/r/Wholesomenosleep

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This is for scary stories with wholesome endings.

'conducive to or suggestive of good health and physical well-being.'

Stories that can be scary but have a nice twist to it. The nice twist can still be scary!

This sub is for scary stories with wholesome endings!

Wholesome: “conducive to or suggestive of good health, physical, emotional or moral well-being.”

Stories that are scary but have a nice twist. The nice twist can still be scary! Stories here have a horror element and end reasonably happily.

General Guidelines:

  • Please link or crosspost your favorite wholesome horror here! Unless you are the original author, please don’t post another user’s work as a text post. If you are the original author, please feel free to link, crosspost, or text post your story here!


  • If a story is under 6 months old, please leave a comment letting the author know that their story has been linked. They’re sure to appreciate it! If an author posts their own story, any duplicates will be removed. Please don’t let that stop you from continuing to post links to wholesome horror stories on our sub!


  • Just because this sub is called “WholesomeNoSleep" doesn't mean that the stories have to be from /r/nosleep. /r/DarkTales, /r/libraryofshadows, /r/shortscarystories, /r/cryosleep, /r/SLEEPSPELL, /r/thrillsleep, /r/thelongsleep, /r/mothergrues, etc., are perfectly acceptable sources. Original stories are also more than welcome. However, all links must lead to Reddit posts. Links to outside sites will be removed.


  • Our content rules are similar to /r/nosleep's. Posts must be a story where "something happens and then something else happens as a result". Posts must contain at least some horror. This is a sub for wholesome horror, after all. However, stories here do not have to adhere to no sleep’s plausibility rules. R-rated scenes are okay to a degree but no rape/ abuse/ pedophilia/ necrophilia/ bestiality, etc. Any excessively graphic or detailed torture/abuse/sex scenes will cause your story to be removed. Please use your best judgement or ask the mods before posting.


  • If your story is removed for breaking a rule, please do not repost it without working with the mod team in modmail to make it meet our guidelines first. Repeated reposting, whether it's because your story was removed or to gain more attention, or repeated rule-breaking posts, will result in a warning, and may result in a ban if continued.


    • Posts must be formatted so that they are readable. Please, no giant walls of text and no text boxes. If you are having trouble, shoot us a modmail. We are happy to help out!

    Thank you for your sweet and spooky stories!!

    Comment Guidelines:

    • The /r/nosleep immersion rule doesn't apply here. You don't need to "believe" the story to post a comment. But please, be friendly! Better yet, be helpful, wholesome, and kind!


  • Story critiques are welcome, but only constructive criticism! Stick to ideas, themes, compliments, and asking the authors about their story inspirations rather than giving out grammar tips and you’ll do just fine!


  • Before posting or commenting, please read our FAQ.


  • Have questions? Wanna discuss your favorite stories or other "wholesome horror" topics, or share wholesome horror memes? Visit our companion sub, /r/WholesomeNoSleepOOC!


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    2

    ‘Appointment with the Broker’

    “Don’t assume my life has always been lollipops and rainbows, young man. Like most people, I’ve had my share of problems and difficulties. I have experienced frustrations, money troubles, issues with finding and keeping a romantic relationship, health scares, etc. I’m like everyone else in that regard. It may seem as if I don’t have a care in the world, but it hasn’t always been that way for me. The sweet ‘gumdrops’ of life came much later. My pivotal moment came when I met ‘the broker’. That changed everything. After my appointment with him, all my troubles melted away. I negotiated an amazing deal on that fateful day.”

    “The ‘broker’?”; his captive audience-of-one, stammered.

    The young man was perplexed and intrigued by the odd segue. It held the promise of offering an interesting story and fulfillment of the developing narrative. The curious lad prodded the conversation along by dutifully asking for an explanation of the curious term. Without further interruption or delay, the senior gentleman picked back up in his unveiling story of contentment.

    Their unspoken understanding was confirmed. With his appropriate response, the question facilitated the means for the story to move forward. It was the equivalent of two people playing ‘catch’. The back and forth ‘give-and-take’ had been handled judiciously, and with nuance.

    “Many, many years ago I had a similar conversation with an older gentleman who was about the same age that I am, now. He didn’t seem to carry the weight of hardship on his shoulders and I was fascinated by his enviable sense of calm. I was about your age; and I suspect, had similar troubles to those you have. After appealing to him for his secret, he told me about ‘the broker’. it’s about time I passed that torch to you. It’s selfish of me to keep such knowledge to myself.”

    The young man smiled. He sensed an entertaining reveal around the corner.

    “There’s an enchanted, magical being of unknown origin; collectively known as ‘the broker’. At least that’s what I was told, years ago.”

    The old man had a twinkle in his eyes as he spoon-fed the strange details to his curious protege.

    “The broker’ collects personal dreams, the same way others might desire to own a classic car, or rare coins. He is drawn to interesting and unique experiences. I can’t begin to explain to you why he collects such odd things. Regardless, you’ll only have one opportunity to meet him. If he is intrigued by your entry, he will offer you a deal for the rights to ‘own’ it. Heed my advice. Be fully prepared when that happens and don’t squander away your only chance. Wait to summon him when you have an exceptional item to offer, and know exactly what you want in return for it.”

    The young man could hardly believe his ears. It seemed like an intricate setup to trick a gullible rube, but the older gentleman appeared to be dead serious about the surreal details he’d divulged so far. Despite suspecting it was a masterful joke at his expense, he dared to ask follow-up questions.

    “How do I summon this ‘broker of interesting dreams’, when the right time arises? I don’t remember my dreams very often, nor are many of them exceptional in any measurable way. Of the few I do remember, most of those are sinister nightmares. If I do experience something that is vivid, positive, and highly interesting, I want to be ready to share it with the dream broker.”

    “That’s both wise and very prudent, young man. I feel like you grasp the gravity of my advice, but you’ve taken the parameters too literally. It doesn’t have to be an actual dreamscape you experienced while asleep. It can also be about your hopes and aspirations for the future, you see? The only thing worse than not having a valuable item to barter with in the deal; is having the perfect one to present, but not having an audience with him. That’s a missed opportunity of a lifetime, for certain.”

    The young man nodded in agreement. He was highly pleased and proud his personal advisor recognized his understanding of the seriousness of the matter. He waited as patiently as he could for the answer.

    “When your time arives, you’ll know. It will soon become crystal clear. There will be no doubt you’ve secured the ultimate deal. Don’t waste time by asking for silly, impractical things like ‘eternal life’ or ‘vast riches beyond compare’. A dream broker isn’t the almighty, of a magical genie. His powers to grant you wishes aren’t limitless, and his pocketbook isn’t bottomless. If he is intrigued by the dream you share, he’ll initially offer you a pittance for it. He’s a shrewd businessman who has negotiated countless deals. Resist the urge to accept any ‘lowball’ offers. Be ready with reasonable expectations, and stand firm on your demands. Good luck young man. May you broker an amazing deal which brings you a lifetime of well-being and happiness.”

    The old man winked and turned to walk away.

    “But wait Sir! You didn’t tell me how to contact the broker of dreams, when I’m ready to strike my deal.”

    He turned back around to face the curious youth. “Oh, you are ready! I already know what you desire, young man. I can see it in your humble eyes. I’ve heard the same requests a million times from others but that doesn’t detract from its validity or precious value. All reasonable dreams for the future are basically the same, and a delight for me to fulfill. You see, when I had my own special meeting, I asked to become a broker of dreams, myself. Happiness, and good health is a wise choice, my boy. I’ve already granted them for you.”

    0 Comments
    2024/05/19
    19:24 UTC

    3

    Dark side of the moon (Book announcement rewrite)

    I held the package close, its precious contents pressed against my spine. The steady beeps that communicated life drove my exhausted legs forward. Even with the combat stimulants running rampant through my blood, my nervous system bringing fibrous polymer muscles to their brink, and a set of assisting servos practically tripling my stride speed, I was exhausted. The sun and its rays bared down on me like a predatory dragon, each ray a fang made of flame, ready to tear open my suit and scorch my skin…but not today.

    “Not today!”

    I picked my stride up and sent every muscle in my body past overdrive, I tore stone and sand as I sprinted farther forward and collapsed. I had finally made it to one of the only rations of shade on the desolate moon surface. As I hit the ground and retreated into the shade, I removed the pack from my shoulders and gently laid the box down. I opened the zipper that held the sunshade on and looked at the pale figure inside.

    “Hello my love, I hope you’re resting well, we finally made it, now just time to wait…and you'll be better again”

    I took my helmet off and took a deep breath before beginning to set up camp. I thought back to the mission room, where I was nearly denied entry to Io

    “You understand the journey you’re undertaking has never been completed before? This is a mission that as of this moment has a 100% rate of failure. Do you not think it would be wiser to simply say your goodbyes and prepare for a life without her?”

    I shook my head as the council stared at me with tired expressions and pained eyes

    “I am three times decorated am I not?”

    The head minister nodded and shuffled her papers, reading slowly from the top page

    “Argon Lethius, 12 tours, 7 rotations, 153 confirmed neutralizations, 3000 pending, strength record unmatched, augmentations class S granted. You’re also the sole surviving candidate of the sky petal program”

    The sky petal program, an experimental research project I had taken part in to pay for my wedding. The core concept was simple: graft photovoltaic cells onto our skin and use nanotechnology to create a bio-mechanical ecosystem within the dermis. 

    The result was going to be humans capable of photosynthesis, making us less susceptible to nutrition based disaster. Rejection however was high in the program and when your body is trying to fight its skin, things get ugly quickly. A dormant gene I had passed on from my mother allowed my body to accept the prosthesis but at great cost, I was now essentially allergic to solar radiation. When I'm planetside I'm just fine, but if I was in an area devoid of atmosphere, the nanotech would go overkill, usually producing energy akin to solar flares from my skin.

    “Mr. Lethius, your feats and skills are unmatched, your circumstances are impossible to reproduce and the dedication you’ve shown to this coalition has been unwavering. Which is why we sympathize with your loss, and grieve with you. Crystal was-”

    I snapped at her

    “Is…she’s still alive”

    The minister nodded and corrected herself

    “I'm sorry, Crystal is an incredible addition to this council, and we are deeply sorry both internally and externally. But the dragons of Io have no official record, and the sunlight alone could overcharge you in a day, leaving not only our best military asset but also his sick wife stranded without hope of rescue”

    I nodded and spoke solemnly

    “3 days supply, and a ship to drop me off, if I don't respond in 4 days, come get my body and bury her where we fall. She loves it there. Even if I can't save her, I want her to rest somewhere she would be happy”

    I snapped back to the present and finished setting up camp. Unpacking our supplies and connecting a set of solar panels to her cryo-chamber. I watched her take deep breaths through the ventilator as I threw a tarp overhead and began digging into the rockface.

    “You’ll be ok my love, by this time tomorrow you’ll be your old self again”

    I dug for hours, tearing holes in my suit and flaying the skin from my fingers. As my blood hit the white dirt and stained the cracked surface, I felt a degree of nausea rise up from my stomach. Saliva filled my dry mouth and I bit down on my tongue to prevent the vomit. Bile reached the back of my throat and I dug my fingers into the dirt, searching for the Will to resist my body’s urges. The sun couldn’t take me, my mind couldn’t shake me, I would not buckle before saving her. Before long I couldn't go on, and I needed to rest.

    I swallowed hard and sat back, laying down and looking up at the harsh sky.

    “Hindsight is 20/20, we can keep trying new things but sometimes this is just how things work out, I’m sorry”

    I nodded as the doctor left the room and she sat motionless in her gown.

    “That guy didn’t know what he was talking about, there’s so many treatments, we’ll just go to another doctor”

    She brushed a strand of hair out of her face and looked up at me

    “I’m tired of my love, can we go home?”

    I nodded without speaking and embraced her, feeling her slow and weakened heartbeat against my chest, its rhythm in sync with my own.

    “Sure, We’ll go home”

    That was the last time I saw her awake, she fell asleep on the car ride home…and never woke up. I was able to bring her to the hospital where they revived her, but she was comatose, most likely asleep till the cancer kills her.

    “I’m sorry my love”

    I looked over at her chamber before bringing my hand up to my face and staring at the mangled flesh of my palms.

    “A drop of blood for a question, a thousand heartbeats for an answer”

    I heard the voice in my head as if it was a thought I had formulated all on my own, but the voice was different, it didn’t belong to me nor anyone I had ever heard before.

    “A single tear for a favor, an entire ocean for its completion”

    I crawled to the spot where my blood had dripped into the ground, the sand was stained red but almost completely dry. I leaned over it and thought about my honeymoon, I thought about vacations and work, time together and apart, moments where she was everything. I thought about the idea of my life without her, and then it came like a flood. Tears flowed freely from my eyes and drenched the ground, the first falling square on the red stain in the sand. The liquid pooled on top and a small ribbon of crimson fluid flowed upward into the tear drop. The ribbon danced and waved in a thin line through the microscopic ocean.

    “What is your question?”

    The voice came from above me now, and as I slowly looked upward, a loomed overhead, blocking the sun from view, and causing my heart to skip a beat.

    “What…is your question”

    Before me now stood a massive beast, speaking in the voice I had heard in my mind and digging his gargantuan claws into the sand. The tip of each toe ended in a blade that was crystalline and almost translucent. Each blade too had a glowing orange stripe that when shifted, turned the sand underneath him to panes of glass. His arms were broad and powerful, covered in green scales and his maw hung open with a light blue mist emanating from his teeth. He was the dragon, the one from Io who space gods told legends about.

    “I…I want to know something about my wife”

    He knelt down on his two front arms and brought his eyes to my level, a kindness flowing between his seemingly infinite pupils.

    “Your wife. She is a story I myself cannot seem to get over. What do you wish to know?”

    I looked up at him and let out a deep breath before gesturing to her

    “Can- can she be saved”

    His gaze snapped to her case and he slowly moved over to where she slept

    “You brought her with you, of course you did, you could never leave her behind.

    I crawled over and knelt next to him, tears still flowing from my eyes.

    “Please tell me, can she make it?”

    He turned around and knelt next to me, putting a massive hand gently on my shoulder and speaking softly.

    “My boy, She’s already made it, just not in the direction…you were hoping”

    He tapped the monitor screen and it stopped showing vitals, instead displaying a digital sign in dark red letters. I read them aloud to myself.

    “Subject deceased, time since last recorded activity. 37 hours 22 minutes 48-49 seconds”

    He nodded and spoke calmly

    “You wanted to badly for her to live, you saw her living, even when she wasn’t”

    I slammed my hand on the crate and opened the lid, picking her up in my arms and putting my ear to her chest.

    “Come on, come on. You’re ok, you’re ok”

    I clutched her in my arms as silence arrived to my ears. I rocked her and cried into her soft silken hair. Her pale skin had lost its glimmer and I pressed my forehead against her own. I spoke through tears and a tightened throat

    ‘No, she cant die, I found you! I finally found you! Come on sweetheart you’re ok right? Just wake up. He's here baby we made it, please just wake up, please”

    The dragon loomed over head and let out a deep breath, speaking gently, so as not to disturb the silence

    “She is gone, and even I cannot save her”

    I felt my skin begin flaming as I turned my head back up toward him

    “Then what can you do? What can you do if you can’t bring her back to me? Why are you a legend if you cant make her breath again?!?”

    He whispered softly into her ears and I felt the wind of the world around me change

    “Because I can send you to her”

    The planet fell silent and she disappeared along with the dragon. The camp was gone, my hand had been healed, my suit was gone and instead I wore a thin white shirt and loose cotton shorts. I was comfortable, and as I stood to my feet I felt as if my thirst had been quenched, my hunger satiated, I was…ok.

    “Hello?”

    I called to the emptiness, and before long a soft sullen voice spoke back.

    “Hello darling”

    She took my face in her hands and turned me around, holding my cheek as my whole body shook

    “Hi beautiful”

    I brought my hand up to her own and felt her soft warm skin against mine, I pressed my head into her hand and leapt forward, bringing her close and up into the air as I spun her around. She laughed as I gently set her down and wrapped my arms around her.

    “I’m sorry you can’t stay”

    I looked at her and spoke quickly

    “What do you mean I can’t stay? The dragon sent me to you, he sent me to see you, so we can be together again”

    She shook her head and kissed my softly, as she pulled away she put her hand on my chest

    “It’s not your time hero, I’ll see you eventually, but this is goodbye for now”

    I woke up on the sand, the dragon standing over me, holding her body as she began to slowly turn to dust. His tears fell on her degrading body as he handed her to me, and lowered his head.

    “I'm sorry, it’s never permanent, did she tell you goodbye?”

    I took a deep breath and held her in my arms before walking a few paces forward, and laying her down on the sand. I spoke calmly as tears streamed down my face.

    “Yea…she did”

    He nodded

    “That is more than most get, was she smiling?’

    I wiped my eyes and laughed

    “Yea…she was”

    He fluffed his wings and let the world around us grow heavy with winds

    “Then your mission is complete”

    I continued to cry as I looked back at him and spoke in a wavering tone

    “Did you know I was a general?”

    He strolled over and sat next to me, watching her particles flow away with the storm

    “You were the most powerful general of all time, incapacitating but never killing, for a man with your rank one must usually commit vast atrocities but you…you never took one life”

    I nodded and watched the wind whip and carry sand alongside her body

    “I didn’t want to take life, I was reprimanded over and over but I always knew there was a better way, she wanted me to try, to make it so at every opportunity we could fight without ending lives…she hated senseless death…and I think I see why now”

    He spoke calmly, wiping his eyes as the last of her bones turned to crystalline dust in the wind

    “Her death was not senseless, in fact you'll find that when something as beautiful as her dies, it becomes impossible to make sense of it. That does not mean it happened without sense, and it does not mean her death must be for nothing. When men first meet me, they offer a drop of blood, and that is all I require for the question, but to gain my favor, they must give up a piece of themselves”

    I sighed and looked up at him

    “What do you need from me then?”

    He gestured to where her body had sat moments ago

    “You just let the biggest piece of yourself go without a fight. You have paid for more than enough trips to see her”

    I nodded and spoke without waiver

    “I'm not supposed to keep visiting her though, am I? She won’t be happy till we see eachother again permanently, and if I show up prematurely…she would probably be pissed. So ,I guess now I just live?”

    He laid down in the sand and let out a deep groan

    “I don’t think I’ve lived in quite some time, I’ve been stranded here for so long, evading capture to exist within my freedom, too afraid to face the cosmos again”

    I patted his side and gripped what was essentially his ankle

    “You shouldn’t be afraid, fear doesn’t do anything for men like us. Maybe we should sit a while, and see if your fear doesn’t go away”

    He let out a deep breath and closed his eyes, laying down as I watched the sun rise over the horizon. My heartbeat continued, but as I watched the last of her ashes swirl through the air, I found a modicum of peace, and I thought about her.

    3 Comments
    2024/05/16
    02:09 UTC

    1

    this is not real, you need to wake up! [CHAPTER TWO]

    "A family is left in mourning as twenty-one-year-old Natalie Rose was found dead over the weekend," the TV blared into the room, "seemingly attacked by some sort of wild animal as she sat in her tent on what was meant to be a relaxing camping trip alone. Natalie's parents have requested privacy at this time, but they appreciate the condolences they have received. In other news-" Roman grabbed the remote from me and shut off the TV.

    "Hey, I was watching that!" I said as I flipped him off from across the room. "Bullshit, you're on your phone," he chuckled, fixing his hair up in the mirror. "Okay, well, I was listening. I like to have background noise, dickhead," I replied, watching him in the reflection, his focus clearly not on this important conversation.

    "Where are you going all dressed up?" I interrogated him. "Morgan and I are having our engagement party, but we've got to be there early to sort out seating."

    "You're having your engagement party and you didn't invite your own brother?" I questioned him, offended at the audacity this man had. "I did invite you, dipshit. You told me you had a date with Katie tonight."

    The realisation hit me like a punch to the gut. I'd completely forgotten about my movie date with Katie. With a surge of panic, I leaped from my seat, heart pounding, and scrambled to get dressed. Every second felt like an eternity as I cursed my forgetfulness. Then, I heard Roman's car start outside. Without a second thought, I sprinted out the door and down the driveway. Knocking on his window, I pleaded for a ride.

    The soft hum of the road and the whirring of the engine filled the car as we silently moved through the night. Staring out the window at the blur of trees, I thought about how I would apologise to Katie. Roman reached for the radio, and a Trace Adkins song began playing. Seeing this as the perfect time to start a conversation, I spoke up, "So, are Katie and I coming to the wedding?" I asked, grinning. Roman let out a deep sigh as he turned off the music. "If Katie doesn't plan a date night on the same day, then yes," he replied.

    Silence filled the car as we drove along the empty road. The vast woods surrounding us created an eerie atmosphere, intensified by the winter darkness cloaking the night sky above. Yet, for Roman and me, who had grown up in this land, these woods evoked nostalgic memories of our childhood adventures. While for others, it might be an unsettling glimpse into the barrier separating civilization from the unknown, for us, it was a comforting window back into our past.

    When Roman bought the land we had grown up on after our parents passed, I was probably more excited than I should've been, considering I had just lost my mum and dad in a tragic carbon monoxide leak. But my relief at not having to leave this place was immense.

    We eventually reached an area where the city lights were visible in the distance. I noticed Roman yawn as he adjusted his grip on the wheel. "You're gonna have to tell me where to go, I can't remember where Katie lives," he stated as he changed gears and prepared to enter the busy traffic, a stark contrast to the remote rural road we were about to vacate.

    “Just take a left up h-" I began, but was interrupted as a white blur ran in front of the car, causing Roman to slam on the brakes and swerve. I grabbed onto the side of the door as we spun out of control, the screeching of the tires filling my ears, jolting me out of the relaxed state I had been in due to the many miles of quiet driving.

    We eventually came to a stop, now facing the opposite direction, gazing down the endless stretch of desolate road we had just traversed. Roman calmly checked all his mirrors for whatever he nearly hit but failed to see anything through the dust he had stirred up in the spinout.

    “You all good?” he asked, a relieved smile creeping up his face, a deep breath escaping his lungs.

    “Yeah, what was that?” I asked as Roman started reversing, then turned the car back towards the busy city street about a kilometre away and began driving. I looked over to him, expecting an answer to my question, but didn't receive one. His brow was furrowed in an uncertain expression, clearly lost in thought, like he was trying to remember if he locked the front door.

    “Roman?” I said, causing him to blink a couple of times.

    “I don't know what it was," Roman answered, not breaking his intense stare at the asphalt in front of us as we drove along, approaching the main road. “Probably just a sheep, there's a few acres of farmland behind these trees,” he continued.

    As we approached the intersection, Roman flicked his left indicator on before turning onto the main road. “Okay, now take the next right,” I said, feeling the weird atmosphere in the vehicle slowly dissipating. After a few more turns, Roman said that he knew the way from here and turned the radio back on, which cut the remaining tension that I could tell we were both feeling.

    The chilly winter night was starting to bite at my skin, and I cursed myself for forgetting a jacket in my hurry. I swivelled my head around to see the backseat. “What are you looking for?” Roman asked, finally looking in my direction as he turned the music down slightly.

    “Uh, do you have a jacket I can borrow? I didn't realise it was gonna be this cold,” I sheepishly admitted.

    “Hold the wheel,” Roman told me as he reached around behind him, shifting around his hiking gear that he hadn't taken out since his camping trip with Morgan last month.

    Eventually, he pulled out his gym hoodie and threw it on my lap. “This is all I got,” he grunted as he readjusted himself in his seat and took hold of the steering wheel again. When we pulled into Katie's driveway, I pulled the hoodie over my head and hopped out of the car into the brisk night air, my breath visible in the cold. “I'll pick you up around 11:30.” Roman shouted out the window as I pulled the hoodie the rest of the way down and waved to Roman as he drove away, beeping his horn as he left me in the chilling winter breeze.

    I knocked on the door, checking the time to see that it was 7:37, only a few minutes late. As I waited in the dark, a surprisingly chipper Katie opened the door, hugging me and dragging me inside. “You didn't miss much,” she whispered as we stumbled through the house that had all of its lights off. “Why do you smell like your brother?” she asked, shooting me a dirty look before grabbing a handful of the hoodie and sniffing it. All I could do was shrug and grin, “I forgot how cold it gets in the winter time, he let me borrow it.” She rolled her eyes, and we sat down next to a bunch of her friends and her parents, who all whispered their hellos in the soft glow of the TV.

    Around 11:18 pm when the movie was long since finished, Katie's parents said goodnight and headed off to bed, and a few of Katie's friends who had been visiting said goodbye and drove home. I got up to get some water from the kitchen, and as I walked back, I stood in the doorway that separated the kitchen from the living room, which was dark, only lit by the TV. This allowed me to see Katie frozen, staring towards the window, which was out of my direct line of sight.

    Confused, I peeked my head out of the doorway and looked toward the window. I froze and dropped my glass; luckily, it landed on the carpet and didn't make much noise, and the tall, pale creature standing an inch from the window didn't notice. The creature was foul, a gaunt, lanky humanoid. Well, at least the head was humanoid; the body and limbs were almost ape-like, with long, disproportionate arms and less exaggerated legs. The creature's whole body was covered in grey skin stretched tightly over its abnormally long bones. It had no hair anywhere. Its mouth was strangely wide, stretching around to where its ears would be if it had them, and its eyes were just sunken, inky black pits in its head. But I could tell it was staring daggers at Katie, who had tears rolling down her face. She slowly turned her head to look at me, shaking and breathing quickly. I had never felt so powerless. I was supposed to protect her, and I would. I would die to protect her, but I had no idea how to shield her from whatever this thing was.

    Then I had an idea. I looked to the light switch panel to my left. I knew one of them was the porch light, but there were three others: the living room light, the kitchen light, and the hall light. If I pressed the wrong light, I didn't know what the thing would do, but I had to try. I had to remember which light Katie's dad used to turn the porch light on when he goes out for a smoke.

    I reached for the light second from the bottom and flicked the switch. The hall light turned on. Luckily, the hall was on the opposite side of the kitchen from where the living room was, and it was out of view for the creature at the window. But I couldn't mess up again. If the kitchen light turned on, the creature would see me, and if the living room light turned on, it might cause it to attack Katie. I looked back at the creature, which was using one of its hands to scratch the window as it sniffed around. I had to do something.

    I reached for the bottom light switch and flicked it; the porch light turned on. The creature spun around to face it and let out a screech that will haunt my nightmares for the rest of my life. I ran to Katie and grabbed her, dragging her off the side of the couch where there was about a metre gap between the armrest of the couch and the wall.

    The sound of the window smashing filled the house, and Katie cried into my shoulder. I couldn't see anything; it was pitch darkness besides the slight blue glare from the TV on the wall above us. But I could hear raspy breathing and bones cracking as the thing searched the living room. I heard it sniffing the couch where Katie was sitting, and I heard it make its way closer to the end of the couch, one of its hands pressed on the wall above us. I saw the silhouette of its head begin to peak over the side of the couch, but suddenly the light turned on, and Katie's dad yelled as he saw us from the kitchen while he was holding a shotgun.

    The creature ran at him but fell to the ground as a loud shot rang out in the night, leaving only the sound of our combined breathing and Katie's soft sobs. I watched intently as the body lying between Katie's dad and me moved around on the floor, before slamming its hand down, then the other, and pushing itself to its feet.

    Katie's dad reloaded his shotgun, but it was too late. The creature grabbed the poor man by his leg and pulled it out from under him, causing him to shoot the ceiling. I grabbed Katie and dragged her upstairs as the creature began tearing into her father. She cried and screamed, begging me to help him, but what could I do? Whatever that thing was, it just took a shotgun blast to the chest and brushed it off.

    I locked us in her upstairs bathroom as the creature's loud and hurried footsteps made their way towards us. Katie was crying loudly now, insisting that we were going to die. Honestly, not a super helpful contribution, but I can't blame her.

    As the creature began crashing against the door, pieces of wood started to splinter off. I shoved Katie into the tub, and then lay on top of her. Hopefully, my body would be enough to shield her from this thing. Time slowed down as the door exploded inward. I looked at the girl I loved, makeup running down her face, pieces of door in her hair, mouth wide open as she let out the most ear splitting scream. For some reason, I felt no fear. Even as the monster began tearing at my clothes and clawing at my flesh, I felt strangely calm.

