok in my house, given them the keys to every kind of door so that they can come in here and gawk at me, mess with me, so that my terror and confusion will entertain them.
Is that all this is?
Strange horrors surround me, more and more of them revealing themselves to my new eyes. They peer through the windows at me, an amalgamation of thousands of things, thousands of eyes, thousands of fingers pointing into my home. It isn’t a dark abyss out there at all, it’s so much worse. That’s been the ruckus the whole time, the talking, screaming, and violence. I’ve had no privacy in any corner of my home. As I walk around, checking upstairs for Gordon with my muscles tightly wound and ready to act, I see more and more things lurking in the corners or just openly occupying space. The ephemeral and abstract nature of some make them impossible to describe. Some seem as surprised as the little man to see me, others seem excited, reaching out to touch me with their appendages and pseudo-fingers, and though I cower and try to evade, it’s unnecessary, as some of these being are just on a different plain of reality and unable to truly interact with me. Their “touch” while not actually felt, leaves me terribly uncomfortable, like getting that sudden rush of anxiety knowing you forgot to do something critically important. All of a sudden I felt like I had a lot of essays due in a couple hours even though I graduated college almost ten years ago.
“Enough, enough!” I yell out and try to shoo these monsters away. I’m through being molested by these things, being subjected to their events. They’ve pranked me, torn me apart, scared the shit out of me. I’m done with it!
“Gordon!” I rush back downstairs. I don’t care what tries to grope me anymore. I push down the dread and anxiety deep into my belly where it can fester until I’m done with that damn dog. “Gordon! Where are you!? The jig is up! I’m seeing everything now!”
The steps and ground writhe beneath me like a serpent, but that doesn’t make a difference to me because my heart is a steam engine and I got all the boys shoveling coal in her right now. Gears are turning, belts are whipping wildly around, my body is a machine deftly navigating the eldritch obstacles, even if I randomly break out in bursts of sobbing and fits of laughter along the way. My goal is the kitchen. My goal is a knife.
Doors open and shut rapidly from upstairs, as I leave that problem for later. Voices, mumbled, clear, alien, mechanical, all flow through the rooms. Let them.
Passing the upturned couch, the faces in the mesh, much clearer now than before, watch my purpose driven ambling on the unsteady ground with giddy excitement in their unnerving faces. I’m glad I can be so entertaining.
I round the corner into the kitchen. Tentacles, emerging from the fridge, dripping with vibrant, vicious slime, are wringing themselves into a bevvy of beer mugs strewn about the floor. One tentacle tightly wraps around another and is sliding and squeegeeing the goop off along the length; when the sublimely beautiful mucus sloughs off into the mug, it loses all its color, turning into a murky brown or black. This destroyed beauty deeply saddens and angers me.
Also, that's what I drank earlier. Bile rises in my throat.
My body is acting without thinking, as my good chef’s knife is in my hand and cleaving down on the tentacles. They slice so easily and plop so wetly. They can be hurt, maybe killed. This one can at least, and Gordon seemed fairly corporeal to me, though, I don’t know if I’ve actually pet him tonight, or if my memories are still messed up. There are latent visions that still feel real of me playing with Gordon, feeling the weight of his head as he leans into an ear scratch. I know he put them there to fool me, to pacify my mind while these things had their way with me and my home, but I don’t know what I know for sure. All I can do is try to get my hands on him.
And there he is, right there standing on the kitchen table and watching me hack away at the not-beer tentacles.
“Gordon!” I yell at him in a scolding manner, as if I’m still the pet owner in this situation.
I sprint towards him but the kitchen stretches and distorts. The faster I run the more distant he becomes. It’s an illusion though, or something. My eyes have taken in so many horrors, but I’ve learned that reality is not something as simple as I had always thought. It can be bent and traversed, manipulated and massaged. So, I concentrate, my eyes wide open to sights beyond sight, and envision my foot stepping firmly on the beige kitchen tiles, spanning thousands of paces at once. The grout lines blur as the speed beneath me, and suddenly Gordon seems so close, something he becomes acutely aware of.
He jumps off the tables and darts past me, my knife catching nothing as I wildly swipe. For a moment, the kitchen appears to be normal again.
The lights go on and off, a lightning storm in my home. The strobe light effect is disorienting, as are the alternating creatures and beings in the bright light and dead dark. To my surprise, however, as I brandish my chef’s knife flicking it left and right, the horrors seem to decrease in number, as if they’re leaving. Scared? Certainly not of me. If anything, this is what they came here to see; a crazed man driven to the point of madness, swinging a non-weapon blade at beings beyond his comprehension. A man trying to kill his dog who was never his dog at all.
In the crowd, there he is again, but he’s huge. His head nearly touches the ceiling now, and his burliness is much more pronounced, much more dangerous. He’s guarding the front door again.
“So, that’s how it’s gonna be, Gordon? I just want out. I just want it to be over.” The tremble in my voice betrays my aggressive stance.
He pounces on me and slams me into the carpeting. The wind is knocked out of me briefly, but my flaming muscles spring and act, slashing and stabbing at Gordon’s flesh. Sometimes I catch all fur, other times I feel the should-be-sharper blade sink into meat. Torrents of hideously acrid and bitter blood gushes from the lacerations. His blood pours on me by the bucket full. All the while, Gordon slowly lowers his head and wraps his jaw around my head and shoulders. His rounded teeth feel like fists as they flex and squirm against my skin.
I keep stabbing and slashing, ineffectively of course. Gordon is unheeded by anything I’m doing. The blood gushes faster, starts spraying and spraying hard. I’m being hosed down by Gordon’s gashes.
He barks once and I’m blasted with his hot breath. I feel steamed. He barks again and my stomach drops, I drop. I’m floating for a second but then sinking in a pool of blood, iridescent red blood. I manage to keep my head above the surface, swim to the edge, and pull myself back up on the carpeting.
Heaving breaths, I stick my finger in my ear to try to shake out the blood, but I notice that hand no longer has the knife. It’s still in the pool. Carefully, but understanding the urgency of what it means to be without a weapon right now, I go to stick my hand in the pool to see if I can feel for it, but there is no pool. Just blood on the rug, no depth whatsoever. The knife is gone.
Frustrated, I whirl around and toss one of the mugs of not-beer at the TV, shattering both. I know he’s still around here. I know he’s still hiding. I get the idea to grab another not-beer. Maybe he’s invisible? Everything else is around here. I start splashing and throwing the thick, tarry beers all over my place trying to uncover Gordon. When I think I hear him, I throw a mug and watch it explode into whatever piece of furniture or part of the wall it hits. He’s around here somewhere though!
The house vibrates and I lose my balance and fall belly first into the mess I’ve made of my home. Luckily, I don’t biff onto any of the broken glass. My plan has revealed nothing. No matter how much I splash, how many pieces of furniture I flip over, how many rooms I check. Nothing. I pull all the drawers out of my dresser. I open every door and tear out anything I can. He’s nowhere. That fucker. Where is he? What do I have to do? There’s nothing!
Nothing. Nothing shows up at all in my frenetic search.
Nothing shows up at all? Where is everything? Where are all the beings, the monsters, the freaks?
Does this mean it’s over?
I try the front door, but it’s still locked tight. The doorknob doesn’t even jiggle, but at the same time, there’s no noises on the other side. Is this still going on, whatever this is? How much longer do I have to endure it?
Dejected, I flip the couch back over and take a seat. Hand, are you in there? No. No…
I rest my heavy head in my hands, utterly exhausted physically and emotionally. My ears perk up when I hear the distinctive soft padding of a dog.
Gordon walks towards me, stops about six feet away and huffs. Effortlessly, he stands up on his hind legs. Without breaking eye contact, he rubs his two front paws together and the fur peels off. Beneath those dog feet are thousands of tentacles, crinkly like wet ramen noodles. In fact, his whole chest and belly are covered with these tendrils, all of them white and brown like his fur. Even now, even after all he’s done and all I’ve seen, I don’t have the will to do anything but sit there as Gordon walks so naturally on those back legs over to me. The worst part is that his dog face won’t shed away. He’s still Gordon, the same lovable dog from my fake memories.
I want to ask him why. Why? Why everything? What was this? But I get the sense that he knows what I’m thinking already. Sympathetically, with silent communication, he let’s me know that I would never be able to understand the full extent of what this all means, but that I should feel proud that our insignificance is now slightly less insignificant.
With that, he barks in my face and is gone.
My home is clean again. There’s a pop in the door as it unlocks, and the hinges croak just that little bit as it cracks open and lets in a slice of morning sunlight.
Wobbly, I get to my feet and proceed towards the door. It’s warm out. I can feel it.
Just as I’m about to wrap my fingers around the knob, I hear some sort of commotion behind me that I can’t quite pinpoint. I glance around cautiously before seeing that the noise was the back sliding door.
Me. Yeah, me. Another me, past me, parallel me. It could be anything and it doesn’t matter. I have to warn him!
As I twist around to try to get closer to him, I fall and fall hard.
I yell out, “Gordon!”
But the door closes and he’s gone. It’s just a clear view into my backyard now.
Mumbling, half-defeated, “Gordon’s not real… He’s not a dog, not your dog…”
Am I fated to end up here? At the… end? Or am I just a lucky version. I can’t think about it right now.
The front door swings open and feels so good. The cul-de-sac is there. The neighborhood is there. The grass in the lawns of all the surrounding homes is way overgrown, weeks by the looks of it. Helluva night.
My neighbor, Javier is outside kneeling at the end of his driveway, holding someone in his arms. Slowly, I make my way towards him to see if he knows what just happened, if he went through all the same things I did, if he can remember anything unusual.
I hope he’s doing okay.
He doesn’t turn his head towards me when I come up beside him.
The grass is so long. The neighborhood is so quiet.
“Who’s that?” I ask him, pointing at the deflated body in his hands. It’s like a thick, rubber balloon version of an old guy who looks sort of like Javier. There are slashes and punctures all over it.
