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The Wrapper

the wrapperReading Time: 11 minutesThe point of me writing all this is because I don’t want any of my story to go without hearing, or any of my actions to go without seeing. I honestly don’t even know where to start as I’m anxious for this night to be over already. If you’re reading this, then things didn’t go as I had planned and there should be an attachment explaining where to go with this information. Anyway, here are the events that have unfolded in my house with a quick explanation at the end to kind of wrap things up on what I hope will occur. Then again, if you’re reading this, something must be wrong and I hope no one else canis in danger. Here we go…

It was mid October and my manic episodes started to kind of creep up on me like they have in past years. I’ve sort of gotten used to it though and I guess my dad knew as well and instinctively dialed the numbers to my on and off therapist. We can never really recall a specific initiating event that caused my disorder… which never helped the episodes go away (they sort of just dissipate over time). My dad always insists that it was my mom’s death that lead to it but I would never let him bring it to that. Even if my mom’s unforseen murder caused the episodes, talking about it with my dad would only really make him more depressed… right?

My best (and only) friend Micheal goes and lives with his grandparents for the fall and winter holidays and they haven’t had working Wi-Fi in their house for 5 years. The landline for their house is said to only be used for work so the only way to really contact Micheal was through the mail. I got really lonely around this time with no one to talk to besides my dad and my therapist, of whom I didn’t exactly like talking to when they were always bringing up my manic episodes. I sort of got into this dreaded routine of school and sleep with terrible conversations to fill in the gaps between them.

I was coming home late from my therapy session one night (I had to drive myself as my dad went out with friends to a bar and I didn’t think he was coming home sober if at all) and it had been rather quiet when I entered the house.When I had left, it was still bright outside so none of the lights were needed to be on. I only really bothered turning on the kitchen light when I got in so that I could grab a glass of water before I fell asleep. I didn’t even bother changing when I entered my bedroom and plopped onto my bed. I was tired as hell from the arguing I had with my therapist who was certain that I needed to take 7 different pills every day. I quickly but comfortably tucked myself under my covers and rolled onto my side to position my eyes to a corner of my bedroom… where do I even begin. I had walked in and gotten into bed so fast that I hadn’t even noticed the tall slender figure staring at me from the corner of my room. Its eyes were so big and wide that it seemed as if the figure didn’t have eyelids, or at least didn’t have a need for them. It also had a wide grin, but not the type of grin you’d see on a child with a present, no this was a menacing and distorted grin that provoked unknown intentions. It stood taller than the ceiling so that its head had to hunch down where the wall met the ceiling. It was sort of tucked in to the corner with its arms spread out against the walls and its feet parallel to the walls adjacent to them. I would tell you that I screamed but I didn’t, or couldn’t at least. Instead I just laid there paralyzed in fear of what stood before me. We locked eyes for what seemed like hours as I was unable to move.

I don’t remember falling asleep but I woke up to light beaming in from my window. It was Saturday so I didn’t have to go to school, instead I was tasked with finding where my dad was. He never came home last night and I had no idea which bar he went to, but I had a hunch that he had hung out with his drinking buddy Darrel. I called Darrel who confirmed that my dad spent the night at his place. Sometimes I wonder if my therapist would be better off with my dad than with me. After I hung up the awkward phone call with Darrel I immediately remembered the figure that haunted me last night and felt the urge to tell someone, anyone. I hadn’t mailed Micheal much besides the occasional friendly gesture just to let him know I still exist, so I decided I’d tell him about the event. I left it unknown on whether I thought it was a dream or not so to make sure he didn’t think I was a lunatic who needed more than a therapist. I honestly thought that if I were to have gone to someone and told them that I thought all of this were real, I would be put into a mental asylum.

About a week has past since the incident and I had almost completely swept it under the rug when all of a sudden I checked the mail and I got a response from Micheal. Apparently he was more concerned about the figure than I was and totally believed that I needed to see a priest or whatever. My family has never been big on religion even when my mom was alive so I didn’t happen to believe in any of that mumbo jumbo nonsense. I needed to make some kind of cloture for all this though so I decided to just google what had happened and find some sort of medical excuse to make sense of it. The best I could find was sleep paralysis as it made the most sense considering I was unable to move. Once I declared that’s what it was, I felt a little bit better about the whole thing and tried to ignore that it happened. Big Mistake. After I did all that research it was late at night and I had found it very easy to fall asleep. I did my normal routine of brushing my teeth, washing my face, and getting into my night time clothing. You could tell I was still a little frightened by the whole thing and before I got into bed I checked the corners, closets, and under my bed… nothing, so I sunk into my bed and drifted to sleep.

I awoke around 2:15 am and I moved to make sure I wasn’t having sleep paralysis, I was in the clear. I got out of bed and moved towards the door to go use the bathroom like I usually do at this hour, only… standing in front of the door staring into my dreaded soul was the tall figure again. The figure looked a little more red this time, and it also seemed a little distraught, but in a creepy maniacal way. Its hands had sharp fingers that seemed predator like. This time I hadn’t frozen in fear so naturally, I screamed for help knowing that my dad was actually home and somehow sober this time. The figure was aware of what was happening and for the first time I saw it move. It was very agile and it swiftly jumped and clung to the ceiling. The figure remained in full eye contact with me which caused its head to be 180 degrees backwards like an owl. As soon as the figure performed this movement my dad swung open the door ready to pounce on whatever was intruding in on our house. He saw me point towards the ceiling at the shadow figure, but… my dad was confused. The figure was still there but my father could not see it staring straight at me with its gleaming eyes. My father was seriously pissed at my behavior and told me if I just wanted attention I should join the circus. The figure was thoroughly pleased and I swore I saw its grin get bigger when my dad closed the door behind him. I was still standing there in shock as I tried to make out what the actual fuck was happening. I decided to not try and interact with the figure and to go sleep; this happened to work last time. So I hopped into bed and turned my body to its regular sleeping position only for the figure to now be about 10 inches away from my face laughing at my painful fright. It was crouching on the ground to where its head met the height of mine. It took awhile but the figure watched me fall asleep to its creepy face.

As soon as I woke up I didn’t wait to check every possible location that the figure might be hiding in. I didn’t know what to do and my father was not going to help at all… so I did some more digging. I skipped school to soar through online forums searching for an answer as to what this thing is and what the hell it might want from me. Maybe it just likes inflicting fear upon its victims, maybe it wants to harm me, or maybe it was made by the government to spy on me. These were all answers I got from random forums I found on the internet but none of them were good enough or specifically answered my burning questions. Before I knew it, it was midnight and I had to go to school the next day. Using bipolar disorder as an excuse to not go to school would only work once in a blue moon. I tried to stay up anyway figuring I could just sleep the class away, but alas, I fell victim to fatigue.

I woke up this time around 3 am and there the figure was again, crouched on the ground, its head next to mine staring at me. The figure seemed pissed this time, like it knew what it wanted and tonight it was going to get it. This time the figure made sure I wasn’t going to make any sudden alerts to my father and before I screamed, the figure reached out with its slender arm and blocked my mouth from making a sound. The claws were slimy but furry against my face, almost as if it were a werewolf, but no, I would way rather have a werewolf come and eat me then what awaited me. I tried to get up but the figure anticipated this as well and climbed into my bed and on top of me, while remaining in eye contact with its immovable grin. Next thing I know, the figure… it was… hugging me… but not with a normal warm fuzzy feeling you get from a normal hug. As soon as the figure hugged me, I felt deep despair fill my body, everything that was happy now became awful and dark. My gut was just shot and there was an empty void that could never be filled. I felt alone even with the figure choking my body. This was the opposite of a hug. I could no longer breath and I knew this was the end, I just knew it, but I couldn’t suffocate. I laid there, depressed and unable to breath for hours until once again I fell asleep.

I woke up making sure I wasn’t violated in any way, but it seems as though nothing occured. I went through my daily routine of waking up, eating breakfast, taking my antidepressants, arguing with my dad about random unimportant shit, went to school, came home, did my homework, and ate dinner. I didn’t tell anyone as I didn’t want people to think I was insane, I was already labeled as an outcast and didn’t want another target on my punching bag. The whole day all I could think of was the figure and how I might have to go through all that again or maybe it’ll just kill me and end this shit. But when I finally did everything and went to bed, I couldn’t allow myself to sleep. My body was too frightened to feel tired, and because of this I just laid in bed staring at the corner of my bedroom with no figure in sight. It was about 4 am and I figured I was in the clearing when all of a sudden my door opened and in came my dad drunk as ever. I got up and helped him back into bed nice and carefully trying not to startle his fragile system. I got a glass of water and went back to bed knowing perfectly well I wasn’t going to sleep when yet again my door opens and in comes my drunk- I turn my head to see the tall figure moving rapidly towards my bed. My gut fell through the floor as the stare filled my body only to make it feel empty as ever. I thought I was in the clear, but here it was again already climbing into bed and wrapping itself around me… smiling… menacingly. Yet again I couldn’t breathe but did not suffocate as if instead of taking in oxygen I was taking in anguish. I once again fell asleep in the arms of a monstrous version of Achlys.

A couple weeks had gone by where I couldn’t escape these night terrors, no matter what I did, the figure always came back as if it needed to feed off of my soul, as if it needed to feed off of my happiness. The only problem with that theory is that with my bipolar disorder, there ain’t much happiness to take in. I’d tell it to go leech off my dad but recently he’s been visiting the bar more often and spending more nights with Darrel. It’s been a couple weeks and I still haven’t gotten used to the figure. Every night is the same, it comes in, climbs in bed, and wraps itself around me. The only difference in every night is how much progress the figure has made towards me when I wake up. Sometimes the figure is in the corner when I wake up, while other times I wake up to it already clinging to me, already showing me the ways of true terror.

I’m not big on self defense and once the figure is wrapped around me, all hope is pretty much gone so I hadn’t ever really tried resisting… until this one night. I didn’t grab any kind of weapon but I guess I figured I had nothing to lose and enough was enough… boy was I wrong. It was 3 am and I could tell the figure was about to make it’s way from the corner of my room to my bed, but this time was different. I got out of bed after the figure made its first step towards me and I followed up with a firm “stop.” Yet again, my dad was either at a bar or in his bed blackout drunk so he wouldn’t be able to hear me or do anything if he did. What the tall figure did next made me regret my decision to resist. The figure stared at me… but this time it’s eyes seemed bigger and next thing I knew, the creature’s head slowly began to tilt to the side like a puppy who’s puzzled, except this tilt didn’t put a warm smile on my face, instead I felt regret take over my body. The figure sunk into the ground and vanished only for it to regrow out of the floorboard inches away from me. The figure stretched out one of its arms ready to slice its claws at me… and that it did. I laid on the ground with scratches across my stomach and tears in my shirt. I didn’t want to get up so I just laid there hoping that the figure would think I was dead.

The next morning I quickly changed so that my dad wouldn’t end up seeing my fucked up shirt. The shirt was always a little big on me anyway so throwing it out didn’t hurt much. Instead the only things that hurt were the new scars that stretched across my body with dried blood on them. I didn’t bother cleaning it as I figured it would hurt like a bitch and it had already started to scab anyway. Yet again, I obviously didn’t tell anyone, not even my therapist. I was afraid that either my dad or I would get sent to a mental asylum for either self harm or child abuse. At this point I was out of ideas and I didn’t want to try and resist again as I was afraid I might actually die of a heart attack before the creature could even get to me. So I started to play it safe and didn’t ever resist… for now

Another two weeks went by, my dad lost his job for going in to work drunk AND hungover again. I couldn’t afford to see my therapist anymore which I actually didn’t mind at all but this meant I had more time at home with my dad and the figure. Micheal and I got into a fight about some pointless issue that I can no longer recall and we slowly stopped talking. The visits from the figure seemed to be the only interesting thing going on in my life, and that was not a good thing. When the only eventful thing in your life happens to be depressing and painful, then your view on life seems to differ and depression takes over. I needed to end this whether that meant killing the figure or die trying. But I couldn’t let it know I was going to resist, as it would kill me swiftly. I needed to surprise it, with a weapon.

This story has now caught up with the present and I will now share my plan on getting rid of this vermin. I have made a sort of knife vest with knives poking out of the chest area so that when the figure goes to wrap around me, it will be stabbed in the chest by 3 blades. I have never seen the figure hurt, and the only expression on its face has been a menacing grin, so I don’t know what will happen tonight, but wish me luck. Then again… if you’re reading this, my vest didn’t succeed, and the figure is still out there somewhere… staring at its next victim with its wide grin. Or hey, maybe we both end up dead… who knows? All I know is that if this keeps going, I will end up insane or end up shooting myself. Neither of which sound any better than dying from the creatures claws. This may not be the expected and fulfilling ending you wanted, but I might not be able to write this after tonight, as I might be dead. Thank you for listening to my story, please proceed on to my requested will.

police report

daniels will

CREDIT : Aidan Reeves

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The Blue Eyed Painting

Reading Time: 7 minutes“So… what are we doing here?”

“We’re uh… appreciating art.”

“How do you appreciate art?”

“I think you just stand there and look at it.”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“Danny we’re staring at a nine foot painting of a triangle. No offense, but even your hipster girlfriend knew this was bullshit. Which is why she crapped out of going and you dragged me along.”

I blew air at my bangs from the bottom of my mouth.

“Alright,” I said. “Fuck it, let’s go get drunk.”

Jason grinned, and we started walking towards the exit.

“That’s more like it. You know that beard makes you look like a douchebag?”

“I think it looks manly. And Karen likes it.”

“Manly? Danny you look like the kind of guy who owns a special little comb for picking semen out of his beard.”

“How long did it take you to come up with that one?”

“About at long as it took you to…whoa, hold on. Look at this one.”

Jason had stopped in front of a small painting of a face.

“Shit, yeah.”

The painting was of the bust of a woman, and looked like something out of the Renaissance. It was strangely out of place in the modernist gallery around us.

“Look at her eyes, Danny. Holy shit, I’m doing it. I’m appreciating art.”

The woman’s eyes were sky blue, and they bore a sort of dreamy expression which only seemed to enhance the strangeness of her beauty.

“It gives me the creeps.” I said.

“It looks like she’s naked. Do you think they’ve got a painting of the rest of her?”

“Seriously, it’s creeping me out. Let’s go.”

But as we turned around to go we were approached by a woman with wire rimmed glasses and hair pulled back so tight that her forehead was reflecting the gallery lights.

“Do you like this one?” She asked.

“I, uh. Yeah, my friend likes it.”

Jason was too busy ogling the painting to respond.

“Who painted it?” I asked.

“An unknown Renaissance artist. It was donated to the gallery and we display it here to demonstrate the contrast between modern and traditional forms of art.”

“Is it for sale?” Jason asked.

“You seem really taken with it.” the gallery owner smiled. “Go on and take it. Maybe it can inspire a love of art in you.”

“Wait, are you serious?” I asked.

Jason shrugged and lifted the painting off the wall.

“Come on, sexy. You’re coming with me.”


“I can’t believe you brought a painting to a bar.”

“It’s called peacocking, Danny.”

“What-ing?”

“It’s when you bring something flashy to a bar to attract the attention of women.”

“Sounds like a good idea. You want the girls to think you’re some kind of psycho, right?”

“Shit, that could work. Maybe I can hook up with one of those girls that writes letters to serial killers in prison. Besides, I wanted to look at it some more. I’ve always had a thing for green eyes.”

“Are you drunk already? She’s got blue eyes, dipshit.”

“Dude get your vision checked. This must be why you’re such a shitty driver. You think all the traffic lights are blue.”

I was about to tell Jason what a dumbass he was when a girl walked up to us and interrupted.

“Cool painting.” She said.

“It’s mine.” Jason puffed out his chest, perhaps taking the word ‘peacocking’ a little too literally.

“I really like the expression in her eyes.” The girl went on.

“So vulnerable, it’s like she’s really baring her soul.”

“Yeah,” Jason eagerly agreed. “But there’s something more, like a fierceness. It’s beautiful.”

The girl looked at the painting quizzically.

“I don’t see it.” She said.

Jason and the girl went on talking while I drained my whisky and started texting Karen that Jason had met a girl and was ignoring me again. He was always like this around pretty girls. He said he fell in love at least twice a day. Eventually they went off to her apartment and I went home to the dorm.


I woke up on the couch the next morning with a splitting headache. Jason must have gotten home last night some time after I passed out, because his coat was on the rack. As I became more aware of my surroundings I noticed a powerful burning smell. I jumped up and saw smoke billowing out from the oven.

“Jason, you fucking idiot.” I grumbled.

This wasn’t the first time he’d stuck a pizza in the oven and then passed out before it was done. I switched off the oven and went to pound on Jason’s door.

“Hey, wake up numbnuts. You nearly burned us alive again last night.”

No answer.

“What a lazy fucker.”

I turned the knob and saw that he was still in bed, but obviously awake.

“Hey idiot,” I said.

“Get up and clean the-” but the words died in my throat.

As I got closer I saw the black pool of blood that had spilled from his mouth. His eyes were wide open and still.

“Shit!”

I ran over and shook him, but he was already ice cold. When the ambulance got their they took him away in a bag. They asked me if I knew what had happened but I couldn’t answer. I just kept going over the same thing in my mind. Jason had brown eyes, I was sure of it. But when I found him lying there, in a pool of his own blood, his eyes had been green.


The next week was a blur for me. I numbly floated through the days. People’s consolations and pitying looks were just mundane platitudes that could not reach me. The university held a memorial service for Jason. They printed out a big version of the picture from his student ID and placed it next to the arts building so people could come and pay their respects. I went the long way around the building to avoid seeing it. I didn’t want to be reminded of what had happened. But I couldn’t hide from it forever- after class on Friday there was an urgent knock on my door, and when I opened it Karen was standing there looking upset.

“I tried calling you.” she said. “Are you okay?”

I shrugged.

“I’m surviving I guess.”

“Have you…” Karen seemed nervous about something. “been by the arts building?”

“Not recently, why?”

“I, uh… I don’t want to upset you. But I figured it had best come from me.”

“What are you talking about?”

Karen pulled up a picture on her phone and handed it to me.

“What the fuck?”

It was Jason’s picture by the arts building. But someone had gouged out the eyes and spray painted a big red X over his face.

“Who the fuck would do something like this?” I asked.

“I don’t know. The university police are looking into it.”

I saw red. A thought had been nagging at the back of my mind for days now. I grabbed my keys off the hook and marched out to the parking lot.

“Where are you going?” I heard Karen calling after me.

“I’m going back to that fucking art gallery.”

I’m not sure what I expected to find. An answer, I guess. Some sort of closure. But I definitely didn’t expect to find what I did. Hanging right there in the very same spot was the painting of the blue-eyed woman. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I just stood there staring at it.

“Do you like this one?”

I heard a voice from behind me, and I turned to see the gallery owner.

“Oh.” she said. “You’re back.”

“Where did you get this?” I sputtered out.

The gallery owner stroked the painting’s cheek.

“She always seems to find her way back. I think she misses her spot on the wall.”

I felt something in me break; my emotional numbness was replaced by a flood of anger. I grabbed the woman’s collar and yanked her towards me.

“I know it was you.” I said, shaking her. “I know what you did.”

“Are you going to hurt me?” She asked. Her eyes moved over to the painting, and I followed them. The painting’s eyes were know a brilliant shade of green. I gasped and let go of her collar, and watched as the eyes slowly changed back to blue. The gallery owner straightened her shirt.

“I don’t decide who she goes home with.” She said softly.

“She does.”

I started to back away slowly, and the gallery owner watched me. I could have sworn the painting was watching me too as I turned around and ran.


When I got home Karen was waiting for me, worry written all over her face.

“Danny what’s going on?”

“I don’t know.” I said breathlessly. “But I know who killed Jason.”

“You do?”

“It was the gallery owner.” I said. “The place we went last week.”

“The gallery owner? Why would the gallery owner kill Jason?”

“Because she’s crazy. She’s some kind of witch, Karen.”

Karen frowned.

“Are you feeling ok?” She asked. “Jason died in bed, Danny. Why do you think he was murdered?”

“I just…” I was breathing heavily. “You didn’t see it… The painting…”. I trailed off. Even I could hear how crazy the words sounded as they came out of my mouth. I knew what I’d saw, but I knew no one else would believe me.

“Nothing.” I said. “Sorry, I’m just a little upset. Nevermind.”

“Let’s just relax for awhile. Do you wanna watch a movie?”

I agreed more for Karen’s sake than my own. After all, I was sure I’d just frightened her. We set up the movie and Karen went off to the bathroom like she always did at the start of movies. While she was inside I saw a text message from her friend Brittany pop up on her phone. Karen didn’t mind when I read her messages, so grabbed the phone and swiped it open. All the message said was: “have u told him about jason yet?”