    Eventually, the creature grabbed me, swinging me around by my hoodie, slamming me into every wall and surface in the room. I fell to the ground as the hoodie ripped off, and the creature just stared at me, then the hoodie in its hand, then back at me. I stared back, utterly confused, as it leaned over and sniffed my entire body from head to toe. It looked as puzzled as I felt for a moment before I heard Roman's car pull up outside.

    The creature screeched as it sprinted out the door, slamming into the hallway wall in its haste. "NO!" I shouted, leaving my still-shaking girlfriend in the tub as I chased the monster out of the house. Somehow, I caught up to the creature and grabbed onto it, bringing it to the ground below. The thing managed to get on top of me, biting and clawing at my arms and hands as I shielded my face.

    Before I knew it, Roman came out of nowhere, tackling the creature off me, yelling for me to run. The creature, sleek and deadly, wasted no time in retaliating against Roman's attack. With a primal growl, it lunged at him, its claws slicing through the air like daggers.

    Roman had a size advantage that I didn't have, and managed to hold his own for a few seconds as he wrestled with the beast. He'd always been as strong as a bull for as long as I can remember, tall with powerful hands and massive arms and shoulders. But I couldn't risk watching my brother, as strong as he may be, get killed by this… whatever it is.

    With strength I didn't know I had, I grabbed the back of Roman's expensive shirt and pulled him out of the way of a fatal blow to the head, throwing him towards the car before I lunged at the creature and went feral. I don't know what came over me; I started swinging on the creature as we tumbled around in the muddy grass. Just when I thought I was actually winning, the creature managed to get its legs between us and kicked me off, then swung its clawed hand at my stomach, ripping it right open.

    I collapsed to the ground as my body tried to comprehend what had just happened. My eyes narrowed as everything was drowned out. I watched the silent scene play out before me, my heartbeat pounding in my head.

    The creature charged at Roman, who leaped to grab his car's back door handle just as the creature snagged his foot. It yanked at his leg, but Roman clung onto his car door tightly. The creature persisted in pulling as Roman struggled to reach for something in his hiking gear stored in the back seat.

    With an agonising yell, Roman's leg gave a sickening snap. Despite the pain, he finally retrieved what he was searching for. Releasing the car door, Roman watched as the creature stumbled backward. Seizing the opportunity, he swiftly climbed on top of it, brandishing his trusty hunting knife from his camping trips.

    As Roman wrestled with the creature, the air was filled with grunts and snarls. He plunged the hunting knife into the creature's body, eliciting a guttural howl of pain. The creature thrashed wildly, but Roman held on grimly, his determination unwavering.

    With each strike, Roman's movements became more frenzied, fueled by adrenaline and the need to protect us. The creature's attempts to retaliate grew weaker as Roman's blows found their mark. With a final decisive thrust, Roman delivered the fatal blow, and the creature slumped to the ground, defeated.

    Breathing heavily, Roman collapsed beside the creature, his body trembling with exhaustion and relief. I rushed to his side, concern evident in my voice. "Natalie-" he faintly murmured.

    "Who? Who's Natalie?" I asked, my confusion growing.

    Suddenly, the creature jolted up, its movements abrupt and startling. Without warning, it lunged at me, seizing me by the throat and hurling me against the car.

    The last thing I saw before I blacked out was the creature sprinting towards me. In that moment, I felt a strange sensation coursing through my body, as if something within me was shifting. I glanced down at my hands and watched in horror as they contorted and turned a sickly shade of grey. Long claws protruded from my fingers, their sharp edges glinting in the dim light.

    As my bones cracked and deformed under the strain of this inexplicable transformation, a sudden surge of anger and ferocity overwhelmed my senses. It was as though a primal instinct had taken hold of me, consuming my entire being in its relentless grip. With each passing moment, the world around me faded into darkness until finally, I lost consciousness, my mind consumed by the terrifying reality of what I had become.

    I awoke hours later in the back seat of Roman's car. The hum of the road and the whirring of the engine attempted to lull me back to sleep, but I sat up, rubbing my head as the memories flooded back. "What happened?" I asked, my voice hoarse and strained.

    Roman responded with silence, a familiar reaction from him, but this time, it sent a shiver down my spine. As I looked at my arms, then my stomach, and felt around my whole body, I realised the wounds and deep gashes caused by the creature were all gone, as if I had never been attacked.

    I caught Roman's gaze in the mirror, but he quickly averted his eyes. That's when I noticed Katie in the passenger seat, her tear-stained face betraying her silent anguish. It was clear she wanted to say something, but I couldn't shake the feeling that Roman had warned her against it.

    "What do you know about this place?" Roman asked sternly, his voice devoid of emotion.

    "We've lived here all our lives, Roman," I replied, confusion evident in my tone. "What do you mean?”

    Roman pressed down on the brakes, bringing us to a sudden stop. I noticed a pained expression flit across his face in the mirror, a fleeting moment of vulnerability that he quickly tried to conceal.

    "Your leg!" I exclaimed, my voice laced with concern as I recalled the events from earlier.

    "It was a dislocated hip. I fixed it," he replied bluntly, his tone revealing little about the ordeal he must have endured.

    "This isn't real, Jason. None of this is real. You are not real!" Roman's voice was sharp, refusing to meet my eyes in the reflection.

    "Back at Katie's house, I remembered everything the moment I looked into that creature's eyes. I remembered... I remembered Natalie," he said, his words catching in his throat, revealing the first hint of emotion I'd seen from him.

    I watched as a tear rolled down Katie's face. I reached to put a hand on her shoulder but stopped myself.

    "Roman got me to remember," Katie said, her voice trembling. "I remembered the emergency alert, and when those things broke down our doors. I watched as they dragged my parents out, then my baby brother, then me. I woke up in this fake world, in a family that isn't even mine, dating a boy who turns out to be one of the monsters who brought me here." She spluttered, and I began to cry silently as I realised what she was saying.

    Roman eventually started driving again, occasionally getting a call from Morgan, but after the fifth call he threw his phone out the window. We drove until I fell asleep. I don't remember what I dreamed about, but it was peaceful. I think I was in that forest with Roman. We were children again, playing around in the trees, finding cool sticks and exploring the endless expanse of what felt like a fairytale, which I guess it was.

    I was awoken by the abrupt sound of Roman's car door slamming. I looked outside and saw that it was daytime again. Trying to figure out where we had stopped, I noticed a giant sign that said “Library.” I hopped out of the car and jogged to catch up to Roman and Katie.

    “What are we doing here?” I asked, clearly still being avoided. It was understandable, but it still hurt.

    “I need to wake everyone up,” Roman said as we walked in and approached a computer.

    I noticed we were getting odd stares from everyone as we walked by, which is when I also noticed that I looked like I had just come out the other side of a paper shredder. My clothes were all torn up with bits missing, apparently not possessing the magic healing ability that I do. The sound of Roman typing snapped me out of my self-conscious thoughts and redirected me to the computer screen.

    "I'm going to be a while, guys," Roman said as he began writing out his story. "I need to tell the whole thing from the beginning. Go find a book or something.”

    I looked over to Katie, her face void of expression, but a great sadness filled her now dry eyes, having cried all the tears she had. “Why don't you just wake up?” I asked, probably coming across as more insensitive than I intended.

    “I've got nothing to go back to. Roman told me what the world is like back there. If my family is here, I have to find them and wake them up first,” she responded, finally meeting my eye.

    I wanted to hug her so bad, but I knew she didn't love me anymore. She probably had a real boyfriend in the real world.

    Hours went by as Katie and I found a place to sit and wait in silence, watching Roman. He looked funny in the little library chair, hunched over the computer. Such a big guy looked out of place here, his muscular presence overpowering that of the rest of the library's patrons, who were all either very old or very young.

    I hate to admit I fell asleep, but I'm just telling the story how it was. I was awoken suddenly by sirens and shouts. “We have got you surrounded, come out with your hands up or we will come in and show you no mercy,” a man's voice yelled from outside through a speaker. I looked over to Roman, who was limping over to us as all the customers flooded out the exits.

    “Get up, we need to leave. They've turned the law against us,” Roman ordered. Katie and I listened and followed him.

    We made our way upstairs into the empty employee lounge, and Roman opened a window... with his elbow. “They've got every exit covered but this one. We need to jump,” he calmly told us. He stood up in the window frame, kicked off some of the remaining glass with his boots, and jumped to the roof of the single-story building below, wincing in pain as he landed on his bad leg.

    That's when six armed officers kicked down the door and opened fire on Katie and me. I moved to block the bullets from hitting Katie, taking several hits to the head and back. I then pushed Katie through the window, and Roman caught her before I jumped out myself and followed.

    We ran from rooftop to rooftop until we reached a ladder that led down into an alleyway, where we attempted to catch our breaths. Roman and Katie watched me intently as the bullets lodged in my body began to work their way back out, the wounds closing up after. My skin color shifted a little, and I felt a rattle leave my throat as a cold sweat came over me.

    “Hey, control yourself,” Roman told me sternly. I nodded, struggling to remain composed.

    “Did you finish the story?” Katie asked Roman.

    “Yeah, I kind of had to rush the last part, but I got the message across,” he replied, slumping to the ground behind a dumpster, exhausted.

    “What now?” I asked.

    Roman looked at me, panting. “I'm gonna help Katie find her family, then I'm going back to Natalie,” he said between heavy breaths.

    “What about Morgan?” I questioned, causing him to look down at his feet. “I don't even know her in the real world, and I would never have chosen to be with her. This place… it's like it wrote me a life that was least likely to let me remember who I am. The girl I'm engaged to is the complete opposite of Natalie. I've got a brother who lives with me, my parents are dead. There's literally nothing here to remind me of home, bro,” Roman said, shedding a couple of tears.

    We waited in the alley until night, hearing sirens go back and forth every now and then. When Roman said we were in the clear, we made our way back to the car and started driving again. I noticed Roman's eyes fluttering after about an hour, and I told him I'd be happy to drive if he needed to sleep. I could tell that his ego didn't want to admit he was exhausted, and he also still didn't trust me, but he gave in and pulled over, falling asleep in the back seat as I drove off into the night.

    0 Comments
    2024/05/14
    05:41 UTC

    8

    ‘Ghost Translation Service’

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    5 Comments
    2024/05/12
    17:06 UTC

    5

    I Found Something Strange in the Abandoned Steel Mill

    I lived in a town in the North of England and was doing a business studies course at college.

    I really wanted to study literature, but the careers advisor had said I would never get a proper job if I did that, so business studies it was.

    Every weekday morning outside of the holidays I left the house around eight-thirty and headed to college.

    It was a dull, frustrating grind.

    On the day that everything changed, I was still half-asleep as I stepped out into the street.

    It was December and starting to rain. I shivered and pulled the front door closed behind me.

    The curtains were opening in the house of the people who lived opposite. I could see their TV screen through the window, a patch of blurred brightness in the grey winter light that hung over the rest of the street.

    Wishing I was inside and warm with nothing to do but watch TV, I buried my hands in my pockets and set off.

    The college was a mile or so from my house. I had a student pass and could get a discounted ticket on the bus, but the busses were so unreliable it was usually quicker to walk.

    The rain was getting heavier, and I hesitated, wondering if I should wait at the bus stop for once.

    I decided it was not worth it, put my head down and ploughed on.

    I was soaked wet through and a couple of minutes away from the college when a bus I could have caught drove past me and pulled up at the stop opposite the college entrance.

    I growled under my breath. The world hated me.

    Dripping and scowling, I walked on.

    The college building was a modern, bland structure that stood on the outskirts of my hometown.

    Beyond the college, the abandoned steel mill dominated the horizon. Its exterior had grown dark with dirt over the years. The chimneys which had vented the furnaces looked to my eyes like scars in the sky.

    This building had been the making and the breaking of my hometown.

    Hundreds of people had worked there once, earning a good living. My father among them. My mother was a nurse at the local hospital, and most of her patients at the time were either workers at the steel mill or their families.

    These had been the best years.

    I had still been at school five years ago when everything soured. The company that had owned the steel mill had closed it and moved their operations abroad. Everyone who had worked there was made redundant.

    I remember flurries of defiance from the townsfolk: signs were made, marches organised, vigils held. One claustrophobically hot summer night, a riot broke out. The sound of sirens and the smell of smoke that reached me in my bedroom seemed incredibly exciting at the time.

    Despite this, the steel mill stayed closed, and people slowly gave up. A few moved away. Most stayed.

    My mother dealt a lot of the time now with health issues rooted in unemployment and poverty,

    My father was one of those who had gone away.

    I could never forgive him for this.

    I turned away from the steel mill and went into college for another day of learning things I did not want to know.

    Slumped into my usual seat at the back of the classroom, I yawned.

    First up this morning was Mr. Taylor with Accountancy.

    I glanced up as he came into the room and started to speak.

    But I wasn’t paying any attention to him. I was staring at the girl sitting at the desk next to me.

    I had not seen her take her place. I had no idea who she was. And I was captivated,

    She was beautiful.

    She had long jet-black hair and wore a baggy black pullover. Scuffed black boots emerged from under her long black skirt.

    And she was giving me a filthy look.

    … Because she’d noticed I was staring at her, I realized with a white-hot flush of embarrassment.

    I looked away so quickly I might as well have held up a sign saying, That’s right. I was staring at you because I’m a total creep.

    I spent the rest of the lesson forcing myself to look straight ahead and nowhere else.

    When class finally ended, chairs clattered, and students chatted as everyone else drifted out. I glanced over to make sure the girl had gone.

    She was, which meant I could leave without having to walk past her.

    I sighed and left the room, wishing I was not a loser who worried about everything.

    Students wandered along the corridor, some in their own little groups and everyone with their eyes fixed on their phones.

    I had nothing else to do, so I decided to go for walk in the break.

    I took out my phone and pretended to be engrossed in messages like everyone else so I wouldn’t stand out.

    I actually only had one message. It was from my mom letting me know she had to go into work early and wouldn’t be back until late. The message ended with a pizza emoji and a smiling face, which was her way of telling me there was a pizza in the freezer for my dinner.

    I replied with a happily drooling face and stepped outside.

    The rain had stopped, which meant I could find somewhere to sit and read the book I had in my backpack rather than just wandering about aimlessly.

    I took my book out.

    It was by my favourite horror author, and I had already read it three times. The cover was torn just above the face of the vampire rising from its grave.

    I was looking forward to losing myself in its pages when I heard someone say, “Vampires are the best.”

    I looked up, and felt my cheeks begin to burn.

    It was the new girl from my class.

    She was standing right next to me. Close enough to make me feel dizzy. And now she was looking at me.

    Expecting me to say something, I realized with dread.

    I breathed in, swallowed, and said, “Uh.”

    A look of what I was sure was pity passed across her face, while all I could do was stand there and wish a hole would open in the ground below my feet and swallow me up. I’d hurtle down into the magma at the centre of the earth and melt out of existence then.

    If only life had been so simple.

    A group of four students had emerged from the college. I knew who they were. And they knew me. Unfortunately.

    They were the nearest thing the college had to cool kids. They were all designer clothes and sneers and, as far as they were concerned, I was the human equivalent of dirt you wiped off your shoe.

    One of them shouted out to me, “Hey, the world’s biggest nerd has got himself a girlfriend.”

    Another of them added: “… from the bargain basement.”

    Then they all burst into laughter.

    I died a little more inside but did not react.

    I never did to their taunts.

    Next to me, the girl had become very still. She was looking straight at the group and there was a fiery expression on her face.

    Slowly, deliberately she raised her hand and extended her middle finger at them.

    She did not say anything. She did not need to.

    I waited for the group to respond violently.

    But their shoulders were hunched, their eyes looking away.

    Because someone had stood up to them and they’d shown their true colours. They were cowards. Bullies. Now walking away with their tails between their legs.

    The girl lowered her hand and said, “I hate people like that.”

    “Me too,” I replied without thinking about it first.

     “I’m Jane,” she said.

    “Toby,” I mumbled. I was thinking now, convinced the next words out of my mouth would be monumentally stupid.

    Jane pushed a strand of hair away from her face and I couldn’t help but stare at her again.

    I was shy. Scared of my own shadow and uncomfortable in my own skin. I did not like to even see myself in a mirror. When I did, I saw someone who was shapeless and dull.

    She was everything I was not.

    “Well, Toby,” she said, bringing me out of my daze, “I don’t think I can sit through another lesson today without going stark, screaming mad with boredom. Shall we get out of here?”

    I managed to say, “Yes,”

    She set off walking in the direction of the abandoned steel mill and I followed.

    The steel mill was surrounded by a wasteland of concrete slabs, broken bricks and long unused roads. Bedraggled weeds curling up from cracks in the ground were the only signs of life.

    After a few minutes, Jane asked, “Have you lived around here long?”

    “Uh, yes, all my life,” I replied.

    “Nightmare,” she responded. “I’m here because my dad has got a job at the hospital. He’s a bureaucrat who knows nothing about medicine.”

    At the mention of her dad, thoughts of my own father returned unbidden.

    I remembered him sitting in the front room at home, a year after the steel mill closed. He’d been drinking again and was slurring his words as he talked about how he was nothing without his job at the steel mill. A few nights later he walked out of the house… and that was him. He was gone. 

    I pushed these unwelcome memories away and tried to focus back on Jane.

    She was saying, “… And as soon as I’m old enough, I’m off. Going to live in London or Paris or New York. Somewhere exciting.”

    She had been staring into the distance as she spoke, as if she was visualising her future away from here.

    Now, she turned to look at me and added, “Until then, let’s have some fun.”

    We had reached the wire fence which enclosed the steel mill. It had been erected shortly after the closure.

    Jane rattled the fence with her hand and said, “Let’s break in.”

    My heart sank.

    I knew that the steel mill had been stripped of everything worth stealing by the owners before they abandoned it, but dangers remained.

    Fragments of rusted metal that could cut and poison you; shadow-masked spaces where you could fall and break bones; dust clogged air that could choke.  

    I had never been inside the steel mill to experience this for myself, but we’d had graphic talks at school and my mother had repeated these warnings frequently while I was growing up.

    This had stayed with me and, even to this day, there was no way I wanted to go into the steel mill.

    But Jane was smiling at me and her eyes smouldered.

    My temperature soared. My resolve buckled. All sense dissolved.

    “That sounds great,” I said and started looking for a way to get through the fence.

    It was filthy and worn but held firm as we tested it with kicks. We skirted one edge and there was still no way through.

    The search for a flaw went on, until Jane exclaimed, “Yes.”

    She put her fingertips through a break in the fence and opened up a gap. It was narrow and the edges of the metal looked very sharp.

    “You first,” she said.

    I squeezed through, held it open for Jane and she followed. Her pullover snagged on the way, and she slipped out of and left it hanging there. She was wearing a faded t-shirt underneath and a slim, sharp-tipped pendant that hung on a chain around her neck.

    She straightened it then we started to walk around the steel mill looking for a way in.

    After ten minutes or so we saw what could have once been a door. A dark sheet of metal looked to be securely fixed in place over it.

    The rain was falling again, and the metal barrier was slick. Dirty rivulets ran in trails down its surface. Jane put a forefinger against the wall and traced a line through the covering of rain.

    Her hand drifted to one edge and she said, “It’s loose here, I’m sure of it.”

    She spun round and began searching the rubble strewn ground. With a cry of satisfaction, she lifted up a section of steel re-bar she had found.       

    She forced one end of the re-bar into a gap at the side of the metal, then she began to pull back on it, using the re-bar as a lever.

    “Help me,” she muttered through gritted teeth.

    I grabbed the free end of the re-bar, and we used our combined strength and weight to try and force the barrier away.

    A crack filled the air and, at first, I thought the re-bar had snapped, then I saw that the plate had moved.

    Jane did not hesitate. She slipped through the gap that had been created.

    I followed, once more caught in her wake.

    The dark enveloped me as I stepped inside.

    I was aware of my heart beating. I could feel the cold pressing against my skin.

    A light appeared to my left.

    It flashed upwards to reveal Jane’s smiling face, and I realised it was the torch on her phone.

    Her voice rippled with excitement as she said, “This is amazing.”

    She turned the beam in an arc.

    It picked out pitted concrete, brick and steel ravaged by dirt and rust, then a darkness too distant for the torch to pierce.

    Jane started to move that way. I kept pace.

    My eyes must have started to adjust, because I could see shapes beginning to appear ahead of us outside of the slim shaft of light.

    As we progressed further, and my senses continued to adapt, the shapes resolved into the crude outlines of vast machinery.

    My imagination raced and I could have almost believed I was in an alien spaceship.

    Jane started to play her torch over the strange landscape, the light picking out dials and levers, and then, lying on the ground, a safety helmet.  

    I walked over to the helmet and picked it up. There was something scrawled on its side in faded lettering.  

    I turned on the torch on my phone and directed it at the lettering.

    It read: Tom Johnson, Foreman.

    And the alien spaceship was gone, replaced by the abandoned former workplace of ordinary people.

    People like my father.

    He hadn’t said goodbye the night he left. He didn’t take anything with him. He became an empty place in my heart.

    I turned my torch off then put the helmet back down gently on the ground.

    I was aware of Jane watching me and did not want her to see that I was upset, so I led the way deeper into the steel mill.

    Behind me Jane continued teasing out new details among the ruins with her torch. The mouth of a furnace gaped, the base of a vent rose towards the ceiling.

    She swung the torch back down and something appeared at the edge of the beam. A small dark form. I saw wings flickering and then it was gone, lost to sight.

    “A bird?” I gasped. I’d thought there was nothing else in here and the sudden encounter had set my pulse racing.

    Jane had paused next to me. She wrinkled her nose in thought then replied, “Not a bird. It was a bat.”

    A smile played across her lips as she spoke.

    I shivered and walked on.

    We moved side by side through the steel mill. It was silent, apart from the crunch of debris under our feet, until Jane exhaled sharply.

    I turned to her.

    She was pointing her torch at the ground.

    Bones were exposed in the unnatural light. Pale fingerbones lying in the dirt, the lines of ribs, the spine emerging. A skull. Its eye sockets were voids. There was a cavity where the nose would have been. And its teeth were fixed in a rictus grin.

    I stared at them, ice-cold fear trickling through my veins.

    Not because of that dreadful smile, but because of the fangs which protruded from the upper jaw.

    They were elongated, curved, and hideously sharp.

    In the first rush of shock and confusion when I had set sight on the bones, I thought I was looking at human remains.

    But those fangs were not human.

    They were an aberration.

    My guts cramped and I began to shake. “W… what is it?” I asked?

    There was awe in Jane’s voice when she replied, “A vampire.”

    I wanted to tell her that vampires only existed in fiction. That they were fantasy, an escape from the hurt and boredom of life.

    And yet the thing on the ground in front of me seemed horribly real.

    Jane said quietly, as if to herself, “It is so beautiful.”

    My mind reeled anew.

    It was not beautiful to me. It was terror incarnate.

    I wanted to flee.

    “Please, we have to get out of here,” I begged. But Jane wasn’t listening. She was lost in her reverie, lost to me.   

    I stumbled away. Heartbreak and horror were tearing me apart and I couldn’t take anymore.

    But there was to be no escape from the visceral pain of this day.

    I realised there was someone else there, in the darkness. Close enough for me to make out their features.

    Everything I had felt up to that moment fell away and a raw wave of emotion struck me.

    The figure standing before me was my father.

    He was dressed in rags and sickeningly emaciated. His skin was lined and so pale I thought I could see the dark lines of the veins beneath. His eyes were sunk within the hollows of his face.

    He had changed so much since that night he had walked out on us, and yet there was no question it was him.

    A single tear trickled down his ravaged cheek and he whispered, “Toby. Is it really you?”

    His voice was so hoarse and feint it was as if the words were carried to me on a winter’s breeze.

    I couldn’t speak, could only nod in reply.

    His lips creased in a small smile that sang of sadness and pain.

    “Toby,” he said. “I am so sorry about everything. That night, when I left the house, I felt like such a failure. I walked the streets trying to think of a way out. There were no simple answers, but I decided I should stop drinking and try to stop letting the past drag me down. When I set off back for home, I felt hope for the first time in a long time.”

    I was stunned by this. He did not walk out on us, I realised, as he went on.

    “I was almost home when I was attacked in the street by a monster who appeared human until he bared his grotesque teeth. Then I was brought here. I learnt that the steel mill had become his lair. The vampire. The accursed fiend. He kept me prisoner to serve him. But then one day while he slept, I fought back. I drove a stake through his heart and his flesh shrivelled away. His bones were all that were left.”

    “You were free,” I said, fighting to understand.

    “Never free,” he replied. “He made me like him and I can never walk in the light again.”

    I blinked away a tear and said, “You’ve been alone all this time.”

    “No. I was not the only one he took.”

    As he spoke, a bat, like the one I had seen, flew slowly into view and landed at his feet. Two more joined it.

    Seen close-up, they were ragged beings. Their wings were torn, their bodies close to wasted away.

    “These are the others,” my father said. “They are too weak to change back into human form. We can converse in our own way, though, and share the rats and bugs whose blood we drink to sate the worst of our thirst. That is all we will take. The people of the town are safe now the vampire is destroyed.”

    Destroyed and adored, I thought, and felt sick with dread.

    I turned and hurried back to Jane.

    She stood over the Vampire’s bones. The sharp tip of the pendant on her necklace was stained dark. Her palm where she had cut herself with it dripped blood down onto the monster’s remains.

    Her eyes shone with excitement as she looked at me and said, “I had to know.”

    Her blood continued to fall onto the bones, spreading through them. They began to shimmer in the gloom, and I watched in horror as flesh began to regrow. Within moments the bones were lost to view, and I was staring at a glistening form that looked as it the skin had been flayed from it. Then new skin slithered across the body, a pale layer that made the creature once more complete.

    The vampire was reborn.

    Its eyelids flickered and opened. Its dark eyes burnt with rage as it surveyed the world around it.

    Jane looked entranced, and reached out, inviting the vampire into her embrace.

    Its gaze met hers, and then it snarled and lashed out.

    Its hand struck Jane. She cried out and reeled away.

    “No,” I yelled and, acting on instinct, threw myself at the vampire.

    It batted me away as if I was an insect.

    I tumbled into a heap on the ground and lay there gasping as pain pulsed me through. Jane was a few feet away. Her face shone with confusion and fear.

    Our attacker rose to its feet. It was tall and slim, its cheekbones were high, its dark hair flowed over its shoulders, and its skin was flawless.

    It had the appearance of beauty, but this was the creature that had stolen my father from me.

    It was repulsive.

    And now it was considering me and Jane as we lay helpless before it.

    Its mouth opened, its tongue flickered, and its fangs were revealed.

    They were the instruments that would condemn us to the shadows of eternal servitude.

    The vampire began to move towards us.

    A flash of movement appeared in the corner of my eye, and then the vampire was thrown off its feet as my father collided with it.

    He had thrown himself at the vampire. Saved me, and Jane.

    But it was immediately clear this would be the most fleeting of victories.

    The vampire was up, crouching on its haunches, its teeth bared. My father lay sprawled on the ground. He looked dazed and was struggling to breathe.

    I ran to him and cradled his head in my hands.

    “Too weak,” he murmured. “No more fight left in in me.”

    I fought back tears and then an idea came to me in my desperation. I told him, “Drink my blood. It will give you the strength to defeat this fiend.”

    “No,” he gasped. “There is too much risk you will become one of the undead. You have to leave me, get away while you still can.”

    With this, he pushed me away then lay there. He was helpless before the vampire’s rage. It leapt on him and began to tear at his flesh with its fangs.

    I could not bear to watch this final travesty and turned away. To see Jane standing next to me. Her face was flushed and streaked with tears.

    “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I heard everything and it’s my fault the vampire is risen. I have to make it right.”

    She held her arms outstretched and cried, “Drink my blood, take the strength it gives.”

    The bats span down towards her, summoned by her words. They landed on her arms and her neck. Their teeth sank into her flesh.

    Jane shivered violently as they fed. She must have been in agony, but this was a sacrifice she wanted so badly to make.

    Sated, the bats rose from her skin then moved with incredible speed towards the vampire. It was still leaning over my father’s unmoving form but glanced up just before the bats struck.

    They swarmed around it, diving in one by one to bite.

    Caught in the eye of their storm, the vampire tried to force them away, but they were too strong and too fast.

    I could see blood streaming from dozens of wounds in its skin, then it fell to the ground.

    I knew, in my heart, that the vampire would not rise again, and stumbled over to my father even though I knew it was too late.

    His time on this earth was over. But now he would be remembered as a good man who was taken from us.

    I held his hand and wept.

    After a while, I became aware that I was being watched. I looked round. It was Jane. And she was not alone.