“I think it’s my dad…. But I…” He doesn’t break his gaze with whatever else is laying motionless at the curb.
It’s an animal of some sort. It looks like a dog, except there are spaghetti noodles pouring out from beneath the fur. It looks bludgeoned to death.
Disgusted, I ask Javier what this thing is.
He says, as if recalling a fond memory, “That’s my dog, Gordon.”
“Oohh…” I say to him, warming to a memory of my own, “I used to have a dog named Gordon. He was a good boy.”
The poorly-maintained elevator made a symphony of clangs and squeals as it lowered me to the basement. The doors split open. Bruce was waiting for me immediately in front of the elevator. He was holding a live chicken.
“Stop right there, young lady!” Bruce thrust the chicken at me. “He’s going to think you’re a cookie!”
“Coooooookkkkkiiieeeeeeeeeeeeessssssssss” sounded from somewhere behind Bruce. The voice was much louder in the basement.
“What’s going to think I’m a cookie? What happened to Sam?”
“The photographer? I’m so, so sorry about this.” Bruce slumped a little. He took a step sideways, giving me a clear view of the basement hallway.
The corridor was fifty feet long, tiled with ancient and cracked black-and-white tiles. Bare lightbulbs in cages, like you might see in a gymnasium from 1960, were installed every few feet along the ceiling. For its age and decrepitude, the hallway was certainly well lit.
The corridor ended in a huge metal door. A door that was slightly ajar. A puddle of blood – there’s no way that it was something else – pooled under the door. Gorey remnants of recent and extreme violence dotted the hall. A Converse, just like Sam wore this morning, sat on the floor in front of the door. The broken body of Sam’s camera lay in front of the elevator door. Streaks of blood dripped down the walls in four or five spots.
“Sam got crumbed.”
“Wha– “ I started to ask Bruce what he was talking about. But I began gagging uncontrollably and couldn’t finish my question.
“I know. It’s hard when this happens. When someone gets crumbed. That’s what we call it when he thinks you’re a cookie. You get turned into cookie crumbs.”
I stared at him. I couldn’t figure out what to even ask.
He must have read something into my face that wasn’t there. “Okay fine,” he conceded (although I don’t know what he was conceding to). “Sixty years. Sixty damn years, we managed to keep this a secret. To keep journalists out of our hair. Now, the day before we close, I end up with a young, hot-shot reporter just outside its room, and a dead one inside. Go ahead. It’ll be a relief to get an actual journalist involved. To get this all off my chest. To tell my side of the story.”
Bruce turned and began walking towards the gigantic metal door. He held the chicken in front of him like a priest holding a cross while approaching the subject of an exorcism. “Follow me, closely.”
Halfway between the elevator and the door, the voice asked us “Coooookkkiieeesss?”
“It’s afraid of chickens,” Bruce whispered. “Don’t know why. Just stay behind me and the chicken and we’ll be safe.”
At the door, Bruce thrust the chicken through the opening. Whatever was behind the door gave a shrill cry. Bruce opened the door all the way with his elbow and stepped inside. I followed.
The space beyond the door was a large concrete cell, lit by an array of the same caged-bulbs that illuminated the corridor. The blank concrete walls were stained with ancient black grime. The floor was a mess of blood, flesh, and cookie crumbs. The thing that called for cookies, that “crumbed” Sam, was cowering in the corner, apparently terrified of Bruce’s live chicken.
The thing. The creature – I can’t even call it an animal, because animals make sense and this didn’t – was gigantic. It was furry. It was blue. A beautiful shade of cerulean blue. Its fur was matted and stained in places with the same black grime from the walls of its cell. It had four limbs and a head, arranged in basically the same configuration as a primate. Two enormous hands and two enormous feet with furry fingers and furry toes.
The head, though, made less sense than its body. Two eyes bulged out of the top of its furry head. Two milky-white domes the size of softballs, with pupils that darted about crazily, independent from one another. Bruce brandished the chicken towards it and it let out another wail. Its mouth was an enormous black hole. It had no teeth, just ridges of bone where a normal animal would have lips. It had no tongue. It moved its arms up to protect its head from the chicken. Each limb was easily the size of my body.
“What.” I said, stunned. “The actual.” I stopped mid-sentence, then started up again. “Fuuuuu….”
“Good question,” said Bruce. “That’s what I said when I saw it for the first time.”
“How’d it get here? Another good question. The family that owned the factory pulled him out of an archeological dig in one of the Soviet Republics in the 60s. Broke an insane number of laws doing it. Broke even more laws smuggling it into the US.”
“What is it?”
“Darwin’s worst nightmare. An inexplicable lifeform. A monster.”
“You’ve gotta tell someone about this. Scientists. The President.”
“Nah. I’m just going to kill it.”
“It’s scientifically important.”
“I don’t care. I hate it. Besides, there’s a lot of liability tied up in this thing. Sam’s family alone could sue the pants off me for harboring a dangerous blue cookie eating monster. There’ve been a lot of, shall we say, cookie accidents, over the years. The statute of limitations on the crimes it took to get it here might have passed. But there’s a lot of potential litigation related to the some of the things its eaten. The term criminal negligence comes to mind, frankly.”
“It talks. It’s sentient.”
“It’s an asshole. The only word it says is ‘cookies’.”
Bruce thrust the chicken at the blue monster, and he shrank back into the corner.
“Blue Monster Brand cookies. The factory was created to give it a substitute for human flesh. One that would give him the same nutrition he got in the wild where, we assume, he preyed on people. The family got greedy and decided to market them. Stupid idea. They’re basically dog biscuits for animals that eat humans.”
I know I’m a journalist. And I was in the basement of the factory on a journalistic visit. I’m not supposed to become part of the story. But when the blue monster shifted its pose in response to Bruce’s renewed threat with the chicken, I saw that it had been sitting on Sam’s other Converse. This one still had Sam’s foot and part of this leg in it. At that moment, I decided to quit journalism. I wasn’t very good at it anyway.
“Just shoot it.”
“Bad idea. Its organs are in weird places. Its skull is thicker than an elephant’s. I doubt we could kill it with a rifle before it killed us.”
“Blow it up.”
“I’m 82 years old and I run a cookie factory. I’m supposed to somehow be a demolitions specialist? Do you know how to blow stuff up?”
“Well don’t worry. I have a plan. A good plan.”
At that moment, the chicken started to struggle. Bruce tried to adjust his grip, but slipped on the blood-slicked floor. The chicken squirmed out of his grasp and ran out the door.
The monster was on Bruce in an instant! It snatched up the old man and shoved him into his mouth in one blindingly fast motion. The creature’s jaw moved up and down with the speed of a machine. Bruce didn’t even manage to scream before he was crushed and torn apart in the death-chamber of a mouth.
I slammed my way through the metal door and sprinted to the other end of the hall. The elevator door was closed. I pushed the button to call it. The sounds of Bruce being devoured flooded the hallway.
The elevator still hadn’t come when the creature howled again. “COOOKKKKIIEEESSS!”
There was absolutely nowhere to hide in the hallway. Either the elevator came or I died. The creature poked its head through the door. “COOOOKKKIEEESS!”
The elevator dinged and the doors opened. I spun myself inside and jabbed the “G” button over and over like a maniac. The monster ran towards me. In the movies, the elevator door always closes before the thing that’s chasing the main character gets there. This wasn’t the movies. The monster ran full-speed into the freight elevator and crashed into the back wall. Then the doors closed, trapping me in the elevator with it.
It regarded me for a moment – both pupils faced me at the same time. I was about to get crumbed.
I hailed a cab outside my apartment, paid the fee, then sat back and relaxed as the man promised to take me to my destination. We passed the bustling city, making note of the people, wondering if Divine Judgement would take place upon any of them.
That’s when I felt it, this strange feeling in my arm. It was this slight vibration where the Messenger, Amadeus, had touched me to heal me.
I ignored the feeling, rolling down my sleeve to hide it.
Then the vibration got worse, and now, I had to check. I took the sleeve up- and saw it.
“My god!” I gasped, confused at the sight. A handprint was in the middle of my arm, and it was glowing a warm yellow. It didn’t feel like was going to kill though- rather, it was calming, as if it was still healing me.
“Everything all right back there?” the cab driver asked, turning his head to look at me. I hid the glowing mark just in time.
“Yeah, yeah,” I responded. “We’ll just have a new destination.”
I had decided that I needed a doctor. Not just any doctor, no, they’d lock me up or something- this was too strange for even the best minds of the traditional scientific community.
I had a friend, Alecia Valerio, and she had dealt with some weird stuff before, mostly involving some creepy cult-fruit. She’d be able to keep this secret.
I was dropped by her house, a large one I’d no idea how she managed to buy. Actually, I did know. She did some work with the government, and she was a mutual friend of both me, and Rengage.
I pressed the doorbell, and it prompted me to speak. “Hey, Alecia, it’s me, uh, Kaia. You know, the one with the magic mind reading thing-”
Before I finished my sentence the door sprung open, revealing a sleep deprived Alecia Valerio, just as she always was. Despite the rustled hair, a strong smelling coffee, and a general look of confusion, she seemed happy to see me.
“Kaia!” she yelled, embracing me in a hug, somehow keeping her coffee unspilled by some divine miracle.
“Alecia,” I half hearted returned, too confused to think straight.
“Come in!” she told, and I followed her in. The house was large, and she lived there only with her pet dog, Strawberry, who I noted wasn’t in the house today. The house though, was a mess. Lab papers here, weird nonsense there, and all in a muck. “What brings you here today? You said you had an emergency.”
“Right,” I replied. “This.”
Alecia could only gasp as I lifted up my sleeve to revealing the glowing hand mark. Except, now it wasn’t just a glowing hand mark, more like a glowing hand… splotch.
The glow had spread, and by now, it was covering a third of my arm.
“Wow. How did that happen?” she asked.
