Episodes: 10 episodes in the first season, with a minisode between each
Length: 15-25 minutes in the main episodes
I’ve listened to… All of the first season.
The Premise: Cole and Julie host a radio show that they inherited from their father covering Cryptids and the supernatural. Only some of the things they investigate are more real than others.
My Review: Season one of this series just ended and it led me on a fantastic journey with Cole and Julie. The way the story was introduced and the plot was constructed is a perfect example of how to draw an audience in to a complex, creepy world. The story starts relatively light, family bickering, strange and creepy urban myths and legends discussed on a radio show. But as the episodes progress, but the myths become real. There are many layers to the world in which Cryptic takes place, and different episodes land at different points, from mundane with a hint of the mysterious to completely unexplainable. Cole and Julie explore these reports of strange happenings, at times trying to maintain a balance, at other times trying to prevent danger.
This is not so much a monster hunter style story, but more about two siblings trying to hold things together and learn how to navigate a world they have insufficient knowledge of. Their father’s absence is a clear challenge, only made more so as they wrestle with the moral challenges that come along with their roles. While the podcast never completely abandons moments of levity and calm, there are many more serious elements that get brought in, and the episodes suggest Julie and Cole may have made some significant sacrifices to ensure they can do what must be done.
There is still so much mystery left in this world. The podcast overall has done a great job of introducing enough of each story and idea to make it interesting, but never seems to fully answer the questions. It keeps me coming back eager to know more about the world and what it means to live within it. It balances the knowing and the known unknowns very well, so that there are pieces to start to string together, but not the whole picture. As a listener, I know Julie and Cole are hiding things from one another, but my glimpse of the world only starts to uncover what those secrets might be.
Julie and Cole are written as siblings, and frankly it is a very realistic picture of siblings. They bicker, they say hurtful things to one another, and they provide support. There is real, genuine concern, but also that ability to push buttons in the way on siblings can. Obviously, there is history which is revealed slowly through the episodes, and it makes clear how serious the stakes are. One theme throughout is that the supporting characters are often caught up in the chaos of Cole and Julie, intentionally or otherwise. That adds another layer to the show that asks some very tough questions neither of them seem ready or willing to answer.
Overall, Cryptic is a well executed story that takes the trope of siblings dealing with monsters and spins it into something refreshing. While there are lighthearted moments (I love the “ads” the introduce episodes), it also does not shy away from proposing uncomfortable situations and questions,. It’s also willing to leave those unanswered and messy at this point of the story. Cryptic’s biggest drawback is having a more common name that makes them hard to find at times. With season one recently finishing up, I can heartily recommend you listen if you like spooky, supernatural, and thought-provoking stories.
You can find them here: Cryptic
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.
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.
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.
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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.
Read the other stories here.
Mark Washington grumbled as he climbed up to pull yet another web of toilet paper from his trees. His neighbors had been out offering platitudes, laughing, sighing and talking about mischievous teenagers. Mark found nothing humorous in it. He could not, for any reason, understand why his decision not to participate in Halloween required such punishment. Wasn’t this America? Wasn’t this a free country?
He dropped the tissue into the waiting garbage bag and then steadily made his way down the rickety ladder. If he fell and broke his neck, he wondered, could the kids be held as accessories to murder? The thought was almost tempting enough for him to try. But, the logical part of his mind chimed in, that would cause more problems than it solved. Mark was always good at solving problems, and this one was no different.
As he made his way across the yard, he tried not to look at the pitiful remains of his vegetable garden. The ne’er-do-wells had trampled it, as well. Sure, the weather would kill the plants soon, but it served as another glaring reminder that the rebellious kids did not care for the hard work of a good man.
He stomped inside with the garbage bag, slamming his front door and locking it behind him. The curtain covering the window fluttered briefly, then settled back into its place. Just like everything in his house had its place. Mark’s was in the armchair by the picture window where he could look out along the street, ensure no one was up to no good. They had snuck around him last night, striking in the few hours a night he dedicated to sleep. But a man had to sleep. And now he had to watch. They were kids—too stupid to know better and stay away from the scene of the crime.
Joey Collins lived two streets over, but today he was biking down Mark’s street. Mark watched him wheel slowly through the neighborhood, eyes glancing back towards the now clean oak tree. He was sure he could read disappointment in the child’s dumb face. Joey was always a troublemaker, something Mark had told his parents on multiple occasions. But nothing had ever come of it. Joey was the ringleader of a band of snot-nosed kids who liked to play ball in the middle of the street, ride their bikes on the sidewalks at breakneck speeds, and generally make a nuisance of themselves to other citizens.
Joey needed to learn to respect others, and his parents certainly did not seem interested in instilling that lesson. It fell, Mark reasoned, to himself, then. If Joey wanted to act like a little felon, it was time he experienced the consequences, like an adult.
Mark eyed the bag of tissue paper and smiled. Tit-for-tat, he thought. Joey and his parents could learn how hard it was to clean trash from the trees.
That night, Mark left his house at a time when good men were asleep. It was a necessary evil, he said, to ensure his neighborhood could have peace again. Joey needed to be taught a lesson so that the other little monsters would straighten up. Mark walked along the streets with his trash bag, weaving in between houses to prevent anyone from seeing him.
The Collins’ home was fairly standard. Two stories, white house, dark shutters. There were still pumpkins on the porch, even though the holiday had passed. Mark assumed they were probably the sort to leave their Christmas lights up through February, too. Out front stood a tall, proud tree. It would be perfect, he decided. But he paused. This would certainly punish Mr. Collins, but Mark had a sinking suspicion Joey would get away scot free. His plan was a start, he decided, but did not go nearly far enough. Joey needed to learn the lesson.
Making his way around the back of the house stealthily, Mark studied the windows. They were all dark, which was good this time of night. Knowing the way these houses were built, he felt sure the bedrooms were on the second floor. Not being a young man, he scoped the backyard for anything that could help. Mr. Collins was apparently as inept at caring for his tools as he was at raising his son, because Mark found a ladder lying in the weeds, already beginning to rust from exposure.
Once on the first floor roof, it was easy to wander around from window to window, peering in on the sleeping inhabitants. He saw Mr. and Mrs. Collins snoozing away. Their dog, a tiny, yappy thing that liked to poop on the sidewalk, slept soundly at their feet. The next window peeked in on a sparsely decorated office. The third pointed to a room full of exercise equipment that appeared to be gathering dust.
Mark finally came around to the fourth window, this one partially obscured by dark curtains drawn close. He could just steal a glance between them to see Joey Collins, not sleeping, but seated at his computer. What nerve, thought Mark. It was a school night even. The boy wore headphones, which is why Mark assumed he did not turn around at the sound of the opening window. Once inside, Mark could hear the music leaking from the headphones, full of screaming and pounding noises. Devil Music, as he liked to call it.
The headphones and the unhealthily loud music were probably why Joey did not hear the old man creep up behind him, either. Mark was a good problem solver, but Joey had solved this one for him. When Joey realized something was wrong, it was already far too late.
Mark solved his problems, working quickly and efficiently. There was no time lost, because people needed to understand what was right and what was wrong. You just didn’t disrespect your neighbors—your elders, even—and expect to get off scot free. As the sun was rising on the sleepy town, Mark made his way back home. He was certain his message would be heard loud and clear this time. Problem solved.
Joey’s parents woke up to a horrific site, the front of their house bedecked with horrific revenge. The tissue paper from Mark’s house hung limply from the trees, soaked red with blood. It piled on the ground in some macabre papier-mâché. The limbs were full with unholy fruit, intestines splayed across the branches like tinsel. And on their front porch, where once had sat a toothy jack-o-lantern, was Joey’s head, screaming from empty eyes.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
This is something a little different for me. I tried to write a story in under 500 words, a common microfiction cut-off. I figured a challenge like this was a perfect time to try it out. Let me know what you think, and read the other Stories of Halloween here!
Being a cat has its perks. No one expects me to go to work or help with chores around the house. For the most part, my day is whatever I make of it. Me, I like to sit in the front window and enjoy the sunshine. Plus taunt the neighbor’s dog as much as possible. Stupid little rat just gets to barking and barking.
The downsides? My name is Jeffrey, but everyone calls me Mittens. The little one often has sticky hands. I have to lick my own butt. Still, I supposed the Lord must give challenges to even the best of us, lest we become too proud of our own station.
I have studied my humans carefully for years. It ensures I am taken care of to the best of their limited ability. Many things about humans confuse me, but there is one in particular this time of year which leaves me baffled. Every year, like clockwork, they don bizarre costumes to parade about in the street. I, of course, am a perennial favorite. It seems many children want nothing more than to be me, not that I can blame them. So I watch their precious imitations of a black cat dance along the sidewalk, carrying about large containers which are never full of tuna fish.
That is strange, but I suppose I can understand. If my life were as boring as a human’s, I too would try to find ways of imagining a better life. That night, the doorbell rings and rings incessantly, but no one ever enters to request an audience with me. They yell and giggle at the door with those obnoxious, high pitched squeals, then gallop back down the sidewalk and out of sight.
What I find particularly odd is that they do so with so many visitors. I’m sure humans have a word for these things, but I do not know it. All I know is that they do not have a smell. It’s not just that they don’t smell like humans, but they smell like nothing at all. They look like humans, but humans who are never quite sure if they exist or not. On the rare occasion such a visitor has entered my house, the humans go out of their way to avoid it. They skirt about it, even though it seems they cannot even see it. It’s almost an instinct to stay away.
Which is what I don’t understand. Because on that night, with their young out there exposed, they waltz among the dead without a second thought.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello! Sorry for the silence. I just started my new (old) job, and I’ve been trying to get all the paperwork and stuff squared away. It’s been a headache and a half, but hopefully all the right forms are to the right people now. I’ve also had a nightmare of a cold recently, so that has not helped me with the whole creative aspect of things.
But, of course, I do come bearing another story. This is the epitome of a first draft, though. As always, the story is below. My critique to myself would be a good concept and interesting start. However, the ending lacks a bit of punch and the pacing may be off. I’m afraid it drags at the beginning and then rushes through the climax. (I also just realized I dislike the tense switch from past to present at the end. It seemed like it worked at the time, but it’s a strategy I’m not usually a fan of. Something else to consider…) So I’d expect some tinkering on this. I’m also toying with the idea of expanding this story into multiple parts. I’ve had a couple of character ideas kicking around for a while, and they might be the perfect way to help the protagonist learn more about the eponymous Bottle Lady and her curse. But I think I need to get part one right before I think about expanding.
I would really appreciate any feedback or advice anyone has. Do you agree with my own critique? Disagree? Think I’m missing a glaring issue? I really enjoy showing the process of writing for me, and I hope you will join me on that journey. Either way, as always, happy reading!
Growing up, I never would have called my mother superstitious. Sure, she had a story and warning for everything, but there was none of the magic hand waving that I associated with tenuous superstitions. No, her beliefs were undeniable fact. The sun rose in the east and set in the west, what goes up must come down, and the Rat King would nibble your toes at night if you failed to rinse your dinner plate. There was no myth to it.
Once I left home, the absurdity of many of these beliefs finally sunk in. It’s not so much that I honestly believed these growing up, but just that I assumed everyone had these stories. Didn’t everyone know the story of the Crooked Old Man who lived in the basement and would creep up the stairs if you failed to shut the door? No, they didn’t. And in hindsight, I’m surprised I didn’t end up more disturbed by these creepy stories.
I grew older and the stories made sense. She was a single mom, living in a city hundreds of miles from her family, doing everything to make a life for three kids. The stories kept us in line. She never believed a one of them either, but they created rules. She did not have to be the bad cop, because her fables were there to fill in the gap. Still, it would have been nice to know not everyone grew up with these stories. I would have worried my college roommate a lot less.
After the power of the stories as real had faded, the behaviors remained, firmly ingrained in my routine. Getting undressed? Take our clothes and put them in the hamper, making sure not to leave your pants or sleeves or socks all bunched up. I completed the action rhythmically thanks to eighteen years of practice, not because I was afraid the trapped skin cells and dirt would give rise to an evil twin. But it’s hard to explain that story to someone and not have them think you’re crazy.
So, I chalked up my mother’s story to superstition and well-intentioned morality stories. Even being grown, she sometimes brought them up when we were at the house, reminding us to use coasters so the witch couldn’t use the ring to peer into our living room. We smiled and complied.
I’m feeling sentimental now, I guess. Like maybe I should write all these stories down before I forget them. Mom died, you see. Last month. It’s still a fresh wound, but she had been so sick for so long…
Still, none of that is the point. The point is that she was not wrong.
I had to dig pretty far back in my memory to remember the first time she spoke about the Bottle Lady. I was very young, and we had just had a screaming match full of all the fury my little body could muster. I don’t remember what I said or why I was upset—being young there are a million possible reasons. But I remember the feeling of my raw throat and flushed cheeks as she sat me on my bed. She was beside me, one hand on my knee and another on my back, soothing. All the details are fuzzy, but I imagine she had that same resigned, loving, irritated look that she seemed to perfect in my teens.
“Mija,” she said. Or maybe I just imagine she said. It’s not important. “Mija, we must never yell things like that, especially not where the wind can take those words away. You never know who might hear.” Older me made sense of this by thinking she must not want to disturb the neighbors with a childish tantrum. And a hefty mix of “don’t air your dirty laundry in the street” thrown in for good measure.
I don’t remember my words, but I recall a stubborn streak emerging. I’d do what I want, because I was old enough to realize I could decide my own actions and affect others. I was a power drunk tyrant of a toddler. Or so she always told me fondly.
“If you do need to yell, make sure to go around and close all the windows. Make sure it’s not too windy outside either. Perhaps you may need to even close the chimney. When you’re rea good and sure no one else can hear you, then you can yell all you want. But you have to take some time to prepare, first.”
Grumbling and obstinance on my part, met with her smile and gentle hand. “You see, the Bottle Lady likes to listen for people who are angry and unhappy. She listens on the wind to hear angry little children. If she hears you, she’ll follow that sound all the way back to you and scoop your little voice right up into one of her bottles. Then you won’t be able to say a thing.”
My mouth agape, staring, wondering. It’s a wonder I did not have nightmares my entire childhood. But she smiled, then leaned down with mock menace. “Of course, then, maybe, I’d get a little peace and quiet!” She was tickling me and I was laughing, the punishment passed. The Bottle Lady was a frequent bogeyman in our home. If I started to yell at my sister, mother would be there to point me to the windows. Once I had checked all the windows and doors, I could come back and say whatever I had on my mind. Of course, most of the anger had burned out by then. Eventually, it simply became another habit. If I began to raise my voice, I’d stomp off to check the doors and windows, returning a couple of minutes later in a much better mindset to speak. And the idea of fighting on the playground or at school—places I could never hope to contain my words—was foreign.
Her superstitions had a purpose. I just never imagined any of them could be true.
I was not in a good place after she died. I mean, I’m still not in a good place, but I’m less the mess I was and more a typical grieving child. Or as typical as grief ever is. I let my good habits slide—dishes piled in the sink, clothes on the floor, the TV blaring at all hours. It was a call from some debt collector that finally broke me. I was in our old house, in the midst of packing up her belongings. They had no way to know she had passed, and God knows she had racked up debt trying to stay alive. That does not make them any less vultures. They wouldn’t listen, and before I knew it, I was screaming into the telephone.
I was not in my right mind, and I could not tell you what I truly said upon penalty of death. The anger and pain just gushed out of me and through the phone. How dare they, I said. Didn’t they know we were grieving (which they couldn’t have, I know)? I was sick and tired of putting up with it all, of looking happy and pulled together. I just wanted to be left alone.
While hanging up would have been sufficient, I flung the phone against the wall. It burst into hunks of cheap plastic, leaving a gash in the drywall I had to later fill. The house had to bear the scars of my immature rage.
I didn’t even think about the Bottle Lady as I stormed around the house, shoving things into boxes ahead of the big sale. My sister was pushing it, despite my requests to slow down. My brother refused to get involved. Who knows what things I muttered in that house. I was angry at myself, angry at the creditors, angry at Mila and Peter, angry at God, angry at my mother. All the while, the curtains flapped in the nice breeze. I’m sure the neighbors thought I was crazy, but then again they probably would have given me the benefit of the doubt.
I slept in my old bedroom that night, staring up at the posters of my teenage heartthrobs, still enshrined there after so many years. Mom had always left our rooms the same, saying the house would always be ours. And it was until Mila decided to liquidate it.
We were also told to never leave the windows open while we slept, lest some bad spirit sneak in and put naughty words in our mouths. I could not remember a time in my life when I had fallen asleep with a window open, but that night was the exception. Grief swarmed me, and I was unconscious only a paragraph into my book chapter.
The wind was truly blowing when I woke up, kicking the gauzy curtains about in a frenzy. They snapped in the wind, which is what I assumed woke me up. It felt and sounded like a storm was brewing up somewhere, so I considered it a lucky break. Doing my best to avoid entangling myself in the curtains, I stumbled over and slammed the window down, then dutifully traced my steps through the house to ensure everything was sealed up tight. The realtor would have my head if I got the “original wood floors” waterlogged with such a careless mistake.
She was standing on the in the hallway as I made my way out of the kitchen. I froze, my eyes quickly trying to parse the strange silhouette. In the dark, all I could see was a dark lump in the center of the hallway, with a large square extending from about four feet to the top of the ceiling. The figure lurched forward, the square dragging along the ceiling with the clink of glass from somewhere. Trying to assign human anatomy to it, I recognized the short, wide leg that stomped forward, followed by a belabored sway forward. From the leg, I was able to pick out a torso and two stubby arms.
She stepped forward again, falling into the limited light from Mila’s bedroom window. I could see her face, round and squashed together. Her lips looked swollen, and her eyes squinted until there was nothing more than a thin shadow marking their location. One her back, strapped haphazardly by two worn leather straps, was some large wooden structure. She carried it along, her back impossibly stooped by the weight of whatever it was. I could hear the glass rattling with each step she took, tinkling in time to the shaking of the wooden behemoth.
She smiled when she saw me, the shifting muscles somehow creating an even more displeasing image. Almost in relief, she sagged towards the ground, slumping her shoulders until the straps released whatever it was on her back. Her posture stayed just as stooped, giving the impression she was nearly walking about on all fours. Still smiling, she turned and tugged on what I quickly recognized as a door on a large cabinet. She carried the thing about with her.
The doors fell open with a long, irritated creak. The hinges appeared to barely hold it together, and they swung, pealing their displeasure with each miniscule movement.
Enraptured as I was by the scene, I turned and fled the moment she turned her back to inspect the contents of the cabinet. The kitchen door led out into the back yard, which connected to the front by a gate. It seemed trivial to escape, especially since the woman was at the wrong end of the hallway to prevent me from fleeing. However, the door was shut tight. I gripped the doorknob tightly and turned with all my might, but it simply spun in my hand.
The basement door was opposite the exit, and there was a way out through there. I turned to sprint down the steps, but she caught me in my tracks. My mind tried to piece together how she could have made it from one end of the hallway to me in the time it took me to check the door, but none of the pieces matched. It was a categorical impossibility. Still, she slowly shuffled between me and the door, her mouth still wide with a smile.
There was a glass bottle in her hand, something made of old, weather-worn blue glass. She lifted it up and shook it at me, the glass catching what little light there was in the kitchen. “Yours?” she said, her voice bursting from her mouth like a moth escaping a musty closet.
She deftly withdrew a cork from the bottle, and I heard my voice. “Don’t you have any decency?” the voice shouted, breaking the stillness in the kitchen.
It continued. “I certainly couldn’t live with myself if I was half as vile as you”
“Go to hell!”
“They just think they can dump everything on me, but they’re in for a rude awakening.”
“Bet they just wish I’d up and die, too. Make it easier on everyone.”
More and more hate poured out of the bottle, and I felt my eyes widen. That was my voice, and the words were all too familiar. I heard myself on the phone, pacing the house, swearing as I threw things into boxes and crunched old newspapers around them. It was a terrifying mimic of my entire afternoon.
The Bottle Lady nodded, placing the cork back in the bottle almost lovingly. Her eyes met mine, cruelty glinting there, as she raised the bottle and brought it crashing down on the floor. Little pieces of blue scattered across the cheap linoleum.
With surprising dexterity and speed, she swept up a handful of the shards and threw them into her gaping mouth. I could hear the crunching, see the trickle of blood snake down her chin. She swallowed and then smiled with newly bloodstained teeth.
“You should have known better,” said my voice from her lips.
She turned and began shuffling her way back out of the kitchen, coattails dragging along behind her and leaving a trail of grime in her wake. My mouth opened. “Who are you and why the fuck are you in my house” was what I intended to say. But there was only silence. My lips flapped open, the air gusted through, but there were no words. They were trapped, buried somewhere deep in my chest.
I sprinted after her, lips forming into the shapes for “Wait!” and “Stop!” to no avail. She was at the end of the hall as I exited the kitchen. I could see into the cabinet now, see dozens if not hundreds of bottles lining the shelves. There were all shapes and colors, some filled and some empty.
