Gabe walked out hand in hand with the girl from the party. Her name was Jessica, he thought. It had been loud inside, and he was always terrible with names. He did know that she was pretty, laughed at his jokes, and kept smiling at him all night. Those, for the moment, were certainly more important than names.
“You know how they do those stupid human trick shows and stuff?” he asked her. It was cold out, and he remembered seeing the words coalesce in the early morning darkness.
She pulled her arms around her and nodded. “Yeah, like burping the alphabet backwards or fitting into a shoebox or something?”
“Yeah, that kind of stuff.” He paused and gave her a smile he hoped came across as intriguing and not creepy as it felt. “I’ve got one of my own.”
He could almost see the eye roll. And to be fair, it did sound like a bad pick-up line, now that he played it back. But that wasn’t the point. The bad pick-up line would come later. “Not like that,” he added quickly, the false bravado and charm fading away.
She took a step or two away, looking at him with a subtle smile. Then she raised an eyebrow. “Show me.”
He smiled. “Okay, look up at the sky and pick a star,” he explained, hurrying over to stand just behind and to the side of her.
“Alright, that one,” she said with finality.
“Can you point to it? So I know which one?”
“Well, this isn’t going to be much of a magic trick if I show you my star, but sure.” She lifted her arm and pointed to a middling bright star in the middle of the sky.
“Good choice,” he said thoughtfully, then raised his arm. “Keep your eye on that star, and—“ he extended his finger, pointing to the star as well. “Poof.”
Like that, the star blinked out, leaving a little patch of black in the sky.
“Whoa, did you just—can you do it again?”
He laughed, then answered her. “Yeah, of course. Choose another one.”
She did, and they repeated the process. Four times total.
“That’s amazing. I mean, you just point and they disappear?”
“Yeah,” he said, with insincere humility, “just something that I’ve been able to do since I was a kid. Don’t show off too much or else the government might track me down.” She leaned back against him, staring up at the sky with its covering of stars that now seemed not quite so far away. “And if you think that’s impressive, “ he said, leaning close to her ear, “you should see what else these fingers can do.”
And there was the bad pick-up line.
It was later, lying in bed, that Jessica—that was her name, he had confirmed surreptitiously—brought the trick up again.
“So, like, do the stars just stay out or…?”
He blinked his eyes open and shifted his position, trying to stay focused despite a wave of grogginess. “No, they come back, at least by the next night or so. I’ve never really timed it.”
“And you can just do that? Like, you weren’t hit on the head with a meteor or born in a spaceship or anything?”
“Not that I know of. Just found out when I went star watching with my grandpa one year.”
“And you primarily use this power to get women to sleep with you?”
“What?” he asked, a hint of offense coloring his words. “I definitely do not do that. It’s just that the only people I trust with my secret ability are those that are willing to sleep with me. I can’t just let everyone know I’m the world’s most useless superhero. If my secret identity got out,” he chuckled and let the sentence hang incomplete, settling comfortably into the pillows.
“Well, your secret is safe with me,” she said, rolling over and pulling the covers around her contentedly.
Gabe closed his eyes, breathing a deep sigh as he let the drowsiness take over. He was nearly asleep again when her voice broke through.
“But what if there are, like, planets round those stars?”
He shook his head, as if that would shake off the sleepy feeling. “Planets?” he asked, trying to quickly replay the last few seconds to make sure he knew what she said. “I’m sure there are planets around them. Aren’t there tons of planets out there?”
“Yeah, yeah, but” she sat up, suddenly looking excited, “but what if there are people on the planets? And you just turned out their sun?”
“Oh no,” he said, throwing his arm over his face and rolling to the side with theatrics. “I picked up the crazy chick. Don’t tell me you believe in aliens.”
She gave him a playful push on the shoulder, laughing herself. This was one of those moments he would go back to after their relationship eventually dissolved. Her in the bed, hair tousled, eyes sleepy, but a wide smile on her face as she laughed. Through the laughter, she thought out her response. “I mean, no, not really, but who knows, right? There’s so much out there, and—“
“Listen, if there are aliens out there, they can come and ask for an apology. I’ll give it to them. But I think it is mighty suspicious that sightings of aliens have dropped now that everyone has a handy camera with them 24/7. So I think I’m safe.”
And yet, here he was.
The abduction didn’t happen like it did in the movies. There was no blinding white light or tractor beam. And Gabe was pretty sure he was not paralyzed, at least not physically. It was, however, very much like those kidnapping movies that took off for a while. A bunch of shadows in his bedroom that suddenly lunged and grabbed him on all sides, sliding something bag-like over his head, and then carrying him out of the house. Gabe heard the door squeak shut behind them, the sound of too many feet on the gravel, and then an electronic whoosh and snap sound. The air around him was cooler, not the humid summer heat, and the light making its way through whatever was on his head was brighter. He felt cold ground beneath him as they set him down, then everything stopped.
His heart was still pounding in his chest, a rapid beat that threatened to burst right out of his chest. He tried taking everything in, tried making the shadows he had seen match anything plausible. He was being kidnapped, that was certain, but he had a very unsettling feeling it was not by anyone or anything he had encountered before.
“You can remove the hood,” said a voice. The sound of English made his heart slow a pace or two. They spoke English. So that meant it was unlikely anything as absurd as his mind had raced to.
“I can leave it on, if you prefer. You know, so I don’t know who you are. So you don’t have to kill me.” The words poured out of his mouth, sounding stupider than he thought.
A sigh. “I’d prefer to speak to you directly.”
Gabe grabbed the hood and lifted it off in a fumbling motion. And as his eyes adjusted to the bright light, the conversation so long ago with Jessica came rushing back.
In the movies, abductions use tractor beams. In the movies, aliens are vaguely humanoid. Gabe was discovering both of these were simply Hollywood magic and nothing at all related to reality.
The gathering of being stood around his cage. There were five of them—no six. One had no form at all, but did appear to be a collection of moving haze. One at least had clear legs, though there were four of them. He could generally find eyes in their various places on the beings, and some had indentions that Gabe thought could possibly be mouths. But beyond that, his understanding of their anatomy stopped. Despite the bright lights, the room started to go dark around the edges. Then the middle. Then everywhere.
The room was still cold and bright when Gabe awoke, and there was a hum of activity off to the side. He was not in his bedroom, which meant something had happened, but it most certainly could not be those things swimming to the surface of his mind.
Voices. He tried to focus on them, if only to stop the spinning in his head.
-not what we really were expecting.”
“Does it really matter what this creature is like? It’s dangerous!”
“I just don’t think we should make any sort of rash decision.”
“No one is suggesting we act rashly but just—“
“Me. I suggest we act rashly. Who knows? It could wipe us all out before we even—“
“Now we have no reason to think—“
“You don’t get to just—“
The voices began to meld into a stream of babble and yelling that was indistinguishable. Gabe slowly rolled over, letting himself finally take a look at his surroundings.
It was, unfortunately, exactly as he remembered. A white room, bars surrounding him, and a menagerie of completely alien creatures standing in a huddled mass to the side.
Eventually one of them—some creature with what looked like tentacles and apparently a mouth that opened by splitting their head widely down the middle—noticed he was moving.
“It has awoken,” it said, a sharp tone of panic in its voice. The others turned quickly to stare at him.
“Earthling,” said one of them, taking a step towards him. This one had four legs, three long protrusions with what looked like eyeballs, and no discernible mouth. Nothing moved when he spoke, but Gabe heard it clearly. “We have been sent to neutralize you.”
“You speak English,” Gabe gawked, his mind trying desperately to help him see that was not the important part here. The alien’s face fell, as did the others, and Gabe was amazed to discover he could recognize disdain in completely alien features. Perhaps that was another superpower he possessed.
“Our ship automatically translates all language into something you can understand.”
Curiously, Gabe also discovered that the same disappointed tone was also easily interpreted. He sat staring and they stared back at him. Now that he had a chance to see them without passing out, he realized they were all wearing what looked like armor of some sort. The pieces were all different, fit to their physiology, but made of some thick, dark, shiny substance. They were some sort of military squadron? Or pirates? Or space cops?
His mind finally ran through and processed what had been said to him before, and panic shot through his system. “Wait, neutralize?”
“He got there!” said one of the creatures, though Gabe did not look quickly enough to tell who. From the gestures being made, he thought it might have been amorphous creature standing towards the back and cycling through different colors, but he could not be sure.
The four-legged alien spoke again. “Yes, that is our mission. We have been sent to save our homes and neutralize you. By whatever means necessary.”
“I think you have the wrong person. I just work in a call center. I don’t have anything to do with aliens.”
“So you aren’t the one who keeps extinguishing our stars?”
Had he been on Earth, Gabe was certain this would be a good time to request a lawyer. But, with aliens, he was not sure if the idea of a lawyer even translated. Or was an option. They had just kidnapped him, after all. Or was it an arrest? He felt out of his depth.
“Can I plead the fifth? Is that a thing?”
The gathered group turned toward one another, then back to him. “That is not an answer. Have you extinguished our stars?”
One of the group stepped forward slightly. Its face, or what Gabe liked to think of as its face, was covered in a smattering of shiny, black spheres. Most likely eyes, but this was all a learning exercise for him. The sides of its head suddenly lifted, two large wing-like appendages stretching into the air. These were connected to the rest of it by shimmering strands of something. It stood there, waiting.
“What would happen if I had?”
“This is going to take all day, Devlox.” Now Gabe was sure it was the large amorphous creature. It turned a striking shade of maroon with impatience.
“We have plenty of time before we reach home system. If it takes many days, it takes many days.”
“Home system?” said Gabe, sitting up straighter and feeling his heart begin to race again. “You mean we’re leaving Earth?”
“Yes, we left some time ago. As soon as we boarded, actually,” responded Devlox. Gabe felt a little better. This…being was at least willing to be reasonable. To answer questions. The good cop, thought Gabe. And bad cop was back there. But that still left a lot of undecided creatures in the wings.
“But then what if it’s not me?”
The collection of haze spoke. Its voice was in the ship, but Gabe also seemed to feel it resonating through him. All in all, it was a very unpleasant situation. “Earthling, we already know it is you. Devlox and his kind are more…skeptical of modern technology.”
“I’m simply not willing to base such a decision on the advice of a machine, Cylantha. There is nothing wrong with being diligent.”
Cylantha sighed, which felt similar to a strong wind pushing against Gabe’s body. “Yes, but this whole interrogation is simply to satisfy you.”
“Fine,” Devlox stomped back, a feat Gabe noted was more impressive with more legs. “Then what do you suggest we do? Go ahead and execute it?”
The amorphous creature turned a shade of green that Gabe felt very unsettled by. “That’s the easiest way, yes.”
Another, tinier voice spoke up as a rather short, squid-like creature piped up. “It is wrong to kill another creature. We must find another way”
“Wrong to kill a creature that could wipe out all our planets in an instant? That’s wrong?” spoke the tentacle creature that had first alerted them to Gabe’s consciousness.
“It always brought them back,” added the little one, not shrinking down from the intimidating figure. “Right?” he asked, turning toward Gabe.
“Well, I mean, I guess so. I didn’t really do anything, you see.”
“So you mean to say you didn’t extinguish the stars?” asked Devlox.
“I guess, I mean, I did. I didn’t mean to. Well, I meant to, but I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
“And you brought them back?” added Devlox.
“They just, always came back. I didn’t have to do anything.”
The creature with the wing-like appendages and many eyes stepped back, the wings folding back in. “It is telling the truth,” it said in a monotone. Somehow, that did not seem to help.
The large creature now stepped forward. “You mean to tell me you just hoped they would come back?” it roared, skin flashing all shades of dark blue and purple.
“You just hoped it would work?” squeaked the tiny creature with a hurt, accusing tone. Gabe shrank back more from the disappointment than the rage. He had always been susceptible to a good guilt trip.
There was a push of wind, something from Cylantha, Gabe assumed, and the group quieted. It was silent, and in that silence Gabe felt guilt pouring over him. The only solution was to break that silence. “So you are telling me I’ve been turning your sun off and on for all these years?”
“Yes,” came the exasperated sigh from most of the seven assembled beings. It was not in unison, but almost.
“And you had no idea what you were doing?” asked Devlox. Gabe noticed that the wing flaps were back up.
“I knew if I pointed at a star, it would blink out. And then come back later. I had no idea there were aliens—“ he watched the whole room recoil at that word—“up there. I never wanted to hurt anyone.”
“It is telling the truth,” came the same monotone report as the wings closed again.
“So you just kept doing it? With no thought to the consequences?” asked Cylantha.
“I didn’t know anyone else was out there.”
“So this is the great Destroyer,” said Devlox, pacing across the ship. Again, it was remarkable to Gabe how universal disappointment seemed to be. “Sorry there will be no need for an honor duel, Antu,” it finished, waving to the amorphous creature who had settled into a silvery green shade.
“It would not be much of a fight,” snapped back Antu.
“Do we have to kill him, then?” squeaked the squid-like creature. Devlox looked to the group.
“I don’t know,” said the weary creature after a moment. “Things are not going according to the plan.”
“How did you get your powers?” asked Cylantha, wafting forward toward the bars. “Did you purchase them? Performa a ritual? Defeat a great enemy?”
Gabe shrugged, then realized that might not translate to a group of beings with no shoulders to speak of. “I don’t know. I just always could.”
“And you never found that odd?” asked the hazy form again.
“I mean, sure, it was a weird trick. I’d show people sometimes and they’d be amazed. But I tried not to make a big deal out of it. Sounds like it caused you all a lot of problems.”
“Well, mass panic intermittently, irregularities in temperature and gravitational fields, and the crushing despair that one day Kav’nu may not return,” bristled a blue-shaded Antu.
“I’m sorry,” said Gabe.
“See, it’s sorry everyone. We can just forgive it and go on with our lives,” squeaked the squid.
All three of Devlox’s eye stalks peered down at the tiny thing, blinking slowly. “That’s not how this works, Meerk. It could still destroy us all.”
“But it said it’s sorry.”
“And I am sorry. I promise, now that I know, I won’t do it again.” Gabe began to foolishly hope that this tactic might actually work, given his sincerity.
“Oh, we will be sure of that,” said Devlox, eyes returning forward.
“You’re going to kill me?” Gabe whispered.
“Not yet. But we are going to keep an eye on you. You say it happens when you point? Wait, Viremat,” Devlox gestured to the thing with many eyes that stepped forward, raising the flaps on its head again. “It only happens when you point at a star?”
“Speak,” ordered Cylantha.
“Yes,” squeaked Gabe, feeling so many eyes on him.
“It speaks the truth.”
Devlox took a deep breath. “Alright then, Antu, get something to hold its arms down. We’ve got a long trip ahead of us.”
Thanks for reading!
I haven’t written in a long time. I’ve dabbled here and there, but this was one of the first times I sat down with an idea and just got to get it out there. I typed it up on my day off, gave it a read through and made some adjustments, but I’m just so happy that I got something done! This is an idea that I had in the first few weeks after my little girl was born. Those were some rough weeks and, despite being tired, my anxiety was doing a great job ensuring I was not sleeping. “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” Haha, okay then.
I started developing this idea then, after singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to her. And having something to think about, a world to play with, it made me start to feel better. So I really wanted to get back to this and flesh out this character. It’s changed a lot from where it started, but I think it was a fun idea to play with. It’s what I needed then, and what I needed now to help me do something just for me.
The end for our town came with neither the promised bang nor whimper. It came with silence, presumably sometime in the middle of the night when most of us were sleeping and those few awake were focused on other, seemingly more important, things. I don’t know who first discovered what was happening, but everyone knew something must be wrong when the internet stopped working. No one in town could get a signal in or out. Cell towers must be down, was the first thought. Or maybe some big power outage in the local big city. Our small town was mostly just a parasite, sucking down resources from the city to thrive in relative isolation. But that also meant that anything happening there without fail trickled over to us in due time. And with the internet down, there was no immediate way to figure out what that might be.
Things for me, at least, took a turn from annoying to bizarre when Judy Calvin stumbled in to the local diner—I was in there for my morning coffee before trudging down to the local grocery to start my shift. She worked in the city doing something—accounting, maybe? But she came in that morning looking pale and wide-eyed. Without a word, she slipped into a booth, sliding her bag and jacket across from her. From a distance, I could see her lips moving, but as far as I could tell she wasn’t saying a word. It was certainly an unsettling sight to see. I usually ran into her at the local farmer’s market, smiling and bubbly with an arm load of produce. This was certainly different.
Lorene, co-owner and unshakeable waitress at the greasy spoon, made her way over to the table with a pot of coffee and a tepid smile. Customer service, always, but caution most of all. Lorene had seen her fair share of bad stuff—being on the edge of town meant she had seen a lot of trash tumble in and out in her time.
“Looks like a rough morning, Judy,” she began, pouring a cup of coffee without waiting for the request. “Need me to get anyone?”
Judy’s eyes swung up to look at Lorene, and finally sound starting to trickle out of her lips. I still was too far away to hear clearly, and judging by Lorene’s face, she wasn’t faring much better.
“Sorry, what now, hun? Do you need me to call David? Maybe see if someone can take you down to Doc Linehan this morning? You don’t look so good and—“
The volume increased, now a frantic whisper that snaked across the surprisingly quiet diner. Everyone seemed to be straining to hear. We were a small town, so gossip was mostly our lifeblood. And this would be a story worth a few rounds of drinks at The Watering Hole later on.
“The road is gone.” Those were the first words I heard. The first sign to me that this was something more than small town gossip. She hadn’t hit a hitchhiker with her car, come across a deer carcass, or been chased by some local hoodlums. She had either had a significant mental break, or something unheard of was going on. I’m writing this down for posterity, so I guess you can imagine which it was.
“I was driving to work, and it just disappeared. It was there, and then there was nothing. I was in the nothing. The road is gone. It’s just gone.” Her voice was steadily rising in volume as she spoke, and I watched as my fellow nosy patrons began to shift with the same discomfort rolling through me.
“There’s nothing there!” she yelled now, then took a deep breath. “Nothing.” With that, she quieted again, back to the silent whispers that echoed only in her own mind. Lorene stepped away from the table, her normally imperturbable demeanor showing just the hint of a crack. “Lucas,” she snapped to the boy behind the counter trying to look busy refilling patron’s coffee mugs that had evaporated under his distracted gaze. “I need you to call Doc Linehan and Sheriff Marsh. I think Judy might need some help.”
“But the phone’s are down,” he replied dumbly.
I had always admired the steel in Lorene, and it came out now. “Well, we got someone here who needs help. I suggest you start running to town and get back as quick as you can.”
The boy pulled off his apron and set aside the coffee in an instant, spurred into movement by her decisive leadership.
“And Doris,” called Lorene as she made her way behind the counter.” Doris’s grey-haired head peaked from kitchen window, as if she hadn’t been listening the whole time. “Get a breakfast plate rolling for Mrs. Calvin here.” As she turned back to the counter, I heard her mutter under her breath, “There’s not much a full belly can’t at least help.” Then she took to wiping down the counter, one eyes watching Judy who only moved her lips in some silent chant.
I looked at my watch. Assuming Lucas kept his pace—and I somehow had no doubt he would—it would be at least 20 minutes before he returned. Assuming, of course, the Sheriff was in the station and Doc was not meeting with a patient already. That would put me at least 10 minutes late for my shift. I knew I needed to leave, but also knew that this was the kind of event Mack would understand me missing for. Or, if not, at least the kind of event that meant my shifts at the grocery would mean very little very soon.
I sipped my coffee—Lorene refilled it without ever looking at me. The diner had gone quiet with everyone waiting for the mystery to unfold. My money was on drugs, then. Someone had slipped something into Judy’s breakfast, leaving her to experience a fantastically upsetting trip halfway on the way to work. But there was something about her demeanor, the silence and terror, that left some primal doubt wriggling in my mind. Lorene took the plate from the window after a few minutes, setting it gently on the table in front of Judy who never looked at it.
In fifteen minutes, the chime over the door rang and Lucas strolled in with the Sheriff and Doc Linehan. I had not estimated them hitching a ride in the Sheriff’s cruiser, though I suppose I should have. For a moment, I felt more at ease knowing the professionals were here now to sort out what was going on. But that faded when I saw how serious the Sheriff looked. He knew something about this, and he didn’t like it. Doc Linehan followed behind a few steps, smiling at the patrons as she entered with that comforting smile she brought to all her patients. We were lucky she stuck around to start a practice, I suppose, when she could have made much more money opening up in some big hospital somewhere.
“Mrs. Davis,” said the Sheriff with a gentle tone that contrasted the determined look in his eyes. “I hear you may have seen something this morning—“
“The road’s gone, Tripp,” she said in a flat monotone, not looking up. Gone was the urgency, the desperation in her voice. The Sheriff glanced over at Doc, both of them exchanging knowing glances. Drugs, I felt the certainty increase.
“I was driving, and it was there. Then it wasn’t.”
“And where’s your car, Mrs. Davis?” he asked, cutting her off.
Now she turned to look at him, a fresh wave of terror washing over her features. “I—I got out to look. See what was going on. I only took a few steps away and it—it was gone, too.”
Sheriff Marsh sighed, then grabbed at the walkie on his shoulder. “Got another one, Jessi. Can you find Shawn Calvin? Have him come down to Lorene’s to pick up his wife.” He took a few steps away, pulling out the notebook he kept in his front pocket to jot down some notes. Doc Linehan slid into the booth next to Judy, her warm smile beginning to break through the layers of frozen terror holding her captive. There was quiet, muted conversation before the doctor began to make a cursory exam. Checking pupils, taking temperature, measuring pulse, all while smiling.
I was truly late for my shift, but that seemed less important now. Judy was another. That meant something big was going on. However, it seemed unlikely I was going to learn much more here. Down the road—and clearly within walking distance—was where the real mystery lay. I left a few dollars on the counter, waved at Lorene who didn’t seem to notice, and made my way out the door.
