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Welcome to the Library of Shadows, the suspense fiction subreddit. Enter the library with caution, it is filled with things that go bump in the night, ladies with legs that go on forever, black shadows reaching out to drag you into the void and chilling tales that will leave you on edge.
The Library is meant for the patronage of adults, as the themes in suspense and horror fiction can be upsetting and unsuited for minors. Take this under advisement, and proceed with caution.
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This subreddit was created in the spirit of pulpy submission-driven magazines and comics, like Weird Tales,Tales from the Crypt, Fangoria and others. Your submission is expected to fall within the suspense and horror genre, as well as be driven by good language and literary quality.
This subreddit doesn't come with a form requirement for how you tell your story; first person or third person omniscient, horror poetry, unbelievable or believable. Moderation discretion will be used for removals in regards to quality. Keep in mind that stories that may fit well on NoSleep or other forums, may not be suitable here.
For full ruleset and explanation of our rules - please read the Posting Guidelines before submitting your story.
500 words minimum, 40,000 character maximum.
Genre-appropriate literature, with a focus on storytelling. Posts that are self-referential (that is, posts that break the fourth wall) are better suited for r/nosleep.
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Tag your stories with the appropriate genre flair after they are posted. Un-flaired posts will be removed until a flair has been placed.
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"We have a meeting, you and I, but don't fret; you aren't running late. In fact,"
As your eyes snap open, the room's yellowish hue assaults your senses. Slowly, your view comes into focus, and you recognize these sterile hospital rooms all too well.
You attempt to turn your head, but it remains fixed in place. That's when you finally notice the shadowy figure seated before you.
Leaning back in the chair, I casually roll up my large, oversized black sleeve, revealing bleached white bone adorned with a wristwatch. The cushiony seat shifts under my weight, blending seamlessly with the soft jazz playing in the background. A gentle tap on the glass face of the watch produces a faint "tic tic" as bone meets glass.
"You're actually right on time. We may not meet today, or perhaps not even tomorrow. It could be during your drive to work next week, at a get-together with friends next month, or maybe years from now after a great-great-grandchild's birthday. One thing I can guarantee is that our paths will cross."
I start to settle in and get comfortable in the opulent leather chair, and I watch your eyes as emotions swirl within them. Without hesitation, I prop myself delicately, resting my bony elbows on my legs, and press an index finger to where my lips should be, creating a hushed "shh" that fills the room.
"I understand your apprehension, but it's crucial to know that I bear no malice. I'm not here to harm you; rather, I'm a companion to guide you through the ethereal veil into The After. Over countless ages, I've shepherded diverse life forms into The After..."
Your eyes widen, and you interrupt my words.
"What, do you really believe humans are the only life forms we have meetings with?" I scoff, my tone a blend of assertion and curiosity.
I continue, "I've accompanied beings who share the same general features as you, and I've journeyed with countless others who share my facial features." Panic begins to grip your stare as I raise my skeletal arms, shrouded in a mysteriously light material, and pull down the hood, revealing my true face. The terror that washes over your face would bring a smile if my lips weren't in a state of decay.
"There are universes upon universes, full of galaxies within galaxies, beyond this one. And all those teeming with life will eventually need to undergo the same meeting you are destined for."
I see your eyes darting around as my mouth doesn't move but you still hear my voice snaking its way throughout your ear canal like a late-night whisper.
I lean back in the chair, pulling down my hood, and the shadows swallow my fleshy skull. Your gaze then drawn down to my beige Birkenstocks as I lazily kick them off, and they fall to the floor. I nonchalantly drape one leg over the armrest and the other across your hospital bed.
"What? Don't give me those judgmental eyes about my footwear. After all, I've just told you about my cosmic travels through galaxies and dimensions. I believe I deserve some comfort, especially at my age," I retort unapologetically.
Once more, I pause, as my bony hand rises to my chin, fingers gently tapping in contemplation.
"To be honest, things got rather hectic around 1361, so I didn't do a proper job of keeping track..."
I sense the fear coursing through your veins, the trepidation that this might be the fateful meeting.
"Listen, my friend, this isn't your meeting, and I may very well not be the one you'll meet with. No, no, no. I just happened to have a moment in between time to check in on you. You see there are not alot of people like yourself, suspended in a coma—neither fully here nor entirely gone. We reside in a peculiar grey zone, you and I."
With my last statement, your vision clears more, revealing the full view of the room you lay in with more detail, an ICU room. You now understand why you cannot speak; as you look over to the machine that breathes for you.
Your eyes race back to me as I glance at my watch, noting the time and clicking my tongue in response. "Oof, I've got to get going, as a matter of fact."
I rise from the chair, my back aching and popping with each movement, and then you realize how much I tower over the bed, causing your heart to race once more.
I shrug with a sigh, somewhat annoyed. "Okay, just to calm you down! You'll wake up in a couple of hours. Geez Louise, that heart monitor is obnoxious on top of hearing it as well."
You aren't sure why, but in that moment, my reassurance seems to lay over you like a warm heated blanket of comfort. You watch as I reach into the inky fog of my robe, retrieving my scythe. The eerie sound of sharp metal echoes through the quiet hospital room, and the razor-sharp tool almost glimmers under the yellowish hospital lighting.
I take a moment to admire the craftsmanship and gaze at it; wood is detailed, smooth it looks older than vintage and antique but when handled it feels as if it's never been wielded. Ill always wonder how much older this tool is than it is myself, and I'm certain the blade will remain just as sharp long after I'm gone.
With practiced ease, I twirl the implement around for a few moments, effortlessly and smoothly grabbing it firm midsaft and low by the base. I pull it over my head, the head of the scythe now positioned behind me, almost parallel to the floor. Then, with a quick thrust forward, the sharp, and strange metal pierces the thin air in the middle of the hospital, sending blinding sparks bouncing off my black robe, unknown rays of light, and colors shining brightly past me as the scythe slices through an unseen fabric.
"Just like butter every time," I say with a chuckle.
With precise skill, I continue to cut through literal space and time, creating a walkable path. As I pull the scythe back to its vertical position, its blade even with my shoulders, the portal begins to ripple open further, revealing the other side as an almost dream-like, gelatinous energy that pulsates erratically. The world beyond takes on a familiar appearance, morphing and reflecting as if it were a mirage.
You gaze into the almost slimelike mirror of the alternate universe. The portal emits a cacophony of sounds, akin to hearing multiple conversations in whispered tones, all at once, overlapping and distorted, like being submerged underwater. I lean forward, ready to step through, before I halt abruptly. I pivot back towards you.
"Just remember, and if there's anything you retain from this encounter, it's that at any moment and anywhere, you can and will be called for your meeting. But don't dread who comes for you, for what's far more unsettling is where you'll awaken."
The insistent beeping of my watch captures my attention once more. I pull up my sleeve and scrutinize the face intently before stepping through the portal, miming a finger gun at you with a soft "pew pew."
"Your head's going to ache when you wake up. It's an unfortunate side effect of conversing with..."
My watch beeps more urgently, diverting my focus. "Yikes, gotta get going. Death is never late."
With purpose, I step through the ethereal veil of time and space,
leaving behind nothing but a feverish dream in your memory.
The painting had been put up for auction at a local event raising money for charity. It was an original, according to the auctioneer, by an obscure but talented artist from the early 1900s. It was almost the end of the day and I had yet to see anything that caught my fancy, but the moment the painting was unveiled, I felt something stir in my chest, and I knew I had to have it.
Nobody else seemed quite as enthused as me about the portrait, and winning it had been a relatively simple affair. After countering a few other vaguely-interested buyers, I managed to secure it for myself.
I had it wrapped up in a piece of old, moth-eaten cloth that was found in the auction warehouse, and stowed it in the back of my car, excited to find a place for it in my home. I was a collector of sorts, mostly of antiques and other knickknacks, so it would fit right in with the assortment of old ceramic pots and tarnished clocks and statues that I had sitting in my display cabinet.
On the way home from the auction, I started to feel restless. I wasn't sure if it was because the auction had lasted longer than I expected, or because I was tired, or something else, but I struggled to focus on driving and almost pulled out right in front of another car as I turned at the junction leading left towards my house.
When I finally pulled into the driveway of my semi-detached, I cut the engine and sat for a moment behind the wheel, taking a couple of deep breaths to clear my mind.
When I flicked a glance up, towards the rearview, I thought—for just a moment—
that I had glimpsed a shadow, pressed against the backseat of the car. Between one blink and the next, however, the shadow had disappeared, and I rubbed my eyes, realizing I must have been more tired than I thought.
I twisted around to double-check the backseat, just in case, but there really was nothing there.
Stepping out of the car, I headed round to the trunk of the car and popped it open. The painting was where I had left it, nestled safely in its bandage of thick yellow cloth.
Gripping the edges of the frame, I hoisted it out of the car, careful not to knock the corners against the trunk. Balancing it on one knee, I used my free hand to slam the trunk closed and locked the car behind me, heading up the drive towards the front door.
Somewhere behind me, I felt the strange sensation of being watched. Assuming it was one of my neighbours, I turned round to wave, but there was nobody there. The street was empty. Deserted. I was the only one out here.
Shrugging it off, I headed inside.
Laying the covered painting down on the mahogany dining table, I carefully stripped the cloth away to unearth the portrait.
It was even more beautiful seeing it up close, instead of across the auction hall. I wasn't a painting connoisseur by any means, but even I could appreciate the balance of colours and the masterful brushstrokes used to create the dichotomy between the subject's face and the backdrop.
The signature in the corner, scrawled in black ink, read Thomas Mallory. That was the name of the painter. I had never heard of him before the auction, but the painting itself was a masterful piece of portraiture that held up against even more well-known names. I wasn't entirely sure who the depicted subject was, but judging by the brush and palette he was holding, and the easel in front of him, the subject must have been a painter too. Perhaps it was even a self-portrait of Thomas Mallory himself.
The frame was a deep brass with golden highlights, but there was a faint layer of dust and grime on the edges of the frame, suggesting it had been stored somewhere damp prior to the auction, so I got some low-chemical cleaning supplies and tried my best to clean it up.
By the time I was done, the frame was glistening in the swathes of the fading sun pouring in through the window. It wouldn't be long until dusk fell. I must have been sitting here for hours polishing the frame, and my wrist had grown sore.
Satisfied with my work, I took the painting over to the display cabinet in my sitting room. Despite the wide array of antiques, I did dust regularly, and the air was tinged with the scent of lemon and rose disinfectant. I hadn't quite decided where I would hang the painting yet, so instead I propped it up on the mantlepiece beside the cabinet, above the bricked-up fire that hadn't been used in years. Sometimes, when I hadn't dusted in a while, I could still smell the tinge of ash and smoke embedded within the bricks.
Making sure the painting was secure between the wall and the mantel shelf, I stepped back and admired the portrait in the light of the fading sun. There was something almost melancholy about the painter's face. Those eyes, that sparkled with an unusual, almost corporeal lustre, seemed to be filled with a longing of sorts. A yearning for something that was just out of reach.
But maybe I was just seeing things that weren’t really there. Like the shadow in the car.
The light outside was fading rapidly, but part of me couldn't draw my eyes away from the painting, or the man's woeful expression. Why had the painter portrayed him this way? What was the story behind each stroke of the brush? I don't think I—or anyone—would ever truly understand what was going through the painter's mind as he created this piece of art. That, after all, was the beauty—and pain—of subjectivity. Of art. Of interpretation. Nobody shared the same idea of inference and understanding, especially when it came to something like this.
But perhaps I was overthinking it.
I shook myself out of my daze, realizing that the sun had already set, dusk painting the edges of the sky in shades of dark purple. I should get something to eat before I go to bed, I thought vaguely as I left the room, closing the door behind me.
That night, I awoke to darkness, and the feeling that I wasn't alone.
I lived on my own, as I had done since separating from my partner a few years ago, and didn't have any pets. There was no probable reason why I would feel like there was someone else here with me, but it was something I felt with a strange sort of certainty, that there was someone here in the dark, lurking just out of sight.
My heart began to flutter in my chest, panic rising up through my stomach, but I swallowed it down.
I was being silly.
Of course there was nobody else here. I had locked all the doors and windows before I went to bed, I was sure of it. But I still couldn't quite shake that feeling of unease that tiptoed along the back of my neck, making sweat bead along my skin.
Breathing softly through my nose, I fumbled through the dark until my fingers closed around the light switch, clicking it on.
Bright yellow light flooded the room, and I threw up a hand to shield my eyes from the glare. Squinting between my fingers, I looked around the room.
Empty, as I expected. There really was nobody here.
But then I noticed something that made my throat clench up once more.
The bedroom door was open.
I always slept with it closed, the way I had done since I was a child. I very rarely went to bed with it open, even by accident.
Had someone really been in my room? Or was this one of those very rare occurrences where I had forgotten to close it?
No, I was certain I had shut it. I remembered the creak and the click of the old door against the frame. It had become an almost bedtime ritual, and I would have felt something was off earlier in the night if I had left it open.
I gazed at the crack in the doorframe, shadows pooling around the edges, fear tightening my chest.
Was there someone in the house? Should I call the police?
No, not without investigating first. I didn't want to waste their time if it really was just my imagination, conjuring threats from nothing.
Slipping out of bed, I tiptoed over to the open door, my fingers trembling as they gripped the handle, pulling it open wider. Light from the bedroom spilt out onto the landing, illuminating the rest of the corridor. I couldn't see anything immediately out of place.
I held my breath for a few seconds and listened. Above the pounding of my own heart, I could hear nothing. Just the faint moan of the wind and the rustle of the leaves. The house was deathly silent.
Swallowing back the lump in my throat, I stepped out of my room and tiptoed down the stairs. I wanted to make sure there really was nobody else in the house before I went back to bed.
Downstairs was silent too, except for the faint, intermittent drip of the kitchen tap. I had gotten a glass of water before bed, so perhaps I hadn't twisted the faucet all the way.
I padded into the kitchen, switching on the lights as I went, and tightened the leaky tap until it stopped dripping.
Feeling somewhat less terrified, I went through each room, checking behind doorways and in closets to make sure nobody was hiding. Every room proved empty.
The last place to check was the living room, where the painting was. In a brief lapse of judgment, I considered the possibility that a thief had broken into the house to steal the painting. But who would steal a painting by a less-known artist, after I'd only owned it for a day?
Shaking away the thought, I approached the living room door and froze.
It was one of those old-fashioned doors with a frosted glass window. On the other side of the window stood a shadow. A shadow that wasn't supposed to be there.
Fear stabbed my chest, my heart racing.
Was there someone on the other side?
The shadow wasn't moving. Maybe it was nothing after all. But I had never noticed it before, and I was sure there was nothing on the other side of the door that could be casting it.
Heart thundering in my chest, I went back to the kitchen to grab a knife from the drawer, and hurried back. The shadow was still there.
With a short, sharp breath, I shoved the door open and swung the knife around the edge of the door.
There was nothing there.
A bead of sweat cooled on my brow.
All that panic for nothing. Maybe I really was just overthinking it all. I checked the painting just to be sure, but it hadn't moved an inch. In the dark, the eyes seemed to glisten like obsidian. Eerily realistic.
I took a moment to calm my racing heart and rationalise the situation, then left the room, closing the door behind me. This time, when I glanced back, the shadow was gone.
The next morning, I decided to do some research and see what I could dig up about Thomas Mallory and his work. I thought it odd that last night's experience had come right after bringing the painting into my home. Perhaps I was being paranoid and making connections where there weren't any, but I was still curious to see what I could find out. Surely someone, somewhere, must know something about him, even if he was a more obscure name in the art world.
I searched for the name on the internet, but all I could immediately find were articles about Thomas Malory, the writer. Not the painter of the portrait sitting in my living room.
After scrolling through countless websites and forums, I finally managed to find a page dedicated to the right Mallory. There was an old black-and-white depiction of him, and I recognised him immediately as the same figure in the painting. It was a self-portrait after all.
I was sitting with my laptop on the couch in the living room, and my gaze lifted to the painting. Mallory gazed sombrely down at me, making my chest pinch.
Returning my attention to the webpage, I read through a brief history of his life. According to the text, Thomas Mallory had never managed to succeed as a painter during life, and had died in poverty, without selling more than one or two of his works. Towards the end of his life, Mallory had begun to rant about how he had been unable to find his muse, and that he would keep searching for her, even after death. He blamed the muses forsaking him as the reason he had been so unsuccessful, and had apparently passed away in a state of bitter despair.
When I scrolled down to the bottom, I soft gasp parted my lips. There was a section titled ‘Mallory’s Last Work’, and the picture attached was the very same one that now sat on my mantel.
The last ever painting he created, before his death. Was that the reason for his despondent look? Had he been unhappy with his career, at a loss, abandoned by the muses? Was that the message the portrait portrayed?
I studied it from across the room, raking my eyes over the paintbrush poised against the painted canvas, the palette of muted colours almost drooping in his hand. Was this when he was on the verge of abandoning his passion altogether? Or was that searching, longing look in his eye a plea to the muses, to hear his desperate call?
I shook my head, closing my laptop with a sigh.
Thomas Mallory, despite being a wonderful artist, had suffered the same fate as so many artists had. Unappreciated, unrewarded, dying nameless and poor. It was only after death that they truly found fame.
The following night, I woke up once more to the feeling that I was being watched from the dark.
The room was pitch-dark. Through the netted curtains, there was not even a glimpse of the moon. Only the dark, starless sky, like the open maw of a beast.
I sat up, rubbing my eyes. It was just after three o’clock in the morning, according to my watch. Using one hand to switch on the lamp, I squeezed my eyes closed against the light, waiting a few seconds for my eyes to stop watering and finally adjust.
The air in the room was still. Undisturbed. The door was closed. Nothing felt out of place, except for the strange prickle of unease tiptoeing down my spine.
I gazed around the room for a few minutes, waiting in silence for something to happen, but nothing did. Once again, it was all in my head.
I reached for the lamp again, my fingers brushing the switch. The moment the room plunged into darkness was the moment I heard it.
Soft, muted footsteps coming from somewhere deeper in the house.
I held my breath, my pulse racing beneath my ribcage. Was I hearing things? There, against the quiet of the night, was the sound of retreating footfalls.
Someone was inside the house. This time, there was no mistake.
Fighting the rising panic in my chest, I fumbled to switch on the light and slipped out of bed. The air was cold against my legs, and I shivered, tiptoeing towards the door.
I wrapped my fingers around the handle and tugged it open, as quietly as I could. I peered out. Nothing. The footsteps grew fainter, moving further away, until eventually I could hear them no more. Had they already left? I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
Keeping close to the wall, I padded down the hallway and stood at the foot of the stairs, peering down. I couldn’t see anything. Nothing stirred amongst the shadows. Silence pressed against me like something tangible, broken only by my short, panicked pants.
Taking the stairs slowly, I reached the bottom and peered around the edge of the bannister. My vision swam in the darkness, and I tried to ignore the feeling that there was something crouched in the shadows, waiting to catch me off guard.
It’s all in your head.
This time, I passed by the kitchen and dining room and went straight to the living room. Straight to the painting.
The door was open. Inside, the darkness felt thick, suffocating.
I reached blindly through the dark until I found the light switch, flipping it on. The room felt warmer than the rest of the house. The air felt disturbed. Like someone had been here recently.
There was nobody hiding behind the doorway. Nobody crouched behind the sofa. Everything was in its place.
Closing the door behind me, I walked up to the painting, and gasped. My legs wobbled, feeling like they were about to give way. My head began to spin, not quite willing to believe what I was seeing.
The painting had changed.
The painter—Thomas Mallory—had disappeared, leaving an empty space, a dark, mottled void where he once stood. The paintbrush and palette had been discarded, and the canvas—that had before been turned the other way—was now facing me, containing a new painting. A new portrait.
A portrait that looked exactly like me.
Read the last entry here: https://reddit.com/r/nosleep/s/oi3E1CWrYn
Hello Everyone, Victoria signing in. As quite a few people saw my group's last publication, the story if you will, so I have now returned to share another one today. Last time we discussed a case of a singular creature bringing misery to a lone family. Contrary to this, today we will be taking a look at the catastrophic demise of an entire German town in the year 2008. On the 20th of June 2008, the town [private information] was stripped of all human life. On all official records, there is no evidence regarding this but there is a voice recording that was recovered from the ruins of the city. A single man thought it to be a worthwhile idea to document the downfall of his home. That man's name was Nathan G. While Mr. G., unfortunately, didn't survive the ordeal, his voice has. So now following are the last wows of a doomed man toward his home. Fully translated from German to English for easier reading.
June 1st, 2008: Hello to whoever finds this. [private information], the town I live in will probably have perished and me alongside it. Worry not, I have made peace with my situation. Oh, I guess I should introduce myself. I am Prof. Dr. Nathan G. and I am a teacher of anthropology at the University of [private information]. Audible drinking of water and clearing of throat Excuse me, all of this is getting to me quite a bit.
Now the reason all of this is being recorded is that a strange illness has befallen my hometown. By this, I do not mean to describe an illness of the physical health nor one that befalls one's mind in the classical sense. Sin has held a victory march into everyone's home and nobody does anything about it. It all started with the appearance of a musician from a faraway part of Germany. A flutist, supposedly world famous, wishing to give concerts in our little backwater city. I had a bad feeling right away but no one ever listens to me. Last night the stranger held his first show and it was horrific. In the beginning, it was as any good show should be, people dancing, drinking, losing themselves in the music. The weirdness didn't take very long to start because after a short while the crowd's temperament started to shift. The dancers got more and more excited, starting to tear off each other's clothes and violently making love. Each new song escalated their behaviour further until eventually, it was a writhing mass of intertwined flesh and blood. Unable to bear witness to it any longer I fled the scene. Furthermore, when I went out for groceries this morning everyone seemed to stare at me.
June 13th 2008:
Things have gotten drastically worse since my first recording. Not only has that damned piper been spreading his ungodly tunes every night since the start of the month, no the entire town feels like a giant powder keg. Everyone's general willingness for violence has gone up to a frightening degree. Just this morning two young men got into a fight over bumping into each other. It was horrific. One guy lost both his eyes and lips. The other guy would have straight-up torn him to shreds if the police hadn't shown up. However, that is where it got worse as instead of trying to talk to them they just shot them both. While everyone else just quietly gathered around, staring with a hungry look in their eyes as if they were just waiting their turn.
June 17th, 2008: Sound of a man sobbing Oh dear God, oh Lord, the end times are upon us. When I left my house today I saw my neighbors violating the corpse of a man from one street over. It was not the only case of depravity I witnessed as the local butcher was cutting up people he had scraped off the street, the Doctor was opening up living children for everyone's viewing pleasure and so much more. The town's temper is feverish and violent. I fear that it's going to collapse in on itself any day now. The only ray of light is that the 20th with hold the Piper's last concert here, titled "Repayment". Maybe after that, it will all be over and all those fallen to sin will find their senses again.
June 20th, 2008:
Oh my Lord Jesus Christ, I beg of you to save your lost son from this hell fallen on earth. I resisted the devil's lullaby, I alone did. All the others are gone, swallowed up by the maw of the abyss. During the concert today a mass of rats sprang forth from every hole and crevice, no matter how impossibly slim or small, making their way to the dancing folk. And oh did they dance. More manic and crazy with every single note escaping the tempter's flute. Round and round, faster and faster, wilder and wilder. And the rats piled up around them like a swelling tide, casting a shadow on the psychotic mass. Higher and higher they rose until they were like a wave mighty enough to crush buildings. And with the piper's last song ending they collapsed on the crowd with the sound of screams and crunching bones. Meat being ripped and torn, blood being gulped up, and yells of panic, fear, and ecstasy drowned out by the furry flood. I now sit here in the space where hundreds of people just celebrated and have nothing to prove what happened. Not a single piece of anyone remains.
The sound of footsteps, followed by a smooth, almost hypnotic voice Oh foolish creature, unable to enjoy my wonderful song. May your words be your legacy and you one of my many mouths. And you who bear witness to this at this very moment at any point in the future, know that I can see you. Know that one day even your time is up.
With that today's document reaches its end. I hope your eyes will be more vigilant and your ears filled with more suspicion toward music that sounds too heavenly to be real.
We all live an enormous, cosmic, delusion. It could be a cosmic-level prank, for all I know; a malevolent ploy set in motion with the conception of Man.
Needless to say, I am not amused.
I never believed in God. At least, I disdained the idea of church, the Good Book, or that believing in Jesus will save me from an eternity of torment. I valued reason and intellect, and I used these values to dictate the course of my life. Even so, I was heavily influenced by what I believed to be philosophies of irrefutable logic.
I stumbled upon a quote by Albert Camus in highschool. Camus was an Atheist, but followed a philosophy of counter-existentialism:"I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live as if there isn't and to die to find out that there is."
The sentence was simple and almost poetic. To me, though, it had harrowing implications. I conducted research into the idea, and read about something called Pascal's Wager. It reinforced Camus's harrowing concept with a deeper philosophy. Pascal stated: “let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.” Essentially Pascal is saying that life may be construed as a game, or a gamble: every living individual participates, and every living individual goes all-in. No exceptions.
The rewards are as sublime as an eternity in Heaven; the penalties, an eternity in Hell. At the very least, you have nothing to lose. Therefore, though I didn't necessarily embrace the existence of God, I definitely acted as if He, indeed, existed. I had nothing to lose, everything to gain, and zero qualms over the dictation of my life.
Now, one could spend a lifetime discussing the minutiae of "good" and "evil." We COULD start with morality; morality, though, is subjective. It is influenced by culture, society, and one's place in history. Ethics is a beast of a subject, encompassing such philosophy as merits an entire collegiate-level course-load. It culminates in nothing more than a semester's worth of memorization, and, oftentimes, more self-doubt than what one began with. I believe that Ethics and Morality endeavor to answer the question of "what is right?" They tend to veer away from the question I considered to be more quintessential: what does it mean to be good? In my mind, Righteousness was subservient to Goodness.
God is universally considered righteous, yes; however, God is also considered the epitome of goodness. God was compassionate, forgiving, and accepting. God, and what He expected of us, was intrinsic, irrefutable, unabashed goodness.
It was within this frame of mind that I found tranquility. Whether God existed or whether the soul existed, I vehemently believed in leading a good life: I held doors for passers-by; I always kept change in my pocket for the needy who accosted me; I never turned down a friend asking a feasible favour; I actively donated to charities; I even babysat my ex's daughter, Maria, whenever the ex felt she needed a night of debauchery with the girls. Some might call me a chump; I liked to think I was building credit.
If Heaven and Hell were the final destinations of our mortal coil, I was positive I had nothing to fear in that regard. I floated through life, wrapped in my self-assured philosophy. It didn't matter what job I had, or the state of my relationships. I felt I had discovered the Golden Ticket to everlasting peace. I had it made. I was happy; I doubt 1% of the population could say as much. The irony was that the human condition was not subservient to the conditions of one's philosophies. The irony was, no matter how "good" you are, you were still subject to the vicissitudes of fate.
So entered the man everyone referred to as Rats.
I often volunteered my time at a local shelter, helping out where I could. I was in the soup kitchen, ironically serving soup, when a homeless fellow everyone referred to as Rats entered the lineup.
Rats had been a denizen of the streets for as long as anyone could remember. He was usually non-verbal, and tended to keep his eyes downcast. He kept himself apart from everybody, disdaining any forms of social interaction. Nobody knew his real name. The homeless community called him Rats as he had a tendency to feed and foster the rats often found in back-alleys and dumpsters. He would pocket bits of bread, or fruit, and use that to feed the critters. It's as if he replaced people with the skittery vermin as a social community. He was typically considered harmless, though, and was a regular figure in the kitchen.
He made it to my station, and I moved to serve him. As I was ladling his portion, somebody bumped me from behind, causing me to stumble and spill some of the hot liquid over the edge of the bowl onto Rats' worn out once-white sneakers.
"Oh, no, I'm so sorry! Here…" I handed him a handful of nearby napkins. "Please, I apologise. If there's anything you need, please let me know."
Rats stared down at his feet. He just…stared, unmoving, unblinking, for a tense, awkward eternity. He then looked up, meeting my eyes; staring, unblinking. I was taken aback; not just from the eye contact, but from the blazing vehemence I saw nestled in them. I didn't know what else to say. All I could do was try to swallow the sudden lump in my throat. Rats slowly turned, and started moving down the lineup, never breaking eye contact until he reached the next station. I don't know why, but his sudden shift in demeanour had shaken me.
I finished my shift and prepared to leave. I always made a point of leaving through the back door; I felt drained after these volunteer sessions, and tried to avoid people when I felt like this. I began meandering through the dark alley. The loud clatter of what sounded like a kicked can made me stop short. Rats stepped out from behind the dumpster.
He started walking, slowly, a measured pace, staring at me, unblinking. I was still unsettled from his earlier demeanour, and the hair on my neck tried to stand when I met his eyes. He was muttering, gibbering, and I could make out his words as he drew closer.
"...needed help! To help the rats that need help helping me to get away! They're angry with me! Oh so softly, they're angry! I'm dirty! They gave me these feet! The coverings! The rats! You wretched man! Wretched, wretched man! Wretched! Wretched!"
He kept chanting that word, in time with his steps, voice rising in pitch with each utterance. I knew I was in trouble. I realised with mounting horror that the earlier mishap had triggered him.
"Rats…Rats, buddy…I didn't mean anything by it… Rats!"
But it was too late. I wasn't prepared as Rats sprinted the last ten feet. I had a glimpse of white plastic as he stabbed me, low in the gut. Pain lanced through me as he stabbed me again, again, shrieking "MY FRIENDS!" and "WRETCHED!" with every thrust.
Rats stepped back, breathing hard. I slumped to my knees, looking down. What looked like a sharpened toothbrush protruded from my gut.
"Rats…" I croaked.
Rats stood statue-still, head tilted, as if listening to something. His head gave a violent twitch; he turned and sprinted away down the alley.
I need help! I need to call for help!
My arms were weak; I could barely move them. I managed to fumble my phone out of my pocket; It dropped from my rapidly-numbing hands.
I slumped backwards. I couldn't find the strength to move. I felt the pain, the blood, the shock creeping in. My eyes slid shut. Help… I pleaded. I couldn't seem to get the word out. Help me…
Darkness took me.
I need…need to call for help…
Cold. I felt cold. But I didn't feel pain. I could hear something. Water, maybe, in a slow steady *drip…drip…drip…* nearby. I felt groggy. Eyes. Open my eyes. After an eternity, my eyelids responded to the electrical signals I kept sending them. Slowly, my eyes opened. My vision took a minute to come to focus. I could see…stone. Square-cut rough-hewn stone; I was in a small room made out of large, heavy, stone blocks the colour of clouds heralding a tornado. They were wet; water dripped from the ceiling, causing that steady *drip*. Water condensed on the walls and pooled together, sliding down the featureless grey stone.
I looked down at my belly; no blood. No pain. I realised I was sitting upright in a chair made of some sort of deep red wood. There was a table in front of me, or a desk, comprised of the same red wood, and another chair. There was also a door opposite me, behind the table, dark red wood.