With unexpected tenderness, she closed the doors and lifted the straps to her back. I was close enough to touch her, to grab one arm. The flesh beneath was soft, nearly oozing from beneath my fingers. She turned to me, still smiling from a face now painted with blood and spittle, and then was gone with her cabinet.
I yelled and screamed silently sitting there alone in the house. My sister came over around noon the next day and found me in a heap precisely where the Bottle Lady disappeared. There was a trail of dirt and leaves leading form the kitchen to the hallway, which she began complaining about as soon as she entered the house. The words died on her lips when she saw me.
They say its selective mutism brought on due to grief. Selective because my sister, brother, and one rather peeved creditor say I have been calling repeatedly and leaving terrible voicemails. I’ve told my sister I wish she were dead six times, apparently, and have repeatedly told my brother mom never loved him anyways. Of course, I know I haven’t said those things, but my sister did not seem to buy into the Bottle Lady story no matter how quickly I wrote about what happened. And I have not found anyone to confirm it’s not me leaving 3am voicemails for the whole family. I just sound crazy. My psychiatrist agrees.
Worst of all, though, are the things I’ve been saying to me. She whispers in my own voice whenever I’m alone. “You’re worthless,” I say with more vitriol than I’ve ever used in my life. “Mom as the only person who could ever love you, and she died just to get away.” It’s a constant barrage of all my worst thoughts, delivered by the one person I thought I could depend on.
I think she’s angry that I’ve been writing this. Like I’m somehow cheating. The things she says to me, that I hear myself say, have gotten worse and worse. I assume the phone calls to my siblings have, too, but they understandably cut contact with their toxic sister.
I see her now. Hiding around the corner, in the shadows of my closet, three seats behind me on the bus. She just smiles and watches, waiting for me to break.
Like a predator, she separated the weakling from the herd and now has only to circle until I give in to my weakness.
I fear she won’t have much longer to wait.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello! So, this piece was posted on creepypasta.com today. You can check it out on the site here if you’d like to see the ratings, comments, etc. All told, it is a finished piece that I probably will not be returning to, though I did catch one typo when skimming through it this morning (because of course I did). I certainly enjoyed writing this one and hope it gives you a chill down your spine.
If you found me here from the posted story, Welcome to the Attic! Please feel free to look around and tell me what you think. Most recent pieces are on the front page here. If you like my style and want to read more, the Card Challenge Index is a good starting place as it lists 84 stories I wrote over a 90 day period, including genres and descriptions. You can also find my favorites and the most popular ones from the series there. I like to think there is something for everyone buried in there, but you’ll have to let me know.
As always, I’m here to write and enjoy myself. I also provide beta-reading and collaboration opportunities, which you can find more about on the Editing and Collaboration page.
New or old, I hope you enjoy this story. As always, Happy reading!
Marjorie had been lingering outside the nondescript metal door for nearly two hours, appearing to study the door and the faded sign above it. The Deli, it read in dusty script. Her coat was wrapped as tightly around her as the fraying fabric allowed, but still the winter air dug through it. The cold was not enough, however, to drive her out of the elements and through the door. Once or twice she approached it, hand shaking as it neared the handle, only to draw back at the last second as if the handle were a snake.
It should have been easier to enter the door the longer she waited, but it seemed to only grow immeasurably more difficult. It did not help that in her entire time waiting no one had entered or left the building. Had someone sallied up, opened the door, and safely entered into a cloud of inviting warmth, it may have lured her in. Similarly, the safe exit of any sort of person would have given her the assurance that one could brave whatever lay beyond. But the road was empty, and the door sat unmoving.
A particularly sharp gust of wind whistled down the abandoned alley, tugging at her coat and sending her tangled hair into a maelstrom. Her eyes watered at the cold, and she inched closer to the wall, hoping it would afford some protection. It was silly, she chided herself, spending all this time out in the elements. This was what had to be done. She was out of options, and her only hope lay beyond that door.
Yet Marjorie wondered if perhaps it was better to be hopeless than pay whatever price this hope would cost.
The streetlight flickered on overhead. Soon it would be dark, and then she would have to make a decision or risk staying on the unsafe streets at night. Being here in the middle of the day was dangerous enough—she would not be caught outside after dark.
That was the final shove she needed to overcome her inertia. With sudden resolve, she gripped the door handle. It flew open in her hands almost reflexively, for which she was glad. The metal was bitterly cold, seeming almost to burn her with its chill. Had the door not stood open, she would have again released it and likely vanished back to her home.
Inside was a nondescript, concrete hallway. A lonely yellow light filled the inside, leading to another door. This door was made of a dark wood and had a heavy brass knocker affixed to the middle. Marjorie’s steps echoed in the concrete chamber, coming to a sudden stop when the metal door groaned to a loud close. The weak, evening light was now gone, leaving her alone with only the single bulb. She had not realized how comforting it was to have that little bit of the outside world with her. With the door closed, even the distant sounds of traffic were cut-off.
Panic wrapped its claws around her throat. She felt her chest tighten with its serpentine grip; her heart thundered against her ribs. In that moment, instincts took over and she reverted to her most primitive response. Flee.
The echoes of her steps were a maddening flurry around her as she sprinted the fifteen feet back to the metal door. Her hands scrambled for purchase on the handle, only to find nothing but smooth metal. No handle on this side. The thunder of thousands of years of evolution continued to push her towards flight, and her fingers clawed around the metal door frame, hoping to find some crevice to pry open the door. Only there was again nothing. In the dim light afforded by the bulb, she could not make out a single seam. It was almost as if the door had sealed as soon as she entered. Her breaths now came in ragged gasps that did little to help her or calm her. Instead, the world seemed to swim before her. A mocking door, concrete walls. It was almost as if the walls were inching closer, activated on some cruel timer to pin her here forever.
All that she could hear was the flood of blood pulsing through her veins, the rapid fluttering of her heart frantically trying to escape, and the jarring sound of air ripping from her lungs before being shoved back inside. The walls acted as an echo chamber, reflecting her own terrified symphony back at her.
Deep breaths, she reminded herself. Just like those nights spent in the closet, deep breaths. She had to slow herself down if she was going to survive this. Slowing her breathing to a measured pace was akin to stopping a car with no brakes. She felt her lungs fight against the control, trying to maintain their breakneck pace despite her insistence. Over time, however, she won out. The breaths were shaky, but calm, and her heart took its cue to return to its typical state of frenzy. The walls returned to their assigned places and stopped their dizzying journey.
Carefully, Marjorie ran her hands along the wall where the door stood, confirming that there was no seam that she could grip. It was a well-constructed door; there was not even a glimmer of dying afternoon light slipping through the bottom. If she could not back out now, she must go forward.
The hallway was not long, but she felt like a member of a funeral procession as she somberly made her way towards the door. Up close, she could see twisting, abstract shapes carved all over the door. They meant nothing to her, but she felt her breaths begin to hiccup again in her chest. Deep breaths, she repeated her only mantra.
Her hand was shaking as she placed it on the brass knocker. Unlike the door handle, this one was pleasantly warm to the touch. Inviting, almost. With a groan of rusted metal, she lifted it and rapped it quickly against the door. One, two, three. The door began to swing smoothly on its hinges after the third knock, opening onto a room filled with the murmur of quieted voices and wisps of strange smelling smoke. She stepped gingerly inside, feeling immediately out of place.
There were tables and booths scattered around the room. Marjorie did her best not to make eye contact or even look at them, keeping her eyes trained to the worn wood floor. She heard a few snickers, saw a couple hands point her out from their shadowy seats. Even as the large frames filled her periphery, she walked steadfastly towards the counter at the far end of the room.
Everyone in the room recognized immediately how out of place she was. While they were each bedecked in protective charms and talismans—some hanging from their necks, others etched into the scar tissue of their bodies—all she had was the flimsy barrier of her coat, still pulled tight around her against the now suffocating heat of the small room. She waked gingerly across the creaking floorboards, barely daring to breathe. They grinned and watched.
Marjorie approached the counter and lifted her eyes to see the attendant slouched on a stool behind the domed glass structure. Halfway to his face, her eyes froze on the contents of the display case. She assumed the rotted lumps inside had once been some sort of meat, though they were now covered in flies and maggots. Pooled, congealed blood covered the bottom surface, even seeping out and down to the floor. She followed the trail to see the red-stained, warped wood along the floor boards. Mouth agape and eyes wide, she was certain she saw a few eyeballs and fingers mixed in amongst the decay, but she tried to put it out of her mind.
“Want to try a sample?” came the mocking, gravelly voice of the attendant as he pulled open the door to the case. Immediately, a wave of putrescence poured out and enveloped Marjorie. She did her best to escape it, stumbling backwards and tripping over a warped floorboard. There was a low chuckle from those gathered around her, growing more and more quickly into a round of bawdy laughter.
She gagged, her stomach trying to force up the breakfast and lunch she had not eaten. It burned her eyes, starting them watering again. Her stomach having only been successful in ejecting a small amount of water she had nervously sipped at outside, her lungs took to coughing. Anything to get that stench away from her and out of her body.
There was the sound of a lock snapping into place as the attendant continued to laugh. She studied him briefly from her place on the floor behind watery eyes. He was filthy, covered in a layer of grime that made it impossible to tell his age. A tangled mess of dirt and wispy hair sat atop his head, falling into his beady eyes as he rocked back and forth with laughter at her predicament. His hands—stained and caked with muck—gripped the counter as long, yellowed nails scraped across the glass in time to his chuckling.
Marjorie did her best to pull herself together, rising from the floor and straightening her clothes as if that would restore her dignity. The smell had faded, now only a slight whiff of decay rather than the malodorous assault. That or her nose could no longer register the scent having burned out that sense for good. She threw her head back, eyes meeting the dark, glassy eyes of the man behind the counter.
“I’m here to speak with the owner,” she said in what she hoped was a confident voice. It did not help that it trembled and broke as she spoke. But at her words, a begrudging silence spread through the room.
The attendant snorted, a thick mucusy sound. For a moment she was afraid he was preparing to spit on her. Instead, he jerked one dirty finger to a paper ticket dispenser. “Take a number, then.”
With that, the attention on her seemed to fade. The low, grumble of conversation returned and she heard chairs scraping across the wood as the denizen’s returned to their intrigue. She walked over and gripped the dusty piece of paper delicately, as if afraid it might crumble to dust in her fingers. Perhaps this was another trick. Instead, the machine groaned and dispensed with a tiny slip. Number 43. She looked around for some sign that told her where she was. She had not seen anyone enter or leave today, so perhaps the line was long. But there was no such indicator.
“Excuse me,” she cautiously questioned the attendant, “how do I know what number is up?”
One eye turned to face her, the other stared out over the bar. “Take a seat and you’ll be called.” His eye flicked back to whatever it was between the counter and door that so raptly held his attention.
Marjorie gingerly picked her way over to an unoccupied table, acutely aware that her back was exposed to whatever kind of people liked to congregate in a place like this. She was certain that she could feel each individual eye raking over her back, sense spider-like appendages trace up and down her spine. Her hands were balled into knots, resting bloodlessly on her lap.
The minutes trickled by, marked only by the rise and fall of bawdy laughter. Marjorie kept her eyes focused on the table in front of her, trying to pick out patterns and shapes in the wooden surface. Trying to keep her mind from wandering too far from the task at hand. Somehow she knew that she could snap if forced to take in the reality of where she was and what she was doing. Instead, she focused on the next step. Meeting the owner and making her request.
The crack of a metal mug slamming onto the wooden table brought her eyes up, open wide like an animal caught in a snare. A woman stood across from her, tall and broad-shouldered. She had one bright green eye that studied Marjorie up and down. In place of her other eyes was a nasty incision, weeping a slight bit of pus, that bulged with dark stitches. Without being invited, the woman settled into the seat across from Marjorie.
“Me oh my, you don’t belong here, pretty thing,” she said in a hushed tone. Her eye was hungry. Marjorie sat silent as the woman studied her with a slight smile on her dry, swollen lips. “No, you aren’t meant to be here at all. What brings a little bird like you into a place like this?”
Marjorie focused her eyes back on the table. There was nothing she could say here that would keep her safe, and she knew that. She just needed to meet with the owner and make her request.
“A quiet one. Not going to sing for Lucy, eh? Come now, tell me what you need and I can help you get out of this place.” Marjorie’s silence prevailed. “We both know this is not a safe place for the likes of you. I’ve got a soft-spot for women, knowing how hard it is to be among this rabble myself. Just let me help you, dearie.”
Almost unbidden, Marjorie’s eyes lifted from the table and met the woman’s unnatural green one. It was beautiful, truly, even if it was nested within a hideous face. The green reminded Marjorie of the view from her bedroom window as a child on Easter morning. There was a small tree that grew just outside that always seemed to be absolutely covered in new leafs that shone with that bright, spring green. That was the color of the eyes. And it shone and sparkled like sunlight reflecting off water.
“There now, I’m sure we can work something out. I just know I can help you with whatever you need.” Lucy’s voice was a soft singsong, not the harsh growl of a dedicated chain smoker like before. “I even make sure my prices are fair, especially for a fair young thing like yourself.” Marjorie felt a hand on her knee, gently stroking. “Them pretty eyes of yours—they look like they’ve seen a world of heartache, eh? I could take care of those for you. You’d like that, yes?”
Eye fixated, Marjorie felt her head begin to bob slightly. To not see the horrors she had in her time, well, that would be nice.
“I see you like the idea,” Lucy’s face cracked open into a wide grin. “I thought you might. I’m good as seeing what people really need from me. I just need you to say it. Say you’ll give me those awful eyes of yours, and I’ll make sure you never have to see something so terrible again.”
Marjorie’s mouth opened, the very words on her lips, when a strong hand settled onto her shoulder. It smelled of leather and blood and gripped her shoulder hard enough to break the trance.
“Not going to let you have all the fun, Ol’ Luce. It’s not every day we get something so lovely in this dingy place.”
Marjorie felt dizzy and confused, as if time were moving at double again its normal pace. Her mind was slow in catching up to what was happening—what had almost happened—leaving her feeling as if she were lagging behind the rest of the world. Now Lucy was standing, measuring up to a formidable height, with anger in that lone green eye.
“I’ll not have you meddling, Thomas. She and I were nearly to a deal.”
“A deal you tricked her into, no less. Where’s the fun in that? Just weave your little spell, and she’ll say whatever you want. You’ve gone soft, Luce. I need to make you work for it.” His voice was soft, but firm. It seemed to cut through the background din like a razor, until it was the only thing she could hear. As Marjorie’s mind caught up with what had just nearly happened, she felt her heart begin to race. And then there was the hand on her shoulder, the firm grip beginning to hurt with its intensity.
The man bent over her shoulder, smiling. A long, black beard tickled against the skin of her neck, and she could smell the whiskey on his breath. “I’m afraid we have not been introduced, and I’ve already gone and saved your life. It’s a bad habit, I admit. My name is Thomas.” He extended his other hand towards her, the one on her shoulder growing tighter as she refused to shake. “Oh, we must be polite in an uncivil place as this, yes? What’s your name?”
Marjorie whimpered at the pain in her shoulder but fixed her eyes back on the table. She had to talk to the owner. She had to make her request.
“Back off and let her be, Thomas. I saw her; I made the first move. There’ll be others for you,” barked Lucy’s voice.
“Yes, but you didn’t close on the sale, now did you?” His eyes flicked away from Marjorie for just a moment, fixing Lucy with a cold gaze before returning with more warmth to Marjorie’s face. “You’ll find I’m much more direct. No need for silly games.” The hand moved smoothly from her shoulder, along the back of her neck. Suddenly, his fingers were wrapped through her hair, yanking her head back and exposing her throat. She felt something cold and sharp there, and barely dare to breathe. His smiling face leaned over hers, “How many years would you give me to keep this pretty little neck of yours attached?”
Marjorie heard a short laugh to her right, saw a slender man standing to the side. He stood just within her periphery, far enough back that she could only make out the vague shape of him. “Thomas, do be careful. There is plenty of her to go around if we just act with a little tact. I bet you could make some even better deals if you thought this through.”
“Oh no, you aren’t going to trip me up with that again. You swindled me out of everything last time.”
“You are right, it was a bit of a dirty trick. But surely you and Luce could work out some sort of a deal. You don’t need her eyes after all.”
Marjorie noticed the shadow of Luce appeared to turn and nod towards the man to the side, and she heard a very soft chuckle from him.
Thomas’ hands gripped her hair even more tightly. “You’re just mad that I got to her first, and this time I’m cutting you out!”
“Well, fine, but I fear it’s not just me you’ll be fighting against, Tom. A lot of us would like a piece of her.”
Thomas leaned back down by her ear, his words coming in a whispered frenzy. “Well, dear, looks like they’ll be taking you piece by piece. What do you say then? Give Ol’ Thomas whatever years you’ve got left? At least they’ll go to some sort of use, yeah?”
Marjorie heard grumbling in the room, the sound of chairs scraping along the wood, and a chorus of various metals meeting metal. There was a new tension in the uncomfortably warm room, a weight that pressed down all around her.
“Come on, times ticking, do we have a deal? You look like an altruistic soul. Help me out.” Footsteps coming close, a few short barks of anger. The intensity increased in his voice and he shook her head sharply. “They’ll cut out your tongue soon, so you best tell me now!”
Marjorie felt tears falling down her cheeks, a steady stream now pouring from her eyes. She had to speak to the owner. She had to make her request. Only she was not so sure she’d even get that chance.
Someone grabbed Thomas and the knife nicked her, drawing a thin line of blood far less lethal than it could have been. Marjorie dove under the table, trying to evade the arms that grabbed at her. There was the smell of blood in the room, and all the inhabitants had been suitably whipped into a frenzy. She was the lone fish drifting amongst the sharks.
A mug struck her temple, thick hands gripped and tugged at her arms, leaving angry red bruises that began to darken almost instantly. The rough floor scraped along her knees and arms as she crawled, filling her skin with tiny needling splinters. As she scrambled, kicked, and bit at any appendage that came her way, she noticed the tempo of the fray beginning to increase. No longer was she the main prize, but the fighters had turned on one another, vying for the chance to claim this lovely reward. They knew, of course, that she had nowhere to run. Finally, she found a corner to hide in, burying her head in her arms and trying to drown out the sound of the chaos around here. She needed to speak to the owner.
After what felt like hours of combat, the sounds of an opening door cut through the din. A sudden silence filled the room, minus the groaning of the incapacitated, and Marjorie began to sob. This was it. A victor had been named, and she was now the trophy to be parceled as he or she saw fit. She could not even lift her eyes to see which of the horrors in the room she would be left with.
However, something else broke the silence. “Number 43?” asked the calm voice of a young girl. Marjorie dared to barely lift her head, seeing the tiny figure standing in a doorway that had not existed moments before.
She scrambled to her feet, holding aloft the ticket she had somehow held onto during the fray. None of the remaining combatants—the war had obviously not been won quite yet—dared to touch her as she walked forward, towards the child in the doorway. Still, she shuddered and spooked as they milled about in the shadows. The girl motioned into the bright rectangle cut into the formerly intact wall, and Marjorie walked forward.
The door closed behind her, a parlor trick she was now used to. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust from the gloom of the waiting room to the warm light of this new area. It was a well-furnished office, completed with a large wooden desk and an assortment of alluring leather chairs. The scent of cedar mixed with the smell of the crackling fireplace in a way that reminded Marjorie of weekend trips to her grandad’s cabin. Silently, the young girl stepped against the wall behind Marjorie, next to what had been the doorway, but now was nothing more than another section of oak paneling.
The man behind the desk did not look up at first. He was busy tallying and writing in a thick ledger, seemingly uninterested in the bruised and bloody woman before him. After a few moments, he looked up with a friendly smile and closed the book firmly.
“Marjorie, pleasure to meet you finally. I see you got the traditional welcome from our guests? And not a one of them was able to make a deal with you! You must be made of some tough stuff.”
She nodded mutely, uncertain now of how to proceed. He simply smiled at her and gave her the time she needed to study him. His teeth were bright white—the only clean thing she had seen since entering the deli. His eyes were as dark as his teeth were white, but they appeared to be friendly. As he waited for her to speak, he knitted his fingers together in front of him, rolling his shoulder to straighten out the drape of his crisp suit coat. Every bit of him seemed to be polished and neat—a stark contrast to the room before.
“Are you the Devil?” she finally managed to squeak out, eyes wide.
He laughed, throwing his head back and letting the sound ripple around the room. It was a friendly, amused sound that put her at ease. “Oh no, nothing so boring as that.”
“But you can give people whatever they want.”
He composed himself, that same broad smile still on his face. “Well, of course I can. But there is much more to this world than your simple understanding of gods and devils. Don’t worry, Marjorie, this is no deal with the Devil. But do tell me, what is it you want?”
“I—I came here to—“ The words would not come. She had thought and thought about how she would tell her story, how she would describe the years of abuse, threats, and evil. She considered taking off her coat and showing him the pale yellow stains of old bruises, but they were now marred by fresh ones from the fray. She felt for the death certificate in her pocket, the name of her first son written on it. And now the words would not come.
