Theme: You weren’t supposed to wake up here.
From darkness to light. It all happened in an instant, the world exploding into vibrancy. I gasped— I could remember breathing, yet this felt like my first breath. The oxygen raced ragged down my throat, ripping into my lungs. It ached to breathe, it ached to see.
My brain felt unsure of how to parse the world. Light and shadow. Noises—someone was walking somewhere, something screamed, whether mechanical or animal I could not tell. There was an assault of smells that made me gag, either because they were unpleasant or because I had been so deprived. I gagged, flooding my senses with that bitter taste.
It was too much at once, and I felt myself drowning in sensation. As the flood subsided, I could piece things together, steadily understanding. Above me was the roof, wooden and in disrepair. The walls were dusty and stained. Those screams were certainly not mechanical. Those smells were certainly rot.
Worst were the shadows finding permanence. Bodies, lying on a table like the one I occupied. They lay there still, quiet, and unmoving.
And then there were the footsteps.
Something obscured my view, and my eyes struggled to refocus. Then there was a monstrous face, the source of the smell.
The eyes bulged at strange angles, barely contained by the flesh of its face. A ragged gash served as the mouth, a menagerie of teeth standing at lazy attention inside. It sniffed.
“Got another one,” it growled in a bubbling voice. It paused, head titled for a response, then shrugged. “Guess I’ll get this one.”
Rough hands on my body, like coarse stones tearing my skin. “Please,” I heard my voice, unfamiliar and harsh with disuse, “I shouldn’t be here.”
It laughed. “Of course you should. Now back to sleep.”
A needle’s pinch, then darkness.
Theme: “The door crept open”
The growl came from the closet. There was no denying the fact nor any reconciling it with reality. Lana hadn’t been sleeping and now wouldn’t be anytime soon. Instead, she stared at the wooden door and clenched the blankets about her with the primal instinct they would protect her.
“Get it together,” she whispered through gritted teeth. The impossibility required rationality to reassert itself quickly, shoving the fear to the side. “There are no monsters in closets.”
As if to prove to herself and whatever had growled, she flung the blankets aside and put her feet on the floor. Once grounded, she expected to feel safer. Instead, she felt more certain she was going mad.
Did the knob move? The door shake? Lana strained her ears to listen for anything. Was that breathing or the AC whispering through the vents?
“This is ridiculous. You outgrew this stuff in grade school.” She stood and forced her legs toward the door.
The room was chilled, her palms clammy. She studied the narrow wooden door. It only really counted as a closet so her landlord did not run afoul of housing laws; no room for monsters in there. Lana gripped the handle and took a breath.
“Grow up, Lana,” she growled to herself in a final act of motivation.
The door crept open and–
There was Nothing.
Nothing, vast, infinite, and dark. Stretching into eternity and beyond for impossible depth. How was emptiness so much worse than everything she had imagined?
As the Void reached out to draw her in, Lana longed for fangs, fur, and claws.
The crone had been clear with her instructions. Davalon had left the bottle under the full moon, had only water from the Halcyon Lakes since dawn, and now held the sweet-smelling elixir uncorked in his hand.
“Drink it before your task, and you will be guaranteed success. No follies will find you.” Before he left, she placed a hand on his arm, one finger raised in final warning. “Take care. This is a powerful spell. Do not squander it.”
He did not intend to. Steeling his nerves and belting his scabbard to his side, Davalon tossed his head back and drank the elixir, feeling a tingling swim through his body alongside the adrenaline. He prepared to leave for the arena, where his opponent was already boasting loudly.
The curtain to his tent swirled, and Maryalei appeared. There was a new stutter step to his heartbeat as she looked at him.
“I was not sure I would catch you,” she said.
Davalon felt his whole body vibrating with life; he was not sure if it was anticipation, fear, lovesickness, or the effects of the draught. “Marya,” he said before the words stuck. He felt like a schoolboy, not a knight-to-be. And yet, if the crone’s magic failed, when would he have this chance? “I am glad you came.”
She smiled, a hint of laughter in her eyes.
“After this,” he started, feeling a growing sense of confidence as his head swam with opportunity, “I would have your hand in marriage, if you’ll have mine?”
She rushed to him. “Of course,” she sighed, an unexpectedly easy victory.
At that moment, Davalon felt an empty feeling as the confidence fled and fear and nerves remained. One task, he recalled and hoped he might live long enough to enjoy what his potion had granted.
Theme: They never saw it coming
Trevor bounced from foot to foot, waiting for the doors to open and admit his soon-to-be wife down the aisle. He felt sweat run down his collar, a heavy smile on his nervous lips. He had not seen her since yesterday’s rehearsal, per tradition and her request; he imagined her resplendent for him alone. So he looked to the heavy wooden doors at the end of the aisle as the organ geared up and started the notes.
It was a bar too far into the song and the doors had not opened. He shifted again, smile shuddering, still waiting. Then, a creak and groan as the aged wood slowly edged open.
His eyes found hers just above her harsh smile. And then confusion and panic settled in as another figure in a white dress started down the aisle as well, hand in hand. Her father was supposed to be walking her down the aisle, but instead, there was a second bride.
The nerves settled firmly into a knot in his stomach.
Anna walked down the aisle in time to the song, never letting her gaze deviate from his. His eyes swung back and forth between his bride and the other woman, trying to wake up from this nightmare. Finally, the song ended and Anna stood at the bottom of the steps. They had rehearsed; he would go down, take her hand, and help her up. Only he froze.
“I figured since you thought you could date both of us, you wouldn’t mind marrying us both?” she said with acid dripping from her voice.
Louisa smiled too, and he was trapped beneath their withering gazes. “Only I’m not sure either of us wants to say ‘I do.’”
Trevor fainted, the only way to save any dignity he had left.
Theme: “Laughter filled the air.”
Dave sat on the edge of the bed and shifted again, loosening the tie around his neck and grinning at the woman across from him. Susan? Sarah? One of those typical names. However, she was far from typical, he began to realize.
“So, I don’t normally do this. I know, big shock.” His nervous laughter filled the air, bouncing off the freshly pressed sheets and dusty curtains.
She just smiled, that same absent smile that had been plastered on her face since he opened the door. She tilted her head, and Dave got the sudden image of a gyroscope, her head rotating around the stable point of that lipsticked smile.
The woman at the bar had led the conversation, steadily building Dave’s confidence to Icarian levels. When he slyly passed his room key to her, he felt certain of the move. And then instantly expected her to laugh him away. Instead, she raised an eyebrow and tucked the key into the distractingly low neckline of her dress.
And now, that smile.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked nervously. “I got ice from the machine earlier, and—“
Her finger was on his lips, gently silencing him. She smiled wider and leaned over the edge of the bed. Maybe, Dave thought, this was normal and he was the weird one. Frankly, that had held true in most of his life.
“You’re the boss,” he said with another burst of nervous laughter.
“Oh, I’m much more than that,” she said. And the smile grew wider, showing more teeth than fit in a human jaw. Had they always been that sharp?
With practiced ease, she flew to his throat, successfully cutting off the scream before it could bubble out. The hunt looked different nowadays, but the outcome never changed.
Theme: Image Prompt
My feet could no longer feel the earth beneath them, but I remembered it.
I remembered the feel of dark soil under my soles, thrumming with the vibrancy of earth and whispering ancient ways to me. The sway of Mother Earth, the loving gaze of Mother Moon. The exaltation of all things feminine and trampled by the day-to-day life.
We danced, my sisters and I, beneath that moonlight. We leaped, held aloft in the arms of our two mothers, cradled in that space. In the smoke and stars, we saw visions.
I remembered breathing deep the perfume of wilted flowers and sweat, mingled with the bonfire scent. It was intoxicating and every time my feet dug into the soil, I could feel the bounty of life surge through me. We joined together to celebrate the divine around us, the divine within us.
Moonlight, starlight, dirt, and blood. In those moments, we existed not as human flesh, but as something carved from the essential elements and told to celebrate. I did not need air to live, only those moments of ecstasy. My worship kept my heart beating, my lungs moving, and I thrived on that inhuman diet on those nights of revelry.
The flickering shadows of the fire threw scenes of the future before us, cloudy, mystical. And somehow we did not see what was to come until the sacredness of our space was trampled beneath booted feet, feet that could not feel the hum of the earth. Their bodies were covered so that even the moonlight could not strike them.
My feet no longer feel the earth beneath them, dangling here in the in-between. All I feel is the grip of the rope, punishment for daring to touch the sacred.
Jessie settled in her chair and let the beach surround her. Deep breath in and she tasted the salty air, slightly fishy, but pleasantly so. She heard gulls circling out at sea, their calls coming in with the steady rhythm of the waves. Her phone buzzed; she ignored it.
The sun was warm, bright. The sand beneath her feet radiated heat up through the soles of her feet, and she dug her toes down to find cooler sand below. The phone was ringing. Another deep breath, sinking into her seat.
She watched the waves come in and out, sea dancing with sunlight, white foam licking at the sand. Another ring, this time an email, and she let the waves carry away the distraction. Her ears settled on the roar of the waves.
Someone was knocking on a door, and she let her eyes drift across the sand. Now there was the sound of kids playing, calling to one another. A steady bubble of human chatter beneath the steady pulse of the waves. She breathed in time to the tides, in and out, with the same steadiness and certainty.
Just a peaceful day on the beach, blue skies, white sands, and–another knock. “Jessie? You in there? I brought the reports you asked for. I can come back later?” No footsteps. Lena was, despite her words to the contrary, waiting.
Jessie’s eyes snapped open, the beach fading from her mind as the office returned. Her peace lay shattered and dispersed in the piles of paper on her desk. She briefly noticed that her hands were digging into the arm of her chair. So much for a break.
She stood and opened the door before Lena could leave. Deep breath in, the subtle scent of salt, as the world reclaimed its space.
Theme: The call came at midnight
The phone was ringing. I reached a hand toward the buzzing, glowing thing and sat up, trying to clear the sleep from my voice.
“Hello?” It didn’t work, and my words came out with the familiar fuzzy, just-woken quality.
“Mike? It’s Chris.” Chris. I checked the caller ID on the screen. New guy from work. Nice enough, but not the sort I would take middle of night phone calls from.
“Uh-huh,” I added to the conversation, dropping all pretense. If you called this late–early–then you knew the person had been sleeping.
“I figured it out. I was having this dream, and it just all–Boom!”
“Figured what out?”
“The time travel project, of course”
Chris laughed. “Why else do you think I’d be waking you up? We both know what a grump you are.”
He was clearly drunk. Or high. Probably both, I reasoned.
“Listen, Chris, I think you need to get back to sleep. We’ve got work tomorrow, and we can talk then.” I figured he would instead be sleeping off whatever this was, but did not say as much. I just wanted to go back to sleep myself.
“Work? Mike, what are you–” he stopped midsentence.
“It’s Wednesday morning, bud. Sleep it off.”
“No, it’s not. We don’t–”
He paused, there was an intake of breath on the line. Part excitement, part shock.
“What’s the date, Mike?”
“Now? It’s February 10.” I said after checking the phone screen.
“February 10…” he trailed off, waiting for me.
I sighed and ran a hand across my face. The smart thing to do was hang up. “2021,” I said instead.
“Oh.” In his voice was surprise, confusion. “Oh,” he said again. This time somber and shocked. “I have to get back,” were his final words before the call disconnected.
This is a new thing. Welcome to my first Terse Tale, chosen as a name almost entirely because of alliteration. I’ll be sharing some micro stories I have been writing for an online challenge over the past few weeks. These are 100-300 word stories based on a given prompt. I’ve always been rather wordy, so I have found it really tough and rewarding to try and tell a convincing story in a short format. Sometimes the attempts is a success, other times less so. But I have found myself thinking a lot more about what I say and how I say it when writing. Ideally, I will post these weekly for as long as I continue to write them!
So, in the interest of brevity, here is the first one, based on the theme “it was as if time itself stopped.”
It was as if time itself stopped. Or perhaps that was just wishful thinking. I wondered how long I could stay there silent, motionless, barely breathing. Perhaps they would just go away and I could imagine nothing was wrong.
They were touching me now, a hand light on my arm. I think it was supposed to be reassuring, yet it only served to threaten my careful shell of denial. And they were talking, but I could not be bothered to tune my mind to their words. I was in freefall and neither gravity nor time could touch me unless I chose to stop.
“We’re not going home?” My words broke through, surprising both of us, and they stumbled mid-sentence. A heartbeat of silence.
“No. The boosters were too damaged to get us off the surface.” They were repeating what they had already said, I realized, but the words felt all new to me, striking a fatal blow each time.
“Not with the storms and solar flares picking up. We’re lucky to have landed at all.”
Lucky, they said. Didn’t feel that way. I glanced at the small photo taped haphazardly to my work station. That small face that I knew would age years in the time I was away, but now–
“A few weeks, with rationing. No one could have predicted–”
“And a few months until rescue,” I interrupted. They didn’t say anything more. They did not need to. I understood perfectly my sentence as I was to serve it. Weeks or months had no meaning; I would float through the remaining time left, but I was already dead.
I grabbed the picture as I walked away. He and I were now both frozen moments in time, even if mine soon would run out.
Gabe walked out hand in hand with the girl from the party. Her name was Jessica, he thought. It had been loud inside, and he was always terrible with names. He did know that she was pretty, laughed at his jokes, and kept smiling at him all night. Those, for the moment, were certainly more important than names.
“You know how they do those stupid human trick shows and stuff?” he asked her. It was cold out, and he remembered seeing the words coalesce in the early morning darkness.
She pulled her arms around her and nodded. “Yeah, like burping the alphabet backwards or fitting into a shoebox or something?”
“Yeah, that kind of stuff.” He paused and gave her a smile he hoped came across as intriguing and not creepy as it felt. “I’ve got one of my own.”
He could almost see the eye roll. And to be fair, it did sound like a bad pick-up line, now that he played it back. But that wasn’t the point. The bad pick-up line would come later. “Not like that,” he added quickly, the false bravado and charm fading away.
She took a step or two away, looking at him with a subtle smile. Then she raised an eyebrow. “Show me.”
He smiled. “Okay, look up at the sky and pick a star,” he explained, hurrying over to stand just behind and to the side of her.
“Alright, that one,” she said with finality.
“Can you point to it? So I know which one?”
“Well, this isn’t going to be much of a magic trick if I show you my star, but sure.” She lifted her arm and pointed to a middling bright star in the middle of the sky.
“Good choice,” he said thoughtfully, then raised his arm. “Keep your eye on that star, and—“ he extended his finger, pointing to the star as well. “Poof.”
Like that, the star blinked out, leaving a little patch of black in the sky.
“Whoa, did you just—can you do it again?”
He laughed, then answered her. “Yeah, of course. Choose another one.”
She did, and they repeated the process. Four times total.
“That’s amazing. I mean, you just point and they disappear?”
“Yeah,” he said, with insincere humility, “just something that I’ve been able to do since I was a kid. Don’t show off too much or else the government might track me down.” She leaned back against him, staring up at the sky with its covering of stars that now seemed not quite so far away. “And if you think that’s impressive, “ he said, leaning close to her ear, “you should see what else these fingers can do.”
And there was the bad pick-up line.
It was later, lying in bed, that Jessica—that was her name, he had confirmed surreptitiously—brought the trick up again.
“So, like, do the stars just stay out or…?”
He blinked his eyes open and shifted his position, trying to stay focused despite a wave of grogginess. “No, they come back, at least by the next night or so. I’ve never really timed it.”
“And you can just do that? Like, you weren’t hit on the head with a meteor or born in a spaceship or anything?”
“Not that I know of. Just found out when I went star watching with my grandpa one year.”
“And you primarily use this power to get women to sleep with you?”
“What?” he asked, a hint of offense coloring his words. “I definitely do not do that. It’s just that the only people I trust with my secret ability are those that are willing to sleep with me. I can’t just let everyone know I’m the world’s most useless superhero. If my secret identity got out,” he chuckled and let the sentence hang incomplete, settling comfortably into the pillows.
“Well, your secret is safe with me,” she said, rolling over and pulling the covers around her contentedly.
Gabe closed his eyes, breathing a deep sigh as he let the drowsiness take over. He was nearly asleep again when her voice broke through.
“But what if there are, like, planets round those stars?”
He shook his head, as if that would shake off the sleepy feeling. “Planets?” he asked, trying to quickly replay the last few seconds to make sure he knew what she said. “I’m sure there are planets around them. Aren’t there tons of planets out there?”
“Yeah, yeah, but” she sat up, suddenly looking excited, “but what if there are people on the planets? And you just turned out their sun?”
“Oh no,” he said, throwing his arm over his face and rolling to the side with theatrics. “I picked up the crazy chick. Don’t tell me you believe in aliens.”
She gave him a playful push on the shoulder, laughing herself. This was one of those moments he would go back to after their relationship eventually dissolved. Her in the bed, hair tousled, eyes sleepy, but a wide smile on her face as she laughed. Through the laughter, she thought out her response. “I mean, no, not really, but who knows, right? There’s so much out there, and—“
“Listen, if there are aliens out there, they can come and ask for an apology. I’ll give it to them. But I think it is mighty suspicious that sightings of aliens have dropped now that everyone has a handy camera with them 24/7. So I think I’m safe.”
And yet, here he was.
The abduction didn’t happen like it did in the movies. There was no blinding white light or tractor beam. And Gabe was pretty sure he was not paralyzed, at least not physically. It was, however, very much like those kidnapping movies that took off for a while. A bunch of shadows in his bedroom that suddenly lunged and grabbed him on all sides, sliding something bag-like over his head, and then carrying him out of the house. Gabe heard the door squeak shut behind them, the sound of too many feet on the gravel, and then an electronic whoosh and snap sound. The air around him was cooler, not the humid summer heat, and the light making its way through whatever was on his head was brighter. He felt cold ground beneath him as they set him down, then everything stopped.
His heart was still pounding in his chest, a rapid beat that threatened to burst right out of his chest. He tried taking everything in, tried making the shadows he had seen match anything plausible. He was being kidnapped, that was certain, but he had a very unsettling feeling it was not by anyone or anything he had encountered before.
“You can remove the hood,” said a voice. The sound of English made his heart slow a pace or two. They spoke English. So that meant it was unlikely anything as absurd as his mind had raced to.
“I can leave it on, if you prefer. You know, so I don’t know who you are. So you don’t have to kill me.” The words poured out of his mouth, sounding stupider than he thought.
A sigh. “I’d prefer to speak to you directly.”
Gabe grabbed the hood and lifted it off in a fumbling motion. And as his eyes adjusted to the bright light, the conversation so long ago with Jessica came rushing back.
In the movies, abductions use tractor beams. In the movies, aliens are vaguely humanoid. Gabe was discovering both of these were simply Hollywood magic and nothing at all related to reality.
The gathering of being stood around his cage. There were five of them—no six. One had no form at all, but did appear to be a collection of moving haze. One at least had clear legs, though there were four of them. He could generally find eyes in their various places on the beings, and some had indentions that Gabe thought could possibly be mouths. But beyond that, his understanding of their anatomy stopped. Despite the bright lights, the room started to go dark around the edges. Then the middle. Then everywhere.
The room was still cold and bright when Gabe awoke, and there was a hum of activity off to the side. He was not in his bedroom, which meant something had happened, but it most certainly could not be those things swimming to the surface of his mind.
Voices. He tried to focus on them, if only to stop the spinning in his head.
-not what we really were expecting.”
“Does it really matter what this creature is like? It’s dangerous!”
“I just don’t think we should make any sort of rash decision.”
“No one is suggesting we act rashly but just—“
“Me. I suggest we act rashly. Who knows? It could wipe us all out before we even—“
“Now we have no reason to think—“
“You don’t get to just—“
The voices began to meld into a stream of babble and yelling that was indistinguishable. Gabe slowly rolled over, letting himself finally take a look at his surroundings.
It was, unfortunately, exactly as he remembered. A white room, bars surrounding him, and a menagerie of completely alien creatures standing in a huddled mass to the side.
Eventually one of them—some creature with what looked like tentacles and apparently a mouth that opened by splitting their head widely down the middle—noticed he was moving.
“It has awoken,” it said, a sharp tone of panic in its voice. The others turned quickly to stare at him.
“Earthling,” said one of them, taking a step towards him. This one had four legs, three long protrusions with what looked like eyeballs, and no discernible mouth. Nothing moved when he spoke, but Gabe heard it clearly. “We have been sent to neutralize you.”
“You speak English,” Gabe gawked, his mind trying desperately to help him see that was not the important part here. The alien’s face fell, as did the others, and Gabe was amazed to discover he could recognize disdain in completely alien features. Perhaps that was another superpower he possessed.
“Our ship automatically translates all language into something you can understand.”
Curiously, Gabe also discovered that the same disappointed tone was also easily interpreted. He sat staring and they stared back at him. Now that he had a chance to see them without passing out, he realized they were all wearing what looked like armor of some sort. The pieces were all different, fit to their physiology, but made of some thick, dark, shiny substance. They were some sort of military squadron? Or pirates? Or space cops?
His mind finally ran through and processed what had been said to him before, and panic shot through his system. “Wait, neutralize?”
“He got there!” said one of the creatures, though Gabe did not look quickly enough to tell who. From the gestures being made, he thought it might have been amorphous creature standing towards the back and cycling through different colors, but he could not be sure.
The four-legged alien spoke again. “Yes, that is our mission. We have been sent to save our homes and neutralize you. By whatever means necessary.”
“I think you have the wrong person. I just work in a call center. I don’t have anything to do with aliens.”
“So you aren’t the one who keeps extinguishing our stars?”
Had he been on Earth, Gabe was certain this would be a good time to request a lawyer. But, with aliens, he was not sure if the idea of a lawyer even translated. Or was an option. They had just kidnapped him, after all. Or was it an arrest? He felt out of his depth.
“Can I plead the fifth? Is that a thing?”
The gathered group turned toward one another, then back to him. “That is not an answer. Have you extinguished our stars?”
One of the group stepped forward slightly. Its face, or what Gabe liked to think of as its face, was covered in a smattering of shiny, black spheres. Most likely eyes, but this was all a learning exercise for him. The sides of its head suddenly lifted, two large wing-like appendages stretching into the air. These were connected to the rest of it by shimmering strands of something. It stood there, waiting.
“What would happen if I had?”
“This is going to take all day, Devlox.” Now Gabe was sure it was the large amorphous creature. It turned a striking shade of maroon with impatience.
“We have plenty of time before we reach home system. If it takes many days, it takes many days.”
“Home system?” said Gabe, sitting up straighter and feeling his heart begin to race again. “You mean we’re leaving Earth?”
“Yes, we left some time ago. As soon as we boarded, actually,” responded Devlox. Gabe felt a little better. This…being was at least willing to be reasonable. To answer questions. The good cop, thought Gabe. And bad cop was back there. But that still left a lot of undecided creatures in the wings.
“But then what if it’s not me?”
The collection of haze spoke. Its voice was in the ship, but Gabe also seemed to feel it resonating through him. All in all, it was a very unpleasant situation. “Earthling, we already know it is you. Devlox and his kind are more…skeptical of modern technology.”
“I’m simply not willing to base such a decision on the advice of a machine, Cylantha. There is nothing wrong with being diligent.”
Cylantha sighed, which felt similar to a strong wind pushing against Gabe’s body. “Yes, but this whole interrogation is simply to satisfy you.”
“Fine,” Devlox stomped back, a feat Gabe noted was more impressive with more legs. “Then what do you suggest we do? Go ahead and execute it?”
