Theme: The World Upside Down Image
“You know the only option is to accept it,” she said, her words gentle yet firm.
“I know. I just–” the words broke. It was hard to see anything through this wash of tears. He brushed a hand across his eyes and the world blurred further. “How do you know?” he asked after a long, shaking breath.
“You don’t,” was the simple reply.
He studied the room around him, its chaos and senselessness. Things that had been overlooked now stood in stark relief. There was the picture of his sister, the keychain his friend had picked up on vacation, a t-shirt from a forgotten concert. This detritus of his life, now a testament.
“But what happened?” he asked. Clawing through his mind, he could find plenty of memories. But the end was blank. The empty space of a recently pulled tooth.
She shrugged, eyes wandering the room with polite curiosity.
“Can I say goodbye? Call my dad?”
She smiled, an ancient smile worn many times, as she softly shook her head. “The time for goodbyes has almost passed. Only one is left.”
She reached out her hand. He stared at it, world reeling and snapping into focus in succession. One moment, there was peace and acceptance. The next a maelstrom of doubt and uncertainty.
“They’ll miss me, though,” he said. His eyes searched hers, seeking mercy. “I don’t want them to be sad.”
“It is a human’s lot to love and lose.” She made a small gesture with her hand, urging him forward. “But joy comes with reunion. You can wait for them, just beyond.”
He did not try to wipe away the tears now, letting them fall as he took her hand. He looked at the world behind him–his corner of the universe–as it began to grow dim.
Episodes: 10 in the story
Length: 45-70 minutes per episode
I’ve listened to… every episode
Transcripts Available: Currently up through episode five, linked here
The Premise: The city of Everton, built by two brothers after World War II, was meant to be a sanctuary. And then it disappeared. Now two agents must find out what happened to the people of Everton. The journey will take through impossible realities, astral existence, Arthurian legends, and danger in every step.
My Review: Margaret’s Garden is created by Midnight Disease, the same folks responsible for the wonderful podcast that is SCP Archives. They bring the same talent and excellent production to this standalone story set in its own fantastic world. I finished listening to Margaret’s Garden about a few weeks ago, and I am still thinking about the incredible story that unfolded in these ten episodes. It is amazing how much work and creativity was poured into this story, and the final product is truly remarkable.
The podcast takes place both in semi-present day and the time shortly after WWII. It switches between the two timeframes, guided deftly by the wonderful narrator. The narrator plays an integral role, acting as an omniscient presence guiding the story, providing context, and bringing listeners along. There is ample direct address to the audience, creating a sense of familiarity with the world and experiences. And when things get hard to follow, the narration provides an anchor to tie information together.
The story also alternates between the world we know and the world of the astral plane. Each setting is slowly explored over the course of the story, developing into their own world with rules and expectations. This, of course, adds a remarkable degree of complexity to the storyline. However, it always feels manageable based on the talented storytelling. When I say there is a lot that happens in these ten episodes, I mean a LOT. There are love stories, horror stories, legends, wars, conquests, and universes all contained within the ten episode run. I do not think I have really come across a podcast telling a story quite like this, though it certainly shares themes and concepts seen elsewhere. The breadth and complexity of the story is standout.
The writing, in both dialogue and narration, is phenomenal. Each character has their own tone, motivation, weaknesses, and story. The decisions they make, especially how they react to what they do not know or fear, drives the plot forward in a very organic way. It provides ample opportunities for characters to learn and grow…or stay in their faulty ways of thinking and sacrifice everything. Given how, frankly, bizarre some things can be, the use of description and narration is balanced carefully with the dialogue and sound design to ensure scenes are comprehensive and engaging, even as it stretches the bounds of what one can imagine.
The themes addressed are weighty. What would you do to be safe? To be loved? To build a better world? To be powerful? In the character’s successes and missteps, a remarkable world rises and falls. It does not try to maintain simplistic views on the good guys and the bad guys. Each character is complex, with understandable motivations and, often, questionable means to meet their needs. And that make sit hard to know what will happen next or even what outcome the listener should be rooting for. And yet it manages to tell a powerful story that addresses this complexity and refuses to stoop to solving it with a neat bow.
Overall, Margaret’s Garden is a beautifully constructed story with a whole group or intriguing and realistic characters. The production team behind it is talented, and so every aspect has been carefully polished to be a wonderful listening experience. The acting is engaging, creating characters a listener can know and care about. The writing balances a host of competing storylines and themes in order to tell a full and satisfying story in multiple times and places. It is a wonderful piece that blends sci-fi, fantasy, supernatural, and horror themes into something new and different. And you should definitely buckle in and listen.
Theme: Image Prompt
My feet could no longer feel the earth beneath them, but I remembered it.
I remembered the feel of dark soil under my soles, thrumming with the vibrancy of earth and whispering ancient ways to me. The sway of Mother Earth, the loving gaze of Mother Moon. The exaltation of all things feminine and trampled by the day-to-day life.
We danced, my sisters and I, beneath that moonlight. We leaped, held aloft in the arms of our two mothers, cradled in that space. In the smoke and stars, we saw visions.
I remembered breathing deep the perfume of wilted flowers and sweat, mingled with the bonfire scent. It was intoxicating and every time my feet dug into the soil, I could feel the bounty of life surge through me. We joined together to celebrate the divine around us, the divine within us.
Moonlight, starlight, dirt, and blood. In those moments, we existed not as human flesh, but as something carved from the essential elements and told to celebrate. I did not need air to live, only those moments of ecstasy. My worship kept my heart beating, my lungs moving, and I thrived on that inhuman diet on those nights of revelry.
The flickering shadows of the fire threw scenes of the future before us, cloudy, mystical. And somehow we did not see what was to come until the sacredness of our space was trampled beneath booted feet, feet that could not feel the hum of the earth. Their bodies were covered so that even the moonlight could not strike them.
My feet no longer feel the earth beneath them, dangling here in the in-between. All I feel is the grip of the rope, punishment for daring to touch the sacred.
Episodes: 7 so far
Length: 10-20 minutes
Transcripts Available: No
I’ve listened to… All currently available episodes
The Premise: An unnamed man discovers a supernatural realm and uses his skills to help and protect others, as well as himself. It follows him interacting with the strange and unknown in all kinds of encounters with the supernatural.
My Review: The show creator reached out to me a few months back to let me know about their upcoming release. As the show was still new, I mentioned it in my 2020 Roundup and agreed to come back when a bit more of the show was available for review. And now at seven episodes, I am excited to point you toward this show!
Arcane is a mysterious supernatural audiodrama following our unnamed protagonist as he encounters all kinds of supernatural oddities. It covers a wide range of different scenarios in the first few episodes, with people trying to steal knowledge/power, spells gone wrong, and people with strange abilities. While having a “monster of the week” style approach, the dangers encountered veer away from the traditional tropes /monsters and focus on more unique experiences.
The first episode starts off with a rather dark turn, setting the stage for the somber tone and high stakes of the series so far. On my first time listening, I was not sure what to take from Episode 1, but it came into focus as the episodes developed. I have found myself going back to episode one and turning over some of the unique plot points from time to time, just because it really caught me by surprise in a fantastic way. I do think this is a show that takes an episode or two to hit its stride, not in the quality of content, but in the overarching concept. Once it settles into that rhythm, the surprises continue to show up, but I felt I was able to appreciate more because I was better oriented to the universe.
The sound is great and serves the story well. It is not overdone, but it provides appropriate context clues for what is happening in the scenes so that a listener can get a good visual of situations. Similarly, the blend between narration and dialogue works well. The unnamed protagonist provides some very helpful context and background as needed through narrative pauses, without turning into too much of a monologue. It can be hard to strike that balance, especially in a story where the world building is very important, and I think it lands with a good split of both overall.
One of the things I most enjoy is the slow discovery in this particular story. There is limited handholding by the creator as to what things mean in the broader context, but there are clues and breadcrumbs to follow regarding the bigger picture. It is a really pleasant experience to notice those pieces coming together and forming the background to the events in each episode. There is definitely a much broader, deeper world here than has been revealed so far, and I have enjoyed the opportunity to piece things together as they come up within the context of the episodes.
Overall, Arcane is a unique take on the brooding, supernatural serial. It has moments of light and darkness woven together to create a complex world that had been exciting to explore. The writing and sound are solid, providing the necessary frame to get drawn into the world being created. It deals with familiar ideas, but avoids falling into classic tropes and traps, instead introducing unique concepts and conflicts in each episode. I am excited to listen to more and see the world of Arcane continue to develop.
You can find them here: Arcane
I’ve been a gone a bit. That probably comes as no surprise because, hey, it’s 2020 and life has been a chaotic ride. That said, I am getting back into the swing of things. Or trying because it is 2020, so best laid plans and all of that…
To kickstart the process, I would like to cover a roundup of a few new items that have popped up over the past few months (no specific time frame because, to be honest, I can’t tell one month from the next). These are stories that I have found organically, been following creators from prior projects, or been contacted by the creators as a review request. I did a similar roundup before and found it a nice change of pace. There is no unifying theme to the ones I chose beyond being things I have listened to recently that are not quite long enough yet for me to review fully on their own. Who knows, maybe you will find something new to listen to!
So, in the interest of all transparency, I supported the Kickstarter for Unseen. As someone who truly has enjoyed other Long Story Short Productions’ podcasts, I threw my money at them when I heard there was a new show. I have written previously about the “end of the world” anthology series Zero Hours. And it’s also the creators of Wolf 359 (which I still won’t review, because IT’S SOOOOOOOOO GOOD” is not a valid review). Each episode is a standalone story taking place in a world much like ours, but where magic is real. Some humans can see it, most cannot. The themes of the story deal with very universal experiences in terms of love, belonging, purpose, and understanding. There are five episodes out currently, and so I am sneaking them in here because it is such a new release. The stories have been diverse so far, but engaging and interesting all the same. I have enjoyed learning about the world through the episodes, and I look forward to see what more is developed.
Now for some spooky sci-fi horror happenings deep under the sea. Primordial Deep is the story of a team setting out to find a sea monster. Throw in some shady secret organizations, a great cast of characters that are charming and repulsive, and a history of incredible work from this team (creators of Janus Descending-which if you haven’t heard, you should go listen to RIGHT NOW), and you have an absolute thrilling start to a show. While trying to find a sea monster is a terrifying enough premise, deep below water there exists many wonderful and horrific creatures. The character development in the first few episodes has been really great, and I cannot wait to see how this team responds to what will surely be increasingly dangerous straits over the season.
I’ll be completely honest and say I am not sure if this was one I found organically from Reddit or from their request to review, but either way, I have enjoyed the two episodes so far. It is a fantasy story and, as I have mentioned somewhere on this mess of a blog before, fantasy is kind of my first love. It tells the story of two Azure Scouts sent to find their nation’s greatest, most legendary hero to save the day from encroaching evil. While they do reach him they are unable to leave right away and so remain, hearing the true stories behind his exploits. I have so far found it well written and acted. The frame story works well and leads to a more anthology-type experience; however they are obviously all linked and developing the same story and world. I am really excited to learn more about the world, creatures, and systems at place in Matysia. Bonus: The title link will take you to their youtube page where episodes are narrated and accompanied by soem pretty cool illustrations!
By the wonderful group working on the SCP Archives is a new spooky story. This tale is about uncovering the mystery of what happened to the purported utopia of Everton. The story not only takes place in the relative modern day, but also during the development of Everton, providing parallel storylines that will (hopefully) shine some light on the many mysteries surrounding Everton. Episode one introduces the story and throws in some secretive government agencies, cosmonauts, and a good mix of cult references. Fans of SCP Archives will definitely recognize some familiar and very talented voice actors, and it makes for a very enjoyable, immersive listening experience. There are two current episodes, and I am really excited to listen to episode two as soon as I can, because episode one started some great threads that I cannot wait to follow!
I think almost every audiodrama I followed has recently pointed me toward The Oyster, and I am very thankful. The Oyster tells the story of humanity after catastrophic environmental changes force everyone underground. The catch, however, is that only about 80% of the population was able to be saved. Decisions were made based on a values-point system and integrated neurological technology. If you are thinking that sounds like a great recipe for some dystopian shenanigans, you would be right! For those in the bunkers, hope comes in the form of Eden 2070, a return to a habitable part of the surface. However, resources are short, and so challenging questions arise about how humanity can survive. Enter The Oyster Project, a way to save resources while suspending people’s consciousness in a state of enlightened bliss. This comes from the folks who created Darkest Night, and there are definitely some similar themes in terms of neurologic/cognitive science and how that can be used or twisted. One of the other things I really like is that they have woven in some modern terrors, including climate change and systemic racism, to show how horrifying it can be. It is uncomfortable not only because of the futuristic, sci-fi terrors, but also because it brings up some ugly truths about the world we already live in.
(I did not find a support link. Please let me know if there is one so I can update accordingly!)
This is another Reddit find! Have you ever wondered what NPR would sound like if superheroes existed? Well, wonder no more with SPR – Superhuman Public Radio. They manage to really evoke the style and approach of NPR, while addressing the fantastic reality of a world with superheroes and villains’. The first episode explores how the gig economy effects supervillainy, and I found it incredibly charming. The parody ads set in-universe made me smile, and the tenor of the stories had the reassurance of a soothing NPR story, while also introducing some great comedic and thoughtful ideas. If you want something a little more lighthearted in your feeds and like a good superhero story, then I think this will fit the bill nicely.
The creator for this final podcast reached out to me via the contact form and requested a review. It is a supernatural story focused on an unnamed narrator investigating the weird and the unexplainable. Which, honestly, is right up my alley, so I was happy to listen and review. There are two episodes so far. The first one I think threw me as I was not 100% sure what to expect, but as the pieces came together, it introduced some interesting ideas for supernatural investigation. I went into the second episode with a clearer expectation and found myself easily immersed in the story. The initial episodes allude to a relatively complex world in Arcane, and I only have a few glimpses so far. What I have heard has caught my attention, and I look forward to learning more as new episodes release.
(Also could not find a support link. Happy to update!)
Episodes: 10 episodes in the first season, with a minisode between each
Length: 15-25 minutes in the main episodes
I’ve listened to… All of the first season.
The Premise: Cole and Julie host a radio show that they inherited from their father covering Cryptids and the supernatural. Only some of the things they investigate are more real than others.
My Review: Season one of this series just ended and it led me on a fantastic journey with Cole and Julie. The way the story was introduced and the plot was constructed is a perfect example of how to draw an audience in to a complex, creepy world. The story starts relatively light, family bickering, strange and creepy urban myths and legends discussed on a radio show. But as the episodes progress, but the myths become real. There are many layers to the world in which Cryptic takes place, and different episodes land at different points, from mundane with a hint of the mysterious to completely unexplainable. Cole and Julie explore these reports of strange happenings, at times trying to maintain a balance, at other times trying to prevent danger.
This is not so much a monster hunter style story, but more about two siblings trying to hold things together and learn how to navigate a world they have insufficient knowledge of. Their father’s absence is a clear challenge, only made more so as they wrestle with the moral challenges that come along with their roles. While the podcast never completely abandons moments of levity and calm, there are many more serious elements that get brought in, and the episodes suggest Julie and Cole may have made some significant sacrifices to ensure they can do what must be done.
There is still so much mystery left in this world. The podcast overall has done a great job of introducing enough of each story and idea to make it interesting, but never seems to fully answer the questions. It keeps me coming back eager to know more about the world and what it means to live within it. It balances the knowing and the known unknowns very well, so that there are pieces to start to string together, but not the whole picture. As a listener, I know Julie and Cole are hiding things from one another, but my glimpse of the world only starts to uncover what those secrets might be.
Julie and Cole are written as siblings, and frankly it is a very realistic picture of siblings. They bicker, they say hurtful things to one another, and they provide support. There is real, genuine concern, but also that ability to push buttons in the way on siblings can. Obviously, there is history which is revealed slowly through the episodes, and it makes clear how serious the stakes are. One theme throughout is that the supporting characters are often caught up in the chaos of Cole and Julie, intentionally or otherwise. That adds another layer to the show that asks some very tough questions neither of them seem ready or willing to answer.
Overall, Cryptic is a well executed story that takes the trope of siblings dealing with monsters and spins it into something refreshing. While there are lighthearted moments (I love the “ads” the introduce episodes), it also does not shy away from proposing uncomfortable situations and questions,. It’s also willing to leave those unanswered and messy at this point of the story. Cryptic’s biggest drawback is having a more common name that makes them hard to find at times. With season one recently finishing up, I can heartily recommend you listen if you like spooky, supernatural, and thought-provoking stories.
You can find them here: Cryptic
Call of the Void
Episodes: 7 of the 9 episode story arc.
Length: 20-25 minutes
I’ve listened to… Everything so far. Cannot wait for the finale!
The Premise: I mentioned them in my January 2020 roundup for new podcasts, so you may have heard of them already. Hopefully after hearing about them you started listening to them! If not, now is a great time to catch-up before their finale episode in a couple weeks. The Call of the Void follows Topher and Etsy as they try to uncover what is making people go blind, lose all reason, and rave about the coming of the Void. It is a Lovecraftian horror story that starts and circles back to the Louisiana swamps.
My Review: Reading the description of this podcast, I was pretty sure I was already going to be a fan. Horror? Mystery and occult? Southern setting? It’s all very much in line with my interests. And once I listened to the first episode, I was pretty eager to learn more. As the season has developed, I think they have introduced some really solid ideas. The approach is familiar if you have read or listened to much in the Lovecraftian genre, but they keep some unique twists that help this standout from many similar stories. The mystery illness that strikes is especially intriguing to me and develops into an eerie monster in its own right as it creeps throughout the season. At this point, I have all kinds of theories about what might be going on, and I can’t wait to see how right or wrong I am.