He watched patiently, no hint of irritation at her pause. When she began to sob, he offered her the handkerchief from his front pocket.
“He told everyone I was drunk. That was how I fell down the stairs. That was why Mikey died.” The tears were coming more in earnest now, and she dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. “They all looked at me like a terrible mother, that I would be drinking while pregnant. They blamed me—if I had been sober, I wouldn’t have fallen and Mikey would have at least had a chance. No one believed me.”
“I don’t bring people back from the dead, Marjorie. Even I don’t meddle in things like that,” his voice was soft, almost as if moved by her tearful story.
She took that moment to compose herself, sniffing and wiping away the tears. “I know. That’s not why I’m here. I want you to kill my husband.” The words were out, blunt and dirty, before she realized what she was saying. This was not how the discussion was supposed to have gone.
His face brightened. “Oh, is that all you need? Well, that should be a relatively easy matter”
“You don’t understand. He’s a monster. It won’t be easy to kill him, but you have to. You have to kill him, because he’s a very bad person.”
“Marjorie, I don’t care who he is. He could be Hitler or the Pope reincarnate. All I care about is that you want him dead. And I can make that happen, no matter how ‘monstrous’ he might be.” He reached over and pulled an ornate ink pen from his desk. “I will need some details, like his name, address, distinguishing physical features. Also, would you like proof of death?”
Marjorie’s stomach churned at the thought of what she was doing. It was the only way, though. He had to pay for his crimes, and no one else was willing to do it. “No, I won’t need that. Everyone says you follow through on your deals.”
“Word of mouth is certainly the best advertisement for services such as mine,” he smiled that disarming smile again.
“Um, well, his name is David Bergen and his address is 1394 Windhaven Rd, Apt 1722. It’s in Topeka.” He continued writing and nodding. “He’s about six foot tall, a big bulky guy. Blond hair, brown eyes. He has some sort of tribal tattoo on the back of his neck, one of a skull on his right bicep. Is that enough?”
“Oh, that’s lovely. A wonderful description. I’ll dispatch someone right away,” he said, nodding to the small girl. Marjorie heard the door swing open behind her, then close quietly. “But, now that your terms are set, let us discuss what I shall get in return. A few rules. I don’t trade in souls—it is simply too much of a hassle to deal with, and the return is rather poor. I also don’t accept first born children,” at this, he nodded his head towards the spot the girl had been moment before. “I’ve done it once, but I’ve found children are not particularly useful.” There was a sudden cruel glint to his smile, “Besides, someone has already taken yours.”
Marjorie was silent, her fingers worrying over the hem of her jacket as if that would provide some solace in this moment. Her heart was pounding again, and she wondered if perhaps she was going to suffocate here in this office. The scents and furnishing that had seemed so lavish now felt oppressive. “But I can give you anything else, right?”
He paused to consider her comments. “I reserve the right to refuse any substandard trade. I won’t, for instance, take your pocket lint.” He chuckled appreciatively at his own joke. “But I accept most fair trades.” His demeanor turned more serious, perhaps even taking on a sinister air. He leaned forward over the desk, shadows growing across his face as he did so. “Think carefully now about what you’ll give me for this. Whatever you decide, you will think it is something you would never want back no matter how long you live. But once it’s gone, you’ll find you cannot live without it. You’ll yearn for it. You’ll do anything to replace it. You’ll take it. But it will never be enough, will always be shrouded in the filth of something borrowed. So make a wise choice, but know there is no wisdom that will save you. What will you give me?”
She thought long and hard, but she had spent days thinking about it already. She was almost certain she had thought of something that in no way could harm her, no matter what. In fact, she reminded herself, it would be a relief. She would be strong and brave then, not the timid girl that had entered. “My pain,” she finally answered.
He smiled eagerly, a response that made her suddenly uncertain. “Oh, yes, we have a deal! Pain is one of my favorites. And don’t come back here saying I didn’t warn you.” With that he clamped her hand in his and shook once. Marjorie felt as his grip began as an excruciating vice, then dwindled until she could barely even notice it. The aches and pains of her various cuts and bruises also dimmed before disappearing altogether.
As promised, with it gone, she also felt that absence acutely. It was a kind of nostalgia now, a prickling sense of something missing and a longing to return. This wasn’t so bad, she thought. Uncomfortable, certainly, but it must have been the right choice.
He still smiled. “You think it’s going to be easy. But that’s just the first taste. Give it time.”
“But,” there was a crackle in her voice. Sacrificing pain did not remove fear. “I can take away others’ pain now, right?”
His eyes simmered with glee, as if her altruism was a delicious appetizer. “Of course, my dear. And you most certainly will. Again and again, you’ll valiantly step in and take every ache from their bodies, dry the tears from their eyes. And someday that won’t be enough. You’ll hunger for more. So you’ll give them a little pain, only to take it away. Until that isn’t enough either. I told you, it will never be enough. You can try to drown yourself in the pain and agony of millions and never be satisfied.” His grin finally split into a restrained laugh, and he quickly reassembled his face into a look of mild amusement. The excitement glimmered in his eyes.
Lost in his eyes, in the long future stretching before her, in the half-perceived glimpse of the monster she would become, Marjorie barely noticed as the room faded from around her. The last thing to disappear were his eyes, and she blinked. She felt dazed, as if waking from a dream, as she stood the sidewalk and in the light of early dawn. Impossibly, she was standing in front of a nondescript brick building on the other side of town.
“Remember,” she heard his voice on the breeze, “the Deli is always open. I’m guessing you’ll have a table all your own soon enough.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Here is something I threw together in honor of fall. Just an idea that I wanted to play with. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
Michael had no reason to fear. True, it was certainly a situation where one might consider fear an appropriate response, but there was absolutely no reason for him to fear.
It had been a peaceful evening up until that point. The day had been dreary, rain trickling down window panes and pattering on the sidewalk. He had watched it, gloomily, from his office window. It was hard to stay focused and productive with the grey and slithering weather slipping past his window. The morning felt like early evening, the afternoon like dusk. His body was already prepared to crash when he got home, convinced it was 7:00 by the time he made it out of the grey structure.
Somehow, however, the cloud cover had broken on the drive home. There were only a few hours of sunlight left, but Michael eagerly soaked it in from behind his car windows. After getting home, he resolutely set out for an early evening walk to take in the clean, warm air. It was a perfect walk, the scent of fall in the air, still slightly damp from the day’s rain. The sun was warm and beaming.
His neighborhood was nice, and it seemed others had a similar idea. Families and children seemed to be soaking up the lovely weather, certain that rain would trundle back by the next day. It was the unofficial rainy season, the tail end of summer as it shifted to the chilly fall weather. There was some magic to the changing season, and it seemed everyone wanted to witness to it.
Michael had eventually drifted into the park, making his way into the wooded paths. The sun filtered through the leaves, highlighting the subtly shifting shades of the leaves. A nice breeze picked up, and he tugged his jacket closer. The leaves whispered around him. It was peaceful.
But, as is common with fall evenings, the darkness seemed to settle in at a surprisingly rapid pace. The sun eventually sunk beneath the hills on the horizon, casting long golden fingers around the newly approaching clouds. Shadows grew long, eventually melding into one another, casting a heavy blanket of darkness over the park. Michael sighed as the lamps flicked on, sodium yellow now filtering through the trees. If not for a growing hunger in his gut—that slice of pizza from lunch had not lasted as long as he would have liked—he might have spent a little longer meandering along the path. The air was getting a bitter edge to it, and he almost thought he could hear rain whispering in the top of the leafy canopy. It was for the best to return home.
Only, as is so often the case, the best laid plans most certainly went awry. He found himself standing at a fork in the road, completely unsure of which path he had come from. He had been lost in thought, barely paying attention to where his feet wandered. Still, the park was not that big, and there was no harm in taking a wrong turn. The worst case, he reasoned, would be he ended up on a street a couple blacks over instead of next to his house. The weather was still nice enough to make it adventure, not an inconvenience.
The leaves rustled around him as he arrived yet again at a fork I n the path. He had not passed this many, surely. Still, he was certain that the paths would eventually lead it. They were all pretty much interlinked circles, after all. He tried to remember the map at the edge of the park with its brightly highlighted trails, but it was simply a mess of tangled lines crossing over and under one another.
It was not until he came upon yet another path with no memory of the choice that he began to feel a slight prickle of unease. The park was not that big.
His pace was faster, and he zipped up his jacket His hands were actually getting a bit chilled, even though he had not thought the temperature was supposed to drop that drastically tonight. Around and around he wandered, hidden under the leaves and following one stout lamp post to another.
And then, the path ended.
For a moment, Michael stood and stared at the path that simply thinned and then disappeared into a pile of leaves. There were no sounds—not even the sound of cars zipping past on the nearby roads—besides the whispering of leaves rustling overhead. The wind must have kicked up, he reasoned, as the sound rose to a crescendo.
He did not remember dead ends in all of his trips to the park. Then again, he did not remember forks upon forks leading him deeper and deeper into the woods. It was obvious he must not have been paying much attention. Shrugging his shoulder, he turned around.
It was then Michael began to fear, even if there was no reason to. Standing before him was a pile of leaves, which certainly does not sound terrifying. However, if you were walking along the woods, slightly lost, and suddenly came upon a human shaped collection of fall leaves, you might startle as well. You certainly would as it opened big, golden, owl-like eyes and stared at you with predatory eagerness.
Fear tends to produce one of three responses in a human. They will choose to either fight, flee, or freeze. In this moment, Michael chose to freeze. His mouth fell open as if someone had unhinged his jaw, and his eyes seemed to fall back into the cavern of his skull. For a moment, he simply took in the image of some impossible creature before him.
It opened its mouth—though it did not quite have a mouth. He only understood it as a mouth because of the sounds that began when a chasm opened up just below the eyes. It was leaves whispering in the wind, hissing and slithering in a language he could not comprehend. It was then that he noticed the jagged points of red and orange ringing that opening, the undulating vine that writhed within the expanse. Teeth, his mind labeled. Tongue.
Suddenly, they looked sharp. Michael felt his fear—as useless as it was—enter a new stage, call upon a new tactic. Flee, it said. He turned and began to rush through the underbrush, damp leaves slick with rain and threatening his minutest progress. Still, despite the treacherous footing, he made his way through the woods, hands batting away grasping branches. Behind him, he heard the leaves laughing at him, their bodies sliding one over another, laughing in a frozen breeze.
Michael did what you most certainly should not and chanced a glance behind him. He could see the strange creature cut from foliage rising among the tree, clambering over the branches like water pooling over stones. For a moment, he was struck by the memory of his chemistry teacher rolling mercury in a glass bottle. It seemed to glide over the surface the same way this creature wove between the branches.
Of course, his attention torn away, he was quick to slip. And that thing was quick to pounce, diving from the trees in a flurry of movement. Michael was pinned to the ground, and he called upon his very last resource. He started to fight. Michael’s legs flew towards the creature, ripping into its leafy form, only to be swallowed up in the mass. He tried to pull his arms away, to scrtch nad punch at what he assumed was the things face. But instead, his arms seemed ot sink into the loamy soil beneath him. The woodland detritus beneath his back seemed to come alive, wrapping around him and pulling him into an impossible embrace.
The creature almost seemed to smile, that gap of a mouth stretching wider with that same sibilant laugh. Now he could see the teeth clearly, sharp and dangerous despite their innocent appearance. It smelled of rot and decay in there, eons of autumns cast into an inky pit of some living horror.
In that moment, Michael gave up on fear. As the teeth grew closer, wrapping around his yes, he finally saw the error of his ways.
And so, Michael had no reason to fear. Fear should do something, give a creature some hope of surviving an ordeal. But, for Michael, it had no purpose. He could freeze, flee, or fight all he wanted. But there was no good reason to fear. After all, he was dead the moment he laid eyes upon those hungry eyes.
Hello! Sorry for disappearing again. I’ve been settling into a new routine, and recently developed annoying daily headaches. By the time I get home from work, I’m fending off one, and that makes me unlikely to do much writing. For those I generally email back and forth with, this is why I may have been relatively silent. Computer screens tend to exacerbate the symptoms. I’m trying some environmental changes, like using lamps and natural light more than the obnoxious fluorescents at work, drinking water, sleeping more, and other things. Hopefully I get them managed soon, because it’s really frustrating to deal with them daily. They aren’t bad, but having them every day is really getting old.
And then there’s the age-old problem where I currently hate everything I’m writing. That’s always good. Which means I have a handful of half-finished things, and nothing ready to be posted. That is good in that I will have lots to post at some point, but bad in that I do not currently have a multitude of pieces to choose and post from. Well, except for this piece. It’s a shorter one, and I more like the idea than the piece. It was an attempt to write something in second person that I would not absolutely hate, and I think it sort of does that. You’ll just have to judge for yourselves the merit of this one! Happy reading!
You do not remember what happened back then. Whatever it was, it is lost in a haze that only briefly resurfaces in your deepest nightmares or that flash of anxiety deep in your gut. You were too young to remember it then, and youth may be precisely what saved you. Only you are not so young now, and your youth can no longer be your shield.
You know something happened, try as you might to ignore it. You caught hints of it in those stilted dinner time conversations when your parents would smile and swiftly change the subject, obviously dancing around something sinister. There was a fear and panic in their smiles, so you knew it must mean something. Even if you consciously brushed it aside, it burrowed into your subconscious. You remembered the half-known dreams with abstract feelings of guilt and pleasure that woke you with the power of the mood, even if the specifics grew fuzzy. You knew that there were certain words and phrases that sent an unnatural shiver down your spine, even though they seemed so benign. There was something buried in your life so deep, no conscious thought could uncover it.
You were so small when it happened, you must have been innocent. That was what they said at the time, at least. You do not remember the babysitter with her short, dark hair and innocent, trusting eyes. She had just been certified for babysitting, or so she said, whatever that meant. She was responsible and organized, if perhaps a little strict. Dutifully and impersonally, she prepared your dinner, put you in pajamas, and tucked you into bed. No matter you were not ready for bed. Once she thought you were asleep—though you certainly were not at such an unreasonable hour—she tuned out the house with that music she was so enamored with. It all sounded angry and violent to your unaccustomed ears. You could hear it surrounding you as she made you dinner, heard the sounds drip from her lips as she hummed and half-sang along from somewhere in the house as you fought not to sleep.
You were angry, and he was there to help. You certainly do not remember your imaginary friend. Trauma at such a young age has a way of wiping away those details. Or so they say. He was there to soothe you, and he promised to make sure she understood. You do not remember his smile, with those fine, sharp teeth. You may remember his breath, a warm and sticky mixture that sometimes catches you on a hot summer’s day, making you feel at once uneasy and overwhelmed. You might remember his eyes, those dimly sparkling spheres that you sometimes think you see in the shadows of your room, even if you do not know what you are looking for. But, then., he smiled so wide and it soothed you.
What happened next is anybody’s guess. The police report said that someone broke into the house and attacked her, using a kitchen knife to slice her stomach into thin ribbons. Of course, it also said there was no sign of forced entry; the attacker was someone she knew. It said you were spared as you slept soundly in your room, somehow immune from the deranged attacker’s violent hate. You must have woke later and found her there. Not knowing any better, you tried to wake her, brought yourself close to her. You must have move the knife, since your fingerprints were on it. Surely that must be it, because you were so little and it was so violent. There was no other explanation.
Her boyfriend was questioned. A lover’s spat? No, it was determined, and he left the station in tears, scarred by the images they had plastered before his eyes. Luckily you do not remember what you saw that night, otherwise you would have to be very damaged, now wouldn’t you? They questioned your parents, suspecting some deviant scheme to harm young women in the neighborhood, but that was quickly dismissed. Their alibi was airtight; it was date night after all. Her parents were brought in and left an inconsolable mess of human that eventually drifted away and fell apart. Whatever happened that night tore apart so many families.
Yours was spared, it seemed, and you were spared, it’s true. You appeared to be blissfully unaware of anything that had happened, able to continue your childhood as a happy child, grinning and laughing even as the detectives asked you about the events. You listened to your imaginary friend as he told you what to say, and you played with him as they sat beside you and begged for any sort of clue. Not that you spoke well at that age, but they were desperate for any sort of lead.
You would giggle talking about the knife and blood. When you mentioned the games you played with her, the rushed you along and asked you again and again about anyone who hurt her. They simply could not understand why it was so important they understand the game. At some point, you told them she screamed and they eagerly began to write. You told them she screamed because you had a knife and were angry at being sent to bed. They sighed, chalking it up to the egocentricity of a child. Maybe the event had rubbed off on you in some way, but certainly not in a way that would help them. So they thought.
But, you do not remember any of this. It was not long after that your imaginary friend disappeared, and you quickly forgot all the jokes about knives and blood that had been such a staple. You stopped trying to play the same game with your parents where you could hide the kitchen knives under your bed. Your parents were relieved, fearing you had would grow into some sociopath after such an early witnessing. Soon, you were just like every other kid. And so no one mentioned it any more. Your recovery was deemed fragile by your parents, afraid they would accidentally remind you of that night or somehow blame you for what happened. And so it became a silent truth, buried under years of need-to-know.
And now, you need to know. Because he is back. He was smiling at you just the other day, that time you thought someone was sitting behind you. You turned, he smiled at you with that wide smile, and you saw no one there. You laughed, shrugged it off, and moved on with your day. If it stopped there, you would still be safe. But it hasn’t. Before, you at least knew when he was ordering you around, even if it had tragic consequences. Now, though, you seem unaware. The other day, he told you to look out the window, and you did, your head swiveling sharply. You told yourself you must have seen something moving outside, but now you might know the truth.
Or not too long ago when you became so angry. It came on so quickly, and swelled to such a level, it surprised you. It seemed such a trivial matter, but it spurred you to such an unusual level of rage. Just tired, irritated, worn out, you reasoned as you calmed yourself back down. If only you could have seen the rage in his eyes or heard his violent whispers. Though the truth is you did hear and see, after all, you just do not remember.
Earlier this week, he whispered to you to scratch your head, and you did without a thought. Such a simple thing, you did not give it a second thought. Maybe it could have been just a coincidence if he had not been there, watching gleefully as you danced on his puppet strings.
And just a bit ago, he urged you sit down and read a bit. Click that link, go there. He pointed you to this page here, to these words. And he smiled.
He is testing you, making sure you will obey his orders just as you did those years ago. You complied then, and he thinks you will comply again. You need to know now if you are to stand a chance. Otherwise, you will comply. People will die. Only this time, they will know it was you.
And he will smile.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello! I have been holding off on sharing this, but I did a pretty major edit to one of the Card Challenge stories. I liked Day 10 quite a bit, but felt it needed a little work to make it be what I truly envisioned for the story. So, I edited and re-wrote portions of it to better tell the story. i also tried to be a bit more fair to the characters involved, because they came out a little stiff and unrealistic, I thought. So, here is the updated version. I held off on posting the edited version because I had submitted it to creepypasta.com, and it was posted today! You can check it out here. I have four other stores available there, though most are also hosted here. There’s Dionaea Muscipula (blog link), Lake Wonapango (blog post), and Purified (blog post). Empty Spaces is another story I submitted there, but I never posted it here for some reason…
If you came here from creepypasta.com and want to read mre of my work, I’d suggest checking out my recent stuff, which is on the front page here, or my Card Challenge stories. You can learn all about it and find stories that interest you through the Card Challenge Index Page.
Without further ado, here is the update to Day 10, now formally titled “Written in the Stars.”
“Cheryl! That’s great news. I didn’t even know you were psychic!” exclaimed Marian, her face alight with excitement.
“I’m not psychic, Marian.”
“Oh, of course not. That was silly of me. You can just read the future in the stars,” the last syllable trailed off, a hint of mysticism in the woman’s voice.
Cheryl sighed, taking a long sip from her wine glass before continuing. “Actually, I’m fairly certain I could not even find the Big Dipper if I had to. You don’t really need any skills to be a horoscope writer. Just a laptop and a wealth of pithy sayings.”
Marian’s face fell, and Cheryl cringed inwardly. She knew Marian took these sort of things very seriously, with her Tarot and Energy Crystal readings—or whatever was in fashion this week. But Cheryl’s internal skeptic could not stomach reinforcing the charlatan façade of newspaper horoscope columns.
When Cheryl spoke again, her words were clipped, cautious. “It’s not wise to play with things like this.” Her face brightened, “But, I bet whoever hired you could see your potential. We all have some latent psychic ability. I bet they saw straight through to yours!”
“I got hired by an old hippy in a two dollar suit. But, you’re probably right. I’m sure the man has seen his fair share of things.”
“I bet you are going to be amazed once you unlock your potential. Did I tell you about the time my spirit guide taught me to—“
“Yes, a dozen times, each as wonderful as the last,” Cheryl smiled at her old friend. No matter how bizarre the woman was, and how illogical many of her beliefs were, years of friendship and support kept them together. And she could not overlook how Marian’s months of kindness had saved her from a few major catastrophes recently. “Now, can we just drink to the fact that, in a month, I’m actually going to get a paycheck again?”
