Carver had been saved many times in his life by humanity’s unrelenting reliance on rationality. It may not have always appeared rational, but no matter how many people jumped at shadows, some reasonable voice always served to draw them back to the natural, the possible, the explainable. Except, of course, when it better served their interests to fuel the fire. Carver let that certainty steady his hands.
Whimpers reached his ears, a sound that almost seemed to hum like a background drone in the drama of his life. Whimpers, pleas, and cries of despair were a chorus he conducted, melding seamlessly with the ebb and flow of day-to-day.
He tightened his hands around the victim’s throat. Blonde, blue-eyed, middle-aged, and found putting flowers on a gravestone. She fit the criteria, and so he completed his task with professional indifference. The whimpers quieted as his hands compressed, eventually dying away completely as the woman followed suit. Always give it a few extra seconds after you think they’re out, he thought to himself. It was a lesson you only had to learn once or twice before it stuck.
Once she stopped moving and stayed stopped, he let his grip relax and pulled his notebook from his back pocket. Turning to the last page, he reviewed the criteria to ensure he would not miss a step. That was also a lesson learned quickly after one or two mistakes.
“Only the vile may turn away death, those who by their very stench offend him. Thrice snuff the life of the childless mother, drive his mark into her bones. Under moonlight on the sacred stones, curse the ground and seed with rot.”
Just as he remembered. He felt a peace settle into his bones as he returned to the ritual, walking through the steps he had completed twice before. He was almost certain, at least, that “snuff” suggested strangling—it usually did, at least. Then again, it was a translation through about four languages he might be the only person left alive to speak, so assuming anything about it was true was a risk. Still, he pulled the knife from his waist and began to cut through to her sternum—that would give him ample room to work.
It was a messy business carving death’s sign into the bone, and he had to be mindful not to nick himself. With improvements in DNA technology, his job had gotten increasingly harder. But the internet had certainly been a boon. Life had taught him that there was some truth in the stale axiom to take the good with the bad. He smiled as he finished the mark.
Now to drive to the sacred spot. He had located three places of spiritual significance in local legend, and his experience said those would work sufficiently. The last was only a few miles away. Carver lifted the limp body from the ground, taking a moment to kick the dirt over the bloodstain forming. There were clouds overhead and rain in the forecast, so the likelihood of anyone finding this location was dropping by the moment.
He hefted her into the back of the truck, closed the tailgate, and settled himself into the front. The vehicle rumbled to life and he drove down the access road back toward the highway, his eye on the GPS as he joined the flow of so many other souls twisting through the arteries of the country this late at night. No one thought a thing. Eventually he turned off, followed a maze of turns, and ended at a scenic overlook. The night was heavy around him, but it was the only companion he had. Well, that and the corpse he hoisted from the bed.
It was a treacherous climb down, and the added weight threatened to send him tumbling. Something else that would not be a first. He finally reached the clearing next to the large stones. At some point, according to the area’s history at least, there had been sacred carvings and native runes etched into the surrounding stones. Now they sat weathered and moss covered. But it met criteria, and that was his only concern.
Carver dropped the body without a glance, letting it lie there in a tangle of limbs. There were no specifications on the arrangement of the body that he was aware of. Now, he just needed to “curse the ground.” Pulling a bag of salt from his pack, he proceeded to throw it liberally around the body. Now, all that needed to happen was her body to begin to decay, finishing the process. The location was certainly removed enough to delay someone stumbling on the site. Then again, such things had happened before.
He would be gone before anyone found it, of course, just as he always was. The locals would assume a serial killer in their midst, spend a few weeks or months searching for whoever was abducting these women. And Carver would be on to his next city, running out the clock on this ritual and searching for the next one that would serve to lengthen his life.
Immortality was a devious lie, he thought as he rejoined the flow of traffic towards some unknown destination. Hundreds of secret texts and sacred rituals promised immortality, but he had yet to find one that delivered. Each seemed to give him some handful of extra years, but invariably he again found the effect wearing off. And he had yet to find one that was repeatable. It seemed Death was a wily creature, prone to learning the tricks of his prey and using that to hunt them down.
How many, he wondered. It was not a good idea to try and count, because the number was dizzying. It seemed each culture had its own promise of immortality, and he was running out of options. Six dismembered here, three stabbed, nine decapitated, two drowning, and the list went on. He had found many creative ways to end the lives of random innocents—mostly innocents, he corrected as he thought about a few that required the blood of the damned.
And he was saved time and again by human rationality. It was so much easier to believe that it was the work of a killer, each one representing one depraved mind. It was harder to think about some killer traipsing through the ages, winding across countries and tracing the globe, killing randomly and without pattern. It would require someone to imagine that immortality might exist, that all these seemingly random touches—carved signs, salt, missing organs, ashes, clothing, placement, and a dozen other variables he tracked meticulously—were in fact part of some larger plan. The playbook written by all of humanity and being followed by one truly devout believer.
And Carver knew he could always rely on rationality to help him elude suspicion. The same way no one thought too hard about how he appeared not to age, at least until he just suddenly moved away. New faces, new people, new names, and a new life. And if ever someone began to suspect something was going wrong, well, in this age of reason, they simply dismissed it with a host of poor excuses.
Two weeks later, and he still had not felt that familiar surge of power and energy course through him signifying the ritual had been accomplished and years had been credited to him. He followed the news; no bodies had been discovered, at least none of his. Which meant the ground was now truly seeded now with the rot of the three, yet something had not worked. Maybe a bad ritual, maybe he misinterpreted. And so he flipped through archives of ancient tablets, cave paintings, and scrolls. Most were indecipherable to the average person, but if you grew up speaking the language, it was far simpler.
On to another ritual, another way to leapfrog ahead of Death. He pushed away the thought of what might happen when the trail finally ran cold and Death caught his long awaited prize. As long as there were options out there, he was certain he would not let that happen.
Ah, there was a promising looking one….
Welcome to October! I’m probably not doing 13 days of spooky stories again, but if you’d like to read those from last year, click here! Either way, I needed to write something. I don’t super love this, but I think it could be worse. I like the idea, the concept of a serial killer who’s only motive is following ancient rituals to gain “immortality.” I thought of it while listening to a podcast on unsolved mysteries (Thinking Sideways, for those curious). the hosts were discussing potential highway killers and the idea of MOs and signatures of killers. And this idea came up. I don’t know about execution though. I’m actually wondering if this might be better told from the perspective of someone following the killer’s trail….hm….maybe we’ll revisit.
But, again, this helped break a streak of writer’s block I’ve been feeling. I just wrote to write, and here we go. If you have thoughts, suggestions, or any other general feedback, leave it in the comments.
As always, happy reading! And a very spooky October to you!!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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.
Read the rest of the series here!
They parked their car in the gravel lot, positioning themselves as close to the tree line as they could. The corn maze was closed this time of night, and no one wanted to be caught lurking around after hours. However, being equal parts bored and broke, the chance to explore the maze in complete solitude was too much to pass up.
Joel, Erica, Mandy, and Alvin stumbled across the ground as they headed for the dark line on the horizon that marked the entrance. It was incredibly dark out, which made it even better. Eventually, their eyes would adjust.
Drawing closer, the small group saw the closed up outbuildings. The windows to the ticket booth were closed and locked, the petting zoo was deserted, and the snack truck was dark and silent. They hung close together, laughing in whispers as they made it finally to the entrance. A tall, cut-out of a scarecrow smiled down at them, holding in one gloved hand a signpost with the rules. The writing on it was childish, printed on in a font that resembled broad brushstrokes.
“Rule 1: NO RUNNING! No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!
Rule 2: NO BAD LANGUAGE! Keep it fun for EVERYONE!
Rule 3: DO NOT CUT THROUGH THE CORN! Now why would you want to ruin all the fun?
Rule 4: NO FLASHLIGHTS! It’s better this way, promise!
Rule 5: NO PICKING OR THROWING CORN! Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!
Rule 6: COMPLY WITH ALL STAFF MEMBERS INSTRUCTIONS! They’re just here to help!
Rule 7: HAVE FUN!!!!”
They were a corny set, but a staple at any event of this sort. There was a rope stretched across the entrance, which made their illicit entry even easier. The four of them slipped beneath the braided rope, the corn rising up around them and blocking out everything but the starry sky above. The moon was thin and pale in the sky, providing only the minimum of light. It turned everything into a misshapen shadow of reality.
There were creaks and groans from the buildings, the whisper of corn bending and swaying in the wind. It set the scene for them, and they all adopted whispers despite the fact no one would be out this far in the wee hours of the morning.
“Left or right?” Joel asked as they faced their first split in the path.
With two votes for left and one for right, they followed that trail straight to a dead end, turning around and laughing as they retraced their steps and proceeded down the right path. The maze led them through twists and turns, each one promising some new reveal. There was an edge of the forbidden to the whole operation which kept them on edge and on their toes. It was as if some angry farmer with his shotgun were about to burst from the corn to chase off trespassers. The four of them proceeded through the maze, taking more wrong turns than right, drunk on the thrill and risk of it all.
After about an hour, more hopelessly lost than they had been for a while, the excitement began to fade. The cold also began to set in, as the temperatures dipped from what had been a pleasant fall evening into the early nips of winter.
“Left, right, or straight?” asked Joel, fatigue creeping into his voice.
“Right,” said Mandy. Erica agreed.
“What are you talking about? That will just lead us back to where we came from. We have to go left.” There was an edge of frustration to Alvin’s voice as he spoke.
“Majority rules, so we go right. We’ll take the left if we’re wrong.”
“What about I just go left and we see who gets to the end first?” there was a prickle of competition in Alvin’s voice. He had a bit of an aggressive streak which led to him turning most events into some sort of game or championship. This was no different.
“If you want to, go ahead.” Mandy pulled her phone from her pocket and shook it at him. “We’ll text you when we beat you,” she said with a sly smile. She knew him well enough to know that he needed only the tiniest bit of goading to throw himself headlong into a perceived race.
He smiled and took off at a run through the field.
“Hey, didn’t you read the sign? No running!” called Erica after him laughing and rolling her eyes. “Geez, I wouldn’t want to be off on my own here. It’s creepy,” she said more quietly, pulling her jacket around her shoulders.
“No kidding,” returned Joel as the three moved through the stalks.
After a moment, a new sound joined the rustle of the corn and the stomp of their feet. It as a rhythmic, pounding sound, like a heartbeat echoing across the field. The three paused to listen, none of them quite sure how to place the noise.
“Is someone playing drums?” offered Mandy. Erica and Joel simply shrugged.
“Maybe Alvin is listening to music or something?” There were mirrored shrugs following Joel’s suggestion. Either way, they pushed on. The sound grew closer, but seemed to be coming from a handful of rows away.
“What the—“ came a shout from within the corn. Alvin’s voice, starting low and reaching up into a high pitch yelp. The pounding noise had stopped, and now there was something new, an up and down chorus of what almost sounded like a cartoon character. The three strained their ears, trying to pick up on what sounded like words, but they could not piece them together.
“Get away from—“ more yells from their friend.
“Alvin?” called Mandy, beginning to turn back to where they parted ways. Joel and Erica followed behind.
“If this is some kind of joke, it’s not funny,” added Joel. He wasn’t sure if he was worried it was and he would look foolish, or if it wasn’t and something truly terrible was going on. Maybe that farmer had shown up after all.
The pounding noise resumed, filling in the echoes from the rise and fall of the cartoonish voice, and they could hear Alvin calling out, warning off whatever he was facing down. His voice grew closer and closer, the remaining three following it through the rows as they tried to trace his steps. He had gotten impressively far away in the few moments they had separated.
The second voice slowly began to fade into coherence as they grew closer. “No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!” chirped something in a voice overly full of cheer. Thud, thud, thud, thud, ran the constant drone in the background, followed again by “No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!”
Alvin’s cries turned from words to general shouts broken by panting breaths. They were close now, just a couple of rows from where he was at the very least. Mandy raced ahead along the path. There was the feeling of something large and imposing galloping along the paths to their side, a ripple through the corn that left an echo of whatever it was.
Turning one last corner, Mandy came to a sudden stop. Alvin could be seen rushing down the long row, glancing over his shoulder every few moments to look at the monstrosity in pursuit. Mandy’s eyes followed his, landing on something that her mind struggled to fit within her previous frame of reality. Loping along the rows of corn behind him stood the grinning scarecrow from the entrance, no longer a mere cardboard cut-out. He towered over the corn, the tallest stalks coming just to his waist, lanky arms and legs spinning as he hurtled along the path. Each step was another beat of that imagined drum.
“Run!” called Alvin as he spotted his friend, panic etched into every muscle of his face.
Almost as if in response, the creature spoke, “No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!” Its face did not move or change, the same smile stretching from ear to ear. The voice echoed out, mechanical in its cheer.
Joel and Erica arrived, taking a shared moment to take in the scene as Mandy had. Now Mandy was yelling, urging Alvin to run faster, to get away. In slow motion, the three friends watched as one of the scarecrow’s large feet rose up, trailing straw in its wake, and came down on Alvin’s back. Alvin fell forward, face pressed into the dirt, still yelling for his friends to run. The sound grew muffled as the foot pressed him further down, the words turning back into indistinguishable yelling. There were snaps and pops, the whine of mechanics compressing the scarecrow’s foot deeper and deeper into the ground.
“No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!” it continued to repeat, words never faltering or changing.
Erica grabbed at a rock on the ground, hurling it up at the smiling face. It hit with a dull thud, then bounced off into the corn. She was back at the ground, grabbing at any fallen ears of corn and stones within reach.
“Leave him alone!” she screamed, her voice harsh and raw. “Get away from him!”
The scarecrow lifted its foot from the indentation in the ground, and Joel tried not to look at the sticky material stretching behind. Alvin was quiet now. So was the scarecrow.