The characters are also very solidly written and feel rather realistic. Topher and Etsy are the primary focus, with other supporting cast serving to flesh the characters out, keep things moving, and provide some extra impetus for the action. The relationships between characters feel very authentic and serve to provide some reasonable justification for their actions and behaviors. The relationship between Topher and Etsy is developed well, because they go from relative strangers to more or less cooperative partners on this mystery. There is a bit of a nod towards romance, but it is not a particularly strong theme at this point in the series, which I appreciate.
As a contained storyline, the podcast really hits the pacing well. Each episodes presents problems, solves some, and creates leads for others. They move pretty briskly through the action, but with the illness taking its unstoppable course through Topher’s father, there is always a timer counting down to tragedy. It does not feel rushed, however, and the content is strong enough to keep the excitement high throughout each episode. I’m always impressed by how much material they have packed into each episode, but also how well exposition and action are balanced.
In the end, the story has been intriguing and kept me excited to hear how all the pieces fit together and the myth unravels. It is Lovecraftian in style, executed well, and plays on familiar themes in ways that fit the settings and characters well. There are also some unique revelations that serve to set this story apart from similar media. The acting, design, and writing have seemed to hit a solid stride as the episodes progress. They are set to have nine episodes in the series, and if all remains the same with the schedule, episode eight releases tomorrow. So you have a week to get caught up before the finale, and I highly recommend you do so. It’s been a fun ride, and I cannot wait to see how they wrap it all up.
You can find them here: The Call of the Void
A Scottish Podcast
Episodes: 30 episodes, plus some specials and mid-break bonus epsiodes.
Length: Generally around 10-20 minutes
I’ve listened to… All the episodes released so far. Season two just ended #whereslee
The Premise: Two
friends acquaintances people who live in the same general area, Lee and Dougie, decide to create a spooky podcast about paranormal events in the hopes of becoming famous. Well, to be fair, Lee wants to create it, and Dougie just kind of gets roped in. So if you want to listen to them bicker while spooky stuff happens, you’re in for a good time.
My Review: I’ll be completely honest, I did not get this podcast at first. I went in thinking it was a fictional podcast about a podcast. What I learned after a few episodes of head scratching is that this is a podcast about a handful of characters who sometimes are focused on creating a paranormal podcast and often end up falling into impossibly terrifying, supernatural experiences. And then they just go on about with their lives.
It is irreverent, ridiculous, bizarre, and fascinating. The paranormal aspect, which is what I originally came for, is more of a backdrop to the relationships and realities of life encountered by the characters. Uncovering amazing, terrifying realities is most notably lauded by how it affects downloads of the in-world Terror Files podcast, rather than the unsettling nature of the discovery. In fact, once uncovered, stories are mostly left. And that is wonderful. The story weaves and drunkenly swerves from situation to situation because that is the unpredictable path of its unstable narrator whose main focus is fame.
This podcast hinges entirely upon the cast of characters. They are all unlikable at times with major flaws. And that is so refreshing, because it feels so real. There are not nicely polished, inquisitive, altruistic characters delving the depths of the world. They are just who they are with all their imperfections and (at times) downright infuriating character quirks. And yet I cannot help but look forward to stepping back into the story and seeing where it is headed next.
The main cast is definitely well developed and complex. The secondary characters are also each very unique, with their own voice, motivations, and styles. They add a really nice bit of variety to what is going on. Also, a lot of funny moments. The podcast overall is pretty humorous, in my opinion, with some more serious moments sprinkled throughout. But it never seems to take itself too seriously, always maintaining a tongue-in-cheek approach to whatever is happening.
Overall, I find A Scottish Podcast to be a unique ride. The thread running throughout the plot is the creation of the Terror Files, but the real focus seems to be on living life alongside the characters as they go on this strange journey. And the broad view it takes provides so many opportunities to learn about the characters, which enhances the tension during moments of stress or danger. I think this is one of those stories you have to listen to in order to fully get it, but give it a few episodes and I think it will win you over with its charm. Just don’t tell Lee that.
You can find them here: A Scottish Podcast
Episodes: 20 episodes total (10 episodes per season)
Length: Generally around 20 minutes
I’ve listened to… Both seasons
The Premise: Each season tells a different story. In season one, the narrator moves into a new home and starts to experience some strange things. In season 2, the narrator runs away from home and soon begins work caring for a unique charge in a house that shows off these “denizens” in a high end freak show of sorts. While one is modern day and the second is decidedly not, the share a lot in tone and both focus on supernatural stories.
My Review: Both seasons have been beautifully told stories. The title of Palimpsest refers to a work of some kind where the old has been written/drawn over, but the original remains visible. And the stories stay true to this, with both seasons telling overlapping stories. What has happened in the past has a distinct presence in the future, and characters end up telling two stories at once. I think this is a stronger theme in season 1, but definitely still comes through in season 2 in a more subtle way.
The style of this podcast tends to be a kind of somber, hopeful tone. In the present, it is earnest and optimistic, even in the face of difficulties, and this is woven with a sad nostalgia at times. With a single narrator in each, it manages to convey the different needs and personalities of many different people. The music used is also really well done, setting the scene and tone without becoming distracting.
I have found the seasons to be a little predictable at times, which is unfortunate but not unforgivable. The storytelling is done well enough that I’m happy to go along for the ride even if I’m pretty sure where we’re headed. I think once I made the connection about how the title is woven into the stories, it became easier to figure out the stories because the past and present are often overlapping in the audiodrama.
These are two reflective, intriguing, and emotional stories. There is action and intensity, but it is precede by the steadily building tension that the present in its current form is unsustainable, but the path forward looks impossible. For very different reasons in the two seasons, but still. I think season one is a great example of an unreliable narrator, which is probably one of my favorite approaches when done well. It keeps me guessing, and I like that. Even if I did figure a lot of it out before the podcast got there. It was still enjoyable listening to how they unraveled both stories.
Overall, while it does play on some familiar themes/tropes, the execution and presentation in this audiodrama is phenomenal. I was able to easily become invested in the characters, even when I thought they were making a bad move. It packs a lot of emotion into a single episode, steadily moving the story forward with an even pace. Ultimately, it was a joy to follow along with the story through all the twists and sometimes rather dark turns. I will be eagerly waiting for another season, and I can’t wait to see where they go next.
You can find them here: Palimpsest
To read the review in its original format, click the “Read More” link. Otherwise, enjoy this updated style!
The Bright Sessions
Episodes: 56 full episodes, plus minisodes
Length: Generally around 20-40 minutes
I’ve listened to… The whole thing!
The Premise: A psychologist provides services to people with special abilities, helping them manage their unique skills in healthy ways. However, it soon becomes clear that there is something important in Dr. Bright’s past, something her patients may be able to help her with.
My Review: I kind of credit The Bright Sessions (and Ars Paradoxica) for leading me into the wonderful world of audiodrama. They weren’t the first of the genre I had listened to, but they showed me that I could expect so much more than what I had been getting from some I listened to originally. So, Dr. Bright and all of her friends have a very special place in my podcast-listenin’ heart.
What first really caught my attention was the incorporation of therapy into sessions. I’m a psychologist, and I am used to really, REALLY bad depictions of therapy in various media. The Bright Sessions had some missteps, but for a lot of it, finally depicted therapy in a rather reasonable way. I mean, you have to add in the fantasy element, but for one of a very few times, I heard the therapist actually talk like a therapist. There are major ethical issues that come up later, but they are at least addressed, even if there aren’t maybe the consequences that would follow in the real world.
The characters are what make this podcast what it is. Each one is so distinct, with different strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and personalities. In addition, each person has their good and bad sides. They are multidimensional and flawed in ways that serve to deepen the story. There were times you knew a character was making a mistake, knew it would cause problems, but also understood precisely why they would choose to act in such a way. Its strength truly is in its ability to make realistic characters in such a fantastic scenario.
With such a relatively large cast, and with episodes focusing primarily on one perspective at a time, I think the podcast is notable in its ability to make each episode interesting in its own right. Yes, there were times I really wanted them to switch back to another character so I could hear the conclusion or next step of their arc, but by the end of the episode, I was wishing we didn’t have to leave the new piece of the puzzle. Each episode added something more and kept me waiting for the next episode.
In the end, I felt the ending was a bit anticlimactic, but with the promise of something else coming in this universe, I suspect this was just the pause before another exciting adventure. The ending wrapped most everything up fairly well, but it did not seem to answer some of the larger questions that had been looming in the final season. And so while satisfactory, it still felt incomplete or insufficient for the larger story arcs that had been developing. I am hopeful that this “end” is more of the end of a chapter, rather than the end of a story. You can be certain that, should the creators venture again into this universe, I will be eagerly listening on day one.
Find them here: The Bright Sessions(more…)
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.
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.
Want more of the 13 Stories of Halloween? Click here!
Darren barely felt human. In fact, he felt more like a monster built purely of anxiety and tension, one that just happened to ooze into a human form for the night. Everyone said such feelings were normal. That as all well and good, he reasoned, but it did nothing to quiet the awareness that he was sweaty, nauseated, jittery, and hyperventilating.
Stage fright. It sounded so innocuous, but it was far from it. Still, he reminded himself, this was all about becoming a better him. After his last breakup, he recognized a few facts. First, he had terrible taste in partners. Second, he deserved better. And third, perhaps most painfully, he was no longer the kind of person he would want to date, let alone anyone else. His journey of self-discovery had led to a brash, spontaneous audition for a local play. And that audition dragged him all the way to that very moment, sitting backstage as the audience filtered in. The play would go for one night only. Halloween, of course. And the festive date meant they had a full house as well. If he quieted his breathing and the pounding of his heart, he imagined he could hear the murmur of hundreds—well, perhaps tens—of voices.
“You look like a first timer,” said Jean from the seat next to him. Her face was painted with almost gaudy makeup, but everyone assured him it would look lovely from the audience. He flexed his own face, feeling the foundation shift like a mask.
She reached over and pulled his water glass from his hand. “That’s your sixth glass of water. You’re going to piss yourself on stage if you keep it up.” The smile was genuine, understanding.
Until that moment, Darren had not considered needing to hold his bladder through at least Act One. That brought up all new anxieties. “What if I can’t do this?” he blurted out.
Her words were a cool breeze soothing his brow. “Hey, you’ve practiced, right?”
“You know your lines?”
He swallowed, trying mentally to run through his lines, then nodded. “I hope.”
She just smiled. “Then, I suppose you can do this. Not like you have much of a choice now.”
It was reassuring. Of course. He only had a few lines, a good number of which were written sneakily in the book he was to read from. Even if he got stuck there, he would just have to push through it.
The rest of the preparation was a blur of activity. People were checking and nitpicking at his costume, reapplying makeup where he had sweated through. The backstage crew checked and rechecked props, reviewed their cues, and ensured each character knew where to find what they would need. His fellow actors squeezed his shoulder, whispered encouragement, and always concluded with the famous “Break a leg.” For his part, he mostly nodded out of the way, eyes skimming over his lines one last time.
Then, the lights dimmed and the director stepped out to welcome the audience. While he expected his anxiety to crest again, send him into an even greater tailspin, it surprised him. His body likely panicking, he found his mind growing surprisingly clear and focused. Perhaps this is what those lunatics meant when they said they worked better under pressure.
Applause, then the curtains went up on the opening scene. It was your typical gruesome, gory plot for a seasonal play. The first scene was Michael and Linda, young and happy couple in the prime of their life. They were on a walk through the park, discussing future plans. Michael took an aside, looked at the ring in his pocket, and waxed poetic about the powers of love to the audience. The audience was not fooled, of course, by the saccharine opening. They were simply biding their time.
As he returned to Linda, purportedly studying the flowers while he was convening with the audience, the lights dimmed. Someone stepped from the shadows. It was Trip, a perennial figure at the community theater, bedecked in a hat that covered the top half of his face and a trench coat that concealed the rest of him. He brandished a weapon, Michael stepped forward to protect his one true love, and then there was a crash. Michael collapsed, Linda screamed, and the house lights went down.
A funeral was next, Linda the grieving partner. Jean played it beautifully, appearing devastated and completely unpredictable. The next few scenes displayed an obsessive, frantic turn in the lovely Linda, who’s only thought was to restore what had been taken from her.
Darren took a deep breath, stepping onto the scene while the lights were dimmed and finding his place. The set behind him was a curios shop, featuring the comical shrunken head that had become the unofficial mascot of the show. He smiled seeing it, feeling a bit more of the anxiety melt away.
Linda approached, and he looked up from behind his counter as the effects crew rang a simple bell.
“Afternoon,” he said, his voice cracking just a bit. There were no loud guffaws from the audience.
Linda looked around the shop, appearing distracted, uneasy, and yet hopeful. He was amazed Jean was as talented as she was, especially at a community theater that drew no more than 150 people at a time. She deserved to be famous, he thought.
“They told me you could help me,” she said, stepping up to his counter.
“Well, I don’t know who they are or what I’d be able to do to help.” He turned a shoulder to her, appearing to study his inventory.
“Please,” Linda responded and reached out to grab his arm.
He looked back at her and sighed. “What is it you want? And I don’t work for free,” he said tersely, wagging a finger in her direction. The audience seemed to hang on their every word.
“I’ll pay whatever you want, you just have to help me get him back.”
Darren looked her up and down. “Yes, you will certainly pay. Now who is it you are wanting?”
Linda stepped away, the spotlight following her as she gazed up toward the rafters. “My Michael,” she said with a sob. She went on to recount the story as Darren did his best to appear grumpy, but moved.
“Are you sure about this?” he cautioned as she finished her tale.
“Yes, anything you ask. I can’t go on without him!”
Darren turned, peering over the row of books behind him and selecting one that appeared sufficiently old and dusty. “Take this and make your preparations. Return to me by the next full moon.”
Linda rushed from the shop, clutching the book to her chest. “Thank you,” she said passionately. “Thank you. I will return, I swear.”
Darren stroked the fake beard on his chin as he watched her leave, lights dimming again.
Backstage, Jean grabbed his hand quickly as she swung past. “You did great. Keep it up,” she whispered, then swept back into the stage. She read slowly from the book, appearing to ponder the different items needed. After a moment, she set off with resolve. The next few scenes detailed her preparation, culminating finally with her taking a shovel into a set designed to look like the graveyard, an almost full moon hanging heavily on the backdrop behind her.
The lights turned to black as the sound of a shovel piercing the earth echoed in the theater.
In the brief pause, there was a flurry of activity. The ritual scene had to be set. In Act Two, the ritual was completed, bringing Michael back. Like most stories, his resurrection went well until his insatiable bloodthirst was revealed. Act Three dealt entirely with how to kill someone who had already been dead once before. But, Act Two was Darren’s big scene, and the nerves returned to flutter through his stomach.
He walked on stage while it was still dark, bending to “light” the flickering electric LED candles. For a few brief seconds, they were the only light on the stage. Slowly, the house lights came up. That was Jean’s cue, and Linda came hurrying in from stage left.
“I have him,” she gasped. Darren nodded.
“Well, bring him in then. Set him here between the candles.” He stretched his arm widely to indicate the circle around him, then stepped over to rearrange the implements on the table. The stage directions had not been very clear on this point, but had indicated he needed to busy himself while she was gone.
Linda hesitated, opened her mouth to speak, and then was gone. She returned moments later carrying a withered bundle in her arms. A decaying, emaciated hand slipped from beneath the wrappings, cluing the audience in to what her large parcel truly was. Linda set Michael’s body gently on the floor, peeling away the fabric and stroking his hair gently. She looked on the corpse with true love.
Darren shooed her away. “You must prepare the article of binding. It is the only way to hold his spirit here.” He stepped over to inspect the body. This was one part they had improvised on. The props crew had an awful time finding a suitable corpse, and so they had been completing rehearsals using everything from a manikin to a blow-up doll. But now he saw the true extent of their creativity and skills.
The corpse looked like someone who had been buried for quite some time. There was dirt on the clothes. The body was tiny in the confines of the neatly pressed suit. Skin clung along every outline of bone. It was so realistic, Darren almost imagined he could smell the decay and rot, but pushed the thought aside. Just nerves, he told himself.
Linda returned with a lock of her hair tied around a sprig of flowers. She bent to the corpse and tucked it into his mouth. Darren caught a glimpse of teeth, then the long darkness of the dummy’s throat. It gave him a sense of vertigo.
He stepped over to the table with the prepared items, grabbing the book and the chalice. He handed the chalice to Linda, who began to dip her fingers in and sprinkle blood across the corpse and the ritual area. A speck landed on Darren’s lips, and he licked it away. That assured he would not make that mistake again. He had presumed it would taste sweet, given it was just food coloring and corn syrup. However, it was rather bitter and tangy. Apparently the props crew had not been too careful about how it was stored. He hoped they had not mixed anything more toxic into it. It strangely resembled paint, and he had to quickly remind himself that ingesting a drop of paint would not kill him.
Darren read from the book. The words were mostly gibberish to him, but he did his best to form them precisely as the director had instructed. She was visible from the corner of his eyes, mouthing the words with him. He spoke louder, more forcefully as he proceeded, letting the energy of the scene take him over. It was exhilarating; the words moved through him with a renewed vigor, almost as if the play had taken control. He simply knew what had to be done.
Crossing the stage, he grabbed the knife from the preparation table and brought it down forcefully on the chest of the corpse, aiming squarely for the heart. Now, Linda was supposed to weep as nothing happened. It would be later in the night, when they had both left, that Michael would stir.
Only, that was not what happened. The corpse on the stage seemed to let out a gasp, a strand of hair escaping its lips and fluttering through the air. Darren and Jean both froze, caught off guard. But Jean was never one to let a scene die.
“Michael, is that you?” she asked, pressing her head to the chest of the corpse.