Marian raised her own glass, beaming with pride and excitement. As much as Cheryl had dreaded outing herself—and, she had assumed, the field of horoscopes—to her friend, it had not been so bad. “To new opportunities and the development of all our hidden talents,” Marian finished with a wink and a long drink from her glass.
Cheryl leaned back in her seat, feeling a weight sloughing from her exhausted shoulders. It had been a long day, and she still was uncertain she could stomach the reality of shilling such snake oil for a living, even if it was necessary to keep the lights on in her ratty apartment. The wine did not necessarily help with that decision, but it did serve to push it just a bit farther away.
“So, how are you going to do this? I mean, until you figure out how to use your gifts, of course.”
The tenacity with which she clung to horoscopes was astounding to Cheryl. She had assumed that once Marian discovered her plain, non-psychic, skeptic, logical friend got a job writing horoscopes, they would laugh together about all the wacky decisions Marian had made over the years based on those newspaper inserts. No such luck.
“Mar, seriously, I’m not psychic. I just slap some words onto paper. You read them and plan your life around it. Then I get paid. No psychic abilities, no star reading required.”
Marian looked slightly off put, her face twisting briefly into an irritated smirk. “Don’t doubt yourself. If you don’t believe, don’t think you can do it, get out. These aren’t powers you want to be messing with, Cher.”
Cheryl realized it was a hopeless battle, one Marian could not afford to lose to reason. “I know. You’re probably right. They must have seen something in me, but I guess it just takes time.” The lies were bitter as they dripped from her lips.
Marian reached across the table and took her hand. “The journey can be difficult, but I know you can do it. I’ve sensed you were special since I first saw you snotty and muddy on the playground. You’re going to help a lot of people, Cheryl. Just remember that.”
Cheryl forced a smile and emptied her glass. When she grimaced, she was not sure if it was from the wine or the pit settling into her stomach.
“Your kindness to those you meet will reap great rewards. Be patient, and watch for your return.”
“This week holds many opportunities for fun. Enjoy yourself, but don’t forget to take time to recharge!”
“Remember that problem that just won’t leave you alone? Expect news to clarify your path.”
“An unexpected inconvenience may bring unexpected rewards. Look for—”
Cheryl tapped a pencil on the edge of her laptop slowly, her eyes distant as she tried to find a new and creative way to end Capricorn’s latest memo. After only a couple months, she felt she was doing nothing but rehashing the same, empty promises week after week. Nonetheless, it was keeping food and lights on in her fridge, so it was hard to complain. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and all that.
Her phone buzzed on the coffee shop table. Marian had been giddy at seeing the weekly horoscopes since learning about her friends new job, and she never failed to try to get a sneak peek into the future.
“Coffee, Cheryl?” she asked, skipping routine greetings.
“I’m already at the coffee shop, so why not?” sighed Cheryl, glancing around the sparsely populated bistro.
“Sound like someone must be honing their gifts, eh? Get a little star magic to help you out?”
Cheryl rolled her eyes. “I just like to work in coffee shops. No stars needed. It’s like finding a bear in the woods.”
Laughter filtered unevenly through the phone. “You could predict lottery numbers five times over, and you still wouldn’t believe in any of this, would you? Your note last week scored me a great new pair of heels on sale.”
“Guess I’m just looking for more proof. When do you want to get coffee? The stars are phoning in, so I’m going to have to take them on the other line.”
“I’ll be there around three. Ask the stars if there are any ways to sneak around this traffic jam, if you could.”
Cheryl glanced at the clock. Forty-five minutes would, likely, give her enough time to finish writing and fleshing out the next edition’s worth of swill. “Will do, Mar. See you then. Half caf mocha, as usual?”
Marian gasped. “Well, look at you, Ms. Cleo! I’ll be there on the dot.”
Cheryl knew that meant Marian would be about fifteen minutes late, and so mentally gave herself the chance to relax. What would Marian’s upcoming horoscope say? Cheryl smiled to herself, thinking of all the ridiculous lies she could put into print if she so desired. She wondered if psychics had any sort of immunity for libel, and if any sort of protection extended to the capricious comments of a small town horoscope writer.
“Marian: You will come into an unexpected sum of money,” she typed lazily, smirking at the cliché. “But be wary of unknown strangers. While he may appear to be Prince Charming, you may be courting the Beast instead! A great tragedy awaits you at the end of your week. Make sure your house is in order.” Cheryl chuckled to herself in the coffee shop, laughing at the morbid horoscope. She would love to see Marian’s face if she actually read that in the final edition. She would certainly get fired, but it was almost worth it just to shake her friend’s conviction in the poppycock.
Cheryl stretched, went up for a refill of the house roast, and settled in to finish explaining fate for a few thousand loyal readers. Her next line came to her in a burst of inspiration.
“Look for chances to stretch and grow in the next week. Don’t let your cynicism get the best of you!”
Cheryl’s phone chimed, chirping happily with its message. She rolled over groggily, checking the lock and grimacing as she realized she had slept well past her normal wake time this Saturday morning. The plan had been to be up early to start her work, begin looking for more freelance opportunities, but that had fallen prey to a late night bottle of wine and sappy rom-com marathon.
With sleep-addled lack of coordination, Cheryl clumsily gripped her cell phone and gazed blearily at the screen. A new voicemail from Marian. She stiffly pushed the button to listen, begrudgingly entered her password, and closed her eyes as Marian’s chipper voice filtered through.
“Hey Cher! You’ll never guess how great this week has been. Or, maybe you would. Maybe you even knew all about it!” The voice on the other end chuckled, then got back to the message. “I met this guy, and he’s great. I was out shopping for a new entertainment center for the apartment—I can hear you rolling your eyes already, but I got some money back from my bank for some misapplied fees. Anyways, I met Adam and he’s totally swept me off my feet. He’s a total Prince Charming. I know, I know, it’s only been a few days. God, you’re such a killjoy even when you aren’t on the phone.”
Cheryl chuckled to herself, burying her head beneath her pillow and reveling in the soft darkness. Marian’s voice continued its chipper monologue. She had always opted to ignore the “brief” part of the voice mail request.
“Anyway, that’s why I’m calling. He wants to take me hiking this afternoon, told me to cancel any plans I had later. He said he had something really incredible planned for me tonight. I know, I hate cancelling on our plans this late, but…”
Cheryl had known her long enough to hear the shrug on the other end. “I know you’d understand. We can go out tomorrow. I’ll call you in the morning to set a time. Don’t work all day!”
With that, the robotic messaging voice took over, prompting Cheryl to delete the message. After doing so, the phone was again silent, and she tossed it back on her nightstand. Cheryl could not help but feel a bit irritated and grumpy about this change in plans. It was likely the grogginess, but she felt a bit petulant. They had been planning to try out a new Thai place her paper had recently reviewed well, and she had been looking forward to the outing. Especially now that she could pick up her own dinner tab. Still, there was something else. A subtle sense of unease that had settled firmly over her during the message. Something simply was not right, but she could not put her finger on it.
Cheryl sat beneath the pillows and blankets, poking at this uncertain feeling until the heat became stifling, and then begrudgingly swung her legs to the floor. She had hoped to fall back asleep, but her investigation of the edges of this anxious knot made that impossible. It was probably just a lingering artifact of sleep, some half-thought idea that would fade with activity. At least, that was her working plan as she tried to get ready for the day.
The feeling sat in the pit of her stomach, a flutter of flimsy wings, but then carefully began to climb its way up, beating along her insides. As she did some morning yoga, it snaked into her chest and wrapped around her lungs. It felt as if every breath was just a bit too short. Still, she could not identify the mystery source of unease. Something was wrong, but she had no idea what it was. Surely she was not this jealous about her friend having a date?
A shower was the best remedy for clouded thoughts, and so she spent some time under the stream of nearly scalding water. It did not shake loose whatever had set her nerves on edge, and the feeling just continued its steady creep upwards. Now she could feel its fingers clawing at the back of her throat. They left her gulping at her morning cereal, trying to force it past the blockage.
Not yet done, it finally made its way behind her eyes. There this unshakable sense of wrong sat, pressing against her lids. She felt like her eyes were ready to burst with tears, but they never came, never relieved that distinct and unpleasant pressure. Something had been wrong ever since that voicemail. Cheryl could not help but feel she had seen this movie before, and forgotten the ending.
She ran through her emotions, but none seemed to quite fit the feeling that had grown within her. It was not jealousy, frustration, anger, disappointment, sorrow, or fear. It certainly was not happy, surprised, or excited.
Well, sitting and staring at it certainly was not helping. Cheryl pushed back from the breakfast table and dropped onto her couch, pulling her laptop close. She still had work to do today.
Normally, such feelings faded as she worked, dulled by the pressure of the moment by moment tasks. Today, the feeling stayed. It laced its fingers into every keystroke, stroked her mind seductively. It was this terrifying feeling that, if she could only focus well enough, she would realize what the feeling was. Only there as also this subtle fear that it would be too late.
Finally, the restlessness gripped her phone and dialed Marian’s number. It cut straight to voicemail.
“Hey, it’s Marian. I’m either out or screening my calls. Leave me a message, and I’ll get back to you. Probably.” The machine beeped.
“Hey Marian. Got your message, already picking out my bridesmaid dress,” the joke felt hollow and did nothing to relieve the discomfort. “Just call me when you get in so I know he did not throw you in some ravine or something. Talk to you later.”
Leaving a message was supposed to make her realize how silly this was, but it did not. If anything, it made the feeling heavier.
“You’re being ridiculous. Get some work done,” she chided herself, opening her horoscope document. She needed to type some up, and she was finally feeling like she had gotten the hang of it. They almost seemed to write themselves recently, which was pleasant. She hoped it would provide the needed distraction so that she could shake this feeling. Perhaps, she mused, she had a nightmare. There had been ties in the past where she had felt lingering effects like this from some forgotten dream. Surely that was it. A little mundane work would do the trick.
The document flashed open full of lines and lines of her predictions. She kept a running list, assuming she might at some point recycle some, once enough weeks had passed. Fortunately, she had not had to do that yet. New ideas just kept coming to her. Still, it was fun to smirk at her past predictions, enjoying a brief chuckle at the gullibility of some.
However, this time her eyes stuck on one she had never submitted. She re-read her fake post for Marian, and the feeling finally became real. It took on its form, icy fingers piercing through her panicked heart. Money, a man, and finally—“A great tragedy awaits you at the end of your week.”
Cheryl thought her heart might have stopped, but it was only the impossible stillness of terror. This was not happening, she told herself over and over again as her eyes sat glued to the screen. These sort of things did not happen. Ever. It was just a weird coincidence.
It took until the news reports began to come in about a body found in the bottom of a nearby canyon for the reality to sink in. Reports of foul play followed close behind, and Cheryl knew.
“It’s not wise to play with things like this,” Marian had warned.
And Cheryl had not listened.
Feel free to compare and contrast to the original and let me know what you think. As always, happy reading!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello! I’m getting settled into my new job, which has been great. The biggest adjustment recently has been not having constant stress from grad school. While still a student, I put 800 miles between my professors and me. So, I’m trying to get back to writing more regularly. I have a couple things in the pipe, and I’m also getting caught up on my editing backlog (so if you’re waiting on something…you should be hearing something soon!). With no further ado, here’s something I put together over the past couple of days. Just a brief something, but definitely the first draft. The ending needs some work. As always, let me know your thoughts! Happy reading!
Tap. Tap. Tappeta tappeta tap. Tap.
Her nails drummed along the steering wheel as she gazed out over the long line of cars wending along the road. No one was going anywhere fast, and it was getting old. Her stomach growled, a reminder that she had eaten an early and light lunch against her better judgment. Candace scowled at herself in her rearview mirror, and caught a glimpse of the long tail of traffic snaking out behind her. What a day.
The office had been busy—hence the early lunch when she caught a momentary break in her schedule. For a while, she felt like all she was doing was typing, clicking, printing, and sprinting from one end of the floor to the other to make sure everyone got what they needed before the month-end deadline. Then there were the meetings, stretching out longer than they needed with constant inane questions. Steve—from accounting, working from home today, hahaha, yeah isn’t he lucky—clearly was ignoring most of the conversation. He never asked a single thing they had not covered only minutes before. And she could hear the sounds of a video game pause screen in the brief moments he took his phone off mute to ask another redundant question. Somehow, finally the clock had crept its way across the face, landing on five o’clock, and freeing her to rush into this traffic nightmare.
She wasn’t even moving. A flash of tail lights ahead meant everyone was switching into park, and she did her part as well. There was a sudden weight to her car, leaving her to wonder if it would find the energy to get up and move when the time came. It seemed just as tired as she did.
The radio droned on, surprisingly neglecting the traffic report. Candace wondered why she wanted to hear the report so badly. It was not like it would somehow make the traffic dissolve or as if she could solve the problem. But somehow she needed that confirmation that, yes, this traffic was real and ruining the Friday afternoons of so many others.
She craned her neck as far as she could, eventually rolling down the window to gain a few more inches of vision. All that she could see was row after row of cars, vibrating slowly with the rumble of their engines. The air outside was heavy and hot, and she felt a prickle of sweat begin after only a few seconds of exposure. That was enough to force her retreat back into the hissing air conditioning. Maybe that was the problem. It was so hot out there, the road had simply melted.
A silly idea, yes, but one that felt somehow right. She needed to get home, get a glass of wine, and forget who she was for a weekend. And Mother Nature would certainly forbid it. The depth of her dire narcissism was not lost on her, and a grim smile denoted her understanding. Somehow, that little bit of morbidity made it better.
Worse, however, was the buzz in the radio. Every few words were cut off by a burst of static, the cheery voice fading in and out of coherence. “Summer time is…in the great….water park for….know that here kids eat…one for fam…” She took out some irritation on the dial, jabbing it off sharply. The intermittent radio was worse than silence.
Usually conscientious, she now withdrew her cell phone. Her car was parked, so there could be no accusations of texting and driving. But, to her great dismay, the red line of her battery meant that the diversion was to be short lived. Better to save the charge, she thought, in case there was a detour. She’d need the map, then. With a sigh, she turned the phone off to save what little there was left, and her eyes glazed over out the yawning window before her. Could this day get any worse?
Her mind was wandering far afield when a flurry of movement on the far horizon caught her attention. She sat upright in her seat, her head craning and weaving to see something, some sign of hope. But the SUV in front of her made sure to block all the best views. Unbuckling her seatbelt, she threw open the door and leaned out, mimicking the other drivers around her. At least she knew the others were just as bored. There was a curve up ahead, only visible by straining far and squinting against the bright sunlight, that offered a few images of empty pavement. Finally, she could see some part of the road up ahead, and it was open. It seemed whatever had happened was moved, and now the road was clear.
A new smile on her face, Candace settled back into her seat and moved the gears into drive. Like a wave, she watched heads pop out and then dive back into cars as the parking lights faded before her. Home was only a short jaunt away now!
Then, however, she paused. She looked at the cars far ahead of her and noticed that they were not necessarily speeding off into the distance. Instead, something shadowy and smoky seemed to weave around them. A car fire? Maybe someone else had an accident waiting in this impossible traffic. That happened, right? And now they had a car fire. Her hopes flagged.
She’d be lucky to be home by nine at this rate, she thought glumly.
If it was a car fire, did she need to leave her car? Was there a protocol for being trapped behind a burning car? It seemed dangerous, but those around her sat. She saw one woman dialing on her phone, gesturing ahead. Probably calling 911, Candace thought, and cramming the switchboards with her perspective on the matter. Not like dozens of people up ahead had not already done the same. She checked her mirrors, expecting to see a red firetruck come hurtling down the shoulder at any minute, but it was surprisingly quiet.
The smoke continued to wind its way backwards, but Candace saw no fire. It was to be expected that the smoke would drift back this way, especially as still as the air was. There was not a hint of a breeze in the air, or at least there wasn’t the last time she stretched her neck out the window. Now, she rolled her windows up tight to prevent accidental smoke inhalation. That was one great way to make her day even worse.
Candace studied the bumper stickers and license plates in front of her for the dozenth time. Should she need, she was certain she could describe each car exactly to an officer in some fictitious traffic scenario. She imagined her neighbor losing it and gunning his car into gear, flying off down the shoulder and taking a couple bumpers and side panels with him.
She imagined doing the same, and suppressed a twitch in her foot.
The smoke climbed over the car a few feet ahead of her, and she was surprised how thick it was. In fact, as it crawled over the cars ahead of her, she could not even see through it. Instead, an oily black stain filled her vision, as if the car itself had been dunked in a well of ink. Still, no one else was moving, and she did not see any of those people leave their cars. Maybe it would have been safer to try and leave earlier, but at this point, it was almost upon her.
She made sure the windows were closed and begrudgingly turned off her AC. No need to pump that into her car. She would be safe here.
The smoke inched its way to her car, still as thick and black as before. It slowly consumed the Sub in front of her before moving to munch on the bumpers of her lane neighbors. They seemed perplexed, and the man next to her gave her a friendly nod and shrug. But she could see a hint of panic in his eyes.
It climbed onto the hood of her car, so thick she could not even see a hint of the cherry red beneath it. It was as if someone had erased the surface underneath, filling it was complete emptiness. A trick of the light, she assured herself, but it was still unsettling. Slowly, the wisps of smoke crawled up her front window.
And then seeped inside.
Her panic went from amused to uncontrollable in an instant. There was the briefest chance to see similar reactions around her before the smoke wrapped around them and herself. It was not smoke, she knew now, because smoke did not pass straight through tempered glass. Smoke also was not choking and cloying, wrapping her in a veil of darkness. Eyes wide open, Candace saw nothing but darkness.
In the darkness, there was screaming. First, it was her own scream, the air ripping violently from her lungs and assaulting the indomitable blackness. If it heard, it did not respond.
Then, however, from the darkness came the sound of other wails. Her fellow passengers, she wondered, as the din rose to a cacophony. There were hundreds of thousands of voices wailing and screaming in terror, as wave after wave of vocal torture rushed over her.
There was no beginning or end to any one voice, but an impossible swell and onslaught of different cries and please that all tumbled over her one after another. They swam in the darkness with her, as if there were thousands of bodies pressed against her and flowing around her, each carrying with it a unique sound of human pain.
Just as that experience threatened to overwhelm her feeble sense, she could suddenly feel the darkness around her. She had thought that such darkness must be cold, but it instead pulsed against her skin with insufferable heat. It writhed over her like some creature, and she felt the legs dance over her skin, leaving trails of melted skin in their wake. Heat, pain, and the source of the echoing wails she could not shut out.
The darkness rolled along, slowly consuming the lines of waiting cars under its maw. Slowly, each person joined Candace in the blind chamber, adding their chorus to hers.
As the smoke moved along, the road sat empty and free, waiting for the next brave traveler to face their rush hour. Finally, the accident had been cleared.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
So, I am finally getting around to posting (here) the final version of what started as Pheromones all those months ago. I am happy to announce this was recently posted on creepypasta.com. It ended up with a new name, a slightly different slant on the story, and what I feel is a lot more direct storyline. I’ve had the benefit of seeing two or three additional iterations of this particular piece, and so to me it seems like it has been quite the journey. The final idea is one I am really happy with, but one that seems to have evolved quite a bit from the seed of an idea that started it all. In fact, this whole story started from the line “There was something predatory in the way she walked.”
Since this is my blog and I can blather about whatever I like, I am going to talk about how this story developed, specifically how I felt about the blend of gender, sex, and horror. To skip that and read the final version of the story, click here and it will jump you down the page to the beginning.If you are interested in my rambling thoughts, read on!
One of the things that really bothered me after I got the idea for Pheromones (which will forever be it’s title in my mind, even if Dionaea Muscipula is a much better one) was how to handle the sexuality and danger I was interested in without playing into harmful gender stereotypes that plague horror. In short, women who engage in sexual activity are either innocent victims or sex-hungry monsters. Knowing that I was writing a story about a seductive monster, I feared tripping into these. If the monster was female, then it was playing into the same stereotypes that vilifies any sexual desire from a woman as indicative of a drive out of control. However, making the victim female meant I would yet again punish a female character for seeking a sexual interaction, reinforcing stereotypes that plague the genre. I mean, I watch plenty of horror movies. Once the chick decides to hook up with someone, you can almost be guaranteed they will die soon. Sex is dangerous for women, is the implicit message. Or, conversely, women who like sex are risky and untrustworthy. So I felt I was in a pickle.
Originally, I decided to make the “monster” more or less human, somewhat vampiric, and ultimately female. For where I am, the ability to show a woman empowered enough to seek out sex was better than the weak victim, I knew my story arc, and I tried to choose the lesser of two evils. But I was certainly never happy with it. In my mind, Annalise was powerful, dangerous, and independent. I mean, while it was beneficial for me to write such a woman, it also sounded like propaganda that someone would have spread in the 20s to prevent women’s suffrage. “Give them the vote, they’ll be all out on their own. They’ll destroy us all!” That’s exaggerated and silly, and I doubt anyone gives my writing that much thought, but that’s how it felt. On the one hand, it was a victory for me, but it also fed other, harmful lies that I disagree with as well.