    A young woman and two young men were by her side.

    It was the young woman who spoke: “It is over. The vampire is destroyed forever, and we have the strength once more to be in our human form. We will leave this place and find our own way in the world.”

    Jane listened then held out a hand to me. “I am like them now and will go with my kin. Join us. Let me bite you and become a creature of the night.”

    She had never looked more beautiful to me than she did in that moment, but I knew what my decision must be.

    I got to my feet and said, “My mother lost her husband. It’s not right that she should lose her son as well. I’m going home.”

    Then I kissed her and walked away from the darkness. My future waited in the light.    

     

    0 Comments
    2024/05/12
    13:35 UTC

    35

    this is not real, you need to wake up!

    “Have a good night, Roman!” the receptionist said to me as I walked past her desk while she was getting ready to close up. I smiled and waved as I left the gym and entered the brisk night air. Checking the time as my stomach made a gurgling sound, I saw that it was 9:47 PM, and every fast food place in my small town would be closed by now. I looked across the road and saw that the local grocery store was open until 10, so I started lightly jogging towards it, the cold breeze biting through my clothes and attacking my face and neck since I didn't dry off my hair properly after showering."

    A wave of warmth hit me in the face as I stepped into the store, causing my eyes to water slightly. "Attention shoppers, the store will be closing in 10 minutes, so please start making your way to the checkouts. Thank you, and have a good night," a woman's voice echoed over the intercom. I hurriedly grabbed a pre-made sandwich and headed towards the drinks aisle. With my head down, I walked, reading the label of my less-than-exciting dinner, and I decided I would grab another sandwich on my way out. When I looked up, I found myself staring into the aisle I had entered, only to see my ex-girlfriend Natalie standing there with her boyfriend, Ari.

    Her eyes met mine, and I started to tear up again, but not because of the temperature of the air. She broke her gaze and continued talking to Ari, her expression never changing from the smile she had already been wearing before she saw me. I looked away and started making my way to the end of the aisle, walking past them but not acknowledging them in the slightest. As I brushed past Ari, I realized how much bigger he was than me, at least 3 or 4 inches taller and probably a good 20 kgs heavier. For reference, I'm 6'2" and weigh 92 kgs lean, so I'm not small by any stretch, but this guy dwarfed me.

    As I grabbed a Red Bull, I wondered to myself why it had hit me that hard. It had been years since I dated her and years since she drifted out of my life. We were 16 when she confessed her feelings for me, five years ago now. We had been good friends before that, and we were still good friends after I broke up with her, but I took her for granted, so when she started becoming a less consistent part of my life, I was too stubborn to tell her that I missed her. I was snapped out of my own internal dialogue suddenly as my phone started vibrating in my pocket, emitting a strange analog beeping sound that I hadn't heard it make before. I looked around to see Natalie and Ari looking confused while also staring at their phones.

    "This is an emergency alert, get to the nearest enclosed structure immediately. Close and lock all doors and windows, turn off all the lights, and do not make any noise that will be detectable from outside the structure. If you are in your house, close the blinds and fill as many containers with water as you can. If you are in a public structure such as a store or a recreational facility, then follow as many of those same steps as you can. If you are in a vehicle, shut off the engine and lock the doors. For all who are listening to this alert, do not look into the fog, and under no circumstances should you go outside. This alert will repeat once every twelve hours and any updates will be shared periodically. You should be prepared to stay indoors for at least a week, this is not a drill. Stand by for updates.", all the phones in the store blared in unison.

    There was a moment of complete silence as the few late-night customers in the store looked over to the closing staff, who were just as dumbfounded as everyone else. Then the store broke out into a hurried panic as who I assume was the store supervisor made her way to the back of the store to shut off the lights, while the other two ladies who were at the checkouts began to lock the doors. I went to call Marcus, my mate who's in the air force, to ask what the hell is going on, but there was no signal at all.

    "Nah, fuck this, bro!" Ari shouted in anger as he grabbed Natalie by the wrist and started walking her over to the sliding glass door that was in the process of being locked. As the lights all dimmed out row by row, we were all left in pitch black darkness, excluding the glowing sign of the service station across the street and the barely visible streetlights outside that were being drowned out by the thick fog that everyone had just noticed. Ari turned on his phone's flashlight and kept walking in the darkness until Natalie pulled away from him. "We can't go out there, Ari, there's something wrong with that fog!" Natalie yelled at her partner.

    "Let me out right fucking now!" Ari shouted at the poor lady who had just locked the place up. "I can't do that, sir," she replied softly, causing him to start banging on the glass, threatening to break it. “Ari! Please! Calm down, babe, can't we just wait until we know what’s going on?” Natalie begged as she grabbed Ari’s forearm and attempted to stop him from shattering the only thing separating us from the strange mist outside. “Dude, come on, you don’t know what’s out there,” I interrupted, “it could be a chemical attack or something. Just at least wait until we get an update, man,” I tried to reason, but it was no use. “Fuck you, pussy, I’m not getting held against my will in a supermarket. Who the hell would chemical attack New Zealand, dumbass?” he responded to my reasoning. This is something I had already been thinking. It wouldn’t explain why we had to turn the lights out, and it wouldn’t explain why we had to remain quiet. But I was hoping that he wouldn’t be able to think all that through.

    “LET ME OUT I SAID, WHAT THE FUCK DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND, BITCH?” he shouted at the top of his lungs as he shoved Natalie off his arm and onto the hard epoxy floor, then resumed his banging on the glass, but much harder now. “You gotta let him out,” I said to the grocery worker as I helped Natalie to her feet. The rest of the dozen customers who were in the store had crowded behind us, watching the whole thing go down. “He’s gonna get us all killed if he breaks that glass,” I argued. “Let him out.” The worker reluctantly put in the code for the door’s automatic opening system to activate, and the glass began to slide to the side. Ari looked back at Natalie in rage, seeing that she was not going to leave with him. The large man then walked out, and the doors shut behind him, immediately being locked by the store lady whose hands were now shaking.

    We all watched in silence as Ari’s silhouette disappeared into the fog until the only thing we could make out was his phone’s flashlight gently glowing through the mist. All of a sudden, it seemed like he had stopped moving; the light didn’t get any dimmer or seem to be getting further away at all. As around 17 of us observed from the darkness of the grocery store, a loud shriek was released into the night, and Ari began sprinting back to the door, and his banging resumed.

    “LET ME THE FUCK BACK IN THERE’S SOMETHING OUT HE-!” he began to shout but was cut off as his legs were pulled out from under him, and the wind was knocked out of his lungs as he landed hard on his stomach, his nose cracking on the concrete. Natalie went to scream, but I covered her mouth, and we both watched as Ari was dragged back into the fog by a tall, lanky humanoid silhouette, still clutching onto his phone. Eventually, the light from his flashlight was completely engulfed by the wall of fog, and we were all left with our mouths agape and tears in our eyes as the severity of our situation set in.

    Nobody really said much over the next couple of hours; everyone was too shaken up, I guess. At around quarter past 12 AM, I checked my phone as Natalie lay on top of me, fast asleep, her face buried into my hoodie. She had been crying since… Well, we all watched what happened to Ari. After that, everyone found a place to themselves, and Natalie held onto me, soaking my shoulder with her tears, which made their way down to my skin. I hated that I was happy at that moment. I felt so selfish about being content in her sorrow, but I missed her so much. I missed her more than I let myself know and was just thankful that I had her there with me. I thanked God that I didn't have to go through this nightmare alone.

    I fell asleep shortly after, closing my eyes and taking in the noises around me: the humming of the fridges, Natalie's soft breathing, gentle sobs from across the store, and I'm sure a couple of times I heard screams in the distance outside the apparent security of this store.

    I awoke to my phone vibrating again, but it was only my 7:30 AM alarm. Natalie must have already been awake because she was holding me tight, and there were fresh tears on my hoodie. I lay there for a bit, hugging her, ignorant to the world that, for all I knew, was ending anyway. I was also ignorant to the fact that the sun hadn't come up, or at least, it wasn't reaching us through the fog, meaning that it must be completely encasing us. How far does the fog stretch? How far would it have to extend into the sky for not even a hint of daylight to shine through? These are questions I did not have because I was holding onto the girl who I had never really stopped loving, making me probably the only person at that moment who was trapped in a dream, not a nightmare.

    Natalie and I ate breakfast in silence. I guess there are worse places to be trapped than a well-stocked grocery store; however, as 10 AM rolled around, a new alert sounded out from everyone's phones: “This is an emergency alert. It is still very unsafe outside, so stay where you are. Keep all the lights off, and do not make any noise that will be detectable from outside your structure. Avoid looking into the fog or standing in a position where you are visible from the outside. Cover as many windows as possible and preferably hide in a room that can be locked off from the rest of your structure if necessary. If something is in your structure or is trying to get inside, then it knows you're there. In this scenario, hide; do not attempt to confront it under any circumstances. Notable updates: the electrical and water systems will not be operational by this time tomorrow, so if you have not done so, fill up as many containers with water as you can. You will receive another alert every twelve hours. Thank you, stand by for any updates.”

    I stood up and stretched, feeling the stiffness in my back from sitting on the hard supermarket floor, and my legs had pins and needles. I looked down at Natalie, who seemed lost in thought. I wasn't sure if she had heard the update, but then again, what did it matter? The loss of power would mean that all the refrigerated items would spoil, but there was enough long-lasting food to feed us all for months, probably, drinks as well. I knew our biggest problem would be warmth as we would lose the electronic heating system, but before I could think any more on that, a commotion broke out on the other side of the store.

    A loud crash echoed across the whole building, and as Natalie and I made our way towards the noise, we discovered that one of the other guys who was trapped in here, must have been in his late 50s at least, had been using his free time to get absolutely wasted in the alcoholic section of the store, and was now yanking boxes of booze off of the shelves as he drunkenly laughed to himself. Before I could do anything, another man, maybe in his early 30s, tackled him to the ground and pinned him down, all without saying a word. As the older guy lay there, asking what the problem was in slurred, barely comprehensible English, everyone in the store felt their hearts sink as a loud thumping sound was heard from the front door. And then again, and again, until one of the three store workers, who wandered over to see who was over there, let out an almost impossibly loud scream, and that was what sealed our fate. The store erupted into chaos as the glass door was shattered, and an inhuman shriek reverberated in our ears as whatever was outside was no longer outside.

    I looked to Natalie, who appeared to be frozen in place, teary-eyed as she breathed rapid and shallow breaths. I took her by the hand and ran as fast as I could towards the storage room out back. I knew they had to have one in order to hold onto the stock that they couldn't fit on the shelves yet. But as we reached the door, screams and roars filled the store behind us. My heart skipped a beat as I realized that it was locked. I shook the handle out of desperation and then tried to open the other larger door that the forklifts came in and out of, but I didn't know the code.

    I embraced Natalie, and I guess I just prepared for it to end until I heard a ‘pssst’ and looked back over to the door to see that the store supervisor was holding it slightly ajar while gesturing for us to quickly come inside. We ran to the entrance and left the main part of the building where we found the supervisor and the other surviving employee, along with one other customer who had apparently been in here ever since Ari was killed.

    The lights were on in the storage room because there were no windows, which took a while to adjust to after being in total darkness for the last 12 hours, but it was a nice change. Over the course of the day, we heard many thumps and bangs; occasionally, something would get knocked over, and glass would smash. Whatever was out there was looking everywhere for survivors, but we were safe in here.

    Natalie and I made a bed out of a few 20kg sacks of rice, which was honestly so much nicer than the floor. The other three people in there with us tried to ask us about ourselves, our lives, but I did most of the talking. Natalie was still grieving, and the others understood that, though I did see her smile a couple of times, which was nice. The other employee didn't say much; I assumed it was because of what happened to the female staff member after the door shattered, so I didn't really try to push him for conversation. Honestly, I wasn't really in a social mood myself, but it was just nice to have some sense of normalcy after the shitshow that has been our lives over the last couple of days.

    On day four, I remembered what the alert had said about the power shutting off. It turns out there's a backup generator that should power everything we need for another couple of days, with most of the lights in the store being off, so it really felt like we were home free. At 10 o'clock on the fourth night, I heard the emergency alert sound off from across the room as I lay next to Natalie, since both of our phones had died already. I tried to listen in on what it was saying, but I couldn't quite make it out from where I was, so I got up in the dark and made my way over to the soft glow of the supervisor's phone screen.

    By the time I could hear what was being said, I only just caught the end of it, “Be prepared to stay inside indefinitely. You will receive another alert every twelve hours. Thank you, stand by for any updates.” My heart sank to my stomach hearing this, and as I looked over to the supervisor who shared my expression, I couldn't help but feel a sense of dread. Indefinitely? I mean, it would be easier for us having all of this stock to ourselves, but what about people trapped in their houses, their cars? How were they expected to survive this? As I pondered to myself, I turned around, suddenly startled by the sound of the male employee speaking for the first time since we’d been here. “Fuck this,” was all he said as he entered the code for the large door, which made a loud mechanical whirring as it lifted up.

    I didn't even have time to process what had happened. I didn't have time to be angry at this man for killing us, and I didn't have time to sprint back to Natalie before I heard her being dragged away by one of those creatures, her hands squeaking across the floor as they tried and failed to grip onto it.

    The creature was pale, humanoid, but not human. If you've ever seen a hairless chimpanzee, it kind of looked like that, but its limbs were grotesque and distorted, too long for its body, and its face was more human. Its skin was a light grey color, pulled tightly over its strangely proportioned body. I noticed how it was shrieking, an ungodly sound, but its face was expressionless, its mouth only slightly open as it screamed. I think that was the weirdest part. I thought all of this as I watched this hideous thing drag the girl I love into the consuming darkness of the grocery store. That's when something grabbed me by the leg and pulled it out from under me, causing me to hit my head on the floor, and everything faded to black.

    “Truth or dare?” Natalie asked me. “Umm, truth,” I replied. Natalie thought for a moment before Sarah, my mate Marcus’ Mrs, who was sitting next to her, whispered in her ear, causing a massive grin to form on her face. “Okay, okay,” she giggled as she adjusted her posture and looked me in the eyes, trying to keep a straight face. “Okay, Roman, if you were stuck on an island with all of us, who would you eat first?” I thought for a moment as I looked around the hot tub at all of my close friends. My eyes landed on Max, who is quite overweight, and I couldn't help but smile, causing everyone to laugh, including Max who splashed water in my face and retorted, “I'd eat all of you before you got the chance,” to which Marcus said, “We believe you, bud,” and everyone burst out into laughter again.

    “Okay, Natalie… truth or dare?” I asked. “Truth!” she replied without hesitation. I pretended to ponder my question for a moment. “Would you-” I began, as I stood up in the pool, clutching something in my left hand, “-make me the happiest man in the world-” I continued as I got down on one knee before her, “-and marry me?” I asked as I held a ring out of the water for her, eliciting a gasp from both of my mates and their partners. Natalie's eyes began to tear up, and she asked, “Are you for real?” covering her mouth with her shaking hands. I nodded yes, and she screamed out, “Yes! Of course I will!” before she jumped on top of me, taking us both underwater as she kissed me.

    After we all dried off and said our goodbyes, Max came up to me, “Hey man, congratulations! Honestly, I've been waiting for this day since you guys met. Always knew she was the one for you,” he said. I looked at him for a moment before replying, “What do you mean, bro? When I first started dating her, you told me that she was no good for me. It's like one of the main reasons I broke up w-” That's when the words I was saying hit me in the face like a bag of bricks.

    Max stared at me, his smile not shifting in the slightest. “How long have you and Natalie been together now?” he asked. “Must be around 5 years, about time you popped the question, haha,” he chuckled, but with every second that passed, my heart started beating more and more rapidly. “This isn't real,” I said before squeezing my eyes shut, and waking up.

    A long tendril slid out of my throat as I fell to the ground below and threw up everywhere. I looked up to see a giant, glowing figure with a dozen other tendrils protruding from its shoulders. The skinny figure stood still, its frame reaching the height of the streetlight next to it. As I tried to make sense of what I was looking at, my eyes made their way down its inhuman body. At the end of each glowing blue tendril was a person, the tendrils entering through each of their mouths, seemingly absorbing something from their bodies as pulsating rings of light emanated from the person and up the tendril. I almost threw up for a second time until I saw Natalie among the dozen bodies attached to the creature. Without hesitation, I reached up to touch her hand, and as I did, I lost consciousness again.

    “Unzip the tent, babe, let some light in,” I said as I wiped the sleep from my eyes and cracked my stiff back, cursing myself for forgetting an air mattress on a trip we'd been planning for months. I watched and admired my beautiful fiancée as she got up half-naked and unzipped our tent.

    “I hope you slept better than I did,” I muttered as I lay back down in my sleeping bag. “Babe, you should've had the air mattress. I would've been happy to trade places,” Natalie replied as she opened up her pack and started rummaging through it.

    “Nah, I'm fine, honestly. I'm not letting my fiancée sleep on the ground,” I retorted, my arm covering my eyes, immediately regretting that I got Natalie to let the sun in. “You're such a man,” she scoffed jokingly as she tossed me one of the pre-made sandwiches from her pack. I paused for a moment, a split second of déjà vu overtaking my body as I read the label.

    All of a sudden, I sat up straight in my sleeping bag. “Natalie, this isn't real! None of this is real!” I said to her in a panic, causing her to stare at me, concerned. “Are you feeling okay, Roman?” she asked. “Did you get any sleep at all?”

    “Natalie, the grocery store, the fog, the emergency alert! Don't you remember? None of this is real! We aren't together, we aren't engaged,” I spoke quickly, my voice trembling as I tried to get her to snap out of this false reality. I watched as Natalie's face went white, and her eyes filled with tears.

    “What's going on? What is thi-” she started to speak but was interrupted by a familiar shriek in the distance. I looked out of the tent to see at least a thousand of those chimp creatures making their way towards us, seemingly sensing that we weren't being fooled by this illusion any longer.

    “Natalie, you have to wake up!” I yelled, the creatures getting closer. “Close your eyes and wake-” I regained consciousness and caught Natalie as the tendril slid out of her throat, letting her fall. She threw up onto the ground as I held her, before staring back up at the massive glowing creature. That's when we looked around. In the distance, there were more glowing creatures, hundreds of them spread out over the town.

    “We can see through the fog,” Natalie stated, which I honestly hadn't even noticed until then. That's when we heard frantic screaming and looked to our left. One of those chimp creatures was dragging a man out of his car and over to the glowing figure. We watched as one of the tendrils violently shoved its way down the man's throat, and his screaming stopped. Then, the other creature just walked off, paying us absolutely no mind.

    Natalie then looked back up at the bodies attached to the tendrils and gasped as she saw Ari. She went to reach for him, but I grabbed her hand. “Natalie, if you touch him, you'll go back in, and there's no guarantee that you'll ever come back out. It's like it completely wipes your memory every time,” I told her.

    “How do you know?" she asked. "Maybe I'll remember the second time.”

    “You won't, Natalie. I went back in for you, and I'm lucky that I remembered at all,” I responded. She stared at me for a moment.

    “Why did you go back in for me if it's such a big risk?” she questioned.

    I paused, my eyes welled up. “Because I love you, Nat-”

    An explosion then went off in the distance. I saw it over Natalie's shoulder, then another, then another, each one making its way closer, seemingly each being aimed at those glowing blue creatures. “Run!” I yelled as I grabbed Natalie's hand and sprinted away from Ari and the mass of glowing tentacles. Another explosion went off behind us as a plane roared overhead. The explosion also ignited the service station right next to us, which let off a shockwave that sent us flying off the street. Everything went silent, and I could feel my consciousness once again slipping away. The last thing I saw was Natalie silently screaming in my face, worry overtaking her expression as she held tightly onto my hands. That's when I noticed a piece of fence sticking out of my abdomen. “Shit,” I thought to myself. As everything faded to black, I saw a group of military-looking men running towards Natalie and me, then nothing.

    I woke up to the voices of Natalie and Marcus talking to each other. I sat up in the apparent hospital bed I was in and immediately regretted it, holding onto my stomach in pain. “Woah woah, lay back down, bud. Just relax,” Marcus said as he stood up from his chair and slowly laid me back down. Natalie stood up as well, tightly gripping my hand and kissing me on the forehead. “What is this? Is the fog… is it over?” I asked, confused about how we were here right now in a hospital. “No, it's not over. My higher-ups have decided that we have to start over. Most of the remaining world leaders have come to the same consensus,” Marcus paused briefly, “you two were lucky to have survived. Most people didn't. Those… those things-''.

    "Those people are still alive, Marcus!" I exclaimed. "You can't just bomb the world when those people are still down there! They're in a trance, living in an illusion that those blue things are creating. I can't explain it, but I saw it. Natalie did too. I only got us out because I felt an unbelievable sense of déjà vu, and realized it wasn't real.”

    Marcus looked at me, his expression grave. "I know, Roman. We're trying to figure out a way to deal with them without causing more harm. But right now, the priority is to keep everyone who's still here safe. You and Natalie are the only ones who've had any interaction with those things and came back, and we need your help to understand what happened down there."

    I nodded, feeling a mix of relief and frustration. "I'll do whatever I can to help. But we can't forget about them. They're still people, trapped in a nightmare."

    Over the next few months, I recounted this story to more officials in suits than I can count. I told them how I had done twice what nobody else had done once. I "went into the dream," as they call it, and I came back both times. Though I did manage to convince them not to bomb the world and kill everyone, it has come at a price.

    Natalie sobbed as I told her the plan. She cried into my shoulder, just as she did that night many months ago in the grocery store during the emergency alert. I felt her tears soak down to my skin as I told her that I had to go back into the dream and try to wake everyone up. The chance that I would not wake back up was sitting at the forefront of my mind, but I had to be strong for Nat.

    “I just hope that if I do get trapped in a dream, that I'll get to go through with that wedding,” I said to her softly, trying to put on a smile. “If you don't come back, I'm coming in after you,” she replied, tears in her eyes. I wanted to tell her no, I wanted to be selfless. But I knew that I would have no complaints if she and I were trapped together again; that selfish part of my brain was still active.

    On the 14th of November, 2023, an emergency alert was sent to every mobile device across the globe. It warned of a thick fog that would swallow any who were caught in its midst, and the whole world locked themselves inside. You may be wondering why I'm telling you this story. You may be thinking to yourself, 'I don't remember the day the fog rolled in and the emergency alert sounded.' That is why I'm telling you this story.

    This is not real, you need to wake up.

    14 Comments
    2024/05/08
    04:06 UTC

    2

    Shadow man

    My story starts around age 5, I’ve always had trouble sleeping. No matter how tired I was from running around, playing at the park, all the activities my parents planned, I could not sleep. Nothing worked and it went on this way for years. Shadow man faithfully showed up every night, at the end of the hallway, just standing & facing me. As a child I’d get scared shitless, terror gripping my body scared to look away. Scared he’d move in a blink of an eye. But he never did. Many times I’d pull the cover over my face turn my back breathing heavy out of pure fear, repeating over & over again in my head “your not real”. Shadow man had a long top hat, long slender build & no face. Just all black. I never told anyone about him as a child because I thought he would come get me. My sleepless night consisted of him at the end of the hallway, it became a regular thing for me.

    As the years went by & the stress of adult hood hit me, shadow man disappeared.

    I seen him for the last time around 11 years old. This time he wasn’t down the hallway, he was right in the door way. The same terror washed over me & I recalled all the times he watched me as a child. Our staring contest that felt like it lasted an eternity. I didn’t call out to him & ask who he was or what he was, why he followed me from house to house for so many years, I couldn’t speak. I stared at him until I couldn’t anymore. Eventually my child hood cat, baby kitty, strolled in the room & in a split second shadow man disappeared. I took the opportunity to softly close the door, being cautious not to look in the hallway. I scanned my room & he was no where to be found. From that night on I always slept with my bedroom door closed.

    I still think about that night often, it makes me wonder if he was just a figment of my wild imagination.

    Until tonight, I live alone in a beautiful 1 bedroom with a loft. I chose the loft as my bed room for many reasons, my cat and dog had there own space to do as they please in the actual bedroom and I had a spare room in case anyone needed a place to crash for the night or a few.

    The past week I had a an uneasy feeling, like I was being watched although I was home alone. My routine after work was simple, come in feed my pets get my things ready for a shower and the next day activities walk my dog shower shortly after and wind down for the end of the night with a book or aimlessly scroll social media till I just drifted off to sleep.

    Tonight I did my routine faithfully, but I left a light on hoping it would calm my uneasy feeling. I don’t know when I fell asleep but I woke up with my book next to me & both my cat and dog on the bed, which was unusual because they are both particular about there sleeping space. I made my way downstairs to use the bathroom and grab a bottle of water, on the way up I turned off the light & I checked the clock and it read 3:00 am on the dot.

    I settled back down but couldn’t fall back to sleep, Whiskers and Tonka stayed by my side sleeping comfortably. My eyes adjusted to the dark room & I found myself staring at Shadow man for the first time in years. At the foot of my bed closer than ever.

    A mixture of fear & confusion quickly coursed its way through my body. “What are you, why are you back” I whispered as I rapidly blinked through tears. No response, no movement just black stared back at me.

    0 Comments
    2024/05/08
    03:55 UTC

    3

    ‘Bliss’

    “Think of the mind as a massive, organic ‘computer’. The outside surface of your brain, otherwise known as ‘gray matter’; is like the individual sectors of a ‘personal hard disk’. Your eyes, ears, nose and tactile receptors record all of your sensory experiences. Billions of these unique, chemical-based memory cells reflect a lifetime of good, bad, or neutral events. Some are positively charged, some are negatively charged, and the remainder typically go unused.”

    The audience sought to absorb the speaker’s carefully crafted speech. The analogies made sense and kept their attention.

    “Unfortunately, no person is immune to unpleasant experiences. We’ve all suffered pain and disappointment at one point or another in the past. While that’s true, some negatively-charged memories are so potent they render the recipient unable to function in society. Our enterprising company offers a revolutionary means of targeting and removing mental roadblocks through advanced technology. The treatment service we offer scientifically pinpoints these affected memory allocations in the physical tissue and reverses the damage. It leaves the patient feeling healthy, happy, and fully rejuvenated. We refer to our patented rehabilitation program as ‘Bliss!’; because once the person’s malignant memories are eradicated, the patient has nothing but joy and contentment in their life.”

    An assertive voice from the audience addressed the spokesperson directly. Several of the onlookers suspected he was a paid ‘plant’ to ‘shill the pitch’ and reinforce the futuristic narrative. Heavy-handed marketing tactics are often employed to magnify interest when there was no substance to the unbelievable claims. Those suspicions quickly dissipated. The disruptive nature of the man’s commentary and the lingering promise of a disgruntled testimony did not appear to support the company strategy.

    “I was an early patient of your treatment program six years ago at the Minneapolis clinical trials, Dr. Margate. Admittedly, I was a prime candidate for your experimental ideas; and I under those unique circumstances, I volunteered of my own free will. Frankly, my life was an unmitigated mess. With the horrible background of unconscionable abuse I suffered from in my upbringing, I checked all your boxes. Personally, I was desperate and would’ve agreed to anything at the time.

    From the beginning of day one, if felt amazing to erase those traumatic events. The closest I could describe having the burdens lifted would be pure euphoria. At the time, your staff hadn’t yet coined the ‘Bliss’ moniker, but I must admit, it’s a perfect name to describe the overall sensation. It was intoxicating to feel ‘normal’. For taking away those childhood scars, I’d like to thank you.”

    Dr. Margate’s uncomfortable smile confirmed to the attendees that the abrupt interruption was definitely not part of the official presentation. He fidgeted with the microphone and sought to seize back the focus again. Unfortunately for him, the outspoken heckler in the audience was not even close to done. Everyone present knew there was a very uncomfortable ‘but’, coming soon from the way he spoke.

    “Having my crippling pain ‘zapped’ did exactly what your program promised it would, INITIALLY.”; The agitator hinted. The strong emphasis on the last word confirmed his story wasn’t going to end with a positive conclusion. “I was floating on air. I didn’t have a care in the world for the first few weeks. Your revolutionary treatment gave me and hundreds of others in the trials, a newfound lease on life. My friends and loved ones cheered my dramatic turnaround. I happen to know for a fact, many of your other patients also experienced parallel metamorphoses initially. If our stories ended there, your technique would be an undeniable success story.”