It slowly lifted its smiling face from Alvin’s fallen body, scanning the remaining three as Erica flung more and more projectiles. Mandy was sobbing now, and Joel just felt numb.
“Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” chimed the scarecrow with forced glee. It took a step towards them, and Joel and Mandy stumbled backwards. Erica continued her assault, rage plastered on her face. In a few short strides, she and the Scarecrow were face to kneecap, poised like two fighters about to battle.
“Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” droned the cartoonish voice of the scarecrow as it bent down closer to her. She flailed out with arms and legs, fingers morphed into viscous claws that scratched at the fabric and paint covering the monster even as it grabbed her shirt and lifted her in the air.
“Erica, run, go!” said Mandy over her sobs. But Erica was blinded by battle lust, continuing to swing and strike out at the giant foe. It was almost as if she truly believed she could win.
“Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” said the scarecrow once more, then, with a flick of his wrist, sent Erica flying out across the stalks of corn. For a moment, she was silhouetted in the sky, then again swallowed up by the darkness.
Mandy wailed, turning and gripping Joel by the collar and drawing him close. “We have to go!” she said, serving to snap him out of frozen immobility. Fight, flight, freeze.
Mandy took off at a run, dragging Joel along by one arm.
“No!” he said, suddenly fueled by terror. He ripped his arm away and stood in the field. Despite having finished with Erica, the scarecrow had not begun pursuing them. “Don’t run,” he gasped, the reality finally settling on him.
“What? Are you kidding me? We have to get away.” She took a few steps back and grabbed Joel by the arm again, trying to pull him from his spot.
He fixed her with wide eyes set firmly in his ashen face. “We will. Just don’t run. It won’t find us if we don’t break the rules.”
Her face was puzzled, then awareness struck. “Okay,” she mumbled, sniffing back tears. “Let’s just get out of here.”
As they walked through the rows upon rows of corn, they strained their ears for the steady thunder of the scarecrow’s feet. But it was quiet again, save for the rustling of the corn in the wind. After what felt like days of trekking through the corn, Joel finally cracked, sinking to his feet.
“We’re going in circles,” he mumbled. “It’s like there’s not even a path out anymore.”
Mandy knelt beside him, grabbing his arm and trying to bring him back to his feet. “Come on, Joel, we have to keep going. We probably just took a wrong turn.”
He shook his head, eyes staring unfocused at the ground. Everything was darkness. “No, don’t you get it? He’s trapped us here. There’s no path out.”
She was crying again, still tugging on his arm. “There was a path in. We just have to retrace our steps. Come on, we can do it.”
There was a violent swing of his head toward her, his eyes blazing with fury. “You think that’s how this works? That we’ll just walk out of here? We already broke the rules, Mandy. We’re going to fucking die here!”
He seemed almost as shocked as she was as the words spilled out of his lips. Shock turned to horror as the sound of footsteps began again in the distance.
“No,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.” Suddenly, Joel was on his feet again. “It was an accident, I swear. I’m sorry!” His eyes scanned the rows and rows of corn, searching for a reprieve.
“Keep it fun for everyone!” echoed the response, followed by a childish giggle. As the steps came closer, the voice repeated its mantra, followed by what might have been a friendly laugh in other circumstances.
“No,” yelled Joel as he turned to face the direction of the sound. “I said I was sorry. I’m sorry!”
Still closer. Mandy grabbed his arm again, pulling him towards the path. “Come on, Joel, we have to get out of here before it finds you. We have to—“
He yanked his arm away, eyes filled with despair. “No, it’s too late for me, Mandy. I broke the rules.”
“We can figure it out, let’s just move. We can stay ahead of it.”
“Keep it fun for everyone!” Now it was distinct.
“Get away from me!” roared Joel, shoving her into the darkness. Mandy stumbled, landing hard on the ground.
There was a pause in the unstoppable steps, a brief whirr of electronics, and then it spoke again. “Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” A momentary pause. “Keep it fun for everyone!”
“Run,” he said, turning his back on her to face what was stalking down the rows.
Mandy finally gave in, turning and walking slowly down the rows of corns. Don’t run, she reminded herself. Don’t curse. Don’t throw corn. Don’t cut through the rows. She tried to remember all the rules on the sign. Taking the first turn, Joel disappeared from sight just as the scarecrow turned onto his row. She winced at the sound of screaming coming from him, tried to block it out as it became muffled. When it finally stopped, the silence was far worse.
Her tears laid a marker of her progress, ephemeral breadcrumbs that did little to show her physical steps but were everything to her emotional unwinding. She walked until here feet were sore, then continued until they faded into numbness. The moon never moved and the sun never rose. Eventually, she looked at her watch, seeing the numbers click from 6:00 to 10:00 to noon, but her world never changed.
She stopped at another dead end, staring at the impenetrable wall. She had walked every possible path, but none of them led any further to freedom. Perhaps, she allowed herself to think, Joel was right.
She had held the thought at bay, afraid it would finally dissolve what little hope she had left. True to her fears, it did just that, but left a firm streak of defiant determination in its wake.
“If that’s the game, then,” she whispered, stealing her resolve. With a deep breath, she plunged through the rows.
Almost instantly, the footsteps picked up again, rocketing towards her. ”Now why would you ruin all the fun?” mocked her predator. She heard corn crunching beneath his feet as he crashed toward her. Every step was closer, the voice repeating its phrase again and again with maddening consistency.
Mandy imagined she could feel the ground tremble with each of its steps. She heard the echoes of its voice and felt phantom whispers of breath, hot and rancid, on her neck. But looking behind, the monster was not yet in sight.
She also imaged that there was a break up ahead. That she could see something besides more corn standing beyond those far rows. It was hope, she said with defeat, hope trying to reassert some little flame to keep her going.
“Now why would you ruin all the fun?”
And then, she was stumbling out onto grass, corn falling away behind her. The sun was bright and high in the sky. Mandy stumbled, falling to the ground as her eyes reeled from the transition between total darkness and total light. She scrambled along the ground, turning to look back at the hole from which she had burst. But there was nothing but golden stalks of corn.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Want more of the 13 Stories of Halloween? Click here!
Darren barely felt human. In fact, he felt more like a monster built purely of anxiety and tension, one that just happened to ooze into a human form for the night. Everyone said such feelings were normal. That as all well and good, he reasoned, but it did nothing to quiet the awareness that he was sweaty, nauseated, jittery, and hyperventilating.
Stage fright. It sounded so innocuous, but it was far from it. Still, he reminded himself, this was all about becoming a better him. After his last breakup, he recognized a few facts. First, he had terrible taste in partners. Second, he deserved better. And third, perhaps most painfully, he was no longer the kind of person he would want to date, let alone anyone else. His journey of self-discovery had led to a brash, spontaneous audition for a local play. And that audition dragged him all the way to that very moment, sitting backstage as the audience filtered in. The play would go for one night only. Halloween, of course. And the festive date meant they had a full house as well. If he quieted his breathing and the pounding of his heart, he imagined he could hear the murmur of hundreds—well, perhaps tens—of voices.
“You look like a first timer,” said Jean from the seat next to him. Her face was painted with almost gaudy makeup, but everyone assured him it would look lovely from the audience. He flexed his own face, feeling the foundation shift like a mask.
She reached over and pulled his water glass from his hand. “That’s your sixth glass of water. You’re going to piss yourself on stage if you keep it up.” The smile was genuine, understanding.
Until that moment, Darren had not considered needing to hold his bladder through at least Act One. That brought up all new anxieties. “What if I can’t do this?” he blurted out.
Her words were a cool breeze soothing his brow. “Hey, you’ve practiced, right?”
“You know your lines?”
He swallowed, trying mentally to run through his lines, then nodded. “I hope.”
She just smiled. “Then, I suppose you can do this. Not like you have much of a choice now.”
It was reassuring. Of course. He only had a few lines, a good number of which were written sneakily in the book he was to read from. Even if he got stuck there, he would just have to push through it.
The rest of the preparation was a blur of activity. People were checking and nitpicking at his costume, reapplying makeup where he had sweated through. The backstage crew checked and rechecked props, reviewed their cues, and ensured each character knew where to find what they would need. His fellow actors squeezed his shoulder, whispered encouragement, and always concluded with the famous “Break a leg.” For his part, he mostly nodded out of the way, eyes skimming over his lines one last time.
Then, the lights dimmed and the director stepped out to welcome the audience. While he expected his anxiety to crest again, send him into an even greater tailspin, it surprised him. His body likely panicking, he found his mind growing surprisingly clear and focused. Perhaps this is what those lunatics meant when they said they worked better under pressure.
Applause, then the curtains went up on the opening scene. It was your typical gruesome, gory plot for a seasonal play. The first scene was Michael and Linda, young and happy couple in the prime of their life. They were on a walk through the park, discussing future plans. Michael took an aside, looked at the ring in his pocket, and waxed poetic about the powers of love to the audience. The audience was not fooled, of course, by the saccharine opening. They were simply biding their time.
As he returned to Linda, purportedly studying the flowers while he was convening with the audience, the lights dimmed. Someone stepped from the shadows. It was Trip, a perennial figure at the community theater, bedecked in a hat that covered the top half of his face and a trench coat that concealed the rest of him. He brandished a weapon, Michael stepped forward to protect his one true love, and then there was a crash. Michael collapsed, Linda screamed, and the house lights went down.
A funeral was next, Linda the grieving partner. Jean played it beautifully, appearing devastated and completely unpredictable. The next few scenes displayed an obsessive, frantic turn in the lovely Linda, who’s only thought was to restore what had been taken from her.
Darren took a deep breath, stepping onto the scene while the lights were dimmed and finding his place. The set behind him was a curios shop, featuring the comical shrunken head that had become the unofficial mascot of the show. He smiled seeing it, feeling a bit more of the anxiety melt away.
Linda approached, and he looked up from behind his counter as the effects crew rang a simple bell.
“Afternoon,” he said, his voice cracking just a bit. There were no loud guffaws from the audience.
Linda looked around the shop, appearing distracted, uneasy, and yet hopeful. He was amazed Jean was as talented as she was, especially at a community theater that drew no more than 150 people at a time. She deserved to be famous, he thought.
“They told me you could help me,” she said, stepping up to his counter.
“Well, I don’t know who they are or what I’d be able to do to help.” He turned a shoulder to her, appearing to study his inventory.
“Please,” Linda responded and reached out to grab his arm.
He looked back at her and sighed. “What is it you want? And I don’t work for free,” he said tersely, wagging a finger in her direction. The audience seemed to hang on their every word.
“I’ll pay whatever you want, you just have to help me get him back.”
Darren looked her up and down. “Yes, you will certainly pay. Now who is it you are wanting?”
Linda stepped away, the spotlight following her as she gazed up toward the rafters. “My Michael,” she said with a sob. She went on to recount the story as Darren did his best to appear grumpy, but moved.
“Are you sure about this?” he cautioned as she finished her tale.
“Yes, anything you ask. I can’t go on without him!”
Darren turned, peering over the row of books behind him and selecting one that appeared sufficiently old and dusty. “Take this and make your preparations. Return to me by the next full moon.”
Linda rushed from the shop, clutching the book to her chest. “Thank you,” she said passionately. “Thank you. I will return, I swear.”
Darren stroked the fake beard on his chin as he watched her leave, lights dimming again.
Backstage, Jean grabbed his hand quickly as she swung past. “You did great. Keep it up,” she whispered, then swept back into the stage. She read slowly from the book, appearing to ponder the different items needed. After a moment, she set off with resolve. The next few scenes detailed her preparation, culminating finally with her taking a shovel into a set designed to look like the graveyard, an almost full moon hanging heavily on the backdrop behind her.
The lights turned to black as the sound of a shovel piercing the earth echoed in the theater.
In the brief pause, there was a flurry of activity. The ritual scene had to be set. In Act Two, the ritual was completed, bringing Michael back. Like most stories, his resurrection went well until his insatiable bloodthirst was revealed. Act Three dealt entirely with how to kill someone who had already been dead once before. But, Act Two was Darren’s big scene, and the nerves returned to flutter through his stomach.
He walked on stage while it was still dark, bending to “light” the flickering electric LED candles. For a few brief seconds, they were the only light on the stage. Slowly, the house lights came up. That was Jean’s cue, and Linda came hurrying in from stage left.
“I have him,” she gasped. Darren nodded.
“Well, bring him in then. Set him here between the candles.” He stretched his arm widely to indicate the circle around him, then stepped over to rearrange the implements on the table. The stage directions had not been very clear on this point, but had indicated he needed to busy himself while she was gone.
Linda hesitated, opened her mouth to speak, and then was gone. She returned moments later carrying a withered bundle in her arms. A decaying, emaciated hand slipped from beneath the wrappings, cluing the audience in to what her large parcel truly was. Linda set Michael’s body gently on the floor, peeling away the fabric and stroking his hair gently. She looked on the corpse with true love.
Darren shooed her away. “You must prepare the article of binding. It is the only way to hold his spirit here.” He stepped over to inspect the body. This was one part they had improvised on. The props crew had an awful time finding a suitable corpse, and so they had been completing rehearsals using everything from a manikin to a blow-up doll. But now he saw the true extent of their creativity and skills.
The corpse looked like someone who had been buried for quite some time. There was dirt on the clothes. The body was tiny in the confines of the neatly pressed suit. Skin clung along every outline of bone. It was so realistic, Darren almost imagined he could smell the decay and rot, but pushed the thought aside. Just nerves, he told himself.
Linda returned with a lock of her hair tied around a sprig of flowers. She bent to the corpse and tucked it into his mouth. Darren caught a glimpse of teeth, then the long darkness of the dummy’s throat. It gave him a sense of vertigo.