I heard the toilet flush and the faucet go on and then Karen walked back and plopped down next to me.

“What is this?” I held the phone up to her face.

“It’s nothing, Danny. Why don’t we talk about it when you’re feeling better?”

“No. Something is going on and I want to know what the fuck it is.”

Karen sighed.

“Alright,” she said.

“After they put Jason’s picture up, there were some rumors that started going around.”

“Rumors? What rumors?”

“Some girls said some things about Jason assaulting them. And then more girls started to come forward. The police looked into it, Danny. They’re saying…”

“They’re saying what?”

“They’re saying his DNA ties back to open rape cases a couple years back.”

“What!?”

“I’m sorry, Danny. I know he was your friend.”

It felt like all the air had rushed out of the room. There was no way it could be true. Jason had always been a bit of a chauvinist, but he was no rapist. Was he?


A few weeks later the dust had settled and the truth had come out about Jason. It felt like he had died a second time. All of my good memories of him were now replaced by some sick feeling I couldn’t even begin to untangle. Seventeen women. And those were just the ones who’d come forward. The school took down the picture and got rid of the flowers people had left. Some people were saying they were glad he was dead. Those were the same people that gave me dirty looks when I passed them in the hallways. Whatever. It didn’t matter. I didn’t know what had really happened with the painting, but I decided to just let sleeping dogs lie. Thinking about it hurt, anyway. I eventually went back to the gallery owner to apologize for my outburst. She smiled and told me I had a good heart. As I was leaving I could hear the faint sounds of her talking with someone.

“You seem to really like it.” she said. “Why don’t you take it home with you?”

Credit: David Maloney

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The Mannequin Farm

Reading Time: 22 minutesI think I’m finally at the point where I’m able to talk about it.
It’s been several years since it happened. None of us – not me, nor my friend, brother, or brother’s friend, who also experienced it – have ever told a living soul, and rarely mention it to each other, but I think it might help to write it down. Then maybe I can finally forget about it.
When it happened, I was a teenager living in Cumbria, which is a region in the north west of England. Specifically, I lived in the Lake District: an area of outstanding natural beauty, which is also very rural, and very popular with tourists. Imagine lurching dark skies, grey brick walls and rugged scenery – mountains, fields, bodies of water – unfolding all around you, and you’ve got The Lake District. In my youth, I would be out on a boat in the height of summer, lazing on the dappled wood in the beating hot sun; I would hike up the toughest mountains in torrential rain to see some of the most beautiful views that exist on this planet. I know I was lucky, and I tried never to be ungrateful. But, as a teenage girl growing up, I always felt a keen sense of isolation from the rest of the world. My family lived – and still live – in a tiny cottage in a tiny village where everybody knows everybody, where there is no privacy at all, and no chance of ever getting away with anything. I went to the local secondary school, but by ‘local’, I mean I had to take a half hour bus ride to get there, and our nearest town was that far away as well. Summers, in my youth, were always long – and lonely.
That’s why it was such an incredible stroke of luck when a girl my own age moved into my village the summer I turned fourteen. My own family consisted of my parents and my younger brother Tom, who, when I was fourteen and he was on the cusp of thirteen, just seemed too immature for words, and spending time with him would only occur as a last resort. By some lucky miracle, the girl also had a younger brother, and on the day they moved in my mum sent us both over to her house to introduce ourselves and bring round some Kendal Mint Cake (kind of a Cumbrian speciality, for those of you not in the know).
The girl – Katie – and I quickly became fast friends. She’d moved up from London after her dad had passed away from cancer, which, obviously, was a difficult adjustment for her for several reasons, and I remember being acutely aware that I had to tread carefully with her. It was just Katie, her brother, Michael, and her mum.
The moment we met I knew I’d like her. She was my age exactly, with a cool sense of style – unkempt hair pulled effortlessly up into a bun, small nose ring glinting from her nostril (a fascination to me, who was not even allowed to pierce my own ears), and she wore a t-shirt for a band I’d never heard of, its symbol a skull and crossbones. She didn’t seem too put off by my own frumpy charity shop clothes and overly friendly (desperate?) demeanour either, which was a huge relief. Her brother, Michael – a small, narrow shouldered kid with very pale skin and an awkward manner – and my own brother hit it off too after starting a conversation about video games, and went trotting off to Michael’s room immediately to play on his Xbox. I sensed the family had money – their house was bigger than ours, and a lot less shabby – and so Michael would probably have a lot of the latest games. After a nervous introduction, Katie and I soon got talking, and we sat in her kitchen swapping stories whilst her mum unpacked boxes around us. She seemed grateful that there was someone her own age in this strange, rural land; I, of course, was ecstatic.
The summer went by in a happy haze: Katie and I spent most days together, wandering down to the lake for a swim, or hanging out in each other’s bedrooms, larking about online or watching movies. Our brothers, likewise, found companionship in each other, and Katie’s mum, who was from the area originally, made a friend in my own mum. When school came, Katie and I rode the bus together, and she assimilated effortlessly into our friendship group (another huge relief, as I’d been concerned that she might be a bit out of our league). I spent a lot of my time trying to please her, making sure that she knew I was as mature as she was – living in London, she’d experienced things I could only dream about – and the effort was tiring, sometimes. But I didn’t want her to move on and find someone more interesting.

My story really begins in the week leading up to the October half term, where Katie had an idea. We’d been friends nearly four months, and I remember that the two of us were in my room one rainy autumn evening, watching a scary film on my laptop (I don’t recall what), whilst trying to decide what I should give Katie for her birthday the following week – she’d suggested concert tickets in London; I’d suggested a rather more affordable bath bomb from a gifty place we both liked. My parents were out of the house for whatever reason, so we were in charge. As the film got to a particularly tense, almost silent scene, we suddenly heard peals of laughter coming from my brother’s room, which regrettably shared a wall with mine. I banged on it with my foot, telling the little pests to keep it down – my brother had reached a deeply troublesome (I thought) stage of development, where his teenage hormones had kicked in and he was no longer the sweet, docile, slightly irritating child I had once known, and had turned into a moody, distant, intensely irritating monster. Of course, my kicking the wall had absolutely no effect, and after a couple of minutes of threatening various abuses through the plaster I decided that I would simply have to go next door and carry out my threats in person.
I burst into his room, thoroughly cranky at this point, to find that it was in pitch darkness. There are few streetlamps in my village, so when I say pitch, I mean pitch. Furrowing my brow, I strained to see through the gloom, and I couldn’t hear a single sound, other than the whir of my brother’s Xbox on the floor. What were they doing? I voiced this to the dark room, but got no response.
Quickly, so quickly I wasn’t sure I saw it, I saw a shadow dart across the room. Even though I knew it was my brother messing around, I couldn’t help but feel the scenes from the horror film still sticking to me – was I sure they’d been in his room? Hadn’t they gone for a walk in the woods at some point? Had it really been them laughing?
I considered this as my hand fumbled around the wall for a light switch when, suddenly, something grabbed my wrist from nowhere – another hand. I screamed, piercingly, and tumbled back out into the hall, only to be greeted by the familiar peals of laughter we’d been hearing all night. Katie ran into the room and threw on the switch to reveal the little darlings huddled in black cloaks in the middle of the room like acne-ridden dementors, falling about in hysterics.
‘That wasn’t very fucking funny!’ I screeched at them, but even Katie was suppressing a smirk. The horror film had got to me, and my brother and his friend had taken full advantage of that. The two boys were still creased over, bundled in their cloaks, as I took my brother’s pillow and proceeded to hit them with it, which only encouraged the laughter.
‘We were just trying to be like old Mr McCreepy!’ Tom said through guffaws.
Who?
‘Who’s Mr McCreepy?’ Katie asked.
‘You must have heard of Mr McCreepy!’ Tom’s eyes were wide, and he nodded at his friend to clarify the obvious.
‘Everyone’s heard of Mr McCreepy,’ Michael sighed at two people he evidently considered imbeciles. ‘He’s that guy who owned the mannequin farm near Kolby village.’
Katie and I looked at each other and shrugged. Kolby village was ten miles away; I’d had no reason to ever go there, and I didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know anything about a mannequin farm, either.
‘He killed a whole load of people there, like fifty years ago,’ Tom interjected. ‘He was this really creepy guy who made mannequins for shops – and probably other things – and he lured all these guys to his house by pretending to be a woman online, then he bludgeoned them to death with an axe.’
‘And then he made mannequins out of their skin!’ added Michael, with glee.
Now, I’m going to pause here to explain that I am not a fan of horror. I don’t do scary stories, creepypastas, any of that stuff – and I usually hate scary films, and was only watching one that night because I didn’t want to look like a wuss in front of Katie, who had a taste for those sorts of things. Plus, there was a more than likely chance that my brother and his friend were lying, and I didn’t want to entertain this for longer than was necessary. Katie, on the other hand, was looking at them, intrigued.
‘There was an axe murderer who lived ten miles from here?’
‘Yeah.’
‘And his name was Mr McCreepy?’
‘No, you tool,’ Katie’s brother sighed. ‘His name was Martin McGreevy. That’s just his nickname.’
Unusually, Katie let this insult slide without comment. ‘What was his kill count?’ she asked.
Tom and Michael looked at each other, less cocky now. ‘Dunno. Loads probably. You could Google it.’
‘Haven’t you Googled it?’
‘Nah. We just heard it around school.’
I laughed, wishing to bring this conversation to a close. ‘Oh, sure. You guys heard it around school, so it must be true.’
‘It really did happen!’ Michael insisted. ‘Everybody knows about it! It’s coming up to the anniversary of his first murder on Halloween.’
‘Oh yeah, the fact that it happened on Halloween makes it all the more believable.’ I raised my eyebrows to the ceiling, then left them to it, returning to my own room and trying to shake off a strange, bubbling feeling in my stomach.
For all of the bravado I’d shown, there was a part of me – a small part – that had a feeling they might possibly be telling the truth. Something had happened in that village, a long time ago. I didn’t think it happened how they described it, but the name rang a bell; the image of the mannequins was clear in my head. I could picture my parents at the breakfast table, talking in hushed tones, the word ‘Kolby’ and ‘murder’ and ‘dummies’ bubbling from their lips when they thought I couldn’t hear them.
Katie came back into my room, and I had my finger poised on the play button on my laptop, ready to scare ourselves silly again.
‘Actually, I’m not really feeling this anymore,’ she said, and I breathed a huge, internal sigh of relief. ‘I’d quite like to look up that case.’
The relief quickly left me, to be replaced by further anxiety. ‘What, the thing they were on about? Katie, they’re morons,’ I said. ‘They’ll be making it up.’
‘Probably. But I’d like to check, just in case they’re not.’
She slid onto the bed next to me and plucked the laptop from my hands before I had a chance to protest. She opened up a new tab, and typed ‘Kolby murder Cumbria mannequins’ into the search bar.
Sure enough, a whole swarm of articles popped up.
‘Now, there’s a plot twist,’ she said, impressed. ‘They weren’t lying!’
I felt my palms growing sweaty as she clicked on the first article and a picture of a man appeared. The man was reasonably average looking: about forty, with short, dark, cropped hair and a sallow face, like he hadn’t eaten in a long time, wearing a tartan shirt, but his hollow eyes, looking intensely at the camera, sent a chill of fear down my spine. I felt as though he was looking directly at me. This was Martin McGreevy, killer of nine people, who had once lived just down the road. His time active wasn’t fifty years ago, as Tom had said, but a much closer nineteen, back in 1999 – although, anything pre-millennium was all the same to my brother – and I remembered hearing the stories, still fresh to the residents, when I was a child.
I can’t remember exactly which articles we looked at, but the story went like this. Martin McGreevy was a family man, with a wife and a four-year-old son, who owned a successful home business making custom mannequins for shop windows. However, like a lot of people, he had his secrets. Unfortunately, Martin McGreevy’s secret was that he liked to pose as beautiful women online, reel in gullible men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five, get them to send him nude pictures, and then lure them to his house under the pretence of hooking up. These were the days when the internet was still relatively new and people were less cautious about it, so he was generally successful in his invitation. Once there, he tied them up and committed unspeakable acts of torture on them, before eventually killing them with a sharp implement he would make his mannequins with. His wife, apparently, was aware of the entire situation, and may even have been an accomplice. Once he killed the men, he made mannequins in their likeness – though not out of their skin, as the boys had claimed – and he treated them as though they were real. Nine mannequins were found in the cellar when the police raided the house.
Once McGreevy became a suspect in the disappearances, he shot himself with a revolver, along with his wife and son. He was dead before they could even put handcuffs on him.
I think that most people, after reading this – and reading the gory details, as we did, which I will not relay here – would close the laptop and perhaps go to quietly throw up. Katie’s curiosity, on the other hand, was piqued. She wanted to know more. She summoned the boys in, who said that, although they’d heard wildly exaggerated versions of this story at school (the human skin anecdote, for instance) it was basically the same story that they were familiar with, and it really had happened in a farmhouse near the village of Kolby.
‘Well, that’s just vile,’ I said. ‘Those men died at the hands of that sicko. I hope he rots in jail.’
‘Why did you say you were acting like Martin McGreevy when you put on the cloaks?’ asked Katie.
‘Cos that’s what he used to do. His wife would let them in, and then he’d be down in the cellar. He would lie in wait for his victims, wearing the clothes he dressed his dummies in, and then pounce on them before they could do anything.’
‘How would anyone know that?’ I demanded.
‘His wife survived the shooting. She gave the police a full confession. She’s still alive today, in jail,’ Michael told me.
Katie asked if anyone still lived at the farmhouse.
‘Last I heard, it was abandoned,’ said Tom. ‘They say his ghost still roams the rooms, looking for more people to kill…’
They both started prancing around the room, swaying their arms and making howling sounds. Surely, at thirteen, they were too old for this.
I looked at Katie to share a look of exasperation, but instead, she was smiling. She had taken in the news of the abandoned house without comment, though I could see her expression changing, her dark eyes flickering with the formation of a plan.
I didn’t know if this was what happened to you after suffering grief at a young age, but my friend seemed to be abnormally fascinated by the dark side of life – death, torture, destruction, abandonment. It was – and is – a part of her that I struggle to like, if I’m being honest, but I try to understand that it is probably because she’s been through a childhood trauma. I don’t like to think that anyone could be interested in these things just for the sake of it.
After they left, she turned to me, the glimmer of a smile playing around her lips.
‘I know what I want for my birthday,’ she grinned.
I knew, at that moment, what she was going to say, and fear coursed through me like blood. Still, I needed to act nonchalant. When you’re a teenager, image is all that matters.
‘I want to go and explore the mannequin farm,’ said my friend. I just smiled, blankly.

It was absurd.
Our parents were going to a dinner party in the next village, where they were likely to be out until midnight. That was the night we chose, as it gave us plenty of time to get there and back.
Unfortunately, in the midst of our planning, my younger brother overheard, and threatened to reveal everything unless we allowed him and his weedy friend to come along with us.
‘You’ll ruin it!’ Katie screeched at them the night before we planned to go – the eve of Halloween, the night before his first murder, another thing that, surprisingly, my brother had got right. ‘You’ll end up telling the adults.’
‘We won’t!’ Tom insisted. ‘We’ll only tell them if you don’t let us come. Come on, we were the ones who told you about it.’
‘Go with your own friends,’ Katie said, ‘Surely they’re all going up there in droves if this story’s so famous.’
‘No one’s been up there that we know,’ Michael said. ‘It’s fenced off. It’s really hard to get in to.’
My heart jumped a little – I was hoping this nugget of information might put her off wanting to go. It only made her more determined to get in somewhere that others had not. Eventually, they struck a deal: the boys would come with us, if they could help us figure out how to get inside. Hands were shaken; spit was proffered; subsequently discarded. We were ready.