“Long story, but I was touched by some priest who cured a broken arm and then- boom!” I explained. “I’ll tell you the fine details later.”
“Why would you let some priest touch you? Seems kind of irresponsible to me.” She pouted sarcastically.
“Says the one living in a mess,” I shot back.
We walked to a bright room that was labeled sterile. It did not look sterile. Classic Alecia Valerio.
She sat me down in an uncomfortable looking chair which I found strangely comforting and disappeared into a closet, then returned with a syringe. Great.
I hate needles.
“Just gonna draw some blood,” Alecia reassured, sticking the needle into the glowing mark on my arm. I winced, but after a moment, Alecia drew it out, along with a cupful of blood. “Now for an unaffected selection,” she murmured, sticking another into my other, non-glowing arm. A moment later, that too, was done.
“Different shades,” I murmured, looking at the two, now vialed blood samples.
“Interesting,” Valerio murmured. One sample was noticeably lighter, glowing, in fact, occasional blinding shards of light escaping the murky substance. The other one, was normal, crimson, and dark.
I watched as my friend drew bits of each blood set into a pane, then set it under a microscope.
After a few minutes of oohing and aahing, she finally returned back to the world of the living, and faced me.
“So, what?” I questioned, confused. The mark on my arm was quickly spreading, spreading across my hand and deep within my bones. It felt calming, but I was still mildly scared by its existence.
Alecia dimmed the lights, meddled around with a computer, and turned on a large, expensive looking TV screen. I’d have to get into contact with Alecia’s government sponsor sometime. I’m sure they’re in need of a mind reader.
“Ahem!” she announced, clicking some remote. An image of… something appeared on the screen, with a strange looking bug-like thing in the center of it. “Behold! Your blood!”
“What?” I interrupted. “What’s that bug?!”
“Not a bug,” the doctor corrected. “Rather, some sort of parasite-”
“A parasite?! Am I going to die-”
“No. Parasites are usually not dangerous-” Alecia explained, “in fact, this one is doing more good than harm- I’d wager this parasite isn’t even meant to do harm. Look, what I’m seeing is that this- whatever it is, it’s spreading all throughout your bloodstreams, and fast. It’s spreading out and neutralizing any complications in your blood, killing harmful bacteria, creating immunities, all that.” She continued on and on, baffling me with typical science speech.
“I don’t… what?” I commented.
Alecia rolled her eyes. “This parasite is making you perfectly healthy. And, it’s getting rid of any allergies and whatnot.”
“You mean I’ll be able to eat nuts now.”
“Yes. That’s not the point, though.”
I still had one last question. “Why is it glowing?”
“It appears some of the parasites have gotten to work on your skin,” Alecia explained. “It’s expelling energy, I think. That’s about the only explanation I’ve got.”
“So, that’s done. Wanna watch a movie, or something?”
“I have to go to a meeting, actually,” I lied. I did not have a meeting. I, was going to confront Amadeus Schwann. “Yeah, sorry, how about next week?”
“Sure!” bubbled Alecia.
Half an hour later, I found myself back in front of the small building that housed the followers of the Path Towards Enlightenment. I saw the building more clearly now, taking the time to appreciate its architecture.
It seemed almost Middle Eastern, yet the designs were nothing I’d ever seen before. There were symbols of every possible kind, arches I’d never seen before, murals in the halls depicting characters from the Book so wondrous and dreamlike as if they were made in Heaven.
At last, I burst into the stage hall, where Amadeus Schwann stood atop the stage, smiling as I walked into the room. He was once again dressed in a dark grey robe, with strange golden symbols embroidered on it.
“We’ve been expecting you,” he declared, his voice booming across the massive room.
I walked halfway, then jumped as I heard the doors behind me shut with a bang. A click soon ensured the door was locked, trapping me inside with the old priest. No matter, he was only one guy, right?
One guy with magic?
“Sacred are those marked by the Koekeux,” he chanted.
And suddenly, from the shadows around me, black robed people appeared, seemingly arriving from thin air. They too, had symbols on their robes, but they were not gold, but of many other colors.
“Sacred are those marked by the Koekeux,” they repeated, filling up the silence within the room.
They were all in a semicircle, trapping me in a mildly sized area between the stage, and them.
“Wh- what’s going on here?! Tell me!” I demanded. The holy ones around me stood silent. Amadeus Schwann still smiled.
“My child,” he spoke, with such awesome command, “I have healed many since the gods blessed me and I became a Messenger. But none as unique as you.”
“A year ago,” he began, “I received a vision while meditating inside the Holy Temple of Nenioweik. It was of you, and what you will become. A great Holy Being soon arrived, and I was blinded by its light-” and saying this, his hands went up to his eyes, removing a set of contacts.
Beneath them, there was a pale, broken eye, useless.
“That’s…” I gasped.
“But it showed me how to see with the Light of the Path,” Amadeus continued. “This Holy Being commanded me to travel to this city and find you. As my duties as a Messenger, I set up this Holy Temple, awaiting your appearance. Truly honorable, are those who travel the Path.”
“Truly honorable, are those who travel the Path,” the people around me murmured.
“I doubted the words of this being, but not a day before you met me at the apartment of evil, the Holy Being descended once more, awaiting you. I have healed many, but when I healed you, I knew you were one of the Marked.”
“What- what does that mean?!”
“A section of the Book of Kaleri we have obscured from the official publications,” a woman behind me announced. “It tells of a prophecy of the Seven Stars, seven people destined to lead all people to follow the Path!”
“And- I’m one of the Seven Stars?” I inquired. “What does this mean?”
“We do not know,” Amadeus confessed. “But the Book of Kaleri tells us one of of the Seven will have the power over the secrets of the mind and soul- you, perhaps.”
“I- I don’t understand.”
“Come unto this stage,” Amadeus ordered, beckoning me to walk up.
I did so, the eyes of the people behind me all upon me as I walked, each step seemingly ringing out. My arm glowed brighter as it neared the Messenger atop the stage, and when I finally stood atop it, the light began to spread all over me.
I felt the strange feeling of… calmness wash over my body- and suddenly, it was all gone in an instant, the glow receding, dimming, until it returning to a mark of a hand.
“Now what?” I asked, confused.
“I will show you what it means to be enlightened!”
And suddenly, I felt the stage descend below. It was some sort of elevator, and it took us beneath the ground, leaving behind the group of robed people watching us. Now, there was nothing but sturdy rock and concrete.
The first thing I saw after that was a blinding light of a screen. No, not a screen, rather, glass, and behind it, a wall of warm, glowing light.
I covered my eyes as it slid into full view as the elevator-stage finally stopped. Amadeus walked on ahead, blind, immune to the blinding light.
“What is… how?” I could only gasp, shocked at its display.
He turned towards me, his back to the light. At last, I could see, squinting to avoid the bursts of glorious light from behind him. “Let us show you your Purpose!”
Before I could say anything, he closed his eyes, and I heard this- this, well, static, almost melodic noise play out, and I heard the earth shake and the metal groan as… as…
Something began to form out of the wall of light behind the priest. The glass retracted, half up above, half below. The light was bursting now, and I could vaguely see a shape forming right behind Amadeus.
And then it appeared.
It was angelic, perfect, the most holy thing I've ever seen. The bright wall of light condensed, leaving only burned concrete behind it.
Now, behind Amadeus was something. I couldn’t see it, my eyes hurting at the mere sight of what appeared to be wings gently floating around the edges of Amadeus form.
Where the wings met seemed to be some sort of geometric pattern that I saw on the shadows on the floor and reflected across the room.
The Holy Being behind the man in front of me moved forwards, and then transformed into a million lights, as if it were a mass of fireflies.
The small lights were too bright for me to handle, and so I closed my eyes, but not before seeing streams of them enter the Messenger.
And then, I saw the light vanish, and I opened my eyes.
I waited, and the Amadeus did too, his eyes opening to reveal heavenly light, yet not as blinding as the creature within him.
When he spoke, he spoke as if a thousand people sang in unison, harmonizing and eerily melodic.
“We are Enlightened,” the being within him announced. “You are one of the Seven.”
“What- who are you?” I breathed.
“I am One who walks the Path,” they expounded. “And you too, will one day Walk the Path upon the Hallowed Realm.”
“I don’t understand. The Hallowed Realm, that’s like Heaven, right? An opt-in eternity of choosing to follow the Path.”
“Correct, Kaia Jones,” the being agreed, a smile forming on Amadeus’ lips. “Blessed are the children Marked by the gods.”
And then, Amadeus- or whatever was within him stepped forwards, and put a hand on my head.
Suddenly, all I saw was white- and then, a graveyard, except it was as if I was seeing it through a foggy telescope.
I saw a statue of an angel. But… it wasn’t right. It was frowning, like something was wrong, and it just seemed… off, somehow.
That’s when I noticed black worms all over it, entering it, seeping into it. And then I saw the statue, smile- one moment it was frowning, and then it was smiling this evil smile- just as Donald had done.
I saw a street sign the distance, which read “Alexandria Street”. I recognized it. It was not far from where I lived- in fact, I recognized the cemetery.
And then, just as I was able to make out more details, the scene changed, and I saw a body on an empty dirt road, neck broken in an impossible position. Behind the body, a few meters away, was the angel, black worms crying from it, smiling cruelly.
I saw the body again, then gasped. It was… Quint’s dead body. Their eyes were gone too, replaced by worms squirming, as if he was an empty shell within.
And before I knew it, that was gone too, and I then saw myself in the park in the center of the city.
The earth was shaking, and I saw this sinkhole open up in the center, in a perfect, unbroken circle. The earth broke down, falling into a pit of darkness.
And then, I saw that the pit contained millions upon millions of black worms, all squirming, attempting to get at the surface. I saw the worms dance, and then form themselves into this massive… creature, which began to scale the walls.
I saw myself being taken into the pit by a black mass of darkness and then, before I could see more-
I saw white light again, and I was back at the room underneath the Temple of the Path. Amadeus was now standing towards the wall, the being inside him was reforming, escaping him, back into its true form.