Her face grew pale, and even Jean, the real talent on stage, lost her place. The silence stretched on, finally broken from a low groan coming out of the corpse’s lips.
Darren stepped back, eyes wide as the body in front of him regained its flesh. Colored returned to the skin, and it pulled away from the bones. It was almost as if someone were inflating the body, reinstilling life into it. Darren’s mind scrambled for reason. Surely this was a stage trick. But he could not come up with any possible way to create such an illusion.
He could hear the audience gasp, a trickle of applause spreading throughout as they witnessed what was surely a marvelous illusion. Mirrors, they thought. A display screen, perhaps. Maybe a trap door?
Darren saw the director, a look of frenzy and joy in her eyes, grab the rope for the curtains and begin to stretch them across the stage. The body began to move, reaching out toward Jean. She sprung to her feet and raced towards off stage. But the director caught her, arm surging forward with something bright. Jean curled around the woman’s arm with a gasp, almost like a child getting stopped in Red Rover. She hung there for a moment, then collapsed to the stage, unmoving.
“All good things require sacrifice,” said the director with a smile, moving quickly over the stage and kneeling by the now alert body.
“Andrea?” he asked. She nodded and kissed him.
“But how? What did—Why am—“
“Sh,” she whispered, smoothing his hair from his forehead. “You need your strength.”
She moved quickly, too quickly for Darren to really know what had happened. In one moment, he was standing in shock, watching some impossible scene play out in front of him as the audience murmured curiously from behind the curtain. The next, there was blood pouring from his neck as he tried to stop the flow.
He fell to his knees, blood pooling around him. The man on the ground seemed at first shocked, then repulsed. Then intrigued. As the lights faded one last time, Darren saw the once-corpse begin to eagerly lap the blood from the floor, eyes closed in ecstasy.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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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.
Hello! Sorry for the silence. I just started my new (old) job, and I’ve been trying to get all the paperwork and stuff squared away. It’s been a headache and a half, but hopefully all the right forms are to the right people now. I’ve also had a nightmare of a cold recently, so that has not helped me with the whole creative aspect of things.
But, of course, I do come bearing another story. This is the epitome of a first draft, though. As always, the story is below. My critique to myself would be a good concept and interesting start. However, the ending lacks a bit of punch and the pacing may be off. I’m afraid it drags at the beginning and then rushes through the climax. (I also just realized I dislike the tense switch from past to present at the end. It seemed like it worked at the time, but it’s a strategy I’m not usually a fan of. Something else to consider…) So I’d expect some tinkering on this. I’m also toying with the idea of expanding this story into multiple parts. I’ve had a couple of character ideas kicking around for a while, and they might be the perfect way to help the protagonist learn more about the eponymous Bottle Lady and her curse. But I think I need to get part one right before I think about expanding.
I would really appreciate any feedback or advice anyone has. Do you agree with my own critique? Disagree? Think I’m missing a glaring issue? I really enjoy showing the process of writing for me, and I hope you will join me on that journey. Either way, as always, happy reading!
Growing up, I never would have called my mother superstitious. Sure, she had a story and warning for everything, but there was none of the magic hand waving that I associated with tenuous superstitions. No, her beliefs were undeniable fact. The sun rose in the east and set in the west, what goes up must come down, and the Rat King would nibble your toes at night if you failed to rinse your dinner plate. There was no myth to it.
Once I left home, the absurdity of many of these beliefs finally sunk in. It’s not so much that I honestly believed these growing up, but just that I assumed everyone had these stories. Didn’t everyone know the story of the Crooked Old Man who lived in the basement and would creep up the stairs if you failed to shut the door? No, they didn’t. And in hindsight, I’m surprised I didn’t end up more disturbed by these creepy stories.
I grew older and the stories made sense. She was a single mom, living in a city hundreds of miles from her family, doing everything to make a life for three kids. The stories kept us in line. She never believed a one of them either, but they created rules. She did not have to be the bad cop, because her fables were there to fill in the gap. Still, it would have been nice to know not everyone grew up with these stories. I would have worried my college roommate a lot less.
After the power of the stories as real had faded, the behaviors remained, firmly ingrained in my routine. Getting undressed? Take our clothes and put them in the hamper, making sure not to leave your pants or sleeves or socks all bunched up. I completed the action rhythmically thanks to eighteen years of practice, not because I was afraid the trapped skin cells and dirt would give rise to an evil twin. But it’s hard to explain that story to someone and not have them think you’re crazy.
So, I chalked up my mother’s story to superstition and well-intentioned morality stories. Even being grown, she sometimes brought them up when we were at the house, reminding us to use coasters so the witch couldn’t use the ring to peer into our living room. We smiled and complied.
I’m feeling sentimental now, I guess. Like maybe I should write all these stories down before I forget them. Mom died, you see. Last month. It’s still a fresh wound, but she had been so sick for so long…
Still, none of that is the point. The point is that she was not wrong.
I had to dig pretty far back in my memory to remember the first time she spoke about the Bottle Lady. I was very young, and we had just had a screaming match full of all the fury my little body could muster. I don’t remember what I said or why I was upset—being young there are a million possible reasons. But I remember the feeling of my raw throat and flushed cheeks as she sat me on my bed. She was beside me, one hand on my knee and another on my back, soothing. All the details are fuzzy, but I imagine she had that same resigned, loving, irritated look that she seemed to perfect in my teens.
“Mija,” she said. Or maybe I just imagine she said. It’s not important. “Mija, we must never yell things like that, especially not where the wind can take those words away. You never know who might hear.” Older me made sense of this by thinking she must not want to disturb the neighbors with a childish tantrum. And a hefty mix of “don’t air your dirty laundry in the street” thrown in for good measure.
I don’t remember my words, but I recall a stubborn streak emerging. I’d do what I want, because I was old enough to realize I could decide my own actions and affect others. I was a power drunk tyrant of a toddler. Or so she always told me fondly.
“If you do need to yell, make sure to go around and close all the windows. Make sure it’s not too windy outside either. Perhaps you may need to even close the chimney. When you’re rea good and sure no one else can hear you, then you can yell all you want. But you have to take some time to prepare, first.”
Grumbling and obstinance on my part, met with her smile and gentle hand. “You see, the Bottle Lady likes to listen for people who are angry and unhappy. She listens on the wind to hear angry little children. If she hears you, she’ll follow that sound all the way back to you and scoop your little voice right up into one of her bottles. Then you won’t be able to say a thing.”
My mouth agape, staring, wondering. It’s a wonder I did not have nightmares my entire childhood. But she smiled, then leaned down with mock menace. “Of course, then, maybe, I’d get a little peace and quiet!” She was tickling me and I was laughing, the punishment passed. The Bottle Lady was a frequent bogeyman in our home. If I started to yell at my sister, mother would be there to point me to the windows. Once I had checked all the windows and doors, I could come back and say whatever I had on my mind. Of course, most of the anger had burned out by then. Eventually, it simply became another habit. If I began to raise my voice, I’d stomp off to check the doors and windows, returning a couple of minutes later in a much better mindset to speak. And the idea of fighting on the playground or at school—places I could never hope to contain my words—was foreign.
Her superstitions had a purpose. I just never imagined any of them could be true.
I was not in a good place after she died. I mean, I’m still not in a good place, but I’m less the mess I was and more a typical grieving child. Or as typical as grief ever is. I let my good habits slide—dishes piled in the sink, clothes on the floor, the TV blaring at all hours. It was a call from some debt collector that finally broke me. I was in our old house, in the midst of packing up her belongings. They had no way to know she had passed, and God knows she had racked up debt trying to stay alive. That does not make them any less vultures. They wouldn’t listen, and before I knew it, I was screaming into the telephone.
I was not in my right mind, and I could not tell you what I truly said upon penalty of death. The anger and pain just gushed out of me and through the phone. How dare they, I said. Didn’t they know we were grieving (which they couldn’t have, I know)? I was sick and tired of putting up with it all, of looking happy and pulled together. I just wanted to be left alone.
While hanging up would have been sufficient, I flung the phone against the wall. It burst into hunks of cheap plastic, leaving a gash in the drywall I had to later fill. The house had to bear the scars of my immature rage.
I didn’t even think about the Bottle Lady as I stormed around the house, shoving things into boxes ahead of the big sale. My sister was pushing it, despite my requests to slow down. My brother refused to get involved. Who knows what things I muttered in that house. I was angry at myself, angry at the creditors, angry at Mila and Peter, angry at God, angry at my mother. All the while, the curtains flapped in the nice breeze. I’m sure the neighbors thought I was crazy, but then again they probably would have given me the benefit of the doubt.
I slept in my old bedroom that night, staring up at the posters of my teenage heartthrobs, still enshrined there after so many years. Mom had always left our rooms the same, saying the house would always be ours. And it was until Mila decided to liquidate it.
We were also told to never leave the windows open while we slept, lest some bad spirit sneak in and put naughty words in our mouths. I could not remember a time in my life when I had fallen asleep with a window open, but that night was the exception. Grief swarmed me, and I was unconscious only a paragraph into my book chapter.
The wind was truly blowing when I woke up, kicking the gauzy curtains about in a frenzy. They snapped in the wind, which is what I assumed woke me up. It felt and sounded like a storm was brewing up somewhere, so I considered it a lucky break. Doing my best to avoid entangling myself in the curtains, I stumbled over and slammed the window down, then dutifully traced my steps through the house to ensure everything was sealed up tight. The realtor would have my head if I got the “original wood floors” waterlogged with such a careless mistake.
She was standing on the in the hallway as I made my way out of the kitchen. I froze, my eyes quickly trying to parse the strange silhouette. In the dark, all I could see was a dark lump in the center of the hallway, with a large square extending from about four feet to the top of the ceiling. The figure lurched forward, the square dragging along the ceiling with the clink of glass from somewhere. Trying to assign human anatomy to it, I recognized the short, wide leg that stomped forward, followed by a belabored sway forward. From the leg, I was able to pick out a torso and two stubby arms.
She stepped forward again, falling into the limited light from Mila’s bedroom window. I could see her face, round and squashed together. Her lips looked swollen, and her eyes squinted until there was nothing more than a thin shadow marking their location. One her back, strapped haphazardly by two worn leather straps, was some large wooden structure. She carried it along, her back impossibly stooped by the weight of whatever it was. I could hear the glass rattling with each step she took, tinkling in time to the shaking of the wooden behemoth.
She smiled when she saw me, the shifting muscles somehow creating an even more displeasing image. Almost in relief, she sagged towards the ground, slumping her shoulders until the straps released whatever it was on her back. Her posture stayed just as stooped, giving the impression she was nearly walking about on all fours. Still smiling, she turned and tugged on what I quickly recognized as a door on a large cabinet. She carried the thing about with her.
The doors fell open with a long, irritated creak. The hinges appeared to barely hold it together, and they swung, pealing their displeasure with each miniscule movement.
Enraptured as I was by the scene, I turned and fled the moment she turned her back to inspect the contents of the cabinet. The kitchen door led out into the back yard, which connected to the front by a gate. It seemed trivial to escape, especially since the woman was at the wrong end of the hallway to prevent me from fleeing. However, the door was shut tight. I gripped the doorknob tightly and turned with all my might, but it simply spun in my hand.
The basement door was opposite the exit, and there was a way out through there. I turned to sprint down the steps, but she caught me in my tracks. My mind tried to piece together how she could have made it from one end of the hallway to me in the time it took me to check the door, but none of the pieces matched. It was a categorical impossibility. Still, she slowly shuffled between me and the door, her mouth still wide with a smile.
There was a glass bottle in her hand, something made of old, weather-worn blue glass. She lifted it up and shook it at me, the glass catching what little light there was in the kitchen. “Yours?” she said, her voice bursting from her mouth like a moth escaping a musty closet.
She deftly withdrew a cork from the bottle, and I heard my voice. “Don’t you have any decency?” the voice shouted, breaking the stillness in the kitchen.
It continued. “I certainly couldn’t live with myself if I was half as vile as you”
“Go to hell!”
“They just think they can dump everything on me, but they’re in for a rude awakening.”
“Bet they just wish I’d up and die, too. Make it easier on everyone.”
More and more hate poured out of the bottle, and I felt my eyes widen. That was my voice, and the words were all too familiar. I heard myself on the phone, pacing the house, swearing as I threw things into boxes and crunched old newspapers around them. It was a terrifying mimic of my entire afternoon.
The Bottle Lady nodded, placing the cork back in the bottle almost lovingly. Her eyes met mine, cruelty glinting there, as she raised the bottle and brought it crashing down on the floor. Little pieces of blue scattered across the cheap linoleum.
With surprising dexterity and speed, she swept up a handful of the shards and threw them into her gaping mouth. I could hear the crunching, see the trickle of blood snake down her chin. She swallowed and then smiled with newly bloodstained teeth.
“You should have known better,” said my voice from her lips.
She turned and began shuffling her way back out of the kitchen, coattails dragging along behind her and leaving a trail of grime in her wake. My mouth opened. “Who are you and why the fuck are you in my house” was what I intended to say. But there was only silence. My lips flapped open, the air gusted through, but there were no words. They were trapped, buried somewhere deep in my chest.
I sprinted after her, lips forming into the shapes for “Wait!” and “Stop!” to no avail. She was at the end of the hall as I exited the kitchen. I could see into the cabinet now, see dozens if not hundreds of bottles lining the shelves. There were all shapes and colors, some filled and some empty.
With unexpected tenderness, she closed the doors and lifted the straps to her back. I was close enough to touch her, to grab one arm. The flesh beneath was soft, nearly oozing from beneath my fingers. She turned to me, still smiling from a face now painted with blood and spittle, and then was gone with her cabinet.
I yelled and screamed silently sitting there alone in the house. My sister came over around noon the next day and found me in a heap precisely where the Bottle Lady disappeared. There was a trail of dirt and leaves leading form the kitchen to the hallway, which she began complaining about as soon as she entered the house. The words died on her lips when she saw me.
They say its selective mutism brought on due to grief. Selective because my sister, brother, and one rather peeved creditor say I have been calling repeatedly and leaving terrible voicemails. I’ve told my sister I wish she were dead six times, apparently, and have repeatedly told my brother mom never loved him anyways. Of course, I know I haven’t said those things, but my sister did not seem to buy into the Bottle Lady story no matter how quickly I wrote about what happened. And I have not found anyone to confirm it’s not me leaving 3am voicemails for the whole family. I just sound crazy. My psychiatrist agrees.
Worst of all, though, are the things I’ve been saying to me. She whispers in my own voice whenever I’m alone. “You’re worthless,” I say with more vitriol than I’ve ever used in my life. “Mom as the only person who could ever love you, and she died just to get away.” It’s a constant barrage of all my worst thoughts, delivered by the one person I thought I could depend on.
I think she’s angry that I’ve been writing this. Like I’m somehow cheating. The things she says to me, that I hear myself say, have gotten worse and worse. I assume the phone calls to my siblings have, too, but they understandably cut contact with their toxic sister.
I see her now. Hiding around the corner, in the shadows of my closet, three seats behind me on the bus. She just smiles and watches, waiting for me to break.
Like a predator, she separated the weakling from the herd and now has only to circle until I give in to my weakness.
I fear she won’t have much longer to wait.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello! So, this piece was posted on creepypasta.com today. You can check it out on the site here if you’d like to see the ratings, comments, etc. All told, it is a finished piece that I probably will not be returning to, though I did catch one typo when skimming through it this morning (because of course I did). I certainly enjoyed writing this one and hope it gives you a chill down your spine.
If you found me here from the posted story, Welcome to the Attic! Please feel free to look around and tell me what you think. Most recent pieces are on the front page here. If you like my style and want to read more, the Card Challenge Index is a good starting place as it lists 84 stories I wrote over a 90 day period, including genres and descriptions. You can also find my favorites and the most popular ones from the series there. I like to think there is something for everyone buried in there, but you’ll have to let me know.
As always, I’m here to write and enjoy myself. I also provide beta-reading and collaboration opportunities, which you can find more about on the Editing and Collaboration page.
New or old, I hope you enjoy this story. As always, Happy reading!
Marjorie had been lingering outside the nondescript metal door for nearly two hours, appearing to study the door and the faded sign above it. The Deli, it read in dusty script. Her coat was wrapped as tightly around her as the fraying fabric allowed, but still the winter air dug through it. The cold was not enough, however, to drive her out of the elements and through the door. Once or twice she approached it, hand shaking as it neared the handle, only to draw back at the last second as if the handle were a snake.
It should have been easier to enter the door the longer she waited, but it seemed to only grow immeasurably more difficult. It did not help that in her entire time waiting no one had entered or left the building. Had someone sallied up, opened the door, and safely entered into a cloud of inviting warmth, it may have lured her in. Similarly, the safe exit of any sort of person would have given her the assurance that one could brave whatever lay beyond. But the road was empty, and the door sat unmoving.
A particularly sharp gust of wind whistled down the abandoned alley, tugging at her coat and sending her tangled hair into a maelstrom. Her eyes watered at the cold, and she inched closer to the wall, hoping it would afford some protection. It was silly, she chided herself, spending all this time out in the elements. This was what had to be done. She was out of options, and her only hope lay beyond that door.
Yet Marjorie wondered if perhaps it was better to be hopeless than pay whatever price this hope would cost.
The streetlight flickered on overhead. Soon it would be dark, and then she would have to make a decision or risk staying on the unsafe streets at night. Being here in the middle of the day was dangerous enough—she would not be caught outside after dark.
That was the final shove she needed to overcome her inertia. With sudden resolve, she gripped the door handle. It flew open in her hands almost reflexively, for which she was glad. The metal was bitterly cold, seeming almost to burn her with its chill. Had the door not stood open, she would have again released it and likely vanished back to her home.