What the fuck…?
Where was I? Wasn't I just dying in a back-alley? The disorientation was so strong it almost overwhelmed me. The *drip…drip…* beating a slow rhythm to the racing of my heart. Before I could get my bearings and even hope to make sense of what was happening, there was a knock at the door. It cracked open, and a man stepped in. At least, my mind interpreted the figure as a man. He was tall, very tall; he must've been seven feet tall or more. He wore a crisply tailored business suit, black-on-black. His tie clip and cufflinks were so black they seemed to glow with the antithesis of light. But his face…
I don't know if the all-black attire was meant to accent the pallor of his skin or if it was just a matter of personal taste. His skin was white. Snow-white. So white it seemed to be made of marble. He was bald, with too-large jet-black eyes and irises that seemed almost pinpricks. He had no nose, just two slits centred between the overly-large orbs. And he was smiling. He was lipless, the slit of his mouth was set in an unsettlingly wide smile. His gums were the exact shade of grey as the stone that surrounded us. His mouth contained only four teeth top and bottom; they were so enormously wide that they bridged the entire width of his impossibly wide smile. Unbidden, I thought of the midway game, where you have to shoot the teeth out of some grotesquely-smiling clown; I couldn't look away. He (it?) began to speak; I heard his words in my mind, not my ears. The gaping smile didn't move.
*Good even', Mr. Jameson! Welcome!*
The joviality of his… its… voice… was sickening. I hesitated a moment, buried in uncertainty, before deciding to respond.
"Um…g-good…evening…um…sir. What's…what's going on? Where…am I?"
The thing's body began shaking, and I heard a phlegmy wheezing in my head; it took a second for me to realise it was laughing. It can laugh… I thought. The human-like reaction unnerved me more.
*Oh! Mr.Jameson, you are the truest of amusements! Please, refer to this one as Gregory!* It moved one hand in an "after you" gesture.
"...Gregory…?" What the fuck?
*Yes! Gregory! Or Grigory! Or Gregorio! Or, simply, Greg! Just don't call this one late for dinner!* Its tone was that of the over-exaggerated actor's voice you heard in early-fifties sitcoms. I felt it was trying hard to emulate what it considered a human conversation.
"Is that really your name?" I was incredulous; I couldn't believe such an entity could have this mundane human moniker. It tilted its head, considering me. The smile dropped to a flat line; it seemed a little irritated.
*No. It is a human name that this one chose; the one that most delighted this one. Greg's real name is-
And an EXPLOSION OF SOUND entered my head! It obliterated any sense or thought or memory! It sounded like an old-school dial-up internet tone mixed with a banshee shriek and nails on a chalkboard but DIALED UP so loud I felt it in my teeth! The…"name"... lasted only moments; it took maybe ten minutes for me to recover from the aftershock of its presentation.
Shuddering, finally able to see, to hear, to exist, I crawled back up into the chair, panting. The thing's smile returned.
*You see! That's why you shall now call this one Gregory! Or Greg. This one likes Greg! Greg is neat-o, burrito!*
I could only nod. I fully understood.
"Ok…um…Greg. Where am I?"
*Congratulations! Your physicality has been rectified! You've been re-embraced by the veil and returned to the primal essence!*
I looked at Greg blankly; his smile seemed to grow wider.
*You have died, Mr.Jameson! Congratulations!*
What…? I thought. I died? I'm…dead?
Rats: that street vermin's ferocious attack on me had actually succeeded in ending my life. Rats had "rectified my physicality." That rat bastard…
I felt bitterness, rage, shock, panic, despair, terror…all at once. I risked collapsing again.
To avoid losing myself, I focused on forming words:
"So…what…" I had to swallow. "What now?" I croaked.
*This one is here to adjudicate the balance of your collective spiritual value!*
I stared uncomprehendingly.
*This is your Final Judgement, Mr.Jameson. This one is here to decide whether you go Up-* Greg lifted a finger, pointing to the ceiling *-or…Elsewhere.* It pointed its thumb downward.
The last word practically seethed with nefarious implication. I could hear the capitol. I felt a tingle, a slow rush. This…this is what I had been preparing for my entire life! I had put all my chips, bet everything, on Pascal's Wager, and… I had won! I actually smiled a little.
"So. Greg. How does this work?" I was almost smarmy with confidence. Greg raised a hand that was suddenly holding a manilla file folder; the folder was quite thin. Greg opened it. It appeared to be reading. This is so fucking weird, I thought. But…good god, I had won the wager!
Greg seemed to be taking his time. However, I began noticing that the longer Greg read, the more its obscene smile drooped. I heard a mental exhalation, which could only be interpreted as a sigh, and Greg took the chair opposite me. My elation had quieted to terse anticipation. Greg closed the folder. It rested its elbows on the table, laced its fingers together, and leaned forward, looming over me. Its frown seemed to radiate waves of disappointment.
*After much consideration this one has come to the conclusion that you, Mr.Jameson, only qualify for…Elsewhere.* It turned a thumb downwards, and froze. It frowned there, unmoving, statue-still and observing me.
For what felt like the umpteenth time on this surreal journey, I was stunned stupid.
"Else…Elsewhere? Down? Hell?! I'm going to Hell?! What the actual fucking hell, man?"
Greg held his downward-pointing pose a few moments more before resuming its laced-finger consideration.
*The Statistician is never mistaken, Mr.Jameson. It seems that, though the majority of your actions have been interpreted as good by the universal morals accepted by the individuals you interacted with, it appears the motivations behind your actions were inherently tainted. Everything you did, every action you took, was meant for yourself. Not a good action was taken without the essence of selfishness stiffening its core. It is, how do you say, The Good Place rules.
True goodness is selflessness. It is acting in the right because it is RIGHT; not to hedge the outcomes against a cosmic…What do you call it..? Ah. A gamble. You treated the life you were gifted as a trite novelty. Now…you pay the price. This one will ensure you get what you deserve.*
No no no no no no no… I began panting; I was hyperventilating! This can't be this cant be this cant be….
"This is wrong! This wasn't how it was supposed to be! This isn't fucking fair!"
Greg's smile grew. It grew, and grew, and grew, until the four-teeth rows turned to 6, then 8, until it seemed its smile wrapped around and met at the back of its head! It chuckled, then; not in my head, but a real, throaty, hungry chuckle. Greg reached for me, and I screamed and screamed and-
*FLASH* For a fraction of a second, my vision went white, and my whole body jerked. Greg paused, rictus smile turning downward in a confused frown.
*FLASH* Again! My whole body twitched violently, for the briefest of moments.
Greg retreated, hands set down placidly on the table. It seemed to understand what was happening.
*I'll be seeing you again. Real soon.*
Everything went dark.
Cold. I was cold. I felt wetness. And…pain. Oh, God! So much pain! And voices, slowly sharpening into coherency.
"How's the bleeding?!"
"It's slowed; he's lost a lot of blood but we have a pulse!"
"He's gonna need surgery! Call ahead to book a room!"
Voices. Human voices. I opened my eyes, and saw that I was inside an ambulance.
"Mr.Jameson! Everything will be ok! We're paramedics who will take care of you and help you!"
I croaked out two words with a weak smile: "Not…Greg…"
Darkness took me yet again
Apparently, they were able to keep me alive long enough to reach emergency surgery. I barely made it through the surgery, but somehow, I held on by the skin of my teeth and survived long enough to begin healing. As I woke up for the first time in my hospital room, muzzy and groggy and barely able to process being alive, the attending nurse exclaimed in excitement.
"Mr.Jameson! Welcome back! Somebody up there must like you, eh?"
I stared at her with unamused consternation and managed a weak "go… to hell…"
Healing took a long time. Physical therapy took even longer. However, after what felt like an eternity, I finally, finally, walked back into my apartment; my home. The healing had occupied my entire existence up till now. At the moment, though, I was musing on my experience with Greg. Sitting down on my bed, I lost myself in thought. I was fucked. No matter what I did, it seemed as if I were destined for Elsewhere. The joke wasn't lost on me, but I didn't feel like laughing. I sighed in resignation, in acceptance. I made my decision.
Opening my bedside table, I rummaged around, digging to the bottom, digging for what I hid there. Grasping the handle, I pulled out the uncannily long Bowie knife. Some nights, I would often hold it, fantasising, revelling in dark daydreams that had no place in the life of a good man. I started laughing.
Knowing what I know, knowing where I was eventually headed, I laughed and felt a burden lift off my shoulders; it seemed I could stop feeling guilty for my darker urges, my taboo impulses; it seemed that, finally, I could let myself go.
Testing the edge of the knife, I laughed, and tried to decide who would be the first person I sent to meet Greg.
Faith sat at the keyboard and prepared to create.
The document cursor blinked cheerfully at her as she waited for her muse to inspire her as they always had before. She had written three best-selling novels and one turd sandwich that she was still trying to swallow. Her ill-chosen break into the world of adult romance, Seven Suns, had bombed about as hard as a book could. But, it was time for Faith to get back on that horse and try again.
After a year of producing nothing but traffic for every bad book reviewer who read Seven Suns, her bank account was starting to dwindle, and it was time to mount the horse or put him in the barn forever.
The whirring of the blades let her know they were close behind her. It had been a one-in-a-million chance, a chance at freedom or a chance at death, and Kaydence had beaten the odds, it seemed. She should feel lucky. Most people in Farest only looked at their tickets every week and felt like losers. Kaydence was the lucky lotto winner, but not of a prize that anyone wanted.
Kaydence had won the right to be killed by her friends and neighbors.
Kaydence had won the right to
A spidery laugh crept from behind her as her fingers froze on the keys.
She looked around the office, trying to see where the source of the laughter had come from. Was the tv on? The laughter hadn't sounded normal, it had sounded mechanical. She put it out of her mind as she went back to writing.
The laughter had rankled her.
She had spent far too long being laughed at.
Seven Suns should have been a hit. The formula was there, the chemistry was there, and with her name on it, it should have sold just as well as her other three books. It was the story of a noblewoman stranded on a desert planet with a series of suns rising one after the other. The planet is a barren wasteland owned by a despot and his army of mercenaries. The woman's only chance of surviving is to take sanctuary with the native Barosens who oppose despot. She falls in love with Favion, a desert guide who leads her to their king, and their love blossoms in the shadow of war.
It should have been a hit, a romance/sci-fi masterpiece.
It had bombed almost before she even released it.
Kaydence had won the right to be this year's Lotto Prize.
Kaydence looked at her mother, that pillar of strength in a world of perpetual disappointment. Her father and brothers were still, for once, their forks stalled in their rooting through the contents of their TV trays. They looked at her now with something other than their usual indifference. They looked at her now like a pack of wild dogs looked at a bowl of steak.
They knew what killing her would net them, and they didn't care about the ties of blood that bound them.
"Failure," came a gentle chuckle in her left ear.
Faith shuddered as she twisted violently in her chair.
She looked around the room furtively, trying to find the source of the voice. It had to be the tv or something. There was no one else in her apartment but her. It was early evening, the shadows gathering outside her window making her think dusk would settle soon. She had only been up a few hours, preferring to write at night. What use did she have for being awake during the day anyway?
Just one more reason for her editor to yell at her.
This was all her fault anyway.
She was the one who had suggested she "try something different."
They had been at lunch when she told her about her intentions to write a romance novel. They were sitting at Louise's, out on the patio, and Joyce had asked her if she had thought about her next book yet? This was back when she was the golden child of Norma Publishing, her five years on the New York Times Best Seller list still fresh in their mind, and Joyce had been wild to get her next best seller.
"A romance novel?" She'd asked, squeezing lemons into her tea, "It's not really your thing, but it couldn't hurt."
"Well, I was thinking of doing something in a Sci-Fi Romance, but with more of an emphasis on Romance."
Joyce nodded, the ice cubes clinking in the glass, "Well, it doesn't sound too bad. As long as you can write romance as well as you write science fiction, then I'd say we should have another hit on our hands."
Turns out, Faith couldn't deliver in the end.
"Run, Kaydence!" her mother shouted, and Kaydence felt her feet guide her back towards the kitchen. As her father lumbered to his feet, the tv tray spilling onto the carpet, Kaydence heard his feet tangle in the tray as he went down. Her two brothers, boys she had helped raise while her mother was at work and her father was in an inebriated coma, came lumbering up as well, and she threw the kitchen door in Bret's face as he ate up the carpet with his runner's legs. He made a sound like a tapped keg of beer and stumbled back, but Travis shoved the door and was in the kitchen before she could escape out the back.
Kaydence cried out as she struggled with the lock, tears streaming down her face as she expected to be caught in Travis's hands at any minute.
She shuddered as that scrabbly laughter scuttled across her eardrums again. She looked over at the window but knew it was closed. Besides, no one laughed like that. No one except the "Audience" in sitcoms. The laughter was as fake as her blonde hair. "Blondes sell more books," Joyce had said, so her muddy brown hair had become a dazzling blond. No glasses on any of the book jackets that had her picture either. The contacts changed her eyes from green to blue, and thus Faith Moore became Faye Moore with nothing but a little makeup and some well-placed deception.
No one except the people she'd gone to school with knew what she looked like.
No one besides the people she'd gone to school with ever laughed at her.
Kaydence heard the grating of wood as someone grabbed a chair from the table.
"No good," said that spider voice, but she ignored it.
She yanked at the door again before realizing that the second deadbolt was still on and twisting it fervently.
She gritted her teeth against the laughter of that make-believe audience, her life beginning to feel like a bad FRIENDS skit. See Phoebe struggling to write something. See Rachel bent over a spreadsheet as she works. Watch them suffer, watch them toil, and listen to the audience lap it up. That was comedy, right? Watching someone else struggle while you sat back and watched?
She heard the heavy thunk of the wood and believed she must go unconscious at any moment. He would brain her with the chair, had already brained her with the chair, and she was just lying on the floor as her head went right on believing that she was conscious. She would wake up in the less-than-loving arms of the Lottery Commission if she ever woke up at all, and that would be all for her less-than-impressive twenty years of life.
She caught the dark spot out of the corner of her eye, that cradle of darkness, and imagined she could see something hunched there. What was it? She didn't know, but she felt certain she could feel something watching her from there. As the night came on outside and the shadows stretched into true darkness, Faith became more and more certain that something was watching her from that pocket. Was it making the laughing noises she was hearing? Was it what she was afraid of now as she sat working on her manuscript? As scared as she was, her well-trained fingers kept right on tapping away, too locked in their own monotony to stop now.
They called to her these creatures of darkness. They wanted her talented hands, her nimble mind, to write for them an opus. They needed her, but she was afraid. Faith feared what lay within that darkness, that soupy moor of uncertainty, but as she denied them, she only stoked their desire for her. Their trade was fear, their nourishment hopeless mirth, and they needed her smiling face to
Faith had been watching the darkness and not paying attention to her fingers. She growled as she erased what she had written, returning to the story of Kaydence and her unlucky lotto night. What the hell had that been? Faith had never written anything like that before. Heck, her Sci-Fi was even considered a little too dystopian to really fit the genre. She wrote stories about heroines in their late teens who subverted expectations and toppled greedy hegemonies, the usual soulless crap that readers twenty-five to thirty-five ate up and told their friends about. That had been the problem with Seven Suns, she now realized too late. Her audience didn't want a love story. They wanted the same cookie-cutter situations that Faith, or rather Faye, always brought them.
Leave the horror for guys like King and Koontz, and leave the romance for the paperback section at the grocery store.
Faith knew her place now, and she wouldn't be sliding out of it again.
There had been a time, though, hadn't there?
Faith put it out of her mind as she typed, but it refused to lie down.
There had been a time when she'd stepped into that darkness, a time she didn't like to think about because it made her feel….strange?
"Come on," Travis said, and Kaydence realized he had pushed the back door open as she sat cowering, "the chair won't hold for long. If you're going to run, now has to be the time."
Something was in that shadowy corner; Faith just knew it. From the corner of her eye, she could almost see it grinning at her. She could feel something like tiny prickles slinking up her back, the thought of someone being in here with her making her feel vulnerable. In the ten years she had lived alone, she had never felt so isolated, and as she reached shakily for the cup of pens on her desk, she made sure her other hand continued typing so as to keep up appearances.
Kaydence just gaped at him, thankful in a way she couldn't begin to put words to. Clearly, it hadn't all been for nothing. Bret had fallen into the same trap her father had, but Travis was still the same sweet boy he had always been. She didn't thank him, didn't really feel capable of words, but she lopped off like a startled deer, moving into the night as she made her escape.
The cup went flying, and as it crashed into the corner, Faith made her own escape. She dashed for the door, her hand closing around the knob as her other hand flipped on the lights. She was hoping to blind them after startling them with the cup, but as the lights came on, Faith saw that there was no one to startle.
Except for her small arrangement of scattered pens, there was nothing there.
She started at the spot for a few seconds before bursting into laughter of her own. She was such an idiot. Faith had gotten spooked for some reason and let her imagination get the better of her. She took a few steps towards the corner, meaning to pick up the pens, but as she bent to grab the slightly dented mesh cup, she heard a different sort of mechanical laughter as it suddenly snickered from the living room.
Faith stood up slowly as she looked at the wall like she might be able to see through it.
She walked slowly towards the door, hand shaking as she took the knob, her fear back in force.
The hallway beyond was dark, but Faith could see the soft light of her flatscreen lighting the living room with an eerie glow. Faith put her back to the wall, slowly creeping up the hall as she tried to stop her teeth from clacking together. She could hear the banter between two familiar characters, and Faith believed that the tv might be playing an episode of How I Met Your Mother. Faith could see her cream-colored sectional as she came closer and saw the remote sitting in between two cushions, right where she had left it.
She reached around the corner, feeling for the switch, and as it came on, she leaped around, preparing to catch whoever had turned her tv on.
The living room and kitchen were clean, the chain and bolt still engaged on her front door, and the house was empty other than her.
Faith pursed her lips, walking over to the couch and picking up the remote as she switched the TV off. She had cut Ted off in the middle of his complaints, but it hardly mattered. Faith had seen this episode loads of times, and she hardly needed to see it. Faith had watched a lot of TV in the past year, her mind too flustered to think much about writing.
She had stayed on her couch as she tried to ignore the reviews online for Seven Suns, not wanting to see all the hate they had spilled there.
The book had been a total flop. People had bought the book thinking it was more of her dystopian works and were not impressed by a love story. They said that Lady Stassion was a "paper heroine with no real use other than to give the male characters something to chase," and they found Favion to be too similar to any number of other characters. They compared the book to Dune or Star Wars or any number of other books, and not in a positive way. The reviews were cutting, often snide, and they just seemed to be used as an excuse to make fun of Faith.
"How could a writer so talented put something like this out?"
"How could she read over this and think this was a good story?"
"The characters were two-dimensional and sort of ruined the vibe of her books once I realized this was not even her first offense."
"Someone at Norma Publishing was asleep at the wheel if they thought this thing was finished."
Faith had started out trying to defend her work, but after a while, she just stopped going online to check. Joyce didn't seem to mind her going to ground. Her reputation at Norma had soured a little, though they could have taken some of the responsibility for the book. They had published it, after all, and a lot of Joyce's frigidness seemed mean-spirited.
Faith shook off the funk, finding herself just sitting and staring at the dark TV, and got up as she prepared to get back to work.
Joyce would change her tune once she sent her this latest work.
Lotto Night would be her return to the written world, at least for something rather than scorn or laughter.
When she got back to her desk, however, she was in for a surprise.
Her manuscript was gone!
The document she had left open was closed and the file was nowhere to be found. She searched the desktop, the trash bin, and the folders on her desktop but couldn't find it. There was no trace that it had ever been there, all except a new document that she couldn't recall having seen before.
The title was "The Old Manuscript."
Faith clicked on it, certain it hadn't been there when she started looking, and the longer she read, the more she came to doubt that she had written it.
These were things Faith hadn't thought about in years.
A girl once befriended a shadow.
Her sisters were afraid of the strange shadows that often scuttled across their rooms, but the girl was taken with them. She thought they were funny, them and their big smiles. She would stay up sometimes and watch them as they played, giggling at them as they scuttled across the ceiling and walls. Even at such a young age, she began to create stories about her shadowy friends. She created a place for them to go during the daytime, things for them to do while they waited for night, and adventures for them to undertake as the sun shone down. She whispered the stories to the shadows at night, and they were enraptured by them. No one had ever talked to them before, most just being afraid.
The shadows loved her stories so much that they let her peek into their strange world, showing her their world in her dreams.
The lands of Strange were much different than what she had imagined, and the girl began to write about the places she saw there. The shadows were making something, assembling people that the girl didn't know, and the more she saw, the more she wrote. The adventures of her shadows became less friendly, less childish, but more accurate. She became their chronicler, and the more she wrote, the darker she felt. Gone was the happy little girl, and in her place, she became a quiet child.
Her parents didn't understand her new job, so they sealed it away.
The lady made her forget with her slow, powerful words, and the girl forgot her shadows.
They sealed her words away, not quite daring to destroy them, but though forgotten, the shadows were not gone.
When her family died suddenly in the night, the girl was the only survivor.
They laughed and laughed at the shadows' antics, but the girl could only watch in horror.
She went away then, the lady making her forget again before the memories could hurt her too badly.
The shadows, however, remembered.
Remembered and bided their time.
It grew darker as she read through the story. The more she read, the more she remembered, and Faith could feel the tears spilling from her eyes. How had she forgotten? How was it even possible to have forgotten? Her Aunt Terry had taken her in after the accident, the police calling it a gas leak, and taken her to see Doctor Winter one last time. The woman had made her forget, taken away the real memory like she had before, but now, it was like a magic picture you couldn't unsee.
She remembered now. She remembered being woken up by her sisters screaming as the shadows scrabbled across every surface of their room. She remembered her parents busting into the room just as her sisters began to chuckle. She remembered her father getting angry, thinking this was all a joke, but then beginning to chuckle himself. They laughed and laughed as she sat there in horror, the smiling shadows filling the room with midnight until she blacked out.
She woke up on the back porch as an officer shook her awake.
She had dreamed of them sometimes, but Doctor Winter had done her job well, and they were never seen as anything but simple nightmares.
She could feel them surrounding her again, see them approaching her from the shadows, but her fear was tempered with something else. She turned her chair, watching them come closer, and the smile that tried to stretch her face was confusing as the tears continued to fall. They came towards her, and Faith scooted back until she realized she was trapped. They had pushed her up against the desk, and now she was stuck in the trap they had created.
Despite it all, she felt the desire to laugh creeping up her throat like the start of a cold after a good night's sleep.
As she cringed away, one of them extended a hand to her. Faith saw an ancient box held in its midnight grip, and she knew what would be inside before she opened it. Still, she was surprised to see the curling edges of her original bunch of stories nestled at the bottom. She took it out, holding it between her shaking hands like an ancient relic from a bygone time.
"We need your writing again, Faith." the shadow said, smiling hugely as its voice rasped out oddly, "There's a project that we need your beautiful mind to see to fruition."
Faith tried to answer him, but her words were lost amongst the racking laughter that scuttled up her throat.
Her laughter sounded odd, brutal, like the laughter you heard from the windows of an insane asylum.
It sounded like the laughter you hear rising from the pits of hell.
The laughter wouldn’t stop her though, quite the contrary.
She chuckled as she wrote, the smile hurting her mouth.
Who cared about suns and desert planets and dystopian teens and their problems?
Faith had a higher calling now, and the laughter must be served.
The first time I met Dax the interdimensional demon, I was 10 years old and I was just on the verge of getting the shit beat out of me. It had happened plenty of times before. The beatings I mean, not the meeting interdimensional beings.
The day that I met Dax, Rick had that look in his eyes, dull and vaguely sinister, that told me to keep a wide berth. He had likely barely slept the night before and was moving in a sluggish way, his shoulders hunched forward, all of which added together meant he almost certainly had a hangover.
It’s weird that I remember the specific episode of Adventure Time that was on the TV that day. It was the one where Finn and Jake help Treetrunks find a crystal apple to make a pie, and then she pops out of existence as soon as she takes a bite of the glowing mystical fruit. It was one of my favorites because I thought that ending was so funny. She just popped out of existence. I had it at the lowest possible volume when Rick walked in.
“Get out,” he said. He did this all the time, booting me out the living room to watch golf or some other boring adult stuff.
“I’m just watching this one episode,” I said.
Listen, I know it wasn’t smart. I probably should have learned by then not to talk back. Plus, I saw all the warning signs that suggested I was moments away from bruised ribs and another incident to talk over with my therapist in twenty years or so.
But at that moment I was tired of getting pushed around. My anger about Rick getting away with everything and Mom not doing a goddamn thing about it had grown like a boulder in my belly over the course of the three years Rick had lived with us. And now that boulder sank down into the couch cushions and the couch groaned with my weight. I was unmoveable.
“Are you talking back right now?” Right on cue. It was amazing to see how his rage animated him, how his dead eyes would suddenly fill with fire and purpose. I flinched. The boulder in my stomach threatened to dissolve into magma and burn me alive. Tears welled up and my muscles tightened. I held the tears though. I wouldn’t let him see me cry.
He made a fist and a horrifying grimace, converting the whole of his rage at his shitty life into the movement, like he was an anime character charging up for his special attack. I covered my head and made myself small, hoping Rick would aim low. He usually did. I guess he hoped that the marks wouldn’t show. I squeezed my eyes shut hoping to just block out the pain and I waited. And I waited. Nothing.
I looked up. His fist was still in the air, but now his brow was furrowed in concentration. His gaze was no longer trained on me, but instead on the TV. He was shaking. The fire was gone from his eyes, replaced by confusion and… fear? I had never seen him afraid.
I followed Rick’s gaze to the TV. It was the end of the Adventure Time episode. Treetrunks reached for a single bite from the apple, and the image froze. The boundaries between the objects represented on the screen dissolved, and the colors bled together like a cartoon rainbow of melting wax. I felt nauseous but I was transfixed.
“What,” I started, but I was interrupted by static on the screen, sudden and loud, a roar unlike anything I had ever heard. I shut my ears but the sound seemed to seep into my brain. And underneath the static, was that a voice?
Those words were so loud, but so casual. Each consonant and vowel seemed to stretch out over several minutes. As suddenly as it had begun, the static ended with a loud pop.
The credits to Adventure Time scrolled by on the screen and I looked back up to Rick. Piss stained the front of his pants and a little rivulet trickled out from his pant leg. He shook his head violently
“Jesus Christ, this body feels like shit,” Rick said. He looked over to his fist, still bunched but now at his side, and laughed. “Holy shit, was this guy going to hit you? What kind of shithole…” He trailed off as he looked around the living room. “Or, sorry not the house I mean. Just like…” He gesticulated broadly at nothing in particular. “You know?”
Now, I told you up front that I met an interdimensional demon that day, so you might recognize a possession when you see it, but I had no idea what the fuck was going on then. In some ways, I still don’t. So as Rick started rifling through the book shelf I just stared.
He leafed through our copy of “The Cat in the Hat” and laughed out loud, a deep and unabashed laugh. A laugh that left his mouth and landed in my own belly such that it threatened to leave my own mouth. This wasn’t Rick’s laugh. Even so, I refused to laugh along with him. I covered my mouth, trying not even to grin.
The threat of laughter was quickly replaced in my body by a deep nausea as Rick turned to face me. Or no, not Rick. Just his head. Just his head turned to face me. I heard loud cracks and pops from Rick’s spine as his head turned 180 degrees away from the bookcase and toward me. I tasted the sharp tang of bile at the back of my throat and swallowed hard. I was more frightened than I had ever been in my life. More than in all the moments of abuse. More than the time I lost control of my bike speeding down Harmon Hill. More than the time I snuck into the living room to watch “Child’s Play” at two in the morning. I couldn’t move. If Rick had beaten me in the past for running, what would he do now when he had the capacity to do this, to be able to break his own spine and still stand?
Rick must have seen the abject terror he had caused because his face turned kind. He turned his body now as his face stayed pointing in my direction. Again, the sickening cracks and pops. This time, the vomit made its way out of my mouth and onto my shirt. I cried with abandon, loud and heaving, and vaguely felt the shame of it, that I was too old to cry this way.
“Oh jeeze,” Rick said. That’s what he said. Out loud. “Oh jeeze.” He moved toward me with his palms out in a supplicating position. I scrambled up and over the couch. I now had the couch between him and myself and I noticed that he was between me and both exits to the house. I was a cornered animal. I looked around for a weapon of some sort and stupidly grabbed the remote and brandished it like a hammer. I waited for Rick to jump at me so I could bring it down on his head.
“Oh, I get it. No, go ahead little dude. Um,” Rick said. He looked behind him at the hallway and saw the front door. “I’ll get out of your way.” He sauntered to the kitchen.
I noticed dimly that his posture was different. Upright. Cool and confident. When I saw him open the refrigerator door and rifle through the contents inside, I took my moment and ran.
If I had been a cartoon character I would have made a me-sized hole in the front door. I barely registered obstacles in my way as I flashed through the hallway (Was that blood seeping down the walls?), through the front door, through our neighbor’s corn field, through the stalks twice my height, to my secret place near the creek, in a small clearing covered on all sides by dense overgrowth.
I barely registered the time passing as the bright blue sky darkened until I could barely see my hand in front of my face. The moon rose, near-full, and I noticed the shallow scratches on my forearms and calves from running through the corn field. I scratched my arms and legs absently for a while. I took off my shirt and rinsed off the dry vomit in the creek.
Finally, I made my way, slowly, back home. What else could I do? I had nowhere to go. No recourse for the horrors at home. But how was that any different than any other day? I was numb.
My mom’s car was in the driveway. I opened the front door as quietly as I could. I was highly conscious of the groan of the floorboards as they bore my slight weight. I knew by now which spots were particularly creaky and managed to avoid them. I examined the walls. No blood. Nobody in the living room. No sound and no light. I opened the door to my mom’s room slowly. In the moonlight Rick’s skin gleamed. He was sweaty. He squirmed restlessly. Mom was there next to him. Peaceful. Breathing softly. She hadn’t thought to look for me. Did she even ask about me?
I went to my room, no longer bothering to avoid the noisy floorboards. I curled up in a tight ball in my bed, biting back tears. I slept.
They walked in without a care in the world. I acted relaxed, hiding my eagerness, forcing my face to appear bored. The bell above the door rang as it closed and a group of four teenagers entered. Three girls, one boy.
The group spoke in hushed tones while they walked about my store, studying cryptic items that reeked of the occult. Though people were often attracted to forces they were unable to grasp, those who did go ahead with the ritualistic requirements of my items were few. My store was perfect to attract those few, however.
One of the girls approached the desk to talk to me.
I feigned interest. “Yes, young maiden? How may I be of assistance?”
“Do you know anything about Ouija boards?”
“I know all there is to know about them. Youngsters like you tend to poke fun at such objects.” The girl’s friends, accordingly, snickered at the back of the store. “Yet, those who play with it rarely repeat the experience. And there are those, of course, who aren’t lucky enough to be able to repeat it.”
The girl mulled this over. “Why do you sell it at your store, then?”