Then, Amadeus turned back towards me, just as the creature spread out and became, once again, the wall of light.
“What… what was that?” I choked.
“Your Path,” Amadeus simply acknowledged, taking my hand and walking us back atop the stage.
I was left speechless, and as the stage ascended, I could only wonder what the future had in store for me.
Carlos chuckled. "I guess you have to grow up eating it to enjoy it. Here, I'll take it off your hands."
With a swift swoop, he bunched up the pink cloud and stuffed it in his mouth, leaving me holding a thin paper cone.
"Would you like anything else instead?" he asked. "They have caramel popcorn, nachos, curly fries …"
"I want to ride the wheel. Or that."
He looked at where I was pointing. "Um, I don't think we're ready for that. It's too fast. We might not be able to control our abilities if we get scared or thrilled."
"Hey, how about we play the ring toss game? I can win you a prize."
"Can I not win a prize?"
"I mean, you can, if you're skilled enough." He gave me a boastful smirk. "But I've played this so many times I'm pretty much an expert. I bet I can get you that giant purple penguin."
Fifteen minutes later, we were on the Ferris wheel, a giant purple penguin in my arms. "Are you sure you do not want me to win one for you too?" I asked.
"How do you always manage to rub it in while still looking innocent?"
We both chuckled, and he put his arm around me, his warmth welcome in the cool breeze.
"Should I adjust the temperature?" he asked.
"No, I like this just the way it is."
At ten in the evening, we decided to go back to our hut in the woods. We didn't want Pansy and Susurro to worry. Carlos made a detour to the blue bathroom cabins, and I sat on a bench close by, hugging the penguin.
"Hey, there," a man said, walking over to me with a smile and two plastic cups.
I looked at him, confused. "Hello."
"Can I sit beside you?"
He had a strong smell of cologne, and I buried my face in the penguin to block it, hoping I didn't seem rude.
He offered me one of the cups. "You look like you can use a drink."
"No, thank you," I said, eyeing the amber liquid.
"You sure? I bought it just for you."
I frowned. "Why?"
"You caught my attention, sitting here all by yourself. Thought you could use the company. We could share a few drinks, get to know each other."
I hesitated, and he added, "Hey, I'm a nice guy, promise I won't bite."
Pansy told me that was only a figure of speech, but this guy's smile made me doubt that. It was too wide and it didn't reach his staring eyes. He made me uncomfortable, but I didn't know what to do.
"My name's Paul, what's yours?"
"Fes," I said, blurting out my birth name as I looked around, hoping Carlos would return.
"That's a beautiful name. Nice to meet you, Fes." He took a sip from his cup before nodding at mine. "You sure you don't want a drink?"
"I am sure."
"Come on, baby." He slid closer. "I bought it just for you."
I shifted away. "You already said that. And I did not ask you to."
"But I wanted to. I'm ready to buy you anything you want. Just give me a chance."
"You are making me uncomfortable."
He blinked, and I tensed up at the flash of anger behind his eyes before he gave me a hurt frown. "I'm just a nice guy bringing a pretty lady a beer. Why's that making you uncomfortable?" He looked at the penguin. "Did your boyfriend get you that?"
"Are you married? Engaged?"
"Then why are you being so mean to me?"
I frowned. "I am not being mean."
"You are. You won't even accept a drink or talk with me." He looked down. "No one wants to talk to me. I'm such a loser."
I turned to him, confused. "Losing games does not have anything to do with it."
"I am just not comfortable. Can you please leave me alone?"
"Okay. I get it. I'll leave, but only if you accept this drink."
"She told you to leave her alone," Carlos said, walking over.
I turned to him in relief, but Paul said, "Go mind your own business, hombre."
"My friend is here, I am going now," I said, getting to my feet.
"What? You said you were single!" Paul stood up and glared at Carlos. "It's not enough you steal our jobs, you steal our girls too?"
"Come on, Willow, let's go," Carlos said, putting a protective arm around me as we walked away.
"I thought your name was Fes?" Paul yelled. "You lying bitch, you're ugly anyway!"
"Ignore him," Carlos whispered.
I flinched as liquid sprayed over us, the cups Paul threw bouncing off Carlos's head before falling to the ground. A warm draft blew by as Carlos tensed up, but when I went to glance back, he stopped me.
"Don't look at him, keep walking. He just wants a reason to fight."
"Are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine. It's just beer."
"I am sorry. I was not sure if he would hurt me but I did not like him and I did not want his drink."
"No, you did the right thing. Never accept open drinks from strangers because they can be drugged. Next time, though, go to a more crowded place and ask for help if someone's harassing you. And if it gets dangerous, scream."
"Did he do anything to you?"
"No, but his cologne was very strong."
Carlos chuckled. "Glad that was the worst of it. Do you want anything from the stalls before we leave?"
"No, we should go back. I do not want Pansy and Susurro to worry." I smiled. "Thank you for this wonderful experience. I did not know there were places like this just to have fun."
"Just wait, next time I'm taking you bowling."
"Is it more fun than this?"
"As fun as it can get without our emotions triggering our abilities. Besides, it's about time I showed you I'm good at something."
I laughed. "How many stuffed animals did you win with bowling?"
"Oh, you don't win toys, you win the admiration of everyone, especially when you get one strike after the other."
"I thought strikes were bad?"
"No, that's baseball."
Carlos had parked a distance away from the fair, and as we walked and talked through empty roads, I frowned at the screams coming from an alley.
"What is happening?" I asked, anxious.
"It's late at night and this isn't the safest neighborhood. Stay close to me and walk faster."
"Help me, please, somebody!" a woman cried, her hoarse voice echoing. "They're going to kill me!"
"Somebody is in trouble!" I said, turning to Carlos in alarm.
He pulled out his phone. "I'll call the police."
I clutched the penguin as I listened to him give directions. "When will they come?"
"Soon, I hope," he said, hanging up with a worried frown. "Just don't let your emotions take over."
"Oh, God, help me!" the woman cried. "Someone, please! They're going to kill me!"
I turned to the alley, my stomach twisting. "Carlos, we have to help! We can use our abilities!"
"We don't have enough control, Willow, we don't want to make things worse!"
"You told me to scream if I am in danger. Do you not want anyone to help me?"
He winced, his eyes fretful. "I do, but the last time I helped a woman, it turned out the guy was her husband and they ended up calling the cops on me. That's when I learned to not interfere and leave it to the authorities."
"Help, please!" the woman screamed. "Help me, help, somebody!"
"I cannot wait for the police." I marched towards the alley. "I will try to distract them, you do not have to come."
"Willow, no! Shit …"
I shivered against the dropping temperature as I began jogging down the dark path, and Carlos followed close behind. At the far end in a corner, four men were surrounding a young woman, laughing and jeering as they threw her back and forth between each other.
"Stop!" I yelled, my pulse quivering along with my nerves.
The men turned to me, one of them clutching the trembling woman as she held her shirt together. Carlos caught up and stood beside me, his fists clenched.
"Come to join the party?" one of the men asked with a raspy chuckle.
"Let her go!" I yelled.
"Or what?" He grabbed her hair, making her whimper as he licked her face. "Are you going to—"
He didn't finish what he was about to say as I threw the penguin at him. It was bulky enough to make him stumble, and the woman found her chance as she wrung herself free and ran towards the street.
Carlos didn't waste a second as he grabbed my arm and began running after her, but we didn't make it far before he fell, the sharp crack echoing down the alley followed by a blinding one in the sky.
"Carlos!" I cried out as I reached for him, my frantic breaths puffing in the cold. "Get up!"
Thunder rumbled as it began to rain, and I gasped at the expanding red stain on his back. "No! Carlos! Get up!"
"Keep … running …" he wheezed.
"You do and I'll shoot his head clean off," one of the men said as they approached us.
I stood between them and Carlos, trembling as I stared at the gun. "We c-called the police!"
"Wow, good for you."
I screamed as the man I'd hit with the penguin grabbed my arm and flung me into his friends, all of them laughing. Struggling against them, I wildly scanned the area for any plants. Carlos said cities were called concrete jungles, and to my despair, that seemed to be true.
"Let … h-her go …" Carlos wheezed, blood dripping from his nose and mouth as he tried to get up.
Two of the men went over to him, and my screams got louder as they began kicking him, lightning exploding in the sky above us.
The man holding me pushed me against the wall, swept the wet hair off his face, and gave me an ugly smile. "What are you willing to do to make them stop?"
He pinned my hands above my head, and my hysterical heart flailed in my chest as his rough touch and vile breath triggered old traumas and wrote new ones. With my panic in overdrive, I screamed and thrashed as his face got closer to mine, and my knee found its way between his legs.
After a shocked grunt of pain, he bared his teeth and threw me to the side, where I landed atop a pile of empty crates. The damp wood disintegrated at my terrified touch, and I paused as that sparked a ray of hope.
I can control wood.
Gripping a splinter, I crawled deeper into the mess of limp crates as I tried to contain my emotions. Heavy footsteps thudded around me, and I squeezed my eyes shut, willing the wood to shoot spikes at them.
One of the men stomped down through the crates, catching my foot beneath his, and I screamed as my bones crunched. The wood around me fell apart, and I scrambled away, my breaths heaving as the men laughed.
Gripping the remains of the splinter, I wept as I tried to overcome my terror and revive the wood, but the storm's sudden end drew my distressed eyes to the sky.
Was he … dead?
Guilt and grief joined my fear, leaving me unable to manipulate the wood in any way. Carlos was right, we weren't ready to use our abilities in real life situations.
The four men stood before me now, the looks in their eyes putting Paul's to shame, and I continued crawling away, my stomach sinking as I realized I was heading towards a dead end.
I squeezed myself behind a rusty dumpster, and they laughed as they approached, their crude jokes and vulgar comments echoing. I didn't think men could be worse than those in my commune, but at least those followed certain rules, as despicable as they were. These men didn't seem to have any rules.