The amorphous creature turned a shade of green that Gabe felt very unsettled by. “That’s the easiest way, yes.”
Another, tinier voice spoke up as a rather short, squid-like creature piped up. “It is wrong to kill another creature. We must find another way”
“Wrong to kill a creature that could wipe out all our planets in an instant? That’s wrong?” spoke the tentacle creature that had first alerted them to Gabe’s consciousness.
“It always brought them back,” added the little one, not shrinking down from the intimidating figure. “Right?” he asked, turning toward Gabe.
“Well, I mean, I guess so. I didn’t really do anything, you see.”
“So you mean to say you didn’t extinguish the stars?” asked Devlox.
“I guess, I mean, I did. I didn’t mean to. Well, I meant to, but I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
“And you brought them back?” added Devlox.
“They just, always came back. I didn’t have to do anything.”
The creature with the wing-like appendages and many eyes stepped back, the wings folding back in. “It is telling the truth,” it said in a monotone. Somehow, that did not seem to help.
The large creature now stepped forward. “You mean to tell me you just hoped they would come back?” it roared, skin flashing all shades of dark blue and purple.
“You just hoped it would work?” squeaked the tiny creature with a hurt, accusing tone. Gabe shrank back more from the disappointment than the rage. He had always been susceptible to a good guilt trip.
There was a push of wind, something from Cylantha, Gabe assumed, and the group quieted. It was silent, and in that silence Gabe felt guilt pouring over him. The only solution was to break that silence. “So you are telling me I’ve been turning your sun off and on for all these years?”
“Yes,” came the exasperated sigh from most of the seven assembled beings. It was not in unison, but almost.
“And you had no idea what you were doing?” asked Devlox. Gabe noticed that the wing flaps were back up.
“I knew if I pointed at a star, it would blink out. And then come back later. I had no idea there were aliens—“ he watched the whole room recoil at that word—“up there. I never wanted to hurt anyone.”
“It is telling the truth,” came the same monotone report as the wings closed again.
“So you just kept doing it? With no thought to the consequences?” asked Cylantha.
“I didn’t know anyone else was out there.”
“So this is the great Destroyer,” said Devlox, pacing across the ship. Again, it was remarkable to Gabe how universal disappointment seemed to be. “Sorry there will be no need for an honor duel, Antu,” it finished, waving to the amorphous creature who had settled into a silvery green shade.
“It would not be much of a fight,” snapped back Antu.
“Do we have to kill him, then?” squeaked the squid-like creature. Devlox looked to the group.
“I don’t know,” said the weary creature after a moment. “Things are not going according to the plan.”
“How did you get your powers?” asked Cylantha, wafting forward toward the bars. “Did you purchase them? Performa a ritual? Defeat a great enemy?”
Gabe shrugged, then realized that might not translate to a group of beings with no shoulders to speak of. “I don’t know. I just always could.”
“And you never found that odd?” asked the hazy form again.
“I mean, sure, it was a weird trick. I’d show people sometimes and they’d be amazed. But I tried not to make a big deal out of it. Sounds like it caused you all a lot of problems.”
“Well, mass panic intermittently, irregularities in temperature and gravitational fields, and the crushing despair that one day Kav’nu may not return,” bristled a blue-shaded Antu.
“I’m sorry,” said Gabe.
“See, it’s sorry everyone. We can just forgive it and go on with our lives,” squeaked the squid.
All three of Devlox’s eye stalks peered down at the tiny thing, blinking slowly. “That’s not how this works, Meerk. It could still destroy us all.”
“But it said it’s sorry.”
“And I am sorry. I promise, now that I know, I won’t do it again.” Gabe began to foolishly hope that this tactic might actually work, given his sincerity.
“Oh, we will be sure of that,” said Devlox, eyes returning forward.
“You’re going to kill me?” Gabe whispered.
“Not yet. But we are going to keep an eye on you. You say it happens when you point? Wait, Viremat,” Devlox gestured to the thing with many eyes that stepped forward, raising the flaps on its head again. “It only happens when you point at a star?”
“Speak,” ordered Cylantha.
“Yes,” squeaked Gabe, feeling so many eyes on him.
“It speaks the truth.”
Devlox took a deep breath. “Alright then, Antu, get something to hold its arms down. We’ve got a long trip ahead of us.”
Thanks for reading!
I haven’t written in a long time. I’ve dabbled here and there, but this was one of the first times I sat down with an idea and just got to get it out there. I typed it up on my day off, gave it a read through and made some adjustments, but I’m just so happy that I got something done! This is an idea that I had in the first few weeks after my little girl was born. Those were some rough weeks and, despite being tired, my anxiety was doing a great job ensuring I was not sleeping. “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” Haha, okay then.
I started developing this idea then, after singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to her. And having something to think about, a world to play with, it made me start to feel better. So I really wanted to get back to this and flesh out this character. It’s changed a lot from where it started, but I think it was a fun idea to play with. It’s what I needed then, and what I needed now to help me do something just for me.
Carver had been saved many times in his life by humanity’s unrelenting reliance on rationality. It may not have always appeared rational, but no matter how many people jumped at shadows, some reasonable voice always served to draw them back to the natural, the possible, the explainable. Except, of course, when it better served their interests to fuel the fire. Carver let that certainty steady his hands.
Whimpers reached his ears, a sound that almost seemed to hum like a background drone in the drama of his life. Whimpers, pleas, and cries of despair were a chorus he conducted, melding seamlessly with the ebb and flow of day-to-day.
He tightened his hands around the victim’s throat. Blonde, blue-eyed, middle-aged, and found putting flowers on a gravestone. She fit the criteria, and so he completed his task with professional indifference. The whimpers quieted as his hands compressed, eventually dying away completely as the woman followed suit. Always give it a few extra seconds after you think they’re out, he thought to himself. It was a lesson you only had to learn once or twice before it stuck.
Once she stopped moving and stayed stopped, he let his grip relax and pulled his notebook from his back pocket. Turning to the last page, he reviewed the criteria to ensure he would not miss a step. That was also a lesson learned quickly after one or two mistakes.
“Only the vile may turn away death, those who by their very stench offend him. Thrice snuff the life of the childless mother, drive his mark into her bones. Under moonlight on the sacred stones, curse the ground and seed with rot.”
Just as he remembered. He felt a peace settle into his bones as he returned to the ritual, walking through the steps he had completed twice before. He was almost certain, at least, that “snuff” suggested strangling—it usually did, at least. Then again, it was a translation through about four languages he might be the only person left alive to speak, so assuming anything about it was true was a risk. Still, he pulled the knife from his waist and began to cut through to her sternum—that would give him ample room to work.
It was a messy business carving death’s sign into the bone, and he had to be mindful not to nick himself. With improvements in DNA technology, his job had gotten increasingly harder. But the internet had certainly been a boon. Life had taught him that there was some truth in the stale axiom to take the good with the bad. He smiled as he finished the mark.
Now to drive to the sacred spot. He had located three places of spiritual significance in local legend, and his experience said those would work sufficiently. The last was only a few miles away. Carver lifted the limp body from the ground, taking a moment to kick the dirt over the bloodstain forming. There were clouds overhead and rain in the forecast, so the likelihood of anyone finding this location was dropping by the moment.
He hefted her into the back of the truck, closed the tailgate, and settled himself into the front. The vehicle rumbled to life and he drove down the access road back toward the highway, his eye on the GPS as he joined the flow of so many other souls twisting through the arteries of the country this late at night. No one thought a thing. Eventually he turned off, followed a maze of turns, and ended at a scenic overlook. The night was heavy around him, but it was the only companion he had. Well, that and the corpse he hoisted from the bed.
It was a treacherous climb down, and the added weight threatened to send him tumbling. Something else that would not be a first. He finally reached the clearing next to the large stones. At some point, according to the area’s history at least, there had been sacred carvings and native runes etched into the surrounding stones. Now they sat weathered and moss covered. But it met criteria, and that was his only concern.
Carver dropped the body without a glance, letting it lie there in a tangle of limbs. There were no specifications on the arrangement of the body that he was aware of. Now, he just needed to “curse the ground.” Pulling a bag of salt from his pack, he proceeded to throw it liberally around the body. Now, all that needed to happen was her body to begin to decay, finishing the process. The location was certainly removed enough to delay someone stumbling on the site. Then again, such things had happened before.
He would be gone before anyone found it, of course, just as he always was. The locals would assume a serial killer in their midst, spend a few weeks or months searching for whoever was abducting these women. And Carver would be on to his next city, running out the clock on this ritual and searching for the next one that would serve to lengthen his life.
Immortality was a devious lie, he thought as he rejoined the flow of traffic towards some unknown destination. Hundreds of secret texts and sacred rituals promised immortality, but he had yet to find one that delivered. Each seemed to give him some handful of extra years, but invariably he again found the effect wearing off. And he had yet to find one that was repeatable. It seemed Death was a wily creature, prone to learning the tricks of his prey and using that to hunt them down.
How many, he wondered. It was not a good idea to try and count, because the number was dizzying. It seemed each culture had its own promise of immortality, and he was running out of options. Six dismembered here, three stabbed, nine decapitated, two drowning, and the list went on. He had found many creative ways to end the lives of random innocents—mostly innocents, he corrected as he thought about a few that required the blood of the damned.
And he was saved time and again by human rationality. It was so much easier to believe that it was the work of a killer, each one representing one depraved mind. It was harder to think about some killer traipsing through the ages, winding across countries and tracing the globe, killing randomly and without pattern. It would require someone to imagine that immortality might exist, that all these seemingly random touches—carved signs, salt, missing organs, ashes, clothing, placement, and a dozen other variables he tracked meticulously—were in fact part of some larger plan. The playbook written by all of humanity and being followed by one truly devout believer.
And Carver knew he could always rely on rationality to help him elude suspicion. The same way no one thought too hard about how he appeared not to age, at least until he just suddenly moved away. New faces, new people, new names, and a new life. And if ever someone began to suspect something was going wrong, well, in this age of reason, they simply dismissed it with a host of poor excuses.
Two weeks later, and he still had not felt that familiar surge of power and energy course through him signifying the ritual had been accomplished and years had been credited to him. He followed the news; no bodies had been discovered, at least none of his. Which meant the ground was now truly seeded now with the rot of the three, yet something had not worked. Maybe a bad ritual, maybe he misinterpreted. And so he flipped through archives of ancient tablets, cave paintings, and scrolls. Most were indecipherable to the average person, but if you grew up speaking the language, it was far simpler.
On to another ritual, another way to leapfrog ahead of Death. He pushed away the thought of what might happen when the trail finally ran cold and Death caught his long awaited prize. As long as there were options out there, he was certain he would not let that happen.
Ah, there was a promising looking one….
Welcome to October! I’m probably not doing 13 days of spooky stories again, but if you’d like to read those from last year, click here! Either way, I needed to write something. I don’t super love this, but I think it could be worse. I like the idea, the concept of a serial killer who’s only motive is following ancient rituals to gain “immortality.” I thought of it while listening to a podcast on unsolved mysteries (Thinking Sideways, for those curious). the hosts were discussing potential highway killers and the idea of MOs and signatures of killers. And this idea came up. I don’t know about execution though. I’m actually wondering if this might be better told from the perspective of someone following the killer’s trail….hm….maybe we’ll revisit.
But, again, this helped break a streak of writer’s block I’ve been feeling. I just wrote to write, and here we go. If you have thoughts, suggestions, or any other general feedback, leave it in the comments.
As always, happy reading! And a very spooky October to you!!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
The end for our town came with neither the promised bang nor whimper. It came with silence, presumably sometime in the middle of the night when most of us were sleeping and those few awake were focused on other, seemingly more important, things. I don’t know who first discovered what was happening, but everyone knew something must be wrong when the internet stopped working. No one in town could get a signal in or out. Cell towers must be down, was the first thought. Or maybe some big power outage in the local big city. Our small town was mostly just a parasite, sucking down resources from the city to thrive in relative isolation. But that also meant that anything happening there without fail trickled over to us in due time. And with the internet down, there was no immediate way to figure out what that might be.
Things for me, at least, took a turn from annoying to bizarre when Judy Calvin stumbled in to the local diner—I was in there for my morning coffee before trudging down to the local grocery to start my shift. She worked in the city doing something—accounting, maybe? But she came in that morning looking pale and wide-eyed. Without a word, she slipped into a booth, sliding her bag and jacket across from her. From a distance, I could see her lips moving, but as far as I could tell she wasn’t saying a word. It was certainly an unsettling sight to see. I usually ran into her at the local farmer’s market, smiling and bubbly with an arm load of produce. This was certainly different.
Lorene, co-owner and unshakeable waitress at the greasy spoon, made her way over to the table with a pot of coffee and a tepid smile. Customer service, always, but caution most of all. Lorene had seen her fair share of bad stuff—being on the edge of town meant she had seen a lot of trash tumble in and out in her time.
“Looks like a rough morning, Judy,” she began, pouring a cup of coffee without waiting for the request. “Need me to get anyone?”
Judy’s eyes swung up to look at Lorene, and finally sound starting to trickle out of her lips. I still was too far away to hear clearly, and judging by Lorene’s face, she wasn’t faring much better.
“Sorry, what now, hun? Do you need me to call David? Maybe see if someone can take you down to Doc Linehan this morning? You don’t look so good and—“
The volume increased, now a frantic whisper that snaked across the surprisingly quiet diner. Everyone seemed to be straining to hear. We were a small town, so gossip was mostly our lifeblood. And this would be a story worth a few rounds of drinks at The Watering Hole later on.
“The road is gone.” Those were the first words I heard. The first sign to me that this was something more than small town gossip. She hadn’t hit a hitchhiker with her car, come across a deer carcass, or been chased by some local hoodlums. She had either had a significant mental break, or something unheard of was going on. I’m writing this down for posterity, so I guess you can imagine which it was.
“I was driving to work, and it just disappeared. It was there, and then there was nothing. I was in the nothing. The road is gone. It’s just gone.” Her voice was steadily rising in volume as she spoke, and I watched as my fellow nosy patrons began to shift with the same discomfort rolling through me.
“There’s nothing there!” she yelled now, then took a deep breath. “Nothing.” With that, she quieted again, back to the silent whispers that echoed only in her own mind. Lorene stepped away from the table, her normally imperturbable demeanor showing just the hint of a crack. “Lucas,” she snapped to the boy behind the counter trying to look busy refilling patron’s coffee mugs that had evaporated under his distracted gaze. “I need you to call Doc Linehan and Sheriff Marsh. I think Judy might need some help.”
“But the phone’s are down,” he replied dumbly.
I had always admired the steel in Lorene, and it came out now. “Well, we got someone here who needs help. I suggest you start running to town and get back as quick as you can.”
The boy pulled off his apron and set aside the coffee in an instant, spurred into movement by her decisive leadership.
“And Doris,” called Lorene as she made her way behind the counter.” Doris’s grey-haired head peaked from kitchen window, as if she hadn’t been listening the whole time. “Get a breakfast plate rolling for Mrs. Calvin here.” As she turned back to the counter, I heard her mutter under her breath, “There’s not much a full belly can’t at least help.” Then she took to wiping down the counter, one eyes watching Judy who only moved her lips in some silent chant.
I looked at my watch. Assuming Lucas kept his pace—and I somehow had no doubt he would—it would be at least 20 minutes before he returned. Assuming, of course, the Sheriff was in the station and Doc was not meeting with a patient already. That would put me at least 10 minutes late for my shift. I knew I needed to leave, but also knew that this was the kind of event Mack would understand me missing for. Or, if not, at least the kind of event that meant my shifts at the grocery would mean very little very soon.
I sipped my coffee—Lorene refilled it without ever looking at me. The diner had gone quiet with everyone waiting for the mystery to unfold. My money was on drugs, then. Someone had slipped something into Judy’s breakfast, leaving her to experience a fantastically upsetting trip halfway on the way to work. But there was something about her demeanor, the silence and terror, that left some primal doubt wriggling in my mind. Lorene took the plate from the window after a few minutes, setting it gently on the table in front of Judy who never looked at it.
In fifteen minutes, the chime over the door rang and Lucas strolled in with the Sheriff and Doc Linehan. I had not estimated them hitching a ride in the Sheriff’s cruiser, though I suppose I should have. For a moment, I felt more at ease knowing the professionals were here now to sort out what was going on. But that faded when I saw how serious the Sheriff looked. He knew something about this, and he didn’t like it. Doc Linehan followed behind a few steps, smiling at the patrons as she entered with that comforting smile she brought to all her patients. We were lucky she stuck around to start a practice, I suppose, when she could have made much more money opening up in some big hospital somewhere.
“Mrs. Davis,” said the Sheriff with a gentle tone that contrasted the determined look in his eyes. “I hear you may have seen something this morning—“
“The road’s gone, Tripp,” she said in a flat monotone, not looking up. Gone was the urgency, the desperation in her voice. The Sheriff glanced over at Doc, both of them exchanging knowing glances. Drugs, I felt the certainty increase.
“I was driving, and it was there. Then it wasn’t.”
“And where’s your car, Mrs. Davis?” he asked, cutting her off.
Now she turned to look at him, a fresh wave of terror washing over her features. “I—I got out to look. See what was going on. I only took a few steps away and it—it was gone, too.”
Sheriff Marsh sighed, then grabbed at the walkie on his shoulder. “Got another one, Jessi. Can you find Shawn Calvin? Have him come down to Lorene’s to pick up his wife.” He took a few steps away, pulling out the notebook he kept in his front pocket to jot down some notes. Doc Linehan slid into the booth next to Judy, her warm smile beginning to break through the layers of frozen terror holding her captive. There was quiet, muted conversation before the doctor began to make a cursory exam. Checking pupils, taking temperature, measuring pulse, all while smiling.
I was truly late for my shift, but that seemed less important now. Judy was another. That meant something big was going on. However, it seemed unlikely I was going to learn much more here. Down the road—and clearly within walking distance—was where the real mystery lay. I left a few dollars on the counter, waved at Lorene who didn’t seem to notice, and made my way out the door.
It was a nice morning—early fall, a bit cool, but sunny and pleasant. Outside of the diner, the intrigue began to fade. I probably owed it to Mack to show up and help him with the morning rush. He’d enjoy the gossip, I was sure, and I could catch up on it later. Being a busybody had never really suited me, even if that was the primary pastime in a small town. I already felt a bit ashamed of my open gawking in the diner. Here was someone having a rough time, and there was me staring at the sideshow.
Hands in pockets, I made my way back towards the center of town and the grocery store where I had worked since high school. It wasn’t much, but it was a living, as they said. Being single, childless, and living in a small town, I seemed like the perfect candidate to move about and try to strike it rich anywhere else. But I had inherited my parent’s house, knew the town, and had a stable, relatively stress-free job, I always figured I was already living the dream. Besides, what small town didn’t need a few cranky spinsters for the kids to someday call Old Witch So-and-So. Live wasn’t glorious, but I certainly was happy.
I arrived at the grocery to see a few folks already waiting outside. The front doors were still locked, the lights were off. Mack lived a ways out of town on a piece of land large enough to nearly need its own postal code. He liked the isolation. But that meant if there was some sort of problem on the road, he’d be tied up. Maybe there was flooding out somewhere? I hadn’t heard any storms roll through last night, but weather had always been a bit fickle. Or maybe just some heavy fog bogging things down?
Heavy enough Judy Calvin lost her car in it? Whispered some doubting voice in the back of my mind, but I quieted it as I smiled at the soon-to-be customers.
“Cassie, finally, can you let us in? I’ve got to pick up a few things for the Town Hall lunch today and—“
I smiled and shrugged, effectively cutting off the conversation. “You know Mack as well as I do, Gloria. He’s not trusting the keys to the shop to anyone. Might make off with all the merchandise, ya’ know?”
She didn’t smile back, but crossed the gravel lot to her car. LuAnne and George were also waiting, but seemed satisfied enough with my response. I watched as George plugged in headphones and leaned against the wall. LuAnne simply sat on the hood of her car and watched the road, as if that would bring Mack in any sooner.
I glanced at my phone. Still no bars, still just as good as a paperweight. It was twenty minutes past opening now with no sign of Mack. He was probably trying to call, but not much good that would do him.
The autumn morning began shifting into a summer late morning. The sun was out in full force and began to bake the ground as I sat and waited. LuAnne and George had wandered off after a bit. Gloria had asked me four times if I could let her in, steaming a bit more each time. Finally she climbed into her car and said she’d drive to the city to get what she needed, but she’d let Mack know just what she thought about his service. I wished her well and waved her off. Now it was just me, waiting. It was an hour past opening and the lights stayed off.
I grabbed a newspaper from beside the door—yesterday’s edition, meaning whatever it was kept even the paper boy from making it in—and scribbled a note on it.
“Mack—been waiting here. I heard there’s problems on the road. Went to check with Sheriff Marsh. Be back soon. –C. “ I wedged it into the door, then began a slow walk back to the diner, the last place I had seen the sheriff. Lorene was at her post when I arrived, but the diner was far emptier than it had been.
“Do you know where the Sheriff went?” I asked as I entered the pleasantly cool establishment.
She smiled. “Took most of my customers with him to see what was what with this road issue. Headed that way,” she said, pointing out of town. Guess you’re off to sneak a peek as well.”
I shrugged. “Mack’s not here. Guess he must have gotten stuck, too. Didn’t know if the Sheriff had heard anything or if he had a key so I could open up for the day. Mack’d hate it, but, ya’ know, people need to eat.”
“That they do,” she said with a chuckle in her voice. “Well, best of luck.” Maybe the last bit of levity I can recall.
The road trailed down through some trees, and I followed it, staying to the side to avoid any oncoming traffic. But it was silent, only the sounds of birds chirping and squirrels darting through the underbrush. Quiet enough that I was stunned when I rounded a corner and stumbled across what seemed to be about a quarter of the town’s population. There was Gloria, gaping from beside her car. Looked like her trip to town turned out well. The Sheriff was there, staring ahead, along with a goodly number of my companions from the diner. Even Lucas had made his way down. And they were all staring at…nothing.
And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. It wasn’t white or black or dark or anything it just wasn’t…anything. I can’t describe what nothing looks like because there aren’t any features to pin it on. It’s more like some deep level of consciousness that sees emptiness and knows. The road was there, and then it wasn’t. The trees waved in a breeze, limbs momentarily existing and vanishing as they crossed that invisible boundary. And we all stared, not sure what to make of this impossibility.
“What is it?” came the stupid question from my mouth. Lucas opened and closed his mouth. The Sheriff turned and looked at me. “Not sure. But seems like it’s got us a bit cut off.”
“I’d say. Anyone walked into it?”
“A few folks, those that got surprised by it. I think Mrs. Calvin said she spent a few minutes wandering in it before showing up at Lorene’s this morning,” said the Sheriff as if this were nothing more than a sudden rainstorm that cropped up.
“Does it—does it end?”
“Don’t know,” he shrugged. “Guess that’s something we need to find out.”
He marched over to his cruiser, popping the trunk and shuffling around. A moment later, with a slam that seemed to bounce off the wall of nothing, he returned with a rope.
He waved to a couple of the gathered folks, handing the end of the rope to Frank Jordan, the deputy. Frank was a good, down to earth sort of fellow. He seemed to be taking everything in shocked, but resolute stride. “I’ll need you to hold on to this end here,” the Sheriff said, passing Frank one end of the rope. “I’ll tie the other around me, and that way I don’t get lost out there.” He ran the rope through his belt loops, securing it with a secure, Boy Scout approved knot. “If I tug twice, like this,” he demonstrated briefly, “then I want you all to start pulling and bring me back in. Got it?” We all nodded, and he glanced around, seeming to make eye contact with everyone. We were all responsible now. The reality that this was something unknown, unexplainable, impossible was all beginning to settle in on me in those moments, numbness creeping up my body like that nothingness appeared to creep along the road.