He stepped over to the table with the prepared items, grabbing the book and the chalice. He handed the chalice to Linda, who began to dip her fingers in and sprinkle blood across the corpse and the ritual area. A speck landed on Darren’s lips, and he licked it away. That assured he would not make that mistake again. He had presumed it would taste sweet, given it was just food coloring and corn syrup. However, it was rather bitter and tangy. Apparently the props crew had not been too careful about how it was stored. He hoped they had not mixed anything more toxic into it. It strangely resembled paint, and he had to quickly remind himself that ingesting a drop of paint would not kill him.
Darren read from the book. The words were mostly gibberish to him, but he did his best to form them precisely as the director had instructed. She was visible from the corner of his eyes, mouthing the words with him. He spoke louder, more forcefully as he proceeded, letting the energy of the scene take him over. It was exhilarating; the words moved through him with a renewed vigor, almost as if the play had taken control. He simply knew what had to be done.
Crossing the stage, he grabbed the knife from the preparation table and brought it down forcefully on the chest of the corpse, aiming squarely for the heart. Now, Linda was supposed to weep as nothing happened. It would be later in the night, when they had both left, that Michael would stir.
Only, that was not what happened. The corpse on the stage seemed to let out a gasp, a strand of hair escaping its lips and fluttering through the air. Darren and Jean both froze, caught off guard. But Jean was never one to let a scene die.
“Michael, is that you?” she asked, pressing her head to the chest of the corpse.
Her face grew pale, and even Jean, the real talent on stage, lost her place. The silence stretched on, finally broken from a low groan coming out of the corpse’s lips.
Darren stepped back, eyes wide as the body in front of him regained its flesh. Colored returned to the skin, and it pulled away from the bones. It was almost as if someone were inflating the body, reinstilling life into it. Darren’s mind scrambled for reason. Surely this was a stage trick. But he could not come up with any possible way to create such an illusion.
He could hear the audience gasp, a trickle of applause spreading throughout as they witnessed what was surely a marvelous illusion. Mirrors, they thought. A display screen, perhaps. Maybe a trap door?
Darren saw the director, a look of frenzy and joy in her eyes, grab the rope for the curtains and begin to stretch them across the stage. The body began to move, reaching out toward Jean. She sprung to her feet and raced towards off stage. But the director caught her, arm surging forward with something bright. Jean curled around the woman’s arm with a gasp, almost like a child getting stopped in Red Rover. She hung there for a moment, then collapsed to the stage, unmoving.
“All good things require sacrifice,” said the director with a smile, moving quickly over the stage and kneeling by the now alert body.
“Andrea?” he asked. She nodded and kissed him.
“But how? What did—Why am—“
“Sh,” she whispered, smoothing his hair from his forehead. “You need your strength.”
She moved quickly, too quickly for Darren to really know what had happened. In one moment, he was standing in shock, watching some impossible scene play out in front of him as the audience murmured curiously from behind the curtain. The next, there was blood pouring from his neck as he tried to stop the flow.
He fell to his knees, blood pooling around him. The man on the ground seemed at first shocked, then repulsed. Then intrigued. As the lights faded one last time, Darren saw the once-corpse begin to eagerly lap the blood from the floor, eyes closed in ecstasy.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
See earlier days here!
Laura reached into the candy bowl, digging deep to find one of the remaining Milky Way bars.
“Hey!” Her roommate appeared suddenly from the corner and swatted at her hand. “I told you those were for trick-or-treaters.”
Laura pulled her hand back with mock hurt in her eyes. “I’m wasting away here, Jen!”
Her appeal fell on deaf ears, and Jen simply picked up the candy bowl and carried it with her into the kitchen. There she could keep her eyes on it while she finished baking a round of cupcakes for the Halloween party later. “If you want candy,” she yelled over her shoulder, “the stores are falling over themselves to sell it to you. We can eat the leftovers after, anyway.”
Laura thought she heard the crinkle of a wrapper sneak out of the kitchen, but she couldn’t be sure. Instead, she dropped onto the couch and began flipping through channels. Surely she could find a Friends re-run. Those were always on somewhere, right?
Giving up on the television—there was only so much teenage programming a semi-grown adult could take—she stared at the clock. It was 6:00, which meant trick-or-treaters should begin arriving soon. They would be out and about until 8:00, the city-enforced cut-off, and then Laura and Jen would leave to go to a more age-appropriate activity. That meant two hours to fill.
She wandered into the kitchen where Jen was tapping on her phone as the oven clicked away. The first batch was due out soon, and Laura was hoping she could grab a sample.
“Don’t even think about it. I only have enough batter for a couple dozen.”
“No one is going to notice if there are only 23. Besides, don’t you want to make sure they taste alright before subjecting them to everyone else?”
Jen looked over her phone with an unamused glare full of friendly antagonism. “Everyone loves these cupcakes. They’ll be fine, I promise.” She turned and peaked in on the cupcakes, examining them through the oven’s window as if they were soldiers lined for a parade. “If you’re so hungry, why don’t you get a real dinner or something?”
“Because it’s Halloween. I just want to eat candy and junk food.”
“Then you’ll have to wait for the party.” The doorbell rang, and she smiled as she grabbed the bowl of candy. “But we have a fully stocked fridge if you change your mind,” she finished as she walked down the hall and to the door.
Laura heard the echoes of “Trick-or-treat!” stumbling out of the gaggle of children. She saw a ghost, a witch, and two Elsas on the front porch, all holding out their buckets expectantly.
Jen gushed over the costumes, placing one piece of candy in each bucket.
“Now what do you say?” came some adult voice from outside the house. An equally disjointed chorus of “thank you,” filtered back into the house.
Jen waltzed back into the kitchen and set the bowl down with finality. She glanced at her phone, and then hurriedly moved toward the oven.
“Oh, they’re perfect,” she gushed as she pulled them from the oven. Carefully, she extracted each one and placed it on the rack to cool, before turning her attention back to the batter.
The cycle repeated. Kids showed up, Jen danced away to give them candy, and Laura sat staring at the forbidden cupcakes while her stomach growled. Now it was a matter of principle rather than hunger.
After the cupcakes were out of the oven and the icing was made, Jen managed to pause.
“Okay, I need to get in costume while these finish cooling. Think you can handle candy duty?”
“I think I can manage,” Laura responded grumpily, but Jen was already halfway up the stairs to her room. Laura eyed the bowl and reached over, plucking out a packet of Skittles.
“Not like anyone will miss it,” she grumbled to herself and emptied the packet into her mouth. Delicious. This was what Halloween was all about.
The doorbell rang, and she dutifully grabbed the bowl. A tiny gaggle of middle schoolers were outside, one Dracula with a zombie and Tinkerbell.
“Trick-or-treat,” they intoned, the words having lost some of their fervor after what had to have been dozens of houses. Laura could see their bags were heavy with candy, but they were not to be deterred. She admired their spirit.
Though it limited her leftover candy stash, she dropped a small handful of candy into each bag. She watched their eyes brighten, some of the fatigue shaking off at the generous bounty. Their “thank you” sounded more sincere than most. Unlike Jen, Laura was not about to be stingy to the poor kids, no matter what the rules for handing out candy were.
Back to the kitchen where the cupcakes waited. They were pumpkin with cream cheese icing, and Laura had been sitting there sniffing the spiced cake for almost an hour. Glancing quickly upstairs and seeing no one, she grabbed one of the cakes and unceremoniously dipped it into the bowl of icing. She gave it an extra swirl for good measure, then eagerly took a bite of the whole thing. The icing was melting and sliding along the top, some of it soaking into the cake while the rest dribbled down her hands. In three quick bites, she had devoured it before it could make any more of a mess.
They really were delicious, she thought, begrudgingly agreeing with Jen’s haughty boast. The doorbell rang again, and she was dragged back to the front door. Only this time her stomach had stopped grumbling. Instead, she felt it twist and turn as it digested the treat.
Again, the cycle repeated. She grabbed a quick glass of water, coughing as she attempted to dislodge the crumb that seemed to be stuck in her throat. It did little to help, her soft cough sputtering into an occasional wheeze as the feeling refused to budge. Great, she told herself, a cold was just what she needed before a party.
After a few minutes, Jen reappeared on the stairs, now dressed as a standard witch. She had a flared skirt that came down to mid-thigh, bright green tights, a cheap hat, and a fake nose strapped to her face.
“How do I look?”
“Like a Dollar Store hooker,” shot back Laura with a smirk.
“Perfect, that was my goal.” Jen rolled her eyes and laughed good-naturedly. “I think I need to put the cupcakes in the fridge. So they can cool in time for icing,” she added as she leaned her broom against the back door.
“Your call,” said Laura, scrambling out of the kitchen. Her trespass would soon be discovered, and she would rather be out of the way when it was. She couldn’t help but smile, though, as she dodged out to the couch. Her stomach continued turning over the food, and she felt an occasional pang from her gut. Maybe the cream cheese icing was not the best call for the lactose intolerant woman, she thought dryly.
There was silence in the kitchen for a moment.
“Lau,” came Jen’s overly sweet voice. Laura started to laugh, knowing it would ruffle some feathers. But what were friends for if not to push boundaries? “Did you eat one of these?”
“I might have. But it was consensual, I swear!” she joked.
More silence. Laura turned and looked over the back of the couch. She had expected some teasing, mock anger, maybe even a friendly scolding. Silence was surprising.
“You really shouldn’t have,” came the eventual reply. There was no humor in her voice, but rather a resigned, disappointed tone.
Laura knew well enough when to set joking aside. “I’m sorry, Jen. I’ll skip mine at the party, then. But they are delicious.”
A sigh. “That’s good, I guess.”
Laura resumed flipping through the channels, trying to quiet her guilt. Jen had seemed a lot more upset than she anticipated. As the channels flipped by, she continued to cough in an attempt to move the crumb, but it seemed to only get more and more stuck. Then there was something new, an uneasiness and guilt. Laura felt it as a subtle tightness in her chest, a sense of dizziness that settled over her. It was just a cupcake, she reminded herself, not Jen’s one true love. But that feeling continued to creep through her body, a noose tightening around her neck.
The doorbell rang, and Jen completed her ritual. Squeals, thanks, ringing bells. It all cycled again and again as time ticked by and sweat began to tingle on Laura’s brow.
And now her stomach was churning, unsettled turning into nausea.
“Aren’t you going to get ready?” called Jen from the kitchen. “We need to leave soon, if we’re going to be on time.”
“I think I’m going to lie down a minute before the party,” she responded. When she turned to look, Jen was just watching her.
“It’s eating away at you, huh?”
Laura forced a weak smile. “I thought it would be funny. Sorry, Jen.”
Jen waved her hand, as if brushing away the apology. “Don’t worry about it. I can tell it won’t happen again.”
Laura rose unsteadily from the couch, feeling the room spin around her. This was not just anxiety and guilt, she thought suddenly, but she also had no other explanation. Maybe a heart attack? The flu? Asthma?
Her mind raced through possibilities as she walked toward the stairs. She just needed to lie down, she told herself, but felt her legs weakening beneath her. One moment, she was walking toward the stairs. The next, she was face down on the carpet of the entryway.
“Jen,” she called out, her voice weak, “I think something’s wrong.”
Jen appeared in the doorway of the kitchen with a domed platter of cupcakes, looking down on Laura with a thin veneer of sympathy over her glee. “Oh, Laura, I told you to wait, didn’t I?” She walked over to Laura and kneeled down. Softly, she smoothed the hair from Laura’s sweaty brow. “You simply can’t go to the party like this,” she chided, almost motherly. “I can’t have you telling everyone my cupcakes made you sick, now can I?”
Laura tried to speak, but the muscles of her lips and tongue simply could not respond. They sat like glutted slugs on her face. She could hear vague sounds coming from her mouth, air passing through without any direction.
“I guess you’ll just have to stay in tonight. Bummer, huh?” With a smile and a wink, Jen was back on her feet and walking toward the door. “I’ll let everyone know you were sad to miss out.” She grabbed her broom and opened the door, turning back to look at her collapsed friend once again.
“I’d say don’t wait up, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be dead soon anyway,” she snapped.
The door closed behind her as Laura sank farther and farther into darkness.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Join in the Halloween fun here!
“We’re going to be late!” Joseph yelled up the stairs. He heard the closet door slam shut, followed by footsteps shuffling over to the stairs. Eventually, Jenna appeared, still trying to put one boot on as she navigated the stairway.
“Haven’t you ever heard of being fashionably late? No one’s going to care if we’re not there on the dot.”
“This is less on the dot, more on the right time zone. Besides, the invitation said 8:30, so we should respect our host by getting there on time.” He held out her coat. “Are you ready?”
Jenna paused to check her costume in the mirror one last time. She adjusted the gold hoop earring and slid back the bandanna. It took one more sweep of her outfit to decide she would pass as a pirate for the evening. Joseph propped up the stuffed parrot on his shoulder, but seemed less intent on scrutinizing every detail of his ensemble. That and he had the past ten minutes of waiting to make wardrobe changes.
“Let’s go,” she decreed finally, taking the coat from his hands and swaying out the door. She was halfway down the stairs before he had locked the door; apparently she had finally decided to get a move on.
“Do you have the directions?” Joseph yelled after her. She lifted her phone above her head and shook it once, just long enough for him to see the map on the screen.
Once in the car, she turned the heat up and settled into the passenger seat. The phone began dictating its directions with mechanical surety, and Joseph followed the instructions dutifully. The party was in the next town over, which meant a short drive on the pitiful state highway that served as the primary connector from one place to the other. At least the moon was bright and high in the sky, doing its best to make up for missing streetlights.
“I’ve never been a pirate for Halloween before,” Jenna mused from her seat, eyes unfocused as they stared out the window. “Have you?”