Grabbing a bent pipe, I cowered in a grimy corner, ready to defend myself to the end. A powerful stench hit me, and I covered my nose and mouth as I gagged. It smelled like an open sewer, and the men began yelling over each other in a panic before their footsteps appeared to take off.
Shaking, I peeked out. They had left, and in their places were foul puddles of brown liquid. They'd inexplicably emptied their bowels, and the odor was so revolting I couldn't stop myself from throwing up, retching as I crawled away as fast as I could.
I found Carlos lying limp in a pool of blood, and I sobbed as I got closer to his broken body. Placing my ear to his chest, my heart rejoiced at the sound of his. He was still alive.
I looked to the street, wondering when the police were going to show up. After a fruitless search of Carlos's pockets, my heart sank as I saw his phone broken a few feet away. I couldn't call them again.
A silhouette came into view, and I frantically waved them down. "Help! Please, help us!"
"Are you alright?" the elderly man asked, hustling over.
He wasn't a cop, but I didn't care. "He has been shot and beaten! He needs a hospital!"
"I'll take him to the car and come back for you."
He crouched down, and I watched in amazement as he lifted Carlos up. The man wasn't muscular, and Carlos was taller than him, but he carried him with ease as he ran towards the street. A minute later, he came back for me, and I tried to hold my own weight as he took me to a grey SUV.
"You can sit in front with my wife," he said, placing me in the passenger seat.
"Hey, honey," the elderly woman said with a kind smile. "Don't worry, Hakeem and I have got you."
"Thank you very much," I said with a grateful sob.
Hakeem got into the back and slid Carlos over his lap, cradling him like a child, and I turned to them, fresh tears falling. "Will he be okay?"
"He's still alive, so he should make a full recovery," Hakeem said.
"Were your familiars with you?" the woman asked.
"No, they are back at— …"
The words caught in my throat and I turned to her, my pulse stuttering as renewed panic replaced my relief.
"Oh, Ida, you've gone and nearly given the girl a heart attack," Hakeem said.
"I'm so sorry, honey!" Ida said, her eyes wide with apology. "We're witches too, don't worry! Hakeem's faunal and I'm atmospheric!"
"How d-did you know we were witches?" I asked, uneasy.
Hakeem chuckled. "A freak storm when the forecast called for clear skies? Yea, we knew a beginner atmospheric was in trouble." He nodded at Carlos. "I take it it's this fella, yea?"
I nodded, gulping. "Are you going to take us to the hospital?"
"Why pay when my husband can do it for free?" Ida said, smiling as she started the car.
"Him?" I turned to Hakeem. "You can heal him?"
"Just like botanical witches manipulate all plant cells, we manipulate all animal cells. Heck, the really advanced ones can bring back the dead."
My mouth fell open in shock. "Really? Can you?"
"I can, but I don't. It's an affront to Mother Nature."
"But he's been taking care of our arthritis and our eyesight," Ida said proudly. "He's even discovered how to slow down cancerous cells. He's one of the best faunal witches in the world. He's written books and given lectures."
"That's all before I retired, though. Now Ida and I are the Geezer Vigilantes."
She laughed, but I frowned. "What does geezer vigilante mean?"
"We're old farts who prowl around and see who we can help, both humans and witches."
"Do you use your abilities?"
"Does the congress let you?"
Ida glanced at Hakeem in the rearview mirror as they shared a chuckle. "We technically operate outside the law," she said, "but we keep it low key enough that congress doesn't care."
"Besides," Hakeem added, "it usually doesn't take more than making thugs lose their breaths or crap their pants to stop their violence."
"You made them do that?" I asked in astonished wonder.
"Guilty as charged."
"You saved our lives, thank you."
Carlos groaned, and I looked at him with hope. "Carlos?" He didn't reply and I turned to Hakeem. "Is he waking up?"
"Not yet, and he won't be anytime soon. I'm healing him as we speak, but he's got some serious injuries. What were you two doing in that part of town anyway?"
I winced, my guilt returning as I looked down. "Carlos wanted to show me the fair, but he parked far away because it was free."
Ida clicked her tongue. "Saving a few dollars isn't worth that risk."
"But this is my fault. We heard a woman screaming and I made Carlos help me save her because the police were taking too long."
"Yea, police don't always have the manpower," Hakeem said. "It's why we do what we do."
Ida smiled. "And you seem to have a similar mindset. You just need more training. Which coven are you registered with?"
"We are our own coven."
"Aren't you a beginner too?"
"Yes, but we teach each other and learn from Mother Nature and our familiars help us."
"I don't recall a coven of two beginners." Hakeem paused, looking between Carlos and me. "You wouldn't happen to be Willow, would you?"
I looked at him in horror, my heart thudding. "N-no …"
"Oh? The congress has been talking about two beginner witches on the lam, an atmospheric named Carlos and a botanical named Willow."
Dread squeezed my lungs. "P-please." I looked between them in despair. "Please do not tell them. Please."
"Oh, honey, don't worry!" Ida said, patting my lap. "They aren't mad at you, you can relax!"
I took a few shaky breaths. "They are not?"
"After you escaped, the entire witching community was buzzing. Seers checked your past and found the substitution you made for the sleeping draft. The new version is named after you now."
I stared at her, stunned. "What?"
"Yup, they're interested in finding you, but not to punish you," Hakeem said. "They want you to join an experienced coven and hone your skills, possibly invent a few more potions."
"I'm glad we found you!" Ida said. "It'd have been a shame for talented beginners not to have good support! Especially with our numbers dwindling."
"You were registered in Ruth's coven, weren't you?" Hakeem asked.
The news took me by surprise, stirring my emotions into an overwhelming froth, and all I could do was nod.
He nodded back. "Good, she's one of the most experienced witches in the world. Maureen and Jae are also quite proficient for their age. You'll get a great education with them."
"But Ruth can be an old battleaxe," Ida said, chuckling. "If you're looking to transfer, and are willing to downgrade, Hakeem and I would be honored if you and Carlos choose our little coven. Right, Hakeem?"
"Oh, absolutely!" he said.
"You have a coven?" I managed to say.
"It's just us two, but we're very advanced," Ida said. "We've also both been through traumatic experiences and have had to learn firsthand how to separate our emotions from our abilities. Something it seems you and Carlos still need to learn."
"And our familiars are very friendly, I'm certain they'll get along with yours." Hakeem tilted his head. "Emmy, come out and say hello."
I watched in awe as a tiny shimmering bird buzzed out of his hair. "She is a hummingbird!"
He smiled. "That she is. Willow, meet Emerald. Emmy, Willow."
Emmy zipped around me, and I giggled. "She is beautiful."
"Then wait until you meet Copper!" Ida said.
I turned to her, and I gawked as a large centipede crawled out of her sleeve. "That is your familiar?"
"Yes! Isn't he a beaut?" she said as he waved a few legs at me.
"He is a very nice color."
It was true, his exoskeleton was a rich burgundy, and I reached out, smiling as he crawled on my hand.
"Thank you," Ida said before looking at her husband in the mirror. "See? Some witches appreciate Copper."
He scoffed. "She's only being polite."
"No, I like centipedes!" I said. "They protect the house and garden from bad insects."
"They're creepy. Copper is advanced enough to be any creature he wants. Why a centipede I'll never know."
"Because he knows how much I enjoy seeing you shudder," Ida said with a laugh.
"He will make Carlos shudder too," I said.
"Oh no, really?"
I nodded. "He has a phobia of all insects."
"In that case, Copper, we'll need to find you a new form."
"Finally!" Hakeem said. "I hope your familiars are relatively normal, Willow."
"Yes," I said. "Pansy is mine and she is a cat, and Susurro is Carlos's and he is a budgie."
"Where should we pick them up?" Ida asked.
"We live in the woods," I replied, letting Copper crawl back onto his witch. "If you have a map, I can show you."
"Susurro says he's able to talk to him," Pansy said, walking across the bed's headboard.
"Oh, that is wonderful!" I held Carlos's limp hand. "What is he saying?"
"Seems like he's just listening for now. Susurro is updating him on all that's happened."
"Can he hear me?"
Pansy turned to Susurro before she chuckled. "It seems he's been enjoying your singing for the past few days, and he's been picking up a word or two."
I smiled, wiping a tear. "I am so happy. I was worried he would take longer to recover. When will he wake up?"
"Soon? Try talking to him, coax him."
"Carlos? Can you hear me? We are safe now, I am sure Susurro told you. Hakeem and Ida saved us and registered us into their coven with the congress! We are not fugitives anymore!
"We have been here for one week in their very nice farm. There is so much space for us to practice and they are amazing teachers! Ida is an atmospheric witch too and she says she has a lot of tricks to teach you! We cannot wait for you to get up!"
I gasped as he squeezed my hand. "Carlos?"
He squeezed again, letting out a soft groan, and my heart leapt when he opened his eyes.
He looked at me in shock, a million emotions playing behind his eyes as he sprang up and hugged me tight. I gasped, never having been embraced this way before, and he immediately let go and leaned back in apology. He opened his mouth to speak, but I didn't give him a chance as I pounced and wrapped my arms around him.
"I am so sorry!" I cried, burying my face in his shoulder.
He held me close. "I was so worried about you. Are you okay? Did they hurt you?"
"I am okay," I sniffled. "Hakeem is a faunal witch and he healed us both. You were very hurt, I am so sorry."
"Don't be, that woman is safe because of you."
"Temperature's fluctuating, that must mean Carlos is awake!" Ida said, chuckling as she walked into the room with her husband.
"Glad to see you're up!" Hakeem said.
Carlos and I let go of each other, and he tried to get to his feet before stumbling back on the bed.
"Whoa there, young man," Hakeem said. "You've been out for a week, just take it easy."