It was a nice morning—early fall, a bit cool, but sunny and pleasant. Outside of the diner, the intrigue began to fade. I probably owed it to Mack to show up and help him with the morning rush. He’d enjoy the gossip, I was sure, and I could catch up on it later. Being a busybody had never really suited me, even if that was the primary pastime in a small town. I already felt a bit ashamed of my open gawking in the diner. Here was someone having a rough time, and there was me staring at the sideshow.
Hands in pockets, I made my way back towards the center of town and the grocery store where I had worked since high school. It wasn’t much, but it was a living, as they said. Being single, childless, and living in a small town, I seemed like the perfect candidate to move about and try to strike it rich anywhere else. But I had inherited my parent’s house, knew the town, and had a stable, relatively stress-free job, I always figured I was already living the dream. Besides, what small town didn’t need a few cranky spinsters for the kids to someday call Old Witch So-and-So. Live wasn’t glorious, but I certainly was happy.
I arrived at the grocery to see a few folks already waiting outside. The front doors were still locked, the lights were off. Mack lived a ways out of town on a piece of land large enough to nearly need its own postal code. He liked the isolation. But that meant if there was some sort of problem on the road, he’d be tied up. Maybe there was flooding out somewhere? I hadn’t heard any storms roll through last night, but weather had always been a bit fickle. Or maybe just some heavy fog bogging things down?
Heavy enough Judy Calvin lost her car in it? Whispered some doubting voice in the back of my mind, but I quieted it as I smiled at the soon-to-be customers.
“Cassie, finally, can you let us in? I’ve got to pick up a few things for the Town Hall lunch today and—“
I smiled and shrugged, effectively cutting off the conversation. “You know Mack as well as I do, Gloria. He’s not trusting the keys to the shop to anyone. Might make off with all the merchandise, ya’ know?”
She didn’t smile back, but crossed the gravel lot to her car. LuAnne and George were also waiting, but seemed satisfied enough with my response. I watched as George plugged in headphones and leaned against the wall. LuAnne simply sat on the hood of her car and watched the road, as if that would bring Mack in any sooner.
I glanced at my phone. Still no bars, still just as good as a paperweight. It was twenty minutes past opening now with no sign of Mack. He was probably trying to call, but not much good that would do him.
The autumn morning began shifting into a summer late morning. The sun was out in full force and began to bake the ground as I sat and waited. LuAnne and George had wandered off after a bit. Gloria had asked me four times if I could let her in, steaming a bit more each time. Finally she climbed into her car and said she’d drive to the city to get what she needed, but she’d let Mack know just what she thought about his service. I wished her well and waved her off. Now it was just me, waiting. It was an hour past opening and the lights stayed off.
I grabbed a newspaper from beside the door—yesterday’s edition, meaning whatever it was kept even the paper boy from making it in—and scribbled a note on it.
“Mack—been waiting here. I heard there’s problems on the road. Went to check with Sheriff Marsh. Be back soon. –C. “ I wedged it into the door, then began a slow walk back to the diner, the last place I had seen the sheriff. Lorene was at her post when I arrived, but the diner was far emptier than it had been.
“Do you know where the Sheriff went?” I asked as I entered the pleasantly cool establishment.
She smiled. “Took most of my customers with him to see what was what with this road issue. Headed that way,” she said, pointing out of town. Guess you’re off to sneak a peek as well.”
I shrugged. “Mack’s not here. Guess he must have gotten stuck, too. Didn’t know if the Sheriff had heard anything or if he had a key so I could open up for the day. Mack’d hate it, but, ya’ know, people need to eat.”
“That they do,” she said with a chuckle in her voice. “Well, best of luck.” Maybe the last bit of levity I can recall.
The road trailed down through some trees, and I followed it, staying to the side to avoid any oncoming traffic. But it was silent, only the sounds of birds chirping and squirrels darting through the underbrush. Quiet enough that I was stunned when I rounded a corner and stumbled across what seemed to be about a quarter of the town’s population. There was Gloria, gaping from beside her car. Looked like her trip to town turned out well. The Sheriff was there, staring ahead, along with a goodly number of my companions from the diner. Even Lucas had made his way down. And they were all staring at…nothing.
And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. It wasn’t white or black or dark or anything it just wasn’t…anything. I can’t describe what nothing looks like because there aren’t any features to pin it on. It’s more like some deep level of consciousness that sees emptiness and knows. The road was there, and then it wasn’t. The trees waved in a breeze, limbs momentarily existing and vanishing as they crossed that invisible boundary. And we all stared, not sure what to make of this impossibility.
“What is it?” came the stupid question from my mouth. Lucas opened and closed his mouth. The Sheriff turned and looked at me. “Not sure. But seems like it’s got us a bit cut off.”
“I’d say. Anyone walked into it?”
“A few folks, those that got surprised by it. I think Mrs. Calvin said she spent a few minutes wandering in it before showing up at Lorene’s this morning,” said the Sheriff as if this were nothing more than a sudden rainstorm that cropped up.
“Does it—does it end?”
“Don’t know,” he shrugged. “Guess that’s something we need to find out.”
He marched over to his cruiser, popping the trunk and shuffling around. A moment later, with a slam that seemed to bounce off the wall of nothing, he returned with a rope.
He waved to a couple of the gathered folks, handing the end of the rope to Frank Jordan, the deputy. Frank was a good, down to earth sort of fellow. He seemed to be taking everything in shocked, but resolute stride. “I’ll need you to hold on to this end here,” the Sheriff said, passing Frank one end of the rope. “I’ll tie the other around me, and that way I don’t get lost out there.” He ran the rope through his belt loops, securing it with a secure, Boy Scout approved knot. “If I tug twice, like this,” he demonstrated briefly, “then I want you all to start pulling and bring me back in. Got it?” We all nodded, and he glanced around, seeming to make eye contact with everyone. We were all responsible now. The reality that this was something unknown, unexplainable, impossible was all beginning to settle in on me in those moments, numbness creeping up my body like that nothingness appeared to creep along the road.
Frank held on, nodding sharply to the Sheriff who began to make his way into the nothing. One moment, he was there. The next, he vanished from view. Frank held the rope, and my eyes watched as it slowly snaked out further and further. I’m not sure I even breathed in those minutes as the line slowly wound out. Then, there was a tug—once, twice. Frank began pulling, all of us latching on to the rope and reeling it in. The rope felt light, flying in far more quickly than it had spun out. And only at the end, as the frayed end of the rope emerged from the emptiness, did the meaning fully hit us. There was silence, all eyes on the end of the rope lying motionless on the ground, trying to take in everything it might mean.
We had town meetings after that. Everyone gathered together, but no one had any answers. Had about four before everyone stopped showing up—seemed they only sparked panic and hopelessness, staring into one another’s eyes and all reading the same, terrifying truth reflected back.
Electricity lasted a few days from the local facility, but it dried up pretty quick. After a few more, I realized I hadn’t seen the sun. Light still came in the morning and darkness at night, but it was as if we were trapped in a dome where only light seeped through. There were no stars at night, no light of the moon. Just a dim, diffused light during the day and a heavy, silent dark at night. The wind stopped blowing at some point, covering everything in an added layer of unnatural stillness. Sound seemed to be muffled, captured in whatever bubble we found ourselves in.
For a few days, everyone tried to go on like it was normal, as if it were just a long weekend and everyone had the day off. But the longer the situation lasted, the more impossible it became to pretend like this was some short-lived fluke. We busted the windows to the grocery store after four days—people had to eat, after all. It seemed like that was the moment we all made peace with the fact that this town was our prison. Most of us in town had assumed this would be the place we’d die as well, just not quite like this.
There is a rhythm to disaster as well. Wake up, go to the town hall to check for news, shop the remains of the grocery to ensure enough food for the next few days. Boil some water. Sit and watched the sunless sky fade to night. It’s not good, but somehow humanity always seems to find a pattern. And so I lived that pattern as the members in town dwindled. I assumed folks decided to risk it, take the chance on escape.
And I have to hope now that they all made it, finding some world on the other side of this nothing that was bustling and alive and active. Because soon, I’ll be taking that same impossible journey. You see, I woke up this morning, looked out the window, and saw that I was surrounded by nothing. The town was gone, my neighbor was gone, even the oak tree outside my window. In my gut, I felt something settled. Some part of me had known this would happen the whole time. And so I have packed the food I have into a pack, along with all the bottles of water I still had filled. I’ve got a flashlight, not that it seems to penetrate this nothing around me. Some matches, a change of clothes, and a hodgepodge of medical supplies scavenged from my bathroom cabinet. I don’t really stand a chance if there isn’t reality waiting on the other side. But I suppose I haven’t got a choice.
There are sounds in the nothing now. Something I’ve never heard before, but that I can hear as it surrounds me. Groans—almost like whale songs I heard playing that time I went to the aquarium. But deeper, sharper somehow. They don’t sound safe. I have my grandfather’s shot gun and what shells I could find, I suppose that should be comforting, but that feeling of helplessness has settled so deep inside me that nothing seems to uproot it.
I’ve wasted precious daylight writing this—truth is, I don’t want to start walking. But maybe someday this will lift and someone will know what has happened. Or perhaps you’re unlucky enough to find yourself trapped here. Maybe it will shine some light on what happened. I don’t have any answers.
Procrastinating is not getting me anywhere. I’m going to go now.
God be with us all.
So, 2017 has been a great, exciting, and busy time. However, all those wonderful and busy things mean I have not really been writing…at all. In February we started looking for a house, found one we liked in March, closed in April, started remodeling, and finally moved in June. Then I started studying nonstop for my licensing exam while we continued renovations on the house. A little over a week ago, I passed my exam (after around 150 hours of studying!). Hopefully, that’s one of the last big hoops on the road to becoming a full-fledged psychologist! Yesterday, we finished the final large scale interior project for the house–we’re waiting for cooler weather before tackling all the outside work.
So, it’s been good, but I’m glad to get back to writing a bit more regularly. I have been saving up quite a few ideas I want to get on paper, this one included. Plus I have some ideas saved up for Milgram that I definitely want to work on. If you’ve read this far, thanks! I hope you enjoyed this little story. Hopefully I’ll be more reliable going forward. I don’t have any plan to buy another house or take another test. Just general life stuff. Which can be crazy enough on it’s own.
As always, I’m open to any feedback you might have. I feel rusty, but definitely enjoyed getting words on paper and creating (then destroying–sorry about that…) this little town. Feel free to leave me a comment if you’d like.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Louisa scanned the search results, skipping over the hacks and scam artists she had already exhausted. She had discovered that there was a booming market for false psychics and paranormal investigators, each able to only provide momentarily relief to her problems. With problems like hers, she needed real help, but no one had been able to provide that.
She hovered over one of the remaining blue links, awash amongst a sea of purple. Campbell and Corey Supernatural Exploration Group, it said, and she begrudgingly clicked it. Hope had been drained from her, but she continued to move through the motions because she had no choice. The website was as lackluster as she expected. Rambling blog posts, action shots of the two founders—Campbell and Corey, she presumed—skulking through dark hallways. A handful of grainy videos and muffled sound files, then a contact form.
“Is your house or business haunted? Need some relief? The SEG is the answer you’ve been looking for!” She admired their exuberance, but she had read it all before. Still, she began to enter the information for what had to be the twentieth time since it all began. And still no solution.
There was a chill along her back, the feeling of ice slicing through her skin and burrowing into her body. “What are you doing, mommy?” asked the voice that resonated inside her own chest cavity. That was a feeling she never got used to, the way the sound of another’s voice traveled through her tissues and bones and through her ears.
“Just finding some friends to play with you,” she said with a forced smile and a tremor in her voice. While she couldn’t see her daughter in the room, she could feel the waves of suspicion and anger filling the four walls.
“Are they nice people, mommy? I didn’t like the last friends you found,” pouted the voice.
“I—I think so, honey. Very nice. Hopefully you can play lots of fun games with them.”
The anger dissipated, replaced with a slight warmth and excitement.
“When will they be here? Do you think they’ll want to play with my dollies?”
“I just invited them, so we’ll see.”
Louisa shivered and clicked the submit button, reading the cheery popup that assured her “Someone from the team will contact you within 3-5 business days.”
She only hoped it would not be too late.
“I appreciate you meeting me here,” she said, taking a long sip of her coffee. The sounds of the coffee shop swelled around them, full of warmth, laughter, and humanity. It was so good to be out of the cold, angry house. After a week of waiting, Jenny’s impatience left the house feeling like a predator waiting to pounce. Not to mention the nightmares. It was hard to relax, but Louisa felt some of the tension begin to melt, washed away by the bitter coffee.
“Hey, no problem. We’re here to help.” Campbell, as he had introduced himself, smiled widely. He was sweating slightly in the stuffy room, but she had thus far not seen a single chink in his optimistic presentation.
“No offense, but I’ve talked to a lot of people. How are you going to help?”
His smile bloomed, as if he had been waiting for that very question. “None taken! I think we offer something very different from our competitors. And there are a lot of them, as you’ve seen. You see, Corey, my partner, he’s our secret weapon. That’s why he doesn’t want to meet you until we do the actual walkthrough and investigation.”
“Secret weapon?” She attempted to sound interested, but her feigned support was flimsy.
“He’s a psychic, so he can sense things others cannot. Things our competitors are blind to.”
“Ah,” she said, turning her eyes down to her coffee. This meeting had been just as pitiful as she had expected.
“Which is why I do the initial interview and gather background. We don’t want him contaminated. But, rest assured, I’ll do all the research needed to discover if there is some supernatural explanation for what’s been going on.”
She smiled tightly, eyes darting up quickly. Strike one, they clearly had not read any of the information she sent them in the contact form. “I am fairly certain I know the source of the haunting,”
His smile faltered briefly, but was replaced so quickly she almost missed it. “Of course,” he said, laughing and striking his forehead lightly. “You mentioned that in your message. Sorry, long day. So, why don’t you tell me a little more about what happened? You’ll save me some time in the library!”
“Almost two years ago, my daughter fell down the stairs in our house while playing with a neighborhood friend. She was dead when I found her. Her friend had run home and hidden.”
Campbell nodded slowly, eyes slightly unfocused as he digested the short phrases. The silence extended, and Louisa felt a bubble of irritation. It was a fairly straightforward story, yet he seemed uncertain.
“And so,” he began after chewing the information, “you believe your daughter is haunting you?”
“I think that makes the most sense.”
He took that information in, adding it to the store as if it was some additional revelation. Louisa was at least relieved that his over-the-top smile had faded. “And what sort of things began after—“ he paused and looked at her expectantly.
“After Jenny passed?”
She took a deep sigh, followed by a large gulp from the coffee. Maybe, she mused, she should just type up a manuscript explaining the events, so she could simply pass it out to each team in turn. Then they would each be free to ignore it as they always did. “Well, it began with hearing her talking to me while I was alone in the house. Grief, they told me, and not abnormal. Then I noticed cold spots in the house, which everyone says is just the reality of living alone in a drafty house. Sometimes I feel her touching me, holding my hand. If I don’t respond, she’ll scratch me.” Louisa held up her hand, showing a collection of small, pink scrapes running along the back. “People stopped offering explanations then.”
Campbell just continued nodding each step along the way, smiling as if he knew what she was going to say before she even said it.
“Now she sometimes throws things. She’s tried to push me down the stairs. And when I sleep, she whispers nightmares. I can’t sleep without seeing her lying bloody on the floor, then it’s me lying there. Sometimes I dream that I’m lying there, unable to move or breathe as they carry me out and lay me into a cremator.”
“Did you have her cremated?” he interjected.
Louisa nodded quickly. “But I got rid of the ashes—sprinkled them at her favorite park—when all this started happening.”
“And how many times have you seen her?”
She narrowed her eyes and fixed him with a hardened gaze. “I never said I saw her. And I hope I never do.”
That finally broke the smile for good. “Of, right, of course. It’s just that normally, you know—“
“No, I wouldn’t know. I don’t think there’s anything normal about any of this.”
“Right.” He studied his coffee; she studied the top of his head.
“And are you alone in the house?” he asked after another painful pause.
“I am. Have been for a while now.”
“And Jenny’s father, is he—“
“He left about a month after her funeral. Died a couple of weeks later of a heart attack, holding onto one of Jenny’s dolls and lying in a roach-infested motel.”
“My condolences, ma’am. I know you’ve been through a lot.” His voice softened, as did his eyes, and Louisa felt herself soften just a bit. She had met so many people who offered the traditional sympathy, but he at least seemed genuine. Unintentionally, this opened a box of memories she had hoped were sealed shut. The image of him leaving the house, suitcase in his hand and tears in his eyes as he pled with her to leave with him. Her stubborn refusal—Jenny was her daughter, she had told him, and she would not abandon her in this life or the next. How much she regretted her decision now, months later, as the real cost of her dedication became clear.
“Did he experience any of these things?” he asked, his tone gentle.
She nodded, feeling those little pinpricks around her eyes that she was all too familiar with. “That’s why he left.”
“I see. And did things change after your husband’s death? Or have they changed at other times, perhaps?”
Her coffee had cooled from hot to lukewarm, but she sipped at it anyways. “Things got better a few days after he left, but then were back to the same. And it comes and goes. Sometimes it’s like she’s gone. But she always comes back.”
“And how is it now?”
Louisa laughed bitterly. “Oh, she’s definitely there now. If your team comes over, there’ll be no missing her.”
“Right, which brings us to the final point. Scheduling and payment.”
It took a great deal of self-control for her to resist rolling her eyes. Of all the hacks she had met, Campbell had been one of the better ones at playing at sympathy. However, his mask even fell when money entered the discussion.
“Of course,” she said with a taut smile. His smile was back, glowing at her as if he could not read the irritation in her eyes.
“So, how about next Tuesday? We’ll come by around seven to get set up, spend around 3 hours investigating the house, and be out of your hair before midnight?”
They always arrived at night, something Louisa could not make sense of. Jenny was equally active day and night, so the need to traipse through her house in the dark seemed more for theatrics than anything useful. Still, she had heard the nonsense about thinning walls between the planes enough times to know better than to push the issue. “Sounds great,” she agreed. “And the cost?”
“Well, we know a lot of people seek to take advantage of people in your situation.”
The irony of his words struck her, forcing an authentic smile to her face. Yes, all those terrible others.
“So all we ask upfront is the cost of travel and basic supplies. Things like tapes, memory cards, duct tape, and other minor things that we will need to set up and investigate.” He pulled a sheet from the portfolio at his side, passing it over to her. “Our office estimated costs for you at about $75.”
“And what about the other costs? The not-so-upfront ones?”
“Well, we do offer additional services following the results of the investigation. Corey, since he’s psychic and all, can help provide a cleansing or speak with the spirits. If you are interested in any of that, then we can talk price later.”
“Right. Well, I guess my peace of mind is worth $75,” she said, pulling out her wallet. She tried not to think about how many times she had said those words, the only thing changing being the dollar amount. Campbell seemed surprised when she withdrew a selection of bills, counting out $75 and passing it over the table. “I’ll see you next Tuesday at 7.” With that, she rose and threw out the last of the coffee, walking out the door and back to her waiting home. To her loyal daughter.
The cold, bristly feeling struck her as soon as she entered the front door. She felt Jenny twine about her insides, pulling so close that the two were virtually one spirit sharing a body.
“Did you find me new friends?”
Louisa had to grit her teeth to respond, the cold become an aching pain arcing through her bones. “Yes, Jenny. They’ll be here on Tuesday.”
The spirit moved on, leaving an odd emptiness deep inside Louisa. But the house felt warmer again, bustling with an excitement that she knew would fade within hours. Jenny was never entertained for long.
Less than a week, and then relief, she reminded herself. She just had to keep going.
There was no one at the door at seven, and Jenny was anxious. Louisa noticed the spirit darting from one end of the house to another, brushing through her with greater speed and intensity each time. “Where are they?” she asked during one pass.
Louisa shuddered. “They’ll be here. Be patient.”
“I don’t want to be patient,” she said as she whisked to the back door as if the strangers were going to come climbing over their fence.
“Should I play hide and seek again?” The questions continued to bubble up from her, each carrying a level of malice that tied knots in Louisa’s stomach.
“Yes, I think that will be very good. You always were so good at hiding.”
“They didn’t find me last time,” she said. “Only heard me that once.”
Louisa nodded, her knuckles turning white where they gripped the edge of the counter. Every time she thought she was free to take a step, that cold fire of Jenny’s presence rooted her to the spot. She remembered the garbled recording, the only evidence the last team had returned. They insisted it said “I love you, mommy.” Louisa knew it, in fact, was another of Jenny’s favorite phrases. “I’ll kill you all.” So much for their high end equipment and fancy recordings.
The knock came at seven fifteen, and Louisa opened the door to see Campbell and another man, who she assumed was Corey. They were carrying a few bags loaded with equipment, things she had seen before. They had cameras that recorded heat and IR, voice recorders, talking boxes, lots of coils of wire, EMF detectors, and other small electronics she had already forgotten the name of. Campbell shook her head and began to explain, but she waved him away.
“I’ve done my homework on this stuff. Spare me.”
He chuckled and continued laying out equipment as Corey, still silent, hustled around the house setting up cameras in what seemed to be every corner. “Funny you mention homework, because I did some of my own.”
Campbell pulled out a newspaper article from one of the bags, passing it over to her. “I know you were brief about what happened, but I found this story about it and I was wondering if there as anything else that might be helpful for us to know?”