Frank held on, nodding sharply to the Sheriff who began to make his way into the nothing. One moment, he was there. The next, he vanished from view. Frank held the rope, and my eyes watched as it slowly snaked out further and further. I’m not sure I even breathed in those minutes as the line slowly wound out. Then, there was a tug—once, twice. Frank began pulling, all of us latching on to the rope and reeling it in. The rope felt light, flying in far more quickly than it had spun out. And only at the end, as the frayed end of the rope emerged from the emptiness, did the meaning fully hit us. There was silence, all eyes on the end of the rope lying motionless on the ground, trying to take in everything it might mean.
We had town meetings after that. Everyone gathered together, but no one had any answers. Had about four before everyone stopped showing up—seemed they only sparked panic and hopelessness, staring into one another’s eyes and all reading the same, terrifying truth reflected back.
Electricity lasted a few days from the local facility, but it dried up pretty quick. After a few more, I realized I hadn’t seen the sun. Light still came in the morning and darkness at night, but it was as if we were trapped in a dome where only light seeped through. There were no stars at night, no light of the moon. Just a dim, diffused light during the day and a heavy, silent dark at night. The wind stopped blowing at some point, covering everything in an added layer of unnatural stillness. Sound seemed to be muffled, captured in whatever bubble we found ourselves in.
For a few days, everyone tried to go on like it was normal, as if it were just a long weekend and everyone had the day off. But the longer the situation lasted, the more impossible it became to pretend like this was some short-lived fluke. We busted the windows to the grocery store after four days—people had to eat, after all. It seemed like that was the moment we all made peace with the fact that this town was our prison. Most of us in town had assumed this would be the place we’d die as well, just not quite like this.
There is a rhythm to disaster as well. Wake up, go to the town hall to check for news, shop the remains of the grocery to ensure enough food for the next few days. Boil some water. Sit and watched the sunless sky fade to night. It’s not good, but somehow humanity always seems to find a pattern. And so I lived that pattern as the members in town dwindled. I assumed folks decided to risk it, take the chance on escape.
And I have to hope now that they all made it, finding some world on the other side of this nothing that was bustling and alive and active. Because soon, I’ll be taking that same impossible journey. You see, I woke up this morning, looked out the window, and saw that I was surrounded by nothing. The town was gone, my neighbor was gone, even the oak tree outside my window. In my gut, I felt something settled. Some part of me had known this would happen the whole time. And so I have packed the food I have into a pack, along with all the bottles of water I still had filled. I’ve got a flashlight, not that it seems to penetrate this nothing around me. Some matches, a change of clothes, and a hodgepodge of medical supplies scavenged from my bathroom cabinet. I don’t really stand a chance if there isn’t reality waiting on the other side. But I suppose I haven’t got a choice.
There are sounds in the nothing now. Something I’ve never heard before, but that I can hear as it surrounds me. Groans—almost like whale songs I heard playing that time I went to the aquarium. But deeper, sharper somehow. They don’t sound safe. I have my grandfather’s shot gun and what shells I could find, I suppose that should be comforting, but that feeling of helplessness has settled so deep inside me that nothing seems to uproot it.
I’ve wasted precious daylight writing this—truth is, I don’t want to start walking. But maybe someday this will lift and someone will know what has happened. Or perhaps you’re unlucky enough to find yourself trapped here. Maybe it will shine some light on what happened. I don’t have any answers.
Procrastinating is not getting me anywhere. I’m going to go now.
God be with us all.
So, 2017 has been a great, exciting, and busy time. However, all those wonderful and busy things mean I have not really been writing…at all. In February we started looking for a house, found one we liked in March, closed in April, started remodeling, and finally moved in June. Then I started studying nonstop for my licensing exam while we continued renovations on the house. A little over a week ago, I passed my exam (after around 150 hours of studying!). Hopefully, that’s one of the last big hoops on the road to becoming a full-fledged psychologist! Yesterday, we finished the final large scale interior project for the house–we’re waiting for cooler weather before tackling all the outside work.
So, it’s been good, but I’m glad to get back to writing a bit more regularly. I have been saving up quite a few ideas I want to get on paper, this one included. Plus I have some ideas saved up for Milgram that I definitely want to work on. If you’ve read this far, thanks! I hope you enjoyed this little story. Hopefully I’ll be more reliable going forward. I don’t have any plan to buy another house or take another test. Just general life stuff. Which can be crazy enough on it’s own.
As always, I’m open to any feedback you might have. I feel rusty, but definitely enjoyed getting words on paper and creating (then destroying–sorry about that…) this little town. Feel free to leave me a comment if you’d like.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
This is Part 4 of a longer story. You can find the other parts here:
Toby felt a new weight on his shoulders when he finally arrived home. The long walk through meandering city streets had done little to relive it. It was a strange mix of anger, guilt, and shame that left him feeling as if he had crawled the entire way home.
He slumped into the wooden chair, elbows resting on the wooden table while his hands barely supported his head. He studied the fake woodgrain, eyes following it until they lost focus on began dancing back through his memories. Now, beyond the images of a convulsing body suddenly growing still, he had the wide eyes and fear of the stranger from the bus.
Not only that, but—but did he dare think it?
Could he, perhaps, have crossed the path of the man he killed? Had they walked past one another on the street? Dined at the same restaurant? Shared a seat on the bus? It was, after all, in his district. And while Toby was not one to often leave his safe little city and visit others, he did occasionally let adventure get the best of him. And who’s to say the young man didn’t travel himself? Or, came the thought that most shook his thin defenses, perhaps his plaza was not so far away at all?
His sandwich churned in his gut and threatened to return. He took a few deep, steady breaths even though they shook his entire body. His hand hurt, and he released his head to flex it slowly. This was just what he needed, he thought morosely. It was probably arthritis setting in. Maybe, Toby thought with a dark glimmer of hope, it would get bad enough that he could take a medical retirement and live off the state. Maybe, if he was lucky, it would be so severe he would not have to return to his desk and that screen and that damned button.
The chair creaked as he shifted, the only sound in his silent apartment besides the steady tick of the clock. The light coming in through the windows told him more time had passed than he thought, and the clock confirmed it. Toby stood and walked the two paces to the kitchen, his legs dragging behind him. H felt as if he were propelled more by sheer routine than any sort of will or strength. But staring blankly at the available food, he felt nothing but emptiness gnawing at his stomach. How could he consider food when he was already full on despair, he wondered melodramatically to himself.
Instead, he dropped back into his seat and slowly began taking off his jacket. Something crinkled as he moved, and Toby slowly retrieved the flyer from his pocket. The same words stared up at him, convicting him. He had been an executioner. Toby—mild-mannered, friendly, polite, keeps-to-himself Toby—was an executioner. Those words collided in his head, triggering off a flood of thoughts and memories that doubled and tripled into a chaos he had no hope of sorting through.
There was no rhyme or reason that he could see to the memories that came up. There was his first day of work, walking in with a smartly pressed shirt and overflowing optimism. There were solitary lunches watching the children play in the park under the watchful gaze of their parents. There was a little girl crying in the plaza because she had been running where she shouldn’t.
A date that earned him nothing but a look of pity and disgust. His mother’s funeral, the speaker grabbing his arm and smiling weakly. In the midst of all of it, there was a person lying on the ground, a cheap watch in their hands. Then there were the children who mocked him as a child. Scared eyes at the bus stop.
It was, he realized in an instant, a parade of some of the worst moments in his life. A montage of loneliness, shame, and sorrow. The map to a broken man, a man who didn’t even have the ability to stand up and not kill someone.
Executioner, Toby thought. Just a fancy word for murder. That was never who he wanted to be. That was not who his mother, rest her soul, thought he was. But how wrong they had both been.
Judge. Jury. Executioner. Toby stared at the flyer. The truth hurt.
For the first time, Toby really read the flyer, skimming over the three words that were now a constant echo in his mind and reading the rest of the information.
“Join us: Monday, 7:00pm at the Brewhouse Coffee Bar. Together we have a voice.”
Toby toyed with the idea. It was only a few days away, but would they even want him there? He thought about walking in to some generic coffee house, seeing the young, impassioned men and women standing around. They would be rallying for their cause. Dressed in black and berets, they all fixed him with cold stares. Toby wondered if they would know simply by looking at him what he had done, or if that would only come out in time. Would they turn on him?
He smoother the paper on the table and stared at it some more, as if it held the answers. When it refused to share any more, he finally stood up, walked to the bedroom, and fell into his bed where he was able to spend a few solid hours staring at his ceiling and battling away the thoughts that clawed through his memories.
Once the sun was up again, Toby oozed from his bed and to the shower. Every joint ached and his heart thundered in his head, each pulse sending a fresh ache through his eyes. The water did little to wash away the feeling of stale sweat and dirt that seemed to cake his body. He had spent most of the night sweating and tossing in his bed, chasing momentary respite that was always shattered by the infernal beep of his monitor prompting him to provide redirection.
He turned the shower off early, watching the minutes transfer into his reserves. The sound of water dripping from his body to the tiled floor came with a steady beat, almost hypnotic. He reveled in the feeling of cold chasing up and down his back as the water dried on his skin.
He dressed stiffly, left his lunch at home, and made his way to the bus. It was not until he reached the stop that he realized he would have to climb on and ride alongside the people who had seen him in such a frenzy. Had hey seen his outbursts?
As he climbed on, he noticed they diverted their eyes. Walking along the rows, he had the distinct feeling that the silence was new, created simply by his presence. They must have been gossiping about the events before he boarded, only quieting to protect themselves from the madman riding alongside them. Perhaps some had even made the connection between his stop and the events of the day before. It was not like the monitoring building went to great lengths to conceal its purpose.
He sat and stared at the floor, trying to ignore the feeling of their eyes crawling over him with morbid curiosity.
What if they knew the murdered man?
Toby did not know what dark part of his mind spent its time asking such horrific questions, but once there he was powerless to get rid of it. Now it swirled about him. He had no idea where these people lived or work. Any one of them could have known of the plaza. Maybe the man’s family was on board. His mind suddenly spun with stories of family members, hopeful that their son or brother or nephew had finally turned his life around. Only to get the news that he had been callously, impersonally, unjustly struck down by some nameless machine.
And now, Toby thought, they were forced to ride the bus with him and act cordial.
Some reasonable part of his mind tried to intercede and remind him that it was unlikely anyone on the bus knew the man or the plaza. They were probably all just ready to get on with their days, caught up in their own lives and worries. Unfortunately that voice was drowned out by the flood of a thousand other scenarios, each somehow worse than the ones that preceded it.
When his stop finally arrived Toby climbed off the bus, body a mix of relief and absolute dread. He was away from their eyes, but here he was, again donning the executioner’s mask as he walked through the doors.
“Taking lunch,” he typed to Dana as he transferred his screen. There was a happy tone as she responded, but he ignored it to turn around in his chair.
His eyes continued to pound, so he let them close. The air cycled through his office, a steady hum of equipment doing its job. Just like he did his job and kept the city safe. No point in getting angry at the air conditioning if it was too warm or cold in the office—it simply did as it was told. Just ike he did as he was told.
Thoughts drifted loosely through his mind as sleep overtook him. It was deep and dreamless, only broken by a sharp tingling arcing down him back.
He woke with a start clutching at his neck where the redirection started from.
“And if you think you’re not on someone’s screen…”
He had never signed up for this, he thought as anger swelled. But still he spun back to his desk and opened his screen to the plaza.
“You there?” was Dana’s message. There were others, but he ignored them. Instead he responded with a curt, “Yes,” and then closed the message. Replies came back from her, but he closed each one and focused on the screen.
Sure, he had fallen asleep, but shouldn’t there be some other way of reminding him? A bell or a system message or something? He worked tirelessly for them, but he made a tiny mistake and got no consideration. Someone somewhere watched him day in and day out as he did everything he could to be the best employee he could be, but they had no mercy.
Like, he reasoned, he had no mercy. Then again, he had no choice.
Then again, they had no choice.
His anger continued to grow, no longer focused on the nameless person in an office like his own. Instead, his ire grew for the smiling man in the suit. For the people who loaded a gun but made someone else pull the trigger.
It was their fault he felt so guilty. He was not an executioner; he never wanted to be. But they turned him into one, and then they weren’t even there to take responsibility for what they had done. Toby shouldered that burden for them, only to be punished by them.
The anger was a welcome relief from guilt, and Toby threw himself into it. It propelled him through the day until the closing alarm signaled and his screen transferred to whoever had the next shift. Whoever the next fall guy was.
Leaving the office, Toby skipped the bus stop and began walking the opposite direction of home. He needed answers, and he had an idea where they might be found.
Toby marched through the streets with single-minded ferocity. Something began to whisper that if he stopped, all the energy would drain from him in a moment, leaving behind the void that guilt so easily filled. And so he refused to slow down or pause. If he thought about it too long, he knew he would also fail and crumble back into the shell he had been for the past few days. There was a desperation in his action. That same cruel part of his mind assured him that, should he fail this time, he’d never find the courage again to make this journey. It was his one and only shot, or else he would be forced to succumb to a lifetime of despair.
Toby finally stopped, taking a brief moment to confirm he was where he thought. Brewhouse Coffee Bar, said the sign. With a deep breath that threatened to shatter his resolve, he gripped the handle and tugged.
I struggled with this part (hence the delay), but finally just had to get it out there. I feel like it manages to meander and move too quickly all at the same time. Not much happens here, but I do plan on some fireworks in the next part. I’m still not 100% on the final direction ( I have a handful of ideas, but not sure which I want to use versus drop), but I at least know the next few steps.
This is my first time in a long time writing something this long, so I’m trying to get into the flow with it. I think this is one section that will require heavy editing later, but it serves it’s purpose for now by creating the bridge I need between this introductory part and the rising tension. If you have any thoughts or insight on how to improve this section, please let me know in the comments. Hopefully I’ll have more out soon. I’m also working on another piece that is shorter, so hopefully I can figure that one out and get it up here before too long!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Toby stepped on the bus at the end of the day, a feeling of normalcy beginning to uncertainly percolate through his body. As he took his usual seat, he felt thoughts beginning to tingle at the back of his mind. Could he really be so cold and callous that a day after murdering someone he was back to normal? Toby tried his best to silence that thought, shove it back into the dark recesses where he had locked away images of a blank screen hiding a cooling body.
As if ignoring it would make it go away, something whispered, but he turned his attention to the safety warnings on the inside of the bus.
“PLEASE REMAIN SEATED WHILE THE VEHICLE IS IN MOTION.”
At the next stop, a new person got on board. Toby watched him climb aboard and settle in to the young woman’s usual seat, glad for some new distraction. After the fourth reading, the safety information became far less engaging, and he had already noticed his thoughts wandering towards that locked door in the back of his mind. He was a young man, dressed in casual, athletic clothing. Small beads of sweat stood out on his dark forehead, which made Toby think it was maybe someone returning from the gym. Or something like that. The weather certainly wasn’t warm enough for anything more. The man—boy?—sat on the edge of the seat, legs shaking up and down as the doors swung closed and the bus began to move. His eyes were distant, pondering something far more significant than the passengers on the bus.
As the vehicle accelerated from the curb and back onto its path, the man jumped up. He reached into his backpack, pulling out a handful of flyers.
“Excuse me,” began the boy—he certainly looked more like a scared child now, standing in the idle of the bus. His voice even cracked as he began. He took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and began again. “Excuse me, everyone. I have something I must speak to you about today.”
The bus home was always more crowded than the bus to work, and Toby watched the passengers around him roll their eyes and reach for books, music players, and other distractions. The boy scanned the audience, trying to find some eye contact to reassure him.
He found Toby’s eyes.
“I won’t take much of your time, but there are things going on that the good people of this city need to know.” He held Toby’s eyes for a beat or two longer, then began looking around trying to draw in more listeners. Toby new he had a minute or two before redirection would be applied for such behavior, and he could see the sweat sliding down his forehead now. The boy seemed to know he was on a clock.
“Did you know that just this week, a man was murdered in our wonderful district by the state.” He seemed to be reaching his stride now, growing more and more assured as he continued speaking. “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard me. A man was murdered in cold blood by our government. His crime, you ask?” He paused, as if waiting for some sort of participation from his mostly annoyed audience.
Toby shifted uncomfortably in his seat. It certainly couldn’t be, right?
“His crime was stealing a hundred dollar watch.”
The bus suddenly became impossibly cramped and hot. Toby saw, clear as the man in front of him, the body lying on the ground, a silver watch lying forgotten on the ground. Officers placed the watch in a bag later, sealing it away as evidence. He had watched it all go on right before his eyes. And this was in his district? His plaza had been close all this time, which somehow made it worse.
“Of course, such activity is illegal, but is a man’s life,” he paused eyes wandering over his captive audience. A few people were looking at him now, faces a mix of curiosity and amusement, “is a man’s life worth a mere $100?”
Toby’s gut was in a knot, and he feared he might be sick. Surely, his mind told him, the boy standing on the bus would notice his pale features, the sweat dripping in slimy trails down his face, the look of pain and horror on his face. He might even call him out. Did the man know he worked for the government?
Did he know he was a murderer?
Any sense of normalcy that had been building was shattered, those tiny shards turning into daggers that drove through him body and soul. In fact, the feeling was even worse, coupled with a new wave of guilt. Toby had dared to think he could simply move on from that moment. Was there anything more reprehensible than that?
He came back to the message, catching the man mid-sentence. “…act and voice our concerns. We must make it clear that the surveillance, the unsupervised murder of citizens, and the culture of fear we live under daily is not to be tolerated. A man’s life is worth far more than a $100 watch. He deserved a fair chance. And yes, he deserved punishment. But a fair punishment.”
The man grimaced, and Toby checked his watch. Time was up. Based on the brevity and the rather muted response, it was a low-level redirection. But Toby knew that such mercy would not last long, especially not with as many buses ran in the city day in and day out.
“They don’t want me to tell you this,” the man said through gritted teeth. After a moment, he took a deep breath and opened his eyes. “I’ve just been redirected for telling you the truth. There was no trial for me, no fair allotment of punishment. You have witnessed it, ladies and gentlemen. And if you are tired of witnessing it, join with us. Together we can have a voice.”
He began walking down the rows, handing out a flier of some sort. Toby took one, keeping his eyes down. The man’s eyes scraped over him, and Toby was sure he would recognize what was going on. But instead, Toby watched the man’s sneakered feet drift down the rows and towards those seated in the back. Toby released an anxious breath he had not realized he had held for so long.
“JUDGE, JURY, AND EXECUTIONER,” said the familiar flier. Beneath it, he saw a date and time, a location. “Join us,” it urged. “Together we can have a voice.”
Toby crumpled the flier and shoved it into the pocket of his jacket, trying to erase the images from his mind. Trying, once again, to lock those dark thoughts away. But they continued.
At the next stop, he bolted off the bus. Being on the sidewalk, he finally felt as if he could breathe again, and he took in a few deep breaths at the bus stop as people flowed on and off the bus around him. Toby closed his eyes, trying not to see that face twisted into a final mask of pain. It didn’t seem to help.
“Sir, seems like you really heard me in there,” said a voice behind him. Toby turned and saw the man from the bus, still holding his fliers. He smiled softly, stepping away from the crowd and closer to Toby’s sanctuary by the stop. “It can really shake you up, when you really think about it. Most people try to avoid it.”
Toby nodded quickly, breaking eye contact and considering running down the street. No he told himself, some part of his brain focused on survival still. Running would only confirm his guilt.
The man took a couple more uncertain steps towards him, studying Toby closely and trying to get a read on the sweaty, distracted, and distressed man in front of him. “I know it’s a lot to take in. It’s hard to believe any of your fellow citizens could be so…” the man searched for the word, then shrugged, “so awful. To just kill someone for something like a watch.” He gave a short, derisive snort.
Maybe, Toby thought, the man shouldn’t have been stealing in the first place. Maybe, it continued, everyone should just follow the rules. Maybe people should be able to ride the bus unnharassed by such terrible news. All those thoughts sprang to mind, fueling a fire of anger and hatred that he had not been aware of. Or, perhaps he had, but it had only been directed at himself. Now there was a new potential target.
“If you want to get involved—“ started the man.
“I’m already involved enough!” shouted Toby. He watched the young man’s eyes grow wide, as he took a step back and put his hands up.
The man was a boy again, scared of the angry stranger on the street. The fear in his eyes was enough to extinguish the anger. Maybe, he thought, he was just as monstrous as they said.
“Yeah, no problem, man. Sorry to have bothered you.” The boy backed away, hands still up and waving the fliers limply in the air. He took a few steps, then turned and walked away briskly. Running would get him another redirection, and Toby imagined his neck already ached. Still, Toby felt for him. He understood, because at that moment, Toby certainly wished he could run away from himself.
Part Four Now Up!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Don’t be confused, read Part 1 here!
Toby was still shaking, or at least he thought he was. It seemed as if he had done nothing but tremble since he had pressed that button eighteen hours ago. Well, tremble and vomit. He reported in as sick for the day, receiving a friendly note after his status had been confirmed. While the readout assured him there was no detectable pathogen, it did note evidence of recent emesis, abnormal sweating, and mental confusion. His sick time was dutifully logged and detracted from his bank.
Of course, it was not like he could stay away forever. Toby was acutely aware that he had no marketable skills, no connections in industry, and no money to better himself in any way. He would have to return to work the next day or risk termination, which was certainly only a breath away from homelessness and forced labor. He looked at his hands, waving softly in the air with fear of what they had done, and knew he would never survive forced labor.
He carried himself to the shower, pausing at the selection panel before entering the small, glass prism. The options were listed in pale blue font on a white background, tiny images of soap bubbles floating across the letters.
“Daily Shower……..Renews in 15 Hours
Relaxation…………..4 Credits Remaining
He stared at the options. It felt like an emergency, but he knew he would be charged if there was no evidence that he had been involved in some unexpected mess. And he certainly could not afford to lose his daily credits for the next week paying it back. Also, the one time he had been required to use that option, it sprayed him quiet violently with a stream of lukewarm water while emergency lights blared. Certainly not what his nerves needed. He begrudgingly selected Relaxation, acutely aware he was nearing his allotment there. It took too long to rebuild, but, if ever a day called for it, it was then.
The lights in the bathroom dimmed as soft flute music began to play. The water began as a slow stream, steadily picking up speed until it was drumming firmly along his shoulders. It smelled faintly of lavender.
Toby tried to relax. He closed his eyes, taking slow and steady breaths in time with the music. He tried to focus his mind on pleasant things. But behind his lids, the same image played over and over. The screen changed from a generic human going about their day—albeit stealing—to an image highlighted with urgency to nothing. It was the nothing that continued to haunt him behind his eyes. It was the nothing that was replaced by the real life images of a man in his thirties suddenly jerking and freezing, body held in stasis as his eyes rolled back in his head. Eventually, as the redirection ended, he collapsed to the ground.
His chest wasn’t rising and falling. Toby hadn’t needed to keep watching for his report, but he did. He watched the emergency team arrive, provide cursory attempts at resuscitation, and then close the body up in a hazard bag. Toby kept watching that spot the rest of his shift, even as it emptied and the sun rose on the plaza. He was fortunate the night was quiet afterwards; he was also certain he would not have been able to stomach another redirection, no matter how minor.