As I said, lesser of two evils, however. I’d rather have a fiercely independent female monster than a deceived victim punished for her weak female will. I know both of these are exaggerations and probably more involved than they should be, but part of my desire in writing this was to explore sexuality in my writing, within the context of horror, and do it effectively. So these were the underlying thoughts that primarily concerned me.
I toyed with changing the genders. I thought about making it a same-sex attraction. That one felt like I was skirting the issue, and I also believe that, being a straight white female, it’s something I would need to practice in writing first. I practiced writing in the male voice for a long time, and still have to be very intentional about it. (I also really enjoy writing “female/male sounding” things and then having the character be the opposite gender, just to challenge my own gender norms).
Ultimately, I wrote the original version of Pheromones and flt okay about it. I loved the idea, but the ending and dynamics never felt right. It was too vampy, a little to cliche, and not what I wanted. I rewrote the ending dozens of times and was never quite happy with it.
Then, I thought up this new ending in the shower one morning, and it felt right. It took the conversation away from the strict gender roles, made it more fluid, and enhanced the predatory aspects of “Annalise” that I wanted. It also fit better with the fly trap idea, a flower which blooms and wilts, only to bloom again. It kept the strong woman, but also demonstrated that brutality was not a gender characteristic, but a part of the monster. What I had realized was that her goal was never sex, but hunger. My attempts to tie hunger into gender in an effective way was the problem, since hunger is not male or female. It is animal, crossing gender boundaries. And so the ending similarly crossed those boundaries. It did not end up being an in depth exploration of gender and sexuality, because this is not the best way to explore such complex topics. But it did present the ideas and help present a male-female dyad in horror that manages not to fall into (too many, at least) gender stereotypes. It is not perfect, and I know Martin’s character is probably unfair, but for me it was an important opportunity to deal with these themes.
Okay, so that is a lot of rambling, but I wanted to share some part of my creative process. I try to be thoughtful about what I put out there, so sometimes it is nice to share the thought that went into something. If you’ve read all this, thank you, nad I hope it was moderately interesting. Without further ado, Dionaea Muscipula.
Martin looked somberly into the murky gold of his lukewarm scotch. He hated these kinds of functions. Not only was he not particularly good at large crowds, dancing, loud music, and general social interaction, but it only became all the more painful when you combined a room full of people with his same weaknesses and demanded that they play the roles. It was a professional conference, he bemoaned, but he was the only person with the seeming self-awareness to feel abject discomfort at the whole evening’s proceedings. He slumped glumly in the stiff reception chair, his body depending on the unsteady table to keep him upright and appearing engaged. The white table, stained with leftover dinner crumbs and a spilt half glass of red wine, had been empty for what felt like an eternity as his dinner companions—strangers in nice suits and dresses who prattled on as if they were 25 again—had given themselves over to the open bar and dance floor.
He glanced at his watch. Surely after two hours of such nonsense his dues were paid well enough to warrant sneaking back to his room for some sleep and relaxation. Others might jest that he was a stick in the mud for retiring so early, but he would not make a fool of himself as his colleagues were so wont to do.
Gathering his tired dinner jacket and room key, Martin froze. From across the room, he spotted a gorgeous woman slicing through the crowd. There was something predatory in the way she walked. An utter lack of self-consciousness as she strode through the flailing bodies in the crowd. There was a look in her eyes, evident from half a room away, which showed she knew she stood on a level above all those around her. She had the look of a sated wolf prowling amongst unguarded sheep, utterly disinterested in their bleating. Her hair flowed in sheets of shining black as deep as the moonless sky, waving with disdain as she cut her own path through the writhing masses around her. Almost instinctively, the way parted for her, bringing her directly to Martin’s table.
With indelible grace, she swept a glass of red wine from a passing waiter, holding the delicate glass in her soft fingers. She smiled, pearly white teeth flashing between plump red lips. Her eyes were brilliant green, reflecting Martin’s dumbfounded gaze right back at him. The lovely scent of flowers encapsulated him as it rolled off her body. It was far more intoxicating than the mild drinks he had been nursing all night. Martin felt as if he were being drawn into her web, but he had no will to fight it.
“Annalise,” she breathed. For a moment, Martin was unsure what to do. All he knew were that those syllables were the most heavenly sounds he had ever heard. He would endure pain, torture, war, strife, poverty, illness, and any worldly ill if only those three syllables would replay again and again. To have those lips speak such beauty!
She smiled again and his mouth snapped shut from its gape. “M-Martin,” he stammered as he collected himself, shamed by the coarseness of his own voice.
She reached out a slender hand to touch his arm. “So nice to finally meet you.” Martin felt his heart begin to thunder. She knew of him? She wanted to meet him? What crazy fever dream had he slipped into? “I won’t keep you, as it seems you are leaving, but I just couldn’t miss the chance—”
“No, no. Not leaving,” he interjected, eagerly grabbing his chair and planting himself into it. “Just was, uh, getting a better view of things, you know.” She laughed and Martin prayed his ears would ring with that delightful sound for the rest of his life. He would go deaf to the world if only to hear her laugh.
“Then may I join you?” she asked, somewhat hesitantly, betraying the assured confidence Martin had seen so clearly moments ago. He could not imagine having such an effect on a woman, especially not one like her. Martin sat up a little straighter in his seat; keeping his dignity tonight might actually pay off for once, he mused. She must like a serious, intellectual man. Well, by God, she had found her man then.
“Where are you from, Annalise?” He was so smooth, he congratulated himself. Those words flowed like butter.
“Please, I didn’t come all the way over here to talk about me, Martin! Tell me about you,” she purred, her hand falling gently on his forearm as she moved closer. As close as he was, he felt himself absolutely adrift in her marvelous scent. She smelled of sweet flowers opened brightly to the summer sun, and Martin was content to collapse into the field.
So talk he did. Martin regaled her with stories of his groundbreaking work as she eyed him with pure wonder. He shared about his glowing academic career, the awards and showcases that had chosen to honor him and his work in his brief career. He spoke in heartfelt about his calling to the field, the passion and the reward he felt from doing such work. She played her role well, smiling at the right parts, laughing at his clumsy jokes and sighing in awe of his humble victories. Martin felt his chest swell with pride as he prattled on about his meager life, finding his own ego reflected and doubled in her searching green eyes.
After a while, she smiled and squeezed him arm softly, interrupting him mid-flow. It was amazing how easy it was to talk to her. He found himself divulging so many things to her, almost as if he had known her for half of his life. It was just her soft presence, the comforting aroma of flowers, and the focused interest pouring from her eyes. It made his tongue loose in a way no person or substance-induced state ever had. He froze in silence, suddenly feeling the ache of his throat after so much talking over the din of the music.
“I’m having trouble hearing you over all of them,” she said, rolling her eyes towards the mass of drunken hooligans who would don suits tomorrow and nurse hangovers through the scheduled sessions. “Do you think we could go somewhere more private?”
Martin was flummoxed. In all his years, he had never expected to catch the eye of such a woman—of any woman, if he wanted to be honest with himself. He had even less expected to find such a beautiful groupie for his relatively dull research. And now, this surprise of all surprises revealed another layer of amazement. She was trying to seduce him! Martin smiled. Perhaps he would let her.
“My room is just down the hall from here,” he spat out quickly, his eagerness spilling over his words. She gave him a reassuring and understanding smile.
“That sounds perfect.”
Martin stood from his seat, his legs wobbling uncertainly. He could remember college years and first dates with similar weakness of the knees, only this seemed even more extreme. A goofy smile drifted over his face; he was drunk on her presence, and there was no use in denying it. Every system he generally kept so well controlled was flying by its own rules, freed by her enchanting smile and intoxicating scent. He offered her his arm, and the two floated from the room. Martin’s legs seemed to belong to someone else, carrying him confidently out of the room. The doors swung shut behind them, effectively muffling the raucous music still pouring from the banquet hall. At this rate, his colleagues would be stumbling into the first session still decked in their party finery.
The sounds of the others faded as they walked along the hallway until Martin realized he and Annalise were shrouded by a heavy covering of silence. Anyone else in the hotel had long since gone to bed, and the music down the hall had faded quickly. He supposed it only made sense that the place would have good soundproofing for such an event. The silence was surprisingly intimate. He could hear her soft breath, the air moving over the swell of her full lips. Her feet sunk lightly in the plush carpet, whispering softly in the hall. In contrast, he heard his heart racing in his chest, listened to the uncoordinated and irregular pace of his own steps dragging through the carpet. He was a love—or perhaps more accurately lust—struck mess.
He fished the little plastic card from his wallet, and the door gave its friendly beep as the light flashed green. After shoving the door open, his arm flailed about in the darkness seeking the light switch that always seemed to be two or three inches higher or lower than he remembered. With a click, the lights hummed on and bathed the room in a harsh and artificial glow. Despite the generally terrible effects of such lighting on people, Annalise still appeared radiant as she stepped into the room. She was commanding as she entered, and he felt as if perhaps they had unwittingly entered her room rather than his, given her comfort. But no, his shirt and slacks hung pressed in the closet, his battered suitcase tossed unceremoniously on the second twin bed. She simply possessed an air of belonging wherever she went.
The smell of flowers carried him along in her wake, and he stumbled into his own room behind her, coming up short as she paused in front of him. Her eyes were smiling as she turned to him. “What a wonderful evening,” her words drifted into the silence of the room as she fell softly against the crumpled bed spread, her red dress a stark contrast with the dull white sheets.
“Uh, yes, it has been—“ magical, enchanting, impossible, miraculous?“—quite the night,” he finished weakly, standing uncomfortably in the entryway to his room looking around. He felt his eyes lingering too long in hers, drawn in by their brilliant spell. The heavy presence of flowers in the air made him feel woozy, and he nearly stumbled as he broke his gaze from hers.
“Martin, what if I told you that I have been thinking about my lips on you since I first laid eyes on you?” She whispered haltingly, her eyes betraying the innocence on her lips.
Flabbergasted, Martin sat in silence. Now he knew that this must be some kind of ruse. Or perhaps someone had spiked his drink and he was hallucinating. The drink—had he had more than he thought? Would he wake up groggily to some ancient troll in his bed? Could he have fallen asleep at the table, and now this goddess was his sweetest dream?
Before he could reach a final conclusion—brain tumor?—her lips were on his, her body pressed against him. His shock had prevented him from seeing the speed with which she pounced from the bed, catching him in her arms and drawing him back to the bed. No matter what doubts he might have, he could not deny the reality of the experience happening in that moment. He swam in the warmth of her limbs around him, the taste of her soft lips, and the scent of her lithe body. In that moment, all he knew was that his lips and hers were dancing together now, their tongues meddling somewhere in between. She pushed him back on the bed, her lips following his steady descent down to the stiff hotel bed. Martin’s heart was a metronome in his chest, trying to keep pace with his flying thoughts. He pulled her close, kissing every inch of that beautifully pearly white neck and face that he could. She laughed and smiled as she playfully pinned his hands down on the bed.
“You know, Martin, there is something delicious about a body excited.” Her tongue snaked its way into his mouth, those brilliant red lips melding with his for a brief moment. “And our bodies tend to respond the same to excitement and fear,” she whispered, coming up for breath. Every word she spoke sent waves of excitement across Martin’s body, just to feel the gentle ebb and flow of her breath across his skin.
“Me, personally,” she smiled, leaning to kiss along his neck, “I prefer the taste of excitement.” She ended this with a soft nip at his earlobe. Martin felt a slight stir of discomfort at her choice of phrasing, but brushed it off. Just a turn of phrase, he reminded himself, finding himself again drowning in her green eyes and the soft scent of sunlit flowers.
Her fingers played with the silk knot at her waist, carefully untangling the ribbons so that flashes of marble skin slipped through. She turned her back to him, letting the dress slowly fall away to reveal her perfectly sculpted body. Martin’s eyes grew wide as she spun, but his pleasure gave way to terror all too quickly.
Her chest was a tangle of intertwined flesh, a traumatic knot of scars and blood. In the time it took Martin to make sense of it, the knot began to writhe, petals of flesh slowly unfolding to reveal a gaping maw of teeth where her stomach should have been. Her once bright green eyes were now dull and dead, any hint of life yanked from them with the reveal of this monstrosity. Where the aroma of flowers had so allured him, now he could only smell the sickly odor of rot. A scream, initially frozen in disbelief deep within his gut, slowly clawed its way up to his lips, breaking through the air with a brief cry before those yellowed, broken teeth closed around his head.
The room echoed with the muted crunch of bone, the moist sound of blood and flesh abandoning their respective domains and mingling in a blender of jagged teeth. It gulped, Annalise’s whole body quivering with the effort of ingesting the body of her momentary paramour. The sheets were stained with blood, matching the brilliant fabric of the discarded dress. However, it was not interested in waste. Most of the blood flooded its gullet, Annalise’s ivory skin warming and brightening with the fresh flood of still-warm liquid.
Sweet iron filled the room, its scent nearly overpowering. The now lifeless body of Annalise flopped about as the creature neglected grace in favor of speed. Her head lolled onto her chest, drifting dangerously near the still gaping teeth. A thick, coiled tongue snaked out of the mouth, slithering across the bed to gather whatever remained before it could fully soak in to the cheap hotel mattress. With a shake and an odorous sigh, the creature sat back on the bed. Slowly, Annalise’s eyes began to change, drifting from their brilliant green to a steely blue. Her hair fell out like leaves shaken by the wind, short cropped salt-and-pepper strands replacing it. Her arms and legs lengthened, then thickened. After a moment, the creature stood, a perfect copy of Martin, but imbued with a very different spirit.
It considered the new body, then reached into its mouth to retract a thick pair of black glasses. For a moment, it held them to its new face, considering the advantages of such eyewear. Ultimately, it discarded them and watched as they shattered at the base of the wall. Unlike Martin, the creature walked tall, shoulders back and eyes up high. It smiled charmingly as the skin of his face stretched with the unusual gesture. While Martin certainly did not have sculpted abs or a youthful body, there was at least minimal evidence that he had taken good care of himself, resulting in a relatively slender and strong physique. The creature turned Martin’s head side to side, looking itself up and down in the mirror across the room. It was far from perfect, but with a dash of charm and some newfound confidence, it would certainly do. “Nice to meet you, Martin,” he said, his voice starting with the lilting soprano of before and then taking on a confident baritone that filled the room.
After pilfering the clothes hanging in the closet, the creature looked at the mess it had made and smiled. Martin slipped into its new costume, and walked strongly towards the door. His hand hovered over the light switch, gaining one last glimpse at the bloody masterpiece now staining the cheap room. Then, he plunged it into darkness and made his way back to the festivities.
The night was still young.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello there! Let me clean off some cobwebs and give an update.
The short story is my life is a tangled mass of chaos right now.
The longer, whinier story follows. Not only am I trying to collect all the data from 40 participants for my dissertation, but also hold down a current assessment/therapy case load, finalize paperwork for my new position, pack my entire apartment for a cross-country move, spend time with my friends before said cross-country move, exercise a bit more, and remain relatively close to a functioning human being. In a month, almost all of these things will be done. Because I move in a month, which means everything has to be packed, paperwork finalized, dissertation data collection done, and friends hundreds of miles away. I can hopefully do some writing then, in between unpacking my apartment and starting a new job. At least that one has regular hours, so I don’t have to work until 9pm.
You know, just outlining all of that made me feel better. It did not make me any less stressed, but it at least affirmed that my stress is well-justified. So, I apologize for no updates. I have a couple ideas rattling around, but I’m definitely not performing at my peak right now. I’m a bit weighed down by stress and feeling a hefty wallop of general fatigue. Combine that with grieving for the people and places we are leaving behind, and it does not make for a very good creative environment. Not for me, anyway. I also keep making really dumb mistakes when writing (I spent about a week using the wrong form of who’s/whose before realizing it), which tells me my brain is about at capacity. If you have sent me something and I ignored it, I am sorry. I just am having to spend some time focused inward, keeping myself together. All day I am surrounded by others, wearing my outward-focused face. It wears me out. When I get home for the day, I just retreat and let the introvert in me recharge. Long story short, I cannot promise regular updates until after mid-July. Hopefully life will have some sort of pattern after then.
That all said, I am stuck in an office for about 6 hours today with little to do. I had a client reschedule, so I can’t go home (I will not miss my hour-long commutes), but I am in a holding pattern on a few cases right now. Can’t work, can’t go home, can’t do testing, can’t pack. And I’ve made all my phone calls for the day, just waiting on returns. So, I can write a little something, at least.
I’ve had a lot of ideas recently, which is nice. I’m thinking about starting a writing prompts page. I think some of them are interesting, and I would rather someone use them if I’m going to be too swamped to do it! We’ll see.
So, here is what I got done today. I’m pretty pleased that I got something like this done between 11am and 3pm. It’s rough, but it has the makings of something pretty entertaining, which is what I aim for! Most of all, I hope you enjoy this little piece. There are probably some things I don’t know about filming a movie that could be helpful, so let me know anything I got wrong in the comments. Happy reading!
The dream was always the same. It did not happen regularly, but he knew each time just what would happen, as soon as he saw those oxidized gables rise into view. As far as he knew, Keith had never seen that house before. It had no correlate to his waking memories, though he knew it like a childhood friend in his dream. The feeling of familiarity was so strong, he had once described it in great detail to his mother, certain it had to be some relic from his early childhood years.
It was green, he had stumbled as a child. Now, he understood that the roof was copper, but old and weathered. Vines snaked along the brick front, giving it a fuzzy, organic appearance, the dark ivy leaves only adding to his fumbling insistence on the green building. Tall, dark windows leered down at him, all centered around the imposing black door in the front of the home. Up a set of weathered stone steps, the vines tracing along the cracks here as well, and face-to-face with the glimmering gold knocker.
His mother had smiled, praised his imagination, and assured him they had never been to such a house. She did not listen to him explain the many rooms inside, all eerie with their emptiness. It was not simply an abandoned house, but it was cavernous and grieving its lack of inhabitants. Each room was as unsettling as an empty eye socket. Yet he could read the impressions left in the home enough to realize it had once been extravagant. The trim around the ceilings, the plush carpets and glistening wood floors, the rich walls covered in dark paint of thick wallpaper all spoke to extravagance. It was like the shadows of a young debutante in the face of an aged widow.
Inevitably, the clock would begin to ring in the house. It was the only piece of furniture left, a stately grandfather clock at the end of the hall. It boomed throughout the empty house, the tolls redoubling over and over again. Try as he might, Keith could never count them. He could not distinguish the echoes from the real chime, and simply ended up muddling through wave after wave of thunderous hours. As the sound filled the empty house, he felt it begin to press again his eardrums, threatening to smash him. Every time, he knew he had to leave the house in order to prevent the sound from crushing him entirely. It could not hold the clock, its sounds, and the echoes with him inside. And so he raced out to the backyard, into a world of spindly evergreens and withered grass.
Whenever this dream began, he knew where it would end. His feet invariably crunched through the grass, still putting distance between himself and the now-dim peals of the grandfather clock. Each step lessened his fear that the noise would come spilling from the house and yet again overwhelm him. If it filled the outside, how would he ever find a place to escape that sound? It was not until he came around the corner and saw the tiny pond that the sound would vanish, swallowed up by the impossibly dark water.
It was not a natural pond, but one crafted and placed in the midst of the garden, supposedly to be ringed by merry flowers and restful spots of repose. However, it was now lonely in the midst of overgrown bushes and looming evergreens, their branches jagged fingers pointing to the unholy spot. The water was still and black, seeming to promise unreachable depth. The sky and trees were reflected perfectly, a dark mirror showing a shadowy world.
A cold feeling always wrapped around him at this point as his feet drew inexorably closer to the edge of the pond. Eventually, he would be standing over it, looking into his own eyes reflected back. Only it was not quite his face. There was malice in the eyes, a subtle smirk in the mouth that intimated something sinister. Keith would watch himself, watch the clouds whistle by and the trees bob in the wind.
The next moments played before his eyes like scenes from a home video, never altering in the slightest. The ring around his finger—his father’s wedding band, gifted to him by his mother after his passing—slipped off of his finger. He could feel it inching down, but could not risk breaking eye contact with his reflection in the pool. It would bounce on the stone, its ring a sharp counterpoint to the weighty bellows of the clock from before. The noise hung in the air as if frozen, even as the ring tumbled and sparkled into the water. Then, he could see it sitting just below the surface, betraying the shallow depth of the pool. He’d lick his lips, worry and sadness on his brow, while his reflection sat immobile, watching and smiling.
Finally, he dove forward, his hand plunging into the icy depths of the water. It was cold, thick, and sluggish around his hand. His skin looked pale and distorted in the light, almost as if it were greying and rotting in the water. As his fingers closed around the ring, his prize won, bloated fingers surged from the darkness, wrapping around his wrist.
Keith would fling himself backwards, landing on his back against the stone. As he looked up, the head of something would appear above the water, skin waterlogged and hair dripping with oily water and pond scum. Its eyes would look like his, the mouth curled in that smirk.
