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1

I Think My Strange Neighbors Didn't Kidnap My Cat

Living on this street has always been synonymous with peace. My name is Lucas, and just like my routine, my life unfolds peacefully in a small town. I usually take long walks amidst nature, bask in the sun, and enjoy life as I work from home. However, my family is the opposite; they thrive on hustle, noise, and crowds. Personally, I don't know how they manage it, but since the feeling is mutual, I let it be. Because of this, I moved here and adopted a cat to not feel so lonely, and it was one of the best choices I ever made.

Mr. Mutchkin was perfect, almost human-like in intelligence. He knew how to take care of his business in our backyard, burying it far away from home, and he even hunted some rats or other animals that might steal food (as I said, small town life). His company was comforting, especially on silent summer nights when I sat on the porch, gazing at the stars in the clear sky alongside him.

However, things began to change. A new family moved into the house next door: the Petersons. They were... normal. Too normal. That's what bothered me. I saw them arriving in their moving truck. A father, a mother, a son, and a daughter. All impeccable, the father in a well-pressed suit, the mother with a radiant smile, wearing a flared dress and an apron; the son with his school backpack, a uniform from some baseball team, and the daughter in her princess dress. It was what one would expect from a movie family, like asking an AI to create "a family" without giving specific details. It was... somehow... eerie.

The following days were as usual, with Mr. Mutchkin patrolling the backyard and me working on my projects. However, I began to notice small changes. Mr. Mutchkin started to act more reclusive, skittish. He used to come running to greet me when I came home, but now he seemed to avoid my presence. Not just mine, he stopped visiting the yard as often; I even had to buy a litter box (since it had been a while since I had to worry about that). Initially, I attributed this to some minor incident or maybe the presence of the new neighbors, perhaps an indisposition. Speaking of the Petersons, well, I'm not one to pry or anything, but it was hard not to notice: they were rarely seen leaving the house, almost always keeping the curtains closed. At night, sometimes, I heard murmurs coming from their house, as if they were talking quietly. The last straw of oddity was when I saw Mr. Peterson sitting in the backyard, alone, on a full moon night. He was facing away from me, but his rigid posture and the way he remained motionless sent shivers down my spine. It seemed like he was staring fixedly into the darkness. Disturbing.

The next day, Mr. Mutchkin disappeared.

I was worried because although, as I mentioned, he did his patrols, they were always within our property, behind the fences, and he always came back every night to sleep at my feet. I decided to search for him around the neighborhood, calling his name in vain. I asked the neighbors (except the Petersons), but no one had seen anything. I was truly desperate.

I knocked on the door of the house next door, hoping to find some clue in the last place I wanted to be. Mr. Peterson answered, with his customary smile, hair clinically aligned, and mustache brushed. When I asked if they had seen my cat, he hesitated for a moment before responding.

"Oh, Mr. Mutchkin, isn't it? I'm sorry, I'm not sure I've seen him around here. But we'll keep an eye out, okay? I'm sure he'll turn up."

His response was polite, but there was something off. He finished speaking and stood there, still, inert, looking at me. A strange feeling that something was wrong. Still, I thanked him and stepped back. Despite Mr. Peterson's seemingly reassuring words, a sense of unease settled within me. His smile seemed forced, and his eyes moved rapidly, making me uncomfortable. I might be becoming paranoid, but something about that encounter wasn't right.

I decided to follow my instinct, and that afternoon, when the street was deserted and the Petersons were out, I decided to investigate. I saw their car turning the corner at the end of the street, all four of them inside. Silence reigned in the house. I cautiously entered their backyard, feeling guilty for doing so, but the concern for Mr. Mutchkin and the thought of what might be happening to him outweighed my hesitation. The house was as immaculate inside as it was outside, with furniture and details that seemed to have come out of a home decor magazine. It was such an artificial perfection that I felt like I was in a sitcom set.

As I rummaged through the rooms of the house, however, the feeling of being watched haunted me. Every sound made me shudder, every shadow made me jump. I looked through the living room, kitchen, even ventured into the bedrooms, where I was disturbed to see what Mr. and Mrs. Peterson had hidden: numerous family portraits. I almost closed the door in shock when I saw that the gaze of all of them was directed towards the door. I began to notice something strange about them; in all of them, the people were the same but... the surroundings weren't. "Wow," you might be thinking, "What's so strange about that? Wouldn't it be weird to have thousands of photos with the SAME setting?" and you would be right, but this case was exceptional. The photos seemed very, very old. There were things from the 80s, 70s, 60s; I even found a hand-painted portrait from that time before the photos. And in all of them, they were the same, as if they didn't age.

It was when a noise snapped me out of this trance. A muffled, low but unmistakable sound: a meow! I was tense, but also relieved to hear the meow. It was proof that Mr. Mutchkin was somewhere around. I followed the sound, and it led me to a fearful place, one that I had been deliberately avoiding: the basement. The meows intensified as my steps approached. I don't know how many of you have cats, but they meow differently depending on the situation, and my little feline friend was meowing in fear; it was urgent. I opened the creaky door, greeted by a gust of hot, humid air, a strong smell of mold. The stairs creaked under my feet as I descended slowly, my accelerated breath echoing in the emptiness.

I followed the meow, now clearer. I supposed he was huddled in a corner, scared, so I began to head towards the back of the room. But then, my eyes started to adjust, slowly, to the darkness... I stopped walking. My heart raced. I had to appear calm, but now, panic had consumed my mind. My chest began to heave as I breathed in more and more of that intoxicating air. I saw, with the little light I had, a figure, strange, contorted, but much larger than a cat. It had something... resembling a head, which began to turn towards me. I couldn't see its eyes, but I felt they were on me. I saw it move, opening its mouth, and then a meow sound echoed from its throat, this time I could hear it clearly, and it was much deeper, distorted...

"I-I'll be back, Mr. Mutchkin," I stuttered as I backed away, still facing the thing. But when I saw it move, I ran without even looking back, slamming the basement door and jumping out of the side window of the house as fast as I could.

However, my great panic came now: As I jumped over the Petersons' fence and finally entered my backyard, I saw a furry, small, curious figure on the balcony railing. It was Muchkin, wagging his fluffy tail. He looked at me, tilting his head in curiosity. I looked back, seeing the fence, imagining what was on the other side. I ran upstairs, to where my cat was. He snuggled against my hand, purring.

"Where have you been, buddy?"

My phone vibrated. It was a message from the lady from the next street, Lourdes.

"Hey dear, your cat showed up here this morning but I couldn't reach you, I gave him food and helped him over the fence. I saw the lights turning on, are you home? Is he okay?"

"Yeah, Mrs. Lourdes, thank you so much," I closed the phone.

Now me and Muchkin are here, on the second floor. The sun has set, and now we only have the pale light of the moon. It's one of those warm nights, but we're not looking up at the sky, but down. The Petersons' car is parked in front of the house. They've been there for almost an hour now, sitting motionless like dolls, except for Mr. Peterson, who is now staring directly at us...

0 Comments
2024/02/22
19:46 UTC

1

Due to The Consequences, we refrain from consuming meat after 6 pm in my family.

My family has a practice of refraining from consuming meat after 6 pm due to The Consequence. Initially, I assumed this was a widespread norm, a basic principle adhered to by other families. However, upon moving out, I realized how uncommon this practice was. Other families didn't follow what I considered a fundamental dietary guideline, unique to my family's belief in The Consequence.
For almost two decades, I strictly avoided eating meat after 6 pm, irrespective of cravings or leftover portions on my plate. Whether I had to discard the remaining food, resulting in significant wastage, or store it in a Tupperware container for the next day, The Consequence dictated our actions.
Despite my efforts to come home early for dinner, school and extracurricular activities often made it challenging. I recall an incident where, after hosting an afterschool club session and receiving a text from my father at 5:47 pm stating all meat had been bundled up, I arrived home disappointed but accustomed to the routine. The fear of The Consequence shaped our lives.
Due to its integral role in my family, I never discussed this topic with friends. Much like not mentioning mundane habits, such as putting dishes in the sink, our no-meat-after-six rule seemed unremarkable. While it may seem like a peculiar yet harmless restriction, The Consequence, with its bizarre and grim nature, made the entire practice unforgivable.
I shared this unique aspect of my life with my girlfriend, and when she discovered I still adhered to it, she left me, labeling me a lunatic. Her departure, taking her belongings and cookware, left me emotionally drained. In the aftermath, I resorted to a simple dinner of a Hot Pocket and air-fried chicken tenders, feeling physically and emotionally exhausted.
In a moment of heartbreak, I confided in my cousin during a drive home. Unbeknownst to me, he informed my parents, who visited me upon hearing the news. Unaware of the time, I offered them chicken tenders while consuming my meal, only realizing my mistake when my mother's expression changed. The clock, a reminder of The Consequence, triggered a series of shocking events.
My parents' reactions ranged from sympathy to horror as they discovered my violation of the no-meat-after-six rule. My attempt to apologize was met with a heavy silence. Suddenly, anxiety overwhelmed me, distorting my perception and triggering a surreal physical transformation.
My parents witnessed my body disintegrating until only my skeleton remained. In a chilling sequence, my remains were collected, discarded, and ground in the garbage disposal. My father, with a heavy heart, used a toolbox to affix me to the table using nails, recreating a form of crucifixion. As my body regenerated, the pain was excruciating, and an unspeakable urge emerged.
After my parents left, I endured the agony of removing the nails, haunted by the horrifying consequences of my actions. The narrative concludes with the revelation that The Consequence stems from a centuries-old curse inflicted upon an ancestor who committed cannibalistic acts. The family is bound by this curse, transforming into ravenous fiends if they consume meat after 6 pm, enduring a period of starvation before regaining humanity. The story ends with a haunting realization that The Consequence is not to be overlooked or underestimated.

3 Comments
2024/02/22
19:36 UTC

5

My Seal Team Found Something Horrific in the Baltic Sea

I was a part of a Navy Seal team called SAC-OP Recon. If you know anyone who was a Navy Seal they'll tell you they never heard of us which is by design. They'll think you mean Spec Ops. We're above that. Spec Ops guys don't even know we exist. The team operates within special access programs, all of which are programs and projects that have the highest security clearance the US government uses.

I can't tell you any of the things I worked on and I wouldn't if I could. Let's just say that if the military or an intel group needed to see or do anything underwater that no one could know about and that also required knowledge of technologies and information that even regular seals aren't cleared to have access to, they'd send us in.

Our job was to survey the site in detail. Not like you see on National Geographic, where they do some sonar scans and sit back and write a paper about it and pat themselves on the back. They take years, sometimes decades to do what we have to do in a few days. We map out every inch of the area with high quality sonar, infrared, visible light, x-ray, backscatter microwave, and a few things I can't mention. By the time we're done, if there's a dime sitting buried in the sand on the ocean floor you can find it in our data.

Our work is quickly processed and handed over to our sister team called SAC-OP Strike. Normal Seal teams all these guys Fire Teams. They do everything from sabotage, disarming mines, to underwater combat. Yes combat. Actual underwater combat. They have special weapons designed to work underwater and I'm not talking about mere knives and spearguns.

Anyway, it was 2013 and we were sent to the Baltic Sea with orders to check out something that had recently been found on the ocean floor by some sunken treasure hunters. It's called the Baltic Sea Anomaly. The Swedish government had quietly shut the treasure hunter's study of the object down and made them sign national security oaths to keep their mouths shut and play it off like they can't find funding for further expeditions. Meanwhile they called the U.S. for assistance. They have their own divers of course, but this thing was shutting down any and all electronics that came within 200 feet of it. They were stumped.

The object itself was located about 300 feet below the surface and was just sitting there on the ocean floor. It was almost perfectly round except for a few sections that looked as if they had been cut out. It had the basic shape of that ship Han Solo flew in the Star Wars movies - the Millenium Falcon. The treasure hunters original sonar image had been published before the Swedes had the situation under control so the public was already theorizing it to be a UFO. It was not.

The object sat at the end of a long trail in the sand that stretched out on the bottom and into a ravine that appeared to be cut out of a small undersea mountain. This gave the impression to some that this was a crash landing scar on the ocean floor where the object had slid to a stop upon it's sinking. It was not.

I was looking forward to the challenge of performing a reconnaissance mission without the aid of electronics. We brought a few devices with us just in case, but were fully prepared and expecting not to be able to use them. We even had underwater flares in case our lights shut off.

Our mission was simple: determine the basic nature of the object and survey it's exterior in detail. This sounds easier than it is. Especially without cameras and electronics. To determine the nature of the object we used the null hypothesis approach. This is where you try to rule things out by attempting to disprove your hypothesis. In this case we were acting on the hypothesis that the formation was natural in origin. Was is sandstone or a build up of sediment that just happened to build up to make a shape that coincidentally looked like a construction?

Deep down I was thinking it was probably some WWII equipment that had been scuttled or blasted off of a ship during the war. Maybe the base of a large ship mounted gun. But why would it be knocking electronics out? And how? At any rate all of us were Geologists, Marine Biologists, and Oceanographers so we knew exactly what to look for. I know that might sound odd to you. You have to understand that knowing what we are doing in all situations that we might encounter is what the military was paying for. You are not deployed in our group without these skills. If you don't want to do the schooling stay in the regular Seals.

In addition to our skill set our team only has two squads of three men each and no commanding officers. All six of us are officers of equal rank. We design the missions ourselves and operate with extreme self discipline. If you need an officer to tell you what to do, then you aren't fit for our kind of work. The Navy learned the hard way a long time ago that a commanding officer's ego can ruin a mission in certain circumstances. And while it might be necessary to have one when the men under him need that to perform, in the case of SEC-OP missions they only get in the way and risk lives and mission failure, and we do not fail at our missions. It isn't allowed. Teams in the old days had to keep shanking their commanding officers to ensure mission success and finally the Navy just started letting us do our thing.

My squad was going to start by taking samples of the surface material that had settled or otherwise built up on the object. We would drill through it with diamond tipped hand powered drills we had to determine what the object beneath was composed of. We'd do this with the aid of special chemistry test kits we had which were designed to work in ocean water. Remember, we couldn't use spectrometers because electronics were useless. The other team was going to examine every inch of the thing looking for signs of manufacturing. Both teams would also create a map of the object's magnetic field and variance if there was any, using only hand held compasses and underwater pencils. Yes, we were that good.

We began our dive when the sun was exactly 45 degrees above the horizon. This would provide enough light so we wouldn't need to use our flares for most of the day. We didn't bring air tanks except small ones for emergencies, and instead had hoses coming from the surface, supported by air bags every fifty feet. This would allow us to stay down as long as we needed. The Strike team was topside in the boat making sure the air pumps were working and preparing for whatever they might have to do once we came back with our assessment. They weren't expecting to have to do anything as we all assumed that this was either a piece of wartime hardware or an ancient ruin but they were prepared anyway. They always were.

On the way down, I noticed there were no fish or life of any kind in the waters around us. Usually that time of year you could find flounder, herring, Cod, and other species of fish swimming about. Maybe it was an odd coincidence but I found it noteworthy just the same.

As we approached the object a strange feeling came over us. It was an unusual feeling for us all. It was mild fear and apprehension. We had all been in much more dangerous situations that this before and we were trained not to fear. We didn't fear death, injury, or even drowning, yet all of us reported this same sensation.

We wore special dive masks that covered our entire faces so we could speak to each other. Sound travels well in the water and so as long as we were close enough we could all discuss what we needed to. We agreed to continue the mission in spite of this feeling but to make sure we kept each other aware of any increase in feelings of duress that we might experience. We soon arrived at the object and split up into our respective squads.

Up close the object was clearly not a natural formation, but we would go through our process anyway to be thorough. The object was somewhat flat on top except for a small perfectly smooth dome on the right side. To the left side there was a stairway going up to the flat top. The right angles and straight lines on the object had been dismissed as a rare but real natural phenomena that occurs due to the molecular nature of certain types of stone combined with water erosion from tides and currents. But here the stairs were sandwiched between flat stone walls of both sides which would prevent water from moving in the necessary directions to erode the stairs into the perfect steps that they were.

I chipped off a small chunk of the material on the side of the structure and put it into my test kit's receptacle, squeezed some chemicals into the enclosure, and shook it. I already knew but the resulting color of the mixture verified that the object was indeed covered with a thick layer of silt and sand that had built up, compacted, and hardened over time. It must have taken a long time to get into the state it was in because that part of the Baltic Sea didn't have a lot of turbulent water or natural silt.

I got the drill out and turned the hand crank as the bit sunk into the caked on silt and sand. It went down about four inches when it hit the underlying structure. I withdrew the drill, blew the silt out of the hole with a turkey baster type of device we use, and looked in. I recognized the material right away. It was coarse grained granite. Pink, black, and white specks together. The surface of the object wasn't just made from granite which shouldn't be found at the bottom of the sea, but it was polished granite! Perfectly flat and smooth. I cleared off some more of the compacted sand covering the area and showed it to my team: Brent, and David, both of whom were busy mapping the magnetic variance of the object. David swam over to the other squad to inform them of the discovery while Brent showed me the map they had made thus far.

It was unbelievable. They drew on a plastic sheet that had a sketch of the object on it with a special kind of grease pencil that worked under water. The lines they drew around it represented the distance from the object where the magnetic field the object emitted varied from standard north/south, and each line had a number on it indicating how many degrees off from the expected compass reading it was at that point. According to the map, the object was pulling the compass needle a full forty five degrees away from magnetic north towards itself. This effect was not present at the surface as we had checked before descending.

Just then David swam back over and told us that the other squad had found something that we needed to see. We met them behind the object where the bottom of the structure met the ocean floor. The men had discovered a small doorway. My squad volunteered to go inside. We removed our air lines and hooked up our emergency air tanks, each containing about a half hour of air.

It was dark inside the passageway and so I lit up a flare. We were in a hallway that led back towards the front of the object, but underneath it. The walls had less silt on them and we could wipe it off with our hands down to the polished granite. About halfway back the passageway ramped upward and we walked up and out of the water into a large room inside the structure.

The room was dark and cold. My flare lit the walls and ceiling revealing the same polished granite as the outside. There were engravings in the stone wall every four feet or so. The ceiling was about 12 feet from the floor. The room was a half circle in shape and had three granite tables that resembled altars a little bit, one on each side of the ramp and one behind it. The rest of the room was bare.

I tried to turn on my flashlight and as expected it did not work. David started sketching the images on the engravings which appeared to me to be depictions of human sacrifice. In the images, the rituals were taking place on the top exterior of the very structure we were inside. It was clear from the scenes depicted that this building wasn't always underwater. Either the oceans had risen since it was in use, or the land had sunken.

Brent pulled me over to one of these engravings and pointed. There in the image was some creature devouring the sacrifice. The men in the scene weren't sacrificing people to some deity, they were feeding a monster.

It was like a man in that it had two legs and feet, however at the waist it appeared to have about a dozen tentacles coming off its body but no arms. It did have a head though but it looked more like a giant mouth gaping open with a large teeth. The thing had large feathers coming off its back and the top of it's head as well. I've never seen anything like it depicted before however there are some Aztec and pre-Columbian figures that are similar in a few ways.

Brent and I quickly measured the room's dimensions and did a walkthrough, covering every square foot of the place. We found a stone door that appeared as though it was supposed to rotate on a central shaft, however we could not get it to budge. We discovered a stairwell that descended downward, but not back into the water. This went down into stone. We surmised that the structure had been built on top of an even larger rock or mountain that was now buried by the seafloor.

We descended the stone stairwell, which was not made of the same granite as the upper chamber. Instead this material looked like standard seafloor Basalt. The stairs ended about forty feet down into a small antechamber. There were some relics on the floor there, a spear and a set of ankle shackles. Both appeared completely oxidized to the point where they would probably disintegrate upon our attempting to pick them up.

The room had an opening that led into a huge cavern which was lit by an abundance of bioluminescent algae which coated much of the cave walls as well as a small river that flowed in and out of a set of pools. The water glowed a bright aqua color from this algae which made the water cloudy and opaque. There were large quartz crystals embedded in the rock along with iron pyrite and veins of gold. The view was spectacular.

We wondered aloud what had been in those shackles. We suspected it was the creature from the engravings or perhaps a sacrificial victim. There were footpaths that ran between the rock and stalagmites that formed the floor of the cavern. We split up and each proceeded down different paths giving ourselves exactly ten minutes time to meet back at the foot of the stairwell. Our air would be running out by then and we weren't going to risk trying to breathe the ancient air down there. We'd have to head back soon.

We took air, water, and sand samples as well as photographs using old fashioned, non electronic cameras loaded with a special film designed for low light. The cavern seemed to go back at least three hundred feet, with a ceiling around thirty feet high. The width I estimated in the neighborhood of fifty to sixty feet.

I could hear water pouring into water coming from the rear of the cave and so I headed back to ascertain whether or not there was some kind of waterfall back there someplace. I rounded a bend in the footpath and saw the source of the sound. A two foot diameter flow of water was pouring out of the sidewall of the cave about twenty feet up, arcing into a pool that was recessed in the floor. Behind the waterfall there were several skeletons chained up to the back wall. I started to take some photos of this when I felt something wrap around my right ankle.

Looking down I beheld a black tentacle protruding up out of the pool which had wrapped around my lower leg several turns. I instinctively pulled my leg away but it tightened its grip as I did so. I sounded a distress call from a noise making device we each carried on our wetsuit as I struck the tentacle with my fist in the hope it might release me.

It pulled back a bit which caused me to fall onto my back. I reached for my rock pick as the thing rose up out of the water. It was hideous. It used it's tentacles for support on the black rocky ground. Its head was like an octopus only the mouth was front facing. It growled, baring what reminded me of shark teeth with several rows going towards the back of its throat. It started to pull me towards it and lift me up off the ground when Brent reached me with David not far behind. He struck the tentacle that held me with his rock pick letting loose a glowing aqua colored fluid from the creature's flesh. It immediately dropped me and turned its attention to Brent.

Its saucer sized, amber eyes twitched back and forth as it examined him a moment before it lashed out with two of its tentacles. As it did, both of these appendages projected long, thin, sharp, white ribbed rods from their tips which pierced Brents torso. The creature then lifted him up and pulled him in towards its gaping and shrieking mouth.

David had arrived at my location by then and began to drag my body backwards away from the thing as it put Brent's head into its mouth and closed it in a circular fashion around his neck where its teeth cut through Brent's wetsuit and flesh. He flayed around trying to break free for a moment before the creature had bitten his head clean off. We could only watch and take a few photos from a distance as it used it's tentacles to peel back his wetsuit and munch on Brent's body like a human would when deshelling a shrimp.

I got to my feet as David announced that we needed to let the strike team handle it. The two of us headed for the stairwell as fast as we could. Before we could get there, the creature swam along the river next to us and jumped out of the water, tackling David while thrusting it's pointy rods through him just like it did to Brent.

David and the beast fell over sideways and it proceeded to feed on him. It did so with such ferocity and speed that I had no time to try to save him. All I could do was run and take advantage of the fact that it would be stalled from killing me for a minute as it feasted on David.

I glanced back as I ran and saw that the creature had put David's lifeless body down and had begun to pursue me. I guess it didn't want to lose any of that rare human meal it had discovered. I suppose it had been feeding on the algae in the water for so long that the taste of blood once again after all these years was too much for it to resist.

Just as I was reaching the opening into the small chamber where the stairwell was, the thing flung itself at me and landed on my back. I had my rock pick in hand by then so I started to bang it's pointed tip into the meat of one of the monster's tentacles. It withdrew it but as it did, the thing wrapped its body around my upper torso and pressed it's flesh against the back of my neck where I could feel tiny bristle-like hairs stick into my spine. Like little needles they inserted deep into my nervous system where the creature hijacked my motor control.

It used this method to couple with my brain and our minds became one mind. I knew its entire history, thoughts, and experiences. I understood its deepest motivations and desires and it knew mine. It used my legs to walk as it rode me like a horse back up the stairwell, into the chamber above, and down the ramp to the open sea outside.

It hadn't been out of the cavern in over a millenia as it needed a human host to climb the stairs. I could feel its excitement as we exited the structure and proceeded to kill the three men in the other squad who had been waiting for our return.

Knowing the lethality of the strike team it opted to steal an inflatable motorized raft and sink the boat by having me chip a hole in the hull with my rock pick. The sound of my doing this altered the seals inside to our presence and two of them entered the water to check it out as we sped off in the raft.

I got an oversized trench coat to hide the creature on my back so I could move about among the masses without causing a stir. I haven't checked in with the Navy in several weeks now and am currently sitting in a cheap hotel room in Barcelona typing this.

While I would like to be rid of this thing, I also have to admit that I feel its pleasure at the taste of human blood and meat. Our minds have become one and I am as much it as I am me. I know the military will have sent a wet team to track me down by now and I know they will probably eventually find me. I have to stay on the move. The trail of dead will soon give away my whereabouts as the method of the kills is unique and leaves its own signature.

I'm putting this story online as a last ditch effort to get a message through to my dear mother, Jane, the only person I still feel connected to and whom I miss dearly. I love you mom. I'm sorry about all of this and maybe someday if I'm lucky we can meet again.

I've already left too many bodies here, so I'm leaving Barcelona tonight before daybreak. But first I feed again. X

1 Comment
2024/02/22
19:03 UTC

17

ROYGBIV

Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The colours of the rainbow. There’s songs, poems, shows, and so many other things that were created to teach these colours.

I chose the worst possible way. It was late on a Monday night, and I had forgotten to make lesson plans for that week. I usually don’t forget, I care about my students a lot.

I just finished teaching them the alphabet. It was a hard unit, but definitely necessary. As a kindergarten teacher, most people rely on my ability to teach kids the foundation for their future education. It’s quite stressful, but very rewarding.

Colours was a unit my kids were excited for, so I was saving some fun activities for this week. I remember checking my alarm clock and realizing it was much too late for me to be able to write a coherent lesson.

And that’s where YouTube comes in. YouTube has always been a godsend, something I never realized was as heavenly as it was until I got my teaching license.

I didn’t have to teach if my kids had videos that taught them. So I started looking for videos on ROYGBIV, and I found the perfect video.

At least it was perfect to my sleep muddled mind. I watched it, the melody of the video’s soundtrack was catchy. Easy to remember.

It was what was needed for class. I saved it, feeling a sense of pride wash over me. It hadn’t taken me too long to search. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to videos.

It was a cartoon character, singing about the colours and giving photo examples. Sure, its smile was a bit too wide and its limbs a bit too long, but I knew the kids would love it. Adults? Not so much. But in the brain of twenty 5 to 6 year olds? It was the greatest thing.

With the pride of a job well done (well, at least one someone else did and I found), I closed my computer and drifted into sleep.

I remember waking up exhausted. My friends (who had much bigger paychecks than me) would have told me it’s because I “didn’t reach R.E.M.”

I didn’t spare a second thought about it, I just headed to work. No need to worry about things that already happened.

With a coffee in my hands and a bagel in my stomach, I soon felt much better. Funny how that works. I gathered materials and set them up on each students’ desk.

They were all particularly chatty today, telling me about the weekends’ events while walking in. Izzy got to pet puppies, Zander got his pants eaten by a goat, Lilly watched Finding Nemo for the 120th time.

Alex told me about a tycoon on Roblox that he played with his older cousin, Tatiana ate mac and cheese for breakfast, so on and so forth. I heard a lot of stories.

We had our opening lesson after the morning’s announcements. I found out that the majority preferred chocolate ice cream over vanilla as a sweet treat after our bell ringer.

It’s always good to give students a way to healthily debate and learn how to respect others’ opinions. Using questions like that was a great way to open their minds and an even better way to get their attention.

I gave them a very short lesson on colours before pulling up the video. Their eyes were glued to the screen by the moment I shared the video on our smart board.

You see, if I pull up a video on my computer, I can screen share it to the smart board so I can control the screen but the kids can easily see.

I was very pleased when they giggled at the sight of the cartoon, laughing at the jokes and puns. I glanced down at my computer and saw the character staring blankly at the screen.

That was a shock. The music was still playing and it was perfectly fine on the smart board, but it wasn’t on my screen. I tilted it so the kids couldn’t see mine, not wanting to scare them.

It was almost still, besides its chest moving as it “breathed”, a lot more lifelike than I was comfortable with. Was the smile that wide last night? Its eyes were hollow and crinkled up from the stretch of the grin.

It was humanoid but in the worst way possible, it was… wrong. Only slightly off. Not enough for it to be a huge deal, but enough to be noticed.

The kids clapped as the song ended and I startled. I forgot it was still going on. I shut my computer quickly, the smart board clicking off and fading to black as I took away its content.

The rest of the day was normal. Nothing wrong. Yet that thing’s face didn’t leave my mind and my heartbeat didn’t slow. Not for a second. During the kids’ lunch break, I pulled it up again.

After scrolling through other experiences shared on this community page, I realize how bad of a decision that was. But I did it. I wish I didn’t.

And the video was normal. The colours seemed a bit brighter and more intense, but its arms were normal and its smile wasn’t stretched out grotesquely.

It took way too long for me to realize that it wasn’t just the video that was put in a wash of high resolution colour. Everything else was too.

My head started to pound from the bright colours being reflected. It was too much. I never realized how muted our world was until I saw it clearly.

I wish I could take back my decision. It kept getting brighter and the colour seemed to be pressed directly into my eyes. Like needles with coloured ink being tattooed into skin.

Dizziness took over as my head pounded with the beat of my heart, a tempo that was speeding up. I called into the office and said I didn’t feel well. I needed to go home. The office was worriedly fussing over me, but I didn’t have the capacity to reassure the sweet woman who worked there.

They called in a sub and I left. Just stepping outside hurt. The colours were even brighter, digging into my skull and tearing into my retinas.

I will admit, I let out a string of words that are unbecoming of an educator but it just hurt so badly. I hated my past self for buying a red car at that moment.

The engine’s rumbling was music to my ears, something familiar. I sped home, ignoring almost all speed limits and road signals. It was so hard to drive with the tears streaming down my face. It hurt too much. I’ve never been honked at more than that day.

My house has been in the dark for a few days now. It helps. But it hasn’t gone down. I tried to turn the lights on yesterday. I bit down on my tongue so harshly to hide a scream that I assume would be blood curdling that I bit off the tip. I can still taste it.

Blood that should have been dark red, almost black was awful. Dark colours should have helped. But instead, something made the colours brighter.

The pink of my flesh was almost white. The prickle of needles I described earlier in this post had changed. It was like being branded now. Branded with pink.

It’s gotten to the point that I don’t just see them; I feel them. Sounds have colours. Feelings have colours. Everything does.

The keys of the computer I’m typing on is blue. The sound is green. The cold metal of the gun at my side is yellow. The bullets feel like purple.

I predict that the sound of my brains splattering against the ceiling will be orange. I think the sound of my heart giving in will be violet.

A fitting end. ROYGBIV ends in violet. And so will I.

I’m telling you this so you can be careful. And please, if there’s anyone who knows this video; try to take it down. It does more harm than good.

I don’t need advice; it’s the end for me. I just want to know that I did something to prevent others from having the same end I will experience.

I hope that creature gets destroyed by the very colours it teaches. Please be safe. And watch for colours. The white of my screen is too much already.

0 Comments
2024/02/22
18:17 UTC

4

I think me and my friends might've encountered an cult!

I've been eager to share an unforgettable experience from a recent camping trip, one that blurred the lines between reality and the unexplained. So, It all started with a simple plan: a weekend getaway with my closest friends, surrounded by nature and free from the stress of everyday life. We meticulously planned every detail, from packing the essentials to scouting the perfect camping spot deep in the heart of the woods.

When the day finally arrived, we set off with excitement coursing through our veins. The car was packed to the brim with gear, and laughter filled the air as we embarked on our adventure. We sang along to our favorite tunes, shared stories, and soaked in the scenic beauty passing by outside our windows.

Upon reaching our destination, a secluded spot nestled among towering trees, we wasted no time in setting up camp. The afternoon was spent exploring our surroundings, hiking along winding trails, and taking in the sights and sounds of the wilderness.

As the sun began its descent, we gathered around the campfire, the warmth of the flames casting a cozy glow over our makeshift campsite. We grilled burgers, toasted marshmallows, and swapped stories late into the night, the crackling fire providing the soundtrack to our laughter and camaraderie.

But as darkness fell and the forest grew still, a sense of unease settled over us. It was as if the woods held their breath, waiting for something to stir the air with a sense of foreboding.

And then, it happened.

Venturing into the woods alone, seeking solace in the tranquil embrace of nature, I stumbled upon a clearing bathed in moonlight. My breath caught in my throat as I observed a group of figures, cloaked in shadows, standing in a circle and chanting in a language unknown to me.

Fear gripped me as I watched from the safety of the trees, my mind racing with questions and uncertainty. Were these people simply engaging in a harmless ritual, or was there something more sinister at play?

With my heart pounding in my chest, I made a hasty retreat back to camp, my thoughts consumed by the strange encounter. I debated whether to share what I had seen with my friends, but ultimately decided to keep it to myself, not wanting to alarm them unnecessarily.

As we settled in for the night, the events of that fateful encounter weighed heavy on my mind. I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag, haunted by visions of cloaked figures and mysterious rituals.

Suddenly, a rustling outside our tents jolted me awake, my heart racing in my chest. I held my breath, listening intently for any sign of danger. And then, I heard it—the faint sound of footsteps approaching our campsite.

Panic surged through me as I realized we had been spotted. I frantically shook my friends awake, urging them to remain silent as we waited with bated breath for whatever was lurking outside to reveal itself.

Minutes felt like hours as we crouched in the darkness, our hearts pounding in unison. And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the footsteps receded into the night, leaving us trembling with relief.

With the first light of dawn, we wasted no time in packing up our campsite and getting the hell out of there. As we drove away from the woods, a sense of unease lingered in the air, a reminder of the darkness that lurked just beyond the trees.

Back in the safety of civilization, I couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to the encounter than met the eye. Determined to uncover the truth, I delved into research, scouring the internet for any information that could shed light on the mysterious ritual we had witnessed.

And that's when I stumbled upon it—a mention of a secretive organization rumored to be involved in ancient rituals and conspiracies dating back centuries. Could it be that what we witnessed was somehow connected to this elusive group?

I poured over articles and forum posts, piecing together clues and uncovering a web of intrigue that stretched far beyond the confines of our camping trip. The more I learned, the more I realized that our encounter was just the tip of the iceberg, a glimpse into a world of secrets and shadows.

Now, as I sit here typing this, I can't help but wonder what other mysteries lie hidden in the depths of the woods. That's where you come in, dear redditors. I'm reaching out to you for advice, for insight, for any information that could help unravel the enigma that has consumed my thoughts since that fateful night.

Have any of you ever encountered something similar while out in the wilderness? Do you have any knowledge of these ancient rituals or secretive organizations? I'm all ears, and I'm counting on your collective wisdom to help shed light on this dark and mysterious corner of the world.

In the meantime, I'll continue my research, digging deeper into the secrets that lie hidden beneath the surface. And who knows? Perhaps together, we can uncover the truth behind the enigmatic encounter that changed the course of our camping trip forever.

So, to all my fellow adventurers out there, I leave you with this: embrace the unknown, for it is in the darkness that we often find the light. And remember, sometimes the most ordinary of experiences can lead to the most extraordinary discoveries.

I eagerly await your responses, and until then, happy exploring, and may your journeys be filled with wonder and intrigue.

0 Comments
2024/02/22
17:45 UTC

15

My condo is a "turtle tunnel" for creatures I can't comprehend -- Part 2

Part 1

As it turned out, the first step in ending my nightly torment involved taking my remaining savings to the hardware store. We replaced my flimsy and mangled bedroom door with a steel one, complete with a heavy deadbolt, an impact plate, all held in place with four inch screws.

There would be no more cowering behind the dresser barricade while we planned our strategy, which -- I was quite annoyed to learn -- did not include killing the damn thing.

"I know it sucks to hear." Van snapped the lid of his tool box shut. "You're certainly a victim here. but this event is interrupting the creature's home, as much as yours. They were here first. If all else fails, I'll certainly defend us to the death. But that can't be our first option."

I folded my arms and leaned against the sturdy new door frame. "So how do we deal with this, then? Knock it out with a dart gun, and drag it out to your truck?"

Van shook his head, missing my sarcasm completely. "No way to know for sure if my darts would actually work. If they did, where would we release him?"

"The woods? A zoo--I don't know, anywhere else?"

"I have a few ideas I'd like to try first, you know."

The first of these ideas was so obvious, it almost seemed too easy: barricading the pantry door. I admit, I didn't have a ton of faith in the two-by-fours we used to seal the opening. Just as I predicted: the extra layer of protection bought us two solid thuds before the invisible entity crashed through, and continued its routine.

"Well, at least it didn't walk through the door," quipped the ever-positive trapper.

Our next attempt involved sealing the cabinet with a plywood sheet, upon which I carefully copied the sealing rune from the inside of the closet door. We spread a line of salt across the kitchen floor, then another across the hall for good measure.

The salt and sigils did little to deter the creature. At the stroke of midnight, a familiar pounding shattered any illusion I had for an easy resolution.

Thud. Thud. Crash!

"Why do you think it didn't hold?" I asked Van the next morning while we swept up the damage.

"I've never quite had much luck with those glyphs." He stopped to lean against his broom, contemplating. "I wonder if there is a ritual component needed to make them work. Or maybe they were meant to prevent someone on the other side from opening the door... not our friend from kicking it down."

I mulled this over for a moment before an idea came to me. "What if we just pull it out?"

"Pulled what out?"

"The cabinet."

Van made a face, like he'd tasted something sour. "Where would that get us?"

"You said the opening to this turtle tunnel...whatever you want to call it... is something we can't see, or interact with, right?"

He nodded.

"I want to know if this opening is just sorta hanging there, or if it's physically linked to the back of the cabinet."

Van snapped his fingers. "Now you're getting somewhere, eh? If you're right... we could just put the cabinet in the closet. Brick it back up again."

"Pretty much just shorten the distance of the tunnel from a few dozen feet, to a fraction of an inch, yeah," I agreed.

Of course, it was easier said than done. Even from the moment we began unscrewing the cabinet from its wall mounts, something felt profoundly wrong. My first instinct is to describe the space inside the cabinet as cold, but that doesn't quite fit. Imagine a steady trickle of ice water running down your spine. Goosebumps covered my arms, along with a prickling, almost biting sensation.

The last time I'd felt this way was the afternoon I'd accidentally broken the seal on the closet door.

"That should do it." Van stepped out from the back of the pantry cabinet and closed the door. He got into a squat position, and wrapped his fingers under the lip of the frame. "Ready?"

I joined him.

"On three," he said. "One...two... three!'

We both pulled. The cabinet scraped a few inches along the linoleum. As soon as we began moving it, a high pitched howling noise began to echo from within the cabinet. It sounded impossibly far off at first, growing in volume and proximity like an approaching jet. The wood shook.

Van dropped his end. "Run!" He shoved me away from the door an instant before it burst open. An unseen thing rushed through the air, smashing into the living room wall and shattering the glass-framed picture that had been hanging there.

A few pebble-sized pieces of broken glass hung in the air a moment, clinging to the unseen creature's fur.

"Get back to the room! Shut the door!" Van threw back his coat, and drew a pistol from his hip holster. He fired at least half a dozen shots--no, pellets, each exploding in a spatter of neon green paint.

Van's gambit had worked: thanks to the paintball marks, I could track the general motion and position of its torso, and one arm. It also seemed to really piss the creature off.

The beast let out an unnatural sound, alien to the animal kingdom and loud enough to bring pain to my ears; like the gnashing of metal machine parts that were never meant to touch.

In a single, fluid motion, Van ducked a swipe from the paint-spattered arm, discarded his pistol, and drew a shimmering Bowie knife from a sheath just above his boot. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, feinting with half-thrusts and slices as he tried to reposition himself by the hall.

Something -- probably the creature's tail -- yanked Van's foot from underneath him, hoisting the trapper into the air by his ankle.

"Get out!" He yelled. "Lock yourself in!"

I ignored him, making a move for the blade. My hand closed around the paracord-wrapped handle. Not a second later, a set of invisible, enormous fingers wrapped around my upper body and hoisted me into the air.

I squirmed and struggled, pushing against the calloused, leathery hide that seemed to cover the creature's palm.

"The knife!" Van hollered.

Of course.

I sank the blade down to the grip into the beast's forearm. I twisted and wrenched the blade free, showering the kitchen with a spray of dark, shimmering fluid.

The invader howled again as I brought the knife down a second time. But as I raised my hand to deliver a third stab, it dropped Van, wheeled around, and shoved me through the back of the closet wall.

I flinched, expecting to be slammed into a solid wall. The sensation that came was more like plunging into cold water. The hand relinquished me, and sent me tumbling through the dark, fluid space. My eventual impact with the ground -- though soft and spongey -- knocked the breath from my body.

I gasped and wheezed as I lay on by back, trying to fill my lungs. A swirling sky stared down at me, tendrils of pink and black, dancing like oil on water, but never mixing. As I sat up, my palms squelched in a thick bed of grass, sodden with a sticky fluid. I couldn't tell whether its red color was from the unnatural sun, casting the kind of light one would see in a darkroom. Droplets of the liquid seemed to be welling up from the vegetation, drifting skyward.