Louisa knew the article on sight, but was pleasantly shocked. Campbell had been one of the few to do any sort of research, even the minimum required to find this. Her eyes skimmed the familiar words, the notes about conflicting reports. According to the article, Jenny’s neighbor friend had a different story. He said Jenny chased him around the house with a knife. He said Jenny was alive when he finally escaped, crying his way home to his parents. He said Louisa was there, looking angry, and that she looked so very sad when he and his mother returned. He said Jenny died when she fell down the stairs, but he had nothing to do with it.
With a curt nod, Louisa passed the paper back. “That was a bit of a mess. But they never found any evidence of what he said. Kids will say crazy things. Especially if they accidentally pushed their friend down the stairs.”
“Right,” said Campbell with his familiar, pleasant grin. “That sort of thing must be tough on a kid.”
“It’s tough on all of us,” she responded, feeling almost as if she were reading off the grieving, but understanding parent’s script. “Will you want me to stay around while you’re investigating?” The answers has been mixed from the different people and groups. Psychics usually wanted her around, presumably so she would be amazed at their feats of insight. Paranormal investigators usually ushered her out, citing a need to prevent contamination of the area. With this combined team, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
“You’re welcome to join, but there probably won’t be much to see. Most of our information comes up in the review. Corey may have some things to add, but mostly he just asks questions and records. But,” he paused, rummaging through the bag, “we always bring an extra camera if you’d like to record with us!”
Louisa took the camera. This was new. She turned it on and spun it around here kitchen, watching the world through the viewfinder. For an instant, she caught sight of Jenny ducking around a corner with a giggle. Louisa smiled and hit the delete button, pushing that little piece of evidence into oblivion.
“Alright,” said a new voice. Corey was standing in the doorway. “Let’s get started.”
He marched away, Campbell grabbing a few implements off the table and hustling after him. As he left the kitchen, he paused to turn off the lights, plunging the house into complete darkness. Theatrics.
Corey made his way to the staircase, pausing for a moment at the bottom. “So here is where you found her when you arrived back home?”
“Yes,” said Louisa stoically, stifling the guilt from a little white lie.
Campbell nudged her. “I didn’t even tell him what happened!” he whispered, his eyes wide. Unfortunately, he was not the best actor she had seen, but she feigned amazement.
Corey looked pleased. “Yes, I felt something was off here. So much sadness, pain.” He pulled out a voice recorder, holding it out and spinning slowly in a large circle. “Are you still here? Would you like to talk to us?” The only sound in the house was the hissing of air vents, and occasional groan of an engine passing by on the street outside. “How can we help you?” he asked, staring up at the dark ceiling.
Campbell pulled out a small monitor, checking the temperature and EMF. “Everything’s normal here,” he said after a moment.
Corey smiled. “She must be a little shy. Let’s head up to her room, see if we can’t help her feel more comfortable.” With that, he began climbing the stairs toward the small second floor room. Louisa might have been impressed if he had not spent the evening roaming her house to set up cameras. It was easy to tell which one had once belonged to a seven-year-old girl.
The door opened onto a room painted pale pink, but appearing grey in the dim light. There were shelves lining the room, a treasure trove of various dolls sitting at attention. There had once been so many of them, but they had since dwindled. Louisa looked around, noticing one was missing. She soon spotted it seated at the small tea table behind the bed. Jenny had prepared for her guests, it seemed.
Corey bee-lined for the table, sinking down to his knees to get on the same level. “I feel a lot of happiness here, but some sadness. Like she’s joyful that she can still be here, but sad she can no longer play with her toys or friends.” He paused dramatically, face sculpted into a sorrowful mask. Slowly, he pulled out the recorder from his pocket. “Do you mind if I join?” he asked the darkness, holding out the recorder. His voice was too loud in the enclosed room, feeling almost as if he were yelling at the ceiling. Louisa felt a headache beginning to build in the back of her head, like cold fingers were digging through her brain. But no one else seemed to notice the chill, and she was not about to bring their attention to it.
After a long pause, Corey reached out and lifted one of the plastic tea cups. Eyes roving around the room, he took one long, pretend sip from the cup. “Delicious!” he said with a smack of his lips. “Can I meet your friend?” he asked. Louisa marveled as she watched the grown man pantomime a handshake and rudimentary bow with the seated doll. Campbell’s screen still showed no changes.
She had to hand it to the two of them. Despite receiving no positive feedback, they dutifully worked their way through the house, pointing out possible attachments a spirit might have. Her husband’s study might be where she shared secrets and spent time with her father. Perhaps her spirit was grieving his loss, too, offered Campbell. Corey nodded astutely. The kitchen, of course, was where the family ate and she did her homework. Were there unresolved issues? A fight with her parents, perhaps? Louisa denied it.
“We loved each other very much,” she lied. She also neglected to mention they ate dinner in the dining room, not on the kitchen table that permanently housed her husband’s computer equipment.
They scoured the attic and basement, and Louisa occasionally felt ice creep along her back, heard a faint giggle as Jenny enjoyed her game of hide and seek. Campbell almost walked right through her once, but Louisa felt the spirit vanish before he could realize it. The only sign was a brief blip in temperatures. He opened his mouth to point it out, but the words died as the temperature returned to normal.
“A draft,” Louisa heard him whisper.
At eleven, they began turning lights back on and preparing to make their departure.
“We’ll call with what we found. May take us around a month to review everything and get it ready,” said Campbell, trying to remain positive. “And don’t worry. Most of the good stuff doesn’t show up until we review the tapes and all.”
She did her best to paint on an authentic smile, pouring gratitude into her words. “I really appreciate you coming out here to help. You don’t know what it means.” She had briefly returned to the bedroom to retrieve the doll Jenny had left, and now she held it in front of her. It was a soft, floppy doll dressed in a pale blue sun dress. Blue eyes were stitched on the face, along with a button nose and set of pale pink lips.
“You’ve given me such peace of mind and been so kind to my Jenny,” she began. They stood, watching her, clearly hoping for some kind of tip or reward. “I know she’d want you to have this. To remember her,” she finished, holding out the doll. They both did their best to hide their disappointment, but she had seen it before. Every team always thought this was some grand gesture of fortunes, and they were always irritated to find it a sentimental offer of a child’s toy.
Corey took it, holding it by an arm between two fingers. “Oh, we couldn’t—“
“Please,” she offered, laying a hand on his arm and drawing close. “Just as a thank you for believing me.” Campbell and Corey exchanged a glance, then both widened their smiles.
“Right, well, you’re welcome.” Corey shuffled stiffly out the front door, still holding the doll as if it might bite him. Louisa had the urge to tell him it wouldn’t be the doll that hurt him, in the end. But she held her tongue. She was getting good at that.
“We’ll be in touch,” added Campbell with his characteristic smile. With that and a tip of his head, he was gone.
Louisa closed the door, falling against it. She was once again wholly and completely alone in the house. It would not last, she knew, but she breathed a sigh of relief, no longer caged by the angry, petulant spirit of her daughter.
It had been nearly two weeks, and she was sleeping deeply, peacefully, and dreamlessly when there was suddenly a weight on the bed as something moved over the covers. Louisa sat up, feeling the cold presence settle onto her. For a moment, it was the same heft and shape as when Jenny used to crawl into her lap during a thunderstorm.
“You’re back so soon,” she whispered, half asleep and caught up in the despair of it all.
“I had to come back to you, mommy. I got angry with my new friends. Then they couldn’t play anymore.”
Tears began to slip from her eyes and down her cheek, falling through the cold mass and onto the sheets below. A cold sensation dragged along her cheek, wiping ineffectively at the stream of tears. “They won’t be able to play with anyone anymore,” said the voice, almost innocently. But there was that edge of glee, of jealous possession that haunted Louisa almost as much as the ghost of her dead daughter.
Louisa did not return to sleep that night. She could not stop thinking about the ghost hunters who finally came face to face with what they had been hunting. Only they never suspected it was hunting them as well. Guilt and panic fought for control, both eventually falling to her survival instinct.
Once the sun rose, Louisa carefully rose from bed and walked to the computer. She entered the search, flipping over to the second page to find new possibilities and trying not to think about what she might have to do when the list ran out.
Madame Ophelia, Spirit Guide. She clicked on the link.
Wow, ended up being way longer than I expected. I also feel like I may have rushed it in an attempt to get the idea out there. Depending on how I feel, you may see an update to this over the next few weeks. I’m onboard with the idea, but may need to polish the execution. Got tips? Critiques? Suggestions? Leave them in the comments!
A couple notes to wrap up!
- Happy Thanksgiving! If you are celebrating, I hope you enjoy some delicious food with family. If you’re not, I hope you have a great Thursday!
- I really enjoyed writing Milgram, and I’ve actually been working on more of it. I have another section completed, but it is likely to be rather long. I want to iron out a few pieces before posting more, but keep an eye out.
- And while your eyes are out, I am going to be posting some things about future directions for the blog, including some ideas I’ve had rolling around. No Card Challenge, but I do have some changes planned for the New Year that will help me build good writing habits. And some you may want to join me on. 🙂
- This idea was inspired by a story on the Darkest Night podcast. If you like creepy things, I’d recommend it. It is a fiction podcast about a laboratory that reviews the last memories from people who have died. And even with that plot line, there is something more sinister afoot. It’s well put together, especially the sound work. I’m in no way affiliated, but I have enjoyed it. It’s an original story, just taking inspiration from some ideas I had while listening. If you like podcasts and scary things, check it out!
Thanks for sticking with me. Happy Reading!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
I thought about writing a horror short story today, but I looked at the news and decided that was horror enough. And then I thought about ranting into the void about the election, but I know the void is noisy today with all kinds of opinions.
And so, instead, I think I’ll write a bit of fantasy. The fantasy genre is probably my first love, full of all that puppy dog infatuation and idealization. I don’t think I have the stomach to write a grand fantasy epic, but I do think those are some of the stories I am most intrigued by. Specifically, the idea of dragons and dragon riders has always been a favorite theme of mine. So, today, when I need to write something for me, that’s where I go.
Disclaimer: While this does deal with “election,” there is no hidden meaning behind these. It is not some sort of metaphor or anything. It is literally a story about dragons and people and how that happens.
I carried my pack into the Hatchery Barracks, feeling a swell of anxiety and excitement. They blended so purely that it was hard to distinguish where one began and the other ended. Perhaps, I thought, they were the same thing. Anticipation of the future, one anticipating future good and the other future ill. But the same.
My thoughts spun in a flurry of ideas, each one blending into another, leading me down paths with no destination or reason. And then I was standing before my bunk, the one carrying a tag with my name scrawled on it, and set my pack down. Suddenly my thoughts were silent.
And suddenly the room was loud, full of people shuffling in and finding their position. Each full of hope and terror. We were all so much the same.
I was tired that first night; I was tired most nights in the Barracks, which I suppose meant training was proceeding as intended. Each day was full of drills, combat training, conditioning, and tactical education. I cannot separate one day from another, as they were all renditions of the same symphony. But I know I was tired.
I was especially tired that first night after carrying the burden of anxiety for so long, crawling into my bed and pulling the thin sheets over my shoulders while others chatted and whispered in the dark. Their whispers diminished over the days, as the fatigue caught up with each of us.
That night, I dreamed of home. It had been two weeks since I left there, and I would not return until next spring. The house was as I remembered it, standing proud on its stone foundation, new thatch on the roof. Smoke puffed from the chimney and I imagined I could smell my mother’s cooking even from the path outside.
Inside, my mother and father sat around the table while my brothers sat in front of the hearth, building with the blocks father had carved from them two winters ago. Words and hugs were exchanged. I remember laughter from the dream, as well as a feeling of intense contentment.
And then those feelings faded back into reality with the sound of the alarm, signaling another day of training. Even now, only the barest images and sensations from that dream exist, even though I have held them tightly all this time. They are worn like an old notice hung in the town square. I can still at least make out the details to know what it once said, even if the words have vanished.
The anxiety dwindled over the next two weeks. The alarm woke me each day, and each night I fell asleep lying next to the slumbering eggs, waiting for them to awake.
It was day nine of fourteen when I felt the connection. Exhausted as I was, my sleep was often deep and dreamless. But that night was different. That night my dream was of light half glimpsed through some semi-transparent barrier. I could watch firelight rise and fall around me, a soft dance along the walls. I felt the steady flutter of my heart, felt the soft brush of my breath over scaly skin. Sounds floated through the sounds of someone sleeping, muted footsteps on patrol. Somewhere, I heard quiet weeping. That night, I slept in the shell with the one I would later bond with.
I felt refreshed the next morning, filled with a unique energy and vitality. The day quickly sapped that, but I managed enough energy to inspect the eggs that night. I walked past each bay, glancing briefly in to see the cream, oval eggs resting in their nests. And then I walked up to number 43.
If you’ve never experienced The Connection, I’m not sure how to explain it. If you’ve ever held an instrument as it reverberates and felt that energy meld with your hand and pass through your body as well as the air, that’s like it. It’s like existing as a giant tuning fork for the entire world, so that, for a moment, everything flows right through you. You feel joy and despair and anger and fear and everything at once. You are land and sea and sky, plant, animal, and human. And then it’s over, The Connection dwindling until there is just a thin trickle of that massive river surging through you. And if you follow that trickle, it leads right back to your bonded.
The anxiety that had plagued me for weeks disappeared in that moment. Not everyone is bonded—in fact, most people leave to fulfill their duty in the infantry rather than join the Bonded Ranks. I had always hoped that I would be chosen, that I would receive the glory and esteem that came from such a role. But I never dared to believe it would happen. Until I stood in front of egg 43 and felt my breath flow in through my nose and out through theirs.
I reported The Connection right away. Sir Conaway raised an eyebrow at the number. “Ol’ 43, eh? That one’s been here a while. Waiting on you, I guess.” He pulled out a large book and scribbled the event on the last page. “All right then, miss, we’ve got it and you will be at the hatching at the end of the training.”
By the end, fourteen of the ninety-two who had begun the training remained for the hatching. We stood in formation, awaiting our next orders. The tension was palpable. We were all steps away from what would be the most significant event of our short lives so far. Sir Conaway stood before us, chewing on the end of his pipe as he read over the event log again and again. After what seemed like ages, he pulled the pipe from his mouth and spoke.
“Larena Dougan and Tallesor de’Trie, please come with me.”
Chills chased through my body as I heard my name, but faded as we walked past the bays and toward Sir Conaway’s meeting room. This was not protocol, growled the knot of anxiety roiling in my gut. I walked into the room, shaking as Sir Conaway closed the door behind me. He walked to the other side of the table, dropping the log book in between the three of us.
“Alright you two, somebody’s not telling me the truth.” He ran a large hand over his forehead, massaging at his temples. “I had hoped the fraud would chicken out before tonight, but one of you is foolish enough to push on ahead.”
Tallesor jumped to alarm. “What do you mean, sir? I’m here for the hatching.” He was sweating heavily, perhaps because of the fire roaring in the grate beside him. But his eyes seemed too wide, too jumpy. I had trained alongside him for two weeks, long enough to know that things rarely broke through his veneer of arrogant surety. I was not sure what to do with this uncertain, nervous comrade.
“Of course you’re here for the hatching,” exclaimed Sir Conaway with exasperation. “We wouldn’t have a problem if both of you weren’t here for the hatching!”
“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice tiny in the large room, “but I don’t know what’s going on?”
Sir Conaway sighed and stroked his beard once, weighing his words. “You’ve both claimed egg 43. Which means one of you is lying and trying to sneak into the Bonded Ranks. And there are serious punishments for such deception.”
His eyes moved evenly over the two of us, measuring and looking for any weakness. We both dripped with anxiety and fear, and I suddenly felt myself doubting everything I had experienced up until that point.
“Could we—has there ever been two bonded to one egg before?” I squeaked out.
“Never,” came the solid reply. He continued studying us both. The only sound was the snapping of the logs in the grate. Finally, he spoke wearily. “You both know what happens if you try to bond to a dragon you’ve not connected with, right?”
My head shook, and from the corner of my eye I saw Tallesor do the same.
Sir Conaway sniffed. “Of course not. You wouldn’t try something this stupid if you did. The dragon will hatch bonded to its true connection. It’ll reject the impostor. Aggressively.”
The anxiety that had been my constant companion now swelled into a monster of its own, turning the room into a chokingly small dungeon. Tallesor appeared to feel the same surge of anxiety, but I watched as it slowly faded from his features. He was watching me, a half smile now on his lips.
“So, before I turn one of you over to the beast, can you both confirm your Connection to 43?”
Tallesor was ready with his answer. “Of course. I would never be deceitful with such vital information. I just can’t believe she,” he looked over to me with a sneer, “would stoop so low to claw her way into prestige.”
Maybe I was wrong, I thought. Perhaps all of these experiences were just me wishing it could be different, creating something that was not there. But I could reach out, follow that thin trickle of the world still running through me, and feel someone at the other end. 43.
“I can confirm.” The words were out of my mouth before I had even processed what was happening. I was sure Tallesor turned a few shades paler after I spoke, but perhaps it was simply the lighting.
Sir Conaway lifted the book from the table, stepping around to the door and dragging it open. “Then let’s get this over with.”
Upon returning to the others, doing my best to dodge their accusing, questioning stares, the bay doors were opened. Slowly, with reverent grace and patience, each of us stepped forward toward our identified bay and the waiting egg. The rest of the room disappeared around me, replaced by the simple wooden walls and straw floor of the egg bay. Egg 43 sat in front of me, the same shade of pearly white that I had watched for so long.
“Leave and I’ll pay you heartily, make sure the punishment is waived,” hissed Tallesor once we were in semi-privacy.
“What?” I asked, too loudly. He quickly raised a finger to his lips, shushing me.
“I need this more than you. I’ll be the first in seven generations not to be in the Bonded Ranks. If you leave, I’ll ensure you are well cared for.”
“I’m not going,” I said, surprising myself with my unusual confidence. Now I knew who the impostor was, the anxiety turned into pure excitement. “And I hope you’re not stupid enough or stubborn enough to go forward after the warnings.”
He smiled a dark, angry grin. “I’m sure the dragon will recognize greatness when it sees it. Let’s just hope you manage to survive this.”
Sir Conaway’s voice echoed behind us. “Place your hand on the shell of the egg. I will come through and pour the Hatching Serum onto each egg in turn.”
I placed my hand on the egg as Tallesor did the same. It was softer than I thought, feeling less like an egg shell and more like skin. It seemed to give slightly as I put pressure on it, almost as if returning the touch. A slow, steady heartbeat pulsed through my hand and into my body, providing an echo to the one that had flowed through me since The Connection. I would not be abandoned, it assured.
There were sounds of cracking shells all around us. Of course, the view was entirely blocked, but I heard shots of joy, followed by soft rumbles and yips. Through it all, Sir Conaway’s voice giving polite, practiced congratulations.
He stood in the doorway to our bay for the span of a few breaths, studying us both. There was resignation in his voice when he finally spoke. “So you’re both going through with this?”
“Yes,” was Tallesor’s confident reply. I nodded my head weakly, and I could tell by the pity in his eyes Sir Conaway thought I was the liar.
He lifted a bowl over our hands, spilling out a thick, warm, honey colored liquid. The substance oozed over our hands, then trickled down along the shell. After a moment, there was the sound of cracking as the egg moved for the first time. It rocked strongly, and I feared I would be thrown against the back wall. But the liquid held my hand to the surface with surprising strength, almost as if my hand and the shell had somehow merge in that moment.
Then there was a louder crack. Like a lightning bolt, one large, green eye found me. It was like a jewel, colors folding on top of colors to form a deep, ageless pit of emerald. The trickle of connection I had felt surged into a river again, but this time it was not the whole world. This time it was just myself and—
“Khandar,” answered the dragon’s voice in my mind. It flowed through me, the name sounding like thunder and tasting of smoke. There was a moment that the world was doubled and I saw from four eyes, felt two hearts. I felt my muscles strain against the shell before finally bursting free.
And then he was standing before me, our eyes locked the world having resolved to one perspective again as the river steadied its flow. The Connection was there, but it was restrained. Manageable.
I looked at Khandar, studying the long line of his neck, the strong limbs of his body, the thick wings folded. In an instant, he stretched those wings, the tips reaching from one corner of the room to the other. He was the same early white as the egg shell—I knew that, somewhere in the recesses of knowledge. All dragons are born without color. His would develop as we trained together over the next few months, reflecting our role within the Ranks.
I was dimly aware of Sir Conaway still standing, slightly shocked, in the doorway. I was also aware of Tallesor lying in a heap on the far wall, his hand still stuck to a fragment of the shell. Rage flowed through me, not from myself, but from Khandar. I watched as he turned, steam billowing from his nostrils. I could feel the power flowing through both of us as he reached out one clawed leg and struck at the stunned impostor.
Sir Conaway looked concerned, but stood immobile. “Such is the way,” he whispered to himself as he watched.
There was blood on the ground, blood in the straw, anger in the air. And I could see Tallesor’s shocked face, now sporting a bright red gash across his cheek.
There was fire building in my belly, and I could hear strong words, ancient words passing through my mind. I was at once witness and actor. “Thus to usurpers,” whispered Khandar’s voice. This was the way it had been determined, I could feel it in my bones. Those who attempted to deceive or disrupt the ancient ritual were dealt with harshly. Still, I felt sorrow and guilt rise up.
“No.” The word brought the world crashing back down around me. Khandar eyed me, his mind probing my own and uncovering every detail he sought. We were not of two minds any longer, but one shared.
“No,” his voice repeated in my mind. The fire dulled as he took the few steps to my side. Tallesor sat with blood dripping down his chin, eyes wide.
Sir Conaway watched the scene curiously, finally waving over his shoulder to alert the waiting guards. They shuffled in and grabbed Tallesor under the arms, dragging him from the room.
“He got off far better than most others who have tried that,” he said with a hint of disappointment and respect.
“What will happen now?”