The nothingness was a lie, he realized. Because behind that nothingness was an empty husk of a body.
He had killed someone.
The words slammed into him again, caged with him inside the shower. The smell of lavender was nauseating, the feeling of the water unbearable, the music a grating screech. He couldn’t breathe—he was drowning in the steam.
Toby clawed his way out of the shower, flinging open the door and stepping out into the cool air of the bathroom. It did little to relieve the noose around his throat. The screen beeped at him, and for a moment he knew it was the chime on his work display screen. He had never escaped the office.
Whirling around, eyes wide as a cornered animal, he stared at the shower menu.
“Terminate Relaxation period? Relaxation Credits cannot be refunded.”
He swiped at the screen, selecting the yes option before stumbling out of the room. He was tired of small, enclosed rooms.
Toby didn’t know what he wanted or needed right then. Everything that had been fine was wrong now. He pushed into his bedroom, the sheets rumpled in the way that comes from a sleepless night. It was all cast in an artistic, almost sympathetic light, shadows deep with afternoon sun. Dust floated in the air, tiny glints and sparkles that seemed to be too peaceful, too idealized to exist in a world where he was an executioner. Toby felt his stomach turn again at the thought, but he knew he had nothing left to expel.
He sat on the edge of his bed, facing the window. There was a tree outside, limbs swaying gently in what must have been a pleasant breeze. For a moment, Toby was hypnotized by the steady, gentle movement of the leaves. It did what the shower could not and gave him a moment of peace, the briefest gift of separation. He was sitting in his room, watching the tree, and nothing was wrong.
Unfortunately, all relief was temporary. His thoughts were like a murmurration of starlings, briefly settling before being tossed into chaos once again. They had managed to rest briefly on the boughs of the tree outside his window, but the slightest breeze and they were off again, caught up in recollection and speculation.
How many people had been redirected to death?
What about the people he redirected. Sure, their numbers were small. But they grew, and he had seen it. What if he unknowingly pushed them over the edge?
What if he had thrown out more death warrants into the void for things as simple as littering or running?
His right hand had begun to tingle, almost as if it had been asleep. He stretched his fingers wide, massaging it with his left, but there was no relief from the gentle pinpricks. Toby shook his hand sharply, hoping to return blood flow. Only there was no numbness, no coldness. It simply tingled, and no amount of attention seemed to relieve it.
Toby fell back onto his bed, eyes closed and hands limp at his sides. Traitorous hands.
The light shifted behind his eyelids as the branches swayed, letting in more and less light. His eyes burned, either because he had spent the wee morning hours crying, or because he had not slept in nearly 36 hours. His mind spun, eventually managing to spin itself into more and more fantastic, bizarre forms.
Unwillingly, Toby fell asleep, where there was finally, truly, nothing.
The sound of his alarm woke him, and he groaned. He had not moved the entire night, but slept with his feet on the floor and back stretched across the bed. Now his joints ached. Standing and stretching relieved some of the tension, but there was a deeper ache that seemed unreachable. And his hand still felt wrong, but the feeling was at least milder now.
There was a day’s worth of stubble on his face, and his mouth tasted of sleep and vomit. Toby was glad there was no mirror in his bedroom, because he was certain he did not want to see how he looked Unfortunately, there was no avoiding it in the bathroom, and he had to meet his sunken-eyed gaze.
He selected his daily shower and climbed in, doing what he could to wash away the stink of sweat and despair that coated his body like a film. Normally he ended his shower early, banking the additional minutes for later use. But today he let the timer run out, giving the water at least a chance to wash away the memories of what had happened. It was more successful than the day before, but he was still stained by the thoughts. There was still a man carved out of nothingness behind his eyelids.
Toby shaved, brushed his teeth, and combed his hair. He inspected his uniform in the mirror, feeling more repulsed by it than he ever had. He was never a morning person, and leaving for work was often difficult. But it was now different. He was not just longing to return to bed. He was, instead, longing to vanish out of existence. Perhaps he could just be gone in a blink, an image on a screen one minute and gone the next.
He shook his head sharply to dispel the thoughts, his eyes staring back at him hurt and accusing in the mirror. With a deep breath, he reminded himself that he had a job to do. He was needed at his office, and he would complete his daily tasks. The thought of his small room, his screen, and his plaza was enough to throw him off balance again. It felt as if the bathroom had closed in around him, crushing his lungs so he could not gather one good breath. An image flashed through his mind, his head swollen like a balloon, eyes bulging, ready to burst. All the pressure was crushing in on him. Then, the world righted itself, snapping back into place like a rubber band releasing.
Toby left his apartment, uncharacteristically skipping breakfast. The thought of food conjured the taste of bile and sand in his mouth. He did grab his lunch, hoping that perhaps he would arrive to work and discover it had all been a huge misunderstanding. That nothing had ever happened. That it was a prank, a joke. Perhaps a system test? He tried his best to conjure alternatives along the walk to the bus stop.
There were five other people on the bus. There always were. And by the time he reached his stop, three of those people would have left and six more would have joined. Each person had their seat, though no one had ever acknowledged their communal seating chart. It was just how things went. Toby boarded the bus and took his seat, sitting beside the window where he could watch the city slide past. Only today he did not feel like looking at anything. He felt alone and vulnerable, as if someone had flayed off his skin and left every nerve exposed. Looking at the city was too much.
He wanted to reach out, to talk to the passengers, but no one did that. It wasn’t forbidden, certainly, but it was…deviant. It was invasive and rude. And so Toby bit his tongue, resolving instead to watch his fellow passengers rather than reaching out to them. He wondered how the older woman three seats ahead would respond if he told her he killed someone.
In his head, she smiled and patted his shoulder, genuine kindness and sympathy in her eyes. The teenager in the corner probably wouldn’t understand, would move away. Toby imagined he would see fear in the girl’s eyes. The gentleman with his paper would probably start by blustering about the cops, but would offer help later, once the details were out there. Toby imagined that man would have a long diatribe about the state of the government and law and order. He seemed like the type.
There was the young woman with her music. He was unsure how she would respond, as her face was always a stoic mask. He saw her reading a self-help book once, so he pretended she would be the one to offer actual help. She’d provide firm reassurances, maybe offer to buy him coffee. Toby’s mind wandered as he thought about the two of them sharing coffee, talking about what life had been like before he was a murderer.
Lost in his thoughts, Toby did not notice when she or the others left the bus. He also did not notice the arrival of his other companions, instead focused on building a life with the woman across the bus. It wasn’t until it came to a sudden stop in front of his building that his mind returned to the present, retreating from the light of his imagined future and into the darkness of his present.
His legs were leaden as he walked off the bus and through the wide doors of his office. He walked down the long hallway flanked on either side with doors. He never saw other monitors coming or going, though he sometimes heard music or talking from behind the doors.
How many of them were killers, too? Did they understand?
Toby paused in front of one door, hand half raised but frozen. He read and reread the notice on the door. “Do not disturb. Level one offense.”
The back of his neck, where his monitoring chip was located, prickled with each repetition.
“If you think you’re not on someone’s screen right now, Mr. Georges, you are quite wrong.” The words stomped over his thoughts, and he turned away from the door. He couldn’t risk it.
His chair was as he left it, his screen idling and awaiting his return. Upon logging in, he saw his plaza displayed. There was a decent crowd this early in the morning, though he noticed everyone seemed to eddy around one point on the map. That’s where the man had vanished, and Toby knew people were talking about it. Who wouldn’t?
But the rumors at least had the benefit of making it a very quiet day. There were no boisterous, running youth. No loitering, no littering. No theft. The plaza was quiet, almost somber.
Lunch time approached, and the routine of work had returned some of his hunger. He keyed in his lunch code and waited as his screen transferred. Dana’s name popped on the screen.
“Got you covered!” read her text. Toby felt a weight shift inside of him. There was another human out there who knew him. A moment later, another line appeared. “Glad you’re back!”
He was slightly surprised. “How did you know I was sick?” he typed quickly.
“I didn’t. Sorry you were sick. I thought you were out on vacation.”
She didn’t answer his question, and Toby felt a strange paranoia bubble in his chest. Could Dana be the one watching him?
Then another message. “Oh, and you never asked me to watch for lunch yesterday. I knew you must be out!”
As quickly as it appeared, the paranoia vanished. He was leaping at shadows. “Oh, right. Thanks.”
He marched back through the long, empty hallways. There were sounds coming from behind other doors, but no one else was walking to the bench outside for lunch. He sat alone, watching happy people go about their lives while he munched on one corner of his sandwich. With five minutes to spare, he dutifully wrapped up the untouched two-thirds and disposed of it properly before returning to his desk.
It was 2:30 before he had his first alert. His heart began to pound at the sound of the chime, hands sweating. On the screen, he watched an adult stand on the corner and hand out flyers. Such activity was banned within the shopping plaza, which meant redirection was needed. A level one only, but his chest tightened as he waited to hear the follow-up sound that meant the limit was reached. Only when the silence continued to stretch in the room did he dare look down at the input panel.
The level was still set at 10, a solemn reminder of his personal tragedy. Everything else in the world seemed to continue moving and spinning, but here, his dial was still set at ten. He swatted at the dial, swiftly returning it to one, but withdrawing his hand sharply as if it would burn him. The one looked much friendlier, but maintained a sinister quality that had not existed before.
It was taking too long, and the system beeped at him again.
“Failure to provide redirection WILL be reported and may result in termination,” offered a box on the screen. Toby took a deep breath. It was just a level one, he reminded himself. But his hand still bristled as he moved it towards the button, ached as he forced it down to press the small, grey circle. The image on the screen flashed with the redirection, then was gone. The figure on the screen, glanced toward the camera, a move Toby knew meant he or she was probably cursing at him, then moved on, papers in hand.
His report was almost cathartic. He looked at the middle-aged woman on the screen as she yelled and shoved flyers at passing shoppers. Then, there was the redirection, where a brief flash of annoyed pain scattered over her face. She glared up at the camera with irritation, her mouth moving in ways Toby did not try to make sense of.
Then, she held up one of the flyers to the camera. “JUDGE, JURY, AND EXECUTIONER?” it read. Below the words were the adult and child images he watched day in and day out. She made a gesture before she left, and Toby did not have to wonder what that might mean.
Part 3 continues here!
I told you it would be back, and here it is! I will be editing as I go, so things may change as it goes. That’s why these are drafts. I’m not 100% sure how long this will be or where precisely it will end up (but I do have some ideas), but I hope you’ll join me for the journey! As always, please leave your thoughts, recommendations, and critiques in the comments!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Louisa scanned the search results, skipping over the hacks and scam artists she had already exhausted. She had discovered that there was a booming market for false psychics and paranormal investigators, each able to only provide momentarily relief to her problems. With problems like hers, she needed real help, but no one had been able to provide that.
She hovered over one of the remaining blue links, awash amongst a sea of purple. Campbell and Corey Supernatural Exploration Group, it said, and she begrudgingly clicked it. Hope had been drained from her, but she continued to move through the motions because she had no choice. The website was as lackluster as she expected. Rambling blog posts, action shots of the two founders—Campbell and Corey, she presumed—skulking through dark hallways. A handful of grainy videos and muffled sound files, then a contact form.
“Is your house or business haunted? Need some relief? The SEG is the answer you’ve been looking for!” She admired their exuberance, but she had read it all before. Still, she began to enter the information for what had to be the twentieth time since it all began. And still no solution.
There was a chill along her back, the feeling of ice slicing through her skin and burrowing into her body. “What are you doing, mommy?” asked the voice that resonated inside her own chest cavity. That was a feeling she never got used to, the way the sound of another’s voice traveled through her tissues and bones and through her ears.
“Just finding some friends to play with you,” she said with a forced smile and a tremor in her voice. While she couldn’t see her daughter in the room, she could feel the waves of suspicion and anger filling the four walls.
“Are they nice people, mommy? I didn’t like the last friends you found,” pouted the voice.
“I—I think so, honey. Very nice. Hopefully you can play lots of fun games with them.”
The anger dissipated, replaced with a slight warmth and excitement.
“When will they be here? Do you think they’ll want to play with my dollies?”
“I just invited them, so we’ll see.”
Louisa shivered and clicked the submit button, reading the cheery popup that assured her “Someone from the team will contact you within 3-5 business days.”
She only hoped it would not be too late.
“I appreciate you meeting me here,” she said, taking a long sip of her coffee. The sounds of the coffee shop swelled around them, full of warmth, laughter, and humanity. It was so good to be out of the cold, angry house. After a week of waiting, Jenny’s impatience left the house feeling like a predator waiting to pounce. Not to mention the nightmares. It was hard to relax, but Louisa felt some of the tension begin to melt, washed away by the bitter coffee.
“Hey, no problem. We’re here to help.” Campbell, as he had introduced himself, smiled widely. He was sweating slightly in the stuffy room, but she had thus far not seen a single chink in his optimistic presentation.
“No offense, but I’ve talked to a lot of people. How are you going to help?”
His smile bloomed, as if he had been waiting for that very question. “None taken! I think we offer something very different from our competitors. And there are a lot of them, as you’ve seen. You see, Corey, my partner, he’s our secret weapon. That’s why he doesn’t want to meet you until we do the actual walkthrough and investigation.”
“Secret weapon?” She attempted to sound interested, but her feigned support was flimsy.
“He’s a psychic, so he can sense things others cannot. Things our competitors are blind to.”
“Ah,” she said, turning her eyes down to her coffee. This meeting had been just as pitiful as she had expected.
“Which is why I do the initial interview and gather background. We don’t want him contaminated. But, rest assured, I’ll do all the research needed to discover if there is some supernatural explanation for what’s been going on.”
She smiled tightly, eyes darting up quickly. Strike one, they clearly had not read any of the information she sent them in the contact form. “I am fairly certain I know the source of the haunting,”
His smile faltered briefly, but was replaced so quickly she almost missed it. “Of course,” he said, laughing and striking his forehead lightly. “You mentioned that in your message. Sorry, long day. So, why don’t you tell me a little more about what happened? You’ll save me some time in the library!”
“Almost two years ago, my daughter fell down the stairs in our house while playing with a neighborhood friend. She was dead when I found her. Her friend had run home and hidden.”
Campbell nodded slowly, eyes slightly unfocused as he digested the short phrases. The silence extended, and Louisa felt a bubble of irritation. It was a fairly straightforward story, yet he seemed uncertain.
“And so,” he began after chewing the information, “you believe your daughter is haunting you?”
“I think that makes the most sense.”
He took that information in, adding it to the store as if it was some additional revelation. Louisa was at least relieved that his over-the-top smile had faded. “And what sort of things began after—“ he paused and looked at her expectantly.
“After Jenny passed?”
She took a deep sigh, followed by a large gulp from the coffee. Maybe, she mused, she should just type up a manuscript explaining the events, so she could simply pass it out to each team in turn. Then they would each be free to ignore it as they always did. “Well, it began with hearing her talking to me while I was alone in the house. Grief, they told me, and not abnormal. Then I noticed cold spots in the house, which everyone says is just the reality of living alone in a drafty house. Sometimes I feel her touching me, holding my hand. If I don’t respond, she’ll scratch me.” Louisa held up her hand, showing a collection of small, pink scrapes running along the back. “People stopped offering explanations then.”
Campbell just continued nodding each step along the way, smiling as if he knew what she was going to say before she even said it.
“Now she sometimes throws things. She’s tried to push me down the stairs. And when I sleep, she whispers nightmares. I can’t sleep without seeing her lying bloody on the floor, then it’s me lying there. Sometimes I dream that I’m lying there, unable to move or breathe as they carry me out and lay me into a cremator.”
“Did you have her cremated?” he interjected.
Louisa nodded quickly. “But I got rid of the ashes—sprinkled them at her favorite park—when all this started happening.”
“And how many times have you seen her?”
She narrowed her eyes and fixed him with a hardened gaze. “I never said I saw her. And I hope I never do.”
That finally broke the smile for good. “Of, right, of course. It’s just that normally, you know—“
“No, I wouldn’t know. I don’t think there’s anything normal about any of this.”
“Right.” He studied his coffee; she studied the top of his head.
“And are you alone in the house?” he asked after another painful pause.
“I am. Have been for a while now.”
“And Jenny’s father, is he—“
“He left about a month after her funeral. Died a couple of weeks later of a heart attack, holding onto one of Jenny’s dolls and lying in a roach-infested motel.”
“My condolences, ma’am. I know you’ve been through a lot.” His voice softened, as did his eyes, and Louisa felt herself soften just a bit. She had met so many people who offered the traditional sympathy, but he at least seemed genuine. Unintentionally, this opened a box of memories she had hoped were sealed shut. The image of him leaving the house, suitcase in his hand and tears in his eyes as he pled with her to leave with him. Her stubborn refusal—Jenny was her daughter, she had told him, and she would not abandon her in this life or the next. How much she regretted her decision now, months later, as the real cost of her dedication became clear.
“Did he experience any of these things?” he asked, his tone gentle.
She nodded, feeling those little pinpricks around her eyes that she was all too familiar with. “That’s why he left.”
“I see. And did things change after your husband’s death? Or have they changed at other times, perhaps?”
Her coffee had cooled from hot to lukewarm, but she sipped at it anyways. “Things got better a few days after he left, but then were back to the same. And it comes and goes. Sometimes it’s like she’s gone. But she always comes back.”
“And how is it now?”
Louisa laughed bitterly. “Oh, she’s definitely there now. If your team comes over, there’ll be no missing her.”
“Right, which brings us to the final point. Scheduling and payment.”
It took a great deal of self-control for her to resist rolling her eyes. Of all the hacks she had met, Campbell had been one of the better ones at playing at sympathy. However, his mask even fell when money entered the discussion.
“Of course,” she said with a taut smile. His smile was back, glowing at her as if he could not read the irritation in her eyes.
“So, how about next Tuesday? We’ll come by around seven to get set up, spend around 3 hours investigating the house, and be out of your hair before midnight?”
They always arrived at night, something Louisa could not make sense of. Jenny was equally active day and night, so the need to traipse through her house in the dark seemed more for theatrics than anything useful. Still, she had heard the nonsense about thinning walls between the planes enough times to know better than to push the issue. “Sounds great,” she agreed. “And the cost?”
“Well, we know a lot of people seek to take advantage of people in your situation.”
The irony of his words struck her, forcing an authentic smile to her face. Yes, all those terrible others.
“So all we ask upfront is the cost of travel and basic supplies. Things like tapes, memory cards, duct tape, and other minor things that we will need to set up and investigate.” He pulled a sheet from the portfolio at his side, passing it over to her. “Our office estimated costs for you at about $75.”
“And what about the other costs? The not-so-upfront ones?”
“Well, we do offer additional services following the results of the investigation. Corey, since he’s psychic and all, can help provide a cleansing or speak with the spirits. If you are interested in any of that, then we can talk price later.”
“Right. Well, I guess my peace of mind is worth $75,” she said, pulling out her wallet. She tried not to think about how many times she had said those words, the only thing changing being the dollar amount. Campbell seemed surprised when she withdrew a selection of bills, counting out $75 and passing it over the table. “I’ll see you next Tuesday at 7.” With that, she rose and threw out the last of the coffee, walking out the door and back to her waiting home. To her loyal daughter.
The cold, bristly feeling struck her as soon as she entered the front door. She felt Jenny twine about her insides, pulling so close that the two were virtually one spirit sharing a body.
“Did you find me new friends?”
Louisa had to grit her teeth to respond, the cold become an aching pain arcing through her bones. “Yes, Jenny. They’ll be here on Tuesday.”
The spirit moved on, leaving an odd emptiness deep inside Louisa. But the house felt warmer again, bustling with an excitement that she knew would fade within hours. Jenny was never entertained for long.
Less than a week, and then relief, she reminded herself. She just had to keep going.
There was no one at the door at seven, and Jenny was anxious. Louisa noticed the spirit darting from one end of the house to another, brushing through her with greater speed and intensity each time. “Where are they?” she asked during one pass.
Louisa shuddered. “They’ll be here. Be patient.”
“I don’t want to be patient,” she said as she whisked to the back door as if the strangers were going to come climbing over their fence.
“Should I play hide and seek again?” The questions continued to bubble up from her, each carrying a level of malice that tied knots in Louisa’s stomach.
“Yes, I think that will be very good. You always were so good at hiding.”
“They didn’t find me last time,” she said. “Only heard me that once.”
Louisa nodded, her knuckles turning white where they gripped the edge of the counter. Every time she thought she was free to take a step, that cold fire of Jenny’s presence rooted her to the spot. She remembered the garbled recording, the only evidence the last team had returned. They insisted it said “I love you, mommy.” Louisa knew it, in fact, was another of Jenny’s favorite phrases. “I’ll kill you all.” So much for their high end equipment and fancy recordings.
The knock came at seven fifteen, and Louisa opened the door to see Campbell and another man, who she assumed was Corey. They were carrying a few bags loaded with equipment, things she had seen before. They had cameras that recorded heat and IR, voice recorders, talking boxes, lots of coils of wire, EMF detectors, and other small electronics she had already forgotten the name of. Campbell shook her head and began to explain, but she waved him away.
“I’ve done my homework on this stuff. Spare me.”
He chuckled and continued laying out equipment as Corey, still silent, hustled around the house setting up cameras in what seemed to be every corner. “Funny you mention homework, because I did some of my own.”
Campbell pulled out a newspaper article from one of the bags, passing it over to her. “I know you were brief about what happened, but I found this story about it and I was wondering if there as anything else that might be helpful for us to know?”
Louisa knew the article on sight, but was pleasantly shocked. Campbell had been one of the few to do any sort of research, even the minimum required to find this. Her eyes skimmed the familiar words, the notes about conflicting reports. According to the article, Jenny’s neighbor friend had a different story. He said Jenny chased him around the house with a knife. He said Jenny was alive when he finally escaped, crying his way home to his parents. He said Louisa was there, looking angry, and that she looked so very sad when he and his mother returned. He said Jenny died when she fell down the stairs, but he had nothing to do with it.
With a curt nod, Louisa passed the paper back. “That was a bit of a mess. But they never found any evidence of what he said. Kids will say crazy things. Especially if they accidentally pushed their friend down the stairs.”
“Right,” said Campbell with his familiar, pleasant grin. “That sort of thing must be tough on a kid.”
“It’s tough on all of us,” she responded, feeling almost as if she were reading off the grieving, but understanding parent’s script. “Will you want me to stay around while you’re investigating?” The answers has been mixed from the different people and groups. Psychics usually wanted her around, presumably so she would be amazed at their feats of insight. Paranormal investigators usually ushered her out, citing a need to prevent contamination of the area. With this combined team, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
“You’re welcome to join, but there probably won’t be much to see. Most of our information comes up in the review. Corey may have some things to add, but mostly he just asks questions and records. But,” he paused, rummaging through the bag, “we always bring an extra camera if you’d like to record with us!”
Louisa took the camera. This was new. She turned it on and spun it around here kitchen, watching the world through the viewfinder. For an instant, she caught sight of Jenny ducking around a corner with a giggle. Louisa smiled and hit the delete button, pushing that little piece of evidence into oblivion.
“Alright,” said a new voice. Corey was standing in the doorway. “Let’s get started.”
He marched away, Campbell grabbing a few implements off the table and hustling after him. As he left the kitchen, he paused to turn off the lights, plunging the house into complete darkness. Theatrics.
Corey made his way to the staircase, pausing for a moment at the bottom. “So here is where you found her when you arrived back home?”
“Yes,” said Louisa stoically, stifling the guilt from a little white lie.