We set off after our parents left for their dinner party under cloak of darkness. Katie had a rucksack on over her coat packed with torches, a map and – most worryingly – even a knife, ‘In case we run into any trouble,’ she said. Her birthday had been two days prior, and she walked up the dark lane ahead of me, her new pink Converse shining in the moonlight, practically bouncing with excitement. My heart was full of lead.
The boys had also packed supplies: a penknife – ‘because you never know’ – my brother said, and some rope – ‘In case we need to scale any walls.’ The place was an abandoned farmhouse, not a maximum-security prison, but I said nothing.
The village of Kolby was very pretty, dotted with thatched cottages and an old 13th century church nestled in parkland. We trod through the streets carefully, not wanting to look too suspicious, and huddled under a streetlamp to glance at the map. We needed to follow Church Lane, out of the village, until we passed a track on our left which read ‘Pidcote.’ If we walked a mile up the track, we would hit the farmhouse. At least, that’s what one of Tom’s friends at school had told him – we could only see the first bit of the track from Google maps.
The night was very dark now, and it was bitingly cold. As we wandered up the road, we got out our torches, and fewer and fewer cars marked the roads. Eventually, we were immersed by dark stretches of farmland, and could hear nothing but the hoot of an owl in the distance, and some far-off noise from cattle. I pulled my coat tightly around me, fear beginning to set in. I wasn’t even that afraid of the farmhouse itself, or of the legend of Martin McGreevy’s ghost – I was more afraid of who might be living there now. We were four vulnerable kids on a dark, lonely road. We could be putting ourselves in serious danger.
The white wooden sign, ‘Pidcote,’ shimmered like a mirage under our torches.
My brother stopped, staring at it. ‘Maybe…maybe we should turn back,’ he said, nervously. Katie and Michael turned to look at him like he’d gone mad. ‘I don’t know if this is such a good idea.’
I was amazed – out of the four of us, Tom and Katie had been the most vocal in wanting to go. Katie and Michael shot me a look, as if to say, he’s your brother, you deal with him. l saw the fear flickering in Tom’s eyes; the irritation flickering in Katie’s. I had to choose.
‘Either you come with us, or wait here,’ I said, with as much courage as I could muster. ‘We’re not turning back now.’
I saw my friend smile with pleasure, and Tom’s expression hardened. ‘I’m coming,’ he said, sulkily. ‘I just meant if anyone else wanted to turn back.’
We trudged up the leaf strewn track, mud claiming our shoes. I had a fleeting gleeful thought that Katie’s beautiful new Converse would be getting muddy, then suppressed it out of guilt. Sometimes I felt envious of her wealth, and then remembered that at least I still had a dad.
We saw a building begin to loom in the distance. Surprisingly, as we got to it, it was actually very easy to get inside – the fence surrounding it was wooden, and not high, and we simply climbed over, finding ourselves on the other side with no trouble at all. I didn’t know what my brothers had been on about.
The farmhouse was a two storey affair, trees looming over it like hunchbacks, the windows boarded up so it looked vaguely monstrous, with metal panels for eyes. We shone our torch around the premises. The driveway was submerged in leaves; there were, obviously, no cars in it, and I couldn’t see any lights on in the house. Not that I was expecting to, of course, but I couldn’t help the thought that perhaps there were people squatting inside, and the lack of light made me feel less uneasy. The place was clearly deserted, a ghostly relic of the past. The wind bristled and I closed my eyes, wishing us away from it.
‘Well, we made it,’ I said. ‘Shall we go back now?’
Katie looked at me as though I was bonkers. ‘What? Go back? We’re going inside!’
The words didn’t come as a surprise to me, but I felt the full force of them even so.
We’re going inside.
The front door gave way easily; it was rotting, and falling off its hinges. Inside, the house smelt musty and damp; I remembered my grandmother’s house smelling like this when we went in after she died, because she’d stopped being able to take care of it properly and refused to ever put the heating on. The room we were standing in was a hallway, doors aligning each wall around us, a decomposing staircase toward the back wall. What I hadn’t expected was that there would still be furniture in the house. A side table was standing by the front door; a picture of a vase of sunflowers was skewed sideways on the wall. Homely artefacts amongst the dirt, reminding any visitors of what the place used to be, whilst the floor hosted more leaves and mud; the wallpaper was peeling and smeared with graffiti. I wondered if the kind of people who’d written that graffiti might be thinking of joining us here tonight, and I felt a bit sick. I shone my torch to see the numbers 666 scribbled in red on the once floral wallpaper; I realised that this would probably be the perfect location for dealing drugs. Cumbria was a boring place to grow up, and thus the drug trade was booming. Teenagers just didn’t have anything else to do.
‘Let’s split up,’ Katie said – the three most dreaded words in the English language. ‘Boys – you go upstairs. We’ll explore down here. We’ll all do the cellar together.’ Her eyes sparkled at this.
I could see Tom looking less than comfortable, but they nodded and headed up the stairs, whilst I trailed after her meekly.
She pushed open one of the doors on our left and we trod into the room. My feet felt like they were standing on linoleum; we were in what was once either a kitchen or a bathroom. Together, we shone our torches around. Then we froze.
A woman was standing in the kitchen, turned away from us. She was standing over a space where the stove most likely used to be, wearing a traditional 1950s outfit – hair up, flowery apron, floaty skirt. Every fibre in my body told me to run. But I was rooted to the spot, staring at this strange, stiff looking woman – who had not moved upon us entering the room. I reached out for my friend’s hand, but she was in the process of moving step closer, cracking a twig below her foot. The woman still didn’t move. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Why wasn’t she turning around? What was wrong with her?
‘Katie…there’s something wrong here…’
‘Hello?’ Katie called out, gently. ‘Hello?’
She moved even closer to the woman, before prodding her on the shoulder. I couldn’t speak, waiting for it to turn around – what was she going to look like?
‘It’s…it’s a mannequin!’ my friend exclaimed, open mouthed.
Of course.
‘What?’
I drew closer to it as well, realising, as I brought my torch closer, that it was indeed a mannequin – the hair was too stiff; the neck too white. I got close enough to see the other side of her and, most horrifyingly, the thing was faceless, no features at all other than a large smile that had been drawn on with what looked like crayon, the rest of it just a white, blank canvas. A figure with no eyes.
‘Jesus Christ,’ Katie said.
I shone the torch around a little more, and noticed that, on the floor, in the space where the stove should have been, was a frying pan lying on the dirt, with two plastic fried eggs and a sausage in it – the kind you might give to a child.
‘She’s…cooking,’ I said.
Of course, McGreavy had made mannequins for a living. But why was there one in the house, now, all these years later? Some sort of sick joke by pranksters?
Katie and I looked at each other, unsure whether to laugh, or to cry. The sound of a scream from across the house meant we did neither.
We ran to the sound, coming from upstairs, finding both our brothers huddled together in one of the bedrooms, pointing at the boarded-up window. We got closer to it to find a small bed – or, what remained of a bed, rotten and smelly as it was – with the dummy of a child lying in it.
This mannequin was more detailed than the one in the kitchen. It had a face carved into it – a nose, and lips. Someone had even stuck two of those goggly eyes you can buy for arts and crafts to its forehead – giving the odd impression that it was lying in bed with its eyes wide open. On top of its head was a mop of curly hair.
‘What the fuck is that thing?’ my brother asked. His voice was quivering.
‘Well it’s a mannequin, what do you think?’ said Katie. ‘There’s one in the kitchen too.’
‘There’s more of them?’
My brother really was losing his shit. I felt a little embarrassed, if I’m honest. Michael remained calm and composed, eyes fixed on the thing in the bed, his head cocked as though he were looking at a scientific oddity.
‘I’ve had enough,’ Tom said. ‘This place is too weird.’
‘It’s obviously just a prank,’ Katie said. ‘Someone’s probably done it to scare stupid kids like us off the premises. Or it’ll be some of those serial killer groupies, trying to recreate the family home.’
‘That’s fucked up,’ my brother said, his face stark white.
‘Yeah.’ But Katie’s expression didn’t look like she thought it was fucked up. Instead, there was the trace of a smirk on her mouth. She looked like she was thoroughly enjoying the whole affair.
‘I think I’d like to leave now,’ Tom said. He looked at me. This was my chance to be a supportive older sister.
‘Well…maybe we’ve seen enough,’ I said. ‘This place is a bit freaky, after all.’
‘But we haven’t done the cellar yet!’ Katie exclaimed. ‘That’s the best bit!’
‘I don’t want to do the cellar. I’ve had enough,’ Tom persisted. ‘We’ve come out this far – there’s a bad vibe in this place. I feel like something bad is going to happen.’
‘Well, you can go home,’ Katie said. ‘But I’m going to go and explore the cellar. You don’t have to wait for me if you don’t want to.’
This was a difficult situation. I really didn’t want to choose between my friend and my brother, but it looked like I was going to have to. I stood, staring from one to the other of them; Katie’s face hard, certain; my brother’s pale and anxious.
That was when we heard it.
A soft, dragging sound. Coming from beneath us. Far beneath our feet. Like it was coming from the cellar.
I’ve never felt four people stop breathing at exactly the same moment, but that’s what happened. Then we heard it again. A dragging sound. Like someone dragging something heavy across a concrete floor.
‘What…what was that?’ Michael was the first one to speak. For the first time, he was looking scared too.
‘We need to get out of here,’ said Tom.
Cautiously, ever so cautiously, we tiptoed across what was Martin McGreavy’s son’s bedroom, headed out into what had once been his landing, and crept down what had once been his staircase. The dragging sound started to grow louder, more urgent, as if it knew we were getting away.
I grabbed my brother’s hand; he in turn took Michael’s arm. We made a beeline for the door, when I realised that Katie hadn’t moved. She was staring at the cellar door.
‘What are you doing? I asked in a desperate whisper. The boys headed out into the open air, but she remained rigid, staring.
‘Well, aren’t you curious?’ she asked. ‘Even just a tiny bit?’
‘No, I bloody well am not!’
‘I am. I want to see what’s making that noise.’
I couldn’t believe this. How could she be this stupid? As we were speaking, I noticed that the noise had stopped. Oh my god. What if whatever it was had heard us.
‘Katie, it could be dangerous down there. You don’t know who it is.’
‘I’ll just be quick.’
She was trancelike, moving towards the door as the sliver of moonlight from the front door fell across her face, and even as I grabbed her hand she pulled away from me, stronger than I was.
‘Katie, please.’
She opened the door, and before I could stop her, she was gone, heading down the steps.
‘For God’s sake!’
Nothing – not heaven and earth moving, not a maze of chocolate, not pigs flying – could make my feet unstick from their place in the ground and make me go down there and stop her. Instead I stood there, not even sure if I was breathing, as Michael poked his head back round the door.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked, ‘Why are you taking so long?’
‘Your sister’s gone down to the cellar,’ I said.
We both shared a glance – a terrified, helpless, awful glance. But neither of us could move. The dragging sound increased in volume again; the urgency amplified, filling my ears.
And then we heard her scream.
Her scream was even more ear-splitting than that of my brother’s; it was the kind of scream a person makes when they are experiencing the last moments of their life. Both Michael and I ran toward the basement door and stood at the top of the steps, the torch light falling in shards across the stairs. I took in the sight below: Katie, running back up the steps, her expression like that of a person being hunted; but nothing and no one was behind her. I moved the torch around to see a group of tall shadowy figures lurking in the farthest corner of the room; nine of them, stiff as boards, faceless. I felt my heart stop, but I couldn’t understand why she was so frightened – they were only mannequins, like the ones in the rest of the house.
And then one of them moved.
Thud, thud, thud – Katie’s footsteps pounded up the final steps and she pushed us with all her might back through the door, back into the hallway.
‘Get out of here,’ she shrieked, ‘Get out of here now!’
We didn’t need to be told twice. We began to run, out of the door, down the drive, towards my brother, who was also running – we ran to the fence, and climbed it, and lost rucksacks and shoes and grazed our limbs in the process but we did not care, because all we knew was that we were running, running far away from that place and that sound and those awful, awful figures.
I don’t know what made me do it. Even now, when I look back on it, I’m not sure it was even real. It was probably the hysteria.
But I’m sure that when I looked back there – and I looked back there only once, when I was twisting myself around on the fence – I’m sure I saw another figure standing in the doorway; another mannequin, a young girl this time, about fourteen. Its only feature a drawn-on mouth, a mouth wide with terror, and its long, bony arm was stretched out towards us, pointing. On her feet was a pair of pink Converse trainers.
I didn’t look back twice.

Katie never told me what happened to her in the cellar that day. She never told a single soul.
She refused to ever speak of the incident at all, in fact, and would get very upset when we mentioned it. Once, I asked her if she saw the figures in the cellar, like I did, though I never mentioned the dummy wearing the Converse. She refused to engage with me. Her taste for horror waned; she never suggested going exploring again.
Sometimes Tom and I will talk about it. We’ll try and make a joke out of the whole thing now – must have been some twisted pranksters, we’ll say – but deep down, it scares us still, and I’ve never been able to go anywhere there are mannequins again, which, as you can imagine, makes life difficult in a department store. I don’t know why someone chose to put those things in there; I don’t know if they were mannequins made by McGreavy himself, or whether they were brought there after his death, and I don’t know how they knew that one of us would be wearing pink trainers. To ask those questions means delving deeper into the horror of that night.
I’ve never been back to the farmhouse. Katie and I became less close when we went to university, though we still keep in touch every now and then, even after she moved away from the village.
Michael and Tom are still close though. Tom says that Michael even went back there about a year ago – in broad daylight this time – to get some footage (he studies Film at university). He said he didn’t find any mannequins there, and all the furniture had been looted too.
The cellar door was locked when he went there, though. Whatever it was that lurked down there amongst the shadows was concealed away. And whatever it was Katie saw that night – whether she saw the same thing as I did, or maybe worse – was hidden away, and can only be left for you and I to speculate.

Credit: ShadowsintheLight23

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Stretching Party

Stretching PartyReading Time: 7 minutes 

WARNING: This story contains some sexual content.

 

I’m into BDSM, bondage – shit like that. Some people might find that weird, but I’m sure those people are into things others might find strange, so let’s not judge. I mention this because it’s important to what happened, it gives you an idea of the kind of company I often keep, the kinds of places I often find myself. A BDSM club I’m a member of, that’s where this all started.

It was last weekend, around 1am Saturday night (or early Sunday if you wanna be a dick about it), and I was just an observer for the night. In these kinds of places, one sees all manner of… interesting attire; lots of latex, zippers, chains. The man that summoned my attention and kicked this whole thing into gear was wearing a red latex suit that looked as if it were painted on.

He said he’d seen me there over the past year, and that he “knew I was serious about the life we’d chosen”. He spoke cryptically, and everything about his tone and his choice of words made it seem like he was almost like a… BDSM purist. He commented on my piercings and tattoos, commending me for my commitment to body modification (I don’t have anything extreme, just sleeves and a few piercings). He then told me I “was ready to ascend to the future, only now”.

It was fucking weird. But I like weird, so I was intrigued. I asked what he meant, and he said that the club in which we stood was a child’s playhouse, a diet, sugar-free version of where “I belonged”. Mind you, he said this as we stood in room featuring a woman suspended from the ground, hogtied, having her stomach and legs whipped with a cat ‘o’ ninetails. I’ve never been particularly into the most extreme stuff, but again, I was intrigued. Part of me thinks that I wasn’t the person who was supposed to get the card, and that the man in the red latex suit mistook me for someone.

The man in the red latex suit handed me a business card that gave only an address and brief instructions. He told me to go “join the upper echelon” that night, because I’d “earned the opportunity”. When prompted, I was to give that night’s password, “Omega”. I put the address into the GPS on my phone and found that it was located in the downtown area of the city in which I live. Had it been a rough neighborhood or the middle of nowhere, I’d have given it more consideration, but the address was to one of the largest buildings in the city, and for some reason that gave me a little peace of mind (I know that’s foolish, but curiosity, as they say, killed the cat).

I left the club and went to the building. I pulled into the parking garage and drove to the fourth level, per the instructions on the card. Once there, a valet opened my door and I was walked into the building and up to the 27th floor, the hallways of which were lined with people holding odd positions, like some kind of live art installation.

I was taken into a part of the building that was cordoned off, and I saw what I thought was the aforementioned “upper echelon”…and it looked no different than where I’d been a half hour prior, only better lit, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. There were maybe 60 people there, and they were all wearing the same sorts of BDSM gear as the club I’d come from, only these people had more body modification work done.

I hadn’t been asked for a password at that point, so I wasn’t exactly sure why I’d been sent to this place as if it were such a huge step up from what I’d been into for years. But then the lights dropped and two bowls filled with a flammable liquid that sat upon waist high pillars were set ablaze and a man stepped between them. The man was wearing a normal business suit, but his face had all sorts of modifications done to it, from tattoos to piercings to all sorts of bumps to his nose having had the skin between his nostrils removed, leaving simply a nose with a large hole.

He gave a speech, welcoming everyone, inviting them to have a good time. But then he began talking about something more.

“This place is inclusive of all…all the most extreme, the most imaginative, the most…different. There should be a few of you in the crowd that were given a password. I invite those of you with that password to form a line at the elevator, and we will escort you to the main event of the evening. If tonight is your first night, you should consider yourself quite lucky. You’re going to witness the final product of Miss Bennett’s transformation.”

A light applause swept over the room.

“Password holders, please, to the elevator.”

I, along with about 15 other people, went to the elevators, and before we stepped into either of the two made available to us, we whispered the password to a large man in a suit. Up to the 30th floor we went, and stepping off the elevator there were sheets on either side of us, creating a sort of makeshift hallway. We followed this path until we reached a large open area, at the back of which was an area hidden by yet another sheet, this one hung horizontally, almost like a stage with its curtain pulled.

We were led into the open space and for about 40 minutes – we all just kind of stood around, conversing amongst ourselves. I found someone else who was also there for the first time, and when we tried to ask others what we were going to be seeing, each person said that we just needed to see it for ourselves. One man did say that the last time they’d had one of these events was over a year prior, so he couldn’t be exactly sure what they’d be seeing, but he had an idea.

“You have all seen the most extreme of body modifications.” a voice boomed as the lights dimmed. “Holes where holes shouldn’t be, splits where things should be together, things together where they should be apart. Well…we’ve got something new for you today. Something you’ve never seen. Something that will amaze you, as it amazed us to perform on the lovely, the brave Miss Bennett. In a few moments, you will be the first to see what will undoubtedly become the new rage in the body modification world. Welcome to ‘The Stretching Party’.”

I began trading guesses with my new friend as to what was going to have been stretched on this Miss Bennett woman, both of us eagerly anticipating the reveal while also a bit nervous. I mean, I was into the lifestyle, but I didn’t want to see anything too gruesome, and all signs were pointing to the fact that this was going to be more hardcore than I was used to.

A short time later, a drumroll began emanating throughout the room.

“Ladies and gentlemen…prepare yourselves for a truly one of a kind woman.” That same voice blared over a loudspeaker. “Over the course of two and a half years, nineteen procedures have been implemented to complete Miss Bennett’s transformation. They–Well, you all don’t wanna hear me talk. I give you, Phase 24…of The Stretching Party…”

And with that, the curtains slowly drew back, revealing what was indeed a stage. The whole room got so quiet, you’d have been able to hear a mouse skitter across the floor. Then came the footsteps. Clunky, uneven footsteps coming from somewhere behind and to the side of the stage.

Pat…patpatpat…pat pat…patpat…pat…pat…pat pat patpat…

The steps got louder as they got closer to the stage. Then I saw the silhouette and my heart sank to my stomach. A black figure, thinner than thin, standing tall…tall…leaning hard to her left. Two spotlights burst on, flooding the stage with light, as gasps and hushed whispers filled the viewing area. She limped towards the stage on legs that were twice as long as my own, with braces on them to keep her standing.

Her torso was extended, with a space each above and below her ribs that isn’t there on the average person. As I said, she was hunched over, hard, to the left, and her arms, which looked like they had two extra wrists each, hung down and swayed as she stutter-stepped out, aided by a man in a suit on either side of her.

Her jaw had somehow been unhinged, making a deep underbite on a mouth that couldn’t possibly close, a massive black hole on a face that was twice as long as it should have been. Her nostrils had been stretched the the size of half dollars, and her earlobes hung down to line up with her bottom lip.

The men helped her to the center of the stage, and stood ready to catch her if she fell as she slowly, clumsily, awkwardly twirled around in a circle. As she did, I saw that there were several more notches in her bent spine than there would normally be. The voice came back over the loudspeaker.

“Miss Bennett has dedicated herself to our community, becoming without question the most modified woman on the planet. We have added several titanium rods in her to act as new bones, and performed a number of skin grafts to cover the extra space. This woman is the eighth wonder of the world, and you all have the privilege of being the first to lay eyes upon her.”

The room filled with a light clap from guests both amazed and horrified. A gurgle left the gaping maw of the at least nine-foot-tall Miss Bennett as she stood on braced, yet still wobbly legs. I looked around the room and found one couple aggressively kissing each other, another man masturbating, and others whispering to themselves and pointing up at the stretched woman.

It was at that point that I decided I’d had enough. I said bye to the guy I had been talking to, who ignored my departure and just kept staring at the woman on the stage with what I can only describe as rapacious eyes. As I tried to leave, I was stopped by two men in suits at the elevator door who made me sign a non-disclosure agreement form, which I did. They then accompanied me to the fourth floor parking garage and only finally turned around as I began driving.

I called the police immediately because…well why wouldn’t I? Nothing about what I’d just seen seemed remotely legal or ethical. The police went to where the party was being held, getting there probably an hour after I’d left, and it was almost as if no one had been there at all. According to the police, the only evidence they found of anyone being there on either of the floors I’d been to was a few pieces of duct tape that had ostensibly been used to hold the sheets up, and a puddle of what looked to be drool on the stage area. The parking garage was empty and the police quickly lost interest, even suggesting I’d made the entire thing up.

Then a few minutes ago I got a text.

“You were not prepared for the upper echelon. You attempted to compromise our hard work. But we are a forgiving group, fortunately for you. Despite your transgression, you will have the privilege, like Miss Bennett, of being the guest of honor for the next Stretching Party. See you soon!”

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know that I should have heeded the warning of the curious cat.

 

CREDIT: Nick Botic

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Wildling Fever

Wildling FeverReading Time: 34 minutesGorrup Longstorm hated that smell and he thanked the heavenly bodies that he only had to deal with its attack on his olfactory senses once every ten years.  When he was forced to have to live with the odor for the week it took the unsavory brew to simmer, the response his wife had to the scent never ceased to amaze him.  Dry gagging and nausea were Gorrup’s natural reactions to the large pot of black, bubbling goo; Malwanda, however, seemed to feel the complete opposite.  Of course, the gruel had different connotations for her than it did for him and the mindset she maintained during that period somehow converted to offensive odor that permeated every nook and cranny into something sweet and soothing.  The loving smile and melodic humming that seemed to define Malwanda during the week of preparation would lead one to believe that she’d been happy to have the aroma around all year.  Gorrup knew that separation from reality well; it was seen in just about every woman in the tribe before the big hunt.  It was “wildling-fever”.

Every woman had their own unique recipe that had been handed down from generation to generation and, in Gorrup’s humble opinion, Malwanda’s had to been one of the most repulsive he’d ever seen.  “The worse it smells,” she had said; “the better it works.”  He didn’t really know if this were actually true or not since the stuff hadn’t actually gotten the job done during that last two great-hunts, but then again, no one had really had much luck for those.  That, more than anything else, was what made this particular one so important…and everyone in the village knew it.  If there weren’t significant degrees of success achieved this time, it was a very real possibility that it would mean the end for more than a few family lines.  One bad great hunt can happen…two in a row is harmful, but not insurmountable…three…three bad hunts in a row…three decades of returning to their little holler with empty cages…that could be devastating for everyone.

Their little town, known as Nasca’s Bosom, sat in the middle of a beautiful valley, nestled between the two great mountains, Gatarain and Nasca, and, although tiny enough to be unable to sustain a population boom, it still required a certain number of working hands in order for it to maintain any degree of functionality.  In another fifteen to twenty years the village men would be fading into their sunsets with the much-needed strength of youth slipping further and further from their grasp until additional great-hunts became nothing more than suicide quests.  The women would begin to wrinkle and grey while their thoughts would start to process slower and slower.  Their roles as the village’s home-keepers, law-makers, judges and authorities would begin to diminish, weakening the social structure from within.  With no one in the wings to take over these vital responsibilities…well…it was too frightening a prospect to think about; and for the most part…no one did.

None of that really mattered as far as Gorrup was concerned, however.  This was going to be the year.  There was no doubt in his mind.  The stars had aligned in the night sky in such a way as to tell him that this would be the highest yielding great-hunt their village had ever seen, while a three-day journey to see the blind seer at the top of Gatarain that they’d taken last month only reinforced the notion.  The old woman had peered into the void that only she could see and came back with the only five words that any of them had needed to hear: “Nasca’s Bosom will live on”.  Both himself and his neighbor and best friend, Haggistern, had released their breathes in unison, neither of them even aware that they’d been holding them in the first place.  The reaction was reenacted by the five men at the base camp when they’d finally climbed back down from the tiny shed precariously balanced at the mountains peak.  Despite Gorrup’s constant insistence, it was the reinforcement they’d all sought and from that point forward the attitude regarding the great-hunt shifted from fearful pessimism to an excited anticipation.