Was this the domain of the creature in my pantry: crimson forest with twisted, sickly trees? And why had I been seemingly abandoned here?

Would it eat me?

Could it eat me?

If not--for what purpose was it keeping me here?

Panicking certainly wouldn't help me. I took a deep breath, and decided to take stock of my surroundings. I stood near the shore of what looked like a lake of bubbling black tar. The trees, though thin and spindly, reached higher than some of the tallest redwoods in California. From their branches hung a sickly sort of moss, black and stringy, as if it had been fished from the rancid shower drain of some hairy cosmic being.

The place felt oddly finite in a way I couldn't describe; some feeling in the back of my head told me that if I strayed too far from the lake, the forest would simply cease to be..

"You dropped this."

I wheeled around, almost losing my balance. A woman stood at the tree line, holding Van's knife. Long, dark hair framed her pale, hollowed face. From her complexion, it was clear she hadn't seen the sun in months--maybe years. Her tattered dress would've matched her skin tone perfectly, were it not for the filthy stains and spatters.

She approached me barefoot, toes squishing softly in the mud, with the blade held out in her arm. It still shimmered in the void light that seemed to taint everything in this place.

Instinctively, I recoiled, nearly losing my balance again. "Woah... who are you?"

"Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you." She stood still, and lowered the blade. "Forgive me if I've forgotten my manners... it's been quite a while since I've spoken with anyone?"

"Where--" I stopped myself. This wasn't the important question. "Who are you?"

0 Comments
2024/02/22
17:30 UTC

177

I took a psychology test. It told me things about myself that I didn’t want to know.

We’re quick to judge the man handing out free candy from his windowless van. But when a professional-looking academic in a lab coat offered me $110 to participate in a psychology experiment over at UCLA, I didn’t think twice. Both people are motivated by the same need: the benefit they’ll get from a willing participant far outweighs the personal cost of what they’re offering, and the free market has determined the price needed to drop just enough inhibitions to get the job done.

So that’s how I got $110 richer.

It seemed simple, at least initially. I had to show up at room 1913 at Pritzker Hall and fill out a questionnaire. The process didn’t involve any face-to-face interviews.

A bored-looking receptionist handed me a very sharp pencil with a clipboard that had a single piece of paper attached to it. She closed the little window afterward so that I couldn’t see her. Moving over to the chairs, I sat across from the only other current participant. She was cute; the woman offered a flick of her eyes toward me and a half-smile before looking back down at her paper.

I briefly wondered if the real test was to see whether we’d interact. If so, the joke was on them; I’d been creating awkward silences with the opposite sex since puberty taught me what self-loathing was.

The questions on the page started simple enough.

1 – Do you consider yourself to be an assertive person?

Each answer needed a response from “1 is strongly disagree” to “7 is strongly agree.” I circled a number without thinking too hard and moved on.

2 – Would you be willing to change your personal beliefs if it meant protecting yourself or someone you loved?

I squirmed. Kind of dark, but I didn’t think too much on it.

3 – Based on the answer to your previous questions, do you think that most other people would be willing to inflict harm on you if they felt it was necessary?

I had a sudden recollection of the Milgram experiment, which discovered that human beings are horrible monsters. I chose “strongly agree.”

4 – The woman across from you is named Maureen. Do you think that she would hurt you, Stanley?

Any icy chill slid into my stomach as genuine fear clawed at me.

This test had been written just for me.

I looked up at the woman. Was she reading something similar? She didn’t look at me. In fact, she was staring unnaturally at the paper before her.

A bead of sweat snaked down her forehead.

I held my breath and read the next question.

5 – Her instructions will cause you great harm unless you follow your instructions very carefully.

What the hell? That wasn’t even a question. I was done. Fuck the $110.

I don’t know why, but my dumb ass kept reading as I stood up to leave.

6 – We have Alden.

I wanted to puke. Alden was my son.

I didn’t know what to do. Figuring they had my balls in a vice grip, I decided to hear them out. I got back into the chair as calmly as possible.

7 – Maureen’s daughter is Seychelle. Isn’t that a nice name? We have Seychelle and Alden right now. They cry too much.

I wanted to punch my fist through the stupid fucking beige wall.

I kept reading.

8 – Only one of the children will get to live.

I almost passed out at that point. Despite wanting to believe that this was all horse shit, I somehow knew that every word was true.

9 – The first participant to exit the room will recover their child.

I tried to hide the fact that I was hyperventilating as I read the final line.

10 – Now show us what personal beliefs you’re willing to sacrifice for someone you love.

Holding my neck still, I looked up from the clipboard.

Maureen was staring at me with her head down in the exact same position.

What were my options? Talk to her? Assume it wasn’t real? Wait for her to act?

I want you to stop and consider what you really would have done.

I don’t know which of us moved first, but we both shot out of our seats. She jumped toward the door, which was a mistake, because I moved on her. I reached for her shoulder, slipped, caught her wrist, and pulled her to a stop as I swung the pencil into her thigh. She screamed when I buried it two inches deep with an eruption of blood.

I didn’t look back to see if she fell. I only knew panic and running as I pulled open the door and leapt into the hallway.

“Alden!” I yelled as my boy appeared in front of me. Relief, terror, and nausea coursed through every body part as I hugged him even tighter than he grabbed me.

“Are you okay?” I whispered into his ear.

“No,” he answered through meek tears.

I was going to email Alden’s preschool to let them know he’d be gone a while for personal reasons, but that proved unnecessary. When I opened the page, I found a message from them waiting for me.

School had been cancelled. A fellow student, Seychelle Ponderosa, had died in an escalator accident. Attached to the email was a smiling photo of Maureen hugging a young, blonde girl who had the same eyes.

I closed my laptop and vomited.

The experiment was successful, at least, in answering the question.

What would you be willing to do?

BD

W

20 Comments
2024/02/22
13:08 UTC

13

The Children of the Oak Walker [Part 18]

[Part 17]

The old green van wound through more of the tight side streets of Black Oak, the buildings becoming more and more decrepit as we went. Lawns stood overgrown in places, some buildings were cordoned off with yellow caution tape, and a few cars sat abandoned on the side of the road, burned or smashed to pieces. Trash lay clumped together the storm gutters, and there were even a few scattered articles of clothing discarded on some sections of sidewalk. I’d been to some of the poorer areas in Louisville, but this shocked me; everyone in New Wilderness had spoken of Black Oak as the wealthier part of Barron County.

“Can you believe this used to be one of the higher-end neighborhoods?” As if she could read my mind, Andrea’s blue eyes lost some of their feisty gleam, and she jerked her head toward the ruined urban landscape outside our windows. “When ELSAR first rolled into town, everyone thought they were here to save us. The mayor even threw a parade down main street. Then the walls went up, and the checkpoints, and the signal-jammers . . . by the time people started to question it all, it was too late.”

My eyes fixed on a small stuffed horse lying on a front porch, the door to the silent house ajar, much of the front glass broken. “But why don’t more people fight? I mean, there’s like 10,000 citizens here, right? They can’t shoot everyone.”

“They don’t have to.” Josh winced as he daubed at his torn ear with the corner of his uniform sleeve. “You know those jackboot clowns who had you in a cell?”

I nodded, doubtful I would ever be able to forget that awful place as long as I lived.

“We call em Organs, like in an old Russian book we found after ELSAR tossed a bunch of stuff from our public library.” Josh sneered, as if merely describing them made him want to punch a wall. “They’re all locals, mostly students recruited from the city college to help keep order whenever people get treasonous ideas in their heads . . . like trying to leave. Conveniently, they also replaced most of the old cops, who refused to follow the city’s orders. The regular mercs are ex-military, and depending on the unit they aren’t always bad, but the Organs are a whole new breed of evil.”

In my head, the screams returned, helpless men and women enduring horrible atrocities for seemingly no reason at all. My skin crawled at the memory of the guard’s hand on my butt, his rank breath on my cheek, his cruel laugh as he promised to come back for me later. How many girls had been trapped there, and never got out? Just the thought of being back in that tiny concrete room with no hope of escape made me nauseous, and I had to shut my eyes to drive away the dozens of strangled, hopeless shrieks I’d heard from the door of my cell.

That would have been me. Good God, that was almost me. How on earth could they do that to their own people?

“But you guys have guns.” I swallowed and gripped my rifle tighter. “This is Ohio, there’s got to be enough weapons in town to push them out.”

“You don’t think they knew that?” One of the older boys in the huddle sighed and looked down at the well-worn lever action across his lap with a frown. “First thing they did was ask people to ‘donate’ any extra guns or ammo they had for the auxiliaries. Claimed they didn’t have enough to form a defensive line around town. Of course, everyone was scared of the monsters, and the Organs hadn’t started arresting people yet, so lots of the adults volunteered. That’s how they figured out which houses had weapons, and which didn’t. After that they just went door-to-door at night when people were asleep, so no one had time to fight back.”

“And for those who didn’t say anything?” I shook my head, astounded at the night-and-day difference from the tyrannical control of this place and the utter abandonment of the rural sections of Barron County. “I mean, not everyone would have donated, right? What about people who stayed quiet?”

“They sicked the Organs on their families.” Andrea pulled both legs in to her chest, and her face rippled in a flash of pained grief. “It’s easy to be stubborn when all you have is yourself, but what father wouldn’t hand over his rifle if they had his daughter stripped naked in a cell? They targeted girls specifically, either for imprisonment or indoctrination; after all, some of their best officers are women. In the end it didn’t matter though. Lots of kids willingly turned in their parents, and parents reported their children like clockwork.”

They did what?

My jaw dropped, but Josh’s blood-smeared face took on a hateful scowl. “Collaborator families get higher food rations and live in a nicer part of town with no power restrictions. One of my younger sister’s friends turned me in because she found out I was breaking curfew to meet with a girl I liked, and the Organs gave out a promotion for every ‘insurgent’ their members caught. Only reason I got away was because Samantha called our landline and said there were soldiers in her backyard waiting for me.”

Biting my lip, I dared to speak the unasked question aloud that hung in the air between us like fog. “What happened to her?”

His eyes moistened, and Josh blinked the tears away with an angry hoarseness to his voice. “The Organs took her as soon as they traced the call. I heard it, all of it, right over the phone. My sister got sent to a ‘social adaptation’ center in the northern district, and my parents agreed to denounce me in a radio commercial, in order to keep her from the same fate as Samantha. The girl that reported us got an interview with Sheriff Wurnauw on TV, and now her family gets three square meals a day, versus the usual one. A rich reward for a loyal citizen.”

Those last words he spat out like a line from a well-known but immensely hated commercial, and the van went silent for a few seconds as we continued to bump along over potholes, ruts, and cracked asphalt.

Thunk, thunk.

Knuckles rapped on the metal of the van, and as one, we all looked toward the front, where the wrinkly old driver pointed ahead. “We’re here.”

A run-down gas station came into view, with a tall sheet-metal garage attacked to it, the old parking lot covered in miscellaneous garbage. Cracks spiderwebbed over the cement pad next to the old gas pumps, and slabs of plywood were nailed over the windows of the main station, swollen from exposure to the rain. A faded sign read, ‘Allen’s Gas and Groceries’, most of the color long since chipped away. It had a chain-link fence around it, but the bent gate was propped open, and the sputtering Volkswagen rolled to a stop in front of the garage’s massive sliding doors.

Creeeaak.

Both steel doors trundled open, and I caught the silhouettes of more people inside, suspicious eyes trained on us over the barrels of rifles. Much of the dimly lit interior was heaped with junk, but there was enough space to pull the van in-between the barrels, metalworking machines, and unused car parts. A few lights glowed from within, but not many, and it struck me as the kind of place I would have suspected for a drug dealer’s hideout if we’d been in Louisville.

The old man in the driver’s seat flicked his lights in some sort of pre-set signal, and we rumbled into the building.

“Caught some lead out there, did ya?” A bony man, likely in his mid-forties, with scraggly brown facial hair and a shortened Kalashnikov in his hands spat a stream of tobacco juice out the doorway as the others dragged them shut.

“Just some stray shots.” It took the elderly driver a few tries to climb down from his seat, and when he finally touched down on the garage floor, he walked slightly bent over. In one wrinkled hand, the old-timer lugged an aged M1 carbine, the finish as scratched and chipped as he was wrinkled and gray. “Once we got clear of the regulars, it wasn’t so bad. Those Organ fools couldn’t shoot straight with their pants around their ankles, and a pretty girl holding the light. They got them fancy laser sights, makes them too cocky. In Korea all we had were irons, and boy, we didn’t miss nearly that much.”

“Alright, whatever you have to do, make it fast and disperse.” As we clambered out of the back of the van, Tex barked orders to the other fighters, and guided me out of the group with one hand on my arm. “You’re with me. Their surveillance satellites don’t always work thanks to the electromagnetic radiation, but they have some good days. If they spotted us drive in here, we’ve got maybe five minutes to clear the site before their armored trucks roll in. We have to get you clean in that time.”

Confused, I looked down at myself, most of the grime from our desperate flight on my borrowed orange jumpsuit. “I’m not that dirty.”

“Your tracker.” He tapped the back of his own neck, and we wove between a few darkened shop lifts to where a cubicle of white sheets had been set up in one corner, flooded with light from the inside. “If we don’t take it out, it’ll lead them right to us like rats to cheese. We used to be able to just pop the old ones off, but they made this new type that burrows into your skin, so it has to be cut out.”

Of course it does. I’m getting really tired of being everyone’s practice suture pad. I’m going to be more scars than person at this rate.

My skin went clammy with dread, but I followed him into the makeshift booth, determined to do whatever it took to stay out of ELSAR’s hands. The other fighters sorted themselves into pairs or threes, and they tugged aside a large circular manhole cover in the floor to lower themselves in one-by-one. Only the few men who had been in the garage already remained, along with the elderly driver, who stood with his carbine slung on one sinewy shoulder, smoking a cigarette.

Inside the cubicle, a weightlifter’s bench had been draped in a white drop cloth, and a metal tray sat on a small table near it, lined with surgical tools. Two freestanding lights on poles hovered over the bench, and a figure in white stood with his back to us, washing both gloved hands in a stainless-steel bowl of something that stank like soap. No type of anesthetic drip sat anywhere, and my guts churned at the thought that I might have to undergo yet another terrible operation without drugs to dull the pain.

“Tiger.” Tex called to the white-clad person as he directed me to the bench. “We got her.”

The figure shook his hands dry, and my heart skipped a stunned beat as he turned to face us.

What the . . .

His swarthy face pulled into a meek smile, and Kaba lost some of the heightened strain in his cheeks. “Good to see you again, Hannah.”

Blood running ice cold in paranoia, I looked at Tex, then Kaba, and slid back on the bench to palm for my rifle. “H-he’s with ELSAR. He’s one of them, I know he is. He was in their medical wing, and—”

“And he’s kept more people out of the Organ’s hands than anyone.” Andrea appeared from behind the curtain, donned in her own blue latex gloves and white apron. “A few months back, ELSAR installed some VR booths in the library, to distract the public from the fact that they purged a bunch of books. Tiger got us the codes to one, and we used it to hack your tracker chip. Naturally, the Organs transferred you for security reasons, but thanks to Tex, we knew all about their protocols, and found you anyway.”

My eyes narrowed, and I glanced at the hulking Tex as the dots connected in my mind. Of the two, he fit his uniform far better than Josh. He’d known their security protocol, had walked into their headquarters to steal me, and no one had been any the wiser until the last minute. Crow had called out his name, hesitated to shoot . . . because Kaba wasn’t the only ELSAR man here.

“You were part of ELSAR too?” I blinked at him, unsure how to react.

“It’s a long story.” Tex checked his watch. “One we don’t have time for right now. I quit the mercs when I figured out that we were here to guard the suits, and not the civilians. Kaba and I were squad mates then.”

Kaba nodded, his sandalwood brown eyes deep in thought. “Back when all we had to worry about was drinking enough water and getting paid.”

Somewhere in the distance, a siren wailed, and both men were shaken from their momentary stupor.

Adjusting a latex glove on his hand, Kaba raised his eyes to mine. “So, ready to give Koranti a big middle finger?”

Absolutely.

I lay face-down on the bench, some towels bunched around my chin to keep my head still, while Kaba and Andrea bent over my skull. They lifted the hair away from my neck, and rubbed some kind of chilly cream on it that made my skin tingle.

“The lidocaine should make this easier.” Kaba patted my neck, and I heard the clink of the scalpel on the tray as he picked it up. “But you need to focus on something to dull the pain. I want you to keep talking, alright?”

“Like in a dentist’s office?” I murmured into the sheet under my face.

Andrea laughed. “Exactly. Okay, here we go. On three; one . . . two . . .”

Pain sliced through my flesh, and I sucked in a breath.

I can do this. Just keep talking. Think of something stupid, and ramble.

“So, why Tiger?” I gasped, my hands gripping the sheet under me.

Fingers pried at the throbbing part of my neck, and Kaba hummed a little tune under his breath, as if this were a regular day at work for him. “We needed a discreet way to say ‘the only Indian guy in town’ without alerting the authorities as to who was leaking all their classified information. My family came from Rajasthan, so Tiger seemed like a good code name. Sponge, please?”

Andrea’s sneakers scuffed on the floor, and something plush daubed at my neck. “I still like ‘Google’ better.”

“Google?” I shut both eyes as the harsh pinches intensified, a sensation like someone had dug a needle through my skin.

Kaba laughed, and his normal American accent switched to a rather convincing Hindi lilt. “Google tech support, how may I help you sir or ma’am?”

Despite myself, I managed to chuckle, though another stab caught me in the middle of it, and I ended up yelping instead. “That’s—ow—that’s pretty good, actually.”

“It was either that, or 7/11.” Kaba’s shadow on the floor shrugged, and his voice returned to normal. “You’d be amazed how many people in the corporate world get thrown off by that kind of thing, and ELSAR is, or rather used to be, a private company. The suits live in their own make-believe world up in those offices, where everyone thinks like they do. Any idea that’s not workplace-appropriate can’t possibly exist, thus they never think to look for it. I’ve always found it weird that Americans get so worried about offending someone, yet have no problem bombing—ah ha, got you, you little bugger!”

Something pulled loose from my angry pulsing skin, and the twinges subsided.

Tex walked by, pushing something heavy on wheels, and I heard the slight hush of gas leaking from a valve.

Ka-whoosh.

An acetylene torch flickered to life, and the disgusting scent of burned blood filled the air.

Fingers smoothed over the sore spots on my flesh, and a small dousing of liquid poured over it, before a soft patch of cotton was taped down.

“Well, there you go.” Kaba peeled his gloves off with rubbery snaps. “You’re invisible again.”

Sitting up, I eyed the puddle of aluminum, cobalt, and plastic on the floor between Tex’s boots, cooling with whisps of acrid smoke. How something so small had caused me such trouble was incredible, but I didn’t have time to dwell on it. Kaba already had most of his tools packed up, and Andrea worked to strip off her white apron, our five-minute window drawing to a rapid close.

“Here.” Andrea dumped a backpack of clothes onto the weightlifter’s bench and gestured to the tangle of polyester and cotton with a brief wave as she slipped out of the cubicle. “Take whatever you want but be quick. They’re definitely going to be mad now that you just popped off their radar.”

With the realistic concern of soldiers converging on our location, I unashamedly stripped back down to the simple bra and underwear that ELSAR had given me, selecting a pair of jeans, a gray V-neck T shirt, and a thin brown jacket with a hood. Normal clothes on my skin made me want to laugh, jump, shout, and cry all at once. I’d never thought about how good I had it in my old life in Louisville, with my closet full of shirts, my refrigerator brimming with food, and the ability to walk out my door at any time I so pleased. Just those few days in captivity, stuck in a bizarre limbo between the possibility of being grossly violated, or being dissected alive like a bug, had changed my entire perspective on such tiny matters. How good a worn-out pair of jeans felt, how wonderful to choose my own colors, and what a fool I’d been not to appreciate it before. The very air tasted different, not just from the melted tracker, but sweet in a new way, heady and vibrant.

No one owned me but me.

Smiling to myself, I snatched the old bolt-action rifle from where it leaned in the corner, convinced I would feel naked without one for the rest of my life.

Tex stashed the acetylene tanks beside a dented toolbox and folded his arms as Kaba finished gathering his medical equipment. “I still think you should come with us. You’ve done a lot. No one would blame you, and we could use a good medic on our end.”

Kaba stopped, and faced Tex, the two an odd juxtaposition, the beefy muscled Texan, and the short, skinny Indian. “There’s more I could do there.”

Is . . . is he going to go back?

Unable to keep my startled thoughts to myself, I straightened up. “You’re not serious, are you? What if they find out you helped me? What if Crow puts two-and-two together?”

Kaba’s gaze flicked to the garage around him in silent appraisement of his chosen surroundings, and he let slide a resigned, weary sigh. “My father came to this country because he believed in it. I still do. We can’t let ELSAR turn this place, or anywhere else, into their personal laboratory.”

“It’s a nice sentiment.” Tex’s eyebrow rose, and his usual bark softened to a more congenial, sympathetic tone. “But if your father were here, he’d tell you to know when to cut your losses. You could get out of this; you forge a pass, sneak back to Columbus, see your family again.”

“And what about your pregnant wife?” Kaba spread his arms as if the answer to the question between them seemed obvious. “If she were here, she’d want you to do the same. My mother would certainly tell me to leave, to come home and work with my father instead. Yet here we both are, against our better judgments.”

“Why?” I stood, rifle slung over one arm, and sized up the two men, trying to figure out what insanity would drive them to stay in the clutches of a regime so cruel that I would have thrown myself off a cliff before falling into its control once more.

He searched the concrete between his shoes, like he was looking for an answer, and Kaba squared his shoulders in a renewed determination. “True bravery is being willing to do hard things for the good of others. It doesn’t matter if this happens in Black Oak, or Columbus, or anywhere else; if they can get away with violating the most basic human rights here, they can do it anywhere, including in our homes, to our families. If we run, we’ll just lead ELSAR right to them, but if we stay . . . if we stay, and we fight, then our country has a chance to survive.”

His words coated the air like frost, and try as I might, I couldn’t find a way to poke holes in his argument. Like me, Kaba wasn’t from Barron County, had been sucked into the whirlpool of craziness that was this forgotten county because of the Breach, and yet he had decided to make this his personal struggle. I’d been thinking about myself, about my loneliness, my fear, my anger at the betrayal of my two best friends. He’d been here this entire time, sneaking boys and girls out of Crow’s prison cells, slipping information to the resistance, and dodging Auxiliary patrols, all for some unseen future that he might not live to celebrate. He’d adopted this country as his own, and along with the fierce mercenary who had snatched me out of the hands of the jailors, Kaba stood between Koranti, and the rest of the world.

Our world.

My world.

“Guys.” The skinny man who had opened the door for the green van stuck his head in the ring of curtains. “Clock’s ticking. We’ll drop Tiger off at a safe point in the western district and ditch the van by the eastern park. Better get a move on; I can hear choppers coming.”

We filed out to the big manhole in the center of the garage floor, and Kaba split off to climb into the van with the old driver and three other men.

Just before he went to get in, Tex called to Kaba above the idling of the Volkswagen’s motor. “If we ever get out of this, come down to San Antonio and visit sometime. Chelsea makes some mean beer-battered chicken. You could bring your folks too.”

Kaba beamed with a pearly grin and nodded from the running board of the vintage automobile. “I’m sure my mother would make enough Sandesh to feed the entire block. Here’s to hoping.”

They backed out of the doors of the vacant fueling station, and as they did, a thought entered my mind. I hadn’t even thanked Kaba for taking my tracker out, or for playing such a big part in rescuing me. If he never returned from that cement monstrosity of a building, I never would. It bit at my soul in nibbles of guilt, and I scoured my heart for some kind of solution.

What would you do to save someone you love?

Like a thunderclap, the words of the stranger in the yellow chemical suit flashed through my head, along with the image of his powerful silver eyes.

Chris. I’d left him at New Wilderness, all alone, completely unaware of who the traitor was in his midst. How many days had passed since Jamie had sold me out? A week? More? They could be under attack by the pirates, wiped out by Vecitorak, or even under a new regime if Jamie managed to launch a coup of her own. It didn’t matter what Chris had done; I couldn’t leave things like that. I had to go back, expose the truth, even if it cost me what little I had left.

I had to save New Wilderness, so that New Wilderness could have a chance to save Barron County.

Setting my jaw, I stuck my legs into the black recess of the manhole and followed the moldy iron rungs downward into the bowels of the underground.

1 Comment
2024/02/22
12:24 UTC

15

Francisca's Diary

My maternal great-aunt Francisca had lost her battle with cancer. My mom was the most broken up about it of the three of us. She’d spent almost as much time around her as Francisca's children and grandchildren. I hadn’t been around her enough times to bring on the waterworks. However, on the few occasions, my parents brought me along, she’d be kind and hospitable.

I was saddened upon hearing the news of her passing from my dad. We flew out to attend her funeral. It was a mournful yet memorable event where tears along with fond memories of the deceased were exchanged. It wasn’t our only reason for coming. We’d agreed to help her immediate family move stuff from her house.

While she was still lucid, she requested that when she went her home would as well. No one knew why exactly. The only reason she gave was something to the effect of her home having enough memories. While we didn’t understand it, we respected it. The day after the funeral, we headed to her home where cars were already parked.

Anything sentimental would be taken and the rest of her things would be given away. I was sent in to help my cousins inside while the rest of the family helped load the moving trucks. Despite having lived alone for most of her adult life, she’d assembled quite the collections, mainly coins and vases. One of which would be going to my mom. I was instructed to package the one in my Great Aunt’s bedroom by wrapping it in newspaper and bubble wrap.

Then I’d put it in a box and label it. Afterward, I was to repeat the process with everything that didn’t take two people to move. Then I was to carry the boxes to the truck outside. In all my visits, I hadn’t been in her bedroom once. Despite her absence, part of me felt as if I was somehow intruding when I entered.

I pushed this aside and got to work, making sure to be thorough in my task. I had one box left and decided to check the room once more in case I missed something. I even checked under the bed. Not finding anything, I was about to finish up when I noticed something ever so slightly sticking out from under the mattress near the headboard. It turned out to be a book.

It wasn’t just any. It was a diary belonging to my great aunt. I know I should have told someone and that it should’ve gone to her immediate family. I have no idea why I got the impulse to take it. Let me say I wasn’t a handful growing up.

I never got into trouble or hung out with any shady crowds. Hell, when I was little I always made sure to stay with my parents when we went shopping. In short, I was a pretty boring kid. That’s exactly why it was strange for me to hide the diary in my inside coat pocket. Any time the idea of doing something even remotely mischievous came up, I’d get nervous and chicken out.

This time I didn’t. There was no voice in my head telling me to think of the consequences if I got caught. Nobody suspected a thing. It was like it was natural to me. The rest of our time there went as normal. The following day we were on a flight back home.

This would be where I tell how I opened the diary as soon as I got home. Truthfully, though, I sort of forget about it. When we got back to our house, I put it in my desk drawer. Months went by before I saw it again. It was during Spring Break and my parents were away on business.

A storm had knocked out the power, leaving me with nothing to do. That is except for reading. I went through a lot of books in my childhood and I skimmed my collection for any I hadn’t read. Eventually, I did find one. Some kind of biography I think.

All that was missing was my book light since it would’ve been too dark for reading otherwise. It was in my desk drawer and that’s when I found the diary again. I picked it up. I’d only done a cursory examination of it until then and it seemed like the right time to inspect it further. Transcribing the entire thing would take up several posts.

Therefore, I will be transcribing what I believe to be the most significant parts. I had some difficulty with this as none of the entries were dated. I’m assuming they’d have to go back a century going off of Francisca's age. She did live for a long time. Due to the lack of dating, I will instead be numbering the entries below.

Entry 1: What a great day! For today is my birthday! I’m six years old now. Mama made me the most wonderful chocolate cake and Papa gave me this diary. It’ll be good to help me practice writing.

My most favorite gift of all came from my brother. He was kind enough to surprise me with my very own doll. I’d been wanting one so bad ever since I saw them at the store. Edgar is very thoughtful. He made my doll himself and it looks so much better than the ones in the window.

Entry 2: I made a new friend today! I’d been having trouble making friends since we moved here. I met her in the forest behind our house. I don’t know much about her yet except that her name is Bernice. She has pretty eyes.

Entry 3: I’ve known Bernice for over a year now, but I’ve never met her parents. I wonder why? She says it’s because they are always busy. I do hope mine can meet hers one day. I bet they are kind people.

Entry 4: My education is going very well. My teacher has even told me I am the smartest in her class. I can’t take all the credit. Edgar has been working hard to help me with my studies. I am worried since Mama and Papa seem to be at odds, but he tells me not to worry about such things.

Entry 5: I wondered about something while I was playing with Bernice today. I asked her why I never saw her at school or around other kids besides me. She said it was because her parents homeschool her and don’t want her around other kids. I asked her why she was allowed to see me then. She told me it was because having one friend couldn’t hurt.

Entry 6: We’re concerned about Papa. He insists he’s fine, but he’s been moving a lot slower lately. Mother has been begging him to see a doctor in town. She hates how stubborn he’s being.

Entry 7: Papa’s health has gotten worse. He can’t even get out of bed now. A doctor came to examine him. Mother has told us to be brave for him. I wish there was something I could do.

Entry 8: I talked with Bernice about Papa today. She said she might be able to help. I asked her how and she told me it would have to be when Mama and Edgar are away. I asked her how come and she told me it was a secret and that I had to trust her. I don’t understand it, but if it helps Papa, I’ll do it.

Entry 9: Edgar and Mama went into town to get some stuff for Papa today so I brought Bernice to the house. I was nervous since Mama said not to have anyone over while she and Edgar were gone. I took Bernice up to Mama and Papa’s room. I wanted to go in with her, but she said I had to wait outside. I wanted to know why and she told me she could help my dad, but she couldn’t do it if someone was watching her.

I hate not knowing stuff. Bernice is smart, though so I trusted her. She didn’t want me to see what was going on, but she didn’t say anything about listening. She’s way smarter than I thought. She knows two languages! I know because I heard her speaking another on the other side of the door.

For some reason, it got real cold when she did. That’s weird for May. When she came back out, I wanted to know if Papa would be alright. She said he would be and I was so happy! Then she told me something weird.

She said Papa was still holding onto a sickness and that it needed to be passed on. Bernice told me, Papa, had to shake someone’s hand. I’ve only seen him do that with new people and not many visit our town so I hope we can find someone. If he does will the person he meets get sick too? I hope not.

I want Papa to stay better, but I don’t want someone else getting sick either. I’ll have to ask Bernice about it.

Entry 10: Papa’s been a lot kinder since he got better! He even told me a bedtime story last night. Mama is normally the one who tells them so that was real fun. I haven’t seen Bernice lately. I wonder where she goes off to?

Entry 11: Bernice scared me! I was out in the woods again. I like chasing frogs because they make a funny noise. I was sneaking up on one and then she grabbed my shoulder. I almost had it too! I was glad to see her, though so I forgave her.

I asked her about what she meant when she was at our house. She said that it didn’t mean Papa would make anyone sick, but that it meant something unusual would happen to them. Papa has said one of our neighbors has an unusual horse that’s a lot bigger than the others so that must mean it’s something good. Maybe Papa should shake hands with himself. Bernice showed me a trick.

We were playing hide and seek and I was the seeker. I used to play it a lot with Edgar so I’m real good at it. Bernice is good too. I almost gave up trying to find her. Then I spotted her up in a tree! I didn’t even hear her climb!

She must’ve been as quiet as a church mouse. Her back was up to me and I thought I could catch her by surprise, but when I got to the tree she was gone again! It was so frustrating! I came close a few more times, but every time she’d vanish again.

She’d appear behind a tree, on the other side of the river, and even behind me. That last one nearly made me jump out of my skin. I know she’s better than me at Hide and Seek, but she doesn’t have to rub it in. Maybe I can beat her next time we play.

Entry 12: We went into town today for the fair. It was lots of fun! Papa got to meet someone new. He was even taller than him. I wish I remembered his name, but I liked him because he wore a tall hat!

Papa says he had a strong handshake. The tall man talked to me and I told him how good I was doing in school. He said I was smart! He was friendly. I wish Edgar and Mama could have met him. I hope I get to see him again someday.

Entry 13: It’s been a long time since I’ve written in this. Life has been busy lately and has presented its fair share of trials. It saddens me to note that Father has passed away recently due to an accident in his workplace. Edgar, unfortunately, witnessed the incident while visiting him. Father was well-loved and it warms my heart that so many have given us their condolences.

Entry 14: Edgar has been distant ever since Father’s passing. Most days he hardly says a word to Mother and I. Father gifted him a pocketwatch before his passing. He spends a lot of his time studying it. We wish there was a way to make him happy again. I miss how he was before.

Entry 15: Money has been scarce as of late despite Edgar’s efforts. He works so hard. Mother and I have been trying our best to support him as not much work is available for us. Edgar has told me that he’s proud I’ve been doing well in my studies. He says Father would be too.

Entry 16: At last, I have some good news. Years ago, Father and I met a nice man at the fair. He’s recently become the leader of our great country. I doubt he will see this, but I wish him great fortune.

Entry 17: Things are all wrong now. Our country has become divided through senseless violence. Everyone’s efforts have gone to support the war. Even Edgar has enlisted. I know we’ve been struggling, but why did he have to leave us?

Doesn’t he know how much we worry for him? All we can do is pray for his safety.

Entry 18: The war has been going well and there are rumors it may be coming to an end soon. If it does, I hope we will see Edgar again. I’m sure he’s missed us dearly and has been thinking of home every day he’s spent fighting.

Entry 19: Oh god, it shakes to my core to write that our great leader has met an untimely end. That coward, shooting him while he was enjoying a play! I know violence is wrong, but I hope that awful man’s punishment is severe.

Entry 20: Edgar has yet to return despite the war's end. We fear the worst. Mother tries to be strong. However, I can hear her sobbing during the night. My sheets are soaked with tears as well.

Entry 21: Something peculiar occurred the other night. I woke up to tapping on my window and I thought I heard someone saying my name. My mind must be playing tricks on me.

Entry 22: Now I know for certain I heard something. It happened to me again. I went to my window to see who it was and nobody was there. If this is a joke, I do not find it at all amusing. Perhaps I haven’t been getting enough rest, but I’ve been getting this feeling that I’ve been forgetting something.

Entry 23: Not something, someone. My old friend has come back. I wonder why she still looks so young. She wants me to come out to meet her again. I forgot how much I’ve missed her. She’s told me at the window she wants to meet Mother.

Entry 24: It’s a miracle! I got Mother to follow me into the woods. Not only was Bernice there, but also Edgar and Father! If only Mother didn’t scream so much I could have enjoyed it. Bernice was a lot taller than I remember. Why do the animals run away from her?

Entry 25: What have I done? That girl, no that thing, it took Mother. How could I have let myself fall under its spell? I only broke free of it when I heard Mother’s screams. It showed its true self.

What god would allow it? At least I remain safe here. Tomorrow, I will gather the people in town and we will put an end to this evil.

Entry 26: How could I have been so blind? I played right into its hands. I’m the only one left. I must keep these entries brief as I dare not stop moving unless absolutely necessary. My horse must sense my worry as it’s always pushing itself to move as far as it can.

I may not have much experience with guns, but if it catches us, I won’t go quietly. If we can just make it to the next town.

Entry 27: Every night, I hear its laughter. We’ve been resting during the day. Poor Cinnamon has been having such a hard time of it.

Entry 28: It rained. The thunder scared Cinnamon and she left me behind. I’ve managed to make ti to this cabin, but I have no means of travel now. I know it’s only a matter of time before it reaches me. When it does, I’ll go out and meet it.

Entry 29: I look so pretty today! Although, the name will take some getting used to. Why does it have to have so many syllables?

Entry 30: How many years has it been? I’ve been in its mind. It’s taken so many. I don’t know how I’ve gotten control back. All I remember is wandering in darkness and hearing shrieks.

Then there was a light. I hear it at the back of my mind. It’s furious.

Entry 31: I believe I understand something about it now. It passes on pain so I have done the same. I’ve gone through so many names now I can’t even recall my true one. I try to love when I have become a mother or father or a husband or wife. My only tether to my original life is what I have written down here.

I wish I had a way to end this, but its hunger is persistent.

Entry 32: This will be the last thing I’ll write in here. I’m an old woman now and despite everything, I’ve had my fair share of happiness. I never thought I’d get to be part of such a big family. It reminds me of being with Father, Mother, and Edgar. I’ve finally figured out how to stop it.

Pain is what it needs so I have seeped my lifeblood into these pages. It’s in it now. It screams to be let out, but it’s something I’ve grown used to. I’ve wanted to burn this cursed book and I would’ve if it wasn’t still connected to me. Once I am gone, it will be up to whoever finds this to finish what I started.

To the one reading this, I offer you my sincerest apologies.

Naturally, I assumed this was a work of fiction after reading it. Then I began to see her from the corner of my eye, no, not her, it. Whatever that nightmare was, only I could see it, but she took the form of Francisca when she was young. I had to do what her diary instructed. The forest near our house seemed as good a spot as any.

I thought I could get the job done quickly. Then it appeared. I managed to win, though. However, it got the last laugh. It’s been over a decade since then and I’ve been to the doctor due to sudden and acute pain.

In short, I have some kind of cancer they don’t even have a name for yet. By the estimate of my doctors, I only have about six more years in me. I wish I’d never found that diary and experienced the horrors Francisca did. I understand her reasoning, however, and do not hold any resentment. Even though I’m afraid, I’ve come to terms with it.

My family knows of my illness and has supported me as best as they can. I suppose all I can do now is try to make the most of the time I have left. Getting this all out has helped me through this process. I’ll be the first to admit my memory isn’t the best and yet I can recall every part of my great aunt’s diary. I don’t know what the thing she met as a child was.

I just hope it won’t be able to hurt anyone ever again.

0 Comments
2024/02/22
07:52 UTC

17

I think I am being strangled by someone at night but I live alone

It started with me waking up one day with a sore throat and throbbing head, I couldn't pinpoint what the cause was, I thought it was due to seasonal change and tried to go about my day, praying that the pain wouldn't worsen.

Luckily, it went off by it's own by evening and I felt really relieved but it returned the next day, the pain in my throat more intense than the last time, I thought I had caught cold and took some medicine to help ease the pain.

It seemed to work and the pain seemed to lessen but then I started having nightmares, a hazy hand would try to choke me, I couldn't see the face of my attacker nor where I was.

But I could feel them choking me, I could feel the air leaving my body and blood rushing towards my face, it was all very painful but what terrified me the most was that I was frozen in my place, unable to defend myself, unable to do anything as my attacker choked me!

I woke up in the middle of the night one day, I was literally bathed in sweat, I had the same painful and intense nightmare, it was worse than any nighmare I had ever had!

It hadn't worried me before but now I had started thinking maybe it just wasn't a nightmare, it was too real, too intense, to be dismissed as a nightmare!

The pain in my throat, the throbbing in my head, were all signs of something more sinister and I decided I couldn't take chances and risk my life, so I decided to investigate, I checked my doors and windows, any sign that someone had broken into my home but I didn't find what I was looking for.

As much as I hated to dismiss it, I had to let go of the idea that someone had broken into my home but then I was left wondering what was really going on, was I going mad or was I stressed and the stress was resulting in me having those nightmares?

I could find no concrete answers so I decided to keep a night watch, half of my mind thought it was a wild idea and I was going too far but the other half agreed with me and I decided to go with the latter half.

Three hours passed and my night watch continued but nothing happened, everything was still, as still as a pond, the stillness was starting to become eerie but nothing unusual happened, I was starting to become sleepy and even coffee wasn't much help.

I was nearly about to fall asleep when the light bulb flickered and went off, it jolted me awake and I went and checked it, it wasn't working, as I switched on another light, it flickered and went off too, I couldn't understand what was happening!

I sat down on the couch terrified, my body froze in fear, it was just like the nightmare and I wished nothing unusual would happen anymore but I guess my prayers went unanswered because I felt a sensation around my throat.

It was as if someone had placed a hand on my throat but that wasn't the end, the sensation grew stronger until I couldn't breathe, I wanted to lift my hand, do anything to defend myself but my body remained paralysed with fear.

As I thought this is the end and felt guilty for going down without any struggle, the sensation ceased and it felt as if someone slammed me onto the floor, my head hit the carpet and I gasped for breath!

I was in a lot of pain and coughing badly but I was able to breathe and felt grateful for that, whatever was behind it, decided to spare my life, maybe it was a warning and I decided to take it.

I decided to stay at a friends house and planned to sell my house, nothing happened for the first few days, the only trouble I had was in not finding any buyer for the house but I was alive and healthy and I didn't have the courage to go back to my house.

Everything was returning back to normal when I woke up with a large scratch on my arm, it looked as if I had been attacked by a wild animal, my friend was as shocked as I was and I decided to go back to my house despite my friend pleading with me to not go back, I didn't want whatever it was to mess with my friend.

I knew I was making a stupid decision and my heart trembled with fear but I saw no other choice and went back, I had sleepless nights, I slept with all the lights on but nothing unusual happened until I saw scratches on my neck.