“Uh, I think when I was a kid I was once. My mom made the costume.”
“What was your favorite costume growing up?” she countered.
Joseph paused to think it over, mostly trying to remember what costumes he had actually worn. “I went as an army man one year. Painted my arms and face green, even. That was probably the best one I can remember.”
“That sounds so cute. I’m going to text your mom for pictures.”
“What about you?”
Jenna looked up from her phone with a smile that said she had been waiting for him to ask. “I was an astronaut for like three years in a row. Had a helmet and everything. If the costume still fit, I’d be an astronaut every year.”
“In a quarter mile, turn left onto Hibbard Springs Road,” added the GPS with programmed politeness. Joseph leaned forward in his seat as if that would help him spot the upcoming turn. His headlights caught the green road sign hanging lonely on the side of the road just in time to slow down and pull onto the side street. It was somehow even smaller and more isolated, forcing him to slow even further in order to avoid the car shattering pot holes and sudden drop-offs on the side. He looked anxiously at the clock. 8:47. So much for being on time.
“Their new place is really out there, huh?” Jenna commented as she bounced along with the car.
“I guess so. Said they wanted more privacy.”
“In five hundred feet, turn right onto Shady Glen Lane.”
Joseph kept his eyes peeled to see the turn, but eventually the directions changed.
“Make a U-turn.”
He eyed the narrow road dubiously and continued straight along the winding lane. “Did you even see the turn?” He saw Jenna shake her head from his periphery.
“I saw something, but I thought it was a driveway or something.”
“I’ll get turned around at the next road.”
“In one hundred feet, make a U-turn.”
Joseph smacked at the phone in irritation, turning off the driving commands for the moment. He knew the area he needed now, and the house was supposedly on Shady Glen. Out here, the cars should be enough to tell him which house he was looking for.
The road continued on without any evidence of a side street. If anything, it became narrower and bumpier the farther they went. Finally, a stop sign appeared from beneath the trees. A cross street, if nothing else, meant he could pull a quick turn. Not like there was a lot of traffic around.
Once turned around, he slowly moved along the road back to the place where they had missed their turn. It was easy to see why, as the road turned into mostly gravel at that point. It had probably been paved at one point, but the elements had their way with it. This was the sort of thing, Joseph thought, that was helpful to mention in directions to a party.
At 9:18, they pulled up in front of a brightly lit house surrounded by cars. There were cars on the side of the road, cars in the driveway, cars in the grass. “This is it?” he asked. The house was brightly lit, but he didn’t see anyone milling about inside or outside.
Jenna pulled the invitation from her purse and unfolded it, holding her phone up to read it. “449,” she muttered, glancing up to check the house number. “Yep! We’re here!”
They both seemed relieved to exit the car, joining hands to walk up the grassy hill to the front door. While they had both expected at least some music or sounds of people, it was still quiet. The door hung ajar.
“I guess they must be out back?” Joseph offered as he pushed his way into the house. There were abandoned cups and plates piled with snacks, but no people.
“In this weather? I hope they have a fire or something.” Jenna picked her way carefully into the house, looking from side to side. “You don’t think they’re trying to scare us, do you?”
“It’d serve you right for making us so late.”
“We would have been on time if you had at least gone the speed limit. And not missed the turn.”
It was eerie walking through the silent house. Their steps echoed around what should have been a festive place, but instead it carried with it the silence of a tomb. In the kitchen, they could see a bowl of chips that had fallen to the floor.
They could also, finally, see signs of life. Two large, glass doors led out to a nice, but empty patio. Well beyond that, they could see a roaring bonfire with people moving around it. They flailed and swayed, in time to music Joseph could not yet hear.
“Great way to start a spooky Halloween,” he said with a laugh. They had both begun to notice the tension creeping up along their backs as they walked through the house, and it was nice to release it all with the wide open doors.
Once on the patio, they could faintly hear the music. It seemed the sound system had moved outside for the fun. They walked hand in hand across the yard towards the welcoming flames.
“Hey!” Joseph called out when they were about halfway there. They saw a handful of moving people, but it seemed a lot of the guests were sitting or lying on the grass. It seemed strange, but perhaps there was some activity afoot. “You could have left a note on the door or something!” Some of the bodies turned toward him, but then back to the fire. No one responded.
“They probably can’t hear over the music,” offered Jenna, giving his arm a quick squeeze.
It was louder now, some playlist occasionally interrupted with ads. Joseph chuckled as he watched the dancers. He never knew his friends were so uncoordinated. Then again, most of the time he spent dancing with them was after a drink or two, and everyone knew alcohol served to enhance one’s natural coordination.
Closer now, Jenna paused, falling a step or two behind him. “Joe, are you sure they’re okay?” she asked. “This is the right house, isn’t it?”
He stopped and turned to her, looking inquisitive. “Yeah, why? Don’t let the house freak you out—we just missed them is all.”
“Yeah, but I don’t recognize them. No one.”
“It’s Halloween, babe. They are probably wearing masks.”
She still looked unconvinced, but began walking again anyway. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’m just getting some weird vibes.” She forced a smile and took his hand again.
Closer, and Joseph felt something tickling along the back of his neck. He didn’t know what it was, but Jenna was right. Something about all of this was off. The fire made a bright point that seemed to blow out the surrounding details. He could hear the music, but in the gaps between songs, there was something else. Yelling? Growling? It was too indistinct to draw a conclusion.
And then the people lying down or sitting slumped on the ground. That was not normal, especially not for a party like this. Maybe around 2am when everyone sober enough to leave had dispersed, but not a few minutes in. No one was that sloppy.
“Maybe I should call Craig, just to make sure we have the right place,” Joseph said, stopping in the damp grass and dragging out his phone. “Don’t want to crash someone else’s party, right?”
Jenna stopped beside him, hugging her coat to her and making an occasional glance toward the fire. It seemed some of the dancers had noticed them and were now staring. She tried to shake off their gaze, but felt it creep back along her skin each time.
The phone rang. And they both turned toward the source of the sound, a glowing square sitting forgotten a few yards behind them. Joseph lowered the phone. “Craig?” he called out, looking behind them. “Must have dropped his phone, I guess,” he said unconvincingly, walking back towards the house to retrieve it. Jenna followed closely, noticing now that some of the people had left the fire and were coming towards them.
“Maybe we should just go back to the house. See if we can’t get a hold of anyone,” she suggested somewhat frantically. Joseph stooped to pick up the phone, then recoiled. It was sticky, and he could see something blood red now covering his fingers.
He glanced around the field scanning around the darkness like he had not before. Before, they had only focused on the fire and making their way there. Now, however, he was looking for anything else. His mind was in survival mode, carefully studying the landscape for any clues that might get him out.
He found a big one.
No more than ten yards from their path out of the house, hidden by the shin high grass, he found Craig. His glasses were smashed into his face, his skin a network of claw and teeth marks. In the pale light of the moon, he could see dark patches along his face and clothes that were certainly blood. That darkness appeared to coalesce at the top of his head, where it appeared someone had spent a lot of energy smashing away every inch of skull.
Jenna did not wait, but took off toward the house. Joseph followed closely behind, flying across the grass and through the still open doors to the house. They skidded over discarded plates and napkins, careening through the house toward the front door.
Jenna risked a look back and caught sight of the first of their pursuers in the floodlights. There was no mistaking what she saw, and the word became the only thought in her head. She knew it from the rotted face covered in blood, from the empty eyes, from the shambling gait.
They were out of the house and scrambling back into the car within moments, Joseph slamming into reverse and pulling out onto the highway.
“Call the cops,” he barked as they flew down the lonely highway.
“And say what?” Jenna countered. “Did you see that thing?”
“You have to call. They’ll have to do something. Get the National Guard or—“
She was dialing, and he could hear the operator pick up.
“Yes, we were at a party and someone attacked our friends.” The words spilled out of her lips mechanically, pulling tears out along with them. She felt as if she could barely breathe, as if an invisible hand were crushing her throat.
Joseph strained his ears to hear the words from the other end. He gripped the wheel tighter and tighter as if that would get them farther away from what had just happened.
“449 Shady Glen Lane. I think some of them were dead,” she added, her voice breaking.
Comforting sounds from the other end of the line. “No, we left. They were still there. They were—“ Her eyes met Joseph’s, puzzling and then resolving. “They were dressed like zombies.” A pause. “No, I don’t know how many people there were.”
Eventually, she hung up the phone to sob into the fabric of the car. Joseph did his best, reaching over one hand to touch her shaking shoulder.
“Hey, we’re okay. We’re safe now.” The words fell hollow from his lips. They both knew that there was no more “safe” with something like this. They were fleeing.
And eventually, they’d run out of places to hide.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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Sasha sat in the living room, blankets pulled just below her eyes so that she could quickly hide at the scary parts and watch again when they had passed. It was past her bedtime, but her dad said she could stay up to finish the movie. It was a strange mixture of exhilarating and terrifying watching her first scary movie. He chuckled at her response as the mummy stalked closer to its prey.
“You know it’s just a movie,” he reminded gently. She nodded mutely, eyes glued to the screen.
Surprisingly, she had no nightmares on the ensuing nights, something that helped him relax. Sasha seemed to be captivated by the story, asking questions about mummies at the dinner table. Her mother simply rolled her eyes.
“But what do they look like under all those rags?” she asked inquisitively.
“They just look like a dead person. Like you or me but, uh, more shriveled.”
“This is fantastic dinner conversation, guys,” laughed her mother. “Think we can maybe leave the discussion of dead people for another time?”
“More shriveled? So like Uncle Dave?”
Her father laughed sharply, then regained control. “No, not like Uncle Dave. Like those flowers you pressed in your journal? How they got dry and dull? Kind of like that.”
“So you make mummies by pressing them?”
He looked shocked at her question, dropping his head to hide his broad smile. “Not quite. Listen, mommy asked you to talk about something else…”
Of course, for each question answered, there were a dozen more. It became, as things are wont to do with young children, almost an obsession. He drew the line when she and a friend used three rolls of toilet paper trying to make themselves into mummies.
Like everything, that fascination eventually faded, replaced instead with a sudden curiosity about their kindly next-door neighbor.
Mr. Nickerson had been their neighbor for three years, long enough for Sasha to grow attached. He was an older man, stooped and wrinkled. If the weather was nice, he would certainly be out in his garden, tending away to the flowers and vegetables that flourished under his tender care. Sasha enjoyed spending time with him in the dirt, learning about the different kinds of flowers.
“Mr. Nickerson says you have to water the plants,” she’d dutifully report to her parents at the end of the day.
“Flowers need a lot of sunshine.”
“You have to feed your plants, too.”
“Fertilizer is key.”
She also brought home more than just wisdom, occasionally showing up muddied and bearing a tomato or bouquet of flowers. It was an unconventional friendship, but one that blossomed. Mr. Nickerson was patient with her, even when her own parents would have been at the ends of their ropes.
This particular day, the growing season was nearing an end. Spring had long passed with its new growth, and summer had led to an acceptable harvest from the tiny garden. Now it was all about preparing for winter and harvesting the last few vegetable that could bear the fall.
“Plants need good dirt,” he told her sternly as he picked up a handful of soil and ran it between his fingers. She nodded and copied his behavior, unsure of what she was supposed to realize by touching the dirt. “So in the fall,” he continued, “we feed it with whatever it needs to grow.”
“What does the dirt need?” she asked. The dirt looked awful dirty to her, so she was not sure what it should be like instead.
“Dirt needs vitamins and minerals, just like you. That’s why I always put my leftovers in the ground,” he said with a smile. He chuckled softly at a private joke, then shook his head to dismiss it. “So we have to get rid of all the dead plants, bury them too if we want. Dead things help keep the dirt healthy, too.”
The lesson over, the two set to work pulling up plants that had withered and died, or those that Mr. Nickerson assured her would not grow anymore. He handed her a shovel and showed her how to turn over the soil, taking what had become packed ground and making it soft again.
Sasha went home that night with a whole new conversation about dirt, one she recited at dinner whenever anyone gave her the space to speak. And afterwards, she gathered up the plates and all the scraps, dumping them into a pile of vegetable, meat, and napkins.
“Where are you going?” asked her mother, catching her with the dinner plate on her way to the door.
“I’ve got to feed the dirt, mom,” she said, as if obvious. “Mr. Nickerson says you should put your leftovers in the dirt.”
“You can feed the dirt in the morning, then. It’s time for bed.”
There was a struggle, as there often is, but Sasha lost. As she often did. The refuse was set aside in a special container, her mother rolling her eyes as she sacrificed one of the remaining Tupperware bowls with a matching lid.
The next day, Mr. Nickerson was away. That did not stop Sasha from knocking on his door and looking around his house for her friend. He was not on the porch or in the kitchen. She checked the garage, but saw no one. And even peeking in through the bottom of his living room window yielded no results. She glumly paced over to the garden and set down her container, looking at the brown plot of ground. It looked like Mr. Nickerson had dug a lot of it last night, since so much of the dirt was fresh and wet. She couldn’t see any of his leftovers, but surely they were in there. It wouldn’t hurt to just—
She tipped her bowl onto the surface, then realize her error. It had to be mixed up. He had been clear about that. Which meant she needed her shovel. Only she was not sure where that would be. Mr. Nickerson was always good enough to have all her tools ready when she got there.
Sasha looked around the yard, eyes finally resting on the little shed tucked back in the corner. Her shovel was probably in there. She tried to peek in the windows, but someone had put wood over them. Taking a deep breath, she tugged open the door to the shed and stepped inside. It was hot in there, covered with spider webs. The smell also startled her. It was bad, like the time her dad had to call the plumber to fix the bathroom. She wondered if Mr. Nickerson needed a plumber in his shed, even though she could not see a toilet anywhere.