I smiled. If I told her the truth, she would think me a joker and not go through with the ritual. So, I lied, “These are items that directly connect to places better left alone. If one were to destroy said items, one would find oneself in the darkest tangles of destiny. By their very nature, these objects must exist to keep the balance of the worlds.” Oh, how they ate it up, and with such earnest expressions. The girl who was talking to me was especially entranced. “It can be healthy to experiment with items such as Ouija boards. If nothing else, they can humble those who jeer at things much more powerful than they.” I eye the girl’s friends.
“So, you’re saying you’d rather curse other people than be cursed yourself for the greater good?” the girl asked.
I nodded. “You catch on quick.” The girl handed me the Ouija box and I passed it on the scanner. “What are you planning to do with this? Contact someone dear?”
The girl shrugged. “A boy from our school was killed in an abandoned warehouse north of the town. We want to see if his spirit still lingers.”
The girl laughed. “Very spooky stuff.”
“Hey, pal,” the boyfriend of hers said in an overly aggressive tone.
“Yes? Pal,” I replied. Boys like this were always the first to crumble at the sight of a threat. Their wills were weak, their minds feeble, susceptible to the tiniest divergence from their authority. Most humans were, but some more than others.
“That board ain’t cursed, now, is it?”
I spun the board in my hands. I undid the small strip of tape and opened the box, showing it to them. “This, my youngsters, is but cardboard and wood and a little bit of glass. This ain’t cursed. But you are doing the cursing. If I had to give you one piece of advice, I’d tell you to leave this board and everything that has something to do with it alone.”
“What now? Are you going to sell us herbs to cast away evils?” And the boy laughed.
I pointed at patches of herbs on the back of the store. “I could. Do you want some? I do advise you to take them.”
“Just buy the Ouija board, Mary,” the boy said, half-laughing and walking out of the store. I decided then that that one would be the first to go.
The girl, Mary, smiled at me politely and said, “I’m sorry for them.”
“I’m sorry for them as well,” and shrugged it off.
Mary paid and I handed her the box, wishing her the rest of a good day. Just as she reached the door, I called back, “Miss?”
“Yes?” she said.
“Here. I’ve got something you might want to take.”
“Oh, I’m all out of money.”
“That’s alright, it’s a special offer. I like to treat my polite customers well.” And I smiled. I’ve got to be careful with my smiles—I have turned people away through its supposed wrongness. Mary felt none of it, however, and returned to my desk.
The girl was so honest, so naive, I had to hold myself from sprawling laughter. I pretended to search the shelves behind me, held out my hand, and materialized the necklace. The Amulet. My Blessed Gift.
I showed it to the girl. The Amulet was a simple cord with a small, metal raven attached to it. It looked masonic and rural. A perfect concoction. “This,” I said, “is called the Blessed Raven. This is an ancient amulet, worn by Celtic priests when they battled evil spirits. The amulet by itself is made of simple materials, but I had a bunch of them blessed in Tibet. They should protect you, shall anything bad happen.”
I shrugged again. “Spirits are temperamental. The realm beyond is tricky, so it’s good to be prepared.”
She held out her hand.
“Do you accept the amulet?”
I closed my hand around it. “Do you accept it?”
“Yes, Jesus. I accept it.”
I felt the bond forming, and I smiled again. This time, the girl recoiled, even if unconsciously. “Thank you.” She exited the store in a rush.
Falling back on my seat, I let out a sigh of relief and chuckled. Once again, they’d fallen for the Blessed Gift like raindrops in a storm. I’ve achieved a lot over the years. I was proud of my kills, proud of my hunts. For today, or very near today, I would celebrate with a feast.
They’d never see the demon before I was at their throats.
Demons do not appear out of nowhere, nor is their existence something lawless that ignores the rules of the natural world. Our existence is very much premeditated, necessary, even. Even if we are few and our work is not substantial enough to change the tides of history, rumors of us keep humanity in line.
We do not eat humans—some of us do, but not because we need it for nourishment. We hunt, and it is the killing that sustains us. Our bodies turn the act into energy; sweet, sweet energy and merriment.
Our means of hunting and preparing the prey also vary. Each of us has very constricting contracts which won’t let us do as we please. For us to be hunters, we need to be strong and fast and, above all, intelligent. These are traits not easily given. They must be earned, negotiated.
They must be exchanged.
I, Aegeramon, operate in a very quaint manner. I am bestowed with a capable body, though I cannot hunt my every prey. For each group I go after, one member must survive. Hence, the Amulet. The Blessed Gift. A gift for the human who survives, and a cursed nuisance for me.
I must offer the Amulet to a human, and the human must accept it and wear it. This chosen one will be completely and utterly physically immune to me from the moment he puts on the Amulet to the moment death comes knocking. This may cause hiccups during a hunt. If I hunt in a populated area, the Amulet human might escape and get help, and I will be powerless to stop them. Imprisoning them is considered an attack, and as such, I cannot stop them from leaving. For my own survival, my hunts must take place where no help can be reached.
Most importantly, the Amulet human is to be my weakness. A single touch from them would burn my skin, a punch would break my bones, a single wound could become fatal. I am a monster to humanity, but these few humans are monsters to me.
Nonetheless, they pose me no danger. I am careful in selecting them. They must be the weak links of the group, the naïve souls, those who will either be too afraid to face me, or those too sick to get me.
I felt them—felt the Blessed Gift—getting away. I could sense its direction, its speed, the heartbeat of the girl who wore it. I know when she took the Amulet off to inspect it, then put it back on. I know what she thought as she thought it, and I know she felt uncomfortable all the time, as if something was watching her. It was. I was.
Even after this hunt was over, even after she threw the Amulet off, there would be a burn mark shaped like a raven on her chest. I would never be able to touch or hurt her, and I wouldn’t need to. I would disappear, only returning when it was time to plan my next hunt, years hence.
I wish I could still feel those who were saved by the Blessed Gift. Did they hate me? Fear me? Somehow, had they ended up revering me as a force of nature?
There was one I’d like to meet again. I’ll never forget those eyes. She’d been a little girl, and if still alive, she’d be but a withered crone now. Her health had been lamentable then, so I doubted she’d lived this long.
So I sat, and while waiting for Mary and her friends to take the Ouija board to the abandoned warehouse, I thought back to my glorious hunts and to my disgraceful hunts. To that horrible, wretched hunt.
That day, my body had been masked as a friendly bohemian of a lean but frail build—
—I decided that campers on the remotest sides of the mountain would be more willing to pick a hitchhiker up if he looked as nonthreatening as possible. Thus, I made my body into a thin bohemian. I could always bulk it up later.
The first travelers that picked me up were a pleasant couple with a child. As a rule, I never went after couples—first, because hunting a single person was unsatisfactory, and second, because the Amulet member of the couple would be greatly inclined to hunt me down in vengeance. Though that wasn’t a worry I normally had, with so many campers going around, I was sure to find another group.
I caught two more rides until I found the perfect people. I ended up coming across a batch of young adults and teenagers having a picnic below a viewpoint, and two of the youngest were in wheelchairs. The girl in the wheelchair had a visible handicap on her left leg, while the boy was pale and sickly. It looked like their older brothers had brought them along with their friends, though they hadn’t done so out of obligation. They all looked happy and cordial, but there was a hint of discord in the undertones of some strings of conversation.
I smiled oh so delightfully.
“I am sorry to disturb you, my guys, but do any of you have any water?”
I could see that the older ones eyed me warily. Was I a vagrant? Was I dangerous?
I held up an empty bottle. “I ran out a couple of miles ago, and the last time I drank from a river I ended up having the shits for a week.” This got a laugh from them all, and the older ones eased up a little.
“I have a bottle here,” the girl in the wheelchair said, grabbing one from her backpack and handing it to me.
“Thank you so very much, miss. What’s your name, darlin’?”
“Marilyn,” she said.
And just like that, I was in. In for the hunt.
Through comical small talk, I was able to make the group accept me for the night. I had canned food in my backpack, which I shared. I had cannabis and rolling paper, which made everyone’s eyes light up. Hadn’t I been who I was, these youngsters would have remembered this night for the rest of their lives.
Only Marilyn and the boy in the wheelchair eyed me warily.
“You okay?” I asked.
She looked away. “Hmm-hmm.”
I had to earn her good graces. She was weak, and her health seemed frail; she’d be a good fit to wear the Blessed Gift. “You don’t seem okay.”
“My lungs,” she said. “They’re not great. Asthma.”
I nodded as if I perfectly understood the ailment, as if it had brought me or a dear one suffering as well. “You know, when I was—”
“Hey, Marilyn,” one teenager said. He was tall and buff and looked much like Marilyn. “Leave the man alone.”
Marilyn’s eyes turned back to her feet.
“That’s alright, man,” I said, “she’s cool.”
The boy looked at me as if I was some alien who had no conception of human culture. “Cool, you say?” He wore a jeering grin.
After engaging in an uninteresting conversation with Marilyn, who appeared to be greatly immersed in what she was saying, I got up to go to the bathroom because the time seemed appropriate, sociologically speaking. I don’t use the bathroom. I used the opportunity to spy on the group from afar, to observe their interactions. As soon as I was out of earshot—of human earshot, that is—the group turned on Marilyn and the sickly boy.
“God, Marilyn, you’re so lame. You never speak with us, and you’re speaking with that bum?” the oldest boy said.
“You never let me speak!” she protested.
The girl next to the boy—who looked like his girlfriend—slapped his arm and said, “Don’t be nasty to your sister.”
“She’s the antisocial freak, not me,” he replied.
Tears stung Marilyn’s eyes. “Screw you, John.”
The scene went on for a while longer, a time I used to plan the next part of the hunt.
I returned and sat near Marilyn again. She was still sensitive from before, though I managed to bring her out of her shell by asking her about her friends, what she usually did in her spare time, her favorite books, and so on. She liked classics with monsters, say Shelley’s Frankenstein or Stoker’s Dracula. I was alive when those novels were published, so, in a way, they were very dear to me as well. I occasionally had to switch the conversation to the other kids in the group, but I tried to talk with Marilyn as much as I could.
And an interesting thing began to happen—something that had never hitherto come to take place. I kept the conversation going out of pure interest.
I was sick, most probably. Demons can have illnesses of the mind, so I’ve been told. Yet the effect was clear—I was enjoying the conversation, and as such, I kept it going. I could have introduced the Amulet a long time ago. Hours ago, in fact.
The sun meanwhile set, and the group decided to hop back on their truck and ride to a camping site twenty minutes away. They were kind enough to let me ride with them.
“I do sense something strange today,” I eventually said. Me and Marilyn were in the back of the truck together with the sickly boy, who was quiet and refusing any attempts at communication whatsoever.
“Something strange? How so?”
“Do you know why I wander around so much? I hate cities. The reason is simple, if you can believe it. I can feel bad things. I can feel bad feelings. In a city there is stress, anxiety, sadness; there is violence, frustration, pollution. Out here, there’s nature. There’s peace. There’s an order—an ancient order—harmonious in so many aspects. Here, I feel safe.”
Marilyn nodded towards the front of the truck. “You’re probably feeling my brother, then.”
“I felt him a long time ago. I’m feeling something different now.” I reached over to my backpack, and I froze. Should I? The moment the Amulet was around her neck, it’d be too late to halt the hunt. These thoughts of mine befuddled me. They weren’t supposed to happen. Why me? Why now?
“You okay?” she asked.
I nodded. The sullen boy glanced up at me quizzically. “Yeah, sorry. As I was saying, I feel something different now, something I’ve felt before along this mountain range. I think something evil lurks in these woods. This could help.”
I bit my lip as the Amulet formed in my hand. I clutched it in my fist.
Marilyn lit up. “Ooh, what is it? Is it some kind of artifact? Some witchcraft thingy?”
I smiled, and it wasn’t a grotesque smile. It was painful. “Yeah, you may call it that. This is an Amulet, the Blessed Raven. It’s a gift.”
“Oh, thank you so much. For me, right?”
“Of course. Do you accept it?”
“It’s pretty. Damn right, I accept it!”
I nodded, hesitated, then handed it to her. Something in my chest area weighed down as she put the Amulet on, and I gained insight into her very mind. Into her very heart. She was happy—content, even—that somebody was talking to her, making an effort to get along with her.
“Does it look good on me?” she asked.
“Suits you just fine.”
It was strange how I knew that even if I had to, I wouldn’t be able to kill her. Nevertheless, the hunt was on now, and it was too late to turn back.
The kids set up camp. I helped. I also helped Marilyn down the truck, slowly, my thoughts turning to mush midway as I thought them. The sickly boy kept studying me, as if he had already guessed what I was. Even if he cried wolf, what good would it do? Destiny was already set in stone.
“You keep spacing out,” Marilyn told me.
“I’m tired, and the woods are really beautiful around here.”
Marilyn nodded. “But also dark. A little too dark, if you ask me.”
Marilyn’s brother lit up a fire; I had to surround it with stones as embers kept threatening to light the grass on fire. This forest would have no option but to witness evil today. Let it at least not see fire.
The group naturally came to rest around the fireplace, stabbing marshmallows and crackers with a stick and holding them up to the fire. It was a chilly but pleasant night.
“Have you ever heard of the Midsummer Ghost?” a boy said. And so, it started. I glanced at Marilyn. She’d be safe. She’d at least be safe.
“The Midsummer Ghost always hides like a man in need. You never see him for who he is, for he only lets you know what he is the moment he’s got you in his claws.”
This was too fitting. God was playing tricks on me.
“Legends say he was a little boy who was abandoned in the woods by parents who hated him, all because he was deformed and broken. It is said the boy never died, that he was taken in by the woods and became a part of them. He asks for help, as help was never given to him in life. If it is denied ever again, the Midsummer Ghost will slice and pull your entrails and dress himself in them.”
The kids were silent. I began to let go of this human form. What was I doing? Why wasn’t there a way to stop this?
But there was. And it would cost me my life.
The sullen boy in the wheelchair moaned, grabbed and shook the wheels, then raised a finger at me. One by one, everyone at the fire looked at his hand, then turned their heads at where he was pointing, turned to face me. I wasn’t smiling. I was…no longer myself. Marilyn was the last to look at me. Her eyes watered as my skin came apart to reveal my hard and thick fur, swaying as if I were underwater.
Her brother screamed. The others all followed. All, except Marilyn. Above fear and horror, above disgust, Marilyn felt disappointment. I wanted to end the hunt there and then, but I couldn’t. If I stopped now, it’d be my life on the line.
“Why?” Marilyn croaked.
I lunged. I attacked her brother first, went for his throat, saw his blood, made dark by the light of the fire, seeping into the leaves and grass.
My body finally finished cracking out of its fake human cocoon, and I was free. There were few sensations as pleasant as the soft earthly wind caressing the claws at the ends of my tentacles, caressing the thousands of small tendrils emerging out of my mouth. My true form felt the freest, and yet, I wanted nothing more than to return to my human shape. Marilyn was white as snow, the expression on her face that of a ghost who’d long left its host body. She was seeing a monster, a gigantic shrimp of black fur and eldritch biology, a sight reserved for books and nightmares.
Marilyn turned her wheelchair and sped down into the darkness of the trees. The entire group scattered, in fact, yelling for help, leaving me alone by the fire. I looked at it, empty, aghast at what I’d always been. I stomped the fire until there was nothing left but glowing coal.
I ran after the two girls who were always next to Marilyn’s brother. Though their bodies were pumping with adrenaline, running faster than what would otherwise be considered normal, I caught up to them while barely wasting a breath. Thus worked the wonders of my body. I crumpled the head of one against the trunk of a tree, then robbed the heart out of the other. With each death, my body became lighter, healthier. The hunt was feeding me, making me whole again.
And I was emptier than ever.
One by one the group was lost to me. One by one, they crumpled to my claws. I tried to kill them before they got a chance to fully look at me. I didn’t want me to be the last thing they saw in this wretched existence.
Lastly, I came before the sullen boy. He moaned and was afraid. He’d sensed me from the start, and still he was doomed. Those closest to death often have that skill, though it is a skill that rarely saves them.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Stop!” a trembling voice said from behind me. Marilyn. I glanced back and saw a petrified girl clutching a kitchen knife. She hadn’t run away. She had gone to the truck to find a weapon.
“I cannot,” I said. “I am sorry, Marilyn, but I do what I must do. I am bound by rules as ancient as the dawn. You…showed me things. I thank you for that. But I will not stop. I cannot stop.”
I raised one of my claws.
“Please, stop!” she sobbed and pushed the wheels on her chair with all her might.
I brought my claws clean through the boy’s skull. His soul vanished instantly. I felt crippling despair emanating from Marilyn, a pain so hellacious my lungs failed to pull air in. I couldn’t move, not while she wore the Blessed Gift and her mind streamed all its intensity into mine.
The knife in her hands plunged into my back.
An entire universe threatened to pour out of me. The agony of the countless people I’d thrown to death’s precipice threatened to overwhelm my existence. Above my physical ailment was only Marilyn’s pain. It took centuries’ worth of stored energy just to keep myself from passing out.
She removed the knife. It clattered to the ground. Remorse. All her anger and fear turned into simple, mundane remorse.
“I am sorry, little one,” I whispered.
Marilyn, sobbing, yanked the Amulet out of her neck and threw it over where the knife had fallen. Where the Amulet had been, her skin smoked, and the shape of a raven formed. She’d always be safe from me. That was my only comfort.
I was curled up, trying not to move. Each breath of mine was raking pain. I was told even a punch from one who wore the Amulet could prove fatal. And here I was, stabbed, black, slick blood like oil gushing out.
“Won’t you finish this?” I croaked.
“I will find you,” she managed to say through shaky breaths. I heard her wheels turn, cracking dry leaves as she escaped.
The only human to ever touch me disappeared into the moonless night, into the embrace of the forest.
My head was filled with visions of Marilyn as I walked to the warehouse. There was something odd happening with Mary, the girl who’d bought the Ouija board. I felt the usual fear and anxiety, yet there was something strange in her emotions. As if they were thin. As if they were veiled.
I scouted the perimeter, around the warehouse, spied through the windows. I saw the four teenagers moving the eyepiece over the letters on the board, laughing with their nerves on edge. The little fools.
I went to the front door, let go of my human skin, and waited until my true body came to light. The sun was nearly set, the sky bathed in those purple tones of dusk. It was the perfect hour for my hunt.
I opened the doors, entered, and closed them hard enough to make sure my prey would hear their way out closing. I set a chain around the door handles.
And I froze. The girl sporting my Blessed Gift ceased being scared at once. Instead, triumph of all things filled her heart.
I had walked into a trap.
“So you’ve come, Aegeramon,” a familiar voice said to me.
I was still and aghast. I wanted to be content to hear Marilyn again after all these years; I wanted to go and hug her and ask her how she’d been. But that wasn’t how our relationship would go tonight, was it? She was old now. Old and worn and tired.
“You’ve learned my name,” I said. “I hadn’t heard it spoken out loud in a long time.”
“Everyone I spoke to judged you a legend. But I knew you were a legend that bled. Bleeding legends can be killed.”
“I spared you,” I told her.
“Out of necessity. I should have killed you when I had the chance. I was afraid, but I know better now. I spent my life trying to correct that one mistake.” She smiled, gestured at me. “And my chance to do just that has arrived.”
She walked into the few remaining shreds of light coming from holes in the roof. Marilyn was old and weathered, though she wasn’t in a wheelchair anymore. She walked with the help of crutches, but she walked. She had a weapon held toward me. It was a kitchen knife.
“Everyone,” she said. “You can come out.”
Mary walked over to Marilyn. Other people sauntered in from the shadows, all holding weapons—blades, knives, bats, axes, everything. All showed the burned raven mark below their necks.
I recognized each and every single one of them.
They were people I had permitted to live while forcing them to be aware of their loved ones’ deaths.
I smiled, finding glee I hadn’t known I had. At last, I was the one being hunted.
“The girl who bought the board was a good actress,” I said.
“My grandkid,” Marilyn explained. “I trained Mary well. You were hard to find, and I was sure you’d be harder to catch. Hopping from town to town, always changing appearance. You were a ghost.”
“A rather interesting ghost,” an old man said from my side. I remembered him. He was a historian whose colleagues I had hunted during an expedition. “I found you in documents centuries old. You once struck up a friendship with a monk who studied you.” I nodded. I had. That man had been a lot like Marilyn. “He gave you a name after your physiology. Aegeramon. How many innocents have you killed since then? Hundreds? Thousands?”
“Too many,” was my answer. “Do what you must. I did what I had to do, so I won’t apologize. You know I cannot attack you, but that doesn’t mean I can’t wear you down or run.”
I turned to rush to the door, but there was a young woman there with the raven mark below her neck. She held a pitchfork.
“It’s no use,” Marilyn said. “We each had our weapons blessed. I spent decades studying you. You might be fast, you might be strong, but against us, you’re powerless.”
“I won’t sit idle as you hunt me.”
And Marilyn smiled, so very much like me. The sweet girl I’d known was nowhere to be seen. I had transformed her into a monster she had never wanted to become.
Blessed weapons couldn’t save them. I could dodge bullets, so evading their attacks would be a piece of cake. I would walk out of here victorious to live another day.
Marilyn seemed to guess what I was thinking. She fished something out of a purse and handed it to her granddaughter. I squinted and froze.
It was one of my hairs, a short knife, and a vial of thick black oil. My blood.
“Don’t look so scared now, Aegeramon. You must know what this is. Surely you know what will happen if you try to hurt a wearer of the Blessed Raven.”
I sprinted, jumped up on a wall, and tried to climb out of a window.
Bullets flew and ricocheted all around me, and I was forced to retreat back down. Goddamnit.
Marilyn put the hair on the knife and emptied the vial of blood over it. She handed it to Mary, who got on her knees, put her hand on the ground, and raised her knife above it.
Triumph. Such strong triumph emanated from that girl.
“You killed so many. I know this was your nature, but it was a corrupted nature,” Marilyn said. If it’d been anyone else, I wouldn’t have cared. But this was Marilyn. I was unable to doubt the rightness of those words.
“There are others like me. There are others more dangerous,” I said. “You should have lived your life, been happy, counted that as a blessing. You should have counted that as a gift. You threw your life away.”
She shook her head. “I will hunt others after you. Those who’ll come after me will, at least. I’m old. I need to rest.” Marilyn held her hand out, telling her granddaughter to wait. “When you hunted me, something happened to you. As if you didn’t want to be doing what you did. It took me years to accept that, but I did. You were paralyzed by me, and as such, you let me strike you. And you bled.”
I tried to run again, and again, bullets came, this time from the outside. Marilyn truly had found all my victims. I was starting to panic, my fur swaying furiously. I was outmatched. I was told humans would become too fragile after a hunt to come after me. Demons could be so blind.
“All you stand for ends here, Aegeramon. Thank you for saving us. Yet, that will never account for your sins.”
Marilyn nodded, and her granddaughter stabbed her own hand with the knife dressed in my fur and blood—a knife with me in it—and pain washed through me all at once.
This was a direct breach of my contract. A part of me was hurting a wearer of the Amulet, and as such, I paid the price.
I screamed, fell, convulsed. I saw colors bursting as pain threatened to subdue me. Then I felt a kick, a punch, a hit after another, all from the branded ones I had saved.
The dark unconscious I’d brought on so many finally caught up to me. I smiled as my prey became the hunter and life elided my body, becoming but a husk of ancient oaths.
It was March 29th, 1693. It's been 4 days since I got the news that my beloved sister's husband died from disease. Hearing the news, I rode all the way down to Salem, Massachusetts, to take care of my sister. When I found my way to my sister's house, all I saw was weeping and sorrow from my sister. All three of her children ran around like heathens, making more messes and being horrible to me. I did my duty by helping my sister clean up and take care of the land and children while she grieves and tries to find her footing. I stayed by her side, offering comfort and support through the difficult times.
Before everything, me and my sister didn't have the best of relationships while growing up. She would be the prettier one and get all the attention from our parents for her "hard work" and achievements. I've got to admit that no matter how hard I work or doll myself up, I'll always be behind her. I got jealous, but that corroded over the years, and I need to help my sister and get over the jealousy I felt for her.
For now, as what I do for my sister grows, I barely get time to myself with all the kids yelling and crying and my sister not really doing anything. When I do get time to myself, I look into the lovely woods that face the town. Sometimes I feel like I'm the one taking care of the family, replacing the husband. No matter how hard I try to help her, I feel like my dear old sister is taking advantage of me. I'll push forward after all; I love my sister no matter what happens, or at least that's what everyone else says.
Deep down, I'm questioning if she actually cares about me. The rare time I have by myself is walking around the town, looking at the woods, and talking to these nice people. I'm realizing that my sister is still having everything handed to her. I can't help but get jealous again. Every time I think about her, I get more angry. It's so vexing that I can't help but feel a burning rage inside me. The times her kids spat in my face, the fact that she would barely eat my food when I invited her over for dinner, and how she never takes responsibility for her actions are so vexing.
After helping my selfish sister for years, I had enough when she couldn't eat the food again. I slammed the plate on the ground, marched to the courthouse, and told the courts that since the original owner of the land passed away, "my sister's husband," the home should be in my possession. After a hard talk with the priest and the courts, they gave me the right to take my sister's land and kick her out. As a result, I was able to claim ownership of the land and evict my sister.
Revenge was bittersweet, as she and her brats were moving out while I was moving all the disgusting stuff out of my land. My satisfaction was satisfactory until armed guards burst into my home and pulled me by the hair out of my house. That is when I saw a huge mob around my house screaming, yelling, and shouting at me, calling me a witch. The guards pulled me away from the crowd into the prison next to the courthouse. That is where they threw me in with a couple of other women scared out of their minds, and one of them was screaming and yelling for help before falling on the ground and weeping.
The atmosphere is heavy with fear and despair. That is when two armed guards came and pulled me out into the old courtroom, and that is when I saw my sister with tears in her eyes, looking at me with rage and anger behind her eyes, masking sorrow. It is revealed that my sister accused me of witchcraft, making spells on her children and herself. I looked at my sister in disbelief and despair. but as soon as my eyes met with hers, she suddenly started to shake and compulsively say that I was choking her and she was in pain. Everyone screamed and yelled for me to stop, even though I wasn't doing anything and was across the room from her.
That was when they told me to walk up to my sister and touch her. I did so, and she claimed that she was fine and that the pain had all stopped. They claimed this was proof I was a witch, asking if I had made any potions and if I was the one who killed my sister's husband in the first place. I tried denying everything. My pleading and sobbing were heard by plugged ears. I was guilty before I even entered the courtroom. They asked me more questions, all getting more aggressive, before all ending in a guilty verdict of witchcraft.
That was when I looked at my sister with the smallest grin before continuing to cry. They took me back to the other women. On April 31, 15 days after the courtroom, they took me out and took me to the woods that I would always go to and look into. The only difference was that there was a noose hanging on a tree waiting for my neck. They put a bag over my head and led me up a light wooden staircase. They asked if I had any last words before leaving. I said nothing before the staircase underneath me was taken away, and the only thing that was keeping my feet from hitting the ground was the rope around my neck. I didn't struggle, but anger overtook me, and I began to not move and pretend to be dead. Slowly, the roar of the crowd grew smaller and smaller as they walked away. All I could hear was my sister alone. laughing, so I counted to five before darkness. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1
It's been a few weeks since we got our house back from my horrible aunt. After losing my father and almost losing my only home, this was finally a win for me and my family. My mother was left to say good-bye to our aunt for the last time. Whatever that means, I was left to keep watch over my siblings. After a while, I was questioning where my mother was. I was looking out all the windows, hoping nothing bad happened to her. I couldn't shake off the feeling of unease that settled in my chest. until nighttime came around. I got ready and dressed to search for my mother. When I was about to walk out the door, my sister ran out of her room crying, saying our aunt was looking through her window. Confused, I ran into her room and saw someone walk away from the window towards our front door. I ran to the front door and put all of my weight against the door, making sure whoever was outside wouldn't come in. I stayed there, trembling with fear. My brother ran out of his room, asking what was going on. I told my brother to hurry and help me block the door, which he did without questioning.
Then the wind of the night settled, making the house dead quiet, and the candles all burned out. My brother hurried and started to relight all the candles. When he went to relight the last candle, that is when he noticed a dark figure out the window. Suddenly, without warning, an arm that looked like it was covered in tar busted through the window and pulled him into the dark night. All me and my sister could hear were our brothers gurgling screams and cries around us, as if he were running around the house. The horror of the situation paralyzed us with fear. When the screams stopped, I quietly took my sister to my room, where there were no windows. as we huddled together, praying for safety and hoping that the nightmare would soon come to an end.
I saw my aunt come into the room with tears streaming down her face, but a huge smile that didn't look possible to make formed around her lips, and she was waving at us with my brother's severed arm still holding the lighter. A mixture of dirt, mud, and blood covered her from head to toe. Before I could get a word out or move, she ran at me and pinned me to the wall with her hand covering my mouth. I tried screaming, but nothing could come out. I desperately struggled, but her grip only tightened. I felt a cold liquid being poured down my throat. I felt it slowly burning my mouth and going down my body. I shook and flailed from the pain. I looked at my aunt and saw her cheeks slit open, making a bigger smile while she made a horrific scream. I looked at my sister, staring at us in fear. I felt my organs popping and bursting, leaving me writhing in agony.
I could feel my insides melting until she dropped me. I felt a pool of blood and liquid coming out of my mouth, nose, and eyes. All I could see was my aunt grab my sister and run out the window with her screaming getting quieter and quieter, assuming my aunt was taking her somewhere else. All I could think of was, Where did we go wrong?
It was a little past Seven O’clock, and we had just closed up Eve’s Eden of Esoterica for the night. Genevieve had seen off her evening class and was counting the till, I was going over my schedule for the next day, and Charlotte was facing the shelves in the front lobby.
I was beginning to glance anxiously at the front door, wondering if our after-hours appointment was going to show up. None of us had met him before, but a friend of ours had, and she had told us that he might be able to help explain a bizarre and possibly extremely dangerous artifact that had recently come into our possession.
I sighed softly with relief when we heard him strike the door knocker four times in a row, not evenly spaced but rather in the rhythm of two twin heartbeats.
“That’s him. That’s the signal Rosalyn told him to use,” I said, getting up from my seat in the parlour and heading for the door. Genevieve protectively took her place behind me to dissuade our guest from causing any trouble, and Charlotte excitedly scurried up beside us to see if he matched the description that Rosalyn had given him.
I opened the door, and was greeted by the peculiar sight of a short and lean dark-haired man dressed in a three-piece tweed suit and proffering a drink tray filled with the distinctive bamboo cups from the Round Table Co-op Café down the street.
“Ms. Romero insisted I bring these, in retaliation for me using her as a delivery driver during our first encounter,” he explained apologetically, evidently fully aware of how ridiculous he looked.
“Professor Sterling, welcome,” I smiled, reaching out to relieve him of the coffee. “Thanks so much for coming. I’m Samantha, and this is Evie and Lottie. Girls, this is Lucretius Sterling; Professor of Arcane Studies at Avalon College.”
