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Return Carts Here

Return Carts HereReading Time: 12 minutesAs the operations manager for a large discount store, it is my job to ensure that the various electrical and mechanical systems, such as cash registers, pricing guns, and even the toilets in the rest rooms are working as they should be.

A few weeks ago I got word that my store was going to be the field testing site for a new type of shopping cart. In over twenty years with the company, I had yet to encounter a shopping cart that didn’t turn into a piece of shit once the customers got a hold of it. Now our company was going to waste thousands of dollars on the next high tech turd from the ass of modern shopping.

A few days after being notified, I received a large envelope in the mail packed with colorful, pointless propaganda on the cart design as well as some survey cards for my employees and customers to fill out once the shopping carts arrived.  I read through the material that night and was sort of blah about the whole thing. They were just shopping carts, after all. To say I couldn’t care less that they were made of some new eco-friendly polymer or that they could hold twice the weight of a traditional cart would be an understatement. I was pretty sure the customers weren’t going to care much either. I also didn’t see anything state of the art or top of the line about them in the literature, but I was going to reserve final judgment for when I saw them in person.

When the carts finally arrived, I had to begrudgingly admit they were nice to look at. At least as nice as a shopping cart can be. They were equal parts black and white and made mostly of thick plastic with a few pieces of metal in the frame work. The thing I liked most about them was they weren’t rectangular like most carts. They had an almost oval shape to them. All of the edges were rounded off and the basket was large in the front and narrow near the end which gave them the appearance of some sort of space age transport device.

The carts also had great maneuverability. I took one through the store for a test drive and was surprised at how well it handled. I was able to make tight turns into the aisles with no problem. When I took the corners fast, the cart didn’t tip over like the old ones did. The wheels never left the ground, nor did they wobble. I knew our customers were going to be pleased with them and I was proud that my store was the first to have them. This pride wouldn’t last.

Two days after receiving the carts, everything seemed to be going great. The customers really liked them and a few even admitted to coming to the store just to check them out after hearing about them from a friend. It wasn’t until the third day that things started to change.

For the most part, that day was just like any other. I had to deal with the usual frustrated customers, annoying employees, and the occasional register glitch. It wasn’t until I locked up for the night and was returning to my car that my week started getting shitty.

I usually park my car near one of those landscaped islands bordered by a curb. Every large parking lot usually has a few of them. They tend to be covered in grass with a couple of trees or those thick bushes with the prickly leaves. If I park next to one of those, there are a limited number of cars that can park around me. In my mind, that minimizes the possibility of accidents. Having to park in a high traffic parking lot for forty to fifty hours a week can be hazardous to the body work of your vehicle. I see nothing wrong in trying to ward of any possible damage from ignorant customers whenever I can.

That day, the only spot open that wasn’t a mile from the front entrance of the store, was right next to one of the cart corrals. I don’t like parking next to them if I can help it, but when it is between that and walking the length of a football field, I’ll the easy walk every time. When I think back on that day, I mentally kick myself for not moving my car. I’m sure if I went outside during one of my breaks, I would have been able to find a better parking space.

As I approached my car that night, I didn’t notice anything unusual until I walked around to the driver’s side. There, pressed up against the side of my car door, was one of the new shopping carts.

My first reaction was to mutter a few curse words at the lazy shopper who couldn’t be bothered to place the cart in the corral in the first place. I mean come on; it was no more than two feet away. It’s irritating, but a common thing in parking lots around the world. I didn’t get pissed until I pulled the cart away, revealing the fist sized dent in the door.

Now, I’ll admit, I have a bit of a temper, and I probably should have taken a moment to calm down and just push the cart into the corral. However, it felt really good when my foot connected with the cart, knocking it onto its side. It felt even better when I noticed the kick had caused a good sized crack along on the side of the cart’s plastic basket. A crack for a dent – I figured that made us even.

I left the busted cart on its side, got in my car, and drove home. I knew the opening manger would deal with it when he got in. Thankfully, I had the day off, so I wouldn’t have to hear about it until I returned to work on Friday.

The following day, I contacted my insurance company to see about getting the dent fixed. After spending an hour on the phone dissecting my policy with someone who barely spoke English, I decided it would be cheaper and less of a headache to just go to a body shop and pay for it myself, and that is exactly what I did. My one day off that week wasted on getting a small dent repaired.

When I returned to work, I wasn’t in the best of moods to begin with, but I became even more irritated when I saw a lot of the new carts strewn about the parking lot, most of which were only a few steps from a cart corral. Damn lazy customers. I was sure I wasn’t going to be the only one with a dented door that week. I gathered up a few of the strays and slammed them into the nearest corral with enough force to cause it to slide forward a few inches. I didn’t give a damn if any more of the new carts got damaged.

On my way to the front office I was stopped by the freight manager who informed me that we had a return truck the next day and that I needed to get my stuff processed. One of my duties is to sign off on all defective merchandise and get it boxed up and ready to be shipped back to the warehouse. Once I dropped my stuff off in the office, I walked to the back of the store to the receiving bay. That is where we keep all of the unprocessed returns from the past week.

As I surveyed the pile of returns, I noticed a single cart parked in the corner with a handwritten note that said DAMAGED. I guess I was going to have to deal with that thing one last time. I didn’t mind. Nothing would have made me happier at that moment than to send that cart back to the warehouse, knowing it was going to be destroyed. I decided to process it last and savor my victory over it.

As I was filling out the forms for the assortment of broken electronics and home goods, there was a short loud squeak, sort of like the sound a rusty hinge would make when being forced open too quickly. I looked up, but couldn’t immediately see anything that would make that kind of noise. I dismissed the sound and continued my work. I was, after all, in a large receiving bay with metal doors, metal racking, and various other metal objects all capable of squeaking.

I returned to my paperwork, and the moment my pen touched the paper, the squeak returned. I continued writing, ignoring it all together, but after a while, it became pretty bothersome. I waited until it started again, then quickly whirled around to pinpoint where the sound was coming from. In the process of turning, my elbow caught the edge of a box of packing tape and sent it falling to the floor, the sound of which made it impossible to tell where the squeaking was coming from.

I bent over to pick up the box and muttered profanities to myself as the squeaking recommenced. This time it was louder and more insistent, and I was really starting to get pissed off over it. I looked up and yelled out in frustration, but my cry was cut short when the source of the squeaking slammed into my forehead knocking me onto my ass.

I was dazed for a second and confused as to what had happened. I tried to make sense of it, but it was completely crazy. Somehow, the shopping cart that was in the opposite corner of the room, squeaked its way across the receiving bay and rammed itself into my forehead. It wasn’t just a casual roll either; there was some force behind it. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the cart was pushed, but there was no way for someone to enter the receiving bay without me noticing.

I stood up, rubbing the spot on my head where I was hit. I could feel the tight knot of a bump already forming. That cart was going to pay. There was no way I was ever going to let it roll again.

In the corner of the receiving bay, behind the tool box, is a large sledge hammer. For the longest time I wondered why it was there. We’ve never had cause to use it, yet there it sat for many years. In that moment, I decided I would make a use for it.

I grabbed the mallet and walked over to where the cart had come to rest against the bay doors. I half expected the cart to flee as I raised the hammer over my head and brought it down on the folding child seat behind the handle bar. The force of the blow flipped it back onto its side where I continued to beat it until it was a mess of broken plastic and bent metal. I kept smashing it until I could no longer lift the hammer, then gathered up the pieces and threw them into the trash compactor.

Satisfied that the cart would never bother me again, I finished processing the damaged products then left the receiving bay and headed to the front office with a smile on my face. As I turned down the household consumables aisle, I had to move aside to let a young woman wheel her cart by. As she was about to pass me, the cart she was pushing suddenly turned, causing the bottom bar of the frame to collide with my shin.

“I’m so sorry!” she apologized. “I don’t know what happened. I was pushing it straight ahead and it just turned on its own. I really am sorry.”

“It’s okay.” I managed to say through clenched teeth.

I continued walking, with a slight limp now, until I made it to the food aisle, which was a straight shoot for the front of the store. I made it past three more aisles before I was blindsided and knocked onto the floor. As I got up, ready to give someone a piece of my mind, a shopping cart rolled past me with an older gentleman hobbling after it as fast as he could.

“Sorry, these new carts move so fast, I guess it got away from me.” He said once he was able to regain control of the cart.

“Don’t worry about it.” I groaned and then stood up and continued walking despite the pain in my head, my shin, and now my side.

While walking, I stopped at each aisle to make sure no one else was going to try and run me over with a shopping cart. This got me several peculiar looks from the few customers and employees I passed, but I didn’t give a shit. I was in pain and had a crazy suspicion the carts were out to get me.

When I made it up to the front of the store, I picked up my pace until I was practically running. Once inside the office, I closed the door and locked it.

The first thing I did was grab the bottle of aspirin that we keep in the desk drawer and dry swallowed three pills. Then I sat down and tried to wrap my mind around the crazy series of events that took place. It couldn’t be true. Carts were inanimate constructs of metal and plastic. They don’t think, they can’t feel pain. There was no sane reason to think they were sentient.

After sitting down and thinking about the situation rationally for a while, I was able to convince myself that I was just the victim of a series of bizarre events that just so happened to share a common factor. This however, did not stop me from avoiding carts for the rest of the evening, just in case. Once I closed up the registers for the night and let all of the employees leave, I let out a big sigh of relief. I couldn’t wait to get home.

I walked outside and was irritated to see that no one bothered to bring in the carts. This was supposed to be done by the stock crew before they left, but they had a convenient habit of forgetting most nights. At least they were all corralled and I wasn’t parked anywhere near them. Even though I knew I would get shit for it the next day, I was going to leave them where they were.

I approached my car feeling more and more relieved with each step I took. It would be nice to put this nightmare of a day behind me, but I wasn’t free just yet. A faint squeaking started in the distance, causing my heart to skip a beat. I turned around and scanned the parking lot for a runaway cart, but they were all in the corrals. I quickly walked around the back of my car and toward the driver’s side door, pulling my keys out of my pocket as quickly as I could. I was in such a haste to grab them that they slipped from my fingertips onto the pavement. I knelt down to pick them up, knowing my backside was now a perfect target.

The squeaking returned the moment my hands closed around the keys; it was louder, signalling to me that it was close by. I rose up, but my hands had started shaking, making it difficult to grasp the keys. I tried to catch them before they hit the ground again, but all I managed to do was knock them under the car instead.

I got down on my hands and knees and looked under the car to see where the keys fell and nearly pissed myself at what I saw. Several black rubber wheels squeaked by on the opposite side of my car, taunting me as they made their way around the vehicle.

The first cart hit me from behind and dropped me onto my stomach, causing me to scrape my hands up in the process. The second cart hit me on my right side, smack dab in the middle of my ribs. There was a loud popping sound like a knuckle being cracked, then searing pain. I tried to roll over, but the pain was too great. That was when the third cart hit me on the side of the head, colliding with enough force for it to roll right over me.

The sound of squeaking was then replaced by a loud ringing, thanks to my injured ear. I felt a warm liquid oozing out of it as I began feeling nauseous and dizzy, unable to tell which way was up and which was down. I was in so much pain my vision blurred and started to dim. I tried to get up, but my muscles refused to cooperate. As I felt the darkness of oblivion closing in, I turned to my side and was able to focus my eyes long enough to see the line of carts, each waiting to take their turn.

I awoke in the hospital three days later with a concussion, a broken leg, several broken ribs, and an assortment of colorful cuts and bruises. There was also some form of amnesia present as I couldn’t remember why I was in the hospital. Once the doctor found out I was awake, he came by and gave me a rundown of my injuries and his prognosis of my recovery after first assessing the extent of my memory loss. I was hoping he would tell me what happened, but before I could ask him, my memory was rudely returned to me by a familiar sound.

The squeaking started somewhere out in the hall and then stopped. After a thirty second pause, it started again, then as quickly as it started, it stopped once more.

“Is something wrong?” The doctor asked, noticing the large drops of sweat that began to snake down my forehead.

“Did you hear that?” I whispered. “That squeaking.” Right after I said that, the squeaking began again, but much louder. My memory was still fuzzy, but I knew that squeaking sound was no good. I was terrified. Before the doctor could tell me what happened, I jumped out of bed and ran to the door, tipping over my IV stand in the process. Just as I was about to slam the door shut behind me, I was hit in the stomach by something rolling into my room. At the moment of impact, my amnesia completely vanished.

“Oh my God I’m so sorry; I didn’t expect you to be out of bed.” The nurse gasped as she ran over to help me.

Once she and the doctor helped me back into bed and made sure I hadn’t added to my list of injuries, I was able to see the thing that gut busted me was nothing more than a little rolling cart used to deliver medicine. I felt silly, but then I thought to myself… maybe it knows. I started screaming for them to get it out of the room. It took two orderlies and the doctor to subdue me long enough to inject me with a sedative.

The next few days they kept me sufficiently drugged up and did a few tests to make sure there wasn’t anything wrong with my head that would make me lash out the way I had. During that time, I was able to keep myself under control, mostly thanks to the medicine. By the end of the week the doctor felt I was healthy enough to leave. I was cleared to speak with a police officer about what happened the night of my “accident”.

The officer told me I was found lying on the ground by the driver of a street sweeper that came to clean the parking lot. Apparently, he thought I was mugged. Considering how crazy the truth was, I decided it would be best to just stick with what the authorities believed. It was true, in a way. Noting was stolen, but I was beat up – just not by anything human.