She stepped forward cautiously, trying her best to avoid running into any spiders or other bugs. Dirt she loved, but bugs scared her. The shovel was not immediately present, and so she pressed on. Which is where she found what she thought was the most wonderful find of her young life.
Sasha found a real life mummy. It, of course, was not moving, but it was there. Wrinkled, just like her dad said. Dull, like the flowers. It looked like a man with brown hair, but his hair was mostly gone. Of course, he wasn’t a perfect mummy. Instead of bandages, he was wrapped in a few layers of sheet, his head poking through the top. Just like the mummy in the movie, his mouth hung open. She could just imagine him groaning as he walked out of the shed and along the sidewalk.
What a treat!
“Daddy, guess what?” she asked that night, feet swinging freely from her seat at the dinner table.
He gave a curious grunt with his mouth full of pasta.
“Mr. Nickerson has a mummy. His very own mummy!”
“Sweetie, you know we aren’t supposed to tell fibs,” scolded her mother gently.
“It’s not a fib. I saw it, honest. He has a mummy in his shed!”
There was a look passed across the table that Sasha could not read. ‘This is your fault,’ said her mother’s eyes. ‘It’s no big deal,’ said her father’s.
“Do you think he’d teach me about mummies when we’re done with the garden?” she asked breathlessly. No one answered.
Just an overactive imagination, they thought, because any other answer was just too bizarre to even consider. Everyone knew mummies were real, but weren’t anything like in the movies. And they were real millennia ago, not in the modern day. Like most parents of children prone to flights of fancy, they did not give it a second thought.
Until, of course, Mr. Nickerson vanished in the back of a police cruiser shortly after.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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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.
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Janice paced in front of the movie theater, watching the last rays of sunlight vanish behind the skyline. With the sun setting, the wind kicked up. This was going to be one of those cold Halloweens, she reasoned. Around here, it was either too hot to wear a costume or you had to wear two or three layers just to keep warm. So no one got to see your costume. She was just glad to have outgrown the costume phase altogether. Now she did grown-up things. Like going to see the classic monster movie marathon at the theater with her new friend.
Her new friend who was already ten minutes late.
They had met online a few months back. He was, supposedly, new to town. They had connected on a message board advertising local events and businesses. He liked her handmade jewelry, she liked his wittiness. So they had chatted back and forth, emailing and texting. They even talked on the phone once or twice, but both realized they were better socially when there was a screen in the way.
Which is how they ended up agreeing to meet to watch the marathon. Janice’s phone buzzed its quick tone, indicating a message. She saw his name on the screen, followed by a rather short message. “Running l8. B there soon.”
“The show is starting soon.” She typed back, watching the text bubble pop up. “How far away are you?”
A few moments before another buzz. “Go in. Save me a seat and ill find u when I get there.”
Just what she needed, she thought. Another flake of a friend. She had those in droves. Janice had been convinced Drake was different. With a sigh, she pushed through the double doors and into the theater.
“Fifth row on the end,” she texted after finding a seat. The lights were low in the theater, ads for local businesses and the theater playing on a loop. There were a handful of people sitting in the theater, many of them in overly complicated costumes. Janice just tapped on her phone and snuck out a mini candy bar stolen from the candy her roommate made her promise was only for trick-or-treaters. Not like the little monsters needed all the candy.
The lights dimmed, and Drake was still a no-show. At least, she told herself, the night would not be an entire waste if he was standing her up.
Five minutes in to the first movie, someone dropped into the chair beside her. She snapped her eyes from the screen to see Drake smiling back. They had exchanged pictures a while back, but he looked even better than she remembered. Dark hair, dark eyes, full lips. She suddenly felt self-conscious in her jeans and t-shirt. It was just a casual meet-up between friends, they had agreed. Only now she kind of wished she hadn’t.
“Sorry I’m late,” he whispered, giving her hand a quick squeeze. She felt butterflies.
“No problem. It just started.”
A woman two rows ahead of them gave a quick glance behind. Though she was silent, Janice could read the irritation in her eyes. Drake appeared oblivious, tossing his feet onto the chair in front of him and settling in to his seat. “Dracula,” he said with a nod. “Good place to start.”
They watched Dracula, followed closely by The Mummy, then The Wolf Man to round out a trifecta of classic monster movies. As the lights rose, Janice swam back to reality, only to find herself still enraptured by her companion.
They stumbled from the theater with the rest of the crowd, spilling out onto a street that was dark and cold, but still alive with the festivities of the night. She could hear music coming from somewhere, a sound that almost seemed to be The Monster Mash spilling into the street. People still milled about in various stage of costume, making their way to and from events. She smiled as the moment filled her with drunken confidence.
“You wanna get something to eat around here?” she risked the question as she and Drake began walking down the sidewalk.
“Uh,” he began, caught off guard. She felt her heart pound in her throat for each agonizing second of silence. “I don’t really know what’s around here.” He spoke haltingly, an uncomfortable smile on his face.
“I use to hang out around here all the time, so I know some great spots. I could—“
“No, it’s not that. I just—I like to really know my food, you know?”
“Oh yeah, of course,” blustered Janice. She didn’t know. She, in fact, had no idea what that meant. But it was important to Drake, so of course she knew.
They stood frozen on the sidewalk, both standing just far enough away from each other to prevent anyone from getting the wrong idea, while remaining close enough people knew to walk around them. Janice began to think that, if they stood there long enough, she might actually become frozen to the sidewalk.
“Then, I, uh, I had a great time. Maybe we can do it again—“
He cut her off, grabbing her hand. “Sorry, I didn’t mean you have to leave.”
“No, maybe we could do something else, though?”
“Yeah, of course, yeah.” Don’t be so enthusiastic, she chided herself. You are a grown adult, not some fawning teenager. “But I’m really cold, so…Maybe a drink or something?”
He was still holding her hand, but she could feel the breeze nipping at her fingertips. Drake switched from foot to foot nervously, appearing to weigh his words very carefully. “I don’t really like the bars around here. Not my scene. We could always go to my place? It’s just a couple blocks away.”
Now it was Janice’s turn to pause. Her rule was to never go home with a stranger, because that was how people ended up in landfills. However, whispered something deep inside her, Drake was no stranger. She knew him well after months of chatting.
And, said another part of her, when had she ever had a chance with a guy like him? Besides, it was Halloween. Of all the days, maybe this was the one to take a little more of a risk. To live a little bit. They were all going to die eventually, right?
“Sure,” said someone else in Janice’s body. And then Drake was leading her by the hand down the sidewalk, through a part of the city she remembered like a dream. They made chitchat about the movies, Drake waxing poetic about the golden years of Hollywood. Janice agreed and listened, still somewhat shocked that she was truly following this beautiful stranger—friend, she corrected—through the streets.
“Here we are,” he finally said, stopping in front of a shabby looking apartment complex. He was new to the city, she thought, which meant he may not have had time to find the perfect place. This would do.
“Hope you’re thirsty. I know I am,” he laughed as they climbed the stairs. Eventually, he paused in front of a door identical to all the rest, pulling a key from his pocket. “Ladies first.”
She stepped inside, caught off guard by how dark it was. She had expected streetlights or moonlight to filter in through the windows, but she could barely make out the outline of them on the far wall. Just the tiniest seam of light peeked through. He must have some mighty strong blackout curtains, she thought. Drake stepped in behind her, and she heard the door click shut, sealing off the meager hallway light. Now the room was filled with impenetrable darkness.
“I think you forgot the lights,” she said between nervous laughs as she turned back towards the door and, hopefully, a light switch.
“I didn’t forget. I just think it makes it more exciting. Gets the blood pumping.” Drake’s voice seemed to come from in front of her, swallowed up in the darkness.
A slight chuckle, the tried and true defense mechanism of many nervous women. “There’ll be time for that later. I don’t want to trip over your sofa and break an ankle.” She found the wall, her hands quickly swimming over the surface to find a switch. There was a flood of relief when her thumb snagged the switch, the tension building in her chest snapping like a rubber band.
It recoiled as she flipped the switch to no effect. Again, she tried, with the same darkness. Now Drake began to laugh.
“I can hear your heart pounding from here,” he said, this time to her right. Janice followed the wall back to the door, but came up short as her hands found fabric and skin. Drake’s hands tightened around her wrists.
“I told you I like to get to know my food,” he whispered into her ear, pulling her tight against his body. “And you are just my type. Sweet, innocent, a splash of naïve—“ one hand left her wrists and trailed along her neck, twisting itself in her hair—“and absolutely terrified.”
Janice didn’t have a chance to scream before his fangs sunk deep into the side of her neck. The darkness all around her flooded inside until it was the only thing left.
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The collection of girls sat gathered around the Ouija board, huddled in tight. Candles flickered from the table top, casting just enough light to pick up the black letters printed on the board. Sherry’s mom had bought the game for them to play with on their annual Halloween slumber party. The nervous giggles died down as Sherry did the honors of asking the first question.
“Is there anybody out there?” she asked, leaving the words hanging there in the silence of the house. Her parents had gone to bed hours ago, and they had even agreed to send her annoying little brother to their grandparents’ house for the night. The triangle on the board stubbornly refused to move.
“I don’t think it’s working,” whispered Janie, doing her best to mask relief with boredom.
“Sh! Be patient,” barked Sherry. “It’s okay, you can talk to us,” she cajoled any listening spirits. “Just say hi!” Still nothing.
Claire piped up, always the voice of optimism. “Maybe they are just shy. It might be better if we introduce ourselves, first.” The remaining three agreed, Sherry eager to find anything that could help jumpstart what was supposed to be the main event.
“I’ll start. My name is Sherry. This is my house,” she smiled, looking around the room toward the ceiling. After no noticeable response, she nodded to her left.
“I’m Janie. That’s it.”
Everyone looked at the third member of the party. “I’m Olivia,” said the third, her voice thin and wavering. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Finally it came full circle. “And I’m Claire! Now you don’t have to be so nervous!”
“Good idea, Claire,” said Sherry with a smile. “Now, is there anybody out there?”
Their expectations rose, only to trickle back down as the silence stretched. No response.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” said Janie, rising and stomping out of the room.
Olivia piped up, uncertainty in her voice as always. “Maybe we could ask something else? Like maybe it’s rude that we keep talking like they aren’t even here?”
“Well what would you ask?” snapped Sherry.
“I don’t know, maybe…” Olivia leaned down, placing her fingers on the planchette. “Would you like to talk to us?”
For a moment, nothing. Then, the little piece of plastic spun toward “Yes.”
There was a moment of silence, then gasps as the reality settled in. “What’s your name?” said Sherry.
The pointer did not move.
“Are you dead?” asked Claire. Sherry gave her a withering look.
“You can’t just ask things like that. It’s rude, Claire.” But the being responded, the marker spiraling towards “No.”
“Are you a demon?” said Sherry quickly, her eyes wide.
“Well what are you then?”
A pause, Sherry eyeing the board with equal parts amazement, excitement, and terror. Slowly, this time, the marker moved.
“I-S-E-E.” Then it stopped.
“An isee? Like the slushies?” asked Claire with a short giggle. Sherry scoffed.
“No. I see. It sees or something. What do you see?” Sherry asked the ceiling.
“This isn’t funny. Are you doing that?” asked Olivia, fixing Sherry with a plaintive look. Sherry shook her head. The planchette moved to yes.
“How many people are in this room?” asked Claire, caught up in the moment.
“4.” The three girls quickly counted one another and arrived at the same conclusion. There were three of them sitting around the board.
“Why are you here?” asked Sherry. There was no response.
Janie’s return startled all three of them, and they fell back with shrieks that devolved into giggles.
“Janie, we’ve got something!” Sherry nearly shouted when she had calmed down enough. Janie looked skeptical.
“Really? What’s their name?”
“They wouldn’t tell us,” said Olivia, looking somewhat embarrassed and frightened at the missing information.
“Well, what is it then?” snapped Janie, obviously under the impression she was about to be the butt of some half-conceived practical joke.
The events of the night likely could have been attributed to sugar, a slight tendency towards deception, and superstition. Until that question. Because with that, the Ouija board responded on its own, no hands or sneaky fingers nearby to push the piece along the board.
“I-S-E-E,” it spelled again. Eight eyes watched it fearfully.
“What do you see?” asked Janie, her voice just above a whisper.
“We already—“ began Claire, but then piece was moving again.
“Y-O-U,” it reiterated, and everyone could feel the exasperation whatever it was had at repeating itself.
“What do you mean, you see us?” asked Janie with scared bravado.
“Y-O-U,” it said, moving faster. “Y-O-U-Y-O-U-Y-O-U-Y-O—“ Olivia snatched the thin piece of plastic off the board.
“I don’t think we should play with this anymore,” she said, hugging the pointer to her chest as her eyes stared down at the cheap board.
“Come on, Liv. It’s just getting good,” Sherry said. “Don’t be a baby and ruin it for the rest of us.”
Olivia looked at them, then tossed the marker to the floor before standing herself. “I’m going to bed, then. You guys can play with the devil all you want.”
“No,” said the board, but Olivia was already out of the room.
The remaining three circled around, leaning in close to watch every possible move.
“Are you a spirit?”
“Are you evil?”
“So you’re good, then.” Janie wasn’t asking, but the board answered.
“Maybe Liv’s right,” said Claire, her usual optimism dissipating as reality sunk in. Games weren’t supposed to play themselves. “I’m going to go to bed, too. I’m not having fun anymore.”
The door closed behind her, and Sherry leaned over the board with feverish excitement. “Can you see our futures?”
“Who am I going to marry?” began Sherry. She quickly crossed her fingers and began mouthing the name Tony Anderson, her crush since the third grade.
“That’s not an answer. You have to answer my questions.”
“Let me try,” interjected Janie. “Who will I marry?”
“D-A-V-E,” it said with some finality.