“Rosalyn was right. He does look like Doctor Who,” Charlotte whispered, though not quietly enough for him not to hear her.
“Ah, she said he looked like ‘the best Doctor Who’, and he doesn’t look like Jodie Whittaker to me,” Genevieve objected.
“Oh my god. You are just being a troll now. I know you’ve never even seen the show,” Charlotte replied. “If Whittaker’s your personal favourite, that’s fine, even if it’s solely because she’s the only woman to play the character, but by no objective criteria is she the best Doctor. David Tenant is the most talented actor to ever play the Doctor, he’s the clear fan favourite, he's the best looking, and once the BBC talks Disney into leasing them their Deepfake Luke tech, they’re probably just going to slap his face on every actor who plays him until the end of time. He’s already the Doctor so nice he regenerated into him thrice, so why not? Samantha, you’ve seen Doctor Who, right? Back me up.”
“I’ve… actually never seen a Whittaker episode, so I can’t comment on her performance,” I admitted. “I stopped watching a couple of episodes after Clara left, since I never really cared for Capaldi and once Clara was gone there was nothing keeping me invested. Amy’s my favourite companion, so I do like Matt Smith as the Doctor, but he’s too zany for when they want to do anything serious with him. Of the Doctors I’ve seen, Tenant’s performance is definitely the best.”
“Is that settled then? We’ve got that out of the way now? Are we good?” Sterling asked, crinkling his nose slightly.
“Yes, I’m sorry. You’re probably sick of people saying you look like Doctor Who,” I apologized, stepping aside to let him through.
And to clarify, he looked like David Tenant (the best Doctor).
“One minute there, Professor Spacetime. Before you come in, you should know that I have protective wards placed on this house,” Genevieve warned him. “If you try to harm us or mean us harm, that ill will is redirected back towards you.”
“Does… ill will include disagreeing with you on who the best Doctor Who is?” he asked cautiously.
“…Maybe,” she shrugged.
He nodded in understanding and, after a moment of consideration, stepped across the threshold.
“Ah yes. I feel them now,” he said, scrutinizing the subtle ethereal sensations as they washed over him. “These are remarkably strong and stable, drawing down strength from the higher realms of the Astral Plane. A dead Witch made these, didn’t she?”
“My great aunt Evelyn. She carved the runes and laid the salt into the very foundations of the house. She rests now on the Isle of Maidens in the Summerland, and her blessings help keep me and our home safe,” Genevieve replied.
“You’re Sibylline Witches, then?” Sterling asked, his tone implying it was a foregone conclusion, but that it was best just to make sure.
“Of course,” Genevieve nodded, visibly straining to hide her offence at the question.
“Ah, we are?” Charlotte asked.
“We are,” I said. “The Sibylline Sisterhood refers to the informal network of gifted women that’s existed for time beyond memory. It’s not offensive, but it’s also not a term we use ourselves very much.”
“Outsiders use the term to distinguish us from those they call ‘Baphometic Witches’, a distinction we don’t need to make because women who serve Baphomet are not Witches,” Genevieve added. “Real Witches worship the Threefold Goddess and use our knowledge and gifts to help others and fight injustice. Any woman who serves malevolent spirits for her own selfish reasons isn’t worthy of being called a Witch.”
“Apologies. Didn’t mean to touch a nerve, there,” Sterling said as he made his way into the parlour. “It was probably an unnecessary question anyway. Your décor here definitely screams New Agey empowerment and wellness, not ‘May our Dark Lord lay waste to our enemies and reign over an epoch of antinomy and bloodshed. Ave Satani,’. The Earl Grey tea is mine, by the way. The rest are all oat milk pumpkin spice lattes.”
He loudly cleared his throat as he puttered about for a moment, and I got the impression he was deliberating whether or not to simply move on to the reason he had come here in the first place or if more idle preface was needed.
“Would you like to see it, Professor Sterling?” I asked bluntly.
“Absolutely!” he replied enthusiastically, with no need to ask me to clarify.
I nodded, and gestured for him to sit down at the parlour’s table. I sat down across from him, setting down the coffees on the window sill and pulling out a small hexagon-shaped jewellery box, locked and carved with sigils to ensure what was kept inside remained there. I opened it slowly to reveal the otherworldly entomological specimen contained within.
It was a type of scarab beetle, about an inch long with a shiny, iridescent carapace that sparkled like sunlight off the ocean. Sterling eagerly pulled out a monocular magnifying glass from his pocket and began to inspect it.
“You read my account of how I acquired this?” I asked.
“I did,” he replied. “You astrally projected yourselves to a Flea Market on an alien world and found these little guys living in the dunes outside. Despite the lack of any physical travel, one of them managed to stow away back with you, though it doesn’t appear to have survived the trip. You’ve never seen it move?”
“No, but it hasn’t decayed either. I’m terrified that it may just be dormant,” I confessed. “The Flea Market was swarmed by these things because of me. If this one’s still alive and can reproduce, it could be a devastating invasive species.”
“Understandable. Are you aware of the Dreadfort Facility up north?” he asked. “They contain things a lot worse than eldritch entomorphs, and I have some contacts with them.”
“I’ve come across the name on the HarrowickHallows.net forums, but that’s it. I don’t know anything definitive about them, and certainly not enough to entrust them with something like this,” I replied. “I’m not giving this away, at least not tonight, so don’t try to steer our conversation in that direction. You’re here for an appraisal and consultation, nothing more.”
“I was just making a suggestion,” he said, putting away the monocle and pulling out a device the Ophion Occult Order refers to as a parathaumameter and started taking readings. “Hmmm. From a metaphysical standpoint, it’s definitely dead. It is, however, completely intact, and its exoskeleton seems to have a rather high thaumic capacity. If it absorbs enough of the right kind of astral energies, it probably could reanimate. Please tell me you’re not keeping it out in that hallowed cemetery you’re so fond of.”
“She’s not, don’t worry. We’re keeping it here,” Genevieve assured him. “Not only did my Great Aunt bless this house, but my evil Great Great Grandfather built it with lots of hidden nooks and crannies to keep his darkest and most valuable secrets safe. That bug is every bit as safe here as it would be in Dreadfort.”
“But enough about our specimen for now. I want to see yours, Doctor,” I said. “Er, Professor. Sorry.”
He gave a half-hearted nod of forgiveness before reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a marble-sized orb of crystalized, bluish-green Ichor. It was glowing, shrouded with a nebulous, pulsing aura. Inside I could see a rotating pupa, marked with a strange sigil that I had never seen before.
“So, to review the provenance: I got this from Ivy Noir via Rosalyn Romero in order to study it,” he explained. “Ivy got it from Mary Darling as an apology for her attempt to kill her sister, and the Darlings claim to have gotten a purse full of the things from a realtor.”
“I’m sorry, a realtor?” Charlotte asked.
“That’s what they called him. He wanted to buy that pocket universe they call their playroom off of them,” Sterling replied. “He tried to make them an offer they couldn’t refuse, and they refused by feeding him to their pet abyssal sea serpent. Pool Noodle, I believe they call her.”
“Well, they’re not out of hot water yet,” I said. “At the Flea Market, we met a strange being called Mathom-meister who wants to see the Darlings brought to justice for their crime against his kinsman, and he’s teamed up with Emrys to do it. Rosalyn had a vision of these people killing their own god, and their Flea Market was made from the corpse of a Scarab Titan. To put it mildly, I’m concerned that they might pose a bit of a threat. Have you been able to learn anything more about this race of Planeswalkers since Rosalyn gave you that orb?”
“I’ve been able to coax a few more visions out of it, yes,” he replied. “As near as I can tell, they are just Planeswalkers and not expansionists or conquerors. They walk between worlds, either alone or in small expeditions, mainly to expand their knowledge, taking only those few rare objects or locations that meet their lofty criteria of ‘worthy’. They don’t want our world, and they want very little of what’s in it. For now, at least, I believe that Mathom-meister is only interested in the Darlings.”
“What about the orb itself?” I asked. “Have you been able to confirm if it’s actually Ichor?”
“Oh, absolutely. This is the blood of a Titan Incarnate. There’s no doubt about that,” he replied. “More importantly, its power is completely self-contained, and not emanating from any divine source, Incarnate or otherwise. That means that the god this came from is dead. Their god is dead, their god remains dead, and they have killed him. Must they not now become gods, simply to appear worthy of the deed?”
“Don’t quote Nietzsche in my house,” Genevieve ordered him.
“I wasn’t quoting Nietzsche. I was paraphrasing Nietzsche,” Sterling objected.
“No Nietzsche,” Genevieve insisted.
“Evie, these things have killed at least two gods. Allusions to Nietzsche aren’t unreasonable,” I said. “While we’re on the topic, we still need a proper name for them. ‘Zarathustrans’ seems as good a name as any, don’t you think?”
“What’s wrong with Squid Wizards?” Charlotte asked.
“It lacks gravitas. A race of god-killing, dimension-hopping sorcerers needs a name with some oomph to it,” Sterling replied. “I vote for Xarathustrans, but with an X.”
“Why?” I asked.
“No, X. When does Y ever make a zed-sound?” he asked, and I had no idea whether or not he was joking.
“Fine, you can call them Zarathustrans and spell it even more pretentiously than it sounds,” Genevieve relented. “Now can we please focus on the orb? Have you been able to get any sort of use out of it for anything other than visions?”
“No. I wasn’t even able to chip a sample off for analysis,” he lamented. “I’m fairly certain that if you could revert this to its liquid form, imbibing it would imbue you with a fraction of the Dead Titan’s power. As it is now, swallowing it just leads to it coming right out the other end unscathed. Don’t ask me how I know that.”
“We’re smart girls. I think we can guess,” Genevieve winced in disgust, pinching the bridge of her nose.
“So nothing you’ve done, including… that, has been able to break or melt the orb?” I asked.
“Not a thing. My best guess is that it might be susceptible to some kind of humour-based alchemy or thaumaturgy, but well beyond anything that I’m capable of,” he speculated. “I can’t get a good look at the pupa inside, and I have no idea if it serves any sort of purpose or if it’s just decorative.”
“But you think it might be the pupa form of the scarabs we encountered?” I asked.
“Their thaumatological readings are very similar, and a cursory visual inspection suggests it’s at least within the realm of possibility,” he said thoughtfully. “You combine that with the fact that you encountered the scarabs at a location owned by one of only two Xarathustrans we have any knowledge of, and it does seem a little too much to just be a coincidence.”
“You said that the scarab could resurrect if it could absorb enough of the right astral energies. What if that’s what the Ichor is for? To bring the pupa back to life?” Genevieve suggested. “You said the Squid Wizards used these as money. What if that’s so that they can get them circulating and scattered amongst the occult societies of worlds they take an interest in? These things could be trojan horses.”
“But Mathom-meister wasn’t able to control the ones at the Flea Market. Everyone had to either evacuate or hunker down when they started swarming,” Charlotte objected.
“Maybe those ones were wild. Our scarab doesn’t have a sigil on it, does it? The pupa does. Maybe that’s how they control it,” Genevieve replied.
“Professor, may I use your magnifying device?” I asked, pulling out my Book of Shadows. “I’d like to copy down that sigil.”
“By all means,” he said, handing it over to me. “Don’t worry, I sanitized it thoroughly after its… digestive detour. It’s occurred to me as well that the pupas might be intended to hatch at some point. The problem with the theory of them being some kind of sleeper weapon is that we know the Darlings still have some of these in their possession, and that Mathom-meister is actively pursuing the Darlings. If he could control or trigger them remotely, he probably would have.”
“The core of the sigil is a Z stylized to look like an hourglass,” I commented as I drew it down. “There are seven signs inside; three at the bottom upper half, three in the bottom lower half, and one in the top lower half to indicate the flow of time. The signs are all spirals, none of them are identical, but all seem to be reminiscent of grains of sand. I saw the scarabs burrowing into the sand at the Flea Market. It seems logical enough that that’s where they would pupate. Maybe the Zarathustrans dug these up from the sand and preserved them in Ichor, with the sigil allowing them to reanimate if they were ever returned.”
“That’s an interesting idea. I would have liked to use the Sigil Sand at Pendragon Hill to see if it would’ve absorbed any of the Ichor’s energy, but given the situation, it’s completely off-limits,” Sterling explained. “I don’t have access to any other source of Sigil Sand, and I doubt that just tossing it into regular sand would do anything at all.”
“What about Witches’ Salt? Did you try that?” I asked.
“…Baphometic Witches’ Salt,” he admitted with a bit of trepidation.
“So ‘no’, then,” Genevieve said flatly.
“I buy most of my paranormal provisions off of Mothman, and he’s not the sort Sibyllic Witches normally do business with,” he explained. “Orville’s even worse for quality and legitimacy, so I wouldn’t even know where to –”
He was cut off by the sound of Genevieve plopping down a two-ounce glass jar of Witches’ Salt that she had barely even had to stand up to get.
“Made it myself under a new moon with the ashes of willow branches from Samantha’s cemetery,” she said proudly. “It doesn’t get any more authentic than that.”
Stirling picked it up and examined it closely, first taking back the monocle and then scanning it with the parathaumameter, before finally uncorking it and taking a deep sniff.
“It does smell like burnt willow, with a hint of chamomile,” he murmured. “And you just sell this stuff here, to anyone who walks through those doors?”
“Charms are popular around here, for obvious reasons, and Eve’s Eden of Esoterica has been providing them for over half a century, because real Witches use their gifts to help the innocent,” she replied. “Place the orb inside the jar. Since I hallowed that Salt myself, I’ll be able to sense and guide any reaction it might have to the Ichor. Lottie, please make sure all of the doors and windows are closed just in case that pupa hatches.”
Charlotte nodded and went to check all the windows and entrances. Sterling looked at me for confirmation, and I nodded my assent. With a nervous half-nod, he set the jar down in the center of the table, picked up the orb, and gingerly set it down into the Witches’ Salt.
The initial reaction, though subtle, was immediate. The aura surrounding the orb expanded and became more diffuse, as if the Salt were physically repulsive to it.
“Hmmm. The Salt is dispelling the spiritual energies in the orb that are contrary to its own resonance, but it’s not cancelling it out. That’s interesting,” Genevieve remarked.
“Confirmed,” Sterling said, looking over his parathaumameter. “None of the orb’s intrinsic properties have been neutralized, I’m just getting a fuzzier reading. It’s still a better result than what I got with the Baphometic Salt. Can we try burying it in the Salt, to see if that increases the effect? This might not be a bad way to limit its sphere of influence, if it ever became so inclined to expand it.”
Genevieve nodded, extending her index finger to gently push the orb beneath the surface.
The instant she made contact, the orb’s aura condensed back around it, glowing brightly and levitating it slightly above the Salt, preventing it from going any deeper in.
“Shit!” Genevieve shouted as she drew her hand back.
“What happened?” Charlotte asked.
“When I touched it, I increased the flow of astral energy through me into the Salt. It enhanced its effect, but that seems to have triggered some kind of countermeasure,” Genevieve replied.
“Again, confirmed. It did not like that,” Sterling said.
The sigil on the pupa was now glowing an incandescent orange, and the orb was darting around in place, like a roving eye taking in as much information as fast as it possibly could.
“Oh God, it can see us! Can it see us?” Charlotte asked.
“I don’t know!” Sterling replied.
“Quick, Spacetime, cork the jar!” Genevieve ordered.
“You saw what happened when I touched it. You’re the only one here who isn’t a Witch,” she insisted.
“But if it just makes things worse, then it’ll be my fault, then, won’t it?”
“Just do it!” she demanded.
Reluctantly, Sterling grabbed the cork and slammed it back down on top of the jar, forcing the orb deep into the salt, sending some of it overflowing before the jar was sealed.
The jar was glowing faintly now, the light of the orb still emanating through the grains of Salt, its resonance having failed to snuff it out.
“It looks like the Salt is pushing against the glass,” I noted. “The orb’s still not touching it. It’s just pushing it away.”
“Ummm… is it vibrating?” Charlotte asked. “I think it’s vibrating.”
Sure enough, the jar had begun to shake. It was barely perceptible at first, but it was getting stronger.
“It’s going to blow!” Sterling shouted, swiping it off the table and dashing for a nearby wooden chest. “Take cover!”
As he threw the jar in the chest and started piling anything within reach on top of it to block the shrapnel, Genevieve overturned the parlour table and the rest of us took cover behind it.
Only a few seconds later, we heard the muted sound of the jar exploding. It wasn’t powerful enough to break through the chest, but when it shattered, Genevieve let out a cry of pain and fell backwards into my arms.
“Eve! Eve!” I screamed.
“No, I’m fine. I’m fine,” she insisted, though she sounded far from it. “It’s just, that when the jar exploded, I felt a wave of something pass through the Salt and back through me. Something hostile, and otherworldly. Something… malevolent.”
“Ladies. You might want to come see this,” Sterling called.
He had opened the chest and was standing over it, his face cast in an eerie blue-green light.
Helping Genevieve to her feet, the three of us cautiously crept over to see what was inside. As we approached, we could hear a soft, guttural chanting in our minds, fanatical whispers in some hideous alien tongue.
“That’s the rallying cry I heard in the vision where the Xarathustrans slayed their god,” Sterling told us. “Roughly translated, it’s saying ‘no gods, no masters,’.”
In the center of the chest sat the orb, its glowing sigil facing upwards as if staring at us in defiance. Scattered around it amongst the glass shards from the jar were the grains of Witches' Salt, only now they were no longer black but the same luminescent bluish-green as the orb. Each grain was pulsating in rhythm with the orb, amplifying its power rather than dispelling it.
Here's Something else, a playlist with atmospheric, poetic and mysterious soundscapes. The ideal backdrop for concentration and inspiration. Perfect for writing sessions.
I'm curious to discover yours. Feel free to share if you have any
My name is Victoria S., I am a former criminal investigator and what I am about to share here is the transcript of an interview taken during my last case in the force.
The only sound I could make out outside of my blanket was a slight rustling sound that one could have mistaken for the wind if they weren't as privy to the world as I was. It was the middle of a normal and hot Sunday night when all of a sudden I was torn from my slumber. I was not entirely sure of what had woken me up but I sure as hell knew it couldn't be anything good. So doing the only reasonable thing, I buried my body under my light summer blanket, while praying that not even the tiniest part of me was sticking out. Everybody knows that a blanket is the most effective way of defending against the creatures of the night but of course only when used correctly.
After a short, wile realized that it was a treacherous situation found himself in as my body heat was doing a fantastic job of turning this bunker of mine bunker into a sauna. Sweat was running into every crack and fold on my body, making me want nothing more than to feel fresh air brush over my skin after diving back out into the normal world.
No! Don't even think that! That is what they want. That I make a mistake, that I open myself up for an attack. They got the wrong guy. I can make it till sunrise if I have to and everybody knows that a monster can't live past the first rays of the morning sun.
A sudden creak of the floorboards made me jump back into my little hideout. Panicking I readjusted the blanket, trying my very best not to make a sound. There it was again, the creak, unmistakably the sound of the floorboards in the hallway between mine and my family's room. How many times have I heard it in my life, when my parents made their way toward my room but on this terrible night the sound of the footsteps was all wrong? Their rhythm fit neither my father nor my mother. Light and close together but hasty at the same time, as if someone was making an effort not to wake me up while unable to contain their sinister excitement for what they were about to do. At this point, the sweat had formed a patch underneath me, its stench clogging my nose. Was it just sweat at this point? Or had I lost control over my bladder? It was no use. All my focus was bent on following those wretched sounds. With the deep grumbling of the loose old plank right in front of my room they found their end.
I had locked his door, right? I must have. There was no other way. I always lock the damn door. Should I go and check? If I dashed there, I should be able to beat whatever was on the other side trying to open it. YES! Yes, I would do exactly that and be safe right after.
I readied myself and was about to leave the bed, all the hope that had just built up in my chest and made my heart beat fast in triumph vanished alongside these thoughts. A simple and faint but also familiar squeaking sound broke the newly found silence. Tears started streaming down my cheeks, feeling icy cold on my feverishly hot skin. It was the sound of my old, warped door being pushed open. Not only wasn't it locked but the thing knew how to open it.
Never had I cursed the carpet floor as much as now, as it was masking the intruder's steps. A crooked laugh here and a scratch on the wall there were my only ways at an attempt to locate the foe. I had to stay strong. Out of nowhere, something heavy fell on my legs and with that, I heard giggling and hastied footsteps leaving my room and eventually the house. Wetness seeped through the blanket, where the two almost round objects were dropped but I did not dare to look at them. I only came out when the officers arrived and found me.
The interview occurred after a dispatch unit recovered an 11-year-old boy, Nate R., from his family home. A neighbor had previously alerted the police of an unusual quietness in the affected residence. I assume the door ripped off its hinges also contributed but that is just my assumption. When my colleagues got there the place was completely ravaged. Patches of torn-apart flesh and pools of blood led them to what would later turn out to be the parent's remains. Mr. and Mrs. R. were only identified after some samples were compared with DNA taken from their heads. Said heads were found placed on the blanket the child was still hiding under. Their blood had completely stained him at this point.
Our investigations led us nowhere and my conclusion that this was a supernatural threat was promptly ignored. They pinned the murders on a local drifter who happened to be at the wrong location at the wrong time. With that being said, I left and joined a special group of vigilantes, set on informing people about creatures and phenomena akin to these and combat them. I will be sharing more in the future.
Teddy Sanders walked down the cracked sidewalk from the cemetery with his big brother, Dan. They were going to the sand lot to play catch, hit some fly balls for each other. Maybe some of the other kids would show up. Seemed like a good plan, but Dan had an idea.
"We're going right by Linda's house, you know. Do you want to stop by and see her?"
Teddy did. He really liked Linda. But, was that a thing? Did guys do that? Just show up at a girl's house, unannounced, with his big brother in tow? Her dad would answer the door, look us up and down. Teddy looked down at himself, brushed a bug off the soiled sleeve of his suit jacket. "Nah," he replied. "I don't want her to see me like this."
Dan steered them back on course to the sand lot. His lightweight slacks flapped in the cold breeze, but he didn't shiver. He carried nothing. Neither did Teddy.
"Do you have the baseball stuff?" Teddy asked suddenly.
His brother turned to face him. "No. Don't you? And why are you wearing your suit?"
Teddy looked down again, stretched his arms out in front of him. His boney wrists protruded far beyond the limits of his black blazer. A beetle struggled out of the too-short sleeve and plopped to the ground, then another. He watched in silence as a parade of the beasts filed out of his sleeve, each carrying a chunk of oily flesh in its clenched mandibles. It didn't hurt. It didn't even tickle, those bugs walking on his arm.
He looked at his brother. He had his suit on, too. A huge lump appeared on the back of his hand, scurrying around under the skin, distorting his veins. Both boys watched in wonder.
Dan didn't feel a thing when an especially fat beetle emerged right through his skin and fell to the ground, taking the back of his hand with it. Only then did his expression change. He turned away, started walking toward the sand lot.
Teddy thought about Linda again. But, "Hey, Dan?" he realized out loud. "Linda's house was never on the way to the sand lot before."
"We moved." Dan replied, suddenly surly.
Teddy had been six when they'd moved from their cozy cul-de-sac in the suburbs to this one-horse berg upstate. He remembered it well. Boxes everywhere. Everything in boxes. Then some men had come in a big truck. Big men, all dressed the same. They took those boxes, all the furniture, the beds, the TV and everything and put it in that big truck, shut the door and drove off. Teddy had collapsed on the driveway, howling in tears, "They took it all! It's all gone! It's all over!"
But that was five years ago! They hadn't moved again. Surely, he would remember. He remembered something else... He stopped walking, looked at his brother's back. "Dan?"
Dan turned around and looked down at him. He was taller, but skinny, like Dad. Teddy had a lot more meat on his bones, like Mom. He knew he would outweigh him by at least 20 pounds, when he finally reached Dan's height, if he ever... Dan's suit was dirty, too.
Teddy looked down again at his own. His shoes were caked with mud that went up the delicate pants legs up to the knees. Maybe that's why he didn't feel the wind through that useless material, like he usually did. A dark, wet stain spread across the front of his white shirt, growing as he watched. "Mom's gonna kill us," he whispered. He could see it. Mom throwing a fit. Hysterical tears and sobs, wailing like a madwoman, fit for a straightjacket. Over a suit that was too small anyway! And Dad, he wasn't yelling. He just stood there, looking. He ran a long-fingered hand across his slim face, wiping away tears that didn't belong there. Teddy had never seen a tear on that stern face.
He looked back up the road. Muddy footprints marked the way they'd come, down the hill. Their house wasn't up there. It was across town, on the other side of the sand lot.
"I'm sorry, Man." Dan croaked suddenly, like he had something stuck in his throat. Teddy looked up at him again. He had always looked like Dad, but now his young face was so gaunt and wrinkled, he looked even older than the old man. He spoke from a toothless mouth.
"It's all my fault, Buddy. I screwed up. I never should have took the car. I didn't know what I was doing. I got the gas mixed up with the brakes, for just a half-second! I blew it! I lost it all, for both of us. It's all gone! It's all over!" The meatless cheek bulged. The bulge scrambled around on Dan's face until it found its way out through an empty eye socket.
Teddy looked up at his big brother and smiled a half-smile in a face that sagged like ice cream that was just starting to melt. "It's OK, Bro." He looked down the midnight road toward the sleeping house at the base of Cemetery Hill. "I changed my mind. Let's go visit Linda. It'll be fun."
I can't capture the suffering.
I can't capture the pain.
I can't capture the macabre incestuous delight that lurks behind the facade of man.
I can't see it straight;
I can't see it right;
I can't catch the severe correctness of sheer terror behind the eyes of the feast.
I need to go deeper,
I need to go deeper,
I need to SEE the screams unfolding
And tearing into the mind like awls.
It isn't enough,
It'll never be enough.
Oh! to encapsulate the glee of deamons
In an artistic pose
I've studied and wandered and lived
But it seems I'm constrained by the coils of mankind's flesh.
Won't it ever just be enough to be free;
to be free!
I need to be free from this rendering Terror inside of me.
I sketch with the finger and the pen and the blood on my hands and in my veins,
Again and again
In order to come up wanting.
Wanting to shred
As flesh shreds under teeth,
And empty sockets that stare at nothing,
And watch my soul depart
In a rage from the canvas.
And tongues like mouths,
They lap the fervour away in my inadequacy,
Muscles and limbs and joints and arms and legs distend and snap and break and roll over and over and over until the bellies of the beasts are full.
The hunger is wanting,
And wanting more for the feast.
I need to bend my knees in prayer
Because begging is the only thing I can do.
I can't capture in a moment, or years,
The fears manifest as a daydream that wears skin like reality,
I'm in pain; I'm in the moment of sorrow and loss
And it'll never be enough,
I can only do so much
While I'm wearing this skin.
Whose skin that I'm in
Like a prison
Or a tile in a mosaic of hell.
I suffer and sort and morte in metaphor
Therefore I'm alive and miserable
And alive in truth, and teeth, and
Guilty for the pleasures I'm feeling.
I scream and beg and segue ever more to the sore truth of pain and suffering and agony and blood and terror and sweet sweet surrender to the power that holds us in its grasp.
I fast from peace and cease to obey the commands of my body.
Scritch and scratch and paint and prod myself closer to an existence
More real than the marrow of my bones.
Living is dying and I'm trying to turn the tables towards the truth of the fact that dust and the rust is real and I feel that I'm no longer hinged in my mind.
I can't capture it. I can't capture it!
The thoughts that whirl from the depths of the seat of my being. I can't capture the feast.
Please, take me, for I cannot stand this mortal coil in anything but suffering, any longer.
So I sit; I sit and pit myself against the demons I know are there
And they wear the badge of blood on my skin like an earthquake.
If I stare long enough
I can hear the real me,
And see that I'm long for this world.
I can't capture it.
I can feel it creeping and seeping into the flesh as it grows cold.
Lost as a man. Lost as a soul in the dark. I partake in a final communion.
To see the bold stroke
As it takes the last of the light from my eyes.
My demise will forever be unwanted and sure.
And I'll live in my paintings, forever more.
I was married, she was the love of my life; when I first met Jessica it was like finding my soulmate. It didn’t take long for us to move in with each other and soon we got married. It was the happiest time of my life; all three months of it, unfortunately we were in a car accident and my Jessica, well, she didn’t make it. At first I didn’t even know what had happen; the collision was awful and I was flung out of the car through the windshield; my skull practically caved in while the rest of my body shattered, although this is what saved me. I was in the passenger seat and my Jessica was driving, she always was the responsible one; seeing me not wearing a seat belt bothered her and she pestered me to no ends to wear one. I joked around and pulled on the belt as if I were going to secure into place only to retreat it back, I did this several times giggling knowing how immature I was acting.
At first she laughed along but then got serious, I saw her eyebrows dip down with a bit of annoyance and her beautiful smile that I was utterly enchanted with turned into a frown. This is when we started to argue, I told her that I didn’t care to wear one and that she shouldn’t be so controlling, as you can guess she didn’t like that answer. This is when the shouting escalated, I noticed that she started to swerve a bit as her attention was on me, I tried to get her to look at the road but that’s all it took, mere seconds; seconds that have the formidable power to change your life. The last memory I have was the frighten face of the love of my life; then nothing, just pure darkness. I don’t even remember dreaming it was as if I was lost in a void of emptiness, nothing mattered, time seized to exist, I drifted endlessly in the vacuum of space and that’s when I slowly began to see a light, a vague one in the distance that only grew stronger as it pulsated towards me. Eventually the light showered me in it’s warmth overwhelming my senses, I felt a tingling sensation erupt up my back and that’s when I woke up.
Apparently I was in a coma, looking around the empty room; everything felt foreign; tubes protruded from different orifices of my body as a steady beeping from the heart monitor engulfed the desolated space. Looking around the dimly lit room I realized it was night time, the corridor laid still and silent, I tried to turn my neck to see if anyone was close but I found it difficult seeing I had a neck brace tightly clamped unto me; though I could hear a faint whimpering coming from behind a dividing curtain that was in the middle of the room.
“H..h..e…hello?” I yelped out with a muffled tone; a feeding tube was shoved down my throat making it hard for me to even make a sound.
I laid in bed for the rest of the night not being able to attract any attention, I was hoping for some night nurse to show up and check on me but that never happened. So instead I spent most of the night trying to figure out how I had even gotten here, not in my wildest nightmares did I even think Jessica was not okay, in fact I was hoping she would visit me in the morning and perhaps explain to me how I had gotten here. Though glimpses of her terrified face echoed through my thoughts but only for a split moment, I still didn’t piece together what we went through. So throughout the night I did my best not to choke on the tube that was wedged firmly down my throat as I tried to move, well, any part of my body. I was able to move my fingers a bit, they felt weak and that tingling sensation I once had in my back now was gone, in fact, I couldn’t feel anything below my chest. I tried to move my feet, focusing my energy on wiggling a toe but nothing happened, panic set in knowing I was trapped in an unmovable body and all I could do is softly weep until day break.