I told the officer I was jumped from behind as I went to get in my car and didn’t get a look at my attacker. That seemed to satisfy him. He handed me his card and told me to call him if I remembered anything else.

On the day I was to be released from the hospital, my boss came in to see me and give me a ride home. We talked about nonsense for a while before I asked him about the carts and if the store was going to keep them.

“Oh, don’t worry about the carts.” He said. “The company has decided to add them to all the stores. They’ll still be there when you get back.”

That’s what I was afraid of.

 

CREDIT: Ken Lewis

(Narrations are not permitted for this work)

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The Monster in the Pantry

The Monster in the PantryReading Time: 8 minutes 

 

*NOTE: This creepypasta was originally published on the site in May of 2016. We are republishing the post because it has been edited and rewritten by the author. Enjoy.*

 

Unexplained phenomenon is a staple in human culture. Strange goings-on, paranormal in nature, are prominent in our lives, in one form or another. You may not think about them all that often, but there’s always a piece in the news or a crazy story from a friend or passerby that makes you recall such strangeness. No matter how many times you forget about the subject, there will always be a moment that drags the notion back to the surface of your memory. For several years, I had forgotten all about the monster living in my mom’s pantry. I had forgotten all about it, that is, until now.

I was ten years old when I first became aware of the monster’s presence. It was a normal evening at home; my mother and I awaited my father’s arrival and I helped her out with dinner preparations. I look back on these memories fondly – I loved cooking with my mom and was overjoyed whenever my father came home from work. I had what some would consider a picture-perfect childhood, save for one peculiarity. The thing that resided in the pantry would audibly reveal itself that very night.

While cutting up vegetables for my mom’s famous beef barley soup, I heard a scratching at the pantry door. Startled, I jumped, nearly cutting off one of my fingers in the process. My mom looked over at the pantry, then to me with a concerned smile. I looked to her for answers, utterly baffled by the noise.

“There it goes again, scratching at the pantry door.”

“What is it, mom?” I asked.

“I’m not too sure, sweetie, but it’s been here ever since we moved in. Sometimes it scratches at the door, other times it will knock food off the pantry shelves. Some nights, it doesn’t make a sound at all.”

There was no comfort derived from her explanation. I was still frightened, and my mother noticed this.

“It’s nothing to be scared of, honey.”

“Is it something… bad?” I asked.

“No, of course not.”

Just then, the scratching recommenced. I jumped a second time. My mother then walked over to the pantry door.

“Here, look…”

She opened it up as the scratching continued. Once the door was completely ajar, the sound ceased.

“See, sweetie? There’s nothing to be worried about.”

Despite my mother’s comforting words, my ten-year old heart couldn’t help but race with fear. In the coming years, I continued to help her cook, but I never once set foot back in that pantry; convinced that the thing living in there was a monster, out to get me. This fear was kept alive by the scratching that would interrupt otherwise happy moments. I ignored it the best I could, but sometimes I would have to leave the kitchen.

Eventually, the sounds stopped all together.

 

***

 

It’s now been many years since then, and both of my parents have passed away. In their wills, I was left everything, including my childhood home. It took me a while to come to terms with their deaths and move back in, but I eventually accepted the situation and embraced the living space where I grew up.

It was the little memories sprinkled throughout the house that helped me cope. Sometimes I would walk into the living room and see my dad sitting in his chair, smoking a cigar and watching his favorite sitcom. At other points, I would see my mother in the kitchen, making us dinner. These corporeal fragments of a time long since passed kept me going. After a while, the house felt like home again… until one day.

I had just arrived home from work when it happened. I sat down on my dad’s favorite chair and flipped on the TV to unwind. Something crossed my mind; minus the tobacco, I had actually become my father. This thought put a bit of a smile on my face as I reclined the chair to relax. Relaxation never came though, as an all too familiar scratching sound emanated from the nearby pantry. My smile quickly vanished.

I jumped up and ran to the kitchen to investigate. The scratching continued and increased in volume. I stared at the door hoping an answer would jump out at me, but also hoping whatever was inside wouldn’t do the same. Without many options at my disposal, I was forced to open it.

Much to my anticipation, the noise ceased, and I found nothing behind the door but some empty shelves and an old broom. This was the same thing that happened when my mother opened the door many years ago.

I was no longer a frightened child, but the sound’s return was still unnerving; at least, it was at first. After a while, it became nothing more than a bothersome fixture in my otherwise normal days. Whenever I came home from work, woke up in the middle of the night, or sat down to watch television, that terrible scratching would invade my ear-space, not stopping until I opened that damned pantry door. This routine continued for over a year. One night, however, everything changed.

I had just gotten home from a long day of work and flung myself into the comfort of my bed sheets. I wanted more than anything to drift off into a peaceful slumber, hoping the day’s troubles would melt away in the form of happy dreams and restful sleep. Unfortunately for me, the moment my head hit the pillow, the scratching started up once more.

I groaned in anger, not wanting to leave my bed for anything, much less that damned noise. Because of this, I made the mistake of not getting up right away. I hit my internal snooze button and allowed myself to drift off for a few moments. When I came to, something was amiss. I didn’t notice it at first, but the unsettling silence made way for a startling revelation.  The scratching had stopped.

How strange. It’s never stopped on its own before.

 Perplexed, I jumped out of bed and ventured downstairs to investigate. What I saw upon entering the kitchen alarmed me – the pantry door was wide open.

That can’t be… it was definitely closed when I got home earlier…

 Turning the light on only revealed the usual empty shelves. It wasn’t until my hand met the wood of the door that I noticed something unusual. Embedded in the hard oak were deep gashes; claw marks that covered the entire bottom half of the door.

Those weren’t there before… what the hell is going on?

 My childhood was beginning to catch up with me. Memories of the pantry came bursting through the floodgates; the scratches, the nightmares… the fear. But I wasn’t a child this time, and I wasn’t going to let a little superstition get the better of me. It was just a raccoon or a large rat, that’s all. At least, that’s what I told myself.

I scoured the house for nearly an hour, ignoring my fast-beating heart the whole time. Whatever escaped from the pantry was nowhere to be found. As I stepped back into the kitchen to close the door and call it a night, something stopped me in my tracks. A shadowy figure raced across my field of vision and into the pantry.

 

CRACK

 

The pantry door shut on its own, shaking the walls around it. A bone-chilling vibration reverberated throughout the entire house in an instant and was then followed by an eerily dead silence. My heart sank to my bowels. I was officially rattled.

Running on pure instinct, I grabbed the heaviest things I could find and piled them in front of the door, including my dad’s old chair. Once satisfied with my blockade, I raced upstairs, locked my bedroom door, and jumped underneath the sheets. I was a kid again, scared shitless of the monster living in my mom’s pantry.

After the fear and adrenaline tapered off, I managed to get a little bit of rest. My late-night adventure had come to an end.

 

***

 

I woke up the next morning in denial; a defense mechanism of a mind bruised by fear. Pretending nothing happened the previous night, I went about my morning routine as normal. After breakfast, I was able to walk right past the pile of crap in front of the pantry without flinching. I even ignored the scratch marks on my front door as I left for work. Everything was fine. There was no monster. No supernatural entity taking over my home. That was absurd. It was just a raccoon. A very large raccoon.

The lies only lasted for so long. Driving away, the terror set back in, sending me into a desperate frenzy of distress and unease. Though distracted by my strange predicament, I managed to make it to work in one piece.

Work brought me no solace. All I could think about was what awaited me at home. I was on edge and my boss noticed this. He asked if I needed to leave early and get some rest – I practically shouted the word NO at him, begging him to let me stay. I wanted to be away from that house for as long as I could. Though confused by my unorthodox behavior, my boss obliged.

I might have been able to stay at work, but I had to clock out eventually. The day went by far too quickly, and before I knew it, I was back home, sitting in my driveway, dreading the thought of opening the front door. Because of this, I sat in my car for a while, attempting to come up with a plan of action.

What do I do? Who can I tell? Where will I stay?

 The questions swirled around my tired mind until I shut my eyes and took a deep breath to relax. The weariness caught up with me in this moment, causing me to drift off into a stress-induced coma of sorts. I woke up a few hours later to the terrifying sight of scratch marks on my driver-side window. That was the last straw.

“That’s it!” I proclaimed out loud.

I wasn’t going to let this thing control my life, and I certainly wasn’t going to let it drive me out of my own home. This is where I grew up; where I spent my childhood with my mother and father. They were still with me; the recollections scattered throughout the house, reminding me of who they were and the impact they’ve had on my life. No amount of scratching was going to tear through the memories I had of them.

Fed up, I got out of my car, walked up to the house, and swung the front door open. I was greeted with the sound of scratching, but this time it was louder than it had ever been before. As I stormed over to the kitchen, the noise morphed into a thunderous banging at the pantry door, causing the stuff I piled in front of it to move a bit. Whatever was inside really wanted to get out this time.

Adrenaline coursed through my veins. My fight-or-flight response was begging me to run, but it was too late. I had already made up my mind. I was going to face this thing head on and get to the bottom of the mystery. This was my home, after all. It belonged to me and my family – not whatever this thing was.

In removing the stack of furniture, the banging continued and grew louder. The kitchen cabinets around me swung open. Various pots and pans fell off the shelves. An earthquake of supernatural proportions filled my home, but I didn’t allow it to rattle me. I knew what I had to do.

After a moment of mental preparation, I opened the pantry door…

There, sitting behind the door, was a dog. It sat there and looked up at me in confusion. I did the same to it. After giving me a once-over, it walked over to me and nuzzled up against my leg. I instinctively reached down and pet it, as I would any dog. But this wasn’t any dog. After a few minutes of getting to know each other, it walked back into the pantry and vanished before my very eyes.

It was… a ghost.

 

***

 

My fear completely dissipated after that day. I now come home to the sound of scratching and smile. I no longer open the pantry door in fear, but instead, to let my new friend out. He walks around the house, exploring, just like a normal dog would. He even sits down and watches TV with me from time to time. He is a bit shy, though, vanishing whenever I have company over. Still, he is a good dog. A very good dog. I assume he belonged to one of the many owners of the house, seeing as it had been built long before my parents moved in. I guess he just couldn’t let the place go. Neither could I.

A few weeks of bonding later and I realized that I didn’t have anything to call him by. I walked over to the little guy and pet him on the back of his neck – that was his favorite spot. I thought about it for a moment and then came up with the perfect name.

“I will call you… Monster.”

 

 

Credit: Christopher Maxim

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

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A Shattered Life

Reading Time: 14 minutes

I don’t know when you’re going to read this, but I can tell you when it started: I was out for a walk alone in the woods when the entity came for me. It was beyond a blur. It was, for lack of a better term, absence of meaning. Where it hid, there were no trees; where it crept closer, there was no grass; through the arc it leapt at me, there was no breeze of motion. There was no air at all.

As it struck, I felt the distinct sensation of claws puncturing me somewhere unseen; somewhere I’d never felt before. My hands and arms and legs and torso seemed fine and I wasn’t bleeding, but I knew I’d been injured somehow. As I fearfully ran back home, I could tell that I was less. I was vaguely tired, and it was hard to focus at times.

The solution at that early stage was easy: a big cup of coffee helped me feel normal again.

For a while, that subtle drain on my spirit became lost in the ebb and flow of caffeine in my system. You could say my life began that week, actually, because that was when I met Mar. She and I got along great, though, to be honest, I’m pretty sure I fell in love with her over the phone before we even met.

It was almost as if the strong emotions of that first week made the entity fight back—it was still with me, latched on to some invisible part of my being.

The first few incidents were minor, and I hardly worried about them. The color of a neighbor’s car changed from dark blue to black one morning, and I stared at it before shaking my head and shrugging off the difference. Two days later, at work, a coworker’s name changed from Fred to Dan. I carefully asked around, but everyone said his name had always been Dan. I figured I’d just been mistaken.

Then, as ridiculous as this sounds, I was peeing in my bathroom at home when I suddenly found myself on a random street. I was still in my pajamas, pants down, and urinating—but now in full view of a dozen people at a bus stop. Horrified, I pulled up my clothes and ran before someone called the cops. I did manage to get home, but the experience forced me to admit that I was still in danger. The entity was doing something to me, and I didn’t understand how to fight back.

Mar showed up that evening, but she had her own key.

“Hey,” I asked her with confusion. “How’d you get a key?”

She just laughed. “You’re cute. Are you sure you’re okay with this?” She opened a door and entered a room full of boxes. “I know living together is a big step, especially when we’ve only been dating three months.”

Living together? I’d literally just met her the week before. Thing was, my mother had always called me a smart cookie for a reason. I knew when to shut my yap. Instead of causing a scene, I told her everything was fine—and then I went straight to my room and began investigating.

My things were just as I had left them with no sign of a three month gap in habitation, but I did find something out of the ordinary: the date. I shivered angrily as I processed the truth.

The entity had eaten three months of my life.

What the hell was I facing? What kind of creature could consume pieces of one’s soul like that? I’d missed the most exciting part of a new relationship, and I would never understand any shared stories or in-jokes from that period. Something absurdly precious had been taken from me, and I was furious.