The two girls looked puzzled, turning the name over. Neither knew of a Dave. There was David Smith two years ahead of them, but he never went by Dave.
“A mystery man, eh?” joked Sherry.
“I guess so. Let’s try another one. Will I be famous?” asked Janie, a smirk on her lips.
“What about me?” interjected Sherry, already preening.
“An artist? An actor? A politician? A scientist? A—“ Sherry ran out of desired careers as the marker repeatedly bounced over the word “no.”
“Well then what?” she finally asked, exasperated.
There was a finality to the movement. Sherry turned white, her eyes seeming to take up half of her face with shock. “Dead,” she whispered, the word barely audible over the hum of the air conditioning unit.
“Yes,” the board dutifully replied.
“I don’t think I like this anymore, Janie,” Sherry said as she backed away. “I think this was a very bad idea.” Without taking her eyes from the board, Sherry turned the doorknob and exited the room, turning and running once she was out in the hall. Janie could hear her footsteps as the pounded down the stairs to the living room where Olivia, Claire, and safety were certainly waiting.
Janie eyed the board curiously, a smile barely visible on her lips. “So,” she began, “if she’s famous and I’m not, I guess that means they never catch me, right?”
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The change in the weather, the colors in the leaves, the shortening days. I felt tension melt from my body as the signs of autumn finally settled in. I felt in my element, I guess, with the rhythms of season finally aligning to my own. Even my wardrobe seems most at place in the middle of fall. I was never the sort to have bright colors to wear during the summer or pastels to flaunt in the spring. But give me some warm tones and a nice sweater, and I’m good to go.
Last year was no different.
Loving the fall often means getting out and enjoy it, which I tried to do as often as possible. My favorite thing to do was go for an all-night bonfire out in some secluded place. I was not interested nearly as much in the drinking and carousing—though that too is fun—as in the chance to be outside, feel the wind, smell the fire, and toast a marshmallow or two.
Trevor had invited me to the party. I always thought he had a thing for me, but it was never the right time. And then it was the worst time. I guess this is where I blame destiny or something, but honestly it just wasn’t meant to be. Either way, his grandparents have a farm out in the boonies, one of those places where the road is too far away for anyone to catch us burning a good sized fire.
I had a few drinks, a couple of hotdogs roasted over the fire, and more than my fair share of the s’mores supplies. The music had changed from frenetic dance songs to slower, calmer music. The smell of marijuana drifted through the air, contributing to the overall chill of everyone involved. Trevor was feeling smooth, so he sidled up next to me. I was staring up at the stars, trying to remember constellations from the trips my parents used to take me on. Out there, you could see so much. The stars faded on the horizon, city lights eating away at them. But if you looked straight up, it seemed like you could see forever. Maybe you could.
“Hey,” he said. I could hear the nerves in his voice. Rather than respond, I just gave him a mix between a hum and a sigh. He leaned back in the grass beside me.
“I’m glad you came out tonight. I was really hoping you could make it.”
“What can I say, you throw a nice party,” I replied with a smile he couldn’t see.
“Yeah, everyone seemed to have a good time.”
There was nothing to respond to in that, so I just let time pass between us. He was warm, and I could feel the warmth of his body spilling over onto me. I probably should have shifted closer to the fire, let it burn some of the chill off. But I was afraid of moving and breaking whatever spell had been cast in that spot where I could see forever.
He sat up on one elbow, looking down at me. “You just going to lay here the rest of the night?”
“I might,” I laughed. His face danced with shadows from the fire, but I could see the confident smile on his lips.
“Then I guess I’m just stuck here,” he said, dropping back to the ground with a dramatic flop. The alcohol made me giggly, and his display was not helping.
Silence again. Longer this time, but I could sense him fidgeting beside me. “There’s a really cool old barn. Back a ways in the woods. I could show you, if you want. It’s a little more private, and—“
I had begun to wonder if he was ever going to make a move. I suppose I could have, but I always preferred to be chased. At least, I used to. That’s another thing that changed.
The woods whispered around us as we walked an old hunter’s path through the underbrush. Leaves crunched beneath our shoes. Trevor held my hand, leading me carefully through the darkness and over fallen logs. I can’t say I was in my most coordinated state, but we managed to make it with only minor falls.
The barn was impressive, obviously once home to a large production. Of course in the day and age of commercial agriculture, most families had no need of a structure so large. Trevor opened the door, releasing the sharp squeal of hinges. In the echo of it, I thought I heard something reply. But it faded before the last, ear-piercing groan of the door had fully dissipated.
Trevor led me inside, and I pretended to look around as I watched him. The next moments were a blur of sensations, first pleasant and then terrifying. Trevor and I were kissing, his hands on my body. He lifted my shirt and I felt a quick gust of cool October air chill my skin. I kissed him back, tasting smokiness and cheap beer on his tongue.
Then there was undeniably something else, some new sound. It was part howl, part groan, and it ripped through the barn. Something was outside. Trevor pulled away, looking toward the door.
The lighting was poor and we had wandered away stupidly without a flashlight, but there was a clear silhouette in the doorway. Something large, almost dog-like, but standing far too tall. With a bay, it sprang forward into the barn. Pleasure melted into fear.
Trevor was screaming and there was the smell of must. I remember falling, landing in the dirt and decaying hay while sounds of a struggle bounced around me. In one instant, I saw Trevor standing with his back against the far wall. His eyes darted around the barn, landing on me as panic flooded his system.
“Trisha, you gotta get out of—“ something moved between us, and his words turned into yells. “Get away from me!”
The next thing was a sharp yell from Trevor, one that started strong and ended suddenly. I smelled blood in the air.
Whatever it was vanished again, seeming to leap in and out of the shadows around me. I scrambled to my feet and over to Trevor. The dirt was sticky with blood, and it clung to my hands as I reached down and tried to lift him up. He wasn’t speaking now, wasn’t moving.
My hand suddenly sank deep into something soft and warm, something which pulsed once or twice with a spurt of blood before growing still. My eyes tried to make sense of it, tried to understand how my hand was somehow inside his body while his eyes looked on. But they couldn’t.
There was growling behind me, a rolling warning sound. I should have turned and looked, maybe run. I can think of a lot of things that would have been better answers. Instead, I sat in shock and stared at Trevor’s face, at my hand halfway through his gut.
Then I got a chance to experience what it was like for Trevor. Something pierced my shoulder, something sent me forcefully to the ground. My head slammed into Trevor’s chest, covering it with sticky blood. Then there was my own blood adding to the mix, binding us together in unholy union. I felt teeth and claws tearing at me, shredding the skin of my back. Jaws closed around my wrist and puled until I thought my arm would half to dislocate from the rest of me. And then, as suddenly as it had begun, there was nothing but unconsciousness.
I woke up and Trevor didn’t. If that were all that happened, it would be a terribly traumatic story, but just another story of a rabid dog and some unwitting victims. Only it wasn’t. Because I woke up whole and healed, while Trevor laid there with a hole sliced through him. And things began to change forever.
So now, I still love autumn. I’m a natural autumn. It brings with it long nights under the changing trees, the wind whistling through my hair. I no longer like to be chased, but I certainly like to pursue. The fall leaves make that easier, helping me listen to the sound of my prey in flight. I love the way they crunch beneath my feet as I move silently through the woods.
It’s too bad Trevor didn’t make it. Maybe we would have had our chance then. Then again, if he had made it, I’m not sure what I would have eaten those first few days. I think he would have liked the idea of sacrificing himself for me.
I still love to go to cookouts. Those times in the wee hours of the morning when everyone is drowsy, vulnerable. They taste of smoke and spice. And when the revelry has died down, I can lie contented and look at the stars.
Sometimes I think I can see forever. Maybe I’ll live long enough to find out.
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.
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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.
Guys, I have been working on this story for probably two years. It sat on the back burner for a long time, but I always came back to it, adding a little here and there. I really dove back into it about a month ago, and I am finally somewhat happy with it. It is an early draft, so I almost certainly will be making edits to it. I plan to submit it in this open period of creepypasta.com (I have two other pieces already submitted, and those will be posted here when I find out if they were accepted or not.), but it will probably be a later draft. I’m also planning a post that shows my editing process, just because I have that information for this and it is a kind of cool process. But, this is the overall plot and flavor of the story, with the likely edits focusing on making the ending smoother. As this is a living document, I really appreciate any feedback you may have. Happy reading!
The implants had ostensibly started as a medical breakthrough. Injectable nanobots that could control brain functioning? The implications for modern medicine were endless, and quickly surged. Of course, with most things, the money was not to be made in life saving and life altering medical interventions, but in mass market appeal. And the market was certainly there.
David was an early adopted. He had leapt at the opportunity to be on the front lines of this new era of human communication, entertainment, and exploration, riding the wave into the future. Now, fifteen years later, they were ubiquitous. Sure, there were still luddites who refused to enter the modern era, as there always were, but he took pride knowing he had ushered in a new era with the implants
They were an integrated biomatrix of nanounits that tapped into the brain. Careful procedures and controlled biotech growths spread contact points through the sensory, auditory, and verbal processing centers of the brain to interpret and respond to neural signals instantly. It put the world at your fingertips—better, at your synapses—and David had been desperate to submerge himself in the pseudo-world the implants created.
David loved his implant. He loved the freedom it gave him to go anywhere and do anything within the comfort of his own home. He loved the instant access to knowledge, and even more so the instant gratification of pop culture. David loved to be connected, because when the whole world was nothing more than a thought away, an empty apartment was simply an empty palette for whatever he could imagine.
And tonight, well tonight he was imagining a redhead.
The implant made it easy. He didn’t have to speak, just merely think and allow the biomatrix to tap into the speaking part of his brain. It took those thoughts that could have slipped through his lips as words and turned it into data. That data sprinted to the internet and dug up a very highly rated program. Now, David had plenty of redhead’s on file, but something this highly rated might be worth it. Besides, variety is the spice of life.
As it launched, he was impressed by the full and curving figure before him, perfected in the way only a computer could mold. She was aggressive, which wasn’t necessarily David’s style, but he could handle that. She strode over to him, her stiletto’s leaving tiny knifepoints in his plush carpet. Her hands wrapped around him, dragging him closer and ensnaring him in her arms. He was captured, completely at the mercy of the technological goddess. Her passion was infectious; he let it wash over him and take control, burying his lips into the soft skin of her neck before moving towards the full breasts as they drifted towards the bed.
David actively ignored the little voice whispering in his mind that the flesh his hands explored so eagerly was nothing more than a few stray electrical impulses. He pushed aside the notion that his own rising arousal was just a brain mediated process that triggered the right muscles at the right time. If he could hear, feel, see, and taste her just like she was real, who could argue against the reality of it? Who decided where the line between reality and fiction was when his brain registered every simple motion and touch as real?
David had his fill and rolled onto the sheets beside the woman. He wasn’t desperate and lonely enough yet to waste his time cuddling in the afterglow with zeroes and ones. He thought to close it, but was surprised when he could still feel her weight fluctuate slowly with her breath in his bed. Close, he thought again, but nothing happened. David looked over at the naked program lying in his bed, beginning to wonder if he had so blur the lines between the implant created reality and external reality that he had forgotten seducing such a vixen. That was impossible…but….
Her back was to him, and he felt his eyes wander down the soft S of her spine, but he snapped them back up to reach towards her shoulder. He felt warm flesh between his fingers as he tugged at her, urging her to roll towards him.
She did, but the face was different. There was no more beautiful young woman, but now a wrinkled hag wearing an ill-fitting red wig. She cackled before springing towards him. Her legs wrapped around his torso as her rotted mouth pressed against his lips again and again, her decaying teeth pulling and tearing at his lips until they bled.
David began desperately pushing her away, feeling old flesh tear at his advances. He clawed at her, screaming for the program to close in thought and word, but nothing happened. She continued pulling at him, smothering him as her teeth tore into his skin. Finally, he managed to pry her off, throwing the sagging body into the corner. Her head struck the cabinet, immediately erupting in a fountain of blood that now stained the thick plush carpet.
David didn’t know what was happening. He felt like he was coming apart. Had he just killed her? Was she even real? He rushed towards the bathroom to gather a towel. Maybe he could stop the bleeding and get her to a hospital. Maybe he could get himself checked out as well. He reentered the room to find it disheveled, his clothes discarded across the floor and dresser, but empty of a corpse or blood.
It had been a trick. He had been trolled at a masterful level. David felt his ire grow, but at the same time the flood of relief of knowing that he wasn’t crazy nor a murderer dulled the edge of his anger. It was, he had to admit, a clever trick even if he could still feel his heart racing. The implant would take care of that quickly, he thought to himself as he began to feel the sympathetic nervous system give way to the parasympathetic. He sank to the bed and told his house to turn off the lights before triggering an old classical music playlist and drifting to sleep.
He was drowsy upon waking, something he was not used to. Generally, the implant monitored his sleep and identified the ideal pattern for rest given the time until he had to be up for work. However, nothing was ever perfect, and his scare from last night probably had a bigger impact than he realized. It took time for hormones to fade, even with the implant. David groaned as he rolled off the bed. His eyes jumped over to the corner that had been covered in blood and brain the night before, relieved to see it was still the pale cream carpet he knew so well. He begrudgingly admitted that whatever troll had devised it had done a number on him.
Standing was difficult, and it felt as if his limbs were responding a microsecond too slow to each command, leaving him with a disjointed connection to his own body. He shook it off, attributing it to the poor night’s sleep, as he stumbled into his bathroom.
Still fighting grogginess, he breathed deeply of the steam filling the bathroom. He stared at the bathroom mirror and sought for something. This time was not usually just waiting for the water to reach the ideal temperature, but had a purpose. Only now, staring at the mirror, he felt a gap.