Inside was a nondescript, concrete hallway. A lonely yellow light filled the inside, leading to another door. This door was made of a dark wood and had a heavy brass knocker affixed to the middle. Marjorie’s steps echoed in the concrete chamber, coming to a sudden stop when the metal door groaned to a loud close. The weak, evening light was now gone, leaving her alone with only the single bulb. She had not realized how comforting it was to have that little bit of the outside world with her. With the door closed, even the distant sounds of traffic were cut-off.
Panic wrapped its claws around her throat. She felt her chest tighten with its serpentine grip; her heart thundered against her ribs. In that moment, instincts took over and she reverted to her most primitive response. Flee.
The echoes of her steps were a maddening flurry around her as she sprinted the fifteen feet back to the metal door. Her hands scrambled for purchase on the handle, only to find nothing but smooth metal. No handle on this side. The thunder of thousands of years of evolution continued to push her towards flight, and her fingers clawed around the metal door frame, hoping to find some crevice to pry open the door. Only there was again nothing. In the dim light afforded by the bulb, she could not make out a single seam. It was almost as if the door had sealed as soon as she entered. Her breaths now came in ragged gasps that did little to help her or calm her. Instead, the world seemed to swim before her. A mocking door, concrete walls. It was almost as if the walls were inching closer, activated on some cruel timer to pin her here forever.
All that she could hear was the flood of blood pulsing through her veins, the rapid fluttering of her heart frantically trying to escape, and the jarring sound of air ripping from her lungs before being shoved back inside. The walls acted as an echo chamber, reflecting her own terrified symphony back at her.
Deep breaths, she reminded herself. Just like those nights spent in the closet, deep breaths. She had to slow herself down if she was going to survive this. Slowing her breathing to a measured pace was akin to stopping a car with no brakes. She felt her lungs fight against the control, trying to maintain their breakneck pace despite her insistence. Over time, however, she won out. The breaths were shaky, but calm, and her heart took its cue to return to its typical state of frenzy. The walls returned to their assigned places and stopped their dizzying journey.
Carefully, Marjorie ran her hands along the wall where the door stood, confirming that there was no seam that she could grip. It was a well-constructed door; there was not even a glimmer of dying afternoon light slipping through the bottom. If she could not back out now, she must go forward.
The hallway was not long, but she felt like a member of a funeral procession as she somberly made her way towards the door. Up close, she could see twisting, abstract shapes carved all over the door. They meant nothing to her, but she felt her breaths begin to hiccup again in her chest. Deep breaths, she repeated her only mantra.
Her hand was shaking as she placed it on the brass knocker. Unlike the door handle, this one was pleasantly warm to the touch. Inviting, almost. With a groan of rusted metal, she lifted it and rapped it quickly against the door. One, two, three. The door began to swing smoothly on its hinges after the third knock, opening onto a room filled with the murmur of quieted voices and wisps of strange smelling smoke. She stepped gingerly inside, feeling immediately out of place.
There were tables and booths scattered around the room. Marjorie did her best not to make eye contact or even look at them, keeping her eyes trained to the worn wood floor. She heard a few snickers, saw a couple hands point her out from their shadowy seats. Even as the large frames filled her periphery, she walked steadfastly towards the counter at the far end of the room.
Everyone in the room recognized immediately how out of place she was. While they were each bedecked in protective charms and talismans—some hanging from their necks, others etched into the scar tissue of their bodies—all she had was the flimsy barrier of her coat, still pulled tight around her against the now suffocating heat of the small room. She waked gingerly across the creaking floorboards, barely daring to breathe. They grinned and watched.
Marjorie approached the counter and lifted her eyes to see the attendant slouched on a stool behind the domed glass structure. Halfway to his face, her eyes froze on the contents of the display case. She assumed the rotted lumps inside had once been some sort of meat, though they were now covered in flies and maggots. Pooled, congealed blood covered the bottom surface, even seeping out and down to the floor. She followed the trail to see the red-stained, warped wood along the floor boards. Mouth agape and eyes wide, she was certain she saw a few eyeballs and fingers mixed in amongst the decay, but she tried to put it out of her mind.
“Want to try a sample?” came the mocking, gravelly voice of the attendant as he pulled open the door to the case. Immediately, a wave of putrescence poured out and enveloped Marjorie. She did her best to escape it, stumbling backwards and tripping over a warped floorboard. There was a low chuckle from those gathered around her, growing more and more quickly into a round of bawdy laughter.
She gagged, her stomach trying to force up the breakfast and lunch she had not eaten. It burned her eyes, starting them watering again. Her stomach having only been successful in ejecting a small amount of water she had nervously sipped at outside, her lungs took to coughing. Anything to get that stench away from her and out of her body.
There was the sound of a lock snapping into place as the attendant continued to laugh. She studied him briefly from her place on the floor behind watery eyes. He was filthy, covered in a layer of grime that made it impossible to tell his age. A tangled mess of dirt and wispy hair sat atop his head, falling into his beady eyes as he rocked back and forth with laughter at her predicament. His hands—stained and caked with muck—gripped the counter as long, yellowed nails scraped across the glass in time to his chuckling.
Marjorie did her best to pull herself together, rising from the floor and straightening her clothes as if that would restore her dignity. The smell had faded, now only a slight whiff of decay rather than the malodorous assault. That or her nose could no longer register the scent having burned out that sense for good. She threw her head back, eyes meeting the dark, glassy eyes of the man behind the counter.
“I’m here to speak with the owner,” she said in what she hoped was a confident voice. It did not help that it trembled and broke as she spoke. But at her words, a begrudging silence spread through the room.
The attendant snorted, a thick mucusy sound. For a moment she was afraid he was preparing to spit on her. Instead, he jerked one dirty finger to a paper ticket dispenser. “Take a number, then.”
With that, the attention on her seemed to fade. The low, grumble of conversation returned and she heard chairs scraping across the wood as the denizen’s returned to their intrigue. She walked over and gripped the dusty piece of paper delicately, as if afraid it might crumble to dust in her fingers. Perhaps this was another trick. Instead, the machine groaned and dispensed with a tiny slip. Number 43. She looked around for some sign that told her where she was. She had not seen anyone enter or leave today, so perhaps the line was long. But there was no such indicator.
“Excuse me,” she cautiously questioned the attendant, “how do I know what number is up?”
One eye turned to face her, the other stared out over the bar. “Take a seat and you’ll be called.” His eye flicked back to whatever it was between the counter and door that so raptly held his attention.
Marjorie gingerly picked her way over to an unoccupied table, acutely aware that her back was exposed to whatever kind of people liked to congregate in a place like this. She was certain that she could feel each individual eye raking over her back, sense spider-like appendages trace up and down her spine. Her hands were balled into knots, resting bloodlessly on her lap.
The minutes trickled by, marked only by the rise and fall of bawdy laughter. Marjorie kept her eyes focused on the table in front of her, trying to pick out patterns and shapes in the wooden surface. Trying to keep her mind from wandering too far from the task at hand. Somehow she knew that she could snap if forced to take in the reality of where she was and what she was doing. Instead, she focused on the next step. Meeting the owner and making her request.
The crack of a metal mug slamming onto the wooden table brought her eyes up, open wide like an animal caught in a snare. A woman stood across from her, tall and broad-shouldered. She had one bright green eye that studied Marjorie up and down. In place of her other eyes was a nasty incision, weeping a slight bit of pus, that bulged with dark stitches. Without being invited, the woman settled into the seat across from Marjorie.
“Me oh my, you don’t belong here, pretty thing,” she said in a hushed tone. Her eye was hungry. Marjorie sat silent as the woman studied her with a slight smile on her dry, swollen lips. “No, you aren’t meant to be here at all. What brings a little bird like you into a place like this?”
Marjorie focused her eyes back on the table. There was nothing she could say here that would keep her safe, and she knew that. She just needed to meet with the owner and make her request.
“A quiet one. Not going to sing for Lucy, eh? Come now, tell me what you need and I can help you get out of this place.” Marjorie’s silence prevailed. “We both know this is not a safe place for the likes of you. I’ve got a soft-spot for women, knowing how hard it is to be among this rabble myself. Just let me help you, dearie.”
Almost unbidden, Marjorie’s eyes lifted from the table and met the woman’s unnatural green one. It was beautiful, truly, even if it was nested within a hideous face. The green reminded Marjorie of the view from her bedroom window as a child on Easter morning. There was a small tree that grew just outside that always seemed to be absolutely covered in new leafs that shone with that bright, spring green. That was the color of the eyes. And it shone and sparkled like sunlight reflecting off water.
“There now, I’m sure we can work something out. I just know I can help you with whatever you need.” Lucy’s voice was a soft singsong, not the harsh growl of a dedicated chain smoker like before. “I even make sure my prices are fair, especially for a fair young thing like yourself.” Marjorie felt a hand on her knee, gently stroking. “Them pretty eyes of yours—they look like they’ve seen a world of heartache, eh? I could take care of those for you. You’d like that, yes?”
Eye fixated, Marjorie felt her head begin to bob slightly. To not see the horrors she had in her time, well, that would be nice.
“I see you like the idea,” Lucy’s face cracked open into a wide grin. “I thought you might. I’m good as seeing what people really need from me. I just need you to say it. Say you’ll give me those awful eyes of yours, and I’ll make sure you never have to see something so terrible again.”
Marjorie’s mouth opened, the very words on her lips, when a strong hand settled onto her shoulder. It smelled of leather and blood and gripped her shoulder hard enough to break the trance.
“Not going to let you have all the fun, Ol’ Luce. It’s not every day we get something so lovely in this dingy place.”
Marjorie felt dizzy and confused, as if time were moving at double again its normal pace. Her mind was slow in catching up to what was happening—what had almost happened—leaving her feeling as if she were lagging behind the rest of the world. Now Lucy was standing, measuring up to a formidable height, with anger in that lone green eye.
“I’ll not have you meddling, Thomas. She and I were nearly to a deal.”
“A deal you tricked her into, no less. Where’s the fun in that? Just weave your little spell, and she’ll say whatever you want. You’ve gone soft, Luce. I need to make you work for it.” His voice was soft, but firm. It seemed to cut through the background din like a razor, until it was the only thing she could hear. As Marjorie’s mind caught up with what had just nearly happened, she felt her heart begin to race. And then there was the hand on her shoulder, the firm grip beginning to hurt with its intensity.
The man bent over her shoulder, smiling. A long, black beard tickled against the skin of her neck, and she could smell the whiskey on his breath. “I’m afraid we have not been introduced, and I’ve already gone and saved your life. It’s a bad habit, I admit. My name is Thomas.” He extended his other hand towards her, the one on her shoulder growing tighter as she refused to shake. “Oh, we must be polite in an uncivil place as this, yes? What’s your name?”
Marjorie whimpered at the pain in her shoulder but fixed her eyes back on the table. She had to talk to the owner. She had to make her request.
“Back off and let her be, Thomas. I saw her; I made the first move. There’ll be others for you,” barked Lucy’s voice.
“Yes, but you didn’t close on the sale, now did you?” His eyes flicked away from Marjorie for just a moment, fixing Lucy with a cold gaze before returning with more warmth to Marjorie’s face. “You’ll find I’m much more direct. No need for silly games.” The hand moved smoothly from her shoulder, along the back of her neck. Suddenly, his fingers were wrapped through her hair, yanking her head back and exposing her throat. She felt something cold and sharp there, and barely dare to breathe. His smiling face leaned over hers, “How many years would you give me to keep this pretty little neck of yours attached?”
Marjorie heard a short laugh to her right, saw a slender man standing to the side. He stood just within her periphery, far enough back that she could only make out the vague shape of him. “Thomas, do be careful. There is plenty of her to go around if we just act with a little tact. I bet you could make some even better deals if you thought this through.”
“Oh no, you aren’t going to trip me up with that again. You swindled me out of everything last time.”
“You are right, it was a bit of a dirty trick. But surely you and Luce could work out some sort of a deal. You don’t need her eyes after all.”
Marjorie noticed the shadow of Luce appeared to turn and nod towards the man to the side, and she heard a very soft chuckle from him.
Thomas’ hands gripped her hair even more tightly. “You’re just mad that I got to her first, and this time I’m cutting you out!”
“Well, fine, but I fear it’s not just me you’ll be fighting against, Tom. A lot of us would like a piece of her.”
Thomas leaned back down by her ear, his words coming in a whispered frenzy. “Well, dear, looks like they’ll be taking you piece by piece. What do you say then? Give Ol’ Thomas whatever years you’ve got left? At least they’ll go to some sort of use, yeah?”
Marjorie heard grumbling in the room, the sound of chairs scraping along the wood, and a chorus of various metals meeting metal. There was a new tension in the uncomfortably warm room, a weight that pressed down all around her.
“Come on, times ticking, do we have a deal? You look like an altruistic soul. Help me out.” Footsteps coming close, a few short barks of anger. The intensity increased in his voice and he shook her head sharply. “They’ll cut out your tongue soon, so you best tell me now!”
Marjorie felt tears falling down her cheeks, a steady stream now pouring from her eyes. She had to speak to the owner. She had to make her request. Only she was not so sure she’d even get that chance.
Someone grabbed Thomas and the knife nicked her, drawing a thin line of blood far less lethal than it could have been. Marjorie dove under the table, trying to evade the arms that grabbed at her. There was the smell of blood in the room, and all the inhabitants had been suitably whipped into a frenzy. She was the lone fish drifting amongst the sharks.
A mug struck her temple, thick hands gripped and tugged at her arms, leaving angry red bruises that began to darken almost instantly. The rough floor scraped along her knees and arms as she crawled, filling her skin with tiny needling splinters. As she scrambled, kicked, and bit at any appendage that came her way, she noticed the tempo of the fray beginning to increase. No longer was she the main prize, but the fighters had turned on one another, vying for the chance to claim this lovely reward. They knew, of course, that she had nowhere to run. Finally, she found a corner to hide in, burying her head in her arms and trying to drown out the sound of the chaos around here. She needed to speak to the owner.
After what felt like hours of combat, the sounds of an opening door cut through the din. A sudden silence filled the room, minus the groaning of the incapacitated, and Marjorie began to sob. This was it. A victor had been named, and she was now the trophy to be parceled as he or she saw fit. She could not even lift her eyes to see which of the horrors in the room she would be left with.
However, something else broke the silence. “Number 43?” asked the calm voice of a young girl. Marjorie dared to barely lift her head, seeing the tiny figure standing in a doorway that had not existed moments before.
She scrambled to her feet, holding aloft the ticket she had somehow held onto during the fray. None of the remaining combatants—the war had obviously not been won quite yet—dared to touch her as she walked forward, towards the child in the doorway. Still, she shuddered and spooked as they milled about in the shadows. The girl motioned into the bright rectangle cut into the formerly intact wall, and Marjorie walked forward.
The door closed behind her, a parlor trick she was now used to. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust from the gloom of the waiting room to the warm light of this new area. It was a well-furnished office, completed with a large wooden desk and an assortment of alluring leather chairs. The scent of cedar mixed with the smell of the crackling fireplace in a way that reminded Marjorie of weekend trips to her grandad’s cabin. Silently, the young girl stepped against the wall behind Marjorie, next to what had been the doorway, but now was nothing more than another section of oak paneling.
The man behind the desk did not look up at first. He was busy tallying and writing in a thick ledger, seemingly uninterested in the bruised and bloody woman before him. After a few moments, he looked up with a friendly smile and closed the book firmly.
“Marjorie, pleasure to meet you finally. I see you got the traditional welcome from our guests? And not a one of them was able to make a deal with you! You must be made of some tough stuff.”
She nodded mutely, uncertain now of how to proceed. He simply smiled at her and gave her the time she needed to study him. His teeth were bright white—the only clean thing she had seen since entering the deli. His eyes were as dark as his teeth were white, but they appeared to be friendly. As he waited for her to speak, he knitted his fingers together in front of him, rolling his shoulder to straighten out the drape of his crisp suit coat. Every bit of him seemed to be polished and neat—a stark contrast to the room before.
“Are you the Devil?” she finally managed to squeak out, eyes wide.
He laughed, throwing his head back and letting the sound ripple around the room. It was a friendly, amused sound that put her at ease. “Oh no, nothing so boring as that.”
“But you can give people whatever they want.”
He composed himself, that same broad smile still on his face. “Well, of course I can. But there is much more to this world than your simple understanding of gods and devils. Don’t worry, Marjorie, this is no deal with the Devil. But do tell me, what is it you want?”
“I—I came here to—“ The words would not come. She had thought and thought about how she would tell her story, how she would describe the years of abuse, threats, and evil. She considered taking off her coat and showing him the pale yellow stains of old bruises, but they were now marred by fresh ones from the fray. She felt for the death certificate in her pocket, the name of her first son written on it. And now the words would not come.
He watched patiently, no hint of irritation at her pause. When she began to sob, he offered her the handkerchief from his front pocket.
“He told everyone I was drunk. That was how I fell down the stairs. That was why Mikey died.” The tears were coming more in earnest now, and she dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. “They all looked at me like a terrible mother, that I would be drinking while pregnant. They blamed me—if I had been sober, I wouldn’t have fallen and Mikey would have at least had a chance. No one believed me.”
“I don’t bring people back from the dead, Marjorie. Even I don’t meddle in things like that,” his voice was soft, almost as if moved by her tearful story.
She took that moment to compose herself, sniffing and wiping away the tears. “I know. That’s not why I’m here. I want you to kill my husband.” The words were out, blunt and dirty, before she realized what she was saying. This was not how the discussion was supposed to have gone.
His face brightened. “Oh, is that all you need? Well, that should be a relatively easy matter”
“You don’t understand. He’s a monster. It won’t be easy to kill him, but you have to. You have to kill him, because he’s a very bad person.”