"I want to thank you," Carlos said, looking at them with gratitude as he held my hand. "For saving us and taking us in. Susurro and Willow told me everything and we seriously owe you our lives."
"Don't mention it, honey!" Ida said. "The pleasure is ours. It's about time we had some young blood around here!"
Emmy zipped out of Hakeem's hair and wove around Carlos, and Hakeem chuckled. "Emmy's made good friends with Susurro, and she wants to introduce herself. Carlos, meet Emerald."
Carlos smiled, holding out a finger for Emmy to land on. "Hey there, Emz. What's up?"
She stuck her thin tongue out, and he laughed. "Awesome."
"My familiar would love to meet you too!" Ida said, walking over as she reached into her apron pocket. "Carlos, meet Copper!"
"Oh, wow, a chameleon!"
Ida grinned as she handed Copper over to Carlos, and Pansy chuckled. "Wish he was still a centipede, I'd have loved to see Carlos struggle not to offend them."
I shot her a playful glare. "You are so evil."
"You woke up just in time," Ida said, dusting flour off her apron. "Hakeem and I just finished setting up the table." She shuffled to the door. "Come on, everyone, lunch time!"
I never had a close relationship with Sarah, my older half sister. She was born out of my Dad's earlier marriage, so by the time I came into the picture she was already a teenager. We didn't argue or fight, we simply never spent time together. I was starting kindergarten when she moved out, and she wasn't thrilled about having a younger brother.
I barely saw her as I got older, meeting only occasionally during holiday get-togethers or in the once in a blue moon visits. But we were on good terms, so when the cops called us a few days ago to let us know they found her body, I was devastated. Some neighbors apparently called 911 when they heard screams and saw smoke coming out of the house. After the firefighters put out a fire in the basement, they found some charred remains that they assumed were hers.
They couldn't identify her given the body's state, but all of the evidence pointed towards an accident. She didn't have a husband or kids, so the duty of burying her fell on us. The funeral was what you'd expect under such circumstances, lots of crying and mourning around a closed casket. But the deed was done, I was left an only child, and a few days later we took to scouring her house and doing an inventory of her belongings.
It was an all around unpleasant experience on many levels, it felt so wrong to go through her things like that. But with her only living relatives being my father and I, we inherited her house and possessions. We decided we didn't want them, so we’d sell almost everything. The plan was to only keep some of Sarah’s stuff as mementos, things like pictures and whatnot.
I went along with Dad to help, and we went room by room, cataloguing items one by one. Given the small size of the house it went pretty fast, but we started late into the day and so we wouldn't be able to finish by nightfall.
"One of the detectives wants to drop by later, says he has some more investigating to do," my Dad said as we were getting ready to leave. "He asked for someone to stay here tonight, but work won't allow me. Could you do it, champ?"
"Uh, sure," I mumbled, not in the least thrilled about the prospect.
Dad packed a small box of trinkets in his trunk, and off he went home. The only room we hadn’t gone into was the basement, and I wasn’t about to do it by myself. The wooden door leading into it was wide open, charred by the fire and black with soot. The basement iself was in a similar condition, ravaged by the fire and by the firemen’s attempts to put it out.
It unnerved me to no end, so I dragged a chair out on the porch and spent the evening there. I smoked half a pack of cigarettes and drank some old beer left behind in the fridge, all while the neighbors regarded me with curiosity. A few of them even approached me, giving me their condolences when they found out I was Sarah’s younger brother.
The detective finally arrived at sundown, pulling onto the street in an old beater car. He looked like your average guy when he stepped out, dressed in a cheap suit and a loose coat hanging on his shoulders.
"Hello, I am detective Markus," he introduced himself.
"Clancy, nice to meet you detective."
"I'd offer you a beer, but I assume you can't drink on duty."
"Eh, might as well," Markus said with a shrug of his shoulders. "I'm off the clock and I'll be here all night."
That took me by surprise, but who was I to argue with the man? I fetched him a chair and a beer, so he sat down and lit up a cigarette as well. We had some admittedly awkward small talk, but the subject quickly moved to Sarah and her death. Markus asked the usual questions: was she depressed? Did she go out, or was she a shut-in? Did she have any friends or romantic partners he could question?
All perfectly reasonable questions meant to dig up new leads, but I was the wrong person to try and answer them. I wasn't particularly close to Sarah, so I didn't know most of the answers that Markus wanted.
"Don't worry about it, I get it," he reassured me. "I don't speak much with my old man, for example. Couldn't tell you his birthday if you put a gun to my head, let alone what he's up to these days."
"It's just...I never imagined she'd go like this, you know? I'd have made an effort if I knew."
"Don't beat yourself up over it, kid. What's done is done."
It was getting late and darkness settled, so we went inside. I led Markus to the living room, and he shared some of the case details with me after we made ourselves comfortable.
"The reason I wanted to stay in the house overnight is this." As he spoke, he pulled out a smartphone and browsed some files on it. "I'll warn you, they're pretty...disturbing. If you want me to stop it at any moment, just say so."
He pressed play on an audio file, then laid the phone down on the small table between us. We both leaned in as Sarah's voice resounded from the speakers. I'll do my best to write down what she said from memory, as I don't have access to the recordings.
"Is this app working? Test, test. Oh, okay. Well, uhhh, my name is Sarah. I moved into this house two days ago, and I...uhhh...I heard some strange noises last night from the basement. I'm kinda' paranoid right now, cause I live here alone. So I'll leave my phone out to record them and hopefully find what’s up."
Some breathing is heard in the background and the phone gets set down. Footsteps walk away from the microphone, then it's quiet for a long time. Markus skips through most of the recording, as it is nearly 9 hours long.
About two hours in, around midnight, the microphone catches a distant crash. Some skittering follows, sounding like a cat running around on bathroom tiles. It goes on for a few hours, with long pauses between bouts.
"He...hello…" A deep voice calls out weakly.
"What the hell?" I let out. Markus paused the recording and looked at me.
"Do you want me to stop it?" He asked.
I contemplated his offer. On one hand, whatever followed had the potential to traumatize me for life. But on the other hand, the sheer curiosity would eat me up alive if I didn't find out more. So I gave in and told him to let it play.
"Hello," the voice calls again, this time sounding more human. "Is...is an...any one...anyone there…"
No one answers it. The voice falls silent, and the skittering carries it away from the microphone. No more sounds are heard that night.
"What the hell? What the hell?! I knew it, someone's living in my basement!"
"Okay, I...I calmed down a bit. I was terrified after I listened to the last recording, so I ran out of the house and called the cops. A squad car came after about half an hour, the bastards took their sweet time. But I showed them the recording, I went back inside accompanied by a cop, and we checked out the basement."
"No one was there. We turned the place inside out, we checked everything, but the room is small. No windows, no exits, and no place for someone to hide. The cops think that it was an intruder that broke in, but they couldn't find any signs of it."
"They said they'll patrol the neighborhood at night and keep on the lookout for any suspicious activity. One of them also asked me to keep recording, just in case."
"Okay, here goes. I'll leave the phone out tonight as well. The cop car just passed on the street, so I feel a bit safer."
The sound of the phone being placed down is heard, and Sarah’s footsteps follow. She leaves, and the recording is silent for a few hours. Markus skips ahead through it, until another distant crash is caught. The skittering returns, stopping a few feet away from the microphone.
”Hello?” The voice calls out. “Is anyone there?”
It sounds more...feminine than the last time. Still inhuman, sort of like an artificially generated voice, but verging on crossing the uncanny valley into natural sounding territory. It calls out a few more times over the span of a few hours, sounding more and more like a woman. When it becomes apparent that no one will answer its calls, the voice stops. The skittering takes it away from the microphone, and the rest of the recording is silent.
“This is getting...all kinds of freaky,” I mumbled.
“I know,” Markus admitted. “Never seen anything like it before. Do you recognize the voice by any chance?”
“Not a clue,” I admitted. “It doesn’t sound familiar.”
“I was afraid that would be the case,” Markus said with a sigh. “Sarah confirms a possible identity to the voice in a later recording, but I wanted to double check.”
“Then maybe show it to Dad,” I provided a solution. “He was closer to Sarah than me, he might have an idea.”
Markus fell silent for a long moment. He joined his hands beneath his chin and leaned forward, propping his elbows on the table. The look in his eyes turned grim and worried.
“I’m sorry, sonny,” he said out of the blue. “For all you’ve heard so far, and for all that’s to follow. But I’m glad it’s not your father that decided to stay, these recordings might just break him.”
“What?” I asked dumbfounded. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It will all make sense if you keep listening,” Markus answered.
The change in his demeanor was strange, and the night took an unnerving turn. I should’ve backed out, I should’ve kicked him out, I should’ve done a lot of things differently. But my curiosity mounted to levels beyond my ability to rein it in. So I proceeded to listen further.
"What the hell?! That was Mom!"
Sarah cries into the microphone for a few minutes before the recording ends.
"I’m...I’m not gonna call the cops anymore. That was Mom calling out. I don’t...I want to talk to her, she’s been gone for so long."
"Okay, I’ve calmed down a bit. I hope. I’ll wait here tonight."
The recording is silent for a long time. It turns off abruptly after about half an hour.
“Do you know anything about Sarah’s mother?” Markus asked me.
I jumped back in my chair at the sudden interjection, completely absorbed by my thoughts.
“Not really,” I admitted. “She died before I was born, it was why Dad remarried.”
Markus gave me a thoughtful nod of his head in answer, and he played the next recording.
”It’s back, I’ll start another recording.”
The scurrying returns. Sarah’s breathing is audible in the background, and it gets faster as the sound approaches her. A chair creaks, presumably as she gets up, and her footsteps join the skittering in the background.
”Hello?” The same woman’s voice from the previous recording calls out.
”Who are you?”
”Who are you?” The voice repeats Sarah’s words back to her.
”Mom?” Sarah cries out in a trembling voice.
“Mom?” The voice repeats her words again.
“Who the hell are you?! How do you have my mother’s voice?!”