That fury helped suppress the entity. I never imbibed alcohol. I drank coffee religiously. I checked the date every time I woke up. For three years, I managed to live each day while observing nothing more than minor alterations. A social fact here and there—someone’s job, how many kids they had, that sort of thing—the layout of nearby streets, the time my favorite television show aired, that kind of thing. Always, those changes reminded me the creature still had its claws sunk into my spirit. Not once in three years did I ever let myself zone out.

One day, I grew careless. I let myself get really into the season finale of my favorite show. It was gripping; a fantastic story. Right at the height of the action, a young boy came up to my lounger and shook my arm.

Surprised, I asked, “Who are you? How did you get in here?”

He laughed and smiled brightly. “Silly Daddy!”

My heart sank in my chest. I knew immediately what had happened. After a few masked questions, I discovered that he was two years old—and that he was my son.

The agony and heartache filling my chest was nearly unbearable. Not only had I missed the birth of my son, I would never see or know the first years of his life. Mar and I had obviously gotten married and started a family in the time I’d lost, and I had no idea what joys or pains those years contained.

It was snowing outside. Holding my sudden son in my lap, I sat and watched the flakes fall outside. What kind of life was this going to be if slips in concentration could cost me years? I had to get help.

The church had no idea what to do. The priests didn’t believe me, and told me I had a health issue rather than some sort of possession.

The doctors didn’t have any clue. Nothing showed up on all their scans and tests, but they happily took my money in return for nothing.

By the time I ran out of options, I’d decided to tell Mar. There was no way to know what this all looked like from her side. What was I like when I wasn’t there? Did I still take our son to school? Did I still do my job? Clearly, I did, because she seemed to be none the wiser, but I still had a horrible feeling that something must have been missing in her life when I wasn’t actually home inside my own head.

But the night I set up a nice dinner in preparation, she arrived not by unlocking the front door, but by knocking on it. I answered, and found that she was in a nice dress.

She was happily surprised by the settings on the table. “A fancy dinner for a second date? I knew you were sweet on me!”

Thank the Lord I knew when to keep my mouth shut. If I’d gone on about being married and having a son, she might have run for the hills. Instead, I took her coat and sat down for our second date.

Through carefully crafted questions, I managed to deduce the truth. This really was our second date. She saw relief and happiness in me, but interpreted that as dating jitters. I was just excited to realize that the entity wasn’t necessarily eating whole portions of my life. The symptoms, as I was beginning to understand them, were more like the consequences of a shattered soul. The creature had wounded me; broken me into pieces. Perhaps I was to live my life out of order, but at least I would actually get to live it.

And so it went for a few years—from my perspective. While minor changes in politics or geography would happen daily, major shifts in my mental location only happened every couple months. When I found myself in a new place and time in my life, I just shut up and listened, making sure to get the lay of the land before doing anything to avoid making mistakes. On the farthest-flung leap yet, I met my six-year-old grandson, and I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said, “Writer.” I told him that was a fine idea.

Then, I was back in month two of my relationship with Mar, and I had the best night with her on the riverfront. When I say the best, I mean the best. Knowing how special she would become to me, I asked her to move in. I got to live through what I’d missed the first go-around, and I came to understand that I was never mentally absent. I would always be there—eventually. When we were moving her boxes in, she stopped for a moment and said she marveled at my great love, as if I’d known her for a lifetime and never once doubted she was the one.

That was the first time I’d truly laughed freely and wholeheartedly since the entity had wounded me. She was right about my love for her, but for exactly the reason she’d considered a silly romantic analogy. I had known her my whole life, and I’d come to terms with my situation and found peace with it. It wasn’t so bad to have sneak peeks at all the best parts ahead.

But of course I wouldn’t be writing this if it hadn’t gotten worse. The entity was still with me. It had not wounded me and departed like I’d wanted to believe. The closest I can describe my growing understanding was that the creature was burrowing deeper into my psyche, fracturing it into smaller pieces. Instead of months between major shifts, I began having only weeks. Once I noticed that trend, I feared my ultimate fate would be to jump between times in my life heartbeat by heartbeat, forever confused, forever lost. Only an instant in each time meant I would never be able to speak with anyone else, never be able to hold a conversation, never express or receive love.

As the true depth of that fear came upon me, I sat in an older version of me and watched the snow falling outside. That was the one constant in my life: the weather didn’t care who I was or what pains I had to face. Nature was always there. The falling snow was always like a little hook that kept me in a place; the pure emotional peace it brought was like a panacea on my mental wounds, and I’d never yet shifted while watching the pattern of falling white and thinking of the times I’d gone sledding or built a snow fort as a child.

A teenager touched my arm. “Grandpa?”

“Eh?” He’d startled me out of my thoughts, so I was less careful than usual. “Who are you?”

He half-grinned, as if not sure whether I was joking. Handing me a stack of papers, he said, “It’s my first attempt at a novel. Would you read it and tell me what you think?”

Ahh, of course. “Pursuing that dream of being a writer, I see.”

He burned bright red. “Trying to, anyway.”

“All right. Run off, I’ll read this right now.” The words were blurry, and, annoyed, I looked for glasses I probably had for reading. Being old was terrible, and I wanted to leap back into a younger year—but not before I read his book. I found my glasses in a sweater pocket, and began leafing through. Mar puttered in and out of the living room, still beautiful, but I had to focus. I didn’t know how much time I would have there.

It seemed that we had relatives over. Was it Christmas? A pair of adults and a couple kids I didn’t recognize tromped through the hallway, and I saw my son, now adult, walk by with his wife on the way out the door. As a group, the extended family began sledding outside.

Finally, I finished reading the story, and I called out for my grandson. He rushed down the stairs and into the living room. “How was it?”

“Well, it’s terrible,” I told him truthfully. “But it’s terrible for all the right reasons. You’re still a young man, so your characters behave like young people, but the structure of the story itself is very solid.” I paused. “I didn’t expect it to turn out to be a horror story.”

He nodded. “It’s a reflection of the times. Expectations for the future are dismal, not hopeful like they used to be.”

“You’re far too young to be aware like that,” I told him. An idea occurred to me. “If you’re into horror, do you know anything about strange creatures?”

“Sure. I read everything I can. I love it.”

Warily, I scanned the entrances to the living room. Everyone was busy outside. For the first time, I opened up to someone in my life about what I was experiencing. In hushed tones, I told him about my fragmented consciousness.

For a teenager, he took it well. “You’re serious?”

“Yes.”

He donned the determined look of a grown man accepting a quest. “I’ll look into it, see what I can find out. You should start writing down everything you experience. Build some data. Maybe we can map your psychic wound.”

Wow. “Sounds like a plan.” I was surprised. That made sense, and I hadn’t expected him to have a serious response. “But how will I get all the notes in one place?”

“Let’s come up with somewhere for you to leave them,” he said, frowning with thought. “Then I’ll get them, and we can trace the path you’re taking through your own life, see if there’s a pattern.”

For the first time since the situation had gotten worse, I felt hope again. “How about under the stairs? Nobody ever goes under there.”

“Sure.” He turned and left the living room.

I peered after him. I heard him banging around near the stairs.

Finally, he returned with a box, laid it on the carpet, and opened it to reveal a bursting stack of papers. He exclaimed, “Holy crap!”—but of course, being a teenager, he didn’t really say crap.

Taken aback, I blinked rapidly, forgiving his cussing because of the shock. “Did I write those?”

He looked up at me with wonder. “Yeah. Or, you will. You still have to write them and put them under the stairs after this.” He gazed back down at the papers—then covered the box. “So you probably shouldn’t see what they say. That could get weird.”

That much I understood. “Right.”

He gulped. “There are like fifty boxes under there, all filled up like this. Deciphering these will take a very long time.” His tone dropped to deadly seriousness. “But I will save you, grandpa. Because I don’t think anyone else can.”

Tears flowed down my cheeks then, and I couldn’t help but sob once or twice. I hadn’t realized how lonely I’d become in my shifting prison of awareness until I finally had someone who understood. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

And then I was young again, and at work on a random Tuesday. Once the sadness and relief faded, anger and determination replaced them. After I finished my work, I grabbed some paper and began writing. While the weeks shifted around me, while those weeks became days, and then hours, I wrote every single spare moment about when and where I thought I was. I put them under the stairs out of order; my first box was actually the thirtieth, and my last box was the first. Once I had over fifty boxes written from my perspective—and once my shifting became a matter of minutes—I knew it was up to my grandson to take it from there.

I put my head down and stopped looking. I couldn’t stand the river of changing awareness any longer. Names and places and dates and jobs and colors and people were all wrong and different.

I’d never been older. I sat watching the snow fall. A man of at least thirty that I vaguely recognized entered the room. “Come on, I think I finally figured it out.”

I was so frail that moving was painful. “Are you him? Are you my grandson?”

“Yes.” He took me to a room filled with strange equipment and sat me in a rubber chair facing a large mirror twice the height of a man. “The pattern finally revealed itself.”

“How long have you worked on this?” I asked him, aghast. “Tell me you didn’t miss your life like I’m missing mine!”

His expression was both stone cold and furiously resolute. “It’ll be worth it.” He brought two thin metal rods close to my arm and then nodded at the mirror. “Look. This shock is carefully calibrated.”

The electric zap from his device was startling, but not painful. In the mirror, I saw a rapid arcing light-silhouette appear above my head and shoulder. The electricity moved through the creature like a wave, briefly revealing the terrible nature of what was happening to me. A bulging leech-like mouth was wrapped around the back of my head, coming down to my eyebrows and touching each ear, and its slug-like body ran over my shoulder and into my very soul.

It was a parasite.

And it was feeding on my mind.

My now-adult grandson held my hand as I took in the horror. After a moment, he asked, “Removing it is going to hurt very badly. Are you up for this?”

Fearful, I asked, “Is Mar here?”

His face softened. “No. Not for a few years now.”

I could tell from his reaction what had happened, but I didn’t want it to be true. “How?”

“We have this conversation a lot,” he responded. “Are you sure you want to know? It never makes you feel better.”

Tears brimmed in my eyes. “Then I don’t care if it hurts, or if I die. I don’t want to stay in a time where she’s not alive.”

He made a sympathetic noise of understanding and then returned to his machines to hook several wires, diodes, and other bits of technology to my limbs and forehead. While he did so, he talked. “I’ve worked for two decades to figure this out, and I’ve had a ton of help from other researchers of the occult. This parasite doesn’t technically exist in our plane. It’s one of the lesser spawns of µ¬ßµ, and it feeds on the plexus of mind, soul, and quantum consciousness/reality. When details like names and colors of objects changed, you weren’t going crazy. The web of your existence was merely losing strands as the creature ate its way through you.”

I didn’t fully understand. I looked up in confusion as he placed a circlet of electronics like a crown on my head in exact line with where the parasite’s mouth had ringed me. “What’s µ¬ßµ?”

He paused his work and grew pale. “I forgot that you wouldn’t know. You’re lucky, believe me.” After a deep breath, he began moving again, and placed his fingers near a few switches. “Ready? This is carefully tuned to make your nervous system extremely unappetizing to the parasite, but it’s basically electro-shock therapy.”

I could still see Mar’s smile. Even though she was dead, I’d just been with her moments ago. “Do it.”

The click of a switch echoed in my ears, and I almost laughed at how mild the electricity was. It didn’t feel like anything—at least at first. Then, I saw the mirror shaking, and my body within that image convulsing. Oh. No. It did hurt. Nothing had ever been more painful. It was just so excruciating that my mind hadn’t been able to immediately process it.

As my vision shook and fire burned in every nerve in my body, I could see the reflected trembling light-silhouette of the parasite on my head as it writhed in agony equal to mine. It had claws—six clawed lizard-like limbs under its leech-like body—and it cut into me in an attempt to stay latched on.

The electricity made my memories flare.

Mar’s smile was foremost, lit brightly in front of a warm fire as the snow fell past the window behind her. The edges of that memory began lighting up, and I realized that my life was one continuous stretch of experience—it was only the awareness of it that had been fragmented by that feasting evil on my back.

I’d never managed to be there for the birth of my son. I’d jumped around it a dozen times, but never actually lived it. For the first time, I got to hold Mar’s hand and be there for her.

No. No! That moment had shifted seamlessly into holding her hand as she lay in a hospital bed for a very different reason. Not this! God, why? It was so merciless to make me remember this. I broke down in tears as nurses rushed into the room. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to experience it. I’d seen all the good parts, but I hadn’t wanted the worst part—the inevitable end that all would one day face.

It wasn’t worth it. It was tainted. All that joy was given back ten thousand fold as pain.

The fire in my body and in my brain surged to sheer white torture, and I screamed.

My scream faded into a surprised shout as the machines and electricity and chair faded away. Snow was no longer falling around my life; I was out in the woods on a bright summer day.

Oh God.

I turned to see the creature approaching me. It was the same absence of meaning; the same blank on reality. It crept forward, just like before—but, this time, it hissed and turned away. I stood, astounded at being young again and freed from the parasite. My grandson had actually done it! He’d made me an unappetizing meal, so the predator of mind and soul had moved on in search of a different snack.

I returned home in a daze.

And while I was sitting there processing all that had happened, the phone rang. I looked at it in awe and sadness. I knew who it was. It was Marjorie, calling for the first time for some trivial reason she’d admit thirty years later was made up just to talk to me.

But all I could see was her lying in that hospital bed dying. It was going to end in unspeakable pain and loneliness. I would become an old man, left to sit by myself in an empty house, his soulmate gone long before him. At the end of it all, the only thing I would have left: sitting and watching the falling snow.