I don't know what it is, I am so scared and I don't know what to do, I see no options, I have to let whatever it is to keep messing with me, I am so helpless but there is no way out of it!

3 Comments
2024/02/22
07:47 UTC

10

Death Whistles

I woke up in a cold sweat last night, like I do many nights, with a screaming pain in my left shoulder. The monumental ache of both muscle and memory is one I'm familiar with, but in 7 years it hasn't dulled any.

After sitting with myself for a few moments, catching my breath and my thoughts, I rose from my bed and shuffled to my bathroom to run my face under cold water in an attempt to wash away the events that had played out yet again in my subconscious. It was 3:12 in the morning. Don't give any significance to that time, other than how inconvenient it is to be awake then on a Tuesday. I never wake up at exactly the same time. Just early. Or late. Depends on how you look at it I suppose. After standing with my head underneath the sink for a minute or two, I lifted my eyes to the mirror and let the water seep down my face and neck, carelessly soaking my shorts and dripping onto the cracked tile floor. I looked like shit. I'm familiar with that too.

This story is one I never thought I would share with anyone other than God, but with recent events taken into perspective, I'm beginning to believe what I thought was the end of things may have in fact been nothing but a break between seasons of a cosmic version of American Horror Story. If that's the case, I need people to know what is actually lurking out there for them in the desert. Staring at their cars as they drive aimlessly down the many long highways of the American Southwest. Whatever scary stories you think you know pale in the face of the crippling reality. Or maybe, you know what's out there. Maybe you have chosen to hide it from the world. If that's the case, I'm sorry but I'm fucking your plan up.

2017 isn't a year that stands out in the minds of most. Despite the fact the United States was still reeling from the death of our beloved gorilla the year before, and a certain actor from the apprentice was announcing his candidacy for President, things were continuing as normal. This was true for my friends and I as well. It was my senior year, in the shitty little Arizona town I was born in. The 30-ish people graduating alongside me were as eager as I was to move on with our lives just like every other small-town 18 year old in history.

"Are you taking this piece of shit with you to Boston?" Mike coughed from my passenger seat as he all but spat the smoke out of his lungs and onto my faux leather interior. As he continued to cough, he attempted to pass his bowl full of cheap weed and gas station pipe tobacco across my center console. I reached over and took it from his gracelessly waving hand. "I haven't decided yet," I answered. "It's not like I can afford to buy a new car there, but god knows if this will make the drive." I held the Bic lighter to the bowl and took a long pull. As I held the smoke in my lungs, I read Mike's lighter. It said 'Take me with you!' with an artist's rendering of a small character being abducted by a UFO. "You like it?" he asked between wheezes. "Special edition." I let the smoke out of my nose before responding, "It's from the gas station." "Hey it was a Love's, that's like the ritz of gas stations. As for your Camry, it's as old as you are man, the only difference is this thing has touched more girls." I rolled my eyes at his comment while he continued. "I'm sure Boston University will be just as much of an adventure for it as it will be for you."

I would love to say there weren't words to describe Mike. But there were, including "obnoxious" "loud" "stupid" "lazy" "lame" etc. There are also the words "best friend." I had known Mike quite literally my entire life. Our mothers had met in some pregnancy group and had instantly latched onto each other. We had been born a week apart in 1999, Mike first, and as such our parents had done just about everything in their power to force us into false sibling-hood. Luckily, it worked out and we took to each other pretty quickly. While we had our similarities, Mike and I were also very different too however. I was a relatively reserved, introverted type. I liked to play solo video games, read, watch old movies. If there were enough kids in our grade to shun me I'm sure they would have, but friends were in short supply for everyone so I never had to sit alone at lunch.

Mike was fragile. Not fragile like a pane of glass, or a flower. Fragile like a landmine. After his parents had both been killed in a car accident when we were in 7th grade, he had moved in with my family and done everything he could to send my parents into cardiac arrest. He threw parties. He snuck girls in and out of the house with such efficiency it was like he had a dedicated secret tunnel for them. (I'm still not convinced that he didn't). One time he stole the principal's 2012 mustang for the sole purpose of making sure that Mr. Jessup knew he could do it. He didn't even take it anywhere, he just did donuts in the faculty parking lot until the school resource officer showed up. Somehow he got off with only a 2 week suspension and some community service. I think, like most people, that they let him off out of pity for being an orphan but Mike is also one of the smoothest talkers I've ever met. If he was really trying, he could convince you to give him the shoes off your feet and pay him for the trouble of doing so.

Additionally, our looks were in stark contrast. I was a skinny kid with light brown hair falling just above my shoulders with eyes to match. The color. Not the length. I dressed economically. Everything I had came from Walmart and looked like it. I never had any real desire to standout, and didn't see the point of paying for a brand. I drove a 2000 Toyota Camry I had gotten cheap. Pretty much everything about me could be summed up with the word, "average." Mike had one brown eye and one blue. He called them "exotic", I called them "defective". His hair was a well maintained, over-gel'd dirty blonde he combed almost subconsciously every few minutes. In keeping with the stereotype, he was generally found wearing a Levi's denim jacket or something made out of a dead cow in the winter and a short-sleeve too-tight baseball shirt in the summer. His jeans were just tight enough to separate him from those who didn't care about that sort of thing, and the theater department. He was fit, but not overly so. Thin, but with some muscle. Kind of like a wrestler, if he had ever actually done a sport or any extracurriculars that didn't involve parties and . There were a lot of good reasons I was going to Boston University for Computer Science, and mike was going to stay in town. Luckily, he had scored a position as an EMT somehow and had spent the last semester of High School taking the course on Tuesday and Thursday nights.

We were sitting in my crappy car in the grim and abandoned parking lot behind the old hospital. It was slated for demolition about.... 3 decades ago, but for some reason or another it was still standing like a tattered scarecrow by the entrance to town, warning all who came in what would happen to them if they too got stuck here. Or as a place for kids to smoke and drink discreetly. "I'm telling you man you should take it. Fuck it I'll come with you and fly back, we can make a road trip out of it," Mike said, reclining his sit a bit and donning his Ray Bans to counteract the new sunlight hitting his face. "You just want to hook up with chicks in every state between here and New England," I answered, smacking him in the stomach with the back of my hand with just enough force to make him jump a little. "Hey, we can do both," he smiled. He sighed slightly and asked after a moment, "You coming with me to the lake tonight? We're gonna have a fire, camp out. I have a spare tent for you." "Who else is going?" "Probably Sean and Aiden, maybe Emma," he snuck a look at me out of the corner of his eye and grinned slightly. "Cherry said she wanted to go." I winced and looked out the window quickly, hoping to avoid Mike's grin widening. Her name was actually Sherry, but people had been calling her Cherry since before we could remember, even the adults. "Maybe. I'll have to see how I feel after work. Which I just realized I need to get to," I answered after I heard Mike fumbling with the lighter again and knew he couldn't smoke and smile simultaneously. As I turned back towards him I realized I didn't know shit. "Oh, come on man!" I yelled exacerbated as I put the car in drive. I peeled out of the parking lot, leaving two black streaks of the pavement and the lingering sound of Mike's cough-laughter.

After dropping Mike at home to do whatever Mike does, I drove the 5 miles to my job; I worked at the movie theater. I always loved movies, so even though the pay was terrible and the snacks were off brand, I was thrilled when my application was approved the previous fall. I was one of the three people ever on shift at a time, since we legitimately only had the one viewing room. So, one person did snacks, one person did tickets, and one would work the projector. I greatly preferred the projector billet. Today, we were showing a special movie at 4; The Godfather 2. One of my favorites, and more importantly, it was pretty much as long as my entire shift. Being paid to sit there and watch one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces of all time on a Friday afternoon was one of the few pleasures this town provided me, and I never took it for granted. After setting up the the projector and taking the five finger discount on my own snacks from Tom at the register, I settled into my crappy rolling chair at 3:45 and I settled in for almost 4 hours of Pacino and De Niro.

I was sweeping up popcorn from under the seats when I heard someone call my name. "Hey! Hey Steve!" I looked up to see Mike's friends Sean Nichols and Aiden Movescamp walking down from the entrance to me. "Mike said you were here, he's in the truck we're on our way to the lake. It's gonna be sick, I had my brother pick us up a few bottles of vodka and some mixers from the gas station and Mike said he got some good weed." Sean was a short, fat white kid with very few reasons to like him. I knew Mike only took him anywhere because Seans older brother was 23 and was usually too fucked up himself to have any qualms with buying booze for underage kids, and because Sean would drive him places if I wasn't around. His hair hung in greasy strands over his eyes and he always smelled like he had spent most of his day shoveling corn chips in his face, and I truly didn't like being near him but I chose to speak tactfully so as not to deny my friend his liquor supplier.

"I'm on shift for another few minutes, I get off at 8:15. Maybe I'll meet you guys there," I said deadpan. "Emma and Cherry will be there," Aiden butted in. "Cherry was asking for you." I tried not to let any internal response to that show in my face but Sean picked up on it immediately. "Oh you got the hots for her huh!" He laughed his obnoxious laugh while Aiden gave me a look that said "sorry dude, I forgot the guy driving me is a massive tool."

Aiden had moved here when we were sophomores and he was a senior. He was originally from New Mexico, the Navajo reservation near Albuquerque. I think. I'm not entirely sure the details of it but he had been staying with his aunt and uncle here for a reason he never talked about ever since. In fact, he never really mentioned anything about before we met him. He was a good kid, much more enjoyable to be around than Sean but I didn't know him as well as Mike did. Most of our interactions were when I bought weed from him, which is where I assume Mike got his "good stuff" for tonight.

Sean stopped laughing when he realized he was performing a solo, and repeated the question of the day. "Come on Stevo, are you gonna be there? I have enough firewood to burn down the state." I waited a second, actively keeping my eyes from rolling, then sighed. "Yeah. Yeah I'll drive up when I'm done here." "Sweet! Hey we’ll see you there" He awkwardly smacked my shoulder then he turned to leave. I dumped the loose popcorn in the trash can and made my way to the front to switch out with the new projector operator, and then made my way out to my car. Starting up the 4 cylinder beast, I called Mike. "Hey man, I'm heading towards you guys can you leave your headlights on so I can find where y'all are at?" there were some noises in the background and I could hear Sean yelling as Mike answered me. "The fires already roaring man you can't miss it. It's huge!” “'I'll be there in 20," I told him. "Sounds good brother man, see you then." Before I had the chance to say a goodbye he had already hung up the phone.

A half hour later my car creeped to a halt next to Sean's 1990-something chevy pick-up. Mike was telling the truth this may have been the biggest fire he had ever made. The flames were doing their very best to kiss the stars above, and danced close to 5 feet over Mikes already impressive frame. "Steve!" Mike slur-screamed as I stepped one knock-off sneakered foot out of my car. "We saved you some... what is this shit." He was drunkenly stumbling around with his arm wrapped around Emma. The arm draped over her also clearly intoxicated neck held a plastic bottle half full of a clear liquid. "McCormick!" He finished, hiccuping. "Phenomenal," I said flatly. "Your brother couldn't get us vodka that cost more then $8 Sean?" I asked sharply. "Hey man, you don't need to drink the free booze!" Sean crossed his arms and I could have sworn I saw him pouting, before he returned to doing some strange dance around the fire. Clearly I was the only sober one here.

I looked up at the 4 people I had already seen and realized there were in fact, 5. Cherry was sitting on the other side of the fire. Her blonde hair was in a messy bun, her cheeks slightly flushed from any combination of the bonfire and the liquor. When my eyes met hers, I saw a blue so deep I thought I may drown in it. So to avoid a horrifying drowning death, I immediately averted my eyes and instead looked at another person. "What's up Aiden." He made a mock symbol of "HOW" and popped open the cooler. "What do you want to wash that cheap shit down with, white man?" I laughed nervously. "What are my options?" "Well we have the luxury option; Coke. Or business class; Diet Coke." He looked up at me. "Your shoes say business class," he declared while tossing me a Diet Coke from his still bent over position. I fumbled the vodka in my hands and managed to barely catch the can of artificial sugar. "You're too kind, seriously." I made prayer hands and did a small facetious bow of gratitude. I cracked open my can as Sean started trying to connect his phone to a speaker.

"What the fuck man this things a piece of shit!" He exclaimed in frustration. I took a long, hard pull from the cheap bottle of vodka-adjacent liquid, felt the subsequent painful burn that comes with liquor that costs less than a deck of cards and quickly began chugging my Diet Coke to dilute the acid in my throat. Coughing slightly, I shook my head and gestured to Sean for the speaker. "Let me try," I said with a rasp. "No way man," Sean sneered at me. "You're just going to play some of that lame ass music from the 70's." "Better than you're dubstep crap" "Skrillex is still good!" "He was never good." "LADIES!" Mike interjected. "I'll play music. Sean, if you disrespect classic rock again, I'll cut your brakes. Steve, you loved Skrillex. When we were 12." Mike let go of Emma, who had now wrapped herself around him as well, and walk-dragged himself towards where Sean was slowly melting into the sand. Taking the pill-shaped speaker, he somehow connected almost instantly and began playing a song by Greta Van Fleet, a new band we had both taken to. While Mike and I had our differences, one thing we shared was our taste in music. We did not share it with Sean thankfully, who stood in a huff and alerted the group he needed to "drain the hose." "I'll alert the media," I muttered as he walked off towards some small bushes.

Mike and Emma had sat/fallen down and promptly begun kissing. With Sean leaving, I became aware of a new singularity. Cherry was sitting alone. I walked around Aiden, who was sitting well postured on the cooler and gazing silently into the blaze; he was only 2 years older than me at 19 but sometimes I could swear he was ancient. When I reached Cherry I sat down slowly at a respectful distance, and placed the vodka in the sand between us.

"Hell of a fire," I said hesitantly after a moment. “It's pretty big. Kind of scary, but I like it," she said back. "Good thing we have the lake right there," I smiled nervously and glanced over at her. She was looking intently into the fire, but still answered "How are you gonna pick up a lake Steve?" I blushed a little but she looked over at me and smiled back. "I'm glad you came." Her teeth were perfectly straight, and brighter even than the roaring flames in front of us.

Cherry had been in Mike and I's grade our whole lives, and while we had been friendly with her, we hadn't really gotten to know her. We shared a few classes throughout the years, and while she had never been unattractive, she had never been someone I had considered 'stand-out' until the first day of senior year. As I parked my car I had seen her step out of the passenger side of Emma's and my jaw dropped so fast it would have ricocheted if it weren't attached. Her hair was blonde, but not bleached and pulled back into a high, Lola bunny-esque ponytail, and her sea-blue eyes reflected the sun across the crowded parking lot.

She was thin, but not overly so, and despite the blaring Arizona summer we had jut finished, her skin was as fair as ever. For 6 months I had been waiting for the right opportunity to make a move. I told myself it was patience but in reality of course it was fear. She was best friends with Emma, so when Mike had mentioned he was going to try and woo her, I encouraged him to go for it in the hopes I would end up in the very situation I currently sat in.

Tonight she looked no less lovely, in jean shorts and a loose fitting tank top over what would look like a modest two piece bathing suit, if I had been looking. She smelled sweet, but not overly so. Like vanilla ice cream and sunscreen that had been wasted without a sun. I realized I had been sitting in silence mulling this all over and hadn't responded to her. "Yeah," I blurted out. "Me too. I mean, I'm glad you did too. And that I did." Fuck. She giggled a little and I hoped that was a sign I wasn't in a complete flat spin. Mike and Emma had come up for air but were still being obnoxious cutesy across the fire, which was slowly starting to shrink. I said nothing but I was grateful of that.

"What are you doing next year?" I asked, more deliberately than the last time I had spoken. "Oh, I'm going to UCLA!" She said with more than a hint of excitement. "I love to draw and, I guess they like what I've done. I'm hoping to maybe take it into some sort of graphic design, or maybe illustrations for children's books or something I don't know. I just love it." She stopped talking as abruptly as I had earlier. "Sorry not to gush about it," she said sheepishly. "No! That's super cool. I've never been a great artist but I've always thought it was super... cool," I was choking. "Maybe you can show me some of your work sometime?" I asked. For me, talking to girls always felt like trying to solve a Rubik's cube that was fighting back. Mike had tried to teach me in the past but it usually devolved into him treating it like a theoretical dogfight of passion and me tuning him out.

"Well, I actually brought my sketchbook tonight, if you really want to see," she started rustling around in her bag, a large blue purse with turquoise embossed in it in a beautiful pattern. I recognized Aiden's craftsmanship immediately, she must have bought it from his store on Main Street. After a moment she removed a leather bound stack of paper and removed the long chord keeping it closed. I took my opportunity and inched closer to her so I could see in the firelight. I was blown away. The first page had an ornate chapel, complete with stained glass windows and bell tower glinting in a setting sun. While it was just pencil and paper, I could have mistaken it for a photograph if I wasn't already aware. "Holy shit," I whispered. "What? Do you not like it?" she asked with a note of concern in her voice. She pulled the book away slightly, and I wondered how what I had said could be taken negatively. Nonetheless I explained, "No I love it! This is amazing!" She relaxed a little and brought the papers back towards me. "Oh, sorry. Thank you. I don't know I can be a little... defensive about it sometimes," she stated. "Even though you managed to get into UCLA with these?" I asked. It came out harsher than I meant it but she laughed a little and said "Yeah. Still. Anyways, do you want to see more?"

"Jesus that was a record breaking piss," Sean exclaimed as he reappeared into our briefly pleasant lives. "Hey. Stevo. You took my seat." I bit my tongue for a moment, then said "Sorry man, Cherry was just showing me her drawings." I met his gaze, and he held it for a moment. It was long enough that I wondered if he was going to contest the new seating arrangement, but eventually he just said "Alright, well Im gonna spark up. Anyone else want in?" Mike looked up at Sean from Emma who was now resting her head on his shoulder.

“Are you offering the class MY weed Nichols?" Sean shrugged. "You said you brought some." Mike made a tsk sound and with his off hand reached into his jacket pocket, retrieving our shared bowl and a ziplock of grass. Sean gestured for it, but Mike threw it to Aiden who caught it, and began packing the group their smokey treat. Cherry leaned towards me a little. "Ive never smoked before," she whispered. "Well, you don't have to if you don't want to," I whispered back. "Okay..." She trailed off for a second. "Well, I will if you do," she finished.

Aiden lit the bowl and pulled the crime into his chest, holding it there as he passed it to Mike and the now awake but not so steady Emma. Mike took a hit, but as Emma reached for it he expertly moved the bowl around her and gave it to Sean and gave me a look that said 'don't give her any more of anything.’ Sean tried to take a pull, and then tried to contain his coughing fit. I really enjoyed how many of his jokes wrote themselves. Cherry had taken the bowl from Sean and was looking to me, discreetly gesturing for guidance on how to do it. "Want me to show you?" I asked. She nodded, and passed the glass pipe to me. I held the lighter to the bowl and inhaled briefly as the crackling of the flower inside grew brighter. I let the smoke out and passed it back to her and she attempted to mimic me. To her credit, she didn't cough nearly as much as Sean before passing it back to me and shaking her head. "Not sure that's for me," she told me as I took it back and returned it to my mouth for a longer drag.

We continued this rotation until it was gone. I was feeling it, but my head was still mostly clear. I offered the vodka to Cherry instead, who took it and drank an impressive swallow before taking my Diet Coke and chasing it until there was no soda left. We were all sufficiently intoxicated for the night, and I decided to sit back and enjoy what was remaining of the fire while the rest of the group talked.

"Bullshit Aiden there's no way you have a story scarier than The Blair Witch Project. That shit was filmed live!" Sean exclaimed from his new seat, a much lonelier douchebag shaped sand crater between Mike and Aiden. "You know that wasn't real right?" Mike said while giving Emma a bottle of water. "What do you mean? Of course it's real." Sean denied. "Well then mine is true too," Aiden stated. "Alright man, let's hear it," Sean snorted. Aiden paused, then began his tale.

"My people, we have a rule. That you cannot whistle at night. It draws things too you from another layer of the world. Things that don't belong among man." He gestured to me for the remaining vodka and I tossed it to him. He drank the rest in one gulp and wiped his mouth without chasing it. "They say these are the spirits of those from before. Before the world, before us, before everything. One night, long ago. My great-great grandfather was out with his hunting party. There were only five of them, hunting what they said must a mountain lion through the foothills that had killed a family in his camp. It had been brutal. A mother and her infant son. They said it must be a mountain lion, because of how deep the scratches were in their skulls.”

“The father had gone with them, and it was clear he had no feeling in him but a lust for vengeance on the creature that had robbed his family of its future. My ancestors, they knew the stories. They knew these legends. But they could not let the lion roam free. There were many families in that camp, we were growing. Armed with bows and clubs, they braved the night, they chose to face the beast that had acquired a taste for man in his own element." "I'm not super scared of cats dude," Mike chuckled a little, but Aiden held up his left hand. No one could say he wasn't dramatic enough.

"They had been in the dark for hours. It was late. They had found nothing. Until one man asked if perhaps the reason they could not find anything was because something had found them, and was remaining just out of reach. My grandfather stilled himself, and listened to the breeze. To the sand being blown by it. To the silence enclosing in around the soft, whistled tune being carried by an unseen source to his far left."

I could see the goosebumps on Cherry's arm from where I sat, and she looked like she may even be tearing up a bit. I was both astounded that such a contrived story could affect her as much as it did, and very aware that this was an excellent opportunity to scooch closer to her, which I did. Our arms were touching now, and she didn't pull away. Looking around however, I noticed Aiden now seemed to have the undivided attention of the entire group.

"My grandfather did what any good warrior would do and found all of his men. Or he tried to; one was missing. The father of the slain family. It was hard to search in the inky blackness of midnight, but they looked for him anyways while the whistling tune grew louder to match their increasing panic. They knew they were not the only thing hunting in these hills, and it was only a matter of time until they became the prey. After minutes of frantic searching and calling out, they had all made their way down into a small ravine when the whistling suddenly ceased. When my grandfather looked up, he could see the dark outline of his missing warrior silhouetted against the sky."

"Alright, alright!" Sean yelled as he stood. "This story started out as bullshit and its heading for bullshit. I'm breaking out the tents." He started making his way back towards his truck to retrieve our shelter for the night while the rest of us remained silent. Mike tossed another log onto the dying fire in a clear effort to brighten up our current environment. After a moment, Aiden asked "Would you like me to continue?" We all looked at each other, and I looked at Cherry last. She looked terrified, but surprised us all by nodding. "Yes, how does it end Aiden?" She asked softly, leaning into my arm just a bit. Aiden took a deep breath, looked at me, and then continued his story against the background noise of Sean fighting with the canvas bags in the bed of his vehicle.

"The hunting party didn't move immediately. They could tell that while this was the body of their missing member, something wasn't right. His profile was obscured like everything else in sight by darkness, but as they looked, they could see his proportions were slightly off. His arms, just too long with the tips of his fingers extending to the bend in his knees. His neck seemed to be stretched thinner than it should have been, and while the wind was blowing the hair of every other brave towards home, his stayed still as the boulders that surrounded them. My ancestor knew that whatever was making its home in this vessel, it was no longer their fellow hunter. When he raised his club however, the figure leaped forth into the darkness ravine.

While my ancestor couldn't see what was happening, he could hear the screaming and feel the sandy ground becoming wet with blood. He called out for his comrades, and swung his club towards the sound of death but connected with nothing but the walls of the short mountain. Finally, with great shame he began running. Running home to his camp, where he knew other warriors slept. He needed to warn them all, and prepare them for what would be returning in a familiar skin that night. He ran for hours, until the light of fires not unlike this one came into sight and he began to scream for help.

Men came running out of their homes in confusion, grabbing weapons for a yet unknown enemy but bracing for it nonetheless. My great-great grandfather broke into the firelight in exhaustion and collapsed, trying to say the words that pained him to his core; that the father was no longer an inhabitant of the body he was born to. Of course, the men did not believe him. When his brother arrived a few minutes later, clean and seeming concerned, more confusion arose. My ancestor didn't wait for the rest of the warriors to find the answers they were looking for. He knew what that thing had done to his wife, and their child, corrupting the father’s once loving hands into inhuman instruments of suffering. He had seen the cosmic strength within this being. So as soon as he saw the dead skin that had once been his friend, he rushed it with a mighty cry and brought his club down on its head.

It was only when the club shattered, and the fires all simultaneously extinguished that the other men realized that they had hesitated too long. A low, gravelly vibration echoed through the hole in this body that was once a mouth as if a million voices were humming at once, and a haunting single note whistle emerged in harmony with it. My great-great grandfather swung his fist, but it once again missed it's mark and the sounds of anguish rose around him again. All he could think about was how, when he was close enough to see, his brothers face had been wrong. From a distance, you may not notice. But up close. Up close he could see how much it looked like someone had tried to copy it out of clay."

Cherry was actually shaking at this point, and even Emma seemed to have involuntarily sobered up in fear. Mike looked unbothered on the surface, but after I looked at him for several seconds, I realized he wasn't blinking. Even I had to admit the story was getting to me.

"My ancestor did what he had done before. He ran. He ran in shame and continued until morning. He did not know if anyone had survived, although he believed he could guess. He just ran until the soft rays of morning sun licked at his face and he felt he could finally rest. He had not been followed. He was truly, entirely alone. The creature never followed, for one reason or another. Perhaps it knew the true pain would be living with the shame of running. Some time later he was rescued by the American cavalry, half starved and dying of thirst."

The echo of Aiden's story lingered in the smoke circling above us. We were all disturbed, and sat in silence while watching the fire slowly shrink. Suddenly I heard a low whistle from behind me. I whipped around to see a figure just out of reach of the dwindling firelight as I heard Aiden stand abruptly. I heard a clang from my left and knew Mike had opened his knife. Cherry whispered "Oh my god," as a tear slipped free from the ocean of her left eye. I stood too, but did nothing beyond that. That one action had exhausted any bravery I had. The figure began moving towards us, the whistle growing louder. I remained where I stood, not due to any heroism but out of crippling shock. As the figure picked up speed I heard Aiden beginning to say something in another language and Mike yell something along the lines of giving this figure a third hole. Just as the shadow breached the wall of light, I faltered and took a step back, touching the fire slightly with my heel and crying out in surprise from both the pain and the revelation of the whistler.

Sean collapsed in a laughing fit on the ground. "You fucks actually bought it!" he cackled. He was holding his ample, shaking stomach as he continued to laugh on his knees in the sand. "Sean you FUCK why would you do that?!" Mike screamed. Emma and Cherry had crawled to each other and were locked in a tight embrace. "Fuck you Sean!" Cherry sobbed. Sean slowly began to stop laughing, but was still catching his breath. "Oh come on, guys it was a joke! You were all just so caught up in this story," he managed to huff out, still smiling slightly as he did. Cherry stood and pulled Emma up with her and they stormed towards where the tents had been laid out by the cars. "Cherry- hey I'm sorry!" Sean shouted after them to no affect. "You're an ass, dude," I stated before turning back towards the vehicles to set up my own tent. As I walked past Aiden, I saw a look in his eyes I had never seen in them before. One of profound rage, and, perhaps even a glimmer of fear.

We all set up our tents in the nick of time. By the time I had attached the last pole, the fire was nothing but smoldering coals. I climbed through the door of my temporary shelter and as I lay there, the story Aiden had just shared echoed in my head. Looking up through the mesh of the top at the clear starry sky above, the dim crescent moonlight peering in. Thinking of the sweet scent of Cherry’s perfume instead, and probably with the assistance of the cheap liquor, I drifted off to sleep.

The low whistle woke me some time later. It was still dark, so it couldn't have been long, and I was still feeling the effects of the booze and the grass. I couldn't remember immediately why this noise was as disturbing as it was. The nights events were still clouded in the fog of sleep and aided in their obstruction by everything in my bloodstream. It wasn't until I heard mike yell "Sean I'm gonna fuck you up!" and heard his tent rustle as he rushed angrily to get it open that I remembered Aiden's story and Sean's asshole prank. I began clambering out of my tent as well.

As I stuck my head out I saw Mike was already shoving Sean and yelling at him, the wind blowing his usually perfect hair every which way. Clouds had partially obstructed the moonlight, and I began to feel as though I had woken up to a dark and stormy cliche. The girls were climbing out of their tent too. "It wasn't funny the first time you fucking idiot, grow up. Let us fucking sleep," Mike was continuing to push a protesting Sean. "Hey dude it wasn't me this time! I promise!" Sean was no match for Mikes height and strength and he knew it. "Yeah, sure man. Knock it the fuck off." Mike gave Sean one final shove knocking him to the ground. Sean looked like he might actually be scared. I'll admit his bearing was better this time. I shook my head disapprovingly and turned to go back to my tent when I saw that Aiden's tent door was flapping in the gentle breeze as well. But I couldn't see him anywhere.

"Hey, guys, not to add to the freak factor but has anyone seen Aiden?" I asked carefully. Mike stopped and turned, looking around our campsite. "Maybe he's just taking a leak," he offered. "Yeah, I mean Sean I'll admit your whistle was pretty loud. Probably-" I cut myself off as I saw Sean's face. He was quietly crying and looking directly at me. No... not at me. Past me. I was suddenly as sober as the day I was born and turned slowly to see whatever Sean was looking at. I silently prayed it was just Aiden, and as I finally completed my turn I realized with a rushing feeling of relief that it was, a few yards away with his back facing me.

"Jesus dude, come on. Sean I expect that from but what the fuck," Mike said with annoyance in his voice. Aiden didn't answer right away, I assumed because he was still mid-piss. But after a minute or so, I began to question my theory and backed up a bit. "Come on Aiden lets go back to bed man, huh?" I asked carefully. He didn't say a word. I couldn't make out the details of his clothes, and could only tell he was facing away from us because of his long hair.

Right then my blood froze in place and I felt as though my heart had imploded. His hair. It was perfectly, unnaturally still. I could feel the group collectively realize something was off at the same time, and that was before the inhumanly low whistle came from the figure in front of me. "Fuck this!" Sean cried, and he began doing his best to run back towards his truck. "Aiden?" Mike asked with real fear in his voice. This time, Aiden did react. The outline of his head began to turn.

Im not sure what feeling I got when it continued to turn all the way around 180 degrees, his face still obscured by shadow, but it was almost like I felt I was looking at an optical illusion. When my brain finally caught up and saw the hidden picture, I screamed and began running to my car too. In fact, everyone began running for what we hoped would be our escape. The whistle followed, always sounding like it was the same distance away and never stopped for a breath, but I never dared look back.

Somehow I made it to my car along with Cherry and Emma. Mike had run past Sean and jumped into the drivers seat of the Chevy. Sean had left his keys in it and we started our respective engines simultaneously. Mike didn't waste any time putting the car in drive and fishtailed out of his spot. Sean dove, rather impressively, into the bed of the moving truck as I spun my tires too, sending my Camry sideways. The girls were screaming in my backseat, and I was having trouble holding it together myself. All my earlier reservations about driving away had vanished.

As I roared through the sand, making an almost impossible turn my headlights illuminated the figure that had chased us. I couldn't hear a whistle anymore over the red-lined 4 cylinder engine, but I saw Aiden. Or what I had thought was Aiden. He was completely naked, and looked like his skeleton was too big for his body. His bones all looked like they might rip through his now pale skin at any moment, and he had grown in the moments between when I had first seen him when I had gotten out of my tent and now. But what was most disturbing of all was his face. It was a cheap replica, as though whatever had made it wasn't worried about their craftsmanship.

I could tell it was meant to be Aiden. But it was very clear that whatever was wearing his likeness not only wasn't human, but never had been. I only saw it for a second. Cherry and Emma were sobbing, hunkering in the back, but it was burned into my mind. Aiden was dead. Or. God. I hoped he was dead, and not being paraded around inside that. And just like his great-great grandfather, we had ran.

3 Comments
2024/02/22
06:25 UTC

444

Always check for your shadow.

Mom taught us one rule: always check for your shadow.

Every few hours, the three of us—Mom, Curlie, and me—would do a shadow check. It was as second nature as taking a sip of water. “Shadow check!” my mom would call, and we’d both look down, checking that our shadow was still there.

I thought everyone did this. We were homeschooled, so no one really told me otherwise. And my one friend down the block, Samantha, was a little strange herself, so she never seemed to notice.

But then Mom got a job, and Curlie and I went to school.

And that’s when everything collapsed.

“What are you doing?” Paige asked me, as we stood outside for recess one cool fall afternoon.

“Shadow check,” I replied, “duh.”

“Shadow check?” she asked, confused. “What’s that?”

I squinted at her. “You don’t know what a shadow check is?”

It was like she’d told me she didn’t know how to brush her teeth. I explained, slowly in simple terms, like I was talking to a baby: “You look at the ground. To check your shadow is still there.”

She obediently looked at the ground. “There it is!”

Then she raised her arms out in front of her and linked them, making her shadow look like the letter P. “Look! It’s like P, for Paige!”

In no time at all, half of the class was doing it. We’d bound out for recess, and someone would shout: “Shadow check!” The kids would contort their bodies into weird shapes to make their shadows look like elephants or cats or letters, and we’d try to guess what they were.

That went on nicely for about three days.

Then, horror struck.

On Thursday afternoon, it was overcast. “Shadow check!” Thomas shouted. I diligently looked down and saw my shadow.

But when I looked up, I realized—

Nobody else had a shadow.

For a second I wanted to panic. And scream. And run. But then I took a deep breath, and did exactly what my mom taught me.

I grabbed Paige first. “Hey!” she protested. But I didn’t listen. I held on with a vice grip and started pulling her back towards the school. When the shadow goes away, hide in darkness for a day. The mantra echoed in my head. The school had a basement—I’d heard the teachers mention it. The basement would be safe. All we had to do was stay there until the morning.

“Let go of me!” Paige screeched, finally yanking her wrist out of my grasp. “What’s wrong with you?!”

“What’s wrong with you?!” I screamed back. “We have to hide!”

The kids weren’t smiling anymore—they were staring at me, backing away, like I was a rabid animal.

“We have to hide!” I screamed again. “All the shadows are gone!” I grabbed at Paige again, but she dodged this time. I lost my footing and fell onto the asphalt. Pain stung my knees. I looked up at my classmates. Why aren’t they hiding?!

“What are you doing?! RUN!” I screamed.

That’s when a teacher helped me up—and took me right to the principal’s office.

***

“I should have explained more clearly,” my mother told that night, as she tucked me in. “The shadow thing is only for us. It’s okay if other people don’t have shadows.”

“Why?”

Sadness flashed across her face for a second. Then she shook her head. “That’s just the way it is.”

No one talked to me at recess anymore. Not even Paige. I sat alone all the time. I noticed, now, that there were many days—and some classrooms, even—when people didn’t have shadows. I always did. But they didn’t.

Months passed and eventually kids forgot about the incident. That’s what kids do—forget. Sometimes I wish forgiving and forgetting came easier to adults. Paige would run up to me at recess and we’d play hopscotch. She never brought up the fact that even on an overcast day, my shadow still danced across the chalk lines, mirroring my own movements. Except sometimes, they were the slightest bit out of sync. Like my shadow was moving on a split second delay.

As I got older, however, things got more complicated.

In 7th grade science, the teacher taught us about the sun, and optics, and light. Prisms and rainbows and the cones and rods in our eyes. And she mentioned that our shadow was just the absence of light, that our bodies were blocking out the sun or the overhead fluorescent lights.

It didn’t make sense to me, then, that my shadow—or anyone else’s—would be able to disappear. If the lighting didn’t change, and I didn’t move… how could a shadow suddenly disappear?

Curlie was now old enough to insist we called her by her real name, but she was still too young to understand the argument I had with my mom that night. “It’s not possible!” I shouted, as she worked on her coloring book upstairs. “You’re lying to me!”

“I’m not lying to you,” my mother pleaded.

“Yes, you are!”

I ran across the living room to get in my mom’s face. Walked right past the ornate glass lamp that stood on the end table.

My mom’s eyes widened.

She looked at the ground.

And that’s when I realized my shadow was gone.

The lamp was behind me. My shadow should have been on the floor in front of me. But it wasn’t.

“Run,” she whispered.

When I didn’t move, she began to shout.

“Go to Curlie! GO!”

I hesitated for half a second. Then I sprinted for the stairs.

“TURN OFF THE LIGHT!” she shouted after me. I darted in and closed to the door. Then I bent down and yanked out the plug to the lamp. “Hey!” Curlie said. “I’m coloring!”

“Ssssh,” I whispered.

“What—”

“My shadow disappeared.”

Curlie was too young to remember the day her shadow disappeared. She’d only been a year old. Mom had scooped her out of the playpen, grabbed me by the hand, and took the three of us into the basement. We spent the night down there, in total darkness. Eating canned beans and sleeping on old comforters, laid out on the cement floor.

But she knew that it was bad. She scrambled over to her bed and pulled the covers over her head.

I stood in the center of the room, listening for Mom’s footsteps.

They never came.

Is she staying down there?

But we had so many lights on down there. It would be safer to just run to us. I crept towards the door, my heart pounding, slipping over the Barbies Curlie had all over the floor. “Mom?” I called out, through the door.

Nothing.

I opened the door just a crack and peered out.

I could see the stairs, the light spilling out from the living room. But everything was silent. Maybe she went into the basement. Maybe—

A shadow appeared, cast across the wall.

No! She’s still down there?!

But no. That couldn’t be my mom’s shadow. It was too short. And even though the edges were blurry, the shadow sort of looked like it had a ponytail. Not a short hair in a pixie cut, like my mom.

That’s not mom.

That’s me.

The blurry edges sharpened. And then the figure—the shadow—came into view. My ponytail, my upturned nose, my knock knees. The thing crouched down and pulled at something. Yanking it. Moving completely independent of me.

A dragging sound—

My mother’s feet came into view.

Still and lifeless.

I gasped. My hand clapped to my mouth—but it was too late. The shadow froze.

Turned to stare directly at me.

And then with huge, loping strides, it started up the stairs—

I slammed the door shut. Clicked the lock. Then I jumped under the covers with Curlie, my entire body trembling.

***

The police never found Mom’s body. She was eventually declared legally dead. Curlie and I were sent away to live with our grandparents. They didn’t seem to know anything about the shadow—they never asked us to do shadow checks. The only remark in ten years was my grandma, on a particularly cloudy day, remarking how strange it was that I cast a perfect shadow on the sidewalk in front of us.

I watched it as I walked, and noticed its movements weren’t perfectly in sync with my own.

As the years went by, and my shadow didn’t disappear again, I started to get complacent. I checked for it less and less frequently. I started to lead a normal life, getting hired as a real estate agent. Curlie, now going by her name Rebecca, is nineteen and in college.

I even started to persuade myself that my shadow didn’t kill her. That my mom ran away after our fight, and my memory of the shadow was my way of coping with it. Because it was harder to accept my mom had abandoned us than it was to accept an evil shadow had killed her.

That’s what I told myself—until tonight.

As I sat down on my computer to finish writing a house listing, I noticed there was no shadow of my fingers on the keyboard.

No shadow on the linoleum under the desk.

I ran to turn off all the lights. But I don’t think I was fast enough. Because when I ran to close the blinds, to block out the light from the streetlamp below—

I saw my shadow.

Walking across the dark street.

Disappearing into the night.

So please, I beg you. If you see any strange shadows in your home, or outside—something you don’t think is cast by the lights, by the objects in your home—something that looks different

Hide.

Somewhere pitch dark, where no shadows can be cast, until morning.

+

25 Comments
2024/02/22
04:32 UTC

3

The Thing In the Graveyard Found Me

A shrill squeal echoes through the graveyard, and my heart sinks; it sees me. It wants me to know I’ve been found. Fuck, oh fuck. This time, I really won’t make it. I am barely able to squeeze these thoughts in between the mind-dulling beat of pain swelling with every step I take. The slice down my thigh is shallow, but it hurts like hell and is making my pace sloppy. I clutch the foul object swathed in cloth in my jacket pocket for dear life. Fear singes my back and legs, pushing me towards the train. I only make it a few feet past the cemetery gates before, in the mix of darkness and pain, I fall to the dirt. Jesus, its steps sound so slow, but, god please, it’s nearly at the fucking gate.

I'm on my feet again when I hear the gate crash open; it unleashes another god-awful shriek. A cry that takes me back to hunts with my father, to the ear-piercing wail of a hog that’s shot just short of the heart, whose death throes rattle the senses until it's out of its misery. My thoughts barely cut through the ringing in my ears when a voice reaches me through the fog. "You’re going to be worse off than a fucking sow if you don't get your mind out of the gutter, dip-shit," he calls from around the corner inside of the train. Pulling myself up took every ounce of willpower, although I might have only actually made it upright on the prospect of wringing that little shit’s neck.

I rise and face that god-awful train. As far as I can see, it's an endless Frankenstein of train cars, with the old rusty box cars right next to the modern passenger cabins. It adheres to no logic. With advertisements on the sides for products with no obvious function or others in a language that’s never been spoken, I make out two peaks of a dimly lit circus tent peeking over the iron walls of an open-top cargo car. Soft circus music and the laughter of children dance through the air along with the fragrant smell of caramel corn. The train is leading me back, telling me to continue.