“Marjorie, I don’t care who he is. He could be Hitler or the Pope reincarnate. All I care about is that you want him dead. And I can make that happen, no matter how ‘monstrous’ he might be.” He reached over and pulled an ornate ink pen from his desk. “I will need some details, like his name, address, distinguishing physical features. Also, would you like proof of death?”
Marjorie’s stomach churned at the thought of what she was doing. It was the only way, though. He had to pay for his crimes, and no one else was willing to do it. “No, I won’t need that. Everyone says you follow through on your deals.”
“Word of mouth is certainly the best advertisement for services such as mine,” he smiled that disarming smile again.
“Um, well, his name is David Bergen and his address is 1394 Windhaven Rd, Apt 1722. It’s in Topeka.” He continued writing and nodding. “He’s about six foot tall, a big bulky guy. Blond hair, brown eyes. He has some sort of tribal tattoo on the back of his neck, one of a skull on his right bicep. Is that enough?”
“Oh, that’s lovely. A wonderful description. I’ll dispatch someone right away,” he said, nodding to the small girl. Marjorie heard the door swing open behind her, then close quietly. “But, now that your terms are set, let us discuss what I shall get in return. A few rules. I don’t trade in souls—it is simply too much of a hassle to deal with, and the return is rather poor. I also don’t accept first born children,” at this, he nodded his head towards the spot the girl had been moment before. “I’ve done it once, but I’ve found children are not particularly useful.” There was a sudden cruel glint to his smile, “Besides, someone has already taken yours.”
Marjorie was silent, her fingers worrying over the hem of her jacket as if that would provide some solace in this moment. Her heart was pounding again, and she wondered if perhaps she was going to suffocate here in this office. The scents and furnishing that had seemed so lavish now felt oppressive. “But I can give you anything else, right?”
He paused to consider her comments. “I reserve the right to refuse any substandard trade. I won’t, for instance, take your pocket lint.” He chuckled appreciatively at his own joke. “But I accept most fair trades.” His demeanor turned more serious, perhaps even taking on a sinister air. He leaned forward over the desk, shadows growing across his face as he did so. “Think carefully now about what you’ll give me for this. Whatever you decide, you will think it is something you would never want back no matter how long you live. But once it’s gone, you’ll find you cannot live without it. You’ll yearn for it. You’ll do anything to replace it. You’ll take it. But it will never be enough, will always be shrouded in the filth of something borrowed. So make a wise choice, but know there is no wisdom that will save you. What will you give me?”
She thought long and hard, but she had spent days thinking about it already. She was almost certain she had thought of something that in no way could harm her, no matter what. In fact, she reminded herself, it would be a relief. She would be strong and brave then, not the timid girl that had entered. “My pain,” she finally answered.
He smiled eagerly, a response that made her suddenly uncertain. “Oh, yes, we have a deal! Pain is one of my favorites. And don’t come back here saying I didn’t warn you.” With that he clamped her hand in his and shook once. Marjorie felt as his grip began as an excruciating vice, then dwindled until she could barely even notice it. The aches and pains of her various cuts and bruises also dimmed before disappearing altogether.
As promised, with it gone, she also felt that absence acutely. It was a kind of nostalgia now, a prickling sense of something missing and a longing to return. This wasn’t so bad, she thought. Uncomfortable, certainly, but it must have been the right choice.
He still smiled. “You think it’s going to be easy. But that’s just the first taste. Give it time.”
“But,” there was a crackle in her voice. Sacrificing pain did not remove fear. “I can take away others’ pain now, right?”
His eyes simmered with glee, as if her altruism was a delicious appetizer. “Of course, my dear. And you most certainly will. Again and again, you’ll valiantly step in and take every ache from their bodies, dry the tears from their eyes. And someday that won’t be enough. You’ll hunger for more. So you’ll give them a little pain, only to take it away. Until that isn’t enough either. I told you, it will never be enough. You can try to drown yourself in the pain and agony of millions and never be satisfied.” His grin finally split into a restrained laugh, and he quickly reassembled his face into a look of mild amusement. The excitement glimmered in his eyes.
Lost in his eyes, in the long future stretching before her, in the half-perceived glimpse of the monster she would become, Marjorie barely noticed as the room faded from around her. The last thing to disappear were his eyes, and she blinked. She felt dazed, as if waking from a dream, as she stood the sidewalk and in the light of early dawn. Impossibly, she was standing in front of a nondescript brick building on the other side of town.
“Remember,” she heard his voice on the breeze, “the Deli is always open. I’m guessing you’ll have a table all your own soon enough.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
So, I’ve got a few things in the works, including one kind of neat project I had hoped to post this week. But, it is (as always) taking longer than I anticipated. So, it should be coming along before too long. In the meantime, I wanted to write something shorter. I’ve been writing really long things recently, which is good, but it can be a crutch for me. So here is something shorter to try and tell a story well, but briefly. As always, first draft. Let me know your thoughts!
It was a fool’s errand to be out in the cold, but Dana felt she had no other choice. The car was stopped and getting colder by the second, her phone did not work, and she was sure she had seen a town just a few miles back. So a walk in this weather, bundled as she was, shouldn’t be a problem. Only it was quickly becoming one.
Her mittens were more than adequate for the usual walk from her car, down the couple of blocks to work, and into the aggressively heated building. But the fabric was soaked after one or two unfortunate tumbles into the snow, and her fingers were chilled to the bone. They had passed the point of obnoxious ache and entered into an almost pleasant numbness. Her feet, in contrast, pounded with the ache of walking and increasing cold. The beaten up pair of boots she dutifully dragged with her did an admirable job protecting her, but with drifts above her knees, snow was quickly slipping in and turning her socks into soggy, icy cages.
Dana blinked and felt her eyelashes stick to one another for a moment. Her scarf was wrapped tight around her mouth, nose, and ears, leaving a humid and increasingly odorous environment as she stomped along. The town had to be close. She imagined a warm cup of hot chocolate in her hands, enlivening her numb fingers once again. The image was real enough that she could almost taste the rich chocolate favor. But then reality intruded yet again.
The wind howled around her, muted by her dutiful scarf, but it ripped and tore across the ground. Occasionally, a tree branch would sway and dump a generous serving of snow onto her stockinged head. She tried to block out the sound of creaking branches, her nerves already on edge.
And then there was something different. This was not the random groan of branches, nor was it the constant rumble of the wind snapping through the trees and kicking up clouds of snow. No, this was a strange, rhythmic sound. It was the sound of footsteps crunching through the snow, breaking through the icy top layer and sinking into the soft drifts below. They mimicked Dana’s own steps, but slower. Whoever was out here with her was clearly not in the hurry she was.
Which meant, she reasoned, that they must know where they are and be close to shelter. It could be her saving grace.
She pulled the scarf from her mouth, looking around in hopes of catching sight of her companion between the trees. The steps sounded close. “Hello? I’m lost.”
She listened, but the steps continued on, just as slow and steady as before. She looked, but everything was the same palette of grey, white, and green pine needles. She glanced behind her, down the arc of snowy asphalt stretching behind her. It would be easy to see someone walking along the side of the road—part of the reason she had chosen her path—but whoever was out here remained hidden.
Dana peered into the branches on the other side of the road. The weak sunlight was quickly fading, and she could not make out much more than a mass of shadows.
“Hello?” she tried again. “My car broke down and I need to get to town,” she offered, hoping it might convince the stranger that she was no threat.
The steps paused, and she was almost angry at the sudden silence. Now she did not even have the sound cues to help her find the person she was now sure would be her savior. But, she reminded herself, it meant they may have heard her.
“Do you know of anywhere I can go to get warmed up?”
Slow, steady steps resumed, now at a slightly quicker pace. She continued to scan the trees, hoping to see her rescuer. There was a flurry of movement to her left, and she spun quickly. Something was moving between the trees, but it blended with the grey and white all around her. Whoever it was, they were large, knocking aside tall branches and leaving them swaying. Was it a hunter wearing some sort of snow camo? She tried to estimate the height from the branches, but the answer kept coming back impossible. Her eyes promised the branches were at least 10 feet high, but she knew that was impossible.
Looking through the increasing shadows, she tried to discern the outline coming towards her. The steps were quicker now, increasing as it moved. But try as she might, it continued to deflect, the light diffusing across the white snow and white clothing of whatever hurtled towards her. And then it was closer, free from the maze of grey branches and tree trunks.
And it was not a person, Dana realized quickly. It walked on two legs, but towered beneath the canopy. Its face was of some indistinguishable animal. A flattened snout, low angled ears, dark eyes, and rows of teeth. It watched her closely, sniffing the air.
“Elo?” it mimicked, tilting its head to the side and staring at her. “Elo,” it said again.
Dana wondered for an instant if her brief pause had been enough to freeze her boots to the ground, but then life returned to them. She was able to ignore the pain and she ran down the roadway, trying to put distance between her and whatever creature she had disturbed.
Now she could hear its steps crashing behind her, covering the icy ground in broad, gangly bounds. It spoke with a mishmash of her words, coming out half-spoken.
“Car own. I go arm lost.”
And then there was ice swelling up to meet Dana. Her feet had betrayed her, flying back behind her as she plummeted to the ground. She heard those words echoing in the darkness as the smell of musk and decay overtook her.
Dana woke up warm. There was a blanket covering her body, soft and scratchy all at once. She pushed herself deeper into it, reveling in the encompassing warmth. There was the smell of smoke and the crackle of a fire in the air. Her mind slowly put the pieces together and informed her that she had no idea where she might be, wrapped in a blanket in front of a fire. With that, her eyes flew open.
It was a cave, lit only by the glow of the fire in the middle of the room. There was a smattering of bones, camping equipment, and branches littering the floor. Dana’s boots sat to the side, just beyond the fire but close enough to dry.
And then there was the hulking behemoth, sitting on its haunches and looking into the fire. It made a few muffled noises, half grunts, and adjusted its position. Then, in what seemed to be slow motion, it turned to look at Dana. There was recognition—perhaps excitement—in its eyes as it noticed she had awoken. With shuffling steps, it moved over to her. Dana tried to escape, but there was nowhere to go. Behind her was a stone wall and in front of her a monster. Her arms and legs tangled in the pelt thrown over her, further impeding her hopes of escape. And then it was beside her, its large paw reaching towards her face with outstretched claws. She screamed.
It softly touched her cheek, the rough skin of its hand running across her cheek. It opened its mouth in what almost resembled a smile, tongue lolling out like a pleased dog. The scream faltered as confusion took over.
“What are you?” she asked, eyes locked onto its large face.
“Warm,” it said, gesturing broadly to the fire roaring.
“You brought me here to get warm?”
It did not provide a response, but moved over to the fireside, settling down into a crouch and watching her. When she did not move, it gave a quick hop and slapped the ground with one massive hand. Dana slid forward slowly, feeling the increasing heat as she inched her way along the floor. Once beside the creature, it turned back to the fire, watching it as if hypnotized. Dana herself watched the fire, noticing the way the tongues of flame licked at the wood and danced wildly. The shadows skirted around the room, creating monstrous hallucinations from clumps of rock and hair. She tried not to look at the bones.
And exhaustion took over, her eyes growing heavy. She fell asleep leaning against one firm, furry arm.
“We’ve got her here!”
Someone was yelling and Dana was slowing waking up. There was a commotion, the sound of someone crashing through snow and branches. And then a police officer was in front of her, reaching down and checking her pulse.
“What are you—“ She felt dazed and confused, half awake and uncertain how she came to be there.
“Dana Morrison? Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. Where am I?”
“Are you injured?” he asked, visually scanning her and she pushed herself off the frozen ground and into a seated position.
“I don’t—I don’t think so.”
He clicked his radio. “Paramedics to my position. We need to get her out of here.”
The next few moments were a flurry of activity. He kept asking questions, providing only brief answers. She had been missing for almost two days. They had found her car down the road. It was a miracle she was alive.
The paramedics arrived and checked her briefly before loading her up for a trip to the hospital. But as they strapped her into the gurney, one approached her.
“This blanket probably saved your life. No sense leaving it behind,” she smiled, smoothing the fabric over Dana’s legs. Dana glanced down to see a rough pelt draped over her legs. She tried not to think about the impossible familiarity, because she knew that cave couldn’t exist. It had to be a hallucination brought on by hypothermia.
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.
Hello! I’m getting settled into my new job, which has been great. The biggest adjustment recently has been not having constant stress from grad school. While still a student, I put 800 miles between my professors and me. So, I’m trying to get back to writing more regularly. I have a couple things in the pipe, and I’m also getting caught up on my editing backlog (so if you’re waiting on something…you should be hearing something soon!). With no further ado, here’s something I put together over the past couple of days. Just a brief something, but definitely the first draft. The ending needs some work. As always, let me know your thoughts! Happy reading!
Tap. Tap. Tappeta tappeta tap. Tap.
Her nails drummed along the steering wheel as she gazed out over the long line of cars wending along the road. No one was going anywhere fast, and it was getting old. Her stomach growled, a reminder that she had eaten an early and light lunch against her better judgment. Candace scowled at herself in her rearview mirror, and caught a glimpse of the long tail of traffic snaking out behind her. What a day.
The office had been busy—hence the early lunch when she caught a momentary break in her schedule. For a while, she felt like all she was doing was typing, clicking, printing, and sprinting from one end of the floor to the other to make sure everyone got what they needed before the month-end deadline. Then there were the meetings, stretching out longer than they needed with constant inane questions. Steve—from accounting, working from home today, hahaha, yeah isn’t he lucky—clearly was ignoring most of the conversation. He never asked a single thing they had not covered only minutes before. And she could hear the sounds of a video game pause screen in the brief moments he took his phone off mute to ask another redundant question. Somehow, finally the clock had crept its way across the face, landing on five o’clock, and freeing her to rush into this traffic nightmare.
She wasn’t even moving. A flash of tail lights ahead meant everyone was switching into park, and she did her part as well. There was a sudden weight to her car, leaving her to wonder if it would find the energy to get up and move when the time came. It seemed just as tired as she did.
The radio droned on, surprisingly neglecting the traffic report. Candace wondered why she wanted to hear the report so badly. It was not like it would somehow make the traffic dissolve or as if she could solve the problem. But somehow she needed that confirmation that, yes, this traffic was real and ruining the Friday afternoons of so many others.
She craned her neck as far as she could, eventually rolling down the window to gain a few more inches of vision. All that she could see was row after row of cars, vibrating slowly with the rumble of their engines. The air outside was heavy and hot, and she felt a prickle of sweat begin after only a few seconds of exposure. That was enough to force her retreat back into the hissing air conditioning. Maybe that was the problem. It was so hot out there, the road had simply melted.
A silly idea, yes, but one that felt somehow right. She needed to get home, get a glass of wine, and forget who she was for a weekend. And Mother Nature would certainly forbid it. The depth of her dire narcissism was not lost on her, and a grim smile denoted her understanding. Somehow, that little bit of morbidity made it better.
Worse, however, was the buzz in the radio. Every few words were cut off by a burst of static, the cheery voice fading in and out of coherence. “Summer time is…in the great….water park for….know that here kids eat…one for fam…” She took out some irritation on the dial, jabbing it off sharply. The intermittent radio was worse than silence.
Usually conscientious, she now withdrew her cell phone. Her car was parked, so there could be no accusations of texting and driving. But, to her great dismay, the red line of her battery meant that the diversion was to be short lived. Better to save the charge, she thought, in case there was a detour. She’d need the map, then. With a sigh, she turned the phone off to save what little there was left, and her eyes glazed over out the yawning window before her. Could this day get any worse?
Her mind was wandering far afield when a flurry of movement on the far horizon caught her attention. She sat upright in her seat, her head craning and weaving to see something, some sign of hope. But the SUV in front of her made sure to block all the best views. Unbuckling her seatbelt, she threw open the door and leaned out, mimicking the other drivers around her. At least she knew the others were just as bored. There was a curve up ahead, only visible by straining far and squinting against the bright sunlight, that offered a few images of empty pavement. Finally, she could see some part of the road up ahead, and it was open. It seemed whatever had happened was moved, and now the road was clear.
A new smile on her face, Candace settled back into her seat and moved the gears into drive. Like a wave, she watched heads pop out and then dive back into cars as the parking lights faded before her. Home was only a short jaunt away now!
Then, however, she paused. She looked at the cars far ahead of her and noticed that they were not necessarily speeding off into the distance. Instead, something shadowy and smoky seemed to weave around them. A car fire? Maybe someone else had an accident waiting in this impossible traffic. That happened, right? And now they had a car fire. Her hopes flagged.
She’d be lucky to be home by nine at this rate, she thought glumly.
If it was a car fire, did she need to leave her car? Was there a protocol for being trapped behind a burning car? It seemed dangerous, but those around her sat. She saw one woman dialing on her phone, gesturing ahead. Probably calling 911, Candace thought, and cramming the switchboards with her perspective on the matter. Not like dozens of people up ahead had not already done the same. She checked her mirrors, expecting to see a red firetruck come hurtling down the shoulder at any minute, but it was surprisingly quiet.
The smoke continued to wind its way backwards, but Candace saw no fire. It was to be expected that the smoke would drift back this way, especially as still as the air was. There was not a hint of a breeze in the air, or at least there wasn’t the last time she stretched her neck out the window. Now, she rolled her windows up tight to prevent accidental smoke inhalation. That was one great way to make her day even worse.
Candace studied the bumper stickers and license plates in front of her for the dozenth time. Should she need, she was certain she could describe each car exactly to an officer in some fictitious traffic scenario. She imagined her neighbor losing it and gunning his car into gear, flying off down the shoulder and taking a couple bumpers and side panels with him.
She imagined doing the same, and suppressed a twitch in her foot.