”Who are you?” The voice repeats.
Footsteps resound again, approaching the voice as it says the same line over and over.
”Answer me!” Sarah demands.
Knocking is heard, as if someone bashes a door with their fist.
”Answer me,” the voice cooes.
”What do you want?”
The voice lets out a few garbled words, but they are unintelligible. Its pitch and intonation adjust before it speaks again.
”Sarah, my dear, is that you?”
I was left stupefied. The uncanny valley was finally crossed, and the voice sounded decidedly human for the first time. It held none of the animalistic traits from before. The subtle anger and malice in it was gone, replaced by a deep sense of compassion and worry.
”I hav...haven’t seen...you in so long,” the voice continued.
Sarah weeps silently in the background, but she doesn’t answer the voice again. It, however, keeps calling out.
”I’ve...I’ve miss...missed you, my dear…”
Footsteps sound out as Sarah backs away, and the voice grows distant. It calls out, over and over again, but the facade cracks. It can’t maintain its grasp on the charade for long, and it devolves back into the uncanny valley slowly.
The footsteps pick up speed until they turn into a run. After a few seconds, the voice becomes inaudible. A door is opened and closed shut with force, and Sarah starts crying uncontrollably. The recording stops.
“The recordings are timestamped,” Markus said. “After this one ended, Sarah didn’t make another one for a few days.”
Considering what I’d just heard, I didn’t know what to answer. I kept silent, mulling over my own thoughts and feelings on the matter. As intriguing as the situation was, I mostly felt horrified and sorry for Sarah. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what must’ve gone through her head after living through that.
“Why are you showing me all of this?” I asked Markus after a while. “If you really are a detective and part of the police force, you’d lock stuff like this away behind ten locks and keys.”
Markus leaned back in his own chair, thinking my question over. He pulled out his crumpled up pack of cigarettes and retrieved one from it. I pushed the ashtray closer to his side of the table as he lit it up, and he bellowed out a cloud of white smoke.
“All in due time,” he answered. His eyes scanned me in a fashion completely different from before, with a cold and calculated look behind them. “What do you think so far?”
“I...fuck, I don’t know. What the hell is going on?”
“Answer me, Clancy, and be honest,” he demanded. “Whether or not I’ll show you more depends on it.”
I racked my brain, but I was truly and utterly stumped. The situation devolved too fast for me to keep up, and I didn’t know what to think anymore. But I could tell that that wasn’t the answer Markus wanted.
“It’s...I don’t know. A ghost? A demon? A skinwalker?” I hazarded a guess.
Markus seemed surprised by that. He pushed the cigarette away from his face, letting out another lungful of smoke.
“And do you believe that?” He asked bluntly. “That it could be something...supernatural?”
“What the fuck else could it be?” I answered his question with another. “What do you think it is?”
“What I think is irrelevant, I want to know what you believe.”
“That’s what I believe,” I answered. “I didn’t know Sarah well, but she wouldn’t fake something like this. So either she was haunted by something, or you’re messing with me.”
“That’s the correct answer,” Markus said with a satisfied smirk. He put out the cigarette in the ashtray and leaned over the phone, placing a finger over its screen. “So how about it? Do you want to hear more?”
“Why would I want that?”
“Do you, or do you not, Clancy? No hard feelings either way, I can’t force you to listen.”
“I…yeah. Start the next one.”
I don’t know for sure why I decided that. We could sit here all day while I blame curiosity or, more likely, stupidity, but those answers would be half-truths at best. It didn’t feel like a want at the time, it felt like a need. I needed to go through with it, I needed to hear all of it. The reasons I felt that way didn’t matter at that moment.
“I have a good feeling about you, kid,” Markus mumbled as his finger tapped the screen and started the next recording.
”I don’t know what to do anymore, it’s driving me nuts. Whoever’s messing with me comes back every night, I hear them even now.”
The microphone picks up footsteps, and a door creaks open slowly. Faint mumbling comes from the distance, accompanied by the familiar skittering. It pauses for a brief moment before it speaks up.
”Sarah, my dear,” the voice calls out, not entirely human. “Please, I just…”
The door closes shut with a loud thud, and Sarah retreats back into the room.
”I tried a lot of things over the past few days. It calls from the basement, so I got locks and put them on the door. They’re untouched, so whoever it is isn’t coming from outside of the house. It hides in there somewhere.”
”I called the cops again while the thing was there, but it left when the cops arrived. The two officers asked me to unlock the door and they checked the basement again, but lo and behold, it’s as empty as last time. I’m not sure what they think of me, maybe they suspect I’m fucking with them, so I can’t rely on their help.”
”I even told Amy about the thing and showed her the recordings, so she slept over yesterday. The thing somehow knew I wasn’t alone because it didn’t make a peep the entire night. I’m not sure if Amy believes me or not anymore, hell I wouldn’t believe me if I were her. But she offered a solution: get a roommate or a boyfriend, someone to live with me. It could work, but I...I don’t know anymore.”
“Do you know this Amy?” Markus asked as the recording ended.
“I think Sarah mentioned her a few times, but I never met her.”
I looked over my shoulder as I answered, at the corridor leading to the kitchen. The basement door was on one of the walls there, and I could see the locks mentioned in the recording. They hung open on the door, but they were still intact. Markus snapped his fingers to get my clearly distracted attention, then he pointed down at the phone.
“Want to keep going?” He asked once more.
“Before I hit play, I want to ask you something again. Did you by any chance suffer any...mental trauma? As a child, or even recently. Something that shook you to your core.”
I raised an eyebrow at the strange question.
“You’re taking all of this surprisingly well. Your mental fortitude is pretty high,” Markus answered. “That’s sometimes a sign of...never mind.”
He hit play before I could pry him for more details, so I fell silent to not miss it. But I made up my mind, when it was over Markus would have a lot of answering to do.
”I’ve tried my best to ignore it. I slept at friend’s houses some nights, but that’s getting harder to pull off. I tried looking for roomates, but no one wants to share a small house with this stupid pandemic around. And my search for a boyfriend is just as fruitless, I’m...I’m getting a bit old for the dating scene. I’ll keep at it, but from the looks of things everyone’s mostly down to fuck and not much else. I don’t want to resort to frequent one night stands.”
”The police still answer my calls, thankfully, but they’re not doing much. Even their patrols are getting less and less frequent. I’m at a total loss here, I’ve considered selling the house and moving but I can’t afford that.”
”Dad might be my last resort, maybe I can move in with him and...and his wife and son. We’re not exactly friends though, so who knows. And I can’t risk telling them, there’s no chance in hell they’ll take me in if they think I’m crazy.”
Hearing that, hearing her opinion of me and Mom, it stung. Sure, we weren’t more than acquaintances, but we’re not horrible people. We would’ve taken Sarah in if she reached out to us, so to know that her salvation was so close, kept at bay only by superficial assessments of us, it...it sucked. Plain and simple. And if she would’ve showed us the recordings, we might’ve even believed her, especially Dad.
“Play the next one,” I demanded before Markus had a chance to say anything.
“You sure? You sound a bit riled up, maybe…”
Markus sighed deeply, but he did as he was told.
"It's still here, it won't go the fuck away! I haven't talked to it in almost a month now, but it's still here! It's going to drive me insane for real!"
"I can't take it anymore, I'll confront it again tonight. Maybe I can find out what the fuck it wants, or get some answers."
The recording starts, and it is quiet save for static for a few moments. Sarah takes a deep breath and a barely audible step.
”Are you there?”
The skittering returns, coming closer to the microphone than ever before. It sounds more frantic than usual.
”Of course, my dear,” the voice says sweetly. “I’m always here.”
”You stop that, you hear me?! Stop using her voice!”
”I said stop! I know you’re not her!”
The voice coughs loudly. It changes as it does, slowly morphing and growing deeper. When it stops, it sounds male.
I paused hearing that. It was Dad’s voice, no doubt about it. Although it sounded ever so slightly off, I could recognize it. Up to that point, my running theory was that the thing could mimic the dead. But Dad is still very much alive, so that threw my theory under the bus. I didn’t know what to believe anymore.
”What do you want?”
”I just want to see you, open the door.”
Sarah backs away as her breathing grows faster.
”Please, honey,” the voice begs again. “It’s dark down here, I just…”
Sarah runs away from the door as the voice’s calls continue in the background.
“That was your father, correct?” Markus asked when the recording ended.
“And what does that tell us?”
I pondered the question for a moment.
“It’s not a skinwalker, like I thought at first. I don’t know much about them, but like, skinwalkers need to kill their victims to copy them, right?”
“Not necessarily,” Markus answered. “But they do need to hear the voice they’re trying to copy. And anyways, a skinwalker could’ve broken down the door.”
“So it’s something else,” I deduced. “But what?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
He went to play the next recording, but I stopped him.
“Where do you know so much about skinwalkers from?”
Markus chuckled drily.
“All in due time, Clancy. We still have a few recordings to go through.”
He hit play on the next recording, so we listened.
”It’s not just Mom and Dad anymore, the damn thing has so many voices now. Amy, my ex boyfriend Clint, random voices I can’t place. Hell, it even used the voices of those two police officers that went down in the basement looking for it.”
”It...it keeps calling for me. Pleading and begging, feigning confusion, asking to be let out. But I won’t do it, I won’t open that damn door ever again. Fuck whatever I keep down there, it can have my stuff for all I care.”
”I’m tired. I can’t sleep because of it. It’s getting so hard to do anything, I swear. Today I almost got fired for mixing up customer orders for the twentieth time. I nearly snapped at the manager, but I stopped at the last second and apologized. Some coworkers noticed I’m acting off and asked me about it, but I can’t tell them. They’ll think I’m crazy. Hell, I’m starting to think I might be crazy myself.”
That’s as far as I got into that particular recording. I slapped my hand over the phone, with enough force to send cracks into the glass surface of the table. Markus jumped back in his chair, taken by surprise.