Campbell nudged her. “I didn’t even tell him what happened!” he whispered, his eyes wide. Unfortunately, he was not the best actor she had seen, but she feigned amazement.
Corey looked pleased. “Yes, I felt something was off here. So much sadness, pain.” He pulled out a voice recorder, holding it out and spinning slowly in a large circle. “Are you still here? Would you like to talk to us?” The only sound in the house was the hissing of air vents, and occasional groan of an engine passing by on the street outside. “How can we help you?” he asked, staring up at the dark ceiling.
Campbell pulled out a small monitor, checking the temperature and EMF. “Everything’s normal here,” he said after a moment.
Corey smiled. “She must be a little shy. Let’s head up to her room, see if we can’t help her feel more comfortable.” With that, he began climbing the stairs toward the small second floor room. Louisa might have been impressed if he had not spent the evening roaming her house to set up cameras. It was easy to tell which one had once belonged to a seven-year-old girl.
The door opened onto a room painted pale pink, but appearing grey in the dim light. There were shelves lining the room, a treasure trove of various dolls sitting at attention. There had once been so many of them, but they had since dwindled. Louisa looked around, noticing one was missing. She soon spotted it seated at the small tea table behind the bed. Jenny had prepared for her guests, it seemed.
Corey bee-lined for the table, sinking down to his knees to get on the same level. “I feel a lot of happiness here, but some sadness. Like she’s joyful that she can still be here, but sad she can no longer play with her toys or friends.” He paused dramatically, face sculpted into a sorrowful mask. Slowly, he pulled out the recorder from his pocket. “Do you mind if I join?” he asked the darkness, holding out the recorder. His voice was too loud in the enclosed room, feeling almost as if he were yelling at the ceiling. Louisa felt a headache beginning to build in the back of her head, like cold fingers were digging through her brain. But no one else seemed to notice the chill, and she was not about to bring their attention to it.
After a long pause, Corey reached out and lifted one of the plastic tea cups. Eyes roving around the room, he took one long, pretend sip from the cup. “Delicious!” he said with a smack of his lips. “Can I meet your friend?” he asked. Louisa marveled as she watched the grown man pantomime a handshake and rudimentary bow with the seated doll. Campbell’s screen still showed no changes.
She had to hand it to the two of them. Despite receiving no positive feedback, they dutifully worked their way through the house, pointing out possible attachments a spirit might have. Her husband’s study might be where she shared secrets and spent time with her father. Perhaps her spirit was grieving his loss, too, offered Campbell. Corey nodded astutely. The kitchen, of course, was where the family ate and she did her homework. Were there unresolved issues? A fight with her parents, perhaps? Louisa denied it.
“We loved each other very much,” she lied. She also neglected to mention they ate dinner in the dining room, not on the kitchen table that permanently housed her husband’s computer equipment.
They scoured the attic and basement, and Louisa occasionally felt ice creep along her back, heard a faint giggle as Jenny enjoyed her game of hide and seek. Campbell almost walked right through her once, but Louisa felt the spirit vanish before he could realize it. The only sign was a brief blip in temperatures. He opened his mouth to point it out, but the words died as the temperature returned to normal.
“A draft,” Louisa heard him whisper.
At eleven, they began turning lights back on and preparing to make their departure.
“We’ll call with what we found. May take us around a month to review everything and get it ready,” said Campbell, trying to remain positive. “And don’t worry. Most of the good stuff doesn’t show up until we review the tapes and all.”
She did her best to paint on an authentic smile, pouring gratitude into her words. “I really appreciate you coming out here to help. You don’t know what it means.” She had briefly returned to the bedroom to retrieve the doll Jenny had left, and now she held it in front of her. It was a soft, floppy doll dressed in a pale blue sun dress. Blue eyes were stitched on the face, along with a button nose and set of pale pink lips.
“You’ve given me such peace of mind and been so kind to my Jenny,” she began. They stood, watching her, clearly hoping for some kind of tip or reward. “I know she’d want you to have this. To remember her,” she finished, holding out the doll. They both did their best to hide their disappointment, but she had seen it before. Every team always thought this was some grand gesture of fortunes, and they were always irritated to find it a sentimental offer of a child’s toy.
Corey took it, holding it by an arm between two fingers. “Oh, we couldn’t—“
“Please,” she offered, laying a hand on his arm and drawing close. “Just as a thank you for believing me.” Campbell and Corey exchanged a glance, then both widened their smiles.
“Right, well, you’re welcome.” Corey shuffled stiffly out the front door, still holding the doll as if it might bite him. Louisa had the urge to tell him it wouldn’t be the doll that hurt him, in the end. But she held her tongue. She was getting good at that.
“We’ll be in touch,” added Campbell with his characteristic smile. With that and a tip of his head, he was gone.
Louisa closed the door, falling against it. She was once again wholly and completely alone in the house. It would not last, she knew, but she breathed a sigh of relief, no longer caged by the angry, petulant spirit of her daughter.
It had been nearly two weeks, and she was sleeping deeply, peacefully, and dreamlessly when there was suddenly a weight on the bed as something moved over the covers. Louisa sat up, feeling the cold presence settle onto her. For a moment, it was the same heft and shape as when Jenny used to crawl into her lap during a thunderstorm.
“You’re back so soon,” she whispered, half asleep and caught up in the despair of it all.
“I had to come back to you, mommy. I got angry with my new friends. Then they couldn’t play anymore.”
Tears began to slip from her eyes and down her cheek, falling through the cold mass and onto the sheets below. A cold sensation dragged along her cheek, wiping ineffectively at the stream of tears. “They won’t be able to play with anyone anymore,” said the voice, almost innocently. But there was that edge of glee, of jealous possession that haunted Louisa almost as much as the ghost of her dead daughter.
Louisa did not return to sleep that night. She could not stop thinking about the ghost hunters who finally came face to face with what they had been hunting. Only they never suspected it was hunting them as well. Guilt and panic fought for control, both eventually falling to her survival instinct.
Once the sun rose, Louisa carefully rose from bed and walked to the computer. She entered the search, flipping over to the second page to find new possibilities and trying not to think about what she might have to do when the list ran out.
Madame Ophelia, Spirit Guide. She clicked on the link.
Wow, ended up being way longer than I expected. I also feel like I may have rushed it in an attempt to get the idea out there. Depending on how I feel, you may see an update to this over the next few weeks. I’m onboard with the idea, but may need to polish the execution. Got tips? Critiques? Suggestions? Leave them in the comments!
A couple notes to wrap up!
- Happy Thanksgiving! If you are celebrating, I hope you enjoy some delicious food with family. If you’re not, I hope you have a great Thursday!
- I really enjoyed writing Milgram, and I’ve actually been working on more of it. I have another section completed, but it is likely to be rather long. I want to iron out a few pieces before posting more, but keep an eye out.
- And while your eyes are out, I am going to be posting some things about future directions for the blog, including some ideas I’ve had rolling around. No Card Challenge, but I do have some changes planned for the New Year that will help me build good writing habits. And some you may want to join me on. 🙂
- This idea was inspired by a story on the Darkest Night podcast. If you like creepy things, I’d recommend it. It is a fiction podcast about a laboratory that reviews the last memories from people who have died. And even with that plot line, there is something more sinister afoot. It’s well put together, especially the sound work. I’m in no way affiliated, but I have enjoyed it. It’s an original story, just taking inspiration from some ideas I had while listening. If you like podcasts and scary things, check it out!
Thanks for sticking with me. Happy Reading!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
So, I’m studying up on social psychology for my licensing exam and got to read over the Milgram study again. Decided to use it for a story, and this is what happened. It’s a first draft, as usual, but I really enjoyed this one. Let me know what you think in the comments. As always, critiques, suggestions, positives, and negatives are all welcomed! Happy reading!
Toby sat alone in his monitoring booth, just as he had done day in and day out for the past seven and a half years. The booth was comfortable, but not spacious. He had his ergonomic chair, a desk to house his input terminals, a small refrigerator for his lunch, and the display panel. Unfortunately, there were no windows, which was why he made sure to take his lunch outside—at least when the weather permitted. It had been a long stretch of bitterly cold, breezy days, so he was resigned to staring at the three walls and display screen for the rest of the day.
The screen moved with the digital images of the shopping plaza patrons. He had been around when the system was just green, x-ray like images. Now they had at least created a few standard images that roughly assured him there were humans milling about there. They were all smiling people, dressed and styled ambiguously enough that he got nothing but a rough estimate of who they might be. There was one form for adults, one for children. Another for pets that sometimes appeared to stroll through the plaza. He liked to imagine the little groups of two adults and one or more children were a family enjoying a nice day out. In the evenings, he created stories for the two adults walking slowly through, imagining them on a first date.
Of course, that was more to simply make the time pass by more quickly. It was a good job, but painfully boring. Stare at the screen, watch for any aggressive or illegal activity, provide appropriate redirection, record the incident. Most days he redirected only minor infractions—littering, running in undesignated zones, loitering. Some days it was more significant. Once, he had to redirect a shoplifter, which was quite an experience. His hands grew clammy and his heart rate picked up just thinking about it.
There was a soft bell from the screen, and it highlighted one patron with a red aura. A pop-out replayed the last fifteen seconds of action, and Toby clearly saw the person take their napkin and drop it to the ground before continuing on. He reached out to the inputs, turning the dials down to their lowest setting—it was, after all, a minor infraction—and depressed the grey button down briefly. The image of the person on the screen briefly flickered to a red image with a frowning face, then returned to normal. The shock was delivered, the action redirected, and Toby watched the person walk over and retrieve their trash. He almost imagined the other glanced up angrily at the watching cameras, but there was of course no way to know that for sure.
Tedium is how he described his job usually. Most people abided by the rules, so there was rarely anything for him to do. The change was not necessarily welcome, because he did feel conflicted about causing pain even if it was for clearly outlined infractions; however, it also meant he had something to occupy the time. Toby dutifully recalled the recording in a portion of the screen, eyes jumping from the new activity to routine patrol, and began his report.
He attached the recorded images, watching as the generic adult figure faded and was replaced with a young man sitting at one of the plaza tables. He dropped his napkin and continued on, only to pause a minute later. Toby smiled. Sure enough, the man turned and offered an irritated glare at the camera as he picked up the discarded napkin. Toby recorded the voltage and duration of the redirection, associated it with the clip, and submitted it to Central Office for review and verification.
It was quiet as he opened his lunch box and unwrapped his sandwich. He sipped water from his bottle, letting his eyes close for a few brief moments. Dana was watching his screen while he was on break. She was always good about that. At least, he assumed she was. Her messages were always filled with exclamation points and smiley faces, so he got the feeling she was eager to help. He chewed his sandwich, thoughts wandering to Dana. He wondered what she looked like. What she brought for lunch. Where she was located.
He wondered where his plaza was located. Not in his city, that was for sure. Had he ever met someone who had walked across his screen? Neither of them would know if he had.
Had he ever met Dana?
There was a reminder tone as his thirty minute lunch ended. His screen flickered back to life, and he returned to his post. Hopefully spring would come soon and he would be able to go back outside to the park bench for lunch. He liked people watching—actual people watching—much more than being alone with his thoughts.
Time passed with minor infractions resulting in brief, routine redirection. He watched the screen and the clock with equal interest, waiting for the end of the day. It was nearly time to go home when the final redirection came in.
It was after school, so the number of children had dramatically increased. Most with parents, a few wandering alone. Teenagers, he told himself. He always kept a close eye on them, but they seemed docile today. On the other side of the screen, a region flashed as the chime sounded. He watched a child run across the plaza, leaving behind an adult figure. He looked down at the inputs, preparing the appropriate level for a child infraction, but his eyes bounced back up as there was another tone.
“Infraction limit exceeded. Increase redirection to level: 2,” read the note hovering over the still running child. Toby sighed. This was the part he hated. Begrudgingly, he increased the dial to 2 and depressed the button. There was a flicker over the screen as the child figure turned red and stopped running. The image stayed for a three seconds, then faded back to the normal, happy child image.
The adult figure bustled over, hands waving in a lecturing motion. A parent scolding with “I told you so,” he imagined. The recording later confirmed. It was a much younger child than he imagined, too young to have already exceeded infraction level 1.
He was late leaving the office, having gotten the paperwork completed a full fifteen minutes after the end of day tone. It always took him longer on redirections like that.
Thus passed the like of Toby, day in and day out. He watched his screen, ate his lunch, and administered redirection as required. The days eventually warmed again, and he enjoyed his sandwich on a bench beneath a tree where people walked about smilingly in the sunshine. He always made sure to dispose of his trash properly, and he was a moment late back to his post.
And then, the routine changed.
It was summer, a time when the plaza was even busier and the clientele more active. He always noticed a surge in redirections in the summer, which he attributed to kids out of school and the carefree attitude that permeated the season. The rules still applied, though, and he did his job to enforce them.
He had taken a later shift, an attempt to build up some vacation time so he could spend a few days relaxing on the beach. The plaza was now much quieter, having emptied of the majority of patrons. Instead, his screen now rotated between five locales, each more deserted than the last. Toby drank his coffee slowly, yawned, and did his best to stay focused even as his lids grew heavy.
He had drifted farther towards sleep than he intended when an urgent chime from the screen snapped him back to the moment. He saw his plaza before him, feeling a familiar swell of anxiety and protectiveness. There were a handful of people on the screen, all of them frozen in time as they faced the center. There was an adult emblazoned in red. He did not need to see the replay to know what was happening. The person had broken through the boundary of the closed shops, only to return moments later carrying something. A break-in.
His hand was shaking as he moved the dial, setting it up for a shoplift redirection. These hurt him each time, because they were automatically a level five. And they seemed to get longer each and every time.
Before he could press the button, there was another chime. He looked up, his eyes stumbling over the words on the screen in disbelief.
“Infraction limit exceeded. Increase redirection level to: 10.”
The bubble of anxiety swelling in his chest finally burst, drenching every part of him with its refuse. His hands were shaking over the dial, glancing down at the innocent numbers. There it was, sitting just beyond the nine, looking perfectly innocent in its malevolence. He had never done something like this. He had no idea what he was even about to do. But his hand shuddered as he tried to turn the knob.
The door to his office clicked open, and he released a breath he had unintentionally been holding. In walked a man in a suit, a thin smile plastered on his face. Toby stared. Not only had he never seen the man before, but no one had ever intruded on him during a shift.
“Mr. Georges,” said the man, his smile stretching just a bit, looking almost pained now.
Toby nodded. His hand was still hovering around the dial, and he could see the perpetrator moving on the screen from his peripheral vision.
“Quite a scene, eh? Go on, set the redirection and deliver it, just as instructed.”
Toby’s mouth opened and closed and his looked between the man and the screen. Eventually, his words caught up. “But, I’ve never—what if it—“
“Come on, Mr. Georges. They made their decision. We have rules here.” The man took a couple of confident strides forward, placing a hand gently on Toby’s shoulder. There was a gentle nudge, turning him back towards the screen. “Now, you do your part.” The smile widened, a gash etched across the face of a grinning corpse. The eyes were dead, Toby realized. Or not dead, but so very far away. “You have to keep order, Mr. Georges.”
The man reached across Toby, gently turning the dial from its position up to 10. He then waved at the console, indicating the smooth grey button. Toby’s hand trembled as it reached toward the button. He paused, and the hand on his shoulder tightened just enough to remind him it was there.
“Are you sure?” Toby asked, his fingers finally having found the familiar groove on the button.
“Our system doesn’t make mistakes, Mr. Georges,” said the man smoothly.
The button was down, and it took a moment for Toby to realize his fingers had pressed the button. The image on the screen changed, the person frozen in the moment. It was not a few seconds, and his eyes were glued to the screen, waiting for the normal adult image to return and assure him everything was going to be okay. It stretched on for seconds more, each one ripping itself from beats of Toby’s heart. And then it was over.
Only the image did not return to normal. It vanished completely.
The man in the suit patted Toby’s shoulder proudly. “Well done, Mr. Georges.” He turned smoothly on his heel and marched toward the door.
“Wha-What happened?” Toby blurted out, rising from his chair and taking a step toward the man.
“You provided the needed redirection,” responded the smiling man, only half turning to face him.
Toby looked back at the screen, now seeing new figures moving onto the screen. These figures were running, but had the emergency designation glowing around their images. They clustered around the spot the shoplifter had been moment before. The spot where the image disappeared.
“Are they okay?”
“They’ve been redirected,” said the man, hand on the door knob.
Toby felt the coffee surging in his gut. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“If you need a break, you have your fifteen minutes,” the man said, his hand on the door, “but we’ll expect you back at your post for your shift. You’ve got to file your report, Mr. Georges.”
“I can’t, I just—“ His head swiveled from the screen to the man, trying to piece together what was happening. The idea of watching the images in real time, of selecting his clip, of numbly filing the report. The room spun around him.
“You will, Mr. Georges.” He opened the door and had one foot out when he paused, breath catching briefly in his throat. When he turned back around, the smile was gone, replaced by a stern, concentrated expression. “And if you think you’re not on someone’s screen right now, Mr. Georges, you are quite wrong. Which is why I know you’ll be back to work after your fifteen minutes.”
The door closed behind him, and Toby sank into his chair, staring at the wall. He heard a chirp as his screen clicked off. Someone named Jordan was now watching his screen, not knowing what had just occurred. He stared at his hands while they trembled. What he wouldn’t give for tedium again.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
I thought about writing a horror short story today, but I looked at the news and decided that was horror enough. And then I thought about ranting into the void about the election, but I know the void is noisy today with all kinds of opinions.
And so, instead, I think I’ll write a bit of fantasy. The fantasy genre is probably my first love, full of all that puppy dog infatuation and idealization. I don’t think I have the stomach to write a grand fantasy epic, but I do think those are some of the stories I am most intrigued by. Specifically, the idea of dragons and dragon riders has always been a favorite theme of mine. So, today, when I need to write something for me, that’s where I go.
Disclaimer: While this does deal with “election,” there is no hidden meaning behind these. It is not some sort of metaphor or anything. It is literally a story about dragons and people and how that happens.
I carried my pack into the Hatchery Barracks, feeling a swell of anxiety and excitement. They blended so purely that it was hard to distinguish where one began and the other ended. Perhaps, I thought, they were the same thing. Anticipation of the future, one anticipating future good and the other future ill. But the same.
My thoughts spun in a flurry of ideas, each one blending into another, leading me down paths with no destination or reason. And then I was standing before my bunk, the one carrying a tag with my name scrawled on it, and set my pack down. Suddenly my thoughts were silent.
And suddenly the room was loud, full of people shuffling in and finding their position. Each full of hope and terror. We were all so much the same.
I was tired that first night; I was tired most nights in the Barracks, which I suppose meant training was proceeding as intended. Each day was full of drills, combat training, conditioning, and tactical education. I cannot separate one day from another, as they were all renditions of the same symphony. But I know I was tired.
I was especially tired that first night after carrying the burden of anxiety for so long, crawling into my bed and pulling the thin sheets over my shoulders while others chatted and whispered in the dark. Their whispers diminished over the days, as the fatigue caught up with each of us.
That night, I dreamed of home. It had been two weeks since I left there, and I would not return until next spring. The house was as I remembered it, standing proud on its stone foundation, new thatch on the roof. Smoke puffed from the chimney and I imagined I could smell my mother’s cooking even from the path outside.
Inside, my mother and father sat around the table while my brothers sat in front of the hearth, building with the blocks father had carved from them two winters ago. Words and hugs were exchanged. I remember laughter from the dream, as well as a feeling of intense contentment.
And then those feelings faded back into reality with the sound of the alarm, signaling another day of training. Even now, only the barest images and sensations from that dream exist, even though I have held them tightly all this time. They are worn like an old notice hung in the town square. I can still at least make out the details to know what it once said, even if the words have vanished.
The anxiety dwindled over the next two weeks. The alarm woke me each day, and each night I fell asleep lying next to the slumbering eggs, waiting for them to awake.
It was day nine of fourteen when I felt the connection. Exhausted as I was, my sleep was often deep and dreamless. But that night was different. That night my dream was of light half glimpsed through some semi-transparent barrier. I could watch firelight rise and fall around me, a soft dance along the walls. I felt the steady flutter of my heart, felt the soft brush of my breath over scaly skin. Sounds floated through the sounds of someone sleeping, muted footsteps on patrol. Somewhere, I heard quiet weeping. That night, I slept in the shell with the one I would later bond with.
I felt refreshed the next morning, filled with a unique energy and vitality. The day quickly sapped that, but I managed enough energy to inspect the eggs that night. I walked past each bay, glancing briefly in to see the cream, oval eggs resting in their nests. And then I walked up to number 43.
If you’ve never experienced The Connection, I’m not sure how to explain it. If you’ve ever held an instrument as it reverberates and felt that energy meld with your hand and pass through your body as well as the air, that’s like it. It’s like existing as a giant tuning fork for the entire world, so that, for a moment, everything flows right through you. You feel joy and despair and anger and fear and everything at once. You are land and sea and sky, plant, animal, and human. And then it’s over, The Connection dwindling until there is just a thin trickle of that massive river surging through you. And if you follow that trickle, it leads right back to your bonded.
The anxiety that had plagued me for weeks disappeared in that moment. Not everyone is bonded—in fact, most people leave to fulfill their duty in the infantry rather than join the Bonded Ranks. I had always hoped that I would be chosen, that I would receive the glory and esteem that came from such a role. But I never dared to believe it would happen. Until I stood in front of egg 43 and felt my breath flow in through my nose and out through theirs.
I reported The Connection right away. Sir Conaway raised an eyebrow at the number. “Ol’ 43, eh? That one’s been here a while. Waiting on you, I guess.” He pulled out a large book and scribbled the event on the last page. “All right then, miss, we’ve got it and you will be at the hatching at the end of the training.”
By the end, fourteen of the ninety-two who had begun the training remained for the hatching. We stood in formation, awaiting our next orders. The tension was palpable. We were all steps away from what would be the most significant event of our short lives so far. Sir Conaway stood before us, chewing on the end of his pipe as he read over the event log again and again. After what seemed like ages, he pulled the pipe from his mouth and spoke.
“Larena Dougan and Tallesor de’Trie, please come with me.”
Chills chased through my body as I heard my name, but faded as we walked past the bays and toward Sir Conaway’s meeting room. This was not protocol, growled the knot of anxiety roiling in my gut. I walked into the room, shaking as Sir Conaway closed the door behind me. He walked to the other side of the table, dropping the log book in between the three of us.
“Alright you two, somebody’s not telling me the truth.” He ran a large hand over his forehead, massaging at his temples. “I had hoped the fraud would chicken out before tonight, but one of you is foolish enough to push on ahead.”
Tallesor jumped to alarm. “What do you mean, sir? I’m here for the hatching.” He was sweating heavily, perhaps because of the fire roaring in the grate beside him. But his eyes seemed too wide, too jumpy. I had trained alongside him for two weeks, long enough to know that things rarely broke through his veneer of arrogant surety. I was not sure what to do with this uncertain, nervous comrade.
“Of course you’re here for the hatching,” exclaimed Sir Conaway with exasperation. “We wouldn’t have a problem if both of you weren’t here for the hatching!”
“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice tiny in the large room, “but I don’t know what’s going on?”
Sir Conaway sighed and stroked his beard once, weighing his words. “You’ve both claimed egg 43. Which means one of you is lying and trying to sneak into the Bonded Ranks. And there are serious punishments for such deception.”
His eyes moved evenly over the two of us, measuring and looking for any weakness. We both dripped with anxiety and fear, and I suddenly felt myself doubting everything I had experienced up until that point.