Fluorescent yellow light. It’s all I can see, flowing from the train doors as the outskirts of my vision wane and blur into the darkness. The light has nearly enveloped my complete field of view. Shit, I thought I’d died for a moment. That it was some kind of mistake I was in this hellhole and I would be swathed in ivory sheets; taken by cherubs and lost family members to someplace far away from here.

A sour stench wracks my brain and flings me back to the present. The air turns ice cold except for its hot, putrid breath on my neck. My spine shoots electricity through my body while my gut sinks to the floor as I picture that abomination readying its mangled arm to cleave my skull. That’s the most I can take. I muster all the strength I don’t have, plant my feet hard, and jump.

I writhe and twist on the cold, filthy carpet of the cabin. I can’t breathe. Akin to the dreadfully silent moments in a delivery room as an infant chokes on its first breath of the outside air, I gasp on nothing. The moments that feel like days before the babe suddenly catches onto life in the form of a whining cry. My shaky vision shoots back into clarity as I draw a heavy breath.

"FUCK MAN," Mordas cries from the other end of the cabin, "IT’S COMING INTO THE CABIN." I try to run, to crawl, but I have nothing left. I let out a weak scream, covered my face, and kicked in the direction of the door. I awaited the sting of its blade, only hoping I’d be killed quickly. But the strike never came; when I stopped screaming, the only thing I heard was Mordas laughing. I look up through the door’s windows to see the abomination peering in, at me, still as a painting. Its body is vaguely human, a hefty man equipped with broad shoulders. Its face is abhorrent, the man’s head was split into two, resting on its broad shoulders. Making way for the emergence of a pig. The pig’s body looks like it was pushed through his trachea, with just its head and two front legs poking through the makeshift maw of the man's head. The pig is motionless, its gaze piercing through me with mad eyes leaking a chalky pus. It raises its blade to me, taunting me with the crimson blood still dripping from the hefty cleaver. Its taunt only meant to me that I was safe.

I was able to shift my attention to Mordas, now keeled over, crying, in a laughing fit from my reaction. "I… will fucking kill you," I wheeze. He pauses his laughter and looks at me, blankly. All he does is mimic my reaction to the beast, kicking and screaming. The beast still keeps his gaze on me, unshakably locked onto its lost prize. Mordas is a small man, with a face that has an abundance of crooked features. He resembled the amalgamation of every school bully and sour face. His hair is midnight black and slick with grease. He continued his laughing fit, rolling on the floor in his train attendant uniform: a navy blue suit with matching tie and polished black shoes.

He clears his throat and lies on the floor, staring at the ceiling and soaking up the joy from his thoroughly executed prank. "I thought you were done for, Jonas," he says with tears of joy drying off his cheeks, "Really dreaming about cherubs and the fucking circus when you’re gonna be turned into pig slop? I’m almost mad you made it."He kneels close to my heaving body. "By the way, sir, I believe you need a ticket to ride aboard this train." I reach into my jacket pocket. "Did you like what it was this time? I put in some extra thought as to what I thought you’d like the most. I wish I could have seen your face digging up that grav-"

I ram a piece of broken gate through Mordas’ throat, his face of earnest surprise and shock lets me know he wasn’t watching me close enough. He reaches for his throat, falling, as he hits his head on the refreshment cart behind him. Blood sputtering out of his throat and mouth. The beast watches me, I watch Mordas, and Mordas eventually no longer struggles. I don’t know if this will end this hell, but I had profound peace seeing him lie there in a pool of blood.

"Points for resourcefulness," I hear on the other side of the cabin door, "I’ll try to pay more attention.

"H… How…?" I couldn’t think of any other word as I saw Mordas, in a clean suit, step over his motionless corpse.

"How is half the fun! I won’t spoil a thing, but you’ve been here long enough that you know surprises are a part of this whole experience!" Mordas looks as if seeing my hopes get crushed was the cherry on top of our already pleasurable reunion. "Speaking of surprises, can I get that ticket now, sir?"

Mentally, I have nothing left to give. I concede what I have. I reach into my jacket pocket and hand over a thin object wrapped in dirty cloth. Mordas accepts with deep satisfaction, knowing that I played his game.

Unwrapping my father's decomposing finger, he places it into his front pocket with thorough accuracy."With this ticket, sir, let me escort you to a first-class cabin," he says with a hideous smile. "I’m sure you will be comfortable."

2 Comments
2024/02/22
03:53 UTC

62

Somewhere Beneath Us {Part 20}

{Previous Part} ~ {Part List}

"See? I told you it was a bad idea. Move your hands, let me see it."

"Yeah, you were right. Ah- I stand corrected. It's fine, Alice, I just landed wrong. It didn't split."

Alice inspected the still unhealed wound on Ethan's arm that he had just landed on. The woman had a motherly instinct that would rival even Jan. In an attempt to jump to the wall of junk that blocked the top of the enclosure, Ethan had just slipped and tried to catch himself on his bare forearm. The sound of his pained grunt would undoubtedly be enough to summon the Curator back down.

"Even if you got up there, Joel's arm is still too hurt to help him up quickly, and we'd have to push some of that furniture down. The curator would hear that for certain. It'd be back down before we even got three rooms away."

"How does it always know?" Ethan questioned. "That thing had the object permeance of a toddler above, but now that we're in here, it knows every time we sneeze."

Alice shrugged. "I don't know for sure. Me and my friends thought that maybe this was its original room. Maybe it has some sort of special connection with it."

"Creatures can leave their rooms?"

"None of the ones that we saw could, but It can, and it has to be one of the creatures, wouldn't you think?"

Suddenly, we heard a violent banging and rattling from a door outside our exhibit. Right on cue. The Curator slinked into the room and scurried over to the glass, cocking its head and investigating us. Ethan and Alice were already to their feet before it had even entered and were acting completely inconspicuous. After a moment, the beast played a few notes on its throat and then exited back out of the room and up the chute it had come down.

"Man. If only we had found that elevator sooner. We could have gotten to the bottom of the house in a day." I groaned.

"Come on, let's keep thinking," Ethan said, scanning the scaffolding of the ceiling.

He was right; we desperately needed to develop a solution to get out of here. Since our first night, we had already been trapped here for another full day. If Bea was immortal in her room, she had most likely spent that time in horrible agony. If not… Well then, time was running out. The longest I had ever heard of someone who had been impaled living was a couple of days, and that was only if it hit the right places. Then there was always the option that we were wrong about the room theory altogether…

I pushed the thought out of my head and tried to focus. All of our attempts so far had been less than fruitless: standing on each other's shoulders to reach the open part of the wall, trying to pick the lock on the service door in the back with a paper clip, and now, trying to scale our way over the barricade the thing from downstairs had created. It must have been on high alert now that it had new pets because the thing barely left the room. When it did, it was only for a couple hours at a time, and if we ever made a noise too loud or concerning, it somehow knew to come back. That meant whatever we did had to be quick and quiet to give us enough of a head start.

"Maybe we can tear up some of this fake foliage and make a rope? We could find a way to hook it onto that bar up there and climb over?"

"Yeah," Alice muttered with false confidence. "That could work." We could both tell that the harder we tried to escape, the more discouraged she got.

Ethan sighed and dropped his head, "I'm sorry, Alice. I know we just crashed into your world and that there's a lot at risk with us doing this, but we really need to get out of here. Our friend needs us."

"No, no, I understand. And I'm so happy to see actual, human faces again, but it's just… Andi was the only one I've seen make it out of here, and even that was a close call. Everyone else, they... And I just can't see that happen to more people… I've been alone with the memories for so long, and if any more are added to that pile, I don't know if I can handle it." She stepped over to the glass and looked at the 'BAD PETS' cage. "I've seen two people I cared about disappear into that room, and that was the last time I ever saw them. I could hear them, though, and I wish I couldn't have…." Alice slowly reached up and brushed her fingers over her earrings.

I thought for a moment before speaking. This poor woman had suffered so much more than us, and our suffering alone had felt like hell. "This time, we'll get it." She turned to me, "We will, Alice. I can't imagine how much you've lost… We've lost people too. And all of them believed that we could find a way out of this place. And I believe them. We're going to get out of here, and we're getting you out with us, Alice. You don't deserve to be alone in here with your memories anymore."

She looked at me with uncertainty, but part of her seemed to find at least some comfort in what I said.

"Okay." She replied quietly. "Just- please, we need to be careful."

"Absolutely."

"Is there any other way you can think of to get out of here?" Ethan asked, "In all of your time here, you had to have come up with at least a few ideas."

Alice shook her head, "The more people I lost, the harder it became to think of a way out. Once I was alone, I eventually gave up. I haven't really thought about it in a long time."

Ethan looked down, "Dang it. We've come so far… This can't be it." he muttered under his breath as he kicked a loose stone on the ground. It skittered across the floor until it came to an abrupt halt against the savannah painted wall with a Thump!

Suddenly, like a gunshot in my head, the scene sparked a significant detail I had glossed over in all of the panic. When we were upstairs making noise to draw in the creature, Ethan had thrown a stool across the room. A stool that put a hole in the wall of the indestructible house.

Alice and Ethan continued to discuss possible escape routes while I took a few steps away from them to think. How had that been possible? Like most things with the house, I wanted to either pin it as a strange anomaly or assume that I had simply imagined the hole. But this time, I knew with certainty that wasn't the case. I knew what I had seen, and the stool leg had gone straight through the drywall.

I began to review all of the times I had ever seen a part of the house break, and the list was quickly finished. The only other instance had been when the catwalk had collapsed back at the playhouse, which with the knowledge I had now, was most likely attributed to the house itself. The way it had bent the other catwalk to trap Ethan and stab Bea meant that it could have easily tried that in a discrete attempt to kill us. However, the more I thought about that theory, the more plot holes I found in it. The House wanted us to end up in our rooms, not completely die, and if it had been the one that trapped us with the birds, it was playing an awfully risky game. That meant it had to have been an accident that the walk broke.

On top of that, the catwalk had actually shattered, seemingly organically, not just shifted into a new shape. Whatever had happened seemed way different from the void catwalk. When Ethan had been trapped by the railing and had to bend it to get out, it had seemed like-

'Oh my gosh.' I thought, my pacing coming to a dead halt. 'Ethan... Ethan bent the bars…'

Instantly, my mind was ablaze with a million realizations, a cascade of loose ends twisting together to form a rope that I grabbed tightly and followed. Ethan had thrown the stool and bent the bars. He was standing on the first catwalk with us when it fell, and suddenly the thing that the House had said suddenly made eerie sense.

"Well, almost always indestructible. Isn't that right, Ethan?"

It could have directed that question at any one of us, even all of us, but it had explicitly chosen Ethan, the one person who had never even seen it before. Why? And why had Ethan never seen the creature that had been tormenting all of us? I thought back to what Daniel had said about his wife being the one who let the fetuses into his house, so it seemed like he, too, had been having visits from the creature . So why was Ethan not? What was different about him than the rest of us?

A shiver rand down my spine as the last piece of the puzzle slid into place. A fact that had been insignificant to me in all of the emotion and pain of seeing Mark's final moments. It was what he had said when he was explaining his theory of the house to me. According to him, everyone had admitted doing something terrible in their life.

Everyone except for Ethan

Ethan didn't withhold his confession because he was embarrassed; he wasn't that kind of person. He withheld it because he didn't have anything to confess at all.

"Oh my gosh…." I exclaimed out loud. Alice and the subject in question both turned to me.

"What? What is it? Is everything alright, Joel?" Alice asked.

"Ethan." I started, "I think you can break the house."

Alice glanced to him, expecting to glean understanding from his expression, but he looked just as confused as she did.

"I'm sorry?" He questioned.

"I said that I think that you can break the house." I turned to the service door in the back. It had a cheap nickel handle. One that could easily be detached. "And if that theory is correct, then I think we've got our way out of here."

Grace sat alone in the sunroom; in front of her, a long piece of paper was sprawled out. It was one of the finer pieces we had. Next to her, she had broken into our paint supplies as well. I approached from behind and knelt down next to her.

"Watcha' up to, old lady?" I asked, looking down at the canvas before her.

She smirked, "Just painting, you little brat. Figured we could use some new decoration around here."

"Wow, that's really good so far. I didn't realize you were a painter."

She laughed to herself, "I'm not. I dreamed of being one when I was a kid, but it became more of a hobby as I grew up."

"Well, once we get out of here, you should give that dream another go," I said, admiring her handy work. I stared down at the masterful illustration of four scarlet birds perched on a branch. "What kind of bird is that?"

"They're cardinals. You've never seen them before?"

"I'm sure I probably have; I just forgot. Though, that seems like it would be hard to do." The bright red plumes of the animal stuck out like a beacon against the white parchment.

"Oh, you should always keep an eye out for them, my dear. It's a blessing when one visits."

"How so?"

"Well, they're known for often visiting windows and tapping on them. When I was young, my mother always told me that when you see a cardinal on your sill or perched nearby, it's a loved one you've lost coming to visit from heaven. For me, they were my father."

I smiled, "That's really nice."

She pointed to one on the far right of the branch. "That one's Andi."

I sat with Grace in silence for a bit before a question burned its way to the tip of my tongue.

"What do you think it feels like to die?"

She didn't look up from the sheet, just pursed her lips and tilted her head in my direction, "Well, that's a heavy question, Joel."

"Sorry. I guess it's just something that's been on my mind lately."

"I suppose I can't blame you for that." She said solemnly. "I can't say it's something I've thought about too much. The after-death part; that's the one that comes up most often. But what it would be like going through it… Let me think about that one, Joel." Grace dipped her brush in a cup, letting a bit of black paint murk up the water, then re-plastered it in crimson and began to dash a fifth bird.

Alice, Ethan, and I all sat in a different part of the enclosure, exchanging glances between each other while the curator hastily unstitched its skin and dumped out the contents beneath. It was nearly finished. My heart violently assaulted my chest, and my foot tapped rapidly with anticipation. We were so close. This was going to be the one, and we all knew it. The monster loosed an old metal desk fan that crashed down into the pile, then flicked off the radio. It turned back to us, played a few notes, then darted off into the darkness of the doorway.

'one… two… three…'

Without a word, the three of us were on our feet and at the door at the back of the enclosure. Ethan pulled the rusted screw from his pocket and began witling away at the plate that the doorknob rested on. It was rattling now from how loose it had gotten. Pieces of sealing rubber and glue flaked to the ground to the scratching rhythm while Alice and I intently listened for the Curator's possible return. I couldn't believe it was actually working.

"Wow… That's a lot to take in." Ethan had said after I told him, "So you're saying I've had all this power this whole time and never even knew?"

"Why would you have? As far as everyone else goes, the house is indestructible. After seeing it firsthand, you never had any reason to test it yourself."

As we talked, I noticed Alice was pondering the concept deeply, "I think Joel may be right. There was someone in my group before, a friend of mine. She kicked a locked door open once in a burst of adrenaline. We never figured out how, but if your reasoning tracks, then maybe she didn't belong here either."

That last part took me back, "Didn't belong here? What do you mean?"

"Well, isn't that what you're saying? If we've all done bad things, but Ethan hasn't and can break the house, it would stand to reason that he wasn't supposed to be here in the first place. The house doesn't know how to contain someone like him."

"Um, no, that's not quite what I was saying, but that actually is an excellent point, Alice."

"Hold on," Ethan cut in, "Now you guys are getting ahead of yourselves. I mean, I'm no saint. Of course, I've done bad things."

"How bad is bad?" Alice asked.

"Like, trapped in an endless rotting prison of demons bad?"

"I don't know. I mean, I bullied this one kid back in high school. That was pretty bad."

"Oh. Well, that may be pretty awful," Alice said shyly, "but I think you could chalk that up to young naivety. That's clearly not who you are anymore."

"Maybe not, but I just don't think I'm that special, guys…."

I bent over and picked up a jagged pebble from the ground, "There's only one way to find out." I said, walking over to the wall. I dug the rock into the surface and scraped it down as hard as I could. Not a single fleck of paint even came off. I turned to Ethan, then held the stone out in my hand. He rolled his eyes and took it, then crossed to the mural. Alice and I watched from behind as he dragged the point across. He paused for a moment, holding the rock in place as he stared.

"Well?" I asked.

He glanced over his shoulder to me, then slowly took a step back. Where the flawless African savannah once was depicted, now was marred by a large, grey slash revealing the brick underneath.

Chunk!

We all collectively gasped as the panel came popping away from the door, exposing the mechanisms of the handle within. Like statues, we waited and listened to see if the Curator had heard it. After a couple of minutes, we resumed the operation. Ethan pulled the plate back and reached the screw inside, jamming it into part of the lock and trying to dislodge it. No luck. Instead, he attempted to fidget with the screws holding it in place, but to no avail. Looking down, I grabbed one of the thin metal buttons from my flannel and pulled hard, snapping the thread. I then handed it to him. We held our breaths as he tried to fit it in the slot. After watching his hand twist a few times, he turned around with a smile and opened his palm. There were now two screws and a button.

As Ethan continued, I glanced at Alice. I could see so many emotions in her eyes. Fear, anxiety, relief, excitement. After her shock had worn off, she slowly stood and made her way to her cave. I heard her rummaging through her belongings before she returned, wearing a coat with a few pockets full of various items. One of which looked like a stuffed animal. She looked at me as she approached with questioning eyes, asking, 'is this it?'

I nodded, then stood from my crouch as well. The next few seconds of watching Ethan felt like forever until finally, we saw the handle begin to sag and then fully come off. Ethan caught the thing before slowly setting it down. Then, cautiously, he pushed on the door. It swung open with a slight creak, revealing a dark hallway behind.

We all allowed ourselves one last second of 'oh my gosh, this actually worked' before confirming glances and quickly stepping into the hall.

I looked both ways, conducting a mental map in my mind. To one side, the hall led into darkness, most likely a way back into the labyrinth of rooms. To the right, two doors lay open, light shining through both. From where they were, I knew one led into the spectator room, and the other further down was most likely the service door into the 'BAD PETS' room. I silently started toward the first entrance. This was unsurprising to Ethan and Alice, as we had already made a vague plan of what we would do before starting our escape. We needed to get our belongings back from the curator if possible because we had no food otherwise, and according to Alice, even if we managed to get away, this floor was large and lacked any sources of nourishment.

We entered into the junk room, and the smell hit us hard. Rotting food and mildewed fabric dominated the air, accompanying the scenery of hoarded garbage. Even though the enclosure wall hadn't gone all the way to the ceiling, it must have been enough to spare us from the pungent odor. I held my breath and stepped carefully as I crossed to the center of the area, making sure to not knock anything over. One slip and a whole pile could come down. I made my way over to the rise of junk where I had seen our bags and peered in. Tucked below a bike tire were mine and Ethan's backpacks. I turned to my friend and gestured him over, then lifted the tire slowly, carefully balancing the weight that it was supporting. As I did, Ethan gently slid the bags out from the heap. He handed me my pack, and I unzipped the top pouch, ensuring that everything was still inside. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that nothing had been removed.

We wasted no time turning to leave, grabbing any visible food that looked still edible from the tops of piles as we went. I also spotted a flashlight that I plucked out to replace the broken one, although the light was spotty from the old batteries inside. I had been trying to avoid breathing as much as possible to avoid the putrid scent, but when I finally couldn't deal with the minimal amount of air any longer, I took a gasp in.

As I did, I caught a new smell in the air, worse than any of the others. The sharp, raunchy smell of rotting meat. I stifled a coughed at how bad it was, and my eyes were immediately drawn to the source. I was standing right next to the bad pet's cage wall. I hurried back to the hall, following Alice and Ethan, but the aroma trailed with me. I rounded the corner and looked to Ethan to see if he had smelled it too, but something else occupied his attention.

Alice was currently a few steps further down the hall, staring through the doorway of the second exhibit, a hand covering her mouth in horror.

Ethan and I quickly stepped to her, hoping to tear her away from the sight before she took in too much. We didn't know exactly what was in that cage, but we didn't have to. All of the evidence made it clear that it was not good. If only we had known how bad it was, we could have spared our own eyes.

Skin. Not just patches like on the curator. Sheets of skin. Full, humanoid sheets. They were stretched taught and strung up around the room in varying places, dry and smooth from the heat lamps above cooking them so long. The smell from the doorway was even worse than in the junk room, seeping into my skull whether I breathed or not, choking every bit of air from me. The source was obvious as I looked to the back corner of the room.

A thick cloud of black flies swarmed over a dip in the ground where an artificial pond once was. Hungrily, they swooped down to rest on the piles of brownish-red awful that the curator had disposed of neatly in the basin. I heard Ethan wretch next to me, and I had to turn away to avoid doing the same. All the while, Alice just stared with eyes full of tears, unable to move or speak. For us, this was nothing but another horrific sight, but to her, those were her friends…

I swallowed the saliva in my throat that was preparing the way for vomit and stood up, grabbing her free wrist and tugging.

"Alice," I whispered, "We need to go."

I could barely see her shake her head as she held the same position.

"Alice, I'm so sorry, but we need to move. We want to be as far away as possible before it comes back."

"I can't…" I heard her mutter, "I can't…."

"Hey, look here. Alice, look at me." I gave her arm one more pull, and it was enough to get her looking into my eyes. "I can't even begin to imagine what you're going through, but we can't stay here. You can't stay here. You've been through too much. Let's go, okay? Far away from this place."

She went to look back into the room again, but I squeezed her wrist hard, snapping her from its draw. looking down at the floor, she nodded as she wiped her eyes.

"Okay…" I said with a shaky breath. "Let's move."

Through the dark hallway, we began sprinting, the floor of the zoo eventually giving way to the ever-familiar moldy tan carpet. The rooms we passed through looked similar to what we were used to, but after seeing a few, I quickly noticed a few things off about them. The first was that they had no doors, just open doorways connecting one area to the other. The second was that all of the walls were the same. As a matter of fact, all of the interiors seemed the same. Above, the rooms varied in style and location, as if they were different places stitched together at random. However, it seemed that everything was just one location on this floor: white walls with tan carpet. The third thing was that they were devoid of any furniture or decoration, for the most part at least. Occasionally, we would pass a room with a lone painting on the wall or a space with a single nightstand in the corner. The whole setting was much more unsettling than any of the areas above. It was human, at least it appeared to be that way. Man-made. Yet it didn't make logical sense for a place like this to exist, and it clearly couldn't be inhabited by any living person.

"It's like this part isn't finished yet," Ethan muttered next to me at one point.

As we moved through the rooms, Alice did her best to guide us based on the patterns of the space she remembered from before. We still occasionally hit dead ends like she had mentioned; however, according to her, she was doing better than last time. Meanwhile, Ethan would sometimes use a pen from his bag to mark the doorways as we passed through them just in case we got turned around. Once the pen ran out of ink, he used the tip to etch a mark into the frame. Seeing him smile at his newfound power brought me temporary joy every time.

Wanting to contribute, I kept track of our direction the best I could to ensure that we weren't heading back toward the enclosures. I had gained a lot of experience logging movements in my head from when I was making the maps above. Part of me was worried that the rooms might still be shifting on this floor, but like I said, it seemed different from the rest, and the matter didn't seem of high priority. At least at the moment.

We moved through the floor for hours, maybe even a whole day in complete silence, although I had become numb to this routine this far down into the house. Our bodies, however, still hadn't. This rang especially true for Alice, who hadn't been able to freely move beyond a single room for over six years. At least basket runs at the house allowed us brief physical activity. We tried to put it off for as long as possible, but eventually, we all knew that if we pushed any further without rest, we would be caught with our guard down when danger inevitably came. There had to be enough distance between the Curator for a head start by now.

We found a room that seemed to offer decent escape routes should the need arise to run, then slumped up against the wall. We opened a package of crackers and split them among the three of us, then began eating with our ears on alert.

"Do you think anyone has ever actually made it out of this place?" Alice whispered softly.

Ethan and I turned to her. She looked shaken and tired, and it dawned on me that we hadn't truly given her any time to grieve over the fate of her friends.

"I'm sure somebody has. Neither of our groups were the first here, clearly. Your two friends, you said you thought they could have made it, right?" I replied.

She smiled, "I just like to imagine that they did."

"I'm sure they did." Ethan jumped in, "Your group seemed way better at this than us, and look how far we've come. They had to have made it."

"Thanks, Ethan." Alice chuckled, amused. I could tell she was still troubled, however. I tried to spin things more positively.

"So, what are you guys going to do? You know, when we get out of here, and things have settled down?"

"Oh, man… Ethan started. "I don't even know where to begin. Probably see my parents. I'm sure they're worried sick about me. That is, if they don't think I'm already dead. After that, I'm not sure. Maybe be a celebrity? I'll bet, 'kid who escaped nightmare dimension' will have some marketability."

I laughed, "Good idea. Although, you know the plan for when people ask where we were."

"Fair enough. It would make for a good screenplay, though. Maybe even a book. I always did want to be a writer."

"Really? I never knew that about you."

Ethan shrugged, "It never came up."

"The plan?" Alice asked. "What's the plan?"

"Well, we figured once we got out of here, people would have a lot of questions for us, and telling them we were trapped in another world would probably get us locked up in an insane asylum or quarantined in a government facility," Ethan explained. "So, we came up with a story of how our bus was hijacked on the road, and we were kidnapped. Traded around in an underground trafficking market for years until we escaped."

"That's a pretty good idea."

"Hopefully, it will be. It may not align with the evidence of what's going on outside, and who knows where we'll end up once we escape, but it's better than nothing."

"What about you, Alice?" I asked. "Any plans for your freedom?"

"Oh goodness, probably the same as Ethan. Go and see my family. I had a younger brother who was only five when I arrived here. It's sobering to think he'll be graduating high school by the time I get out. After that, I'm not too sure. Probably finish my medical degree if I can. I always wanted to start a family as well, although now I suppose I'm too late for both of those things."

"What are you talking about? You can't be that old. You look thirty at most."

"I'm thirty-three."

"Oh, pfft." Ethan scoffed, "That's not too late at all, Alice. My mom had me when she was thirty-six. Plus, you can go back to school anytime. I doubt there's an age cut off."

"Yeah, Ethan's right. You still have so much time once you're out of here."

The woman nervously brushed her hair from her face and smiled, "Well, thank you two. That's reassuring to hear that you think that."

"It's not fair that this place robbed you of so many years. You deserve to have your life still."

"God, I bet the world has changed so much since I left. Over a decade…"

"Well, if you got taken here somewhere between thirteen and twelve years, that would have made it-"

Ethan cut me off without a word by raising a hand directly in front of Alice and I's faces. I turned to him and saw he was looking off into one of the dark corridors to our left. Instant panic washed over me. I studied the ambiance closely, trying to pick up on what he heard: a thumping from a few halls down. Footsteps. Inhuman, yet rhythmic.

I scrambled for the flashlight and clicked it off, drenching us in complete darkness. I felt Ethan grab my hand, and I immediately reached out and grabbed Alice's. If we were going to be moving through a dark labyrinth quickly, the last thing we wanted was to become separated. As the footsteps continued, I felt Alice begin to lead us in the opposite direction, the sound of her hand brushing against the wall as she went. We rounded the corner into the next area when the footsteps became a new sound.

Talking. Whatever was behind us began to speak. It spoke in a female voice that was calm and normal, yet it talked rapidly and fast, with words falling out to no fluctuation.

"Dripping filthy water they tie me down and it worms back up in droves of dozens of bereft places that only eyes shut can see over and over they call but no one picks up so together they drift through bleeding windows and back into the places they bury so deep."

Suddenly, the voice went silent and was replaced by the sound of music. A distorted old song that sped up and slowed at random. The talented voice of the singer became a haunting wail as it was stretched and pulled. Then, it harshly cut out all at once, and a new voice began to ramble, this time a man's.

"Melting flowers smell so sickly sweet the pigs come, oh how they come and consume when the mouths fill the sky with their steely grins meat and flesh skin and bone all falls to-"

Another different song began blaring, cutting the voice short, although this one played backward, sending jagged gasps of incorrect language into the halls around us. All combined, it sounded like a corrupted recording, with several speeches and songs recorded over one another, constantly fighting for attention.

I never noticed how bad my hands trembled until I held two other shaking ones as we snuck through the darkness. Whatever this thing was, it radiated pure, utter horror.

We made it a few rooms away from the thing in the dark, but the footsteps continued to trail toward us alongside the twisting voices. The more they rambled on, the more their madness made my chest tighten. This creature was wrong, and I meant that in the most literal sense. Of everything known in the universe, the being defied it with only its voice. I tried hard to push back the incomprehensible images that wormed their way into my head of what it might look like, but the effort caused me to slightly stumble over my own feet. I tried to steady myself against Alice and Ethan but noticed that their grips also buckled as I leaned against them. The madness wasn't just in my head; it was effecting us all. We needed to get farther away and fast.

I released my friend's hands and whipped out the flashlight, clicking it on and praying that we were far enough away to hide the gleam. As the light illuminated the path ahead, Alice and Ethan took the cue, and together, we all began to pick up our pace, weaving silently through the doorways. Instant relief came over me the further we got, like pressure releasing as you swim toward the top of a deep pool. However, it all came back the second the distant music broke again, and the thing talked.

"Your rooms are looking for- Your rooms are looking for- nothing I just want to go home it's somewhere beneath us way way down but there were so many and I couldn't- but we're safe here."

A jumbled mixture of sentences, all from different people but sharing one single thread.

They were all things that had been said to us.

That's when we gave up the silence. Ethan and I began dead sprinting, and while Alice didn't entirely understand why she didn't waste a second joining in. Neither did the thing in the dark behind us. The noise from its strides sounded almost like a horse galloping, heavy and rhythmic. I had been forced to run for my life many times in our journey throughout the house; we all had. But at that moment, I had never pushed myself harder. The rooms became nothing but a white blur around us as the flashlight strobed from my arms pumping. I felt my legs begin to go numb from the muscles within reaching their limit, and just when I thought things couldn't get worse, the flickering beam in my hand caught the outline of something pale a few doorways away. I noticed the gaze of its perfect round eyes for only a moment, but that was all I needed to see to know who they belonged to.

Ethan saw the Curator ahead too and quickly dodged into a corridor to our left, grabbing my sleeve and pulling me as he did. I caught Alice and followed suit, and together we continued on in a new direction. A flurry of wild notes and screeches contrasted the organized madness of the thing behind us. The Curator had joined the chase. However, after a few more strides forward, a structure rattling thud echoed out behind as I could only assume the two creatures clashed.

The unknown being suddenly ceased its recounting of our memories and changed its frequency. Screams echoed out; loud, bloodcurdling screams. The kind you would only hear from someone experiencing unfathomable terror or pain. Guttural and strained, they filled my ears and stood my hair straight on its end. I remember the only conclusion I could come to at that moment was that the being was either terribly injured, or it was reading the Curator's thoughts...

We seized the opportunity to gain more distance, praying that we didn't run into a dead end. The scuffle behind us had bought some time, but once we heard the commotion stop followed by steps resuming, it was clear that the desire to catch us overturned their need to kill one another. They were once again gaining on us and fast.

"This way!" Alice cried over her gasps as she ducked right.

We followed with no hesitation and began weaving through more corridors. However, Alice stopped once we had made it a few rooms in.

"Joel, the flashlight!"

I handed it to her without question in the heat of the moment, assuming she had a plan. Had I known what it was, I would have thought twice.

"Good luck." She said with a shaky breath before shoving Ethan and me hard with each hand.

We fell into the darkness of the room next to us, and in the minimal light that bounced back onto her face, I could see hopelessness in Alice's eyes.

"Come on! Over here!" She screamed as she took off running in the opposite direction. I continued to hear her call as her voice got further and further away. Finally, the momentary shock wore off, and I realized what was happening.

Alice was sacrificing herself for us; two complete strangers she had only known a couple days. I tried to comprehend why, but then quickly realized that the beasts cornering us weren't far behind, and if I didn't get my ass up right now, it was all going to be in vein...

5 Comments
2024/02/22
03:16 UTC

101

I'm was called to investigate an illegal campsite. I don't know if can ever leave what I saw behind.

I'm a park ranger. I patrol the national forests of Kentucky. Today, I was called onto the scene. A valley, deep outside public trails, barely touched. Helicopter thought they saw an unmarked camp, so they sent me out on the ground. The scene was a bloodbath. Streaks of it, all over the ground. The bears started swarming soon after. This was recent. Looking around, I eventually found a notebook. Blood splatter all over, but still legible. I read the last entry as I walked around the camp. I have edited out several of the random asides and drug use, but I can't keep this inside anymore. I need someone to know.

December 13th:

I was in between houses. I guess that's a good way to put it. The job market had dried up in my little town, and when you're 3 months late on rent, you can understand why the landlord decides to show you the door.

I never thought backpacking would be the answer, and I suppose it really isn't in the dead of winter, but here i was. All of my remaining possetions were on my back, and the national forest seemed as good a place as any to try and settle down. Up the side of a mountain, through an untouched forest, and 15 miles later, I found myself at the clearing. The ring of trees circled the valley, a small lake nestled in the middle. I thought this was it.

I setup my home base, and through a few lines out. A few trout obliged my hooks, and with that, I had enough for the night. That night, the fire warmed my soul just enough, and the fire roasted fish filled my stomach. At this point in my life, it's the best I could've asked for.

December 18th

Then I saw the shadow. I first saw him a few days in. Breaking through the edge of the forest, beyond the lake, the dark figure just stood. I waved, expecting it to be another camper in a situation like mine, but it never moved. The corners of my vision had been failing me for many years, so I suspected it was a trick of the light. Whenever I wandered over there, it was gone. I'm in my 50's so I didn't think much of it. Maybe my body was taking much longer to adjust to the mountain air.

December 20th

He showed up in my camp. I was starting my fire for the day, the and as the ember grew to a blaze, I saw him sitting aross from me. I thought he might be trying to say hello, but the complete and utter stillness this thing had was unnerving. I yelled at him to get out of here, and he was gone. Whether I was insane in the mountain air, or something more sinister was afoot. I was never a strong believer in the supernatural, after all.

The next day, I made my trek around the lake and through the woods, following the shadow man. No sign of him. I walked into the brush, cracking my way through a dense mesh of briar, or something close to it. I pushed through until I reached another, higher clearing. something felt wrong, though. The trees stopped growing, almost in a perfect circle, and in the center, a door.

It wasn't a house door, closer to the wrought iron sides of a tank, shrouded in a deep layer of concrete, but poking out among the dead foliage surrounding it. I felt something, a twinge. My breathing had become long and wet. I chalked it up to the hike. I probably hit some alergen on the way up.

A breeze washed through the valley, and I looked up at the door as it swung open, the shade sitting atop. That was it, I had to. I was in to this and I was going to see it through til the end. I shouldn't have gone down that hall. I don't know if it would've helped.

December 21st

I checked out the hall, but it was dark. Long staircase went down into the earth, and it was pitch black. I hooked up a lantern after dinner. Today, I'm going in.

December 22nd.

I've been trying to use the light I have to explore down there. I haven't seen the shade, though I guess he wouldn't look like much of anything down there. Man, I should have reapplied sunscreen. I am burning up out here. I'll try to stay out of the sun today. Won't have much of a problem with that. I went deep, down spiked hallways like nothing ive ever seen. The signs are kinda eerie, with symbols and stuff between english. Basic keep out stuff I'd expect to see on any cattle ranch in town.

December 23rd

I coughed up blood last night. I'm not feeling terrible, but I just have this terrible burn. I needed to go back, and I did. Further this time, I used a line hooked up to the door to lead me back, and I went all in. Nothing but dirt and more dirt. At the end of the halll, theres a little metal ball. I tried to touch it, but it was pretty hot. Must be one of those flukes. I'll come back tomorrow.

December 24th

Christmas Eve. What a joke. God gave me nothing, and we expect to worship that? No, I'm going in again. Last night, I woke up in excruciating pain in my hands. The skin had started to peel, and I saw bruising all over. This felt like more of a burn.

December 25th

My body is decaying. I woke up again. Hell, I didn't sleep. I felt a pain in my right index finger. My hand, it just went on instinct. I grabbed my finger, and like a wet sock, the blood squelched and my fingernail laid in my hand, blood dripping from the wound. I wrapped it up up in a bandage. I don't think I feel pain after that. The way I see it, I'm dying regardless. I might as well get that thing while I'm at it. This is my last message. If you find this, leave. You don't want this. I aint coming out of that cave. Learn from me.

The final journal entry looked barely scrawled, penned ina deep crimson tone. His blood had soaked through the last lines. He wrote what was on the walls. I knew I shouldn't. But I have to. I walked to the clearing, up through the briars, and I saw it. The door was there, the shade sitting on top. It was real. Part of me thought the old man had gone crazy, but I saw that thing as clear as day, or as clear as a shadow can be. I walked into the room, down the hallway, and saw it. A pool of blood. No, it was a man. Bones stuck out. Muscles fused, and the ungulating mass that used to be the man laid there, barely even human anymore.

I turned my flashlight around, glanced at the page. The light had highlighted the pen ink under the blood. I read it, matching the text to the spattered english on the walls.

This place is a message... pay attention to it.

Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of hoor. No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here. Nothing valued in here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive. This is a message about danger.

The danger is unleased only if you substantially disturb this place physically. this place is bessed shunned and left uninhabited.

Something struck me about those lines. I had heard them somewherer before, but I couldn't put my finger on it. That changed, however, when I saw the symbol. The pinwheel, three prongs, emenating from a center.

I ran. By the time I got back to the car, I was already covered in blisters, my face feeling the most intense burn it ever felt. I've been around forest fires, and that didn't feel like anything compared to this.

When I got into town, I collapsed on the wheel. Doctor says I have a week left. I know I'm not gonna make it a day. Cancer.

I don't know if this message is a goodbye. I don't know if I have the stomach to tie the rope, but I need to leave the world with something, anything. You don't need to explore those empty clearings in the mountains. They kill slow, but they kill all the same.

7 Comments
2024/02/22
03:08 UTC

18

Planet of Hell.

I remember flying out of my body, rushing through the clouds and piercing through the atmosphere. All of a sudden, the stars were rushing past me, and everything went black. Then, it wasn’t. For what felt like years, maybe centuries, nothing happened. It was like I was a simple cell with no purpose, capable only of the simplest thoughts, longing for something much greater that had been forever lost.

Then, I felt something new. I could feel a cocoon wrapping itself around me, embracing me like a cold and dying mother, breathing into me its life and also its despair. Slowly, I grew a torso, legs, arms, hands, and feet, longing to be free in a body I still could not move.

Then, I felt a shift. Whatever womb I was in seemed to be slowly ascending. All of a sudden, life shot itself straight into my newly formed body. I began to convulse, and panic overtook me. In this state, I tore myself from this womb to finally see the world around me, and it was chaos.

Hordes of drowning bodies surrounded me, all trying to stay above the liquid. Gigantic ships of flesh and other materials fished out these bodies and threw some overboard. The sky was filled with tiny falling embryos, all sinking as soon as they hit this tormented sea. I shouldn't have taken the time to admire the scenery, as that was just enough time for someone to push me down back into the water, where, funnily enough, I died once again.

For another amount of years or centuries, the process started itself over, but even with the knowledge of what was to happen, I would still be pushed back in over and over again. Until one day, after emerging from my perpetual cocoon, I would get to what someone in my situation would call lucky. A ladder fell down on my freshly birthed head, and without hesitation, I began to rapidly climb, kicking any arm that would dare get close to me.

When I fully docked myself upon the ship, I was swiftly grabbed by a large, gruff, and intimidating figure with eyes as dark, chaotic and despairing as the sea I emerged from. The man held a knife to my chin, inspecting me for any form of resistance. In a new language that I was born understanding, he spoke, "You don’t want me throwing you back into those waters, do you?" I shook my head in understanding. "Put on these chains and follow the line."

Broken by the torturous cycle, I willingly obeyed, unaware of the new torments awaiting me in this grim hellscape. Walking the line, I would be whipped and prodded, as if they were testing me to see how far I could be pushed before becoming a nuisance. The more daring souls who questioned their fate were swiftly slaughtered and thrown overboard.

As I made my way down into the bowels of the ship, following the line of broken people, I witnessed strange horrors beyond my understanding. The ship was brimming with life, filled with multiple bodies seemingly attached to it, as if this collection of poor souls were mere cogs and engines driving the ship, wailing in hopeless agony. At least in the cycle, there was a moment of calmness within the time of forming. The only hope I had was that if I obeyed, I might be spared such a grim fate.

Within the bottom of the ship, an old man holding what seemed to be a rifle directed the souls to large and crowded crates where they would be shoved in and sealed for the duration of the trip to God knows where. Reluctantly, I entered the crate, trying my best not to get on anyone's bad side. With the patience of me and other broken lost souls, I waited for what would come next.

Many people in my crate would die of starvation, and those who wanted to live would have to resort to eating whoever wasn't strong enough to stay alive. With food came waste, with waste came sickness, with sickness came death, and with death, just more food. By the time we arrived at our destination and our crate was finally broken open, over half of us had died, with the rest barely able to move. The cruelty didn't end, and our captors were quick to dispose of anyone deemed too weak to move on. Those who could were quickly escorted to the dock and told to obey orders.