“The doctor will patch him up, he will be disbarred from all military and public service, and as such he will be fined a portion of his income each year to atone for his negligence.” He looked at both of us. “You let him off too easy, I’d say.”
I felt a nudge of agreement from Khandar, but it was good-natured. We had a difference in temperament, I could see, but certainly that could be a strength. Right.
Khandar leaned against me, so I could feel the puffing of his chest with each breath, the thunder of his heart as it pounded in time to my own. Connected. Bonded. The next few months and years would be full of training, of honing our bond and our work. But we had conquered time and space to unite together.
Excitement bubbling in our mind, we stepped out of the bay and into the Bonded Ranks.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
You made it to the end! If you missed any of the previous Halloween stories, you can find them all here! Thanks for reading!
The cemetery after midnight was creepy. I guess I would have been disappointed if it were otherwise, but the fact remained. All those lone sentinels standing over their graves, it gave off the vibe that I had stumbled into some frozen moment of grief. The angels bowed their heads low to study the markers at their feet. Crosses rose and stabbed up into the night sky. A few larger mausoleums stood as squat, stubborn guardians holding court. It was enough to send chills up my back.
I’ve never been superstitious, but that was not enough to prevent me from feeling uncomfortable in the cemetery. My friends were supposed to meet me but were, as usual, running late. Somehow it seemed far less intimidating to stand in that place if I had the warmth of human companionship.
As if on cue, I heard the clatter of the metal gate at the entrance, followed by a thud and muted laughter. I recognized Calvin’s laugh immediately, and Suzanne’s joined shortly after. The tension uncoiled from around my neck, and I began walking toward the gate.
Calvin was lying in an uncoordinated pile on the ground, looking back over the gate and laughing. Suzanne had paused with one leg thrown over the gate, her head bent low and she chuckled as well.
“You guys suck as sneaking in,” I said, stepping from behind a grave stone. Calvin’s laugh turned into a short yelp, but Suzanne seemed not to notice my arrival.
“Jesus, Lynn, you can be way creepy sometimes.”
I shrugged. “Nothing I can do about that. Guess you just need to toughen up.” He laughed and shoved himself up from the ground. Suzanne finally finished her climb, dropping with far more grace to the ground.
“Yep, same old Lynn,” she said as she dusted off her pants, shaking away the collected dust and rust.
We stood in a small circle, everyone unsure of how to proceed. It had been a year since we last met together, and some of the uncertainty from that gap lingered between us.
“I figured we’d do the usual thing? Drink a bit, gossip, scare ourselves silly?”
Calvin held up his backpack, the sound of bottles clanging about inside. “That’s the sort of evening I came prepared for.”
Suzanne reached into her backpack and pulled out a slightly crushed bag of assorted candy. “And it’s no good to drink on an empty stomach.”
I smiled and turned to walk toward a spot in the middle of the cemetery. “I found this spot earlier, thought it might be good for us to palaver.” There was a large oak tree, leaves still clinging on to the branches. Beneath it was a couple of benches, arranged to provide a meditative spot for visitors. The plaque on the benches revealed they were dedicated to Jeremiah Brown, “a kind husband, father, grandfather, and friend.”
The three settled in, Calvin pulling out a bottle of something dark while Suzanne ripped open the bag of candy. I reached out a grabbed a piece of chocolate, unwrapping it and savoring the sweet, bitter taste as it melted in my mouth. I washed it down with the too bitter alcohol, feeling it burn its way down my throat. My eyes watered as I sputtered, apparently more unused to the strong drink than I had anticipated.
“Maybe you should take it slow,” suggested Calvin, taking the bottle and eyeing me with motherly concern.
I grabbed it back, more so to prove a point. “Listen, it may burn, but we all know I can handle liquor better than either one of you.” I took a long drink, holding my face in a stoic mask despite the sensation.
“Can’t argue with that,” said Suzanne as she took the bottle and sipped from it herself. “I mean, we all know that’s a competition I can’t win. You going to challenge the title?” She tilted an eyebrow and the bottle toward Calvin. He took it, laughing.
“I think you have an unfair advantage, Lynn. But you can have your title.” He set the bottle between us. It was not really the reason for us coming together. The reason was just to be together. As friends again.
The moment caught up with me. “Hey, I don’t want to make this too sappy, but I’m really glad you’re both here. I know this is kind of weird and all, but…”
Suzanne smiled at me. “Of course we’d be here. It’s been too long. A girl needs her best girlfriend.” She tossed another piece of candy towards me with a wink. I caught it and turned it over in my hand. Calvin was quiet, turning the words over in his head.
“You know, after that accident, when we thought we’d lost you for good—“
I cut him off with a wave of my hand. “That’s the sappiness I was talking about! Listen, I’d rather not talk about the accident. I think about it all the time. But tonight’s all about enjoying our time together. I mean, I almost never get to see either of you anymore. You two have moved on to bigger and better things, but I’m still stuck here.”
My words caused more hurt than I intended; I could see it on both their faces. Suzanne’s face twitched, and I saw her gathering words for an apology.
“No, not like that. I’m not upset with you about it,” I tried to laugh it off, but the sound was empty. “I just meant, let’s have fun. No point in dwelling on the past.”
They smiled, glancing at each other with guilt in their eyes. I tried to ignore it. This was not going as planned.
“Have you guys heard about Old Man Stevens’ ghost?” It was a poor, erratic distraction, but it brought their four eyes back to me with curiosity rather than pity.
They shook their heads, almost in unison. “No, but I’m guessing you have a story?”
I smiled at Calvin. “Of course. It’s Halloween and we’re in a graveyard. I feel like I of all people should have a ghost story to tell.”
Calvin and Suzanne leaned in close, Suzanne tucking her jacket tighter around her body as the wind picked up. It was the ambiance I wanted, but could not control.
“So, like all ghosts, Stevens likes to hang around the cemetery, never straying too far from his grave. Also, as we all know, that means that he can interact with and be seen by mortals on one night of the year.” I paused for effect, even if the conclusion was obvious. “Tonight.”
They smiled, Calvin rolling his eyes. “Come on, maestro, get on with the story.”
“You have no respect for the art of storytelling,” I added full of mock offense, then took a deep breath. “Edward Stevens was a bitter, sullen old man when alive. He lived out beyond the town limits on a tiny little farm. It was him, his wife, and their three children out there. Now, his wife was a pitiful woman, worn down to nothing by his constant abuse. Nothing she did was every quite good enough, from the dinners she made to the children she bore. That kind of life can eat a hole right through you.”
Suzanne crunched into a hard candy, the sudden sound making Calvin jump. He gave her a playful shove, and she shook her head. “Barely any story and you’re already jumpy,” she tossed back.
“We are in a cemetery at one am,” he countered.
“Or maybe I’m just that good of a storyteller? I’ve had plenty of time to practice.”
There was the uncomfortable silence again. I mentally kicked myself, constantly putting my foot in my mouth. I wasn’t upset, but it was certainly getting harder to convince them of that. “Well, either way, back to the story. Mr. Stevens was also one of those sort who seemed to dodge every bit of bad luck to come his way. Unfortunately, it seemed to land squarely on his children. When the equipment malfunctioned, he managed to repair it and narrowly saved his hand from the tines when it started back up. His youngest son, unfortunately, was not as lucky when he fell from the barn loft and landed on the cursed machine three months later. Old Man Stevens said he was never sick a day in his life, but his middle son seemed to catch everything. It was the Measles that finally got him.
“Mr. Stevens was not a kind man, and he had more than his share of enemies. These weren’t the kind of people you could easily settle the score with, either. They were the kind who operated far below the law, and did not take kindly to being cheated. Especially out of money they felt was theirs. Stevens somehow avoided having to pay up, but his family was not so lucky. His eldest daughter, the one people thought might just manage to overcome the evil that her father poured out on a daily basis, was walking home from town one night. It was a different time, a time where people thought they were safe. She had been sent to run some errands for her mother, and time got later than she anticipated. So it was full dark when she was walking along the country road. Full dark was also when her father’s associates were known to make their own trouble.”
“No,” Suzanne gasped. Calvin grabbed another piece of candy and began chewing slowly.
“Now, when the facts started coming out a trial, those three men claimed it was an accident that must have caused those injuries. But no one could quite piece together what kind of accident would have left her face bruised and swollen beyond recognition. They had no idea what could have broken all her fingers and three ribs. And the greatest mystery of all was what kind of accident would have dragged her naked, lifeless body from the scene to her front porch.
“That was the last straw for Mrs. Stevens. Always a quiet woman, folks say she became even quieter. She was concentrating down all the rage that had built for all those years, compressing it into a pinpoint so dark, it sapped all the good straight out of her. Her husband continued on his own way, whistling while he worked about the farm. And then, one night, she got her revenge.
“They had an old cellar off from the house, one where Mr. Stevens kept his personal supply of whiskey. She knew he would go down there every night after his long day of work, just like clockwork. So she prepared. And one night, he went down, and the doors swung shut behind him. She locked it up tight, leaving him down there with nothing but his whiskey, an old lantern, and the exhumed corpses of his three children.”
“Ugh,” exclaimed Calvin, making a face and pushing away. “That’s sick.”
I smiled. “Perhaps, but so was he. ‘You can come out once you make it right,’ she told him, though she had no intention of letting him out. The only way he could make it right was to die in there. That was the atonement she sought. He hollered and raved for the first day, certain the power of his blustering would bring her to heel as it usually did. She sat on the front porch, working on her sewing, never batting an eye at the force of his words. After another day, he was begging. ‘When you make it right,” was all she would tell him.
“Folks finally got suspicious and showed up at the farm. She showed them to the cellar, not a hint of shame in her. They opened it up, not expecting to open up a crypt. Inside, they found him lying in a half formed grave, one other already dug and covered. His two sons sat in their chairs, at least what was left of them, right where Mrs. Stevens had placed them. The walls and doors were scratched and bloodied, but he had apparently saved enough of his fingers to dig up the dry, compressed ground, trying to make it right. She just shook her head when she saw it. ‘It wasn’t right when we put them in the first time,’ she was recorded as saying. She died in prison a few days later, though no one quite knew why.”
There was a creak in the branches above us, bringing us all back to the present. Calvin and Suzanne stretched and adjusted their position, trying to shake off the story. We were not on that farm or in that cellar, but seated safely beneath the tree. I smiled. Safety was relative.
“They say he wanders the grounds, looking for anyone out of their graves. Only he has a bad habit of mistaking the living for the dead. Rumor has it, if he catches you, he’ll bury you in his grave, where no one will ever find you. You’ll be buried alive, deep underground, where you can try to scratch and claw your way to freedom. But he already knows that never works.”
“Is—Is he buried here?” queried Suzanne, glancing around the cemetery as if every headstone was waiting to pounce.
I nodded. “Yep, a couple of rows over. I’ve paid him a visit a time or two, just to investigate this legend. Sad he didn’t seem to learn a thing from his wife.”
“We should try to see him!” said Calvin, jumping to his feet. I glanced at the bottle and noticed he had been comforting himself with it throughout the story. There was a subtle wobble to his stance. Not drunk, I thought, but certainly not sober.
“I can show you where he usually is, if you want. But—“
“Isn’t it dangerous?” Suzanne interrupted.
“Not if you’re with me. I can keep you safe.”
Calvin was already a couple of strides down the hill toward the grave. Suzanne and I hurried to catch up, climbing along the paths until we got closer. I held up a hand to stop them, placing a finger over my lips. “He’s just over there.”
From the gloom, there appeared a specter. He was a frail, emaciated man wearing a baggy pair of overalls and a checkered shirt. His beard was long and tangled about his face, eyes sunken. He held his arm up as if carrying a lantern about, but it emitted no light. As the wind turned, we could hear his mumbled ravings, words about graves and wives and revenge. He peered between the trees and gravestones, scouring his territory obsessively. When he reached the end, he looped back to the beginning, constantly waving his empty hand from side to side as he sought a way to finally make it right.
“Woah,” breathed Calvin, his eyes wide as he stared down at the spectacle before us. I, too, felt a certain awe at Old Man Stevens. So many years, so much time spent seeking, and still not at peace. Suzanne simply looked, well, like she had seen a ghost. Eye wide, face pale, lips trembling.
“Maybe we should go back,” I offered. She nodded, scrambling back the way we came. Calvin trailed behind us, casting glances over his shoulder to ensure the specter was still there.
“Are there more ghosts around here?” he asked, catching up to us.
I nodded. “I assume so. Every grave has a story, right? I just imagine most of them have no interest in pestering the living.”
We settled back under the tree, words flowing between us again. Finally, I realized, we were back into the swing of things. We laughed and talked. They told me what their life had been like since we last met, filling in all the gaps and details. We shared urban legends and spooky stories, working our way through the supply of candy and booze.
And then, on the far horizon, the sun began to crest, turning the black night sky into a fuzzy grey.
“I guess that’s our cue to leave,” said Calvin with a sad smile. “I’m glad we could meet up again.”
I smiled and nodded. “Yeah.” There were tears in my eyes and more words were going to bring those out.
“Same time, same place next year?” asked Suzanne.
“If not before,” Calvin said with a fatalistic chuckle.
“You better not!” I responded, anger mingling with the good-natured joke. I was always on a tightrope, trying to stay perfectly balanced. Sometimes I succeeded.
“Good seeing you, Lynn,” he added as we stood at the gate. He shoved his backpack through the bars and hoisted himself up.
“Take care,” offered Suzanne as she followed.
I watched them leave, the sun rising along the far horizon. It slowly reached out toward me, and I felt my form begin to vanish, burned away like an early morning fog.
And with that, I too shall bid adieu (to the challenge, not the blog!). Tune in for more stories over the next few weeks. I’ll also talk a little bit about what this 13 days series was like for me.Until then, Happy Halloween!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello! If you’ve been following along with the 13 Stories, well, this is not one. I just found out that his story has been published on creepypasta.com, so I wanted to add it here as well. If you landed here after reading my story on Creepypasta, Welcome to the Attic! Take a look around. If you’re interested in some spooky/funny/creepy/weird Halloween stories, just check out the 13 Stories of Halloween tag here. The final one will be posted later today (around noon Central time), so check back to read it.
Alright, enough babbling from me. Here’s the story and, as always, Happy Reading!
Trevor looked at the sweaty, crumpled paper in his hand, reviewing the instructions yet again. Soon it would be too late to read over them, but until then every rehearsal could be the one that saved his life.
Four pale candles, he read, and then glanced over to the four candles sitting on the floor. He had arranged them in a perfect square, just as instructed. The line of crisp white chalk connected them, and he mentally marked the next item off the list.
His hand was shaking, making it harder to read the scrawled lines of pencil on the paper. With a deep breath, he looked away from the paper and out the window. There was a swell of nervous energy bubbling in his chest. He had prepared, he reminded himself. He had read and studied. He had memorized every line of text and done his research. Now was no time to have second thoughts or doubts.
“Remember, the entity will know your thoughts. If you enter with doubts, he will use these to his advantage.”
Trevor closed his eyes and smiled, trying his best to think confident and reassuring thoughts. What he needed to do, he realized, was find something else to think about. Every review of the instructions only deepened his anxiety, and it obviously wasn’t helping. It reminded him of cramming for final exams. He had always overdone it and worn himself out, so that he ultimately spent a week sick and dreading the impending tests. Now was not the time to weaken his mental or emotional defenses. It was, instead, the time to finally achieve something with his life.
Trevor walked away from his preparations, shoving the paper in his pocket and trying to prevent his mind from running over and over the instructions. They always hung on the final words.
“If you successfully complete the ritual, he will grant you one request for whatever your heart desires. Choose wisely.”
As if he could dislodge the thoughts, he shook his head sharply and turned his attention to his surroundings. He was sitting in the front of an old chapel, the wooden pews cracked and listing in the shadows. What had once been lovely windows were now either caked with dust, webbed with cracks, or lying broken on the floor. The moon sprinkled silver light around the interior, light which somehow only made the shadows darker. He wondered briefly about those who had once gathered here bowing penitently and singing their hymns. But churches dried up when a town did, and it was nothing more than an artifact cast out.
“Find a place of religious significance. It may be a church, temple, synagogue, mosque, sanctuary, blessed space, or area of miraculous happenings. Any place where people come to demonstrate faith will suffice.”
Trevor smirked remembering the words. He had considered going to his hometown’s football stadium, because that was where he had witnessed the greatest religious fervor. But somehow he thought such secular praises were not what the ritual intended. He had lucked upon this place on one of his trips to and from university. It was off the beaten path, well removed from the rest of civilization. Soy bean fields were the nearest attraction, which meant he would be mostly free to conduct his activities in peace. Assuming, of course, local kids did not wander in, drawn by the same isolation and freedom that had brought him. Given the lack of beer bottles and vandalism, he assumed it was not a popular place for such activities.
His legs were shaking up and down, whether from excitement or anxiety he was not sure. He checked his watch, noting that it had slipped five minutes closer since his last inspection. It was now 11:50, which meant his waiting was almost over.
“It must be begun at precisely midnight. Too early or too late and you will have no results but feeling like a fool.”
He had set and reset his watch just to be certain it was exact. Now he just needed to rely on it. He had also selected this position because it was just close enough to hear the church bells from a couple of towns over. Come midnight, they would toll and assure him he was on time.
The wind kicked up outside, tossing a few stray leaves through the opening. The many holes in the roof howled pitifully and the rest of the building creaked with the gusts. It seemed almost as if the building was in its final days, waiting for nothing but a strong storm to destroy it once and for all.
Giving into his worries, Trevor pulled the paper from his pocket and reviewed the important parts again. He skimmed over the materials, certain he had everything he needed. Instead, he reviewed the cautions to ensure he did not make any deadly mistakes.
”First, never speak your name. Such a being will seek any way to gain power over you. Should this creature find any weakness, he will use it to possess you. This is akin to being split apart from the inside out, slowly and over several days. Most unfortunate souls are also forced to watch as they slaughter family, friends, and other victims.”
It was simple enough. No names. That was an easy pitfall to avoid.
“Next, do not answer his questions. They are intended to trick you. You must only say what you have been instructed and your request. If you engage in questions, he will trap you in his game. You will slowly waste away, caught forever in his web of lies.”
Trevor had always been taciturn, so he was not concerned. Remaining silent was his primary skill in life, and he looked forward to putting it to good use. He also could not help but wonder who in their right mind would try to best a demon in a duel of wits. It seemed like one of the oldest follies.
“Third, ensure all barriers are maintained for the duration of the ritual. He will be unable to touch or harm you physically while the barriers are active. Adhere to the guidelines for your own safety.”
Another easy warning to heed. Who would ignore the barriers? Why would they even be in the ritual if they were not vital to its safe and successful completion?
“Finally, believe nothing of what he says. He exists only to lie.”
Rereading the warnings made him feel safer. These were so obvious that he could not imagine anyone making such grievous errors. He certainly knew better. And if the direst warnings in the ritual were so clear to him, it seemed impossible that he might fail.
The clock hands spun closer, and he moved back to his prepared space. There were the four candles, a fifth, and black candle setting to the side. There was a silver bowl of blessed water, secured from his local cathedral some days before. Also, a lighter, a scrap of cotton cloth, and a steel knife. It was everything he needed.
Trevor knelt beside the chalk square, arranging and rearranging items for the most practical set up. He wanted everything in arms’ reach, but also in the order it would be needed. Which meant, he thought, the lighter, the bowl, the knife, the cloth, and finally the candle.
It was midnight, he saw. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, he heard the bells ringing. Right on time, he brought the lighter to the first of the four candles, slowly moving clockwise and lighting each in turn. They flickered and snapped in the breeze, but remained strong.
His hands were unsteady as he picked up the bowl and set it in front of him. With a deep breath, he gripped the knife in his hand and drew it smoothly across his palm, just like they did in the movies. Only it seemed to hurt worse than those actors let on.
“Let a few drops fall into the water, and then bandage yourself carefully. The scent of blood can attract other things you may not wish to deal with during the ritual.”
Trevor followed the instructions to the letter, turning the water a cloudy red with his own blood before tightly wrapping his hand with the cloth. He knew the next steps by heart, moving through them almost robotically. Each step had been dutifully practiced—with the exception of cutting his own hand—many times in the bright light of day. Now, he lifted the bowl carefully with both hands, watching the way it rippled and changed. His blood diffused through the water, leaving darker and lighter patches that were quickly settling into the same pale shade.
“I summon you here with this dedication. Arrive.” With the last word, he tipped the water into the middle of the square. Unlike in the practice sessions, the water rolled and then stopped at the chalk outline, forming a tiny pool that defied the laws of gravity and surface tension. Trevor’s mouth hung open briefly, but he knew he had to continue.
The black candle was already in his hand, and he lit it despite the increasing wind. Gently, he placed it in the middle of the square, watching the tiny flame flicked on the surface of the water.
“I give you light to seek me,” he said, the words trembling from his lips. “Arrive.”
Barely were the words out of his mouth than the black candle began to sink below the surface of the water before disappearing completely. A dark, shadowy face emerged on the surface of the water, grinning widely. The face was hard to discern, but appeared dark and scaly, riddled with scars and fresh wounds that seemed to seep blood into the water around him. There were also many, many teeth. Trevor felt a cold pit of fear settle solidly in his stomach.
“Who summons me?” came the deep, gravelly voice. It came not from the thing’s moving lips, but from the air all around Trevor. The whole building seemed to vibrate with the voice.
No names, no questions, he reminded himself. Trevor’s mouth was dry thinking just how easy it would have been to make that mistake.
“You have been summoned, and I will instruct you. Speak your name.”
The church chuckled in time with the reflection in the water. He was smiling, showing even more teeth than Trevor thought could physically exist in the span of that face.
“Who are you to think you can command me, mortal?” came the bone aching words. They seemed to vibrate through Trevor’s body, as if he was being pulled apart by the reverberations alone.