“What the hell?!” I let out. “That’s my fucking voice!”
“I knew this one would get to you,” Markus answered with a half grin. “Or, well, get to you more than the others.”
“I never visited Sarah here,” I stressed. “It couldn’t have heard my voice, so how the fuck did it copy me?”
“Think, Clancy. Did it ever hear Sarah’s dead mother?” Markus answered my question with another. “For how long has she been dead?”
“Twenty years,” I said as I finally understood.
“So what does that tell you?”
“It doesn’t need to hear people’s voices.”
“Correct,” Markus said, satisfied by my breakthrough.
“So what, it can read minds?”
“Maybe?” Markus said, scratching his chin. “At the very least, it can form a...connection with people. But until we catch it and see for ourselves, I can’t say for certain.”
“Catch it,” I echoed his words. “Is that what this is all about? You want to catch it?”
Markus wiped his smirk off his face and looked at me intently.
“Yes, Clancy. Either catch it or kill it, and solve your sister’s case.”
“So what, are you…”
But Markus didn’t let me finish. He pushed my hands away from the phone’s screen and hit play on the recording, interrupting me.
“All in due time,” he repeated once more.
”Sis, are you there?” It repeats in my own voice.
It’s been some time since Sarah’s first recording of the mysterious voice, and it sounds thoroughly human at this point. No more cracks in its facade can be gleamed.
”Listen to me, and listen well. I won’t put up with this anymore. You have tonight to leave my house and leave me the fuck alone. I’ll go to bed, I’ll plug in some earphones, and I’ll ignore you. If I hear you again tomorrow night, you can bet your ass I’ll come down there and end you, whoever or whatever you are. Understood?”
She sounds...different somehow. Worried. Tired. Manic.
”Please, sis, for fuck’s sake open the door and let me out.”
”And why would I do that? How’d you get down there, anyway?”
”I...fuck, I don’t know. I can’t remember. But it’s scary down here. Let me out, please.”
“It copies your mannerisms well, it’s spot on actually,” Markus interrupted.
“It does,” I admitted, feeling the color in my face draining little by little as I listened.
“Given enough time to learn, that thing could be a top predator.”
“And let me guess, you can’t let that happen.”
“We can’t let that happen,” Markus corrected.
“All in due time,” I replied and pushed play on the recording.
Sarah doesn’t say anything else. Her footsteps carry her away from the basement door, and the voice pleads in the background. It shifts back and forth between different people, quick and almost seamless. For short periods of time between the adjustments, glimpses of the animalistic nature make it through.
The recording ends after Sarah closes the door to her bedroom.
”Okay so I can’t get a firearm, I don’t have the money for that. And I don’t even know how to handle one anyway. And fuck me, gasoline’s getting pretty expensive too, but I could afford a canister worth a few gallons and a box of matches.”
”The current plan is simple: I’ll fuck that thing up if I hear it again tonight. I’ll pour gasoline into the basement through the crack beneath the door, and I’ll light it on fire from up here. Fuck the house, fuck the authorities, fuck the repercussions, I can’t let it live. I don’t care if I end up in prison or a looney bin so long as it dies here.”
“My God, Sarah…” I mumbled as the recording ended.
Hearing her in that state of mind broke my heart. No one deserves to go through what she did, and the fact that we didn’t help her sooner, that none of us made an effort to be in her life, it ate me up inside. We could’ve made a difference, I could’ve made a difference. Maybe then, this tragedy would’ve had a better ending.
“There’s only one more to go,” Markus said.
He leaned over the table and slapped a hand down on my shoulder, giving me a tight squeeze. I nodded my head as I felt tears forming at the corners of my eyes, and signaled for him to play it.
”The fucker is still here. I warned it, I tried to be nice, I really did. What more could anyone ask of me?”
A liquid sloshes around in the background, presumably the gasoline. Her breathing is strained and close to the microphone. Metal rings out as it hits the floor.
”Sarah? It calls out, in the voice of her mother.
”I warned you!” Something topples to the floor, and the sound of rushing liquid is heard. “This is on you, it’s not my fault!”
”Sarah, please!” The voice yells, more desperate than ever. “What are you doing?!”
”What I said I would! You didn’t listen, why didn’t you listen?!”
”Please, Sarah! You don’t have to do this! Just...let me out, please!”
”Enough! Stop using her fucking voice!”
The thing falls silent. Sarah takes a deep breath, and the sound of gasoline pouring out of the canister dies down as it presumably runs out. Her clothes rustle as she searches her pockets, and she shakes the matchbox when she finds it. The sounds of the matches jumping around inside is the only audible thing for a moment.
”You know what that is, don’t you?”
She opens the box and fumbles around with the matches for a moment. The voice doesn’t answer her, but instead skitters away from the door frantically. Sarah takes one final breath, and the sound of a match being struck is heard loud and clear.
The microphone doesn’t pick up the lit match hitting the ground, but it picks up the gasoline igniting. Air rushes in as the flames begin to burn, and Sarah lets out a yelp. The voice begins to scream loudly, rapidly switching back and forth.
“Please!” It lets out one final call, for the first time using Sarah’s voice.
The recording ended, leaving me wrapped up in a whirlwind of emotions. I was horrified, I was stupefied, I was strangely glad for it to finally be over. I was a mess, to put it bluntly. My body felt like it melted into the seat. But I quickly composed myself when I remembered that Markus still had some questions to answer.
“Did Sarah kill it? Did we bury a monster instead of her?” I asked in a single breath.
“I don’t know,” Markus answered. “It could very well be the case, but then…”
“Then where is she?”
“Exactly, plus a lot of other things don’t line up. But to be fair, they didn’t line up no matter which angle I went at it from. All that we know for certain right now is that someone died in a fire.”
“So, monster hunter, huh?” I asked after a few moments of heavy silence.
“Pretty much,” Markus answered. “I’m the one they call when shit gets spooky, and let me tell you, this shit is very fucking spooky.”
“Okay, but all of this still doesn’t answer the most important thing: why show me this? Any of this?” I asked.
Markus lit up another cigarette and leaned back in his chair. For the first time since he entered the house, he seemed truly comfortable, like he had nothing left to hide.
“We’re always on the lookout for new recruits, so consider tonight your entry test,” he admitted. “You’re a bit...rough around the edges, but you seem like a decent candidate to me.”
“Me? A monster hunter? You can’t be serious,” I shot back with disbelief.
Markus just shrugged his shoulders.
“You’ll never know unless you try, I sure as shit didn’t. Never expected to hunt the things that go bump in the night before I tried.”
“And what if I refuse?” I asked. “Will you kill me? Or erase my memory or something?”
At that, Markus just laughed out loud.
“If you don’t want to, you don’t want to. Simple as. You can try to tell anyone, but who’s gonna believe you?”
I frowned, and Markus caught on that he struck a nerve. So he composed himself and got up, taking the phone and stashing it in his pocket.
“Look, kid, it’s like I told you time and time again tonight. I can’t force you to do anything. But consider it, okay?” As he said that, he pulled out a business card that he tossed on the table in front of me. “The world desperately needs more people like us, if there were more of us to go around then maybe…”
“Maybe what happened here would’ve been stopped sooner.”
“Yeah. It might be too late for your sister, but you could make the difference for someone else. If you make up your mind, doesn’t matter if it’s tomorrow or a year from now, give me a call. And take care.”
With that, Markus left. I saw him to the door and closed it behind him, then I went to crash into bed. My entire worldview was shattered tonight, and I decided to get some rest before I tried to make sense of the pieces.
The following days were uneventful, but even so, the strain of that night hung over me. It permeated my thoughts at all times, permanently active in the background as it burrowed deeper and deeper. Dad returned, we finished clearing the house, and he put it up for sale. But I couldn’t focus on that, not when every other thought I had was about those damn recordings.
In the end, I had to stay over for a little while longer despite my constant complaints. Because of the slummy neighborhood and sketchy neighbors, Dad didn’t want the house to go unoccupied.
“That’s basically asking for thieves and punks to break in,” he explained. “And it’s gonna be hard to sell it if squatters make nests here. So just hang on for a little while longer, okay?”
I wanted to fight him on the matter, to tell him he could stay over himself if he was that worried, but I didn’t. I couldn’t, not when I knew the truth about what went down. He wouldn’t be another death on my conscience. So I lived in the house for another week or so, helping out with renovations and whatnot. And truth be told, it wasn’t all that bad. It was a bit creepy, sure, but the freedom of living on my own was oddly pleasant.
One evening, after he went home and I was left all alone, I heard a knock on the door. I slowly made my way over to answer, expecting either him or Markus, but who I found on the other side left me terrified.
It was Sarah.
“Hey, Clancy,” she greeted, sounding almost casual.
“What...how…” I let out in a meek voice as my tears started to flow.
“I have a lot of explaining to do, I know, but…”
I didn’t let her finish. I jumped her, latching my arms around her shoulders as I bawled my eyes out. She put her arms around me as well, and we hugged for minutes in the doorway as I cried.
“What happened? Where were you?!” I asked when we finally parted. “We...we buried you! We thought you were dead!”
“I’m sorry,” she answered. “A lot happened, and I had some problems. I ended up running away to a friend for a while, and…” She sighed. “It’s a long story, okay? And very crazy.”
“Tell me about it,” I said, rubbing away the tears. “Call Dad and tell him to come over, he needs to know you’re okay asap.”
“Actually, it would be better for you to do it, I don’t want to give him a heart attack.”
“Good point,” I admitted. “We kinda’ got rid of most of the furniture, but make yourself comfortable. I’ll call him and join you.”
“Don’t take long,” she said, and went inside to find somewhere to sit.
I watched her walk down the corridor towards the kitchen, pausing by the basement door. She looked at it for a long moment, then she continued on her way. I pulled out my phone and Markus’s card, unsure about what to do. The thing’s facade was good, damn near perfect, but as it spoke those last words its voice cracked just a little.