As the sun arose I could hear the faint sounds of people moving around the once quiet hospital, them walking through the corridors; the sounds of their foot steps bouncing off the light grey walls traveling into my room. This is when I started gasping out any coherent noise I could manifest, trying to attract their attention, I was desperately calling out for help but I only could mutter gurgling sounds. Finally a passing nurse walked by and saw me jiving my head around as I gasped out for air; the feeding tube seemed to be slipping further down my throat. She promptly ran towards me bewildered that I was awake, she seemingly didn’t know what to do, her hands jumping around to different locations of my body, my stare locked into her eyes trying to show her that I needed this dam tube removed from my mouth. My message was conveyed as she grasped at the tube and told me to hold still, that this would be unpleasant.
I tried to clench my palms into a fist but it was useless; so instead I tightly shut my eyes as slight tears slipped down my defeated face. The nurse slowly counted to three, with each count my heart throbbed intensely and as she arrived at ‘three’ she pulled the monstrosity out of my mouth, the tube must of been at least 3ft long. I began coughing profusely, my throat sore and I could feel it swelling up but finally I was able to breath properly and I inhaled as much oxygen that my lungs allowed me; savoring every second. This is when the nurse told me to relax that she would get the doctor, before leaving she smiled and told me that she was glad that I had finally awoke.
It took the doctor awhile to show up, in my frantic state all I could do is stare at the ceiling, catching people passing by my room in my peripheral. I still could hear a muffled sound coming from behind the dividing curtain, with my withered voiced I called out to my room mate.
“H…h…h…hi t..there” I whimpered out with a raspy tone.
Perhaps I didn’t say it loud enough, maybe the person too was in a coma but I got no response, though I could hear that obscure sound getting a little louder.
“Are you awake too?” I spouted out this time with a more dominating tone.
The whimpering intensified it was clear this person could hear me and they too were trying to get my attention, that’s when the doctor finally showed up. I tried pointing towards the curtain, telling the doctor about the patient on the other side being awake as well. He grabbed at my torso and told me to relax, to breath deeply.
“You don’t understand they’re awake too” I yelped out as I nodded my head towards the curtain.
The doctor then looked at the dividing wall a bit mystified then turned back to me expressing his befuddlement.
“You’re the only patient in the room” he told me.
I didn’t understand how that was possible, I clearly heard the dire attempts of someone else trying to get my attention. The doctor didn’t entertain my delusion and instead focused on me, asking me a plethora of questions; how I felt, what I could feel, what I could remember. I told him the truth, that I didn’t remember anything and that my body was no longer my own, judging from his look of concern I knew this wasn’t good. I asked him about Jessica and at first he didn’t know who I was talking about, he then looked over my medical record, I could see his eyes drop with sadness. That’s when he told me what had happened, about the accident, but worse he told me that my Jessica didn’t make it. I cried the best I could, tears cascaded down my battered face but only faint noises could escape my mouth as my chest barely pulsated up and down.
The doctor left me alone with my thoughts after that, knowing that I needed to process everything that I’ve learned, the love of my life gone, control over my own body gone, any future utterly gone; I was now paralyzed and alone. As one might of guest I spent most of the night sobbing trying to remember the events that led up to the destruction of my world, pasting together small moments only to get complete brain fog. I don’t even remember falling asleep that night and if I did I didn’t dream, this became a common theme; I was no longer able to dream. The doctors told me it had something to do with brain damage or the coma I couldn’t really follow along with the medical talk nor did I really care, in all honesty I just wanted to be put out of my misery. Besides Jessica, I had no family, my parents were long gone and I was an only child; knowing that I was thrown into such a world of pain left me bitter, lashing out to any nurse that would come in to bathe or feed me. Eventually I gained control over my arms, it was tiring but after months of rehabilitation I was able to feed myself but that was the extent of my own power, my legs were useless.
As the months passed I stayed in assistant living, I was never a man of money so the only place I could afford was one that was subsided by the government which should tell you all you needed to know of how I lived. Though, I didn’t really care, sometimes I would be left in my own filth for hours it didn’t bother me, in fact I always hoped I would get some life threatening infection so I could finally be with my Jessica. I was always irritated, any one that tried to talk to me I would give them grief, I quickly became an old bitter grandpa at the ripe age of 29; I think most couldn’t blame me because of what I went through.
Honestly I was always exhausted, I never got any good sleep up until this point I was still unable to dream, my brain couldn’t function the way it was suppose to reach R.E.M. sleep, so naturally I never felt rested. I think this was a big part of why I was always short tempered, I pleaded the with doctors to help me, give me some medicine, treatment, but more importantly give me some hope. This is when I met the man with oddly large glasses, he came into my room one day with my doctor, it was explained to me that I was the perfect candidate for some sleep study one that would help fix my sleep issue. At first I didn’t know what to think of the whole thing, I found the man with glasses quite odd something about his demeanor was off putting, especially his smile, it seemed too large for his moon shaped head; it practically consumed most of his face. Maybe I was just too tired, perhaps I was making this an issue when I didn’t need to; after all I was willing to end it all so why not give this a chance.
“Have you’ve heard of ‘lucid dreaming’?” the strange man asked.
I wasn’t too sure of what that was and a bewildered expression conquered my gaze as both my doctor and the odd man studied me.
“I don’t know what that is ‘doc’ but if you can help me get some good rest again then I’m in” I told the bizarre man.
He then explained to me that the sleep study he was conducting wasn’t focused on helping people like me dream again, rather, they were in search for candidates that didn’t dream at all since that was the only way they could force a lucid dream, a dream where you were aware that it was just a dream. I think I remember experiencing one when I was a kid, I remember I was able to fly around the world, looking down at the wonderment of nature; funny enough there were never other people in the deserted world I travelled in. The odd man then told me that in doing this study that they would implant some microchip in my brain, apparently the procedure was non-invasive but quickly I grew apprehensive. I think he saw my reservation and before I could mutter out the words ‘no’ he told me something that quickly changed my mind.
“Imagine if you could control your dreams then you would always be able to see her”.
It didn’t take me long to figure out who the man was referring too.
“Jessica?” I whimpered out.
After he told me that; I was sold, if I could see the love of my life once again albeit in the dream world then I was in.
The procedure was quick, like the doc said it was non-invasive I thought they were going to pry open my noggin but it was some device that literally clipped onto my my head almost like a magnet, no wires, no cutting, no blood; apparently the system was wireless. I didn’t even know such technology existed, none the less I was excited to get the study started, I just wanted to see her; I could feel my heart throbbing from the sheer thought of being able to see that smile I was so enamored with. The odd man give me a laptop to note everything that happened, every event no matter how inconsequential it might seem, I wasn’t too sure what he thought I would encounter I mean it was a dream that supposedly I was going to control right? The instructions to get started was simple, I wasn’t going to have some team of weirdos monitoring me, instead, the same laptop was going to record my dreams; I found that to be a bit weird I mean what happens if I wanted to get you know, intimate in my dream; why not if I’m able to control it. The idea made me shutter knowing that these creeps would be reviewing my private life but it didn’t matter if they wanted to watch then so be it. To get started I had to initiate some program called ‘POE’.
‘What a strange name’, I remember thinking.
Once the program was active lights pulsated on the screen, for whatever reason those lights seemed familiar; luckily they built in background sounds to help me fall asleep. To be honest I was too anxious to fall asleep, well that and the device that was strapped to my head, it was uncomfortable. I must of laid in bed for hours as the lights from the screen danced around the walls of my small room, I became a bit impatient waiting for slumber to invade me and contemplated the idea of calling for the night nurse to bring me some sleep aides. I pressed the call button on the side of my bed impatiently as thoughts of my Jessica swirled around my soul, for whatever reason I felt an odd sensation of somber engulf my thoughts as I laid back down in my bed waiting for the nurse to arrive.
That’s when I heard her approaching, her foot steps slamming against the marble floors of the corridor, the sound thundering around me; it made me feel a bit uneasy. I couldn’t tell you why but my once enthusiasm morphed into trepidation the closer she got to my room, with each heavy slam of her footstep my heart pounded more intensely. To make matters worse the dimly lit corridor seemed darker than usual, I raised the upper part of my body staring deeply into the desolated hallway, breathing in heavy and that’s when I realized it was the nurses unusually massive shadow that blocked out any visible light. I could feel beads of sweat form on my brow as my breathing only escalated and before she arrived at my doorway I laid back down and pretended to be asleep. I couldn’t tell you why I did that, I just knew that I didn’t want to see who ever stood at the entrance. I slowly opened my eye lids just enough to get a peek of the nurse and to my astonishment she was now at the foot of my bed, hovering over me; her silhouette standing taller than usual. I tried to shut my eyes but soon I could feel her crawling on to my bed, I tried to raise my arms in protest but couldn’t move; I did my best to scream but only whimpers escaped my mouth as she climbed on top of me, tears slipped down my face as I felt my heart pounding. That’s when I focused on the laptop, it’s light was still flickering; the sounds were still reverberating off the walls and I did my best to listen, I could feel calmness instill me then she was gone. I was able to move my arms again after that and I looked around the room terrified at what the hell just happened.
As requested I noted every detail I could remember about the occurrence in the laptop, apparently what I experienced was something called ‘sleep paralysis’ I’ve never heard of it before but I knew it was something I never wanted to experience again. It took practice but eventually I was able to fall asleep on command, I would start the ‘POE’ program and rest my head, I would think of Jessica as the sooth sounds of harmony cradled me to sleep. At first I was able to achieve R.E.M. sleep — a pleasure in it’s self — but I couldn’t awake within the dream, in all honesty I couldn’t remember what I would dream of but whatever it was it must of been unpleasant since I would always wake up dripping of sweat with my heart beating thunderously. By this point I could tell how frustrated the man with large glasses was becoming, disappointed that I wasn’t able to achieve whatever goal he sought out to research, but I didn’t care I felt more rested than I’ve had been in almost a year; the only thing I felt empty about was the reality that I still couldn’t see my Jessica. Although that changed when I received a new room mate; one that I was not expecting.
I didn’t get to see who it was, I woke up from whatever nightmare I must of had the night before as my drenched hand reached for the laptop to note anything I remembered which was nothing. That’s when I saw the dividing curtain, it looked oddly familiar
“Hello?” I called out.
I got no answer, by now I’ve learned how to cater for myself and I gathered my wheelchair beside my bed and slouched down on to it with a heavy thud, I then rolled myself to the curtain; I could hear who ever was on the other side wheezing out in disgust, gurgling sounds engulfing my hearing.
“Hello?” I called out once more, but still nothing.
I grabbed at the curtain with my hand and was ready to peel the veil off wanting to know who was my new room mate, I could hear the whimpering intensify the closer I got and right before stripping the curtain to the side my doctor entered the room. He told me that the patient was similar to me, a poor soul that had lost many things but more importantly they were hoping they too would be a perfect candidate for the ‘POE’ program.
I left the person be and figured if they ever wanted to talk they could, I was a willingly listener, funny enough because of the sleep I had been getting my grumpiness seemed to be evaporating a bit, I didn’t feel as nihilistic as I usually did. I took this as a sign of acceptance maybe that’s what I needed all along, accept the reality that I’ve found myself in rather than trying to live in the past before the trauma, either way I felt more at ease with myself and understanding that I would never reach a lucid dream to see my Jessica was a truth I needed to understand. I use to hate it when I was wrong, through out my life I was certain of many things I was a bit condescending and when people would point out my fallacies I always turned the other way not wanting to acknowledge them, so discovering that I was wrong about never being able to achieve a lucid dream was nothing less than divine intervention because that same night I finally reached my goal.
So like usual I started the ‘POE’ software, the sounds encapsulated my small room, which made me pause for a moment hoping that the sounds didn’t disturb my new neighbor; but hearing the moans and gurgle sounds coming from the other side of the curtain I didn’t think they cared. As I laid in bed staring up at the ceiling I could see the pulsating lights paint the ceiling with an ambrosia of sweet colors, the more I stared it seemed like it was painting an image for me and soon that’s what happened. The flickering lights generated a beautiful seaside beach view, the sounds of crashing waves made it all more real and as I reached my arms towards the alluring image I crashed right through it as if I was entering a world that had been hidden from me; I was now at the beach.
It was remarkable, I could feel the breeze brush against my cheek as the aroma of flowers permeated around me, I started laughing uncontrollably realizing that this was a dream; one I was now awake in. Though even more enchanting was the fact I was walking, I was standing on my own two legs; tears of joy streamed down my face as I sprinted around the beach savoring every step. Soon my running morphed into only what I could describe as gliding and eventually I found myself flying, I was roaming around the beach side with ease I felt pure bliss immerse my mind. That’s when I remembered about my love, where was she, I pondered on the question and knew I had full control of this realm; that I just needed to focus on her. I landed back onto the beach and shut my eyes tightly doing my best to manifest the love of my life, envisioning her sitting calmly over looking the ocean as her beautiful long brown hair flowed with grace in the ocean breeze. As I slowly opened my eyes, there she was just as I imagined; sitting on the sand in a white dress as she over looked the crashing waves. I ran towards her calling out for her to notice me, but my voice was muffled; she wouldn’t turn to look at me and the closer I got I noticed an odd sound; it was that wheezing, the sounds of gurgling erupted around me and with that I woke up.
As I came to I was extremally irritated with my new room mate for disturbing my sleep but jovial that I got to see my Jessica for the first time in almost year, I was practically giggling from glee and I quickly reached for my laptop ready to note everything I experienced. After that first ‘lucid dream’ it became easier, each night I repeated the process of starting the ‘POE’ program waiting for the flickering lights to reveal a new world to me. My annoying neighbor never said a word no matter how many times I attempted to communicate with them, all I ever got were suppressed sounds but I didn’t care; I was now able to see the love of my life more frequently in fact on a regular basis. Though, she wasn’t quite the same in my dreams, every time I would talk to her she seemed distant, her body present but her soul was missing; it didn’t matter, I would embrace her each night in my arms with no intentions of ever letting go, I didn’t even bother doing anything else; I didn’t try to fly or run I would just stand there hugging her for I can only imagine was hours.
It was a fabulous month of just being with my Jessica before something strange started to happen, now in my world when I would hold the love of my life she would blankly stare at me, any visible of human resemblance was gone and no matter how much I focused on trying to make her more life like nothing changed. Also she started whispering something to herself, I tried listening to what she was saying but couldn’t quite make out what it was, it kind of sounded like gibberish. This went on for several days until her whispers escalated to coherent sounds, something that left me with utter bewilderment.
“A dream within a dream” is what she was saying, I could clearly now make it out.
“What are you talking about?” I asked her but she didn’t reply back in any coherent way rather, she continued chanting the same words with an emotionless stare.
After a few nights, I got use to the rhythmic tone of words and just ignored them as I held her tightly in my arms, understanding this wasn’t real but only as real as I allowed it to be.
“A dream within a dream”
Yes babe, ‘a dream within a dream’ I repeated back to her now finding endearment in the words. This is when something quite bizarre happened the usual vibrant sounds of the ocean stopped, in fact all noise was vacant except for Jessica repeating her words. Looking around, the clouds seemed to be imploding within themselves revealing a darken sky absent of any light and all the shadows that hid behind rocks and trees seemed to be gravitate towards each other, each one colliding into the other as the mystifying object only grew in stature. A feeling of dread embodied me, one that felt familiar like the day I had that horrid ‘sleep paralysis’ nightmare, I turned back to Jessica frighten wanting comfort from whatever entity was forming in the distance. I turned away from it not wanting to see what the hell it was, but all I could hear were grunts and snarls coming from the being. I held Jessica tightly and sheltered my gaze from it not wanting to turn around, I could feel my heart rate accelerate the closer that thing got to me and without any reason I woke up.
I was drenched, I felt the room spinning as I gathered myself to reach for the laptop; I could hear my room mate making his usual sounds which felt a bit comforting. I reported everything that I experienced and tried my best to shake off the trepidation that had now formed in my mind.
After that nightmare, the times I would visit Jessica that dark figure seemed to appear quicker than the night prior; almost as if the monster knew how to break my defenses. After a couple weeks of this I dreaded falling asleep, knowing that beast would eventually catch up to me and I did my best to stay awake, slapping myself anytime I felt a bit drowsy. This wasn’t taken to well by the sleep study, the man with large glasses was intrigued at my progress and demanded me to continue on as usual. The only thing I could do was type my experiences in the laptop now finding comfort in doing so, as if it were my own personal journal. With much persistence from the sleep study I decided to enter the dream world once again, initiating the ‘POE’ software. As before I found myself on a beach, Jessica was there repeating her usual words as the once beautiful vibrant environment was now desolated with a void of darkness, I could feel the presence of that menacing creature almost immediately and swallowed my own fear forcing myself to stay in this nightmarish world longer. The man with large glasses wanted me to confront the entity; he wanted to know how it looked like, how it moved, but more alarming was the fact that he wanted me to let it invade me. So as the dark figure presented itself, I stood strong and did not run away, I tried looking at it; but it was just a blur; like those censor blocks you would see on T.V. when they hide some ones identity.
“What do you want?” I shouted at the creature but it remain absent of any language instead it’s sinister growls bombarded my ears as I could visibly feel myself tremble from terror.
The dark figure glided towards me with disfigured movements, devouring all colors as it passed leaving behind a void of destruction in it’s path. I could feel that same sensation of dread I once had the time the night nurse crawled on top of me, I felt my chest become heavy, my breathing more shallow but before it could reach me I heard a chime. I think it might of scared the creature because it too stopped when the sound rung out and that’s when I opened my eyes.
I looked around the room, different vibrant colors ricocheted off the walls as the ‘POE’ software continued projecting it’s odd color patterns. I could still hear my neighbor groaning from behind the curtain and in the moment I was relieved to be awake away from that monster, but I wasn’t too keen on falling back to sleep, memories of having no R.E.M. sleep haunted me knowing at least back then I was safe. I reached over for my laptop ready to document the new experience not knowing how I would even describe the being from my nightmare, as I scrolled over to the note section I saw I had an incoming message.
“That’s weird, I haven’t seen that before.” I murmured to myself.
I guided the mouse over to the mail icon and clicked open the request, to my bewilderment it was a message from an anonymous user, my curiosity was peaked so I opened the chat box. My eyes widened with pure astonishment,
“A dream within a dream” it read.
I didn’t know what to think, I was confounded on what this person meant.
“Who is this?” I typed back.
Quickly I got a response but not the one I was hoping for, one that explained to me who this person was instead, I got one that was a bit more cryptic.
“Look behind the curtain”.
My eyes cautiously turned to the curtain, I could feel the pricks of anxiety erupting up my back; but something about the request felt normal as if I needed to peel back the curtain; something I had been wanting to do. I reached my arm over the protective rail of my bed to grab at my wheelchair but felt nothing. I then looked off the bed and couldn’t see my chair anywhere.
Another message came through.
“Look behind the curtain” it once again read.
I typed back with a bit of frustration.
“I don’t know where my chair is” I told the person.
I looked over at the curtain and could still hear my room mate gurgling and wheezing.
“You don’t need one, just walk over there” they told me.
This angered me quite a bit, now knowing this was some cruel prank perhaps done by the night staff, I almost felt like throwing my laptop to the floor raising it over my head but then felt the most strange feeling and it was coming from my feet. It was that bizarre feeling you get whenever you leg falls asleep, the sensation of needle pricks stabbing away at your dead limb, well that’s what I felt and that’s when I lowered the laptop and looked at the message again.
“…just walk over there”.
I then placed my laptop back down on the night stand that stood next to my bed, I lowered the guard rails and stared at the floor it must of been no higher than 3ft but from the trepidation that I felt it seemed more like a vastness of space. I then wiggled my toes, my mouth gaped open with befuddlement; how was this possible. I then slid over my legs off the bed and placed both feet on the floor, the cold feeling soothed my soul as I smiled and I then stood to my feet. I was standing, I looked around with amazement and then took a baby step towards my room mate. I carefully walked over to the curtain scared that I would collapse at any moment, I then grabbed at the dividing wall breathing in heavy. I shoved aside the curtain and stood frozen with wonderment at what I saw, it was Jessica; she laid in bed asleep. Tubes protruding from different parts of her body as a heart monitor steadily beeped. I noticed she had that same device I had for the ‘POE’ software attached to her head. I didn’t know what was happening, how was any of this possible, this couldn’t be real.
I turned to the laptop and once again the user sent me another message.
“A dream within a dream”.
Then I noticed the room became darker, the feeling of dread inundated my senses, I knew what was happening, it was that creature but how?
The computer chimed again, I looked down at the screen
“Run and I love you”.
Without hesitation I grabbed the laptop and ran out of the room, down the hall, I screamed out for help but saw no one. I can’t explain what’s happening to me, I don’t know if the ‘POE’ program damaged my brain, perhaps the sleep study is messing with my thoughts; after all the thing is connected to my head and I always feel like someone is following me. I need to go back to the clinic and save my Jessica, find out why she was there I know it’s risky; I know the man with large glasses is out looking for me and maybe worse perhaps that beast is after me as well. It doesn’t matter, I don’t know how I could of left the love of my life there, all I have now is this laptop and I will continue to write my notes hoping someone perhaps can help. Has anyone heard of the ‘POE’ sleep program? If so maybe you know how I can save my Jessica, please anyone help us.
It lay there, trying to scream but the air could find no cords to vibrate. The newly formed mass huffed and groaned as it found itself in this ancient setting. A hazy image was projecting onto its unknown quantity of cornea; the surrounding landscape as bleak as the creatures’ own newfound existence. An infant found instantly unbound from time brought motherless into its world. Scared, tired, alone. What was this thing? It did not know. It wasn’t even sure if it knew how to not know. The only thing it knew was fear, whatever that was. Fear to lose the painful life it was so abruptly placed.
An attempt was made. It found two spindly appendages, equally split on either side. At the ends were simple raw structures surrounded by sore soft tissue. It imagined them moving forward and after an exasperated pause, they obeyed. When the arms landed down in front of the creature they felt like fire. Either the ends had exposed nerves or the ground was scorching to the touch. It did not know. It only knew it had to survive. Survive what though? Survive to do what? It dragged its mass forward, crunching warm sand beneath its mess of a body. This was almost a pleasant sensation. Maybe it wasn’t all pain, maybe there could be more of this? Then came the next step in its journey, another handful of fire hot to help it forget the cool sand. This things life was pain, and it was not to forget that.
Then it felt it. A stare. The staring eyes of the Great loomed distantly over it. Though it wanted to search, it didn’t dare look at the Great, even acknowledge. If there was anything to run from, this is if you could, it would be this Great.
The creature felt the burn of the stare. The burn of its arms. The burning instinct to survive. It sank to accept the pressure from all sides, trying not to move, or breathe, or exist. But the Great did not care. It threw its gaze were it pleased and it had landed on this Creature. It had no other choice but to face the lesser pain and drag itself to the nearest crag.
This was a nice crag. It was a much enjoyed improvement from the scorched heat of the sun and the Stare. It settled in with this new comfort and its mind wandered. This crag made the creature sad. It felt a long lost memory of some kind of other comfort—some kind of home. It chose to rest to allow these feelings to pass, and so it’s vision slowly faded to dark.
It awoke. The near silence, one would think usual for the middle desert, set off unease in the Creature. No smaller creatures, no crackling sun, not even a breeze. There was one thing though. It was muffled and far away. A yell. No—a long continuous scream. It rotated toward the opening of the crag and spotted the source, though it hurt to look. It was the brightest bright but at the same time the deepest void imaginable. It hurt to look at and once the Creature locked it’s eyes on it, it could feel it. The Stare.
The Great, a deep god with no rulers or family had never been challenged in its infinite existence. He ruled over his rolling desert how he please and was quite pleased when he spot a Creature formed in it. Something to play with, to interact and torture and destroy. But it ran after blessing it with his gaze. How dare it.
The Creature’s gut, wherever it may have been, sank. It had to run, slow as it was. The night was in full swing and it was happy for it. It began that now natural process—thinking of moving and it’s body obeying. It pushed forward trying to set itself moving as directly away from the Great as possible. The distant scream grew less and less muffled.
The Great was hurt. Was angry. The Creature wanted to run, he would give chase; even blessing the chase with his physical form.
After an hour of focused movement, the Creature felt proud with its progress. It took another movement forward and decided to check on its pursuer. It could see it’s form now. A shocking sight, a human like figure locked in the air, legs and arms dangling unused. The skin wrapped around its form shriveled and the brightest white it was near blinding. The head rigid and it’s long thin hair floated as if underwater. It’s mouth gaped in its piercing shriek and it’s eyes that deepest void. The Creature felt the mortality of its situation and panicked, moving forward once more. The Great was faster than it.
What a disgusting form. The Great could see the creature now. A lump of pink flesh no bigger than a large dog. Two disgusting limbs sprouted from its side similar to the long hind limbs of a grasshopper. It glanced at him, it’s single large whale eye cursing his image. What a pathetic creature, is it running faster?
The growing wail was haunting the Creature. Its hopelessness was setting in deeper and deeper and more hopeless. It wanted to wail as well but could find where from it would. All it could do was quicken its pace but even in the cool of the night, it’s muscles and tendons were beginning to burn and tire. It wanted to live though it only knew pain. It wanted to feel that comfort again.
The Creature knew it was the end when it felt the whirlwind surrounding the Great. The scream was the only sound that existed now. It hadn’t dared yet look back for fear of wasted effort, but now it knew it was all wasted. The Great grew closer and was so close now it could feel the heat of his glow. The Creature knew it was time to face him.
The sight had become worse, the flesh on the Great flapped and swirled in its maelstrom. The abyss of the screeching jaw seemed broken and detached from the skull that housed it. Light was sucked into the gaping eye sockets so harshly it tore the surrounding skin with it. When the Creature presented itself, the screaming stopped abruptly. The Greats head snapped to look directly at it. The Creature thought it might address him, maybe explain its existence or offer it some words on condolences.
The Great obliterated the Creature. How dare it run, how dare it make him use his physical form, how dare it be such an ugly thing. “Good riddance,” he thought, returning to his incorporeal form.
He sat there for some time. How desolate his desert seemed now. How long had he been there? How long had this summer lasted? Where was he? Then, out of the corner of his borderless eye, he spotted something. A Creature. He felt a memory, a comfort. A feeling of home. The creature felt his stare and fled. He gave chase.
Part 6 (Final)
So all of a sudden Holly and Victoria were... friends?!?!
As I went to bed with an exhausted Mo and let him hold me, I stewed. As I drove him to the airport early the next morning and faked sanity, I calculated. When I got home, I checked Victoria’s wooden stationary box to see if my suspicions were correct.
Because of Victoria’s haunting refusal to use texts or phone contact, I assumed she had asked Holly to dinner in person. Holly had left a note confirming that she would be able to come to a 7 PM dinner and that she was bringing wine. WTF. Holly was considerate? This was the feeling in your 20’s and seeing a past, piece-of-shit-boyfriend doing everything you ever nagged him about…but with someone else. You put in the work of making him better, yet you were able to reap zero rewards. I had done this for Holly. Apparently, Victoria had done this for me.
I needed to make it look like I hadn’t torn open and read Holly’s note to Victoria. I crumpled the old envelope and threw it into my bag, then I re-wrote Victoria’s name in Holly’s adolescent handwriting. I knew this too well from forging her signature on the kids' permission slips when she would black out. I re-sealed the envelope with my forgery, then wiped the silver pen with my skirt. No cunt germs for me.
Then I took a nap: for tonight, I would need rest.
When I woke up, at five o’clock, I meal prepped the dinner of a lifetime: power marinated some skirt steak (stealthy secret, I soak the meat in pomegranate juice), used the Cuisinart to fine chop a Shirazi salad, and then made my famous Japanese-Greek, lemon potato au gratin. Holly says she makes a famous pork chop; it’s not famous, it’s just the only thing she makes, once a year, so maybe by that standard it is infamous. Then I prepared our cocktail, a white elderflower Sangria with other secret ingredients: the rest of Holly’s pills ground down into a fine powder, a few of my own under the sink ingredients, then a heavy dose of coconut nectar and Everclear, because the Jersey shore is the Jersey shore no matter how much lipstick you put on it.
I separated out my own “clean” sangria and added just the light sprinkling of pill powder. For an outfit, I picked something that represented both Holly and Victoria: a white and hunter green gingham two piece, with puffed sleeves, ample mid-drift, and gratuitous cleavage. A mix of understated tradition with something too young and “for the streets,'' as Holly’s lovers would say. When the steak approached medium and the last of the stone fruit was sliced into the sangria, I made my way next-door. I knocked thrice.
Victoria answered the door, a plastered smile masking her horror. I pushed my way past her to set down the food, which had to be carried in two trips. Holly lacked the refinement to hide her shock- why are these dumb bitches surprised?! I live next door. The valium or the muscle relaxers allowed me to blow past these initial reactions and slide into the living room. Then I made my greeting,
“Hiiiii ladies! Sorry I’m late! But I have sangria!”
More surprise. Victoria generously poured goblets for the three of us. They partook in drinks because guzzling and staring into their cups allowed them to avoid my intense eye contact. What unhinged people will never, ever admit, is that when everyone around them is scared… It. Is. So. Fun.
Victoria took the reins on the conversation. “Sorry, I forgot you were coming.”
Too loudly and over joyously, I responded, “Suuurrre. Doesn’t matter. I brought dinner.”
“Looks yummy,” Holly said, her words ever so slightly tainted by sarcasm.
The thanklessness. I responded with something I would say back to her children, “How about we change that attitude to one of gratitude. Ya dumb bitch.”
She gasped. I sauntered over and slapped her. HARD. Victoria was afraid to intervene, so she dutifully refilled our sangria. Goodness this was turning out to be an amusing dinner.
“I know you sent that email!” Holly accused.
“Ding! Ding! Ding! Ladies and gentlemen, contrary to popular belief, she’s not braindead!” I retorted. The absence of the conscientious middle-woman standing between my thought and utterance was exhilarating. If your friend is an idiot, tell them. 10/10 highly recommend.
Victoria let out a suppressed giggle. Holly stared at her, doe-eyed and hurt.
I continued with the show, I was simply having too good of a time. “What?! It’s funnnnnny!” Then I directed my attention to Victoria, “And how long would you say, this has been going on.” I was referring to this betrayal and sham of a friendship, what the hell could these women have in common?
Victoria got timid. How utterly boring. So Holly responded for her, “We actually got together to discuss your intervention.”
At this I started laughing and couldn’t stop.
Victoria had finally worked up the courage and braved on through my raving laughter, “We’re worried about you, Lee.”
“I’ll bet you are…” And before I could continue on with a more clever response, both women had passed out, faces resting on Victoria’s breakfast nook.
I quietly carried the serving platters of dinner back to my house, and laid them on my glorious dining room table, right above the schools of koi that served as table stands. I took a step back, then did a leisurely stroll through my home; she was finished and she debuted marvelously. She was everything I had envisioned and more. I didn’t want to sell. I wanted to spend my life with her. Only thing missing was a set of candelabras for the dining room… Once more, I raptured in my home, this labor of love before entering my closet and putting on the neon bikini Holly gave me in Miami. Silly me, I had placed it at the bottom of my cover ups drawer.