Keith woke up with a start as the thing put one rotted hand onto the lip of the short retaining wall just as he always did. As usual, he was freezing, his toes almost aching with the chill. While the dream did not come at regular intervals, it came often enough to fix a routine. Keith slipped from his covers and wrapped a robe around, stuffing his feet into battered house shoes in his closet. He dutifully went around to each window and door in his house—twelve windows and two doors in this one—to make sure he had left nothing open that could cause a draft. He checked the thermostat and read it was sitting comfortably at 72 just as it should. Finally, he moved to his dresser, pulled his father’s ring on for comfort, and returned to his bed with an extra blanket. In the morning, he would wake in a pool of sweat, the blanket thrown aside and his robe shrugged off during the remaining hours of sleep he had left. Still, he had to do what he could to shake the biting chill that currently bound his addled body.
The morning came early, and Keith woke up just as he predicted. It at least made the cool water of the shower feel all the better as it jolted him to alertness. He had a long day ahead, and so the jumpstart made it at least seem possible. Still, he poured an extra bit of coffee into his thermos, sacrificing room for cream in order to pack in the extra molecules of caffeine. Keith smiled, banking on the placebo effect to get him from his front door to Natalie’s without winding up taking a nap in some neighbor’s ditch.
Keith picked up his equipment from beside the front door and chucked it into the back of his SUV with little ceremony. When this was still a new, daring hobby, he had treated each pieces with special dignity, setting it affectionately assigned spots. Now the cameras, tripods, cabling, lights, and other paraphernalia ended up in a tangled heap that he would sort out at the film site. Checking his watch one last time, he leapt into the driver’s side and sped off to make up time lost contemplating various shower thoughts and the miracle of coffee.
Natalie was waiting for him when he showed up, a hint of irritation shimmering through her otherwise friendly smile. Having known her since grade school, he appreciated the restraint required for her not to express her annoyance. Though, to be fair, having known him since grade school, he assumed she expected him to always run five minutes late.
“Did you get my text?” she began as she swung into the car. She tossed a messenger bag into the back seat and immediately moved to turn the air conditioning up.
Keith patted his pockets quickly, finally locating his phone. The messenger icon was in the top corner. “I did, but I assume you wanted me to read it,” he shot back as he thumbed open the message.
Don’t forget extra cabling. Place is old. May need extension cords.
“I’m guessing no luck?” she said with a sad smile.
“Actually,” he began with an exaggerated flourish, “you are very much in luck. I decided to pack some extra just in case. Just using my good ol’ boy scout’s preparedness skills!”
She rolled her eyes and fell back into the seat. “Well, at least one part of it stuck. I’ve got the directions, so just head to the highway. I’ll guide from there.”
As they had on so many morning. Keith and Natalie set off down the road. He kept his eyes fastened to the asphalt while she calmly led him through the steps. As usual, they stopped for breakfast sandwiches at the diner right beside the highway and munched on those as they traveled out of town. Somewhere along the way, Natalie got bored and began scanning radio station while Keith repeatedly asked her where the next turn would be. They missed it, looped back around, and eventually pulled off into a gravel drive way.
Once the shadows of the trees fell over his front windshields, Keith felt an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu mixed with anxiety. He felt as if he had seen these shadows before, as if they had previously traced their way over his face. And it was invariably tied to something he did not want to experience again.
“Where’d you find this place,” he groused,” because it is seriously creepy?”
She raised an eyebrow and laughed, “Creepy? The place is beautiful. Just wait until you see the house.”
He did not have to wait long. The gables rose into view, standing proudly in their familiar green. Keith could feel his heart begin to crash against his chest with slow, heavy beats as his eyes grew wide. The car rolled to a stop as he stared, mouth agape, at the specter before him.
“Keith, what’s your problem? Drive on up, I don’t want to walk through the mud.” She smacked his shoulder, hoping to pull him out of it, but he simply ignored her. “Keith?” she tried again.
His head suddenly spun around to face her. “Why are we here?” he snapped. His eyes danced like a cornered animal.
“We’re here for the filming. I told you, I think this place will be great—“
He put the car in reverse, and she grabbed his arm. “Hey, stop! What are you doing?”
“Natalie, we can’t go traipsing around abandoned properties. First, that’s trespassing, and second, you have no idea what could be in there. There could be wild animals or hobos or bad floors or—“
“What are you talking about?” she yelled over his flurry of words.
His response was merely to slam the car into park and point at the house. “That. That’s what I’m talking about. We can’t film here. It’s dangerous and illegal.”
“It’s not illegal. I talked to the owners and they gave us a great rate to use it. We just have to clean up after.”
“Owners?” Keith knew this house had no owners. It could not have owners. It devoured those that tried.
“Yeah, I’m not going to have us traipse into some unknown place. Give me some credit.” She crossed her arms, making no effort to hide her irritation now. “So, if my papers are in order, can we drive up to the entrance or am I going to have to walk?”
His fingers itched along the gear shift, wanting to finish backing out of the drive and speed back down the highway. But he felt rationality pulling him back. This was ridiculous. How would he explain to Natalie why he floored it away from a perfectly good filming location, one that came at a steal it sounded like? He imagined the words out of his mouth. ‘I had a nightmare about the house.” He would never live it down, nor should he. He was being unreasonable, the rational, human part of his mind reminded. The animal part continued to growl and back into the corner, hackles raised.
“Sorry, I just—“ there was not a good way to recover from the moment other than just moving on like it never happened. So he did. “Are we renting furnishings for it or keeping it empty?” he asked, hoping to change the subject to something less bizarre than his behavior.
Natalie’s words were short, reminding him she was not going to let the moment just fade. “It comes fully furnished. I mean, I’m not terrible at my job and you have not even seen the place. So how about I worry about those details?” Her tone stung him, but he nodded in silence.
The feeling did not leave as he drove up to the front of the house, seeing the dark windows and black door. He reminded himself that the house was very similar to the one in his dream, but probably not the same. Even if it was, he probably saw it in some movie somewhere. Yeah, that was probably it. The family seemed willing to rent it out for filming, so maybe he saw it on television when he was a kid. It just lodged in his dreams and followed him here now. A coincidence, to be sure, but nothing worth ruining a friendship and appearing crazy over.
“Its overcast today,” said Natalie, more to herself than anyone else. Her eyes were focused out the window, studying the clouds as if they handed her their weekly schedule. “Maybe we get outside shots later, when the sun’s out?”
“I definitely don’t want to get set up and rained on,” replied Keith as he looked up at the house looming in his front window. He still felt the temptation to turn the ignition and run, but he carefully quieted that voice.
They were the first there so they could start set up for the shot. Keith knew he was Natalie’s right hand man when it came to these sort of things, which is why the other crewmembers would not get there until later. She trusted him to get it right and not mess it up. Before the courage could leave him, Keith shot out of the car and towards the trunk to retrieve his gear. Natalie squeezed in beside him and began grabbing odds and ends, carrying the lighting rigs and various tools that he would have to set to her specifications in just a few minutes.
“I’m thinking we’ll find a good parlor room and shoot some of the opening dialogue shots.” Keith nodded. Now he as a worker following orders, and that helped to lessen the creeping terror seated in his gut. “Put it here,” she commended once they got inside, “and let’s go find out room.”
The house was furnished with period-appropriate pieces. Seeing the house in its almost lived-in state was reassuring. The lonely hunger did not lurk in each room. In fact, it almost seemed inviting, as if it wanted him to have a seat on one of the couches and gaze out the window at the trees swaying outside.
His anxiety peaked again as they climbed the stairs. At the end of the hall would be the tall, menacing clock with its resounding bell. His breath caught in his throat as he spun on the final step, but he released it in a sudden sigh when there was nothing at the end of the hall. He had simply imagined the clock. It was, after all, a dream.
Natalie had a notebook in hand, jotting scribbled notes into it as they examined each room. She noted the furniture, position, window direction, space, and suggested use for each room, her head snapping from the room to her notebook with avian speed.
Finally, the climbed back down the stairs and she designated the room. “We’ll start in the first room on the left, and I think we’ll have good lighting for some afternoon shots upstairs later. Can you get started down here?” she said, but was almost out the door before he could respond. She knew he could handle it, as did he.
There was a car door slamming outside, and Natalie rushed out to get the cast and costume crew set up. She wanted to be filming in two hours, which was a tall order. Still, if anyone could rally the troops, it was Natalie. Keith set to work.
There was a zen quality to the set-up that always seemed to center him, The actual filming could be harried and chaotic, but doing this work ell always made him feel ready for whatever bizarre request Natalie would next throw his way. After an hour, the rest of the crew arrived and began to move about. They helped him adjust the lighting, get the sound set up, and position another camera. It was a generic set-up for the room, one that would have to be refined once Natalie finally got the lead actress placed, but it did a nice job based on the limited information in the script. With about thirty minutes remaining, Natalie scurried in with a cardboard box and began placing her own set pieces, including a tumbler and handwritten letter for the desk.
Of course, nothing ever actually started on time, despite Natalie’s best preparation. The sound guy was sill tweaking his setup when the hour rolled around and passed, but the lead was also still finishing up her makeup. Keith just sat on one of the couches, staring out the window at the beckoning trees. It was as if everything swirled around him, but he rested safe in the middle of the eddy, unmoving. The house was no longer threatening, but a sheep in wolf’s clothing. He had spent so long afraid of it, but it was just a childhood memory packaged up in some generic anxiety. Now that he was in the house, he felt peaceful. At home. Welcomed.
Eventually, already well behind schedule, they were rolling. Natalie’s pet project was this period piece drama that she swore was going to be accurate down to the minutest detail. It was not necessarily Keith’s preferred genre, and he found the dialogue even less entertaining after what felt like infinite shoots. Each time, Natalie had quick comments, little changes, and nit-picked details to highlight. Each time, the actress smiled, nodded, and seemed to give the same wooden delivery. You get what you pay for, Keith smirked.
Finally, they had managed to eke out a few acceptable takes, and Natalie was on the war path again. “Up the stairs while we have the light,” she barked as she brushed past Keith on her way to the designated room. He sighed and began gathering what he would need. It was a much smaller space, which meant less room for equipment. He hoped that would speed set up rather than bogging him down in the tight quarters.
They lost the light during set-up, but Natalie was not to be dissuaded. She steamrolled on ahead with other scenes, which required Keith to spend much of the evening switching out filters and lighting apparatus to make sure the lighting stayed just right for a candlelit scene. He was exhausted by the end, and the actress was grumpy. Natalie was fueled by indefatigable energy and vision.
“Come one, let’s just get in one more scene and then we can wrap this for tomorrow,” her voiced pleaded with them, as if she could wring out enough passion from within her to inspire the others.
“I have a forty minute drive home and still have to go to the gym,” whined the lead, a usually smiling blond woman by the name of Amicia. “I can get here earlier tomorrow, but I really need to go home. My dog’s going to have to be let out, too.” She was already taking off layers of her costume while they stood and debated, effectively silencing any further debate.
“If you tell us where, we’ll set up for tomorrow before we leave,” offered Claud and Gladys, the sound and second camera crew.
Natalie was being worn down, and her drive was quickly leaking away. She ran a shaking hand through her hair, and Keith remembered to ask her if she had stopped for lunch or dinner at any point. He had snarfed down a turkey sandwich in between scenes, but he had not seen her with much more than a half-empty bottle of water. “No, we’ll need a few shots in here tomorrow morning. Especially the letter arrival scene. No need to move it tonight. Just get here on time tomorrow.”
The house emptied rather quickly, and Keith had a chance to notice the disarray. There were pieces of paper and tape all over the floor, as well as some empty soda cans, facial tissues, and plastic bags that seemed to float around wherever the film crew stepped. Natalie was draped into a nearby chair, furiously scribbling notes in her notebook before the last of her energy finally did give out.
“Ready to go home?” The new quiet in the house revitalized Keith’s uneasiness. In the dark and shadows, the house seemed to take on more of its nightmare qualities, furnished or not.
Natalie looked up, bleary-eyed, and then peeked at her watch. She sighed. “It’s almost eleven and I want to be back here by 5 tomorrow.” She closed her eyes as she did the mental math. “I think I may just sleep here tonight. There’s a bedroom at the end that we probably won’t use for anything.”
“Come on, you can’t stay here!” There was an edge of anxiety in his voice that he had not intended, but he suddenly felt very afraid of what might happen if she remained there. He could feel the hunger creeping from the walls now that the rest of the crew had left. Sure, it had put on a pleasant face, but the house was still not satisfied.
“Why not? The doors lock and the water works. I might as well get a little extra sleep. If you could get here by seven that would be great.”
“I’m not going to leave you alone in some creepy old house in the middle of nowhere,” he offered firmly.
“Why are you so hung up on how creepy this place is?”
Keith shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s a nice house, but no one lives here. Probably haunted or something.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s not haunted. Geez, Keith, I never took you for such a superstitious guy.”
“Well then why does nobody live here? I mean, it’s a great house. But no one uses it except for ragtag film crews?”
Her voice got quiet as she gave the news. “The family said their son passed away a few years ago, and they could not stand to live in the same house. But it’s a family home and they figured they’d pass it down. I just saw it and asked about it, so they let me come in. It’s the first time they’ve had a crew in here, so I thought it would give us some unique backgrounds and scenes.”
“So it is haunted,” he shot back, oblivious to her argument or the apparent sensitivity of the moment.
“What!? No, Keith, it isn’t haunted. Some kid just died. It’s sad, but don’t go starting rumors like that. They’re a nice family, and I don’t want anything like that getting out.”
“How’d the kid die?” He was onto a scent and unwilling to let it go.
“Keith, that’s none of our—“
“How can I know it’s not haunted?” He attempted a smile, halfhearted as it was, to remind her that he truly was looking out for her safety. The nagging sense of dread would not let go of him, however. Worse, that creeping sense of déjà vu had returned in full force.
She shrugged, her defenses overrun and inhibitions lagging behind. “He had seizures. Seems like he had a pretty big one and fell into some pond out there. They spent about three days looking for him before they found him. It was in the papers at the time, when we were just kids. I found it at the library.”
“That seems like the kind of thing that would inspire a haunting,” he pressed again.
She pressed her fingers to her eyes and sighed. “I’m not getting into this with you. If you want to believe it’s haunted, fine, it’s haunted. Get out of here and go home. I, who does not believe in ghosts, will stay here and sleep. Goodnight.” She got up from the chair and began walking out into the hallway. Keith caught up with her, grabbing her wrist.
“I really don’t think it’s a good idea for you to stay here alone.”
“Great, but I’m going to. Let go of my hand and let me get some sleep.”
“I’ll stay, too.”
She threw her free hand up in exasperation. “Fine, you’re a big boy, do what you want.”
She continued down the hall, now free, while Keith felt apprehension tingling over his entire body. This was a very bad idea. But it was also the only way he could keep her safe. Suddenly, she paused and spun around.
“Oh, if this is some ploy to get into my pants, you should know I don’t sleep with crew,” she deadpanned, then broke out into a broad, sleepy grin.
“You might just force me to quit, then,” he snapped back. She laughed, waved him off, and closed the door to the extra bedroom.
Keith sat and stared at her door for a bit before thumping down the stairs to another as of yet unused room. He knew that Natalie would let him sleep in one of the beds, but she would also gripe when she had to fix it in the morning. And it would never be quite right. He opted to spare her the stress and sleep on one of the many couches spread throughout the rooms. It was hard to imagine a family with a little boy living in the gargantuan house, especially with its dated furnishing. Ten again, perhaps the family simply set it up this way to preserve the history. It was a family home, Natalie had said. Maybe these were family pieces. Or maybe it was just a frozen memory. Or maybe they were just creepy and weird.
The day caught up to him, and he fell asleep, still trying to piece together the kind of family that would live in such an odd home.
Waking up in the house was shocking, especially with complete darkness wrapped around everything. For a moment, he was certain he was caught up in the dream again, as the same sense of knowing washed over him. Only after a few deep breaths was he able to remember he was merely spending a night in his nightmare house. In hindsight, it was not the best idea. Keith thumbed the side of his watch, and his eyes bathed in the pale green light, eager for anything in the pitch black night. 3:43am.
In the dark, the house felt cavernously empty. Even though he knew it was fully furnished, he could not help but feel it was gaping just as hungrily as it did in his dream, begging to devour anything that might fall into its maw. The feeling was certainly unsettling, especially as he saw himself lying patiently behind its teeth. Yes, this sleepover was certainly a bad idea. But, he reminding himself, it was for Natalie. Keith knew the place was not as harmless as she thought, even if he could not convince her of that.
He laid in the silence. Natalie would be getting up soon if she planned to start work at five. He strained his ears, but heard no sound of stirring from upstairs. Then again, it was a very large house. While sound travelled, it did not go that far.
His watched gave a soft beep for the hour, the face lighting briefly, and then stilled. As if on cue, Keith’s head began to pound. He felt the headache explode in his temples, a relentless pulse that ebbed and flowed with his heart. It swarmed him from the silence, throwing itself against his skull. His ears were ringing, and he felt as if his head would simply explode from the sudden pressure. Keith felt fireworks going off inside his head, bright flashes that forced him to screw his eyes shut.
He sat up, then stumbled towards his bag of gear. Despite his feeble hopes, there were no pain relievers to be found. Giving up on that, he stumbled into one of the bathrooms and splashed water on his face, as if that would magically wash away the pain. It did nothing to dull the crushing sensation in his head, but simply teased relief. Keith looked up at his relfection in the mirror, but felt as if his head was swimming. He could not focus, but was able to see well enough to know he was in pretty poor shape.
Back on the couch, the pain continued. It beat continuously, like a stampeded running from one side of his brain to the other. Dimly, he remembered being told that there were no pain receptors in the brain, so it could not feel pain. Right now, it felt as if there must have been billions and they were all on fire. Perhaps, he thought, this was what an aneurysm felt like.
A brush of breeze from outside caught his pained brow, its touch almost impossibly soothing. He stumbled to his feet and made his way to the open door, aware that his feet travelled what felt like a well-worn trail from the room to the door. Outside, the din inside his head began to calm. With each touch of the wind, it seemed as if the pressure cut in half, until he was finally able to open his eyes and breathe deep of the night air. There was a lingering ache behind his temples, a reminder of what he had endured, but that was pleasant compared to the prior pain. The trees whispered in the wind, tossing back and forth.
Then, footsteps. There was a sound of crunching leaves up ahead of him, the pace slow and methodical. Keith froze. No one should be out here at this time of the night. Maybe it was an animal?
The open door surged into his memory, easily quieting his momentary fears. Natalie must have gotten up early to scope around outside. He also knew she liked a morning jog, and this was probably the only chance she would get today to work out.
“Nat?” he called out. There was no answer, but the steps continued to draw further away from him. He pressed on, looking around by the light of the mostly hidden moon. “Natalie?” he tried again as he caught sight of person disappearing behind a wall of evergreens and low-lying shrubs. Keith began to jog a few steps, then caught on a tree root and nearly skidded across the crackling grass. He caught himself on a nearby concrete bench, and moved more cautiously.
He had opened his mouth to call for her again, but the sound died on his lips. He turned the corner to find himself staring at that ill-fated pool, its water an impenetrable black in the scant moonlight. Worse, Natalie was standing in it, her eyes locked on the surface with a vacant stare.
“Natalie?” he whispered, the words barely shuffling through his windpipe as fear clamped down around it. She did not respond. He crept closer.
There was a ripple on the water; it spun around her calves, lapping up against her knees though she did not move. From a couple feet in front of her, a bubble rose, then formed into a solid face creeping slowly from the water. As Keith watched in horror, shoulders and arms followed the head, water clinging to them like mud as the figure struggled to break free.
There was a wheezing noise as it broke the surface, a ragged, breathy sound that seemed to come from its half-open mouth. Natalie did not move, but her eyes flicked from the surface of the water to the thing’s eyes. Her face was an impassive mask, peaceful in its imperturbability.
Keith scrambled over the ground. He leaned over the small edge of the pond, stretching his arm as far as it could go, but still missing her by inches. “Natalie!” he yelled. It sounded as if the thing laughed, the wheezes coming in short, rapid bursts before smoothing back to the jagged rhythm. It reached out a hand towards Natalie, and Keith watched in horror as she lifted hers to it, her slender fingers joining its waterlogged, blackened ones.
Instantly, Natalie began to sink below the surface. At first, she seemed at peace. Keith continued to try to reach her, sitting on the edge and reaching out as far as he could over the water. She was always a few inches from his fingers, just out of reach. By the time Keith realized it was going to require more risk, she was already down to her waist. With a single, steeling breath, Keith swung his legs into the water and made toward her.
With his entrance, Natalie seemed to wake up. There was a jolt of confusion across her face, followed by fear. She looked to the thing, and a short scream ripped from her lips. Then, her eyes found Keith’s, and she reached her hand to him.
“Keith! Help!” she called, though he was already doing all he could. As he made his way to her, she began to fight to free her hand from the thing that held her.