Like an electric wave, the eagerness and enthusiasm spread throughout Nasca’s Bosom and, on the day before they were due to set out, the laughter heard at the Great Hunt Festival was genuine.  The smiles weren’t of the forced variety and the frolicking and dancing came with a natural ease.  Confidence…bordering on cockiness…was the attitude of the hour.  The party ended at dusk while, for practical purposes, the mead was locked away.  The hunting party was due to begin eating ground at first light so it wouldn’t do for them to not get a full night’s sleep beforehand.  Having to stay up for two or three days at a time during the hunt was not an uncommon occurrence.

The men made love to their wives before retiring to their sleeping quarters.  Their wives would spend the rest of the night putting the finishing touches on their, now cooled, cauldrons of bait before wrapping the congealing substance in banteen leaves and karu wax, essentially sealing it off from the outside air.  By the time the men awoke, the leaves will have hardened into a secure, easy to carry, container.  Gorrup was always of mixed reactions when it came to that point.  He was, quite obviously, very grateful for the reprieve from the foul odor but that came with the knowledge that eventually the other cropaint bean would fall from the porregineister.  There was no way around it…and that second bean was the absolute intensity of the scent after being sealed away for the duration of their five-day trek to the hunting grounds.  Once it finally came time to crack that bait-ball back open…for the love of Parnissis…it was like getting hit in the face with an invisible hammer.

By and large, the great-hunt was a very competitive endeavor and was accompanied by a significant degree of wagering.  Not that all of their hunting trips weren’t…but the importance of this particular one seemed to bring out levels of foolishness that they wouldn’t normally indulge in.  Of course every man wanted the others to have successful hunts…but if you could make the first catch and take home the grand prize of a hundred yorps…all the better.  One of the many side-bets that took place was to see who could hold their breakfasts the longest after releasing the bait.  Much to his dismay and Malwanda’s delight, Gorrup was almost always the first one out on that particular wager.  There was no denying the power of her brew and he knew this time wouldn’t be any different; if he were to fail…it would have nothing to do with her bait.

When the rootstichick crowed at first light, the men were already packed and ready to head out.  It was generally agreed upon that they would awaken at dawn and head out within an hour but, as per usual, the excited anticipation had them all up long before that.  It was a long journey before them and they were anxious to start closing that gap.  In an ideal world, they would’ve ridden their faithful horkas…but their quarry could hear the galloping animals from a great distance, rendering them more a liability than an asset at the point.  This was a lesson learned early on.  No…this was a trek that had to be made on foot…and it did not come without its hazards.

It took a full day and a half to navigate the narrow paths and tight cliffs that led them around the great mountain Gatarain.  From there, it was two more days through the Swamp of the Five Sisters.  There had always been plenty of bedtime ghost stories about the goings on in the swamp as well as the five witches the swamp was named for…but the only real concern for the group of twenty-three men was avoiding the giant seething spiders and their plentiful nests beneath the murky waters.  They could be very difficult to see, especially in the dark, and sometimes you wouldn’t know you were upon one until they were springing from the water and lunging at your head.  This was the time when, more than any other…save the hunt itself…alertness and attention were paramount.

The only saving grace in regard to the seethers was that they were highly susceptible to fire, quickly disappearing into wisps with a bright flash.  As long as the party’s exterior remained vigilant with their torches…there was rarely a problem they couldn’t handle.  The five or six nests they did come across put on an impressive light show with the seethers’ kamikaze leaps into oblivion.

“We should have one of these ready for the festivals,” Haggistern joked after the last one bringing about a hearty round of much-needed laugher.

“Sure thing Haggs,” one of the younger men called out; “we’ll keep it at your place!”  The laughter resumed and spirits were high when they set up camp in the small ravine that separated the swamp from the edge of the forest.  For an additional two days they would still have to traverse the well-worn path that their town had stomped into existence through just under three-hundred hunts before, eventually, arriving at their destination: a spot that had been lovingly dubbed “Last Chance” many, many years ago.

Last Chance was the area where the whole hunting party would spend their last night together before breaking off, the following morning, into groups of two or three.  It was a common knowledge that the wildlings would see a large group as a threat and would keep their distance.  They definitely wouldn’t try to attack.  Not that they were necessarily looking to be attacked; the initial plan was always bait and pounce…but sometimes having one or two of them come at you could be just as good, saving you the trouble of luring them out.  Personally, Gorrup would’ve traded being ambushed for the bait-ball any day of the week.

Gorrup and Haggistern, much as they did on every hunt, paired up together.  This year, however, they agreed to let Cort Steadyhand join them.  Cort was one of the youngest men in the tribe and, not really having another in his own age-frame, was often ostracized from social activities.  It wasn’t an intentional act of malice by anyone…it just kind of happened.  He had been pestering the two older men for a number of years about joining their set.  They liked to tease Cort about saying ‘no’ but that had both known for some time that that wasn’t going to be the case.  He was an honorable young man who did right by his wife and…in truth…they both liked him quite a bit.  He smiled a lot…and it was infectious.  The only knock they had on him, if anything, was how much more energy he had than they did.  When they told him that he’d be doing all the heavy lifting, he’d thought it to be more teasing…it really wasn’t.

The final, couple days of the journey were, without a doubt, the most difficult terrain of all to surpass.  The forest had worked hard to reclaim their dirt road over the last decade.  The unending array of foliage and green was very disorientating and there were several times that the party lost it altogether and had to fall back on the old ways by cobbling together impromptu compasses.  All they really needed was a magnetized arrowhead, a pomatom leaf and a stagnant puddle to find out which direction was the world’s magnetic center and help them continue in an eastward direction until they found the trail again.

Sporadic storm-cloud explosions that gave way to salty downpours did little to aid their progress but, eventually, they reached Last Chance and set up their last group camp.  They shared ale, song and story around a roaring fire as was tradition but the cheer was forced through the somber pall that hovered about them.  It went without saying that the great hunt was one of abundant perils and the odds of every single man returning to Nasca’s Bosom weren’t high.  There were times when that happened…but they didn’t come without their own fair share of long-lasting injuries and psychological traumas.  Hunting wildlings was not for the weak of heart.

If one were going strictly by the previous numbers however, three point five of them would die on the hunt while another one and a half would expire at home from their wounds or the toxic poisons introduced into their systems.  Surviving your first great-hunt was something of a rite of passage; every successful one after only added to a man’s reputation and social standing.  ‘Success’ being measured as not just returning with their prey…but rather just returning at all.  Gorrup himself, had seven notches on the Longstorm family pole…although the last couple had seen him return empty-handed.

The gloomy tone carried over into the following morning as they broke camp and lingered on their valedictions.  There was no denying the difficulty of the moment; most of these men were more than just neighbors…they were friends, brothers as it were, and all extremely aware that this goodbye could very well be their last.  It did, eventually, come to an end and by dusk the men were many miles from each other in all directions.

Gorrup’s party made camp in a tiny gully, although in truth, Cort did most of the setting up while Gorrup and Haggistern argued about the amount of ground faasini beans required to make the perfect cup of piping hot faasini.  Reaching a compromise just as the younger man got the campfire going, the older men proceeded to brew a pot while Cort swept the perimeter and placed warning bells on branches every other step.  Most likely, the defensive measures would be wholly unnecessary.  Wildings were generally not considered nocturnal in nature, usually using that time to sleep.  On the off chance that there was some activity…they almost never approached flames, seemingly terrified of all forms of fire.  The alarm system, therefore, was probably a redundant precaution.  Still…when hunting wildlings…no safeguard could be too many.  Just about every great-hunt, it seemed, presented the hunters with new challenges.  There truly was no creature more dangerous in the world…except perhaps for a grown wildling: a feral.

Feral’s were extremely rare however…if they ever even existed at all.  Gorrup only knew them from scary stories and tall tales told in the ale-house.  The reality was that if a wildling weren’t trapped in a hunt…they, more likely than not, would not be around for the next one.  Most wildlings do not survive more than three or four years, given the harsh environment and their violent lifestyles and natures.  On two occasions Gorrup came across wildlings that he’d estimated to be eight or nine years old…and they were savage beasts at that.  The number of fellow wildlings that one would have to cannibalize to live that long…was staggering.  He had known both times, that the creatures were too far gone to be domesticated and he did the most humane thing he could; he had cleaved their heads from their torsos with his mighty blade.

Once Cort returned to the fire and was handed a steaming hot cup of faas, the three men laid out their plans for the next few days.  They would, of course, use the entirety of the following day doing nothing more than surveying their immediate area.  Learning every nook, rock and hill, they would make sure that there were no doubts about anything.  If there a spot where they could be pounced upon by something unseen…they wanted to know about it.  If there was an area that served best as a defensive stand should they need to retreat…they wanted to know about it.  That kind of knowledge could mean the difference between life or death, making the landscape work for you…rather than against you.

Following that, they would set up a couple traps and then…ugh…set out the bait.  Gorrup was far from thrilled about coming to that point and he’d have been lying if he said he hadn’t considered having Cort lay his bait for him.  That wasn’t the way things were done though; every man laid his own bait.  Just another of the many traditions associated with the hunt.  After that…well…it was wait and see.  That was the point when sleep would become a luxury…and one of the other reasons why they’d let Cort come along.

Dinner consisted of dried plarum roots and cured meats and before too long they were settling into their mats.  It was no secret that this might be their last good night’s sleep for a while so there wasn’t a lot of chatting before sleep.  Cort nominated himself for the first two-hour watch, knowing full well that if he hadn’t, his hunting companions would’ve done it for him.  The young man harbored no misconceptions about his role as the ‘new-guy’ and, rather than let it bother him, embraced it whole-heartedly.  He was thrilled to death to be able to spend the next couple hours watching over their fire and his friends.  Even if he hadn’t been, the excitement of this, his first hunt, had him way too amped up to have gotten any sleep in that moment anyway.  Instead, he put his back against a tree and did his best to remain quiet despite his normally chatty nature.

Gorrup closed his eyes and thought about Malwanda as he drifted off.  He remembered that look on her face as they said goodbye at the foot of the hill.  To all others her disposition was one of only stoic determination…but there was something else lingering just beneath that only he could see and it both shook him and strengthened his resolve at the same time.  The unspoken importance of the moment wasn’t lost on either of them.  She had leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek and whispered something in his ear.  The rest of the hunting party seemed certain that she was saying, “Be careful,” or “I love you,” but that wasn’t it at all.  What she had said was, “You do what you have to do,” and she had meant it…and everything that it entailed.

His wife was one of the most well-respected and powerful matriarchs in Nasca’s Bosom due in some small parts to her age and experience, but mostly because of her uncanny ability to cut through the horka-shit.  She was a quick-thinking woman able to see the details of what was right in front of her…as well as the big picture.  Having thrice served as the Mayor of Nasca’s Bosom, the only reason she didn’t still hold the position was through her own volition; most of the townsfolk would’ve been happy to see Malwanda Longstorm as a permanent fixture in that role.

Because of all this and more, she understood the direness of their situation perhaps better than anyone.  Keenly aware of the population numbers as well as the occupational assignments, Gorrup’s wife had been living with a deep-seeded anxiety that she didn’t share with anyone but him.  Despite his abounding optimism regarding this Great Hunt, in the days before the brewing of the bait he saw something in his partner’s eyes that he had never seen before…never.  It was fear.  Easily the strongest person he knew, which was part of what he loved about her, and unequaled in mental fortitude…it was a disconcerting sight to be true.  Fortunately, once the bait preparation was begun, she seemed more herself again.  Even still…he hadn’t been able render that look from his mind; and then, when they said goodbye and she told him “you do what you have to do”, it was there again.  With those seven little words and the darkness beneath the face she showed the rest of the hunting party, Malwanda conveyed everything she needed to.  The consequences of this hunt weren’t just important…they were more important than anything.  More so, even, than the lives of his friends; or even his own for that matter.

Of course she wasn’t coming right out and saying that he should sacrifice Haggistern or Cort if that’s what it took to achieve results…but she wasn’t saying not to either.  Knowing his wife as he did, her words, in essence, were meant to mean that all morality was to be cast aside for this hunt; any action would be considered acceptable so long as he returned with wildlings in his cage.  The idea, even as nothing more than a vague suggestion, laid uncomfortably in his stomach for the duration of their trek, like an uncooked bwacche egg; and, on a couple of occasions, kept him from making eye contact with the rest of the hunting party.  Gorrup couldn’t help feeling ashamed of the thoughts that kept rolling through his mind but, in the end, it came down to a very simple lesson that they were all taught early on: there was love and friendship…and then there was survival.  The two were wholly exclusive of one another.

It was great to have a buddy to share stories with, overindulge in mead, or even compete in a heated game of Chikwei or Checkers with…but these were all luxuries when it came right down to it.  He cared greatly for Haggistern and some of the other men, to the point that he would’ve stepped in front of a charging kronosaurous for many of them…and for the last week he’d been mulling over possible scenarios in which their deaths could be used to his advantage.  After all, the one thing the wildlings seemed to prefer more than the various bait recipes was the flavor of fresh human flesh.  He felt like the worst person in the world for even entertaining the idea but the truly troubling notion refused to give him peace.  Even now his slumber was fitted and besot with unpleasantries.

Tossing and turning on his mat, Gorrup barely clung to the wispy threads of sleep and that, beyond all else, was the reason he was the first to be awoken by the jingling of warning bells coming in from all directions.  He was, much like his wife, the type of individual who processed situations very quickly; exhibiting uncanny abilities to both absorb the tiniest details available and incorporate them into his decision making long before anyone else even took notice of the minutia.  The jury was still out on whether it was a gift or a curse…but it kicked in immediately and within a matter of seconds he had a fully informed assessment.

The very first thing that was to be noticed was the fact that barely anything could be seen in dull, muted light provided by the barely glowing embers; it was the dead of night and that fool, Cort, had let the fire extinguish.  The young man had obviously fallen asleep before his allotted time to do so and, in doing so, had broken the number one rule of the hunt: don’t let the fire go out!  After allowing himself a millisecond for the shock at such a fatal ineptitude to pass, his mind next targeted the multiple sets of glowing eyes which had completely surrounded their encampment.  Despite hoping that they were peering back at them from wild meepers…or even a scuttle of banta-rats, Gorrup knew better.  There was only one type of creature that conveyed such intensely violent intentions with just a look…they were wildlings.

Of course, this behavior went against every known characteristic they’d ever learned or taught about the beasts…but that didn’t change the parameters of their current predicament any.   Every few decades the batches of wildings were prone to developing new traits that needed to be included in the updated curriculum; but it was never anything as drastic as this.  Generally, the types of things that needed to be looked out for were along the lines of new noises being made or the ability to conceal themselves in foliage.  In no one’s wildest dreams, however, would the hunting party expect to see a large group of them traveling together.  In the past, any more than two or three of them in any one place usually meant that the wildlings would turn on each other in the most vicious of ways.

Secondarily to that unimaginable fact…what in the hell were they doing out at night anyway?  Over the course of seven Great Hunts, Gorrup had only encountered a wildling twice after dark and in both instances the creatures had been extremely disorientated and on the verge of death anyway from previously inflicted wounds.  He’d performed a merciful act for both of them and in the many years since it hadn’t happened again.  Saying that wildlings didn’t go out at night was as much of a rule set in stone as any they had.  If this no longer applied…then should they just go ahead and toss out everything they thought they knew about the Great Hunt?

Gorrup’s hand slid, instinctively, to the hilt of his sword lying, sheathed, upon the hard earth next to his sleeping mat while he continued to soak in everything he could in that instant which he knew full well to be the calm before the storm.  After sensing the darkness and then the threat beyond the darkness, he noticed, with no shortage of relief, that his camp-mates were still with him in the land of the living.  Cort’s head was bobbing slightly as he sat prone, his back still against the tree, while Haggistern, who laid as still as a rock, released a blustery snore into the damp, night air.  No denying that he was happy to know they were yet okay, but having them continue to remain unconscious while the perimeter alarms jingled away was…with the kindest word available…an irritation.

Cort could possibly be forgiven; this was, after all, his first Great Hunt.  Letting the fire go out was another story altogether, but his heavy slumber would be more the subject of teasing that actual admonishment…should they all live long enough for the topic to come up again.  Haggistern on the other hand…well…he knew better; and Gorrup was more than a little pissed at his closest friend.  Sure the man was accumulating the years…but they were all getting old.  If his buddy wanted to continue aging, then he needed to be sharper than this and his unmoving frame was disheartening at best.  It certainly wasn’t a promising sign of things to come.

One of the last qualities that Gorrup was able to take in from that moment, frozen in time, before what would surely be a furious flurry of activity, was the overwhelmingly nauseating aroma that hung, thick and oppressive, in the air around them.  It was an unmistakable odor and, had he not been fueled by complete adrenaline, it would’ve probably brought back the evening’s dinner for a second trip across his lips.  There was no confusing it with any other scent on earth; it was Malwanda’s bait-ball.  Parnissis only knew how the damn thing had been cracked open, it was one of the few things that he took the utmost care with, but there was nothing else it could be and damned if he couldn’t taste the foulness of it as well.

So, somewhere around five seconds after opening his eyes, Gorrup came to the conclusion that the stars had aligned to create the perfect tempest of failure in the short amount of time that they’d been asleep.  Their fire had gone out, their watchman had fallen asleep and, inexplicably, a bait-ball had been rendered effective; it was the ultimate triumvirate.  One which, in all probability, would end in the death of one or more of them.  It was likely to say that no hunter on a Great Hunt had ever been in as vulnerable and exposed a state as the three of them were right then.  It seemed that the only way they could’ve made it any easier on the wildlings were if Haggistern were to roll onto his back and expose the softest parts of his belly for their consumption.

With hardly any time to plot a course of action, Gorrup sprang into action, allowing his body to act on full instinct.  Unable to calculate the number of times that doing just that had saved his ass, he had no qualms about handing the reigns over to that primitive and reactionary thing inside him that never took the time to fully think things through.  That thing seemed to somehow already know that if Gorrup had cried out to his companions, the wildlings would’ve been upon them before either of them would know what was happening.  Instead, his left hand, his sword’s base firmly in its grip, swung the blade through the air before he’d even raised his head from the ground.

In one swift and fluid motion the sheath went flying off as the weapon sailed neatly through the dying embers of what was once their roaring fire, sending a flickering shower of sparks in all directions.  The results of the flying scintilla were twofold…and pretty much exactly what he’d hoped to achieve.  Both of the sleeping men received burning stings which brought them immediately back to consciousness, although Cort seemed to have gotten the worse of the two as one of the tiny bits of burnt wood caught him squarely on the cheek and caused him to cry out slightly as he awoke.  Fortunately, both men were trained well enough that their first reactions upon becoming awake were to go for their rapiers as well.

The second intended result the spreading of the fire achieved was to both startle, and frighten if that were possible, the wildlings that had them seemingly surrounded.  A few of the glowing bits took hold of some of the dryer portions of the foliage and ignited two or three tiny flames in the process as an added benefit.  Greeted with an array of growls and hisses, the act earned him no shortage of foul reactions and, while his little light-show was over as quickly as it had begun, it still gave the men just enough time to change their odds just a bit.  No longer just sitting quacklins, they were now positioned at least a little better for the coming onslaught.

Haggistern’s eyes met his own for a split-second and Gorrup was relieved to see them sharp and attentive, even through the piercing darkness that had now become that much more oppressive.  Verbally describing the quandary they’d found themselves in would not be required; his old friend, weapon in hand, was already in the fray.  Both men then took an additional second to cast their gazes towards the youngest of them all, but apparently, it wouldn’t be necessary to enlighten Cort either.  He knew full well how deep into the well they’d fallen because, unfortunately, the wildlings were already upon him.

None of the three moons were remotely close to being full and with the scarce amounts of light they provided, visibility was horrible.  As a result, neither Haggistern nor Gorrup saw when the savage little beasts leapt upon him but there was still enough to make out the forms of the little bastards crawling about him, biting and clawing as they went.  Two were covered from head to toe with matted black hair while the third’s appeared to be a bright blond, although spotted with darkened patches of mud, blood, feces and who knew what else?  Not exactly known for their sanitation habits, they could be, if left to their own devices, truly disgusting creatures.  They weren’t very large, maybe a foot to a foot and a half long; they were less than a year old.

In all actuality, they were what one would usually consider the perfect age for trapping, but this group seemed particularly savage…and fast.  It was only through the reflexes and muscle memories created over the course of seventy years’ worth of Great Hunts that the two men were able to react as quickly and efficiently as they did.  An outside observer would’ve definitely been able to see the difference, especially with Cort’s wild flailing and spinning about.