“Speak your name,” he said again through gritted teeth.
The demon stretched, his arms stabbing through the surface of the water and entering this world. The water trickled off them, stumbling over protruding scales and nodules. Cruel claws shone in the candlelight, covered with water and a viscous red liquid that Trevor knew by sight. The smell of rot and decay followed quickly after, threatening to bring up Trevor’s meager dinner.
“I have summed you, and you will obey my commands. Remain within the summoning area.”
“Oh, shall I obey you and remain here?” asked the beast mockingly, planting one hand one either side of the puddle—outside the thin chalk lines. A deep, rolling chuckle emerged this time as he pulled himself slowly through the pool and into reality. The floorboards of the church appeared to buckle and steam wherever the claws pierced.
“He will try to intimidate you. Stay strong.”
“Remain within the summoning area. Speak your name.” Trevor tried to force all of his courage and confidence into his voice, but it only made the demon laugh all the louder, now standing at his full height.
The beast looked down on the pale boy before him. “You can call me Trevor,” came Trevor’s voice from his monstrous visage.
Trevor froze, his mouth agape and eyes wide. For an instant, the demon appeared almost sympathetic, but the façade cracked into merciless anticipation as the shadows flickered over his face. “You have meddled with something you do not even understand,” it said, voice again deep and roaring, but now mimicking the disappointed tone of a school teacher.
“I–I never told you my name. You can’t know my name,” Trevor stammered, his fear getting the better of him. His eyes flickered from the face to the arms to the rooted feet, never sure where to stay or linger. Everywhere he looked, there was impossibility.
“You think I need you to tell me your name?” Casually, the demon stretched, muscles and joints popping and cracking as if it had been millennia since he moved about. His eyes, dark with unholy light, fixed on Trevor with predatory amusement. He answered his own questions with a deep shake of his head, sending water sizzling across the sanctuary.
Trevor began scooting backward, whimpering with fear as the monster before him took one broad step forward. There was really nowhere to escape. The candles slowly snuffed themselves out, leaving only the moonlight to glint off those smiling teeth.
“But,” Trevor gasped as his hands scrambled along the floor for anything that might help, “but I followed all the instructions!”
The creature paused to survey the assembled implements and the chalk square. “Yes, you certainly did.” The building trembled with the force of the laugh.
From the cloying darkness, an arm shot forward. In the next breath, Trevor was off the ground. The demon slowly drew him close until their eyes were level.
“Who do you think wrote the ritual in the first place?”
“He exists only to lie.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Read the rest of the series here!
They parked their car in the gravel lot, positioning themselves as close to the tree line as they could. The corn maze was closed this time of night, and no one wanted to be caught lurking around after hours. However, being equal parts bored and broke, the chance to explore the maze in complete solitude was too much to pass up.
Joel, Erica, Mandy, and Alvin stumbled across the ground as they headed for the dark line on the horizon that marked the entrance. It was incredibly dark out, which made it even better. Eventually, their eyes would adjust.
Drawing closer, the small group saw the closed up outbuildings. The windows to the ticket booth were closed and locked, the petting zoo was deserted, and the snack truck was dark and silent. They hung close together, laughing in whispers as they made it finally to the entrance. A tall, cut-out of a scarecrow smiled down at them, holding in one gloved hand a signpost with the rules. The writing on it was childish, printed on in a font that resembled broad brushstrokes.
“Rule 1: NO RUNNING! No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!
Rule 2: NO BAD LANGUAGE! Keep it fun for EVERYONE!
Rule 3: DO NOT CUT THROUGH THE CORN! Now why would you want to ruin all the fun?
Rule 4: NO FLASHLIGHTS! It’s better this way, promise!
Rule 5: NO PICKING OR THROWING CORN! Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!
Rule 6: COMPLY WITH ALL STAFF MEMBERS INSTRUCTIONS! They’re just here to help!
Rule 7: HAVE FUN!!!!”
They were a corny set, but a staple at any event of this sort. There was a rope stretched across the entrance, which made their illicit entry even easier. The four of them slipped beneath the braided rope, the corn rising up around them and blocking out everything but the starry sky above. The moon was thin and pale in the sky, providing only the minimum of light. It turned everything into a misshapen shadow of reality.
There were creaks and groans from the buildings, the whisper of corn bending and swaying in the wind. It set the scene for them, and they all adopted whispers despite the fact no one would be out this far in the wee hours of the morning.
“Left or right?” Joel asked as they faced their first split in the path.
With two votes for left and one for right, they followed that trail straight to a dead end, turning around and laughing as they retraced their steps and proceeded down the right path. The maze led them through twists and turns, each one promising some new reveal. There was an edge of the forbidden to the whole operation which kept them on edge and on their toes. It was as if some angry farmer with his shotgun were about to burst from the corn to chase off trespassers. The four of them proceeded through the maze, taking more wrong turns than right, drunk on the thrill and risk of it all.
After about an hour, more hopelessly lost than they had been for a while, the excitement began to fade. The cold also began to set in, as the temperatures dipped from what had been a pleasant fall evening into the early nips of winter.
“Left, right, or straight?” asked Joel, fatigue creeping into his voice.
“Right,” said Mandy. Erica agreed.
“What are you talking about? That will just lead us back to where we came from. We have to go left.” There was an edge of frustration to Alvin’s voice as he spoke.
“Majority rules, so we go right. We’ll take the left if we’re wrong.”
“What about I just go left and we see who gets to the end first?” there was a prickle of competition in Alvin’s voice. He had a bit of an aggressive streak which led to him turning most events into some sort of game or championship. This was no different.
“If you want to, go ahead.” Mandy pulled her phone from her pocket and shook it at him. “We’ll text you when we beat you,” she said with a sly smile. She knew him well enough to know that he needed only the tiniest bit of goading to throw himself headlong into a perceived race.
He smiled and took off at a run through the field.
“Hey, didn’t you read the sign? No running!” called Erica after him laughing and rolling her eyes. “Geez, I wouldn’t want to be off on my own here. It’s creepy,” she said more quietly, pulling her jacket around her shoulders.
“No kidding,” returned Joel as the three moved through the stalks.
After a moment, a new sound joined the rustle of the corn and the stomp of their feet. It as a rhythmic, pounding sound, like a heartbeat echoing across the field. The three paused to listen, none of them quite sure how to place the noise.
“Is someone playing drums?” offered Mandy. Erica and Joel simply shrugged.
“Maybe Alvin is listening to music or something?” There were mirrored shrugs following Joel’s suggestion. Either way, they pushed on. The sound grew closer, but seemed to be coming from a handful of rows away.
“What the—“ came a shout from within the corn. Alvin’s voice, starting low and reaching up into a high pitch yelp. The pounding noise had stopped, and now there was something new, an up and down chorus of what almost sounded like a cartoon character. The three strained their ears, trying to pick up on what sounded like words, but they could not piece them together.
“Get away from—“ more yells from their friend.
“Alvin?” called Mandy, beginning to turn back to where they parted ways. Joel and Erica followed behind.
“If this is some kind of joke, it’s not funny,” added Joel. He wasn’t sure if he was worried it was and he would look foolish, or if it wasn’t and something truly terrible was going on. Maybe that farmer had shown up after all.
The pounding noise resumed, filling in the echoes from the rise and fall of the cartoonish voice, and they could hear Alvin calling out, warning off whatever he was facing down. His voice grew closer and closer, the remaining three following it through the rows as they tried to trace his steps. He had gotten impressively far away in the few moments they had separated.
The second voice slowly began to fade into coherence as they grew closer. “No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!” chirped something in a voice overly full of cheer. Thud, thud, thud, thud, ran the constant drone in the background, followed again by “No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!”
Alvin’s cries turned from words to general shouts broken by panting breaths. They were close now, just a couple of rows from where he was at the very least. Mandy raced ahead along the path. There was the feeling of something large and imposing galloping along the paths to their side, a ripple through the corn that left an echo of whatever it was.
Turning one last corner, Mandy came to a sudden stop. Alvin could be seen rushing down the long row, glancing over his shoulder every few moments to look at the monstrosity in pursuit. Mandy’s eyes followed his, landing on something that her mind struggled to fit within her previous frame of reality. Loping along the rows of corn behind him stood the grinning scarecrow from the entrance, no longer a mere cardboard cut-out. He towered over the corn, the tallest stalks coming just to his waist, lanky arms and legs spinning as he hurtled along the path. Each step was another beat of that imagined drum.
“Run!” called Alvin as he spotted his friend, panic etched into every muscle of his face.
Almost as if in response, the creature spoke, “No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!” Its face did not move or change, the same smile stretching from ear to ear. The voice echoed out, mechanical in its cheer.
Joel and Erica arrived, taking a shared moment to take in the scene as Mandy had. Now Mandy was yelling, urging Alvin to run faster, to get away. In slow motion, the three friends watched as one of the scarecrow’s large feet rose up, trailing straw in its wake, and came down on Alvin’s back. Alvin fell forward, face pressed into the dirt, still yelling for his friends to run. The sound grew muffled as the foot pressed him further down, the words turning back into indistinguishable yelling. There were snaps and pops, the whine of mechanics compressing the scarecrow’s foot deeper and deeper into the ground.
“No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!” it continued to repeat, words never faltering or changing.
Erica grabbed at a rock on the ground, hurling it up at the smiling face. It hit with a dull thud, then bounced off into the corn. She was back at the ground, grabbing at any fallen ears of corn and stones within reach.
“Leave him alone!” she screamed, her voice harsh and raw. “Get away from him!”
The scarecrow lifted its foot from the indentation in the ground, and Joel tried not to look at the sticky material stretching behind. Alvin was quiet now. So was the scarecrow.
It slowly lifted its smiling face from Alvin’s fallen body, scanning the remaining three as Erica flung more and more projectiles. Mandy was sobbing now, and Joel just felt numb.
“Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” chimed the scarecrow with forced glee. It took a step towards them, and Joel and Mandy stumbled backwards. Erica continued her assault, rage plastered on her face. In a few short strides, she and the Scarecrow were face to kneecap, poised like two fighters about to battle.
“Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” droned the cartoonish voice of the scarecrow as it bent down closer to her. She flailed out with arms and legs, fingers morphed into viscous claws that scratched at the fabric and paint covering the monster even as it grabbed her shirt and lifted her in the air.
“Erica, run, go!” said Mandy over her sobs. But Erica was blinded by battle lust, continuing to swing and strike out at the giant foe. It was almost as if she truly believed she could win.
“Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” said the scarecrow once more, then, with a flick of his wrist, sent Erica flying out across the stalks of corn. For a moment, she was silhouetted in the sky, then again swallowed up by the darkness.
Mandy wailed, turning and gripping Joel by the collar and drawing him close. “We have to go!” she said, serving to snap him out of frozen immobility. Fight, flight, freeze.
Mandy took off at a run, dragging Joel along by one arm.
“No!” he said, suddenly fueled by terror. He ripped his arm away and stood in the field. Despite having finished with Erica, the scarecrow had not begun pursuing them. “Don’t run,” he gasped, the reality finally settling on him.
“What? Are you kidding me? We have to get away.” She took a few steps back and grabbed Joel by the arm again, trying to pull him from his spot.
He fixed her with wide eyes set firmly in his ashen face. “We will. Just don’t run. It won’t find us if we don’t break the rules.”
Her face was puzzled, then awareness struck. “Okay,” she mumbled, sniffing back tears. “Let’s just get out of here.”
As they walked through the rows upon rows of corn, they strained their ears for the steady thunder of the scarecrow’s feet. But it was quiet again, save for the rustling of the corn in the wind. After what felt like days of trekking through the corn, Joel finally cracked, sinking to his feet.
“We’re going in circles,” he mumbled. “It’s like there’s not even a path out anymore.”
Mandy knelt beside him, grabbing his arm and trying to bring him back to his feet. “Come on, Joel, we have to keep going. We probably just took a wrong turn.”
He shook his head, eyes staring unfocused at the ground. Everything was darkness. “No, don’t you get it? He’s trapped us here. There’s no path out.”
She was crying again, still tugging on his arm. “There was a path in. We just have to retrace our steps. Come on, we can do it.”
There was a violent swing of his head toward her, his eyes blazing with fury. “You think that’s how this works? That we’ll just walk out of here? We already broke the rules, Mandy. We’re going to fucking die here!”
He seemed almost as shocked as she was as the words spilled out of his lips. Shock turned to horror as the sound of footsteps began again in the distance.
“No,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.” Suddenly, Joel was on his feet again. “It was an accident, I swear. I’m sorry!” His eyes scanned the rows and rows of corn, searching for a reprieve.
“Keep it fun for everyone!” echoed the response, followed by a childish giggle. As the steps came closer, the voice repeated its mantra, followed by what might have been a friendly laugh in other circumstances.
“No,” yelled Joel as he turned to face the direction of the sound. “I said I was sorry. I’m sorry!”
Still closer. Mandy grabbed his arm again, pulling him towards the path. “Come on, Joel, we have to get out of here before it finds you. We have to—“
He yanked his arm away, eyes filled with despair. “No, it’s too late for me, Mandy. I broke the rules.”
“We can figure it out, let’s just move. We can stay ahead of it.”
“Keep it fun for everyone!” Now it was distinct.
“Get away from me!” roared Joel, shoving her into the darkness. Mandy stumbled, landing hard on the ground.
There was a pause in the unstoppable steps, a brief whirr of electronics, and then it spoke again. “Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” A momentary pause. “Keep it fun for everyone!”
“Run,” he said, turning his back on her to face what was stalking down the rows.
Mandy finally gave in, turning and walking slowly down the rows of corns. Don’t run, she reminded herself. Don’t curse. Don’t throw corn. Don’t cut through the rows. She tried to remember all the rules on the sign. Taking the first turn, Joel disappeared from sight just as the scarecrow turned onto his row. She winced at the sound of screaming coming from him, tried to block it out as it became muffled. When it finally stopped, the silence was far worse.
Her tears laid a marker of her progress, ephemeral breadcrumbs that did little to show her physical steps but were everything to her emotional unwinding. She walked until here feet were sore, then continued until they faded into numbness. The moon never moved and the sun never rose. Eventually, she looked at her watch, seeing the numbers click from 6:00 to 10:00 to noon, but her world never changed.
She stopped at another dead end, staring at the impenetrable wall. She had walked every possible path, but none of them led any further to freedom. Perhaps, she allowed herself to think, Joel was right.
She had held the thought at bay, afraid it would finally dissolve what little hope she had left. True to her fears, it did just that, but left a firm streak of defiant determination in its wake.
“If that’s the game, then,” she whispered, stealing her resolve. With a deep breath, she plunged through the rows.
Almost instantly, the footsteps picked up again, rocketing towards her. ”Now why would you ruin all the fun?” mocked her predator. She heard corn crunching beneath his feet as he crashed toward her. Every step was closer, the voice repeating its phrase again and again with maddening consistency.
Mandy imagined she could feel the ground tremble with each of its steps. She heard the echoes of its voice and felt phantom whispers of breath, hot and rancid, on her neck. But looking behind, the monster was not yet in sight.
She also imaged that there was a break up ahead. That she could see something besides more corn standing beyond those far rows. It was hope, she said with defeat, hope trying to reassert some little flame to keep her going.
“Now why would you ruin all the fun?”
And then, she was stumbling out onto grass, corn falling away behind her. The sun was bright and high in the sky. Mandy stumbled, falling to the ground as her eyes reeled from the transition between total darkness and total light. She scrambled along the ground, turning to look back at the hole from which she had burst. But there was nothing but golden stalks of corn.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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Darren barely felt human. In fact, he felt more like a monster built purely of anxiety and tension, one that just happened to ooze into a human form for the night. Everyone said such feelings were normal. That as all well and good, he reasoned, but it did nothing to quiet the awareness that he was sweaty, nauseated, jittery, and hyperventilating.
Stage fright. It sounded so innocuous, but it was far from it. Still, he reminded himself, this was all about becoming a better him. After his last breakup, he recognized a few facts. First, he had terrible taste in partners. Second, he deserved better. And third, perhaps most painfully, he was no longer the kind of person he would want to date, let alone anyone else. His journey of self-discovery had led to a brash, spontaneous audition for a local play. And that audition dragged him all the way to that very moment, sitting backstage as the audience filtered in. The play would go for one night only. Halloween, of course. And the festive date meant they had a full house as well. If he quieted his breathing and the pounding of his heart, he imagined he could hear the murmur of hundreds—well, perhaps tens—of voices.
“You look like a first timer,” said Jean from the seat next to him. Her face was painted with almost gaudy makeup, but everyone assured him it would look lovely from the audience. He flexed his own face, feeling the foundation shift like a mask.
She reached over and pulled his water glass from his hand. “That’s your sixth glass of water. You’re going to piss yourself on stage if you keep it up.” The smile was genuine, understanding.
Until that moment, Darren had not considered needing to hold his bladder through at least Act One. That brought up all new anxieties. “What if I can’t do this?” he blurted out.
Her words were a cool breeze soothing his brow. “Hey, you’ve practiced, right?”
“You know your lines?”
He swallowed, trying mentally to run through his lines, then nodded. “I hope.”
She just smiled. “Then, I suppose you can do this. Not like you have much of a choice now.”
It was reassuring. Of course. He only had a few lines, a good number of which were written sneakily in the book he was to read from. Even if he got stuck there, he would just have to push through it.
The rest of the preparation was a blur of activity. People were checking and nitpicking at his costume, reapplying makeup where he had sweated through. The backstage crew checked and rechecked props, reviewed their cues, and ensured each character knew where to find what they would need. His fellow actors squeezed his shoulder, whispered encouragement, and always concluded with the famous “Break a leg.” For his part, he mostly nodded out of the way, eyes skimming over his lines one last time.
Then, the lights dimmed and the director stepped out to welcome the audience. While he expected his anxiety to crest again, send him into an even greater tailspin, it surprised him. His body likely panicking, he found his mind growing surprisingly clear and focused. Perhaps this is what those lunatics meant when they said they worked better under pressure.
Applause, then the curtains went up on the opening scene. It was your typical gruesome, gory plot for a seasonal play. The first scene was Michael and Linda, young and happy couple in the prime of their life. They were on a walk through the park, discussing future plans. Michael took an aside, looked at the ring in his pocket, and waxed poetic about the powers of love to the audience. The audience was not fooled, of course, by the saccharine opening. They were simply biding their time.
As he returned to Linda, purportedly studying the flowers while he was convening with the audience, the lights dimmed. Someone stepped from the shadows. It was Trip, a perennial figure at the community theater, bedecked in a hat that covered the top half of his face and a trench coat that concealed the rest of him. He brandished a weapon, Michael stepped forward to protect his one true love, and then there was a crash. Michael collapsed, Linda screamed, and the house lights went down.
A funeral was next, Linda the grieving partner. Jean played it beautifully, appearing devastated and completely unpredictable. The next few scenes displayed an obsessive, frantic turn in the lovely Linda, who’s only thought was to restore what had been taken from her.
Darren took a deep breath, stepping onto the scene while the lights were dimmed and finding his place. The set behind him was a curios shop, featuring the comical shrunken head that had become the unofficial mascot of the show. He smiled seeing it, feeling a bit more of the anxiety melt away.
Linda approached, and he looked up from behind his counter as the effects crew rang a simple bell.
“Afternoon,” he said, his voice cracking just a bit. There were no loud guffaws from the audience.
Linda looked around the shop, appearing distracted, uneasy, and yet hopeful. He was amazed Jean was as talented as she was, especially at a community theater that drew no more than 150 people at a time. She deserved to be famous, he thought.
“They told me you could help me,” she said, stepping up to his counter.
“Well, I don’t know who they are or what I’d be able to do to help.” He turned a shoulder to her, appearing to study his inventory.
“Please,” Linda responded and reached out to grab his arm.
He looked back at her and sighed. “What is it you want? And I don’t work for free,” he said tersely, wagging a finger in her direction. The audience seemed to hang on their every word.
“I’ll pay whatever you want, you just have to help me get him back.”
Darren looked her up and down. “Yes, you will certainly pay. Now who is it you are wanting?”
Linda stepped away, the spotlight following her as she gazed up toward the rafters. “My Michael,” she said with a sob. She went on to recount the story as Darren did his best to appear grumpy, but moved.
“Are you sure about this?” he cautioned as she finished her tale.
“Yes, anything you ask. I can’t go on without him!”
Darren turned, peering over the row of books behind him and selecting one that appeared sufficiently old and dusty. “Take this and make your preparations. Return to me by the next full moon.”
Linda rushed from the shop, clutching the book to her chest. “Thank you,” she said passionately. “Thank you. I will return, I swear.”
Darren stroked the fake beard on his chin as he watched her leave, lights dimming again.
Backstage, Jean grabbed his hand quickly as she swung past. “You did great. Keep it up,” she whispered, then swept back into the stage. She read slowly from the book, appearing to ponder the different items needed. After a moment, she set off with resolve. The next few scenes detailed her preparation, culminating finally with her taking a shovel into a set designed to look like the graveyard, an almost full moon hanging heavily on the backdrop behind her.
The lights turned to black as the sound of a shovel piercing the earth echoed in the theater.
In the brief pause, there was a flurry of activity. The ritual scene had to be set. In Act Two, the ritual was completed, bringing Michael back. Like most stories, his resurrection went well until his insatiable bloodthirst was revealed. Act Three dealt entirely with how to kill someone who had already been dead once before. But, Act Two was Darren’s big scene, and the nerves returned to flutter through his stomach.
He walked on stage while it was still dark, bending to “light” the flickering electric LED candles. For a few brief seconds, they were the only light on the stage. Slowly, the house lights came up. That was Jean’s cue, and Linda came hurrying in from stage left.
“I have him,” she gasped. Darren nodded.