When I came back into Victoria’s kitchen, the women remained still, drugged up. Holly drooled on the table and stared into space. They looked like children. Awwww, my little babies. I took out Victoria’s fine china, maybe a present from Esmé, or who knows, but I took out fresh beeswax candles, inserted them into their silver candelabras and lit them. Then I gathered the notes between the women, in Holly’s purse and Victoria’s secretary, and torched them before placing the still burning papers directly on the regency mahogany table which swiftly caught a low flame. What a shame about that gem of a table.
Veins protruded from Victoria’s head and spittle formed at her mouth as she strained, “Ummm…Ummm, Puhh-llllease. Don’t.” Even in her last breaths, she failed to assert herself.
I put my hand to her mouth. “I forgive you.” I told her as I walked out the door.
Wait, the candelabras! The missing pieces. Victoria’s parting gifts to me. I swiped them and placed them on my dining table before heading into the ocean.
I had swam about a quarter mile from the shore when I saw the flames leaping high enough for me to also notice the smoke rising from the back, south-most turret . By the time I got back to shore and called 911, Victoria’s kitchen and dining room were entirely engulfed. And when the fire fighters arrived, I was doing my part, futilely trying to tame the flames with a garden hose.
The firefighters did the best they could but unfortunately couldn’t spare Victoria’s house. And because the houses were so thoughtfully divided with ample room in between the two spaces, my house remained untouched. Although I had to wash the curtains several times to get the stench of smoke out.
I cried and shrieked when the charred bodies of Victoria and Holly were extracted from next door. And when the fire was fought and the men remained, I reheated dinner for the fighters and served them in the yard. One young gentleman asked why I had prepared such a meal for just myself. I explained,
“I planned on bringing dinner to my girls after my swim.”
He nodded and said, “I wish my wife had a friend like you.”
I smiled and thanked him. To have given him my number to pass on to his wife would have been tacky right then.
Sometimes I wish there had been a punchier ending to it all. Victoria wasn’t a ghost and Holly wasn’t a witch. They burned like regular women. Vic’s side of the house, so well built, had retained its structure, and went to auction a month after the fire. I had first dibs. The deaths were ruled a homicide committed by one Holly DiSorrento because the little blood derived from Victoria’s charred body showed poisoning by pills all prescribed to Holly. An attorney for the state later outlined that Holly’s motive was a melange of jealousy and insanity, believing she was a failed mother and wife, her young lover dead, she took out her frustration on the only people left, her friends. The attorney detailed that Holly’s original plan was to kill both Victoria and me, but she unintentionally lit the fire prematurely and the rest is history.
The papers and press went wild with the Holly DiSorrento story. She was Jersey’s Amy Fisher, but more beautiful and entertaining. The people who are pretty in life are remembered as gorgeous in death. Perhaps because Joey didn’t want to drag his wife’s name further into the trash, if that was even possible, the email about Archie never surfaced in court. Outside court, an arrangement was worked out between Joey, Tina, and me, in which the girls could stay with me whenever they pleased. After all, it’s what Holly would have wanted.
So that is what I am doing with Victoria’s side of the house, I mean, my side. Rooms for Bianca, Gia, Angelina, and Serafina, and the turrets can be used for a library and a play area. Although I plan on giving the girls some autonomy on the design–they can choose the colors of their bedrooms–the rebuilding and decor will primarily be my job. Those poor girls have had to deal with enough. Dr. Tolzbad thinks it may be time to revisit the idea of a memoir. First I walked on water, then I walked past a fire. Something about my relationship to the elements…I don’t know I’m not really a writer. Maybe once I am able to work past the survivor’s guilt. Dr. Tolzbad, or Rachel, as I now call her since we have gotten closer, has been instrumental in my recovery from the murder-suicide of two of my closest friends, although it is safe to say I may never fully recover. In this way, I feel like my home: I am a work in progress, burned and bruised, but nothing some shiplap and a fresh roll of wallpaper can’t cover up.
Neon lights followed me everywhere I went.
I drove across the countryside of Nevada, heading out East into the lone, empty desert on winding roads bare of any other drivers. The desert night was cool, and I let it breeze through my windows as I stared at the millions of shining stars above. I was in the night, driving without a sense of direction ever since I left my home to experience something ‘extraordinary’. That might have meant driving alone in the loneliest parts of The United States, but for me, it was perfect.
The radio was silent as my headlights slowly illuminated someone on the side of the road, and I almost swerved out of the way preemptively, thinking it must have been someone trying to rob me. As I slowed down and saw the person, I realized it was a woman, sticking her thumb out, holding a suitcase and standing beside the road as she flagged me down. I slowly pulled over into the side of the road, rolling down my passenger side window.
“Are you lost?” I asked. “Or a hitchhiker?”
“Hitchhiker’s a rough term,” she said. “I’d prefer to be called… a traveler. Mind if I join you?”
“It’d be fine,” I said, unlocking the door as she sat beside me.
I got a good look at the girl and realized she was my age, but looked a few years older. She had the whitest, smoothest hair I’d ever seen, it seemed natural, tied into a half-bun and round, cute dark glasses over her bright purple eyes. She was wearing a tracksuit and necklace, and I noticed she had tan, shining skin. She had some sort of accent, an unrecognizable way of speaking that made her voice sound like a smooth, slow echo.
“You’re not some kind of serial killer, right?” She laughed nervously. “I’ve never really done this before… I thought I’d have to wait all week to flag someone down.”
“I guess today’s your lucky day,” I shrugged, continuing to drive. “What were you doing out here?”
“...Got stranded. I didn’t want to go as far as I could, so I waited.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Same direction you are, the road barely veers off. Why were you driving this late?”
“I…. just wanted to clear my head,” I replied. “A lot’s been going on.”
“I get it,” she said. “I never got your name?”
“Lane.” I replied.
“Lane… that’s interesting. I’m Angel.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Not from around here,” she said. “What about you?”
“The Sunshine State,” I replied. “It ain’t so sunny over there.”
She chuckled. “I hear it’s not like it is in the movies.”
We talked well beyond the hour the sun had set, as we spotted a homey-looking motel on the side of the road, its neon lights blinking and humming softly in the night, with a ‘twenty-four-seven’ sign half-operating.
“Lets stay there for the night… if that’s fine with you, I guess.”
“The motel?” I asked. “It looks pretty run down.”
“Looks ‘cozy’, really.” Angel said. “Or do you usually sleep in the car?”
I sighed as I slowly pulled into the driveway, walking out and stretching as I saw how tall Angel was. She was only about five-foot-four, but had this… feeling, aura surrounding her that made her seem, feel, bigger than she really was.
Was it comfort or anxiety?
I still have no idea.
“I’ll pay,” Angel said, as we walked up to the receptionist's desk. “It was my idea anyway.”
“It’s fine, it’s my treat.” I said, pulling out a few bills I stuffed in my pocket.
I paid for our room as the lady at the front desk pointed to a door on the first floor, down the hall as I shuffled inside, relieved to find no cockroaches skittering about.
“It’s clean enough,” I said. “There’s only one bed, you want me to sleep on the couch?”
“Lane, you’re too nice sometimes. If anyone should snooze on the couch, it’s me. You’ve been so… generous, unless you just wanted to, you know, sleep with me?”
My face turned red as I chuckled. “No, it’s not that, really. I mean, you look great, a mysterious woman in the night, but truth is, I’ve just been feeling a bit lonely on my trip. I wanted a buddy along for the ride, and you’re nice to talk to.”
“Aw, thank you.” Angel said. “Really, I’ll make up for it sometime. Does the TV work?”
“Sure, I’m not really up for a movie tonight, though. Give it a minute, I can download something on the phone for us tomorrow?”
“Sounds great to me,” Angel replied. “I’m pretty exhausted myself, I was out in the desert all night.”
I lied down beside her as she passed out, but I stayed up for a few more minutes, looking at yet another unfamiliar, cold ceiling. Who was she? Why was she so… friendly with me? I couldn’t help but sense an ulterior motive, but the company was welcome, and I assumed she would have killed me by now if she had intended to.
No, she was…
I woke up very slowly.
It was the dead of night, but I noticed the window was open, letting in the cold, desert air as I sighed and prepared to get up. My blood turned into ice as I stood up, feeling fear and confusion beyond anything I had ever experienced in my life. In the darkest corner of the room, standing perfectly still, was a dark, unmoving figure that appeared humanoid, but hard to make out in the darkness. Its head scraped the ceiling, it was so fucking tall and gangly-looking.
I slowly turned to Angel, who was still sleeping, softly snoring as she sprawled out on the bedsheets. Her eyes suddenly shot open, and when they stared into me, I saw this primal instinct in them I had never seen in Angel before, and even though we only knew each other for less than twenty-four hours, it scared me. She stared right into my eyes, then her eyes drifted to the shape in the room, and she put a finger on my lip before all hell broke lose. Angel jumped out of the bed faster than I could see, moving towards the monster.
The lights flickered on and off as everything exploded into action, as the lights turned on and off, I could see Angel’s face… change. In between the glimpses of light I saw her entire head open up into dozens of petal-like jaws snapping shut, filled with tentacles and rotating rows of sharp, needle-like teeth as she wrestled with the figure, which seemed to phase in and out of reality.
What the fuck.
Angel pushed the figure into the wall, as it crumbled, and the fight broke out outside of the motel, as Angel’s jaws ripped and tore at the creature’s dark, gooey flesh until it stopped moving.
“What the fuck,” I said, slowly backing up.
Angel, or what I thought was her, was on all fours like an animal, and slowly stood up as the pieces of her face and neck closed up and reverted back to normal, as she started to approach me.
“What the fuck, get the fuck away from me!!” I yelled, backing into the wall as I fumbled for the doorknob, sliding open as I ran down the hallway.
“Lane, wait-” I heard her say.
As I ran out of the motel, I could see blood splattering the walls along with a few limbs, and the decapitated corpse of the receptionist. I guess we weren’t first pickings. I jumped into my car, fumbling for my keys when I realized I had left them in the fucking motel, as I locked my doors and hid under my dashboard. I could hear Angel’s footsteps slowly approach, as she talking in her calm, soothing voice.
“It’s just me,” she said. “I won’t hurt you. Please get out of the car.”
“What the fuck are you?” I asked. “Don’t come near me, don’t fucking come near me, holy shit.”
She was holding my keys, and looked normal as ever as she unlocked my car, and I jumped into the passenger seat and ran out on the opposite side of the car, keeping the car in between us.
“What the fuck was that just now?!” I yelled. “I saw you… your whole face opened up like a flower, you had teeth and tentacles and shit coming out of your throat, what the fuck?”
“Just calm down,” Angel pleaded. “Please? I’m coming over to your side of the car, slowly. Don’t run, you can trust me.”
I watched her walk towards me as I leapt for the passenger seat door, swinging it open as I pulled out the pistol out of the glove compartment and turned the safety off before I pointed it at her from ten feet away.
In the weeks that followed, after I finished a guest room in a cream that felt bland until I unfurled a muted and tasteful leopard rug and added the chinoiserie screens between the bed and ensuite bathroom at an angle, I worked on the dining room. Shiplap molding would frame hand-painted, soft, jungle scenes; I found a silk Chinese lantern to illuminate the space, and a thick green glass, ten-seater, dining table, propped up by golden schools of koi fish connected by imperceptible but sturdy rods. I awaited a red crystal bar cart, so gaudy it was debonair.
More tragic than watching Holly conceal an affair with her under-age paramour, was hearing about Holly concealing her sadness at the death of said paramour. The amount of pills she had to consume to pretend that the washed up body of Archie Matthews was a run of the mill, Monmouth county occurrence made her personality something worse than selfish…dull. It is a true surprise when the person used to sucking all the air out of the room has the air sucked out of them. Tina told me that a dead-eyed Holly open-mouth drooled during a pool screening of Three Ninjas. I felt too guilty to laugh.
Victoria returned to the soft-footed silence she had been in before I had settled into Sandpiper Lane. Mo was confused, my bosom buddy was nowhere to be found, but he lit up when she would deliver treats like rich lobster dip with homemade tortilla chips. He was amused by the notes system I recounted to him and before our dinners, he would suggest inviting her. I would pivot by explaining that time with him was a rarity, and that was what I cherished. Once I almost broke down and scribbled “miss you” on the back of a gas bill and was about to slip it under her door when I thought better. These ravenous female friendships had a pattern of getting me into trouble and I was ten dining room chairs and two candelabras away from finishing my masterpiece. After that, maybe…just maybe…I would consider reigniting my friendship with Victoria. I would check on Holly and make sure she wasn’t fully comatose. Perhaps I could return her many favors and treat her to a spa day.
On Mo’s last night in town before he left for Dubai, he stepped out for sunflowers for my study (a hackneyed choice on his part) and gamay for dining al fresco. The crystal bar cart arrived, and Mo and I spent hours constructing it together. I hadn’t felt this close to him since the early days of our relationship, before we found out about my infertility and we excitedly tried for a baby. I had forgotten the feeling of being able to create something together. The project had me starting dinner late and therefore dining late, and indoors. We didn’t care much, Mo and I were getting along so well and the finer a look he had at the details of my work, the methodology behind my aesthetic choices, an admiration for me and kindling of respect grew between us. The pool, Holly, life, had diminished a joie de vivre in me…but he saw it coming back.
As I roasted a lemon chicken and prepared an herbaceous green salad, he foraged Facebook Marketplace for the dining room chairs, holding my overall aesthetic top of mind. It had been so long since we were friends like this and working on a shared artistic project; he was contributing to the fire burning for the house, and instead of dismissing my dreams as too lofty he started following the thread of possibilities… What if we sold this house and started the process all over again? With him traveling so much, maybe we could move to another state? The architecture and pricing of upstate New York… I realized, maybe I didn’t need Holly or Victoria at all*.* And just like Mo had sauntered up to me all those years ago at a bar in Greenwich village and confidently told me he was taking me out to dinner, tomorrow, that fearlessness… he ravished me, again.
On Facebook Marketplace… he found exactly ten Ming dynasty pottery chairs with accompanying jade velvet cushions.
The rush and thrill in his eyes was all the reminder I needed that fifteen years ago, I chose right in binding myself to my best friend, the only friend I needed. My first choice movers were busy but my third choice crew was free and Mo, a whore for backup plans, groped me as I secured the pick up time tomorrow afternoon. As we scrapped our plates with rustic bread to sop up sauce, we high-fived. When we were on the same page, we made the best team. He asked if I needed help cleaning up, and I was so over the moon about the chairs I wanted to expend the energy so I could be tired for bed. The chairs turned me on so much, maybe I could return the favor with a committed Holly-style blowjob (one where I made myself choke for a second, for his ego).
I loaded the dishwasher daydreaming of what our next project would be. Although I had been deterred from going to the south in the past, not ideal for Asians, perhaps times had changed. Perhaps I could take on a Gothic revival in Savannah next? Could I restart in Paris— a pied a terre?! I had loaded the dishwasher with Zillow or le Zillow dreams. And then I heard the voices. Actual voices, Victoria and Holly uproariously laughing. I listened closer. This couldn’t be real. Maybe distance made the imagination grow wilder? No, these were my friends… sorta… in deep conversation with each other.
Despite my excellent hearing, the space between walls had to be at least a foot and a half. I ran to my study to get my new victrola, and pulled it apart. I positioned the widest part of the horn to the wall and the base to my ear. The laughing had stopped.
Holly was talking, and deducing from the space between her breaths, pacing.
“I know how paranoid this is going to sound, but I think she was the person who sent the email to Joey.”
It seemed like there was a familiarity of conversation reserved for long standing friendships.
Victoria chimed in, “Leelee’s disturbed, not malicious.”
Somehow the use of my most intimate nickname between the two of them salted the wound.
“Maybe. No. You’re right.” Holly hummed on.
Then from Victoria, “The part that hurts the most is how she hasn’t even acknowledged the loss of my Esmé. All she does is talk about you. And of course…the house.”
And then from Holly, sympathy…no…empathy, “I’m so sorry.” And then a long pause which I knew was an embrace.
I couldn’t throw anything; they would hear it and I would never risk a single fragile treasure in my home over these…these…cunts…CUNTS!
My memory of the following week was unreliable, tainted by fury, my faulty brain, and a little substance. It is however, the best I can do.
After Holly left, Victoria and I gossiped about her with fervid intoxication. Holly had more than substantiated everything I had already told Victoria, more than lived up to her legend. Her brief entry and exit was epic. Victoria rushed for the window as she was leaving, and said she saw Archie in the car. How was she planning on shutting Serafina up about that? Holly’s presence brought me and Victoria even closer.
After Victoria left, everything escalated. As I replayed a mash-up of Holly’s War and Peace length voice notes, Serafina’s accusations of witchcraft, and Holly’s damning words about my motherhood insecurities, I worked myself up, past the cliff’s edge of destruction and into the sea of revenge. I opened my laptop, turned on my VPN, and routed my IP address to be in Costa Rica. I created a fake IP address with a fake name and fired off the email. In case Serafina hadn’t done her job and exposed Holly for the trash she was, someone needed to do so.
Your wife is cheating on you with Archibald Matthews- he’z a nineteen year old boi. Look into her lies, including a condo in Miami, ya cuck.
The change in diction was in case all tech failed, this still could absolutely not be traced back to me. Before guilt could set in, I took a mix of sleeping pills and anti-anxiety meds (a small portion of the olive branch Holly had shoved into my purse). This is when reality and dreams start to blur. I remember getting up to pee several times, my body feeling as if it were made up of lead and gravity dragging me to the floor. In the bathroom…in the hallway… I could see construction dust forming blood-tinged, circular shapes. Was this the Ambien or the Xanax or the combination of both?
I picked up a FaceTime from Mo, and he seemed worried, asked me why I was in bed and so out of it at 9:30, and I asked if he, who I kept referring to as “sweet pea baby,” wanted a lullaby, and if he resented the fact that we didn’t have children. I believe these events actually happened, I know by looking at the time stamps that flush me with hot humiliation. Then, I remember my body feeling light (or just regular compared to the heaviness from before), and at the window catching Victoria walking in the yard in a circle holding a burning stick, incense? I called out to her but she ignored me, which had to have been a dream because she would never do that. Then I was opening my gym locker with combination 0333, I always used this code and only I knew it. Inside the locker, my phone displayed many missed calls from Holly. And several voice notes. I started one: she was manically asking where I was, then PITCH BLACK.
Then I remember Victoria rifling through my closet as she held up my iPhone, open to an album my phone had made of Holly and me, on repeat. Also a dream. Victoria refused to handle technology, something about her constitution, and how she couldn’t sleep with too much blue light exposure. Then I was back to that day in the pool, now underwater, but Timothée Chalamet pulled me out of the water and asked to see the house on Sandpiper Lane: he’d heard how spectacular it was looking. I blushed, flattered. Definitely a dream, although he was a client of Drawbridge Capital when I was working there and had come into the office a handful of times.
At one point in this series of fever dreams/ memories/ reality? I smelled smoke so I called out, “fire!” Victoria came to my bedside and lulled me back to sleep, running her fingers through my hair, telling me that I was safe and I was her “sweet pea baby”.
Well boys and girls, don’t mix your blue pills and red pills, and if you do, I advise you turn your phone off and hide it in a place only Sober You would know.
When I woke up, my brain bloated and my body dehydrated, I found Victoria talking to Mo on my iPad. What was she doing here and why was she on my iPad?
“She’s up!” Exclaimed Victoria as I walked toward my husband on the device.
“Are you okay?” Mo inquired, concerned.
“Yeah,” I reassured him. Then to both of them, “What happened last night?” I took the iPad from Victoria, peeved she had let herself in this early, was talking to my husband, and taking away my inability to be vulnerable and hungover.
“Ummm, a lot.” She responded. “You were…ummm… out of sorts.” She lowered her voice so that Mo couldn’t hear and said, “You sort of paced the yard… and ummm… you wanted to change outfits…and then you tried to, like, light one of your outfits on fire.”
“I can’t hear you,” said Mo then, “but, I’m glad you’re okay and that Victoria is there.”
I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I had the underlying feeling I was being lied to. I couldn’t exactly make sense of the night either, not enough to defend myself at that moment, so I went along with the ruse being engineered by Victoria, the woman I thought was my friend.
I looked at Mo on the screen. “I’m sorry I worried you honey. Both of you.” And hung my head heavy, eyes lifted apologetically to my friend and husband, “I couldn’t sleep and I took an Ambien. Obviously it didn’t go down well.”
Mo let out a sigh of relief or exasperation. “Taylor is booking me on the next flight back, once we are through with the negotiation.”
“Really Mo, I’m fine. It was an accident. Take your time coming back.” I rubbed Victoria’s back as I reassured Mo. He looked worried in the way he did in the weeks after the pool, and that worried me.
Finally Victoria took the cue and helped me manage my husband, “Pharmaceuticals are so strong nowadays, it would be easy to, you know…ummm… miscalculate the dosage. I’m embarrassed to admit, but I’ve, ummm, done it myself. Lee is safe with me.” She gave me an encouraging half-smile, which I felt not at all encouraged by.
I looked back to Mo. “Call you later, sweetheart?” And he said his goodbyes and hung up FaceTime.
Now that it was just the two of us, I could speak plainly. “Is that all that happened last night? I feel like I’m missing something.”
“What is it?” I pushed. “Please tell me what is going on.”
Tentatively, she said, “I don’t know if your pills agreed with you because, you got sick and didn’t quite…ummm… make it to the bathroom.”
Oh God. I didn’t remember any of this but that didn’t ward off the mortification baked into her claim. “I am so, so sorry I put you through that. All of it. You shouldn’t have had to clean up after my mess.”
She softened and came over and hugged me. I stiffened and gazed at her hands on my back; they had stopped fidgeting, picking at her cuticles. Then, entirely dropping the stutters and ummms, she boasted,
“That’s what friends are for.”
A chill went down my spine. I didn’t like any bit of this. Some Keyser Söze force had taken over Victoria…or maybe… the force had been there all along and for the brief period I had known her, Victoria was the new entity that emerged. Maybe it was the throbbing headache coupled with intermittent sweating, but I needed this stranger out of my home. I was petrified at her capacity to lie and orchestrate whatever shrouded secret she carried, something malignant. I retaliated within the confines of this delicate social dance:
“You probably need a real night of sleep after dealing with my crazy ass.” I faked a laugh.
She played it equally cool, “Shall I make us brunch? Your stomach must be empty after the night you have had,” offering an equally fake chuckle coupled with a heavy hint of condescension.
“Please don’t go through the trouble. I can heat up some soup. Go. Really. Really.” I emphasized the last word, adding my own dash of superiority.
Eventually I was able to usher her back into her side of the distorted reflection of my home. Was I wrong about Victoria? Was my thinking twisting on itself, manipulating one of the points of goodness in my life? I was realizing how little I knew my new best friend. If she was manipulating me, what was she after?
The only thing I could think to do was retrace my steps, the sequences in my dream (minus the Chalamet flirtation). Simultaneously I could trace Victoria’s proposed account of the night. Somewhere in between the haze and the deception rested a truth.
As I circled the yard, a light dusting of bright red powder surrounding our star-shaped houses, a wicked revelation surfaced: whoever had walked there last night had marked a ring-shaped path enclosing the whole structure… made a pentagram.
I studied the iPhone memories video that I remember Victoria watching from my dream. It was compiled from the day that Holly surprised me and flew me down to Miami for a spa day at the Setai Hotel. Holly and I, high on valium, seductively danced for each other in our robes, our neon bikinis (that she also purchased) peeking through as we swished and swayed the folds of cotton waffle. The photo and video collage ended with a memory of Holly and me, keeled over, laughing so hard tears streamed down our faces. This A.I. contrived compilation made me sentimental for my former friend. We saved…well, stole, the robes as a memento. I scoured my closet for the waffle cotton cover up, my hot pink string bikini, usually easy to find, because the first thing I meticulously organized was my closet. Bikinis paired and ordered in colorful rolls on the bottom drawer. Robes folded in squares and their belts tied them up in bowes like presents on one of the island shelves, yes, my closet has an island. I was making a profound mess of the one area of my home that wasn’t a work in progress. Still nothing.
My heart was racing. A tangent from the plan, I needed to call Cathy from the estate sale, get the bottom of my bronze slipper roll top bath tub. In between rings, I drummed my fingers on my legs, worsening my uneasiness.
When Cathy answered, I babbled through the whole, “remember me from the estate sale, I bought the tub” explanation, and darted straight for a line of questioning about her mom. Was her mom’s name Estelle like Victoria suggested? Or was it Esmé, Victoria’s long lost friend.
A loneliness in Cathy’s voice suggested she was again pleased she had someone to talk to, even if it was a lunatic on a spiraling mission dredging up the subject of her dead mom. “Yes, my mother’s name was Estelle. Did you know her?”
Overwhelming relief ran through me. “No. My friend Victoria knows her from town.”
Cathy’s voice perked up. “Oh Victoria! What a lovely woman. I don’t know her well, but she brought over food every day after my grandma Esmé’s funeral.”
I shuddered. “Esmé was your grandmother?”
“The best grandmother. She passed away a few weeks before Mom. Mom and Gran were the best of friends, maybe why they died so close to each other. Your tub belonged to Gran, she passed it down to Mom, and well, I couldn’t exactly lug it to Point Pleasant. I live in a walk up.”
I had stopped listening. Victoria, my new pal in her 30’s, was best friends, to the Holly-eth degree, to a woman in her 90’s, perhaps over 100?!? Who the hell…what the hell had I let into my life?
I raced to the city at breakneck speed. Back to the spot where it all started. The pool. And before that, the gym locker room. Locker number 33. Code 0333.
Sitting centered on the bottom of the locker lay a lilac envelope. Victoria’s fresh linen scent wafted over me. The temperature in the room dropped or maybe I had broken into a cold sweat. With trepidation, I carefully opened the letter. There in Victoria’s thick-inked cursive:
My bedroom. The dusty rose, Venetian plaster walls finished. My wooden four poster bed draped with ivory canopy linens, blowing in the wind. My window was open. On top of my black lacquer nightstand, with mother of pearl inlay featuring Geishas in the countryside, was a ceramic cup of water and a vase of fresh cut hydrangeas. I searched for the letter. Nothing. Perhaps that had been a dream or a hallucination; the only difference being the former transpired usually while asleep, the latter usually while awake. The problem was I was struggling to tell the difference these days. My call log confirmed that I’d made an outgoing call to Cathy.
The events or non-events of the last day or so left me with few but defined options. 1) I needed space from both Holly and Victoria while I tried to figure out what was up, down, and real. 2) I was to tell no one of my quite serious doubts regarding my sanity.
While I let go of mental abandon, all my interactions palpitated with the ambient mantra of: act normal, act normal, act normal. And that I did. Normal. I committed to peace. I refused to go back to perceived lunacy and to engage in the gentle pitying conversations from people who think you are on the verge of breaking when the banter moves past pleasantries. I remembered shortly after the pool when Mo would watch me butter my bread with concern as he sacrificed work travel to look after his wife who was, “going through something…”. I wasn’t going back to that. I refused to give up the house. She was my purpose.
For the next several weeks, or maybe months (routine had blurred time), I distanced myself from the women. I made sure to call Mo twice a day, post coffee and post sunset walk so he could sense my clarity of mind. I pushed the contractors and movers to help me complete the study in the North-facing turret. We custom fitted the doorway to fit a confessional door shipped from an Irish Abbey, giving the room a hallowed and secretive stroke. Then at a salvage yard in Red Hook, I found three stained glass window panels from an abandoned cathedral in Brazil, two illustrated emanating triangular rays of sunlight, one, an azul hued cresting wave. They fit seamlessly into the window panes and felt thematic but secular; I was building a workstation, my own place of worship for the curation of creation and a temple of mental stability.
Then we hung a Persian pendant with star-shaped light-holes above my bay window. The Turkish cushions and pillows fortuitously arrived and the reading nook was complete, so I ordered vintage editions of all the books a woman of my age should have read in order to be considered educated. The warm glow of the cosmos radiated on my face as I semi-ironically reveled in A Woman Destroyed.
Tina, needing someone to vent to over the drama in the DiSorrento household, started calling me every other day with updates. Maybe because I knew Holly or maybe because I was Asian too, she felt she could trust me. She understood that nothing she said would ever get back to the DiSorrentos. Tina, a vetted outsider, brought in to blend in, had the most salacious tidbits of gossip, spicing up my now-hermetic existence. Holly was contacted by an anonymous party who put in an all-cash offer on the Miami condo. She took it. Maybe Holly was finally getting clean, maybe she understood that her luck had run and to settle out while she could break even. She was on her best behavior, finally cluing into the fact that after over a decade of infidelity, her husband might be suspicious. She stayed in more often and had a projector and screen installed so the family could watch movies by the pool. Right now she was on a 90’s movie kick. Tina didn’t relate to the film choices so this became her much-needed nap time. She asked for a raise which was promptly granted. Serafina was talking often, her sentence formation was advanced for her years, and Joey began searching for gifted schools; several happened to be close to Monmouth county prompting the family to fully relocate. He ferried himself to work in the city anyway. Through these gossip sessions with Tina, I came to understand Holly was a person best experienced from afar.
Victoria was harder to take space from and easier to miss. I tore out a piece of composition notebook paper (I was done with the monogrammed stationery) and scribbled a note about a stomach bug, then later, a vague hormone issue, how I needed to use my remaining energy to finish the house. For the former, she brought over camomile tea and homemade shortbread about once a week. For my hormones, she responded by leaving a picnic basket of buttery fresh crab rolls on warm brioche paired with a homemade ginger elixir. I longed to head over, hug her, and share the latest in Holly revelations over a card game. Instead I dropped off a bottle of Whispering Angel rosé. And because she was a succubus from the Edwardian era who hadn’t frequented the likes of BevMo, the day after I received a lilac note with one inscription:
The next morning, when Mo returned from the Middle East, he was clearly flabbergasted by my progress on the house. It was cemented: I had found my calling and my consistency on the project reassured him that I had made a full recovery. He wouldn’t have to hide his wife anymore. Whatever I’d been going through, it was a phase and I was done with it. I made us croque madames, and while I sliced bread with the serrated knife, he stepped out to the plant nursery to look for lavender. We were officially over the hump.
That night, during sunset, on the beach in front of Holly’s insipid Cape Cod, Restoration Hardware model home, the inside as soulless as the outside, the children played a game of tag in the sand and Serafina wandered off to chase a flock of seagulls. As half of them flew away, the young girl, newly at a loss for words, shrieked in terror at the sight of the remaining birds gnawing away at the swollen body of Archie Matthews.
I didn’t end up going to Holly’s barbecue. Instead Victoria and I smoked a joint (her first) and miraculously got reservations to Spumante on the shore. And since ghosts couldn’t get high or split a Caesar salad, I confessed the whole tub story after the bronze beauty was delivered. She cackled like a banshee. She knew Cathy the cashier and her mom– Estelle, she said –and remarked what a serendipitous coincidence it was that I found the tub.