The area we arrived in was a massive seaside city filled with merchants selling strange goods, enormous creatures with human skin, and starving people frantically working on colossal structures that seemingly had no end to them. Anyone who looked well-off had a sort of viciousness to them; this society was definitely not made by any benevolent means. One by one, we were all auctioned off to the highest bidder. When I was sold, an old woman placed a strange tumor on my forehead, which quickly attached itself, sinking into my brain.

“You’ll do as I say from now on, child. I see any disobedience and this thing I have put in you will either teach you right or kill you. Then it's back to the sea with you, are we clear?” After nodding my head, she pointed me to the carriage being pulled by a strange four-legged, headless, hairless mammal. “Get on now; we don’t have all day.”

3 Comments
2024/02/22
02:36 UTC

15

Part Four: He should've never moved to my farm.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

I hid out in the wilderness for weeks. My leg was definitely broken.

I skirted around the edge of the property until I reached my grandfather's squat hunting cabin. It sat, dilapidated and pitiful against the final ambient rays of the setting sun. I would have to spend another night exposed to the elements with no food, water, or supplies and only fifty percent of my lower limbs in working order.

However, this fate seemed minor compared to the reality that began to set in for me during that night of exposure. I knew I’d be out in the elements. I knew I could only dare going over the property line during the day to eat, drink, and tend to my wounds. I knew that for the foreseeable future I’d be spending each and every night on high alert, unable to adequately hide due to my injury, and unable to cross the boundaries in order to secure safety, because crossing the line meant certain death and staying in the forest meant only potential death.

The only thing I couldn’t account for was the fact that these creatures had no sense of property boundaries or strategic planning. I wasn’t prepared for them to try and collect me. I truly thought I was safe.

My first and only clue came when I was holed up against my safety tree that I’d specifically selected for the sheer fact that the trunk was so thick that there was no way anything could sneak up on me. It was the dead of night, the landscape so black that I was unable to anticipate any threat, when the creatures came for me.

They came silently this time, slowly wrapping me in a nightmare cocoon in which I’d have no escape. I was well and truly cornered, injured, and deprived of not just nutrients but sleep as well. My brain was functioning at approximately five percent, and when they descended upon me I had no choice but to try, unsuccessfully, to fight my way out.

I first noticed them when long, spindly fingers settled upon my shoulder, slightly tickling me as the predator ensured I was well within their grasp. I had to fight off the sudden feeling of calm that engulfed my being, which I’m sure was a tool of theirs to ensure I would not flee, and instead trust my instincts. With one good leg I instantly rose, and with that I hobbled, apparently throwing off those who wished to do me harm. They gave chase, and caught up almost instantly with me.

The black silhouettes were no clearer up close than they had been far away. And worse still, they encapsulated me with an intense feeling of dread that stopped me dead in my tracks. My body froze completely. I had no choice but to essentially play dead and hope they moved on, but instead I spent a night, or week, I can’t even be sure at this point, in absolute throes of agony while the creatures drained the entirety of my will to live. It seems they cannot hurt me physically, but I wasn’t interested in sticking around after daybreak to find out the extent of what they could do. So after they treated my soul as an all you can eat buffet, I knew I needed to move. I couldn’t outrun them. I couldn’t outsmart them. But I was confident in my ability to figure out a way to avoid them.

It turned out, though, that horrors worse than soul sucking demons lurked within the confines of my grandfather’s property.

I had been back in the house for two nights before I began to hear them. I found that as long as I didn’t cross the front door threshold the black silhouettes didn’t bother me. But then I began to hear the scratching, and the tapping, and as the days wore on the noises began to move down the hall toward my bedroom, when yesterday the insistent predators finally reached me.

I was in bed, with a leg that was still throbbing because I couldn’t risk leaving the land and enraging the threats further, when I awoke to the slight scratching sounds coming from the nightstand approximately a foot from my head. I opened my eyes and saw long, spindly fingers, not unlike those from the silhouettes, inching their way across my nightstand toward my face. All the hairs stood up on the back of my neck and the adrenaline kicked in.

I immediately tried a vanishing charm with no effect. I tried to escape, and bought myself little time with my broken leg threatening to terminally slow me down. I crawled, and pulled myself out of the room with the fingers following me in hot pursuit, promising to extinguish me the moment they caught up. With my experience I knew I could buy slightly more time by getting to an unexplored part of the house; in this case I figured the attic would be my safe haven.

In the hall the pull to the attic was visible and, wincing, I had to jump three times to successfully grab the pull in order to expose the staircase. I grabbed at it feverishly until, finally, my hand connected with the pull, and I was able to amble my way up.

I am writing this update from upstairs. I’m not confident that I will make it through the night. I’m not confident that I will be writing to you again. I wanted to ensure that this update made it out, but I am not sure that I will. I firmly believe that this curse has finally caught up to my family. If this is the end, goodbye, and please ensure

This entry was discovered by a family acquaintance. It was posted as a form of closure. Please do not come anywhere near the land in which these events occurred. Certain death will follow. We are currently investigating the exact entities that inhabit this land.

1 Comment
2024/02/22
01:31 UTC

13

Some creepy guy is trying to turn my friend into his WAIFU!?

"You look different than in your pictures."

Melvin's one to talk.

Online, he presents himself as this suave, fit, suit-and-tie professional. In person... Not so much. He greets me wearing Monokuma slippers, periwinkle sweatpants, and an off-white, hole-ridden wifebeater that clings to his stomach like an overly ambitious web.

Online, Melvin oozes confidence. In person, he can't even meet my eye. His hair is a nest of greasy blonde cowlicks, his beard less peach fuzz, more kiwi fur, his teeth look like they haven't been brushed in weeks, and his moustache? Crumb City.

In fact, the only similarity I can glean between this Melvin filling the doorway and the social media-ified version of him leering up at me from my phone is their shared facial expression.

They do not look pleased to see me.

"Is Yuumi here yet?" I squeak. I don't mean to, but my voice gets the better of me.

Melvin licks his lips. "She's downstairs," he says. After a second of hesitation, he sidesteps to reveal the foyer, fanning his hands, bidding me entrance.

Now it's my turn to hesitate. Yuumi texted when she arrived, but she never explicitly said she went in. There's a chance she isn't really here...

This is exactly why I told her to wait for me, but she's got blinders on, that girl. Melvin could have opened the door juggling machetes and wearing a bloodied Kiss the Chef apron- Yuumi would have waltzed on in like nobody's business.

"Lematagurbag," Melvin grumbles.

"What?"

"Let. Me. Take. Your. Bag-" he enunciates an-noy-ed-ly. I can tell it costs him some effort not to tag a "Bitch" onto the end of that sentence. Definitely not happy to see me.

Before I can frame a response, he stoops down and sweeps my suitcase up into his surprisingly skimpy arms. It's replete with all matter of mine and Yuumi's, but mainly Yuumi's, costumes. Everything he requested for our little photo shoot this afternoon, plus whatever Yuumi couldn't bear not to bring.

With that, Melvin turns around and ventures inside, leaving the front door gaping in his wake.

Taking one last look at the overcast sky, at the dimly lit suburbs behind me, I resist the urge to flee.

The first thing I notice is the smell. It's a tinge on the rancid side, less spoiled milk, more... old cheese. That, and his walls. They're utterly barren.

"This way," Melvin grunts. Rounding a corner where the hall opens up on the kitchen, he immediately starts descending some unfinished wooden stairs. I'm about to do the same when something catches my eye.

"Who's that?"

Through an alcove over the sink, I can see into the adjacent room. A woman sits at the dining table with her back to me. She's skinny, frail, and wearing what looks like a Japanese schoolgirl outfit. Her hair is sleek, straight, long, and dizzyingly black, refracting the light overhead. She sits eerily erect, motionless. Well... almost motionless. If I peer closely, I can see she's playing with a strand of her hair like it's the world's tiniest violin.

Halfway down the stairs, Melvin stops dead in his tracks. "Kumiko?" Ever so slowly, he turns his head, glowering at my feet. "That's my girlfriend."

Girlfriend? He says it so definitively I almost want to protest, but then... protest what?

I turn back to the girl who's now swaying ever so slightly, like an anemone, in her seat, and wonder whether I ought to ask if she's okay.

Melly-boy doesn't give me the chance. "My studio's down here," he says. Do I detect a hint of malice? A sprinkle of resentment?

Hovering on the topmost step, I debate whether to just leave. Something's off. I've got bad vibes. DEFCON 5. What if Yuumi isn't really here? I only agreed to come for her sake. That, and because Rachel, another no-name streamer in our 'circle,' vouched for this guy, but hell if I know why. He practically radiates... sketch.

"Coming?" Melvin grumbles.

Stealing one last glance at the mystery woman, I steel my resolve and begin to descend.

Entering the basement, I exhale a pent-up sigh of relief. Some relative normalcy. Here lies Melvin's photo studio – quite the setup – but even better: Yuumi. She sits, one leg draped over the other on a fold-out chair, idly swiping at her phone. Thank God! I almost want to strangle her.

Yuumi peeks up at me and smiles, wide. "Heyyyyy!" People are always surprised by how much prettier she is in person. Her's is a special kind of pretty, heightened by how oblivious she is of it. The kind of pretty no one gets envious or annoyed about; the wholesome, homely, little sister, 'look at me, I'm a nervous bundle of energy!' pretty that weebs flock to, gamers gawk over, and incels begrudgingly fap at.

There's no denying I'm plain by comparison, but I'm not complaining. I'm just thankful she makes an effort to include me in her side hustles at all.

Melvin putters his lips and swallows, hard. "I was thinking we'd start with some headshots before moving on to-" he gesticulates wildly at the green screen, "-cosplay." Already he's fiddling with his camera. "Yuumi, care to step up to plate?"

Apt name. He looks at her like she's a piece of meat.

"Okay!" Yuumi yelps, chipper as ever. She places a comforting palm on my arm as she brushes past and I resume her recently-vacated, still-warm seat. Unsure of what to do with my hands, I burrow them in my lap and take to looking around.

Melvin's studio is outfitted with all sorts of expensive anime merchandise, ranging from posters to boxsets to an impressive array of figurines squirrelled away inside a massive display case. There's even a few framed autographs – Yuasa and Hosada among them – not to mention a human-sized Eva Unit 01 statue brooding by the entryway.

Judging by the sheer breadth of it all, it's safe to say Melvin's tastes aren't inclined to any one particular genre, to say nothing of a certain indefatigable Medium. There are sprinklings of everything from the most popular shonens to the most obscure visual novels, but nothing prototypically American. No Marvel. No DC. No Star Wars. No Airbender, even. It's like he consumes nothing that isn't Japanese. An otaku, through and through.

Of course, I have a pretty extensive knowledge of all things anime, too – maybe not to Melvin's degree – but enough that I can recognize and name the vast majority of his toys and their respective IPs... with one exception: A body pillow, slouched in the corner to my left, bearing a likeness I simultaneously do and do not recognize.

The girl it depicts is pretty generic – raven haired pigtails, red bow, schoolgirl outfit – but also... somehow not? I try to recall what show or film or harem I've seen her in- or am I confusing her with someone else? Someone similarly dressed? Is that it? The high-schoolers can blend together, but then there's that insignia on the breast pocket, and her eyes... they're weirdly distinct. I could almost swear I've seen-

SCREEEEEEEE.

Upstairs, an awful noise beggars my attention. Nails on a chalkboard? Close: chairlegs on hardwood, followed by a high-pitched giggle. I stare at the ceiling, trying to pinpoint the laugh's origin, remembering Melvin's alleged girlfriend... who was wearing a similar outfit to the pillow's, now that I think of it.

I shudder despite myself.

"You okay, Dora?" Yuumi asks. I flash her an exapserated look. We explicitly agreed not to use our real names.

She merely raises her eyebrows, oblivious to her mistake.

"I'm fine," I say.

Melvin gives me a disgruntled sneer, loathe to be interrupted.

Neither of them seem to have registered the giggle.

I don't push it. Instead, I wait until they pick up where they left off and then start examining the body pillow again, racking my brain, 'Where do I recognize you...' when, apropos of nothing, it moves.

Seriously.

The pillow sways in place like a bowling pin before tipping – timmmmmmber – right into my lap.

It takes everything I have not to shriek.

Mustering my courage, tamping my revulsion, I slowly push the body pillow back into a standing position... and that's when I notice a tiny hole in the middle of its head, like its been trepanned. And jutting out of this hole, it's what I think is – I can't be sure – hair.

I spare a glance to make sure Melvin's not looking.

"Do you speak Japanese?" he's asking Yuumi.

"No," she says, very matter-of-fact. "Dora and I are Korean."

I swear to God, the man winces. "Shame."

Suddenly, my curiosity outweighs my disgust. I take the tuft of hair between my finger and thumb and... tug.

Have you ever unclogged a bathtub? The gash in the body pillow's head dilates and births a wet, tangled clump.

Oh, it's hair alright. Human, by the looks of it. Jet black. Silky smooth. As big around as a rat. And it stinks. I try my utmost not to gag.

Peering into the hole in the body pillow – wider now – I can make out what looks like more hair. Coils and coils of it.

Time to recalculate: what DEFCON are we at? 4? 3? From above, that demented giggle starts up again, reaching a crescendo before tapering out. Okay, who am I kidding? DECON 1. Definitely 1.

I'm debating what to do- what do you even do in this situation?- when I hear the telltale pitter patter of scurrying feet. Someone's coming. Instinctively, I shove the moist wad of human hair into my pocket and sit up straight just as two women, right around my age, come bounding down the stairs.

"Konnichiwa!" they squeal in unison, bowing performatively deep. Both are extremely pretty. The one is dolled-up like a pop star. Purple contacts make her abnormally large eyes pop. Her hair is fashioned into pigtails and elaborately dyed: hot pink curlicues complementing cotton-candy blue highlights.

The other is more traditionally dressed, rocking a cherry-blossom-patterned kimono, two painstakingly plaited braids, and some military-grade straight box bangs. This must be the one I saw upstairs. Melvin's girlfriend. She seems... familiar somehow.

After greeting me, the two girls assail Melvin's cheeks with a fusillade of kisses, then bombard his ears with dueling flurries of Japanese. Long-winded, out of breath, talking over and under each other excitably- it borders on parodic. Melvin basks in the attention.

There's a pronounced change in him now that they're around. He stands taller. No more fishing for eye contact, he doles it out freely and self-assuredly – even, in passing, to little old me.

It's like the man's undergone a complete and total tonal shift. Like he's living life in a different font. Like he's become his internet counterpart.

All of a sudden, my stomach does a flip. Something is very, very wrong.

When Melvin can finally get a word in, he does so in what is – as far as I can tell – pitch-perfect Japanese. His voice is deeper, more guttural all of a sudden. Whatever he says, it makes the two girls blush. They cup their mouths and giggle quietly. Some warped approximation of, "Ladies, ladies..." if I had to guess. "There's more than enough of me to go around."

I meet Yuumi's gaze and raise my eyebrows. She doesn't seem as ill at ease as me, but she's definitely weirded out. It's just... bizarre. Who are these two anyways? Exchange students?

Melvin says something else I can't translate and the girls nod wayyyy too enthusiastically. If they had tails, they'd be wagging. He turns to Yuumi. "The girls are wondering if you'd perchance like to go for a dip."

Perchance. Goddamn.

"You have a pool?" I can see Yuumi debating with herself. This was meant to be strictly aboveboard, PG-13, no 'funny business'.

Correctly deducing her misgivings, Melvin raises his hand- scout's honour. "Only whatever you're comfortable with. Only if you want."

Nobody's paying attention to me. It's a golden opportunity. Slinking over, I position myself so to better analyze Melvin's girlfriend's face: now where do I know you?

Seeing me staring, she gives me the side-eye, a sneer, and BAM- it hits me like a freight train.

"Rachel?" I blurt it out before my brain even has a chance to process. Big mistake.

I swear it's like a real-life record scratch. Time grinds to a halt. In less than a second, the atmosphere of the room has unmistakably changed.

The two girls turn to face me, narrowing their eyes like snakes.

I study Kumiko's face more intently than I've ever studied anyone's in my entire life, even my own, but I can't decide. If it is Rachel under all that makeup, then she's had to have had some work done. If it is Rachel, why wouldn't she just say?

The more I toss it over, the more it seems like an impossibility. And yet... "Rachel, is that you?"

Melvin clears his throat. "I'm afraid you're mistaken, Dora. This is Kumiko."

Studying her cheekbones, her contours, her chin, I meet Kumiko's eye and nearly flinch.

She looks just about ready to play jumprope with my intestines.

Melvin steps in between us to dispel the tension, cooing softly, framing Kumiko's face in his hands. She melts at his touch and, for a moment, I pitch all thoughts of Rachel to the wayside. There's just no way.

But then I remember the glob of hair in my pocket. Just as I'm about to succumb to the warm embrace of logic, I turn to look at the body pillow, the one I now realize looks weirdly like Rachel. The second I do, it flumps to the floor, pointing accusitorily in Kumiko's direction.

Melvin speaks in garbled English. "To the pool it is."

I sit in a crappy, plastic lawnchair in Melvin's backyard. The sun briefly dips in and out of a cloud – peekaboo – playing hard to get, as it's been doing all day now.

Rain is on the horizon.

Next to me, Yuumi lounges in her bathing suit, sipping at a glass of lemonade Kumiko prepared her. A glass from which I refused to partake, for obvious reasons.

"You really don't think that's Rachel?" I murmur.

Kumiko is prancing around the sprinkler in a skimpy, two-piece polka dot bikini. Her friend, wearing yellow galoshes, a sunhat, and a stolen bathrobe bearing the Hilton crest, hollers 'Baby Shark' at the top of her lungs.

"For the last time, no..." Yuumi whispers. "They do look similar though."

This is all she'll grant me. Barely a concession. I don't understand how she can be so chill. I don't understand how she can be so painfully oblivious- like the well-meaning mom in a horror movie. Kumiko looks like Rachel because she IS Rachel. Right?!

There is no pool, I should mention. Or not what any rational human being would consider one. In its stead, Melvin – sporting the Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses from his profile pic – is busy filling an inflatable kiddie pool with a garden hose, holding it like a limp dick as he's taking a piss.

"Girls!" He points to a couple deflated water wings lounging by the patio. Kumiko and whatever the other one's name is immediately spring into action. Scampering over, they pepper Melvin's cheeks with kisses before turning their attention to the flattened, orange, plastic discs.

Suddenly, I can't take it anymore.

Thankfully, Yuumi can't either. "Melvin, how did you and Kumiko meet?"

Kumiko, water wing raised to her lips, blows determinedly, smearing lipstick all over the transparent valve, eyes glazed over. Mindless.

Melvin doesn't bite – he gulps. His unshaven Adam's apple bobs up and down like a guilty fishing lure. "Foreign exchange," he murmurs.

"What school?" Yuumi insists.

An errant shaft of sunlight catches his shades. They glint dangerously as he turns to face not Yuumi, but me. I catch a fleeting glimpse of my own reflection.

"Sorry, I meant to say modeling contract, actually."

The kiddie pool has begun to overflow. Tendrils of water reach out across the grass like little hands. I scoot my seat back and raise my feet instinctively.

"Modelling... wow! How'd she get that?"

Does Kumiko know she's the subject at hand? I can't tell if she's paying attention. If she's even capable of paying attention. Her face is burrowed in the water wing, filling it with powerful exhalations, as dumb to the world as a baby suckling a breast.

Melvin adjusts his shades. "By virtue of her... assets" He simpers to himself. "Her, shall we say, premium 'assets'."

Internally, I cringe. Externally, I also cringe.

Yuumi plays along, her words punctuated by the screech and clop of unwilling plastic. "And how, pray tell, did you become acquainted with these... assets."

Blow. Blow. Blow. Kumiko is practically blue in the face. Expressionless.

Melvin shrugs. "The internet."

A cloud drifts in front of the sun. I reach my hand into my pocket, pulling out the wad of hair I stored away for safe keeping, holding it by my thigh, out of Melvin's sight.

Kumiko's eyes flit to me momentarily and I explore them for any hint of recognition, but find none. The veins in her forehead bulge.

"You make it sound so ominous, Melvin." Yuumi says coyly. She's being a little too flirtatious for my liking, but whatever... whatever gets us out of here alive.

Noticing the hair in my hand, Kumiko begins to breathe fast-

Melvin grins. "Well, I am her agent-"

Faster, faster-

"Among other things."

The water wing has reached megalithic proportions. It's near as big Kumiko's head.

"And please. Call me senpa-"

BAM! The water wing explodes in Kumiko's face- I jump in my seat, plugging my ears only after the fact. It's louder than you might expect. The Other Girl squeals.

Next thing I know, streamers of shredded plastic are hanging from Kumiko's fingers and chin. Her lips are still affixed to the detached plastic teat, and she continues to blow into it- emitting a strangled whistling sound. Oh, and her hair is gone.

A wig. How did I not realize? It lounges in the wet grass like roadkill.

She isn't entirely bald- random wisps of hair sprout here and there from her splotchy head, but these shocks only compound her harrowing aspect. They make her look like a crazy person. What's worse are all the furrows, lightning-shaped and half-scabbed over, scarring her scalp wherever her hair has fallen – or been brutally ripped – out.

All the same, Kumiko seems almost indifferent to her baldness. That is, until the Other Girl points and screams.

Kumiko's eyes go wide. Wider. She probes her head. Hyperventilating, whimpering, mewling, she retrieves the sopping wig from between her feet and tries and fails to put it back on. Patting it into place, it deflates like a spent soufflé.

At which point the Other One stops screaming and starts cackling.

That does it. Forgetting her desperation for a second, Kumiko launches at the Other One and rips her wig off, holding it triumphantly above her head before dashing it to the ground and stomping it out as if it were on fire.

"Kumiko!" Melvin yells.

The Other One starts wailing. Kumiko starts wailing. Melvin debates who to console before the two of them respectively flee and storm inside, at which point he turns to us to say, "I'll be right back-" leaving Yuumi and I, finally, to our lonesomes.

I wait a minute, choosing my next words carefully. "Can we get the fuck out of here, please?"

Of course, Yuumi isn't quite ready to leave. Not until we get our money. Plus, she relishes chaos, whether she'll admit it or not. So I leave her be and go inside, ostensibly to use the bathroom, certainly not to examine any body pillows again...

In the kitchen, through the alcove, I can see Melvin hugging not-Kumiko by the table, whispering sweet nothings, presumably in Japanese. He doesn't notice me. She does. Over his shoulder, I see her eyes pincer. It's a wonder she doesn't hiss.

Making haste, I quietly dip downstairs, only to find Kumiko, sitting right where I once sat. She stares into space, wig spread out in her lap like some kind of animal pelt, absently stroking it. The combined effect of her dead-inside eyes and the straggly wisps of hair poking out of her head gives me the creeps. I snap my fingers in her face to get her attention.

"Rachel? What's going on? Is that you?"

Kumiko looks at me, eyes wide, lifeless. A battered animal.

I sigh. Alrighty then.

Next to her is the body pillow, depicting what I'm now sure is her, cartoonified. I don't have much time. I flip it over, feeling up and down the lumpen surface, wondering what its 'stuffing' might hide. Beyond the one hole in the head, there are no discernible zippers or seams. Taking a deep breath, I do what anyone would do- I do it before I can think better of it.

I widen the hole. I plunge my hand in. I pull.

It's about what you'd expect. Clumps upon clumps of hair. Sheeny, immaculate black globs and knots, stinky and sticky and slick with some oil-like substance. I tear it out by the fist. Within seconds, the whole basement smells of rotten egg.

Kumiko stares on, making no move to interfere.

I tear the fabric open as much as I can, but it's surprisingly resilient. In up to my elbow now, my fingers brush something and scrabble for purchase. My blood runs cold. I can't tell what it is from touch alone – it's too big to seize all at once – but it's fleshy. And warm.

Suddenly, Kumiko begins to scream. The lacquer in her eyes fades, replaced by a look of immaculate horror I don't think I'll ever unsee. Her mouth is frozen in a perfect O. It's like nothing I've ever witnessed before. Terror, in its purest form.

I make to comfort her, only to realize I'm trapped. My arm up to my shoulder is now stuck in the pillow and this fleshy thing, whatever it is... it's moving. Something wet and viscous laces through my fingers like a sentient plaque. It holds my hand.

I shriek and try to yank my arm back, but for the first time, meet resistance. It's like trying to remove your foot from a bog, but your shoe comes off- except the shoe is my goddamn socket. I have to stop before I dislocate my arm, but as soon as I do, the goopy feeling begins to trail up my wrist.

Seized by a new wave of determination, I get a better grip on the pillow, prepared to rip it to pieces. In the back of my mind, I'm dimly aware of a pair of feet storming down the stairs.

Melvin is upon us. I fling around to fight him off and there's a wet plop – a sunction-y sound – and suddenly I'm retracting my arm as if nothing happened. The pillow slithers off of its own accord, pooling like snakeskin around my feet. I marvel at my seemingly intact limb, covered in black sap and more hair than I have on my head, looking as if it's been tarred and feathered. I gag.

To my left, Melvin beelines right past me. He cradles Kumiko, rocking on his heels, horrified. She continues to scream.

"Out!" Melvin points at the stairs. He points at me. "Out!"

I just stand in place, dazed. Tearing himself free of Kumiko, Melvin begins frantically collecting all the clumps of hair I pulled out and stuffing them back into the body pillow. Kumiko balls in on herself, chanting underbreath while clawing, literally clawing, bloody trenches into her head.

"Get out!"

A hand clasps my shoulder and I startle. "What did you do?!" Yuumi whispers angrily.

"GET OUTTTT!!!!"

Before I can make any more sense of the situation, Yuumi hurriedly collects our stuff and takes my arm, dragging me upstairs, past the Other One, and out the front door.

"That was really weird, right?"

"Totally." Hours later, safe in our own apartment complex, Yuumi still doesn't seem too fazed. Not even after I told her everything that happened. In the immediate aftermath, she'd had the gall to go off on me for 'fucking around,' but then the eTransfer came through and all was forgiven.

Now we're sprawled out on the couch, me staring at the ceiling, Yuumi occupied by her phone. I'm still debating what to do next. Call the police? And tell them what, exactly? Even Yuumi seems to think it was all in my head. And Rachel... I texted her after the whole kerfuffle. She got back to me quick. Suspiciously quick.

"I mean it," I say. "That guy was really weird."

"Yep." Yuumi nods, clearly not paying attention. "Really weird." And then, in a mumble, as if trying to pass it off as an afterthought: "Kinda cute though."

I grimace. "No, Yuumi. No, he wasn't."

Yuumi shrugs. "To each their own."

It's a struggle not to shudder. "Look, just promise you'll never go back there."

Bobbing her feet, pouting childishly, "Oh, c'mon, Dora! Think of the money."

"Delete him. Block his number or I'll do it for you. I'm serious."

Yuumi sits up straighter, strident, annoyed all of a sudden. "Uhhh, I'm my own person, and are you forgetting we just made half a grand?"

I'm about to object when it hits me. "I thought it was 250."

But the moment has passed. Yuumi's back to staring at her phone. She isn't usually like this. Receiving a text, she snorts and laughs.

"Where'd the extra 250 come from?"

Suddenly, Yuumi remembers I exist. She rolls her eyes. "He gave me some extra for a lock of my hair, okay?" She looks me up and down, very mean girl, as if disgusted by my outfit; by my horrified expression. "What."

"Did you not listen to anything I just said?!"

Before Yuumi can respond, she's distracted by another text. I watch helplessly as her eyes light up. As she bites her lower lip. As she does something Yuumi never does: brings her hand to her mouth and giggles.

1 Comment
2024/02/22
00:00 UTC

14

It Came From Their Back Yard

That sound was the last thing I wanted to hear at night. It was 10:30 PM and I was getting ready for bed. I wanted to get some fresh air, but it was too late for me to go for a walk through town, so I decided to settle on walking around in my backyard. I was out there for about twenty minutes, reflecting on the day’s events and the going ons in my life in general at the time. It was a chilly February night, but it was decent enough for me to spend as long as I wanted to out there.

I didn’t end up staying for long, however, as at some point, I heard that sound from my neighbor’s backyard. I didn’t recognize what it was at first, but I quickly realized it was a cat. There were a lot of stray cats in my hometown; I would occasionally see one walking around my backyard and saw them a lot whenever I went on walks. I rationalized that the sound I was hearing was from one of those stray cats, but the sound it was making…

It was clearly in some kind of trouble. The scream it made was almost alien. It was shriek and deafening. We had a picket fence with no spaces between the planks in my backyard, so whatever was happening to that cat, I couldn't see it. As I froze there in fear, possibilities raced through my head of what could be happening. Was it getting into a fight with another stay? Did a racoon or fox catch it? All I knew for sure was that something bad happened to it.

I just stood there, staring at the fence separating my backyard from my neighbor’s, listening to that horrible whaling, left wondering what was happening. I wanted to run back inside, but I just stood there, glued to the grass. After what felt like an eternity, the sound stopped. All I could hear was the gentle breeze passing my ears. The urge to return back inside was still there, yet I did nothing.

After a few seconds, I heard shifting from my neighbor’s backyard. I thought it was the cat at first and I was relieved. Maybe the little guy got out of whatever predicament he was in. My hopes were crushed as soon as I saw a bloody hand grab the top of the fence. I watched as a short, naked man hauled himself over the fence and landed on the dirt below him.

He got up and crouched at the base of the fence. It was dark out, but that didn’t stop me from seeing the blood around his mouth and on his hands. He saw me and stared at me with wide eyes that were practically glowing. He was swaying left and right and he was wiggling his fingers and he smiled at me. I felt my blood freeze. The desire to run was stronger than ever before, but I still couldn’t bring myself to move. Suddenly he lunged at me.

I raised my arms up to shield myself. I thought I was going to die. I thought about all my loved ones, how I would never get to tell them goodbye. But suddenly, he ran past me. I turned my head to watch as he pulled himself over the other side of the fence and out into the street in front of my house, into the night.

That was the point where my body finally decided to let me go inside. I ran through the back door and ripped my coat off. I locked the front and back doors, turned off every single light in the house and ran up to my bedroom. I grabbed the pocket knife I got as a gift from my sister’s husband and flicked the blade out. I sat in the corner of my bedroom, gripping the knife tight in my hands and practically hyperventilating.

I tried to stay awake, but I eventually dozed off. When I woke up, I thought maybe the whole experience was just a dream. Maybe it was just some fucked up nightmare I had. It wasn’t until I saw the extended knife in my hand that I second guessed myself. I went downstairs and saw all the lights were off. I checked the doors and, sure enough, they were locked. I didn’t know what to think. Was that real or just a dream? I knew there was only one way to know for sure…

My neighbor usually went to work early in the morning, which meant that at the time I woke up, his house would have been empty. This gave me an opening to hop into his backyard and check to see if the stray cat was there. I felt a little guilty about trespassing on his property, but I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t bear not having a clear answer.

I hopped the fence and looked around my neighbor’s backyard. At first, nothing stood out to me, but I decided to look a little more thoroughly. It took me a while to realize I was looking in the wrong direction. For some reason, my first instinct was to go to the right. I would have found the blood trail sooner if I went left.

I turned around to check the other side of the yard. It was hidden by grass, but I did eventually make out a spec of blood. Then another, then another and another. They were gradually becoming bigger. I followed the blood splats until I saw it. A dead cat, ripped in half with blood and innards pouring from it. I felt sick to my stomach. I quickly leaped over the fence and ran back into my house just in time to reach the toilet.

My mind didn’t know how to rationalize it. Maybe I did dream about the naked man. Maybe I heard the cat in my backyard, went back inside and then just had a nightmare about him and thought it was real. But that didn’t explain why I had my knife drawn or why my doors were locked.

After I recovered, I went back to my backyard to check the place where the man was last night. Sure enough, there were two footprints in the dirt below the fence and a trail of blood leading to the other side of the yard. I didn’t know what to think. I still wanted to believe that it was all just a dream, but there were too many variables I couldn’t account for. The knife, the blood trail, the dead cat… Something killed that cat. I didn’t know why.

Later that day, my neighbor knocked on my door. He told me he found the dead cat in his yard and asked if I knew anything about it. All I told him was I heard a sound last night that made me think a stray cat got into some kind of trouble. A part of me wanted to tell him about the man, but it didn’t make sense for me to. I knew my neighbor, but we weren’t close. I had no real reason to confide in him.

Days had passed since that incident. I hadn’t heard any more cat screeching in that time. I still went on walks, though I carried my knife with me whenever I went out. I didn’t feel safe without it. I bumped into the occasional stray, all alive, thank God. I thought about telling someone about the man. I considered calling the police, but would they believe me? Would they think I was crazy? What if I was crazy?

I haven’t seen any sign of that man sense then. I want to believe he’s moved on and I’ll never see him again, but what if I’m wrong? I eventually made the decision to move out of town for my own sanity. I couldn’t take the stress of now knowing if that man was still around or not. Moving to a more populated area helped ease my anxieties a little, but to this day, I still have no idea who that man was, why he killed that cat or why he let me live.

2 Comments
2024/02/21
23:41 UTC

40

I sleep in a sarcophagus.

Not a real one. Not in the sense you're thinking. I really sleep in a bed with fake cotton sheets and two pillows, one of which bears extensive stains from twenty years of supporting my drooling face. My bedframe is made of fake wood from IKEA that creaks and clatters when the mattress sees action.

No, the reason I say I sleep in a sarcophagus stems from the idols I hang around the bedframe.

Twenty years ago my family lived in a derelict apartment building at the edge of Aberdeen, overlooking the highway exit that became our main strip, Broad Street. The building looked condemned from the outside; rusted fire escapes, dilapidated support beams, disintegrating brick walls. Inside wasn't much better. Wallpaper peeled, pipes leaked, lights flickered. My family's floor was the exception. Each floor of the building was divided into halves, each half contained four multibedroom units. Every unit on our floor was inhabited by another branch of the family. Our walls were freshly painted, our carpets stainless, the tile swept. Our room was the first door out of the elevator on the east side of the third floor, or 3E1. My uncles lived in 3E2 and 3E3. 3E4 was locked. No one lived in 3E4, and no one was allowed to enter it, listen at the door, or even talk about the empty room. I lived with two sisters, with our uncles were another seven cousins. As young kids, we never questioned the rules about 3E4. We also never questioned why we all lived with our fathers and had no mothers.

Our ignorance wouldn't last.

As we grew older, rules that seemed straightforward began to feel strict. When she was in the sixth grade, my older sister Salma attended a friends birthday party on the condition she return before dark. My father worked late at the automechanic he co-owned with his brothers, and returned home at sunset to find she still wasn't home. He was furious. I'd never heard him raise his voice before, but that night he shouted until spittle flew from his mouth. We received a call from Salma on our old corded landline. No matter how much she apologized, how much she cried, father refused to allow her to return home. She would either have to convince her friends to allow her to stay the night despite not being invited to, or she could sleep at father's garage. I never forgot what he gave as the reason why she couldn't return home.

It would be safer on the street.

Over the next three years, we struggled under the confines of 3rd Floor East. When we asked questions, we were silenced. When our friends asked questions, we were homeschooled. All the while, the mystery of 3E4 ate at our minds. In the rare moments where no sirens sounded or pigeons squawked in Aberdeen, when the city held a rare silence, we could just barely make out the sound of faint whispers that emanated gently from the air ducts. At the forbidden door we could just barely make out rhythmic scraping, like someone shaping bricks with a knife. Our final incident came on an August night the day before I would have entered high school. Three loud slamming sounds echoed from the hall. Our father dismissed us. Our uncles dismissed their children. No such sound occurred, they said, avoiding our gaze while they made breakfast. But we knew what we heard. My sister said it sounded like a drum. My cousin Aten said it sounded like a drum. But I heard something more. It sounded like an inanimate voice. That day, while our fathers were at the garage, the children of the third floor made a decision. By any means necessary, we would enter 3E4.

The last thing I remember is lining up by the door.

I sleep in a sarcophagus. Not because my bed is an intricately carved coffin dedicated to Tutankhamun. Because for almost fifteen years I have slept with twelve idols hanging from my bedframe. Hours after we decided to open the door of 3E4, I woke up in bed soaked with sweat to the sound of my father crying. My room smelled like cigarettes. Moonlight poured into my bedroom, lighting the smoke in a white glowing haze. A dripping sound to my right drew my eyes, and I found that most of my bedroom ceiling and walls were soaked with some kind of leak. I reached instinctively over to my bedside lamp, only to find it smashed to pieces. The leak dripped onto my hand, and I held it up to the moonlight to get a better look. It was blood. My father was seated in a chair in the corner of the room. His white undershirt was stained dark, which I tried to convince myself was oil. He spoke to me for eleven minutes.

I never saw him again.

He explained nothing about room 3E4. He explained nothing about the blood on the ceilings and walls, the chairs and tables stacked outside my door, or about my uncles bodies torn to pieces in our kitchen. Instead, he handed me a dozen wooden idols, forced me to memorize their names, and told me I could never again trust my brothers and sisters. I've still never slept in a friends' home. A lover has never spent the night with me. How could I explain why I have a dozen figures made of stained acacia wood? Why I hang carvings of a woman with the head of a dog or a man with scorpion arms? I don't go to sleep to the sound of someone I love's breathing. Instead, I fall asleep to the sound of faint whispers and rhythmic scratching.

And footsteps.

The footsteps of my idols coming to life. Each night when I close my eyes the scratching becomes a whir. The first few times I was horrified. I stared in terror as men and women with dog heads, scorpion arms, and serpent tails emerged from my idols. Each night, they faced outwards in a protective circle. Overtime, I grew less terrified by my idols. I spoke with them. Touched them. Now, I know them better than I know most people. I trust them with my life. It's a necessary arrangement, because somewhere outside that protective circle, beyond my touch or sight or ears, I feel a darkness. A darkness unleashed when the children of the 3rd Floor broke into Room 3E4. For now, I sleep in a sarcophagus. But soon, I will find the darkness.

0 Comments
2024/02/21
23:12 UTC

17

There Is Something In The Meat Freezer. I Wish I Never Opened It.

Dear reader before you read this i suggest you go give the events that happened before this a read to better understand the events bellow.

https://www.reddit.com/r/nosleep/comments/1aqe1o2/i_am_a_night_shift_manager_at_a_restaurant_there/

In this restaurant i have a set of rules i must follow, however the meat freezer in the back of the restaurant is a whole new ball game.

It was like any other night at this hell on earth and i was really starting to get tired of dealing with the occasional demon that wanted to appear after hours in the restaurant lobby.

Our new night cook Randy was just shutting down the grill for the night when the all too familiar ding of the drive through speaker filled my ears.

"I'm sorry we are" I began to say before being cut off by a raspy sounding young man. "Uh yeah man look i know you are about to close but if i do not get this order in my wife might just kill me" I felt for the poor guy having had a wife at home myself who did the very same thing until quite recently but uh yeah that is a story for another time but i digress.

I pressed the button on my headset and began to speak "Ok man what would you like" the man sounded like he paused for a minute before speaking "I will take a large #4 and an additional side of fries make them small"

I went to reply when the new cook Randy peered his head around the corner from the kitchen, "Hey man you're going to need to head to the freezer and grab a slab of meat i got my hands full"

I gave the total to the man and grunted as i walked back to the meat freezer in the back of the restaurant. I reached for the latch and pulled it open with some considerable force "stupid door always getting stuck" i said to myself still grunting.

I stood on my tippy toes and reached for the box on the top shelve as i did SLAM!! the sound of the freezer door slamming behind me made me jump, "hey what the, I'm still in here" i banged on the door and tried to open it slamming my body against it but no budge. "Yo anybody out there" I continued to scream.

I was just about to give up when i realized duh i have my phone. I pulled my phone out to only be met with the dreadful no service words spread across the left corner of my phone screen. "Shit now what" i said out loud before hearing the sound of voices outside the door.

"Hey anybody out there I'm in here" the door swung open as i brushed loose ice flakes off my coat that have been forming from the time spent inside the freezer. However, when i looked up i was met with a restaurant but it was one that i simply did not recognize.

The employee that stood in front of me looked even more confused as my gaze now met his. "Who are you" A tall pimple covered teen said. "My name is Rex who the hell are you" he looked at me blankly before telling me to follow him.

I walked through what i could only guess is the kitchen of the restaurant and simply asked "where are we going?" "We are going to see the manager" the kid said while keeping his head straight avoiding eye contact with me.

We approached a tall wooden door that looked like it has not been replaced in years. The boy let 3 knocks fall onto the wooden door and then turned the handle going inside motioning for me to follow him inside the poorly lit office area.

"Mr. banks" the kid said with a worried and scared tone, "Yes" a scratchy voice said from somewhere off in the corner of the dark office. "I found this man in our meat freezer he seems well he just... he's weird" the manager turned around to face me and i felt my jaw drop to the ground when i saw that his face was my face.

I tried to speak but words would just not leave my lips, "Can i help you" the look alike said as it got closer to a still shocked and scared me. "Uh uh i i was just leaving" I managed to say before turning to face the older looking door.

"Not so fast" his voice echoed in my ears as if he just spoke in a dad like tone to his 6 year old son who had just did something wrong. "Who are you" he said more softly this time, i thought about it for a second before responding "my name is James" i said with a shaky voice.