    Dr. Margate’s polite expression had long since faded. He motioned insistently for security to silence and remove the disruptor before he could add any fuel to his damning remarks. Interestingly, the once-receptive audience formed an unofficial barrier around the passionate man, so he could speak his peace. The guards were temporarily unable to penetrate the unified personal barricade, but it was clear, the protester’s time was limited. He continued his attack on the ‘Bliss!’ Program, with greater urgency.

    “A few months after my treatment ended, I was mugged by violent, career criminals preying on anyone they could find. They took all my valuables and beat me savagely. That might’ve been the end of the ordeal but for baffling reasons I couldn’t begin to explain, I enthusiastically thanked them for their merciless beating! Can you believe it? Then, I senselessly volunteered my savings and retirement account information! They sadistically mocked and stabbed me a dozen times. I was left for dead in the alley. Luckily I was found and taken to the hospital.”

    Scrambling to retake control, the flustered doctor made the critical error of addressing his critic’s points directly. “Surely you don’t blame me for any of that, do you?”

    “Directly, no. You didn’t personally wield the knife that tore my flesh, nor did you cheat on me, as my ex wife did afterward in her series of cruel affairs. You didn’t directly cause any of the pain your patients encountered after your team treated them. I believe your sincere intention was to help people, doctor. I genuinely do, but you’ve inadvertently caused more harm than you’ve cured by failing to understand a universal truth about the point of pain.”

    “How so?”; The frustrated Doctor and CEO of ‘Bliss! Enterprises’ demanded.

    “As lofty of a goal as eliminating patient misery might appear, it also eliminates a patient’s ability to learn from the negative experiences and recognize future situations to avoid. Through all of our experiences we develop healthy precautions and better awareness of the malicious intent some evil souls have in mind for us. Sadly, some pain is necessary to learn from. It teaches human beings to avoid being victims in the future. Erasing bad memories for thousands of patients like me has ironically created more trauma, and an artificial state of helpless innocence in those you intended to cure. I implore you. Please cease your memory erasure program immediately.”

    0 Comments
    2024/05/05
    05:34 UTC

    13

    The Third Bathroom

    It had been 15 years since Uncle Hank had mysteriously vanished without a trace. My family had searched everywhere, filed missing person reports, hired private investigators - but there was never any sign of what had happened to him.

    Until one day, when I decided to clean out the old guest bedroom in my grandparents' house. Suddenly realized I needed to use the restroom. I headed down the hallway towards the bathroom, but as I approached the door, something felt...off.

    There were two doors where there should have been one.

    Curious, I opened the second door, to reveal a shimmering surface like a mirror. I reached my hand inside the second door. Gasping as it passed through the door's surface, which felt like warm jello. Cautiously, I stepped forward, my entire body slipping through the strange dimensional gateway.

    On the other side, I found myself in a small, dimly lit bathroom - one that looked exactly like the other bathroom, but in much better condition. And sitting on the toilet, staring at me in bewilderment, was none other than my long-lost Uncle Hank.

    "What the...? How did you get in here?" he sputtered, his eyes wide with shock.

    "Uncle Hank?! Oh my goodness, where have you been?" I cried, rushing over to him. "We've been looking everywhere for you!"

    "Looking for me? But I've only been in here for a few minutes!" he exclaimed. "One minute I was reaching for the toilet paper, and the next thing I knew, I was trapped in this...this place!"

    I shook my head in disbelief. "Uncle Hank, you've been missing for 15 years! How is that possible?"

    He blinked at me, utterly perplexed. "15 years? But that can't be right. It feels like no time has passed at all..."

    As I helped him out of the strange, third bathroom, I realized that for my uncle, no time had elapsed - he had been trapped in some sort of, temporal anomaly for over a decade and a half, while the rest of the world had moved on without him.

    It was a mind-bending, scenario that defied all logic and reason. But as we embraced, tears streaming down our faces, I was just grateful to have my long-lost uncle back, even if the circumstances of his return were the stuff of science fiction.

    As I helped him out of the strange, pocket dimension bathroom, a sudden rumbling shook the very foundations of the house. The walls began to tremble.

    Then there was this flash of light. I could see my grandfather and grandmother in the other room, and my younger siblings as they looked 15 years ago. They seem to notice the shaking, and my grandfather turns, sees us, and yells, “I told you to never use the third bathroom!”

    Then reality seemed to snap back into place and it appeared that we were in the house in my time. I started to breath a sigh of relief when the entire house started to shake again. Uncle Hank and I ran to the door, just as the whole house collapsed into the ground.

    We got a room at the local motel. I want to contact my family, but I'm just not sure what to tell them.

    0 Comments
    2024/05/04
    01:21 UTC

    8

    Shoo, Fly

    “It’s not really a fly, you know. If you swat it, they’ll just fine you and send two more.” April noted, nonchalantly. Sipping her beer without a care in the world.

    Billy faltered in his steps and the fly buzzed away. Groaning, he placed the fly swatter he had been holding on the coffee table. April was always one for silly conspiracy theories. She wasn’t the type of person to wear a tinfoil hat, but she always insisted that no one drink tap water; on account of the government’s plot to mind control the population.

    “That one doesn’t even make sense, April.” Billy sighed, “Do you know how much it would cost the government to make little tiny fly robots for every citizen?”

    “They don’t make them for every citizen. And the government doesn’t make them.” April yawned.

    Normally, Billy and the rest of his and April’s friends wouldn’t humor her, fearing that it would just encourage her. But right now, the two were alone, the last of their friends had trickled out a few hours before, and it was almost midnight.

    “Alright, I’ll bite.” He settled back onto the couch, grabbing the remote and muting the TV, “Who makes them then?”

    “How would I know that?” April shook her head, “I don’t know everything, you know.”

    “Oh.” Billy replied, a bit disappointed. April handed him her beer and stood up.

    “Finish this, I have to go, I have work in the morning.” Billy nodded and took a swig of the beer. He remained seated as April walked towards the door.

    “I’ll see you next weekend!” He called to her as she opened the door. April glanced over her shoulder, “Don’t kill that fly, Billy.” she warned, her face seeming to darken as she closed the door behind her. Billy chuckled and continued to sip the rest of April’s beer.

    As if on cue, the fly buzzed past him and landed on the coffee table. Billy grinned and leaned forward slowly. Unbothered, the fly continued about its ministrations, walking forward a bit, rubbing its legs together, walking back a bit. With one quick smack, Billy slapped his palm onto the fly. He grimaced at the feeling of the insect’s corpse on his hand and scraped it onto the edge of the table. It was already dirty enough, and it was about time to clean it, anyway. But he would do that in the morning, he decided, kicking his feet up onto the armrest of the couch. The T.V. continued to play, muted, and Billy began to drift off.

    He awoke to an itch on his nose, and he lazily slapped at his face, groaning as his eyes creaked open. His eyes widened in horror, and his face contorted with fear. The floor, the walls, the ceiling, his entire apartment was coated in a sea of black flies. The horde undulated and moved as if one, living, breathing thing. The deafening sound of trillions of wings moving together at once was unbearable. Billy stared, frozen in fear, his pale skin a dark contrast the room, which was almost all but void of color.

    Tears began uncontrollably falling down his cheeks. The horde seemed to see that he was awake, and they began swarming to the center of the room. They began piling on top of each other, slowly forming themselves into what seemed to be a humanoid figure. It stepped forward the best it could, the flies seemed to be struggling to stay together. It slowly moved towards Billy, eyes wide and watery. Once it reached him, the flies moved to make something that looked like a mouth on its otherwise featureless face.

    “That…will…be…twenty…four…ninety…nine…Cash…or…credit?” It struggled and held out its hand. Billy blinked and stared back at the flies, who seemed to stare back at him.

    “Cash?” he responded, incredulously. The flies did not move. “Oh.” Billy reached for his wallet in his back pocket and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. “I only have a twenty.”

    “That…is…acceptable…” The horde reached its hand out and coated Billy’s arm with flies. He gagged and bit his tongue, the feeling of thousands of flies covering your hand was not a good one. They pulled back, and the bill was gone.

    “Would… you… like…a…receipt?”

    “Uh…no?”

    “Very…well...” The flies started moving backwards, slowly, towards the door. Billy watched as the mass struggled. As they approached his door, the figure collapsed back into millions of black specks, then flew in waves underneath the door.

    Billy looked to the coffee table, to where he left the fly last night. Its body was gone, instead, two flies wandered around on the table, occasionally rubbing their front feet together.

    Billy decided to throw out his fly swatter that morning.

    2 Comments
    2024/05/03
    19:17 UTC

    15

    Has anyone else encountered the spector in crimson? What should I do?

    I've been living in this old, creaky house for as long as I can remember. My parents moved here when I was young. The house is nestled deep within the woods, far away from the bustling town. The winters here are unforgiving—dreary, cold, and deathlike. The wind howls through the gnarled branches, scraping against the frost-covered windows. The snow blankets everything, muffling any sound from the outside world. It's only now in the light of spring do I have the courage to speak of this. I pray that it is madness that I am facing, and not in truth that foul menacing spector.

    Every year when darkness falls, and winter's death-like fingers wrap around the land, he comes. The spector in crimson. Without fail he arrives silently, slipping through the cracks in my ancent house. To no avail I have tried to keep him at bay. All these years!

    His presence is suffocating. I can feel him in these latter days. Watching me, studying my every move.The first time he came to me as a boy, I mistook him for a burglar. I huddled in my bed, clutching the covers to my chin, listening to the strange noises echoing through the house. The menace huffled from room to room, making noise. What was he doing? Opening drawers, rustling papers, and rearranging furniture? I imagined him stealing my families' belongings. But in the light of morning nothing was stolen. His purpose was far more perplexing and malevolent.

    I come to expect his presence. As a boy, I would go about the house while my family slept, locking every door, and shutting the shutters on the windows. Why did I not awaken my family? On these nights I could not. It seemed like they were under a spell, before he showed himself.

    I've never seen his face; it's always obscured by the deathly white, beard, like some crimson wizard of yore. His eyes, though—they pierce through the darkness like shards of ice. They're the only part of him I can see clearly.

    Why did not I speak of this? I was too terrified for a long time. I had hoped it was a nightmare. It seemed as if spoke of it, it would make the thing a reality and not a dream. But eventually I did. My father only chuckled at me. Who would believe a small boy? And he said nothing.

    And after that night the spector came back. I awoke to him standing at the foot of my bed. Silently watching. I dare not move. I stayed as still as possible. Finally I passed out from sheer terror. For twelve days year the spector in red haunts me. Just shy of a fortnight.

    But as I said, nothing ever went missing. Instead, he left behind strange boxes—wrapped in paper. I dared not open them. Perhaps they held cursed relics or ancient spells. Or maybe they were traps, waiting to spring shut and ensnare me, pull me and my family into whatever cold place that man came from. I always threw these boxes into the fireplace.

    Ah the fireplace! You say, how do I know he is not a man? Firstly, he never leaves any footprints. And on one particularly cold night, I left my room. As I rounded the corner, the man in red was there in front of the fire place. I tried to keep silent, but the floor gave away my secrets. He locked eyes with me, and chuckled. He lifted a finger, and I was gripped with terror. He touched his nose, and then like a wizard of flames, he vanished like a puff of smoke, up the chimney.

    Each year, the man in the red suit repeats his routine. And always, he stands at the foot of my bed, watching me sleep, his breath visible in the frigid air.

    I posted about him on other forums, hoping someone would understand. But the responses were dismissive. "It's just a dream," they said.They laughed. They didn't help. They don't know the bone-chilling reality of my nights—the way the man in the red suit haunts me.

    Last year, he came again. I lay frozen in my bed, watching as he placed another box in my dresser. His eyes bore into mine, and I wondered if he saw the terror etched across my face.

    Today, I sit here, staring at unopened box. The madness must end. I am a grown man. What happens if I open it? I need answers. But what is it?

    Tell me venerable users of reddit what should I do?

    4 Comments
    2024/04/28
    19:47 UTC

    7

    Play If You Want To Eat

    Sari Njein is still at large, possibly somewhere in San Francisco. She would use her connections with family and neighbors to hide among everyone else. I survived, but I have to be careful not to say where I live now.

    The sight of Barbie dolls or Powerpuff Girls or My Little Pony makes me sick. At first, I refused to play with the toys. I had no idea what she was talking about, I'd never seen her daughter before.

    Hunger can do strange things to a man. I wanted to survive because I wanted to kill her. Not because she jabbed me with a needle with some animal tranquilizers loaded into it and then stuffed me into the trunk of her car and beat me with plastic toys while I regained consciousness. I wanted to kill her because I'd brought in my dog to her emergency animal clinic and while she had me imprisoned she told me she'd killed my dog. For that I wanted to get my hands around her neck, for Ioved my dog very much.

    I was afraid I would never get out of that basement, it was more secure than a prison cell. At least that is what I thought for the longest stretch of my imprisonment. She never opened the door, not for any reason. I had to survive down there, and using the septic system as part of an escape plan didn't occur to me until later.

    My first concern was food. Every day, if I gave her my things in a bundle and kept myself clean she would give me water. Then she'd give me a sermon in her own language and translate it into English - a little bit more each day. I picked up gradually that she had me mistaken for someone who had killed her daughter somehow, and now she was having her revenge. I wouldn't eat unless I played with the girl's toys. At first I refused, but hunger soon prevailed.

    Over time I had nothing else to do down there in the blank void of darkness, where it was not day or night, and the world had forgotten me in a silent tomb beneath the Earth. Barbie and the Powerpuff plushies and the My Little Pony creatures were my only friends.

    That is when the terror of losing my mind began to seep in. I was no longer doing voices for these effeminate characters, but rather I was hearing them speak. I looked up and for a second, I saw something in the shadows, some kind of gray thing of ribs caked in clay and worms hunched there and its jaw was slowly moving as the dolls spoke. It was gone, but the smell of it lingered in the air from then on. I found the wriggling things and took their protein as sustenance.

    I trembled as I awaited another visit, terrified of the thought that it might not leave. My captor asked me in a strained whisper, "Have you seen her yet?"

    Shaking I pointed to the darkening stain I was trapped with. I was too scared to say anything, and sweat beaded on my forehead. The vengeful mother looked and saw only an echo of her daughter fading there in the chthonian darkness. "She will come again."

    Then she repeated those same words in a zealous shriek where I had almost not heard the fabric of her first lip-moving whisper.

    "It is time to see what Stacie is doing, I bet she has to clean all the hairbrushes after what she said at Night Light's party." I heard one of the dolls saying. I looked and it was moving jerkily across the floor, as though each leg was held and moved by a scooting child. Perhaps an invisible ghost, giving me cold chills as I discovered its presence. The thought of it there, beyond my senses, could not be ignored. I was trapped down there with it. The doll was ambulating.

    In a rash of terror, I lashed out defensively and knocked the doll across the floor. I thought I would be confronted by the face of grave horror of the rotting corpse of the child, but instead she just laughed at me, and I could not see her.

    I fainted from my panic, unable to endure it past a certain point. My eyes opened and I could not fear the child's ghost any longer. I had somehow realized in the dreams I could not remember, that she was not dangerous, and not to be feared.

    Rather it was the thing that used to be a woman that was in the kitchen sharpening a knife that I should fear. The knife? No, that was just to chop vegetables. She wasn't going to cut me, this wasn't amateur hour for her. She wanted me to suffer forever down there in the dark.

    Some weird part of me actually felt sorry for her.

    Anyway, she already knew, being a mom who had lost her girl child, that physical pain was nothing compared to psychological pain. I had a moment of clarity, somewhere in my cracking mind, and I knew I'd rather be set on fire than undergo any more of her oubliette. I was going to stay down there until I knew nothing else. My body might live on, but my mind would be shattered. I could tell it was happening, things were obvious for a moment.

    Then I felt normal, after that brief self-realization. I felt afraid of the dark, a dark I was trapped in, and I feared my captor, who seemed to have god like power after all that time down there. But I was sure I wasn't going crazy, I just suddenly wasn't bothered by a lot of different things.

    I no longer worried about who I was before, because I had become the audience of the dolls.

    I was not predisposed to caring about food or water or anything but the dolls and the ponies, and fearing the dark.

    There was also another voice, a god to fear in the darkness. Will there be food - have you played with the dolls? I have - yes, so you shall eat. It was a realm where god was feared by all men, and men ruled above the Barbie and the Pony and the Powerpuff, but in the edge of light, for beyond is the darkness, in which dwell the dead. The dead belong to god's anger.

    And god's anger makes my whole world this hell - a mind-screaming silence, a numb paralyisis of endless terror at the reality of belonging to someone who can only feel hate. A god of hatred, and hunger.

    Never enough to eat, you see.

    It all goes down that hole, there's the other way out.

    Was it madness that overwhelmed my fear of the wrath of god?

    Yes, yes it was.

    I found the power to put my friends, one by one, piece by piece, down there, down to the next level of Hell. I was laughing while I did it, because the cries of the dead had become comical. Perhaps they were encouraging me, tired of watching me suffer.

    When I turned I saw her there as she was in life, somehow angelic and glowing. She smiled for a moment and I knew I'd have her assistance when the moment of dread came for me. The door opened and I saw the needle in one hand and then the brightness of her light was in my eyes, blinding me as she rushed at me.

    But there was no venomous prick. No, somehow my madness was not illusion, making it the worst kind of madness.

    "Just go." She gasped, having stuck the needle into her own cheek on reflex at the apparition's beaming sentience. I thought about helping her but felt the fatigue that might stop me from climbing the stairs with my own body, let alone hers.

    I didn't close that door and lock her down there. I thought I did, and I looked back and saw that I hadn't. I could hear her coming up the stairs. It sounded more difficult than when I came up the stairs.

    I limped to the vegetable knife that was razor sharp and got it equipped in both shaking hands. I was scared to peeing my rags, as I saw her crawling towards me. Before I'd gone into her dungeon and lived as her guest for enough of her daughter's birthdays that the girl would be all grown up, I was a pretty husky guy.

    Now I was a skeleton, barely able to hold up the knife with two hands. I was so scared of her that I was backing away, although I still hated her. I thought about Cupid, and I changed how I was holding the knife.

    I resolved to stab her, although I didn't. I didn't have it in me. Part of me had wanted to kill her for a long time, but seeing her crawl towards me like some kind of killer Terminator reminded me I felt sorry for her. I Stockholm Syndrome stabbed the knife into the cutting board instead of my captor, and I found a phone and called for an ambulance for her and the police to come protect me from her.

    "What are you doing?" She looked at me from the floor, confused. Her eyes were blurry, she wasn't sure she was seeing or hearing things correctly.

    I set down the pink toy Barbie phone and looked at it again. I had heard the operator. There was no way I was that far gone. I shrugged and got up and walked outside into the burning sun skies of Los Angeles.

    Just then a dog walker on skates with some kind of electronic harness released Cupid from the pack and she came running up to me. She licked my face, she had never forgot me.

    We were walking along eating all the good stuff out of people's garbage cans when the dog catcher had to get punched by me. I didn't hit him that hard, he's just a wimp and took it too far. So, I was arrested, but then they brought in the FBI because I was missing for so long.

    That's how I found out I wasn't crazy and how she had taken me instead of her real target, only she didn't know the difference. They told me she had moved to San Franciso with extensive connections to conceal her from authorities. I was given back Cupid and we were given to the US Marshals, who removed two chips from Cupid, and then we spent a year off the grid before I could have any kind of life again.

    I still keep my location a secret, in case those bad people out there want to get me and put me in a dark place again.

    1 Comment
    2024/04/23
    17:42 UTC

    127

    My hometown has a killer local legend; our morgue is full of people who wouldn't listen to "Wrong Way Ray."

    Every town has its local legends. Few, I expect, are as deadly as the specter haunting the false summit of Pinetale Peak. But the seductive stories from the rare survivors kept a steady stream of pilgrims attempting to follow in their footsteps.

    When the local rescue team could no longer keep up with the broken bodies piling up in the couloir, the Sheriff posted a deputy at the trailhead to search hikers for the contraband needed to perform the ritual. 

    On that particular morning, it was deputy Gloria Riggs standing by the footbridge. Even in the pale blue pre dawn light, I could spot her camera-ready hair and makeup; more politician than peace officer. She held a chunky flashlight in one hand, the other beckoned, expectant. I slipped my pack off my shoulders and passed it to her. 

    “Any whiskey in here?” She asked as she rummaged through the bag.“No ma’am.” 

    “Ouch. Thought I’d be a ‘miss’ for at least another few years.” 

    I chuckled.

    “You’re not trying to see him, are you Max?” She knew me. Town was like that back then. 

    “No, miss,” I lied.

    “Wouldn’t blame you, being curious,” she zipped one pocket shut and moved on to another. “My cousin got some advice from good ‘ole Ray. ‘Bout ten years back. Professor down valley at the college.”

    “I take it he wound up on the rocks?” 

    Gloria shook her head. “Worse. He got exactly what he was looking for. Headed west with his girlfriend with a crazy dream about a catamaran. Not so much as a postcard.”

    “Sounds like Wrong Way Ray told him exactly what he needed to hear.”

    “He died at sea, shipwrecked somewhere near the Philippines.“ She thrust the bag into my chest with more force than necessary. “If you do see him—take his advice with a grain of salt. He’s not called Right Path Paulson, ya dig?” 

    The skin of my stomach was starting to sweat against the cheap plastic flask I’d tucked behind my belt buckle. “Thanks for the warning. But really, I’m just looking to see the sunrise.”
    “Uh huh. Safe hike, Max.”

    The hike was safe — by Summit County standards — so long as you had sure footing and a good idea where you were going. Raymond Paulson had neither of those things on the day he scampered out onto a traverse to nowhere and fell 500 feet to his death.

    According to the local weatherman, the pre-dawn fog would’ve kept Ray from seeing more than a foot in front of his face. But the toxicology report, combined with an empty liquor bottle found unbroken in the man’s pack, led the coroner to a different, non-weather related conclusion.

    All of this probably would’ve been written off as an accident, if hikers from Kerristead didn't believe in ghost stories. Turns out, Ray wasn't blind, dumb, or suicidal; and he'll tell anybody who will listen.

    I whistled my way up the meandering switchback, bordered by the gabions and felled trees employed by the trail crew to halt the progress of erosion. Trees became bushes, then wildflowers before yielding to the petrified hay commonly found poking out between chunks of scree.

    Someone had stacked a pile of bigger rocks into a semi-circular windbreak, wrapping around the summit survey marker. Shadowy suggestions of the surrounding peaks loomed in the limited lighting, poking above the cloud layer like islands in the sea. Sunrise would come soon. I dropped my pack, sank into the sheltered alcove, and closed my eyes.

    "Hey brother. Got anything to drink?" Asked a gruff voice.

    My lids flew open. Sitting beside me was a stranger wearing a faded flannel shirt, tucked into a well-worn pair of baby blue jeans. The mullet poking out beneath his ball cap looked a little like the fat, fluffy tail of some enormous squirrel. 

    Wrong Way Ray, in the flesh.

    His question was the first step in a loosely choreographed dance, deduced through dozens of failed interactions.

    "Hope you like bourbon." I passed him the tiny flask, from which he took a greedy swig. Only bourbon worked. Blake tried with Gin and said the apparition spat it out before vanishing.

    "Thanks, friend." He passed the flask back, now significantly lighter. "What brings you up here?

    I shrugged. "Looking to get some clarity, you know?"

    "Couldn't have picked a better place. Nature does that." Ray leaned back against the rock, folding his hands behind his head. "What's on your mind?"

    I spoke slowly, feeling every syllable. "I have an opportunity that's eating me alive. A big new job. Fancy one, out East in New York City. Pay is great. It'd be huge for my career; chance to make a name for myself, ya know?"

    He gave a polite nod. "So what's the problem?"

    "Problem is, I'd have no friends, no family... living in some shoebox a hundred miles from the nearest real mountain."

    "I see. You're worried you'll miss it. This." He gestured to the world around us.

    "Nah, it's more than that. Sometimes I think this is who I am... and wonder who I'd be If I leave."
    Ray folded his arms and pondered this for a moment. "Can I ask, what's so great about the New York job? I mean, are you unhappy where you are?"

    "No, it's fine. I can get by. I just wonder if this would offer me more..." I held out my hand like I was reaching out for a word not quite within my reach.

    "More Money? Status?" Ray scoffed. "It's okay to not give a shit about stuff like that. I sure as shit didn't. Everyone's got different priorities. Then again, I'm just a dirtbag adrenaline junkie, living out of his car. At least I was, before--well, you know." He chucked a stone over the edge. It clattered once, twice, then was lost to the void.

    Was? He couldn't possibly mean... "Do you know you're, well—"

    "A ghost, yeah. Used to really rustle my jimmies."

    "What?"

    "Being dead. 'Specially when everyone thought I killed myself." He furrowed his brow. "You wanna know how I really died? Lemme show you."

    He grabbed my arm with a firm hand, effortlessly pulling me to my feet and leading me toward the edge. Had I said something wrong, or missed some crucial step in the scribbled journal entries? 

    Would he throw me off? Was that what happened to the other hikers?

    "Look out over there." He pointed out from our vantage point. I squinted, confused. In the blue-gray light, a knife's edge traverse rose and fell from below the cloud floor like a sea-serpent, ending in a pointed spire. It looked a little like a rattlesnake's tail. "That's Pinetale Peak. The real peak. Hard to find your way when the trail dips down into the clouds. Standing on the top is like looking down from Olympus. Partner told me it was stupid to do without ropes. We didn't have any. I didn't care; just had to see it.

    "On the way back, I got turned around. Slipped right off the edge and... well, seems like you know the rest." Ray sniffed, and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "I remember how it felt. Whose name I screamed on the way down."

    He cleared his throat. "Still an unbeatable view if you need to see the world from the top."

    I was so focused on the feel of his hand at the small of my back, I didn't realize he was waiting for a response. I looked from Ray's expectant face, to the narrow path before me, leading to a spire backlit in gold. I raised one leg, about to step forward, then paused.

    What was wrong with the peak I already stood on?

    "Maybe..." I stammered, "Maybe I've climbed high enough. Maybe I'm okay right here."
    The hand against my back pulled away, taking a profound weight with it.

    Ray was gone, but his message was clear.

    —Cole Noble

    3 Comments
    2024/04/11
    21:50 UTC

    14

    ‘Feedback from the Abyss’

    Philosophically I ask, why would a person awakened in the darkness call out for a response, if they believed they were safe and completely alone? Based upon their understood ‘facts’ and possessing a rational mind, why then would they still question if there is something lurking nearby in their presence? What would prompt a baseless solicitation for feedback from the void?

    The answer to this is both simple and complex. There’s a two-tier system of belief in most people. The rational, educated brain is couched in science and technology. Cold, hard facts dictate the behavior of the conscious self. On the other hand, the murky, primordial brain refuses to dispel its superstitious fears. It hangs onto the bogeyman hiding in the shadows and prepares for the absolute worst.

    These two diametrically-opposed mindsets are always at war with each other. In the reassuring light of day, rationalization rules our actions and dispels the uncomfortable darkness as it tries to seep in. Anything else would be ridiculous, right? Lingering fear and paranoia retreats to the shadowed edges of the subconscious. Later on when we are vulnerable or anxious again, it creeps back out.

    The enchanted state of irrational flux gains strength in the absence of reason and daylight. It convinces us that impossible things are possible. Nightmares then spark into fruition and somehow manifest themselves into the flesh. Once opportunistic darkness reigns, we suspect a verbal reply might come when calling out to the nothingness. As a matter of fact, we expect it. Lingering dread doesn’t stop suspicion in the superstitious mind. It confirms it.

    ———-

    I received such unwanted feedback not that long ago; and if I’m being completely candid, I’ll never be the same again. I’d heard strange and unfamiliar ruminations outside, as I tried to sleep for several nights in a row. It wasn’t a neighbor’s dog or a known nocturnal wildlife wandering my back yard. While I couldn’t place the large aggressive-sounding animal, I knew what it wasn’t. It would’ve been a huge relief if it was ONLY a bear.

    From the heavy footfall, it sounded to be at least as large as of our region’s largest predator, but the primal growls of ‘Ursus Americanus’ are well documented. This definitely wasn’t that. I didn’t dare peer out the window at the time. I feared ‘it’ would see me pull back the curtain. I hid in my bed, as if clutching my bedsheets would magically render me safe from the creaking behemoth circling my home.

    Was it patrolling the area? Marking its territory? Or was it seeking a way into my unfortified home? None of those possibilities appealed to me. They say: ‘Doors and windows are only meant to keep out honest folk’. This wasn’t a human being, and I had significant doubts if it was a natural, biological animal of any known zoological species. Remember my initial essay about how the human imagination is very fruitful in the absence of light or logic? In the heat of the heart-pounding experience, I was fresh out of both reality-based weapons.