Haggistern swung his sword through the air and neatly separated a squealing wilding that had become airborne before leaping over another one on the ground before him; he was trying to reach Cort.  With several feet left to go his path was blocked by several more, baring their razor-sharp teeth and daring him to take another step.  Simultaneous to that, Gorrup had his own hands full trying to help the boy and, after having to, with great regret, dispose of a couple more, found his own way obstructed.  They were organized in a way that had never been seen before and that didn’t even touch on the size of this group; it was so damn big!  None of it made a lick of sense.  Wildlings had never altered their behavior so dramatically in one season.  If this were solely responsible to Malwanda’s bait somehow…they might need to talk about toning it down some in the future.

Cort, becoming desperate to get the crawling monstrosities off of him, fell to the ground and began rolling in what was left of their fire pit.  Still plenty hot, it did the trick and sent the three that had been harassing him shrieking back into the bush.  The cost was high, however, and the young man seared his own skin in several exposed spots, adding the aroma of burnt hair to the already putrid air hanging around them.  To his credit…he jumped right back to his feet with nary a whimper and, sword at the ready, sharply nodded his head once to signify to his companions that he was prepared for whatever would come next.

Gorrup knew, however, that they weren’t.  He’d been given more than enough time to fully calculate their odds.  Just based on the sheer numbers of them alone, the men were ill prepared to bring this to fruition.  That didn’t even factor in how completely off guard they’d been caught.  They would be hard pressed to kill their way out of this nightmare, let alone be able to trap any of screeching wretches…which, lest they forget, was the real goal in all of this.  The entire scenario lent itself to more questions than answers…but, as far as Gorrup was concerned, there was really only one question that needed to be answered.  As much as it pained him to admit it, even to himself, that question wasn’t ‘how do they all make it out of this alive?’  In a different time…on a different hunt…it probably would have been.  In a perfect world…it always should be.

Things were different now, unfortunately, and this Great Hunt had its roots firmly planted in desperation.  With Malwanda’s determined resolution in the back of his mind helping to both steady and prioritize his thoughts, Gorrup knew what the only answer he should be seeking was.  It was the one that answered the question ‘how was he going to make it home with one or more of these things in his cage?’  It was vexing, undoubtedly, with no easy solution  volunteering itself.

“Flare!” Haggistern called out to him and Gorrup knew he was right to do so.  It was their only play at this point.  Spolodyte flares were difficult and expensive items to create.  Encased in cropaint bean pods and constructed with the utmost care by a very specialized craftsman, the flares were a precise mixture of charcoal, sulfur, sawdust, saltpeter and minute amount of the catalytic agent that created the initial combustion: spolodyte powder.  Spolodyte powder, more valuable than gold, could only be obtained by scraping it from the highly explosive crystals that formed inside the Devil’s Maw volcano.  The quest to gather the rare powder was second only to the Great Hunt in its degrees of difficulty and one in which the citizens of Nasca’s Bosom rarely engaged, choosing, instead, to rely on traders and traveling salesmen for any supply of the scarcely seen material.

Because of their rarified nature, each group that left out of Last Chance was entrusted with a single flare while one more was left there.  They were to be handled carefully and used in emergencies only.  In the past it was understood that meant rocketing them into the air to summon forth any members of the larger hunting party that might’ve been close enough to see it.  The one time Gorrup could ever remember one being used was to aid a couple of hunters that hadn’t fully investigated their area first and, in their ignorance, plunged over a hidden cliff, each man breaking a different leg.  Obviously, this was a completely different situation…but no one could argue that it didn’t qualify as an ‘emergency’.

In this particular instance, however, their immediate need didn’t come in the form of backup.  Certainly, the untold benefit of additional men would’ve been welcomed with open arms…but that wasn’t even a thought worth entertaining.  By the time any of the other hunters could make their way to Gorrup’s group, this melee would have long since been resolved…one way or another.  No…what they really needed in that moment…and what Gorrup was pretty sure Haggistern had in mind when he called out for their signaling device…was light.  Without at least a bit more illumination, their roles as wildling chow were all but forgone.

Besides the seven or eight holding their ground within the men’s camp, there were an indeterminably larger number diving in and out of the shadowy overgrowth surrounding them.  Despite the abnormal behavior they were displaying by being here like this in the first place, it was painfully clear that they had the advantage in this current environment.  That wasn’t to say that more light would provide any aid necessarily, but at least they’d have a better idea of what the hell they were dealing with.

Gorrup took a quick stab at the canvas sack lying just a few feet away but was forced to jerk back just as fast as a set of snarling teeth snapped at the air where his hand had just been.  The act earned the red-haired wildling a reactionary swipe from the sharp end of his sword, wounding it enough to send it crawling away with a whimper.  It opened up enough of a gap for another try and this time he managed to just hook the bag’s strap.  With one continued motion, Gorrup flung the bag in Haggistern’s direction.

The movement sent several more wildlings into an attack formation and both Cort and Gorrup were forced to strike down the ones that came closest to making contact with the sack as it flew through the air and into Haggistern’s steady hands.  There was more hissing and growling as the large man fumbled with the canvas container’s opening and it was almost as though they knew that he was attempting to do something that they wouldn’t like.  On most days that would have been a highly improbable suggestion.  By and large, wildlings were known to be relatively stupid creatures.  Primitive and primal, they didn’t rationalize their way through their daily existence; they simply reacted to their base functions.  If they were sleepy…they slept.  If they were hungry…they hunted.  If they were angry…they fought like hell in the most ferocious ways imaginable.  More often than not, they seemed to be angry.

Gorrup didn’t suppose he could blame them for that though.  Life as a wildling wasn’t much of a life at all.  If only he could make them understand that what the hunters were trying to do for them was, in reality, a form of mercy.  There was the short and filthy life of survival of the fittest…or there was coming back to Nasca’s Bosom and seeing their savagery humanely put to rest.  It really wouldn’t be much of a choice if they only knew what he knew.  Such was the irony of life, Gorrup mused to himself before chuckling slightly.

“Are you bloody laughing?”  Haggistern blurted with disbelief as he continued to struggle with the cloth bag that was beginning to feel like a damned puzzle.

“Oh man…that’s cool.” Cort said without even realizing that the words had come out, the admiration clearly evident in his voice.

“Oh please…” Haggistern replied, the disgust clearly evident in his; “Don’t confuse ‘crazy’ with ‘cool’.  That fool probably just…”  He didn’t get to finish the verbal dig at his old friend.  The wildlings had allowed their conversation to progress just about as far as they were going to and large number of them instantaneously sprang into action as if triggered by some unseen and unspoken command.  The coordination between the little bastards was remarkable and unnerving at the same time.  Leaping in and out, biting and then jumping away again…all while avoiding the hunters’ swinging blades with lightning fast agility.  It would’ve begged the question, ‘were the dirty varmints really working together or had they somehow stumbled into their pattern of vicious attacks by chance?’…if there were actually any time for questions.  There wasn’t.

Gorrup and Cort, being closest to each other, tried to work together in keeping the wildlings off one another while Haggistern continued to dig in the bag for the flare, a task made that much more difficult with anywhere from three to five of the hairy, little buggers jumping on and off of him, taking tiny bits of flesh with them as they went.  Having been roused from a dead rest the men were at the additional disadvantage of not having their hunting armor on.  More lightweight and flexible than the battle-armor they were occasionally forced to use, it still wasn’t something anyone would’ve chosen to sleep in and, as a result, their exposed body parts were paying the price.

“Dammit Haggs…can you hurry with that thing?” Gorrup cried out while flinging off a brown-haired wildling that had somehow managed to find its way to the top of his head.  It seemed that they would be putting all their stock into the flare’s effectiveness after all; their options were becoming more limited by the second as their aggressors continued to flood in like sacra-roaches.  The only real hope they had for survival now was that the blinding light of the flare would send the endless flow scurrying away like them as well.

Gorrup would have to put any bright ideas he had about capturing any aside for now.  It wasn’t going to happen…not now anyway.  Hell…they hadn’t even had an opportunity to set up the collapsible cages yet, for Parnissis’s sake.  It was their first night!  None of this should have been happening in the first place.  Frankly, he wouldn’t be surprised at all if he found himself suddenly waking up from this nightmare, searching for a drink to wash away the taste of such a bad dream.

“A-ha!” Haggistern cried as he victoriously brandished his prize in his free hand.  It was quickly replaced with another, less intelligible, cry as a sizable chunk was torn from the side of his throat sending a steady arch of blood sailing out from the gash.  Perhaps not fatal, in and of itself, it still staggered the big guy; the shock etched upon his face clearly discernable…even in the darkness.  Allowing his sword to clank to the ground, Haggistern clasped his hand over the gaping hole but it did little to provide the type of protection such a wound needed.  Drawn to the blood like parasitic leeches, the wildlings overwhelmed him.  His attackers went from three or four to, easily, ten or more.

Swarming and swirling about his frame it became, momentarily, impossible to see any of the man beneath them.  Looking like some new, yet undiscovered, monster, he was covered in different, rapidly moving patches of dirty hair…and blood.  More and more of it appeared by the second.  Helpless to do anything about it, both Gorrup and Cort were certain that they were watching the last few moments of Haggistern Taleweaver’s life.  It was, undoubtedly, not the way the man would’ve wanted to go and, having decided as much for himself, Gorrup stepped forward and raised his own sword above his head to position it for as painless a killing blow as he could administer.  It would be an act of mercy and it was the least he owed his old friend.  He would’ve done the same.

The blade never fell however.  With one yorp left in his pouch to spend, Haggistern, much to companions’ admiration, mustered forth the strength to bring the flare’s tip close to his head where it had to wait long enough for a path to clear to his bloody mouth.  Gorrup swore he could see a smile on the man’s face just before he bit down on the edge of the cropaint pod and tore it away with his teeth, igniting the blazing flash just inches from his face.  The initial blast was bright enough to blind them all momentarily and hot enough to melt the skin from Haggistern’s cheeks but, given that he didn’t make the slightest noise, it was likely their friend was already dead before his body fell to the ground.

When used properly, the flare was designed to shoot up into the air; it was a signaling device.  To say that Haggistern had not been adhering to the instructions as they all knew them to be was an understatement at best, but he did what he had to do.  No matter how this thing turned out…Gorrup was damn proud of him and, if they ever managed to make it back home again, his wife would be shown honor for his sacrifice.  The rudimentary way he’d been forced to activate flare sent it flying out horizontally rather than the vertical climb it was intended to make.  It only managed to travel less than a few inches, however, before it made contact with a particularly nasty…and unlucky…wildling.  Catching it square in the gut, the pressured velocity managed to carry it’s squealing body several feet before it fell to the ground on its back, the flare, still burning brightly, imbedded in its abdomen.

In truth…they couldn’t have planted it in a better spot had they tried.  Hissing loudly and burning as bright as the sun for a full thirty seconds, the spolodyte flare more than likely saved their lives.  Terrified, the majority of the wildings did run, scurrying away in all directions.  Most disappeared completely into the night…but not all.  The ones that had the taste of Haggistern’s blood in their mouths went nowhere.  Their hunger for flesh seemed to border on addiction; Gorrup didn’t think they could leave if they wanted to.

Lined up, one after another, they seemed totally oblivious to anything else going on around them, not the remaining hunters nor the still burning flare; they were utterly consumed by their consumption.  Cort rushed forward, preparing to bring his blade down upon them and sweep them away from his mentor’s body, but Gorrup threw his arm out to stop him.  When Cort turned to look at him, Gorrup could see the cycle of emotions play out; first shock, then anger, and then…slowly…understanding.  Large tears pooled in the corner of his eyes, but he did understand.  Haggistern was either dead or in no condition to be helped; there was no saving the man.  What they could do though, was to make sure his death wasn’t without cause and, right in that moment, his sacrifice had a dozen or more wildlings lined up for the picking and paying no attention to the two men standing behind them.

It was almost a dream scenario, so long as the dream didn’t include the death of a dear friend, and they took full advantage.  One by one, Gorrup and Cort went down the row smacking the soft spot on the crowns of the wildlings’ skulls with the base of their swords.  One by one, they fell unconscious.  When all was said and done, they managed to capture fifteen wildlings; all of which appeared to be in good condition.  Haggistern’s death, may Parnissis accept him, provided them with everything they needed to bring back the largest haul ever taken by one group on a Great Hunt.

They hiked back to Last Chance once daylight arrived and set off the flare there to signal the return of all hunting parties.  Not only would this be the largest haul in Great Hunt history…it would be the shortest as well.  The stories of this hunt would become immortal…and Haggistern with them.  Gorrup would see to it himself that the balladeers composed the perfect song to capture his legend.  ‘The Saga of Haggistern’ would live in infamy and his children, whoever they turned out to be, would take great pride in passing it on.

Their journey back home took nearly twice as long as the previous trek, but they also didn’t have to manage fifteen wicker cages and the dead body of one of their own when they set out.  Slogging back through the swamp in particular proved exceedingly tedious and they nearly lost a couple wildlings to hurtling seethers in the process.  All in all, the mood was somber for the duration.  They were all extremely happy to be both returning to Nasca’s Bosom early and with full cages…but the loss was great and weighed heavily upon them all.  It was hard to be jubilant when the cost was so high.  Once they did finally arrive at the city’s gates, there was no one waiting to greet them, which made sense.  They weren’t expected to return for several weeks.  Still, it didn’t take long for word to spread and by the time they reached the center of town a small, cheering crowd had begun to gather.  It was a Great Hunt miracle.

Although the whole of the catch legally belonged to Gorrup, Cort and the Widow Taleweaver, it made no sense for them to try and keep them all.  Gorrup would let Malwanda pick her two favorites, Cort and his young wife would probably take two while the widow might also take two, though one was more likely; and then the rest would be divided amongst the rest of the town, depending on need.  It was an amazing relief to everyone that there were more than enough to go around this time…especially after the massive failures that were the last two Great Hunts.  So much so that the town’s matriarchs immediately began planning an impromptu celebration for that evening, their ‘wilding fever’ reaching a joyously frenzied pitch.

Of course the party was for the hunters in name only.  In reality, it wasn’t really the type of festivity the men had any real interest in anyway, not to mention the fact that they’d be way too exhausted to participate in anything further than a pint of ale.  No…the type of revelry the women had in mind included the ritualistic ‘preparation of the wildlings’ which, next to the ‘preparation of the bait’, had to be their favorite time to be alive.  Besides cleaning and shaving them smooth, it was hard to say exactly what else it was that the women did to them.  Gorrup found the process to be nearly as revolting as the concocting of the bait and, even if he had the energy, would’ve chosen his bed over those activities nonetheless.  He could handle a lot but dealing with the little ones was something he just didn’t have the stomach for.  Hats off to Malwanda for having the ability to perform the tasks with such a cheerful disposition as she fundamentally ended the lives of wildlings.

Once his head was finally allowed to make contact with the horka-hair pillow he’d been using for the last twenty years, sleep eluded him longer than he’d expected.  The image of Haggistern’s dead body refused to give him any peace, pulsating with squirming beasts and then being melted away by the spolodyctic fire.  True…it had only been a day since he suffered the loss, but it seemed fairly evident that it was something that would end up haunting him for a long time.  He had never before lost someone so close to his heart…it stung.  Once the dark embrace of sleep did mercifully arrive, Gorrup was vaguely aware of the moisture that had begun streaming down his cheeks.  The night seemed to have passed in the blink of an eye and, as far as he could tell, did so dreamlessly, thank Parnissis; but apparently lasted longer than it felt.  It was evident from the streaks of sunlight splashed across his bedroom wall that it was already mid-afternoon.

Sitting upright, he yawned and tried to stretch out his aching, quest-weary muscles.  Malwanda could be heard downstairs in the kitchen singing a beautiful melody that he’d not heard from her in a very long time.  Another pang of painful regret for the death of his friend shot through him.  This time, however, he was able to push it aside.  Gorrup truly could not recall the last time he had heard his spouse sound as blissful as she did just now and her happiness was contagious.  This was a time to mourn and no one would blame anyone for doing so…but it was also a time to rejoice.  Nasca’s Bosom, which had been teetering dangerously close to an extinction event, was about to reap the results of a historic Great Hunt.  It shouldn’t be difficult to find joy in the coming days, weeks, months and years.  After all, starting this very day, he would be taking on a brand new role in his own life.  Everything was about to change…and not just for his family…but for everyone.

After finally pulling away the blankets, he was initially planning to draw himself a bath but the, now pleasant, aromas that filled the house drew him downstairs instead.  When he left there was only the impenetrable odor of his wife’s bait, but now it was as it should be.  Fresh fasini, combining itself with sizzling strips of very special meat and buttered toast, created a lure that his rumbling stomach was unable to resist.  Malwanda, as attentive as ever, must’ve heard him lumbering down the stairs because she met him as the bottom with a steaming cup of the savory brew he was craving.  With just a touch of sweet-cane and a splash of jaffa’s milk, it was exactly the way he took it.

“I know it was a short hunt,” he whispered as he kissed her on the cheek; “but, for the love of Parnissis, I missed the hell out of you, Baby.”  It wasn’t just sweet talk either; he was suddenly overcome by the sensation.  She made up the better part of him and without her…he was incomplete.  She smiled in a way that he hadn’t seen in decades, many times over.  If it had taken the death of all of his friends to bring that look to her face…then it would’ve been worth it.  There was no loss with a price greater than what he’d gained.  It was one of those rare moments when he truly felt he’d done right by the world and could, if necessary, die contented.  Not that it was a legitimate concern; he was going to be way too busy to die any time soon.

“So…” she prompted; “are you ready to see?”  His stomach gurgled a reply before any words could even try to and Malwanda chuckled.  He loved that sound.  “Maybe you eat first,” she said between her lip-splitting grin and led her husband into the kitchen where he settled into his normal seat at the head of the table.  She set forth preparing him a plate while Gorrup sipped his fasini and contemplated the gorgeous rosattas growing just outside the window.  The green thumb belonging, like most of the talents in their family, to Malwanda as well.  She returned with a breakfast that sent him into involuntary salivation before he could take the first bite.

The freshly baked bread melted in his mouth and the strips of meat were fried to perfection.  They were of an exceptional variety that families in Nasca’s Bosom only afforded themselves on special occasions…such as this.  After consuming two full plates, he wasn’t lying in the least when he told her it was the best meal he’d ever eaten.  With playful arrogance she had only replied with, “I know.”  Once he’d pushed back his chair and lit his pipe she asked again, “Are you ready to see?”.  He could tell she was giddy, like a child on Festivus morning, battling to restrain their urge to tear into their presents stacked at the foot of the Festivus pole.  Part of him wanted to tease her…toy with her by dragging it out but, in truth, he was nearly as excited as she was.  He may’ve had no desire to be involved with the processes leading up to this moment but this…this was something he’d been waiting for a long, long time as well.

Taking him by the hand once again, she led him into her study room which, later in the day, he would be converting into something else entirely and over to the two wicker baskets in the corner.  Each basket was covered with a protective mesh that concealed their interiors and before Malwanda could pull the first one away he grabbed her hand to stop her.

“Are they…” he trailed off.  Her smile never faded; it probably wouldn’t for a while.

“They’re fine.” She reassured him.  “Completely sedated.  Will be for the next couple days.” And then; “You know that” before playfully poking him in the ribs.  She was right, of course.  He did know all that…but she hadn’t been there and, as far as he was concerned, it was a fair apprehension.  He released her hand and she proceeded to pull back both mesh covers to reveal the contents of each.  It took his breath away and for several long minutes he was unable to say anything at all…which was a reasonable reaction.  There were no words to describe what he was seeing.  They were absolutely…perfect.

“So this…” she began by gesturing to the one on the right; “is your…daughter.  Her name is Matweena.  And this…” she paused to pick up the sleeping baby in the other crib; “is Gorrup Jr.  He’s named after his father…a hero.”  Malwanda handed her husband the sleeping child and he knew in his soul that he’d never see anything so beautiful again.  The transformation never ceased to amaze him and, looking down into that angelic face he couldn’t help but to be grateful.  Before officially meeting his children, Gorrup had been secretly afraid that somewhere deep inside he would hold them responsible for the death of his friend.  He knew now…that wasn’t going to happen.  After all, they had all been wildlings at some point.

 

CREDIT: Shannon Higdon

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Always Be Nice To Your Neighbors

Always Be Nice To Your NeighborsReading Time: 4 minutes

When someone asks you about your dream home, how do you respond? It might be an apartment in a big city, a big house on a farm, or (if you’re like me) a cozy house with a picket fence in the suburbs.

My husband and I moved into my dream home about 5 years ago. It’s located in a tiny town; one of those places where everyone knows everyone and no one locks their doors – about a 30 minute drive from the city. We thought we found the perfect place. We were SO very wrong.