“Well, bring him in then. Set him here between the candles.” He stretched his arm widely to indicate the circle around him, then stepped over to rearrange the implements on the table. The stage directions had not been very clear on this point, but had indicated he needed to busy himself while she was gone.
Linda hesitated, opened her mouth to speak, and then was gone. She returned moments later carrying a withered bundle in her arms. A decaying, emaciated hand slipped from beneath the wrappings, cluing the audience in to what her large parcel truly was. Linda set Michael’s body gently on the floor, peeling away the fabric and stroking his hair gently. She looked on the corpse with true love.
Darren shooed her away. “You must prepare the article of binding. It is the only way to hold his spirit here.” He stepped over to inspect the body. This was one part they had improvised on. The props crew had an awful time finding a suitable corpse, and so they had been completing rehearsals using everything from a manikin to a blow-up doll. But now he saw the true extent of their creativity and skills.
The corpse looked like someone who had been buried for quite some time. There was dirt on the clothes. The body was tiny in the confines of the neatly pressed suit. Skin clung along every outline of bone. It was so realistic, Darren almost imagined he could smell the decay and rot, but pushed the thought aside. Just nerves, he told himself.
Linda returned with a lock of her hair tied around a sprig of flowers. She bent to the corpse and tucked it into his mouth. Darren caught a glimpse of teeth, then the long darkness of the dummy’s throat. It gave him a sense of vertigo.
He stepped over to the table with the prepared items, grabbing the book and the chalice. He handed the chalice to Linda, who began to dip her fingers in and sprinkle blood across the corpse and the ritual area. A speck landed on Darren’s lips, and he licked it away. That assured he would not make that mistake again. He had presumed it would taste sweet, given it was just food coloring and corn syrup. However, it was rather bitter and tangy. Apparently the props crew had not been too careful about how it was stored. He hoped they had not mixed anything more toxic into it. It strangely resembled paint, and he had to quickly remind himself that ingesting a drop of paint would not kill him.
Darren read from the book. The words were mostly gibberish to him, but he did his best to form them precisely as the director had instructed. She was visible from the corner of his eyes, mouthing the words with him. He spoke louder, more forcefully as he proceeded, letting the energy of the scene take him over. It was exhilarating; the words moved through him with a renewed vigor, almost as if the play had taken control. He simply knew what had to be done.
Crossing the stage, he grabbed the knife from the preparation table and brought it down forcefully on the chest of the corpse, aiming squarely for the heart. Now, Linda was supposed to weep as nothing happened. It would be later in the night, when they had both left, that Michael would stir.
Only, that was not what happened. The corpse on the stage seemed to let out a gasp, a strand of hair escaping its lips and fluttering through the air. Darren and Jean both froze, caught off guard. But Jean was never one to let a scene die.
“Michael, is that you?” she asked, pressing her head to the chest of the corpse.
Her face grew pale, and even Jean, the real talent on stage, lost her place. The silence stretched on, finally broken from a low groan coming out of the corpse’s lips.
Darren stepped back, eyes wide as the body in front of him regained its flesh. Colored returned to the skin, and it pulled away from the bones. It was almost as if someone were inflating the body, reinstilling life into it. Darren’s mind scrambled for reason. Surely this was a stage trick. But he could not come up with any possible way to create such an illusion.
He could hear the audience gasp, a trickle of applause spreading throughout as they witnessed what was surely a marvelous illusion. Mirrors, they thought. A display screen, perhaps. Maybe a trap door?
Darren saw the director, a look of frenzy and joy in her eyes, grab the rope for the curtains and begin to stretch them across the stage. The body began to move, reaching out toward Jean. She sprung to her feet and raced towards off stage. But the director caught her, arm surging forward with something bright. Jean curled around the woman’s arm with a gasp, almost like a child getting stopped in Red Rover. She hung there for a moment, then collapsed to the stage, unmoving.
“All good things require sacrifice,” said the director with a smile, moving quickly over the stage and kneeling by the now alert body.
“Andrea?” he asked. She nodded and kissed him.
“But how? What did—Why am—“
“Sh,” she whispered, smoothing his hair from his forehead. “You need your strength.”
She moved quickly, too quickly for Darren to really know what had happened. In one moment, he was standing in shock, watching some impossible scene play out in front of him as the audience murmured curiously from behind the curtain. The next, there was blood pouring from his neck as he tried to stop the flow.
He fell to his knees, blood pooling around him. The man on the ground seemed at first shocked, then repulsed. Then intrigued. As the lights faded one last time, Darren saw the once-corpse begin to eagerly lap the blood from the floor, eyes closed in ecstasy.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Find more Halloween themed stories at this link!
Mrs. Baker enjoyed setting up for the annual Halloween party. That is why it had been her responsibility for the past seven years at the school. It was a popular annual event held the Friday before Halloween, which meant it was time to start transforming the gymnasium. The old supply closet held most of the old standbys, thought she tried to add one or two new pieces of décor each year, primarily through shopping the day after Halloween for any remaining treasures. Last year she had managed to secure some large spiders to decorate the basketball goals, as well as a zombie and tombstone that would look perfect popping up from the floor. She was giddy to set everything up.
The student council was behind her, arms open to carry various pieces to the gym and start decorating. They seemed less enthusiastic, but she reasoned that was because they had to remain after hours to prepare. They would be proud of everything come the big reveal.
There was the usual fare, like pounds of fake webs and a couple cardboard cut-outs to hang on the wall. There were streamers and stained orange tablecloths in a box under the table—the punch table, she thought as she shoved it out the door. An old, tired looking scarecrow leaned against the back wall, lounging next to Jimmy Bones, the unofficial mascot of the yearly party.
Mrs. Baker carefully pulled Jimmy from the back of the closet, straightening his hat and button down shirt while brushing away the dust. Jimmy had been around as long as she remember. He was a fixture.
“Set Jimmy up by the sign in table. He can greet everyone as they come in.”
Joey Miller gingerly wheeled the skeleton to his assigned place, setting him in front of the Halloween 2016 table.
Ms. Calloway was not all that interested in setting up for a Halloween party. It was a nasty, perverse holiday, no matter how people tried to spin it. But the school insisted on throwing a party for the students as part of autumn celebrations. They at least had the good sense not to call it a Halloween party. But there had been clear directions from the principal.
“And make it a little scary, you know. For the kids. They’re expecting it.”
She still was not sure how this all became her responsibility, but someone years ago had put her name next to the event. And things like that tended to stick, what with how thin everyone was stretched just to get the kids in and out of classes each day.
She grumbled as she dove into the supply closet. There would be food and punch for the kids, and she heard someone had put in some money for a band to play. That meant she had to put forth at least a minimal effort to make it look festive. Inside the closet there were posters and signs that she could quickly tack to the wall. She heard someone had gotten some hay bales to set up, and she saw a tangled pile of fake fall leaves in the corner. That was enough to create the mood, she reasoned.
In addition, there was what she assumed was an old science room skeleton. It looked like it had seen better days, but she thought it might be passable as a scary element. There was a hat resting dejectedly on his head with the name “Jimmy” etched onto it, which is why Jimmy had been her greeter for many years. Looking at his empty eyes, she felt he hated it almost as much as she did.
She had always rolled Jimmy to his place, and she hoped it would be enough to satisfy Mr. Howards’ demands for something scary. He seemed over eager to scare the children. It almost made her worry about him and his fitness for the role. She pushed the thoughts from her mind, carrying the meager decorations from the room and towards the gymnasium with Jimmy in tow.
Just a few years until retirement, she reminded herself glumly. 1976 couldn’t get there soon enough.
Mr. Brown was not excited to clean out the supply room. Someone had left it to gather dust and junk for years, and now he was being tasked to make it sparkle again. He was a custodian, but this seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. Still, he knew better than to speak up. Upsetting the powers that be was a good way to start looking for a new job. And he rather liked working in the school.
The door groaned when he opened it, revealing a mountain of unused junk. There were broken desks and chairs, general trash, a few pieces of old science equipment, and boxes upon boxes of outdated textbooks. Many of them had water damage, the mold beginning to creep up cardboard boxes. He opened one of the books, its spine snapping with the effort, and read the date on the cover. 1943. Nearly 15 years out of date, but still taking up space. At least that decision was easy, he thought as he shoved them into a discard pile.
Some of the desks were salvageable, with minimal work. Most of the chairs were busted, missing legs or parts of the back. Why anyone considered saving them was beyond him. Mr. Brown studied the science equipment. He had never been much of a student, but he recognized some items. That did not mean he knew if they were useful or not. It would be a good opportunity to talk to Ms. Stiles, the science teacher. She would probably have to help him sort it out.
There were supplies for what looked like a dissection class, all wrapped and arranged neatly. But the water must have gotten to them as well, because they too were stained with rust. He shoved those into the trash pile. An old metal worktable was underneath the supplies, pockmarked by age and use. He shuffled a few bottles along the top of the table, providing a preliminary check to ensure there were no cracks or breaks. They appeared salvageable. Ms. Stiles would probably be excited at the possibility of new equipment. Other things—tubing and bottles of things with strange chemical names—he was less sure of. He needed her expertise.
He grabbed his broom and swept out the general trash and dust. It made quite the mess. Back in one far corner, he found an old science room skeleton. It stood staring at him, mouth hanging slightly open in an almost grin. Mr. Brown pushed closer. This was a find Ms. Stiles would certainly be interested in. He looked it over. All the limbs were there, still strung up with wire. The wire appeared to be slightly bent and poorly twisted, but it would hold, he reckoned. Atop the man’s grinning head was an old mechanic’s cap emblazoned with the name “Jimmy” in curling script.
“So, Jimmy, been waiting here long?” He chuckled at his own joke. One the floor, he spotted a shirt lying on the ground, pattern matching Jimmy’s hat. The name tag on the front pocket agreed as well. Unfortunately, it seemed as if rats had gotten to it, leaving behind chewed holes and ragged tears. And, as he inspected it closer, dark edges that suggested the mold had gotten to it as well. Mr. Brown tossed the shirt into the trash pile, and eyed Jimmy proudly. Ms. Stiles would be very excited about his find. Maybe even excited enough to take him up on his offer of dinner.
Mr. Brown began to whistle as he worked.
Alex Cooper felt a surprising feeling of panic as he looked down at the newly dead body. He had planned and prepared for this, but his nerves still prickled with the reality staring up at him. Jimmy was a waste of space. Worse, even. In fact, Alex felt that he had done his entire town a favor by snuffing out this ne’er-do-well. Jimmy had been a troublemaker, the sort who rarely held down a stable job and often tarnished the character of the young women in town. He had mocked Alex for many years, and it was finally over.
Alex sighed deeply, feeling so much anger and tension drain from his body, pooling at his feet with Jimmy’s blood. It was a high like nothing he ever felt. Jimmy’s eyes had been wide, shocked at the revelation before him. Alex was certain that, until the very last minute, Jimmy had thought he would not go through with it. But the knife had fallen, digging through his skin. It was like slicing into a raw steak. The flesh resisted, then gave away. Jimmy gasped, but that was the only sound he made.
In an instant, it was over.
As the shock fell from Alex’s limbs, he was spurred to action. First, he needed to clean up. He sopped up the blood on the ground with a rag that he would later burn in his fireplace. Then it was time to lift the body. His position as a school science teacher had allowed him to purchase some extra chemicals, generally designed for in class experiments and cleaning of materials. He had stowed bottes upon bottles in the science storage room, bottles of acid that would make quick work of Jimmy’s overly slim form. It would, of course, take a few days to fully process the body. But Alex was also certain it would take a few days for anyone to notice Jimmy was actually missing and not just shirking his responsibilities.
The bones were the only catch, but he couldn’t help but grin.
The class anatomy skeleton had been falling apart, recently. Everyone would be excited to see a new, repaired version in class in just a few weeks. That way, Jimmy would always be in sight, a constant reminder of Alex’s triumph. For once in his life, he would be the star of the class.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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.
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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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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.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
This is something a little different for me. I tried to write a story in under 500 words, a common microfiction cut-off. I figured a challenge like this was a perfect time to try it out. Let me know what you think, and read the other Stories of Halloween here!
Being a cat has its perks. No one expects me to go to work or help with chores around the house. For the most part, my day is whatever I make of it. Me, I like to sit in the front window and enjoy the sunshine. Plus taunt the neighbor’s dog as much as possible. Stupid little rat just gets to barking and barking.
The downsides? My name is Jeffrey, but everyone calls me Mittens. The little one often has sticky hands. I have to lick my own butt. Still, I supposed the Lord must give challenges to even the best of us, lest we become too proud of our own station.
I have studied my humans carefully for years. It ensures I am taken care of to the best of their limited ability. Many things about humans confuse me, but there is one in particular this time of year which leaves me baffled. Every year, like clockwork, they don bizarre costumes to parade about in the street. I, of course, am a perennial favorite. It seems many children want nothing more than to be me, not that I can blame them. So I watch their precious imitations of a black cat dance along the sidewalk, carrying about large containers which are never full of tuna fish.
That is strange, but I suppose I can understand. If my life were as boring as a human’s, I too would try to find ways of imagining a better life. That night, the doorbell rings and rings incessantly, but no one ever enters to request an audience with me. They yell and giggle at the door with those obnoxious, high pitched squeals, then gallop back down the sidewalk and out of sight.
What I find particularly odd is that they do so with so many visitors. I’m sure humans have a word for these things, but I do not know it. All I know is that they do not have a smell. It’s not just that they don’t smell like humans, but they smell like nothing at all. They look like humans, but humans who are never quite sure if they exist or not. On the rare occasion such a visitor has entered my house, the humans go out of their way to avoid it. They skirt about it, even though it seems they cannot even see it. It’s almost an instinct to stay away.
Which is what I don’t understand. Because on that night, with their young out there exposed, they waltz among the dead without a second thought.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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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?”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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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 there! Welcome to the 13 Stories of Halloween in the Attic. I know, it’s not an original concept, but I thought it would be fun. What it means is, for the next 13 days, I’m going to post a short story relating to the season. Being a predominantly horror/supernatural writer, this is kind of like my Christmas. So I thought I should celebrate!
The stories will be short one-shots dealing with seasonal themes. Expect to see classic monsters, trick-or-treaters, jack-o-lanterns, ghosts, and ghouls. Some will be funny, some scary, and most of them a little campy. I have written a few of them over the past two days, and there is quite a bit of variability in the style and tone of them. Hopefully there will be something for everyone! All the stories will be available in the 13 Stories of Halloween tag, so you can catch up anytime. Without further ado, I give you the first story. Happy reading!
“How long do we have to stay here?” Alex asked, his eyes trying to take in the decrepit setting all at once but only succeeding in bouncing wildly from one corner of the room to the other.
“What, are you chickening out already?” His friend Dean threw his backpack onto the floor as he stomped in.
“No, I just—it’s hot out, is all, and this place definitely doesn’t have AC.”
The two boys stood in the entryway to the abandoned house. Like every town, theirs had its haunted house. They were certain, however, that their haunted house was actually haunted. Unlike all those others. A sweeping staircase stretched in front of them and up towards the second floor. There was a room to either side of the entryway, neither decorated in a way to suggest any previous use. Everything was simply covered in a hefty coat of dust and broken glass. The windows had been boarded up, but only after the town hooligans had managed to smash most of them.
Dean knelt down by his bag, the dust swirling around him as he disturbed it. His hands swam through the bag before escaping with two flashlights. He had replaced the batteries before leaving home, and they shone brightly as he tested them out.
“Trust me, Al, you aren’t going to melt.” Dean shoved a flashlight toward Alex, who took it and rapidly clicked it on and off as if afraid it would reject his commands. Dean took a few steps forward, venturing further into the house along the hallway running parallel to the stairs. “Guess we should have a look around?”
Alex nodded and turned his light on. While the moon was large and bright outside, almost none of that light made it past the plywood sheets on the windows. The floors creaked under their feet, obviously unused to being walked on. How long had such a place lain dormant, Alex wondered. There were no signs left of the original occupants. Of course, that made sense. He never understood why the houses in movies and TV shows were always furnished with antiques. He knew enough to know that was like burying cash in a house and leaving the door unlocked.
The hallway led back and into what appeared to be a kitchen. There were old hookups from something, plus the sagging remains of countertops. Dean tapped his flashlight against a hole in the wall. “Someone beat us to the pipes and wiring,” he said with a smirk. Alex just nodded.
There was a small pantry off the kitchen, but nothing inside besides rat droppings and an old pull string light. Despite its rather imposing presence on the street, the house itself was beginning to feel rather cramped. And, if Alex was honest, boring. Hearing the stories, he had expected bloodstains and skeletons, maybe some screaming ghosts and at least a general feeling of unease. But it felt like an abandoned house. Nothing special.
Dean took the lead, walking back towards the entryway. The two rooms off the entrance were large and open. One had a fireplace in the middle of one wall, the brickwork crumbling away. Dean shone his light inside it and leaned close to inspect what was left. Expecting perhaps some charred bones or the remains of a secret diary, he was disappointed to find nothing more than some burnt newspaper—probably from the last bum seeking shelter—and bird droppings.
“Well, this is a bit of a letdown,” muttered Dean as he rose back to full height. Alex leaned against the opposite wall, his flashlight off and bouncing softly against his knee.
“I did expect something a little more interesting from the scariest house in Four Clovers,” agreed Alex.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure my Aunt’s house after chili night is a lot scarier than this old place.”
“But I’m guessing you still want to stay?”
Dean looked at Alex as if he were the dumbest person in the room. “Of course,” he said, stating the obvious, “it’s a dare, isn’t it? We have to stay until after 3:00am. The Witching Hour.” At the last phrase, he flipped his light up so it cast his face in shadows, taking one long, stalking step towards Alex. It was less effective than he hoped.
“I bet the asbestos in here is terrible for cell service, too,” bemoaned Alex as he slid down the wall and pulled his phone from his pocket.
“I don’t know if that’s how that works,” stated Dean, “and either way, we still have to check upstairs.”
Now was Alex’s turn to return the stare. “I’m sorry, upstairs? Have you seen the state of this place? You go up there, you will fall back through the floor. And I’m not carrying you to the ER for a busted leg.”
“We can’t just half explore the house.”
“We can. We agreed to stay here, not choose it for our summer home.”
“Oh, come on, what if all the scary stuff is upstairs?”
Alex made a show of leaning away from the wall and out the doorway, just far enough out so that he could barely look up the staircase. “You’re probably right, bro. I bet the ghosts like to hide up there. But hey, we wouldn’t want to scare them.” He returned to typing on his phone, probably telling Amy how much of a bust Dean’s Halloween plans turned out to be.
“We said we’d take a picture in the attic. They’ll never believe us without it.”
Alex sighed and rolled his eyes, then pushed himself to his feet. He grumpily shoved his phone in his pocket and retrieved his abandoned flashlight. “Fine. We’ll go to the attic. But if I fall and die, you have to deal with my parents.”
The two slowly started up the stairs. They groaned and sagged a bit, but none of them gave way as they stepped carefully up one at a time.
“This is what my grandpa calls true craftsmanship,” said Dean with an exaggerated smile. He eagerly stomped once, twice, three times on his step, which responded with a hollow thud.
“Just climb the stairs.”
The landing branched off to three bedrooms, with a fourth door closed at the end of the hall. Alex walked toward the closed toward and supposed staircase to the attic while Dean turned the opposite way.
“Dude, attic?” snapped Alex.
Dean shrugged and continued on his way. “If we’re up here, we might as well check out the rooms. I think this one,” he waved his flashlight at the open room at the end of the hall, “was where the father murdered his daughter and her boyfriend.”
Alex waited, hoping he could call the bluff, but Dean vanished into one of the rooms and did not reemerge. “Dean?” he tried after a few seconds of silence. No response.
“Dean? Come on, did you fall in or something?” Alex began taking slow, measured steps down the hall, leaning against the all as he tried to peek into the bedroom. But Alex was nowhere to be seen.
“It’s not funny. Come on, let’s go to the attic!” Slow and steady, he made his way down the hall and found himself face to face with the doorway. He leaned around the doorframe and spotted Dean, face pressed against the intact glass of the window.
“What are you doing?”
“I can see in the Davis’s house from here. They’re watching Saw tonight.” Alex shoved him, and Dean pulled away from the window with a wide grin.
“I thought you were bored?”
“Can we just go up to the attic? Before this place collapses?”
“Fine,” Dean acquiesced, making their way out of the room and toward the opposite end of the hall. “They say after he killed the two of them, he strangled his wife because she wouldn’t stop screaming. And then his son tried to stop him, but the dad pushed him down the stairs.”
“Yeah, Dean, everyone knows the story. Dad goes crazy, kills everyone. The American Dream.”
“But isn’t it crazy? We’re walking where they died. Those stairs? Those were the ones he threw his son down! That front door? He shoved some neighbor guy’s face through it. I mean, there aren’t any ghosts, but still…”
“Yeah, and when you sit on your couch, you’re sitting where your parents conceived you.” Alex stopped, underlighting his face and waving his free hand about his head. “Isn’t that spooooky?”
“You’re an ass, you know?”
They tugged open the door to the attic, staring up at yet another set of stairs. These were noticeably less dusty, likely, Dean reasoned, due to the closed door. Still, cobwebs hung thick around them.
“Ladies first,” offered Dean. Alex shoved him forward onto the first step.
“No, I insist, after you,” said Alex with a smirk.
The attic was as much of a letdown as the rest of the house. Nothing up the stairs, not even an old treasure trove of discarded junk. Whoever had moved them out took everything with them. Alex snapped the picture with little fanfare, and they began their descent.
“Do you think there’s a basement?” asked Dean, hopefully.
“You can check. I’m going to watch some videos until we can finally leave in—“ Alex quickly checked his phone—“two hours and seventeen minutes.”