“Could we—has there ever been two bonded to one egg before?” I squeaked out.
“Never,” came the solid reply. He continued studying us both. The only sound was the snapping of the logs in the grate. Finally, he spoke wearily. “You both know what happens if you try to bond to a dragon you’ve not connected with, right?”
My head shook, and from the corner of my eye I saw Tallesor do the same.
Sir Conaway sniffed. “Of course not. You wouldn’t try something this stupid if you did. The dragon will hatch bonded to its true connection. It’ll reject the impostor. Aggressively.”
The anxiety that had been my constant companion now swelled into a monster of its own, turning the room into a chokingly small dungeon. Tallesor appeared to feel the same surge of anxiety, but I watched as it slowly faded from his features. He was watching me, a half smile now on his lips.
“So, before I turn one of you over to the beast, can you both confirm your Connection to 43?”
Tallesor was ready with his answer. “Of course. I would never be deceitful with such vital information. I just can’t believe she,” he looked over to me with a sneer, “would stoop so low to claw her way into prestige.”
Maybe I was wrong, I thought. Perhaps all of these experiences were just me wishing it could be different, creating something that was not there. But I could reach out, follow that thin trickle of the world still running through me, and feel someone at the other end. 43.
“I can confirm.” The words were out of my mouth before I had even processed what was happening. I was sure Tallesor turned a few shades paler after I spoke, but perhaps it was simply the lighting.
Sir Conaway lifted the book from the table, stepping around to the door and dragging it open. “Then let’s get this over with.”
Upon returning to the others, doing my best to dodge their accusing, questioning stares, the bay doors were opened. Slowly, with reverent grace and patience, each of us stepped forward toward our identified bay and the waiting egg. The rest of the room disappeared around me, replaced by the simple wooden walls and straw floor of the egg bay. Egg 43 sat in front of me, the same shade of pearly white that I had watched for so long.
“Leave and I’ll pay you heartily, make sure the punishment is waived,” hissed Tallesor once we were in semi-privacy.
“What?” I asked, too loudly. He quickly raised a finger to his lips, shushing me.
“I need this more than you. I’ll be the first in seven generations not to be in the Bonded Ranks. If you leave, I’ll ensure you are well cared for.”
“I’m not going,” I said, surprising myself with my unusual confidence. Now I knew who the impostor was, the anxiety turned into pure excitement. “And I hope you’re not stupid enough or stubborn enough to go forward after the warnings.”
He smiled a dark, angry grin. “I’m sure the dragon will recognize greatness when it sees it. Let’s just hope you manage to survive this.”
Sir Conaway’s voice echoed behind us. “Place your hand on the shell of the egg. I will come through and pour the Hatching Serum onto each egg in turn.”
I placed my hand on the egg as Tallesor did the same. It was softer than I thought, feeling less like an egg shell and more like skin. It seemed to give slightly as I put pressure on it, almost as if returning the touch. A slow, steady heartbeat pulsed through my hand and into my body, providing an echo to the one that had flowed through me since The Connection. I would not be abandoned, it assured.
There were sounds of cracking shells all around us. Of course, the view was entirely blocked, but I heard shots of joy, followed by soft rumbles and yips. Through it all, Sir Conaway’s voice giving polite, practiced congratulations.
He stood in the doorway to our bay for the span of a few breaths, studying us both. There was resignation in his voice when he finally spoke. “So you’re both going through with this?”
“Yes,” was Tallesor’s confident reply. I nodded my head weakly, and I could tell by the pity in his eyes Sir Conaway thought I was the liar.
He lifted a bowl over our hands, spilling out a thick, warm, honey colored liquid. The substance oozed over our hands, then trickled down along the shell. After a moment, there was the sound of cracking as the egg moved for the first time. It rocked strongly, and I feared I would be thrown against the back wall. But the liquid held my hand to the surface with surprising strength, almost as if my hand and the shell had somehow merge in that moment.
Then there was a louder crack. Like a lightning bolt, one large, green eye found me. It was like a jewel, colors folding on top of colors to form a deep, ageless pit of emerald. The trickle of connection I had felt surged into a river again, but this time it was not the whole world. This time it was just myself and—
“Khandar,” answered the dragon’s voice in my mind. It flowed through me, the name sounding like thunder and tasting of smoke. There was a moment that the world was doubled and I saw from four eyes, felt two hearts. I felt my muscles strain against the shell before finally bursting free.
And then he was standing before me, our eyes locked the world having resolved to one perspective again as the river steadied its flow. The Connection was there, but it was restrained. Manageable.
I looked at Khandar, studying the long line of his neck, the strong limbs of his body, the thick wings folded. In an instant, he stretched those wings, the tips reaching from one corner of the room to the other. He was the same early white as the egg shell—I knew that, somewhere in the recesses of knowledge. All dragons are born without color. His would develop as we trained together over the next few months, reflecting our role within the Ranks.
I was dimly aware of Sir Conaway still standing, slightly shocked, in the doorway. I was also aware of Tallesor lying in a heap on the far wall, his hand still stuck to a fragment of the shell. Rage flowed through me, not from myself, but from Khandar. I watched as he turned, steam billowing from his nostrils. I could feel the power flowing through both of us as he reached out one clawed leg and struck at the stunned impostor.
Sir Conaway looked concerned, but stood immobile. “Such is the way,” he whispered to himself as he watched.
There was blood on the ground, blood in the straw, anger in the air. And I could see Tallesor’s shocked face, now sporting a bright red gash across his cheek.
There was fire building in my belly, and I could hear strong words, ancient words passing through my mind. I was at once witness and actor. “Thus to usurpers,” whispered Khandar’s voice. This was the way it had been determined, I could feel it in my bones. Those who attempted to deceive or disrupt the ancient ritual were dealt with harshly. Still, I felt sorrow and guilt rise up.
“No.” The word brought the world crashing back down around me. Khandar eyed me, his mind probing my own and uncovering every detail he sought. We were not of two minds any longer, but one shared.
“No,” his voice repeated in my mind. The fire dulled as he took the few steps to my side. Tallesor sat with blood dripping down his chin, eyes wide.
Sir Conaway watched the scene curiously, finally waving over his shoulder to alert the waiting guards. They shuffled in and grabbed Tallesor under the arms, dragging him from the room.
“He got off far better than most others who have tried that,” he said with a hint of disappointment and respect.
“What will happen now?”
“The doctor will patch him up, he will be disbarred from all military and public service, and as such he will be fined a portion of his income each year to atone for his negligence.” He looked at both of us. “You let him off too easy, I’d say.”
I felt a nudge of agreement from Khandar, but it was good-natured. We had a difference in temperament, I could see, but certainly that could be a strength. Right.
Khandar leaned against me, so I could feel the puffing of his chest with each breath, the thunder of his heart as it pounded in time to my own. Connected. Bonded. The next few months and years would be full of training, of honing our bond and our work. But we had conquered time and space to unite together.
Excitement bubbling in our mind, we stepped out of the bay and into the Bonded Ranks.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
You made it to the end! If you missed any of the previous Halloween stories, you can find them all here! Thanks for reading!
The cemetery after midnight was creepy. I guess I would have been disappointed if it were otherwise, but the fact remained. All those lone sentinels standing over their graves, it gave off the vibe that I had stumbled into some frozen moment of grief. The angels bowed their heads low to study the markers at their feet. Crosses rose and stabbed up into the night sky. A few larger mausoleums stood as squat, stubborn guardians holding court. It was enough to send chills up my back.
I’ve never been superstitious, but that was not enough to prevent me from feeling uncomfortable in the cemetery. My friends were supposed to meet me but were, as usual, running late. Somehow it seemed far less intimidating to stand in that place if I had the warmth of human companionship.
As if on cue, I heard the clatter of the metal gate at the entrance, followed by a thud and muted laughter. I recognized Calvin’s laugh immediately, and Suzanne’s joined shortly after. The tension uncoiled from around my neck, and I began walking toward the gate.
Calvin was lying in an uncoordinated pile on the ground, looking back over the gate and laughing. Suzanne had paused with one leg thrown over the gate, her head bent low and she chuckled as well.
“You guys suck as sneaking in,” I said, stepping from behind a grave stone. Calvin’s laugh turned into a short yelp, but Suzanne seemed not to notice my arrival.
“Jesus, Lynn, you can be way creepy sometimes.”
I shrugged. “Nothing I can do about that. Guess you just need to toughen up.” He laughed and shoved himself up from the ground. Suzanne finally finished her climb, dropping with far more grace to the ground.
“Yep, same old Lynn,” she said as she dusted off her pants, shaking away the collected dust and rust.
We stood in a small circle, everyone unsure of how to proceed. It had been a year since we last met together, and some of the uncertainty from that gap lingered between us.
“I figured we’d do the usual thing? Drink a bit, gossip, scare ourselves silly?”
Calvin held up his backpack, the sound of bottles clanging about inside. “That’s the sort of evening I came prepared for.”
Suzanne reached into her backpack and pulled out a slightly crushed bag of assorted candy. “And it’s no good to drink on an empty stomach.”
I smiled and turned to walk toward a spot in the middle of the cemetery. “I found this spot earlier, thought it might be good for us to palaver.” There was a large oak tree, leaves still clinging on to the branches. Beneath it was a couple of benches, arranged to provide a meditative spot for visitors. The plaque on the benches revealed they were dedicated to Jeremiah Brown, “a kind husband, father, grandfather, and friend.”
The three settled in, Calvin pulling out a bottle of something dark while Suzanne ripped open the bag of candy. I reached out a grabbed a piece of chocolate, unwrapping it and savoring the sweet, bitter taste as it melted in my mouth. I washed it down with the too bitter alcohol, feeling it burn its way down my throat. My eyes watered as I sputtered, apparently more unused to the strong drink than I had anticipated.
“Maybe you should take it slow,” suggested Calvin, taking the bottle and eyeing me with motherly concern.
I grabbed it back, more so to prove a point. “Listen, it may burn, but we all know I can handle liquor better than either one of you.” I took a long drink, holding my face in a stoic mask despite the sensation.
“Can’t argue with that,” said Suzanne as she took the bottle and sipped from it herself. “I mean, we all know that’s a competition I can’t win. You going to challenge the title?” She tilted an eyebrow and the bottle toward Calvin. He took it, laughing.
“I think you have an unfair advantage, Lynn. But you can have your title.” He set the bottle between us. It was not really the reason for us coming together. The reason was just to be together. As friends again.
The moment caught up with me. “Hey, I don’t want to make this too sappy, but I’m really glad you’re both here. I know this is kind of weird and all, but…”
Suzanne smiled at me. “Of course we’d be here. It’s been too long. A girl needs her best girlfriend.” She tossed another piece of candy towards me with a wink. I caught it and turned it over in my hand. Calvin was quiet, turning the words over in his head.
“You know, after that accident, when we thought we’d lost you for good—“
I cut him off with a wave of my hand. “That’s the sappiness I was talking about! Listen, I’d rather not talk about the accident. I think about it all the time. But tonight’s all about enjoying our time together. I mean, I almost never get to see either of you anymore. You two have moved on to bigger and better things, but I’m still stuck here.”
My words caused more hurt than I intended; I could see it on both their faces. Suzanne’s face twitched, and I saw her gathering words for an apology.
“No, not like that. I’m not upset with you about it,” I tried to laugh it off, but the sound was empty. “I just meant, let’s have fun. No point in dwelling on the past.”
They smiled, glancing at each other with guilt in their eyes. I tried to ignore it. This was not going as planned.
“Have you guys heard about Old Man Stevens’ ghost?” It was a poor, erratic distraction, but it brought their four eyes back to me with curiosity rather than pity.
They shook their heads, almost in unison. “No, but I’m guessing you have a story?”
I smiled at Calvin. “Of course. It’s Halloween and we’re in a graveyard. I feel like I of all people should have a ghost story to tell.”
Calvin and Suzanne leaned in close, Suzanne tucking her jacket tighter around her body as the wind picked up. It was the ambiance I wanted, but could not control.
“So, like all ghosts, Stevens likes to hang around the cemetery, never straying too far from his grave. Also, as we all know, that means that he can interact with and be seen by mortals on one night of the year.” I paused for effect, even if the conclusion was obvious. “Tonight.”
They smiled, Calvin rolling his eyes. “Come on, maestro, get on with the story.”
“You have no respect for the art of storytelling,” I added full of mock offense, then took a deep breath. “Edward Stevens was a bitter, sullen old man when alive. He lived out beyond the town limits on a tiny little farm. It was him, his wife, and their three children out there. Now, his wife was a pitiful woman, worn down to nothing by his constant abuse. Nothing she did was every quite good enough, from the dinners she made to the children she bore. That kind of life can eat a hole right through you.”
Suzanne crunched into a hard candy, the sudden sound making Calvin jump. He gave her a playful shove, and she shook her head. “Barely any story and you’re already jumpy,” she tossed back.
“We are in a cemetery at one am,” he countered.
“Or maybe I’m just that good of a storyteller? I’ve had plenty of time to practice.”
There was the uncomfortable silence again. I mentally kicked myself, constantly putting my foot in my mouth. I wasn’t upset, but it was certainly getting harder to convince them of that. “Well, either way, back to the story. Mr. Stevens was also one of those sort who seemed to dodge every bit of bad luck to come his way. Unfortunately, it seemed to land squarely on his children. When the equipment malfunctioned, he managed to repair it and narrowly saved his hand from the tines when it started back up. His youngest son, unfortunately, was not as lucky when he fell from the barn loft and landed on the cursed machine three months later. Old Man Stevens said he was never sick a day in his life, but his middle son seemed to catch everything. It was the Measles that finally got him.
“Mr. Stevens was not a kind man, and he had more than his share of enemies. These weren’t the kind of people you could easily settle the score with, either. They were the kind who operated far below the law, and did not take kindly to being cheated. Especially out of money they felt was theirs. Stevens somehow avoided having to pay up, but his family was not so lucky. His eldest daughter, the one people thought might just manage to overcome the evil that her father poured out on a daily basis, was walking home from town one night. It was a different time, a time where people thought they were safe. She had been sent to run some errands for her mother, and time got later than she anticipated. So it was full dark when she was walking along the country road. Full dark was also when her father’s associates were known to make their own trouble.”
“No,” Suzanne gasped. Calvin grabbed another piece of candy and began chewing slowly.
“Now, when the facts started coming out a trial, those three men claimed it was an accident that must have caused those injuries. But no one could quite piece together what kind of accident would have left her face bruised and swollen beyond recognition. They had no idea what could have broken all her fingers and three ribs. And the greatest mystery of all was what kind of accident would have dragged her naked, lifeless body from the scene to her front porch.
“That was the last straw for Mrs. Stevens. Always a quiet woman, folks say she became even quieter. She was concentrating down all the rage that had built for all those years, compressing it into a pinpoint so dark, it sapped all the good straight out of her. Her husband continued on his own way, whistling while he worked about the farm. And then, one night, she got her revenge.
“They had an old cellar off from the house, one where Mr. Stevens kept his personal supply of whiskey. She knew he would go down there every night after his long day of work, just like clockwork. So she prepared. And one night, he went down, and the doors swung shut behind him. She locked it up tight, leaving him down there with nothing but his whiskey, an old lantern, and the exhumed corpses of his three children.”
“Ugh,” exclaimed Calvin, making a face and pushing away. “That’s sick.”
I smiled. “Perhaps, but so was he. ‘You can come out once you make it right,’ she told him, though she had no intention of letting him out. The only way he could make it right was to die in there. That was the atonement she sought. He hollered and raved for the first day, certain the power of his blustering would bring her to heel as it usually did. She sat on the front porch, working on her sewing, never batting an eye at the force of his words. After another day, he was begging. ‘When you make it right,” was all she would tell him.
“Folks finally got suspicious and showed up at the farm. She showed them to the cellar, not a hint of shame in her. They opened it up, not expecting to open up a crypt. Inside, they found him lying in a half formed grave, one other already dug and covered. His two sons sat in their chairs, at least what was left of them, right where Mrs. Stevens had placed them. The walls and doors were scratched and bloodied, but he had apparently saved enough of his fingers to dig up the dry, compressed ground, trying to make it right. She just shook her head when she saw it. ‘It wasn’t right when we put them in the first time,’ she was recorded as saying. She died in prison a few days later, though no one quite knew why.”
There was a creak in the branches above us, bringing us all back to the present. Calvin and Suzanne stretched and adjusted their position, trying to shake off the story. We were not on that farm or in that cellar, but seated safely beneath the tree. I smiled. Safety was relative.
“They say he wanders the grounds, looking for anyone out of their graves. Only he has a bad habit of mistaking the living for the dead. Rumor has it, if he catches you, he’ll bury you in his grave, where no one will ever find you. You’ll be buried alive, deep underground, where you can try to scratch and claw your way to freedom. But he already knows that never works.”
“Is—Is he buried here?” queried Suzanne, glancing around the cemetery as if every headstone was waiting to pounce.
I nodded. “Yep, a couple of rows over. I’ve paid him a visit a time or two, just to investigate this legend. Sad he didn’t seem to learn a thing from his wife.”
“We should try to see him!” said Calvin, jumping to his feet. I glanced at the bottle and noticed he had been comforting himself with it throughout the story. There was a subtle wobble to his stance. Not drunk, I thought, but certainly not sober.
“I can show you where he usually is, if you want. But—“
“Isn’t it dangerous?” Suzanne interrupted.
“Not if you’re with me. I can keep you safe.”
Calvin was already a couple of strides down the hill toward the grave. Suzanne and I hurried to catch up, climbing along the paths until we got closer. I held up a hand to stop them, placing a finger over my lips. “He’s just over there.”
From the gloom, there appeared a specter. He was a frail, emaciated man wearing a baggy pair of overalls and a checkered shirt. His beard was long and tangled about his face, eyes sunken. He held his arm up as if carrying a lantern about, but it emitted no light. As the wind turned, we could hear his mumbled ravings, words about graves and wives and revenge. He peered between the trees and gravestones, scouring his territory obsessively. When he reached the end, he looped back to the beginning, constantly waving his empty hand from side to side as he sought a way to finally make it right.
“Woah,” breathed Calvin, his eyes wide as he stared down at the spectacle before us. I, too, felt a certain awe at Old Man Stevens. So many years, so much time spent seeking, and still not at peace. Suzanne simply looked, well, like she had seen a ghost. Eye wide, face pale, lips trembling.
“Maybe we should go back,” I offered. She nodded, scrambling back the way we came. Calvin trailed behind us, casting glances over his shoulder to ensure the specter was still there.
“Are there more ghosts around here?” he asked, catching up to us.
I nodded. “I assume so. Every grave has a story, right? I just imagine most of them have no interest in pestering the living.”
We settled back under the tree, words flowing between us again. Finally, I realized, we were back into the swing of things. We laughed and talked. They told me what their life had been like since we last met, filling in all the gaps and details. We shared urban legends and spooky stories, working our way through the supply of candy and booze.
And then, on the far horizon, the sun began to crest, turning the black night sky into a fuzzy grey.
“I guess that’s our cue to leave,” said Calvin with a sad smile. “I’m glad we could meet up again.”
I smiled and nodded. “Yeah.” There were tears in my eyes and more words were going to bring those out.
“Same time, same place next year?” asked Suzanne.
“If not before,” Calvin said with a fatalistic chuckle.
“You better not!” I responded, anger mingling with the good-natured joke. I was always on a tightrope, trying to stay perfectly balanced. Sometimes I succeeded.
“Good seeing you, Lynn,” he added as we stood at the gate. He shoved his backpack through the bars and hoisted himself up.
“Take care,” offered Suzanne as she followed.
I watched them leave, the sun rising along the far horizon. It slowly reached out toward me, and I felt my form begin to vanish, burned away like an early morning fog.
And with that, I too shall bid adieu (to the challenge, not the blog!). Tune in for more stories over the next few weeks. I’ll also talk a little bit about what this 13 days series was like for me.Until then, Happy Halloween!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello! If you’ve been following along with the 13 Stories, well, this is not one. I just found out that his story has been published on creepypasta.com, so I wanted to add it here as well. If you landed here after reading my story on Creepypasta, Welcome to the Attic! Take a look around. If you’re interested in some spooky/funny/creepy/weird Halloween stories, just check out the 13 Stories of Halloween tag here. The final one will be posted later today (around noon Central time), so check back to read it.
Alright, enough babbling from me. Here’s the story and, as always, Happy Reading!
Trevor looked at the sweaty, crumpled paper in his hand, reviewing the instructions yet again. Soon it would be too late to read over them, but until then every rehearsal could be the one that saved his life.
Four pale candles, he read, and then glanced over to the four candles sitting on the floor. He had arranged them in a perfect square, just as instructed. The line of crisp white chalk connected them, and he mentally marked the next item off the list.
His hand was shaking, making it harder to read the scrawled lines of pencil on the paper. With a deep breath, he looked away from the paper and out the window. There was a swell of nervous energy bubbling in his chest. He had prepared, he reminded himself. He had read and studied. He had memorized every line of text and done his research. Now was no time to have second thoughts or doubts.
“Remember, the entity will know your thoughts. If you enter with doubts, he will use these to his advantage.”
Trevor closed his eyes and smiled, trying his best to think confident and reassuring thoughts. What he needed to do, he realized, was find something else to think about. Every review of the instructions only deepened his anxiety, and it obviously wasn’t helping. It reminded him of cramming for final exams. He had always overdone it and worn himself out, so that he ultimately spent a week sick and dreading the impending tests. Now was not the time to weaken his mental or emotional defenses. It was, instead, the time to finally achieve something with his life.
Trevor walked away from his preparations, shoving the paper in his pocket and trying to prevent his mind from running over and over the instructions. They always hung on the final words.
“If you successfully complete the ritual, he will grant you one request for whatever your heart desires. Choose wisely.”
As if he could dislodge the thoughts, he shook his head sharply and turned his attention to his surroundings. He was sitting in the front of an old chapel, the wooden pews cracked and listing in the shadows. What had once been lovely windows were now either caked with dust, webbed with cracks, or lying broken on the floor. The moon sprinkled silver light around the interior, light which somehow only made the shadows darker. He wondered briefly about those who had once gathered here bowing penitently and singing their hymns. But churches dried up when a town did, and it was nothing more than an artifact cast out.
“Find a place of religious significance. It may be a church, temple, synagogue, mosque, sanctuary, blessed space, or area of miraculous happenings. Any place where people come to demonstrate faith will suffice.”
Trevor smirked remembering the words. He had considered going to his hometown’s football stadium, because that was where he had witnessed the greatest religious fervor. But somehow he thought such secular praises were not what the ritual intended. He had lucked upon this place on one of his trips to and from university. It was off the beaten path, well removed from the rest of civilization. Soy bean fields were the nearest attraction, which meant he would be mostly free to conduct his activities in peace. Assuming, of course, local kids did not wander in, drawn by the same isolation and freedom that had brought him. Given the lack of beer bottles and vandalism, he assumed it was not a popular place for such activities.
His legs were shaking up and down, whether from excitement or anxiety he was not sure. He checked his watch, noting that it had slipped five minutes closer since his last inspection. It was now 11:50, which meant his waiting was almost over.
“It must be begun at precisely midnight. Too early or too late and you will have no results but feeling like a fool.”
He had set and reset his watch just to be certain it was exact. Now he just needed to rely on it. He had also selected this position because it was just close enough to hear the church bells from a couple of towns over. Come midnight, they would toll and assure him he was on time.