    I heard a series of repetitive ‘bone-snapping’ clicks and feral, animalistic hisses as it circled my house. I’d tried to ignore the distressing ‘joint flexing’ sound for the first couple nights but you can only live in denial for so long. Whatever it was, it didn’t try to hide itself or ‘lay low’. That was telling in itself. A dominant predator doesn’t need to slink around or be quiet. It was obvious I was dealing with an ‘alpha’. What wasn’t obvious was, what sort of diabolical monster lumbers around while making a ‘snapping bones’ noise?

    Call it a fool’s courage or an act of illogical madness, I propelled myself out of bed to gaze upon the unknown entity stalking my property. Right there and then I knew wasn’t ‘of this Earth’ and no amount of scientific hand-wringing was going to change that. I witnessed a gangly, red-eyed abomination skulking about the yard and sniffing the leaves of my shrubs. The disquieting ‘flex’ and sloshing was again present as it scurried along like a massive spider crab. Perhaps the hideous sounds were a subconscious warning to other predators, to avoid tangling with it.

    My skin tingled seeing the cryptid nightmare. It crept close to the ground while raising up occasionally, with an unnatural flexibility which defied mammalian anatomy. My eyes widened in expanding disbelief as this alien-looking creature prowled around and haunted the night. What did it want, and where did it come from? I dared not make a peep from my voyeuristic vantage point, lest I draw its creepy gaze up toward me.

    With immense relief, I witnessed it scuttle away until I couldn’t see or hear it any longer. You’d think a terrifying encounter like that would cause permanent insomnia but the psyche has an upper limit to what it can handle. Adrenaline is the body’s protective stress hormone. It floods the bloodstream to make the person alert during a severe crisis. This evolutionary process prepares us for battle but as soon as the danger subsides, the shock to the system causes the body to collapse from nervous exhaustion.

    Thats precisely what happened to me. I fell asleep and my subconscious was hard at work convincing me the entire thing was merely a maddening dream. I wasn’t able to process that level of ‘impossible’ any longer so similar to a protection valve or safety fuse, my brain just shut off. I wish it had been successful and I’d awakened to the reassuring warmth of sunshine, but that was not to be.

    I don’t know how long I remained in unconscious peace but eventually that had to end, I suppose. I couldn’t ignore the gut-wrenching racket any longer. The ‘snapping bones’ was back and echoed close by. Too close! It grew more prominent until I realized the source of the manifestation was now in my own hallway! That’s something I’ll never forget. I felt its slithering, serpentine appendages shake my hardwood floor.

    While I couldn’t see my unworldly visitor at that point, I was awake enough to know I wasn’t alone. An acrid, unfamiliar scent filled the air of my bedroom to confirm its proximity. That’s when my personal ‘call to the abyss’ occurred. Intellectually, I knew it was ‘impossible’. I was sequestered in the relative safety of my own home, but the troubling weight of everything I had witnessed, tipped the scales toward begrudging acceptance.

    It was a disarming reflex. If I was truly by myself, then addressing the otherwise empty room wouldn’t harm a thing. If my primordial instincts were correct however, I hoped it would be taken as a benevolent sign of open communication and non aggression. Realistically, it was illogical to address an otherwise vacant bedroom, but reality had long since ‘checked out’. The creaking joints, slug-like sloshing, and ugly snapping was impossible to ignore. As much as my logical brain sought to dismiss the surreal event as a hallucination, its feral presence and odor was undeniable.

    “Helllllooooo?”

    Even as the cowardly greeting slipped past my quivering lips, I cringed and silently cursed myself. I’d just acknowledged I wasn’t alone, to both the ‘imaginary’ thing, and I. Despite the obvious breach of my front door that must have transpired, there was a part of me which hoped we could go back to pretending the other didn’t exist. For me to speak out loud as I had, was to deny the possibility. I’d initiated mutual contact. There was no reversing my request for feedback from an impossible, yet absolutely happening scenario.

    Its jarring, insectoid response confirmed conclusively that I had an ‘uninvited guest’ of the cryptid variety.

    “Iiiiii dooooo nooottttt eeeeattt huuuuumans….

    For the briefest of moments my mind-numbing apprehension dissipated.

    Uuussuuuaaallltyy.”; It slowly added after an unnaturally long delay.

    Any level of temporary relief I felt from the hair-raising encounter spiked back immediately to maximum terror, after its clarification to the sentence.

    Its luminescent eyes bore through the darkness like two unnaturally-tinted flashlights. I thought my vision finally adjusted to the darkness but in truth, my eyelids had been tightly shut in a sanity protective stance. ‘Cowards are gonna coward’.

    I waited for more poorly-timed, follow up communication. Apparently none was forthcoming. The next course of action fell to me. My mind raced with providing an appropriate, yet de-escalating response. I realized that the mortifying invader and I were in a sensitive negotiation of sorts. Without clarifying the details, I was bargaining for my life. A good negotiator asks the right questions and determines what the other party desires.

    “What is it you want?”; I stammered unconvincingly. Any pretense of me being fully confident of a mutually beneficial outcome was nonexistent. It was obviously for a country mile that ours was an uneven stalemate.

    My gangly ‘guest’ was waiting for me to offer some gesture of respect or goodwill. Asking about the source of its grievance was apparently the right thing to do. It replied: “Doooo nottttt placccccceeee poooooiiiissonnn onnn the plllllaaaannntttssss.”

    The snapping bone and creaking joint sound apparently escalated when the creature was angry or highly agitated. I listened to the inhuman delivery of phonetic words with a renewed sense of fascination. Witnessing its earlier facial scowl after sniffing my shrubs finally made sense. The simple act of spraying pesticides on my lawn and ornamental bushes was the principle source of its displeasure.

    Perhaps it was a herbivore and my routine properly maintenance ruined its grazing. Either that, or it consumed the pests themselves that my poisons eliminated. Either way, its reasons were its own. I didn’t have to know the specific details in order to put an end to the terse conflict. I immediately offered an enthusiastic and clear answer.

    “I will stop spraying the yard and bushes with the chemical poisons right now. Forgive me. I didn’t know it was an issue for ‘you’.”

    I decided to avoid acknowledging that I was wholly unaware of its existence. Maybe that was obvious. Either way, the barrage of clicks and creaks lessened until I only heard its raspy breathing. Seemingly satisfied by our verbal agreement, it turned around and slithered back out of my home. I didn’t bother to watch through my window to determine which way it crept into the darkness.

    It’s out there and can come back at the drop of a hat. That’s all that really matters. Reality, logic, and scientific facts be damned. I know the truth. My symbiotic relationship and conditional truce with a pesticide-hating cryptid began with an illogical but necessary call into the void.

    0 Comments
    2024/04/11
    18:32 UTC

    29

    ‘The Hobbled Man’

    I first noticed him one night while stumbling home from the pub. It was actually in the early morning hours and not many souls were out and about. Fewer still, had a pronounced limp and heavy footfall as he did. Despite his physical infirmity, the dour gent limping behind me managed to traverse the well-worn cobblestones with no issues. The progress he made toward his unknown destination was roughly at the same pace as my own. We continued on, in uncomfortable silence. Neither of us addressed or acknowledged the other.

    Besides the odd coincidence of us both wandering the streets at the ungodly hour of three AM, I didn’t place much thought to the hobbling gentleman, fifteen paces behind me. I assumed we were just two random fools making our way home in the predawn hours, in a walk of shame. He kept to his side of the roadway, and I stayed on mine. In my hazy stupor, I was too preoccupied with preventing myself from falling face-down to engage in pleasantries. Walking required my full attention.

    A few nights later I hurried to the market on Huxton Row to buy some fresh groceries. The proprietor closes precisely at Nine PM, without fail. The stoic merchant was standing right beside his doorway waiting to lock up shop. I assured him I would only be a moment. I told him what I needed, handed him the money and thanked him for his patience. Off I went, back toward me humble home. He locked the door and departed in the other direction.

    I breathed a sigh of relief as I walked down the boulevard in the flickering glow of the streetlights. The missus would have her rolling pin waiting on yours truly If I’d failed to pick up the goods. All was well until I heard that ungraceful footfall behind me again. I didn’t want to face him but my curiosity got the best of me. I felt compelled to make eye contact with the stumbling codger. I glanced over my shoulder; as much to reassure myself, as for him. I wish I hadn’t. His features were stark and his eyes were lifeless and cold. It chilled me to the marrow. Worse, he completely failed to acknowledge my startled gaze! As before in our previous encounter, we walked separately.

    This time however, I was stone-cold sober and more aware of my solitary situation. I felt vulnerable walking in front, and began to doubt we were headed to different places. The labored presence directly behind me was very unnerving. I felt it wasn’t a coincidence I kept running into ‘the hobbled man’. His distinctive, uneven cadence somehow married up with my own natural gait. We were in full lockstep until it was difficult to tell them apart. Our footfalls echoed in the cold winter air. ‘Clip, clip, Clunk’. Clip, clip CLUNK’. It was just out of sync enough to remind me I was being followed by a catatonic looking ghoul with an asymmetrical shuffle and heaving breath. The hair on me head stood right up in prickles.

    I clutched my grocery sack tightly as if it was a defensive shield against an imminent attack. My eyes were full open and a-fright. Then his pace seemed to quicken. Why was he trailing me? I thought I even felt hot, homicidal breath bearing down me goose-pimpled neck! I was practically sprinting in the pitch dark, having long since left behind the helpful torches of town. Right there, I had a full-blown panic attack. I tossed down my little sack of groceries and raced home empty-handed. I was hyperventilating uncontrollably like a terrified child when I bolted up the front door.

    The missus was waiting impatiently in the kitchen with an ever-present scowl of disappointment on her face. As soon as she saw my sheer fright, she dropped the rolling pin. I pulled back the curtain to determine if the stumbling cretin with the hollow, expressionless eyes was still in full pursuit. My betrothed could tell I was deathly afraid of something dire, and did her best to console the blubbering fool she married. I calmed down a bit after a few sips of ‘liquid courage’ and tried to recount the cause for my extreme anxiety.

    She was genuinely concerned until I explained I was being followed by a handicapped cripple who hadn’t made any aggressive moves against me at all. Hearing it expressed in that oversimplified, dismissive way, I realized it sounded ridiculous. Clearly she agreed. Her matrimonial disgust returned with a vengeance. She ordered me to go back out immediately and retrieve our abandoned items. Already being a drunkard and inattentive lout, I’d just added ‘coward’ to my long list of undesirable traits.

    I backtracked until I found our discarded food lying on the ground. Thankfully there was no sign of my menacing shadow looming about anymore, and I hurried back home with my tail tucked between my legs. The missus hadn’t experienced his callous sneer or felt the unshakable sense of doom surrounding him when he followed. I tried to explain that in greater detail but she had absolutely no interest in hearing any sniveling from me.

    I shut my mouth and gave up. She was never going to understand. How could she? It didn’t even make sense to me. This ominous shadow in dark clothes haunted my thoughts in ways which didn’t appear to be justified. On the surface, he was simply a disfigured wretch with a prominent hobble who always seemed to wander the streets exactly when I did.

    My mysterious tormentor hadn’t uttered a harsh word, nor raised a finger in malice toward me. His somber profile and disturbing demeanor alone created the irrational suspicions I held. In the clear light of day, I felt like a right silly git for being so spooked. He was merely an unfortunate, ghastly stranger as far as I, or anyone else knew. As night fell however, I wasn’t nearly as sure of his coincidental benevolence.

    Over the next few evenings I avoided the downtown area like the plague. In the back of my mind I hoped my lame boogeyman with an aura of evil only came out at night. Sadly, I was wrong about that bit. I caught sight of ‘ol’ stumblin’ gruesome’ on a couple of occasions which was neither night time, nor was I alone. Regardless, every subsequent encounter served to magnify my paralyzing apprehension.

    I dared not point him out to my disappointed love. Either she’d mock me mercilessly for being so mortified by the mere sight of a harmless unfortunate figure, or worse yet, she might not see him at all! In the back of my mind, that would’ve been enough to pack me in, square away.

    If he was just a miserable sot like me who I’d created a fanciful mythology about him being an evildoer, that would be bad enough. But if no one else could see the innocent bugger, then me own mind was gone. There’s no cure for that! It would’ve been the ol’ straight jacket and loonie bin for Mr. Ian McTaskin. I didn’t want to know if no one else could see ‘em. The cunning way he always seemed to be closing in behind me, but then would disappear into thin air, worried me far more than potential bodily harm by a ‘lurking simpleton with a bum leg’.

    Sunday morning, the vicar delivered his ‘fire and brimstone’ sermon from the pulpit, as he always does. A broken record orator he is. My bride glared at me sideways, while listening to the repetitive lecture on the dire evils of drinking a few pints down at the pub. She was trying to decide if his holy words of wisdom might finally be sinking in, or if I’d always be a worthless drunkard who disappointed her, daily.

    Truthfully, I hadn’t been to the pub all week thanks to the creepy old sot who I kept running into. I played the part of the pious, repentant spouse, and she seemed temporarily satisfied that maybe there was some hope yet for my wayward soul, after all. It’s a game as old as time itself. We both play it to make her feel good.

    Sadly, any tally marks I’d erased in her black book of marital mistakes were quickly replaced when I dared to ask the vicar about ‘the hobbled man’ who was stalking me thoughts, night and day. The wife was beyond furious I’d shamed us publicly by admitting the tale I’d told her. She assumed it was merely alcohol-fueled nonsense and excuses from my ‘forked tongue’. That was before she saw the look on the preacher’s solemn, weathered mug. It immediately changed her tune.

    “You saw a disgruntled looking, lame fellow in a dark suit? Did he follow you for any distance at all, McTaskin? Oh merciful Lord! ‘The hobbled man’ evil spirit must have attached himself to your endangered soul. Has he stalked you more than once?”

    I nodded nervously at his volley of accusatory sounding questions, as my ball and chain looked on in a rising tide of trepidation. Both their faces were aghast in widening mortal dread. While I wanted her to believe me about my stumbling shadow, I certainly didn’t want to bring a heightened sense of despair into the process. They acted as if I had attracted a demon from the fiery pits of hell to lurk directly behind me. All to snatch up my inebriated soul.

    I’ll be deathly honest. Their fear was contagious. I was already straddling the fence about my expressionless stalker being a diabolical spirit of the worst and most evil sort. But the vicar’s marked awareness of this malicious entity and his aim for me, was all the convincing I needed. I’ve been guilty in the past of the sin of pride, among many other well-documented failures, but I was lightning quick to beg for his holy guidance. I was down on me knees with fingers clasped to get shed of ‘ol Beelzebub.

    Most of the things I was directed to do were no real sacrifice. I had to attend church services every Sunday and pay my tithes to fund the lord’s work in combating evil throughout the world. I had to say me prayers each night and confess my dirty sins, to gain the Lords absolution. I was commanded to be more respectful to my sweet Connie McTaskin, and to strive to be more of an honest man. That really paid off since she stopped hitting me with the rolling pin and frying pan and gave me lovin’ on a regular basis.

    The only item I really struggled with was to give up the Devil’s medicine. The vicar demanded I stop going to the pub. That’s the God’s honest truth from my lips to your ears. I missed fellowship with the lads and throwing back a pint or two but to his credit, not once did I run into ‘the hobbled man’ again after I changed my ways and turned to the church. Eventually I came to accept that noble sacrifice for the benefit of saving my mortal soul, and making sweet Connie love me again.

    That was, until a decade later when I was introduced to ‘M Emmett Greene’, the vicar’s crippled nephew! There’s no telling how many errant husbands and bawdy hell raisers ‘the hobbled man’ cleverly spooked with their creative ruse. Obviously it worked masterfully on me to give up the bottle, and I realized immediately when I laid eyes on him that my wife knew the vicar’s tricky plan, all along.

    I’ll admit, their sly deception inspired me to straighten up my life, and I’m a better man for it. No doubt about it! You’d quit drinkin’ too if you were followed by ‘the hobbled man’ when you let the pub. It’s probably what they mean when they say: ‘The Lord works in mysterious ways.’

    5 Comments
    2024/04/02
    21:10 UTC

    2

    Santa Madre Convent pt.1

    0 Comments
    2024/04/02
    03:51 UTC

    40

    Haunted little things

    Anna woke up to the sound of water running in the bathroom and smiled. Vincent has always been the morning bird, but it seems that his routine was being postponed lately to not wake her up.

    Thinking of surprising him, she got up to brew some coffee. The delicious smell traversed the rooms of the small apartment. The sound of cutlery livened up the home a bit. Vincent uttered a muffled curse. Maybe he cut himself while shaving? After pouring a cup for herself, she turned on the TV and watched the news while putting her hair up in a messy bun, waiting for him to be done in the bathroom. They were showing a new development of an infamous case, a murder, in which new evidence proved that the suspect was innocent. She let out a sigh, dropping the blue mug on the small table. All those criminals always ended up running free, didn't they?

    She felt his presence behind her, his light steps unnoticeable in the soft carpet, but his breathing was so well-know she thought she could recognize it anywhere. Turning around to face him, she saw a look of worry crossing by, then fear, then relief. He got up, grabbed his bag and left without touching the coffee, and she thought for a moment he would ignore her too. Maybe things between them weren't as resolved as she thought. In the last second, he briefly turned around and said, almost as a whisper: "See you later, love", gazing at her with a hint of pain, a little distant, which made sure to her that something was yet to develop, but not now. He was late for work.

    "see ya" she answered, blowing a kiss. He closed the door. His steps grew less and less audible as he walked away. She started washing the dishes and thinking about what to do next. Maybe cleaning up the bedroom? Vincent hated when she declutered the home, being so defensive over throwing anything away. Lately he has even picked stuff up back from the trash. He hasn't always been like this, she remembered. When they met, he was such a minimalist and organized man. But random crap is like a disease, it catches up to you the older you get. You start wondering if you'd miss that old ass shirt, the faded love letters, the expired credit cards even. Well, not declutering then. Perhaps a run to the store? The idea of an elaborate dinner to go with their talk later was pleasant. This could lighten things up.

    When Vincent came back, the cursed word he dropped before turned into a torrent of ugly, messy improperies. This broke Anna's heart. She has just finished putting the food on the table, the scent of pasta mixed with homemade tomato sauce and olive oil overpowering everything else, the plates impeccably set up, an unopened bottle of wine. Simple and delicious. And yet, one look inside the home and he was already so annoyed. His face turned into a tearful mess. She went to touch his hair, a gesture of comfort repeated many times, but he shivered away from her tpuch and angrily got up.

    "why are you doing this to me?" he asked, but didn't waited for an answer. Passing by her in a rush, he closed the bedroom door. She could hear him trying to calm himself down by breathing in and out several times. After a couple of minutes he must have dialed a number, because she could hear his side of a conversation on the phone, loud and clear.

    "I know what you are going to say, but just listen, ok? Please. At least, if you don't believe me... Can you humor me after everything I've been going through? Don't tell me that. I'm not trying to guilt trip you, I just need someone to listen. Ok, so it happened again. I swear to God someone brew coffee while I was getting ready. The TV was on. Then, the house was clean and there was a fucking 3 course meal on the table when I came from work. And worst of all, her cup. It was by the sink, as if she had just drank her tea from it while cooking... I think I'm losing my mind, or there's someone out there who thinks this is all a funny joke. Do you have any idea of who could be doing this? ".

    He listened for a long time. Her heart was so tight in her chest, a knot in her throat, the seconds falling silently around them with such a heavy weight. Finally, his voice cut the air again, calmer, collected.

    " OK. I understand. Worth a shot, doesn't it?".
    he laughed without humor, the way you do when something is unbelievable and you are still trying to make sense of it.
    "I can't believe I'm going to try that. It's all kinds of crazy, you know that? Yes, I know. And the police tomorrow too. Maybe the psychiatrist. It's just... Well. Sure. OK, talk to you tomorrow. Love ya too. Bye".

    The call ended and he let out a light, broken sigh, and if he was afraid of making sound. She saw the door opening, his broad shoulders crossing it, and pretty soon they were both sitting in the living room. Avoiding her eyes, he grabbed something from the counter and keep looking at it while collecting his thoughts. Without looking up, he started talking.

    "Hi Anna. Is that really you?".

    "what... Do you mean? Of course it's me", she said.

    "ok, I'll leave this on the table. Can you move it for me, please?"
    his voice trembled, he seemed desperate. She shrugged and moved the picture to where it belongs. It was one of her selfies, the one that she had liked. Her smile was bright and the wind made her hair flow beautifully, one of her hands holding her hat down. All in all, a very natural, spontaneous shot. He kept looking at the picture, his eyes growing wilder, waiting, and when the frame touched the fireplace, he howled in some kind of raw emotion she couldn't understand.

    "you have been here all this time? Why?"
    But at this point, she realized she could talk until her face turned blue, and he was never going to listen. More than that, he had such a pained look, she was afraid of the next words he was going to say.
    "Anna... You... Didn't realized it?".

    A faint memory returned to her. She had lunch with her mom, and it ended later than expected. Vincent and her were supposed to go to a party later. A man stopped her asking for some information, and she waved her hand, rushingly, and continued running, but he pushed her to the ground and dragged her. Something... Happened. But when she got up, her body felt unharmed, and the guy was nowhere to be seen. She arrived one hour late to the party, and Vincent was so pissed he didn't even looked at her. Didn't even heard her out. Those past few days, she saw him really overreacting, angry and crying. Only now she knew why.

    "those little things moving around... It was all you?". he chuckled-cried. "oh God. Should I still see a psychologist after that now?".

    He waited, and waited, but she didn't know what to say or do. She felt exhausted. Unanswered, he ended up going to bed, and she did too. His hand was so warm on hers. Her eyes closed, and little by little, her body lightned as she drifted to sleep and every thought disappeared.

    The next day, the apartment was silent. The haunted little things never moved again.

    0 Comments
    2024/04/02
    03:19 UTC

    19

    unforgettable

    They say there’s no cutting into fog as thick as the one that shrouds our mind. The empty spaces between spaces that fill each crevice of a broken mind. It had been impossible for me to tell if I was awake or asleep for several weeks when I first got the call. It was like living within the mist before a seaside hurricane rolls into a small town. Disoriented at all times, never quite knowing how to breath, think or act. I had been teetering at my desk when the phone rang, and despite my best efforts to ignore it I found my hand reaching for the cracked metal of an ancient receiver. “Krampus and co investigations, we heed the call and take em all, how can I help you today?” Her soft cries from the other side of the line made me sit up in my chair “maam, do you need me to connect you to an active police line?” She stifled her sobs for a moment and spoke in a low tone “no, that won’t be necessary, I’m safe now” the inclusion of a time gave me the chills and I immediately grabbed a pen and paper from my drawer “are you sure you don’t need police help? I’m only a private detective maam, I can’t do much in the way of safety” technically I was lying, I had the worst rap in the city for keeping my nose on the right track, and more often then not I got involved where I shouldn’t have. “No, it’s ok, I just need you to find something out. There an island, just past the bay, called horsehead, go there at noon tomorrow, I’ll meet you at the ferry dock, $500 cash if you listen to what I have to say” I wrote even the name of the island and prepared my usual like of inquisition, But before I could respond she hung up the phone, I looked at the speaker as the dial tone rang like one constant reminder of the unanswered questions. I looked down at my desk, expecting the read the name of the island back to myself, but instead I was met with nothing. I opened my drawer and saw the pen and notepad, right where I’d left them a day or so before. I shook my head and grabbed them, writing down the name of the jetty

    The dock was rotted and slanted, one section nearly dipping below the calming waves as I strolled onto the pier and looked up at the falling sign. “Coastal Beat” it wasn’t the strangest name for a marina, but for some reason the initials got to me, like they had been present in my life before. I thought about scribbling them down, but it felt odd to do, like looking back at them together would solve the puzzle, and knowing the answer wouldn’t help me get past the fog. I pushed the thoughts out of my head and continued crossing the faded wood, trying to watch where I put my weight as I made my way toward the ferry at the end of the line. A gruff looking old man sat leaning against the boat, his eyes covered by a flat cap with coal stains. I nodded to him as I approached, speaking a dash above my average tone to work my way over the noise of crashing swells. “My names John, I’m here for passage to horsehead” the old man’s face went sour and he spit to his right, nearly covering my loafer in a thick wad of blood and mucus. “Ya best find a different destination boy, horseheads no good for a stiff like you” I nodded and moved my coat to the side, brandishing the 38. K frame I’d been packing since I got back from the war. He gave me an inquisitive frown and nodded, stepping a bit closer and looking directly into my gaze. I could see his eyes now, they were tired and scared, just like mine. No amount of smoking or marching powder could hide that kind of fear. “You’re not just any stiff from the upside are ya, you’ve seen the life leave a man’s eyes, you’ve seen the hell rain down, smelt the burning. What makes you so keen to leap back into the hellfire?”

    I was taken aback “it’s just an island, what aren’t you telling me old timer?” He adjusted his cap and blinked a few times, presenting me with a new set of eyes, the kind of eyes you found on a beast of worlds far from this one. He spoke in a shifted tone this time, his voice wavering as the dock began to sink, and a tendril of kelp reached out at me from the sea. “It ain’t an island son, it’s a life force, a way to exist that barriers you and I from the present. It’ll eat your past and vomit it right back up in front of you. The acid will burn your soul and the smell will turn your very eyes to dust. There’s no escaping the hell that lies, in the sorry mix that slumbers” just as fast as the sea had risen it all fell back below and the man returned to his position. “So, you coming or not?” I looked all around me and felt the cuff of my pants, no kelp, not even any water. I nodded to the man and stepped aboard, following him up the stairs to the upper deck of the small ferry. “The names Jay, but you can call me captain. This here ship was named after the craziest thing I ever saw at sea. I was fishing out the bay one day, hoping to grab myself some striper. suddenly as I’m reeling in the worst fight of my life, I fall backwards and land on my ass. As I look up, I see a Moray, soaring down toward the deck. He just kinda sails through the air for a moment, before sinking his teeth into an antenna I’ve got for my old radio. He swung on it for a moment, before letting go and getting flung right back out” I looked at the captain in disbelief “you’re saying that a fish flew?” He shook his head “no no, a morays not a fish, and it didn’t fly”

    He stepped into the control bay of the ship and sounded the horn before setting off. I strolled over to a wooden chair that had been hastily bolted to the wall. I thought about the last conversation I had with my wife. “You know darling we don’t have to stay in the city forever, I know business is important but what if we just got a small farm, maybe something with cows and chickens, we could grow things and take care of livestock” I shook my head as I stared at the bill in front of me “debt isn’t exactly a free ticket, we’re stuck here till we pay off the bank, and even then who knows if we’d be able to afford a farm?” She walked over to me and leaned over, taking my chin with her hands and kissing me softly. “It’s not a whole farm, it’s just, a small pasture, maybe a few gates and some fences” I stayed in the daydream for as long as I could, feeling her warmth again. I would have gotten out of my chair, taken her by hands and danced all night with her in that dreary little kitchen. I remember our first date, driving up the country side and climbing a steep hill, just to lay together on the rock face looking out at the night. I remember dancing with her, telling her she was the very nature of our song…unforgettable. “That’s why darling, it’s incredible, that someone so unforgettable, thinks that I am unforgettable toooo” I sang it to her whenever she had a bad day. Towards the end I suppose I was always singing it, like it would somehow make the pressure easier, like life wasn’t closing in on us. Like it all wasn’t going to come crashing down. The boats horn awoke me from the day dream as the song in my head came to a close, and the pleasure of memories turned sour with present reality. I reached down and took hold of the small lantern necklace she gave me, kissing it softly before letting it hang below my shirt.

    “End of the line laddy, good luck out here” I nodded to the captain and stepped out from the shrouded boat. As the fog dissipated in front of me, and the islands geography opened up, I felt my stomach drop. The only buildings were a cobbled together shanty just off the docks, not a third story between them. As I walked down the cracking wooden pier, I looked at a figure just beyond my line of sight. She strolled up to me, her soft form silhouetted against a mixture of fog and rain. I adjusted my glasses and wiped away the drops as she came into view. I heard the music play in my head as her green eyes locked with my own, and she spoke softly. For the first time in almost a year, I felt awake. She was so beautiful. “Hello darling, you didn’t forget about me…did you?”