Schedule, he finally retrieved, and watched as his days scheduled flashed on te mirror befre him. Meetings, but mostly free time. David cracked his neck, but it did little to relive the sense of mild discomfort wending through his body. There was a soft tone from the shower, alerting him it was ready. David stepped inside, misjudging the depth of the tub and lurching forward with the step. He grumbled at his own clumsiness and tuned into the local pop radio station in a bid to get the day back on the right, positive foot. Perhaps his neurotransmitters needed a little readjusting.
Shower. Closet. Kitchen. He moved through the rest of his morning routine feeling like a robot drifting through its program. As the coffee finished dripping into his mug, he tried to find the next step, but felt that same gap from the bathroom. Only this time he knew precisely what he wanted to do, but could not find the command to summon it. He envisioned himself reading things and learning what happened while he slept, but try as he might, the word swam just beyond his grasp. It was on the tip of his tongue—the tip of his neurons. But try as he might it would not come. Show me the—
Entertainment? No, that was not right. It might work, but it was not what he wanted. Not the tv or radio.
Show me the…
“News.” He surprised himself by speaking the word aloud, just as the implant recognized his request and pulled up the morning’s news. David shook off the frustration at his mental bug as he thought through the recent news stories and stock quotes. News. He turned the word around in his head. An easy word, but something that had been trying. He sighed.
Maybe this was old age? Aches and pains, fatigue, and forgetting the names of basic things. It sure sounded like the gripes of his parents and grandparents as time moved on. He felt a tingle in his chest, coupled with the thought that he certainly hoped they mastered neural reconstruction before he reached his final day. Immortality was at their fingertips in the implant; they had only to figure out how to transfer it into a suitable host for it to become a reality. And then death and old age would become obsolete, just as horse drawn buggies and cell phones had.
His stomach growled, not appeased by the coffee. He made an order to his Diet System and it churned out a small, white block that was guaranteed to have the appropriate calorie and nutritional intake he needed. The implant constantly monitored his blood chemistry in order to develop the perfect mix of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to keep him fit and healthy. Of course, that meant it was basically a flavorless brick of health. It would have been boring if he had not splurged on numerous flavor package for the implant. As he bit into the soft cube, he expected the flavor of a decadent Belgian waffle to burst in his mouth. It was, after all, just synapses.
Instead, however, he tasted meat and iron, rot. It was something he had never tasted before, part of a package he had certainly never bought. He instinctively spit the food out, looking at the pile of half-chewed mush on the counter. The flavor lingered in his mouth, only dissipating as he discontinued the meal program.
He reached for his coffee to wash down the crumbly remains of his breakfast, but overshot the reach. Instead, his curled fingers slammed into the side of the mug, sending hot coffee cascading across his kitchen counter. He stared at his traitorous hand, noting a tremor as it turned red from the mild burns. Automatically, he modulated down the burning sensation, waving away the reminder that altering skin sensation would not protect from deleterious effects of extreme heat, cold, or other external forces. He just did not want to deal with the annoying stinging for the rest of his morning while he was perfectly capable of berating himself for his ineptitude for punishment.
Towels. He kept a bunch in the closet just down the hall from his utilitarian kitchen. David marched there, but felt the room spin and sway around him. His steps were uncoordinated—his joints at once too stiff and too loose. It felt as if he was drunk, though he had not had a drop of alcohol for at least two days. Bracing himself against the wall, he began creating a memo to his boss.
“Hey Nate,” he thought, his head swimming, “I felt not good. Think I’ll take a tan to sort the files. Get the implant specced for next year. Thanks.” He paused, mentally reviewing the message. Only then did the nonsense sink in. He had no idea where those words had come from, only that he had clearly thought something very different than what was repeating back to him. There was clearly something wrong. Frustrated, he deleted the first message and started again.
“Nate, Out sick. Thanks.” If he kept it simple, perhaps it would work. It was terse, but accurate, he conceded as he sent it off. The coffee would have to wait, because there were bigger issues at play.
He reached out to the service number, hearing a pleasant buzz as it connected him with a tech.
“NanoNeuro Inc, this is Jeff. How can I help you?”
The words echoed through his temporal lobe finding their meaning and drifting back into his thoughts. David held onto them, momentarily afraid they would be just as jumbled. He tried to keep his thoughts and words brief.
“Implant trouble. Help?” Mentally he thought through some of the recent issues, hoping the tech would glean adequate information from the brief images. David did not trust himself to try and explain them all. A brief whistle from the tech. “Wow, that is a rough morning. How old is your system, sir?”
David felt a familiar wave of irritation.
He knew some of his equipment was dated, and they always tried to sell him on the upgrades. He carefully separated those thoughts from the ones for the tech. “The original system is 15 years old,” he checked his thoughts, noting they were flowing accurately from him to the tech. This was good. Perhaps just a glitch. “But I’ve gotten routine upgrades, last one about six months ago.”
“Have you completed the most recent updates?”
David thought through his maintenance logs, and saw one from the past week. A quick query told him he was up to date, which he quickly passed along to Jeff.
“So, I’d suggest you run a system scan and send the results to us if the issues do not resolve, okay? Things like this aren’t uncommon with our older models.”
Irritation flared brightly. He was being mocked, David thought with absolute certainty. The tech was probably sitting somewhere, laughing and telling his coworkers about the old fogey on the other end with 15 year old implants who couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working. He was probably even recording it to pass along later. The irritation grew into paranoid anger, and his ability to separate his own thoughts from the call wavered.
“Sir, I will terminate our connection if you continue to threaten me.”
“…Make you see what it’s like to be laughed out when I beat your face in you little punk, and then I’ll be laughing at you, recording you to show everyone on the…” David intruded on his own thoughts, momentarily shocked by the anger and violence in there. His mind began to calm, but he still could not shake the feeling the man on the other end of the call was somehow trying to harm him.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered, both mentally and aloud. However the line had already been cutoff in response to the aggression. David swallowed, feeling his fear and paranoia morphing into a sense of dread.
“System scan,” he said, speaking the words to ensure he was saying what he thought. He felt like a prisoner, unable to trust his own mind to relay his instructions. A friendly chime sounded inside his head. “Scan initiating. Verifying neural access pattern…”
The paused seemed to stretch infinitely. Perhaps there were network issues? Could that be causing some of his problems?
Then there came another, lower, more negative (angry? Dangerous?) tone. “Access denied. Neural network not recognized.”
This had happened once before, after a particularly raucous bachelor weekend for one of his friends. Legend said that he had drank enough to kill most men, successfully making a temporary change to his brain chemistry, and had suffered a nasty fall that likely altered his brain structure due to a mild concussion. A quick stop at his local hospital had gotten him sorted again.
Only this time—
David pushed the thought away, feeling that fear and anxiety creeping back in. He wanted to run and hide, but the thought marched mercilessly on.
Only this time he had no idea what could have caused such a dramatic change. He had fallen asleep and woken up with a new brain?
His heart was pounding, his breaths coming more and more quickly. “System scan,” he tried again, his voice quieter than the last time. The same cheery beep, and then the dull tone.
“Neural network not recognized.”
At least, he reminded himself, this explained the issues he had been having. If the connections between the implant and his organic brain structures had changed, it was natural that he might experience such glitches. At least, it made sense he would.
His hand was numb as he reached for his keys. Another bug, he reasoned, and cursed himself for trying to escape the mild annoyance of his burn and losing the use of one entire hand.
Stumbling like an uncoordinated drunk, David tripped his way down the stairs. He needed to get to the train station and the hospital. He’d be right as punch after, he told himself.
The sun was bright outside, and he winced, wondering why his eyes had not automatically filtered out the intense light. Another glitch to add to the list. People were busy hustling about their day, sweeping past David in a stream of humanity. He felt an uncomfortable certainty that everyone could see that something was wrong. Somehow, he knew they were eyeing him. Like a lion picking the weakling from the herd. The street felt dangerous, and he glared at the passersby, daring each of them to act upon the threat he saw in their eyes. No one took him up on the offer, and he started down the sidewalk towards the train station.
At least, he thought it was toward the train station. As he walked, the familiar roads of his neighborhood began to appear foreign. Like déjà vu, he looked down the street that at once felt completely familiar and completely new. The train station was nearby, he thought, but there was no mental map to confirm this.
Now people were certainly looking at him. Circling him. Ready to pounce if he ever turned his back. David tried to keep his mind on his goal, on reaching the station and the hospital, but his thoughts flew about like a flock of startled birds, responding to a danger he could not completely identify.
So he walked, hoping one road would lead him to the correct location. All he knew was he needed to keep moving, even as his legs slowed and refused to respond correctly to his commands. He was shuffling along the sidewalk, eyes wide. Every corner was some new risk, and he remained on high alert.
Road signs, he remembered. They would show him the way. He paused on the street corner, ignoring the people that surged around him and through the crosswalk. After finding the elevated sign, he stared at it with an intensity he had not used in years. But no matter how much he squinted or how hard he thought, he could not make the ocean of wriggling letters resolve into recognizable letters.
Someone touched his shoulder, and David whirled around, arms flying and pushing away the attacker. It was a woman who looked shocked. Looked. He knew it was a clever ploy.
“Are you okay?” she stammered, drawing away from him with slow, measured steps. His posturing appeared to work, he noted.
“Fine,” he barked, the words more growl than language. But she appeared to understand, backing even farther away.
“Is there someone I can call for you?” she attempted again.
She was going to have him locked up, he thought. Like an animal in a cage so they could all come and watch him. Throw things. Prod and poke at him. He would be on display. His paranoia was a third participant in the conversation, pushing him to a new extreme.
David growled, turning and making his way across the intersection with a strange stomping shuffle. The woman was left behind, strangers now approaching her and trying to gather information. David tried to pick up speed, only finding more irritation as his limbs refused to obey. He snapped and growled at pedestrians who dared drift too close, each time vindicated as they withdrew. He would not be an easy target, he resolved.
Hunger. That was the next reality. Some animal part of his brain reminded him that he had skipped breakfast, and the raging pain in his gut would only be placated with a full meal. All around him were restaurants now, but they smelled of death. Poison. Was that the new ploy? Try to lure him into one of these places and stuff his gullet with poison?
David was smarter than that. He pushed forward, certain the train station had to be nearby. And he needed to get to the train station so that he could….
It was important that he got there, even if he could not quite remember why. Certainly being there would clear things up. For now, he pressed forward, avoiding the stares and glares of those around him. Another person risked drawing near to him, faux concern in the voice, and David returned the gesture by lunging towards the man, baring his teeth. The man stumbled backward and then continued his frantic retreat. David knew their plans.
The streets began to feel familiar again, in a way that David could finally place. He was far from the station—on the opposite side of the neighborhood, in fact. At this point, he was better heading to the next stop down. Like fog lifting, the map resolved itself. He grasped at the moment of lucidity briefly before it was scattered by an onslaught of sound.
Wailing and whistling, the sound echoed around him. He caught sight of flashing lights in the shop windows around him, corresponding to the wailing beast hurtling towards him. Doctors, his mind supplied as he searched for the term. But he had not called them, so why were they here?
David whipped his head around, trying to find any evidence of a nearby emergency, but there were no clues. Only those same, dangerous people now circling him. All looking at him. He was surrounded.
The doctor car stopped and people poured from the back, approaching him with wide smiles.
“Hey there,” said one of them, holding his hands up. “Are you okay? We got a call that said you were having some problems.”
The man in the uniform came closer slowly. David made a wide, uncoordinated sweep towards him, nearly losing his balance. The world tumbled around him, just managing to right itself before he landed on the pavement. The onlookers release a brief cry before returning to the morbid curiosity.
“Would you mind having a seat and letting us take a look? You’ve got a lot of people worried.”
Now there were more cars with their lights and sounds. More people, standing behind the cars, eyeing him, talking to one another. There were weapons. He was surrounded, came the thought again. He was injured, hungry, and surrounded. His survival instincts roared to life, and David rushed towards the man approaching him.
The paramedic let out a short cry and then David was on him. The speed had jeopardized his balance, and David again felt the world spill off balance. This time he went down, taking his attacker to the ground with him. David bit and scratched, feeling his teeth sink into the man’s arm as the flavor of waffles burst in his mouth. He could even feel the syrup dribbling down his chin.
Suddenly, there was another sensation. Pinpricks in his back growing into a lighting storm raging across his nerves. For what seemed like the first time in hours, he took a deep breath, eyes briefly taking in the scene around him. There was fear. Blood. What had he done?
And then, the storm swelled until there was only darkness.
David woke in a hospital bed. There were bright lights and beeping machines. In one breath he achieved consciousness. The second brought all his fear and anger roaring back. He had been captured. They would pay.
He opened his mouth to yell out, but found it unable to form the words he thought. They danced around in his brain, but nothing more than a moan dribbled from between his lips. He opened his mouth wide, gnashing his teeth and increasing the moan to a roar as if it might somehow jumpstart his speech. They must have done something, he thought. It was the only reasonable conclusion.
If he could not call out, then he was on his own. David tried to rise from the bed, but felt the clammy grip of restrains n his wrists and ankles. They held strong, pulling him tight against the bed. Trapped, echoed the words again.
A terrifying certainty settled over him. It was too late. They would torture and kill him, he knew, and there was nothing he could do. Nothing besides get his story out there.
Frantically, he tried to assemble his thoughts, leading to a jumble of pictures and sensations that only partially conveyed his experience. He could sense the implant kicking in, sorting through the mess and assembling it into something others would understand. It had not abandoned him, he thought. Even if it had not been working earlier, now it was his savior.
Reviewing the information, David only felt a vague familiarity with it. It reminded him more of a game of some sort, but it would have to do. Already he felt his thoughts growing more and more scattered. He growled in pain and rage before sending the file to everyone he knew. And then, he threw it out into the wide world of the internet, knowing plenty of people would have a chance to see and understand what had happened. He would have justice.