The smoke climbed over the car a few feet ahead of her, and she was surprised how thick it was. In fact, as it crawled over the cars ahead of her, she could not even see through it. Instead, an oily black stain filled her vision, as if the car itself had been dunked in a well of ink. Still, no one else was moving, and she did not see any of those people leave their cars. Maybe it would have been safer to try and leave earlier, but at this point, it was almost upon her.
She made sure the windows were closed and begrudgingly turned off her AC. No need to pump that into her car. She would be safe here.
The smoke inched its way to her car, still as thick and black as before. It slowly consumed the Sub in front of her before moving to munch on the bumpers of her lane neighbors. They seemed perplexed, and the man next to her gave her a friendly nod and shrug. But she could see a hint of panic in his eyes.
It climbed onto the hood of her car, so thick she could not even see a hint of the cherry red beneath it. It was as if someone had erased the surface underneath, filling it was complete emptiness. A trick of the light, she assured herself, but it was still unsettling. Slowly, the wisps of smoke crawled up her front window.
And then seeped inside.
Her panic went from amused to uncontrollable in an instant. There was the briefest chance to see similar reactions around her before the smoke wrapped around them and herself. It was not smoke, she knew now, because smoke did not pass straight through tempered glass. Smoke also was not choking and cloying, wrapping her in a veil of darkness. Eyes wide open, Candace saw nothing but darkness.
In the darkness, there was screaming. First, it was her own scream, the air ripping violently from her lungs and assaulting the indomitable blackness. If it heard, it did not respond.
Then, however, from the darkness came the sound of other wails. Her fellow passengers, she wondered, as the din rose to a cacophony. There were hundreds of thousands of voices wailing and screaming in terror, as wave after wave of vocal torture rushed over her.
There was no beginning or end to any one voice, but an impossible swell and onslaught of different cries and please that all tumbled over her one after another. They swam in the darkness with her, as if there were thousands of bodies pressed against her and flowing around her, each carrying with it a unique sound of human pain.
Just as that experience threatened to overwhelm her feeble sense, she could suddenly feel the darkness around her. She had thought that such darkness must be cold, but it instead pulsed against her skin with insufferable heat. It writhed over her like some creature, and she felt the legs dance over her skin, leaving trails of melted skin in their wake. Heat, pain, and the source of the echoing wails she could not shut out.
The darkness rolled along, slowly consuming the lines of waiting cars under its maw. Slowly, each person joined Candace in the blind chamber, adding their chorus to hers.
As the smoke moved along, the road sat empty and free, waiting for the next brave traveler to face their rush hour. Finally, the accident had been cleared.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello there! Let me clean off some cobwebs and give an update.
The short story is my life is a tangled mass of chaos right now.
The longer, whinier story follows. Not only am I trying to collect all the data from 40 participants for my dissertation, but also hold down a current assessment/therapy case load, finalize paperwork for my new position, pack my entire apartment for a cross-country move, spend time with my friends before said cross-country move, exercise a bit more, and remain relatively close to a functioning human being. In a month, almost all of these things will be done. Because I move in a month, which means everything has to be packed, paperwork finalized, dissertation data collection done, and friends hundreds of miles away. I can hopefully do some writing then, in between unpacking my apartment and starting a new job. At least that one has regular hours, so I don’t have to work until 9pm.
You know, just outlining all of that made me feel better. It did not make me any less stressed, but it at least affirmed that my stress is well-justified. So, I apologize for no updates. I have a couple ideas rattling around, but I’m definitely not performing at my peak right now. I’m a bit weighed down by stress and feeling a hefty wallop of general fatigue. Combine that with grieving for the people and places we are leaving behind, and it does not make for a very good creative environment. Not for me, anyway. I also keep making really dumb mistakes when writing (I spent about a week using the wrong form of who’s/whose before realizing it), which tells me my brain is about at capacity. If you have sent me something and I ignored it, I am sorry. I just am having to spend some time focused inward, keeping myself together. All day I am surrounded by others, wearing my outward-focused face. It wears me out. When I get home for the day, I just retreat and let the introvert in me recharge. Long story short, I cannot promise regular updates until after mid-July. Hopefully life will have some sort of pattern after then.
That all said, I am stuck in an office for about 6 hours today with little to do. I had a client reschedule, so I can’t go home (I will not miss my hour-long commutes), but I am in a holding pattern on a few cases right now. Can’t work, can’t go home, can’t do testing, can’t pack. And I’ve made all my phone calls for the day, just waiting on returns. So, I can write a little something, at least.
I’ve had a lot of ideas recently, which is nice. I’m thinking about starting a writing prompts page. I think some of them are interesting, and I would rather someone use them if I’m going to be too swamped to do it! We’ll see.
So, here is what I got done today. I’m pretty pleased that I got something like this done between 11am and 3pm. It’s rough, but it has the makings of something pretty entertaining, which is what I aim for! Most of all, I hope you enjoy this little piece. There are probably some things I don’t know about filming a movie that could be helpful, so let me know anything I got wrong in the comments. Happy reading!
The dream was always the same. It did not happen regularly, but he knew each time just what would happen, as soon as he saw those oxidized gables rise into view. As far as he knew, Keith had never seen that house before. It had no correlate to his waking memories, though he knew it like a childhood friend in his dream. The feeling of familiarity was so strong, he had once described it in great detail to his mother, certain it had to be some relic from his early childhood years.
It was green, he had stumbled as a child. Now, he understood that the roof was copper, but old and weathered. Vines snaked along the brick front, giving it a fuzzy, organic appearance, the dark ivy leaves only adding to his fumbling insistence on the green building. Tall, dark windows leered down at him, all centered around the imposing black door in the front of the home. Up a set of weathered stone steps, the vines tracing along the cracks here as well, and face-to-face with the glimmering gold knocker.
His mother had smiled, praised his imagination, and assured him they had never been to such a house. She did not listen to him explain the many rooms inside, all eerie with their emptiness. It was not simply an abandoned house, but it was cavernous and grieving its lack of inhabitants. Each room was as unsettling as an empty eye socket. Yet he could read the impressions left in the home enough to realize it had once been extravagant. The trim around the ceilings, the plush carpets and glistening wood floors, the rich walls covered in dark paint of thick wallpaper all spoke to extravagance. It was like the shadows of a young debutante in the face of an aged widow.
Inevitably, the clock would begin to ring in the house. It was the only piece of furniture left, a stately grandfather clock at the end of the hall. It boomed throughout the empty house, the tolls redoubling over and over again. Try as he might, Keith could never count them. He could not distinguish the echoes from the real chime, and simply ended up muddling through wave after wave of thunderous hours. As the sound filled the empty house, he felt it begin to press again his eardrums, threatening to smash him. Every time, he knew he had to leave the house in order to prevent the sound from crushing him entirely. It could not hold the clock, its sounds, and the echoes with him inside. And so he raced out to the backyard, into a world of spindly evergreens and withered grass.
Whenever this dream began, he knew where it would end. His feet invariably crunched through the grass, still putting distance between himself and the now-dim peals of the grandfather clock. Each step lessened his fear that the noise would come spilling from the house and yet again overwhelm him. If it filled the outside, how would he ever find a place to escape that sound? It was not until he came around the corner and saw the tiny pond that the sound would vanish, swallowed up by the impossibly dark water.
It was not a natural pond, but one crafted and placed in the midst of the garden, supposedly to be ringed by merry flowers and restful spots of repose. However, it was now lonely in the midst of overgrown bushes and looming evergreens, their branches jagged fingers pointing to the unholy spot. The water was still and black, seeming to promise unreachable depth. The sky and trees were reflected perfectly, a dark mirror showing a shadowy world.
A cold feeling always wrapped around him at this point as his feet drew inexorably closer to the edge of the pond. Eventually, he would be standing over it, looking into his own eyes reflected back. Only it was not quite his face. There was malice in the eyes, a subtle smirk in the mouth that intimated something sinister. Keith would watch himself, watch the clouds whistle by and the trees bob in the wind.
The next moments played before his eyes like scenes from a home video, never altering in the slightest. The ring around his finger—his father’s wedding band, gifted to him by his mother after his passing—slipped off of his finger. He could feel it inching down, but could not risk breaking eye contact with his reflection in the pool. It would bounce on the stone, its ring a sharp counterpoint to the weighty bellows of the clock from before. The noise hung in the air as if frozen, even as the ring tumbled and sparkled into the water. Then, he could see it sitting just below the surface, betraying the shallow depth of the pool. He’d lick his lips, worry and sadness on his brow, while his reflection sat immobile, watching and smiling.
Finally, he dove forward, his hand plunging into the icy depths of the water. It was cold, thick, and sluggish around his hand. His skin looked pale and distorted in the light, almost as if it were greying and rotting in the water. As his fingers closed around the ring, his prize won, bloated fingers surged from the darkness, wrapping around his wrist.
Keith would fling himself backwards, landing on his back against the stone. As he looked up, the head of something would appear above the water, skin waterlogged and hair dripping with oily water and pond scum. Its eyes would look like his, the mouth curled in that smirk.
Keith woke up with a start as the thing put one rotted hand onto the lip of the short retaining wall just as he always did. As usual, he was freezing, his toes almost aching with the chill. While the dream did not come at regular intervals, it came often enough to fix a routine. Keith slipped from his covers and wrapped a robe around, stuffing his feet into battered house shoes in his closet. He dutifully went around to each window and door in his house—twelve windows and two doors in this one—to make sure he had left nothing open that could cause a draft. He checked the thermostat and read it was sitting comfortably at 72 just as it should. Finally, he moved to his dresser, pulled his father’s ring on for comfort, and returned to his bed with an extra blanket. In the morning, he would wake in a pool of sweat, the blanket thrown aside and his robe shrugged off during the remaining hours of sleep he had left. Still, he had to do what he could to shake the biting chill that currently bound his addled body.
The morning came early, and Keith woke up just as he predicted. It at least made the cool water of the shower feel all the better as it jolted him to alertness. He had a long day ahead, and so the jumpstart made it at least seem possible. Still, he poured an extra bit of coffee into his thermos, sacrificing room for cream in order to pack in the extra molecules of caffeine. Keith smiled, banking on the placebo effect to get him from his front door to Natalie’s without winding up taking a nap in some neighbor’s ditch.
Keith picked up his equipment from beside the front door and chucked it into the back of his SUV with little ceremony. When this was still a new, daring hobby, he had treated each pieces with special dignity, setting it affectionately assigned spots. Now the cameras, tripods, cabling, lights, and other paraphernalia ended up in a tangled heap that he would sort out at the film site. Checking his watch one last time, he leapt into the driver’s side and sped off to make up time lost contemplating various shower thoughts and the miracle of coffee.
Natalie was waiting for him when he showed up, a hint of irritation shimmering through her otherwise friendly smile. Having known her since grade school, he appreciated the restraint required for her not to express her annoyance. Though, to be fair, having known him since grade school, he assumed she expected him to always run five minutes late.
“Did you get my text?” she began as she swung into the car. She tossed a messenger bag into the back seat and immediately moved to turn the air conditioning up.
Keith patted his pockets quickly, finally locating his phone. The messenger icon was in the top corner. “I did, but I assume you wanted me to read it,” he shot back as he thumbed open the message.
Don’t forget extra cabling. Place is old. May need extension cords.
“I’m guessing no luck?” she said with a sad smile.
“Actually,” he began with an exaggerated flourish, “you are very much in luck. I decided to pack some extra just in case. Just using my good ol’ boy scout’s preparedness skills!”
She rolled her eyes and fell back into the seat. “Well, at least one part of it stuck. I’ve got the directions, so just head to the highway. I’ll guide from there.”
As they had on so many morning. Keith and Natalie set off down the road. He kept his eyes fastened to the asphalt while she calmly led him through the steps. As usual, they stopped for breakfast sandwiches at the diner right beside the highway and munched on those as they traveled out of town. Somewhere along the way, Natalie got bored and began scanning radio station while Keith repeatedly asked her where the next turn would be. They missed it, looped back around, and eventually pulled off into a gravel drive way.
Once the shadows of the trees fell over his front windshields, Keith felt an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu mixed with anxiety. He felt as if he had seen these shadows before, as if they had previously traced their way over his face. And it was invariably tied to something he did not want to experience again.
“Where’d you find this place,” he groused,” because it is seriously creepy?”
She raised an eyebrow and laughed, “Creepy? The place is beautiful. Just wait until you see the house.”
He did not have to wait long. The gables rose into view, standing proudly in their familiar green. Keith could feel his heart begin to crash against his chest with slow, heavy beats as his eyes grew wide. The car rolled to a stop as he stared, mouth agape, at the specter before him.
“Keith, what’s your problem? Drive on up, I don’t want to walk through the mud.” She smacked his shoulder, hoping to pull him out of it, but he simply ignored her. “Keith?” she tried again.
His head suddenly spun around to face her. “Why are we here?” he snapped. His eyes danced like a cornered animal.
“We’re here for the filming. I told you, I think this place will be great—“
He put the car in reverse, and she grabbed his arm. “Hey, stop! What are you doing?”
“Natalie, we can’t go traipsing around abandoned properties. First, that’s trespassing, and second, you have no idea what could be in there. There could be wild animals or hobos or bad floors or—“
“What are you talking about?” she yelled over his flurry of words.
His response was merely to slam the car into park and point at the house. “That. That’s what I’m talking about. We can’t film here. It’s dangerous and illegal.”
“It’s not illegal. I talked to the owners and they gave us a great rate to use it. We just have to clean up after.”
“Owners?” Keith knew this house had no owners. It could not have owners. It devoured those that tried.
“Yeah, I’m not going to have us traipse into some unknown place. Give me some credit.” She crossed her arms, making no effort to hide her irritation now. “So, if my papers are in order, can we drive up to the entrance or am I going to have to walk?”
His fingers itched along the gear shift, wanting to finish backing out of the drive and speed back down the highway. But he felt rationality pulling him back. This was ridiculous. How would he explain to Natalie why he floored it away from a perfectly good filming location, one that came at a steal it sounded like? He imagined the words out of his mouth. ‘I had a nightmare about the house.” He would never live it down, nor should he. He was being unreasonable, the rational, human part of his mind reminded. The animal part continued to growl and back into the corner, hackles raised.
“Sorry, I just—“ there was not a good way to recover from the moment other than just moving on like it never happened. So he did. “Are we renting furnishings for it or keeping it empty?” he asked, hoping to change the subject to something less bizarre than his behavior.
Natalie’s words were short, reminding him she was not going to let the moment just fade. “It comes fully furnished. I mean, I’m not terrible at my job and you have not even seen the place. So how about I worry about those details?” Her tone stung him, but he nodded in silence.
The feeling did not leave as he drove up to the front of the house, seeing the dark windows and black door. He reminded himself that the house was very similar to the one in his dream, but probably not the same. Even if it was, he probably saw it in some movie somewhere. Yeah, that was probably it. The family seemed willing to rent it out for filming, so maybe he saw it on television when he was a kid. It just lodged in his dreams and followed him here now. A coincidence, to be sure, but nothing worth ruining a friendship and appearing crazy over.
“Its overcast today,” said Natalie, more to herself than anyone else. Her eyes were focused out the window, studying the clouds as if they handed her their weekly schedule. “Maybe we get outside shots later, when the sun’s out?”
“I definitely don’t want to get set up and rained on,” replied Keith as he looked up at the house looming in his front window. He still felt the temptation to turn the ignition and run, but he carefully quieted that voice.
They were the first there so they could start set up for the shot. Keith knew he was Natalie’s right hand man when it came to these sort of things, which is why the other crewmembers would not get there until later. She trusted him to get it right and not mess it up. Before the courage could leave him, Keith shot out of the car and towards the trunk to retrieve his gear. Natalie squeezed in beside him and began grabbing odds and ends, carrying the lighting rigs and various tools that he would have to set to her specifications in just a few minutes.
“I’m thinking we’ll find a good parlor room and shoot some of the opening dialogue shots.” Keith nodded. Now he as a worker following orders, and that helped to lessen the creeping terror seated in his gut. “Put it here,” she commended once they got inside, “and let’s go find out room.”
The house was furnished with period-appropriate pieces. Seeing the house in its almost lived-in state was reassuring. The lonely hunger did not lurk in each room. In fact, it almost seemed inviting, as if it wanted him to have a seat on one of the couches and gaze out the window at the trees swaying outside.
His anxiety peaked again as they climbed the stairs. At the end of the hall would be the tall, menacing clock with its resounding bell. His breath caught in his throat as he spun on the final step, but he released it in a sudden sigh when there was nothing at the end of the hall. He had simply imagined the clock. It was, after all, a dream.
Natalie had a notebook in hand, jotting scribbled notes into it as they examined each room. She noted the furniture, position, window direction, space, and suggested use for each room, her head snapping from the room to her notebook with avian speed.
Finally, the climbed back down the stairs and she designated the room. “We’ll start in the first room on the left, and I think we’ll have good lighting for some afternoon shots upstairs later. Can you get started down here?” she said, but was almost out the door before he could respond. She knew he could handle it, as did he.
There was a car door slamming outside, and Natalie rushed out to get the cast and costume crew set up. She wanted to be filming in two hours, which was a tall order. Still, if anyone could rally the troops, it was Natalie. Keith set to work.
There was a zen quality to the set-up that always seemed to center him, The actual filming could be harried and chaotic, but doing this work ell always made him feel ready for whatever bizarre request Natalie would next throw his way. After an hour, the rest of the crew arrived and began to move about. They helped him adjust the lighting, get the sound set up, and position another camera. It was a generic set-up for the room, one that would have to be refined once Natalie finally got the lead actress placed, but it did a nice job based on the limited information in the script. With about thirty minutes remaining, Natalie scurried in with a cardboard box and began placing her own set pieces, including a tumbler and handwritten letter for the desk.