    6 Comments
    2024/04/01
    22:13 UTC

    13

    ‘Every night I die’

    Last night I batted a festering army of the undead as they gnashed their decaying teeth. I fought valiantly but succumbed to my mortal wounds in the end. There were just too many of them and they could reanimate at will. It’s impossible to kill what’s already deceased. Eventually I had no more fight left to give. I consoled myself that, at least it was a noble death.

    The night before, I braved an airborne siege with a dozen crimson-winged avian devils. They attacked from all directions, and offered no mercy or quarter. Even the ground beneath my feet wasn’t a sanctuary from their merciless assault. They crept out of the shifting soil and congregated in their skyward citadel, overhead. The ugly specter of my defeat swooped down upon me from above.

    Three nights ago my opponent was the unified legion of an insect plague. Their fierce, dive-bomb raids left me gasping for breath until I could feel nothing inside my fluttering chest. I suffered a hundred stinging jabs of paralyzing pain. Their injected poison insured there was no hope of survival.

    With every approaching sundown comes a formidable new adversary to hasten my expiration. No two have been alike, nor had my experience fighting them led to a unified solution of how to vanquish their successors. It appeared I was doomed to implement new strategies each time I sparred with upcoming foes. Adapt or die.

    From enormous vampiric tadpoles, to smothering snowmen, or poisonous shadows that choke the life from your weary soul, I’ve battled an impressive lineup of malevolent enemies in my sleep. Not knowing what my next adversary would be, was overwhelming. Sadly, my strength was fading because of these nightly reoccurring struggles with doom. Without rest and resolution, a person’s heart and mind will eventually cease to function.

    Every morning I rose up from my bed with a violent start. It was as if I awoke from a particularly vivid fever-dream, but these savage battles were not nightmares. At least not in the traditional sense. I believed in my heart they were genuine spiritual conflicts with the evolving forces of evil. These unexplained sagas served to prepare me for the next one. If not in personal combat strategy, then at least to keep up my motivation and strength to continue fighting back.

    This morning I finally saw the truth. The bleak revelation shook me to the core. I came to realize that the only common element between them was my own fertile imagination. I’ve been the unwitting architect of this destructive warfare, as it distracted me and drained my will to keep living. I have vowed to no longer provide the spark for the unnecessary demons.

    Tonight, I shall yield to no more of these psychological nightmares and internal struggles. If I die in my sleep tonight, it will be from the fulfilling tranquility of old age. Goodnight.

    0 Comments
    2024/04/01
    03:12 UTC

    31

    This is why I’m antisocial

    I’ve always been one to say that can’t be true or prove it when something iffy happens but I’m now a believer.

    It wasn’t to late maybe 6 or 7 about the time kids get home from after school activities but it’s winter so it is still pretty dark outside I’m home alone watching scary movies (cuz why wouldn’t I be) when I hear a knock on my door not gone lie it kinda got me cuz it happened at the perfect time I go look and it’s my neighbors kid he said his phone died and he left his keys in the house and he wanted to call his mom he calls and we both talk to her (at least I thought so) I tell her not to worry I’ll give him a snack make him do his homework and we can watch some tv till she gets off work I’ve always been like an uncle to him and a brother to his mom so taking care of him is normal for me (he’s like 16 btw so being home alone wouldn’t that big of a deal) a few hours goes by almost time for her to get off work we finish the show and I pack him some food to take to his mom we tried to call to see when she’d be back and no answer so I figured we’d wait till we saw her car pull up to the garage another hour goes by and I’m a little worried cuz of how bad it is outside but that’s also why I’m assuming it’s taking so long to get home I make a joke about how maybe she got pulled over and he can just sleep here tonight so he can go to school in the morning a few more hours goes by and now I’m really worried while he’s in the other room sleep I start calling hospitals and jails to really find out what’s going on but no one has her there tonight so I call her job to see if she’s still working only to find out that she didn’t show up today now I’m really getting scared thinking something happened to her on the way to work and no one has found her yet I get ready to go do a search my myself I know I might not find anything but it’s worth a shot. Glad I did cuz I see her car so now I’m thinking she probably got home and didn’t wanna wake him and somehow we just missed her so I go back inside and go to ask him if he wanted to stay or go to him own bed but he’s not there anymore (so that answers under question) something still feels off but since all the boxes are checked I never mind it the next morning another knock on my door wakes me up it’s ur police asking if I’ve heard anything last night and I’m confused cuz I was up till about midnight and didn’t hear a thing so I ask why did anything happen and he informed me that my neighbors ex husband picked up his son from school when it let out at 3 took him home then proceeded to kill the son ex wife and then himself I’m in shock but not trying to sound like a crazy person I kept last night to myself thinking they got the times wrong somehow and it happened after I went to bed I knew that bad feeling happened for a reason but I could never image this then I go to the kitchen to get some water and the container that I’m sure I put in his bag was still on the counter I go through my phone and the call that I was a part of yesterday wasn’t logged (the second one was but not the one he dialed) honestly I think I’m going crazy so I go to take a shower and try to get my mind busy on something so I’m not so disturbed and when I get out smudged on the mirror reads goodbye and thanks for taking care of me one last time

    5 Comments
    2024/03/21
    03:29 UTC

    6

    Sooner or later, he who hunts Cryptids pay the ultimate price.

    Have you ever wondered what those glowing eyes are staring at you in the dark? Many would say it is either a stray dog or cat, but let me tell you that is not always the case.

    This is the story where we lost a lot of guys in a massive assault on a known Wendigo position. Before I get into what happened let me give you a little more insight on my backstory. I grew up on a military base and later on enlisted to follow in my fathers footsteps. I was a Operator for the Marine Special Operations Command. I am a qualified marksman and combat medic. I was trained for all situations and locations to be able to adapt to what ever was thrown my way. This was before I was reassigned to a unit known as Phantom Squad. The best way I can describe my new squad is we are never seen and never heard, because to others the squad was unheard of as to them we didn't exist. This meant that to everyone we were declared KIA hence the name Phantom.

    My callsign is Phanton-01, but everyone calls me Zero as I had zero missed shots I was the squads new marksman. My kit consisted of a H&K M110A1 Squad Rifle with a 1-6 magnification DMR scope, AN/PEQ-15, a surefire flashlight, a foregrip, a 3"-6'' bipod and suppressor. my sidearm was a Glock 19X, equipped with a Holosun 509T X2 elite red dot sight, a Surefire X300 flashlight and a SilencerCo Osprey 9mm silencer.

    The day before our mission myself and the one woman from my squad lets call her Blondie for confidentiality was tasked to go through our equipment as it was being loaded into the Osprey. We had grown quite close as we both had similar backgrounds growing up and connected fairly quickly. Once we finished checking our equipment, we decided to go out for a few beers and talk about the things we have seen while on some of our missions. Now Blondie recently transferred to our unit after an IED hit their convoy in Northern Pakistan. she was the only survivor and only suffer a few cuts and bruises, but was pinned inside the MRAP. We where in the area hunting The Barmanou a bipedal humanoid primate cryptid that inhabits the mountainous region of northern Pakistan. As we were returning to base after we have completed our mission we heard a massive explosion then saw the fireball of to the right of our Osprey and we investigated and that's how Blondie was recruited. Around 22H00 we headed back to our barracks to geared up with night operation gear and headed towards the Osprey waiting for the rest of the guys to show up. After everyone was in the Osprey we toke off heading towards our mission on the border or Canada and U.S. where we would meet up with our Canadian counter part.

    We landed 5 clicks from our objective and met up with Grave Squad. Our objective was to find eliminate a large group of Wendigo that was dangerously close to a small town outside a dense forest. Now all our rifles was loaded with silver tipped rounds and our sidearms with silver tipped hollow points filled with Holy ash. Now we are all trained operators unlike want to be cryptid hunters who thinks taking on a cryptid is childs play. Now we were 10 squads consisting of 15 battle hardened operators each. As we passed the 3 clicks mark we came across a horrendous smell and could barely see the small camp between the trees. My squad leader called over the radio and said, "Zero take blondie and take over watch to the east of the camp while we investigate." Once we reached the overwatch point Blondie toke out her drone as she was the only drone operator on this mission. She started scanning the area with infrared and revealing the horror that was laid out in front of us bodies scattered everywhere ripped to shreds. The wanna be hunters fell victim to a Wendigo attack. After some time we heard over the radio from one of the other squad leaders, "There are about 40 hunters Killed, keep your heads on a swivel this happened not to long ago.'' After the radio went quiet, Blondie turned to me, but stared past me and went pale. When I turned my head to look in the direction she was staring. I saw a single red eye staring back at us from behind the tree. I calmly toke of the safety from my rifle and rolled onto my side getting three rounds of all of which hit the tree in front of the Wendigo causing it to rush towards us and Blondie was able to get of a few rounds with one striking it in the head stopping it in its tracks. I yelled over the radio, "Wendigos approaching from the east!"

    Myself and Blondie ran towards the rest of the guys taking up defensive positions. We started opening fire on the emaciated frames running towards us dropping them one by one, then a loud scream rang out and then another one by one more and more screams started to come to life as more and more of our guys are getting attacked by the Wendigo. We fought for what felt like hours, but in reality it only lasted about 10 minutes. We dropped about 30 to 40 roughly but we lost 37 guys in the fight only leaving a 113 operators for our mission to be completed. We reported back to command informing them about the situation for the retrieval of our fallen brothers and sister to give the a quiet resting place. We marked our location and was given a few minutes to rest and checking our remaining munitions and retrieving more from our fallen comrades. I toke a H&K 416 with spare ammunition. I toke a drop leg molle panel and was able to place at least 4 spare magazines for the H&K 416 and placed more magazines for my current weapons in the empty mag pouches.

    While the rest of the guys were busy finishing up I walked towards Blondie who sat on a small boulder still shaking from the event that just toke place. Once I reached her she started talking asking, "How could I have missed it? Maybe if I saw it sooner then more of us would be alive!" I looked towards her and could only respond with, "We all know what the risks are yet we still chose do what is required from us regardless of the cost." Not realizing the blood dripping off my fingers where the horn of a wendigo scrapped my forearm. Blondie turned her head facing me revealing the tears running down her face. I tried wiping her tears away when I saw my blood staining her skin and realizing for the first time I was bleeding. I then toke a spare first aid and started patching my arm stopping the bleeding. Blondie still crying stood up and gave me a long hug not reacting to the blood staining her uniform. While she was hugging me she asked, "We are going to die aren't we?" I gently placed my right hand on her left cheek staring into her eyes giving her a kiss on her forehead and giving her a faint smile. I told her, "Listen I nominated you to return to base with a few guys to give reports to command. 33 of you are going back and you will be able to keep tabs on me from my helmet cam and even if you aren't looking at the footage you can always watch the recordings afterwards to see if all is well. And you have no choice."

    She stared at my with a blank stare, shocked from what I told her. "Lets move out!" rang out from the middle of the camp. I placed a ring I always wore in Blondies hand, turned and walked away. Blondie walked to the others who was climbing into the CSAR Helicopters that was about to return to base. Myself and 79 others pushed on towards our objective determined to finish what we started. We approached our objective and had to enter a cave where we had to find and kill any Wendigo we come across. Slowly the light from the now rising sun slowly fading behind us as we walked deeper and deeper into the cave. One of the Canadians jog up to me and walked alongside me and started talking, "Dude what did you put in that girls hand and why did you put her on the helicopter when you were ordered to return to base for medical treatment?" I stopped him, sighed and said, "I gave her a ring that I always wore and I did it, because I would rather sacrifice myself than see her die. I made my peace with death along time ago." He responded with, "You must really love her then to sacrifice yourself for her....." When all of a sudden a loud scream rang out from the front of the group and the sound of gunfire soon followed. Everyone started taking up firing positions and firing at all the emaciated frames dropping them one by on, but we where loosing guys one by one. We kept pushing forward despite losing a lot of guys. My squad leader the instructed us to lay down covering fire while some of the guys start setting up the three Mark 19's that we brought along on the mission. But something strange happened the Wendigos retreated and the gunfire came to a sudden stop. We all stared at each other, but jumped at the chance to setup traps for when the Wendigos decided to return. After we finished setting up the traps I went and stood next to one of the Mark 19 gunners asking them for a cigarette. While I was smoking I started to think about all the good times I had with Blondie and that one night I had with Blondie on our time off. And the time we went camping on the beach and cuddled around a warm campfire. I slightly smiled to myself. I then stood up and realized I only het two rounds left in my H&K M110A1 squad rifle and grabbed the H&K 416 and placed it next to me on the ground for when I needed it and continued waiting for the hell that would soon ensue. After a short while the Wendigo returned, but at a slow walking pace once there was a large group of them standing in the middle of the traps. We used the detonator, but nothing happened so we started firing again.

    One of our guys tried to run to the explosives to try and get it fixed, I followed him trying to stop him as he was running straight into our sights. He reached the explosive and realized the one wire was lose and once he connected it. The explosives detonated throwing me back wards and two pieces of shrapnel hit me. One in the left shoulder cutting the strap on my vest clean off and the other piece the upper part of my thigh nicking my artery slightly. I knew right there I was bleeding to death and didn't have much time. I crawled towards the few guys still left. The same Canadian who spoke to me earlier run and dragged me to cover and sat me against the cave wall. He tried to patch me up, but I stopped him and said, "It's no use it hit an artery nothing can stop the bleeding, keep fighting and call for CSAR. This will soon be over." Those were the last words I said to him before I toke of my helmet and then removing my helmet cam from my helmet turning to face it. I then started speaking and leaving a message for Blondie before passing out from blood loss.

    Hi guys, it is Blondie here. I am writing this on half of Zero who's last wish was for me to watch his entire helmet cam footage and try and write this the best I can from his perspective. What happened before I watched the video went as followed. The flight from the wannabe cryptid hunters camp was about two hours long as I arrived at base and gave our commanding officer my debrief of what happened before returning to base. After the debriefing I was instructed to clean up the blood that was on my uniform and face from when Zero placed his hand on my cheek and when he hugged. After a warm shower I went to the Command center I toke my laptop that was linked to the helmet cams and sat on a couch to watch the footage. When I opened the cameras I slowly scrolled through the cameras till I found Zero's helmet cam footage. The video footage was still transmitting live from on the cave floor facing the cave entrance. I saw guys carrying the bodies of our fallen comrades towards the cave entrance and laying them gently next to each other. They then walked towards the camera and went slightly out of view picking up another body. I couldn't see the face of the Operator, but my heart dropped when I saw the familiar tattoo covering his entire left arm. It was Zero's body covered in blood. I then rewound to the point where he was running after the operator to stop him from running to fix the explosives I saw how he was thrown back and hit by the shrapnel and how his blood left a trail as he was dragged to safety. His last words will always remain with me.

    It has been a week since Zero's passing. I just got back from Zero's funeral, I held the ring he gave me in my hand and then walked to his casket at the end of service and placed a letter and a pregnancy test in his casket. He left a lot of people with good memories and me with a piece of him. I am going to log off now. Keep safe everyone and remember that those glowing red eyes you see at night is not always what it seems.

    0 Comments
    2024/03/19
    06:14 UTC

    101

    The most wonderful girl is missing after she played The Exocyde Game

    I used to know a girl called Mistletoe.

    “My parents thought it'd be cute to name me that as a nod to their first kiss,” she always joked. “Shame they didn't realise mistletoe is a parasite that literally sucks the life out of its host.”

    Understandably, she went by Miz.

    The day Miz disappeared started like any other. My hometown had humble beginnings as a handful of shabby buildings erected in a Sherwood Forest clearing. Centuries later there are rows of terraced housing, small businesses and the forest has receded. There are still pockets of ancient woodland within walking distance though and, with only five TV channels and the internet still in its infancy, these woodlands were where we spent most of the summer holidays back when we were kids.

    At first they were just hangouts to trade Pokémon cards and build dens. But when we got older The Trees (as we came to call our favourite spot) was a great place to drink, smoke cigarettes and occasionally get stoned if anyone had the money. There were rumours of worse going on in nearby Glover's Wood but to be truthful we were a tame bunch and never went there to investigate.

    The summer day in question was hot and balmy. I remember I received a text from Mistletoe saying that we were meeting at The Trees around midday. When I got there Miz was already talking with Gus and Cherie, trying to convince them that we should hike all the way out to the old fishing pond on the other side of the woods.

    To understand how strange of a request this was, you really need to know a little bit more about Miz. She was smart, pretty, with freckles and a blonde pixie cut. But Miz was no manic pixie dream girl. She was studious, reserved and shy around people she didn't know. Miz was also a bit emo (to use the parlance of the time). She was always reading novels by dead Russian guys, writing in her journal and, on days when the weather was bad, Miz could be found playing her acoustic guitar in the cramped bedroom she shared with her sister. My point is that Miz being adamant about anything was kind of rare. She mostly just went with the flow.

    But that afternoon Miz was determined we all go and so, despite the heat, the four of us headed up the woodland footpath towards the fishing pond. Once we got there we actually had a lot of fun. Sunbathing, skimming stones and doing the quizzes in Cherie's trashy magazines. Miz was strangely distant though, even though the pond had been her idea. Whilst we goofed around she sat on the bank staring out across the water, occasionally making a note in her journal. It was a relief when she finally stood up and asked if anyone fancied taking the boat out.

    The one boat abandoned by the side of the pond was a small rowboat with a single oar and just enough room for two people. After we rescued the rowboat from its prison of brambles Miz and I went out on the water. We paddled around the pond laughing and splashing water at each other, we timed ourselves to see how fast we could paddle bank to bank, and we talked in stupid pirate voices the whole time. After a while, Miz asked me to paddle out to the centre of the pond so we could work out how deep it was. She took the oar from me and pushed it down into the water, following it in with her outstretched arm right up to her elbow. From her measurements we guessed the pond was somewhere between eight and nine feet deep.

    Our little boat trip was nice. Really nice actually, one last good memory before everything went so wrong. All good things must come to an end though, and once the sun began to sink we came ashore and then the four of us all headed back along the footpath.

    As we neared The Trees Miz slowed and stopped me.

    “Me and you,” she said quietly, “we're coming back out tonight.”

    Now, I was a teenager and, like I said, Mistletoe was pretty. What I was hoping for must have registered on my face because Miz rolled her eyes.

    “Don't get any ideas,” she said. “We're not doing that, we're doing this.” She handed me a folded up piece of paper. “Don't read it until you get home.”

    Believe it or not I still have this piece of paper. I'd kept it tucked inside a secondhand copy of Anna Karenina Mistletoe lent me before she disappeared. When I looked it was still there, all these years later. I'll type out what was printed on the paper for you below:

    Wherever two worlds meet a porous boundary is created. Exocyde is a game that takes advantage of this boundary effect, offering one of two players the chance to commune with the other side and receive an answer to their most desperate question. Two people, the Speaker and the Witness, must take a Vessel out onto the water in full dark and under a half moon. An electronic Receiver is also required and must be present aboard the Vessel.

    Once the Vessel is upon the water, a weighted Tether is dropped to the waterbed linking the Vessel to the water/earth Boundary. The Witness may then light a candle, this is the Beacon. If the ritual has been set up correctly the game begins and the pair's resolve will be Tested. Should both Speaker and Witness remain silent and keep the Beacon alight during the Test they will have passed. Only then will the Speaker receive a call on their Receiver from the Caller. Once prompted the Speaker may ask their question. But be warned, once the question is answered the Caller will demand a rich price be paid for the information. This is the Forfeit and it cannot be evaded or escaped.

    Rule One: Exocyde must only be played upon freshwater.

    The gamespace must be deep enough that, if the Speaker and Witness were to stand upon the bottom, neither would break the surface.

    Rule Two: The Vessel must be propelled by the Speaker's labour only.

    Rule Four: The Tether must link the Vessel directly to the Boundary.

    Rule Five: The Receiver is the only electronic device allowed aboard the Vessel.

    Any two-way communication device such as a house phone or CB radio may serve as Receiver. Any other devices must be kept external to the gamespace.

    Rule Six: The Witness must light and maintain the Beacon. The game begins when the Beacon is lit. If the Beacon is extinguished, the game ends.

    Rule Seven: Whilst the Test will be different for every Speaker and Witness combination, the goal is always to remain silent and to keep the Beacon lit throughout.

    Rule Eight: If either the Speaker or the Witness speak once the Beacon is lit, the game ends. If either the Speaker or Witness enter the water, all is lost.

    Rule Nine: Only the Speaker may speak with the Caller. The Speaker may speak only when The Caller addresses them.

    The Speaker must answer the Caller's questions in either the monosyllabic affirmative or the monosyllabic negative. The only exception is when the Caller prompts the Speaker to ask their question. Under no circumstances is the Speaker permitted to ask the Caller to identify themselves.

    Rule Ten: The Forfeit is non-negotiable.

    After the Caller declares the nature of the Forfeit, the Speaker must—

    Bizarre, right? Rule Ten is cut off at the bottom of the page, like there was too much text for a single sheet of A4 or the message board or forum or wherever Mistletoe got Exocyde from was incomplete. I haven't failed to notice that Rule Three is either missing or deliberately omitted either. The only other detail of note on the paper are the words The Trees 9pm written in Mistletoe's handwriting and underlined.

    Back to the day that Mistletoe disappeared.

    After dinner I told my parents I was going to bed to watch a film and snuck out through my window. As expected Miz was waiting for me at The Trees. To be honest I was still hoping that this was some weird emo version of foreplay and I was going to get lucky. But, of course, Miz told me that we were hiking out to the pond to play Exocyde.

    The pond seemed very different at night. Whilst the surrounding woodland had resembled a picturesque scene from a storybook in the day, in the darkness the trees looked crooked and warped. Creaking limbs seemed to reach for us as we walked along the bank. Above, the sky was cloudless, the pond below still and perfectly reflective. It looked as though I'd be able to scoop a star or even the moon from the water if I wanted to.

    Miz made me leave my mobile phone on the bank with hers and then she launched the boat and paddled us out. She stowed the oar and opened the backpack she had brought. She pulled out an old ring dial telephone with a long extension cord attached. I noticed Miz had tied some kind of lumpy fishing ledger to the end of the cord and it sank quickly when she threw it overboard. Next, Miz sat down and coiled the slack into her lap. She reached into her bag again and passed me a candle and matchbox.

    “Light it,” she instructed. “And no matter what happens, don't say a word.”

    At first what happened was precisely nothing. Sure, there was the rustling of trees and the gentle lapping of water against the boat. At one point I thought I heard laughter from deep within the woods, but nothing otherworldly. My mind started to wander and, being the teenage cliché I was, I soon found myself staring at Miz in the candlelight. She was peering across the water, deep in thought and trembling slightly. She was still wearing the denim shorts and old band tee she'd had on all day. Perfect for a hot summer afternoon but I wondered if she was starting to feel the chill of the night air. Maybe I should scoot over and put my arm around—

    THUD

    The sound reverberated through the hull of the rowboat like we'd hit floating debris at top speed. But we weren't moving, we were tethered and still.

    Miz looked at me and raised a finger to her lips. Then I saw that the cord in her lap was uncoiling, slowly being pulled into the water. Miz noticed too and promptly wrapped her fingers around the remaining slack. When the cord met resistance, whatever was pulling on it started to yank it over and over again, rocking the boat and causing me to almost drop the candle. Somehow the cord didn't snap, somehow I managed to keep the candle alight.

    After a short struggle the line went slack again.

    Confused, I leaned over the boat and looked into the water. All I saw was my own reflection. No, not my reflection at all. It was Mistletoe's reflection in place of mine. Ghostly pale and shivering. She mouthed the words Help me…

    I reached out with my free hand but the real Mistletoe grabbed me and pulled me back into my seat. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the reflection dissolve and a dark shape behind it turn in the water and dive. Had whatever it was somehow used Mistletoe's reflection as a disguise?

    THUD THUD THUD

    Bangs on the boat like a hailstorm of arrows turning their target into a pincushion. We both held onto the rim of the rowboat as the barrage continued, rocking the boat violently. I'm sure we both gasped but crucially I don't think either of us actually spoke any words.

    THUD THUD THUD

    And then, as suddenly as the clatter had begun, it ceased. For a few moments the boat continued to rock before gently coming to a stop. The water became calm.

    Then, to my absolute horror, the phone began to ring.

    Miz drew in a deep breath and raised the receiver to her ear. After a whistle of static I heard a voice speak on the other end. Cold and ragged like sheet ice cracking. I could hear the voice but I couldn't make out what it was saying. Mistletoe on the other hand listened and then answered “Yes”, then “No”, and then “No” again.

    Then she asked her question in a low growl:

    “Why haven't I been granted what I'm rightfully owed?”

    The Caller responded but still I could hear no words. This was a long answer that went on for at least a minute. Eventually, Mistletoe said “Yes'' and then the voice continued.

    As the Caller's tone became increasingly vicious, the colour drained from Mistletoe's face. In the candlelight I watched as a tear trickled down her cheek. Finally, Miz slammed the handset home, cutting the Caller off mid-sentence.

    I blew out the candle.

    We didn't talk much on the way back to The Trees. I was too shaken up. When we got there Miz gave me a long hug before telling me she would call me tomorrow and explain everything. Then she walked off into the darkness. I never saw or heard from Mistletoe again.

    That night broke me. I retreated into myself, became a different person. I was scared of leaving the house, scared of being with people, scared of being alone.

    There was an investigation into Mistletoe's disappearance of course, but it struck me as half-hearted. Mistletoe was a teenage girl who had run away from a broken home to try and make it on her own. That was the official line but I never believed it. Someone or something stole Mistletoe away and I knew it. But, shamefully, I never came forward to reveal what I had witnessed that night. I never told the police, my parents or even Gus and Cherie. I thought I would be ignored at best and considered a suspect at worst. After all, I was the last person to see Mistletoe alive.

    When my family moved away eight months later I was beyond relieved. Still broken, but at least further away from the Caller and that cold, feral voice.

    After that I coasted for years. Uninspiring grades at school turned into a lacklustre degree. Then, after bumming around for almost a decade, I got a job at a struggling Midlands rag, the Sentinel. I'm not even a real reporter, I run the ad pages. But two months ago I saw that my hometown was on the circulation list. That stirred something in me. I realised that words I had written had found their way back to my hometown. Even though it was just crappy advertising copy I felt like I had taken a first step without even realising it. Suddenly, I knew what I needed to do.

    That's why I'm writing and posting this. As a statement of intent, as a plea for assistance. I'm heading back home to Edwinstoak tomorrow. And I'm not coming back until I've figured this whole thing out.

    Even if I have to search every inch of that godforsaken forest myself.

    Even if I have to play that damned game again.

    I already know what my question will be:

    “What happened to Mistletoe Marrion-May after she played Exocyde?”

    -- John

    4 Comments
    2024/03/13
    18:39 UTC

    915

    My friends and I found a body stain in an empty house… then the stain followed me home.

    I’ve never been much for excitement. I’m the sort who likes to get invited out but always volunteers to be the designated driver, relieved because it means I get to stay sober and serious. No one expects the DD to go dancing on tables or telling wild stories. I can be shy, reserved plain Jane. I keep my nose in books and out of everyone else’s business. That was why it surprised everyone—especially me—when I agreed to join Miki and Shania in urban exploring that day. Miki is my cousin, and Shania is her best friend. I guess I agreed to go because I was feeling a bit stung over the fact that my crush, Yasmin, who is gorgeous and has a voice that could call angels, commented to friends that I am “a bit boring.” And so I guess I just wanted not to be boring. To have, for once, a story worthy of telling over a drink.

    But when we got to the house, I felt uneasy.

    The whole neighborhood was sad, really. A story of American prosperity turned to poverty and abandonment… entire streets with only one or two houses still occupied, the rest withering away with boarded windows in overgrown lots. Miki picked out the house at random, saying it looked “creepy.”

    I don’t know if it was any creepier than any other sad building in that cul-de-sac. The house had yellow siding stained by weather and time, curtains hanging in the cracked upstairs windows, a short flight of stairs leading to the front door. The lower windows were all boarded, and the door, of course, locked—but while I was ready to give up almost immediately, Shania’s eyes sparkled at the challenge. She circled around to the back of the house, and a triumphant yell brought Miki and me following.

    The backdoor, though boarded, had been broken into at some point over the years, and it swung open easily.

    “Are we sure it’s safe?” I wondered.

    Shania just grinned. “You gonna stay here if it’s not?” she asked, and plunged into the darkness.

    And that’s how it was inside. Dark. Shania and Miki flicked on headlamps and flashlights. I only had my phone light, so Shania pulled a spare flashlight out of her backpack for me.