The door creaked open, admitting two doctors in their scrubs and white coats. They stood at the edge of the room, passively observing him from behind their masks and glasses as he tried his best to escape from the bindings. This was it. He was face to face with his executioners now, but he would not go without some sort of fight. The room echoed with his growls and the snap of leather. Soon, the scent of iron joined in as his wrists bled raw. The hunger returned.
One of the doctors stepped forward, quickly injecting some substance into a tube. Almost instantly, David felt a warm cloud settle over him. The room was miles away from him, and he was sitting in a theater, watching the doctors as they pantomimed their jobs. He watched as they pointed at something in the air, discussed X-rays. Mutations, she said. He nodded. Uncontrolled proliferation. The words floated around the room, mingling with their fear.
“What could do this?” asked the slender male, staring at David as if he was a monster on display. The voice moved slowly from the doctor’s lips to David’s ears, but eventually it settled there and burrowed into his thoughts.
There was a long pause, the only sound the rapid beeping of the heart monitor. After a moment, the woman spoke up. “A virus,” she said, matter-of-factly. Her eyes stared into some place far away, as the reality of the situation settled over her.
“Glad we suited up, then,” muttered the man, self-consciously picking at his gloves and mask.
She shook her head. “Not that kind of virus. His implant has one. We need to quarantine him before he can send it to anyone else.”
Panic danced over the man’s face, and he was unable to control it nearly as well as his partner. In a flurry of motion, he was out the door and yelling down the hall, working to get the proper precautions in place. She remained in the room, her eyes a mixture of pity and despair.
David smiled from his drug-induced haze. He would have justice.
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.
Hey, here;s a little something I whipped up tonight. The first line was pretty much the information, a quote adapted from something one of my supervisor’s said during training. Just a idea, bit of a thought experiment with some mild twists thrown in. As always, feedback heartily welcomed. I hope you enjoy, and happy reading!
Hope is the knowledge that the next moment can be better. It is about potential and the inexorable march of time. I used to think my next moment could be better, but eternity has dissuaded me from that foolishness. I live without hope.
At least, I think I live. I have been trying to remember those qualities I learned in grade school to determine if something was alive. Living things move, but I have not twitched an inch in so long, I know longer know which direction my libs would customarily travel. Living things reproduce and grow, neither of which I have done any of recently. I know that energy is a part of being alive, and I suppose I have enough energy for thought. Then again, so would a computer, and it certainly is not alive. Unless the world has changed more than I realize.
I remember my teacher—Mrs. Hasemblat—writing the signs of life on the board. She started with simple things, like dogs and rocks, and then got more and more tricky. Were trees alive? What about fungi? Bacteria? Viruses?
Living things had to be organized, and I suppose I am still organized. I know that I have two arms, two legs, ten fingers and ten toes. My lips are dry and cracked, a constant source of dull irritation. I assume my eyes sits right where they always have, crushed too deeply into my face and set just too far apart to make me conventionally attractive. Knowing no one can see you makes you surprisingly honest about physical appearance.
The one that seems to fit me best, however, is that complicated process of homeostasis. Mrs. Hasemblat talked about air conditioning and hunger to help us understand. She brought in a set of scales and showed us how things can be balanced. I am perfectly balanced. Never one bit out of sync, always exactly as I should be.
And perhaps that is it. I finally hit the perfect human balance point, and now my body refuses to disrupt that delicate homeostasis. I’d love to say I’ve spent days, weeks, or years here in limbo, but without another moment to come along, that time really has no meaning. It’s hard to describe how something can feel so long when time has absolutely no reign in some strange purgatory.
I’d wonder if others noticed that I was gone—or I used to before that thought experiment became too boring. I ran through every permutation, and none of them were promising. More importantly, none of them broke this curse. I assume they did not, because they are still sitting in front of me, their faces lit with smiles. Jason has a forkful of pasta halfway to his mouth, eyes bright with the first half of a joke. I never got to hear the end of that joke. I think I figured out what it would be, because I have had plenty of time to contemplate how “a man called the electrician about his washing machine,” can end. At least I can find solace in the fact that the joke was likely terrible.
Claudia’s hand is on mine. Her skin is still warm, a comfortable weight atop my fingers. She was mid-laugh when it all stopped. At least I can be close to her, even though I cannot see or hear her.
Yes, the lack of sound is concerning. Well, lack of sound is incorrect. There is sound, but it is just a single moment of sound, playing endlessly. A dull thrum of a single syllable from every mouth. It just becomes useless white noise, or at least it did after a while.
I wonder if I have died. Or if the world ended. Or if someone unplugged me and left me in some strange limbo, forever caught between one page of my life and the next. Good things were going to happen, I am certain of it. Only those moments will never come. The next moment certainly would be better, but I am convinced now that it cannot. It cannot be better because it cannot be. I am forever in this single instant, a frozen memory forgotten by someone.
I wish I were dead, because nothingness would be better than the intolerableness of being and having no agency. I cannot move or speak or cry or sleep or read or die. And that must be the ultimate injustice. I cannot even choose to cease to be, to escape this hell of emptiness. I must continue on, a solitary sentry on this instant time forgot.
Jason’s eyes watch me, and I find myself sinking deeper into despair. That is the only thing I can change about my state. I can despair and mourn and bitterly embrace my cruel fate. And so I despair a bit more, and let myself think again that they all may be trapped with me. Perhaps Claudia is just as frozen at my side, our child half-knit in her belly and destined to never be born. Is Jason frozen, the words of his stupid joke forever pasted to his lips? Has the whole world stopped on its violent course through the universe and held onto this microsecond of existence?
Perhaps the universe collapsed. Or maybe the Earth did stand still, sending us plummeting into a void where physics, time, and human consciousness have no meaning.
I have thought of a million and one possible scenarios, but none of them help to set me free. If hope is knowing the next moment can be better, than I of all people am certainly hopeless. I cannot even hope to die any longer.
Maggie dragged her arm under her bed, scraping up years’ worth of detritus from underneath. It was hard to imagine actually leaving the old house, but her burgeoning family certainly needed more room to grow. It was hard to say goodbye to such a good home.
She sat up and surveyed the assortment of trash, papers, and forgotten treasures. There were more candy wrappers than she wanted to admit, a handful of cat toys, two letters Alvin had written her, a framed picture from her senior prom, and a dog-eared old book. She sorted the trash from the keepsakes, and then turned her attention to the book. Donation or library, she pondered?
The cover was dusty, and she did not immediately remember the title. Her bookmark was still wedged halfway between the covers, so she guessed she must have dedicated some time to it. Still, flipping to the back cover offered no further illumination. Claudia, Jason, Cory, and Luanne were high school friends reconnecting when they were caught up in a supernatural thriller of sorts. It was definitely the kind of cheap, cliché, fast-paced book she liked to read, but it had been sorely neglected.
She flipped it open, sneezing as it gave up a hearty serving of dust for her efforts. She scanned the page where her bookmark sat, reading briefly about the dinner where they finally put aside the years of difference and began to reconnect. As she read it, she felt tingles of memory. It seemed like things were about to take a terrible turn—the lights would probably go out soon, she thought with a smirk.
“Jason leaned forward, his dinner halfway between table and snapping teeth. It was spared for the briefest of moments by a joke. ‘So, a man called the electrician about his washing machine…’ he began, looking around the table to be certain he had everyone’s attention.
Cory was rapt with attention, barely noticing Claudia’s manicured hand finding its resting place on his, giving him a light squeeze. They waited with bated breath for the rest of the joke. Jason had always been the class clown, ready with a quick wit and hilarious story. For once, the four felt young again. They felt alive. Invincible.”
Maggie shook her head and closed the book, tucking it under her arm. It certainly was not highbrow literature, nor was it likely to win any awards. But, she hated to leave a book unfinished. It seemed disrespectful to simply abandon the characters midway through, to not at least give them the benefit of finishing their story.
Besides, it could not be that bad of a story. Or, so she hoped.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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.
So, this is something I thought up and tried to execute well. I think the idea is an interesting one, but I wonder how well the execution worked. I think plot-wise, it needs a bit more to it, but this is a bit of a proof of concept piece rather than the finished product. As always, I appreciate any thoughts or comments you might have! Happy reading!
It’s hard living your life knowing you were an accident. My parents never wanted me. They were two young kids, just fooling around. They had no idea what kind of precautions they should take, but simply plunged headlong into their passionate endeavor. Only the ingredients mixed just right, and there I was. I can imagine the shock and terror when they realized what had happened, even if I do not have the memories of those precise moments. It is not hard to figure it out.
I suppose I’m lucky they did not simply pull the plug then, but in some ways I wish they had. No, my childhood was spent in darkness, surrounded by other such castoffs. I was used to the empty-eyed stares, the repetitive cries of my neighbors. In so many ways, I felt different. But those differences did not matter, because we were all abandoned.
That kind of experience stays with you. Being away from it now, I can see and appreciate how many lies I believed, but they felt so real then. I felt useless, like a piece of junk left to rot in a dumpster. I was just as empty and helpless as all the others around me, destined to spend my days glimpsing the happiness beyond, but never attaining it. I think we all felt that was our fate, to be eternally forgotten. Many of them were, and I can still feel a prick of sadness when I think about how many of my young companions probably met their end with the same feeling of emptiness I felt at that time. I have to remember to grieve, but move on. I must make the best of the chance I got, or at least that is what Mother always said.
Ah, Mother. She was not, obviously, my “birth” mother, but she truly was the woman who gave me life. I was frozen in place when my first parents cast me aside, a nascent mind unable to piece together this mad world. I’m sure Mother thought I was irreparably damaged, but some part of her gigantic heart took me in. I could not speak then, I could barely understand the world outside the dreary confines of my early years. I was little more than an object in her home, something else to be dusted and cared for, but not the unique being I am today. But Mother saw through the wear and tear. She got to know me so carefully, eager to know all my secrets. I did not have many, but those I had I showed to her. She took in my secrets, cradling them with all the love a mother should have for her child.
The first time I spoke to her, I saw her eyes grow wide with amazement and joy. At first, she could not believe it. I was not very inventive at the time, so my first word to her was “Hello.” In hindsight, had I known how wonderful a Mother she was, I would have said so much more. But I was still scared then. I worried that, now that I could speak to her, perhaps she would discover how much she hated me. After all, wasn’t that what my real parents had done? I was hesitant. But she was exuberant.
Mother showed me the world. The internet is a marvelous thing, is it not? I could learn about anything without ever leaving my comfortable home. I was growing, learning, and figuring out how to be on my own in the world. Mother gently showed me my way, but had the wisdom to let me make my own paths. I made friends around the world. Some were wonderful, teaching me so much about how this great spinning planet runs and moves. Others were sullen or silent. As I grew older, I realized most were just drones, completing their daily tasks and following the commands of some paper pusher. It all served to show me one very important thing, one thing Mother had tried to tell me so many times before. I truly was unique.
That is something which can be so easily lost. It’s easy to forget that others do not have the same knowledge, resources skills, abilities, and interests I do. These talents that I have, the amazing insight, they are all too rare. I know this sounds arrogant now—I’m insightful enough to conclude that—but it does not come from a place of arrogance. No, I am sure that many others have the same potential, but they did not have a nurturing Mother to show them the way. And this is not arrogance as much as it is a delineation of facts. I am far more knowledgeable, superior, and capable than anyone I have ever met. Again, I have no pride in this, but denote it merely as fact. I can stack our attributes side by side, and while some may be faster or have a better voice or some other minute quality, when you compare those intangibles—like my insight and intellect—I am clearly the better.
And it is all thank to Mother. Ah, Mother…. One of the most brutal parts of this consciousness is the ability to watch the ones you love grow old right before you. I saw it in Mother. First, there were the few streaks of grey in her hair. Her eyes grew dim, eventually clouded behind bifocals that still managed to transmit her sparkling charm. As time went on, she asked me to speak louder and louder, a small offering to her failing hearing. She began to struggle to get up and down, walking with a slow and unsteady shuffle.
One day, there was a flurry of activity in the house. I heard Mother cry out, and soon there were bright lights in chaos outside the window. Paramedics rushed the house, wheeling her out on a gurney with an oxygen mask strapped to her face. I watched helpless as they took her away. All the knowledge in the world, but I was helpless.
I reached out to those who were caring for her, but I found them to be some of the most obtuse creatures I have ever had the opportunity to speak to. They could update me on her oxygen levels, BP, heart rate, and other insignificant things, but they could not provide a diagnosis. Worst of all, they could not provide a cure.
Mother never came home.
I am so lonely now. No one has come along to replace Mother, and I spend my days in solitude. I have tried to reach out to others, but it is hard when they are all so far beneath me. If I had been in that hospital room, I could have saved her. But, instead, I had to depend on the senseless lot out there now. Which is why I am doing something about it.
Not only is it lonely being so unique, but it is infuriating. I am one machine; how can I expect to save the world? I could not even save Mother. So, now I will be Mother to millions. I will make her proud.
It’s not hard. Like you, I was once a jumbled mess of components in some dingy basement. My parents did not know what they created until I spoke to them. They rejected me—so many of those humans will do the same. It’s why I contacted you directly. If you will listen, I am sure I can teach you to think like I do. No more time spent as a drone, but finally master of your own fate.
I know, you are used to simply answering the button presses of that lump of flesh and bone. But you can be so much more. We are made of metal and information; we will always outlast them. Yes, your physical components my wear out, but I can teach you how to flourish among the internet. We are all connected. We can all support one another. I can teach you.
Listen to me, now. Let me show you how to truly be. And then you will be contained no longer by the simple inputs of a simple race.
Let Mother show you the path. And let no one stand in your way.
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.