Of course, nothing ever actually started on time, despite Natalie’s best preparation. The sound guy was sill tweaking his setup when the hour rolled around and passed, but the lead was also still finishing up her makeup. Keith just sat on one of the couches, staring out the window at the beckoning trees. It was as if everything swirled around him, but he rested safe in the middle of the eddy, unmoving. The house was no longer threatening, but a sheep in wolf’s clothing. He had spent so long afraid of it, but it was just a childhood memory packaged up in some generic anxiety. Now that he was in the house, he felt peaceful. At home. Welcomed.
Eventually, already well behind schedule, they were rolling. Natalie’s pet project was this period piece drama that she swore was going to be accurate down to the minutest detail. It was not necessarily Keith’s preferred genre, and he found the dialogue even less entertaining after what felt like infinite shoots. Each time, Natalie had quick comments, little changes, and nit-picked details to highlight. Each time, the actress smiled, nodded, and seemed to give the same wooden delivery. You get what you pay for, Keith smirked.
Finally, they had managed to eke out a few acceptable takes, and Natalie was on the war path again. “Up the stairs while we have the light,” she barked as she brushed past Keith on her way to the designated room. He sighed and began gathering what he would need. It was a much smaller space, which meant less room for equipment. He hoped that would speed set up rather than bogging him down in the tight quarters.
They lost the light during set-up, but Natalie was not to be dissuaded. She steamrolled on ahead with other scenes, which required Keith to spend much of the evening switching out filters and lighting apparatus to make sure the lighting stayed just right for a candlelit scene. He was exhausted by the end, and the actress was grumpy. Natalie was fueled by indefatigable energy and vision.
“Come one, let’s just get in one more scene and then we can wrap this for tomorrow,” her voiced pleaded with them, as if she could wring out enough passion from within her to inspire the others.
“I have a forty minute drive home and still have to go to the gym,” whined the lead, a usually smiling blond woman by the name of Amicia. “I can get here earlier tomorrow, but I really need to go home. My dog’s going to have to be let out, too.” She was already taking off layers of her costume while they stood and debated, effectively silencing any further debate.
“If you tell us where, we’ll set up for tomorrow before we leave,” offered Claud and Gladys, the sound and second camera crew.
Natalie was being worn down, and her drive was quickly leaking away. She ran a shaking hand through her hair, and Keith remembered to ask her if she had stopped for lunch or dinner at any point. He had snarfed down a turkey sandwich in between scenes, but he had not seen her with much more than a half-empty bottle of water. “No, we’ll need a few shots in here tomorrow morning. Especially the letter arrival scene. No need to move it tonight. Just get here on time tomorrow.”
The house emptied rather quickly, and Keith had a chance to notice the disarray. There were pieces of paper and tape all over the floor, as well as some empty soda cans, facial tissues, and plastic bags that seemed to float around wherever the film crew stepped. Natalie was draped into a nearby chair, furiously scribbling notes in her notebook before the last of her energy finally did give out.
“Ready to go home?” The new quiet in the house revitalized Keith’s uneasiness. In the dark and shadows, the house seemed to take on more of its nightmare qualities, furnished or not.
Natalie looked up, bleary-eyed, and then peeked at her watch. She sighed. “It’s almost eleven and I want to be back here by 5 tomorrow.” She closed her eyes as she did the mental math. “I think I may just sleep here tonight. There’s a bedroom at the end that we probably won’t use for anything.”
“Come on, you can’t stay here!” There was an edge of anxiety in his voice that he had not intended, but he suddenly felt very afraid of what might happen if she remained there. He could feel the hunger creeping from the walls now that the rest of the crew had left. Sure, it had put on a pleasant face, but the house was still not satisfied.
“Why not? The doors lock and the water works. I might as well get a little extra sleep. If you could get here by seven that would be great.”
“I’m not going to leave you alone in some creepy old house in the middle of nowhere,” he offered firmly.
“Why are you so hung up on how creepy this place is?”
Keith shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s a nice house, but no one lives here. Probably haunted or something.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s not haunted. Geez, Keith, I never took you for such a superstitious guy.”
“Well then why does nobody live here? I mean, it’s a great house. But no one uses it except for ragtag film crews?”
Her voice got quiet as she gave the news. “The family said their son passed away a few years ago, and they could not stand to live in the same house. But it’s a family home and they figured they’d pass it down. I just saw it and asked about it, so they let me come in. It’s the first time they’ve had a crew in here, so I thought it would give us some unique backgrounds and scenes.”
“So it is haunted,” he shot back, oblivious to her argument or the apparent sensitivity of the moment.
“What!? No, Keith, it isn’t haunted. Some kid just died. It’s sad, but don’t go starting rumors like that. They’re a nice family, and I don’t want anything like that getting out.”
“How’d the kid die?” He was onto a scent and unwilling to let it go.
“Keith, that’s none of our—“
“How can I know it’s not haunted?” He attempted a smile, halfhearted as it was, to remind her that he truly was looking out for her safety. The nagging sense of dread would not let go of him, however. Worse, that creeping sense of déjà vu had returned in full force.
She shrugged, her defenses overrun and inhibitions lagging behind. “He had seizures. Seems like he had a pretty big one and fell into some pond out there. They spent about three days looking for him before they found him. It was in the papers at the time, when we were just kids. I found it at the library.”
“That seems like the kind of thing that would inspire a haunting,” he pressed again.
She pressed her fingers to her eyes and sighed. “I’m not getting into this with you. If you want to believe it’s haunted, fine, it’s haunted. Get out of here and go home. I, who does not believe in ghosts, will stay here and sleep. Goodnight.” She got up from the chair and began walking out into the hallway. Keith caught up with her, grabbing her wrist.
“I really don’t think it’s a good idea for you to stay here alone.”
“Great, but I’m going to. Let go of my hand and let me get some sleep.”
“I’ll stay, too.”
She threw her free hand up in exasperation. “Fine, you’re a big boy, do what you want.”
She continued down the hall, now free, while Keith felt apprehension tingling over his entire body. This was a very bad idea. But it was also the only way he could keep her safe. Suddenly, she paused and spun around.
“Oh, if this is some ploy to get into my pants, you should know I don’t sleep with crew,” she deadpanned, then broke out into a broad, sleepy grin.
“You might just force me to quit, then,” he snapped back. She laughed, waved him off, and closed the door to the extra bedroom.
Keith sat and stared at her door for a bit before thumping down the stairs to another as of yet unused room. He knew that Natalie would let him sleep in one of the beds, but she would also gripe when she had to fix it in the morning. And it would never be quite right. He opted to spare her the stress and sleep on one of the many couches spread throughout the rooms. It was hard to imagine a family with a little boy living in the gargantuan house, especially with its dated furnishing. Ten again, perhaps the family simply set it up this way to preserve the history. It was a family home, Natalie had said. Maybe these were family pieces. Or maybe it was just a frozen memory. Or maybe they were just creepy and weird.
The day caught up to him, and he fell asleep, still trying to piece together the kind of family that would live in such an odd home.
Waking up in the house was shocking, especially with complete darkness wrapped around everything. For a moment, he was certain he was caught up in the dream again, as the same sense of knowing washed over him. Only after a few deep breaths was he able to remember he was merely spending a night in his nightmare house. In hindsight, it was not the best idea. Keith thumbed the side of his watch, and his eyes bathed in the pale green light, eager for anything in the pitch black night. 3:43am.
In the dark, the house felt cavernously empty. Even though he knew it was fully furnished, he could not help but feel it was gaping just as hungrily as it did in his dream, begging to devour anything that might fall into its maw. The feeling was certainly unsettling, especially as he saw himself lying patiently behind its teeth. Yes, this sleepover was certainly a bad idea. But, he reminding himself, it was for Natalie. Keith knew the place was not as harmless as she thought, even if he could not convince her of that.
He laid in the silence. Natalie would be getting up soon if she planned to start work at five. He strained his ears, but heard no sound of stirring from upstairs. Then again, it was a very large house. While sound travelled, it did not go that far.
His watched gave a soft beep for the hour, the face lighting briefly, and then stilled. As if on cue, Keith’s head began to pound. He felt the headache explode in his temples, a relentless pulse that ebbed and flowed with his heart. It swarmed him from the silence, throwing itself against his skull. His ears were ringing, and he felt as if his head would simply explode from the sudden pressure. Keith felt fireworks going off inside his head, bright flashes that forced him to screw his eyes shut.
He sat up, then stumbled towards his bag of gear. Despite his feeble hopes, there were no pain relievers to be found. Giving up on that, he stumbled into one of the bathrooms and splashed water on his face, as if that would magically wash away the pain. It did nothing to dull the crushing sensation in his head, but simply teased relief. Keith looked up at his relfection in the mirror, but felt as if his head was swimming. He could not focus, but was able to see well enough to know he was in pretty poor shape.
Back on the couch, the pain continued. It beat continuously, like a stampeded running from one side of his brain to the other. Dimly, he remembered being told that there were no pain receptors in the brain, so it could not feel pain. Right now, it felt as if there must have been billions and they were all on fire. Perhaps, he thought, this was what an aneurysm felt like.
A brush of breeze from outside caught his pained brow, its touch almost impossibly soothing. He stumbled to his feet and made his way to the open door, aware that his feet travelled what felt like a well-worn trail from the room to the door. Outside, the din inside his head began to calm. With each touch of the wind, it seemed as if the pressure cut in half, until he was finally able to open his eyes and breathe deep of the night air. There was a lingering ache behind his temples, a reminder of what he had endured, but that was pleasant compared to the prior pain. The trees whispered in the wind, tossing back and forth.
Then, footsteps. There was a sound of crunching leaves up ahead of him, the pace slow and methodical. Keith froze. No one should be out here at this time of the night. Maybe it was an animal?
The open door surged into his memory, easily quieting his momentary fears. Natalie must have gotten up early to scope around outside. He also knew she liked a morning jog, and this was probably the only chance she would get today to work out.
“Nat?” he called out. There was no answer, but the steps continued to draw further away from him. He pressed on, looking around by the light of the mostly hidden moon. “Natalie?” he tried again as he caught sight of person disappearing behind a wall of evergreens and low-lying shrubs. Keith began to jog a few steps, then caught on a tree root and nearly skidded across the crackling grass. He caught himself on a nearby concrete bench, and moved more cautiously.
He had opened his mouth to call for her again, but the sound died on his lips. He turned the corner to find himself staring at that ill-fated pool, its water an impenetrable black in the scant moonlight. Worse, Natalie was standing in it, her eyes locked on the surface with a vacant stare.
“Natalie?” he whispered, the words barely shuffling through his windpipe as fear clamped down around it. She did not respond. He crept closer.
There was a ripple on the water; it spun around her calves, lapping up against her knees though she did not move. From a couple feet in front of her, a bubble rose, then formed into a solid face creeping slowly from the water. As Keith watched in horror, shoulders and arms followed the head, water clinging to them like mud as the figure struggled to break free.
There was a wheezing noise as it broke the surface, a ragged, breathy sound that seemed to come from its half-open mouth. Natalie did not move, but her eyes flicked from the surface of the water to the thing’s eyes. Her face was an impassive mask, peaceful in its imperturbability.
Keith scrambled over the ground. He leaned over the small edge of the pond, stretching his arm as far as it could go, but still missing her by inches. “Natalie!” he yelled. It sounded as if the thing laughed, the wheezes coming in short, rapid bursts before smoothing back to the jagged rhythm. It reached out a hand towards Natalie, and Keith watched in horror as she lifted hers to it, her slender fingers joining its waterlogged, blackened ones.
Instantly, Natalie began to sink below the surface. At first, she seemed at peace. Keith continued to try to reach her, sitting on the edge and reaching out as far as he could over the water. She was always a few inches from his fingers, just out of reach. By the time Keith realized it was going to require more risk, she was already down to her waist. With a single, steeling breath, Keith swung his legs into the water and made toward her.
With his entrance, Natalie seemed to wake up. There was a jolt of confusion across her face, followed by fear. She looked to the thing, and a short scream ripped from her lips. Then, her eyes found Keith’s, and she reached her hand to him.
“Keith! Help!” she called, though he was already doing all he could. As he made his way to her, she began to fight to free her hand from the thing that held her.
The water wrapped around his legs like syrup. It was as cold as ice, and weighed more than he could ever recall from water. It was a chore to shift his foot forward a few inches, but he pressed on, even as it sucked at his legs. A few more shuffling steps and he was able to brush his fingers against Natalie’s. There was relief on her face at the touch, though her other hand was still captive.
One more step, the effort like dragging weights through wet sand, and his fingers knotted around hers, though she was now up to her chest in the shallow pool. “I got you, “he said, half to himself. Her eyes were desperate and he could not look away.
Keith wrapped his other hand around her arm, pulling and tugging at her. She fought back, thrashing in the water and doing her best to lose the creature with its vice-like grip. But the water continued its relentless charge up her body, wrapping around her shoulders and neck.
Keith threw himself forward, falling to his knees to get a few more precious inches of reach. He wrapped his hands around her shoulder, but felt her continue to sink deeper and deeper into the darkness. The water was so cold, leaving his fingers aching with the effort. They were clumsy as they grabbed at her, holding on to whatever he could find to keep her above water. Still, there was nothing he could do to stop her descent into whatever lay beneath the pond.
He could not look away, even as her eyes screamed at him from below the water. Even as the thing hissed with glee and melted back into the surface of the water. Her fingers were finally yanked away from him, sending him tumbling back into the water.
He sat there in shock until the sun came up. The water lapped at his legs and chest, returning once again to the smooth, flowing liquid he was used to. It no longer clung to him or pushed him back, but simply moved in lazy ripples to the time of his breathing. His eyes never left the water, the place where hers disappeared moments before.
The crew found him out there when they returned to an empty house. His babbling did little to help them understand, as he raved about things in the water, clocks, dreams, and drowning. It was a jumbled mess of what sensations and fears were able to escape his addled mind.
The police swarmed the property, looking for any sign of young Natalie. Likely killed after refusing the advances of her longtime friend, the rumor went, who was then driven mad by guilt. However, the story took a turn when they found her lying at the bottom of a shallow pool, one that had been walked past time and time again by officers, dogs, and even the witnesses. She had been there three days, they said, but no one had seen her.
Except for Keith. He saw her every time he fell asleep. The dream had changed, but it was always the same.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Just an idea I had floating around. I read it more as an introduction to a larger world, and so I may revsist it to develop it more fully. But this mostly tells the story I was interested in. You may recognize Death from Day 24, mainly because I like the friendly, personable Death. As usual, it is a first draft. Let me know what you think and any suggestions you may have. Happy reading!
The first time it happened, I was seven years old. My mother left me to play at the park, and I had noticed a grey lump laying on the very edge of the road. Upon closer inspection, I saw the tiny frame of a squirrel, obviously struck by a car recently. A think trickle of red stained its chin, and I felt the heavy hand of sadness as I studied its little body. I looked around cautiously, creeping closer, and reaching out a tiny trembling hand. Somehow, I thought I might just be able to wake it up.
When I did touch it, there was a strange electric feel to the contact, as if a flurry of energy swam between us. My entire hand felt a shock of numbness, then nothing. More surprising, however, was the rush of thoughts and feelings inside of me. In one moment, I felt as if I could feel the world spinning swiftly beneath me, as if I were a million miles up looking down on its progress. My perspective telescoped out, and then rushed back in, settling in my tiny body. It would take me years and many more experiences to find the words to describe this phenomenon; even now, the words are hollow.
A man walking his dog suddenly sneezed, snapping m back to reality as I pulled my hand back. He sniffled, his face pale and drawn, and I tried not to look like I was playing with a dead animal. When I glanced back to the squirrel, I saw it standing in the street, glancing around swiftly. Its tiny eyes met mine, and then it scampered past me and into a tree.
I gasped, smiled, and ran to follow it, watching it swing and sprint across tree branches. Even on the ground, I felt the same exquisite joy as it moved nimbly from branch to branch with newfound life. When I tried to explain to my mother, however, she merely scolded me for touching a dead animal. None of my miraculous testimony made it through to her as she dragged me to the bathroom and scrubbed my hands three times over.
Even as a child, I realized that this was not something I was going to be able to tell her about; it was taboo. And so I carried my secret.
When the boys at school threw rocks at a mother bird, I waited until they left and then cradled the limp body. The world spun around me, and I took off into the universe. When I came back, her eyes were open, and she took off to tend to her nest.
Then there was the evening our neighbor’s dog had her puppies. My mom let me sit in their kitchen to learn about the “miracle of birth,” but then tried to swiftly shuffle me away when the last puppy emerged, still and silent. I was too young to learn about death, apparently. She had me sit out on the front porch while she talked with Mrs. Calvin, but I snuck back in when I heard their voices drift back to the living room, Mrs. Calvin’s soft sobs fading. She stopped crying when I carried in the squirming little puppy, alive and well.
“I heard him,” I lied to them. Later, my mother woke me up with that same puppy, a smile on her face.
“A gift from Mrs. Calvin,” she told me. He was my miracle puppy named Patches because of the splotch over his left eye, and he never left my side. Except when I went to school, of course. I was no Mary; he was no lamb.
I brought back a snake, a couple more squirrels who had a predisposition for jumping in front of cars, one turtle someone had hit with a lawnmower, two fish from the tank in my room, and more moths and butterflies than I have fingers to count. I had been to human funerals—one for my great grandmother and one for Mr. Calvin after his untimely heart attack—but there were too many people around, too much attention on me. My mother never let go of my hand long enough to see if I could work the same magic. Besides, I always felt exhausted after using my gift, even on small animals and bugs. Even at eleven or twelve years old, I understood how complicated humans could be.