The wind kicked up outside, tossing a few stray leaves through the opening. The many holes in the roof howled pitifully and the rest of the building creaked with the gusts. It seemed almost as if the building was in its final days, waiting for nothing but a strong storm to destroy it once and for all.
Giving into his worries, Trevor pulled the paper from his pocket and reviewed the important parts again. He skimmed over the materials, certain he had everything he needed. Instead, he reviewed the cautions to ensure he did not make any deadly mistakes.
”First, never speak your name. Such a being will seek any way to gain power over you. Should this creature find any weakness, he will use it to possess you. This is akin to being split apart from the inside out, slowly and over several days. Most unfortunate souls are also forced to watch as they slaughter family, friends, and other victims.”
It was simple enough. No names. That was an easy pitfall to avoid.
“Next, do not answer his questions. They are intended to trick you. You must only say what you have been instructed and your request. If you engage in questions, he will trap you in his game. You will slowly waste away, caught forever in his web of lies.”
Trevor had always been taciturn, so he was not concerned. Remaining silent was his primary skill in life, and he looked forward to putting it to good use. He also could not help but wonder who in their right mind would try to best a demon in a duel of wits. It seemed like one of the oldest follies.
“Third, ensure all barriers are maintained for the duration of the ritual. He will be unable to touch or harm you physically while the barriers are active. Adhere to the guidelines for your own safety.”
Another easy warning to heed. Who would ignore the barriers? Why would they even be in the ritual if they were not vital to its safe and successful completion?
“Finally, believe nothing of what he says. He exists only to lie.”
Rereading the warnings made him feel safer. These were so obvious that he could not imagine anyone making such grievous errors. He certainly knew better. And if the direst warnings in the ritual were so clear to him, it seemed impossible that he might fail.
The clock hands spun closer, and he moved back to his prepared space. There were the four candles, a fifth, and black candle setting to the side. There was a silver bowl of blessed water, secured from his local cathedral some days before. Also, a lighter, a scrap of cotton cloth, and a steel knife. It was everything he needed.
Trevor knelt beside the chalk square, arranging and rearranging items for the most practical set up. He wanted everything in arms’ reach, but also in the order it would be needed. Which meant, he thought, the lighter, the bowl, the knife, the cloth, and finally the candle.
It was midnight, he saw. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, he heard the bells ringing. Right on time, he brought the lighter to the first of the four candles, slowly moving clockwise and lighting each in turn. They flickered and snapped in the breeze, but remained strong.
His hands were unsteady as he picked up the bowl and set it in front of him. With a deep breath, he gripped the knife in his hand and drew it smoothly across his palm, just like they did in the movies. Only it seemed to hurt worse than those actors let on.
“Let a few drops fall into the water, and then bandage yourself carefully. The scent of blood can attract other things you may not wish to deal with during the ritual.”
Trevor followed the instructions to the letter, turning the water a cloudy red with his own blood before tightly wrapping his hand with the cloth. He knew the next steps by heart, moving through them almost robotically. Each step had been dutifully practiced—with the exception of cutting his own hand—many times in the bright light of day. Now, he lifted the bowl carefully with both hands, watching the way it rippled and changed. His blood diffused through the water, leaving darker and lighter patches that were quickly settling into the same pale shade.
“I summon you here with this dedication. Arrive.” With the last word, he tipped the water into the middle of the square. Unlike in the practice sessions, the water rolled and then stopped at the chalk outline, forming a tiny pool that defied the laws of gravity and surface tension. Trevor’s mouth hung open briefly, but he knew he had to continue.
The black candle was already in his hand, and he lit it despite the increasing wind. Gently, he placed it in the middle of the square, watching the tiny flame flicked on the surface of the water.
“I give you light to seek me,” he said, the words trembling from his lips. “Arrive.”
Barely were the words out of his mouth than the black candle began to sink below the surface of the water before disappearing completely. A dark, shadowy face emerged on the surface of the water, grinning widely. The face was hard to discern, but appeared dark and scaly, riddled with scars and fresh wounds that seemed to seep blood into the water around him. There were also many, many teeth. Trevor felt a cold pit of fear settle solidly in his stomach.
“Who summons me?” came the deep, gravelly voice. It came not from the thing’s moving lips, but from the air all around Trevor. The whole building seemed to vibrate with the voice.
No names, no questions, he reminded himself. Trevor’s mouth was dry thinking just how easy it would have been to make that mistake.
“You have been summoned, and I will instruct you. Speak your name.”
The church chuckled in time with the reflection in the water. He was smiling, showing even more teeth than Trevor thought could physically exist in the span of that face.
“Who are you to think you can command me, mortal?” came the bone aching words. They seemed to vibrate through Trevor’s body, as if he was being pulled apart by the reverberations alone.
“Speak your name,” he said again through gritted teeth.
The demon stretched, his arms stabbing through the surface of the water and entering this world. The water trickled off them, stumbling over protruding scales and nodules. Cruel claws shone in the candlelight, covered with water and a viscous red liquid that Trevor knew by sight. The smell of rot and decay followed quickly after, threatening to bring up Trevor’s meager dinner.
“I have summed you, and you will obey my commands. Remain within the summoning area.”
“Oh, shall I obey you and remain here?” asked the beast mockingly, planting one hand one either side of the puddle—outside the thin chalk lines. A deep, rolling chuckle emerged this time as he pulled himself slowly through the pool and into reality. The floorboards of the church appeared to buckle and steam wherever the claws pierced.
“He will try to intimidate you. Stay strong.”
“Remain within the summoning area. Speak your name.” Trevor tried to force all of his courage and confidence into his voice, but it only made the demon laugh all the louder, now standing at his full height.
The beast looked down on the pale boy before him. “You can call me Trevor,” came Trevor’s voice from his monstrous visage.
Trevor froze, his mouth agape and eyes wide. For an instant, the demon appeared almost sympathetic, but the façade cracked into merciless anticipation as the shadows flickered over his face. “You have meddled with something you do not even understand,” it said, voice again deep and roaring, but now mimicking the disappointed tone of a school teacher.
“I–I never told you my name. You can’t know my name,” Trevor stammered, his fear getting the better of him. His eyes flickered from the face to the arms to the rooted feet, never sure where to stay or linger. Everywhere he looked, there was impossibility.
“You think I need you to tell me your name?” Casually, the demon stretched, muscles and joints popping and cracking as if it had been millennia since he moved about. His eyes, dark with unholy light, fixed on Trevor with predatory amusement. He answered his own questions with a deep shake of his head, sending water sizzling across the sanctuary.
Trevor began scooting backward, whimpering with fear as the monster before him took one broad step forward. There was really nowhere to escape. The candles slowly snuffed themselves out, leaving only the moonlight to glint off those smiling teeth.
“But,” Trevor gasped as his hands scrambled along the floor for anything that might help, “but I followed all the instructions!”
The creature paused to survey the assembled implements and the chalk square. “Yes, you certainly did.” The building trembled with the force of the laugh.
From the cloying darkness, an arm shot forward. In the next breath, Trevor was off the ground. The demon slowly drew him close until their eyes were level.
“Who do you think wrote the ritual in the first place?”
“He exists only to lie.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Read the rest of the series here!
They parked their car in the gravel lot, positioning themselves as close to the tree line as they could. The corn maze was closed this time of night, and no one wanted to be caught lurking around after hours. However, being equal parts bored and broke, the chance to explore the maze in complete solitude was too much to pass up.
Joel, Erica, Mandy, and Alvin stumbled across the ground as they headed for the dark line on the horizon that marked the entrance. It was incredibly dark out, which made it even better. Eventually, their eyes would adjust.
Drawing closer, the small group saw the closed up outbuildings. The windows to the ticket booth were closed and locked, the petting zoo was deserted, and the snack truck was dark and silent. They hung close together, laughing in whispers as they made it finally to the entrance. A tall, cut-out of a scarecrow smiled down at them, holding in one gloved hand a signpost with the rules. The writing on it was childish, printed on in a font that resembled broad brushstrokes.
“Rule 1: NO RUNNING! No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!
Rule 2: NO BAD LANGUAGE! Keep it fun for EVERYONE!
Rule 3: DO NOT CUT THROUGH THE CORN! Now why would you want to ruin all the fun?
Rule 4: NO FLASHLIGHTS! It’s better this way, promise!
Rule 5: NO PICKING OR THROWING CORN! Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!
Rule 6: COMPLY WITH ALL STAFF MEMBERS INSTRUCTIONS! They’re just here to help!
Rule 7: HAVE FUN!!!!”
They were a corny set, but a staple at any event of this sort. There was a rope stretched across the entrance, which made their illicit entry even easier. The four of them slipped beneath the braided rope, the corn rising up around them and blocking out everything but the starry sky above. The moon was thin and pale in the sky, providing only the minimum of light. It turned everything into a misshapen shadow of reality.
There were creaks and groans from the buildings, the whisper of corn bending and swaying in the wind. It set the scene for them, and they all adopted whispers despite the fact no one would be out this far in the wee hours of the morning.
“Left or right?” Joel asked as they faced their first split in the path.
With two votes for left and one for right, they followed that trail straight to a dead end, turning around and laughing as they retraced their steps and proceeded down the right path. The maze led them through twists and turns, each one promising some new reveal. There was an edge of the forbidden to the whole operation which kept them on edge and on their toes. It was as if some angry farmer with his shotgun were about to burst from the corn to chase off trespassers. The four of them proceeded through the maze, taking more wrong turns than right, drunk on the thrill and risk of it all.
After about an hour, more hopelessly lost than they had been for a while, the excitement began to fade. The cold also began to set in, as the temperatures dipped from what had been a pleasant fall evening into the early nips of winter.
“Left, right, or straight?” asked Joel, fatigue creeping into his voice.
“Right,” said Mandy. Erica agreed.
“What are you talking about? That will just lead us back to where we came from. We have to go left.” There was an edge of frustration to Alvin’s voice as he spoke.
“Majority rules, so we go right. We’ll take the left if we’re wrong.”
“What about I just go left and we see who gets to the end first?” there was a prickle of competition in Alvin’s voice. He had a bit of an aggressive streak which led to him turning most events into some sort of game or championship. This was no different.
“If you want to, go ahead.” Mandy pulled her phone from her pocket and shook it at him. “We’ll text you when we beat you,” she said with a sly smile. She knew him well enough to know that he needed only the tiniest bit of goading to throw himself headlong into a perceived race.
He smiled and took off at a run through the field.
“Hey, didn’t you read the sign? No running!” called Erica after him laughing and rolling her eyes. “Geez, I wouldn’t want to be off on my own here. It’s creepy,” she said more quietly, pulling her jacket around her shoulders.
“No kidding,” returned Joel as the three moved through the stalks.
After a moment, a new sound joined the rustle of the corn and the stomp of their feet. It as a rhythmic, pounding sound, like a heartbeat echoing across the field. The three paused to listen, none of them quite sure how to place the noise.
“Is someone playing drums?” offered Mandy. Erica and Joel simply shrugged.
“Maybe Alvin is listening to music or something?” There were mirrored shrugs following Joel’s suggestion. Either way, they pushed on. The sound grew closer, but seemed to be coming from a handful of rows away.
“What the—“ came a shout from within the corn. Alvin’s voice, starting low and reaching up into a high pitch yelp. The pounding noise had stopped, and now there was something new, an up and down chorus of what almost sounded like a cartoon character. The three strained their ears, trying to pick up on what sounded like words, but they could not piece them together.
“Get away from—“ more yells from their friend.
“Alvin?” called Mandy, beginning to turn back to where they parted ways. Joel and Erica followed behind.
“If this is some kind of joke, it’s not funny,” added Joel. He wasn’t sure if he was worried it was and he would look foolish, or if it wasn’t and something truly terrible was going on. Maybe that farmer had shown up after all.
The pounding noise resumed, filling in the echoes from the rise and fall of the cartoonish voice, and they could hear Alvin calling out, warning off whatever he was facing down. His voice grew closer and closer, the remaining three following it through the rows as they tried to trace his steps. He had gotten impressively far away in the few moments they had separated.
The second voice slowly began to fade into coherence as they grew closer. “No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!” chirped something in a voice overly full of cheer. Thud, thud, thud, thud, ran the constant drone in the background, followed again by “No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!”
Alvin’s cries turned from words to general shouts broken by panting breaths. They were close now, just a couple of rows from where he was at the very least. Mandy raced ahead along the path. There was the feeling of something large and imposing galloping along the paths to their side, a ripple through the corn that left an echo of whatever it was.
Turning one last corner, Mandy came to a sudden stop. Alvin could be seen rushing down the long row, glancing over his shoulder every few moments to look at the monstrosity in pursuit. Mandy’s eyes followed his, landing on something that her mind struggled to fit within her previous frame of reality. Loping along the rows of corn behind him stood the grinning scarecrow from the entrance, no longer a mere cardboard cut-out. He towered over the corn, the tallest stalks coming just to his waist, lanky arms and legs spinning as he hurtled along the path. Each step was another beat of that imagined drum.
“Run!” called Alvin as he spotted his friend, panic etched into every muscle of his face.
Almost as if in response, the creature spoke, “No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!” Its face did not move or change, the same smile stretching from ear to ear. The voice echoed out, mechanical in its cheer.
Joel and Erica arrived, taking a shared moment to take in the scene as Mandy had. Now Mandy was yelling, urging Alvin to run faster, to get away. In slow motion, the three friends watched as one of the scarecrow’s large feet rose up, trailing straw in its wake, and came down on Alvin’s back. Alvin fell forward, face pressed into the dirt, still yelling for his friends to run. The sound grew muffled as the foot pressed him further down, the words turning back into indistinguishable yelling. There were snaps and pops, the whine of mechanics compressing the scarecrow’s foot deeper and deeper into the ground.
“No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!” it continued to repeat, words never faltering or changing.
Erica grabbed at a rock on the ground, hurling it up at the smiling face. It hit with a dull thud, then bounced off into the corn. She was back at the ground, grabbing at any fallen ears of corn and stones within reach.
“Leave him alone!” she screamed, her voice harsh and raw. “Get away from him!”
The scarecrow lifted its foot from the indentation in the ground, and Joel tried not to look at the sticky material stretching behind. Alvin was quiet now. So was the scarecrow.
It slowly lifted its smiling face from Alvin’s fallen body, scanning the remaining three as Erica flung more and more projectiles. Mandy was sobbing now, and Joel just felt numb.
“Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” chimed the scarecrow with forced glee. It took a step towards them, and Joel and Mandy stumbled backwards. Erica continued her assault, rage plastered on her face. In a few short strides, she and the Scarecrow were face to kneecap, poised like two fighters about to battle.
“Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” droned the cartoonish voice of the scarecrow as it bent down closer to her. She flailed out with arms and legs, fingers morphed into viscous claws that scratched at the fabric and paint covering the monster even as it grabbed her shirt and lifted her in the air.
“Erica, run, go!” said Mandy over her sobs. But Erica was blinded by battle lust, continuing to swing and strike out at the giant foe. It was almost as if she truly believed she could win.
“Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” said the scarecrow once more, then, with a flick of his wrist, sent Erica flying out across the stalks of corn. For a moment, she was silhouetted in the sky, then again swallowed up by the darkness.
Mandy wailed, turning and gripping Joel by the collar and drawing him close. “We have to go!” she said, serving to snap him out of frozen immobility. Fight, flight, freeze.
Mandy took off at a run, dragging Joel along by one arm.
“No!” he said, suddenly fueled by terror. He ripped his arm away and stood in the field. Despite having finished with Erica, the scarecrow had not begun pursuing them. “Don’t run,” he gasped, the reality finally settling on him.
“What? Are you kidding me? We have to get away.” She took a few steps back and grabbed Joel by the arm again, trying to pull him from his spot.
He fixed her with wide eyes set firmly in his ashen face. “We will. Just don’t run. It won’t find us if we don’t break the rules.”
Her face was puzzled, then awareness struck. “Okay,” she mumbled, sniffing back tears. “Let’s just get out of here.”
As they walked through the rows upon rows of corn, they strained their ears for the steady thunder of the scarecrow’s feet. But it was quiet again, save for the rustling of the corn in the wind. After what felt like days of trekking through the corn, Joel finally cracked, sinking to his feet.
“We’re going in circles,” he mumbled. “It’s like there’s not even a path out anymore.”
Mandy knelt beside him, grabbing his arm and trying to bring him back to his feet. “Come on, Joel, we have to keep going. We probably just took a wrong turn.”
He shook his head, eyes staring unfocused at the ground. Everything was darkness. “No, don’t you get it? He’s trapped us here. There’s no path out.”
She was crying again, still tugging on his arm. “There was a path in. We just have to retrace our steps. Come on, we can do it.”
There was a violent swing of his head toward her, his eyes blazing with fury. “You think that’s how this works? That we’ll just walk out of here? We already broke the rules, Mandy. We’re going to fucking die here!”
He seemed almost as shocked as she was as the words spilled out of his lips. Shock turned to horror as the sound of footsteps began again in the distance.
“No,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.” Suddenly, Joel was on his feet again. “It was an accident, I swear. I’m sorry!” His eyes scanned the rows and rows of corn, searching for a reprieve.
“Keep it fun for everyone!” echoed the response, followed by a childish giggle. As the steps came closer, the voice repeated its mantra, followed by what might have been a friendly laugh in other circumstances.
“No,” yelled Joel as he turned to face the direction of the sound. “I said I was sorry. I’m sorry!”
Still closer. Mandy grabbed his arm again, pulling him towards the path. “Come on, Joel, we have to get out of here before it finds you. We have to—“
He yanked his arm away, eyes filled with despair. “No, it’s too late for me, Mandy. I broke the rules.”
“We can figure it out, let’s just move. We can stay ahead of it.”
“Keep it fun for everyone!” Now it was distinct.
“Get away from me!” roared Joel, shoving her into the darkness. Mandy stumbled, landing hard on the ground.
There was a pause in the unstoppable steps, a brief whirr of electronics, and then it spoke again. “Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” A momentary pause. “Keep it fun for everyone!”
“Run,” he said, turning his back on her to face what was stalking down the rows.
Mandy finally gave in, turning and walking slowly down the rows of corns. Don’t run, she reminded herself. Don’t curse. Don’t throw corn. Don’t cut through the rows. She tried to remember all the rules on the sign. Taking the first turn, Joel disappeared from sight just as the scarecrow turned onto his row. She winced at the sound of screaming coming from him, tried to block it out as it became muffled. When it finally stopped, the silence was far worse.
Her tears laid a marker of her progress, ephemeral breadcrumbs that did little to show her physical steps but were everything to her emotional unwinding. She walked until here feet were sore, then continued until they faded into numbness. The moon never moved and the sun never rose. Eventually, she looked at her watch, seeing the numbers click from 6:00 to 10:00 to noon, but her world never changed.
She stopped at another dead end, staring at the impenetrable wall. She had walked every possible path, but none of them led any further to freedom. Perhaps, she allowed herself to think, Joel was right.
She had held the thought at bay, afraid it would finally dissolve what little hope she had left. True to her fears, it did just that, but left a firm streak of defiant determination in its wake.
“If that’s the game, then,” she whispered, stealing her resolve. With a deep breath, she plunged through the rows.
Almost instantly, the footsteps picked up again, rocketing towards her. ”Now why would you ruin all the fun?” mocked her predator. She heard corn crunching beneath his feet as he crashed toward her. Every step was closer, the voice repeating its phrase again and again with maddening consistency.
Mandy imagined she could feel the ground tremble with each of its steps. She heard the echoes of its voice and felt phantom whispers of breath, hot and rancid, on her neck. But looking behind, the monster was not yet in sight.
She also imaged that there was a break up ahead. That she could see something besides more corn standing beyond those far rows. It was hope, she said with defeat, hope trying to reassert some little flame to keep her going.
“Now why would you ruin all the fun?”
And then, she was stumbling out onto grass, corn falling away behind her. The sun was bright and high in the sky. Mandy stumbled, falling to the ground as her eyes reeled from the transition between total darkness and total light. She scrambled along the ground, turning to look back at the hole from which she had burst. But there was nothing but golden stalks of corn.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Want more of the 13 Stories of Halloween? Click here!
Darren barely felt human. In fact, he felt more like a monster built purely of anxiety and tension, one that just happened to ooze into a human form for the night. Everyone said such feelings were normal. That as all well and good, he reasoned, but it did nothing to quiet the awareness that he was sweaty, nauseated, jittery, and hyperventilating.
Stage fright. It sounded so innocuous, but it was far from it. Still, he reminded himself, this was all about becoming a better him. After his last breakup, he recognized a few facts. First, he had terrible taste in partners. Second, he deserved better. And third, perhaps most painfully, he was no longer the kind of person he would want to date, let alone anyone else. His journey of self-discovery had led to a brash, spontaneous audition for a local play. And that audition dragged him all the way to that very moment, sitting backstage as the audience filtered in. The play would go for one night only. Halloween, of course. And the festive date meant they had a full house as well. If he quieted his breathing and the pounding of his heart, he imagined he could hear the murmur of hundreds—well, perhaps tens—of voices.
“You look like a first timer,” said Jean from the seat next to him. Her face was painted with almost gaudy makeup, but everyone assured him it would look lovely from the audience. He flexed his own face, feeling the foundation shift like a mask.
She reached over and pulled his water glass from his hand. “That’s your sixth glass of water. You’re going to piss yourself on stage if you keep it up.” The smile was genuine, understanding.
Until that moment, Darren had not considered needing to hold his bladder through at least Act One. That brought up all new anxieties. “What if I can’t do this?” he blurted out.
Her words were a cool breeze soothing his brow. “Hey, you’ve practiced, right?”
“You know your lines?”
He swallowed, trying mentally to run through his lines, then nodded. “I hope.”
She just smiled. “Then, I suppose you can do this. Not like you have much of a choice now.”
It was reassuring. Of course. He only had a few lines, a good number of which were written sneakily in the book he was to read from. Even if he got stuck there, he would just have to push through it.
The rest of the preparation was a blur of activity. People were checking and nitpicking at his costume, reapplying makeup where he had sweated through. The backstage crew checked and rechecked props, reviewed their cues, and ensured each character knew where to find what they would need. His fellow actors squeezed his shoulder, whispered encouragement, and always concluded with the famous “Break a leg.” For his part, he mostly nodded out of the way, eyes skimming over his lines one last time.
Then, the lights dimmed and the director stepped out to welcome the audience. While he expected his anxiety to crest again, send him into an even greater tailspin, it surprised him. His body likely panicking, he found his mind growing surprisingly clear and focused. Perhaps this is what those lunatics meant when they said they worked better under pressure.
Applause, then the curtains went up on the opening scene. It was your typical gruesome, gory plot for a seasonal play. The first scene was Michael and Linda, young and happy couple in the prime of their life. They were on a walk through the park, discussing future plans. Michael took an aside, looked at the ring in his pocket, and waxed poetic about the powers of love to the audience. The audience was not fooled, of course, by the saccharine opening. They were simply biding their time.
As he returned to Linda, purportedly studying the flowers while he was convening with the audience, the lights dimmed. Someone stepped from the shadows. It was Trip, a perennial figure at the community theater, bedecked in a hat that covered the top half of his face and a trench coat that concealed the rest of him. He brandished a weapon, Michael stepped forward to protect his one true love, and then there was a crash. Michael collapsed, Linda screamed, and the house lights went down.
A funeral was next, Linda the grieving partner. Jean played it beautifully, appearing devastated and completely unpredictable. The next few scenes displayed an obsessive, frantic turn in the lovely Linda, who’s only thought was to restore what had been taken from her.