Things had even been settling down with Holly, who seemed even keeled when I told her, no, I wouldn’t be joining Mo, but I didn’t feel right going to her party, either. She claimed she understood and reminded me to take as much space as I needed.
I moved on to decorating my bedroom. I wanted to keep the original molding, but tear down the chintzy wallpaper and put up some rose-hued Venetian plaster. That’s as far as I got in my planning when two unrelated and dire circumstances arose. The first was Tina, Holly’s nanny calling, asking me if I could watch Serafina, Holly’s youngest. Tina, who had been with Holly since before we had even met, never called unless it was an emergency. The other surprise was, after a heavy sleeping pill and a gummy of the relaxing varietal, I had bid $50 a set of chinoiserie screens worth thousands of dollars, and the design gods had blessed me, because today I had won them… but only if I could pick up the screens within the hour. I was with Victoria when this was all unfolding, pun intended, so Victoria being the perfect friend she was, and an adoring fan of chinoiserie, told me she would happily watch little Serafina at my house while I picked them up, twenty minutes away. The whole excursion would take less than an hour.
Tina came over and gave me everything Serafina needed for the afternoon - a bag of snacks and a diaper bag. Serafina was almost four but refused to potty train, or speak outside of Mama, Dada, and Teen. Maybe she had nicknames for her three sisters that I was unaware of, having taken steps back from Holly and removed from the daily DiSorrento milestones. Tina said she had left messages with Holly explaining that she had to check-in with her son who had broken his arm back in Tenafly, but Holly had yet to respond and in fact she was nowhere to be found. Tina didn’t know who else to call. I told Tina to take care of her family and keep me updated. I was happy to watch Serafina and I’d figure out whether to pick up Angelina from day camp if we still couldn’t track down Holly later that day. Holly’s eldests, Bianca and Gia were at a sleepaway camp for tennis. And if you ask me, ten and twelve were too young to send kids to sleepaway camp.
Victoria pushed me to get the screens even though I wavered on their importance. “Me and Fina will be fine.” She tickled the child and Serafina giggled, then made an eating gesture with her little sausage fingers. “Do you want a sandwich?” Victoria asked her, the toddler eagerly bobbed her head. I told Serafina that Auntie would be back before she knew it and put some Cocomelon on for the pair. As I got into my car I could hear Victoria singing the Wheels on the Bus. The screens were in far better condition than I’d hoped and the man who sold them to me graciously helped me lift them into the back of my SUV. I called to check on Victoria and Fina, and she encouraged me not to hurry home, they were having too much fun. I didn’t really know Victoria’s history with children, it was something she never brought up, so I never pushed. I figured if she wanted to share, she would.
Doing well on time, I decided to bring them some Dunkin’ munchkins as a treat, so I pulled into the service area parking lot and ran in to grab a box and two iced lattes. I didn’t know how long we would need to babysit, and remembered that Vic was probably missing her afternoon tea. As I made my way back to the car and placed the munchkin box on the floor and each latte into a cupholder, I saw two teenagers in the alley, and from where I stood, it looked like one was strangling the other. More out of morbid curiosity than safety, I stepped closer and realized it was girl and a boy…fucking. And it wasn’t two teenagers, it was one teenager and a thirty-four-year old woman. It was Holly and Archie. I raced back to my car feeling disgusted and disturbed.
Then I reached into my underwear touching deeper inside myself…turned on. I couldn’t remember the last time I was this wet. They were too engrossed in each other to have noticed me.
I sped home, an erotic rage building inside me. I neglected the speed limit. Ignored the screens banging around the back of my car. Holly was so careless. Reckless. Narcissism was an understatement. I screeched into the driveway and slammed the door behind me. Victoria and Serafina jolted, but Vic gracefully kept going with their game of pretend. When I saw the little girl’s lip quiver I apologized, saying Auntie was sorry and that I had munchkins.
She wrapped her soft and sweaty arms around me and said, “Thank you Auntie. I love you.”
I squatted, my mouth agape. “What did you say?”
So she clarified, “I said, thank you Auntie and I love you.”
I looked to Victoria for answers. She shrugged and squinted her eyes at me, unsure of what the question was. Before I left, my goddaughter could barely say a single word, and for the most part was unresponsive when asked questions. I would have been lying if I’d said a small part of me didn’t worry about Serafina, but I’d made sure not to burden Holly with that worry. There was no way Holly could have handled my very rational concern. When I returned from a fifty-minute outing, here was a child forming rather articulate responses. I knelt down and looked her in the eyes.
“Fina, when did you start to talk?”
She tapped her finger on the corner of her mouth as if trying to nail down a date and time. “I started talking a few months ago, Auntie, but I think people only understood me… today!” Her voice went up at the end and she stuck her tongue out and let out a raspberry, the only four-year-old thing about the interaction.
“Vic, what happened while I was gone?” I asked, on the precipice of nervousness.
Sincerely bewildered, Victoria attempted to make sense of it, “I don’t know. I didn’t know she wasn’t talking before today. We have been chatting away since you left.” Then, she turned to Serafina, “right honey?”
“Right, Auntie Vickie,” Serafina confidently replied. Then another raspberry.
I can’t explain why, but in this moment I was overcome with fear. Something beyond my scope was happening. Whatever it was, was stronger than me.
The doorbell rang.
When I let Holly in, begrudgingly, Serafina’s expression soured, and the three of us all recoiled from Holly’s presence. Holly let out a quick litany of excuses about why she was late, which I artlessly dismissed. She didn’t even address Victoria.
“Fina! Mama’s back! Did you miss me? Are you ready to go?” Holly rhetorically asked her child, using the cringiest of baby voices that made my stomach turn.
Serafina literally raised an eyebrow. “No, I did NOT miss you. And I’m not ready to go!”
And she picked up the dolls she and Victoria had been using for their game of pretend.
“What is going on here?” Holly spewed, shocked. Then she directed a wrathful gaze at Victoria and me.
I tried to defend the situation with the truth. “She just started talking.”
Holly reached for the child but Serafina fought back…with all the strength in her little body, screaming escalating variations of NO: “Leave me alone mommy! I don’t like you mommy! I want to stay here! Leave me with Auntie Vicky! I want Auntie Lee!”
In her struggle, she kicked Holly straight across her nose. We heard a crack, and Holly’s nose started leaking blood.
“What the hell did you do to my child?” Holly demanded, blood streaming down her chin.
Before I could answer, Victoria cut in. “Maybe if you hadn’t been so concentrated on your affair with a minor, you could be, ummm, present for your children.”
Holly was speechless. So I thought. Then with a measured clarity she turned to me,
“You will never know what it means to be a mother.”
The first feeling that surfaced was sadness, that that was the crudest insult Holly, the simpleton, could muster.
And as Serafina clung to every surface with a death grip, making this as arduous a duel as could be, she murderously, yet discerningly wailed to her own failure of mom:
“You’re a witch. You’re a witch. YOU ARE A WITCH!”
It had been over two weeks Holly-free and because the contractors were busy with other parts of the house, the first room I felt comfortable decorating was the primary bathroom. Nearly three times the size of my bathroom in Tenafly, I felt this would be a formidable challenge, an exercise in finding my decorative voice. Nothing too modern, because it wouldn’t match the rest of the house. I gravitated toward a blue and white toile wallpaper, but longed to find a twist on this that wasn’t so Anglo. It wasn’t until I found a Hokusai-inspired toile that my aesthetic started taking shape. I wanted the house to be reflective of me, built on Americana with Asian and global roots - Sandpiper would also exhibit a playful boldness I had yet to step into within my personal style. The day after the wallpaper discovery, I found a Murano glass chandelier whose delicate, dangling slivers resembled feathers, and soon after that I came upon creamy, iridescent Peruvian tiles that would fan out like mermaid scales, repeating the waves from the wall paper. Later a pair of hand-carved, Balinese stone vessel sinks that a boutique hotel was unloading came on the market and I nabbed them.
Work had never been this enjoyable. It had been rewarding in the sense that it was validating to be good at something so quantifiable, but it was not an activity where I could lose track of time as easily as was happening now. This was flow, sans Adderall. I was living on such a high envisioning this bathroom coming together, as I patiently awaited for my treasures to arrive and managed the renovation construction on the rest of the house. But there was an abrupt record scratch when it came to what I would do about the bathtub. And the silence (along with Mo being on an extended work trip throughout the Middle East) ushered in thoughts of Holly.
I replayed her voice notes over and over in my head. How selfish I am. How judgmental I am. I am so condescending. How she is not an addict, but I view her as an addict, and that makes her feel awful. How maybe I am an addict…How boundaries are important to her. That one made me laugh out loud. How I was erratic and maybe that’s what led to the whole walking-into-the-pool situation while sleepwalking. Why did she always feel the need to re-recount what happened at the gym that day? Bitch, I know, I was the one who sleepwalked into the damn pool. How much she loved me. This one made me offer the first segment of a laugh that then teetered into a pool of dejection.
I had yet to respond outside of letting Holly know I got the message. Holly, always paranoid that Joey or the unknown masses, hungry to access her iPhone, had somehow tampered with her texts and emails, would spin out if she got no response. The least I could do was send her proof of receipt. Dr. Tolzbad told me not to follow my instinct and to defend myself–in fact, she encouraged me not to respond at all. This was my opportunity to escape someone who sought to embed herself so deeply in my life that it was destructive. When I informed Dr. Tolzbad that Holly was moving to Monmouth County, she advised me to ignore Holly. Dr. Tolzbad didn’t understand how small Monmouth County was.
I needed to find a tub.
When I stepped out to get a four PM pick-me-up at the general store in Fair Lawn, I saw that Victoria had dropped off ham biscuit sandwiches and potato salad along with one of her signature notes. The sight made me realize how hungry I was so I ducked back inside to devour the bounty like a barbarian because my kitchen was devoid of everything including utensils. The buttery biscuits, flakey yet pillowy, were the best I’d ever had, so when I crept back to write Victoria a “Thank you. You are a mind reader” note, I made sure to ask how she made those heavenly carbohydrates. I set the note down on the porch, and just as I was opening my front door, I heard someone say,
“I made them.”
I yelped. How was she always sneaking up on me? “Sorry, you surprised me,” I said.
Victoria, who lived in the Victorian, was stunning like the daughter of a robber baron. She had pore-less, clear, café au lait skin, gray eyes, and jet black hair in a flawless braid under a wide-brim hat. She wore a lace skirt, corset-type bodice, and a shawl to shield her delicate shoulders from the uncomfortable sun. Everything about her was nearly perfect, like from a different era, except for the nails bitten down to the nubs which she drew attention to with her incessant, anxious fidgeting. She wasn’t at all “older” like the townies had mentioned, maybe forty tops, but she looked to me to be in her early thirties. Her commitment to the Midnight in Paris aesthetic at the Jersey shore was nothing short of admirable.
She invited me in for a beverage and because I needed her biscuit recipe and wanted to see what she had done with the almost mirror image of my home, I gladly accepted. As she opened her own door, I saw that she was trembling.
Three-three-two Sandpiper Lane was a portal into the turn of the century. Not Y2K, the freaking 1900s. I’m not kidding when I say that one of her stoves was a coal burner. It made the process by which she or an invisible support staff who made the biscuits seem that much more painstaking. I told her I would need time to take her space in; it was a dream. She seemed flattered. “Oh, um, thank you.” She had a halting way of speaking. Where her letters were confident, it felt like she had to work up the courage to say anything. All the furnishings in the house were family antiques so I got no leads on where to shop, but viewing her home made me feel old-money inspired. Molding around the chandeliers! I felt like a rube; that hadn’t even crossed my mind.
In as kind a tone as one could offer a person as stupefied as I obviously was, she noted that I seemed “preoccupied.” I think that was polite society’s code for stressed out, and Victoria was definitely from the most refined of societies, and proof they still existed. Maybe she did a quick google search on a hidden computer (there was zero tech in sight), maybe behind the triptychs and tapestries were hidden shelves and drawers where she held iPads and too-long internet cables like the rest of us mortals. Maybe she found out about the pool incident. If so, she was a great actress and didn’t let on. And then, because I was not from polite society and it had been almost two years since I’d been required to keep up with small talk… it all came spilling out, the dispute with Holly, the pool situation and what led up to it, you know, so she wouldn’t think I lacked self awareness.
She seemed exuberant that someone was sharing with her like this. In a strange way, I felt as if I was the first person who had opened up to her. Maybe I was too much in my head about the whole thing. When I finished my abbreviated diatribe, she offered some reassuring words,
“We all have a Holly. Mine is Esmé.”
And because I was so relieved that this stranger didn’t think I was bat-shit looney, the only thing I could think to say was, “What a pretty name.” I meant it. Esmé was so unique. A perfect name for a daughter. I asked her if she wanted to see what I was doing with the house, and with the alacrity of someone who had never gone anywhere in her life, she exclaimed YES and bounded out of her home toward mine. For a woman who seemed old enough to be described as “older,” she had a lot of sixth grade energy.
After seeing the plans for the house and my Pinterest boards with the Hokusai-inspired wallpaper and feather-like chandelier glass; she caught the high that my frenzy of Auction Ninja and Chairish purchases had ignited. Victoria saw my vision, and as the first person who I had presented the vision to (remember Mo was abroad and Holly was an energy vampire), and since Victoria was someone who could have had Architectural Digest editorialize her house yesterday, her utterances of “brilliant” and “how fantastically original” filled me up with a pride that my very first six-figure-bonus at Drawbridge Capital couldn’t even graze.
Inside my studio size bathroom, she did a patient 360 turn and carefully plucked each word, ripping at her cuticles in between,
“A roll top slipper bath. Bronze. Not copper. Too quotidian. Um, not claw foot. Those are impossible to clean. Make sure the sides go all the way down to the floor.”
I was googling as fast as she was talking, which wasn’t fast at all because my newly installed wifi was often spotty. By the time I had found the tub I realized her finger was bleeding and offered her a Bandaid. As I placed it on her, she stared at it the way the Little Mermaid stared at a fork. Were First Aid-kit supplies not part of Victoria’s world? When I finished wrapping, Victoria noted,
“Good luck finding the tub. Ummm, they’re quite rare. Esmé had one.”
Once I mentally melded all the aspects of the bathtub Victoria suggested (it was so rare the internet didn’t show me a single one), I could have torn her clothes off and made love to her right then. It was the solution to my design dilemma. The only solution. If I could ever find one. I guess I could work on getting one custom made…
Victoria was different from Holly in every way a person could be. She was so generous. In the weeks that followed, I hardly remember going to the market because Victoria cooked us glorious meals so often. Cooking must have been her love language because spoken language seemed arduous for her. Fine by me, I appreciated a person I could enjoy the quiet moments with. I gave myself the duty of providing wine. She didn’t solve all my design queries, but often she would gently nudge my thinking in the direction in a way where I would solve it, which was infinitely more gratifying. She sat beside me while I fumbled my way through learning the decor software, and the presence of an accountability buddy, who was significantly more lost than I was, quickened the pace and seriousness of my learning. I wanted to be better for the both of us. At night we played card games which she reveled in, confessing that her father and brothers believed cards to be unladylike, one of the many archaic things she said. I taught her Speed and the first time she won, she literally jumped around the room in ecstasy.
On a beach walk, which functioned as a design break, she asked what led to the end of my friendship with Holly. I told her about Archie, which felt two-faced at first, until I realized that it was only unethical if I continued to be friends with Holly, which I wasn’t planning on. So I went into more detail about Archie and how, since the pool incident, I judged myself so harshly that it was a comfort to know someone who didn’t judge herself at all. I then clarified that Holly had her strong suits.
“Like what?” Victoria asked.
“She has a way of making you feel free. She’s entertaining. She’s fun and exciting until…until…she’s not.” I paused then turned the question around on her, “What happened between you and Esmé?”
After a characteristic pause and some “hmms”, Victoria replied, “We grew up. Grew older, at least she did. I stayed young.”
If we had been chatting over drinks instead of a barefoot beach walk, I would have cheers-ed to her. As we neared our homes, Victoria stopped and took my hands in hers, which felt fragile and clammy.
“You mustn’t, ummm, continue to plague yourself with, with, you know… this, umm, pool business. You had a dizzy spell, that’s all.” Then she straightened her posture for added gravitas. “We all have them.”
At that moment I realized Victoria was my best friend.
Mo had to extend his work trip in Qatar and asked me to join him so we could spend our anniversary together. I let him know I was in a groove with the house. He sounded surprised but happy that I was finding my calling, and that Victoria was helping me with the design for Sandpiper. Knowing my love for intimates and all things vintage, he emailed me a gift card to Something Borrowed, Something New, a new boutique that had opened at the shore.
I ventured to the boutique to feel sexy in absence of a partner. My bathroom was wallpapered at last. Sinks and a shower were installed. I was in an era of finding enjoyment in cleaning, showering, and wearing new lingerie around the house. I had installed curtains too.
In the dressing room while I fastened a vintage corset on, I heard a familiar voice,
“You have to buy that! It is fire!”
The cloying, raspy, smoker's voice made me panic. I changed back into my clothes and collected my items, which included one corset, two lacy bralettes, and six thongs, two of which I would give to Victoria who I could never imagine wearing Hanky Panky string bikinis. She would get a real kick out of them and that alone would be worth the purchase.
I exited the dressing room and Holly nearly knocked me over in a jump hug, then regretfully backed away.
“Boundaries. I forgot boundaries,” she said.
I made my way to the cashier, a college age girl, painfully uninterested in her job.
“We’re buying the house!” Holly noted from behind me. “Sloane is doing the deal.”
Man, Holly must have missed me, enough to hang out with Sloane, who she always referred to as human Ambien. “Can you decorate it?” she pleaded.
“I don’t think that's the best idea,” I said.
Holly grabbed my arm. “I’ve changed. I know you don’t think that’s possible, but I’m in therapy. Me and Joey are solid. The whole Archie thing, it’s over. Look…”
She pulled out a ziplock packed with joints, a heavy potpourri of colored pills, and what looked like a drop of acid. “I was just running to throw this out at a dumpster in Freehold, because—“
“—You can’t have it in the house.” I finished, understanding the depths of her temptation.
“Unless… you want it?”
I shook my head and weakly muttered a series of unconvincing no’s. She shoved the bag into my purse,
“Just take it. For all the shit I’ve put you through.”
I stopped disagreeing because her heart was in the right place and the thought was what counted. The cashier handed me my card back along with the bag, not even noticing the Schedule One drug exchange that transpired as she wrapped my new undergarments in tissue.
“We’re doing a big BBQ. Joey wants to show off the house**.** I wanted to take something off Sloane’s plate.” Holly casually dropped this tidbit. Taking something off someone else’s plate? What miraculous considerate force had possessed Holly’s body? She continued, “Can you please come? Please. Up to you, I get it if you want to stay far as fuck away from me. I really was a mess. But I’m not anymore. And I love you. I miss you so, so much.”
“I’ll think about it.” I offered, fractionally meaning it. Then, “I might be going to Qatar to be with Mo.” I lied. Holly was being so unusually thoughtful, but I was still on guard.
“Totally,” she said as she made her way to a crotchless panty. She held it up and mused, “Sue me, Joey’s hungry and I don’t feel like making dinner.” And I laughed.
I thought about what Victoria said, how “We all have a Holly.” She was wrong, only the really lucky ones got a Holly.
After the exchange at the boutique, I couldn’t just pop into my SUV and head home to unwrap the new light fixtures which had hopefully arrived. I had to re-configure the Holly-size Rubik’s cube in my brain. How much of this was me? Did I owe her an apology? Was the value that she brought to my life worth the strain she put on it? What was her return on investment? Was the friendship worth salvaging?
On foot, I wandered deeper into residential Fair Haven. There was an aimlessness to my motions, similar to the moments before the pool incident, but also a new awareness. Back then I didn’t realize what was happening until I was underwater and my lungs filled with water. Now, I was aware of what was happening, just not where I was exactly. I found myself in front of an estate sale, a damn good one at that. Cutlery with jade handles, a silver soft-bristle hair brush, monogrammed ELR, a parasol with floral detailing that I could position at a tea table in one of the turrets. So many wonders, I would have to find my car first and drive it back here.
The woman in charge, Cathy, in her 60’s, working as an interim cashier and grounds manager, struck up a conversation with me out of boredom and maybe in hopes that we wouldn’t melt into the pavement. When I complimented her on the unique collection, she took no credit; this was all her mother’s, who had recently passed. “Compliments to the collector,” I smiled and inquired as to the bathroom. She instructed me to head upstairs as the downstairs one was acting up. I took some not-so-subtle peeks underneath the tarped furniture. It was too French and formal for my home.
But in the bathroom I found the bronze slipper roll top bath. The divine soaking tub Victoria had described, its edges resting on the floor. Esme’s tub. Did the E in ELR stand for Esmé? Could this be Victoria’s Esmé? Could Victoria’s best friend really be at least forty years older than her? Or … and the question stopped my racing thoughts in their tracks: Was Victoria a ghost? A youth-draining succubus?
Hahaha. I laughed at the absurdity of it all. Maybe the laughter was a sign I was recovering.
I didn’t ask Cathy the cashier any details about her mother, I simply made a grandiose offer on the bronze tub and exchanged information to arrange for a pick up. It would be a dream if I could have my tub installed the following week.
“Fake” was the word repeated over and over by my best friend, Holly DiSorrento, in the set of 43 minutes of voice notes that I received while standing in the checkout line at Home Depot. I had been picking up extension cords for the beach house when I checked my phone and saw the evidence of her boundless narcissism: the four voice notes were broken into 11-12 minute shorter ones. I was too distraught to finish checking out; I would have to work with the one functioning kitchen outlet. Holly sounded like her usual unstable stew of SSRIs, Adderall, coke, and her quotidian three post-school pick up espresso martinis. She went on and on about how I thought I was “so above her '' because she was having an affair with the nineteen-year-old who worked in the Nordstrom’s shoe section (also designing his own sneaker line). She wasn’t going to talk about Archie anymore if she was going to be “judged so harsh” by someone she thought was her best friend. Holly was too much of a mess at an age when it wasn’t alluring or cool to be a mess anymore. That age where actions became patterns and some patterns were indicative of Borderline Personality Disorder, according to Dr. Tolzbad, although Dr. Tolzbad couldn’t properly diagnose someone who wasn’t her client and had never even met. I longed for a diagnosis of something, with a diagnosis of nothing I felt as if I was the one going crazy.
It was probably better that Holly and I wouldn’t be close anymore. She was too tiring and not in an interesting way, and since the incident, Dr. Tolzbad wanted me to conserve my energy. Holly was a taker; I couldn’t remember the last time she did something for me, unless it was in exchange for one of the huge favors she frequently needed. Without her, I was about to have a lot more time. I could learn Arabic. My husband, Mo, had been on me about this. He was fluent, which, among other talents, led to his many business dealings in the Middle East. Most importantly, I could finally put in real time on the house.
The house was a four bedroom, three bathroom palatial Victorian. A foreclosure in an upscale beach town in South Jersey, that I purchased not long after receiving the settlement. The moment I saw the ocean from the floor-to-ceiling window enclosed turrets, each facing east so I could wake up with the sun, I was willing to ignore the fact that the back of the house shared several walls with an almost identical home. Our attached houses resembled conjoined twins, connected only by their mid-sides. My beach house, 333 Sandpiper Lane, was the better-off twin because the homes were disproportionately split; a post-depression economy had forced the homeowners to divide the large house, and mine was the bigger share, retaining three of the five turrets. From a birds-eye view the joined houses were shaped like a star and each turret was a point. I was the primary shareholder of this celestial body.
These shared walls with about a foot between them (enough to ensure most damage to one house wouldn’t necessarily affect the other) priced my property well below market value, and this meant I could create the home of my dreams: a divine restoration that respected the integrity of the architecture and filled the space with whimsy. I would transform the eroding and rickety porch into a transcendental meditation area, replacing the rotting wood with cedar planks. I could see myself on a vintage rocking chair, eyes closed, trying not to fall asleep. I could transform the bay window between floors into a reading nook and remodel the current disarray into the most enviable of lavish bathrooms. Of course all this construction would depend on the neighbor I had yet to meet.
Several beach community residents I had spoken to claimed that she, an older woman, spent most of her time in her other place, most likely in the city. She kept the property immaculate and in the unlikely event that anyone needed to get a hold of her, they would leave a message on her landline answering machine and the matter would be resolved within 24 hours. She was, in other words, an ideal neighbor. The illusion of her had kept other buyers away and her lack of presence was exactly what you wanted from the person you shared a wall with (while tearing down many of your own). Now that I was spending more time at the shore, thanks to Holly, I discovered from an errant piece of mail that my neighbor’s name was Victoria. How perfect. Victoria in the Victorian must have help because any packages she got were scooped up promptly and her large windows covered with quality drapes always sparkle. In the month since closing escrow and the handful of times I had popped down to the shore, I had yet to see Victoria once. I guessed this is a good sign, maybe this was the one area of my life in which I was lucky.
It had been over a year-and-a-half since I’d worked as a private wealth manager at Drawbridge Capital. At first, I told myself, Mo, and Holly, that I would write my memoir, a cautionary tale about the woman who did it all, or tried to, until she accidentally sleepwalked (during the day) into her gym’s pool and almost drowned. I’d call it Walking on Water. But this never came to pass because I have neither the wisdom to bestow nor the discipline to write. Before the memoir came draining depositions and a trial loaded with character-defamation after which my fancy New York City gym squatted out a hefty multi-million dollar settlement. A lifeguard who had been taking an ill-timed break and failed to lock the doors somehow left no one to witness how I strayed into the pool. When the dust and money settled, I quit reformer pilates, quit writing, and decided maybe I could become an interior decorator and showcase my aesthetic within the walls of Sandpiper, the sobriquet for my beach house. After a decade and a half of creating the wealth for clients that allowed them to live their dreams, it was my turn.
No same-day shipping finds. I was salvaging, refurbishing, and restoring artful and dependable pieces. Everything in my home would have a nostalgic and sentimental quality. “Is this an heirloom?” My guests will ask, and I will be flattered but say no, and then tell them the charming story of how I found the piece. This would be where Mo and I slowed down and made new memories, perhaps tapped back into the fun side of being childless.
Now that I finally had some clarity, I believed the reason for not finishing, well, not starting, my memoir was Holly. She has always lorded over me that she has remained friends with me through the pool incident, through the trial, and through my current recovery period… as if that could be quid-pro-quo for the years of dealing with her insanity. Well, my beach house is not Walking on Water. I will finish her, and she–yes, my house is female–will be a goddamn masterpiece. In the hours since Holly and my friendship breakup, I’d already called contractors, made a list of the architectural salvage stores I would visit, and began putting myself on a schedule. It was May, and with determination and consistency, I thought I could be done by the end of the summer.
It was easy to believe it started with the pool accident, but really, Holly’s deranged spell on me could be traced back to when we met at the Schaeffer’s Memorial Day barbecue nine years ago. I had been married for a few months and Mo and I had just moved to northern New Jersey in hopes of starting a family. It was an easy commute to our jobs in the city, and Mo didn’t travel for work as much back then. I was shopping for sexy sleepwear at Sweet Dreams in Tenafly when Sloane Schaeffer happened to be piling negligees onto the counter. Sloane loved that I was a woman who worked in wealth management. She threw the words “boss babe” around a few times (God help me) and invited me to their cook-out so I could meet the neighborhood.
The barbecue turned out to be a decadent North Jersey welcome. Dan Schaeffer, Sloane’s husband, occasionally grilled burgers for show (though they’d hired a full catering team) and I was busy devouring the best antipasto and rollatinis ever made. Maybe Jersey wasn’t so bad? I had been feeling attractive but underdressed in boyfriend jeans and a bodysuit. Sloane remarked how cool I looked, but also told me to “not give myself a hard time, I was moving.” I was used to Manhattanites but there was a sharp femininity to the Jersey women: colorful, almond-shaped, acrylic nails as opposed to my square, ballet slipper painted-ones; shorter, neon dresses as opposed to the floor-length, flouncy florals my city friends were wearing; hair done and voluminous as opposed to the high ponytail I sported. I pondered: Could this be a scene I could fit into long term? Could I raise kids here? Could I be myself?
Then Holly DiSorrento walked in. Original rock-and-roll t-shirt, faded jean cut-offs, oversized Celine sunglasses, she was dripping with gold and diamonds anywhere you could hang jewelry. Her husband, Joey, held the hand of a three-year-old girl and carried a cherubic one-year-old, gendered by her big pearl earrings. Behind them was Tina, a Filipina nanny. Everyone stared at Holly as she grabbed the little one from Joey and got on the level of Bianca, the toddler; she seemed to be giving her a speech on making friends. Bianca ran off to the back of the house from which noises from the other children emanated. Tina gave Holly a look, and Holly handed over the baby. When Tina and the children cleared away, Holly took off her shirt, revealing a simple black string bikini against her glistening olive skin. Joey, who immediately locked in on his wife, came toward her. As she took a pack of American Spirits from her purse, she leaned in and for about half a minute, vulgarly made-out with her husband. He was foggy-eyed afterward and headed for the bar. She lit up the cigarette as Joey made the rounds greeting the party. I tried not to stare, but Holly approached me.
“You’re new. You from the city?”
I nodded and introduced myself. “I’m Lee.” Then I offered up the only thing I had access to, a plate of food.
“I’m on Adderall, still gotta cut the baby weight.”
I felt the need to explain to her that my husband who was working today, and that I’d just moved from Union Square.
“It’s a fucking holiday,” Holly blurted out and I laughed.
Holly was from the city, too. She’d had a place in the 40’s on the river and was working as a bottle service girl at Marquis when she met Joey, a hedge funder at BlackRock. I smiled. I had been to the club she worked at back in the day and remembered loving it. Something was decoded in this interaction; she and I were bound.
That afternoon and into the night, we discovered a million things we had in common, like that we both drank palomas and direly missed the city but liked the convenience of Jersey. When Mo showed up later, he was surprised to see me, an introvert in my 30’s, attached to Holly like a schoolgirl. “I’m her best friend,” Holly offered up to an incredulous Mo, as he made a plate for Tina the nanny. When the sun set and Tina went home with the kids, Holly yanked me up to Sloane’s bathroom and pulled out a bag of coke. I hadn’t touched the stuff in years, but was having so much fun that I thought*, when in Jersey*… As we blew a few skinny lines, Holly got vulnerable and asked,
“Do you think I’m a bad person? Like objectively.”
I explained I had just met her, but no, from what I had seen, no, not at all. In fact, she was the first person who made me feel at home in Jersey. Holly hugged me so tightly, it played a maternal chord within me. So this is what it would be like for someone to need me.
If there were red flags to be found, they were out in full color that day. Holly was inconsiderate, but people around her worshiped her and let her get away with everything. It wasn’t long before I learned about her transgressions. A year into our friendship, she confessed that she kissed one of the junior analysts at Joey’s hedge fund’s Christmas party. Now the guy wouldn’t stop texting her. She showed me pictures and asked me if he was worth it. I was behind on work and didn't know how to respond. Worth what? Ruining your marriage? I don’t know the rules of your marriage. Holly explained that she and Joey would “look the other way often” and the kids were the priority. There was a lot of lying. Holly would say she was going on a girls trip but would go to Miami alone on an ex spiral. She would steal from the grocery, just for the hell of it. If she was financially adept enough to embezzle, she probably would have done that too. Before Holly would say things, she would make me promise, pinky swear, not to judge her. I would agree. The breaks from judgment were quite pleasant: If I couldn’t judge Holly, I couldn’t judge myself.