“You’re so lame.”
“You’re the one who still says lame.”
They reached the bottom of the stairs and turned the doorknob, but it was stuck.
“So much for craftsmanship,” muttered Alex, giving the door a solid push. It protested, but did not move.
“Let me try. Probably just warped.” Dean put his hand on the doorknob, turning it sharply. He leaned back, then shoved his shoulder into the door. It released suddenly, sending him stumbling out onto the decrepit landing.
Only this time it was different. The dust was gone, replaced by a stylish carpet runner down the middle of the floor. The rooms had doors on them now, and light seeped out from under the far door.
“What the—“ the words died on Alex’s lips. Everything was clean and new, or at least newer than before. Someone was snoring behind one of the doors. “We’ve got to get out of here,” he said when his voice returned, pushing past Dean toward the stairs.
“What do you mean?” hissed Dean. “We’ve been looking for something to happen, and now you just want to leave?”
But Alex was already halfway down the stairs. The door squealed open, then closed with a final thud. Dean stood dumbstruck at his post. Shaking his head, he slowly began walking along the hall towards the door with lighting. The daughter’s door, he told himself. Maybe he could talk to her ghost.
The door swung open quietly, so quietly it did not immediately alert the occupant. She sat at a table under the window, writing thoughtfully in a small journal. He could see her face reflected in the dark glass of the window, a smile on her lips at whatever she was writing down. After a moment, her eyes caught his reflection in the mirror, and she turned with a start.
“Ricky?” she asked, eyes wide with surprise and a little fear.
“Uh, my name’s not—“
“You know better than to come here. What if my dad finds us?” She stormed across the room, peeking her head out the door before closing it quietly.
“My name’s Dean,” he finally managed.
“This is not a time for jokes. My dad cannot know you were here. He didn’t see you, did he?” All the warmth had drained from her face, leaving behind nothing but the very real fear. It seemed to be contagious, because Dean felt it bubbling through his chest as well.
“No, no one saw me. Everyone else was asleep.”
“Good, then you’ll just climb out the window and go home. We’ll talk at school.” She grabbed his hand and practically dragged him across the room. The window squealed in protest as she raised it, and they both froze. Nothing but silence in the house.
She released a small sigh, followed by a half smile. “Don’t pull something like that again,” she said as she kissed him softly on the cheek.
Dean got one leg out the window before the silence exploded into noise. The door to the room flew open, an angry giant of a man filling the frame. He crossed the room in what could have been no more than two long strides, grabbing Dean by his shirt and dragging him back into the room.
The two eyes that glared down at him were bloodshot, and the smell of alcohol rolled off of him in a tangible wave. “You think you can come into my house?” he roared, angry enough that spittle coated Dean’s face.
Dean’s lips were moving, trying to get words out that would solve the problem. But nothing besides air made it through.
The eyes moved from Dean to the girl cowering beside the window. “You think you can whore in my house?” he bellowed. She covered her face defensively, a tiny sob escaping her lips as she prepared for an incoming blow. Instead, the man threw Dean like a rag doll against the wall.
“I guess I’ll have to teach you both a lesson.”
Alex waited outside, breathing heavily as he eyed the once again dark house. He was not sure what he had seen inside, but something had happened. It wasn’t until he made it off the porch that everything returned to its prior state of disrepair. But, Dean had not followed. And now, he paused and listened closely, he imagined he heard some mumbling voice.
The mumble grew until it was a definitively audible roar from the back corner of the building, accompanied now by a wet smacking noise that he could not place. It made his skin crawl, and his concern for Dean shot up a few more degrees.
Then someone screamed, a brief and piercing noise that cut off halfway through. The silence after was deafening. This was a prank, Alex assured himself. Dean must have recorded some spooky noises and saw this as the perfect opportunity to scare him. There probably hadn’t been a dare after all. He expected some new effect after the scream was silenced, but there was nothing for a minute. The silence stretched.
Alex walked back up the stairs of the porch and tentatively turned the door knob.
“Dean?” he asked as he gently opened the door and stepped inside.
The door opened onto a lovely furnished entryway, this time. In shock, he felt the door slip form his hand and fall gently closed behind him. Alex looked up along the stairs to see a young boy kneeling and crying, as some dark shadow paced from down the hallway. The boy sobbed and screamed in terror. Then, in a fluid motion, the shadow grabbed the boy by the neck and flung him down the stairs, almost as if discarding a dirty rag. The body bounced about halfway down the staircase, rolling the rest of the way to land at Alex’s feet.
He was rooted to the spot, eyes wide. His mouth opened and closed like a fish, and he felt just as breathless. “Do not meddle in my business,” roared the shadow at the top of the stair. It suddenly barreled down the stairs, taking them two or three at a time. Alex felt his muscles free in time for him to spin to the door, hands scrambling for the knob.
Just as his fingers wrapped around the doorknob, strong fingers wrapped around his skull.
“It’s my house!” growled the man from the stairs, punctuating the statement with a knock on the door using Alex’s head.
“It’s my family,” he added, giving another firm knock.
“I’m the man—“ the world was grey and full of impossible pain for Alex with the third knock—“of this household.”
The man’s fingers seemed to seep into Alex’s skull know, pressing on his brain from all sides until it felt like it was simply going to explode.
“I will. Be. Respected,” he growled, each word punctuated by another rapid conference between Alex’s head and the door.
Alex welcomed the relieving darkness, the man’s word turning into nothing but mumbled nonsense. The pain faded as he got one last glimpse at the outside world before that massive hand pulled his head back through the door to continue his tirade.
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.
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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.
Hello there! I’ve been gone for a while again. That’s for a couple of reasons. One was finishing my dissertation, traveling for graduation, and wrapping up the loose ends of grad school. I’m actually now Dr. Katherine C, which is a pretty cool ting I’m trying to get used to. I’ve also been writing quite a bit, but not actually finishing anything. So I have a lot of starts and middles, but not many things that are completed. I was going to try and finish this piece before posting, but I got this far and felt like it was a pretty complete section for Part 1. Expect to see more of it coming in the next few weeks. I also have a few pieces I plan to finish and polish, so those will be here as well.
I’ve also just been doing other creative things. Since this time last year, my husband and I have built a patio table, a side table, a desk, two end tables, two bookcases, a cat climbing structure, a planter box, two serving trays, a large wall hanging/picture frame collage, and an outdoor work cart. We also made a 3D plastic Catan set (that needs some final paint touches). I’m learning how to use a sewing machine as well.
So, due to graduation date and government requirements, I am out of work until early October. Which means I don’t have a lot to do. It’s a great time for you to get in touch if you’d like some beta reading done. I’ve got nothing but time! Well, there’s your update. Now, onto this story. It’s early yet and I will almost certainly change the title, because I hate what I have now. If you have recommendations, feel free to drop them in the comments. It will be at least two parts, maybe three depending on how much of a slow burn I want to make it. I’ve never been known for being brief when writing. I had started this a while back and picked up with my first completed page to write the next few scenes. the original is in italics and the new writing picks up about a quarter of the way through. As always, thoughts and comments are appreciated!
“Your husband died four times on the table, Ms. Watkins.”
Ana sunk a bit deeper into the water, feeling the warmth lap against her skin and try futilely to dissolve the knots of tension.
“But we were able to get him stabilized.”
The dark of the bathroom was comforting, as was the silence. All Ana could hear was the drip of water plinking from the faucet to the bath, the slow ripple as it swam around her body. The hospital was so noisy. The hum of people, of machines beeping, of nurses talking and updating one another, of doors squealing open, of carts rumbling down the hall. It was a constant assault of noise. This was peace.
“The worst should be over, but it will be a long recovery.”
Her ears slid below the water this time, and now she could hear a steady thrum of her body vibrating with unresolved tension. Through that, she heard her heartbeat pound slow and steady. It had raced so fast this afternoon that it had no energy left. It plod it way within her chest, resolute and tired.
“We are going to keep a close eye on him tonight, but you should go home. Get some rest.”
Ana’s face broke from beneath the surface of the water and she took a deep gulp of air. The silence was momentarily shattered by her sudden breath, by the sound of water crashing off of her body and back into the bath. Then quiet. Ripple. Steady breaths.
“He’ll need you here tomorrow.”
Her eyes were dry and raw having spent their supply of tears in the hours previous. The water trickling down her face—cooled quickly by the sharp bathroom air—felt soothing as it wiped away the patches worn rough by cheap hospital tissues. She could just see the clock from her bedroom reflected in the bathroom mirror, the bright red eyes reminding her it was well past her bed time and on towards morning. She was mentally and physically exhausted, but felt utterly unable to sleep. How had things gone so wrong so suddenly?
There had been a building sense of dread since she got home. Usually Howie called while she was on her way home, letting her know he had left and would be home shortly as well. Only, today, there had been no call. It was not anything to get too dramatic over, she reminded herself as she started dinner. He probably had something come up and keep him late at the office. It was not unheard of.
After an hour had passed and she was running out of ways to keep dinner from getting icy, she tried his cell. Nothing. In fact, it jumped straight to voicemail, Howie’s cheery voice asking her to leave a message. She put on a smile over her frustration and building worry long enough to ask him to call her, and then took to pacing the kitchen.
Forty-five minutes and six phone calls later, a path practically worn through the hardwood of the kitchen, Ana’s phone rang. Only it wasn’t Howie’s number. It was a local number, and on the other end was a calm voiced woman telling her about the accident. Giving her directions and urging her to come to the hospital.
Al of that was a lifetime away now. Howie had been in an auto accident, one that by all rights should have killed him. Based on what she had been told, it had killed him. Ana felt as if someone had shattered the thin, delicate film that had been her happy reality, leaving nothing but fine and wickedly sharp pieces. His face in the hospital bed, tubes and wires surrounding him. She had held his hand, but he had not responded. The doctor was reassuring, stating her husband was resting with the aid of strong painkillers. Strong enough that he did not stir at her tearful reunion. But he was stable.
And now she was doing everything she could to try and pull herself together for what would be a long road to recovery. That had also been a carefully spoken promise in her briefing. There were to be no misunderstandings; this event was life altering in a dramatic way.
The water was cooling, already dipping to an uncomfortable temperature that left goosebumps on her skin. She had spent too long reflecting and wallowing in pity. That was the point, however. She stepped out, opening the drain and letting the self-pity and paralysis circle the drain
She was at the hospital the next morning, sleep deprived and mind still reeling. But for all outward appearances, she looked the part of the strong, dutiful wife. She had put n clean clothes, brushed her hair, done her makeup. Howie was in recovery, and she would do anything to show how confident she was in his ability to persevere through this. Even as she felt her own grip on things was quickly slipping.
The nurses glanced up at her, looking with perhaps shock or pity. It was hard to read their faces, and Ana wondered if she were perhaps projecting some of her own concerns. Was she shocked at this person who could walk without a tear or second glance into a hospital? Did she pity her? She was not sure what she felt, but it seemed to be on the faces of everyone she passed.
The room was brightly lit, but empty. There was the steady rhythm of the instruments, blinking and whirring with things she did not understand. It took her the span of a heartbeat to freeze upon entering. Howie was sitting up in his bed, a tray of hospital food in front of him, looking somewhat bored and irritated.
“Howie?” it was just over a whisper, but someone had sucked all the air from the room. Surely it was enough that she had managed that.
He glanced over at her, smiling distantly. “Good morning.”
“You’re awake? You’re sitting up? I thought that—“
He shrugged, grimacing slightly with the motion. “Not one hundred percent, but working my way there. Sounds like I’m a lucky guy.”
She was at his side, holding his hand and gingerly touching his face to avoid the swollen bruises. Even those looked improved from the night before. He still smiled, eyes somewhat glassy. It must be the meds, she reasoned. He was probably still being pumped full of the good stuff. She lifted his hand to her lips and kissed it. He was real. He was alive. Despite the assurances from the night before, she had questioned that it could be.
“How are you feeling?”
“Like I got hit by a truck,” he responded with a toothy grin. Ana felt herself recoil slightly, the comment hitting nerves that were still too raw.
“I’m just—how? They told me it would be days or weeks before you—“
“Don’t ask me. I’m not the doctor. Besides, it’s best not to question things like this, right? Our own little miracle.” He lifted his hand to brush her cheek. “I’m just glad I’m here now. With you.”
The doctors had no more answers that Howie or Ana. They shrugged and pointed to his resiliency and fighting spirit. Some called it a miracle in recovery. Others assured them that quick intervention and expert surgical hands were the cause. Whatever it was, it was only a week later that the two left the hospital for home, Howie mended far beyond what anyone could have expected. Even the deep gashes ad surgical scars were nearly healed. One resident asked to use the story as part of a case study, to identify possible immunological and surgical features which attributed to the swift improvement. Howie gracefully declined. “You might not like what you find,” he quipped.
Ana was glad to have him home. She had been granted additional sick leave to care for him, but after only a few days, it simply became time to spend together again. And Ana was in love all over again with the revitalized Howie. It was not that she was happy about the accident, but the change was certainly a pleasant one. He was a man given a new lease on life, and he seemed to take in every moment with a newfound joy. Looking at him, she sometimes felt he was like a child again, discovering all the wonders of the world. He spent time sitting and soaking up the sun on their porch, whistling from time to time. He had never really whistled before, but now he was often caught up in some tune. He read voraciously, devouring the untouched books that had lined their home library. Ana enjoyed the chance to relive her favorite stories with him all over again. Gone were the petty squabbles about loading the dishwasher or scheduling a date night. They had managed to recapture the exhilaration and newness of their early relationship all over again.
The nightmares were unexpected, though the doctors had warned they might come in time, along with other symptoms. After a couple weeks of recovery, the nightmares were the only blip on an otherwise spotless recovery.
Ana was asleep, her head resting on his shoulder as they laid side-by-side. Since the accident, she had found every opportunity to be near him, as if afraid the wind would turn and he would vanish from her life. Sleeping was no different. His tossing woke her up.
There was a low, almost growl coming from his throat. Even in the dark, she could see the tension in his jaw and neck as he clenched his teeth together. The growl turned into a rumbling groan, growing louder as he body stiffened. Finally his jaw snapped open with the force of that groan, dumping it into the room where it seemed to echo around her.
“Howie,” she whispered, half-remember myths about waking sleep walkers. Did that go for people only talking? Was it dangerous?
The groan faded, but he began whispered quickly, the words coming out between half-sobs and whimpers, as if he were in pain. Memories of the accident, of his treatment, might return the doctors had said. She listened to the frantic whispering, hoping to find a clue.
“help me help me get me out it’s so dark so dark so cold and there’s nothing but it hurts the cold it hurts it’s all empty it’s all gone everything is blank and I’m alone and on fire and it’s so cold when it burns and you have to help me I have to get out”
Another groan, this one a mix of rage and powerlessness. Ana carefully touched his shoulder, barely shaking him. “Howie,” she risked again.
His eyes snapped open, seeming to burn in the dark room. For a moment, she saw hate and rage and pain in those eyes before they smoldered down to the cool detachment she was used to in them. He offered her a tired, impersonal smile. “You okay?”
“You were having a nightmare,” she offered weakly. It seemed as if she were the more shaken of the two after the experience. “About the accident. Just talking and asking for help. Are you okay?”
He reached over and put his arm around her, drawing her close. “Yeah, I’m fine. Some things you try to lock up, but they just try and find a way out, you know?”
“But you’re okay?”
He laughed sleepily, rolling to his side and laying his head in the crook of her neck. “I don’t even remember what I was dreaming.”
She nodded, closing her eyes but feeling sleep drifting far off into the distance. It had hurt to hear that much desperation and pain in his voice, bringing back those hours where she feared she would lose him forever. To know he was in such agony during that time…tears stung at the back of her eyes.
He kissed her softly on the cheek, pulling her even closer. “Sh,” he whispered, “don’t you worry about me. I’ll take care of it. I’ve already been to hell and back, so a few little nightmares aren’t going to bother me.”
He snored softly. It was a sleepless night for Ana, the first of many.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello! I’ve been dealing with some winter blues recently, not really writing too much. But I’ve been getting back into it. This is not the first compete piece I’ve written, but it is one I’d like to post. I’m hoping to submit the other to some sites, so you’re likely to see it soon. I also just started a sci-fi story that I would like to work on, but it is likely to be much longer than what I usually post, so I wanted to get a bit farther in to get a sense of where it is going, then I’ll decide about posting.
Is this piece great? Certainly not. It has a lot of problems. But sometimes the solution to a writing slump is to just write something and put it out there. So that’s what I’m doing. i will probably come back and make some revision later, but this is a pretty straightforward story with a minor twist to the expected plot. As always, thoughts and comments about how to improve are greatly appreciated!
Jack enjoyed hiking. It was a good excuse to get away from everything and everyone. He knew the trails well enough to get well away from civilization on a Sunday morning, only to begrudgingly trek back Sunday afternoon. This Sunday was no different. The sun was up early, a thin fog still lingering from rains the night before, and Jack was on the trail with his backpack. It was his life line. A trail map, ample supply of water, snacks and food that would keep if he got stuck in any too tight spots. Rope, first aid kit sun screen, mosquito repellant, fresh socks, and an emergency radio if things got dire. He had never used the radio and certainly hoped today would not be the day.
The forecast promised very warm weather today, one of the first official days of summer. For Jack that meant abnormally large crowds in the National Park, including irritable teenagers being forced on a family vacation, well-meaning adventurers just starting out for the season, and way more people than he cared to deal with. So he started early, on one of the more challenging trails. His route would take him long, require a brief bit of trekking through the woods on unmarked paths, and then back down and around an old ranger’s station that had not been used for the last four summers, at least. Jack knew because he had hiked this very trail many times before. It was an old favorite.
The din of vacationers was muted in the early morning hours, and soon even it faded from his ears. He passed a couple of other hikers—wearing absurdly large sun hats and straining on ornately carved walking sticks for sale in the park gift shop—early on, but they were already too out of breath to do much more than offer a friendly wave. Jack pressed on.
It was late in the morning when he finally reached the end of the first leg and prepared to set out across the forested landscape to meet up with the second trail. Such creativity was discouraged, but Jack did not particularly care. He knew there would be more than enough visitors to keep the park staff busy, and a respectful, skilled hiker was the least of their concerns.
This far in the only real sounds were the crunch of last year’s leaves under his feet, the trill of songbirds, and the rustle of the wind through the trees. He felt his stress melting away the further in he went, falling off him like scales of mud. This part of the hike always felt the easiest. He could shed all the burdens he had been carrying and march confidently between the trees. Once he started on the second path, there was the undeniable realization that he was hiking back to the real world. He always dutifully picked up his abandoned stresses, reattaching them to his weary body.
It was around noon when he found the bench. Jack knew this trail well, and he knew there was no bench. It also was out of place that it was not on any park recognized trail. He stopped in front of it, staring blankly at this unusual intruder. It rankled him, this sign of humanity out here among nothingness. Approaching it, he scanned it for any plaque or notice explaining why it was here, squeezed between two old oak trees. There was just enough room to sit down, but not much else. It also did not appear to lok at anything in particular, but was positioned staring out across the woods Jack was soon to traverse.
After allowing his irritation to subside, he reasoned it was a good enough place to sit and eat his lunch. Someone probably died and donated money to the park, but asked that the bench be placed here for some reason. Maybe it used to be a trail—his map showed the park as it was five years ago, so maybe something had overgrown here. Or maybe whoever donated the money had really pissed off someone on the board, who agreed to put in the commemorative bench but made sure to place it where no one would see. That possibility made Jack smile as he sat down and opened up his lunch.
He was only halfway through his apple when the sound of someone else crunching through the leaves made him turn to look. A man in a dusty, sweat-caked business suit was dragging his feet through the underbrush, face downcast. He offered a weak smile as he drew closer, then sat on the opposite end of the bench. Jack made a point to ignore him, turning his face to the side and continuing with his lunch.
“Bit out of the way, aren’t we?”
Jack ignored the man, taking a loud bite of his apple and shifting further down the bench. He had come all this way to be alone, not engage in idle chitchat with some stranger.
“So you’re not much of a talker, eh? I can understand that. I never was much of one myself.”
Jack quickly looked at the man, gave a curt nod and joyless smile. Perhaps that small sign would make it clear.
“Well, I mean, I guess it’s rude of me to assume. Can you even talk?”
Jack sighed. “Can I just eat my lunch in peace?”
The man laughed broadly, the sound seeming to carry for miles in the relative quiet. “I assure you, I am a peaceful man. You can have as peaceful a lunch as you want.”
“Thank you.” Jack finished munching through the core of his apple, leaving nothing but the stem. A good traveler left no sign behind.
“I always liked coming up here. A good chance to get away, you know?”
Jack sighed, but didn’t respond. He pulled out a slightly squashed sandwich and took a long swig of his water.
“I’m guessing that’s why you’re here, too. Just a chance to get away.” No matter the amount of silence it only seemed to encourage the stranger. “I came up here all the time. Never wanted to leave, wished I could just sit here forever. That’s how I got this here bench. But it’s not quite as enjoyable as you might think. Your butt gets awfully sore sitting on this hard wood day in and day out. Had to get up and stretch a bit, you know?” He laughed, though this time there was a sad, cynical quality to it.
Jack half listened to the man’s babbling, more focused on finishing his meal and getting on with his trip. If he hadn’t been hungry, he would have moved on already. That and he still hoped the man would somehow get the picture and take his rambling elsewhere.
“So, what do you want, son? What brings you up here.”
“I don’t want anything,” he said with a resigned sigh. “I just want to be left alone.”
“Ah, see, you do want something. What do you mean, to be left alone?”
Jack stopped chewing, barely catching himself before his mouth hung open in awe. How could anyone be so thick, he found himself wondering. “Listen, I come up here to get away. Form work, from noise, but most importantly from people. So I don’t really want to talk to anyone up here.”