But now, thanks to my grandson, I would also have my memories. It would be a wild ride, no matter how it ended.

On a sudden impulse, I picked up the phone. With a smile, I asked, “Hey, who’s this?”

Even though I already knew.


Author’s note: Together, my grandfather and I did set out to write the tale of his life. Unfortunately, his Alzheimer’s disease progressed rapidly, and we were never able to finish. He’s still alive, but I imagine that, mentally, he is in a better place than the nursing home. I like to think he’s back in his younger days, living life and being happy, because the reality is much colder. It’s snowing today; he loves the snow. When I visited him, he didn’t recognize me, but he did smile as he sat looking out the window.


CREDIT: Matt Dymerski (Blog FB Tw.)

(Click HERE to pick up a copy of Matt Dymerski’s book, A Shattered Life and Other Stories)

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A Peculiar Kind of Madness

A Peculiar Kind of MadnessReading Time: 12 minutes

I’d always known that my great-grandma was an orphan, but in late October of last year, she decided to tell me the truth about what happened to her family.

We were visiting her for her birthday. It was a tradition in our household; a road trip we knew in the back of our minds we’d take only a few more times. She was turning ninety-eight, so that was just the cold hard truth of the matter. In my childhood, the journey to central Iowa had been a fun and light-hearted affair, but now my brother and parents could only maintain strained politeness as we met up and hit the road together. Each of us knew that this trip might be our last.

For several hours, we drove through vast open farm fields that stretched from horizon to horizon.

My great-grandma’s house was down a narrow dirt road off a wide dirt road off a gravel tractor lane. As a city boy, it was, more or less, the most remote possible dwelling I could imagine. She was born there, had lived her entire life there, and would soon—well.

As we parked in an open muddy rectangle and stepped out to stretch our legs, the constancy of the place surrounded me. Every single year of my life, this house and its land had been exactly the same. The sky was open blue, the earth was a sea of waving gold, and the wind was a smooth river of cool warmth. There was never anything to mar those three pillars of sensory experience except the house, the barn, a defunct old tractor, and the bell.

The bell was a simple thing raised high on an old metal crook. It sat out in the fields about a quarter mile from the house, serving as a measure of the wind. If a storm was coming, the bell was supposed to ring, a necessary precaution in tornado country. The only problem was, the bell and its crook had rusted over long ago. Every time I got out of the family van from age five to age twenty-six, I glanced that direction and felt a sense of unease as my gaze fell upon that decayed artifact. This time, at age twenty-seven, I looked over and saw that the bell had been scraped and polished clean of rust. It glinted in the sunlight, practically daring me to look at it.

I followed my family inside while struggling with a feeling of dread that I couldn’t articulate.

Who had cleaned the bell?

And why?

I tried to stop thinking about it as we gathered in the kitchen and said our hellos. My great-grandma was making tea, and shooed off our attempts to help. She was a frail woman for whom movement was difficult, but she’d never let that stop her. “The Wi-Fi password is on a note in the living room,” she told us with unquestionable authority. “Go stare at your phones and the tea will be ready in a moment.”

My brother and I did as we were told, but my parents turned on the television instead of looking at their phones. For a few minutes, we stayed in our separate worlds, only returning to the present when my great-grandma brought in the tea.

And we had a nice time.

That night, when everyone else was long asleep, I happened to open my eyes and see a glow under the door of the guest room I shared with my brother. My parents were in a different room and would not see the same light, so it was up to me to investigate. Quietly, so as not to wake him, I crept out and down, finding my great-grandma still awake. She sat in her big jade-leather chair, her gaze on the television. She asked me without looking my way, “You don’t fall for this stuff, do you?”

“What, like ads?”

She pointed her thin little arm at the nearby couch. “Sit.”

I sat.

“I’m going to tell you a family secret,” she said softly, finally looking my direction. “It’s for you, and possibly for your brother, but not your parents. Do you understand?”

I didn’t, not fully, but I nodded.

“You know I was an orphan for a time. Born in this house, lived with my family, but then raised by an uncle after it happened?” She didn’t wait for my nod. “I was ten years old that night. It was my birthday.”


My mother had gotten me a small cake about the size of your fist. I looked forward to that cake every year, since we didn’t exactly have sweets bounding about back then. It was eleven cents, so rather expensive, but my mother got one for every one of us on our birthdays no matter what she had to scrimp or save. All year long, I saw Mary get her cake in January, Arthur get his cake in March, Eleanor in June, Clarence in July, then Ruth a week after Clarence. Then it was months and months until me, the odd one out, on October 29th. I was so excited for that cake. As the days rolled closer, as the morning dawned, as the hours inched by, I hopped around the house like a bunny rabbit.

But I wasn’t allowed to eat it until well after supper.

I stared at the clock, so I know. Yes, that one on the mantle there, the brass and chrome one. Same one. But I stared at the clock, so I know: night fell at six forty-one. That was the moment bright orange stopped glinting off that clock and my mother rose to light a lamp.

I looked up at her. “Now?”

She smiled and shook her head. My brothers and sisters complained in a chorus in support of me, but she just shook her head at them. “Too soon, and she’ll ruin her supper.”

Father came in from the fields not long after that, dirty and tired as all get out. He ate in silence while we chattered endlessly about what type of cake it would be. Under the frosting, who knew? It might be raspberry, vanilla, or even chocolate.

We grew silent as father neared the cleaning of his plate, an event which would mark the end of supper. Four pieces of meat and bread remained, then three, then two… any moment now…!

He stopped at the last piece, holding it unmoving above the remaining dollop of gravy.

We turned our heads.

It was the bell. The bell was ringing out in the fields.

Father grunted, then put the last piece of his food back on his plate before rising. He opened the front door; we braced ourselves for the wind, but none came. He spat on and held up a finger to the night air, then shook his head. He moved back into our lamplight and sat.

Arthur asked, “Is it gonna storm?”

Mary asked, “Is there gonna be a tornado?”

My mother shook her head, smiled at us, and told us not to worry. No wind meant no storm.

But that bell kept ringing.

My father dipped his last piece of food in the gravy and prepared to eat it despite the constantly ringing bell—but then sighed and put it back down. He motioned to Clarence.

Clarence was the oldest, so he understood. He was nearly a man himself, and tying the bell would be no problem. He grabbed a candle, protected the flame with his hand, and headed out the open front door.

My brothers and sisters and I piled up to the window; opening it, we found nothing but absolutely still chilly air. We watched his little spot of light move out around the house and into the fields in the direction of the bell. The clanging metallic sound stopped, finally, and the candle’s little flame hovered next to it for a solid minute.

“Why’s he taking so long to tie it?” Ruth asked.

Eleanor suggested, “Maybe he’s having trouble making a knot. Knots are tough.”

We watched for another minute or two before—and I know how this sounds—the little flame in the distance began to rise. Slowly, smoothly, straight up. We followed it with our eyes, exclaiming the entire time, as it moved out of sight beyond the roof overhang.

The bell began ringing again.

“His knot must have come loose,” Arthur said.

Our parents came to look at our insistence, but there was nothing to see by then. Father motioned to Arthur. Happy to help out, Arthur grabbed a full lamp rather than a candle. He hurried out the front door, around the house, and into the fields while we watched from the window. The lamp was easier to see, and we were absolutely certain he reached the crook.

As the lamplight hovered there, the bell stopped ringing.

At that point, we had no reason to think anything was amiss. Maybe the wind had just blown a wisp of burning candle string up into the sky and Clarence had gotten lost in the dark. He would see the lamplight, find Arthur, and they would both come back. The rising little flame we’d seen had just been a fluke.

Only problem was, staring out into the autumn night, we still felt no wind at all.

We stared at that unmoving light for a strangely long period of time. What was he doing out there? Was he calling for his brother? Why couldn’t we hear him, if so? Our parents looked away for a moment, and in that instant, the lamp went out. We children bleated, but by the time they glanced back, there was nothing to see. There was only darkness.

The bell began ringing again.

My father began grumbling, but there were no more sons to send outside. He narrowed his eyes with thought, then handed Ruth, the oldest girl among us, our main lamp.

Our mother laughed. “Ruth, be a dear and go find your silly brothers.”

Ruth was a little hesitant, but she accepted the lamp. Leaving us in darkness without it, she headed out around the house and into the fields. This lamp was brighter, and we could actually see her carrying hand and her white pajamas in a small lit halo. On the way there, she regularly called out, “Clarence… Arthur… you two lost?”

About halfway to where the other two lights had stopped, her calls went instantly silent midsentence. “Clarence… Arth—”

It wasn’t that she’d given up yelling. The sound reaching us had simply stopped completely. We could still see her carrying the lamp, still see her hand and pajamas, still see her turning this way and that. She even raised the house lamp near her face and we saw her shouting into the darkness. We just didn’t hear anything—nothing except that constantly clanging bell, growing faster in pace and louder in urgency.

Mary, Eleanor, and I looked up at our parents with fearful gazes.

My father shook his head, speaking for the first time that night. “So there’s wind out there after all. The air is like a river inside an ocean. It’s movin’ fast out there, carrying her voice away. But we can’t feel it here.”

My mother seemed worried, but she nodded and accepted that. We saw her accepting it, so we gulped and believed it, too. We all glued our eyes to that open window.

Ruth reached the bell, and, in that stronger light, it entered our view unmoving at the exact same time we heard it stop ringing. Ruth looked this way and that, clearly concerned. She seemed to silently yell a time or two before moving closer to the motionless bell. A half-tied rope hung from the crook, an indication that someone had attempted to tie it, but we couldn’t see Clarence or Arthur anywhere near her. She put the lamp down on the ground to free her hands for tying the rope the rest of the way, but that mostly hid the light among the low-lying recently harvested stalks.

We waited, breaths held.

The air held in my lungs started to burn.

At long last, we were forced to breathe again.

Ruth’s light continued to sit there, barely visible between the broken plants.

“What’s taking so long?” Mary asked.

Eleanor said, “I hope she’s alright.”

Father told us, “She’s fine. Damn kids are just playing a game with us.”

Our mother nodded in agreement. “Eleanor, go fetch your sister, will you?”

Eleanor shook her head. “No way! It’s scary out there!”

“It’s just a game. You’re not playing a game with us, too, are you?”

“No.” Eleanor gulped.

“Then go get your sister and brothers. Tell them to come back in.”

It was pitch black out there, and almost the same inside with us, save for one lone candle. Trembling, Eleanor took our last candle and crept out into the night, scooting along the side of the house to stay as close to us as possible. Shakily, she called, “Ruth? Arthur? Clarence? This isn’t funny anymore.”

Now it was we who sat in the dark. As Eleanor began to move further away with the last of our light, we tensed. Father eyed the open front door, and mother softly moved to close and latch it. I wondered what they meant by that move, because how were the others supposed to get back in? But I supposed they’d unlatch it if anyone came back and knocked. Mother moved away from us in search of more candles. Through it all, the bell kept ringing out in the dark.

Increasingly scared, I held Mary’s hand tightly and yelled out the window, “Be careful, Elly!”

She must have happened to cross that invisible silent threshold at that moment, because she turned around in surprise and stepped closer. “I heard your voice go quiet, but there’s no wind! Papa’s wrong!” She stepped away again. “See, when I pass this point, my—”

She held up the candle to show us that her mouth was still moving, but we heard nothing. Come to think of it, her hair wasn’t moving, and we hadn’t seen Ruth’s pajamas billowing in any wind. I asked father, “What’s doing that? What’s making it quiet out there?”

“It’s just a game,” father insisted. “They’re all lying. She’s just pretending to make noise so it looks like she’s being silenced.”

Eleanor reached the bell; father’s grip on my shoulder squeezed to nearly painful.

She reached down for the lamp Ruth had left; lifting it with one hand and holding the candle with the other, she approached the clanging bell.

“See?” Mary whispered to father. “The candle’s not going out even though she’s not protecting the flame. There’s no wind out there.”

“But the bell is ringing,” he said gruffly. “So there is wind.”

Eleanor kept looking left and right as if she’d heard something; slowly, she reached the bell, which was hanging unmoving from the crook.

But we could still hear it ringing.

Next to me, Mary began to cry.

“It’s a game,” father said angrily. “It’s just a game they’re playing.”

Eleanor threw the lamp at something in the darkness. We saw the lamp crash, shatter, and go dark, but heard nothing. She raced toward us, candle in hand, but the flame went out because of her haste. We waited to hear her approaching or screaming, but nothing followed.

The bell continued to clang.

We waited in terrified silence.

Mother returned with a candle for each of us, and we sat vigil at the window. Nothing and no one moved. For hours, the bell clanged without wind. The night remained pitch black. The bell clanged, and clanged, and clanged, driving deeper into our ears with each passing minute.

Near midnight, we broke.

Father was beyond agitated. “Mary, go find your brothers and sisters.”

“No!” she cried. “I’m not going out there!”

Mother glared at her. “You have to. This game has to stop.”

Urged on by both of them, Mary burst into tears and climbed out the window. Holding her small candle, she inched out into the fields. Her sobs went quiet as she passed that same point out in the darkness; her flame reached the bell, and the ringing stopped.

Her flame snuffed out.

We held our breaths.

The bell began ringing again.

Father clenched his fists. “Go.”

I turned and saw he was looking at me. I suddenly realized I was the only child left in the house, and I felt horribly alone. Everything in me shrieked against the thought of going out into that cursed night. “No.”