The water wrapped around his legs like syrup. It was as cold as ice, and weighed more than he could ever recall from water. It was a chore to shift his foot forward a few inches, but he pressed on, even as it sucked at his legs. A few more shuffling steps and he was able to brush his fingers against Natalie’s. There was relief on her face at the touch, though her other hand was still captive.
One more step, the effort like dragging weights through wet sand, and his fingers knotted around hers, though she was now up to her chest in the shallow pool. “I got you, “he said, half to himself. Her eyes were desperate and he could not look away.
Keith wrapped his other hand around her arm, pulling and tugging at her. She fought back, thrashing in the water and doing her best to lose the creature with its vice-like grip. But the water continued its relentless charge up her body, wrapping around her shoulders and neck.
Keith threw himself forward, falling to his knees to get a few more precious inches of reach. He wrapped his hands around her shoulder, but felt her continue to sink deeper and deeper into the darkness. The water was so cold, leaving his fingers aching with the effort. They were clumsy as they grabbed at her, holding on to whatever he could find to keep her above water. Still, there was nothing he could do to stop her descent into whatever lay beneath the pond.
He could not look away, even as her eyes screamed at him from below the water. Even as the thing hissed with glee and melted back into the surface of the water. Her fingers were finally yanked away from him, sending him tumbling back into the water.
He sat there in shock until the sun came up. The water lapped at his legs and chest, returning once again to the smooth, flowing liquid he was used to. It no longer clung to him or pushed him back, but simply moved in lazy ripples to the time of his breathing. His eyes never left the water, the place where hers disappeared moments before.
The crew found him out there when they returned to an empty house. His babbling did little to help them understand, as he raved about things in the water, clocks, dreams, and drowning. It was a jumbled mess of what sensations and fears were able to escape his addled mind.
The police swarmed the property, looking for any sign of young Natalie. Likely killed after refusing the advances of her longtime friend, the rumor went, who was then driven mad by guilt. However, the story took a turn when they found her lying at the bottom of a shallow pool, one that had been walked past time and time again by officers, dogs, and even the witnesses. She had been there three days, they said, but no one had seen her.
Except for Keith. He saw her every time he fell asleep. The dream had changed, but it was always the same.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
So, I did decide to take a month off and relax. During that time, however, I did some writing, including editing some old pieces (which I will be posting soon) and starting a few longer things. I’m also trying to iron out some HTML things so I can get an index up of the Card Challenge stories. So, I have one long-ish piece in the works, just trying to decide what to do with it. I’m not going to promise I’ll finish it, because I’m worried that in tone, it is way too similar to the piece I’m posting today. We’ll see how it goes, but the narrative tone is so similar, I’m not sure they work as stand-alones, even if the ideas are very different. Then again, I can just post both and see which one feels better.
Now that I’m back, my goal is 1-2 pieces per week. That will either be something new, edit of something old, a chapter of a longer piece, or a reflective-style discussion post from me. I’m not sure which days of the week I’m going to post, so I’ll have to work that out based on my general schedule. With classes over (and almost over for my entire life!!), I have more time, but I’m also starting data collection for my dissertation. Things may just have to be in flux right now.
All that aside, here is a new piece I’ve been working on the past few days. As usual, it is a first draft, so it has some problems that need to be worked out. However, I have been editing as I go and reworking aspects of it throughout the process, so I feel like it is a pretty solid piece. It is very long (5000+ words), so I have cut it behind a click-through. If you have strong feelings about such “Read More” tags (“I never click through to those” or “I wish this was always the case so long pieces don’t clog things up”) please let me know so I can plan accordingly in the future.
Without further ado, here is the piece. A bit of realistic horror. As always, happy reading!
Of Neighbors and Deceit
Marty and Dan—a pleasant, Midwestern couple from all appearances—moved in a bit too early one Saturday morning. I remember the sound of their couch thumping against our outside wall around 8:00am, followed by Dan’s short bark to the movers. I suppose he was concerned about waking the neighbors. Just not concerned enough to wait for a more reasonable hour. As strangers stomped through our tiny hallways, I sluggishly drifted from bed, to my closet, and then out the door. This was during an exercise kick, and so I was ruthlessly dragging my protesting limbs to the gym. If I had to be up early, I could make use of it.
Marty was coming up the stairs as I was going down, carrying a box with a handful of books stacked precariously on top. They shifted and slid to the floor as she reached the final landing, and I heard her mutter a soft curse before dropping the box down beside her. Her hair appeared to have once been tucked into a neat, tight bun. Now, it danced around her head or laid plastered to her sweaty brow. She had the look of a typical suburban mom, dressed in a pair of unflattering jeans and a pale blue blouse, darkening every moment as she sweated a bit more. It was July; they knew the risks when they decided to move. And apparently their gamble to beat the heat and move in early was not helping.
I stooped to pick up one of the books that had skidded to my feet. It was the neighborly thing to do, after all. Marty smiled at me and took it.
“Not how I wanted to meet the new neighbors,” she sang, a hint of breathlessness escaping through the cheer.
I laughed politely. I am not a good adult; I do not handle small talk and forced participation well. But I put on a smile and did my best. “You caught me in workout gear. I’d say we’re even. I’m Lyla. Uh, apartment 322.”
She took my hand, nodded. “And I’m Marty, apartment, um,” her eyes grew distant for a moment, and she squinted as she shuffled through her memory, “apartment 312!” she finally exclaimed. “We’re across-the-hall neighbors!”
She was obviously more excited about this news than I was. I smiled, and tried to creep down the stairs around her with a brief, “then I’ll be seeing you,” but she called out before I could escape.
“Dan! Come meet our neighbor, Lula!”
“It’s Lyla,” I whispered, mortified at the encounter. I had chosen a quiet apartment just so I would not have to meet my neighbors. I had a good streak, three years strong, without more than a friendly nod or holding a door. Now I was frozen on the stairs.
Dan was a large man, easily filling the doorway. He had that steelworker, cattle farmer look that I always associate with the Midwest. His arms were meaty appendages wedged onto his body, and they hung tensely at his side, reddened by the work of moving in. His face was flushed, speckled with its own sheen of sweat. I suddenly became acutely aware of the sweat prickling in my underarms as the awkwardness of the situation increased. There was a desperation in Marty’s voice as she called for him that made me feel responsible and terrified all at once.
One giant paw wiped Dan’s face as the other reached toward me. I took his hand, feeling his grip settle around like a vice as he nearly crushed my smaller one. “Well, Luna, nice to meet you.”
“It’s Lyla,” I meekly offered again, smiling and trying not to wince at his grip.
“My apologies, Lyla!” He beamed, and I watched a bead of sweat trickle from his forehead, down his nose, and crash against the slight bulge of his belly beneath the damp t-shirt. “Sorry for the noise this morning. We should have it all out of your hair in just another few hours.” He jutted a short thumb back towards the hallway where I could see two spindly movers—high school students scrounging for a summer job, I assumed—trying to find a way to wedge a dressed in the narrow space between the door and wall.
This was my chance, and I nabbed. ‘It’s no problem. Got me up early for the gym. It was nice to meet you Dan and Marty,” I offered them both a smile. Marty’s mouth began to open again, but I was three stairs down before she could begin.
“Would you—I guess we’ll see you around!”
From the bottom floor, I could hear her still going, her attention turned to Dan. “Nice girl.” I could hear her pick up the cardboard box again. “But what kind of name is Lyna?”
So, this idea I like, but I really wanted to stretch it out and make it EVEN longer. But I didn’t. I may return to this later, after the challenge, and flesh it out to be what I want. As always, I hope you enjoy!
Card Day 77: A wall of vines. Some are wrapped around a knife, slowly cutting through other segments of the vine.
Finding the tree was happenstance, but Camilla found the discovery filled her with a mingled feeling of awe and discomfort. It rose mightily into the sky, but it was oddly bound by clinging, woody vines. They snaked around the tree from tip to root, their leaves covering the bountiful boughs. It was, in fact, a tree constructed out of staunch green vines. That was the amazing part.
The discomfort arose because she was somehow certain and inexplicably saddened by the realization that there was almost certainly an actual tree caged inside those vines. Perhaps once tall and beautiful in its own right, it had been strangled to make room for the natural oddity. She walked around the base of the tree, pacing its impressive girth, and studying the vines that scaled the bark—or the presumed bark—so effortlessly.
Camilla felt a small sense of accomplishment at discovery the unique find—or, at least, she thought it was unique. Then again, she had very little frame of reference as this was only her first of two months with her grandmother for the summer. And she had only spent a short while exploring the woods, having quickly grown tired of the spotty satellite TV and limited reading selection. Her grandmother swore they would go to the library in town soon, but Camilla had grown antsy around the house. Besides, her grandmother, seeing her determination to explore the vast wilderness, had promised her that there were arrowheads and other artifacts from native tribes out there, scattered all around the county. Camilla had set off as a daring explorer, and now, looking at this tree, she felt a prickle of satisfaction at her exploratory skills.
Still, the discomfort remained. It took her a few minutes to understand it, a few minutes more to place it. As soon as Camilla considered her mother and father—their strict rules, minute-by-minute schedules, and sky-high expectations—the impact of the tree sank in. Yes, she could certainly understand the feeling of being strangled by outsiders, cut off from the sun, covered up to look more presentable. At least out here, her grandmother could barely see well enough to know that she was wearing any clothes, nonetheless how fashionable. There were no camps, extracurricular, practices, recitals, rehearsals, classes, or tutors to keep her time. Camilla enjoyed the sense of freedom she had to simply wander, even if the television selection had been lackluster thus far.
Camilla let her pity move her to action. The tree was certainly dead she knew, even with her limited knowledge of botany. But she felt the sudden urge to free it, to peel away the vines and discover the once mighty tree beneath. Or, she reasoned, at least find out if there truly was bark underneath. Perhaps the vines had simply opted to mimic the incredible stature of the surrounding trees.
Her nails were short, brittle and no match for the thick vines on the tree. She was able to wrestle one or two small sections off, leaving the pale green stems in a heap on the ground. But the work was slow. She had barely made a dent before her fingers were already aching. Sweat dripped down her nose in response to the good Southern summer, and she examined mere negligible work. Still, she felt pretty certain that she could see a bit of bark hiding beneath the layered tendrils. There was certainly something darker than the light-colored vines underneath.
She returned to the work, pulling at the vines until she had uncovered a small section about the size of a dinner plate. It was slow work, but got a bit easier as she unknotted some tangles and could peel away larger chunks. Underneath, she saw twisted grey bark, as well as a distinct darkness of some hollow. The emptiness inside seemed to stretch on indefinitely, and this only served to further pique her curiosity.
A mix of her own interest and sense of purpose left her dedicated. The old tree could have one last taste of freedom, she decided as guilt over her own freedom threatened to overwhelm her. But it would not be today. She knew if she spent much longer wandering in the woods, her grandmother would start to worry. The last thing Camilla needed was the small town’s volunteer fire department swarming the woods looking for her.
She made it back, hot, tired, but still pleased with her outing. The day passed with the same sluggishness of all the previous. Then again, everything moved slower in the summer heat. Camilla found her thoughts circling back to the tree time and time again, curiosity keeping her mind engaged as she washed the dishes, put away the leftovers from dinner, and watched the nightly news beside her grandmother. When evening finally settled firmly around the house, plunging it into that true darkness that surrounds country homes far from city lights, Camilla thought she would never get to sleep.
But the summer day had easily sapped her of what energy she had. The cool sheets, a breeze ruffling through her window, and she was asleep.
Her sleep was not restful, however. It was plagued by fitful sleep and a sense of foreboding in even the most mundane dreams. She sat on the front porch, rocking side by side with her grandmother in the oversized wicker chairs. Suddenly, it began to rain. The dream had nothing worthy of concern, but it seemed as if it was tinged with foreboding, with the unshakable sense that something was encroaching.
Simple dreams built until she found herself standing before the vine-bound tree. All the veiled threat from her previous dreams coalesced into the green structure. Camilla’s fingers gripped the vines, tugging and pulling them away. As they came apart, her hands quickly became coated with sticky sap—with blood. She dug through the bleeding vines with a fury that surprised her, even as the vines began to scream. They lashed out at her, scraping at her arms as her blood mingled with its. Finally, she pulled back from the tree, panting It lay bare again, bark twisted and gnarled up towards the sky. She could even see the individual branches, arms outstretched in exultation of freedom.
Even more intriguing, she could see the hollow stretching back into the tree. It seemed to be less of a hollow and more of an opening leading into some shadowy cave. In the dream, cold air billowed from the cave while the vines still screamed pitifully behind her. As she approached the opening, two red eyes appeared in the darkness, followed by a sudden flash of teeth,
Camilla woke with a start, sweaty sheets tangled around her limbs. The sun was pouring in, and the cool of the evening was already moving towards a sultry morning. From downstairs, she could hear bacon sizzling over the drone of the morning news. Her grandmother was up, and breakfast would be ready soon. Camilla stomped to the bathroom and turned on the creaking faucet. The shower water always ran so cold in the morning, and it was slow to heat. Still, the time away from her dreams allowed them to fade until the dissipated like the steam rising from the shower. Camilla rinsed away the fear and sweat of the night, ready for another day.
It was easy to sneak the knife out of the kitchen drawer; her grandmother’s hearing and vision were nowhere near the superhuman ability level Camilla’s mother professed in childhood memories.
“Going for a walk, Meemaw,” she said with a smile. The old woman smiled in return, knitting in her rocking chair while some gameshow droned on behind her.
“Just be careful and don’t stay out too late. I thought we’d go to the library today. Maybe after my nap?”
“I’ll make sure I’m back.” Camilla paused on her way out the door and then turned back to grab the flashlight from the hall closet. She wanted to really explore that tree, and it might mean peering into that hollow a bit more.
Had she not been carrying the knife, Camilla would have run to the tree. As it was, she had to pick her way carefully through the underbrush, always conscious of the dangerous tool in her backpack. Out here, she could not afford to fall and stab herself. The same thought returned. There was no need to rally the entire fire department just to find she had tripped over a log and stabbed herself. If she survived, she would never live down the embarrassment. That and her parents would probably never let her leave the house again.
It stood regally as ever in its clearing, perhaps looking even more alive now that a small patch of the tree shone though. It was as if the tree was breathing for the first time in years, and that made Camilla happy. If the tree could be free, she could to. With an eagerness that overcame the soreness of her tired fingers, she set to work sawing through the vines.
It was hot work and the vines would not give easily. Every now and then, Camilla had flashes of her dream, of sticky, bloody sap covering her hands. But in the dappled sunlight of late morning, it was hard to take such things seriously. Besides, she felt a deep sense of peace with her task, and she was far too old, or so she told herself, to be worried about silly dreams.
The vines fell away, revealing more and more of the dried bark. The massive tree required far more work than she had anticipated, and she had drenched her light t-shirt by the time she worked her way around the trunk. There was not much she could do for the upper branches, but she had done a little good.
After finished, she was surprised to see the same gaping hollow from her dream. It was a marvel that the tree was even standing with its whole bottom emptied out. Just like the dream, the darkness inside seem to stretch back and downward, almost like the mouth of a tunnel. Camilla understood the risk. There were likely animals living in there, or maybe a sinkhole or something. It was certainly dangerous. But she also felt that her hard work needed a reward. And the mystery was simply too much to pass up.
She would not go far inside, she resolved, and she would get out if she heard anything that might be an animal. It was not like the tunnel could go far, anyway. But as she shined the beam of her flashlight inside, it was met with darkness as far back as the light could travel.
Camilla stepped cautiously inside, half expecting the cool air from the dream. Instead, the inside of the tree was warm and muggy. It smelled like old, damp earth and soft wood. She pushed steadily inward, eyes wide with a mix of fear and excitement.
Just a few feet in, the tunnel leveled off into a small room. She judged the distance and guessed she was only about five feet beyond the tree at this point, and the low ceiling had already caved in at some points. That was the sign of danger she had been waiting on, and she sighed. Time to turn back.
Before she did, however, she wanted to see what lay in the middle of the room. It was a stone circle that appeared set into the dirt floor, and her flashlight seemed to trip and stumble across scraped indentions. Some sort of markings? Once she was close enough, she could see strange marking all along it. They did not appear random, as if the rain and soil had eroded them, but more intentional. There was almost a pattern to the markings, not that it meant anything to her. As she stopped over, Camilla thought she felt a hand suddenly in the middle of her back, shoving her forward. She tumbled towards the stone, catching herself with her hands as she skidded over the roughhewn surface.
Her hands were scraped and bloody, and there was a splash of blood now obscuring some of the marking. Camilla glanced around, her flashlight scanning the unnaturally heavy shadows, but there was nothing there besides some hanging tree roots and stones. No one was nearby. Maybe it was a breeze, she told herself, or perhaps she hit a patch of wet leaves or mud. Either way, Camilla suddenly did not like the way the shadows seemed to claw at her flashlight or how the forest sounds had faded so dim in the dark recesses of the tunnel. She burst back out into the hot summer air, surprised at the goosebumps crawling along her skin.
The sun was further along in the sky than it should have been, and Camilla readily accepted the excuse to return home. She did want to go to the library after all.
Of course, by the time she got home and got cleaned up, her grandmother was already complaining about how late it was. The woman liked her dinner promptly at five, and a trip into town now would delay that by a good half hour. If Camilla had learned anything about her grandmother, it was that the woman did not like her routine disrupted. It was what came from marrying a military man or at least so Camilla’s mother said.
The strange cavern seemed to follow Camilla just as the tree had. Only, this time, there was no sense of wonder. The feeling of crouching doom from her dream slithered into reality, and Camilla felt herself on edge. She tried to talk to her grandmother, but neither of them was able to focus on the conversation long enough to get anywhere.
Camilla felt weariness tug at her bones as the sunburn from her day’s foolhardy adventure settled in. Her sheets were and icy balm as she sank into them, and her thoughts spun around the hollow of the tree. It was unsettling, distressing, and strangely exhilarating. Nevertheless, her eyes grew heavy in the natural dark.
Again, Camilla dreamed.
This time, however, the dreams were not of foreboding or evil, but she felt liberated. Camilla was flying along the underbrush in the woods, her feet barely touching the ground. Her body moved impossibly fast, dodging saplings and bushes as darkness wrapped around her. She heard her own heavy panting in her ears as she thundered along. She was limitless.
Camilla felt herself stop, even though she had not realized she wanted to. It was as if someone else controlled the body, and she was along for the ride. Either way, the feeling was thrilling. Her rapid flight came to an abrupt halt as she began moving slowly, intentionally towards a shadowed house on the horizon. Camilla recognized the little farm house. She walked towards it, taking note of the open window on the second floor with the fluttering white curtains. Her bedroom widow, open as always. With an effortless leap, she was on the eaves and slinking towards her open window.
Camilla caught sight of her body lying in the bed, snoring softly with each rise and fall of her chest. Her hair was a mess tossed about the pillows, and one leg jutted awkwardly off the bed. All was well. Then, Camilla caught her own reflection in the mirror
Red eyes, jagged teeth, and a coalescing shadowy body. The sight was terrifying, but Camilla saw familiarity in the glowing red eyes. Her terror ebbed slightly as another presence, a grateful one, nudged up against her own thoughts. Without a word, Camilla and whatever she was accompanying spun from the window and disappeared back into the woods.
The run through the forest was indescribable. She felt the chill of moonlight on her skin—it was like the warmth of sunlight on the first spring day, but instead carried the chill of the moon on a heavy summer’s night. The loam of the underbrush was soft under her feet, springy enough to propel her forward through the trees like an undirected missile.
Then, again, there was calm. Her motion still, and she slunk low to the ground. Farmer Drury’s fence rose into view, as well as he slumbering herd of cattle. Without understanding what was happening, the ground rushed beneath Camilla and there was the taste of metal and meat in her mouth. Sudden noises of panicking livestock flooded her ears, but Camilla simply tasted the blood that trickled down her throat. She reveled in the feel of her teeth—sharp and deadly—tearing through fresh meat. She relaxed in the feeling of satiation as she had her fill.
The next morning, Camilla woke refreshed, the taste of blood and freedom still lingering on her tongue.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 73: A ship nearing a giant mermaid lying in the ocean.
It is bad luck to have a woman on board.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Cap’n. They caught her bleedin’.” The scraggly mate spat the final word out, lifting up a pair of ragged, marred pants. The captain was silent, staring down on the boy—apparently woman—standing before him. Her hair was the same jagged, short cut he had seen before. Her face was young and round, but now took on a more feminine angle rather than the soft curves of his cabin boy. That was most likely due to the good scrubbing the mate had given her before announcing his suspicions. He even saw the emotional woman caged within those eyes. But he did not want to believe it. It was bad luck to have a woman on board.
“The ship’s a dangerous place. Are you sure?”
The mate looked irritated at the continued inquiry, and roughly grabbed the front of the cabin boy’s shirt. The captain saw her bindings with his own eyes, saw the recognition in hers. The gig was up.
“You lied to us,” he said, proclaiming her guilt.
“I did.” Her eyes never left his, and her voice took on a softer quality than he had heard before. He imagined that, with hair and properly attired, she would have been a very beautiful woman.
“You’ve doomed us all,” he sighed, turning away from the tragedy playing out before him.