He looked at me for a second as if he did not believe me, "James huh" "Yes sir" I replied sounding more confident this time. "Okay and uh what are you doing here, still just leaving James?" He asked with a more serious tone in his voice.

"Well uh" before i finished my reply i turned back and ran for it back into the kitchen toward the meat freezer hearing my look alike not far behind.

As i approached the freezer i noticed something for the first time and it almost made me throw up everything, there on the kitchen slabs were human body parts. I gaged as i ran by the cooking fingers and freshly chopped hands and forced the freezer door open with ease.

I jumped in head first crashing into boxes of human parts. I got back to my feet as the door swung back open, it was Randy "what took you so long man guy has been waiting 5 minutes already." I looked at him still dazed from hitting my head "has it really only been 5 minutes it felt like hours."

"What hours? Are you okay" Randy asked as i rubbed my eyes "I'm fine" i replied still groggy. I went into the office still holding my head and checked the clock on the wall as i sat down 5am only 5 minutes really had past.

I took one last look at the clock before opening the desk and pulling out the all to familiar list of rules that by now i have come all to accustom too. I put the pen onto the blank spot of the paper and began to write.

Rule 6. If you walk into the meat freezer for any reason between 4am and 5am and you find your self walking out into a whole other restaurant turn around go back in and you will reappear back in your restaurant, do not explore the strange restaurant we here at Redacted Restaurant Group will no longer be responsible for your well being if you do not return.

1 Comment
2024/02/21
22:23 UTC

112

They Spoke Through the Fire

I’m a medical student. I don’t want to get into too much detail, because I’m sure if my dean read this, I’d be deemed unfit to practice medicine. Frankly, maybe I am… but It’s been my dream to be a doctor since I was a kid. I was in a really bad accident with my parents when I was 5, and I suffered burns to large parts of my body. Since I was so young at the time, and due to some incredible doctors, I was able to make a full recovery. You wouldn’t even know I’d been burned unless you looked carefully at my legs. Children’s bodies experience so much tissue growth as they grow, they can restore tons of damaged tissue in the process. Isn’t science incredible?

My parents didn’t survive the accident, so I was raised by my grandpa. Growing up, I was always in the doctor's office. Dermatologists, pediatricians, even reconstructive surgeons. They were my heroes, and I wanted to be just like them. My grandpa has a picture of me using a toy stethoscope on the cat that he loved showing people. When I found out how much work you have to put in to be a doctor, I got serious. I always got the top grades, led the extracurriculars and shadowed in my off time. It paid off when it came time to apply for med school.

I go to a prestigious historic university in New England. During your first year of medical school, you take anatomy, complete with cadaver dissection. Yeah, you cut up a dead human body. It sounds crazy but there’s no better way to understand the body. Every school does it a little differently, but in my school you’re assigned a cadaver that they refer to as “your first patient.” They have a set of odd traditions spanning back to when the school was founded in the 1700s.. When someone donates their body to the school, they write a letter to the student who will be dissecting them. The letter usually tells the story of the body and the major events it’s been through, as well as what they hope their body will help teach us. I tried my best to treat my cadaver with respect, so I would always begin and end a dissection by thanking my cadaver. I knew a few students who would say a quick prayer, but that stuff isn’t for me. Hard to believe in a God when your whole family burns alive, huh? But enough about that.

The entire anatomy building has an oppressive morbid aura. Carved above the doorway of the old stone archway is the phrase “mortui vivos docent” which means “the dead teach the living.” It’s always freezing cold inside, even during the short New England summers. People joke about the building being haunted for obvious reasons. It even looks a bit like a mausoleum. To make it even more unsettling, it is the most confusing building to navigate I’ve ever been in. I don’t know what the person designing it was thinking. Short, narrow hallways run into each other at odd angles. Finding a particular professor's lab is nearly impossible unless someone takes you there first.

I’ll call my professor Dr. Lukas to keep this anonymous. Dr. Lukas is an old man with a bushy beard and an unplaceable European accent. He never says much, but he reminded me a lot of my grandpa. Whenever I’d make a mistake, rather than harshly critique like some professors he’d always say “excellent attempt,” which was really encouraging. I really enjoyed anatomy lab, but all too soon it was over and I was on to my second year of medical school.

During the fall of my sophomore year, my grandpa passed away. It sounds odd to say it was unexpected since he was in his 80s but he always seemed invincible. Full of energy and vigor right up until the end. God, I miss him. After that, my grades took a nosedive. I couldn’t concentrate, hell, I couldn’t even bring myself to eat. I had to take a leave of absence. Usually when someone takes a leave of absence they return home, but I had nowhere to go. I just stayed in my shitty little campus apartment, watching days turn to weeks. I needed to do something to keep me from going insane. I don’t know why, but I went to talk to Dr. Lukas. I asked if there was any work around the anatomy lab that needed done. In as few words as possible he told me the lab needed a caretaker, and the job was mine until I rejoined classes the next year. I must have been beaming when I walked out of the cadaver lab, and it struck me that in that moment, I was the only happy person I’d ever seen in this building.

As the caretaker, I had various jobs, all of them morbid. I had to water the cadavers every day. I swear, I’m not joking. You have to make sure their skin stays moisturized with an embalming solution or it gets crusty and gross. Besides laying out instruments and topping off various solutions, I had another responsibility that I was entirely unprepared for: cadaver processing.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why they thought it was a good idea to give this job to someone acutely grieving a loss, but honestly, I think this was the kind of job that would be hard no matter what. When the bodies are brought from the morgue, they already have some minor embalming done. I hooked them up to a pump of formaldehyde and various other chemicals that I circulated through their vessels. You have to let them sit a few days to make sure it all soaks in, and sometimes I had to process 7 or 8 at a time, so I definitely kept busy. After a cadaver was dissected, they were cremated so their ashes could be returned to their families. Not a lot of students know this, but we actually cremate the bodies in the lab, down in the basement. Somewhere in the absolute labyrinth of corridors is a fully functional crematorium. The first time you push a body into the giant oven, heated to a roaring 1800 degrees, and close the doors, it just feels…wrong. But that’s just the first time. I did probably 10 a week, so I was thoroughly desensitized. That is, until it happened.

I found myself working late on Friday night. I was down in the crematorium with two cadavers in body bags on gurneys which was how we stored them when they weren’t being dissected. I unzipped the first one to reveal, a petite elderly woman, and put her into one of the two furnaces. I wheeled the second body over to the unoccupied furnace, and, a bit on autopilot, I unzipped the body bag. I looked down and immediately jumped back, knocking over a bucket of embalming solution and falling on my ass. “Fuck!” I grumbled, as I scrambled to my feet to avoid getting soaked by the growing puddle. Even as I struggled to get up, I couldn’t look away from his eyes.

The body was unlike anything I had seen in nearly a year of work. For one, he was massive. Usually it’s elderly people who donate their bodies to science, but this man looked to have been in his 30s. He must have been something like 6 ft 5 and 300 pounds, all muscle. His entire body was covered in intricate tattoos, but the thing that had knocked me over was his eyes. They were pitch black.

I found myself standing on the opposite side of the small room from the body. Every hair on my body was standing up, but I had a job to do. “You’re being ridiculous. He probably just has some kind of ocular hematoma, which has congealed into a dark subscleral mass,” I reasoned, doing absolutely nothing to calm my nerves. I walked closer to the body, my knees weak. I quickly pulled his eyelids shut, and took a deep breath. It was then that I started to notice even more unsettling things about the body.

The tattoos covering his body were terrifying. I recognized a few occult symbols like 3 upside-down crosses on his forehead, but most of it was foreign to me. Writing in a language I’d never seen before curled around his arms, ending with a pentagram on the back of each hand. “What the fuck were you into?” I whispered, not wanting to know the answer. Before I could finish my thought, it hit me. He hadn’t been dissected at all. His entire body was intact; not a single incision. What was he doing in the crematorium? All our cadavers come with a toe tag with an ID number and 3 checkboxes. One means ready to be processed, two means ready to dissect, and 3 means ready to cremate. I looked at his toe and the string was there, but the tag was missing.

I looked at the door. I didn’t know what was going on but I wanted to get out of there. I felt my heart beating out of my chest. My ears rang and I choked on my own anxious breaths. “You’re a scientist! You’ve been working for this your entire life! What are you afraid of? You don’t even believe in demons!” I shook my head and tried to clear my mind. I wanted to put him in the furnace and be done with it, but I had to find the toe tag first. Sometimes they fall off of the string, but they always end up in the body bag somewhere. I quickly scanned the table to no avail. I thought maybe it had slipped under the body, which happens occasionally. I took a deep breath, and grabbed one of the cadaver's giant arms. I braced myself to pull him onto his side, when I felt his icy fingers wrap around my wrist. I screamed, jumping away, and his arm limply fell to his side.

Fuck me, was I going insane? “That did not just happen. That did not just happen.” I whimpered to myself, backing towards the door. I refused to take my eyes off the body, feeling along the wall behind me trying to find the door knob. As my shaking hands fumbled along the wall, I accidentally hit the light switch, suffocating the entire room with darkness. The only thing illuminating the room was the glow of the furnace on the other side of the room. Tears running down my face, I frantically clawed at the wall, begging the lights to turn back on. I finally found the switch, slammed it down, and whipped around, expecting the cadaver to be right behind me. It wasn’t behind me. In fact, it wasn’t in the room at all. It was gone.

I honestly didn’t care if I was going crazy at that point. I threw open the door and ran down the hall. Sobbing, I whipped around the corner and ran down another hall. And another. And another. In my utter panic, it took me longer than it should have to realize that I should have made it to the stairs already. The building wasn’t this large. Where the fuck was I? I turned another corner and slammed into a brick wall with a sickening crack. I broke my nose, and nearly knocked myself out. Stunned, I staggered back, and the room seemed to spin around me. I turned to run back the way I came, unsteadily preparing to run in the opposite direction, praying I’d see the stairs around the next corner. I shook my head to clear the concussive fog, the blood streaming down my face splattering on the walls around me, when I saw it. The room at the end of the hall was the crematorium. I looked around frantically, unable to believe what I was seeing. On one end of the hall was the wall with blood and tissue smeared from where my nose had impacted. The bare, doorless brick walls on either side stretched towards the maw of the crematorium, funneling me into hell. I must have stood there for five minutes, crying, bleeding, gasping and choking, refusing to believe the reality of my situation: I had nowhere else to go. I still don’t know why I decided to go back into the crematorium. I was so terrified you’d think I’d have starved to death in my little corner before I set foot in that cursed space, but I felt compelled. I staggered towards the door, almost against my own will, but my knees were so weak they gave out. I crawled on my hands and knees to the doorframe, using it to pull myself up.

The crematorium was exactly how I left it. One oven on, two empty tables, a spilled bucket of embalming fluid on the floor. No monster, no demons. I turned around to see if the dead end behind me was still there, but before I could check, the crack of bursting bulbs made me jump again as the lights went out, plunging me again into darkness. The lone light came from the furnace. The flicker of the flame cast shadows that danced across the room. I stood, transfixed by the fire, watching it curl and leap about. It was so warm and bright. Like a fireplace on a snowy day, or the break of dawn on a moonless night, it radiated comfort and light. I shuffled towards it as the begging voice of self preservation fell silent. As I drew closer, I thought I heard something, but it was almost imperceptibly quiet. It came from the fire, but it also came from within me. It grew louder, then louder still, and then it was all around me, penetrating my very being. The screaming voices called out to me by name, calling forth memories I didn’t know I possessed.

“Mom? Dad?” I whispered, reaching out for the flame. “Are you there?” The dancing flames started to take human form, forms I had only seen in pictures for over 20 years.

“It’s ok, I’m coming.” I found myself saying, as I reached for the furnace door.

“I’m coming.” I turned the handle, and the flames leapt out, ready to embrace me, but I didn’t even feel the heat.

“I’m here now. We’re together.” I raised my foot to the door of the furnace, bracing myself on the frame. The sound of searing flesh fell on deaf ears as I prepared to step in. I was so ready to feel whole again. I smiled as the skin on my lips cracked from the heat. Without warning, the face of the demon cadaver burst out from the flames. Eyes black as night, teeth like knives, it came at me, through me, and all went black.

I woke up in the hospital. They told me I had slipped on the embalming fluid and hit my head. My hand had fallen against the furnace and gotten burned. It was wrapped in nostalgic bandages. They said I was having a panic attack when I tried to explain, and pumped me full of valium. They try not to involuntarily institutionalize medical students, since it’ll affect our licensing as doctors. I’ve been in bed for 2 weeks. I can’t bring myself to go outside. I barely leave my room. I feel my mind slipping. I smell smoke at night. I hear the crackling of flames all the time. Last night I turned on the burners of my gas stove, staring into the flames, and it felt like home.

7 Comments
2024/02/21
21:09 UTC

53

I Think I Lost My Throne As "The Weird Coworker"

Let me start off by saying that I've somehow managed to live 28 years without being able to hold a successful conversation. You'd think I'd have caught on by now, but nope, I still sound like an alien talking to a human being for the first time.

To give you an example, a girl from another department was waiting to use our ancient copy machine that only works when it wants to. I'm not going to give her name or where we work because I'm terrified of this getting back to me. Just know that it's pharmaceuticals. I work the night shift in the lab as a research technician, which means that my lackluster social skills are normally not an issue. Thankfully, cell cultures don't give a hoot if you say something weird.

But anyways, the copier was doing that wonderful thing where it pretends that it doesn't have paper (it does), and the girl made a comment about how it needs replaced.

I shrugged and said, "Or maybe that tiny man that lives inside it just wants a pay raise."

Judging by the look she gave me, that is apparently not something a normal person would say.

Is it any wonder why people don't speak to me at work unless they have to?

As you can imagine, I'm kind of a loner. I am not much better at forging relationships outside of work and I have no idea who my birth parents are. To put it simply, I've come to the harrowing realization that I'm someone no one would miss if I disappeared.

I would be lying if I said that wasn't my primary motivation for risking my life to post this. I don't have anyone in real life to go to for help. I'm completely alone in this world.

The incident that led to me getting to this point centers around the new IT guy. I met him when I had to return to the accursed copier. It was all taken apart, as if he were performing surgery on the thing. Unsuccessful surgery, at that.

I tried to say something normal: "I know that the copy machine sucks, but violence isn't the answer."

It must've worked, because he chuckled. When he turned to face me I saw that he was wearing sunglasses. That should've been my first clue that something was "off" about him, but one thing you need to understand is that the lab has what I like to call "morgue lighting:" they're the kind of lights that instantly trigger headaches in people unlucky enough to have sensory issues. I, myself, had to get a blue light filter on my glasses just to keep from getting daily migraines at this place. Sure, wearing sunglasses inside is kind of extreme, but maybe he was even more photosensitive than I am.

He joked that the copier's funeral would be on Wednesday. He then informed me that it would be a few hours, saying something about a processor going bad. I resolved to try again later and went back to work. All in all, our first interaction was fairly normal, and I silently applauded myself for getting what I would consider a Good Grade in Conversation.

The second time I saw the IT guy, it was in the break room a few nights later. The break room was completely empty while I was getting my first meal of the day... at midnight. Being on nights has made a mess of both my sleep schedule and appetite.

I jumped out of my skin when I heard someone say, "Dinner of champions, I see."

The IT guy was leaning against the counter, drinking from a thermos, eyes still covered by sunglasses. When did he get there? How did I not hear the door open? Maybe I was so sleep deprived that I simply didn't notice that he was there.

I said something stupid about being a health nut first and a human second as I burnt my tongue on my Cup O' Noodles. He raised his thermos and informed me that coffee was his dinner. It was uncomfortably silent for a moment. I twirled my noodles, chest tight with awkwardness until I finally thought of something to say, "So, uh, is the copier alive?"

IT guy sipped at his thermos again before replying that it belonged in a dumpster. I responded that I lived in a dumpster and could hook him up, then immediately regretted it. He smiled and made an equally cringey joke about living in the walls, which made the knot in my chest lessen a bit.

It was oddly comforting to talk to someone as socially inept as I am. We continued to make awkward conversation about equally unimportant topics and for the first time in a while, I didn't feel like a complete loner.

I even let myself be naïve enough to think that maybe I could actually make a friend, for once.

So for a while, that's how it went: we'd make small talk in the break room or whenever we ran into each other. Besides the sunglasses and the way he seemed to just appear out of nowhere sometimes, he seemed like a nice enough guy with an odd sense of humor.

Where things took a turn was yesterday. I get off of work at 3 am and the way to my house is full of back roads. It's not unusual for me to see my headlights catching the reflection of eyes in the darkness on the side of the road. Just deer, raccoons, and coyotes. Welcome to the Midwest.

Where things get weird is that there was a tree lying perfectly horizontal across the road. A car parked in front of it with the driver's side door opened and its hazard lights on. Immediately, something didn't feel right.

I slowed down, feeling dread pool in my chest. But why? Trees fall on the road like this all the time. I'm sure the driver just got out to try to push it. I was just being paranoid. Yet, I couldn't help thinking that the position of the tree was too perfect. As if it had been placed there.

Feeling increasingly anxious, I started to back up to turn around, resolving to find another way home. I didn't want to stay there a moment longer. That's when my headlights illuminated a figure. It was a huge, bearded man waving at me with one hand, his other gripping his neck tightly, his fingers and face covered in red. In the moment, it didnt register to my brain that he was bleeding. His eyes were wide and he was breathing quickly, his mouth opening and closing as if he was trying to speak.

I think I screamed, but I'm not sure. Without thinking, I started to scramble for my phone. 911. I had to call 911. In hindsight, I should've handled this better. I should've done more. I don't know necessarily what actions I could have taken, but it should have been anything besides sitting in my car like an idiot, fumbling for my phone.

My whole body was shaking as I finally found it, but in my haste, my dumb ass dropped it. After I snatched it up from the floor, I glanced back at the man only to discover that I was alone.

I made another stupid decision: I got out of the car.

Or, rather, I started to get out, but then I heard a shriek, followed by a horrible ripping sound, then silence. My heartbeat hammering in my ears, I sat back down and stepped on the gas before I even fully had the door closed. Embarrassingly enough, I was also panting like a nervous dog, looking around for whatever made that sound as I sped off.

In the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something, but I kept driving, my knuckles white on the steering wheel. I just had to get out of here, then once I was safe I could call 911. That's what I told myself, anyway. It's better than admitting that I was too terrified to be anything even remotely close to rational.

Once I turned onto another back road, I saw someone walking along the tree line. It took a second for my panicked brain to register that it was the guy from work. It probably also didn't help that up until that point, I'd never seen him without his sunglasses on. His face was bloodied, his hand reaching out towards me as if pleading for help.

His eyes reflected my headlights back to me.

I didn't slow down. He watched me pass him by, his eyes shining even in my rear view mirrors.

Once I made it back home, I barricaded the door and have been peeking through the blinds obsessively, terrified I'm going to see him standing outside. I told 911 about the car being left, but for whatever reason, the idea of telling them about the IT guy filled me with so much alarm that I wanted to vomit. It was an odd feeling, like somehow he'd know if I'd tell them and it wouldnt end well for me. I figure that tipping them off about the car would be enough. They'd be able to identify the driver from that. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

So... I'm really not looking forward to going to work tomorrow.

3 Comments
2024/02/21
20:44 UTC

588

I married and killed my now ex-wife. I don't regret it one bit.

I was seventeen years old when Harry Sullivan proposed we killed Esme.

And it was on our joint wedding day, eight years later, my hands slick with my wife's blood, when his words finally hit me.

There was a drilling sound in my head.

Sometimes it was loud.

Other times it was faint, barely noticeable.

But it was definitely there, getting closer and closer.

Louder.

I should have known not inviting Esme Lockhart to our party was a bad idea, but I was too tipsy to care. In my muddled mind, I would deal with the consequences later. Sitting on the beach with my knees pulled to my chest, a cool beer skimming my lips, I watched the tide ripple under my toes. The wind was trying to snatch the bottle from my hand, blowing my hair from my eyes.

Behind me, the party was in full swing, and Esme was being weird again.

Even through sharp blasts of wind trying to knock me over, I could hear her attempting to guilt trip Wylan for talking to a girl. It's not like I didn't expect it. Wylan had told me about the weird notes in his locker, the low-key threats in his mailbox to not even think about leaving for college.

I just didn't want to believe our best friend was this kind of obsessed with us.

If I’m honest, though, Esme was long passed obsession.

Infatuation.

This girl was a fucking psychopath.

Downing my beer, I revelled in the scratchy taste. I didn't even like it. But it was better than drinking straight vodka, which made you a psychopath.

Still though, the alcohol was perfect to lower my barriers and force words out of my mouth I had been choking on for years. I liked to think the stars aligned when we were little kids, and fate found us. Five seven year olds with our hands on the last candy bar. Pigtails, Four Eyes, Batman Shirt, Rich Girl, and Yellow Hat.

Initially, we fought for it. I snatched the candy bar up first, claiming finders keepers, only for Pigtails to grab it off of me, waving it in the air triumphantly, only for Four Eyes and Batman Shirt to form an allegiance, taking it for themselves. I shoved Batman Shirt, and he in turn pulled off my hat and made me cry. Rich Girl, who had been wandering around, stepped in.

We already knew who Rich Girl was. Her parents made more money than the Queen. At least, that’s what the rumour was in class. Rich Girl was rich rich, which meant she was either a celebrity, or a long lost princess.

In reality, her father, Jason Song, had bought our little coastal town. Rich girl plucked the candy bar from the boys, and initiated a truce, splitting it four ways instead.

I did try to argue that I saw it first, but the girl insisted on us sharing.

It was when she was handing out chunks of chocolate, did we share our names, grinning at each other with chocolatey mouths.

Pigtails was Ariosa.

Four Eyes, Harry.

Batman Shirt was Wylan.

Rich Girl, Esme.

And Yellow Hat was me.

The rest was history, I guess.

Following that day, the five of us became inseparable. In school, we became an unbreakable clique.

As littles, we made our own games and spent countless hours at the beach on weekends playing pirates. It was fun.

Those summer days and nights will be etched into my mind forever, a blur of swimming in the sea, eating candy, and sharing stories under a late setting sun.

Esme would regularly invite us to play at her house, which reminded me of a palace. She had seven bathrooms. Who needed seven bathrooms?

As littles, we made a pact. On the last day of summer vacation before third grade, we declared best friends forever.

Then, when we were twelve, tipsy on Esme’s father’s expensive wine and spread out on a picnic blanket, we said it again, giggling under a crescent moon.

Best friends forever.

It was when we reached high school, Esme started to take our pact a little too seriously.

I loved her as much as I loved the others.

But she didn't know boundaries.

Best friends forever was something a lot different in her mind.

It started subtly. When other kids wanted to hang out with us, she was adamant that it was just the five of us.

We were fourteen years old and in our freshman year of high school. Making new friends was inevitable. I invited two girls to sit with us at lunch, and Esme immediately stood up, dragging the boys and Ariosa to another table.

When I stood my ground and plonked down, refusing to follow them, Esme came over and politely asked me to join her and the others. By now, I was getting odd looks from other kids. Esme Song was a well-known name across town, and so was my name, by default.

I was already in way too deep with her family to brush her off. Esme’s father had already insisted on paying for my college tuition. I said no initially, though my mother thought it was a great idea.

Esme had a habit of throwing cash at us when she thought we were going to leave her.

Harry was promised a football scholarship when he showed signs of drifting away to hang out with the varsity team. When Wylan got a girlfriend, Esme surprised him with the guitar he had been saving up for.

Ariosa started getting cosy with a classmate, and that classmate’s parents suddenly won a lottery I had never heard of, and moved away. Initially, she isolated us from other kids, even our family, insisting on weekends away and trip’s to exotic locations. But we were growing up, and best friends forever was looking progressively less likely.

Esme thought our pact was an unbreakable bond, a need to be near each other constantly and be completely isolated from everyone else.

Esme thought best friends forever meant we couldn't fall in love, couldn't form relationships.

She didn't want us to grow up. In junior year, Harry actually went against her wishes and got a boyfriend. Harry Sullivan liked to experiment behind Esme’s back, having been on several dates with both guys and girls. It was well known that he was a player.

Even if Esme shot down those rumours. But I think he truly fell for Ben.

Opposites attract, and Harry, captain of the varsity team, falling for Ben Sykes, a quiet competitive swimmer, was the best thing that had happened to our group. Harry was slowly rebelling, which gave us the courage to fly the nest too. Initially, Esme didn't react or say anything.

In fact, she smiled when Harry awkwardly introduced us, his gaze glued to Esme. He was waiting for her to start screaming, his eyes hard, lips ready to argue. But she didn't. Esme offered Ben a seat. Wylan shot me a look, and Ariosa almost choked on her sandwich.

Harry didn't let his guard down, though. He politely declined her offer, and joined the varsity table instead. Harry Sullivan was slowly but surely moving away from us, away from best friends forever, and our stupid childhood pact.

He wanted his own life, his own friends. Ben was the start of that. Again, I was sure Esme was planning something.

She forced Wylan’s friends to move schools, and ripped Ariosa’s boyfriend out of town, so it didn't make sense to me why she was letting Harry get away with it.

She even restricted us from talking to adults, unless it was our parents.

Harry could have limited conversation with his coach (only in school time) and Wylan was only able to join the drama club if he promised to let the rest of us sit in the audience. If that wasn't weird enough, we were permitted to tell her everything. Every secret we had, or worry on our minds.

Obviously, we didn't.

There was no way I was telling her about my (late) first period, and I was pretty sure the boys would rather die than share their private lives.

Sometimes, we didn't have a choice. Esme would lock us in her car and demand every private detail, and it was less exhausting to just spill our guts.

I made the mistake of talking to a girl, Emma, at the start of the year. Esme may not have been in all of my classes, but she had spies, kids that were paid a decent sum of cash to make sure none of her friends were socialising.

Emma switched classes a day later, and when I tracked her down in the hallway, her eyes widened, like she was frightened.

Emma told me to stay away from her, so I did.

I didn't have a fucking choice.

I should have known the boy watching us gush over TV show crushes was loyal to Esme.

I thought she was okay with Harry dating someone. I mean, she didn't throw a screaming fit like usual.

Which was progress.

I was surprised she was actually allowing someone into the group.

Esme seemed genuinely happy with Harry's boyfriend joining our group, allowing him to come to hang out at her house, and our usual place on the beach.

The holidays came around, and Ariosa proposed a Christmas party at her place.

I was two hours late, after a heated argument with Mom over the car.

When I arrived, I immediately knew something was wrong. There was no music, and the lights were off. I did see an attempt at a party, grabbing myself some holiday themed punch from the lounge.

The figure sitting alone in the kitchen caught me off guard. It was pitch black, so I thought it was the ghost of Christmas past, after Esme forced us to watch Christmas movies with her a few days prior. When I clicked on the light, however, an identity swam into view.

Ben. Judging from the cans scattered on the table, he was maybe five or six drinks down. Harry's boyfriend regarded me with an almost pitiful smile. “Hey, Thea.” His voice was a kind of croak. Ben held up his can in a mocking salute. “Merry Christmas.”

“Hey.” I poured him a glass of water, sitting down hesitantly, my hands wrapped around a glass of punch. “Is everything okay?”

“Oh yeah, I'm great,” Ben’s sarcasm needed work. Harry was a master of irony, so maybe he was rubbing off on him. Ben downed another beer. “I missed a swim meet to come to this stupid party.”

Ouch.

Technically, it was an Esme centred party, so we were all there against our will.

I nodded, sipping my punch. It was kind of spicy. “So, where's everyone else?”

Ben met my gaze, his lips curling. “Where do you think?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. Did they go out?”

I think Ben was waiting for me to give him a reason to find Harry. I couldn't give him one without going against the Song family, and putting myself in danger.

The boy scoffed. “Whatever, Thea,” he stood up. “Tell that bastard I never want to see him again,” he mumbled, staggering out of the kitchen.

Ben stopped in the doorway, but he didn't turn around. “You guys deserve each other,” he laughed, and something ice cold prickled its way down my spine. I didn't even wait for Ben to leave, and by the sound of it, he was already emptying his guts in the front hallway. Ignoring him, I forced my legs upstairs, my heart hammering.

There was no way, right?

Because if Esme had done this, then she had won.

The girl had a perfectly calculated plan after all.

Esme didn't want Harry to be intimate with anyone else but her.

I realised that when I stumbled into a lot of tangled legs and flushed faces under blankets. Wylan told me to turn off the light, but I was too stunned to move.

This wasn't what I expected. Esme wanted us as friends. But this was different. This was closer, more intimate, where she could have every part of us, body, mind, and soul. The logical side of my brain wondered if she had become so scared that we would find love and ruin our friendship pact, she immediately wanted us to love her instead.

While the not so alert part of my brain wanted to entangle myself in their weird foursome sandwich.

So, I joined them.

I mean, it was cold, the punch was definitely filled with aphrodisiacs to influence guests, and seeing Harry buried under Esme, his legs tangled around Ariosa, I'd say Esme’s plan had succeeded. I didn't want to know what Ben saw. Later on, I discovered that he walked in on them, and Harry, fully bewitched by Esme’s spell, ignored him. Ben was right. We did deserve each other. Esme had made sure of that.

I was feeling a little more than heated, so yeah, I crawled into bed with them.

I wanted to believe it meant something.

Even if I knew deep down, Esme was tightening her iron grip.

Ever since that night, our relationship became more intimate, which brought us closer together. But we never actually dated. Esme didn't want to date us, she just didn't want anyone else to date us. Most of my junior and senior year was a blur of blindly following orders, and watching the light slowly start to fizzle out in my friend’s eyes.

Esme demanded we move in with her, though luckily our parents stepped in.

When she started talking about friendship marriage, I think that was when we decided that we were done.

Best friends forever would never continue into college. I was sure of it.

Harry was the first to get a football scholarship.

Halfway across the country.

Esme did what she always did. She smiled through gritted teeth, congratulating him with a hug.

I caught Wylan’s Oh, fuck look, pretending to choke on his drink. We already knew she was planning something potentially life ruining.

We took bets.

Wylan was convinced her father would buy the college itself.

Ariosa went down a darker route, saying Esme would burn the campus to the ground.

Esme did neither, attempting manipulation more directly.

In the days following his announcement, Harry had received three anonymous death threats, and a stuffed rabbit filled with pigs blood thrown in his locker. When he talked to his parents, they went straight to the police, only to drop the case several hours later after a talk with Jason Song.

Harry said it was like his parents had been hypnotised.

Esme turned the whole town against us, so we had no choice but to run back to her.

Wylan talked to a girl during gym, and one of Esme’s spies immediately reported it.

I accidentally smiled at Josh Pieck in AP English, and received a strongly worded email to not even look at him.

Senior year drew to a close, and our only solace was a stupid party on the beach. I made sure to only invite kids who either hated Esme, or had offered us their help in the past. They were too scared to turn up. Emily Littlewood said her family could get us fake IDs and out of town. She sent Ariosa a text from an unknown number, only disclosing her name in cryptic code.

Emily's parents were in a car crash hours later.

Anyone who tried to help us were either hurt, or cut out of the picture.

We were officially on our own.

Presently, I felt sick to my stomach. I got an email from a college I didn't even apply to, congratulating me on my acceptance. The college just so happened to be the one Wylan and Ariosa were accepted into, and of course, Harry was going there too.

The letter was stuffed in my pocket, and I was planning on burning it. It was my way of breaking this stupid pact.

We were not going to be best friends forever, because in Esme’s eyes, she didn't see the four of us friends.

Esme saw us as trophies. Pretty things she could call hers.

Fuck that.

We built a fire on the beach. Harry pulled out his acceptance letter first, and in our own private ceremony, we took turns throwing them into the flames. I wanted to laugh in relief, but I was too scared to laugh, too scared to smile, constantly looking over my shoulder to see if we were being watched.

I started to let my guard down, slumping on the sand to eat charred marshmallows and talk shit, when Esme herself turned up with a crate of beers.

Wylan shot me a death glare, because I was usually the one who accidentally exposed our location.

But I had been so careful.

Ariosa immediately stiffened up, and Harry rolled his eyes, draining the rest of his beer. I think he was expecting it.

We had all mutually agreed that Esme and her family were witches.

Ariosa’s expression twisted with genuine fright, and she panicked, plucking the smouldered remains of our letters from the fire and stuffing them in her backpack. I was sure she burned herself from the way she kept wafting her hand, wrapping her fingers around an icy beer, though she was more scared of getting caught trashing Esme’s gift.

Luckily, Esme didn't notice, excusing herself for being late.

Harry was uncharacteristically snappy, leaning forward in his chair. The boy wasn't even trying to hide his disdain for her. Two days before, he broke down in my car. It was the only place without a camera, without spies hanging around.

Wylan was sleeping in the back, and Ariosa was dozing in his lap. Harry kept it together until I asked him if he was okay, and his body kind of jerked, like he was trembling. He had spent the whole car ride staring into oblivion, his eyes half lidded, lips curled into an almost maniacal smile.

I didn't notice he was clinging onto his seat for dear life, like Esme was going to pop up out of nowhere. I can't do this anymore. He kept saying it again and again and again, until his fingers were clawing at his hair, and he was screaming, his eyes almost feral, like a wild animal. I can't fucking do this anymore, she's going to kill me.

I hugged him. It was all I could do.

Just a few more weeks, I told him.

Then we would be free.

“How did you know we were here?” Harry's eyes narrowed, lips curling. “Are you stalking us, Esme?”

His tone was like warm water washing over me.

I thought it might finally push her away.

Esme shot him a grin. “I always know where you are,” she said, ruffling his hair. “I was just making last minute arrangements for something special.”

Harry wasn't playing around, scoffing through another mouthful of beer.

“And what's that?” he mumbled under his breath. “Another death threat?”

Esme seemed to notice his disobedience, though she didn't say anything, maintaining her wide smile.

“That's a secret.”

Harry sat back in his chair, nursing another beer. Wylan nudged him to stop drinking, but he protested with a groan, slurping from the can.

“I'm sick of being ordered around,” he said, downing another beer, as if in protest. “I'm going to do whatever I fucking want,” his half lidded gaze fell on Esme, who had visibly stiffened up. “You do whatever the fuck you want, and I'll do whatever the fuck I want.” he saluted her with his drink. “All right?”

When Esme didn't respond, Harry threw his empty can at her.

The girl didn't even flinch.

“I'm going to Duke, you psycho sponge,” Harry spat, and I caught Wylan’s wry smile. Ariosa’s expression brightened. Duke was always his first choice.

“I don't want to go to your fucking college, Esme. I don't want to be anywhere near you or your family. You're a leech. You leech onto people and suck the life out of them, and… and then throw money at them when they want to leave! What you're doing is borderline psycho. You take everything away from us. When we find friends, you make them disappear, and when we find someone, you throw yourself at us! Like a leech!”

Gulping down beer, he was just getting started.

“That night with Ben,” Harry choked out, “You fucked with our heads.”

He spluttered on a sob, and Ari moved to grab his hand, but he shoved her away, his lips curling into a snarl, angrily swiping at his eyes.

“No, get off of me, it needs to be said!” his gaze flicked back to Esme.

“You turned my parents into mindless followers of yours so you could keep me under your control. You manipulate us with money and vacations, and fancy scholarships. I mean, who fucking does that, huh? What kind of person goes to these kinds of lengths to keep friends?” he laughed.

“You threaten and isolate us, and seriously think we want to be friends?

Harry let out a shuddery breath.

“So, here's what you're going to do. You're going to leave me and my parents alone. The same goes for Ari, Thea, and Wylan. You're going to get your father to fire my parents, and then you're going to get your ‘connections’ you keep bragging about to cancel the scholarship I don't even want. If you don't, I'll happily contact the police, and get your ass thrown in jail for stalking.”

His smile was harsh, almost manic, when Esme opened her mouth. Harry tipped his head back, dazedly blinking at the sky. “Not the police under your dad’s thumb,” he said with a snort. “I’m not fucking stupid. I mean outside of town, where you'll face actual consequences.” his eyes darkened.

“After tonight, I don't want to see your face again.” His words were venomous, and I revelled in each one. “Find new friends in college, Esme, and pray that they tolerate your psycho bullshit…”

Harry's voice faded out, the sea suddenly so much louder in my ears, waves crashing onto the sand, before drifting back. “...And don't put you six feet under the fuckin’ ground.”

Esme seemed frozen for a moment, and we all waited with baited breath.

Was this it? Would she finally leave us alone?

Instead of replying, the girl turned her attention away from Harry, and plonked herself down on Ariosa’s lap, chastising Wylan for wearing a short sleeved shirt.

Esme insisted on styling us, like we were dolls. She hated when Ariosa tied up her hair, and I wasn't allowed to straighten my curls. Harry had to wear contact lenses (if he wore glasses, she ignored him for days). When he lost his contacts and had to wear glasses, Esme bought him unlimited contacts.

Harry didn't respond to Esme ignoring him, instead cracking open another beer. He shot me a grin, which was a little too wide. Jesus fucking Christ, I remember thinking. He was losing his mind.

Mission accomplished.

If drunk Harry thought it was mission accomplished, Sober Harry was in for a rude awakening. The girl’s lack of response wasn't a win. It was a timebomb. Esme started talking about her own college acceptance letter, and I caught him glaring at her, his fingers pulverising the can. I hated what she was in the process of turning him into.

Wylan was staying quiet, absently making a mini sand castle, and Ariosa was snoozing on the sand.

The party was primarily to plan a quiet escape, and once AGAIN Esme had made it about her.

I excused myself, escaping down to the shallows.

The silence was a relief. I dropped onto my butt, letting the tide wash over my feet. Sticking my toes in bioluminescent plankton, I wondered how a candy bar had single handedly ruined my life.

Esme was making a fool out of herself again.

In the corner of my eye, she was standing with her hands on her hips, blonde curls being whipped around in the wind. Wylan had done something wrong. I had no idea what it was, though from the sound of her voice, it sounded like he'd been hiding a friend.

It was when I was watching the sea wash up on the sand, I heard it again.

Drilling.

It felt close, but also far away.

“We could just kill her, you know.”

Harry was standing behind me, swaying slightly, a fresh drink in his hand. He looked like a ghost under a moonlit sky, his cheeks were too pale, dark brown hair glued to his forehead with sweat.

He wasn't smiling. Esme said it was his best attribute, so he made sure to never smile around her. I took a moment to drink in how hollow the boy looked, both body and mind, his dark eyes barely focusing on me. Esme had turned him into a shell of himself. Not just Harry.

Ariosa had lost that glow to her skin, and I was sure Wylan was going grey at seventeen. Even looking at myself in the mirror, I was constantly on edge, my cheeks starting to deflate.

Turning back to the sea, I pressed my knees closer to my chest. The drilling was getting louder. It felt and sounded closer when I lowered my head, like if I turned at the right angle, I would hear it better. “You have a death wish, idiot.”

Harry snorted, slumping down next to me and resting his chin on his knees. He reached into his shorts and pulled out a cigarette, lit it up, and took a long drag.

The orange glow settled my dancing stomach. “I’m serious,” he said, lips curved around the cigarette. “We kill her, and dump her body in the sea. Then run the fuck away. Problem solved.”

“Problem still there,” I said pointedly, “You just declared war on a psychopath.”

I shoved him, and he pulled a face, shoving me back. “Since when do you smoke?”

Harry's gaze strayed on the ocean, smoke escaping his lips. “Since Ben.”

His words stung.

“Well, what about Esme’s dad?” I challenged him, changing the subject. I straightened up, stretching my legs. “We’ll have to kill him too, right?” I could see him trying not to smile around the smoke. So, I continued, eager to bring back the boy I grew up with. Even if it was just for one night.

“Psycho sponge?”

He groaned. “It was a good insult in my head.”

“It was a terrible insult! Did you see Wylan’s face?”

Harry laughed, and it was a good laugh, one that made me feel safe, despite knowing we were being watched. “We are going to leave here, don't worry,” He shot me a grin. “I told her to leave us alone, and…” Harry arched his neck, twisting around. “I think she got the memo? I hope she has, anyway…”

Nodding along, I took in Harry's words, though they were fading in and out.

I could hear that noise again.

It was real, a loud drilling in the back of my head. Looking up at the sky, it was suddenly too black, like an endless oblivion that would never brighten.

The sea lapping over my feet felt wrong, somehow.

Like it wasn't even wet.

The sand bunched between my fists was too perfect.

Perfect white sand, filtering through my fingers.

It was the kind of sand I dreamed of, unlike the actual beach which was mostly pointed rocks and spiky shells. It was too perfect. I looked around, gulping down air. Ariosa and Wylan trying to get the fire going, and Esme handing out food. The perfect night.

The stars twinkling were above us.

The perfect sky.

“Harry.” my voice sounded wrong, like the words on my lips weren't mine.

He didn't look at me. “Yeah?”

“How many times have we had this conversation?”

How many times have we had this conversation?”

How many times have we had this conversation?”

How many times have we had this conversation?”

How many times have we had this conversation?”

How many times have we had this conversation?”

Did I say that 5 times?

10?

15?

20?

The moon flickered, and went out completely.