My mother wavered in place. No longer adamantly in line with my father, she began to cry, too.

“What are you doing?” he demanded. “It’s just a game. There’s nothing to be scared of!”

She screamed and demanded, “Why do you keep saying that? Why have I been helping you do this?!”

He grabbed her and shouted in her face, “Because we haven’t been sending our children to their deaths! That’s not what’s happening!

She pushed his hands away and ran for the window. Pushing past me, she tumbled out and ran screaming toward the still-clanging bell; not out of fear of father, but out of terror for her children. “Arthur! Clarence! Ruth! Eleanor! Mary! For God’s sake, where are you?!”

He growled and leapt out after her, yelling, “We didn’t kill them! Everything is fine!

They both continued shouting until they passed that point in the dark—and all went silent.

Except for the bell.

Twice more, it stopped ringing, and twice more, it began again.

In panic and terror beyond reason, I closed and latched the window and pushed all of the furniture against every entry to the house. I curled in a cupboard holding the last candle up to my face as it slowly melted its way down toward my fingers. I was alone. Somehow, I was alone. We’d all seen the danger and stared right at it as it happened, but one by one they’d all gone out there anyway. I’d been surrounded by a full band of siblings my entire life, and now I was completely and utterly alone in a house in the middle of nowhere.

By the length of my candle, it was three in the morning when the knock came at the door.

I trembled, but did not make a sound.

The knock sounded again forty heartbeats later. It was louder this time.

I shook, holding my candle tight.

The third knock was more like a tremendous crash or kick, and I heard the door explode inward.

Sixty heartbeats of silence passed… and then the floorboards creaked.

Something in me told me to put out my candle for fear of it being seen through the cracks in the cupboard, but I didn’t dare. Not darkness. I couldn’t handle darkness. I would scream if I did, so I kept it lit.

Slow quiet steps moved through the house. Whoever it was seemed to be pausing and listening at times; at others, they would rush forward to a random spot in a sudden frenzy and then stop abruptly.

Four hundred heartbeats after that, the bell began ringing again.

But this time, it rang from inside the house.

It rang from the kitchen.

It rang from near the bed.

It rang outside my cupboard. Clang, ten feet away, clang, five feet away, clang, right up against the cupboard door—

And then it opened.


I sat expectantly, mouth open and eyes wide, as I waited for my great-grandmother to continue. After a bit, I realized that was it. “But what’d you see?”

She shook her head. “That’s not the point. I’m here, so obviously I survived, and a young man like you doesn’t need to know what horrors walk this world outside the paved cities of man.”

Gulping, I asked, “You’re not just pulling my leg? This really happened?”

“Yes.” Her gaze went distant by television light. “But here’s what I want to tell you, and what you should tell your brother. The thing that opened that cupboard door and stared at me from the dark—the thing that hoped to wait out my candle before the coming of dawn—had a bell tied to one of its teeth with a blood-soaked rag, such that it would clang when its mouth was opened for hunting. Somehow, some way, some heroic poor soul managed to tie a warning bell to that thing before they died. We heard that warning bell all night long, and yet my entire family walked out there one by one. We didn’t listen because we didn’t want to listen. My father knew what he was doing halfway through, but he didn’t want to accept what he’d already done, so he did even worse to continue living the lie.”

I narrowed my eyes. “What are you saying?”

She grabbed my hand briefly. “Fear will tell you to put your candle out, but your head will tell you to keep it lit. Don’t give in to fear. You keep it lit, you’ll get through this.”

Turning my head, I became aware of a sound in the distance. “Is that… is that the bell? I was so caught up I didn’t notice. How long has that been ringing?”

She just clenched her fist and turned back to the television.

 

CREDIT: Matt Dymerski

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The Tall Man of Briarbell, Missouri

The Tall Man of Briarbell, MissouriReading Time: 5 minutes

We had all liked Mr. Winscot. He didn’t mind when we used the sledding hill on his property and he always gave out the best Halloween candy in the neighborhood. So when we heard he’d been taken by the Tall Man, everyone was really bummed out.

You wouldn’t have heard of Tall Man, so let me explain. Tall Man has been a legend in my town for decades. Those who claim to have seen him say that he is over 9 feet tall, slight, and pale, with an exceedingly polite smile. My dad told me that Tall Man is a collector; he likes things. Dad says his favorite things to take are sad people, empty buildings, and dreams. I have to admit, he’s stolen away my dreams more than a few times.

When Mr. Winscot didn’t show up for church on Sunday, nobody thought it was weird. Then when Monday rolled around and he wasn’t at work with my dad, people started to whisper. My parents thought it was odd, but not particularly concerning. But then the rumors started that Tall Man had gotten him. A kid in my class even said that he had seen Tall Man in Mr. Winscot’s house through a window. I told my parents what Jake had seen, but they only laughed.

Tyler and I biked by Mr. Winscot’s place every day after school to get to our friend Rory’s house. We never stopped in front of Mr. Winscot’s to try and see Tall Man through the windows like Jake had. We never even slowed down.

But one day we played too late at Rory’s. Since we didn’t want to bike home in the dark, we called our parents and asked to sleep over. Tyler was allowed to. I wasn’t.

I tried really hard not to look as I biked by Mr. Winscot’s cul-de-sac. I almost made it, but my curiosity forced a backwards glance at the house. The lights were all on and my eyes were drawn to the face in the window immediately. I saw Tall Man looking back at me. I choked in a panicked breath and my foot missed the pedal as I tried to speed away on my bike. I stumbled for only a second – my eyes never leaving the face in the window – before pedaling home as fast as I could.

The next morning at school, I told Rory and Tyler about Tall Man. They didn’t believe me, of course; they hadn’t believed Jake either. I knew I had to show them, otherwise they would think I was a liar.

We waited until dark and then biked to Mr. Winscot’s cul-de-sac. Tall Man was there – as I told them he’d be – watching us from the window above the front door. It was such a tall front door that I thought Tall Man must have been 10 feet high to see out of the window above it. He was almost smiling but his expression betrayed a certain displeasure. Tyler fell off of his bike.

“Holy shit! Run!” We did.

As soon as we cleared the cul-de-sac, we all began talking over each other in a flustered panic.

“I can’t believe we saw Tall Man!”

“Did you see the look on his face?!”

“We have to tell the cops!”

We went back the next morning with more friends but Tall Man was gone. We went back the next day, but again could see no one behind the window. We began to wonder if Tall Man only came out at night. A few nights later, as we sat in Rory’s basement waiting for a pizza to arrive, we decided to sneak out and see if our theory was true.

We quietly rolled our bikes down the driveway and into the street. We took off for Mr. Winscot’s house, torn between hoping Tall Man was there, and praying that he wasn’t.

We saw him as soon as we biked into the cul-de-sac. He was still standing there after all, and this time, he was outright frowning.

“He’s mad,” Rory said. “He wants us to stay away.”

“I don’t get why he only comes out at night.” Tyler said while he snapped a picture.

“Don’t!” I hissed. “Stop taking pictures, you’ll make him madder.”

“Maybe he watches us in the daytime, too.” Rory shrugged. “Maybe we can only see him at night because that’s when the porch lights come on and shines right in the window.”

It was a chilling thought. We decided to test Rory’s theory the following Saturday, emboldened by the assumption that Tall Man could only watch us but never come out.

As soon as the sun came up that morning, we biked to Mr. Wilscot’s. We had to get close, almost all the way to the beginning of his driveway, but Tyler swore he saw Tall Man still standing in the window.

I made hand binoculars and squinted at the window for a few more minutes before Tyler suddenly said “Let’s go,” hopped back on his bike, and pedaled off. We caught up to him a few blocks later.

“What the hell was that!” I said.

“It was… Tall Man was there, but he looked different this time.”

“Like how?” Rory asked.

“I don’t know, he looked angry or just… wrong somehow.”

It was days before we could convince Tyler to go back to Tall Man’s house, and even then he insisted on taking his teenage brother Matt with us. Matt wasn’t impressed with our stories at all. He didn’t believe us, but he came anyway, for Tyler’s sake.

As soon as we got close enough to see Tall Man in the window above the door, Matt got off his bike. He stared and squinted, and stared some more. He got closer, closer than we had ever dared to go at night. We followed nervously behind him.

Matt walked up the driveway and then down the stone path to the front porch. We dared not follow that far. Then Matt went up the porch stairs, right up to the door.

“Holy… fuck.” He said. Then a few more four letter words. And suddenly Matt was running down the front porch, down the path, down the driveway and out into the street where we waited.

“What is it?” Tyler asked him.

“There is no Tall Man.” He said, out of breath. “Call the cops. Now.”

And he was right, it wasn’t Tall Man after all. We stayed long enough to watch the police break down the door and cut the rotting corpse of Mr. Winscot from the ceiling where he had hung himself from a lamp fixture in his foyer. The body had decayed as if it were melting in the days we had watched it from the road. Mr. Winscot had written no note and made no goodbyes, leaving behind only the sad imprint of a divorced, middle-aged man suffering a sad, well-hidden depression.

It was weeks before the town lost interest in the tragic suicide and months before kids stopped asking us to describe the body in all of its gory detail. Eventually, even Tyler and Rory and stopped talking about it. Everyone had moved on. Everyone except me.

See, there was one detail that always bothered me, one thing I never told Rory or Tyler. It was about the first time I’d seen Tall Man, the time I’d been alone. The thing was, I’d seen Mr. Winscot that night: he’d been sitting alone in his kitchen eating dinner. But I’d seen something else, too. In the upstairs bedroom window, there had been an impossibly tall, impossibly pale man staring back at me. And he’d been politely smiling.

 

CFREDIT: C.K. Walker

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Hole

HoleReading Time: 5 minutes

It was your typical college setting. A lecture hall with fifty students, maybe more. One moment a guy in the front row was answering a question from the professor, and the next, a big black sphere was hanging in the air where his head used to be. Now that was anything but typical.

I was looking right at him when it happened, so I was among the first to see it. Others who hadn’t been looking turned their heads to see why the guy had stopped in the middle of his sentence. Nervous chatter quickly filled the room: “What is that?” “Do you think he’s okay?” “Someone go get the—”

Boom.

It was like static on the radio, amplified by a thousand. A hundred hands clasped a hundred ears. The air around the sphere distorted for a second, returning to normal as the effect moved outward, passing through the rest of the room. My entire body shook and went cold as it hit me.

The five closest to the sphere had been affected differently, more strongly; as mostly everyone else crowded the exits, they stood frozen in place, seemingly unable to move. One of them, a brown-haired guy in a red shirt, began shaking wildly. His mouth opened like he was trying to scream, but what came out was a high-pitched whine, adjacent to a dentist’s drill.

He exploded. There was a wet squelch, like someone stepping in mud, and the guy was in a hundred pieces. Droplets of his blood stayed suspended around the sphere, a crimson-colored mist, before settling down to the floor. The rest of him was everywhere—on the floor, on tables, on people’s skin and clothing, all the way to the back of the room. One slimy chunk of skin hit me right in the face.

I’d joined the others at the doors, but something was wrong. Someone was shouting that they were stuck, that they couldn’t be opened. That’s impossible, I thought. There were six doors out of the room, three on this side and three on the other, and they couldn’t all be locked. I pushed my way through and gave all three a try for myself, but they were right, none of them would budge. I rammed the closest one with my shoulder, but even with the the terror-induced adrenaline, it wasn’t enough. A handful of other students joined me and we all threw our weight against the door at once, before repeating the action several more times. The door shuddered, but wouldn’t give way. A quick glance told me the same thing was being tried on the other side of the room, to no avail.

I looked back to the group of five, positioned around the sphere. Another had gone into convulsions like the man before, a woman this time. She spun so she was facing the door and opened her mouth, but no sound came out. A concentrated black beam of something did instead. Think of a cartoon robot firing a big fat laser out of its mouth and you’ve got the idea. The woman turned her head and the beam swung along the length of the far wall, passing through several people as it did so. Squelch, squelch, squelch. They exploded, one after another.

Boom.

Louder now, loud enough to drown out all the screams. My body rattled violently, knocking me off balance. I stumbled, and the cold hit me. Like being buried in ice. It lasted several seconds longer this time.

A vision entered my mind of a black tower, piercing a blood-red sky. The tower climbed higher than I could see, incomprehensibly high. It spoke to me, its voice directly inside my head: “Freedom…at last…

The vision faded. I was on the floor, as were dozens of others around me. I got up and looked at the sphere; it was larger now, almost twice the size it had been when it first appeared. It wasn’t just a sphere though, I don’t think; it was a gateway, and that tower, whatever it was, was trying to get through.

One of the doors opened. All at once students poured out of the room, myself among them. Police officers stood positioned at the sides, ready to move in when the way was clear. Thank God they made it, I thought. *They’ll take care of this, whatever—*no. No, they couldn’t go in there, they couldn’t. This wasn’t a shooter or anything like that, something they could fight. The only thing they or any of the rest of us could do was run.

I grabbed the arm of an officer standing to my left. “Don’t go in there! You can’t!” I shouted. He took my hand and gently removed it, saying something I couldn’t make out. Before I could do anything else, the crowd picked me up and swept me away.

Boom.

The increased distance meant the impact was weaker. It felt more like the first time than the second, some minor shaking and a sense of cold that went away quickly. I maintained my balance and kept running.

Boom.

Not the hole that time. Gunshots. I didn’t see how the officers could think shooting at that thing would do any good.