    “Girl, it’s just an empty house with old stuff.” She squeezed my arm in encouragement. “Nothing to be scared of. Unless you believe in ghosts.” And she winked and laughed—a bold peel of laughter that lifted my spirits and made me jealous all at the same time.

    I didn’t know how a person could laugh in the face of fear like that. I didn’t really believe in ghosts. I didn’t believe—but was still scared of them. Was that pathetic? I smiled weakly and thanked her for the flashlight. Miki told me to “quit being a pussy” and squeezed in past me, and all three of us entered the living room and looked around.

    It looked exactly like every old person’s living room. The carpeted floor was a dark beige and stained with coffee here and there. A plush armchair sat facing an ancient television, the kind that looks like a boxy cube, not a modern flatscreen. I almost expected to see antennae sitting on top of the old thing. Bookshelves and hutches held books, knickknacks, cups and glasses and many years’ worth of dust. Little ceramic figurines of children and pigs with wings and big-eyed frogs and all sorts of odds and ends looked out at us. It was cluttered, and a lot of it was broken, the wallpaper peeling and mold streaking the walls.

    Just a forgotten, lonely old house.

    “Daaang!” Shania picked up a figurine from one of the shelves. “Look at this stuff! Super vintage. Bet there’s, like, collectibles and shit we could take.”

    “You wanna bring some back?” suggested Miki.

    I wondered aloud if that counted as stealing. Both girls looked at me and I shut my mouth.

    Shania looked around, gesturing with her flashlight, and said, “Stealing from who?”

    She had a point. I couldn’t really argue. Still… “I dunno, just feels kind of disrespectful,” I mumbled.

    “More disrespectful than leaving it all here to rot?” Shania tucked a glass-eyed frog into her pocket. “At least if we take some, someone’s getting use out of them.”

    Miki took out a bag and began filling it with some of the bowls and candleholders she thought might be crystal (I was pretty sure they were just glass, though). Shania was more interested in the figurines. I looked around, unsure what to take, and finally, my flashlight illuminated a ceramic lovebirds sculpture. I don’t know why I was drawn to it. It seemed handmade. The glaze wasn’t perfect, and the wings were a little clumsy. I imagined it might have been a gift, not storebought. Somehow the idea of a handmade gift, passed down and forgotten and then recovered, moved me. So I wrapped it up in some napkins and put it in my bag. I was still looking at the shelves, moving into the kitchen with its dirty and torn linoleum, when a scream made me jump.

    Back in the living room, toward the rear of the house, Miki was shining her light on something, Shania with her, both of them whispering. Then Shania bent toward the floor.

    Approaching, I saw that they were looking at the staircase leading up to the second floor bedrooms. The thought of going up there filled me with dread, and my gut bunched into knots. But my entire stomach seemed to overturn itself when I saw what Shania’s light was shining on.

    A dark stain, just below the bottom steps. A person-shaped stain. There was the head. There were two arms.

    “Okaaay… that’s… really freaky,” said Miki.

    Shania, kneeling and grim-faced, was tracing her flashlight along the outline. “You know what happens sometimes with old folks, they die and no one finds them for awhile… the body just lies there decomposing… this is probably where she died.”

    “’She’?” I echoed.

    “Or he. But all these figurines and stuff make me think grandma, not gramps. Bet if we go upstairs, we’ll find floral dresses hanging in the closets.”

    “I’m not going upstairs,” I announced.

    “Me either,” declared Miki.

    Shania wanted to go. Carefully avoiding stepping on the body stain, she ascended the stairs. From up there, she called out to us about things she found. “Bathroom is a mess, yuck.” “Yep, lots of flower print.” Stuff like that. Finally she returned, a dusty frame in hand, and offered it to Miki. It was a photograph of an elderly woman and a woman and a boy. “Bet that’s the old woman who lived here, and her family.”

    “I wonder why they didn’t check on her when she fell down the stairs,” said Miki.

    “Who knows? Maybe they’re dead, too. Maybe they live out of state.” Shania shrugged. “Look at this neighborhood. Been emptied out a long time ago. Chances are wherever her family lives, it’s not close by. Come on—let’s get out of here. Thought I heard something up there.”

    “Heard something?” The hairs on my neck prickled. “Like what?”

    “Like her ghost, gonna yell at us for stealing,” said Miki, and laughed. Then she and Shania raced to see who could get out first, pushing me aside. I cried out, nearly falling on that stain—oh God! I almost touched it!

    “Guys, wait!” I yelled, running after them.

    Halfway out of the room, I’d swear I heard a sound. A voice. Calling to me. And I screamed, heart hammering, my voice ripping from my lungs in a shriek of utter terror as I rushed after the others and out to the car.

    ***

    They wouldn’t stop teasing me the whole drive back.

    “Your scream could’ve woke up the dead!” Shania exclaimed.

    “Seriously I thought something got you,” put in Miki.

    I didn’t tell them how I thought I heard an old woman’s voice. They’d just laugh harder at me.

    Miki dropped me off back home, and Shania told me she hoped I had fun and wasn’t scared too much. I smiled weakly and waved good-bye, and retreated up to my bedroom in my parents’ house. I’m saving for enough to move out, but for now I pay a small amount of rent while I work at my uncle’s shop running the register.

    I felt ready to cocoon myself for a good week. This would make a good story to tell when I joined everyone for drinks… but it’d be awhile before I’d be up for it.

    I put the ceramic birds on my windowsill, trying to decide if they were cute or just creepy.

    A shower took off the last of the grime and the chills, and by dinnertime, I was feeling excited enough to share what I’d done with my friends. I snapped a pic of the birds and texted to the group chat with Yasmin and the others, explaining that I’d found the birds in an abandoned house and even seen the body stain where the old woman who owned them died. Lots of exclamations and emojis from everyone in response. Yasmin texted: Whoa!! Damn girl, you gotta invite me next time!

    I hadn’t been planning a next time. The thought of exploring more terrifying places made my pulse escalate (and not in a good, fluttery way). But if it impressed Yasmin… if it made me more interesting and less boring…

    Anyway. I tucked my phone away and went to bed feeling, for once, like someone who had stories to tell. Not the dull girl who looked after the shop and was so forgettably plain the only name she could possibly have was Jane. No, I’d become someone else. Brave. Exciting.

    I had glorious dreams of dancing on tables at the center of parties—but something jolted me awake in the dead of night. I lay there, curled under my sheets, every hair on end.

    From somewhere downstairs came a soft wail. A moan.

    Oh God… the old woman!

    The moaning continued. I pulled the pillow over my head and whimpered, too terrified to move. How did her wailing not wake anybody else? She was so loud!

    I don’t know how long I lay there, wishing the wailing would stop, before I drifted to sleep again.

    When I woke, sunlight streamed through my window. My recollection of the previous night was hazy—I assumed the wailing must have been a dream. I even laughed at myself. Here I was, plain Jane, giving myself nightmares because I was such a homebody that the slightest adventure had me spooked. I headed downstairs for breakfast—

    And froze.

    On the wooden floorboards at the bottom of the stairs was a stain. The same stain we’d seen in the empty house.

    “MOM!” I shrilled.

    My mom rushed out of the kitchen. “Jane? What is it?”

    I pointed to the foot of the stairs, right where she was standing.

    Mom looked down. Stepped back, accidentally trampling the stain as she examined the floor and then looked back up at me, questioning. “What? Honey, what is it?”

    “The stain,” I whimpered.

    “Stain?” she echoed. Dropped down to her knees, peering close. “Where?”

    She couldn’t see it. She was right on it, and couldn’t see it.

    “Um… nevermind,” I said.

    Hurrying back to my room, I snatched my phone. Came back and took a picture of the stain to send to Miki and Shania. Except—it didn’t show up. I could see it on the floor. See it right there with my own eyes. But when I tried snapping a pic with my phone… nothing on the screen.

    “Sweetie?” Mom’s brow knit in concern. “Everything all right?”

    “Ummm… yeah. Yeah, just… yeah.” I smiled feebly.

    Having lost my appetite, I went to work without breakfast. After my shift when I came home, the stain was still there—if anything, darker than before. But Mom and Dad went up and down the stairs without seeing it. I went upstairs and got the birds. Considered shattering them and scattering the pieces, but as I held up the little ceramic sculpture ready to drop it on my floor, pangs of guilt had me setting it carefully back down. I should return it to the house, I thought. Until then, I wrapped it up and tucked it deep into my closet. Out of sight out of mind.

    Hopefully, once it was back in its place, the stain would disappear.

    ***

    The moans persisted. Every night. Always around the same time. The stain persisted as well. As for Miki and Shania—they refused to take me back to the house to return the birds. They didn't want to go back, and didn’t believe me about any of it, especially after Miki came to my parents' home and couldn’t see the stain. She asked if I was just making it up for attention.

    I’d have been angry. Furious at my cousin for throwing such an accusation in my face—if I hadn’t been so terrified in that moment because just behind her stood an old woman.

    ***

    Things got worse. The old woman appeared randomly in my house. Always near the stairs. Sometimes, I’d see her come out of a room. Sometimes, she’d be hovering by the window, looking confused. Other times she was looking right at me.

    One night, I arrived home after midnight. I’d been out with friends, doing my usual shift as the DD. No one really noticed how morose I was. My thoughts that night were on Yasmin and my social situation and wondering if I would ever break out of my own shell—when as I headed upstairs, a cold and clammy hand gripped my ankle.

    Shrieking, I ripped free. My shrill scream woke my mom and dad, who rushed out, Dad with his fists up, ready to fight whatever intruder was apparently murdering his daughter. I rushed into my room and slammed the door, sobbing.

    When I came out, there was no one there. Nothing. Just my parents looking at me, concerned.

    They asked me if I’d be willing to see a psychiatrist. I thought maybe a medium would be better, and I found one online who did a teleconference with me. She recommended the same thing my instinct had told me to do initially: destroy the ceramic birds. I’d taken a personal item, she said. Something that meant something to the deceased. If this object was what had brought the ghost into my home, destroying it would free me.

    ***

    Next day, when I returned from work, I retrieved the birds from upstairs. I’d decided that, rather than destroy them (which seemed disrespectful), I’d start by returning them to the house where I found them, even if it meant I had to go back there alone. But I’d just left my room and barely reached the bottom of the steps when—

    Cold fingers clasped my ankle.

    I shrieked, jerking free and rushing for the door. The ghost! Trying to grab me! As I reached the front door, I spun back, glaring over my shoulder. I could see her, now. The ghost of the old woman. She lay at the bottom of the steps, her fingers curled into claws and her face a grimacing snarl.

    Her mouth opened in a wail.

    I stood there for a long time, staring. And then I came back over to the stairs. And when I knelt down, she grabbed my arm—so tight! Her icy hand left strange imprints on my skin. I held the birds down to her and with my other hand, clasped hers. I don’t know what gave me the courage to suddenly do this. But now, I heard what it was she’d been wailing, over and over again.

    “Help!” she groaned.

    “I’m here,” I said. Her hand squeezed tighter. “I’m sorry I ran away before. I don’t know who gave you these birds, but they must have loved you very much. I’m sure they wish they could’ve been there for you.” She was listening now, her mouth still a grimace of pain. I’m not religious, and I don’t know any prayers. So I just kept saying, “I’m here. You’re not alone. Here are the birds. Here’s my hand…”

    I don’t really know what else I said. My vision was blurry, and I didn’t realize that tears were streaming down my cheeks until I blinked and squeezed my eyes shut and reached up to wipe them clear, and when I looked down again, the old woman was gone. I was alone. Just me sitting there at the bottom of the steps with some dusty ceramic birds in my palm.

    The stain was gone.

    ***

    The medium told me I should get rid of the birds anyway. But I didn’t. I went upstairs and put them back on my windowsill. They sit there, still. I’m keeping them for someone who shouldn’t have been forgotten.

    20 Comments
    2024/02/24
    14:51 UTC

    79

    Protection

    Sitting up in bed, my eyes go to Roxy, my Aussie, as my heartbeat quickens in panic. “Roxy?” I whisper.

    Her gaze is steady, her lips curled back in a snarl, the growl echoing from deep within her chest as she stares at the corner. Swallowing hard, I slide my gaze over and see the darkness. It’s a small shadow, but it’s swelling, like a tumor, climbing the wall. It creeps out in all directions as it takes form, becoming three dimensional, and it takes its first step.

    “No, no, no, no, no,” I breathe. I’m frozen. My eyes dart to Roxy, then back to the shadow figure. “Not real, you’re not real.”

    “You know I’m real,” it whispers back. “That’s why Roxy can see me.”

    My arms crawl with goose bumps like insects prickling across my skin, my throat constricting, and I can’t get enough air. Roxy takes a slow step back, then another, her wide, unblinking eyes set on the predator in front of her. But she doesn’t back up enough. She doesn’t run, she would never run, because she would never leave me.

    And it slinks forward toward her, the darkness encroaching menacingly, threateningly, the promise of an attack. My chest aches from fear, and I finally get myself to move. Inch by inch, as if through sludge, I force myself forward toward Roxy, a slow-motion race with the shadow man. His height makes him bend under the ceiling, towering and terrifying, as I finally reach Roxy’s side, curling my fingers in her soft fur.

    “I got you,” I choke out, my vision blurry from tears. “I got you, he won’t hurt you.”

    He reaches out for us and a hand closes on my arm-

    ***

    I lurch back to consciousness in my dark bedroom, tears streaming down my face, my chest heaving in panicked breaths. Roxy is on my bed, furiously nuzzling me and licking my face. I wrap my arms around her and hold her close. “Oh baby, my baby,” I whisper. “I’m okay. Everything’s okay.” I breathe. In and out. In and out. I take in my surroundings, my familiar bedroom, my real bedroom.

    My breathing slows and Roxy senses me calming down, so she lays down at my side as she was trained to, pressed up against me, her weight solid and protective. Turning on my bedside table lamp, I slide my legs out and my feet down to the carpet, walking over to the light switch. I flick it upwards, turning on the ceiling fan light, Roxy’s eyes following me all the way.

    A shadow man sits in the corner. But Roxy doesn’t see him. Because he isn’t there.

    Wrapping my arms around myself tightly, I take in and let out a long breath. “Who’s my good girl?” I ask, smiling. Roxy’s tail gently wags back and forth, knowing I’m talking about her. I walk over and sit down, and she crawls forward a few inches, putting her head in my lap. “Oh, is it time for scritches? Of course it is, always time for scritches,” I murmur as I scratch her behind her ears.

    I glance at the shadow man dismissively. “You’d never let them get me if they were real, huh, Rox? Well. I’d never let them get you either.”

    /r/storiesbykaren

    3 Comments
    2024/02/11
    01:27 UTC

    20

    Under the Shade of a Tree

    I knew this wasn’t sleep.

    My eyes were wide open however I couldn’t see. Everything was a bright blur. Imagine, staring at the sun and not being able to close your eyes from a torturous bright. The panic set in causing my body to hyperventilate. I must of laid there for hours, paralyzed in fear, before I was able to actually sense something. I was trapped inside a big bright nothing that I could not escape. The boundaries of reality began to blur. In time, I had lost all taste and smell. Consciousness was coming and going. It was still difficult to tell dreams from reality. Somewhere in this madness I heard and a voice that I’d not heard in quite some time. It was my Mother, telling me that she was there to help make things comfortable. And by the sound of her voice, to my surprise, she sounded truthfully optimistic. I on the other hand was not so sure.

    “Where am I?”, I recall asking with all the strength one could muster. Mom said that I was home in my apartment. It didn’t feel like it.

    For what seemed like months I became acclimated to this ‘apartment’. It felt as though everything had been rearranged. I remembered my seat on the couch. I was to believe that it was now on the opposite end of the living room. It felt like a different room altogether. The same went for the bedroom. It just didn’t feel like the one I once knew however curiously did have a slight trace of familiarity.

    “You’ll get used to it” Mom would say whenever my frustrations would boil over.

    Her tone was always truthful. Mom was the only thing that brought me comfort. We would sit and have long and conversations about a host of different topics throughout the days that passed. Although my brain was having these comprehensive conversations I suspected that only a fraction of the words were getting out, if any. There was nothing else for me to do but use my brain, and that I did. Mom seemed to understand my jumbled speech regardless as though we were speaking perfectly to one another.

    One day she asked about my vision and if there had been any improvement. To be honest I hadn’t really noticed. I was so preoccupied with getting used to it that I didn’t realize the odd shapes that were starting to materialize.

    “Keep focusing” she advised me, like she knew this from experience.

    I began to focus on anything that seemed to take shape within the brightest white. Soon, I was using them to find my way around. The combination of textures within the white mass gave me a trajectory. I saw things as coordinates, equations even. They came like dreams and once I had my mind set on where I wanted to go they would propel my momentum. It was the most curious sensation. Mom called it ‘transition’. I was lost inside this self guiding reality, one where time and space were suddenly absent. The sensation of touch brought me back to senses long forgotten.

    It was a slight pinch that had me swirling with questions. When was the last time I ate a meal, or needed to use the rest room? When was the last time I actually used my hands, or even my own voice? When was the last time I’d heard anything? My mind was filled with these puzzling revelations. I became destitute inside them.

    I lingered in this stoic state, struggling to comprehend the sudden realizations that fell on me all at once. Then, I recalled the day I awoke blind. There was no memory of anything before that moment.

    A strong sensation of loneliness invaded me. I thought about Mom. Where had she gone? Was she still nearby and I simply could no longer communicate? Had she left me? I began to search for her within this world of mass bright. I travelled into it with amazing speed knowing the harder I pushed the farther away I’d be. But far away from what? It was as though centuries had past when I finally heard a voice.

    “Over here”, Mom’s voice was crystal clear, as if she had been right next to me this whole time.

    Within the bright white I began to see images like negatives of a photograph, and in them was Mom. Tears were pouring down her cheeks. Behind her, a world in despair came into focus. There were mountains of people, fighting and climbing over each other, desperate to reach the serenity of a beautiful tree at its peak. The long and blossoming limbs provided a comforting shade beneath them. A shade that no one would ever reach. In that moment I experienced a kaleidoscope of the worst feelings imaginable.

    “I’m sorry”, Mom said softly before falling backwards becoming one with the chaos.

    For the first time the brightness faded into a long lost darkness but not before I glimpsed a familiar figure. It was my Grandma, standing under the tree.

    The first thing that came into focus was a ceiling. Then the low monotonous hums of various machines entered my ears. I could feel my body again. I was laying down in a hospital bed loaded with tubes inside my arms pinching into my veins. A particularly large one was lodged deep into my throat helping me breath. No wonder I couldn’t speak, I thought.

    My eventual release from the hospital came with unwanted noise both physically and mentally. Before I fell asleep that fateful night I was a strong and independent young woman, proud to be doing well on my own. Now, I’m forever changed. I’ll never be able to speak the same, nor hear things with a clarity I once had. My body has been wounded in the most vile way. I’ll struggle into life with a fragile immune system hoping the slightest cold will not kill me. That’s what a poisoning does.

    I should have known once Mom showed up at my door that something was wrong. She was a stranger to me after all. I had vague childhood memories of her coming and going. I went though life without her. There were a few times she’d come back trying to enter my life. Grandma was always there to protect me. That day though, I opened my door and let Mom into my life. I felt sorry for her as she stood on the doorstep, vulnerable and weak. I was doing really well, perhaps I could help, I foolishly thought. Take her in and be the provider, reconnect even. Within two weeks of her arrival I would wake up blind and near death. I learned shortly after I regained consciousness at the hospital that Mom was found dead inside my apartment. She had killed herself with the very poison she slipped me.

    Only a disturbed mind could rationalize that poisoning their own child would allow them a fresh start. But this was her plan. To kill me and take my identity. It would have been easy. I was basically a copy of her, physically. But once the plan didn’t work and I survived, she took her own life. I’ll never completely understand any of this. Mom had given into the demons that controlled her. All I have are these recollections that stick in my head like real memories. I left Mom climbing amongst the desperate, forever reaching for a peaceful place under the shade of a tree. And within all of this was Grandma, still protecting me.

    As for Mom, she finally gave me that soft spoken apology I deserved… or perhaps not.

    0 Comments
    2024/02/07
    19:14 UTC

    19

    Mr. Creeper’s Ukulele

    My story starts when I was five or six. That’s when I first picked up a ukulele. I loved my ukulele with all my heart. Still do, obviously. And I’m grateful for all the success I’ve had because of it. Here’s the problem: I don’t deserve it. Not entirely, anyway.

    My parents never told me to practice, I just did. I practiced day and night, until my hands hurt. It was slow going at first. Then one day, everything changed. I was playing Hey, Soul Sister when I noticed a peculiar sound, like a heartbeat, quietly keeping time, like a built-in metronome. Except of course, back then, I had no idea what a metronome was. But it was there all right, guiding me.

    Having no idea where the sound was coming from, I scanned the room for intruders. Then it dawned on me: the sound was coming from my own mind. I shrugged it off and continued practicing, but the sound remained. Over time, a voice started speaking to me, giving me tips. The voice was creepy. Sometimes it would say stuff that was highly inappropriate, especially to a young girl like me. But I was still a kid, so I thought nothing of it. Instead, I gave him a name: Mr. Creeper.

    Mr. Creeper became my imaginary friend. Except of course, he wasn’t imaginary. Nor was he my friend.

    (Before I go on, let’s get one thing clear: Mr. Creeper was, and still is, very much real. And he’s not an anomaly. There are many evil spirits lurking about. More than you would care to know.)

    When I told my mother, she scoffed at me. So much so, that I cried and threw a fit, smashing my uke into a million pieces. Then I cried some more, because I no longer had a uke. Oh, what a fuss I made.

    Mr. Creeper was displeased. That night he appeared to me, moments before I fell asleep, threatening to hurt me if I stopped making music. Apparently, Mr. Creeper had plans for me.

    It was the first time I’d seen him, and it scared me half to death. His face was covered in warts and boils. His belly was bulging like a beach ball. His eyes were weird and googly and seemed to see in all directions at once. What scared me most was his teeth, long and sharp and severe. I cried myself to sleep that night, and suffered from a series of vicious night terrors. Night terrors that have remained with me ever since.

    My mother, being a gracious woman, bought me a brand new ukulele for Christmas. A nicer one, in fact.

    Mr. Creeper was pleased.

    Time passed. Mr. Creeper continued haunting me, but my memory of those days is fuzzy. I was still a kid. By the time I turned twelve, I’d stopped playing the uke. I was a busy girl. Mr. Creeper went away, until one day while alone in my candle lit bedroom, he startled me.

    “Hey Brit,” Mr. Creeper said, his voice cold and crisp.

    My heart stopped beating. Standing – more like hovering – over my bed was Mr. Creeper. Disparaging thoughts crashed through my mind. In truth, I’d thought Mr. Creeper was gone for good.

    Wrong.

    He snarled. “Wha? Ya hard of hearing?”

    I tried speaking, but the sound was gibberish.

    “Why dontcha get that ukulele out of your closet? Play me a tune, why dontcha?” After minutes – maybe hours – of comprehending what the heck was happening, I bolted.

    Mother was at work, but Dad was visiting, so I told him. My cheeks were red and sopping with tears. He ruffled my rosy-red hair, calling me his silly little princess. But I relented. When he saw how serious I was, he tossed me onto his back (he hadn’t done this in years) and charged playfully upstairs into my bedroom.

    I gasped. Mr. Creeper was above my bed, twirling his pitchforked tail. His eyes were cruel and hateful.

    “He won’t see me, you know,” the monster said. “He’s too old. And stupid.” “Hey!” I blurted, involuntarily.

    My father shot me an uneasy look. “See, princess. No monsters. Just a twelve-year-old girl’s bedroom, which needs cleaning, by the way.” He nudged me.

    He was joking, but I could tell he sensed the monster, because his eyes were scanning the room and his face was pale as water. His feet wouldn’t stop shuffling. Clearly, he was eager to leave my haunted bedroom. And for good reason: Mr. Creeper was making choking gestures, strangling himself with his wretched red tail, taunting him. It took every ounce of restraint not to scream in holy terror.

    As we left my bedroom, something struck me. I tripped and tumbled downstairs, spraining my ankle in the process. Dad zoomed me to the hospital. That was a bad day.

    Time passed. Then one day after school, my old uke was resting neatly on my bed. “That’s impossible,” I told myself, shakily, as a cold chill dripped down my spine. The ukulele was beckoning me. I’d forgotten how beautiful she was. My hands trembled as I strummed her. Weird thing was, even though I hadn’t played her in years, she was still in tune.

    I played Fifteen, by Taylor Swift. I still remembered the chords. The pulse returned, keeping time, the lights in my bedroom flickered, and a spotlight fell on me. Suddenly, I was Center Stage. An invisible audience started jeering. I could feel the tension in the room, anticipating my next song.

    “Mr. Creeper?” I quietly spoke.

    I felt him crawling inside my head. It was awful, really. Like a virus scratching my skull.

    “Play.” That’s all he said.

    The crowd started chanting: “BRIT… BRIT… BRIT…”

    Reluctantly, I played an Ed Sheeran song (which sounded eerily similar to the previous song).

    “Wha? Did I say you can stop?” Mr. Creeper heckled. “Did yo mamma raise a quitter?”

    The crowd turned on me, heckling me with a chorus of, “BRIT SUCKS!… BRIT SUCKS!… BRIT SUCKS!…”

    I was so scared that I peed myself. Good thing no one was around to laugh at me. (Except, of course, Mr. Creeper.) After cleaning myself up, I tip-toed back into my bedroom, careful not to trip and fall. (Like I needed another sprain.)

    “This is ridiculous,” I told myself. “I’m nearly thirteen. Too old to believe in spooks.” My voice sounded far away, like it belonged to someone else. I didn’t like it. Nor did I trust it.

    “Brit,” Mr. Creeper said. “Play another song. Something melancholy, in a minor key.”

    My bedroom lights dimmed; all the candles blew out, although I don’t recall lighting any. My mouth was dry, my heart was going a million miles an hour. I wiped my sweaty bangs from my forehead and took a deep breath.

    “Hurry it up, wontcha!” someone in the crowd chirped, scaring the daylights out of me. The crowd was growing restless: “Yeah. We ain’t got all day!” followed by, “Yeah, kid. We got all millennia!”

    I’ve never been more scared in my life. I closed my eyes and prayed for them to go away. This must be a dream. Or maybe I was getting sick. When my eyes popped open, I nearly died. Mr. Creeper was directly in front of me, seething. Globs of drool glistened from his dagger-like teeth, his fatty fingers fidgeting while he floated in thin air.

    I tried to move, but my mind and body wouldn’t cooperate. When his teeth touched the nape of my neck, I shrieked.

    My mother bolted into my bedroom, and seeing how scared I was, she let me sleep on the foldout couch in the living room. I was grateful. But I wasn’t stupid. The monster was lurking in my bedroom, waiting.

    Needless to say, I avoided my bedroom all week, but by the weekend, I started practicing again. It’s difficult to explain why, but any musician will tell you: the music is inside you, yearning to get out. I was a prisoner to it. It controlled me. So did Mr. Creeper.

    Next time he appeared, I pleaded for him to leave me alone. “Nah!” Mr. Creeper replied, flying directly above me. “I’ve got BIG plans for you.” “B-b-but, why me?”

    Mr. Creeper’s googly eyes bobbled back and forth. “Why not?” He thrusted his razor-sharp claws against my freckled throat.

    I shrunk into the size of a pea. I was going to add my rebuttal, when the uke flew into my hands. I gasped as it found my grip.

    “Play!” the monster instructed.

    I played. To my astonishment, I was exceptional. So much so that I made up a song on the spot. Then I made a video and posted it. That video went viral. You’ve probably seen it. It’s called Creeper’s Lament. My first hit song. You could say the rest is history, and you’d be correct.

    Not gonna lie: I liked the newfound fame. Who wouldn’t? My classmates started treating me differently. Suddenly, I was special, if only for a week. I started pumping out more videos. My fame quickly spread. The principal called me into her office, asking if I’d be interested in performing at the end-of-the-year talent show. I agreed. My parents were thrilled, and bought me the best ukulele money could buy.

    That’s when I performed Flight of the Bumblebee, using only one hand. BAM! Another viral video. You may remember it: I was wearing a long, black dress with white buttons shaped as stars, and my hair was braided. The kids in the crowd were shouting for an encore, so I played two Beatles songs at the same time, surprising even me. The kids ate it up. So did the internet.