Darren took a deep breath, stepping onto the scene while the lights were dimmed and finding his place. The set behind him was a curios shop, featuring the comical shrunken head that had become the unofficial mascot of the show. He smiled seeing it, feeling a bit more of the anxiety melt away.
Linda approached, and he looked up from behind his counter as the effects crew rang a simple bell.
“Afternoon,” he said, his voice cracking just a bit. There were no loud guffaws from the audience.
Linda looked around the shop, appearing distracted, uneasy, and yet hopeful. He was amazed Jean was as talented as she was, especially at a community theater that drew no more than 150 people at a time. She deserved to be famous, he thought.
“They told me you could help me,” she said, stepping up to his counter.
“Well, I don’t know who they are or what I’d be able to do to help.” He turned a shoulder to her, appearing to study his inventory.
“Please,” Linda responded and reached out to grab his arm.
He looked back at her and sighed. “What is it you want? And I don’t work for free,” he said tersely, wagging a finger in her direction. The audience seemed to hang on their every word.
“I’ll pay whatever you want, you just have to help me get him back.”
Darren looked her up and down. “Yes, you will certainly pay. Now who is it you are wanting?”
Linda stepped away, the spotlight following her as she gazed up toward the rafters. “My Michael,” she said with a sob. She went on to recount the story as Darren did his best to appear grumpy, but moved.
“Are you sure about this?” he cautioned as she finished her tale.
“Yes, anything you ask. I can’t go on without him!”
Darren turned, peering over the row of books behind him and selecting one that appeared sufficiently old and dusty. “Take this and make your preparations. Return to me by the next full moon.”
Linda rushed from the shop, clutching the book to her chest. “Thank you,” she said passionately. “Thank you. I will return, I swear.”
Darren stroked the fake beard on his chin as he watched her leave, lights dimming again.
Backstage, Jean grabbed his hand quickly as she swung past. “You did great. Keep it up,” she whispered, then swept back into the stage. She read slowly from the book, appearing to ponder the different items needed. After a moment, she set off with resolve. The next few scenes detailed her preparation, culminating finally with her taking a shovel into a set designed to look like the graveyard, an almost full moon hanging heavily on the backdrop behind her.
The lights turned to black as the sound of a shovel piercing the earth echoed in the theater.
In the brief pause, there was a flurry of activity. The ritual scene had to be set. In Act Two, the ritual was completed, bringing Michael back. Like most stories, his resurrection went well until his insatiable bloodthirst was revealed. Act Three dealt entirely with how to kill someone who had already been dead once before. But, Act Two was Darren’s big scene, and the nerves returned to flutter through his stomach.
He walked on stage while it was still dark, bending to “light” the flickering electric LED candles. For a few brief seconds, they were the only light on the stage. Slowly, the house lights came up. That was Jean’s cue, and Linda came hurrying in from stage left.
“I have him,” she gasped. Darren nodded.
“Well, bring him in then. Set him here between the candles.” He stretched his arm widely to indicate the circle around him, then stepped over to rearrange the implements on the table. The stage directions had not been very clear on this point, but had indicated he needed to busy himself while she was gone.
Linda hesitated, opened her mouth to speak, and then was gone. She returned moments later carrying a withered bundle in her arms. A decaying, emaciated hand slipped from beneath the wrappings, cluing the audience in to what her large parcel truly was. Linda set Michael’s body gently on the floor, peeling away the fabric and stroking his hair gently. She looked on the corpse with true love.
Darren shooed her away. “You must prepare the article of binding. It is the only way to hold his spirit here.” He stepped over to inspect the body. This was one part they had improvised on. The props crew had an awful time finding a suitable corpse, and so they had been completing rehearsals using everything from a manikin to a blow-up doll. But now he saw the true extent of their creativity and skills.
The corpse looked like someone who had been buried for quite some time. There was dirt on the clothes. The body was tiny in the confines of the neatly pressed suit. Skin clung along every outline of bone. It was so realistic, Darren almost imagined he could smell the decay and rot, but pushed the thought aside. Just nerves, he told himself.
Linda returned with a lock of her hair tied around a sprig of flowers. She bent to the corpse and tucked it into his mouth. Darren caught a glimpse of teeth, then the long darkness of the dummy’s throat. It gave him a sense of vertigo.
He stepped over to the table with the prepared items, grabbing the book and the chalice. He handed the chalice to Linda, who began to dip her fingers in and sprinkle blood across the corpse and the ritual area. A speck landed on Darren’s lips, and he licked it away. That assured he would not make that mistake again. He had presumed it would taste sweet, given it was just food coloring and corn syrup. However, it was rather bitter and tangy. Apparently the props crew had not been too careful about how it was stored. He hoped they had not mixed anything more toxic into it. It strangely resembled paint, and he had to quickly remind himself that ingesting a drop of paint would not kill him.
Darren read from the book. The words were mostly gibberish to him, but he did his best to form them precisely as the director had instructed. She was visible from the corner of his eyes, mouthing the words with him. He spoke louder, more forcefully as he proceeded, letting the energy of the scene take him over. It was exhilarating; the words moved through him with a renewed vigor, almost as if the play had taken control. He simply knew what had to be done.
Crossing the stage, he grabbed the knife from the preparation table and brought it down forcefully on the chest of the corpse, aiming squarely for the heart. Now, Linda was supposed to weep as nothing happened. It would be later in the night, when they had both left, that Michael would stir.
Only, that was not what happened. The corpse on the stage seemed to let out a gasp, a strand of hair escaping its lips and fluttering through the air. Darren and Jean both froze, caught off guard. But Jean was never one to let a scene die.
“Michael, is that you?” she asked, pressing her head to the chest of the corpse.
Her face grew pale, and even Jean, the real talent on stage, lost her place. The silence stretched on, finally broken from a low groan coming out of the corpse’s lips.
Darren stepped back, eyes wide as the body in front of him regained its flesh. Colored returned to the skin, and it pulled away from the bones. It was almost as if someone were inflating the body, reinstilling life into it. Darren’s mind scrambled for reason. Surely this was a stage trick. But he could not come up with any possible way to create such an illusion.
He could hear the audience gasp, a trickle of applause spreading throughout as they witnessed what was surely a marvelous illusion. Mirrors, they thought. A display screen, perhaps. Maybe a trap door?
Darren saw the director, a look of frenzy and joy in her eyes, grab the rope for the curtains and begin to stretch them across the stage. The body began to move, reaching out toward Jean. She sprung to her feet and raced towards off stage. But the director caught her, arm surging forward with something bright. Jean curled around the woman’s arm with a gasp, almost like a child getting stopped in Red Rover. She hung there for a moment, then collapsed to the stage, unmoving.
“All good things require sacrifice,” said the director with a smile, moving quickly over the stage and kneeling by the now alert body.
“Andrea?” he asked. She nodded and kissed him.
“But how? What did—Why am—“
“Sh,” she whispered, smoothing his hair from his forehead. “You need your strength.”
She moved quickly, too quickly for Darren to really know what had happened. In one moment, he was standing in shock, watching some impossible scene play out in front of him as the audience murmured curiously from behind the curtain. The next, there was blood pouring from his neck as he tried to stop the flow.
He fell to his knees, blood pooling around him. The man on the ground seemed at first shocked, then repulsed. Then intrigued. As the lights faded one last time, Darren saw the once-corpse begin to eagerly lap the blood from the floor, eyes closed in ecstasy.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Find more Halloween themed stories at this link!
Mrs. Baker enjoyed setting up for the annual Halloween party. That is why it had been her responsibility for the past seven years at the school. It was a popular annual event held the Friday before Halloween, which meant it was time to start transforming the gymnasium. The old supply closet held most of the old standbys, thought she tried to add one or two new pieces of décor each year, primarily through shopping the day after Halloween for any remaining treasures. Last year she had managed to secure some large spiders to decorate the basketball goals, as well as a zombie and tombstone that would look perfect popping up from the floor. She was giddy to set everything up.
The student council was behind her, arms open to carry various pieces to the gym and start decorating. They seemed less enthusiastic, but she reasoned that was because they had to remain after hours to prepare. They would be proud of everything come the big reveal.
There was the usual fare, like pounds of fake webs and a couple cardboard cut-outs to hang on the wall. There were streamers and stained orange tablecloths in a box under the table—the punch table, she thought as she shoved it out the door. An old, tired looking scarecrow leaned against the back wall, lounging next to Jimmy Bones, the unofficial mascot of the yearly party.
Mrs. Baker carefully pulled Jimmy from the back of the closet, straightening his hat and button down shirt while brushing away the dust. Jimmy had been around as long as she remember. He was a fixture.
“Set Jimmy up by the sign in table. He can greet everyone as they come in.”
Joey Miller gingerly wheeled the skeleton to his assigned place, setting him in front of the Halloween 2016 table.
Ms. Calloway was not all that interested in setting up for a Halloween party. It was a nasty, perverse holiday, no matter how people tried to spin it. But the school insisted on throwing a party for the students as part of autumn celebrations. They at least had the good sense not to call it a Halloween party. But there had been clear directions from the principal.
“And make it a little scary, you know. For the kids. They’re expecting it.”
She still was not sure how this all became her responsibility, but someone years ago had put her name next to the event. And things like that tended to stick, what with how thin everyone was stretched just to get the kids in and out of classes each day.
She grumbled as she dove into the supply closet. There would be food and punch for the kids, and she heard someone had put in some money for a band to play. That meant she had to put forth at least a minimal effort to make it look festive. Inside the closet there were posters and signs that she could quickly tack to the wall. She heard someone had gotten some hay bales to set up, and she saw a tangled pile of fake fall leaves in the corner. That was enough to create the mood, she reasoned.
In addition, there was what she assumed was an old science room skeleton. It looked like it had seen better days, but she thought it might be passable as a scary element. There was a hat resting dejectedly on his head with the name “Jimmy” etched onto it, which is why Jimmy had been her greeter for many years. Looking at his empty eyes, she felt he hated it almost as much as she did.
She had always rolled Jimmy to his place, and she hoped it would be enough to satisfy Mr. Howards’ demands for something scary. He seemed over eager to scare the children. It almost made her worry about him and his fitness for the role. She pushed the thoughts from her mind, carrying the meager decorations from the room and towards the gymnasium with Jimmy in tow.
Just a few years until retirement, she reminded herself glumly. 1976 couldn’t get there soon enough.
Mr. Brown was not excited to clean out the supply room. Someone had left it to gather dust and junk for years, and now he was being tasked to make it sparkle again. He was a custodian, but this seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. Still, he knew better than to speak up. Upsetting the powers that be was a good way to start looking for a new job. And he rather liked working in the school.
The door groaned when he opened it, revealing a mountain of unused junk. There were broken desks and chairs, general trash, a few pieces of old science equipment, and boxes upon boxes of outdated textbooks. Many of them had water damage, the mold beginning to creep up cardboard boxes. He opened one of the books, its spine snapping with the effort, and read the date on the cover. 1943. Nearly 15 years out of date, but still taking up space. At least that decision was easy, he thought as he shoved them into a discard pile.
Some of the desks were salvageable, with minimal work. Most of the chairs were busted, missing legs or parts of the back. Why anyone considered saving them was beyond him. Mr. Brown studied the science equipment. He had never been much of a student, but he recognized some items. That did not mean he knew if they were useful or not. It would be a good opportunity to talk to Ms. Stiles, the science teacher. She would probably have to help him sort it out.
There were supplies for what looked like a dissection class, all wrapped and arranged neatly. But the water must have gotten to them as well, because they too were stained with rust. He shoved those into the trash pile. An old metal worktable was underneath the supplies, pockmarked by age and use. He shuffled a few bottles along the top of the table, providing a preliminary check to ensure there were no cracks or breaks. They appeared salvageable. Ms. Stiles would probably be excited at the possibility of new equipment. Other things—tubing and bottles of things with strange chemical names—he was less sure of. He needed her expertise.
He grabbed his broom and swept out the general trash and dust. It made quite the mess. Back in one far corner, he found an old science room skeleton. It stood staring at him, mouth hanging slightly open in an almost grin. Mr. Brown pushed closer. This was a find Ms. Stiles would certainly be interested in. He looked it over. All the limbs were there, still strung up with wire. The wire appeared to be slightly bent and poorly twisted, but it would hold, he reckoned. Atop the man’s grinning head was an old mechanic’s cap emblazoned with the name “Jimmy” in curling script.
“So, Jimmy, been waiting here long?” He chuckled at his own joke. One the floor, he spotted a shirt lying on the ground, pattern matching Jimmy’s hat. The name tag on the front pocket agreed as well. Unfortunately, it seemed as if rats had gotten to it, leaving behind chewed holes and ragged tears. And, as he inspected it closer, dark edges that suggested the mold had gotten to it as well. Mr. Brown tossed the shirt into the trash pile, and eyed Jimmy proudly. Ms. Stiles would be very excited about his find. Maybe even excited enough to take him up on his offer of dinner.
Mr. Brown began to whistle as he worked.
Alex Cooper felt a surprising feeling of panic as he looked down at the newly dead body. He had planned and prepared for this, but his nerves still prickled with the reality staring up at him. Jimmy was a waste of space. Worse, even. In fact, Alex felt that he had done his entire town a favor by snuffing out this ne’er-do-well. Jimmy had been a troublemaker, the sort who rarely held down a stable job and often tarnished the character of the young women in town. He had mocked Alex for many years, and it was finally over.
Alex sighed deeply, feeling so much anger and tension drain from his body, pooling at his feet with Jimmy’s blood. It was a high like nothing he ever felt. Jimmy’s eyes had been wide, shocked at the revelation before him. Alex was certain that, until the very last minute, Jimmy had thought he would not go through with it. But the knife had fallen, digging through his skin. It was like slicing into a raw steak. The flesh resisted, then gave away. Jimmy gasped, but that was the only sound he made.
In an instant, it was over.
As the shock fell from Alex’s limbs, he was spurred to action. First, he needed to clean up. He sopped up the blood on the ground with a rag that he would later burn in his fireplace. Then it was time to lift the body. His position as a school science teacher had allowed him to purchase some extra chemicals, generally designed for in class experiments and cleaning of materials. He had stowed bottes upon bottles in the science storage room, bottles of acid that would make quick work of Jimmy’s overly slim form. It would, of course, take a few days to fully process the body. But Alex was also certain it would take a few days for anyone to notice Jimmy was actually missing and not just shirking his responsibilities.
The bones were the only catch, but he couldn’t help but grin.
The class anatomy skeleton had been falling apart, recently. Everyone would be excited to see a new, repaired version in class in just a few weeks. That way, Jimmy would always be in sight, a constant reminder of Alex’s triumph. For once in his life, he would be the star of the class.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
See earlier days here!
Laura reached into the candy bowl, digging deep to find one of the remaining Milky Way bars.
“Hey!” Her roommate appeared suddenly from the corner and swatted at her hand. “I told you those were for trick-or-treaters.”
Laura pulled her hand back with mock hurt in her eyes. “I’m wasting away here, Jen!”
Her appeal fell on deaf ears, and Jen simply picked up the candy bowl and carried it with her into the kitchen. There she could keep her eyes on it while she finished baking a round of cupcakes for the Halloween party later. “If you want candy,” she yelled over her shoulder, “the stores are falling over themselves to sell it to you. We can eat the leftovers after, anyway.”
Laura thought she heard the crinkle of a wrapper sneak out of the kitchen, but she couldn’t be sure. Instead, she dropped onto the couch and began flipping through channels. Surely she could find a Friends re-run. Those were always on somewhere, right?
Giving up on the television—there was only so much teenage programming a semi-grown adult could take—she stared at the clock. It was 6:00, which meant trick-or-treaters should begin arriving soon. They would be out and about until 8:00, the city-enforced cut-off, and then Laura and Jen would leave to go to a more age-appropriate activity. That meant two hours to fill.
She wandered into the kitchen where Jen was tapping on her phone as the oven clicked away. The first batch was due out soon, and Laura was hoping she could grab a sample.
“Don’t even think about it. I only have enough batter for a couple dozen.”
“No one is going to notice if there are only 23. Besides, don’t you want to make sure they taste alright before subjecting them to everyone else?”
Jen looked over her phone with an unamused glare full of friendly antagonism. “Everyone loves these cupcakes. They’ll be fine, I promise.” She turned and peaked in on the cupcakes, examining them through the oven’s window as if they were soldiers lined for a parade. “If you’re so hungry, why don’t you get a real dinner or something?”
“Because it’s Halloween. I just want to eat candy and junk food.”
“Then you’ll have to wait for the party.” The doorbell rang, and she smiled as she grabbed the bowl of candy. “But we have a fully stocked fridge if you change your mind,” she finished as she walked down the hall and to the door.
Laura heard the echoes of “Trick-or-treat!” stumbling out of the gaggle of children. She saw a ghost, a witch, and two Elsas on the front porch, all holding out their buckets expectantly.
Jen gushed over the costumes, placing one piece of candy in each bucket.
“Now what do you say?” came some adult voice from outside the house. An equally disjointed chorus of “thank you,” filtered back into the house.
Jen waltzed back into the kitchen and set the bowl down with finality. She glanced at her phone, and then hurriedly moved toward the oven.
“Oh, they’re perfect,” she gushed as she pulled them from the oven. Carefully, she extracted each one and placed it on the rack to cool, before turning her attention back to the batter.
The cycle repeated. Kids showed up, Jen danced away to give them candy, and Laura sat staring at the forbidden cupcakes while her stomach growled. Now it was a matter of principle rather than hunger.
After the cupcakes were out of the oven and the icing was made, Jen managed to pause.
“Okay, I need to get in costume while these finish cooling. Think you can handle candy duty?”
“I think I can manage,” Laura responded grumpily, but Jen was already halfway up the stairs to her room. Laura eyed the bowl and reached over, plucking out a packet of Skittles.
“Not like anyone will miss it,” she grumbled to herself and emptied the packet into her mouth. Delicious. This was what Halloween was all about.
The doorbell rang, and she dutifully grabbed the bowl. A tiny gaggle of middle schoolers were outside, one Dracula with a zombie and Tinkerbell.
“Trick-or-treat,” they intoned, the words having lost some of their fervor after what had to have been dozens of houses. Laura could see their bags were heavy with candy, but they were not to be deterred. She admired their spirit.
Though it limited her leftover candy stash, she dropped a small handful of candy into each bag. She watched their eyes brighten, some of the fatigue shaking off at the generous bounty. Their “thank you” sounded more sincere than most. Unlike Jen, Laura was not about to be stingy to the poor kids, no matter what the rules for handing out candy were.
Back to the kitchen where the cupcakes waited. They were pumpkin with cream cheese icing, and Laura had been sitting there sniffing the spiced cake for almost an hour. Glancing quickly upstairs and seeing no one, she grabbed one of the cakes and unceremoniously dipped it into the bowl of icing. She gave it an extra swirl for good measure, then eagerly took a bite of the whole thing. The icing was melting and sliding along the top, some of it soaking into the cake while the rest dribbled down her hands. In three quick bites, she had devoured it before it could make any more of a mess.
They really were delicious, she thought, begrudgingly agreeing with Jen’s haughty boast. The doorbell rang again, and she was dragged back to the front door. Only this time her stomach had stopped grumbling. Instead, she felt it twist and turn as it digested the treat.
Again, the cycle repeated. She grabbed a quick glass of water, coughing as she attempted to dislodge the crumb that seemed to be stuck in her throat. It did little to help, her soft cough sputtering into an occasional wheeze as the feeling refused to budge. Great, she told herself, a cold was just what she needed before a party.
After a few minutes, Jen reappeared on the stairs, now dressed as a standard witch. She had a flared skirt that came down to mid-thigh, bright green tights, a cheap hat, and a fake nose strapped to her face.
“How do I look?”
“Like a Dollar Store hooker,” shot back Laura with a smirk.
“Perfect, that was my goal.” Jen rolled her eyes and laughed good-naturedly. “I think I need to put the cupcakes in the fridge. So they can cool in time for icing,” she added as she leaned her broom against the back door.
“Your call,” said Laura, scrambling out of the kitchen. Her trespass would soon be discovered, and she would rather be out of the way when it was. She couldn’t help but smile, though, as she dodged out to the couch. Her stomach continued turning over the food, and she felt an occasional pang from her gut. Maybe the cream cheese icing was not the best call for the lactose intolerant woman, she thought dryly.
There was silence in the kitchen for a moment.
“Lau,” came Jen’s overly sweet voice. Laura started to laugh, knowing it would ruffle some feathers. But what were friends for if not to push boundaries? “Did you eat one of these?”
“I might have. But it was consensual, I swear!” she joked.
More silence. Laura turned and looked over the back of the couch. She had expected some teasing, mock anger, maybe even a friendly scolding. Silence was surprising.
“You really shouldn’t have,” came the eventual reply. There was no humor in her voice, but rather a resigned, disappointed tone.
Laura knew well enough when to set joking aside. “I’m sorry, Jen. I’ll skip mine at the party, then. But they are delicious.”
A sigh. “That’s good, I guess.”
Laura resumed flipping through the channels, trying to quiet her guilt. Jen had seemed a lot more upset than she anticipated. As the channels flipped by, she continued to cough in an attempt to move the crumb, but it seemed to only get more and more stuck. Then there was something new, an uneasiness and guilt. Laura felt it as a subtle tightness in her chest, a sense of dizziness that settled over her. It was just a cupcake, she reminded herself, not Jen’s one true love. But that feeling continued to creep through her body, a noose tightening around her neck.
The doorbell rang, and Jen completed her ritual. Squeals, thanks, ringing bells. It all cycled again and again as time ticked by and sweat began to tingle on Laura’s brow.
And now her stomach was churning, unsettled turning into nausea.
“Aren’t you going to get ready?” called Jen from the kitchen. “We need to leave soon, if we’re going to be on time.”
“I think I’m going to lie down a minute before the party,” she responded. When she turned to look, Jen was just watching her.
“It’s eating away at you, huh?”
Laura forced a weak smile. “I thought it would be funny. Sorry, Jen.”
Jen waved her hand, as if brushing away the apology. “Don’t worry about it. I can tell it won’t happen again.”
Laura rose unsteadily from the couch, feeling the room spin around her. This was not just anxiety and guilt, she thought suddenly, but she also had no other explanation. Maybe a heart attack? The flu? Asthma?
Her mind raced through possibilities as she walked toward the stairs. She just needed to lie down, she told herself, but felt her legs weakening beneath her. One moment, she was walking toward the stairs. The next, she was face down on the carpet of the entryway.
“Jen,” she called out, her voice weak, “I think something’s wrong.”
Jen appeared in the doorway of the kitchen with a domed platter of cupcakes, looking down on Laura with a thin veneer of sympathy over her glee. “Oh, Laura, I told you to wait, didn’t I?” She walked over to Laura and kneeled down. Softly, she smoothed the hair from Laura’s sweaty brow. “You simply can’t go to the party like this,” she chided, almost motherly. “I can’t have you telling everyone my cupcakes made you sick, now can I?”
Laura tried to speak, but the muscles of her lips and tongue simply could not respond. They sat like glutted slugs on her face. She could hear vague sounds coming from her mouth, air passing through without any direction.
“I guess you’ll just have to stay in tonight. Bummer, huh?” With a smile and a wink, Jen was back on her feet and walking toward the door. “I’ll let everyone know you were sad to miss out.” She grabbed her broom and opened the door, turning back to look at her collapsed friend once again.
“I’d say don’t wait up, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be dead soon anyway,” she snapped.
The door closed behind her as Laura sank farther and farther into darkness.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.