You see, the thing about people is that you never really know them. It’s common in this kind of town (and everywhere really) to come across the type of people who seem to be the nicest and most normal human beings on the planet, but who are different monsters behind closed doors. Usually it’s nothing more than hidden alcoholism or drug use, a secret affair, or domestic abuse… but even Jeffrey Dahmer seemed like an okay guy, and we all know what skeletons were in his closet (and fridge).

The weirdness started a few months ago when our new neighbor moved in next door. He kept to himself. He didn’t talk to anyone except for the occasional visitors that came from out of town to see him. They were a catalyst for rumors. I’d heard that he was a drug dealer, that he had been in and out of prison, and that he was cut out of his family’s lives for touching his nephew or niece but not reported for it out of pity. He was quiet and a little creepy, but he seemed okay to me. Apparently, I’m an idiot.

A couple of weeks ago, my sister was leaving my house late at night when she noticed that the dome light on her car was on. Someone had just been in there, it seemed. She ran back inside and alerted my husband who then walked her back out and took a look around to see if he could find the intruder. They heard footsteps on my neighbor’s porch, but couldn’t actually see anyone. My husband called out but received no response. The next day, he spoke with another neighbor about the incident, to warn him to lock his car at night. That neighbor told my husband that he had spotted someone in the bushes across from his house two weeks prior and chased the person to the house next to mine before he lost the guy. A few days after the chase, someone broke an upstairs window trying to get into his house while he and his family slept. The whole neighborhood was freaked out, and we had our suspicions that the new guy was the culprit, but we had no proof. No one had been able to see his face when he was busted, no one could say whether he had been chased TO his house, or if the person running had simply hidden on his porch or in his yard. Local police agreed to increase patrols in our area, and things quieted down for a while. That was, until this past weekend.

It was late on Saturday, around midnight, when I heard what sounded like power tools running. There’s a house nearby that’s being renovated by the family that lives there, so I just assumed they were finishing a project before turning in or something. I didn’t really care until about 45 minutes later when I saw the flashing lights outside my window. I went outside to see three police cars, an ambulance, and a small crowd gathering in front of the house next door. No one seemed to know what the hell was going on for once. The only information that I could gather was that an old lady who lived a few doors down had called the police to file a noise complaint when the sound of the tools woke her up. I had been standing with the crowd for about five minutes before the officers came outside to move us away from the house and rope off the area with crime scene tape. The coroner’s van showed up a short while later. It wasn’t until the next day that we finally got the story.

Two officers had responded to the noise complaint. They could hear the tools running inside, but no one answered the door when they knocked. One of the officers looked into a window and noticed a pool of blood on the living room floor. They called for backup and entered the house. My next door neighbor had killed some woman, dragged her down to his basement, and was using a power saw to cut her up into pieces. When the police entered the basement, he panicked and used the saw to end his own life. Apparently, he almost completely decapitated himself. As gruesome as the details of this heinous act were, the murder-suicide wasn’t the thing that caused the most unrest in my little community. He had a large, hand-drawn map of the town hanging in his basement. Each house was drawn as an empty square, and each square had notes written inside: how many people lived in the house, whether or not they had dogs, and the best time and place to enter the home undetected. He also had a stack of photos on a table near the map. He had taken pictures of every house on our street, some at night and some during the day, some from the outside and some from within.

 

CREDIT: Christine Druga

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My Roommate Joined a Cult

My Roommate Joined a CultReading Time: 9 minutes

I’m a student at Bridgewater State in Massachusetts. I share a dorm with my roommate, Wallace. We both major in computer science, and that’s all we’ve ever talked about on the rare occasions that we actually speak to one another. We don’t have much else in the way of common ground.

You see, Wallace is an odd guy. He’s very socially awkward and doesn’t have many friends, if any at all. I’ve only ever seen him talking to his professors, and one time, the janitor. It’s safe to say that Wallace is a recluse. Because of this, I don’t know much about him. I would love for the guy to open up more, but I’m not sure how to go about doing that. Besides, I have enough on my plate as it is between exams and the struggle of day-to-day finances. As cliche as it might sound, Ramen is a popular meal on campus.

Another one of Wallace’s quirks is his obsessive compulsive nature. He conducts himself in a very specific manner and has his daily routine mapped out to a tee. It never changes. When he wakes up, he brushes his teeth, making sure to gargle and spit exactly three times. He then puts on a striped shirt followed by khaki pants. His wardrobe never changes. He always arrives to class five minutes early and turns in his assignments a day before they are due. This is how it’s always been.

How do I know all of this? Well, being a socially awkward hermit, Wallace didn’t tell me these things. I don’t think he’s even aware that his routine is a byproduct of OCD (I’m not claiming to know exactly what causes Wallace’s actions, but I do minor in psychology). It’s just something I’ve picked up on during the two years I’ve lived with the guy. It’s almost impossible not to notice.

Knowing Wallace’s usual behavioral patterns, I noticed that something wasn’t right. He began sleeping in his clothes, not brushing his teeth, and not passing in his assignments on time. Eventually, he stopped sleeping in our dorm all together. After over a day of not seeing him, things started looking grim.

Despite not knowing Wallace all that well, I became worried. Depression and suicide rates are at an all time high for our age group. I didn’t want the poor guy to do something stupid. That worry justified me hacking into his laptop to see what he’d been up to. It was the only thing I could think to do.

In finding his laptop and turning it on, I felt like a fool. The thing was as clean as a whistle, at least to my eyes. You see, though I pride myself in my tech know-how, Wallace is far more adept in the field. It was safe to say that I wouldn’t find a shred of evidence as to where he might be, or what he’d been doing. No journal entries, no browsing history, no nothing.

Feeling anxious, I thought about any other potential ways to continue my hunt for the truth. That’s when something clicked. Like I said before, I sometimes saw Wallace talking to the janitor in the halls. He was the only person I had ever seen him speak with at length. It was possible that he would know something about Wallace’s state of affairs.

Later that night, I exited my dorm and wandered the halls. Eventually I found Chuck, the janitor. I tried to be gentle when confronting him, as he had his back to me and was known to be hard of hearing. Still, when I tapped him on the shoulder, he jumped.

“Holy cheese balls, you nearly scared me half to death!”

Chuck laughed through his bushy, gray mustache.

“What can I do for you, son?”

I told Chuck about my predicament and how I was concerned for Wallace, having not seen him in a while. Chuck’s happy expression transformed into a look of unease and tension. He seemed to know a bit more than I did.

“Well, here’s the thing. Wallace is a good kid and we do chat from time to time. I happen to know where he might be, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable blurting out the details of his social life to anyone who asked, even if you are his roommate.”

Social life? Wallace didn’t have a social life. I pressured Chuck into letting me in on the secret. I really laid it on thick, expressing a great deal of concern for Wallace’s well-being. Being the nice, old janitor that Chuck is, he eventually gave in.

“Okay, okay. I understand. Just please don’t tell him that I told ya, okay?”

I nodded, eagerly awaiting for him to reveal Wallace’s whereabouts.

“Wallace has been feeling really down lately. He’s got no one to talk to but me. The kid wanted some friends. People that he could hang out with and talk to, ya know?”

I listened closely for the details I so desperately sought after.

“So, Wallace went on something he called… oh what was it… the deep web? On there he found a group of people. They called themselves the ‘Clan of the Red Wolf’ or something like that. Tthey invited him to one of their meetings. That’s probably where he is right now. He seemed pretty excited when he told me about it. In fact, it’s all he’s been talkin’ about for the past week.”

There. That was it. That was the bit of info I needed. The key to finding Wallace.

I thanked Chuck and gave him a goodnight wave as I ran back to my dorm room. From the sounds of it, Wallace got himself involved with another group of people who share in his interests and eventually they invited him to hang out in real life. I had their quirky name –“The Clan of the Red Wolf”, and that’s all I needed to find them on the deep web myself. Soon enough, I would be able to find my missing roommate.

It took quite a while, but I finally managed to find a deep web forum pertaining to the so called Clan. It contained nothing but a description and a series of videos. Here is the description as it appeared on the site:

Welcome to your new belief system!

We are the Clan of the Red Wolf, and we’re here to help! There are seven educational videos on this site, each tailored to a specific belief that we want to share with you. You are asked to watch these programs to understand our doctrine. If you make it to the last one, you will be invited into our den! Good luck!

The summary was bizarre, but nothing less than what I’d expected. Scrolling further, I noticed that all of the videos were titled similarly – “Day One”, “Day Two”, and so on. Naturally, I watched them.

The whole series reminded me of old war propaganda. It was made in the style of a vintage cartoon, starring a wolf as the main focus. Not a normal wolf, but a cartoon caricature version of one. Picture a character similar to Wile E. Coyote.

In each video, the wolf learned a new Clan value from the campy, male narrator. Not unlike old cartoons, the wolf comically goes against the narrator’s wishes and suffers the consequences before learning his lesson. Every video ends with the narrator saying, “Join the pack. You never have to feel alone again!” I guessed that was the selling point for lonely Wallace.

I will share with you a bit of the transcript from each video along with any points of interest.

VIDEO ONE: Wildlife

“Treat flora and fauna with dignity and respect. They’re people too! Trees provide you with the air you breathe and animals share the earth with you, keeping you from being alone! They deserve more than you ever will!”

*Wolf relieves himself on tree. Tree falls on top of him, crushing his head and revealing the blood and brain matter inside*

VIDEO TWO: Thicker Than Blood

“Your blood is the most important material in your earthly vessel! The Clan requires a sample upon joining our order. This is a requirement for all pledges. Our blood must flow as one for us to work together and save the planet!”

*Wolf enters a room full of cloaked figures – presumably Clan members. All members are in line, giving blood samples. The Wolf refuses to have his blood drawn and walks away. A cloaked figure sneaks up on him and slices his throat with a dagger. Video focuses on the wolf bleeding out for a few moments before fading to black*

VIDEO THREE: Obey or Suffer

“Remember what happened to our friend when he didn’t give his blood to the cause? He didn’t obey our order’s rules, so he had to suffer the consequences. Remember, the Clan’s laws are important. You must obey or perish. Trust me, it’s worth it!”

*Shows the wolf bleeding out again, only now a few cloaked figures are on top of him, stabbing his corpse repeatedly*

VIDEO FOUR: Vow of Secrecy

“The Clan of the Red Wolf is often misunderstood. Because of this, it is important to never tell anyone of our existence, under any circumstances! You may only speak about Clan activity with other Clan members. Break this rule and you will perish!”

*Wolf is shown talking to his wolf pals and showing them his new cloak. A cloaked figure walks in frame with what looks like a semi-automatic weapon and opens fire. The wolves fall to the ground, dead. The cloaked figure gives a thumbs up before the video ends*

VIDEO FIVE: Learn and Understand

“If you’re allowed into our inner sanctum, you will be greeted with knowledge! We abide by the word of the Red Wolf and you will too! You will be expected to learn and understand his teachings, otherwise you will fail – not only the Clan, but the entire world.”

*Wolf is seen in a classroom environment taking a test of some sort. He turns it in to a cloaked teacher and receives an F. The entire class points and laughs at him and then pulls out a plethora of medieval weaponry from their robes. They then proceed to close in on the wolf. The wolf swallows the lump in his throat before the video ends*

VIDEO SIX: Tasks and Rituals

“As a new recruit, you will be asked to carry out various tasks ranging from the mundane to the fantastic. Most of these missions will involve fetching ingredients for our rituals. As boring as that may sound, it is the most important thing you can ever do for the Clan! Rituals are what give the Clan power. Without this power, we cannot hope to rid the world of what plagues it.”

*Wolf fails to bring ingredients to Clan member for ritual. Jump cut to wolf being sacrificed on a black altar atop a pentagram, carved into the floor. He is beaten, cut open, and eventually torn apart by his fellow Clansmen*

VIDEO SEVEN: Mortals

“When accepted as a full fledged clan member, you are no longer considered ‘human’. You will be one of us. From that point forward, you are discouraged from any and all human interaction, unless it is deemed necessary to the cause. Humans are vile, filthy, disgusting, and dangerous creatures. We seek to exterminate them once and for all. Any human who knows of our existence and isn’t deemed worthy enough to join must be killed. Nature is your only friend.”

*Wolf is walking down a ‘main street’-like environment and can be seen waving to everyone he sees. He comes upon a Clan member who then pierces his gut with a long blade and tosses him aside in the road where he is then run over by numerous cars*

 

_____________________

 

The content of the videos was incredibly jarring. I almost couldn’t believe that such a cult could actually exist, let alone that Wallace would join them. He must have really been lonely.

The last video exited with the same “Join the pack” spiel and then faded out to a screen with a series of numbers. I assumed this was my invitation into the “den,”  perhaps an encrypted set of coordinates leading to the Clan’s lair. That, I thought, must have been where Wallace had gone.

I wrote down the code and immediately started doing some research to begin cracking it. Just as I was in the thick of things, something hit me. One of the videos stated that you couldn’t talk to anyone about the Clan under any circumstances. But Wallace talked to Chuck. That didn’t make any sense. Wallace was a stickler for rules.

Another fact hit me. The video stated that you could only talk about Clan activity with other Clan members. What if Chuck was one of them? Chuck could be stationed at the college to recruit members and he simply nudged Wallace in the right direction. He could have been playing dumb with me when I questioned him.

So either Chuck was a Clansman or Wallace broke a cardinal rule. Neither theory held much water. If Chuck was a member, then why would he have told me anything without either recruiting or killing me? And if Wallace was so eager to be accepted into a strict cult, then why would he disobey their wishes? I couldn’t make much sense of either angle.

I eventually gave in to the notion that perhaps Wallace simply disregarded the rules in lieu of his excitement. He was finally going to have friends, so he had to tell someone. This didn’t completely sit well with me, but I had to get back to cracking the code. I didn’t have time to dwell on uncertainties.

Just then, there was a knock at my dorm room door, followed by a voice.

“It’s Chuck, the janitor! I’m here to tidy up your room.”

Chuck never cleaned dorm rooms…

…that wasn’t part of his job.

“I’m all set!” I yelled, hoping he would leave me be.

The knocking ceased. There was a long stretch of silence followed by a soft, metallic creak.

The doorknob was turning.

 

CREDIT: Christopher Maxim

(Click HERE to checkout Christopher Maxim’s latest book, How To Exit Your Body and Other Strange Tales)

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Self-Portrait of the Dead

Self-Portrait of the DeadReading Time: 9 minutesMy mom hates her father. Grandfather Jack’s name might as well have been a swear word when I was growing up. Dad told me the story once, on the condition that I never tell mom I knew.

Jack was married to my Grandmother Kathy for 22 years before he cheated on her. It wasn’t a midlife crisis or an intoxicated indiscretion either — he’d been going on fishing trips every other weekend for almost a year before Kathy figured out the fish was named Sally, and that she was half his age. Either dad doesn’t know the specifics or he wouldn’t tell me, but I guess Kathy decided suicide was a less sinful way out than murder or divorce. That was before I was even born, but mom hasn’t spoken a word to her father since.

I still got to know him, though. It took 8 years of his begging and pleading after I was born, but mom finally gave in and arranged for us to meet (using my father to deliver messages between them, as she ‘was afraid of what she’d say if they spoke’). I was pretty scared when dad told me we were going to drive an hour into the desert to visit grandpa Jack’s house, and mom only made it worse in the days leading up to the meeting.

“He might be an axe-murderer by now for all I know,” Mom said.

Dad said he’s a professor of art history.

“Or maybe he’ll say nasty things about me. Whatever he tells you, I don’t want you to listen to him.”

Dad made a joke about how I’ve already had a lot of practice not listening to my parents. Mom didn’t smile.

“In fact, it would be better if you didn’t talk to him at all. Just let him see that you’re a happy, healthy, well-adjusted boy, and then go play by yourself until dad takes you home. Okay?”

“You’re going to have a great time,” Dad told me on the way. “He’s got a whole art studio setup with everything you can imagine. Clay pots and sculptures, water and oil paints, brushes and tools of every size and shape — we can hang out all day if you want.”

“Does Grandfather hate me?” I asked.

“Of course not. He wouldn’t have kept sending letters all those years if he hated you. All he cares about is his seeing his grandson.”

“Does he hate mom?”

“Your mom is a saint. No-one could hate her.”

“Did he hate Grandma?”

Dad looked uncomfortable at that. “You’ll have to ask him yourself.”

So I did. That was the first thing out of my mouth in fact. Grandpa Jack was a pudgy old man, straight bald with discolored blotches on his scalp, and a huge mustache that wiggled when he talked. He came rushing at me, arms wide for a hug, and I asked him if he hated my Grandmother. Froze him in his tracks. Dad stepped in front of me as if trying to protect me from being hit, but Grandfather Jack just squatted down to my height and looked me solemnly in the eye.

“I never loved any woman half as much as I did Kathy. Except your mother, of course. Just because two people love each other doesn’t mean they make each other happy though. I guess I just wasn’t strong enough to spend any more of my life being unhappy, and not brave enough to hurt your grandmother by telling her the truth.”

He smelled like old spice, and that seemed like a pretty satisfactory explanation at 8. I let him show me his studio and we painted a big landscape together. He did all the hard stuff and the details, and he helped me transform every messy blotch I made into something beautiful without painting over my contribution. He asked if I was going to visit again, and I said I wanted to — as long as mom allowed it anyway. I’ve never seen a man go so red, so fast, his mustache bristling like a porcupine.

“Your mother got no right to tell you anything. She can throw fits and slam doors all she wants, but you’re my family and the only thing left in this world I give a damn about. You tell her that, okay?”

I didn’t get to visit as often as I liked, but at least every month or two dad would drive me out there. Mom was reluctant at first, but I convinced her that I wanted to be a painter and that she’d be crushing my budding dreams if Jack didn’t teach me how. I loved the landscapes, but Jack’s specialty was portraits and his passion for them soon rubbed off on me.

“A good portrait only depicts the subject,” he told me once. “It’ll get the scruff on his chin and the wrinkles under his eyes and everything else that makes him who he is. But a great portrait —” here he took a long drink from his iced tea, liking to draw my attention out as long as it would go. “A great portrait is always a portrait of the artist. Doesn’t matter who he decided to paint, he put so much of himself into it that it’s going to tell you more about him than the person he’s painting.”

Jack had a special gallery just for self-portraits. He did a new one every year, the passage of time immaculately mapped onto his many faces. Seeing all the paintings together like that, I couldn’t help but notice that every year his brow seemed a little heavier. His smile was a little sadder, his eyes a little more weary. I didn’t like seeing him change like that, and I told him so.

“Don’t you worry, I still know how to paint a happy picture. I’m just saving it for the year when your mother finally forgives me.”

I told mom that too. She told me that he’d be better off figuring out how to decorate Hell.

The self-portraits made me sad, but they didn’t start to frighten me until Grandfather showed me his latest work when I was 19 years old.

“Where are your eyes?” I asked, staring at the blank pools of flesh dominating his latest portrait. The lines were more jagged than his previous work, making his sagging face seemed to be carved from marble.

“Right behind my glasses, silly,” he said.

“Why didn’t you paint them?”

He studied the picture, seeming to notice for the first time. “Would you look at that,” he mumbled. “Doesn’t matter. You can tell it’s still me, can’t you?”

More features were missing in the portrait next year. The whole face seemed to be sliding, almost as if the skin was a liquid that was dripping right off. He couldn’t figure out why I was making such a fuss over it. “Looks like me to me,” he grunted.

Shortly later Jack was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and it was all down hill from there. He’d retired as a professor several years back, and painting wasn’t a hobby anymore — it was an obsession. Now that I wasn’t living on my own it was easier to visit him more often, but even in the span of a week he’d have finished three or four more self-portraits, each more disconcerting than the last. I don’t know why he even called them self-portraits — they weren’t even recognizable as human anymore. Just tormented flesh, grotesquely and unevenly contoured as though the underlying skeleton was replaced with a haphazard pile of trash.

He’d get angry if I didn’t recognize him in his pictures. He said he was painting who he was, and if I didn’t see that, then I was the one who was blind. A few days later and he’d be excited to show me his next one, completely forgetting that the last one even existed at all.

“When is your mom going to come see? I’ve been calling her all week.”

He even forgot that she hates him too. Every time he’d ask, and every time I’d make a vague excuse and promise she’d be there next time.

He was 86 when he had his stroke. He didn’t paint again after that, and within the year he was gone. Dad and I went to the funeral, but mom just locked herself in her room. Grandfather still left everything to her anyhow, saying in the will that “I may not be able to give her a home, but at least I can give her my house.” She didn’t want to even set foot in the place though, so a week or so later I went to start boxing up the stuff for her.