“I just needed to find my mother,” she said firmly. He expected her to plead with him, but there was not a hint of remorse or supplication in her stern voice. “I did not take you for a superstitious fool.”
The captain spun around, fixing her with a furious stare. “Every sailor is superstitious, madam. And it’s bad luck to have a woman on board.” He turned back to contemplate the sea, suddenly realizing how dangerous and unpredictable the waves were becoming.
“What do we do with her, Cap’n?” asked one of the voices behind him. The captain paced. They were days from any safe harbor, but he could not run this risk any longer. It was a miracle that they had not run into more trouble already—only the cook had gotten sick, and that was likely his own fault.
“Throw her overboard?” asked another voice.
“No,” he said stiffly, his mind spinning quickly. “Put her in the rowboat and give her a week’s rations.” He walked to the woman standing there, her eyes still drilling into him. “If I find you back on my ship, then I will throw you back in, but without the boat.”
There were grumblings from the crew, but the captain was not going to budge. He would make it right, but he would not betray someone who had been a loyal member of the crew. The worst of it was that he had really liked the new cabin boy. Perhaps he’d look her up in port sometime. Nonetheless, he heard the sudden surge of activity as the crew jumped to his command. Another week or two out on the ocean and they would not respond so quickly, but they still had their will and drive. They also still believed they might impress him.
The captain made sure he was at the bow when they lowered the rowboat into the choppy waves. The boat was not designed for such distances, but he was giving her the best chance he could. They could not take the time to turn back and dock again, not when they had finally caught a headwind. She was stalwart until the last, sitting staunchly in the boat while her eyes burned up at him. There was at once an acknowledgment of his mercy, but a deeper anger at his dismissal. The ocean spray licked at her face, but she did not blink. It was unnerving in a way, no less so when she began to row away, her flimsy arms fighting against the oars, but eyes never leaving his. Even once she was a spot on the horizon, he had the uncomfortable feeling that her eyes were still watching him.
“A woman on board is bad luck,” he muttered to himself as he marched back to the cabin. Yet somehow, it felt as if his luck had just turned.
It was three days later and the wind had died on the horizon, leaving them a floating piece of rubbish on the smooth seas. Again the grumbles started, and the captain realized the true risk he had taken in sending her off in their rowboat. He had been right; every sailor was superstitious. And now he was a victim of it. The whispers followed him through the decks, silencing at his approach and swelling in his wake. If only he could get the ocean to rise and fall so readily. Some rumors claimed that the rowboat was but an extension of the larger ship, and now she had fully infected them, staining every plan with her curse. The more dangerous rumor was that the captain had known of her identity, had intentionally brought her aboard to help with the loneliness of the seas and the captain’s lofty position. His mercy was his way of saving his mistress after their deception was found it. Both were preposterous, he knew, but the former did give him pause.
Staring out from the top deck, he saw the endless stretch of the sea before him, just as hot and still as it had been for two days now. He scanned the horizon in hopes of a blanket of clouds that would promise rain and possible storm winds—anything was better than sitting her roasting and running through their rations. At least it made for good weather for the woman in the rowboat. He still instinctively thought of her as Peter even though that was certainly not her name. He hoped Peter made it to shore. Perhaps the wind would return once she stepped on shore and left their boat in some unsavory dock.
The day stretched on before them, full of the standard routine but lacking any energy. The lazy ocean seemed to infect every one of his crew, making them sluggish and dull. The captain sighed from his post, wondering if there were some magic that would enliven the sea once again, bring a breeze back to the sails. Unfortunately, he knew of none such magic. It was in God’s hands, and God had never been a friend of his.
The sun sank on the horizon, and the stars peered out. It was only then that the first hint of a breeze drifted over the ship. It piqued his optimism and the captain found himself back on the deck. He sniffed deeply of the wind, feeling the surprising chill that washed over him. It was a cold wind in the midst of a hot summer. That portended rough seas, and suddenly he regretted his earlier hope. A ship shattered would make no more progress than a ship stagnant, only the crew survived at least another week or two on one of them. Still, there were no clouds in the sky. That meant there was time.
He stomped to his cabin for the night, distinctly aware that this might be the last night he would have to sleep soundly before chaos of storms on the open sea.
Yet his rest was interrupted nonetheless, a furious pounding on his cabin door. The captain was a man who shot awake in an instant, aware and alert. Tonight was no different, but he could not make sense of the jabbering s of the crewman standing before him. It made no sense, but he felt the toss of the boat that seemed to confirm the insane ravings. A storm had whipped up.
He took the stairs tow at a time, reaching the top deck with surprising speed. The crewman who had woken him was lost in the hold, hopefully attending to some other duty, but the captain had no time to spend focusing on the missing man; he had a ship to save.
The night air was surprisingly cold—colder than it should be for months. More unusually, however, was the perfectly crisp sky. Not a cloud in the sky, nor a drop of rain. The only sound he heard was the raging sea, snapping and roiling beneath their ship, competing with the frenzied voices of his crew. No thunder.
“Jergen, what is happening?” he asked calling his mate to his side. The man looked confused, but calm.
“Come sort of squall, Cap’n. Waters are real rough.” As if to confirm his statement, waves splashed over the side and the boat took a dangerous list to port. Unsecured clutter slipped and bounced along the deck. Their laziness had gotten out of hand and, if they were unlucky, would get someone killed.
Unfortunately, the captain barely had time to register that before something else caught his attention. The water crashing against the sides of the boat began to surge upwards, tall columns of water that soared towards the prickling stars. He had never seen that before.
And, more surprisingly, it began to recede from the air, leaving a watery form.
It was a woman, looking like she had been carved from a glimmering, clear stone. It took him a few breaths of observation to realize she was molded purely from sea water. Her hair lapped like waves, frothing white at the ends before joining her sculpted face.
It was her eyes that secured him to his spot. He had seen those eyes days before, drifting away from his ship in a rowboat not designed for open seas.
The woman in the water opened her mouth, and the captain heard waves roar even louder. The sound of the sea itself dimmed until all he could hear was her roar. Then the crashing waves began to coalesce into words he knew.
“My daughter,” it whispered, a questioning voice full of anger and hope.
The captain stumbled towards the mysterious water nymph as the waves crashed around her. Where the water slammed viciously against the fragile wood of his boat, it lapped with gentle caresses against her skin. She was an angel framed in sea foam.
Those piercing eyes found his, liquid and searing. “My daughter,” spoke the waves again, but this time the hopeful questions was replaced by accusation.
The captain opened his mouth to speak, but could not find words that expressed his needs as clearly as the waves. Instead, he swam in her eyes, seeing his silhouette standing in the bow of the ship, a figure receding with each shove of the oars through water.
The sound of snapping wood brought the captain from his awe-struck reverie, but it also smothered him with an unescapable revelation. Waves slammed again and again against the fracturing wood of his ship, following the command in those fierce, sea-sculpted eyes.
With a screech of angry waves and squall-summoned winds, the majestic woman dove towards the captain. The deck gave way beneath his feet, but she caught him in her crushing arms.
“My daughter,” she roared through the water that pressed against his ears, surrounded his eyes and mouth.
The stars grew murky and watery from his new vantage point sinking below the waves. As the surface closed over him, wreckage spinning around him, the captain could only curse the woman who had brought her ill luck upon him.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 72: A smiling, gaping purse divulged of all its possessions. Its zippered mouth is a black hole.
The floor was a wasteland of cosmetics, keys, gum wrappers, and rewards cards. Unfortunately, none of the discarded items were the ones she was so desperately searching for. Keith swung the door open on the frantic scene, taken aback by the explosion of odds and ends now covering their apartment floor.
“Uh, Emmie?” Her head snapped up, taking him in for the first time. She scrambled off the floor and gave him a quick peck on the cheek before returning to her search. This time she tackled the bookcase in the entryway, shuffling the books from their appointed places.
He picked his way through the wreckage. “Lose something?”
She froze in her search, putting her hand on the bookshelf and sighing. “Yeah, I did again.”
“Can I help you look for it?” Keith dropped his messenger bag to the floor and one again surveyed the mess. It looked like, whatever it was, she had torn the house apart.
“That would be great, hon. I’ve taken care of most of out here,” she gave an exaggerated wave to the disarray, “but you could check the bedroom?”
He gave a smiling nod and made his way back into the bedroom, stretching and unbuttoning the stiff button down on his way.
Emily refocused her attention on the room, scanning it for any remaining hiding places. It was not in the bookcase, behind the desk, in her purse, in her jacket, crammed into couch cushions, or tucked underneath the coffee table. Her eyes fell on the coat closet—somewhere she had not opened for a couple months. Still, perhaps it had slipped through the gap between the door and the floor. In an instant she was upon the closet, digging through the rain boots and accumulated clutter in the floor.
“What am I looking for again?” asked Keith’s head from its spot jutting around the bedroom doorframe.
“I knew you were forgetting something!” Emily came up from air in her search, fixing him with a brilliant smile, eyes dancing with the shared joke between them. In a moment, she sombered up. “I am looking for—well, I am looking for a thing, but I’m not sure what it is.”
“That is going to make my help difficult then.”
She looked briefly confused, almost as if she had not realized the absurdity of her request. Almost as if, in that moment, she realized that she did not know what she so earnestly sought. Emily, shook her head, her brows furrowing together as if they could uncover the lost information. Keith’s face transformed form the gentle joking smile to a look of honest concern.
“Emmie, is everything okay?” He watched his brilliant girlfriend struggle for the purpose of here quest, her mind spinning with its rapid pace and turning up nothing. She was distracted, her lips moving as she spoke softly to herself, but Keith could not hear her. In fact, he was certain she was not even speaking, merely moving her lips. Then, suddenly, her face brightened into a smile.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just got to keep looking.” She turned back to her task with new zeal, but Keith remained confused.
“Yeah, but what are you looking for?”
There was a brief pause in the rustling as she turned to face him, half obscured by the closet. “It doesn’t matter what it is. You’ll know it when you find it. Just go check the bedroom.”
The power of the search took over, and Emily returned to her task, pulling out her old rain boots and peering into their musty depths. The thought of her ultimate goal flitted through her mind, an image half realized and ever elusive. It was the memory of a dream that was burned away by the morning sun, the terror of a nightmare clinging to sweaty bedsheets in those first gasping breaths. That half-glimpsed thought assured her that, once she found it, she would know. The world would fall back into place—as would their apartment after a while.
The rain boots were a dead end and she chucked them back into the black hole newly born in their living room. The back corners were dark and cluttered by knots of dust and forgotten receipts. She also found the glove she had lost last winter and diligently searched through the ends of the fingers, but returned nothing.
Keith had loyally drifted to the bedroom, but stood there scratching his head and looking around. Emily, consumed by her quest, did not take note of the silence coming from him. He flipped halfheartedly through the magazines stacked on Emily’s nightstand, lifted the pillows to examine underneath. His gaze drifted around the room as if hoping to miraculously pot the one item out of place, but it was hopeless. He felt like he was in one of those terrible I-Spy games, scanning for the one missing item but utterly baffled by the assortment of clutter surrounding him. If the missing item was hiding in the bedroom, there it would have to say. At least until Emily remembered what the missing item was.
Another thud sounded from the coat closet as Emily tossed aside an empty shoebox, satisfied that her treasure was not there. The closet floor was empty, and now she turned her attention to the top shelf, rifling through scarves and hats.
“Oh!” she exclaimed loudly. It was tucked within her favorite scarf, folded gently into the fabric along with the memories of the snowy afternoon she and Keith spent together. It had been a wonderful moment together, and she held it frozen in her hands. His face and hers smiling widely side by side. Her finger dazzled with the new diamond sitting there regally. Yes, the image was beautiful, suspended in a moment.
Keith escaped the bedroom and came to see what she held so gently in her hands. It seemed to emit a soft, cold light from between her laced fingers. “You found it?” he asked, more surprised that there had been a mystery item after all.
Emily laughed giddily and met his searching eyes. “I did! It’s just what I asked for.”
“Was it a delivery or something?” He drew closer, but she spun away, hiding her prize. “Aw, come on, let me see. You tore this place apart!”
“It was kind of like a delivery,” she taunted, her eyes flashing at him with a half-known secret. “But more like a dream come true.”
Now he truly was baffled. And beginning to suspect she had taken something before he got home, which made him frustrated that she had not shared. Whatever it was, she certainly was enjoying the discovery. “Come on, what is it?”
“Do you really want to know?” she asked, her voice taking on a serious quality. He rolled his eyes in exasperation.
“Yes, I really want to know.”
“Fine.” She turned towards him slowly, unweaving her fingers so that he could see the tiny, multicolored gem that danced in her hand. It seemed as if it spun with a hundred colors, a frame of a million moments crammed into a minute physical space. His mind reeled with an attempt at comprehending the bauble sitting in the palm of her hand.
There was wonder in his voice now. “What is it?”
Emily smiled, her eyes turning serious. “It’s the future, Keith.” Her lips pursed and she blew a sharp breath on strange artifact. It exploded into a cloud of particles, each cold and stinging, that bit at Keith’s face and eyes. He stumbled backward somehow dodging so many new obstacles and fell back onto the couch. It felt like something was chewing its way into his eyes, drilling back into his mind and thoughts.
And then, it was dark, and the stinging stopped. Keith opened his eyes on a spotless apartment and Emily humming to herself in the kitchen.
“Emmie?” came his groggy voice, and she appeared with a smile.
“Glad you’re up. Dinners almost ready and I did not want to wake you up. You fell asleep as soon as you got home, tired boy!”
His eyes stung and he felt exhausted, off balance, confused. But the memory was foggy and smothered by a dreamlike film. Watching her waltz back towards the kitchen, humming some song he could not recognize, Keith felt himself overwhelmed. In that moment, he knew that he had to marry her.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 70: A group of egg shaped buildings all clustered together against a dark background.
“I want to go out and play.” The whine cut through the monotony of the day with an unpleasant shriek. Wanda clenched her teeth and tried to ignore it. There was nothing she could do—it had been snowing off and on all day, with temperatures down below zero. This plea for playtime was unrealistic; going outside meant freezing solid within a few minutes, and no amount of bundling was enough to withstand for long. She could not change the weather, he would not be happy until she did.
“Mom,” came the whine again, elongating the simple word into an impressive display of syllables. “I’m bored.”
Wanda pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed, trying not to let the irritation leak into her voice. “Well, buddy, I’m sorry. Why don’t you color some pictures?” She pointed at the stack of paper pushed up against the far wall.
“But I’m out of paper,” came the disheartened response. Only then did she realize that most of those pages were already colored with spindly-legged creatures and smiling sunshines. A childish dreamscape.
Of course, seeing hundreds of pages covered in childish doodles only reinforced her sudden terror. It had been winter for far too long. Judging by the sounds of yelling and crying that spilled through the paper thin walls of the complex, the same seemed to be true for many families. Then again, hadn’t that been the understanding when they all moved in? Wasn’t that the reason they had left comfortable homes, closely knit communities, and cozy worlds to get a one room apartment in little better than a slum? But it granted protection and the promise of constant heat, which was something nowhere outside had promised. Now, this nest of humanity was broiling under the reality of such containment for so long.
“Well, maybe you can see if anyone is playing out in the halls? Maybe you could all play hide and seek or something?”
“Ms. Smeltzer yells at us if we play out there. She hit Tammy with her broom last time.”
Wanda bristled at the old curmudgeon. There were 19 children under ten on this floor, no way they could go outside and play in the subarctic air, but Ms. Smeltzer had to have her peace and quiet all day and night. It was a refugee shelter, but she demanded to be treated like a queen. Wanda hoped her son had not seen the disgust on her face.
“So maybe not such a good idea. Well, how about you tell me a story with shadow puppets. I’ll finish dinner while you come up with a really good story.” Wanda shifted to the side, letting the firelight spill into the dim room. Jonah leapt up eagerly and waved his fingers wildly. At least he was still easily entertained. As he grew older, finding such diversions would become harder and harder. For now, she listened to him prattle on as she stirred a pot of donation beans over the meager flame. They had not gotten fresh wood yet this week—it was coming, they promised—and so she did her best to stretch what she did have.
That night, Wanda went to bed hopeless and forlorn. The wood had not arrived, and their fire burned low, almost to embers. She mournfully shoved a few of the drawings into the grate, hoping to keep the flame burning high enough to heat the small apartment. If nothing else, hopefully enough warmth would trickle between the tightly packed cells through their paper thin walls. She draped her arm across Jonah’s tiny body, already filling chill where his skin met the air. If nothing else, she could give him her warmth.
The morning came slowly, sluggishly creeping along the side of the apartment until it peeked through the tiny slit of a window they were fortunate to have. The light woke Wanda, and she was surprised to find her arms empty. There was a momentary burst of panic, but that settled when she saw Jonah standing atop a chair to peer out the window.
“Be careful up there,” she muttered sleepily as she stumbled awake. He turned and smiled at her.
“Momma, who are the people outside?”
She stretched, her back rippling with popped joints. “What? Do you see some trucks out there? those are the trucks that bring up dinn—“
“No, there aren’t any trucks. But there are people. They’re dressed all funny.”
“Get down and let me see,” she said, moving with surprising speed for so early. No one had been out walking for months now. She pressed her face against the tiny window, peering through the dust and soot that coated the inside. It was clear she had not spent too much time gazing longingly out the window during their time here. But now she did see the same shadowy shapes Jonah had seen. Closing one eyes, she gazed out the hole he had cleared with his now grubby hands, and then she could see them. They were dressed weird it seemed, some strange covering obscuring their face. Wanda remembered the hot summer days when she would look out the car widows and watch heat ripple across the pavement. The memory felt out of place in the winter wasteland, but it also felt appropriate to whatever it was covering their face.
“Does this mean we can go outside and play?” Jonah was eager, his face split into a wide smile. Wanda touched her hand to the glass and felt the same bitter cold. But there were people out there, and even though the fire was out, it was only slightly cool in the room.
“Maybe, baby, but mom has to make sure it’s safe first.”
She stepped down off the chair and turned over the strange discovery. People outside after all of this. Everyone said it would eventually thaw, the climate would return to normal, and life would re-emerge from hibernation. But Wanda had begun to doubt she would see that, at least until that vision outside.
“Can we please?” pleaded Jonah. She gave him a warm if distracted smile.
“I’ll go find out if it’s safe. You get bundled up.”
“Are you going downstairs?” he asked giddily.
“Yes, I will. Just see if anyone else has tried to go out. We may not be the first outside when the thaw comes, but I promise we will go out as soon as it’s safe.”
“Can I go with you?”
She pursed her lips, considering it. He had been well behaved cooped in the small apartment, and the trip downstairs was about as harmless as anything could be. Nevertheless, she knew that meant keeping a close eye on him so that he did not dart outside. He could not understand how dangerous—and deadly—that would be. “Okay,” she relented, “but stay close.”
This was the adventure of the week for him, and he was practically vibrating with anticipation. Wanda smiled and opened the door. The hallways were dark and narrow, lit with an occasional pane of glass to the outside world. She could hear crying, yelling, screaming, and laughing behind the closed doors, but she also felt the uncomfortable cold in the hallway. Hopefully the wood arrived soon. Wanda was equally eager for the people outside to be braving the newly lessening chill as she was with the idea that they would bring vital wood.
No one acknowledged her on the way down the rusty, uncertain stairs, which was not unusual. Most people kept their heads down in their own problems. She reached the front door and squeezed in as close as she could around the heavy layers of ropes and blankets that still stood between her and outside. Now closer, she could see the figures outside, their faces still covered by the odd material.
She turned back to the hallway, scanning for a familiar face. “Oh, Darren?” she called out, catching sight of one of her floor mates. He pressed on, ignoring her. “Darren, have you seen this?” He did not respond even as she raised her voice.
The door next to her opened, and she reached out to grasp the stout woman who stomped out. Her eyes widened and she seemed to shiver with a chill. “Do you know what’s going on out there?” The woman did not respond, but looked around uncomfortably before shuffling back into her apartment. Yes, people were withdrawn, but this was bizarre.
“Up to me, I guess,” muttered Wanda. She held Jonah’s hand tightly within her own trying to constrain the eager boy. He was rattling on about snowmen and snowball fights, forts and sledding. The first months were pleasant and wonderful, full of all those beloved activities he fondly remembered. Only later did it become horrifying.
She looked out again, tapping on the window. One of the figures seemed to look up, perhaps drawn by the noise or the face in the window. It walked towards her, the face still a mess of wavering lines. Maybe it was some sort of climate controlled mask? Government issued, she was sure.
“Momma, can we go outside? Please? No one else is worried.” He pointed at the people going on about their days, completely disinterested.
“Be patient,” she snapped, turning back to the window.
There, she finally saw the face of one of the people outside. It was no longer obscured, but presented in crisp detail. She saw her husband’s face pressed against the glass. His skin was pale, white, and frostbitten, icicles clinging to his unkempt beard. The eyes that stared back at her were empty and cold.
Wanda stumbled back from the door. Of all the things she had hoped for, her dead husband was not on the list.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.