“Oh, so that’s what you want? To be alone?”
“Yes, finally, yes. I want to be left alone. No people. This is my chance to get away from everyone, and that means you.” Jack felt a slight smile spread over his face.
The man beamed from his seat. “Well, why didn’t you say so? And you are right, this certainly is your chance! I’ll be on my way, and I guarantee you that you will get exactly what you want, Jack. You’ll be all alone, here on out.”
The man stood, gave a slight nod of his head to signify his departure, and walked back the way Jack had come. Jack reached down to uncap his water bottle and discovered the man had already disappeared from sight behind the leafy trees, the sound of his steps having faded back into birdsong. Finally alone, Jack felt at peace.
After finishing the sandwich and a handful of nuts, he rose to his feet. The rest of the trek would be hopefully uneventful, he thought as he shouldered his pack. He made off along the path he knew by heart, enjoying the feeling of the dappled sun on his skin. Here there were no deadlines or micromanagers looming over his shoulders. It was just him and the birds, but that was just fine by him.
When he found the next trail, he felt that heavy weight settle back on his shoulders. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was heavy in the sky. Despite his comfort on the trails, even he did not want to risk trying to navigate it by moonlight and flashlight. So that meant the inevitable trek back to the noise. Back to his car sitting in the parking lot. Back to his too small apartment. And, eventually, back to an uncomfortable office chair in the middle of a cubicle farm. He sighed as it all came crashing back down, but pressed own with a dour expression etched into his face.
He expected to run into exhausted families dragging along pouting children as he neared, but it was surprisingly quiet. Even as he passed by the river, he could not hear the usual ruckus of people playing in the water, squealing as they slipped in and discovered just how cold a natural water source could be. Even once back in the parking lot, there were no groups of hikers, kayakers, or weekend warriors loading up their sunburned bodies into cars with a look of pleased exhaustion etched on their faces. The parking lot was full, but silent.
Jack couldn’t help but feel as if he may have missed some major emergency. There were alert towers spread throughout the park, but he had heard no warning sirens of any sort. Falling into his car, he turned on the radio and searched for a news report, but the signal appeared to be out. Static on all the stations.
He sighed. Just his luck that the radio would go out. It was not that he used it often, but it was, at least, supposed to function in a car. What would he do if Dave needed a ride? Usually, he turned the radio up and appeared to listen intently, even to the commercials. Visons of idle chatter and small talk filled his mind as he moved the car into reverse, and then drove out of the park.
The ranger was not at the gate with his usual cheerful wave goodbye. Perhaps some tragedy had occurred in the park. A kid got lost of something. Maybe everyone was searching for little Tommy or Julie. Jack spared a thought, hoping they would be found, but did not let that slow his drive out of the park.
The rad was empty. No headlights flared into view along the winding road. He lived close to the park, but was still used to passing a good number of people. It was nice though, he thought. The lights usually hurt his eyes.
The smokers were not in front of his apartment tonight, nor were the college kids out at the grills like they had been the past two weekends. He didn’t even hear the baby in 3E crying for what had to be the first time in weeks. Jack had ben seriously beginning to wonder how the child even ate with the crying going on day in and day out. He stomped into his apartment, dropped his pack, and made his way to the bathroom for a nice, hot shower. It did little to wash away the tension that had built up as he thought about work the next day, but he at least smelled cleaner.
With a towel wrapped around his waist, he made a quick dinner and settled in on the couch. Jack ran through his calendar for the next day, noting the meetings and project deadlines. He was fairly certain he had finished everything on Friday that was due, but there always lingered the fear that something would come up and surprise him, Or, worse and far more common, he would get in tomorrow to realize one of his coworkers had not completed their portion, meaning his entire day would be spent making up for their failure. He shook his head and tried to put the thoughts out of his mind, leaning back against the couch.
In the surprising quiet of his apartment, he soon fell asleep.
The world was just as quiet as he woke, got dressed, and trudged out the door to work. Just as quiet as he drove in on deserted streets. Just as quiet as he approached the empty office building and walked the stairs, staring into each floor in turn. It was quiet as he headed home with a broad grin on his face, quiet as he jogged up the stairs to his apartment, and quiet as he grabbed his pack to head back to the woods.
Jack needed no more evidence to realize his wish had come true. He was alone. And while movies and television had always told him he would regret what he had wished for, Jack felt nothing but absolute joy.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 61: A knight rides on a white horse across the pages of a book. The opposite page has a dark pit, tentacles reaching out from it.
“Are you sure this will work?”
Ursula gave an exaggerated shrug, not even making the polite attempt to hide her ignorance. “I mean, I figure it has as much chance as anything else.”
Quentin sighed, fixing her with a firm, side-eyed stare. “Just so you know, those aren’t the kinds of things that inspire confidence when you’re asking someone to risk life and limb on some plan you’ve cooked up.”
She returned his stare with a lopsided smile, her barely-managed hair flopping across her eyes. She brushed it aside mechanically and shrugged yet again. “If you’d rather I lie to you, I can, but I thought you’d like to know that there’s about an equal chance of success and failure with this.”
“False confidence is a powerful thing,” he muttered, returning to his pacing.
She remained crouched on the ground, flipping through the pages are her eyes flew across the words. “If it makes you feel better, I’ve done my homework.” Another page flipped, snapping crisply in the air. Quentin looked down at it, noting the ornate script that flowed across the page. To him, it looked like some kind of spirograph creation, circling in and out and back across itself. But Ursula assured him she could read it.
“And all of that research never mentioned another way?”
She did not speak, but shook her head. Studying on page intently. After an extended paused, punctuated by Quentin’s frantic footsteps, she finally broke the silence. “Remember, I’m taking the risk with you. But we’re out of options, Quentin.”
He slumped against the wall of the roach motel, pointedly not looking at her. “I know. I know better than anyone. Better than you.” He stomped from the room to the tiny, dingy bathroom, slamming the door behind him. Ursula sighed, leaning back on her heels and letting her head fall into her hands. She understood that he was nervous, that the task was likely a death wish, but he had sought her out. He had brought the information, put the pieces together, and pushed her towards identifying a final solution.
Still, the cold feet made sense, she supposed. It was a suicide mission most likely, but at least she knew the information she had was correct. Quentin’s sister had been the Seventh Forgotten Woman taken by the creature, and Quentin was her Legacy Bearer. He was the only one who remembered he had a sister, and Ursula had verified that by digging through prior records. Old magic struggled with the conveniences of modern technology. The erasure was there, but there were crumbs remaining—failed links, dead domains, and occasional mentions. This entity, fortunately, did not actually re-write any timelines, and so there were at least traces to be found. Interviews with her family had led to blank stares, minor defensiveness. Only Quentin remembered the bubbly 26-year-old woman who went for a jog and vanished from time and space.
The Unsatiated—the name was the closest translation she could make—had met its human needs, so that meant that is merely needed one moon cycle to fully emerge. And last time it had, there had been a swath of the country that suddenly disappeared, hundreds of people vanishing in a blink and barely remembered. From what she had pieced together, however, the creature seemed to feed on the memories it could accumulate, taking first a few until it could emerge from hibernation, then devouring all those that remembered the missing individuals. And then stealing away those who remembered the new missing, and so on. In this interconnected age, the results would certainly be devastating.
Still, she felt powerlessness sweep over her again. The only solutions were conjectures strung together across a dozen ancient sources, none of which had been able to stop it. Of course, Ursula certainly believed she had done due diligence and devised a process that had a shot at working, but only time would tell. And, unfortunately, that time was tomorrow during the new moon.
Her eyes ached from deciphering the old script, and she could feel the mental fatigue piling up. The corners of her eyes were flooded with dark shadows and grasping claws, reminding her that the words she poured over were not meant for mortal minds. She closed the book, letting her façade of bravado fade as she dragged herself to the stiff mattress. A good night’s sleep was possibly one of the most overlooked necessities for a successful banishment.
Given his haggard look, Ursula assumed Quentin had not taken her advice about sleep. He had been gone when she woke, and returned only an hour before they were to leave for the lake. She bit her tongue, avoiding the scolding her certainly deserved. The time was better spent preparing him.
“So once I’ve done the summoning, you’re on. Know what to do?”
“Yeah, I know,” he mumbled, grief seeping through his voice.
“And you have the—“
“I’m ready, okay! Can we get this over with?” His anxiety boiled over into anger, and Ursula pursed her lips at him.
“Lack of preparation will get us both killed. I’m putting my life in your hands. I’m putting hundreds of lives in your hands. So, thank you, but I will cover all the bases. You have the token, yes?”
Shame flashed over his face, a shudder of embarrassment and irritation mingling as well. But his anger was dulled. “Here.” He held out a bracelet made of faded strings woven together.
“And it was hers?”
“I made it for her at summer camp when I was eleven. She wore it for years, but left it at home when she went to college. I found it in the bottom of her—of the storage room closet.”
“Good, that will do nicely. A gift bound in love, tying Legacy with Forgotten.” She looked down at her carefully prepared notes, striking through the items. “And you’re prepared for what might happen at the end?”
“Forgetting her? No, I can’t stand the idea. But there’s no choice, right?”
“No. You won’t even remember that you saved the world. But you will have.”
“Great,” he muttered sarcastically. “Are we good?”
She merely motioned to the van, and he folded himself inside. The ride there was long, mostly silent, and heavy with the impending tension. Darkness held close to their van, unbroken by star or moonlight. Wind whipped its way through the trees, and Ursula could feel nature beginning to bristle with the impending defiance of the laws of the world. Yes, the time was drawing near, and so at least if they failed, there would be very little time to live with the disappointment.
Their arrival was met with silence as well, and Ursula gathered her bag of supplies to complete the summoning. The trees clustered around them, groaning with the wind. Yes, it was the perfect night for arcane rites and rituals. Eventually, the lakeshore rose into view, water lapping angrily at the rocky shore as it promised an impending storm.
“Better make this quick. Looks like it might get bad out here,” offered Quentin, his courtesy suggesting they put the previous conflict behind them.
“It will certainly get bad out here,” she offered with a grim smile, “and it’s going to be our fault.” With that, she dropped to her knees and began to gather her equipment from the canvas bag. She started by drawing a large spiral on the ground with ground-up chalk, closing the outer edge. Starting at the edge closest to the lake, she placed a water-smoother stone etched with a name in each ring, leaving the central most clear. In the middle, she placed a single white candle, lighting it against the best effort of the wind. Her hands were shaking as she poured a measure of blessed oil into a lidded, gold bowl, placing it to the side next to a knife. Preparations complete, she proceeded with the rite.
Quentin listened to her whispered words, hearing them whisper through the woods with a sibilant, melodic tone. It seemed to rise over the wind, circling around him with a strange pull. Then, he heard things he recognized. Names he did not know, followed by the one he did. April Maria Davidson. That name was like music to him; he thought he might never hear another soul say it with such a knowing tone. Yes, she was known, she existed, and he remembered. For the moment, at least, he remembered. But he would soon have to sacrifice even that.
Once Ursula grew quiet, there was a ripple from the water. It was a woman rising out of the water, her body glistening with pale white that seemed to shine like the absent moon. Her hair was dark, falling down to her knees and covering her with an inky veil. She floated there above the water, mist and substance all at once, her eyes radiating hate towards the mortal on the shore. Her mouth split open, rows of teeth glistening inside her dark maw, and released a soundless scream. Quentin felt it slam into his body, even if he could not hear it. Ursula crumpled to the ground, and he feared she may have heard that sound that his mind so flawlessly protected him from.
One of the creature’s arms swam forward, an extension of mist reaching across the lake towards the now distracted Ursula. Just as it was about to reach her, Ursula rolled, bringing forward a mirror and deflecting the appendage.
“Do your damn job already,” she snapped, looking at Quentin with ferocious, pained eyes. “Or you and I can both die here.”
Shocked into action, Quentin drew the bracelet from his pocket and scooped up April’s stone from the circle, careful not to disturb the remaining stones or chalk spiral. His lips fumbled over the name Ursula had taught him, trying to approximate her melodic way with the language. It sounded more like marbles being thrown into a garbage disposal, but it also caught the creature’s attention. She fixed her empty eyes on him, mouth knitting together into a smile. Now, he could hear her whispers.
“Don’t listen to her. Think of April. Do what we said.”
Quentin broke his gaze from the woman, the whispers fading to a distant suggestion or voices. He knelt beside the gold bowl and held the knife in his trembling hand. This was it, the moment of truth or utter failure.
Boldly, drawing on strength form a source he could not recognize, Quentin drew the knife across his palm, screaming the creature’s arcane name once again. “I, Legacy Bearer, banish the name of April Maria Davidson. Bound to the essence, I too banish you from our world. I complete your task, I break all of April Maria Davidson’s ties to this world. And so, I banish you.” His voice was breaking, and he felt tears trickling down his face. Despite the woman’s screams, he pressed his bleeding hand against the etched stone, then wrapped it in the bracelet. Quentin looked at the bloodied stone and the bracelet, his last memento of his beloved sister.
It was a sacrifice in the truest sense as he cast the items into the gold bowl, lifting the candle to light the oil. The scream grew louder, the wind whipped stronger, and Quentin felt his memories begin to fade like dust. He fell to his knees, weeping, as the final thoughts of April fell through his mind, rebuilt around the emptiness of a person erased. It ached as those memories dissolved, almost as if his entire being was being destroyed as well.
And then, there was nothing. He looked around at the dark lakeshore, taking in the woman kneeling on the ground nearby, a strange assortment of items surrounding her.
“Um, excuse me, who are you, and why are we out here?”
The woman smiled, but her eyes looked sad and lonely. “I’m no one,” she quipped. “And I guess you were out for a walk?”
Quentin scratched his head, looking around. “Huh. Weird, I just don’t remember coming out here. Must have been distracted,” he laughed, though it did nothing to resolve his discomfort.
She smiled politely back. “Some things are better to forget, I guess.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello, wonderful Reader! I apologize for not posting yesterday. I was running from 7:30-9:45 with class and clients, so I was simply worn out by the time I finally made it home. Just a day of back-to-back-to-back appointments. So, I just had to keep myself sane and healthy. Still, I was frustrated because I really wanted to write this story! But, better late than never. I only have one day left to skip, so hopefully nothing too major gets in the way. Thanks for sticking with me, and I hope you enjoy today’s piece. Happy reading!
Card Day 57: An hourglass. As the sands fall, they cover a youthful young woman below while revealing an old woman above.
The world fell out of balance slowly, so slowly that at first no one noticed. Eventually, however, the changes grew to a swell so extreme that it was impossible not to notice. Religious folks proclaimed the apocalypse, the green champions decried humanity’s misuse of the world, and science curried to find a suitable answer for the unraveling of everything believed to be true. Nevertheless all the time spent pointing guilty fingers do nothing to slow the inevitable. In the end the world fell apart, just like everyone warned it would.
With the collapse of the world as she knew it, Opal found herself the only person—perhaps the only creature—left alive. Her world had gone from one full of joy, vibrancy, and community to one that was best described as a barren waste. Admittedly, this change had begun long before the world started its tumultuous descent into nothingness. She had wrought her own demise long before, and humanity simply imitated her chaotic spiral into oblivion.
The first loss had been her husband, an unmourned passing which ultimately freed her from his tyrannical, at times abusive rule. She had not wept for him, but had leapt into life with seal. From there, she blossomed, caring for her beautiful children, managing her household, and running her little universe in shining perfection. Her methods were, of course, trying to those around her who might have found it difficult to live to her exacting standards. But Opal had standards, and just because that meant others had to work did not mean she was wrong.
After his passing, Opal later was forced to say farewell to her twin brother, who died surprisingly young under curious circumstances. There was, of course, a shadow cast across Opal at the time, but she grieved him so deeply that no one pressed the issue. Still questions hung around the family like old cobwebs, seeking to uncover why he had died so brutally, what the symbols carved into his hands, forehead, and soles of his feet could mean, and why every mirror was shattered in his house. The craze of Satanism was in full swing, and Opal poured all her ire towards that possibly fictitious and certainly exaggerated subculture. Opal had loved her brother dearly, and many said she was never the same after he passed.
She did, in fact, become a bit of a recluse. She dressed darkly, wearing thick sunglasses and veils to cover her face. More surprising in the small town was her departure from the local Lutheran Church, akin to spitting in the face of half the town. Her children—grown by then—tried to convince her to return, but she only withdrew more and more. It became such that she rarely left her house.
Of course, then her eldest daughter died, and most thought the news would simply shatter what remained of the fragile woman. However, she responded to the news with all the grace they remembered from the woman of old, carrying herself with dignity at the graveside as she buried a child. She mourned appropriately, and then placed her home for sale. Hr life moved into times of perceived festivity. She traveled, saw the world, dressed vibrantly, and eschewd all the things a proper lady was expected to do in her old age. Opal had a fondness for Jack Daniels, ordorous cigars, and younger men. Her children, those who remained in their small hometown at least, spoke of her in hushed whispered with blush rising to their faces. Senility, they tried to suggest. But their mother would not offer them that.
No, while Opal appeared to age, she remained quick enough to cause a ruckus any time someone suggested her mind was going. Her wits never suffered, and even though she appeared to grow old, she remained as spry and active as she ever had. Many folks said she was brighter, smarter, and more athletic than the Opal they remembered way back in high school days. But soon, those folks began to die off, leaving Opal the shining example of a generation buried to time.
She buried three more children as time went on, leaving herself beholden to no one. Though the town she had once knew had forgotten her, Opal still breezed in from time to time, a figure cut out of mystery that no one rightly knew what to do with. It seemed as if she enjoyed baffling the locals, winging in with her knowledge, grace, and devil-may-care abandon for anything reputable folk would do.
Her ties to the living world grew thin as Opal buried grandchildren she had hardly known, accompanying weeping great grandchildren she recognized only by their sharp cheekbones. She was the figure in black hovering about the edges of the gravesite, her eyes turned downwards in silent contemplation, But she never stayed long, carried off by the next wayward wind to chase whatever fancy had most recently struck her.
When the world began dying, she hardly noticed. She had no one to mourn as people—young and old—began to simply collapse in the streets. The news was depressing and had no impact on her daily life, so she ignored it. Only when the traffic thinned to a trickle and her favorite shops began to board up did she notice something was wrong. Yes, something was terribly wrong. An epidemic of death wrapped across the globe, claiming victims without disease or injury. One moment, a child was laughing, the next her heart stopped. A mother drove home from work, and then plowed her car into the guardrail, brain-dead before the impact.
The anxiety that seized the planet did nothing to Opal; she knew she could not die. However it did crimp her style, leaving no one to be in awe of her, to accompany her wild adventures, to scam for a few extra dollars. The woman beholden to no one began to feel lonely, to wilt without the eyes of others on her.
And now, she was relatively certain she was the last one left on the planet. Being immortal was not nearly as much fun without an audience.
She sat just outside Chicago, resting on the hood of her most recent vehicle, yet again out of gas. She knew that the gas pumps probably still worked, but it was generally easy to just find a new one and pick up again. Hotwiring was one of the many skills her long life had granted her. Only, now, she paused for a break. She thought she had seen someone in her rearview mirror, so opted to do the polite thing and wait.
Sure enough, the lanky woman came waltzing down the highway, swaying to unknown music and dancing in the destruction. Opal’s face twisted into a bitter scowl as the woman neared. “I don’t find that very funny,” she snapped once the woman was in earshot.
The young woman smiled at her, fixing Opal with a concentrated stare. “Opal, darling!” she greeted. “I hope you don’t take offense, but,” she shrugged, “I assumed you’d be more welcoming to me with a face you can trust.”
Opal resettled herself against the hood of the car, crossing her arms. “That’s not a face I care to see anymore.”
“But, Opal, it’s your face, yes? And my, weren’t you beautiful!” The creature wearing her face smiled at herself in the reflection of a nearby car before finding Opal’s eyes again. “Were being key, I’m afraid.”
“What do you want?” spat the old woman, now beginning to feel the heat of the sun on her wrinkled skin. Her mind was sharp, her body young, but her appearance had definitely degraded over time. She did not need that worthless hellspawn rubbing it in.
“I got the sense you were looking for me.”
Well, that at least was true. Opal had finally decided she had had her fun. It was time to make peace with death and move along. “I’m ready to die,” she said bluntly, not meeting the creature’s taunting gaze.
“I’m sure you do. But that’s not how this works.”
“But I made the decision, I made the deal. Now I want it to be over!” She slid off the hood of the car, standing to her full five and a half foot height. Not an imposing figure, but one that seethed with years of unspent fury.
The young woman did not respond, but ambled along the highway, gazing aimlessly out into the wastes. “Do you even know why all this happened, Opal?”
“I don’t care why it happened, I want—“
“You should care. You caused it.” Opal’s words dried up in her mouth, and the creature smiled, pleased with the response. “You see, Life and death are so delicately balanced, and then you come along. You unhinged it all with your “immortality” schtick. I mean, really, you thought there would be no consequences?”
“But there were!” she said with a start, taking frenzied steps towards the woman. “I sacrificed everything! I gave you Samuel!”
“Ah, the brother. Yes, I suppose that sated Death for a while. But eventually, his books came back out of balance. And he’ll search high and low to find that missing number. Only, my boss and I made sure he could not find you.” Her face broke into a wide, pointed tooth grin. “We made an agreement, after all.”
“Well, then I’m ready to pay for my crimes. Give me all you’ve got, drag me to hell if you must. I’m ready to die.” Opal put on as brave a face as she could muster, trying to cover up the years and decades of weariness etched in every wrinkle.
The demon wearing her face laughed, a throaty sound that echoed across the empty sky. “Opal, dear, you are paying already. Welcome to your Hell. You’ll have long enough to enjoy it, I promise.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.