Holly had a way of turning the tides at the peak of anyone’s frustration. She’d call out “Mama’s back!” Or “Who wants to do a spa day?” And she would burst through the doors with heaps of presents for the girls, a piece of jewelry for Tina, and pull Joey into the bathroom to give him a Cirque du Soleil-worthy blow job. For me, she always delivered on spa day. She was a magician and the best kind: you didn’t even know you were watching a trick until the dove was eating out of your hand.
The minute I started talking about moving to the shore and searching for a house, Holly met Archie and our friendship started to show its cracks, downright wear and tear. Maybe Archie and the beach house were each of our versions of a pre-midlife crisis. Holly started denying her drug use, claiming she was seeing a hypnotist in the city. Once, she used me as the crux of her lies, telling Joey she was with me when she wasn’t–that was at the beginning of Archie. In the past, Joey wouldn’t disturb me out of respect for my work, but that excuse evaporated after the pool incident. I made the mistake of lying for Holly that once, but then I drew a line. She seemed to understand, but she would pad her situation with lines like.
“You don’t know Joey. He is so possessive.”
“Does possessive mean violent? Are you in trouble?
Holly would shake her head vaguely.
“I got with Joey too young. I shouldn’t have had my kids so soon. I’m a terrible mom. They deserve better.”
I was at a loss. All the moms I knew, on their worst days, and sometimes on their best days, felt like a terrible mom. Yes, Holly was a mess but I didn’t go as far as to brand her with the most horrific insult I knew. So I lied.
“You’re a good mom. Don’t be so mean to my friend.”
“I don’t know what I would do without you, Leelee,” she would say, clinging to me and using my pet name. It was impossible to stay mad at her.
Before Holly’s affair with Archie, when I was still working, we would game things out: Holly would get a job, maybe go to esthetician school, or maybe Joey could buy her a store like Sweet Dreams, “but more high end” Holly would add, and she could run it. When she was on her feet, she could consider divorce or couple’s therapy. When Holly was in a darker place, the plan would shift to owning a bar, "but a classy one” and no talk of divorce.
I would encourage Holly to follow through with any plan that would made her feel like her life was moving forward in a positive direction. But Joey kept making money, and Holly kept spending, and when she became pregnant with Serafina, her fourth daughter, she made me godmother. Mo often told me he didn’t get Holly. He understood she was exciting, a break from reality, but she was a horrendous friend who couldn’t keep a plan. He was right about the latter: she canceled often and late, unless Joey was involved. On the subject of Holly being a good friend… I would indirectly respond: What did it matter if she was a good friend as long as I enjoyed her company and what she brought out in me? What I got from Holly was a person who didn’t take herself so seriously. If Holly could fail, be unaware… be a wreck of a human… and get away with it… then maybe I could be a wreck too. Not that I would, but it was a release valve I needed. Maybe this is why it was especially hard to wrench out the root-deep love for Holly that had grown inside me.
The last time Mo saw Holly, smoking a joint in the bitter January cold, she was venting to me in my driveway so loudly she had woken him up. I levitated out of my body and gained a bird’s eye view of the situation: It had all escalated past the weight the friendship could carry. I was honest with her.
“Holls, you know Archie is too young. No judgment, but what the hell are you thinking? Just get a divorce from Joey if you need to have these affairs with these young boys.”
For a second, I remember Holly saying, “we aren’t even married. I would get nada.”
Shocked, I backtracked. “What did you say?”
She meandered, “… I was just thinking out loud what it would be like if I wasn’t married to Joey.” Then, “I’ve never loved the kids more.” She then went on and on about the girls.
There was something presentational about the whole thing, the silhouette of sincerity. That was probably my bias though. For all real intents and purposes, Holly was a good mom. Sorta. For the most part. The children always had responsible rotating childcare, and they were shielded from Holly and Joey’s fights, I thought, although I couldn’t say for sure. All this thinking of Holly actually made me miss her. Then in typical Holly fashion, she texted me, usurping my thoughts the way she did with everything else in my life.
Hey Guuuurrrllll. Hope we are cool. I forgive you. I guess I have to- look what Joey surprised the fam with for the summmerzzz!
Below was a listing for cookie-cutter, beach front, Cape Cod mansion. I was furiously going through the listing - pictures of the tan marble sprawling principal bathroom, when she texted again:
We’re renting. Neighborzzzz!
I erupted in a rage and threw my cup of cold tea across the room. As it seeped beneath the wood; I realized I would have to clean that up too, as if there wasn’t enough to do. There were so many places at the shore, but Holly had to rent the place three blocks from my sanctuary. I was so close…I had almost escaped her. I was hyperventilating now, scrolling through the pictures of Holly’s summer rental. It had decent bones, high, beamed ceilings, spacious rooms.
The furniture is gross, she texted.
It wasn’t. Ordinary maybe. That popular Scandinavian/ Japandy minimalism that appealed to millennial Manhattanites.
You’ll have to help me redecorate, she texted again.
One of the many things that drove me up the wall about Holly was how she needed a new text for each idea, like she couldn’t group her thoughts like a rational human being. And redecorate a furnished summer rental?! Holly was a moron. And so was Joey, how could a somewhat smart hedge fund guy marry someone who mismanaged everything? No blowjob could be that spectacular. Could it?
Are you still mad at me? She texted.
Please tell me you are over it.
Are there good stores down there? I need all new summer clothes.
How are the grocery stores?
LOL like I do groceries.
This. This is how I would lose my mind. Whatever of it was left. I slammed my phone down and rummaged through my bag for the keys to the beach house, threw the door open, and stomped out, gulping down fresh air. At my feet, a handpicked bouquet of wildflowers, pulled together with a sage linen ribbon. How incredibly thoughtful. Tucked between stems was a folded piece of lilac stationery embossed with a VDL at the top. I opened the note, written in fountain pen, in near perfect cursive penmanship.
I would like to extend a sincere welcome to Sandpiper Lane. Give me a knock if you need anything, and I mean anything. If I don’t answer, leave a note in the box.
I now noticed there was a worn wooden box, on a stand left of my neighbor’s door. The box contained robin’s egg blue stationery and a silver pen. This all must have just been set out because I hadn’t recalled seeing it when I came in, and despite my decaying porch where every board clamorously creaked any time any weight was placed on it; I hadn’t heard anyone come to the door.
My grandfather warned me always to say the words before going into the attic. He said the attic was a dangerous place to enter unprotected. For years, I followed his advice, even though the words themselves were nonsense to me.
Then he passed away.
I became an adult, and adults begin to see the world differently than children. Things that once seemed serious become silly and irrational. And so it was that one day I climbed the ladder to the attic saying nothing.
After finding the antique snow globe I'd been looking for, I got on my hands and knees, backed towards the hatch through which I'd just climbed, and dangled a foot into the square opening, searching for the step-ladder I knew to be there. But instead of emptiness, I felt something unexpected—something different—something cold and wet—
Instinctively, I pulled my leg back up! It dripped with an opaque darkness.
I turned and peered down through the hatch, expecting to see the second floor of my childhood home—but what I saw instead was the near-perfectly still surface of a black liquid: blacker than the deepest night.
I ran now to the only window in the attic, which had long ago been shuttered, and pried the shutters open. Expecting to see my neighbourhood under a bright summer sky, I gasped—greeted by the sight of an endless charcoal sea beneath a crimson sky across which lightning spread like pulsing veins.
My own heart thundered within my chest, and for a time I stood paralyzed, staring at the great landscape of doom before me.
I came to several conclusions.
First, that the attic was a vessel propelled upon the surface of this stygian sea by an unknown force. Second, that this movement was toward some purpose, as in the distance far beyond there appeared a singular landmass.
Clutching the snow globe as if it were my sanity, I receded from the window and sat beside the open hatch.
I can't say for how long I sailed.
I remember only that at some point, struggling against unconsciousness, I dropped the snow globe—
It hit the attic floor—the attic itself trembled—and when I at last picked up the agitated orb I spied within a world of swirling snow, and through it, seeing out the attic window, I was astounded to discover that there too the heavens had opened and become a blizzard.
The temperature plumetted and a tremendous wind insinuated itself into the attic.
I huddled, wrapping myself in whatever warmth I could find, as my exhalations turned to vapour and the vapour persisted in the air until, thin, freezing and famished I made landfall. I could not tell you the interval of time that'd passed except that it was inhuman, and I felt in the dry marrow of my bones that I should already be many times dead.
Yet out of the attic I crept, onto a craterous landmass resembling an alien ocean floor ascended to the planetary surface of a world ne'er imagined by me. Old, it felt; and vast. As up its craggy beach I crawled, I breathed in the foul atmosphere, which reeked of antiquity and decay.
Cresting a hill that marked the end (or beginning) of the beach, I saw before me an unfathomable expanse with such pure clarity that my mind rejected a full appreciation of it, dosing me instead with fragments: ruined cities, lost tribes, inverted mountains, lakes of obsidian, avarice and wonder, and everywhere pedestals upon which floated spheres—slowly spinning, worlds.
It took my breath away.
On I trudged, and on, older and weakened with each pained step, until I found myself on a phosphorescent path leading to a pedestal on which nothing floated.
I heard too a rhythm, following me as the final moments of daylight follow the passing of the dusk—faintly, in anticipation of their own extinguishment by the fall of absolute night. And too I saw its source, for emerging out of the waters behind me, approaching on either side, marched two columns of hideous humanoid sea creatures with flat, catfish faces and tentacular whiskers, bearing fishbone spears, with which they struck the ground as they marched.
Whensoever on my fragiled body I fell, they righted me. Although sans their aid I would have perished, their mucilaginous touch curdled my soul.
Having approached the vacant pedestal, I ceased, the snow globe drifted away from my gnarled hand as if by a hitherto undiscovered magnetic property, and the creatures began to chant word-song composed in an ancient tongue that impossibly I understood, sounds out of time, in the cadence of creation, and the snow globe, suspended supra-pedestal, began to revolve.
I felt as a dead thing blooming.
Everything I'd ever believed—every first principle I had ever held—rattled like unbolted shutters in a storm: then disattached: and I was, and I wasn't, increasing at a frightening pace as the wind whispered the words my grandfather had taught me—and in the enveloping din I reached out so that my outstretched hand trembled over the spinning globe—and the words, finally I understood: Make spoken gift of fearful humility to the gods, lest in your silent pride you shall become one too. And my reverie was broken by the falling of a giant shadow upon me, and upon the land.
With hand still held above the snow globe, glancing back, in existential terror I beheld the presence of the same: my hand above the globeand my hand, gargantuan, in the sky, skin peeling from both—both mine, both me—flayed of humanity, becoming a divinity, but always mere becoming, for: I hold my hand, above a floating and revolving orb, in a floating and revolving globe, above which I hold my hand, above a floating and revolving orb...
I am caught in a recursive realization.
I am no more human, not yet divine, I am the hand outstretched and the hand which looms, yet one is always becoming the other. Like a film projector stuck illuminating a single frame, I experience the dread and the ecstasy of a single moment forever. If I had ever a mind, it is broken. If I had ever a soul, it is unmoored. I am the sutured wound between madness and sanity. I am a precipice fallen off itself, fallen off itself, fallen off itself, fallen off itself...
His son, Aaron, was the first to find him. "Rebecca!" he yelled, having climbed to the attic and seen his father lying, unmoving, on the floor, with his eyes opening and closing in sequence and his eyelids twitching. "Call 911! I think dad's had a stroke!"
fallen off itself, fallen off itself, fallen off itself, as the sea creatures beat their spears and chant, the wind whispers, and the black liquid sea rises and falls with the coming and going of an invisible moon called destiny.
When the doctor told me that through my veins coursed a poison so foul that it would rot me from within in a matter of days, I laughed at him. I hadn’t done anything medically unsound; hadn’t been anywhere toxic to my health. And yet I'd somehow contracted a poison - one so inimical that antibiotics and transfusions were deemed useless.
I was given referrals to specialists: cardiologists, endocrinologists, even oncologists, but told not to expect better news; a statement delivered with absolute, spine-seizing certainty.
But the doctor's grim assessment wouldn't be the only words I'd hear regarding my affliction. A man showed up at my door the following morning.
This man - who introduced himself The Herald - showed up unannounced at my doorstep yesterday, wearing a grey, plainly antiquated coat, and bearing that terrible news - with proof of my malady; he'd somehow acquired my medical records. I'd gone to the doctor the previous day upon waking up and feeling like grim death: plagued by a blinding migraine, tremors, and an unending cough. My open window suggested a cold, or allergies, but I had never experienced such a miserable reaction before.
I welcomed the strangely dressed man into my home, something I probably wouldn't have done under normal circumstances and in sound mind. In my unsettled state I didn't offer him anything, and he didn't ask. He at once told me of the toxin and its cell-ravaging effects, and I listened numbly; just as I'd done at the hospital. After a period of silence - during which he seemed to stare directly at the midday sun through my living room window - I asked him why he'd come. I had already been informed of my condition, as vague and unprecedented as it was. A next-day reminder wasn't necessary.
He replied that while my condition was dire, and had apparently been fatal to many *of his order*, there was still a chance for my survival. When I asked him how, he responded: "Blood transfusions are ineffective because the *curse* is far too pervasive, too blackly stubborn, to be removed in such a mundane fashion. No, what you'll need is a transference of spirit."
I didn't have any idea what he meant, and before I could ask he got up and excused himself, leaving my home as mysteriously as he had arrived. Baffled, I instinctively turned toward the window, and I swear that for a moment I saw a shape pass across the sky; something large, glistening, and winged, like an enormous wasp.
Later that day the symptoms of my condition became so intense that I actually passed out for a moment whilst making lunch - somehow my appetite hadn't waned as it usually does when I'm sick.
Despite my delirious and worsening state I strove to stay optimistic, hoping that the man would return and explain exactly what he'd meant by a spiritual transference.
When night arrived, I found myself standing on my front porch, gazing languidly at the starlit sky. As I became fully cognizant of the situation I tried to recall when exactly I had exited the house, but my memory was a maelstrom of irreconcilable images - I'd somehow lost hours of conscious awareness. This apparent fugue state sent me into a brief panic. Losing my mind terrified me more than losing my life, if that makes sense.
But my terror was abruptly ended by another glimpse of the sky.
It was strangely, eerily calming. There was nothing unusual about it; the stars had no special arrangement as far as I could tell. The moon was no whiter or bigger than normal. And yet the very sight of it had calmed me completely.
I stood there, mystified by the celestial normalcy, while the toxin corroded my cells.
I was broken from my lunar stupor by the frightening impression that the moon had suddenly split open. But the fracture moved, sinking beneath the scope of the moon, and I realized that something was flying through the air - toward me.
A dark and massive shape cut through the night sky, great wings flapping powerfully; its body shimmering brilliantly in the moonlight. Its descent towards me was gradual, casual, as if it were savoring the baleful moment - stoking my fear.
I turned to my front door intending to barricade myself inside, but the knob wouldn't turn - the door was locked. I patted my pockets for my key but couldn't find it. It wasn't anywhere on the ground, either. I had apparently locked myself out of my own home in my mentally vacuous state.
A gust of wind brought my attention back to the sky, and a soul-sinking horror seized me as I watched that wicked creature make its terribly graceful landing on my front lawn. I tried to shout, but my voice froze in my throat. I tried to move, but my immense terror - or some dark telepathy of the creature - kept me petrified. My eyes darted left and right, but I saw no one else outside. Meanwhile, this fiend of the night folded its black wings upon itself and stood upright.
It was nightmare incarnate: an armored, ebon colossus with the face of some Hell-born insect - pulsing probuscises, horn-like antennae, crimson, multifaceted eyes. Humanoid in form, aside from those dragon-like wings. It raised a razor-taloned hand and pointed at me, and my spell of immobility was broken.
I immediately turned to run back inside, not caring why this creature had set me free of its sorcery. Before I could make it to my door, I was seized around the waist by a tightly constricting force and yanked back.
A tail - which I hadn't noticed before - pulled me across the lawn; stopping just before the towering horror. Scrambling away was impossible - the thing had some sort of magnetism about its body, an atmosphere of evil attraction that prevented me from escaping. It eyed me inscrutably with those sanguine eyes, then - impossibly - spoke in perfect English despite its inhuman face.
Its voice was harsh and metallic, like some demonically possessed garbage disposal, but also strangely familiar.
"If you wish to survive the curse, transmutation of your form is necessary. Your spirit must abide in another body - one not dissimilar to my own. To survive, you must become a Herald."
Before I could even process what it had said, the tail slid from around my waist. It reared skyward, and my heart sank when I saw the stinger at its end. It glowed a with a volcanic purple aura, like some swamp witch's lamp. And then, mercilessly, it plunged down into my chest.
I awoke on my bed, the dawning sun casting its soft rays through the open window; the shades drawn apart. I at once noticed a difference in my state of being: I no longer felt the disorienting unrest and sense of physiological wrongness I'd felt the days before.
I sat up and the recollection of the previous night's events hit me abruptly. With fear again mounting in my heart, I took off my shirt and screamed at the sight of the ugly mark on my chest. It was a large wound that had somehow already scarred itself into a strange flesh-rune of some kind. The red-tinged symbol was unfamiliar to me, but I felt sure that it meant something wicked; that I'd been inducted into some inhuman order. Scanning my room, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. Neither were there any signs that the monster's massive form had entered my room.
I stumbled into my bathroom, hoping to wash away the terrible, inexplicable memory of the night before. My reflection brought the most horrific moment of all: during the night my face had begun to warp into an insectioid visage similar to that of the creature.
A few hours have passed, and I've since undergone several more alarming changes. Physically imperceptible, but visually apparent. There is no pain, only a mounting dread. I fear for what I'll become, for how my mind will be altered when the transformation is complete. I will end this entry here, while my hands are still those of a human.
Pray for me
A Quiet Night in The Midwest.
In the depths of unfathomable darkness, the house stands silent, a stark contrast to the events that transpired just four hours prior. Amidst the eerie stillness, an unseen Observer watches as Zoe seeks refuge within her cluttered bedroom closet, surrounded by the disarray of clothing and forgotten stuffed animals.
With cautious curiosity, she inches forward, papers rustling beneath her trembling hands. Abruptly, she stops, her attention drawn to a faint bluish light near her bed. She dismisses it, attributing it to her laptop's glow, while a passive presence lingers in the background.
As she contemplates her escape, doubts loom large. Gradually, she rises to her feet, assessing the room's eerie darkness.
With a deep inhale, she opens the door, and it swings silently ajar. She steadies herself, peering into the inky hallway beyond.
As Zoe steps into the corridor, she becomes a shadow herself, her footsteps echoing in silence. Her gaze darts toward her siblings' rooms, her youngest brother's faintly illuminated. Dread tightens around her heart, her fear echoing.
Zoe's panic intensifies, and she races through the blood-smeared hallway, stumbling as she goes. It is during this frantic escape that she falls, her head hitting the unforgiving floor with a sickening thud.
Amidst the faded memory of children laughing, Zoe awakens, her throbbing headache and the remnants of her ordeal washing over her. She reaches for her head, tears welling in her eyes.
"Mom! Mom!" she cries out, her desperation palpable. Pain surges through Zoe's body as she attempts to rise, only to slip and struggle for balance.
"Brenden, are you okay?" she stammers, her eyes locked on her brother's room. Moments pass.
With strength born of desperation, Zoe pushs herself to the room, tears streaming down her face. She runs to her youngest brother's room, unaware of the presence following from the shadows.
However, what she witnesses within defies all understanding. Horror washes over her, her pleas echoing in the silence after Zoe witnesses the horrific scene in her brother's room, her despair mounts. Her cries echo through the blood-soaked hallway as she retreats, stumbling and slipping in her haste. With trembling legs, she reaches the stairs and makes a fateful misstep. Her body tumbles backward, the harsh sound of her fall filling the air.
Amidst her headlong descent down the stairs, she spirals uncontrollably, and The Observer is acutely aware of her vulnerability. Zoe's body crashes against each unforgiving step, the sickening thuds a chorus of pain in the stillness of the house. The Observer remains afar just an impartial observer, bound by its role as a mere witness to the unfolding tragedy.
Through the agony of her head and arm, Zoe awakens once more, her cries echoing in the silence. With pain etched across her face, she attempts to stand.
"Mom... Dad?" she calls out, confusion and despair evident in her trembling voice. She steps into their room, her frantic gaze searching for answers.
As Zoe retreats, she fixates on the faint blue light in the living room. "Mom!" she calls out, hope rekindling. In the inky blackness, a figure emerges, its form imposing as it steps into the light.
Zoe shivers in the cold, her breath visible in the darkness. She gazes up at the towering presence.
"What are you?" she quivers, her voice a fragile thread in the void.
A timeless silence ensues, and the entity's shadowy head tilts, its dark blue eyes flickering in mimicry of a blink. Its voice, deep and gravelly, resonates through the air.
The TV returns from a commercial break, with news anchor taking the screen.
"Good evening. I'm Loyd Bennett with Channel 4 News. Thank you for joining us.
We bring you tragic news from Fairmount, South Dakota—a family of four brutally murdered, their daughter missing and in danger. Local authorities have ruled her out as a suspect.
This is a heart-wrenching story.
Evil has come home."
The Observer hovers in the air, its gaze fixed on the TV screen, an indifferent observer to the unfolding events. The room grows cold once more, and the eerie blue light casts haunting reflections on the wall behind the TV.
As The Observer lingers, a solemn awareness takes hold. In the mere blink of an eye, the house returns to its dark and vacant state, as if the horrors that had transpired were but a fleeting nightmare.
Fear. Is. Beautiful! I am enamoured of it, and rightly so. It is raw and pure, stemming from the basest clay of the soul. It is irreplaceable; within the context of mankind, it is invaluable. Fear is quintessential to man's development. The ability to create tools, shelter, and society played its part, of course, but man exists, now, as it is, thanks to fear. The fear of losing what's dear, the fear of predation, the fear of cessation drove man to create tools, shelter, and society.
Fear is an early-warning survival mechanism that predates the Homo Sapien. It keeps man from doing anything mortally idiotic; it keeps man alive, makes him feel alive. It shapes him. It…molds him, carving his evolutionary path out of the chaos of nature until he eventually became, what is assumed to be, the most superior species on this planet. It is responsible for where he is*.* It is responsible for who he is.
In ancient times, fear would guide him. It told him the impermeable darkness hid a threat, watching him with cold eyes, sharp teeth, and ill intent; a threat that, in all probability, was measuring his weaknesses, and evaluating his potential as a foodsource. Fear let him articulate the dangers of exploring underground: losing light; losing air; losing agency; dying from dehydration while he prehumously familiarised himself with his own tomb, crying and screaming and wailing and begging with no one ever, ever, hearing him. Fear said the crawling many-legged denizens of the deep, damp wilderness would invade him, laying their terrible offspring, burrowing and scurrying and scuttling and scritching and scratching and transforming him into a new home for the hive. Fear's frantic whisper would trigger when a member of his tribe tried to manipulate, deceive, gaslight, and confuse him into submission, undermining his credibility and risking his being cast out of the tribe as a liability. Fear kept him safe. Fear kept him whole.
Unfortunately, if we fast-forward to modern civilization, to the present, fear becomes a nuisance to mankind: an inconvenience to be avoided, and an irritant when it cannot. Mankind's modus operandi no longer revolves around base survival. The new expectation is to thrive. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his inaugural presidential speech, gave the historically fallacious idea that "the only thing we need to fear is fear itself." Mankind embraced this ideal whole-heartedly; he has ambiguously and unanimously decided that fear needs to be forgotten, for now he is concerned with the acquisition of status and prestige. Modern man faces pressures that threaten his way of life, true, but he need not fear them. He need not fear the tax man nor the bill collector nor his bosses; there are employment opportunities abound, if he were to look hard enough. He need not fear starvation, as there are food banks and soup kitchens. He need not fear homelessness, as there are shelters and programs to help buffer his misfortunes and bolster his insipid need for stability. "Worry" is often the closest feeling to fear within the auspices of his society.
What's truly unsavoury is, residing within the ivory securities of his constructs, mankind is artificially manufacturing fear; doled out as an… as a commodity, in quantifiable increments, to be digested by the masses. It has been relegated to a source of entertainment; diminished and twisted into a drug to be imbibed within the comforts of his home. A fast high and a predictable comedown. It provides a cheap thrill; an easy rush; a quick fix; a break from the monotony of the rat race. This variety of fear is superfluous, inauthentic, and trite. It is meaningless! It is offensive; it is hollow; it's proof that man has truly forgotten where he came from. He lost appreciation for the visceral nature of what shaped him. He lost appreciation for the early-warning survival mechanism, now deemed so irrelevant.
The mechanism, however, resists obscurity; for it is difficult to excise a segment of foundation from what has been built. The mechanism rears its fearsome, beautiful, ugly head, and begins manufacturing itself. Rampant anxiety plagues our culture, eliciting aversions to the mainstays of man's survival: community and social activity is abhorred; leaving the sanctity of home is inherently unpalatable; change and growth are anathema; division and strife, the flavour of the day; nascent is excommunication from hearth and home. The individual man is alone within the swarm of his people. These are symptoms; these are manifestations of sickness. Like the rotten grimace of a careless sugar-addict who refuses dental hygiene, the decay is beginning to show. The situation has become entropic. Mankind needs remedial intervention. It needs reminding of its integral facets. Mankind. Needs. A cure. I alone comprehend his disease; I, alone, fathom the threads tying his ancestry to his present disintegration. I alone am able to extrapolate the dilemma and hypothesise his untimely annulment. I, alone, know exactly what to administer, and how.
My name is Dr. Bastion Kensing. I have an M.D in Psychology, a Ph.D in Neurology,nwith minors in Sociology (MD) and Forensics (Ph.D). I initially pursued a doctorate in neuroscience; however, I soon realised the limited applicatative potential in the face of my penultimate goal: I thirsted, no, I ached, to become a bastion of illumination against the darkness that was consuming civilization. A darkness I began observing at an early age.
As an only child, and the last of the Kensing line, I shouldered the weight of a myriad of expectations, bequeathed unto me from my Father.
Estates, acquisitions, and wealth were secondary to a man hailing from old money, and plagued by a pervasive existentialism. Obsessed with the preservation of our family's legacy, Father hammered the magnitude of upholding the dignity of our hundred-year-old surname into the fibre of my being. It meant everything to him. It meant more to him than me, or Mother.
Mother was a kind-hearted, soft-spoken woman with a subtle confidence who married into wealth. She met Father at a gentlemen's club while working as a server. A classic beauty, with a quiet charm, she caught Father's eye when she candidly came to his aid while he was berated by a senior member of the Kensing Corp.'s Board of Directors. The slight was inherently personal; an attack catalysed by wounded pride and the threat of Father's incipient ascendancy to CEO after Grandfather's death. The man held significant influence with the board; Father, being young and newly-come to his position, couldn't risk engendering the man's animosity. Remaining innocuous by offering the man a repast, Mother used her subtle charisma to insinuate that the "unseemly and ungentlemanly impertinence" she's been observing around the club might very well sour the whisky and spoil the Cubans to the point of running the club into bankruptcy. She could not fathom such a thing happening to such a respectable, upstanding establishment frequented by "men of such obvious stature and great forbearance." Insulting the man and stroking his pride solicited such inner conflict that he devolved into a fit of apoplexy.
Later, Father, carefree in his youth, propositioned Mother to a courtship that eventually led to marriage. Mother's eyes sparkled with fondness as she regaled me with Father's and her early years. Unfortunately twenty years of leading the family business, politicking, elitist expectations, and one unexpected heart attack, transformed Father into the man I would remember with a modicum of disdain.
His obsessive nature demanded perfection. Mistakes, both practical and perceived, were met with swift, and direct… physical reprisals. I was a precocious child; though Father terrified me, I tested boundaries frequently and often refused to follow anything I deemed illogical or arbitrary. This almost guaranteed an unwavering barrage of reprisals from my Father. The routine engendered in me a deep resentment of the world Father was preparing me for. When Father became too frustrated with me, or too fatigued from reprimanding me, he would retire to his study. Mother kept her silence; consoling me after the fact did little to soothe my bruises, nor my dignity. She reassured me with platitudes of love and approval, protestations of my potential and the talents I so-effortlessly displayed in my studies. But she held her tongue when Father was present. He ran the family with an iron fist.
After one particularly brutal bout of disciplinary action, Mother held me close while I wept hysterically. I asked her why:
"Why, Mother? Why does he do this? Why me?!"
Caressing my hair and holding me close, Mother couldn't answer right away. She inhaled, deeply, and let it out in a long, shuddering sigh.
"Bastion…my sweet, sweet baby boy…"
Another long pause.
"Your Father… your Father is afraid, Sweety. He's afraid of the weight of the expectation set upon him. He's afraid of his responsibilities to the company, to the shareholders, to the Board…to HIS Father, your Grandfather. He's afraid of failing what's beholden to him. And, mostly, I think…he's afraid of dying, and leaving his affairs unfinished, as he sees them. That's…that's really all I can say, Darling. He's…afraid. Just…afraid."
I didn't understand. I couldn't! I was the product of affluence and comfort; I never feared for wanting. The only fear I ever felt stemmed from Father and his incessant lessons. I didn't understand how simple fear could transmute a once-loving, caring man into a monstrous tyrant. I didn't understand why it was happening. At that moment, though, I made a resolution to myself: I resolved to fully understand fear, and the power it had over us.
Then… one day, one glorious day, it happened. One year to the day after I made my resolution, it happened. A heart attack; the skulking inevibility, under which Father lived in such terror, finally manifested. He collapsed midswing, belt in hand, clutching his chest and crumbling to the floor. He writhed and twitched. He tried to stand, but couldn't seem to manage the strength. I stood over him; he stared up at me, fear and anger and bewilderment and fury all simultaneously manifesting across his rapidly whitening face. His eyes were transfixed to mine as he gasped and writhed.
"Sweet dreams, Father. Thank you, for everything you've taught me." I couldn't help but let a tiny smile of satisfaction play across my lips as I watched him suffer. After what seemed an eternity, I called for help, managing a note of hysteria; only, after he finally stopped twitching.
I'm not going into detail about the intervening years, as the details are irrelevant. Suffice it to say that affluence succinctly lends itself to achieving a thorough and expedient education. As I neared my thirty second year of life I had earned both doctorates, and the wealth of my inheritance; everything I felt I required to heal the wounds I saw in the world around me.
I had begun my research years before the completion of my credentials, of course; the drug trials I volunteered in, specifically, helped piece together the tiny little building blocks that I knew I would need for the inevitable obligatory education that was forthcoming. I felt more than prepared to finally, finally, realise my dream.
I was ready.