I was fourteen when I found out what it all meant. Normally, a fourteen year old waking would scream upon waking to find a grown man sitting on her bed. That would be a different story, however. No, when I saw him, I somehow understood that there was no need to scream or run or hide. He was distracted, looking at the pages of a black, leather-bound book, his finger skating down the page as he clicked his tongue against his teeth. There was no sense of a dream about the meeting, but there was also no sense or reality and time. In some ways, it felt much the same as when I reached out and touched some recently deceased creature. It was all super real, but also impossible.
After a moment, he turned to face me with a smile. His eyes were warm behind wire-rimmed frames, and he carefully crossed his neatly polished shoe across his knee as he spun. “Ah, nice to meet you, Corine.” He offered his hand, and I shook it slowly, still sitting in the tangle of my bedding.
“Who are you?” I asked. In hindsight, I feel like there should have been fear. But there was not.
He straightened the black lapels of his suit jacket, snapping the book closed. “I am Death,” he said with a shrug and a smile. “No need to beat around the bush, I always say. Most the people I meet don’t have time for it anyways.”
I just nodded. “Does this mean I’m dead?”
“That’s a good thought, but no. Not yet, at least.”
“So then, why are you here?”
He laughed, his face folding along well-practiced wrinkles. Despite the wrinkles, he still looked surprisingly young. Approachable. Friendly. “You aren’t one to dance around things either. That’s good. We’ll get along just fine then.” Behind his glasses, I could see his eyes searching for the right place to begin. After a moment, they brightened, and he turned back to the book.
“So, Corine—can I call you Corine?”
I nodded, my breath frozen in my lungs, waiting for his response.
“Thanks. So, I have had some unusual reports coming from this area. Unexplained, unexpected deaths. Now, unexpected deaths are a part of life. However, they are not a part of death. I know when everyone is going to die. If I don’t something is wrong. You follow?”
My head swung up and down stiffly as I tried to figure out the implication of his words. “But I haven’t killed anyone!” I offered frantically, certain of my innocence.
He laughed again. “No, not intentionally. Of course you haven’t. Only, unfortunately, you have been giving life to some whose time was up. Things must balance out, of course.”
“But, I didn’t—“
“I know you did not mean to. You had no idea what kind of power you have. That’s why I’m here. Now, normally, we know precisely who is going to be a Reaper. You, however, slipped through my fingers.”
“A Reaper? What do you mean? Am I dead?”
“No, you are still not dead. But you do have gifts. Being a Reaper means the power over life and death, a power I usually have taught you by now to use only as directed. Unfortunately, you came from unusual circumstances.”
He adjusted his glasses on his face, then cracked open the leather book again. His finger ran down the page, the tapped a line. “From the best I can tell, my Reaper Jeremiah was dispatched to your birth. Unfortunately, you were supposed to be dead.” He caught himself and smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry to bring the bad news, but at least that’s not what happened. No, instead, Jeremiah never returned. From the best I can tell, he passed his gift along, sparing you and sacrificing himself.”
“I killed him?”
Death’s smile was sad, and he shook his head slowly. “No, I think Jeremiah was just tired of the work. It happens. Turnover is not a huge problem, but it plagues everything.”
“So, what does this mean?”
“It means you are a Reaper. You are tasked with helping the newly dead shuffle off the mortal coil and into the Great Beyond.”
“But I’ve never killed anyone!” I objected once again.
“Of course you have. You did not mean to, but every time you gave life, it had to come from somewhere.”
I thought about the butterflies, the squirrel, Patches. I also thought of the kid in first grade who died in his swimming pool, of Mr. Calvin’s heart attack, of the inoperable cancer discovered too late in my Reading teacher. “But I didn’t want to kill anyone!”
“I know. It’s an unfortunate part of the job. It’s why we don’t use our powers to give life to those who are past due.”
“But I thought it killed Jeremiah when he did that?”
Death smiled, nodded. “Yes, it does seem that way. Only Jeremiah was not returning life, but he refused to take it. A very distinct difference.”
There was silence in the room as I mulled over these words, the implication of my life thus far. “Who have I killed?” I finally asked.
Death smiled a tight, grim smile. “Trust me, Corine, you do not want to know that. It is not good for you to know that.”
“So, what now?”
With a sigh, Death began to speak again, “Now that we know you are a Reaper, it is time to work on your training. I’ll have a veteran assigned to help you learn the ropes. You’ll become aware, at some point, of a list of individuals assigned to you. Each night as you sleep, you’ll be taken to them to help them move along. I think I’ll send Gracie to help you out, and she can explain more.”
“But what if I don’t want to kill anyone?”
He sighed. “Corine, you are not killing anyone, per se. They are dying, and you are just opening the door for nature to take its course. If you do not help them, they will spend a bit longer in pain or suffering, and one of the other Reapers will come along. You, also, may cease to exist. Things must stay balanced, after all.”
“What if I just never sleep? Then I can’t be called away, and—“
“You are welcome to try, but I would expect you will find the need irresistible. My Reapers have the best sleep patterns of any humans in the world. More than a few hours past due, and you’ll begin to find yourself transported to your locations, even as you continue doing your best to stay in your present reality. From what I hear, it is quite disorienting. Not something most people repeat twice.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
He placed his hand on my knee, still beneath the covers, and looked at me solemnly. “That is your choice, of course. But this gift was given to you because you cheated death. If you refuse it, then you have to come with me.”
“I have to die?”
“So, do Reapers never die?”
He chuckled, a low, somewhat bitter sound. “No, even Reapers die. I do my best to make it a pleasant experience. After death, you can continue the work, if you so choose. Many Reapers find they enjoy t. You can offer a bit of comfort and companionship to someone in their last moments, and then help them move on from the pain.”
“But it’s not always like that.”
All hint of a smile left his face, and his eyes grew distant, sad. “No, not always. Sometimes it is quite terrible. It is not an easy job.”
“But it’s mine, now?” I felt the room spinning with the revelation. It settled like a pack of stones on my shoulders.
“Unless you would like to take the other option.”
I was fourteen and not ready to die. Either way, I assumed the offer would stand if I could not handle the reality of this curse—even if he wanted to call it a gift. It would take years for me to see it through his calm, wise eyes and claim it as a gift again.
“I’m scared to die.”
“Most people are. You shouldn’t be, but most are. However, if you choose to accept this role, then you can help them not be so scared.”
“Okay. I don’t have much of a choice.”
“No, you don’t. You were far too young when the choice was made for you. But I don’t think you’ll regret it.”
The next morning, I woke up refreshed and energized. Patches was snoring on the foot of my bed, the sun was pouring through my thin curtains, and I could smell pancakes drifting up from the kitchen. On my bedside table, however, were a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, the lenses dusty and worn. As I reached out to touch them, I noticed a shadowy mark on the back of my hand, a feather intertwined around a heart.
In the light of day, the mark faded, disappearing from my skin, though I could still feel it prickle against the surface. As I looked up, the glasses disintegrated, vanishing before my eyes. The weight settled back on my shoulders as I felt the awareness of strange names settled softly into my consciousness.
I had my first assignments, and the world suddenly felt very cold, very large, and very hostile.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 83: A blank, wooden marionette seated on a crimson and gold throne.
King Torvald woke suddenly on his throne. He jolted into consciousness, suddenly sitting upright and blinking.
“I apologize. I must have dosed off,” he offered a humble look of chagrin to his gathered advisors. They all gave him rather puzzled looks, exchanging uncomfortable glances between themselves. Torvald felt embarrassed at his lapse, but he was still the king. No one would call him out or chide him for it. Still, it did nothing for his image.
He rubbed his eyes, blinking rapidly as if the world was suddenly brighter. “Now, where were we?”
“Discussing trade relations with Vongoria, sir.”
“Ah, yes, no wonder I fell asleep!” The others politely echoed his laugh before continuing the morning meeting. Trade decisions were only one of the many topics covered, others included tax reform, local ordinances, and palace gossip. It was nearly lunchtime when the meeting finally wound down, but Torvald was missing something.
“I know we’ve run long, but I hate to think we dragged Archibald here only to avoid discussing the Kimal fleet nearing our waters.” There were those same hidden glances back and forth, but Archibald eventually cleared his throat and offered a meager smile.
“Of course, milord. Do you have any further commands regarding the situation?”
“Further comments? Please, fill me in on this week’s development, and then I will make a decision. I cannot be speaking from days old information!” He cast his eyes around at the other assembled advisors, noting their slight nods and concerned eyes. It must be bad news.
“They have continued to encroach, though they have not yet made any sort of offensive movement. Their delegates continue to assure us it is meant merely as an exploratory expedition of the local marine life.”
“And have we sent a formal response to Queen Cynthia that they are terrifying our citizens?”
“Ah,” Archibald looked towards the other advisors, seeking some kind of support but finding nothing, “no sir, we have not. I thought you were opposed to such an action?”
The king laughed again. “What a joke! Me not being interested in contacting Queen Cynthia. No, I’m sure it is just an exploratory mission. Certainly she will recall them if she realizes she is causing unrest. Draft that, Archibald. I will review it tomorrow.”
“Sire,” this time is was his commerce advisor, a slim woman with dark hair piled atop her head, “does this mean you do not want us to send our fleet to meet them?”
“What? Why would you think I want to send a fleet? That would only serve to increase tensions, force Cynthia’s hand to respond with equal force.”
“Sir you did instruct us to do that this morning,” Archibald offered. His discomfort at correcting his king was clearly written across his face, especially in the beads of sweat glistening on his sagging forehead.
“This morning? We haven’t even discussed Kimal!”
“It was right before you, um, you ‘woke up,’ sir.” The local mayor was looking at him with wide, concerned eyes.
That hit Torvald with considerate force, but he kept him face composed in a calm half-smile. Then he laughed, perhaps a little too loudly, a little too quickly. “Well, look at me, making ruling in my sleeps. From here on, if I’m snoring, then don’t take my word for it.”
They chuckled softly, nodding. A few distant, muffled, “yes milords” filtered through the assembled as they gathered their belongings to leave. The uncertain looks still remained in their eyes. Torvald waved at his second in command. Ricker nodded smoothly and accompanied Torvald down the hall as they made towards his chamber.
“Well, that was embarrassing.”
Ricker fell into step, his long robes rustling along the stone floors. His eyes were sympathetic, reflecting back Torvald’s own shame, but adding a hint of compassion. “You have not been sleeping well, Torvald. Things like this are bound to happen. Should I call the palace pharmacist to mix you a sleeping draught?”
“Yes, and have the whole palace twittering about the neurotic old king. No, I think I will manage it just fine. Can you believe we almost sent our fleet to challenge Kimal’s?”
“It would have been a bold and risky decision. Though, I must say, they have encroached before. And we have struggle with raiding parties on our borders, which Cynthia has not stopped. A show of force might have—“
Torvald cut him off with a wave. “Yes, we have had some rogue bandits crossing over, but that is not the country’s fault. Cynthia has been nothing but cordial to us. I am hopeful we can improve trade relations before the next harvest.”
“I do not share your optimism, but perhaps that is why you rule and not I.” There was a slight bitterness in his voice, an edge to his tone that left Torvald with a furrowed brow.
“Yes, Ricker, that is the way of things. You may have greater freedom to speak as you will, but do remember who I am.” With that, Torvald settled into his chamber for lunch, followed by an afternoon of hearing grievances brought forward by the citizens To be honest, it was his favorite part of the day. There were always some interesting bit of information, some bizarre situation that he was called upon to settle. Yes, some people left angry and bitter, but many more left satisfied with his judgment. Or at least they told him as much as they left. After they were gone, there was little he could do if they disagreed or harbored resentment. That was a poison that would kill them without any of his help.
So it was that he settled in for the night, his head full of the day’s spinning events, but his body tired. Sleep came quickly and certainly.
However, the next morning, he was surprised to wake up with ink staining his fingers. There were black smudges on his white sheets, as well as a distinct cramp in his hand. This was a new thing. He had woken up with drool on his pillow, on the floor after falling from his bed, halfway out of his nightgown, and hugging his pillow like the lover he never had, but he had never woken up with a pained, ink-stained hand.
He did not have long to investigate the mystery before the answer presented itself to him. Torvald rose from bed, washed and dressed, and started to munch on his breakfast—fresh grapes and still-warm bread from the bakery—when someone knocked on his door.
“Enter,” he monotoned distractedly as he read over the letter Archibald had composed. It was good, forceful but friendly.
“Sire?” One of his staff stood in the doorway, looking somewhat confused and shaken, but pleased. At Torvald’s nod, the man continued. “I sent the letter off with one of our fastest messengers. It should reach Kimal within three days.”
The delicious taste withered in Torvald’s mouth, and his fork clattered to the table. “What letter to Kimal?”
Confusion mingled with fear now on the poor man’s face. “The one you gave to me in the early hours this morning. You said it must be sent immediately and swiftly. It was of the utmost importance for the security of the State.”
“I did not write—“ the ink on his hands suddenly made sense, and Torvald left the words dangling in the air. “Send out another messenger and overtake the first. Tell them not to rest or stop until they have reached the first. Have them both return here immediately.”
While the poor man was clearly confused and terrified of impending wrath, he did not protest, but scurried out the door. Torvald could hear his shoes slapping against the stones of the floor as he sprinted through the halls. Then his door swung back shut and there was silence. After a moment, Torvald broke the silence with the bell outside his door. A young woman, cheeks blushing and hair amess from her sudden summoning, appeared in his doorway. “Who is the best pharmacist in the city?” he asked her.
She wrinkled her forehead, obviously deep in thought and burdened by the weight of his request. “I would say Greshom. He lives in Western Well, and—“
With a wave, he silenced her. “Send for him. Have him brought to my chambers discretely.” Like a bird swopping from a branch, she was gone.
This was a delicate matter. He was making poor decision and jeopardizing years of diplomatic work, all in his sleep. He could not let the palace know he was struggling so, but he certainly needed help. Richer’s advice was good, if perhaps the source was dangerous.
When Torvald returned from the morning meeting with his advisors—a much shorter and less uncomfortable one this time—Greshom was waiting in his chamber. The man was old, bent at the waist until he seemed to fold over onto himself. His hair was stark white, but trimmed close to his head. And he smelled faintly of unfamiliar herbs. The perfect pharmacist, Torvald thought upon seeing him.
“It is a pleasure to be called to your service, milord.” His voice quavered with age, and the man bowed even lower.
“You come highly recommended, and I hope you can help me with a sensitive matter.” Greshom raised his eyebrows, but was wise enough to remain silent after the king’s vague but suggestive comment. “I have been—“ his voice trailed off, searching, “—sleep walking, I suppose. I wrote a letter and made a diplomatic decision yesterday while sleeping. I suppose I am sleep ruling, to be honest. And I do not make the best decisions.”
“Hm,” hummed the old man, his eyes drilling into the floor as he chewed on his lower lip. “That is very odd. Not a usual case, by any means. Any other strange phenomena?”
“Is that not strange enough?”
I suppose you’re right. Well, I will go to my shop, mix you up a sleeping draught. That should help. In case it does not, I have also brought you this,” the old man pressed a pendant into Torvald’s hand. “It will protect you from any unsavory influences that might be lingering about.”
“I thought you were a man of science.”
Greshom smiled a tired smile. “My years have taught me to revere science, but my mistakes have taught me to never be too careful.” He patted the king’s arm and began his slow shuffle towards the door. Most people waited to be dismissed, but Greshom appeared to have no time for such pleasantries. “I will have the draught ready before dinner, check in this time tomorrow.”
When the potion arrived, Torvald eyes it suspiciously. It was a cloudy, pinkish liquid in a tiny vial. When the time came to drink it, he discovered that the liquid tasted almost as foul as it looked, but had a somewhat chunky, slimy texture that gagged him on the way down. Still, he could not let his true disgust show. He was the king, after all. Still, it was a wonderfully relaxing sleep.
One that ended with him again waking to ink-stained hands. He had thought ahead this time and asked that no message be sent until he approved them over breakfast, but the poor messenger looked pale and drawn in the doorway. Apparently, he had withstood quite the storm and rage from Torvald that night. His hands shook as he handed over the missive, and Torvald read it greedily. It was practically a declaration of war against Kimal, lambasting them for guerilla incursions and threatening to sink their “exploratory” fleet. Torvald’s head spun, and he cancelled the morning meeting. It was as if he had lost his mind.
Greshom arrived promptly at lunch time to find the king languishing in his bed, contemplating the reality that he had lost control of his own body.
“I assume by your demeanor the draught did not work.”
“Not at all, Greshom. I did the same thing again, and I am sure the whole palace will soon know me as the crazed king.”
“I was afraid of this, sire. I hope you will not judge my deception harshly, but the pendant I gave you is not really a warding device. It is more of a detection one. If I may see it, I think we can find out what has been going on.”
Torvald’s hand trembled as he removed the pendant, and Greshom’s were surprisingly strong. He lifted the pendant to his lips, blowing a soft breath over the surface. Torvald’s eyes grew wide as the pale stone glowed, but Greshom simply closed his eyes and nodded.
“Yes, quite the hex. Milord, someone has been enchanting you, taking control of your senses. It is strong, dark magic.”
“What? Are you sure? Who could do this?”
“Well, if you will follow me, this,” he lifted the pendant in the air, watching it spin on its string, “will show us the source of this evil.”
Torvald untangled himself from the bed, enthralled by the slight drift of the pendant out the door of his chamber. He mutely followed Greshom, doing his best to hold back anger at the man’s slow pace.
Up and down the halls they paced, passing doors and dodging confused glances from various cooks, maids, messengers, advisors, and visitors to the palace. Torvald only had eyes for the spinning stone as it pointed them along the way. Finally, they stopped in front of a door Torvald knew well.
“Here is where the caster dwells.”
As much as Torvald dreaded what he would find, he pushed the door open. Ricker sat in his chamber, bent over his desk. His face showed shock, but also guilt.
“Guards!” commanded Torvald, his voice strong and his eyes trickling with grief.
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