That’s when I saw his final painting. I was dreading even going into his studio, and not just because I knew it was going to be the biggest job. I started stacking the abominable canvases face down so I wouldn’t have to look at them, but I couldn’t help but notice this one was different.

It was so perfect that it could have been a photograph. The self-portrait showed Jack lying peacefully in his casket, hands crossed over his chest, eyes closed. It was strange that he’d been able to paint it so precisely, considering the rest of his recent work littering the room. I sat there for awhile thinking how heartbreaking it was for him to predict his own death like that.

I left the painting out while packing, thinking of hanging it in my apartment to honor him. There were plenty of less morbid pictures to choose from, but this one felt like it was really him who painted it, not the disease which had ravaged his mind. It made me think that his spirit was at rest somewhere, and that made me glad. I hung it in my bedroom that night, saying goodnight to him just as I’d done on the dozens of sleepovers where I’d laid my sleeping bag at the foot of his bed.

I fell asleep quickly, exhausted from the manual work that day. I slept straight through the night, not even dreaming as far as I can remember. Then, sitting up in the morning, the first thing I saw was Jack staring back at me from his portrait. The one that had shown closed eyes the night before. Maybe it was like that yesterday and I didn’t notice, I thought, but that didn’t sit right with me at all. I remembered how Jack always used to get angry when I didn’t see the same thing as him in his pictures — maybe he was right and I really was just blind. I didn’t think too much of it until the next night when I woke up and the painting was screaming.

No sound — I wasn’t that mad yet — but the mouth was open, twisted and frozen in unending agony. I just sat in bed, breathing hard, staring at the colorless torment in the weak light from my window. I kept lying back down and trying to convince myself it was a dream, unable to sit still for more than a few seconds before jolting upright again to stare at the painting. It took me almost half an hour to finally get out of bed and turn the lights on. I laughed out loud to see him sleeping peacefully in the casket with his eyes closed, but I still slept with the light on the rest of the night. In the morning, his eyes were unmistakably open once more.

I didn’t blame Jack’s painting. I blamed myself for being blind like he always scolded me about. I called my mother and told her about my weird dream on her voice-mail. ‘Grandpa Jack is in pain’, I told her. I would have said more, but I felt stupid and hung up shortly after.

I didn’t actually hear the screaming until the second night, and by then it was already too late.

Sometime in the early morning — I was out of bed and halfway across the room before I was even fully awake. The sound ripped me from my bed so fast that I didn’t even realize it was coming from the painting. There was enough light to see Grandfather’s features twisted in agony.

My downstairs neighbor started pounding on the roof. That only seemed to make the screaming louder. The thrum of blood in my ears matched the beat, then raced passed.

I tried to run, but my door handle wouldn’t turn. I didn’t struggle long — to stand by the door I had to be right next to the portrait and the sound was excruciating.

Next, I pulled the painting from the wall. Hanging behind it was a second painting — one I’d never put there. One of the disfigured ones with its lump flesh all supported wrong from underneath. I saw this as a sign, although I was too freaked out to guess at what, so I hung the screaming painting back to cover up that abomination.

Re-secured to the wall, I started to retreat toward the window. I didn’t make it more than a step before a firm grip grasped my wrist and pulled me back. One of Grandfather’s hands no longer ended at the canvas. Cold pale skin, its nails digging into me, relentlessly dragging me back toward the picture as though through an open window.

At this point, I was screaming too. Someone started hammering on my door. I tried to brace myself against the wall with my feet. The pale hand shook for its effort, but it was still stronger — inch by inch pulling me into his coffin. I almost wriggled free when his second hand shot out — this one catching me by the throat — to haul me forward at an alarming rate.

I was so close I could smell him, but it wasn’t the old spice cologne he always wore. My face pressed against the canvas, it smelled like rotten meat. Then I was through — I clenched my eyes shut, helpless as his cold arms wrapped around me.

It was quiet on the other side. I couldn’t even hear my heart anymore. The pressure around me was gentle, like being encompassed by cool water or even a heavy fog. A moment later and the sensation was already retreating. I opened my eyes to find myself standing in my bedroom, facing the portrait on the wall. Hands folded across his lap, eyes closed, just like it ought to be.

I spent the next half hour profusely apologizing to my neighbors. I’m lucky I didn’t get locked up. After that I called my mom, surprised to find her in tears.

“Are you okay? Where are you?” I asked.

“I’m okay. Dad’s okay. I visited him in the cemetery this morning. It’s stupid of me, right?” She paused to sniffle and blow her nose. “Do you think he knows?”

I told her I think he was pretty pleased about that, and that it made me happy too. I don’t know what would have happened to me if she hadn’t.

 

CREDIT: Tobias Wade

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In-cide

In-cideReading Time: 25 minutes“Holy shit…Gary?  Is that you, Gary?”

Gary quickly spun around to face the voice he’d immediately recognized, although he was far from convinced that it was actually coming from the form of his brother and best friend: Mikey.  It seemed fairly obvious that since he was most likely losing his mind, the possibility that Mikey was really nothing more than an elaborate construct his waning sanity had produced for its own amusement had to be given serious consideration.

“Mikey?”  Weak and uncertain, his tone was almost pleading.

“Well yea, Little Brother,” Mikey assured him before Gary quickly closed the space between them and fell into his brother’s embrace, his entire body buzzing involuntarily.  The hell he’d found himself in was one in which time seemed to come to a complete stop; it was nearly impossible for him to determine just how long he’d been wondering around that same, unending madhouse.

“It’s okay Gary.”  Mikey’s voice was smooth and calming.  “You’re okay, buddy.  I’m here now.”  The words were so well rehearsed for the older brother, they almost came out on their own.  It was far from an uncommon occurrence for Gary to fall into a state of histrionics over one anxiety laden fear or another.  Gary was, in the words of their dearly departed mother, “a delicate soul”.  With a heart bigger than most, his capacity for love and kindness was beyond that of anyone else Mikey’s had ever met…but that type of emotional depth sometimes came at a hefty cost.  Gary felt his emotions on a cellular level and, unfortunately, that included fear.  It took very little, actually, to provoke the adolescent into hyperventilation…or even occasional states of catatonia.

“What the hell are you even doing here?” Mikey finally asked once he felt confident that the other boy wouldn’t be slipping into one of those moments.  Gary could only shake his head.  After so many circles through the hellish dome, it seemed he’d honestly forgotten why or how he had ended up there in the first place.

“Why…”  Gary’s voice was still shaky, barely maintaining its integrity.  “Why are you here Mikey?  Did you come to save me?”

Mikey chuckled and gave his brother’s shoulder a light squeeze.  “Just a happy accident, Little Bro.”  Gary smiled despite himself.  “What I really came looking for was that smell.”  The moment the word escaped his mouth Gary remembered.  Of course…the smell…the food!  As unbelievable as it might have seemed when he first arrived, the younger brother’s nose had become so accustomed to the odor that it no longer began to register…but that’s exactly why he had entered the dome as well.

While it was impossible to pinpoint the exact source of the aroma, it, most certainly, must have been emanating from one hell of a barbeque.  There were hints of beans, mashed potatoes, Cajun spices and something that had obviously been slow-roasted to perfection.  Gary had caught the scent from half-way across town and it had led him straight to the dome’s entrance.  While there was little fanfare announcing what was apparently the newest restaurant in Porch, Gary had still fully expected to walk into a bustling epicenter of smiling faces and bulging tummies.  That hadn’t been the case, however.

The large, domed building’s walls were some type of thick polyurethane that provided only a hazy view of the exterior and turned the sunlight into a dim, green glow that bathed everything within its interior.  The atmosphere it created was undoubtedly ominous and for a split-second, as he crossed the entrance’s threshold, Gary had almost listened to the little voice in his head that had suddenly begun screaming THIS IS WRONG!   The fact that there were no obvious patrons or employees did nothing to alleviate the sensation and there was that one moment when he could’ve just walked away.

The exit was right there; he could still see the bright pink blossoms beckoning him to turn around.  There was practically no part of him that felt the urge to continue and had the delicious aroma not been so overpowering at the point…he probably would have left then.  Once he’d found himself part-way into the dome’s interior, however, his stomach seemed to single-handedly take control of the reigns.  It was utterly intoxicating, to the point where it seemed to block every rational thought from his young mind.  It may have looked like some deserted fun-house at first blush, but somewhere within its circular walls existed a meal greater than anything he could imagine.   Come hell or high water…he was going to have it!

It had only taken a few steps within for Gary to realize the magnitude of his mistake.  As if influenced by some dark magic, the open doorway he’d entered seemed to disappear.  All thoughts of the most delicious food ever were immediately washed away by his heightened sense of fear.  Slowly…methodically…he had begun working his way around the outer walls.  Surely, he had thought, if he took his time he would have to find a door.  It defied logic for him to think otherwise, not to mention that doing so would’ve forced him into a sniveling ball on the floor.

One hour turned into two, two into four, and then after that…it was impossible to say.  The horrible green glow messed with more than his eyes and left him feeling lost in a state of reality where there was no time…or space…or anything at all.  It was just him.  Gary had found himself lost in this circular, green hell.  He had, in fact, very nearly reached his breaking point when Mikey had found him.

“So where’s this food at Gary?”  Mikey raised his nose to the air and filled his lungs with the savory fragrance his little brother had seemingly become immune to.  The question hadn’t been meant to prompt an adverse reaction and Mikey was definitely not ready for the response it did illicit as his little brother fell into hysterical tears.  Mikey couldn’t help but to sigh; it was premature to have thought that they were going to be able to avoid one of Gary’s breakdowns…but damned if he hadn’t.

It took a full ten minutes of soothing words and rubbing the back of the kid’s head gently for the sobbing to finally subside.  Once there was some degree of calm again, Gary looked up at Mikey with swollen eyes and said, “No food.  There is no food!”

“I don’t understand Gary.”  Mikey craned his head around dramatically.  “Where’s the smell coming from?  I’ve been around longer than you…and you know that I know some stuff.  I’m telling you right now…that smell only comes from good food.”  Gary protested even harder.

I’m telling you!  There is no food!”  The sobs began to gather at the ends of his words again so Mikey didn’t push.  “I can’t…even…find the door out!  There’s nothing in this whole place…except…”

“Except what?” Mikey was genuinely curious and, not given to the same ‘worst-case scenario’ fears that plagued his brother, he was eager to explore this mystery a little further.  While it was true that he hadn’t seen the exit since he’d come in, he hadn’t exactly been looking for it either.  In the back of his mind, and far from his lips, Mikey was pretty certain of two things: there was a way out and, somewhere within those walls, there was a damn good meal to be had.  It wasn’t terribly shocking that Gary hadn’t been able to locate either, as well.  He loved the kid intensely but Gary could get lost in his own bedroom.

Mikey had been tableside for some amazing meals in the town of Porch and nothing…absolutely nothing…had ever smelled as good as this.  As Gary led him to a point further down the wide circular hall Mikey was pretty sure he’d end up being the hero to his little brother once again.  They’d be going home in an hour with full bellies and Gary would, once again, expel the wondrous traits of his big brother to everyone they’d pass on the way.  That was okay though.  Mikey liked the way he looked through his brother’s eyes.  In a way, it pushed him to be a better individual.  He was always trying to live up the considerable mental image Gary had of him.

Before too long they came to a stop and Gary pointed up to the three words superimposed on the green, exterior wall.  The massive letters were backwards, making it obvious that they were on the outside or at least meant to be read from that angle.

“What does it say?” Gary asked earning him a scowl and a smack in the back of the head.

“How the hell should I know what it says, Smart Guy?  Why don’t you tell me?”

“I don’t know,” Gary barely muttered aloud.  He couldn’t tell if his brother was teasing him or truly upset.

Living in Porch had plenty of benefits.  The area was beautiful, brought in plenty of tourism and provided some significant amenities to new residents…but the educational system was not one of them.  Things were done the old ways and that included teaching and passing on history through oral traditions.  This didn’t mean that the citizens of Porch were any less intelligent than others, but it did create an epidemic of illiteracy.  One would’ve been hard pressed to find anyone locally who could’ve read those words.  That alone, only added to the strangeness of why they were there in the first place.

The “except that” that Gary had wanted to point out wasn’t, unfortunately, what Mikey had been hoping to see.  At very least, he’d been anticipating a clue of some type and there were no insights to be had from this.

“Okay listen…”  Mikey sat his brother on the ground, his back against the wall with the giant mystery words looming above him.  “I want you to stay here for now.”

“No!” Gary screamed, instantly in protest mode. “You can’t leave me alone again.”

“It’s okay, Big Guy,” Mikey cooed; “I’m just going to check the place out and I don’t want to have to worry about you keeping up.  You stay here and I’ll know right where to come back to.  I need for you to be a grown-up right now.”

“But I’m not,” Gary interjected.

“Yea…I know Gary…but right now…I think you can be.  Besides…you’re not a maggot are you?”

Gary shook his head ‘no’.   Had anyone else asked him that question, he might’ve broken into tears again, but coming from Mikey…it didn’t bother him.  No one in his life actually shot him straight; everyone else always treated him with kid gloves as not to disturb his delicate sensibilities.  It wasn’t like his big brother was mean to him really…he was just the only one who wouldn’t mince his words around Gary, especially when it was about matters of importance.  Gary always took it as a sign of respect on the rare occasions that Mikey did give him a hard time and this was no exception.

“No…” he mumbled, more to himself than aloud; “I’m not a maggot.”

“Damn right you’re not!  You’re my bad-ass, little brother.”  Gary smiled and bobbed his head slightly in agreement.  He could be motivated relatively easily anyway, but Mikey was a pro at knowing which buttons to push.

“Just give me ten minutes and I’ll know everything I need to know.  This place isn’t that big.  I won’t leave you.  I promise.”  Gary whimpered slightly but nodded in acquiescence nonetheless.

It was a little harder to leave him there against the glowing green wall than he’d anticipated, but it was necessary and Mikey spent the next ten minutes scouring the exterior walls, much as his brother had done earlier in the day, except at a much more expedient pace.  The domed building was basically one immense hallway that circled back upon itself and it didn’t take too long to discover that his brother’s claims weren’t entirely without merit: the exit had seemingly disappeared.  Mikey wasn’t quite ready to dive into the panic pool with his brother just yet however, but it was sufficiently unnerving.  He still retained a vivid memory of the substantially solid opening in the wall by which he’d entered…but the memory seemed to be all that was left of it.  Furthermore, the amazing food odor that hung in the air like a narcotic haze seemed to be emanating from, as crazy as it sounded, the walls themselves.  Of course it all denied logic and made no rational sense whatsoever…but that didn’t change the fact that it was what it seemed to be.

By the time he’d circled back around to Gary and the massive, mystery words, again that little voice that had been screaming warnings in Gary’s ear earlier in the day was just beginning its second round in his.  This wasn’t good.  He had fully expected that when he saw his brother again he’d come bearing solutions.  He was supposed to be handing him some delicious food at that point before heroically leading him back to his bedroom.  Now Mikey was wondering if he would ever see his own room again, let alone return Gary to his.  What felt like the beginning of an exciting, or at very least interesting, adventure only thirty minutes ago was quickly spiraling into a waking nightmare.  That was, in Mikey’s estimation, the worst type as a new day would bring no reprieve.

As Mikey closed the last few steps between them, he tried to appear calm…calmer, at least, than he actually was; and he hoped it would be sufficient enough to keep Gary from truly reading him.  He had no idea what he was going to say to his little brother, but he knew that it wouldn’t go well if Gary had any intimation as to what he was really thinking.  The younger of the two, most likely, wouldn’t be reacting well regardless how the next few minutes went down…but if he were to reveal that his best supposition up to that point was that they’d somehow landed themselves in the twelfth-circle of hell…well…it probably wasn’t wise.

Mikey had half expected to find his brother in a different location.  Gary was always flittering about and rarely stayed in one spot for more than a few seconds.  The fact that he hadn’t budged an inch spoke volumes about the little guy’s mental condition.  Somewhat despondent and rocking back and forth, it seemed that Gary had “stepped outside of himself” or at least that’s what he called it.  His body’s go-to reflex for extreme situations, it happened from time to time when stress and anxiety got the better of him.  It wouldn’t take too much for Mikey to break through the self-hypnotic paralysis his brother’s body had put itself in, but…for the first time ever…he wondered if he even should.  Wherever the hell the kid’s mind had gone to must surely be better than this.  Plus…every second that he stayed like that was another second that Mikey could avoid revealing his failures.  Hell…maybe he could join Gary wherever he’d gone to.

Once he’d finally reached his little brother’s side, Mikey struggled to assemble the right words before releasing them into the world, as the only ones he could think of seemed to carry an apocalyptic weight with them that would’ve, in no way, been right to dump on Gary.  The last thing on earth that Mikey wanted at that point was to exasperate his steadily deteriorating mental state…but he couldn’t let the kid remain completely oblivious to the direness of their current situation either.  It was something of a ‘Catch-22’ and for the first time in perhaps his entire life…Mikey was without words.

In truth, Gary had to already know how bad their predicament was; he had, after all, been trapped in this place a lot longer than Mikey had been and he was displaying all the symptoms of having been carrying that knowledge for some time now.  Mikey had seen his little brother come close to a complete and utter breakdown on more than one occasion, but that had to be worst by far.  The kid had, obviously, pinned all his hopes to being rescued by the guy that was always there to rescue him…and, ostensibly, it was the only thing keeping him on this side of the sanity fence.

Mikey opened his mouth to say, “Gary” with no idea which words would follow.  Every thought seemed painfully inadequate or overtly portentous with no middle ground offering itself up to him.  Fortunately, he wasn’t forced to decide.  Before the first word could escape, they were both surprised by a third voice that seemed to pipe in from nowhere and everywhere at the same time.  Gary was immediately pulled back to a fully conscious state while Mikey craned his head to locate the source of the voice that they both knew very well: it was ‘Uncle Frank’.

Truthfully, neither of the brothers could say for sure that Frank was actually their uncle as everyone in Porch called him “Uncle Frank” as if he had been christened as such since the very beginning.  That wasn’t to say that he wasn’t either.  Porch was an old community and it obtained very few residents from other locations which, by and large, had created a town where very nearly everyone was a blood-relative with one another.  The odds were probably pretty good that at least a third of the town could call him “Uncle Frank” and be accurate in doing so.  In Porch, the idea of the ‘extended family’ took on a whole new meaning and even those who held no relation treated each other as though they did.  There was no shortage of “Aunts”, “Uncles”, “Grams” and “Gramps” and, frankly, no one would have it any other way.

“Boys!?”  Uncle Frank’s voice filtered through to them again; “What are you guys doing in there?”

“Uncle Frank?” Gary called out as he got to his feet and began frittering around in an effort to pinpoint the source.

“Over here,” he called back although, given the wonky acoustics, it did nothing to help the brothers’ locate him.  For several excruciating minutes they played verbal tag trying to bring themselves together; it was Mikey that finally spotted him on the other side of the dim, green wall.  He was outside.  It was actually rather amazing that Uncle Frank had been able to see them on the inside at all and if it weren’t for a renegade stream of sunlight and a stroke of luck…he probably wouldn’t have.

The three finally met in the same spot with only the circular green wall keeping them from making any physical contact.  Oddly enough, now that they were right in front of each other they could barely hear each other and had to yell at the top of their lungs to communicate at all and, even then, it was a broken conversation at best.  Uncle Frank had begun and, although he spoke for some time the only words the brothers could discern were “How the hell…”, “Where is the…”, “…tell everyone…” and “…yummy, damn smell…”.  It was fairly obvious what he was trying to express, however: he wanted in.  The only thing in the whole world that they wanted right now was to get the hell out of there and…that damn fool wanted in.

The brothers found themselves screaming back at him in unison and repeating nearly identical phrases like “it’s a trap”, “get us out” and “get help” and for a moment they thought they’d gotten through to him.  It appeared for a moment that he was calling others over in an effort to help them.  Unfortunately, the view through the dim green wall didn’t provide enough detail for them to see the skeptical expression on Uncle Frank’s face…and then the faces of those that joined him.  It was the smell.  It was just too powerful.

Mikey should’ve known from his own interactions with Gary when he first encountered him in the dome.  He hadn’t believed his brother when he was told there was no food…just as those on the other side of the dome’s wall did not believe them.  They knew with the same certainty that he had that either A: they were just too stupid to locate the food; or B: they were trying to keep it all for themselves.  The scent, unfortunately, proved to be as strong as any drug in Porch and the small crowd gathering on the outside of the dome seemed to be leaning towards the latter.  Before too long they weren’t trying to communicate with the brothers any longer and began to split up into small ‘front-door’ search parties.