Boom.

Boom.

Boom.

Someone screamed: “They’re shooting at us!”

But that couldn’t be. They were the police, they were there to—

In the corner of my eye I saw an officer. He stood outside but was facing in through the window, his shotgun aimed directly at the crowd. Boom. The window shattered. One person fell, another stumbled. Blood trickled down the side of her leg.

A guy, a hero whose name I may never know, leaped through the obliterated window and rushed the officer head-on. He took a blast directly to the chest and went down, flat on his back. His sacrifice provided just enough opportunity for a small group to seize the officer and get him on the ground. The rest of us poured through the opening after them, out of the building and into the university’s plaza.

Sunlight never felt so good.


Altogether, thirty people died that day. Most were students, but a handful of police officers were killed as well. Those that attacked us attacked their fellow officers as well and were killed in the ensuing shootout, meaning they can’t answer questions about what happened to them. Was it the thing on the other side of the hole that caused them to act that way? Or something else? The doors were all locked—someone wanted to keep us in that room.

The building is sealed off now. I’m told the pulses have stopped, and that the hole has stopped growing. Some people think that means it’s stable now, and I’m inclined to agree with them; I don’t agree that it’s a good thing. Out of all the people that survived the incident, ten of them have already committed suicide. The thing on the other side of the hole must be the cause of that, and if it still has that kind of influence, I can make only one conclusion: the hole hasn’t stabilized because it failed to get through. It’s because it already did.

 

CREDIT: Riley Odell

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The Wires

The WiresReading Time: 14 minutesWhen I was twenty four, my older brother died.

At the time, I was working as a customer support guy at a major internet service provider on the Canadian West Coast. That was my stand-by job while I tried to figure out what I really wanted to do with myself. At the time, I had no idea what would enter into my life, both through my brother’s death, and the wires.

I had gotten home that night, made dinner, and was relaxing with some of Netflix’s crime documentaries when I got the knock on the door. It was two police officers with the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police, our national police service). One of the officers was an older black woman with frizzy hair tied back, and the other was a bald Asian guy who looked to be in his early twenties. My brow furrowed with confusion as the older, female officer asked if I was Robert Fellows, brother of John Fellows, and I nodded that yes, I was.

“Officer, what is this about? Has something happened to John?” I asked. I was getting worried, and it clearly bled into my voice, because I could see a reaction in the officer’s face. It looked pained, like she had something to say but didn’t know how to say it. I glanced at her partner – same deal with him. In the few brief moments before she spoke again, I felt my heart drop within me. Something had happened, and whatever it was, it was bad.

“Mister Fellows, I think we should sit down. Can we come in?” I nodded, walked them into the living room, and sat down on the couch while they pulled up some chairs to sit in front of me.

It had happened about three hours before the police arrived. John was heading home from the office where he worked as a Human Resources manager. The way they described it, I could picture it so vividly in my mind, because it was part of his usual routine. John would have been driving home in his Mazda, humming along with the show tunes playing from his phone on the dashboard. Once he got home, he’d quickly change into his casual clothes and head out to see a movie. That was something he loved doing, both by himself and with me – he was a massive film buff, just as I was.

Except it didn’t play out that way this time. Just as he was approaching the bridge leading from downtown to the rest of the city, a drunk driver came out of nowhere and slammed into the driver-side part of John’s car at over a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour.

John died on impact.

As the police described what had happened, I tuned everything out. I found myself not caring that they had the driver in custody and were charging him for what he’d done and that he’d likely spend decades in prison, or anything of the sort. My brother was dead. That was what mattered. That was what the reality was. I finally, after what seemed like an eternity, looked up at the police officers. I could tell what my face looked like based on what I saw in theirs. They looked as though they were hurting; empathizing with me on a physical level. After a moment of silence, the younger officer spoke.

“There are services available for victims of crime. You can get in touch with those services by calling this number,” he said, handing me a crisp-looking business card. I nodded and absent-mindedly dropped it on the couch next to me. The older officer said they would keep in touch with me about the progress of the driver’s court case, and I distantly heard myself tell them that I’d appreciate that. And just like that, their visit was over. I showed them out, and then closed and locked the door behind them.

Then I cried. I broke down, tears flooding down my cheeks, my heavy heart wanting to shrivel up and die inside of my chest. I took my face in my hands and fell back against my apartment wall. I slid  down until I was sprawled out on the floor. I stayed that way for the rest of the night, eventually sobbing myself into a deep sleep.

In hindsight, I wish I’d have kept it together enough to notice what was happening in my house. The wires in my kitchen and living room were moving of their own accord. Stretching, tightening, loosening; dragging themselves towards me. I wish I had noticed that, but I didn’t.

John was gone. My best friend; we were as close as a pair of brothers could be. I’d looked up to him his whole life, and he looked after me me for most of mine. He would walk me home after school when I was young, always interested in how my day was. When I was old enough, he’d let me tag along with him and his friends. He always had time for me and what was going on in my life, supporting me in everything I felt I had to do. And then, when Mom and Dad died, he took care of me, moving us into an apartment and working ungodly hours every week to provide for us.

He was my brother, he loved me, and he was there. What more could anyone ever ask for? Even now, especially after all that’s happened, I can remember one thing he said to me when I was a teenager. It was just after we saw our parents buried. We were walking through the cemetery back to the car when he wrapped his arm around my shoulder and looked me in the eye and said “Robbie, you know I’ll always look after you, right?” I nodded, kind of understanding in a superficial way what he meant. It was true, though. He always did, no matter what.

It’s what happened after John died, though, that changed everything. It was the wires, you see. The wires, so long and black and thick and thin, writhing around like a horde of snakes. Alive, and hungry. Always hungry.

For the next month, I tried to live with my grief. It was hard, though. It was so, so hard. Most days I just went through the motions in this dull, numbed daze. It was like I was disconnected from myself, on the outside looking in. I didn’t feel much aside from a hard ache in the core of my chest. As for my concerns? Nothing mattered. Nothing was important. I didn’t give a shit about movies, or trying my hand at screenwriting, or any of that. I didn’t care about planning out my future, figuring out where I wanted to be in ten years. Those things had occupied my mind so much until John’s death. Now, they didn’t.

That was how things went for a while. The hours, days, and weeks eventually bled together into this vast, endless and indiscernible soup, and I lived my life accordingly. I was pulled into my boss’s office at work about a month after John’s death.

“Look, son,” he said, his middle-aged eyes full to the brim with barely hidden disappointment, “I understand what’s happened to you has been hard. But you need to pick yourself up.”

I sat there slumped in the chair, staring at him. I was wearing clothes that were unwashed and that had been slept in for the past five days. I was unshaven and hadn’t showered for at least a week. I listened to him tell me that if I needed to, I could take time off. That wasn’t the only thing, though – he stressed that with me falling behind on my work in some areas and outright not meeting expectations in others, if things didn’t change, it was either take the time off or get fired. I wanted to tell him what I really felt – that I didn’t really give a shit if he fired me or not. I didn’t, though. I mumbled in acceptance, and an hour later I was back home for the first day of my impromptu vacation.

That night was when it all really started.

I went to bed the moment I got home. I was asleep less than fifteen minutes later. When I woke up, I was in pitch darkness, and tightly – tightly – bound with what could only have been electrical cords.

When I say ‘electrical cords’, I mean stuff like computer power cords, HDMI cables, headphone wires – that sort of thing. Wires. I blinked and tried to get my bearings. I soon figured out that it was all real. I wasn’t asleep. Somehow, I knew it wasn’t a dream. It couldn’t have been. I tried to move, but I couldn’t, as I was too tightly constricted. My heart started to race as fear seeped in, and then more so as that fear turned to terror. The wires, slick and smooth, roamed across my skin, making it crawl. They tightened and loosened in perfect rhythm, as if they were a living, breathing organism. I felt my breathing become heavy and frantic. I wanted to do anything to get away; I wanted to scream at these things to get away. The wires’ grip tightened, almost as if in reaction to my thoughts. As the pressure grew and grew, I finally screamed. In pure terror, I screamed, desperately hoping that it would somehow make a difference.

Then I woke up.

I shot up in bed, drenched in sweat. I glanced around my room, my eyes wide open. After a few moments, I realized – there was nothing constricting me – I was fine. It was just a dream. Dropping back onto my bed, I took in a deep breath and then exhaled just as deeply. “Great,” I thought. “Now I’m having nightmares. Just fucking great.” I rolled over and tried to get back to sleep, grumbling angrily to myself as I closed my eyes.

But I didn’t get to sleep again that night. I couldn’t. I didn’t fully realize it until morning, but my subconscious must have. The marks on my body that I ran my fingers across as I laid awake were no marks at all – they were grooves. The same kind of grooves that’d be there if you were tightly bound with cord.

But I hadn’t noticed this until the next morning. That night, I just laid there. I laid there and thought of John.

The next day, I walked. I needed to get my mind off of John, off of the nightmare I’d had, and the mysterious grooves in my skin, so I went downtown and just walked. I found myself strolling through a run-down part of town, mostly abandoned. The grassy area was full of untended weeds, and sticking like a sore thumb out of them were large, abandoned structures. Catching sight of a particular building – a tall, block-shaped one whose face was marked equally by graffiti and burn marks – I felt intrigued. There was just something about it – I don’t know how else to describe it. As I stood there, I noticed this stray cat – cute little thing, pure black – trotting on over to the building. I cracked a grin watching it. As it slipped into the building, I decided that it might be fun to follow it – see where it was heading, that sort of thing. So, me being the person I was, I jogged on over to the building.

Ten minutes later, I was stomping through an upper-floor corridor. It turns out the building was a burned down hotel – an old one too, probably from the fifties. The air smelt of smoke and age, and the walls were dilapidated and broken apart. I had to be careful and watch my step, lest I fall through the ground to a quick and untimely death.

As I walked, I started to wonder what the hell I was even doing there. it was stupid, and dangerous. What if I fell, or got hurt some other way? I was in the middle of nowhere, and no one knew where I was. This was fucking ridiculous. Well, that was that. I was on the verge of leaving to go home, but then I heard it. I heard the music.

It sounded like a faint, but beautiful song, consisting largely of buzzing. Recalling that ‘music’ now I can’t help but shudder and want to lock myself in my closet, but somehow, it sounded so utterly beautiful in that moment. I found myself walking, then jogging, then sprinting towards that music. Up a flight of stairs, through two apartments with broken walls to another corridor, then down another hallway. Turning down the hallway, then into an apartment. To this day, I’m still not quite sure what I was expecting. I certainly wasn’t expecting what I actually wound up seeing.

What I saw was something from another world – it had to be. It was a writhing, endless mass of wires. All black, all connected and entangled; entangled so much that an army could never hope to untangle them all, even if they had a hundred years to spare. The wires pulsated; loosening and tightening in unison. They even grew thicker and thinner like snakes do when they breathe. I stood there, frozen as the memory of my nightmare floated into my conscious awareness. My mind took that into account and tried to somehow make sense of what I was seeing. As I stared at them, it dawned on me what they reminded me of – a horde of snakes. A giant mass of black, electric snakes. Staring at these things, I felt dread creep into my heart. This was wrong – against nature. This shouldn’t exist. As that realization crept into my mind, panic arose within me. My heart began to race again and I felt sweat drip from my forehead as a mad, desperate, overwhelming desire to run began to consume me. Finally, I acted on that desire. I swung around and took off toward the door.

But it was no longer there.

It had been replaced with a wall of wires, moving and ‘breathing’, as it were, with their loosening and tightening and thickening and thinning. It finally clicked – this wasn’t the apartment building. It was somewhere else. Somewhere different. I don’t know how or why, but I felt it deep in my gut.

I felt trapped, constrained, separated from everything and everyone I knew. I felt rise within me a desperate panic – what was I going to do? How could I survive? After a few brief moments, I couldn’t help it anymore. I screamed in a mad panic.

At that moment, I think I got it’s attention, because immediately the wires shot out and wrapped themselves around me, drawing me into its mass. Panic consumed me as I fought and thrashed about mindlessly, my heart slamming into my chest over, and over, and over again. I felt tears run down my cheeks and sweat stream down the length of my face as the living wires coiled around me and sucked me in, deeper and deeper into their mass. Their grip on my body grew tighter with every passing moment – to the point where I knew if they got any tighter, my bones would surely snap.

That wasn’t the most horrid part, though. They felt truly alive, almost as if they were this massive set of snake-like animals. The wires felt smooth and slick as they traversed across my arms, legs, face, and throat. I tried to control my breathing, but I couldn’t – I was in such a panic that I was hyperventilating. As I thrashed and fought, I heard myself sobbing vigorously. I felt so helpless, and I did feel like I was going to die there. Then… God… then I heard it.

It came into my ears as I felt that presence from my nightmare approach. It was whispering, of a voice that couldn’t be human and in a language that no human mouth or tongue could ever hope to produce. But it was there, in my ear, speaking to me. What it said to me, to this day, makes my blood run cold.

What it said to me – whispering closely, so closely, as if it were a lover’s mouth just millimeters away from my ear – was, “You can come to be with us, and there you can join our mass.”

I screamed wildly, completely out of control as raw terror overtook me. All I could think before I blacked out was, “John, I love you.”

You can imagine how surprised I was when I woke up in my bed. It was evening, and for some reason I was thinking of John. Somehow, he was stuck in my mind, the way he’d be when we’d parted ways after an evening of socializing with each other. It was odd, but I didn’t concern myself with it because I had more pressing issues to attend to.