And I fell through the sand, dragged down.

Down.

Down.

Down.

The drilling was louder, closer.

Real.

I could feel it, a blade pulverising through the back of my head, screeching blades dragging my thoughts to awareness. I could feel it seeping from me, blood dripping down my face and neck, pooling across the table I lay on. I opened my mouth to scream, but my lips were detached from me, my voice no longer mine.

Instead, my mind was suddenly in permanent rewind.

I was back on the beach, and this time Harry was smiling. His original words were torn away, that cutting blade slicing its way through my brain. “So here's what you're going to do,” his voice echoed, and he jumped up, picking Esme up and spinning her around. “You're going to stay with us. Forever. Never leave any of our sides.”

“You're a leech!”

“You're the most beautiful girl I've ever met. I want to be with you, Esme. Forever.”

I can't fucking take this anymore. She’s going to kill me.

This time, I did scream, a raw cry ripping from my throat.

I could sense bright light behind my eyes.

My wrists were strapped down, my head pinned to a cruel icy surface.

Harry's voice continued, clanging in my skull.

“I love her, Thea. I love her so much it hurts!”

It was endless.

It never stopped, and my screams died out into whimpers. They didn't even bother sedating me again. I felt everything, every cut and slice, the warmth that glued my hair to my face, and the saw that sheared all of it off.

When the white light faded, and flashing colours dotted my vision, I finally fell.

“Thea?”

When I opened my eyes, I was standing up.

No longer on the beach, I stood barefoot in front of an indoor swimming pool lit up in pale blue light.

I was so close to the edge, a white dress pooling at my feet, my hands wrapped around a bouquet of flowers.

I found myself smiling. Even when I reached a trembling hand to my head, where a veil had been forced into place. I stroked my fingers across my scalp, where old stitches had come apart, seeping red staining the collar of my dress and ruining my hair. When my fingers came back slick red, I swiftly wiped them on my dress, smiling wider.

Roses.

I clutched the bouquet tighter to my chest.

They were Esme’s favorite.

“Thea! Snap out of it!”

The man's voice startled me, reverberating through the room. I blinked, my vision swimming in and out of view. He was older than me, at least in his mid twenties, thick, brown hair hanging in dark eyes that part of me recognised. The flower crown of white roses sitting on top of his head looked like a joke, a mockery of him.

I didn't register the bloody sfrips of white wrapped around his head or the smear of red staining the front of his suit. Instead, I was choking on a name that shouldn't have matched the stranger.

No, not a stranger.

Harry Sullivan was not 25 years old.

Because if he was 25, then how old was I? I looked down at myself. I still felt seventeen, and yet I was taller, my dress perfectly fitted to my figure. I was seventeen, but my body was older, so much maturer, moulded and perfected.

No.

I felt my legs give-way, a cry rumbling in my throat.

I was going to go to college.

I was going to get away from her.

How long had I truly been sitting on the beach on the last day of senior year?

“Thea, listen to me.” his hands found mine, clammy and stained with blood, but his. It was him, and I wanted to cry, wanted to ask how he had jumped forwards in time, when I already knew the truth. I was in denial, and denial was agony. I moved to wrap my arms around my friend, but he shook his head.

“No, don't move,” he hissed out, “If you move, she'll know something is up.”

Opening my mouth, my throat tasted of rusty change.

How long? I wanted to scream, my chest aching.

Harry didn't speak. He didn't explain the strips of white wrapped around his head, or the others’ absence. He pressed something into my hand, delving it between the folds of my dress. The knife slid perfectly between my fingers, the blade pricking my skin.

I didn't feel anything. “Kill the bitch,” he said through gritted teeth. Harry didn't cry. I don't think he could cry anymore.

“Do you hear me?” he whispered, his voice collapsing into a sob. I wanted to know what had happened to him, what eight years had done to my best friend.

“Fucking kill her, Thea.”

The doors flew open, the sound of heels clicking loudly on marble.

Harry dropped to his knees, and I straightened up, fashioning my expression back to vacant. I wanted to help him. He couldn't stand up, his head bowed. If I was going to kill her, though, I had to catch her off guard.

Esme appeared, a blur of golden curls and fluffy pink. She was noticeably older too. Esme Song was still beautiful, almost breathtakingly so. Her expression may have looked maturer, but that psychotic gleam was still there, twinkling in her eyes. “Harry,” her voice was more of a bird-like squawk.

I stayed frozen, watching the girl march over to him, entangling her arms around him. “You do realize it's bad luck for the groom to see his bride the night before.” Harry didn't fight back when she pulled out a silk cloth, wrapping it around his eyes, her hand slipping over his mouth. Esme’s lips found his ear, and I heard every word. This was the first time I'd heard her actually scared.

“Since you're insistent on ruining our perfect day, I want to give you your wedding present early.” Esme’s voice was silky smooth, sultry. She held him like a toy, rocking him side to side. Harry didn't move, crumpling in her arms. His frenzied eyes found mine.

Kill her.

“Come on,” she crooned, “Dad is waiting for you.”

I wanted to kill her right there, before she could drag my friend away.

But something snapped in my head, and I was back on the beach.

This time the tide was in, and I was sitting alone.

Behind me, Esme was the only one sitting by our fire.

“Thea!” she shouted, waving at me to join her.

The tide was at my feet, but I couldn't even feel it anymore.

There were no stars.

“Thea.”

Reality was being cruel to me.

It wouldn't let me sleep.

This time, I awoke under a beautiful blue sky.

Above me was a flower arch made of roses.

Rows of strangers with wide smiles sitting under trees entangled with lights.

Standing on my left was Ariosa. Her red hair was piled on her head, perfectly fitted with a flower crown. Her smile was too wide, intricately made up eyes half lidded, and I was sure she had wet herself through her wedding dress.

Ariosa wasn't really herself anymore, her gaze penetrating right through me.

I could see dark red smearing the top of her head.

Neither was Wylan, sculpted in a rich black suit. The boy was unrecognisable, hiding behind a mop of blonde curls, and a nose job I knew he didn't need. Wylan had grown up, maturing into a handsome man. But once I was staring at him, I couldn't stop. I glimpsed tell tale spots of blood staining his collar.

His grin was dazed, drool seeping down his chin. Wylan was standing at an angle, swaying back and forth, that glitter which was my best friend, gone.

“Thea!”

I blinked. Esme was inches away from me, the bride.

“Pay attention!”

I found myself nodding obediently.

In a few simple words, she was going to become my wife.

The knife was tucked into my dress.

Harry was standing next to me. I didn't want to look at him, because I knew what Esme’s wedding gift was. In the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a thin line of black trickling down his temple, scarlet bandages hidden under that hideous fucking flower crown.

His eyes were lazily following a butterfly, and he could barely stand still. Harry was the one who tried to get away, who clawed his way out of her control. Esme had decided to take his free will by force.

The others spoke their vows, like they had been cemented inside their minds.

“I…”

Harry Sullivan.

Ariosa Carlisle.

Wylan Sutton.

Thea Littlewood.

“Take Esme Analise Lockhart to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until parted by death.”

“I…”

Harry blinked, his lips forming a smile.

“I… do.”

Ariosa giggled all the way through her speech, which was unintelligible.

Wylan sealed his vow, grinning through a mouthful of scarlet.

I think seeing him is what jerked my thoughts to fruition.

She had taken my friends, ripped away their youth, and now took their minds.

I think I said I do.

The wedding party exploded into cheering, and we were showered in confetti.

The officiator turned to me, and I saw bright, intense red.

Fuck. I don't even remember moving.

One second I was standing still, and the next, I was straddling my new wife, stabbing her straight through the throat.

I had to cut every order she had ever demanded of us directly from her mouth. Parted by death. The officiator’s words were ringing in my skull.

We were free.

She cut into my head and turned me into the perfect wife.

She turned my best friend's into mindless shells.

The wedding party was screaming, and so was I.

Help.

Blood was slick between my hands, but it felt good.

I need help.

There was no sign of my parents, anyone I knew. I didn't even see Esme’s father. I kicked off my heels and ran, and luckily, Ariosa thought it was a game, following me, grabbing Wylan.

Knowing that I would regret it if I left him, I pulled a barely responsive Harry along too, who awkwardly stumbled after me. We made it out of the hotel grounds, and I called the police, who immediately sent us to urgent care.

I spent two weeks in the emergency room, and I got two visitors. Emma, from high school. She hugged me, and so did her five year old girl. The second visitor was a surprise. Ben, Harry's old boyfriend who was now a cop, had been tracking us down since our “death” when we were seventeen. Apparently, the Song family faked our deaths.

Ben told me my parents left town a year after my death. He had contacted them multiple times, but no reply.

They weren't interested.

Which was understandable.

If someone told me my dead daughter was in fact alive and forced to marry her best friend, I wouldn't engage either.

I asked Ben if he'd been to see Harry, and he nodded, his cheeks going pale.

He told me the words I didn't want to hear.

Harry wasn't Harry Sullivan anymore. The doctors explained it in more medical terms, a foreign object being obstructed through the skull and damaging the frontal lobe or something like that, I wasn't really listening. Ben started talking about serious damage to the brain, and I was on my knees on cool tiles, choking up my lunch. I knew exactly what it was.

Harry had been partially lobotomised, in a desperate attempt to subjugate him.

So, if my friends were lobotomised, what happened to me?

I was drilled through the head. I got the same treatment.

So, why was I awake and conscious, and they were braindead?

I've been living with Ben for the last two years.

Ari and Wylan have recovered, in a way.

I say in a way because I'm lying to myself.

They're completely different people. Wylan is erratic and acts like a child, and Ariosa repeatedly tells me how much she hates me.

Their lack of emotion scares me. The doctors are puzzled. They didn't think it was possible to make as much progress as they have, but Jason Song was also using technology that they had never seen Before. Ben argued that lobotomies don't control your mind, they destroy it. He was convinced something else was being used, which sent me to sleep for seven years, forcing my body into autopilot. It would explain Wylan and Ari’s behaviour too.

How they had somehow recovered, or sort of recovered from a lobotomy.

Harry spoke for the first time a few days ago.

I have a habit of visiting him when Ben isn't guarding his bed side.

I wasn't there when he spoke. I was buying soda when Ben stumbled out of the room, vomiting everywhere.

Unable to resist, I hurried inside.

Harry was sitting up, propped up on pillows.

His eyes were so much more alert, which gave me hope.

Until he opened his mouth.

Inclining his head, Harry frowned at me. Ariosa and Wylan have been looking behind me a lot. I thought they were staring into mid air, but Harry was staring at the exact same spot. Just behind my right shoulder. He spoke her name with a glitter in his eye, and I think in his mind, Harry could still see her.

And Esme was still the love of his –our– lives.

When I shut the door and sat down, his expression darkened.

I hate that I can see so much of her in him.

And it terrifies me.

Harry was looking behind me, craning his neck.

“Where did my wife go?”

I told him she was dead, only for him to laugh.

“No she's not,” Harry said, like a child acting out. “She was just right there!”

I know Esme can't be alive, but Ariosa and Wylan say the same thing.

That she's always standing right behind me.

23 Comments
2024/02/21
20:26 UTC

13

The Ghost of the Savanna [Final]

Well, it's me again, popping in to wrap up my account that I posted here earlier. Here you can check out part 1. I believe I can continue directly from our sighting of that colossal creature:

My spine tingled. Benjamin started to run, leading the way, followed by Barasa, and lastly, me. We could hear the animal and the commotion starting to form in the village. When we were a few meters away, all of this culminated in a dry, deathly scream. A woman screamed in despair. We arrived to find her, facing the darkness of the forest, her arms outstretched, calling for her son, swallowed by the monster. The scene before us was terrible. The other villagers gathered around, trying to console her. Barasa ran to her, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder as he murmured something. Benjamin was looking into the darkness of the forest, his face serious.

"We must do something," he said, his voice urgent.

I agreed.

"And what do you suggest?"

He ran to his jeep, and I understood that I should follow him. We got in and took the road... As he accelerated sinuously along the dusty route, almost running over unaware small animals daring to cross the path, I monitored through the camera images where the ghost of the savannah was. We reached a rock wall, he was running there and probably couldn't escape (or at least, escape with the child). We descended carefully, while Ben was already cocking his gun. We walked crouched through the taller vegetation, approaching the surreal structure of the wall, its silhouette depriving us of the moonlight, and making us enter a dark and ominous territory.

"It's been 10 minutes since he passed through here," I said, checking the clock. "Are you sure he didn't leave?"

"No, no..." Benjamin said, darker. "I know he stays in this place... It's his slaughterhouse."

Those words got me, my blood chilling from my stomach to my back. I looked to the side for the first time and saw, staring back at me, a skull, half-buried, its empty sockets penetrating my soul. My muscles tensed with anxiety as we continued, trying to ignore this disturbing fact. Slowly, however, I began to hear a sound, it was something... wet? Like when you step with a boot in the mud, and it creates that vacuum layer...

I realized what it was when I looked ahead. In the distance, I could make out the white spot, lying on the grass. It was evident why the natives judged him a ghost... but... there was something under it, I approached and strained my eyes... and I shouldn't have. The noise came from him, he was chewing something, gnawing, and when his mouth released, I could see the head of the young man who had been taken, partially eaten... my stomach churned as I watched the scene, disgusted but with a fixed gaze. Like I said, you see a lot of death scenes in nature, it's the cycle, but I never got used to seeing this with humans... I guess it makes you feel, I don't know, too fragile? It's impressive how even after so many millennia of advancement and building a safe place, man is still a fragile creature... just a thinking reed...

"Damn... this isn't good," I murmured. "And now Benjamin, what do we--" Something hard hit my head and I blacked out.

When I woke up, I was lying on the hard ground, face down, with a throbbing headache. It took a moment to fully regain consciousness and realize where I was. There was a weight on top of me, and soon the idea of the lion came to mind. I began to panic and struggle, but then I heard a voice in my ear.

"Easy, sleeping beauty," came the rough voice of whoever was on top of me. He was now tying my arms. "We're just making sure you don't spend too much of your energy." I struggled to turn my neck and look at him. I had no idea who he was, wearing a hat with mosquito netting, camouflaged clothing, and a rifle on his back... hunters, I supposed.

"What... the hell is going on?" I asked, my voice weak and trembling.

The man smiled, a smile full of malice that sent a shiver down my spine. "You don't need to know right now, 'Doctor'," he said, his voice smooth contrasting with the cold expression in his eyes. "But you should feel honored to serve as dinner for our little albino friend."

My heart sank in my chest as I struggled against despair. "Please, you can't do this," I pleaded, trying to find some humanity in him. "I didn't even see what you guys did, I'll just leave and everything will be okay, no one will find out."

He laughed, shaking his head. "Oh, I'm sure no one will find out... I can't take the risk of you warning others about my presence here," he explained, his eyes gleaming with a sinister fire. "Besides, I think I can make some good money selling a doctor like you on the black market."

I trembled.

"Haha, that was good, Max," a fuller voice said somewhere I couldn't see. "Are you going to leave him in the tree?"

"Yeah, now come here and help me hang him, that thing can come back at any moment."

I felt arms grabbing me and lifting me up. They left me in one of the trees, for the first time looking at them. I got a better look at the face of this "Max" guy, a thin mustache marked his upper lip while the other, a fatter and sunburnt man, sported a crooked smile. As they laughed and talked about what they would do with me, a movement in the background caught my attention. I saw, walking straight, Benjamin. He had a serious and authoritative air that I had never seen in him, approaching while wielding his rifle in one hand.

I tried not to show that I had seen him, so that he could arrive unexpectedly. He approached, however, when he was about 10 meters away, I felt something strange in the air, he didn't raise the gun, just kept walking until he stopped behind them.

"Ben?" I finally said.

The men turned around.

"It looks like you really blacked out," he said. "Max, Cliff, is everything ready?"

"Sure thing, boss," Cliff replied. "The truck's already loaded," he said, pointing. I followed his gaze to see an old 4x4 filled with things behind it: Some ivory and what I assumed to be skin.

"Great... Look, Doctor," Benjamin turned to me. "I'm really sorry about this, okay? But I can't take any risks. I'll tell Barasa that you died heroically, okay?"

"I don't... what's going on?"

"For a doctor, you're pretty dumb," Max said.

"I hate this James Bond villain cliché that explains your whole plan and everything. So, to make sure you can't say I wasn't nice, tell me, Doctor, what do you think is happening here? Come on, it's not hard."

"I already figured out the hunters' scheme, and that you sold out to them... but... is all this to catch the white lion?"

Cliff burst into laughter. Max turned serious and gave him a slap on the neck.

"No, no, no..." Ben said. "The lion is just a small pawn of ours, or rather, a big pawn. Did you know you can teach an animal like that to like the taste of human flesh?" His eyes met mine, relishing when he saw the mental realization in me, when I understood what he had done.

It wasn't organic... he chose the animal... gave it some people, maybe villagers or other researchers. He shaped its appetite until, on its own, the ghost came after the others.

"Why?" I asked, the only thing that came out of my mouth.

"It's business... can't feed many mouths with research money, and I think you know that better than anyone... we needed the village far from here and, if they won't leave, we'll force them to flee, or they'll be devoured one by one."

It was a cruel and inhumane plan, and I felt sick just thinking about it.

"That's insane!" I exclaimed, my voice trembling with indignation. "You're the real monster of the savanna, Benjamin!"

He shrugged, as if it was no big deal. "Business is business, Doctor. They should have accepted our offers to buy the land, but they're too stubborn for that. This is just an efficient way to solve the problem."

I felt a mixture of anger and despair building up inside me.

He laughed, as if he found my indignation amusing. "Good luck with that, Doctor. You'll need it."

With that, he turned and began to walk away, followed by Max and Cliff. I watched them get into the truck and drive away. I found myself alone, tied to a tree, feeling powerless, as the first rays of sunlight appeared on the horizon, bringing to my eyes the savanna, the beautiful and cruel nature.

I decided to at least try to free myself. I weakly kicked the trunk of the tree, trying to swing myself, moved my arms and shoulders in unimaginably painful ways, but nothing, but my noises soon caught attention. I saw in the distance, at the end of my field of vision, a small spot, increasing as it approached, a white spot. The monstrous lion was coming, as usual, to receive the feeding from its cruel and sadistic "handlers," and this time I was the dinner.

The lion approached slowly, its bright eyes fixed on me, as I frantically struggled against the ropes binding me to the tree. My heart was pounding so hard it felt like it was about to burst out of my chest. I knew I had no chance against that beast, I had to escape as soon as possible. The animal stopped a few meters from me, sniffing the air with curiosity. Its eyes showed hunger, and I could feel the weight of its presence suffocating me. It was like staring death in the face.

I kept struggling, desperately trying to free myself, but the ropes were tightly tied. I was completely helpless. The lion let out a low growl, its muscles tensing, preparing to pounce, ending my existence. I closed my eyes, accepting my fate, when a thunderous roar made me flinch, echoing through the cliff.

I opened my eyes in time to see a figure emerging from the nearby vegetation. It was... another lion? Yes, big, that lion from before? It advanced towards the albino lion, emitting roars that echoed across the plain. The albino lion recoiled at the threat, clearly surprised by the presence of the new intruder.

The common lion wasted no time and charged at the ghost, launching into a fierce confrontation. The two animals grappled, snarling and roaring, as layers of blood gradually emerged on their bodies. Taking advantage of the distraction, I redoubled my efforts to free myself from the ropes, and finally, with Herculean effort, I managed to break free. I ran as fast as I could, moving away from the site of the confrontation, while the roars and sounds of the fight echoed behind me.

I didn't look back, I wasn't interested in seeing the outcome of the battle. I just wanted to get away from there as soon as possible. I ran, praying that they wouldn't give up the fight and decide to come after me. I walked confused and disoriented, off the trail, remembering that I should also hide from Benjamin and his henchmen. It was a day of exhaustion, fearing man and animal, the jungle and "civilization," not knowing which would cause me more harm. But finally, as night began to show its face, I cautiously approached the tribe, attentive to any sign. I crouched down when I saw Wright's hat brim; he was talking to Barasa.

"I'm sorry, but that's what happened...The Doctor is gone, along with the boy." Now I understood the discomfort his voice caused me, finally understood the falsehood behind his words. "Let's avenge him! Gather men, let's end this once and for all, meet me at the edge of the village!"

"It won't be necessary," I shouted, emerging from the bushes. "I'm right here."

Barasa and Benjamin turned abruptly to stare at me, surprised by my arrival. The elder was the first to react, with a mixture of relief and confusion written on his face.

"Doctor! But... How... What happened?"

"Barasa, it's a long story," I began, taking a deep breath to calm myself. "But we don't have time for that now." I was panting. "Benjamin is behind the attacks."

His gaze turned to the man.

"Oh...I think you're just fatigued, doctor, come on, have some water and-"

"Shut up!" I yelled at him. "He's working with hunters!" I started walking toward him but stopped when he took the gun from his back and aimed it at Barasa's chest.

"One more step... one more step, you bastard, and I'll blow the old man up!" We were both tense as we stared at each other. Surely, if he shot one of us, the other would have time to attack him... but I didn't play with lives like he did.

"Okay," I said, raising my arms. "Just go, you don't need all this."

"That's what I'm gonna do, but only when this area is completely clear for us," he pulled a radio from his waist. "Max, you copy? I need reinforcements here, some extra weapons would come in handy."

Silence...

Ben adjusted the radio.

"Cliff, get over here with Max, bring all the weapons."

Silence...

"What the-" He stopped talking. We all stopped, while, from the midst of the dense forest, walking slowly, we saw the figure emerge.

He was wounded, deep marks on his face. His right eye was now gone, and the remaining one, bruised, gleamed fiercely. He was panting, and blood dripped from his mouth. He stopped and looked at us, then began to regurgitate, like cats with hairballs. He forced his diaphragm more and more until he expelled something, something that rolled until it found Benjamin's feet and stopped: Max's head, still with its mouth open, frozen in a scream expression.

Benjamin seemed paralyzed by the scene, unable to react. The lion took another step.

"Easy, kitty..." he said, now turning the gun to the animal.

The ghost of the savanna took another step, and another. Benjamin fired, in panic. If I hadn't been there, I would doubt it, but I clearly saw the bullet pass through the creature, as if it didn't exist. He fired another shot, which again, pierced the lion as if it were just a beam of light. The beast leaped onto Benjamin, biting his leg. I could hear as its fangs sank into the soft flesh of his calf.

"Please, help me!" I saw the panic in his face, the pure fear. Tears formed in what had been the most stoic face I could think of. "Don't let it kill me!"

His screams began to intensify as he was dragged to the grass. His hands sought support somewhere on the ground, on rocks and roots, but all he managed was to leave his nails behind, finally, when he was completely hidden by the vegetation, he reached an apex of agony, his screams attracting all the other villagers around, until, about 5 minutes later, he fell silent. Everything fell silent, in fact. Deadly quiet...

The lion then got up, looking at us. Some villagers backed away, others pointed their spears. He, however, just stared at us, let out the loudest roar I've ever heard, making me cover my ears with my hands, turned, and walked into the dark night, disappearing again.

We stood paralyzed, numb with what had happened without even understanding. The next few days flew by quickly. To summarize the story: There were no more child disappearances, no more mysterious deaths. The village grew and prospered.

That same day, we called the local authorities, warning them about Benjamin. His body, however, was never found. The only corpse they found, curiously, was that of a large white lion on the stone wall of the region, practically a record size for the species. It was severely injured in the head, the result of a fight with another male. After that, I understood that what sought Max, Cliff, and of course, Benjamin that night, was genuinely the ghost of the savanna, in its most literal sense.

There are many differences between man and nature, but the one I realized that night was definitely that nature doesn't know when it's already dead...

0 Comments
2024/02/21
19:35 UTC

99

I'm customer support for a video game, and I've started getting some weird messages

Hi! I’m Peter. I work as customer support for a video game that you’ve almost certainly heard of, if you’re here on Reddit. Let’s call it WizardQuest for safety’s sake. There are different ways that customers can contact us, but I prefer responding to text chat, since if I’m honest I’m not very good on the phone.

That’s not to say that I’m great at text chat either, but let’s not tear me all the way down just yet.

There’s a bunch of things customers might choose to contact us about, whether it’s payment issues, they’re locked out of their account or problems in the game itself (our bosses really don’t like us helping with any of that last stuff, so it’s pretty much always going to be a polite redirect there).

The customer who started all of this off didn’t seem to be after any of those things. Her character name was Rastanafly, and her ticket just read “hello”. In my experience, those tickets are usually either completely pointless, or hiding a complex tech issue that requires about five hours to solve.

For anonymity purposes, I’ll just put my name as CS Pete.

CS Pete: Hello, this is CS Pete, contacting you in regard to the ticket you sent. What did you need assistance with?

Rastanafly: Hey, you. I need a word.

Well, this already put my nose out of joint, because I don’t like having to repeat questions. I hate it when customers need you to coax answers out of them, so I left it a few seconds to see if she’d follow up with anything. When it became clear that she wasn’t about to type anything else, I gave up and asked again.

CS Pete: Good morning! What did you need a word about?

Rastanafly: What’s it about?

Well, this didn’t seem to be going well at all. Perhaps English wasn’t her first language? I tried to figure out what I’d said that was unclear, but I was already behind on ticket count (we have a target number to close a day), and I am not good at thinking when stressed. After a few seconds of further silence, I gave it another try.

CS Pete: It is about the ticket you sent. It just had the description “hello”. I wanted to ask if you need help with something.

Rastanafly: I think I left a book here yesterday. It might’ve got mixed up with the others but mine wouldn’t have had a sticker in it.

I frowned. Was this a prank? Did she think this was the library she’d contacted? But that made no sense – I could see from the ticket info that she’d sent it from in-game while playing on a character, not by email or on the online form (which, congratulations to anyone who finds a way to send a ticket to us through that route).

Well, either way, she’d sent a message and I could hardly ignore it, no matter how bizarre it was. I tried to think it over. There were certainly books in-game, but they were just items you used to teach your characters spells, or readable items that explained lore or had silly little stories in them. You could trade them to other players, or sell them to in-game vendors, but it wasn’t a game where you could just drop the item on the floor for anyone to pick up. As for stickers, well, that was anyone’s guess.

Perhaps she was just using a translation that was missing the meaning. I decided to ignore the parts I didn’t understand, and gave it another shot.

CS Pete: Is this an in-game item that you have lost? I can search for it if you have the name.

Rastanafly: I don’t think so. All the ones I checked had one.

CS Pete: What is the book called?

Rastanafly: Please, it’s “Losing My Sins”. I’ve checked everywhere else.

CS Pete: Okay, one second, I’ll check the logs.

I didn’t recognise the name offhand, but that didn’t mean much. While I used to play the game constantly, most of my friends had split off to their own lives, or different games, and it wasn’t so interesting for me any more. I was out of touch with a lot of the new stuff these days.

First things first, I was going to look at her characters’ inventories to see if she hadn’t just stored it on the wrong one, or maybe just deleted or sold it to a vendor.

Before I could do anything, though, her next message came through.

Rastanafly: Tell you what, why don’t we check in the back? Follow me.

And then I saw that she had gone offline. It bothered me that she hadn’t waited even a second for me to do the checks I’d promised, and I was a little irked that she’d raced away so fast. Perhaps she’d disconnected? I figured that I should maybe give her the benefit of the doubt, instead of jumping to the worst conclusion.

But then I actually thought about her message, and found myself distracted again as I wondered what she was talking about. Maybe she was just agreeing with my plan to look through the logs. Well, either way, I left her to whatever she was doing, and looked through her character inventories.

Nothing.

I was about to bring up the logs when I realised I should probably check on the item itself. Bringing up the fan database, which was far better than anything the company provided, I got no results for “Losing My Sins”. I tried a couple of other searches, and “Sins” brought up a bundle of items and quite a few spells too. But no “Losing My Sins”.

Since Rastanafly didn’t seem to be in a rush to come back, and I was in a rush to get numbers, I closed her ticket after writing a quick, bland response. I just advised her that I couldn’t find the book she was asking about, and she’d need to provide some more info on what exactly had happened.

*

That lunch, in the office canteen, my friend Toby spent most of the time telling me something about a debate that sounded more like an argument he’d had with a colleague over the best way to handle an irate customer. I wasn’t really listening, but I made what I hoped were the correct noises in response while I focused on the dried-out husk that the blackboard had called a chicken schnitzel.

‘Hey, is something up?’ Toby asked towards the end of lunch. ‘You seem off today.’

I hadn’t really noticed it myself, and yet when he brought it up, I suddenly realised he was right. Listlessly, I poked at the crusty remains of the schnitzel.

‘Nothing’s wrong, but… I feel weird. Like I had a bad dream, and I can’t remember what it was, but everything’s reminding me about it.’

This seemed to make Toby quite cheerful. ‘Oh, I’ve had one of those! So this one time…’

And off he went again. Whatever happened in his dream, I missed it, but I couldn’t stop wondering why I felt so unsettled.

*

The next day was Saturday. I figured I’d pop over to the library to pick up a random comic or two, since I was supposed to be saving up for a holiday, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to commit to a long-term series.

It wasn’t very busy. Spread over two floors, it had an orderly, almost clinical vibe. There were no cheerful decorations up, no stands with pictures of cartoon characters, and outside of the books themselves, everything was either white or pale green.

The librarian station was a circular desk in the middle of the lower floor, and most people could be found somewhere in the vicinity. I headed up to the top floor, which had the comics section and a small shelf with the few fantasy books this librarian permitted. He was a tall man with a short black beard, his broad build more the sort I’d have expected to encounter at the gym. While I didn’t get the impression he liked the sorts of books I was into, he was friendly enough whenever I needed help.

The only windows in the library were way overhead, touching the distant ceiling. They were too high to look out across the town, but you did at least have a good view of the dismal grey clouds that almost always decorated the sky. Today was no different. The wind was whistling around the small library, and occasionally the windows jerked and shook.

That was the only ambience that accompanied me as I idly drifted through the comics section. I felt like trying the first two volumes of a new series, even if I didn’t want to get stuck in. The problem was that I kept finding volumes one and three, with the second ones missing or checked out.

While I was muttering some choice words on the fourth occasion this happened, the whistling winds faded away to be replaced by a conversation at the desk downstairs.

‘Hey, you,’ I heard a woman say. ‘I need a word.’

‘What’s it about?’ said the librarian.

‘I think I left a book here yesterday.’ She tapped the desk. ‘It might’ve got mixed up with the others but mine wouldn’t have had a sticker in it.’

A shiver of recognition went through me. I hadn’t picked up on it at first – I’d read these words before, not heard them out loud. But this was more than just familiar.

‘I don’t think so,’ said the librarian, his voice suddenly tense. ‘All the ones I checked had one.’

I left the manga shelf and tried to subtly look down at the conversation taking place at the desk. It’s extremely unlikely that I would’ve gone unnoticed, had anyone else actually been down there, but aside from the woman speaker and the librarian, nobody was about. And these two were completely focused on each other.

While I recognised the woman’s words, I didn’t know her. She had dusty blonde hair, looked to be in her late thirties, and wore a green turtleneck jumper that seemed a size too big. In contrast to her, the librarian’s smart shirt was just a little too small, which had the effect of making him appear twice as tense.

Seeing him standing like that, I had the sense that I probably didn’t appear far different, frozen as I was up here. The dread I felt was overpowering. Was it really that big of a deal?

You read this conversation before it happened, I reminded myself. Of course it’s a big deal! That’s impossible!

Forgetting any attempt at subtlety, I stared fixedly at the lady as I awaited her next words. Part of me dreaded hearing the name, as though it would close a door behind me forever.

‘Please,’ she said, ‘it’s “Losing My Sins”. I’ve checked everywhere else.’

Well, shit. It was like I was standing in the middle of a spotlight, the sound of trumpets blaring all around. I felt as if all eyes in the world were suddenly on me. Even though neither of the two below turned to look, I stumbled away from the rail and collided with the bookcase behind me.

Apparently my little stumble went unnoticed, as the librarian responded to her a moment later.

‘Tell you what, why don’t we check in the back? Follow me.’

I heard the sound of their footsteps, and a door opened and shut shortly after. Whatever had just happened, I felt like it had to be significant. Moving seemed like a disruption, and once again I had that sensation that there were eyes fixed on me.

They can’t see me if I don’t move, right? I thought. It made as much sense as hiding under the covers. As though the monster under the bed would be turned away by such a feeble defence.

Slowly, almost shaking, I approached the rail and looked down at the desk again. It was almost disappointing to see that nothing had changed. Feeling like I should hang about to see if anything else happened, I grabbed a random volume one and hurried downstairs. Nobody else was around – when had they all left anyway? – so I had my pick of chairs.

Though I settled down in a chair, I was unsettled. My eyes couldn’t focus on the meanings of the words in the comic. I turned page after page, simulating the act of reading, but if you’d asked me to repeat anything of what I’d just read, I wouldn’t even have been able to summarise it.

What is wrong with me? Nothing happened. Why do you even care?

But I was certain that conversation was exactly what Rastanafly had sent to me in that text chat yesterday. That wasn’t possible, though. I had to be misremembering. Maybe I’d dozed off upstairs without realising, and in my post-sleep state I’d started imagining things.

Suddenly I had the sense that I shouldn’t be here. Perhaps it was that the wind picked up, and the rattling of the high windows grew violent. Maybe it was just the general vibe of nobody being around. My familiar library felt like a stranger.

There was no sign of the librarian, and I didn’t know how long he’d be, so I dropped the comic on the desk and left. All I wanted was to get home and out of sight, even if nobody was around to see me.

*

That night I dreamed that I was playing WizardQuest in bed. My flat is small, and the bed folds down over the couch. The television is on the wall facing the couch by day, and bed by night. I had the lights off in the dream, though there was a faint orange glow around the TV.

When I woke up later, I realised the setup made no sense. WizardQuest is a PC game, and I did not have my computer hooked up to the TV, and I definitely hadn’t gone to the trouble of setting the game up with my controller. In the dream, I didn’t question it.

I was running around in WizardQuest with no particular direction to what I was doing. When I think about it now, I remember flashes of images – running around the village in the forest, following a stone road in an unfamiliar grey valley, or just going in circles inside a barely-lit castle.

Then the wall shuddered with a monumental banging. In the dream, I understood it to be the neighbours, angry at the noise the game was making. As I write this now, I recall that the level of force was unnaturally heavy, violent… almost threatening.

Dream Peter was terrified. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said in a voice that was practically crying. I think at that point I either switched off the game, or the dream switched focus, because I don’t remember anything else that happened afterwards.

*

For the rest of the weekend, I tried to forget about silly things that I’d probably misunderstood. As though such a mundane conversation would be magically foretold to some layabout like me. Did I honestly think I was a psychic? And why would a mysterious force communicate to me through a player ticket?

On the following Monday, I went into work ready to check Rastanafly’s ticket and see that the chat was nothing like what I remembered. Of course the words wouldn’t match what I heard at the library. There was zero chance that she’d referenced that book “Losing My Sins”.

And yet there it all was. I pulled up the ticket in the database and reviewed the chat logs, and it was all exactly as I’d remembered and overheard.

I felt sick. It seemed so unimportant, but at the same time it was breaking a fundamental rule of the universe. This was nothing I could tell anybody else either. They’d laugh if I told them that a customer had spewed out a record of an incidental library conversation a day in advance. I knew I’d have reacted that way if anyone had ever come to me with that story.

Over and over, I thought: Why me? Why that conversation?

When I checked Rastanafly’s ticket history, there was just one other contact where she’d asked for an item to be restored. The chat had been ordinary and dull – a simple question/answer with no cryptic messages or references. Her listed address was somewhere far to the north, so unless she’d been on a random weekend trip to my dismal little town, she probably wasn’t the person I’d seen at the library. Right?

Another thought occurred to me, and I checked my surveys to see if she’d filled one in for me. Apparently she had – and I almost felt better when I saw that she’d given me no stars, my indignation briefly pushing away the nameless dread building inside me. She’d left a comment too: “didnt even try to help”. I thought that was unfair. It wasn’t my fault she’d ignored my questions and gone offline.

*

After work, the library was on my mind again. Though I was doing my best to ignore any thoughts of weird predicted conversations, it was nevertheless there in the back of my mind.

I should find that comic again and read it properly this time, I thought to myself as I took the backstreet shortcut to the library.

Besides, it was actually sunny for once. The world felt brighter, more optimistic. It was almost enough to dispel that alien sensation I’d felt when I’d last been in the library, surrounded by the clattering of window frames overhead.

When I reached the library, though, it was shut. There was no explanation given for why, and nobody around to ask.

As the bad feeling threatened to return in full, I quickly dispelled it by telling myself I’d go to one of the bookshops in town and buy the first few volumes of that series instead. Some retail therapy would keep the demons at bay, I figured.

*

I didn’t read much of those comics, though. As soon as I got home, I found myself on the internet, looking up any information about the library closure. But there was nothing conclusive. The best I found was a post asking why it was shut, and the library account replying that “unforeseen circumstances” meant that it would be closed temporarily.

Had I missed something significant about that conversation? What if the librarian had murdered that woman when he’d led her into the back area? What if she’d murdered him? But there would’ve been some sort of news if that had happened, right?

Maybe they’d both disappeared back there. Perhaps they’d eloped and left nobody to run the library? It didn’t have to be the worst-case scenario, after all.

My mind flooded with possibilities, but again and again I kept coming back to the notion that they’d disappeared or been murdered. I doubted that it was anything to do with being psychic, regardless of being witness to a foretold conversation. It was just that I gravitated towards the pessimistic outcome in most cases.

I didn’t know the librarian’s name to look him up, and he wasn’t listed on the vague info available online. There was just a bland email to contact, or a phone number. I pondered giving it a call, but what was I going to say? I wasn’t a detective. I couldn’t just call up a library and ask if the librarian had disappeared or been murdered.

What if he was the one to answer, anyway? What would I say? Would I ask him about the woman in green who’d been looking for “Losing My Sins”?

Thinking about it now, I probably could’ve done something like that. Maybe if I hadn’t been quietly freaking out, losing my head over the possibility that I’d received some sort of cosmic warning and completely ignored it. It was easier to just find a distraction for the rest of the evening… but I decided not to go with WizardQuest.

*

The next day, I’d barely slept, and my ticket-answering suffered accordingly. If people needed the extra mile, I couldn’t even grant them another foot. The term “benefit of the doubt” was an alien concept that never landed on my planet. If people didn’t answer my questions first time, I politely wished them a good day and closed the ticket.

It was almost like I knew that something bad was coming again. Everything felt vivid and intense, like the unnatural light before a thunderstorm.

And then it happened again. The next ticket in my queue just read “hello” like before. This time, the customer was called Redforth. I rolled off my usual opening message, feeling certain of what was about to happen, even if I didn’t know the specifics.

CS Pete: Hello, this is CS Pete, contacting you in regard to the ticket you sent. What did you need assistance with?

Redforth: Hello. This shouldn’t take more than a minute.

Hoping that this wasn’t going to be like Rastanafly’s conversation, I tried to keep things light.

CS Pete: That’s good to hear! How can I help you?

Redforth: Okay, come on in.

My stomach dropped. His reply didn’t fully make sense in context like with Rastanafly, but I was just jumping to conclusions, right?

CS Pete: So what did you need?

Redforth: Thank you. Have you lived here long?

CS Pete: Haha, a few years! So did you need me to help with something?

Redforth: Wait…

And then, like Rastanafly, he went offline. There must’ve been something off about my expression, as Toby, sitting at the desk next to me, suddenly leaned over.

‘Hey, you okay? You don’t look so good.’

It took me a second to reconnect with the world. I jerked my head round to look at him.

‘Oh, it’s nothing. I just slept badly, I think. I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong.’

He gave me a sceptical frown. ‘You might wanna take a break for a few. It wasn’t a player giving you shit, was it?’

‘No, not at all. You don’t need to worry about me.’

*

So here I am now, trying to figure all of this out. I still haven’t found out anything about the library, or the woman in green, or even the book “Losing My Sins”. Maybe she got the name slightly wrong, but the only book I found with a similar name didn’t seem like something important enough that the universe would break the time-space continuum to contact some random CS rep.

But I am strongly wondering if these aren’t some sort of warning. Maybe I didn’t step in to stop something bad on Saturday. Possibly this new conversation is my chance to make a real difference.

I don’t know what you guys might think. I’ve put this together in a bit of a rush and I’m going to post it all now and maybe come back to it later if I run into anything new. My plan is to listen out for that conversation, and see if I can’t change things this time around.

For now, though, I’ve got a flat inspection, so I’m going to have to scoot. Catch you on the other side!

9 Comments
2024/02/21
19:29 UTC

251

Part Two: My daughter has a new penpal. Something's not right

Here's Part One if you missed it: https://www.reddit.com/r/nosleep/comments/1avnnys/my\_daughter\_has\_a\_new\_penpal\_but\_somethings\_not/

Thanks everyone for your feedback on my last post. I promise you, I'm taking this as seriously as ever. I'll try to recap from where I left off on my last post. Hopefully it's not too abrupt a start.