    You may remember the rest. After going viral, I made a series of Top Ten albums, spanning many years. Unbelievable. People adored me. And why not? I helped inspire an entire generation of kids to play the ukulele. They all wanted to be the next Brit Starr.

    My concerts sold out fast. My father was now managing me. He was nice and all, but things got weird. You see, it wasn’t me playing. It was Mr. Creeper. Sounds nuts, I know. But it’s true. Mr. Creeper was guiding me, providing me with unbelievable dexterity. Songs arrived fully formed in my mind.

    After years of recording albums and touring the world, while finishing high school online in my spare time (which was never), Mr. Creeper became erratic. Nothing seemed to satisfy him. To please him, I was forced to play a medley of rock classics: Stairway to Heaven, Highway to Hell, Hotel California, Smells Like Teen Spirit – the list goes on and one – which earned me an entire new audience. But even that wasn’t good enough. No, not for Mr. Creeper.

    He wanted more. Always more. That’s when I started doing stunts: playing a flaming ukulele, performing upside down, walking a tightrope, you name it. The shows got more and more elaborate. So did my costumes.

    Over time, people got bored of my antics. I didn’t blame them. In fact, I was relieved. Unfortunately, my father was furious. Turns out, Mr. Creeper had infected his mind as well, causing him to drink and act belligerent. Thus, I announced my retirement. I’d just turned twenty-five, and I was a millionaire, I didn’t need the stress. I was looking to open my very own music school: School of Uke. Sounds cool, right?

    Wrong.

    Mr. Creeper threatened to kill me. “You do as I say, Brit. Ya hear me?” His claws scratched my spine, causing internal bleeding. I was rushed to the hospital where I nearly died. Mr. Creeper wreaked havoc on the other patients. “I’ll kill ‘em all if ya don’t do as I say!”

    That was dreadful. So was the fact that no one believed me.

    My father made me a deal: I could quit touring, but I would continue making music. I refused. So he made another offer: I could publish my very own autobiography, and live off the royalties. I agreed. Maybe I can finally get my story out.

    Mr. Creeper went on another rampage, tearing up my bedroom, haunting me day and night. He was merciless. Sleeping became impossible, because that’s when he’s strongest. I was at my wits end. I had to do something.

    So I did. It came to me during a dream: I could enter his mind as well. I used this to my advantage, and over time, I learned to harness his magic. Thus, I’ve created a spell. My spell (if it works) will undo my fame and fortune.

    Therefore, when you read this, the name Brit Starr will mean nothing to you, and I can go back to being normal. Phew. What a relief!

    So why am I telling you this, on Reddit, no less?

    Because once my father read the first draft of my autobiography, he went ballistic. After weeks of squabbling, he hired a ghost writer. (Most celebrities do this, I know, but I was appalled.) But no worries, if my plan works, the public won’t remember me (or my music), and all my troubles will disappear, including my autobiography.

    Alas! The spell is complete. It’s entwined into this story. (How I did it, I’ll never tell, not in a million years.) But what about Mr. Creeper, you ask? Will he go away? Doubt it. But hopefully he’ll grow tired of me and haunt some other little kid. Not my problem.

    If my spell is successful, by the time I post this, you will have long forgotten my name. Not only that, you will have forgotten my concerts and all the time you spent commenting on my posts. Those comments will disappear, along with their memory. My TikTok account will vanish. I will mean nothing to you. Thus, I will be scrubbed, along with my fame and fortune. My parents will know me, obviously, but they will have no recollection of my so-called music career. Heck, I’ll probably open that music studio, and if I’m lucky, I’ll live happily ever after. No more monsters.

    Reading this now, you probably think this is just a silly story. Perfect. That’s the plan. That’s why I’ve taken my story to Reddit, using a male avatar, no less. Just in case. (I doubt my father will stumble upon this, because he doesn’t use Reddit, but I can’t take any chances.)

    If by chance you do remember me, and my spell failed, that’s okay too. I’ll have to live with that. Hey, at least you’ll understand the grief I’ve gone through, and cut me some slack. Or maybe you’ll think I’m nuts. Whatever. I’m over it. So here goes. I’m so nervous I can barely keep my hands close to the keys. Mr. Creeper is clawing me, and I’m bleeding profusely, but he won’t stop me. Not this time.

    Will my spell work? There’s only one way to find out.

    Here goes…

    0 Comments
    2024/02/07
    16:11 UTC

    49

    Blind illusion

    I lost my vision at the age of six in a silly accident. I call it silly because I was hit by a bicycle while crossing the street. The fall damaged my optic nerve. I’ve had Bowey, my service dog, my beloved pupper, since then. Apart from Bowey, I have my father and mother who worked in the airforce. We all lived in the same house but separately. It rarely affected me. Bowey was all I needed.Oh, and I also have a friend, my neighbour, an old lady whom I call Marlboro due to the strong smell of cigarettes on her whenever she hugged me. She hugs me tight and takes a long sniff off of the top of my head. Marlboro is a widow of an airforce officer who was killed in combat, her son is also a flyer. She stays right above my apartment but I have never been to her place. My mother says she must be lonely and that’s why she must have befriended me. But I know that she loves me like a grandson and thinks I am special.It was not long after the accident but by then I had come to terms with it. I knew the path from my home to the park, school and shops inside the airforce campus. Marlboro always waited for me on a bench near my home and used to finish the last leg of her walk with me. She felt that I won’t be able to climb the stairs to my apartment alone, even though, I go everywhere alone, except for Bowey.She fixes me a sandwich whenever I get hungry even without asking. She used to have treats for Bowey as well. But I felt Bowey was not very fond of Marlboro. Whenever she came near me to hold my hand, Bowey would shift to the other side. I assume it’s the strong smell of tobacco. He was a happy and playful boy and who would not leave my side, ever.When my mother returns from her duty, I tell her all about the adventures of the day and how Marlboro brought my favourite tuna sandwich. Sometimes, it is hard to tell if she is listening at all. But I think I am a great story teller, Bowey and Marlboro agree.Father mostly joins in for the after work drinks with the other officers and reaches home late. He hugs me tight and kisses me goodnight with his alcohol breathe.My home is silent most of the time so I have learned to smell my way around. In an airforce campus it is pretty hard to rely on sounds as it is loud all around. I recognise the smell of the corner cafe at the turn from my school, the rose bushes near the turn at the senior officers’ quarters, the fuel smell near the area of the aircraft station, just before turning to our apartment complex and my final stop is the bench where Marlboro waits for me.One day, Bowey fell ill and he couldn’t accompany me to the school. Mother and father had an argument that morning about dropping me off to school. In the end, Mother dropped me off and asked me to wait at the bench near the corner cafe until she could come to pick me. I asked her to tell Marlboro to not wait up for me today. My mother agreed hurriedly and left.After school, I waited at the cafe bench for a long time. I could sense the light dimming and the cafe buzzing with the sounds of young officers. I decided to walk back to my home alone, it was my usual path sans Bowey. I passed the rose bushes, fuel smell and I counted my steps to Marlboro’s bench. She was not there today. My mother must have informed her about the change in today’s routine.I started climbing the steps to my apartment. I had never done this without Bowey or Marlboro. I climbed and climbed and nothing smelled familiar. I was tired by now and as I climbed further, at a point I felt a flat wall in front of me. It was not a wall, it was a door. I pushed it and stepped into the room. It felt open, I could hear the aircraft sounds, louder. I walked forward with no smell to guide me, tears were filling up my eyes by now. Whatever light I could sense dimmed further. I missed Marlboro. I missed Bowey. I bumped into cold steel and fell.I had a sudden realisation that I was too high up and I could feel my heart-beat in my eyes and I was about to fall and somebody familiar was holding onto my hand, preventing my fall. I smelt Marlboro and was relieved immediately. She pulled me up and hugged me tight. We didn’t talk much while walking back home.When my mother returned from work I told her what had happened. She was overcome by emotions, hugged me tight and promised me that she would never leave me alone. She wanted to thank Marlboro in person. We went upstairs to find her apartment locked. Upon enquiring with the neighbours, we got to know that an old lady used to live there several years ago. She committed suicide by jumping off of the terrace. The apartment was never allotted again and has been empty since. My mother held me close that night.For several days my parents took turns to drop me off after school. I was not bothered much by the revelation, I just had one strong feeling, I missed her. One day, when I walked back home, I waited at our usual spot, hoping to see her again. She never came. I got up to leave, but then Bowey shifted to my other side. I smiled. I smelt cigarettes again.

    2 Comments
    2024/02/07
    06:56 UTC

    44

    The Grove

    Dozens watched from behind me, but I ignored their eyes burning into my back. My footsteps were slow but steady, terrified but resigned to my fate, fear stiffening my muscles but determination pushing me on. The day was bright, the sun beating down on me, barely tempered by the hat I wore, and sweat already started to soak into the back of my shirt. I started through the wildflowers that spread across the edge of the grove, my hands absently brushing the ones that came up past my knees.

    And as I passed the edge of the tree line, the sky started to darken. I continued to walk toward my judgment. Like many in our town who'd come before me, I was here to find out whether I was guilty of murder.

    “What are you doing?” I snapped at my older brother.

    Elton continued through the cabinets, leaving every door open as he searched, finally turning on me with a snarl on his face and an empty bottle in his hand. “There’s nothing here.”

    “We’re out of whiskey,” I told him tiredly. “I’ll buy more tomorrow.”

    “You’re useless,” he growled. Walking over to the sink, a wobble in his step, he chucked the empty bottle in.

    “Hey!” I shouted. “Could you at least do that outdoors? Or aim for the garbage can?”

    Elton picked up the top of the bottle, which had remained intact, examining it as if he wished it could’ve magically refilled instead of shattering. “I got fired.”

    That gave me pause. “Elton…you need to lay off the drink,” I sighed. “You can’t keep a job like this.”

    “Like what?” he snapped, taking a few unsteady steps toward me. “What I do on my own time is my business.”

    “Not in my house it isn’t,” I shot back.

    A ripple of goosebumps spread across my skin and the sweat that had built up suddenly chilled me. The trees were thick and tall, but it shouldn’t have been this dark, I knew. There was something else pulling the light from the world, something sinister that lived and hunted in these woods. Something that I needed to find. Or rather, that needed to find me.

    My heartrate increasing by the minute, I continued into the woodland, claustrophobia starting to take hold. I forced myself to take in and let out even, steady breaths. The flowers had given way to a heavy layer of leaves, built up over months but not yet decayed, wet and thick and squishing under my shoes. As the day turned to night, my lower lip starting to tremble and my hands starting to shake, and I didn’t notice when my shoes dampened through to my socks.

    And I hoped and prayed I would make it out.

    “Your house?” Elton said, his eyes narrowing dangerously. “The house you bought with the money from Dad’s inheritance, you mean?”

    I took a breath. “You got the same, Elton. Not my fault you spent it away.”

    Stomping over, he towered over me, a good four inches taller. “You’re a selfish bastard, up on that high horse,” he hissed. “I spent that money how I saw fit. Wasn’t my fault Henrietta and the kids needed more than I could give them.”

    “You spent it on drink,” I muttered. “Not on them.”

    Elton raised his hands toward me, realizing he had a broken bottle in one, staring at it as if it was something he’d not seen before. “I need more to get to sleep,” he told me, his stare burning holes in my eyes. “Otherwise, I get the nightmares. You know that.”

    My heart fell. Too many men fell down this hole when they came back from the military and I hated what it had done to him. But something else burned inside me; I was starting to hate him too. I loved the man he’d been but hated who he’d become.

    “We are out,” I said slowly. “You’re plenty drunk to fall asleep.”

    His eyes widened. “I’m not a drunk,” he shouted. And again, the bottle in his hand rose and a shot of adrenaline rushed through me as I saw it coming for me. Instinctively I blocked it, shoving it back at him. And it caught his throat.

    Was I to blame? The question wouldn’t leave me. It plagued me, crushing me under its weight. I hadn’t meant it. I’d never kill my brother, my own flesh and blood. But I had, hadn’t I? I’d shoved the serrated glass right back at him. It had been instincts, yes, but what kind? Survival? Or a flood of emotion that came from a place deep inside me, where my true colors shone?

    As I continued step by step further into the grove, I found myself wishing for a sweater, unbelievable in the current mid-summer climate of the town. It wasn’t enough to make me shiver, just enough to send a chill through me, to make me fold my arms and curl in against it. The area I found myself in now was something different, something other, and I knew I was close.

    Then I came to an abrupt halt as I heard squishy footsteps behind me, unmistakable as a creature other than human. They were too large, too heavy, and something else accompanied them. The sensation of being in the presence of a predator, the urge to run, to not look back and let adrenaline do the work of racing back the way I’d come.

    But of course, it was behind me. There was no escape. So, I turned to face it.

    “No, no, no, no,” I breathed, dropping to my brother’s side.

    His face showed nothing but desperate confusion, the broken bottle dropped to the side, forgotten, as blood poured from his throat. I thrust my hands over it without any hesitation, frantically trying to stem the flow, to find the edge of the artery I’d slit and hold back the blood. But my fingers grew slick as the knees of my pants soaked in the blood that spread quickly across the floor.

    “Elton,” I cried, “no, no, Elton, hold on, put-put pressure-”

    Tears came to my eyes and I suddenly pulled the shirt over my head, balling it up and shoving it against the wound. “Ronnie?” he managed.

    “Please, no, please,” I choked out, tears clouding my vision. “Hold it, help me hold it there…” But his grip slackened as his pupils dilated and his breathing slowed. “No,” I said, continuing to hold the shirt firmly against his neck. “No, Elton…oh god…”

    His eyes stared at the ceiling, at nothing, his body still, and I sat back in the pool of his blood, my shirt falling from my grip as an overwhelming, stunned tiredness overtook me. My gaze slid around at the scene and then went back to my brother. A sob choked in my throat before it broke through and I dissolved into tears.

    The creature of the grove stood before me froze me in place. The domain around us, a swamp choked with weeds and fallen trees, suited its form as an alligator, but it stood on two feet. At least ten feet tall, I was unable to breathe for a good ten seconds before I shuddered in a shaky breath. It cocked its head at me, its eyes showing an intelligence behind them that I would never expect from an animal. It was deeper than a human gaze, something behind it that I couldn’t comprehend.

    “Ronald Merrill,” it spoke. The voice was a growl from deep in its throat, startling me and sending fresh tears streaming down my face. “What is your crime?”

    I took two breaths, in and out, before I managed to speak. “I killed my brother.” There was nothing to say but the truth. The creature saw through us anyway and, to be honest, it was a confluence of emotions that I was desperate to be free of, which I hoped I could do here.

    “Was it in malice?”

    My face crumpled. “It was an accident. He came at me with a broken bottle and I…I just…I shoved it back at him. The edge hit his neck. He fell. And there was so much blood…”

    “You loved him.”

    I grimaced. “I don’t know. Maybe. I used to. But…” My eyes narrowed, staring sadly at the ground. “Yes. Yes, I loved him.” I blinked rapidly a few times against the tears, my breaths jagged in my chest against the pain of my loss, of my guilt, of my terror. “But…I fear there was something inside me,” I confessed, forcing my eyes to the pitch-black eyes of the creature before me. “Something that wanted to be free of him. Something that wanted to…” I swallowed. “Please, tell me. Am I guilty of murder?”

    “You are not.” The words were so simple, so final, that it took several seconds to absorb them. Then I felt my knees give out and I fell to the murky ground. “Leave the grove and lay your brother to rest. Speak to him, though he cannot speak back. It will do you good.”

    I sobbed, my fingers curling into the wet, mossy ground, but then was pulled from my daze as I realized my grip was now on fresh weeds. Looking around, the creature was gone. The swamp was gone, leaving the grove in its place. Bright with sunlight, tempered by the branches of the trees overhead, vines curling up their trunks, fungus spotting the bark. And wildflowers scattered around me.

    I remained there, sitting on my heels, for a while before I felt fully able to grasp the verdict I’d been given. Sniffling and wiping the tears from my face, I pushed myself to my feet. And I set off to bury my brother.

    /r/storiesbykaren

    2 Comments
    2024/02/06
    19:53 UTC

    83

    Any panda lovers out there?

    My mama loves panda bears. She has an entire collection of stuff. Panda figurines? By the hundreds. Panda pillowcases with matching blankets? Yep. Plush toys and slippers? She’s got it. Plates shaped like a panda face, glasses with panda prints? Check. I can go on and on, but I think you get the point, right?

    There is this one glass display cabinet that houses her figurines. When you come down from the second floor this cabinet welcomes you to the ground floor of the house. So, each time I went down in the morning I would say a loud “good morning!” to the pandas. Each day, I would notice the smallest set of pandas in different forms of disarray. When I say small, they are about an inch and are in different poses. There are 6 in total: one sitting down eating a bamboo shoot, one doing a headstand, one sitting looking like it wants to put its feet to its mouth, one standing up wearing a Chinese pointed bamboo hat, another one standing up holding a fishing rod with a dangling fish on it, and one sitting in a lotus position as if in meditation. My mama would always fix it when she notices them. They would sometimes be separated and far apart, in different sections of the cabinet, sometimes fallen over to the bottom. It’s like they come up with all kinds of mischief when we are not looking. When I was younger, in my mind I saw these little pandas playing around and having fun. But as I got older, I figured my big sister must like messing it up. She didn’t share our mama’s love for the pandas. Only I did.

    I was assigned to a different country for work and will be away for 2 years. Mama packed up the panda set for me to take saying she knew it was my favorite since I was a child as I would always point them out in the morning. It will be my first time away from home because us Asians don’t really leave home after 18 like others do. We stay with our family for as long as we can. We got all emotional even if it was just two years and I highly appreciated being able to bring those little pandas with me. When I got to my new place, I made sure to put the pandas at my bedside table. When I come back from a tiring day at work, I would look at those little black and white figures and smile thinking of home. They didn’t move into different positions like they did, which made me really believe that it was my big sister moving them around.

    I met Stuart a month after starting work at the offsite location that I was assigned to. He’s charming and would make me laugh. He started dropping by my workstation during his breaks and then we started having lunch together. By the 4th month he started coming over to my place and hanging out over the weekends. Soon we were making out in the couch, but I would not allow him to go further than that. What can I say, I was raised by very strict Asian parents.

    One Saturday night, Stuart arrived unannounced. Looked like he’s been drinking. He said he just wanted to hang out and watch our favorite series with me. I was hesitant at first but felt like I trusted him enough to hang out despite him looking a little drunk.

    Big mistake.

    Stuart started kissing me and was trying to put his hands under my shirt. I was pushing him away when he grabbed me hard and bit my lip.

    Stuart: “What is it with you, you think you are too good for me?”

    Me: “Stuart, please let me go. You’re hurting me. My lip is bleeding, I need to put some ice on it.”

    He wouldn’t let me go and started to push my shorts down.

    My papa taught me some self-defense moves growing up. And I saw this as my chance to practice one of them. I poked Stuart’s eyes, and he pulled up while calling me a self-righteous b*tch. I ran towards the bathroom and locked the door. I didn’t have my mobile phone with me and could not call for help. By then I was praying to all my ancestors to help me. I didn’t know what to do. I was just sitting in the corner, crying. Suddenly the pounding on the bathroom door stopped replaced by a surprised yelp. I didn’t dare leave yet. I just sat there for maybe another hour before I figured that the silence outside means he already left. I opened the door and saw no one. I checked every possible hiding spot and did not find him. I decided I will report Stuart to HR on Monday and maybe ask help to get a restraining order since I didn’t know the procedures in that country.

    Monday came and there was no Stuart. I already filed a report to HR about what happened. The next day, I asked if they’ve heard from him yet. They informed me that he is not responding to his messages or picking up his phone when they call. After a week, the office sent a representative for a wellness check. They said no one was at home and his car was not there either.

    By the 3rd week of Stuart missing, someone reported a car parked illegally in the apartment complex near ours. They found Stuart rotting inside with several small bite marks. The hospital suspected that these are rat bites. With the report I filed with HR, the police concluded that he left my apartment and passed out inside his car due to being intoxicated and the rats somehow got inside his car.

    I went home that day super stressed from all that happened. I looked at my little pandas, missing home. I noticed they had some red splotches all over their small bodies and are in complete disarray. I must have splashed them with my red beet and berry smoothie at some point. But that has been some time ago, how did I not notice these red spots until now? Anyway, I just wiped them out. I checked the bedside table but there were no droplets or anything from my smoothie. I’m just wondering now how the pandas got dirty while my bedside table escaped any of the splashes of smoothie.

    I’m back home now, so my little panda friends are back to their glass cabinet doing their nightly mischief. But should I get assigned to a different country again I will make sure to bring them with me once again. They really help me feel close to home.

    10 Comments
    2024/02/05
    18:44 UTC

    20

    My Crow Speaks To The Unseen

    It was as though we were cursed. I speak now, of course, looking back on losing nearly everyone I knew to the prevailing darkness. But even then, something ominous loomed in the shadows, drawing to us every foul thing arisen on that spoiled plane.

    I couldn't be sure how they came our way, but members of the Choir came, one by one. I worried we had somehow caught up to the world of the beastmen, and it troubled me. I told Detective Winters, when he found me sitting in the night, watching the wall at the edge of the manor's estate grounds, with vast primeval forests beyond.

    "I'd not worry, we can fortify this place. Anyone approaching will be at our mercy."

    Fortunately, we had a master of warfare, in Detective Winters, and had not his resurrection cost such a grotesque and almost unforgivable toll, it was essential when we did it and paid off when my friend showed us most of our best defenses.

    It was Jacoby and Charlie, two former orderlies of Dellfriar, who first showed up. Detective Winters had them at gunpoint with his automatic shotgun pointed at them.

    "I don't know how we came here. It was as though moonlight took us in our sleep." Jacoby said to us.

    "No, it was like the pull of the moon, on a beam of light." Charlie explained.

    "There's a darkness watching them. It means to infiltrate us." Agent Saint said quietly to Dr. Leidenfrost and Detective Winters.

    "These men were at Dellfriar. I left them among the beastmen." I said.

    "We escaped them and headed towards Thule. There's supposed to be a human settlement there. We got separated from the rest when those lights got us in our sleep. Moonlights." Jacoby insisted.

    "Very suspicious. You can't stay here. My husband already declined to bring you along. Following us was a mistake." Dr. Leidenfrost proclaimed. I felt a chill.

    Detective Winters indicated he would use his weapon at the slightest provocation. Both orderlies got up and fled. When they were gone I felt no relief. I had grave concerns, for if they could show up on our doorstep, any of the Choir could, or worse.

    Perhaps the answer lay in their odd description of the lights that had brought them to us. I knew that ratmen and cat sorcerers all held positions on the moon. I suspected they had something more to do with the Hooded God, however.

    On my last night before my petrification, I actually dreamed of Circe. In the years we had at Leidenfrost, the best and most peaceful times were the days of my life. I knew it wouldn't last forever, and I never took the tranquility and security for granted. I'd known too many awful adventures.

    "Grandson, you've said the name of my stone, your wife-stone, as many times as it takes. We only await the proper light of the moon. Wouldn't want it to steal any of my beauty, would we? And I've waited thousands of years for this release, so what are a few moments, lingering in the sweet comfort of your meaningless dreams?" Circe monologued, as I slept.

    When I awoke, I had taken her place in the imprisonment of the emerald. She held it in her hand, as she had taken my place at Leidenfrost manor. "It is a good time to live again. You've done all I required of you. Now you may rest as I did, and watch the world revolve around unseen forces. You could hear me, my true heir. But believe me, I never even considered letting the opportunity to live again pass me by. As sweetly and tenaciously as you cling to life, mine was worth far more."

    "Where is my father?" Penelope was suddenly at the door of the study. She had no fear of Circe, and this frightened me.

    "He's made of stone, forever. He is dead, but he cannot pass on, for he is trapped, body and soul, in the form of stone. This stone." Circe tossed the emerald through the air and Penelope caught it.

    "If you call to him day after day, he will be free, but only at the cost of your life. He could trick you into casting spells, drawing on his words, as I tricked him. He won't though, not unless you have dire need of magic. You see, your father has a secret. A secret about you." Circe laughed evilly.

    "My father kept no secrets from me. I knew his every thought." Penelope held the emerald and looked into it.

    "This one secret he kept from everyone, almost even himself. But I knew him better than that. I could tell you his secret." Circe folded, grinning with contemptuous enthusiasm.

    "I could guess since I felt this moment. Tell me if you will, but I care not to expose my father's deepest feelings. When I see him again, he will willingly tell me. You have no power over the bond between us, nor can you manipulate our relationship for your ends." Penelope spoke as the sorceress in her, challenging Circe.

    Circe said nothing but smiled with satisfaction. Evidently, she had wanted to see the person my daughter was deep within, beneath her current childhood. Circe had guessed that Penelope was born of an old soul, perhaps even as old as Circe herself.

    "Go play, child. Keep him close, use as much magic as you want." Circe laughed wickedly.

    "I don't need to draw from the emerald." Penelope whispered to me as we walked away. She cast a simple spell of her own, and suddenly I could speak to her. She alone could hear me, but it was enough. I was not to be trapped alone, no, I would be able to watch over my daughter, at least.

    "My Daughter, where is my Lord?" Cory found her sitting in the great hall of Leidenfrost Manor, beneath the double spiral staircase's middle landing.

    "Dad is trapped in this emerald. Circe is here, in the manor." Penelope said with some thoughts.

    "What will we do? We should tell your mother! We should tell everyone!" Cory exclaimed.

    "No. For now, we play her game by her rules. Unless you know a better way to free my father?" Penelope asked Cory.

    "What is it she expects of you? Has she asked you not to tell on her?" Cory asked Penelope.

    "She didn't bother. She knows I know what she wants. She wants me for an apprentice. This is a test. Should I fail, there will be death." Penelope explained her thoughts.

    "There will always be death." Cory told her.

    "Are you with me?" Penelope asked the bird.

    "My Daughter thinks that this crow has a problem with keeping secrets?" Cory asked her, tilting his head so that the light made her a reflection in his eye. Penelope flinched, she'd seen things that scared her in the eyes of the crow before. She'd grown up around the bird.

    "You never told on me when I stole cookies or played with my mother's things. You said the secret was worth a fortune between us. I always loved that about you, how everything is fair. I love you, Cory." Penelope told the crow.

    "Of course, Cory is a good friend as well. My Daughter is loved in my heart, but only as much as anyone else." Cory said oddly.

    "You know just how to make me feel right." Penelope giggled. I wondered at their exchange. It felt like I was eavesdropping. Obviously, she had her own bond with my crow, and their own inside jokes.

    Penelope held the emerald up to the shimmering sunlight of the evening. "I've always known your big secret, Dad. Nothing about you is a mystery to me. Charming you was a spell I learned as an infant. I know you love me best of all. It's my eyes, they enchant you."

    The sparkles from the emerald at sunset shown on her eyes, one gold and one purple, but both a kind of gray in that light. I saw past the surface colors of her eyes into the being she was, and was before, the older part of her soul. That soul regarded me as the child, and felt protective and nurturing towards me. I realized I belonged to her, and not the other way around. I'd always sensed the magnitude of her presence, even when she was a little baby, and catching a glimpse of her, after I'd died, revealed to me my own core.

    "I will confront Circe, when I am ready, and find a way to restore you to life. In the meantime, you and Cory can help me. I have much to learn." Penelope took me and Cory to her room and put us on her desk.

    She got out her notebook, something she'd written 'Book of Shadows' on the cover. It contained a sketch of her sister, jokes she was saving to tell to Cory, copies of recipes her mother had for pies and canning and two functional spells. One of them involved fairy dust and the other was called 'shielded from boredom'. I looked at her spells she had made, realizing I'd never once crafted a spell. She already had two.

    "You cast Shielded From Boredom when you and Persephone were in the Golden City. That's how the two of you stayed sane." I wondered.

    "I did. We were getting very bored, after we wandered the maze for too long. It felt like a very long time."

    "Probably an endless amount of time." Cory squawked.

    "Incredible. You realize that spending an eternity in a place like that would normally shatter the sanity of anyone? Your spell worked. Somehow it kept you and your sister safe." I pointed out.

    "It just came naturally." Penelope smiled, proud of herself.

    "Who does my Daughter speak to?" Cory looked around.

    "I can hear Dad. He's in the stone, dead, but he isn't entirely gone, he has a presence."

    "My Lord," Cory spoke to me, although he could not see or hear me: "You may be as a wife-stone, but you are in good hands. My Lord will be set free, someday."

    0 Comments
    2024/02/03
    16:59 UTC

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