Gary and Mikey watched with morbid fascination as the crowd grew larger and larger, all searching for a way in.  They covered every inch on the dome’s walls and even onto its roof and the brothers’ desperately tried to keep as many of them in their viewpoints as possible.  While these stupid fools may have been trying to get in, instead of getting them out, it could still work out in their favor.  If someone were to manage their way in and one of them could see them do it…then they’d know how to get out…theoretically.  The key element to their continued existence was finding that damned door and every neuron they had were singularly focused on that task.  The steadily growing assembly outside could only be a good thing as far as they were concerned.  They’d already exhausted their hopes of their finding the door themselves from the inside.  This could very well be their last, best chance at escape.

Occasionally they would catch a snippet as one group would call out to another “not here” or “keep looking” but for the most part they were nothing more than obscured shapes scaling about the dome creating strange green shadows that danced eerily across the floor and inner walls.  If the brothers hadn’t been so intensely fixated on keeping up with their progress, the effect would’ve been nothing short of creepy.  Every second was a minute and every minute an hour to the extent that time almost had no meaning.  Days could’ve passed when a random voice rang out with a pitch-perfect clarity that could’ve come from right next to them.

“It’s here!”  They had no idea whose voice it was, although it did seem somewhat familiar, surely someone they’d both met before.  “I found the door everyone!” she screamed again; “I found the door!”  They didn’t see anyone’s bright eyes looking back at them from any direction and they immediately separated, desperately searching from the source.  Normally, Gary wouldn’t have let Mikey set off in the opposite direction, such as he did, but they both knew in their cores that this was a crucial moment…one they couldn’t let pass them by.  Somewhere close, someone had found their way out!

“Where are you?” Gary called out to the voice, no longer able to see his brother or the new occupant.  “Help us!”

“I’m right here dear!”  Gary spun on his heels and there she was, standing right in front of him.  It was Mary Something-or-another; Gary had met her on a couple occasions.  At his age, politics wasn’t really something he kept up with but he kind-of thought that she was the Mayor or maybe a preacher.  He was pretty sure he’d seen her speaking before crowds of some type…but it was hard to say in his current traumatized state.  Whatever the case, seeing her standing here in front of him was the last thing he wanted to see.

“NO!” he screamed involuntarily.  “No…no…no!  Where’s the door?  How did you get in here?”  He could tell from Mary’s mildly bemused facial expression that she was giving no credence to his panic.  For starters, he did have something of a reputation in Porch for his emotional escapades…so most adults generally gazed at him with that same look.  Beyond that, however, was the fact that she was fully enraptured by the aroma still wafting off the walls.  He could see it in her eyes; she held no concern for his safety.

“It’s right there behind me, silly.” She said as she flitted past him in search of the elusive food.  Gary could feel the tears pooling again as he desperately searched the area from which she’d came…the direction from which he had just come.  Much as he expected: there was nothing there.  It was as maddening as it was frightening.  After a couple frantic minutes searching walls he’d already searched a dozen times before, Gary decided to backtrack and grill Mayor Mary a little harder about the way she’d gotten in.  It was a moot decision, however, as the moment he spun around he was met by Uncle Frank and several of his drinking buddies who filled the hall before him, appearing as if from nowhere.

“Uncle Frank!” Gary screamed; the joy he suddenly felt piercing his tone.  Uncle Frank’s manic friends immediately dispersed in both directions, making no effort to conceal their drooling, zombified expressions.  Much like Mary before them, they were fully caught up in the hypnotic aroma’s spell.

“How…” was all Gary managed to get out before his uncle was cutting him off while physically covering the youth’s mouth to hush him.

“Not now, Little Buzzy.”  ‘Little Buzzy’ was his go-to pet-name for any local child whose real name didn’t instantly spring to mind.  Gary knew that Uncle Frank knew his name but…much like the others…he wasn’t engaging in the type of rational thought he normally would be; it was more than evident from his wide, wild eyes.  It surely didn’t help that he’d probably spend the better part of the morning getting drunk on the locally produced fermented, apple concoction that served as the biggest tourism draw in the summers.

“Just point me in the direction of the food, Kiddo!”  It was a reaction beyond anything that Gary could easily digest and something inside him just, kind-of snapped.  Without even knowing that he was going to do so, Gary watched in slow-motion as his arm autonomously raised itself and swung through the air, smacking Uncle Frank right across his face.  For a full three seconds there was nothing but shocked silence as neither of them could actually believe it had just happened.

“What the fu…”  The older of the two began, but Gary cut him off.

“The door Frank!  Where’s the damn door?”  The simple fact that Gary hadn’t addressed him with the normal ‘Uncle’ attached to his moniker seemed to convey his seriousness more than anything and Uncle Frank’s jaw dropped open.  He blinked several time, as if waking up from a dream before finally sputtering; “It’s…uh…it’s…right there.”  He pointed to a spot in the wall where he thought he just entered but, much to his chagrin, there was nothing there save the sheen solidity of impenetrable green.  Uncle Frank blinked again and shook his head as he struggled to process just exactly what was happening.

For a moment, Gary thought he’d won his uncle over to the side of genuine concern.  That was up to the point that Uncle Frank’s belly gurgled its insistence, easily re-directing his attention.

“Doesn’t matter, Kid.”  He waved it off.  “We’ll find it later.  If you’re not going to help me find the food…well…don’t expect me to share.”  On the last couple words, Uncle Frank had spun around and begun to make his way in the opposite direction.  Gary wanted to scream in frustration but, as it turned out, it was a good thing he didn’t.  As Uncle Frank had rounded the bend, just out of sight, Gary could hear him repeat “excuse me…excuse me” as other voices returned with several “pardon me”, “coming through” and “where’s the food, Buddy?”  There were more coming in!

Gary sprinted up the bend and was met with a small crowd, maybe twenty or thirty more; and the group was continuing to grow.  He desperately tried to fight his way forward through the growing mass of bodies but his progress was becoming slower.  No matter how hard he tried to jockey for any type of vantage point, he was unable to see where they were coming from.  They were just…coming.  It was only a matter of minutes for the thirty to become a hundred or more and he found himself being pressed backwards by the overwhelming size of the group.

Once he’d been pushed to a point where the bodies were coming in from both sides of the large, circular hall Gary began screaming out for his brother.  It felt like screaming into the wind, however.  Hundreds of voices all asking each other some variation of the question, ‘where’s the food?’ created cacophonous jumble of noise.  He was actually shocked when Mikey came fighting his way through the crowd to his side where the two of them embraced tightly.

“I told you I’d come back, Little Bro.”  Gary’s moist eyes looked up at his brother and he nodded as though he’d never had a doubt; in truth…he hadn’t.  Mikey had never let him down before.

“I couldn’t see where they’re coming in at,” Gary called out to his brother; the growing din about them making it necessary to raise their voices even though they were right next to one another.

“I know…” Mikey replied; “I couldn’t either.  They just started flooding in.”  Looking around, the brothers could see that very nearly the everyone in Porch seemed to be cramming themselves into the dome that had once given the impression of being very large around them.  It was progressively seeming smaller and smaller as they began to be squished together from all sides.  Logic looked to dictate that once the place filled up, whomever was the last one in would be standing next to the door and would therefore be able to lead everyone out.  Regrettably, that didn’t appear to be the case.

Instead of reaching an apex of fullness and then receding like the wading shore, the count just continued to grow and, before they were even aware of their legs leaving the ground, they were being lifted up by a sea of Porchians.  Fear now gripped both brothers equally as they struggled to keep their arms linked together and somewhere in both their minds there was this idea that if they could just hold out long enough, this entire nightmare would come to an end somehow.  Unless they had all just died and gone to hell, this was an unthinkable scenario that must surely give way to probability and logic at some point and mercifully ease itself into something that could be overcome.

This must’ve been the prevailing mindset for the group as a whole as, once they’d become crammed together, no one concerned themselves with the food any longer; they hadn’t, however, given way to complete pandemonium either.  There was plenty of tension and anxiety, undoubtedly, but it didn’t go much further than that…at first.  That was, as they would all soon discover, the calm before the storm.  Fifteen minutes and fifty bodies later and it was an entirely different picture.  The calm that kept the tightness of their bodies from becoming a hazard dissipated, slowly at first, and regressed the normally peaceful population into a state of primal chaos.

The shifting and twisting was subtle at first, nothing more than tiny efforts for the smallest bits of comfort but quickly, and without warning, it turned into an aggressive battle for survival.  Friends, neighbors and loved ones began to flail and struggle against one another amid the growing roar of cries and moans.  Showing no concern for whom they might be climbing over, it seemed most everyone had become fixated on a singular goal: not being on the bottom.

Squished tightly against Mikey and struggling for breath, Gary was terrified beyond the point of making any of his own sounds and, upon seeing his countenance mirrored in his brother’s face, slipped into a self-defensive state of mental separation.  Looking around with wide, glassy eyes, and now detached from the reality of their predicament, his field of vision was completely filled with massive array of wailing faces.  Some of them he knew…some he didn’t…but all of them shared the same panicked expressions.  Somewhere deep inside, Gary was grateful for the fact that this nightmare glimpse into hell wasn’t actually happening to him.

Somehow, and inexplicably, the dome continued to fill and, as the crest began to rise, the degrees of primitive savagery grew with it.  Churning like a slowly boiling cauldron, the roiling sea of bodies created unusual riptides and Mikey could feel himself and Gary being pulled beneath the surface.  One look into his little brother’s eyes told him that the kid was no longer with him…not in any useful capacity at least; and although he knew it would make keeping them alive that much harder…he was glad to see it.   Hell…he might’ve even been a little jealous.  Either way…he wasn’t going to let them get pulled into the abyss without a fight.

With one arm wrapped tightly around Gary’s neck, Mikey used his other appendages to try to fight his way back to the top.  Mikey was a strong guy…and a good swimmer to boot, but this wasn’t anything like treading water.  Perhaps if the water punched him in the face and grabbed at his legs with each stroke there might’ve been some ground for comparison.  Gary’s body felt like dead weight and for several indeterminably long seconds there was nothing but the painful and exhausting struggle to maintain their ground and ‘stay afloat’ along with the horrifying knowledge that the amount of time his body allowed him to continue to fight was quickly coming to an end.

Gary’s eyes slowly circled back to his own as only their heads were left protruding above the fray and Mikey thought he saw something in them that he knew would definitely not be in his own: acceptance.  There was an unfathomable peace deep within them and Mikey couldn’t help but to be amazed by the little guy at least one more time in their lives.  Gary always told anyone that would listen that his big brother was his hero and that he would always save the day…but the truth of the matter was actually the opposite.  Gary was really the hero; he always had been.  The way the kid looked at the world and everyone in it was to truly be admired.  Somehow he always managed to see the beauty in everyone and everything and even this was no exception.

Mikey opened his mouth to scream, “I love you Gary” at least one more time…even though he already knew, but the words didn’t get a chance to produce themselves.  As quickly as the frenetic swirling had begun…it came suddenly to a stop, followed very closely by a wave of four repeated words.  Like an echo that grew louder as it progressed, Mikey found himself repeating the phrase as well, involuntarily sending the message forward.

“He…can…read…it.”

It wasn’t a lot to go on but each set of ears that the words reached seemed to instantly comprehend their meaning and, more importantly, became still as a result.  The mysterious and surreal circumstances that the citizens of Porch had found themselves in was unimaginable by any stretch of the imagination and came with no shortage of prevailing questions.  Initially, what seemed to be the most important, ‘where is the food?’, was nothing more than an afterthought having quickly been replaced by more pressing ones like, ‘where’s the door?’ and ‘Oh Dear Lord what have I done?’.

There was one mystery, however, that taunted all of them in their various states of dismay, one that, quite literally, hung over them: those damned words on the wall.  While it didn’t appear to bear any relevance to their current predicament it still felt important.  There were no avenues of logic that led anyone to believe that knowing what those huge letters spelled out would, in any way, improve their situation and yet…there was something about them that seemed to extend some small sliver of hope to every one of them that saw them.  Somehow…in some way…those words were the key to their freedom!  The effect was, in all probability, an unintended one but that didn’t stop the irrational thought from spreading quickly.  So much so that the mere idea that there was someone in there who could actually read them was enough to bring about a temporarily stoic silence.

From somewhere further down the bend, Mikey could see a body that had been lifted up out of the tightly wound mass and was slowly being moved forward by hundreds of hands which, at least momentarily, were working together.  From his awkward, half-buried angle it was difficult to tell who it was, only that they were old.  For the most part however, the brothers were directly beneath the three words on the wall and, in another moment or two, that individual would be upon them anyway…assuming the undulating thing that they had all become together continued to maintain a cooperative calm rather than reverting back to the previously chaotic state.  The beast that was ‘the thing in the dome’ contained the cumulative qualities that could make it a powerful asset if they could only keep their wits; one that could even, perhaps, find its way across the river Styx and out of this green, Hades.  Unfortunately, the thing held just as much potential for autosarcophagy.

Once Mikey was finally able to see who it was that had been surfed their way, his initial response was one of genuine shock; and then a second wave of shock at the fact that, given where they were and what was happening, he could even be shocked in the first place.  No one, even their long dead mother herself, should’ve really been a surprise in that moment.  They were, after all, in some sort of altered reality where the normal rules no longer applied.  And yet…seeing the Colonel was not at all what he’d been expecting.

For starters, it was common knowledge that Old Colonel Foster never left his home…never.  He was, by far and away, the oldest citizen of Porch and, given that he lived right on the outskirts, could barely be called that.  Something of a modern-day legend, there were so many stories told about him in town, it was all but impossible to discern truth from fiction anymore.  The few things that did seem etched in stone were that Old Colonel Foster was a former soldier who fought in the Great Wasp War and who now lived as a hermit.  From there one was free to believe any number of options that had been floated over time, everything from his being the Godfather of an underground criminal syndicate to an undead vampire to a witness protection program candidate who’d gone into hiding after helping to bring down an underground criminal syndicate.  There was no shortage of backgrounds and abilities to choose from but as the old guy was being gently settled right next to them, Mikey remembered one in particular that came up from time to time.  Old Colonel Foster could actually read!

A wave of intense shushing rapidly made its way around the dome…and then all eyes were on the aged veteran who had focused his attention solely on the three words before him.  The first word, written above the other two, was longer than both of others combined and the old guy took over a minute trying to sound it out aloud, pausing a couple of times to apologize and say, “it’s been a long time since I’ve read”.

“Dee…da…diss…po…pose…a…disposa…bb…buu…bull…” before finally; “disposable”.  Confused looks were exchanged all around and several could be heard muttering “disposable?” to themselves or others before the Colonel was pressed to continue.  The next two words came easily and were quickly spread around the dome like lightening which fried the sanity of each that heard and then repeated them.  There was a long moment of silent stillness as each individual took the time they needed to process just exactly where it was that they were before giving in fully to the panic and fear.

Mikey could only watch as his little brother was torn away from him, taking his arm with him.  The gaping wound felt vaguely like ice, but given that the action sent him into shock, it wasn’t nearly as intense as he though it probably should’ve been.  Reaching out with his remaining arm he took one last swipe as his brother…and missed.  Just before Gary disappeared into the frantically swirling sea of wailing fear their eyes made contact for the last time and Gary…smiled at him.  It was exactly what Mikey needed to see and, amazingly enough, completely washed away his distress and…he felt the peace as well.  Even in the end the kid was his friggin’ hero.  Then he was gone, swept away by the gory tide.

Mikey looked up at the words on the wall above him as he felt himself being pulled under as well and couldn’t help but to think to himself, what type of creature would even conceive such a place as this?  What demon from the abyss came forward to construct this green hell, otherwise known as the “DISPOSABLE FLY TRAP”?

There was very little time to ponder the idea, however, as Mikey could feel the same freezing sensation on his back as both his wings were ripped away.  Awash in arms, legs, wings and heads, death was all about him and he could feel its cold embrace all over.  It wouldn’t be much longer now and, thanks to Gary, he was okay with that.  His only real regret, here at the end of his short life, was that there was nothing he could do to keep his brethren away from this place.  There was no telling how many lives this place could claim before the monsters deemed it…disposable.

 

CREDIT: Shannon Higdon

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Late Night Pizza

Late Night PizzaReading Time: 4 minutes

It was ten minutes till close when I heard the door swing open.

Jingle-jingle.

Ugh. A customer this late? It was my first day at Tony’s Pizzeria, and I was eager to get home. My manager, Mason, had to leave early – his infant son had a fever – and I was left all alone to close up. Sighing, I put down the broom, and made my way to the front.

“Hi, may I help –”

I stopped.

The store was empty. Everything was as I left it – the chairs lifted onto the tables, the lights dim, the silverware and parmesan shakers sitting on the shelf above the garbage.

“Hello?” I called.

But only silence met my ears.

I shrugged and went back to sweeping.

The store was eerily quiet; the only sound was my broom scratching rhythmically against the floor, as I swept shreds of mozzarella across the floor. Only five minutes till close, I thought, glancing up at the clock. Then I can finish cleaning, lock up, and get out of here.

But I had scarcely swept another few feet when I heard it again –

Jingle, jingle.

I dropped the broom and ran to the front of the store.

“Hello?”

Nobody was there.

But this time –

The front door was open.

“Hello?” I called again, louder this time, hoping my voice would reach the outside.

Beyond the light spilling out into the patio, there was total darkness. I couldn’t even make out the parking lot or the trees. What if there’s someone out there? Watching? If there was, I wouldn’t even know.

I rushed over, shut the door, and turned the lock. Click. “No pizza left for ‘em anyway,” I muttered to myself.

I picked up the broom and began sweeping around the tables. But I couldn’t silence the voice echoing in my head – what if someone’s out there? I stared out the glass; the shadows across the patio shifted and swayed with the wind.

What if someone’s trying to rob us? I’m all alone… no weapons, no security system, just an old lock on a glass door.

I shook the thoughts from my head and continued sweeping. I was nearly done, when –

Slam!

A loud noise, from the back of the pizzeria.

I jumped. “H-hello?” I called, starting to shake. I gripped the broom tight, as if it were a weapon, and stepped forward.

“Hello?”

Thump, thump.

“Hello –”

I rounded the corner.

The back door was wide open. The stench of the dumpster in the alley filled the room, along with gusts of cold night air.

But no one was there.

I ran over and shut the door. Then I dragged a chair in front of it, and a stack of empty pizza boxes for good measure.

It’s a windy night. You’re just scaring yourself. I took a deep breath, the mozzarella twirling and sticking under the broom. Just finish cleaning, lock up, and get out of here.

I finished sweeping the back, then walked towards the front of the store –

Slam!

I jumped and ran to the back door.

It was wide open.

The chair was kicked over. The pizza boxes were wildly strewn about.

But the room was, still, empty.

“That’s it.” I closed the door again and grabbed my coat. Then I ran out of the store, through the shadows, until I reached the familiar cold metal of the car. If he fires me for a dirty floor, so be it. Better than getting murdered over here. I yanked the door open, dove in, and pulled out of the parking space.

As I turned on to the main road, I heard it.

Tap, tap, tap.

A soft clicking sound, above the rush of the car.

Tap, tap, tap.

I tried to ignore it as I drove. But it got louder.

Tap, tap, tap.

It sounded like it was coming from behind me.

Heart pounding, I slowly lifted my eyes to the rearview mirror.

And there, breaking the darkness of the back seats –

Was a man’s face.

I screamed. The car swerved wildly, narrowly missing the gutter. I jolted to a stop, leapt out of the car.

Then I pulled out my phone and called 911.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“There’s someone in my car! They were trying to get in the pizza shop as I cleaned up, and then – and then –”

I stopped.

I could see, through the window, that the backseat was completely empty.

***

The next day, I came into work shaken. But Mason only added to that.

“You didn’t finish sweeping the floor before closing up,” he yelled. “This entire half has bits of food, even a dirty toothpick!” He sat down and sighed. “I’ll let it slide this time, but if you do it again, I’m going to fire you.”

“Mason, I’m so sorry – I would’ve cleaned it, but – but –”

He eyed me suspiciously. “I’m not one for excuses. You know that.”

“I know, but I swear, this happened. The front door started opening. I thought someone was there, but nope, no one there. Then, after I locked it, the back door opened! I even put a chair against it, and it opened again!” I looked at him with pleading eyes. “I thought someone was trying to rob the place! And then when I drove home – I swear, Mason, there was someone in the back seat!”

Mason stared at me.

And then he broke into jolly guffaws.

“That’s just old Paulie,” he said.

“Uh – what?”

“The guy who used to run the shop, before he died in ’02. He likes to keep an eye on the place.” Mason shot me a smile. “Especially the new employees.”

 

CREDIT: Blair Daniels

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