My brother (yes, his name’s Mack and I’m Mark - my parents weren’t creative), has three good qualities in a situation like this. Firstly, he’s the size of a linebacker. Second, he’s a cop (and military vet). Third, he adores his niece.
Plus, he’d texted me an hour ago asking for my Netflix password (also a mooch). Which means he was at home.

Traffic was surprisingly light for a Friday night, so it was only fifteen minutes later that we pulled into Mack’s driveway. I noticed right away that another truck was parked at the curb. Hopefully not a date’s vehicle.
I needn’t have worried. Mack opened the door, unshaven, in gym shorts and with a surprised look on his face.
“Uncle Mack!” Amy shrieked. She launched herself towards him in an embrace that knocked him back a step.
“Hey kid,” Mack said rubbing her head. “Wasn’t expecting you two tonight.”
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s important. I’ll spring for pizza.”
“You’d better.” He replied. “Get extra - a buddy of mine from work is over.”
Perfect, I thought. Might as well get the whole squad on this from the get-go.
Soon, we were settled in for the evening. Amy was completely enamoured with Mario Kart, the pizza had arrived, and the three of us - Mack, Mack’s buddy Gus and I were seated around the kitchen table.
“Alright,” Mack said, “what’s up?”
“You’re going to think I’m crazy.” I didn’t know how else to begin.
“Sure, but tell us anyways.”
I tried my best, albeit clumsily, to explain the events of the past few days. The pen pal project. The letters Amy received. Sam’s story. The frightening meeting at the school today. By the time I finished talking, my pizza slice was cold and I was more exhausted than I’d felt in years.
Mack and Gus went from looking calmly interested, to downright pale.
I don’t know Gus, but I know Mack damn well. I could tell that underneath the frown on his face, was an undercurrent of rage.
But it was Gus who spoke first. “We could source the stationery. It might be rare nowadays - a collector’s item. Unless they’ve started selling it again.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That would be great.”
“Did they find out where the bus ticket was printed?” Gus said.
“Erm…” I said. “I don’t know. No idea what the cops did during the first investigation.”
“Back then, it would have had to be printed right at a bus station.”
“Oh yeah…I se…”
“Doesn’t fucking matter.” Mack snapped suddenly, as he slammed his hand down on the table. “No pedo in his right mind goes to all this trouble to lure a kid. I mean this is two states over! You don’t pull that shit when you can snatch some vulnerable kid right off the street.”
He gave me a look that might have burned two eye-shaped holes in my head. I reflexively flinched, like we were still kids and he was threatening to slam me. “…erm….” Was all I could get out.
“We need to figure out who the target of this is. Because from where I sit - it’s Sam. It’s always been Sam.”
This was eerily reminiscent of Mrs. Lorenzo’s comment. I had been so focused on Amy, I hadn’t had the mental bandwidth to focus on Sam.
Gus cut in - more gently - with, “if this is meant to terrorize the mother, then we’ll need to do some background digging. Do you think she would agree to that?”
“I’m sure of it.” I said. I had no doubts. Sam would gnaw off her own arm if it could keep Amy safe. Besides that, I’d seen how frightened she was. At the time, I thought we were both afraid for Amy. I could see now that she was just as frightened for herself. How stupid I’d been. I hadn’t even tried to reassure her.
“So,” Gus continued. “We’ll talk to our sargeant and then reach out to Sam about a background check. Chances are there’s something there. Most of the time these idiots aren’t as good at covering their tracks as they think they are.”
“Good, good.” I said nodding foolishly. Just knowing something - anything - was happening made me feel immensely better.
Still, I could feel Mack’s energy from beside me at the table. If you don’t know the guy well, you’d assume he was the bulldog from those old Tom and Jerry cartoons. Big, dumb, aggressive as all hell and reactive. In fairness, a guy like that is disconcerting when he’s angry. Even I walked on eggshells around him from time to time. But you’d be wrong to think he was dumb. I can’t claim to understand how a cop’s mind works - I’m not one for good reason - but there’s always something below the surface with him. He acts like a bull in a china shop, but when he speaks, he spins webs as delicately and intricately as a spider.
“Mark,” he said. “You need to be ready for the possibility that someone in your life is behind this. Is Sam close with her parents? Siblings?”
“Her mom, sure. And her sister.” I stammered. “Her dad died years ago, when she was a teenager.”
“Aunts? Uncles? Neighbours?” He had that same look. The one that makes me feel like I’m only just catching up to a conversation I should have been listening to already.
“Just one aunt and uncle. But they’re not…the type? I mean they’re investment bankers in Connecticut. I can’t imagine…”

“Well, we’ll look into everyone.” Gus said.
“Daaaaddddyyy!” Suddenly Amy was right beside me. It startled me to the point that I jumped. “Can I have some chocolate?” She pointed to an unwrapped Snickers bar on Mack’s counter.
“Sure, honey. Go ahead.” Mack said, in a voice ten times nicer than he’d spoken in just moments before. “Find something to watch on TV - I won’t tell your dad.” He winked, which made her giggle before rushing off into the other room.
Then he turned to me, and in an altogether different voice said, “give Sam a call. Right now - we need to get on this.”
I pulled out my phone right at the table. I hit Sam’s number in my contact list, and listened impatiently as it rang. And rang. Before long, her voicemail recording was playing.
“No answer,” I shrugged. “I’ll text her - she’s probably busy with work.”
Call me ASAP. Re: Jessica-Ray.

If nothing else, that would surely get her attention.
Gus and Mack busied themselves for a few minutes with what I assume are cop-things. Gus disappeared into another room, and I could hear him discussing the situation with someone. Mack was staring hard at his phone, for what reason I didn’t want to ask just yet.
Minutes passed, with no reply from Sam. Impatiently, I decided to try calling again.
Again, it went to voicemail unanswered.
Ten minutes later, I tried again. Come on Sam! You can’t be so busy you can’t take one simple call.
After half an hour or so had elapsed, I began to wonder. It wasn’t like Sam to ignore my calls (or texts). It really wasn’t like Sam to not respond when it was something pertaining to Amy.
I was wondering what to do next, when my phone began to vibrate. I looked down at the caller ID and frowned. It wasn’t Sam’s number. I didn’t know who’s number it was.
“Hello?”
“Hey, Mark?” It took me a second to recognize the voice. It was Jenny. Sam’s business partner.
“Hey…yeah? Jenny?” Why the hell was she calling me?
“Mark - I’m sorry to do this but….have you heard from Sam?”
My throat felt bone dry. “…N-no.” I croaked out.
I heard a sigh. “She was supposed to be here an hour ago to set up for tonight’s sale. We’re at a trade show in Pasadena. I’ve been calling her and calling her but she’s not picking up.”
“You mean, she’s missing?” The words came out like they were disembodied. I barely recognized my own voice.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mack perk up and stare hard in my direction.
“I don’t know…I mean, maybe she’s caught in traffic? It’s always insane on Fridays. Don’t worry Mark, I’m sure she’ll turn up.”
“Thanks…Jenny? Call me - or tell her to call me as soon as you hear from her.”
“I will, take care Mark.”
The call ended, and I choked back tears.
Mack reached out and lay a hand on my shoulder, which felt god-awful. When he spoke, he did so in the voice he usually used for Amy. “Gus is talking with our supervisor. I’ll get them to alert highway patrol. Hang in there bud, we’ll find her.”
In the next room, Amy watched TV, oblivious to the horror that was growing here in the kitchen. I lay my head in my hands, and cried.

Moments - though it may as well have been hours later - Gus came back into the room. Mack had left too at some point, then returned and sat down at the table. I was so paralyzed with fear and bewilderment, I'd hardly noticed.

But Gus's face brought me crashing back to reality.

Mack glanced up at him but said nothing.

"Mark," Gus said, way too gently. "Look..." He hesitated, then mustered up some inner resolve. "We sent a squad car over to Sam's place just in case she was there."

A terrible 'but' hung suspended between us. I would have paid anything not to have to hear it.

"But," he said. "they found her car in the driveway. She wasn't there but it looks like she left everything behind - purse, car keys, even her phone."

I was too busy sitting in stupefied silence to notice the obvious. Mack was the one who brought it up instead.

"How'd they clear the place from outside?"

"They didn't need to." Gus replied. "Front door was wide open."

16 Comments
2024/02/21
18:48 UTC

72

If You Ever Hike the Appalachian Trail, Don’t Interact with the Eyes in the Trees.

A couple of weeks ago my friend and I set out on a voyage we’d dreamed of for years - a hike on the Appalachian Trail. He’s gone now, and I wish we’d never stepped foot onto that path.

We live in Tennessee, and all our lives we’d glanced longingly at the various entries to the trail as we’d hiked simpler, more beginner-friendly trails. As we came to the end of our time in college, we made a promise to each other that before we got jobs we’d hike from Tennessee to Maine.

John and I set out from the Smoky Mountains, with resources set to last for 6 months. God, the trail was beautiful. We spent our first day just marveling at the scenery that surrounded us.

“This shit is dense,” John chuckled as he pointed to the canopy of leaves that nearly blotted out the morning sun. I chuckled too, but I found myself shrugging off a shiver.

“Nothing we’re not used to,” I replied, looking at the uneven ground before me. We really had practiced up for this hike. We got accustomed to the subpar food, the long days of 15+ mile walks, and of course sleeping in tents. Even still, I felt my nerves creep up as we forged ahead.

It was our 5th night on the trail that we saw them for the first time. Eyes, peering at us through the brush and trees.

“Shit, dude, do you see that?“ John’s voice was a hiss in my ear. He didn’t risk a pointed finger, choosing instead to nudge my elbow gently with his own. I was dead tired from our trek that day - we’d done a solid 18 miles… not that it matters.

“See what? The fuckin’ tre—“ my shitty remark was cut short as the air left my lungs. Off the trail, maybe a few hundred yards, I spotted the eyes for myself. Just one pair, peering at us through the undergrowth. A bear. Had to be.

“Ohhhh fuck man,” John groaned, the fear so palpable I could imagine the beads of sweat that had surely broken out on his skin. I felt no better. “Do… do we yell?” I stared openly at the eyes, and they stared back at me. It’s an awful feeling, being hunted. Being prey. I had never felt anything like it before. It awakened something primal in me, but I felt no courage.

“N-no. No, we don’t know if there’s cubs or something around. Maybe it’s just curious about us.” I had no clue if that was even a factor. All I knew was that we had bear spray in the bags, and I did not want to have to test its effectiveness. I picked up the pace a bit and tugged on John’s sleeve to encourage him to do the same. I tore my attention off the eyes, but the feeling in my gut told me that they did not reciprocate. John and I were all but jogging now.

There was a bend in the path ahead and I knew that if we could get around it we’d break the line of sight. As we turned the corner I allowed myself one stolen glance at the eyes. Putrid yellow stared back unapologetically. “Fuck!” I spat the word out in the same instant that I lost sight of them.

John panted out some expletive of his own, each of us punctuating the last 45 seconds as if they’d lasted an hour.

We trudged another mile and a half in near silence before we felt comfortable stopping for the night; we’d walked far too long already for the day and we were both exhausted. “Hey Stephen?” John didn’t even glance my way as he pitched his tent.

“Yeah?”

“What… was that?” John’s hands were shaking as he fumbled with the stakes of his tent. I told myself that it was just the exhaustion. I told myself that exhaustion was what made mine tremble, too.

“It was a bear,” I stated plainly. “What else?” I wiped sweat from my brow, and in the brief darkness that swallowed my vision, yellow eyes pierced into me. You know how if you look towards the sun for too long the white-hot intensity lingers when you close your eyes? I felt it then, but it was a cold, hateful yellow.

“I mean, yeah, I get that. Not exactly a ton of big wildlife out here,” John replied. “But like… you did feel it too right?”

“Feel what, dude?!” As soon as I’d spat the words I felt like a dick. John turned to look at me and I could see he was hurt. Did he look… something else? Disappointed, I think. In me? In the obvious damper the eyes had put on our trip? Maybe it was both. “Sorry.” The word hung in the air with no response. “I felt scared shitless, that’s for sure.”

“That’s not what I meant,” John muttered as he finalized his arrangements for the night. I wanted to ask for clarification, but it was clear that we were done discussing it for now. We settled into our tents, but I couldn’t sleep for shit. I’d bet John couldn’t either. As waves of exhaustion tugged at my eyelids I’d jump to a start in my tent, worried that the owner of those eyes was creeping up at that very moment. Thin, long fingers stretching out to grip the zipper of my tent. I wondered if it had seen a zipper before, if it knew how they worked.

What the fuck is it, I asked of myself. I’m worked up over a bear. In Tennessee. In the mountains. Christ, how long have I let myself spiral over the most expected possible thing? I glanced at my watch and saw that it was well past midnight. We’d been getting up at 6 to start our trek every morning, and I knew that that was going to be painful the next day. In spite of my racing heart, I finally drifted into an anxious sleep.

We made it two days before we saw them again. Honestly, John and I had all but shed off the terror of those few minutes. We’d picked back up on our excitement and admiration for the trail. We’d also passed a handful of fellow hikers in those two days, which was a godsend for settling nerves. We even stopped and shared a little meal with a lovely couple on our 7th night; they contributed some of their food and we gave some of ours. If nothing else, I think everyone was grateful for a little diversity of taste.

Tyler and Sammy were their names. They were from Ohio - somewhere close to Cedar Point - and they’d also been planning their big hike of the Trail for quite some time. If you’re reading this and they sound familiar, I hope that this brings you any small measure of closure.

“We’ve been loving it,” Tyler said with a chuckle.

“Loving is maybe a stretch,” Sammy said with a little laugh of her own. “I have calluses the size of golf balls on my feet.” John and I laughed, enjoying the company of our new-found friends. Dusk dragged darkness over our little group, and everyone knew it was time to part ways. Tyler and Sammy had begun up in Maine and seemed eager to reach their destination in Georgia.

“You guys got this! The best part’s ahead of you!” Tyler turned back and waved as he said this, giving us a little flourish of outstretched arms.

“Congrats y’all,” I shouted back, even if it was a little bit premature. They had already made it so far down the trail I had zero doubt they’d complete their journey.

The very next day, as afternoon turned to evening, John stopped dead in his tracks a few paces ahead of me. “What’s up dude, need a break?” I panted. If I’m being honest, I needed one.

“Shh!” John jammed his index finger against his lips and pushed his other hand downward, trying with a ferocity to quiet me down.

“The fu—“

“Shut up, shut up!” the words choked their way through John’s nearly clenched jaw. “Listen!” My heart beat harder and faster than it already had been, but I obeyed. In total silence, John and I listened to the sounds of the darkening woods around us. A gentle crack broke the eery stillness we’d been experiencing. John pointed immediately in the direction of the sound and looked at me pleadingly.

“I heard it,” I said, barely audible to myself. John must’ve understood because he looked relieved immediately. “A deer maybe? Or another bear I gues—“ I held the sound of the S and let it slither through the air as a voice cut me short.

“… Ahead of you!”

“What did he—“ John waved his hand viciously through the air, signaling me to stop talking. I’d have been offended if I weren’t so afraid.

The voice cut through the air again, this time louder but no fuller. “The best part’s ahead of you!” The phrase put a pain in my gut like food poisoning. I knew that phrase, and I knew who said it. But I did not know this voice. It evoked within me some sort of auditory uncanny valley which sent waves of goosebumps across my flesh. I could feel a childlike panic overtake my mind.

My eyes met John’s. He gestured towards the trees. Maybe 50 yards out were the eyes we’d seen two days before. My own eyes widened and I shook my head no. I began with a small, almost imperceptible nod, then added vigor as John broke eye contact and stepped in the direction of the voice.

“John I’m fucking begging you right now do not go over there John please fucking please it’s — that’s n— we don’t fucking know him.” I couldn’t find a good argument, but I prayed that the desperation which powered my whispers would convince my friend not to respond. Primally, evolutionarily, something in my body thrashed against contact with the voice coming from the woods.

John turned to me again and nodded his head. He put his finger to his lips again, gentler this time, and motioned for me to wait. We sat in a sudden but welcome silence. My heart rate normalized, no longer slamming my chest but still pumping at twice its normal speed. John and I looked around, each of us seeming to cling to that old childhood feeling of “if I simply stay quiet the monster in my closet won’t come out and get me”.

“YOU GUYS YOU GUYS YOU GUYS YOU GUYS YOU GUYS YOU GUYS YOU G—“ an inconceivable volume tore through the still woods. Without looking at each other John and I burst into a sprint without a destination in mind. We ran. We ran for what felt like 20 minutes. Realistically it was only 4 or 5, but my lungs writhed in pain beneath my heaving chest. The voice was gone. It had maybe been gone since we first took off.

“Stephen.” John didn’t need to say anything else. He coughed, and I thought he might puke into the bushes. Hell, I thought I might.

“I know,” I replied simply. “I know.” We made a solemn promise to each other that night that we’d make it to the next major departure from the trail (one which would allow us to hitchhike to a town) and get the hell out. We both valued the completion of this promise over the breaking of our promise to hike to Maine. I was beyond relieved to see that he was taking those fucking eyes as seriously as I was.

John broke both promises. He broke them both in one fell swoop. We chose to start our next day early, desperate to find salvation from the trail. In the early morning light - or the lack thereof - I spotted them first. Just off the trail again, peering through the trademark fog that earned the Smokys their name. Truth be told, I hoped that John wouldn’t notice. I thought that if we just forged ahead we could ignore them and be off the trail by mid-afternoon. We were almost out of their view when a voice interrupted the sounds of the forest.

“Tyler?? Tyler I’m scared…” Sammy’s voice pleaded with the birds and the trees and the dirt. It pleaded with us. It wasn’t Sammy’s voice, of course. And I knew that. I think John knew it too, but god damn him to hell he was a fool. Or maybe he didn’t know… there’s no way to tell at this point.

“Sammy? Is that you?” John’s voice was a punch to my gut. I turned to watch as he crunched along the underbrush towards the sound.

“Tyler?? Tyler please I’m so afraid. Where did you go??” The voice wavered with what sounded like real tears.

“Sammy it’s uh, it’s John. We met a few nights ago… is everything alright? Did you guys get lost?” John crossed the threshold into the unkempt woods. I stood motionless. My mouth opened and closed over and over. Even the leaves ceased to whisper as I watched my friend move ahead. The eyes were gone.

“Stephen get your ass over here — she needs help! Stephen, come on! Follow me, I think… I think I saw her,” John peered around some honeysuckle as he ventured deeper into the woods.

Finally I felt my voice give life to my thoughts, albeit some of my stupider ones. “I don’t… think we should go out there. The eyes…” I whispered meekly.

“What?? Bro get over here I can’t even hear you Jesus Christ.” He pushed aside the dense undergrowth and disappeared from my sight. I whimpered. It escaped my lips involuntarily and I shivered at the sound.

I no longer heard Sammy. I no longer heard John. All the sound that remained in the forest was the thumping of my heart and the shifting of leaves overhead. I didn’t dare move for fear of betraying my location. All that I could manage was to stare stupidly at the place where John had just been.

A voice cut through the silence. “Stephen! Get over here. Follow me.” John’s voice sounded like it was just on the other side of the thicket he’d pushed past. Of course it wasn’t John. His tone, the way that he ended his sentences… it sounded as if someone had simply recorded and played back John’s voice. There was no urgency… no exclamation to mark his intensity. He pleaded, but his voice did not. I said nothing. I did nothing.

Next came Sammy. “Where did you go??” The phrase came through identical to how it had only a minute or two ago. I knew that neither Sammy nor John waited for me in the woods, and still I wanted to join them. I wanted to push through the brush and see what hid there. Part of me wanted to die. I was so filled with visceral, inconsolable fear that I would’ve almost welcomed death just to rid myself of the situation. Maybe it wasn’t death, even. Maybe.

I didn’t join my dear friend, nor whatever it was that had taken him. I stood silently as tears ran down my face in steady streams. I don’t know how long I stood there, as the passage of time was marked only by the sun and John / Sammy’s descent into madness.

“Stephen! Stephen follow! Jesus! Jesus Christ! Christ Jesus Stephen! Ste— Ste— Ste—,” then it was Sammy’s turn.

“I’m afraid. I’m. Tyler. Afraid. Tyler where? Tyler where? Afraid. Tyler afraid. I’m soooooo—“ sometimes they ended with guttural grunts and other excruciating noises. Their calls alternated but never overlapped. I stood and listened with dead ears until they finally stopped. Dusk had fallen and my entire body was numb.

I let the silence wash over me like forgiveness while I waited. No part of me trusted that the sudden departure of the voices meant safety. Utter darkness had filled the sullen forest before I risked my first movement in hours. One step - just enough to count symbolically - and then I froze again. Only the crunch of leaves under my foot responded to me. Blissful, terrifying silence prevailed. I continued like this, taking only small steps, until I felt I couldn’t stand it any longer. I steeled myself, ground my teeth, and took off in a sprint.

The unknown that surrounded me filled my mind with eldritch horrors. Things lurked in the trees, real or imagined I’ll never know. Yellow, sickly eyes peered out from the undergrowth to meet my blurred eyes. I cried as I ran, choking on harsh air that filled my chest with an excruciating chill. I didn’t stop until a root caught my foot and sent me crashing into the ground.

I must’ve laid there crying for hours, because when I finally collected myself enough to experience the world around me, light had crept back through the trees. I thanked God for this small miracle as I rolled onto my back and looked into the thick blanket of leaves above me.

I could’ve tackled him, I thought. I could have tackled him the moment I saw him head for the voice. I knew his dumb ass would go and I knew how it would end. I did not afford myself any forgiveness at the time. I still don’t.

I picked myself up off the ground and walked, having no other choice. I knew only a few things for sure - John was most likely dead, I needed to leave the forest, and the way I came had at one point housed the yellow eyes. My goal was to make it to the nearest road and wave down a passing car. I didn’t know when that would be, or if anyone would pick up a solo hitchhiker in the woods of Appalachia, but I had to hope.

As I came over top of a small hill on the path I heard another voice. It was another one familiar to me, heard first only a few days prior. “The best part…” the words slithered out of the woods, as real and tangible as a snake. They curled around my mind as I listened, strangling my thoughts and ceasing all else. I didn’t bother to stop moving. In fact, I sped up. I kept my head down but I could feel yellow eyes watching as I moved.

“The—best part’s—ahead—of you.” Tyler’s voice was insistent. It demanded I listen. Still I walked.

“THE—THE—BEST PART.” Tyler’s voice warbled and let loose a small growl. I was shaking but I would not stop.

“THE—BEST—PART’S—A—HEAD. HEAD BEST PART. THE BEST PART—‘S HEAD.” I almost threw up as the words echoed around me. The best part is the head, I thought. The best part is their head. Bile tore at my throat, burning as it bubbled its way towards my mouth.

I forged ahead as I was taunted, never looking back at nor speaking to the monster in the trees. Then came John. “Bro—it’s John—help!” Sobs racked my body again as I began to jog. The voices kept a steady pace to my right, always just out of sight but never out of earshot.

Just as I ran out of my adrenaline-fueled energy I broke out of the trees onto a road. Across the empty highway was the reentrance to the Appalachian trail, as inviting as it was foreboding. The voices had become such a constant harassment that I hardly noticed their departure. They had begun to fill in the soundscape the same way birds or crickets might. As I stood on the hot asphalt of an unknown road I realized that I no longer heard anyone.

Emboldened by what felt like safety, I risked a glance back at the trees behind me. Shivers ran the length of my body as my eyes met its. Sick and yellow they stared, somehow emanating hatred and indifference all at once. I want to lie and say that I held its gaze, but I did not. I felt a deep understanding of death and I looked away, back at the road before me. I did not dare look again, nor did I venture off of the road. Instead, I straddled the yellow line and walked. I walked until my legs gave out. My knees buckled and the weight of my backpack pushed me to the ground.

It wasn’t long before a car pulled up beside me. It was a Toyota Corolla. The paint job had been red once, but years of use had dulled and rusted it to a hapless brown. I’d never seen a car so beautiful in my entire life.

The man who invited me in had questions - lots of them - but seemed to pick up on my shell-shocked nature. I’m guessing he just thought I was another failure-to-complete - someone who couldn’t finish the trail and had to tap out. I chose to let him believe so. When he asked where to take me, I said only two words. “Police station.”

It took us maybe 20 minutes to get there and, in that time, I gave up on justice. I knew what would happen if I told the truth. I would argue, they would tell me I imagined things… maybe they’d even suspect things of me. I didn’t want to go to an asylum and I didn’t want to be a mockery. What I wanted most was to get John back, but I knew that he was gone.

The police had all sorts of questions. How John and I got separated, if I knew exactly where he’d “fallen off the path”, if I knew for sure he was dead, and many more. I told them that he left the trail because he thought he heard someone in trouble (true) and that he fell down a steep drop he hadn’t seen (untrue). I said that I went to check on him (untrue) and that I knew he was dead (true). I found that this balance of truths and untruths gave me some measure of comfort - an oasis of honesty within my desert of lies. The most important thing now was to discourage anyone from going to find him… and to make certain that I did not provide his family any false hope.

Eventually the police let me go, and they even offered to provide me transport back to where we started in Tennessee. An officer drove down with me so that he could be the one to tell John’s family. I asked that I join him. The hours I spent with them were the most painful I’ve ever experienced, filled with agony and lies. Much to my chagrin, his sobbing mother - a woman who’d been around for almost all of my life - begged the officer to send a team to recover John’s body. I wanted to argue, to try to prevent anyone from ever being victim to those eyes again, but what could I say?

It’s been a few weeks now. I’m not sure what happened to that task force, but I can guarantee they never found John’s body. I only hope that everyone made it back okay. I don’t have the heart to look into it. In the time since, people from my town have started to go missing. A serial killer, they’ve labeled it. “The Collins Street Killer.” It’s in all the papers - first the nice old lady from down the road, then the kid caddy corner from my place. Yesterday my neighbor joined the growing list. It was my fault.

Tom, the guy next door, called me yesterday late into the evening. “Hey Stephen, how ya holding up man?”

“Just uh, going day by day, I guess,” I tried not to let my defeat be heard.

“You staying safe? You know with all the — all the disappearances?” Tom was beating around the bush.

“Yeah, Tom, I’m safe. How about you?” I looked into my bathroom mirror, trying not to linger on the bags beneath my eyes.

“I’m good, yeah. I’m good… thanks. Hey I really, really don’t want to upset you, I know you’ve got a ton on your mind already but — do you hear something out back?” He waited for my response. My stomach hurt so badly I couldn’t speak for a moment.

“Hear what, Tom?”

“I know how it sounds, I swear to God I know how it sounds but… I keep hearing John.” There was a long, long pause. “Out behind our houses, somewhere in the trees. I swear he’s saying your name, Stephen.”

I grit my teeth against the pain in my gut. “Tom, I need you to hear what I am about to say. It is very important that you listen to me.”

Tom chuckled, a nervous laugh escaping his lips. “I don’t uh, well —“

“Tom. Seriously,” I interrupted. “Do not, for any reason, step into the woods. John is not out there, he’s dead. Do you hear me? John is dead, and whatever you think you’re hearing you are NOT hearing that.” I didn’t mean to be cruel, but I couldn’t stand the thought of another person losing their life. I knew what waited in the treeline behind our houses, and I knew that to engage with those fucking yellow eyes was a death sentence.

“Yeah, no… you’re right. I know that. I just thought you might want to know… just in case—“

“There IS no just in case, Tom! God damn it, there IS no just in case. John is dead, just stay your ass inside.” I hung up the phone. I felt horrible immediately, but I didn’t know any other way to get the message through. Hands shaking, I walked to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of Tito’s. I took a shot and chased it with lemonade. I took another shot. Then another. It wasn’t long before the bottle was empty. When I woke up this morning, hungover and sweaty, the police were next door. Tom was gone.

I’m writing this because, as I sit on my back porch and look out to the woods, Tom is calling out. “Need help?” he asks. The question was surely to John, asked into the void late last evening.

“I’m—On—My—Way,” says ‘Tom’. God bless his naive soul. Should you find this post and think that I’m insane - torn up over the loss of my best friend, maybe driven mad by having left him for dead in the Appalachian mountains, it doesn’t matter - just promise that you’ll never interact with the yellow eyes. You can promise it to me, you can swear it to God, I don’t care. Do not speak with the yellow eyes in the woods.

I’m going out there… here in the next few minutes. I hope it’s swift… painless. I hope that my voice doesn’t haunt the woods of my town, and I hope that it never lures an unsuspecting victim to their death. I don’t know why, but I believe that if I give myself over this’ll all stop. The eyes have followed me all the way home, still seeking me out. I pray that if I walk into the woods, voice silent but for one response, that the eyes will return to somewhere in the wilderness. I’ll say to whomever reads this, and to John, Tyler, Sammy, Tom… to everyone. I’ll say to everyone what I will say as I enter the woods. I’m sorry.

3 Comments
2024/02/21
17:41 UTC

463

My dead wife sent me a letter

I didn't scream. I didn't move. I didn't even breathe. I just stared. I just watched as my wife stepped off the rooftop In front of me. She plummeted to the earth with a sickening crunch. I was still unable to move from shock as I heard the screams of the poor pedestrians that saw a woman die.

At the time I had no idea why she did it. Whenever anyone asked I…I lied. I said it was an accident. I said she tripped. I said I called her name “Mary!”. I tried to save her. They all believed me, no one even questioned if it was the truth. No one wanted to consider that someone they loved would take their own life.

After Mary took her life, mine was empty. I had no friends, anyone I did know had little sympathy for me. Even my first wife and kids didn't do so much as get a condolence card. My life was dull and gray.

That was when the first letter arrived.

“Dear John…”

I opened it walking to my house from the mailbox. I almost collapsed. It was Mary, I would recognise her handwriting anywhere.

I ran inside my house and began to read the letter from my dead wife.

“Dear John,

I loved you so much. I truly did. But, I loved you so much it began to hurt. It began to hurt because it was clear that you didn't love me.-”

“What?” I was so confused I couldn't hold it in. What did she mean? If she loved me as much as she said she did then she wouldn't have taken everything from me.

I read on.

“it was the little things, the way your smile would slightly drop when I walked into the room. The way you didn't hug me or hold my hand. The way you got angry at every little thing. It swiftly progressed. You never smiled. You refused to be affectionate. You were angry all of the time.”

What a sick joke. I thought that maybe someone that hated me might be playing a sick prank. Maybe one of my neighbors found out and decided to have some disgusting fun.

I didn't bother reading the rest. I tore it up and threw it in the fireplace later that night.

A few more days passed and I forgot about that sick joke of a letter. I went to work and returned. The house was too quiet nowadays so I usually drank while I listened to the radio.

One night however, there was a knock on the door. I left my seat and opened it.

Nothing. I thought at first. But then I looked down and saw another letter. Grabbing it, I returned to my seat. I tore it open and started reading.

“Dear John,

You burned my last letter. Why would you do such a heartless act? Well it's just in your nature-”

Huh? How would they know I burned it? I didn't tell anyone about the letter, nevertheless about burning it.

“It's rather funny in a way. Given that everything you touch gets destroyed in one way or another.”

I was speechless.

I skimmed through the rest of the letter, it was just full of insults and lies. I downed the rest on my drink, then once again threw the letter onto the fire.

The moment the paper touched the flame a loud noise startled me.

BANG! It came from above me, so without thinking I ran upstairs.

My bedroom door was open, it swung wildly due to the wide open window in my room. I entered my room, but as I was going to close the window I noticed it. Large red text on the wall.

“Regrets again?”

My head hurt and I began to feel sick. What a horrible practical joke to play, and to break into and vandalize my house. That was too far. I decided that I should get the police involved.

I reached into my pocket. Crap I thought as I felt nothing. I walked back down the stairs and into the sitting room. The radio was playing the news as I searched for my phone. I looked around the room until something caught my attention.

“ A local woman, Mary Cooper, died in an accident last week. The local 27 year old school teacher, tragically fell to her death. She was married to disgraced businessman John Cooper, most well known fo-”

The usually calm and professional voice became hysterical and distorted.

“YOU KILLED HER DIDN'T YOU JOHN.”

“No. NO!” I shouted reflexively.

“SHE LOVED YOU AND YOU BLAMED HER. YOU'RE A MONSTER. YOU'RE A MU-”

I picked up the radio and threw it across the room, cutting off the horrible voice from spewing anymore lies.

I did not kill my wife. I loved her. I left my entire life for her. Why did I do that? Maybe I am a monster.

“NO!” I shouted into the empty room.

I sank to the floor, my head in my hands. Without the radio the silence was sharp and painful. It filled the house. It filled my head. Just silence.

Until it was broken.

A knock on the front door. Again.

That fucker is going to pay this time I thought as I got to my feet and yanked the door open aggressively. Nothing. No one was there. No one was in the street. There was no one anywhere. Then, hesitantly, cautiously. I looked down.

When I looked down I saw the city beneath me.

I turned around and realized where I was. The rooftop.

Mary stood, gazing out at the city. I stood silently. But then I didn't.

“ I don't love you. “ I said plainly.

She looked at me and said “ I know.”

“ I hate you. “

“...” She didn't say anything.

“I…I want you out of my life.”

“...”

“ I want my old life back. My actual wife, my kids.”

“...” She turned away from me and back towards the city.

“Do it… If you love me, then die for me.”

As soon as the words left my mouth I watched as Mary stepped into the nothingness.

I didn't scream. I didn't move. I didn't even breathe. I just stared. I just watched.

I stood for a moment. Back outside my house again. I went inside.

I killed her. I killed Mary.

And I am sorry. I just wanted my old life back, before I even knew she existed. I… she didn't deserve it. But I do.

There's only two choices ahead of me.

Live with the guilt.

Or

Don't.

I've made up my mind already.

45 Comments
2024/02/21
16:10 UTC

20

Tonight was the night the king tide roared to life

My hands tremble as I approach the shoreline. Whether it’s from the cutting breeze or the moment, I’m not entirely sure.

The others are waiting in the darkness.

Doug Boyle is sitting atop a seaweed-laden rock, staring back into the nothingness. In the faint reflection of the moonlight, he appears hunched over and tired. He’s wearing the same reflective vest he always does, the same old oil-stained overalls. It’s like he’s never left the job site. In a way, maybe he never wants to leave.

Fidgeting with the ring around his finger, he glances up and nods.

Mrs. Worton extends her arm, patting the tattered teddy bear that I’m holding on the top of its head.

She thinks it’s my dog, Mylo’s. It’s just easier that way.

I trade glances with her and smile. She’s clutching her triquetra necklace to her chest, her long robe fluttering in the wind. In her other hand is a candle, emanating an earthy scent. The tiny flame blows rapidly in the wind, dancing in the shadows.

She’s chanting something, again.

There are other familiar faces. People clutching sweaters in their arms or backpacks across their shoulders. Old and young, male and female, shivering in their pajamas, holding baseball caps or scarves wrapped around their arms. Staggered along the coastline in the midnight black, we look like we have arrived too late for the bonfire.

Still, I am shaking.

Doug slowly steers his attention back to the undulating waves. The water froshes back and forth, smashing against the nearby caves and flowing steadily toward the beach. Its movement is hypnotic.

I close my eyes and take in the sound of the waves. There is a calm presence passing through. However, it is short-lived.

The reflection from the moon casts a pale glow across the water. It has never looked so big.

The king tide comes around twice, maybe three times a year, depending. The gravitational force is strongest at the perigee, the point at which the Sun, Moon and Earth are all aligned. In early January, the tides are exceptionally high. The push and pull from the ocean is the strongest.

If the coast guards knew what we were doing they would haul us all away.

We wait until the shoreline begins to disappear. The walls of water begin to build, the calmness overtaken by steep, thrashing, tidal waves. The sea awakens.

And that’s when we know it’s time.

Mrs. Worton takes her first steps into the water. She rocks backward with the incoming wave, narrowly managing to fight off the momentum. Doug slides in, soaking his ripped, dirtied, clothing. They wince, breathing heavily, as the chill of the water ignites their senses.

The rest of us trudge through the sand in silence. The biting sensation brings shivers and goosebumps to my exposed flesh.

I walk further, my dress pants clinging to my body like glue. My white dress shirt (now see-through) exposes my red, raw skin. My nipples poke through the fabric. As the water reaches my midriff, the roar of the waves takes over. My arduous steps through the sand become painful tip-toes along the jagged rocks beneath. Soon my legs and arms give way to the water, and I begin to tread.

It’s getting tougher and tougher to see past the foam and the slapping precision of the waves.

Above the roar of the water, a shrill cry erupts. As I struggle to stay above the rolling tide, I am unable to focus on much else.

But what I recognize is the fear.

Another voice emerges– the moaning that bellows out is much deeper in tone and closer for me to pinpoint.

I know they are Doug’s cries.

“Elanor!” he screams.

It’s enough to light a fire within me. My arms flail, my legs kicking rapidly toward the man. I see glimpses of his legs chopping through the water, but his yellow and orange vest is a speck amongst the dark, swelling pools of black.

I do not hear him again.

A foam soccer ball floats past. The glimmer of something gold, maybe a locket. Other clothing items litter the ocean before the waves come crashing again, discarding the items somewhere underneath their immeasurable depths.

More screams follow–screeches that slash through the night in all directions. I become disorientated by the waves that toss me backward. I’m being swallowed up by the tide. I can feel that sick sense of regret along with a burning sensation in my lungs. As I’m gasping for air, I see something else floating up ahead.

Mrs. Worton is riding the apex of a goliath wave, her figure largely lost amongst the bubbles. She appears and disappears, sometimes face down into the sea, her silky grey hair fanned out across the water. Other times she is face up with a wild stare.

She is too far for me to even attempt to save.

A surge of panic floods my system. Around me, other bodies are being cast aside, thrown by the merciless tide. Their frantic chopping motions do nothing.

I have to squint to make out the sliver of beach behind me. Some of them are attempting to swim back, but I know that I can’t.

Not after what Doug has screamed.

When I guess that I am close, I take a deep breath and dive under. The pressure squeezes my eardrums, popping as I dive deeper. The din of rushing water and bubbles fills my earways. In a normal instance, there would have been complete and utter darkness, but in this moment of space and time, a celestial power has intervened.

They emanate a soft glow, an aura of grey light surrounding their bodies. They are floating upwards, unperturbed by the roaring waves above.

My eyes dart from face to face. There are few distinguishing features beyond the valleys of wrinkles and pruney skin, waterlogged and bloated beyond all recognition. My heart pounds as they rise closer, their eyes cloudy, if not entirely gone.

From the strain in my guts and lungs, I know I don’t have much more left. A few more seconds, a few more panicked stares.

My heart sinks in my chest when I realize:

She’s not here.

There is a ripple of sparkling hair skirting around in a circular motion, a silky twirl that surrounds Doug Boyle. The skin on her face is barely hanging on. His arms wrap around the woman as they spin, interlocked in an intimate embrace. Bubbles rise from his wide grin.

I note the faces of the others who have made it: some shine bright with elation, brighter than I’ve ever witnessed at the beach. They rise together, hand in hand, floating up to the surface for air.

Other faces are riddled with pure terror as they are dragged deeper into the unknown, their trail of bubbles slowly disappearing.

That was always the risk.

I can’t ignore the pressure against my diaphragm any longer. My air is almost out. It pains me deeply to be this close, but I have to go.

Just as I kick away, one of them spots me.

She propels forward, stretching one of her shriveled arms toward my leg. The gash feels both hot and cold at the same time. She continues to dig her nails into my flesh, the stinging intensifying. I kick, momentarily writhing away. But another catches the commotion, turns, and grasps my cold face. Blood pours out of my wounds in a dark, murky cloud. Their grip, their pull, is far too strong for me to break; I can feel myself sinking, lower and lower, despite my last-ditch attempt to wrestle free. I have emptied what little energy I had left.

Fireworks of bright light begin to spark in and out of my vision. My lungs feel as if they have been scorched. Before I begin to blackout, a faint clicking noise travels in our direction. The woman's gaping mouth snaps shut, her gnashed barnacled teeth disappear. It is enough of a distraction for me to break loose, wriggling away into the open water. One quick glance back, and it’s as if they are frozen, gazing back in the direction of the sound.

I break the surface, desperately gasping for air. There is little relief as a wall of water pounds me back under. I see faint streaks of grey light, like beacons in the night, floating back in the direction of the shore.

I somehow battle the utter exhaustion and excruciating tide toward calmer water. An orange glow begins to paint the skyline, illuminating the rows of vacation homes amongst the haze. I collapse at the edge of the beach in tears. Digging my face into the sand, my hands rubbing against the crunched shells and slimy seaweed, I cannot believe I am alive. My body lies flat as a starfish washed up on the shore.

When I recover, I notice footsteps in front of me. Doug Boyle is talking to himself, heading down the stone path to the car park. His smile is still beaming.

I almost get up and follow.

But in the layer of mist that sits atop the water, I notice a young figure. She’s cradling her teddy, drenched and barely visible.

The waves run through her.

She’s rocking it gently, back and forth, holding it just like they found her. Her face, her innocent limbs, all still intact. The damage erased. As if the barrier was never there, and the accident never happened.

I sit, waiting for her to approach. But she stays standing in the distance until the mist disappears. It carries her away with it.

I never get to say goodbye.

Or I’m sorry.

A.P.R.

3 Comments
2024/02/21
15:49 UTC

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