I glanced around frantically, wondering what the fuck was going on. It couldn’t have been another nightmare, because I was still dressed in the clothes I wore out that day. I jumped out of bed and moved over to the window, pulling the blinds open. It was dark out, the night lit up by the city lights and the moon in the sky. Okay, it was night. Great. But I wasn’t going to stick around to admire it.

Something was happening. Something horrible. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I had to get out. I decided I’d leave the city, move up north into the woods, then figure out what to do next. The woods, where there’d be no fucking cords or wires.

An hour later, I was packing my bags, and I was finally ready to leave. I packed in the bathroom, because I didn’t want any of the wires in my apartment to see me get ready. I know, that sounds batshit crazy, but can you blame me after what I’d been through?

Like I said, I had no idea what was going on. My heart was pounding furiously, powered by raw fear and anxiety, as I tried to plan out how I’d survive all of this. Why was this happening to me? What was this living mass? All sorts of questions, running through my head. In the end, I silenced all of them and got back to packing, hoping that I’d be able to slip out, unseen.

It was no good, though. I was so focused on packing, so focused on getting out, that I wasn’t thinking coherently. If I had, I’d have known to thoroughly check my bathroom, and if I’d done that, I’d have noticed a thin charger cord for my electric razor peeking out of the bathroom cupboard.

The wires got to me just as I reached my apartment door, a backpack slung around my shoulder. First it was my phone cord that shot out and wrapped itself around my ankle. Then my computer cords – somehow extended to a great length – and then all of my phone cords and TV wires shot out of their respective rooms to entangle themselves around my arms and body. I immediately began to fight wildly in a terrified frenzy, hoping against all odds that I could get the hell away from these things and survive. I needed to get out, I needed to free myself, and the more time that passed, the more panic consumed me. Before long, I heard the whisper of the wires’ presence  in my ear – “The mass, the mass. You will join our mass”. It got louder and louder and closer and closer. As I struggled, more wires – coming from seemingly nowhere – shot out to wrap themselves around me. Soon, I was on the ground and covered from head to toe in them, as tightly wrapped as one could be. It felt like pure hell, like I was in the grip of some monster from a campfire story. I didn’t know what these things were, and I didn’t know how to fight them. The more I struggled, the more they overpowered me. I had no idea what to do, and that only fueled my panic.

In the midst of my fear, my breathing heavy and rapid and my bones feeling like they were about to snap, I noticed something.

My surroundings were starting to blur, shift, and change. My apartment walls seemed to flicker, and in between the flickering I saw a brightly lit, yet dark, mass of writhing, snake-like wires. At this point I was going on pure animal instinct, fighting like mad while sobbing viciously, thoughts of being consumed by this thing filling my mind and paralyzing me with dread.

Then… then, my God. My saviour… my amazing, wonderful, saviour spoke to me.

“Robbie,” John’s voice spoke to me, from the deepest reaches of eternity, “you know I’ll always look after you, right?”

Something happened, then. The all too close whisper of the wires turned into a terrified and agonized shriek. I closed my eyes in pain because of the shrill closeness of the shriek to my ears. It was because of the pain that I didn’t notice the wires uncoiling themselves and withdrawing from me. By the time came to and opened my eyes, there were no wires anymore – at least, none wrapped around me.

I saw him, too. Shakily pulling myself up to my feet, I saw him standing in front of me, just as if he had never died. Just as if he had come over to watch a movie with me. He was smiling softly, with warmth in his eyes.

“Don’t worry about the mass,” John said softly, “they won’t come after you anymore. I won’t let them. I love you, you know.”

I wanted to respond. I wanted to run over and hug him. I wanted to do a million things, but I couldn’t, on account of me blacking out immediately after he spoke to me.

What’s the rest of the story? I woke up the next day, in bed, feeling warm and safe. I went into work with clean, freshly ironed clothes and a strong work ethic. I felt like a million bucks, and I acted like it too. Life was back on track, and my grief had vanished. I loved my brother, and he loved me. Even now. Even after his death.

That was five years ago. I finally got my life together and got into screenwriting, an old dream of mine. Now I’m part of the writing staff for a small-league Canadian medical drama. Not anything huge, but it pays the bills.

Life is good, for the most part. I’ve even met a special someone, who I hope’ll end up my wife sometime in the next few years.

But, still.

I still dream about them. About the mass. The wires. I still dream about them, and in those dreams… in those dreams, the whispers come to me. They whisper that it won’t last, that someday… someday, they’ll have me.

Something else has happened recently that I find troubling. At various points, I find it hard to think of my brother. At times, crazily, I can’t even remember what his face looked like. In these moments, I feel a wave of terror and vulnerability wash over me, and I think of the wires. Wherever they are, I picture them writhing and sliding over each other in a gigantic, uniform mass.

I try not to believe the wires.

I try not to.

CREDIT: Malcolm Teller

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I Don’t Think My Friend Ran Away

I Don't Think My Friend Ran AwayReading Time: 6 minutesI’d been depressed for a long time, mostly since my dad died. All his friends called him a hero; he was a cop and he sacrificed himself to save the lives of 23 people being held by an active shooter. I was 9 when that happened, I remember it like it was yesterday. But yesterday was my 17th birthday, and now my life is a nightmare.

My mom eventually remarried, but I can’t blame her for that. She was lonely and needed help raising a troubled kid. I just wish she’d been more aware of whom she was bringing into our lives. He’s not why I’m in trouble, but he’s an asshole who treats my mom like shit – she’s too in love with him to see it. No, he’s not the reason I ended up here, but he’s a precipitating factor.

It started when I heard that my friend Cassie had run away. I didn’t get it. Cassie lived in a suburban wonderland. Her parents were still married, they doted on her, her siblings weren’t douche bags, and she got really good grades – I mean, not straight A’s, but good enough that she was on the Honor Roll and her folks were proud of her. Idyllic is the word I’d use.

I spoke to her parents a time or two; they wanted to know the first time if Cassie had said anything to me – she hadn’t, and I’d said as much. The second time, I went over to be, I don’t know, supportive in their tough time. I knocked on their door and Mrs. Beaman answered. “Oh, Julie… Hi. Is everything okay?” I said it was, “Hey Mrs. Beaman, I just thought I’d come over to say ‘Hi’ and see if you guys had heard anything regarding Cassie, I’m sorry if it seems insensitive…”

Cassie’s mom opened the door wide and smiled a little, “Oh, no… Honey, please come in, I know you probably miss her as much as we do.” I did. Cassie had been one of my best friends, maybe five years ago. We’d grown apart a little after my dad died. I guess that’s my fault; I withdrew from everyone. I said as much to Mrs. Beaman and her eyes welled up with tears. “Julie, we don’t know where Cassie is, but we got a letter shortly after she went missing.”

It shocked me a little, “Missing? I thought she was just a runaway. I don’t understand.” Mrs. Beaman opened a binder that sat on her coffee table and pushed it toward me where I sat next to her on the couch. I read it aloud.

“Mom, Dad,

I’m with Greg, I’m not in danger. I just needed to get out of this dead-end town and see the rest of the world. I’m sorry if this disappoints you, but I need this. – Love Cassie.”

Cassie’s mom closed the binder, sniffed back tears, and said, “We got this maybe a week after she disappeared, it’s what convinced the Police that she was a runaway.” I looked at her face and I could tell that she was less than convinced of her own words. I couldn’t help myself, “Who the fuck is Greg?” Mrs. Beaman flinched at my language and I apologized. “Sorry, I just don’t understand any of this, I never knew any Greg. I mean, I know Cassie and I aren’t the best of friends anymore, but I never heard of her seeing anyone.” A small smile touched her lips, “It’s alright dear, Richard… Mr. Beaman said the same thing when he read the letter.”

I’d never heard Mr. Beaman swear in the ten years that Cassie and I had been best friends.

“Was Cassie depressed at all?” Mrs. Beaman frowned a bit and started to shake her head, then stopped. “I won’t lie to you Julie, I feel like I don’t know who my own daughter was. If she was depressed, I didn’t know it.” I spoke with her a little while longer and thanked her for her time and the memories. I should have gone home, but I didn’t want to deal with Todd by myself.

I called my mom at work and told her I was going to go to the library and do my homework before I went home. She said she’d see me when she got off work. I hate lying to my mom, but I wasn’t about to tell her that I was going to find a nice quiet spot in the woods and smoke some weed.

I did just that. After the emotional drain of the Beaman house, I just needed to not give a shit for a little while. I found my spot in the woods and pulled my stash out from under the stump. I hit it there ever since Todd busted me smoking in my old playhouse in the backyard… dick. I wasn’t too far from home, and I wasn’t exactly lying, because if my mom or Todd ever pinged my location on my cell, it’d put me within 100 meters of the library.

I took a few hits and leaned back against the stump, closed my eyes, and just listened to the trees. It was dead quiet, but it shouldn’t have been. No birds, no critters, or even insect noises. Nothing. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up from the wrongness of it. I was about to open my eyes when I heard a snapping noise, like someone or… something had stepped on a branch. I should have gotten the hell out of there, but it was like my brain reverted to childhood – you know, “If I can’t see it, it can’t see me”?

I heard more muffled noises until they stopped just behind me and to the left. The shifting of fabric as if someone were sitting or squatting near me. A deep, almost melodic voice came to me. I’d say I heard it, but that’s not quite right. I mean, I did hear it, but it was inside my head. “Keeping your eyes closed is probably a good idea, kid.” I felt a hand take the pipe from me. I heard a lighter spark and the sound of someone inhaling as the voice spoke again. “Mmm, not bad. Before you dismiss this, no, I’m not a hallucination.”

I opened my mouth to speak and the voice shushed me. My mouth clamped shut, but not of my own accord. “This is just a warning to you, Julie. Please stop asking questions about Cassie. Let the Beaman’s be. They’re in enough pain as it is, don’t you think?” I nodded, trying to think for myself. I felt a sharp poke somewhere behind my eye and the voice said “Yes, I am who the letter referred to as Greg. Cassie is with me and it’s going to stay that was for as long as I like.”

I felt tears squeeze themselves out from under my eyelids. I felt the pipe placed back into my hand and the barest of a breeze blown from the direction of my tormentor, no… not a breeze. It was his breath. It was fetid, rotten, with just a touch of musk from the weed. “I would hate to have to talk with you again, Julie. You’re not exactly my type, but I’ll make an exception if I need to.”

Unbidden, images flashed through my mind; tall, pretty, willowy girls, like Cassie, their faces bordered in the black and white of missing posters… so many of them. I shuddered and shook my head emphatically. He spoke again “Good, I see we understand each other perfectly. I hope there’s not a ‘next time,’ Julie.” I stayed there, shaking, eyes squeezed shut for how long, I don’t know.

I started to hear the sounds of nature again, birdsong, the buzzing of insects… I screamed when my phone rang, my eyes flew open, and at first, I was surprised to see it was dark. I saw my mom’s number on the screen and answered. “Julie Marie Townsend, I’ve been texting you for an hour. I’m in the library parking lot. Get your ass out here and let’s go home. Dinner is getting cold.” I took in a shuddering breath and told her I would be out in a minute. I stashed my pipe and made my way to her car. She chewed my ass the whole way home about not answering her and all I could do was apologize. I’m writing this down, so I remember it. I hope he can’t dig into my head and see that I am. If he does, I may be the next runaway.

 

CREDIT: FeyedHarkonnen

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The Terrible Old Man by H.P. Lovecraft

The Terrible Old ManIt was the design of Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva to call on the Terrible Old Man. This old man dwells all alone in a very ancient house on Water Street near the sea, and is reputed to be both exceedingly rich and exceedingly feeble; which forms a situation very attractive to men of the profession of Messrs. Ricci, Czanek, and Silva, for that profession was nothing less dignified than robbery.

The inhabitants of Kingsport say and think many things about the Terrible Old Man which generally keep him safe from the attention of gentlemen like Mr. Ricci and his colleagues, despite the almost certain fact that he hides a fortune of indefinite magnitude somewhere about his musty and venerable abode. He is, in truth, a very strange person, believed to have been a captain of East India clipper ships in his day; so old that no one can remember when he was young, and so taciturn that few know his real name. Among the gnarled trees in the front yard of his aged and neglected place he maintains a strange collection of large stones, oddly grouped and painted so that they resemble the idols in some obscure Eastern temple. This collection frightens away most of the small boys who love to taunt the Terrible Old Man about his long white hair and beard, or to break the small-paned windows of his dwelling with wicked missiles; but there are other things which frighten the older and more curious folk who sometimes steal up to the house to peer in through the dusty panes. These folk say that on a table in a bare room on the ground floor are many peculiar bottles, in each a small piece of lead suspended pendulum-wise from a string. And they say that the Terrible Old Man talks to these bottles, addressing them by such names as Jack, Scar-Face, Long Tom, Spanish Joe, Peters, and Mate Ellis, and that whenever he speaks to a bottle, the little lead pendulum within makes certain definite vibrations as if in answer. Those who have watched the tall, lean, Terrible Old Man in these peculiar conversations, do not watch him again. But Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva were not of Kingsport blood; they were of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life and traditions, and they saw in the Terrible Old Man merely a tottering, almost helpless greybeard, who could not walk without the aid of his knotted cane, and whose thin, weak hands shook pitifully. They were really quite sorry in their way for the lonely, unpopular old fellow, whom everybody shunned, and at whom all the dogs barked singularly. But business is business, and to a robber whose soul is in his profession, there is a lure and a challenge about a very old and very feeble man who has no account at the bank, and who pays for his few necessities at the village store with Spanish gold and silver minted two centuries ago.

 

Messrs. Ricci, Czanek, and Silva selected the night of April 11th for their call. Mr. Ricci and Mr. Silva were to interview the poor old gentleman, whilst Mr. Czanek waited for them and their presumable metallic burden with a covered motor-car in Ship Street, by the gate in the tall rear wall of their host’s grounds. Desire to avoid needless explanations in case of unexpected police intrusions prompted these plans for a quiet and unostentatious departure.

As prearranged, the three adventurers started out separately in order to prevent any evil-minded suspicions afterward. Messrs. Ricci, and Silva met in Water Street by the old man’s front gate, and although they did not like the way the moon shone down upon the painted stones through the budding branches of the gnarled trees, they had more important things to think about than mere idle superstition. They feared it might be unpleasant work making the Terrible Old Man loquacious concerning his hoarded gold and silver, for aged sea-captains are notably stubborn and perverse. Still, he was very old and very feeble, and there were two visitors. Messrs. Ricci, and Silva were experienced in the art of making unwilling persons voluble, and the screams of a weak and exceptionally venerable man can be easily muffled. So they moved up to the one lighted window and heard the Terrible Old Man talking childishly to his bottles with pendulums. Then they donned masks and knocked politely at the weather-stained oaken door.

Waiting seemed very long to Mr. Czanek as he fidgeted restlessly in the covered motor-car by the Terrible Old Man’s back gate in Ship Street. He was more than ordinarily tender-hearted, and he did not like the hideous screams he had heard in the ancient house just after the hour appointed for the deed. Had he not told his colleagues to be as gentle as possible with the pathetic old sea-captain? Very nervously he watched that narrow oaken gate in the high and ivy-clad stone wall. Frequently he consulted his watch, and wondered at the delay. Had the old man died before revealing where his treasure was hidden, and had a thorough search become necessary? Mr. Czanek did not like to wait so long in the dark in such a place. Then he sensed a soft tread or tapping on the walk inside the gate, heard a gentle fumbling at the rusty latch, and saw the narrow, heavy door swing inward. And in the pallid glow of the single dim street-lamp he strained his eyes to see what his colleagues had brought out of that sinister house which loomed so close behind. But when he looked, he did not see what he had expected; for his colleagues were not there at all, but only the Terrible Old Man leaning quietly on his knotted cane and smiling hideously. Mr. Czanek had never before noticed the colour of that man’s eyes; now he saw that they were yellow.

Little things make considerable excitement in little towns, which is the reason that Kingsport people talked all that spring and summer about the three unidentifiable bodies, horribly slashed as with many cutlasses, and horribly mangled as by the tread of many cruel boot-heels, which the tide washed in. And some people even spoke of things as trivial as the deserted motor-car found in Ship Street, or certain especially inhuman cries, probably of a stray animal or migratory bird, heard in the night by wakeful citizens. But in this idle village gossip the Terrible Old Man took no interest at all. He was by nature reserved, and when one is aged and feeble, one’s reserve is doubly strong. Besides, so ancient a sea-captain must have witnessed scores of things much more stirring in the far-off days of his unremembered youth.

 

CREDIT: H.P. Lovecraft

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Projection

ProjectionToo many sages and soothsayers to reference, those thoughtful idiots,  have lambasted the youth with the wizardry of profundity. They had answers to the esoteric. Of Life. Of Death. Of the end. Who are they? What do they really know of the darkness? What do they fancy as truth or reality or consciousness? They have only an inkling.  Just a molecule of spittle resting in a lake of pointed conjecture.  It surmised to shit, is what I’m saying. What they know surmises to shit because I’ve seen behind the curtain and I know what awaits.

And on this very street, I reflect on all that came to subdue me in the night. All that came to crush my ambition in the darkness. So I scurry away from the dark at every chance, which is not easy when you have no home.  Most people just want to relegate the less fortunate to the shadows anyway.  There they can feign ignorance and avoid any responsibility for what is happening.  My every thought is to dive into the light and be at peace with some semblance of myself.  But even the light casts shadows.

You see, I am fractured. I wanted to believe that life catered to me, that life launched its sails because of my breath and I was the tide that washed all good things to the shores of my world. Yet, I’m nothing but the detritus that remains after the rush of waters recedes.  The water is like the people that avert their gazes and cross the street to avoid me.  The stiff, potent smell of unwashed skin and the occasional hint of cheap rum was summarily unwelcome in most any social setting.  Many days the eyes and attitudes of people were much too much, and I would wander out alone, ironically in avoidance of them.  I just wanted to wallow in my brokenness.

As I walked on, my coat swung about me, and I shivered. It was much too threadbare and thin to offer much warmth, but a beggar shouldn’t be a chooser.  It was the only thing that I could find.  In my pack was an aluminum lined blanket that would offer some comfort against this weather, and I almost drew it out.  I decided to keep moving instead.

The chill of that October night never faltered. The wind bore down like the swooping of a hundred hawks, and I was embittered. I fought hard not to be angry at my plight, but who was to blame? It was not my fault that I huddled in the shadows. It was not mine, but my father’s. For the fool decided it was best to torch our finances in the dregs of a gambling den. 10 years now I’ve been destitute on these streets. 10 years from age 16 I’ve walked this road.

And there is only poor to feed the poor. Scraps and vegetable particulates swimming in hot swill that hardly touch the bottom of my belly before they’re used to fuel my wretched form. Scraps for the scraper, the garbage bin diving lunatic known for wearing my face only wished to slip by unnoticed. To go about his business.

So that night, I found shelter in an alleyway betwixt some old liquor store and a Vietnamese diner. It was dimly lit towards the entrance and black as pitch near the back.  The lighting would have been better if not for the broken pole lamp there.  The alley reeked of rotten milk and expired, moldy bread. Old cheese and various liquids congealed in spots that I avoided, but I somehow felt the moisture creep into my pores. A duo of dumpsters lined the walls on either side of the alley, and I wasted no time looking for a piece of plastic or cardboard to sit on and keep myself dry and less filthy.

As luck would have it, one of the dumpsters was strictly for cardboard.  The light was faint there, about twenty feet from the front, but it was enough. Providence had shone upon me, for it would be easy to construct a shelter from what was there.  Though they had already been broken down and flattened, a box is a box.  I placed two large ones flat on the ground, which adequately accommodated my full height.  I grabbed two more big ones that were so deep inside that I had to lean over the lip of the dumpster to reach them.  To my dismay, though only a cardboard dumpster, it still smelled horrible.

I unfolded them into their original shapes, having to overlap the flaps on one to close the end since I lacked tape. I then put the closed-end one against the back of the dumpster and on top of the previous two flattened boxes, with the opening facing out. I took the other one and fit it around the end of the first, situating them so they were flush against the wall, lengthwise.  Once finished, it was just one long box. I would be able to crawl in and sleep relatively undisturbed, wrapped in my blanket.  The thought of it honestly made me happy, as I had very little to look forward to but a bit of rest and the solace of dreams.

The wind jostled the makeshift shelter, catching the tail end and sending it upward. I wasn’t worried about that because my weight would keep it down. However, it did make for a harder sleep. Being in the street, you become paranoid in a way that is self-preserving. Ignorant people, especially teens, liked to throw your shit away or taunt you from groups. I heard they played this “knockout game” in some cities, where they’d just go up and sucker punch people as hard as they could. Your head needed to be on a swivel.

Before I crawled into my cardboard bed, I had a weird premonition. I heard it first, a whispered ‘hush’ wafting on the breeze. It was like an icy wind caressed the nape of my neck, causing me to break out in goosebumps. I shivered and my eyes widened in recognition of something faint or hardly remembered. My neck snapped around amazingly quick, only to be presented with the darkness at the end of the alley. I squinted reflexively, but I knew it was futile. There was nothing that could be seen in that blackness. I stood there, still, listening for something. Someone. But only the wind brought an answer, brushing harshly against my coat.

I knew the night would signal nothing but delusions and panic at this rate. Countless times I’d been in situations direr. More dangerous. My awareness was high due to being on the street, and it had not failed me yet. The danger was real, but fear had to be a lie.

“Be aware of the danger but don’t accept the fear,” I mumbled to myself. Something was off, though. And I couldn’t quite shake the feeling, despite my words of comfort and reassurance.

I shook my head and crawled into the shelter. A bit of shuffling and turning was needed until I was comfortable enough. I was worried by the slight crinkling of the blanket because it made it hard to hear anything but. Logically, I wrapped myself as tight as I could without restricting my movements lest some urgency present itself. Lastly, I craned my neck so that I could see out past my feet at the end of the shelter.

Down there was only darkness and a faint glow from the light at the entrance to the alley. I could also hear the occasional car pass, which was a lot less annoying than it would have seemed. Still, the darkness near the end of the alley was an eerily stark, vivid splotch of black ink that had volume; heavy with some unknown mass.

I pulled the blanket tighter as if to ward off the subsequent chill, which proved useless. I was not one to figure in such fantastical thoughts, but I sure felt something out there.  It is the same type of feeling one has when alone, sensing when another person has entered their space, without having to see them.  It is like leaves rustling in the mind.

I closed my eyes, forcing my eyelids down until I could feel the muscles strain within my cheeks. Then I looked out once more into that haunting dark, hoping and praying that my imagination would die for the evening. To my horror, something slid against the night, like a hand brushing behind a curtain. Suddenly there was no light at all, and I choked down a gasp of surprise. The danger, but not the fear…

Again, I shut my eyes, but it was no different than if I had left them open. There was simply a void there.  I swallowed hard, and the feeling of my own saliva sliding down my esophagus sickened me. I thought it silly to even entertain this madness, but someone could be out there.  My eyes weren’t useful at that moment, but what I sensed… what I felt… I couldn’t deny it.

When I was a child, I recall hearing one of my classmates talking about being locked in his bedroom closet by his older brother.  It was night and he and his brother were the only ones at home.  He told us that something spoke to him in the dark. He said he nearly beat the door off its hinges trying to get out.  For him it seemed like he had been stuck there for hours, but when his brother came to open the door, he noticed it had only been ten minutes. His mother grounded his brother behind the incident, but not because he locked him in the closet.  It was because my friend beat his fists bloody trying to break out. I saw the scars myself, and his hands looked like someone took a tenderizer to them.  Consequently, I remained cautious of tight, dark spaces for many years.  I thought I was over it, but that night made a liar of me.

There was a sound of a car passing and I jerked my head in the direction of the street.  My heart was racing, but I was thankful that it broke the hypnotic pull of the blackness. I looked back to the end of the alley and decided to ignore it.  The night would be gone soon, as I gauged it to be around 2 am. I closed my eyes and pulled my blanket close once again.

A minute had not passed before I heard something at the end of the alley.  It happened so abruptly, that I immediately sat up, my head hitting the top of the box.  The wind or a whisper, I could not tell which at the time but it was close.  The sound was close.  I stared into the void at the back of the alley and saw something rise against the night, glowing intermittently.  It was a pulsing, yellow halo that outlined the form, creeping upward until I could not see the top of it.

Eventually, it stopped rising but the glow remained, the luminal pitch rising and rippling like mist in the morning. Fear overcame curiosity at that moment, and I had no thought to recite my danger and fear mantra.  I was overcome with fright, and so edged myself backward, against the dumpster. I could hear my breaths, shaky and shallow within the box.  I didn’t know if I should run or just wait it out.  I didn’t even want to move.

Suddenly, the end box caved in, as if a weight had been dropped on it, barely missing my feet. Instinctively I jerked my legs back, and then sat up with them against my chest. Where it was bent inward, I could see more of the thing in the alley, and it was widening steadily, growing like black clouds in a thunderstorm.

Huddled against the back of the box, I felt frozen in place. The whispers soon become a howl of many voices, so many and so loud that I could feel them in my head. It was a horrible version of television static, and I placed my hands over my ears to block them out. I felt a tug on the box like it was being lifted. It was quickly torn from under me. I wailed like a banshee as I was dumped out onto the concrete like an unwanted Christmas present.

I clambered to my feet, finding myself in the midst of this thing, its eerie whining poking around in my mind. I tried to look at it, but the glow made it hard due to its hypnotic quality. The darkness swirled and shifted, the glow mixing around it like milk in coffee. I staggered backward, no longer able to maintain my equilibrium. The ruined box slipped from beneath my feet and I was dumped onto the ground once more.

The sky was no sky at that moment.  In that moment, I was no man.  I was but a form lost, lacking focus and full of fear. A situation like this, as I reflect on it, can be hard to describe correctly, because it’s unlike anything ever imagined.  You are caught in the grip of a cold, steel vice, and it is crushing the sanity from you.  It seeps out, like blood, and you find it hard to grasp at reality.  You find it hard to hold on to what you thought was real.  You are being bludgeoned by something primal.  Ageless.  Merciless.

“Self,” it said. The voice was a deflating dirigible enflamed, crackling, leaking and hissing.  “You will meet… self.”  It sounded like it was going in and out of consciousness. Like it was gasping for air in a vacuum-sealed room, choking slowly; horribly.  I could almost imagine some raw, dirty face with a noticeably slack and unshaven jaw mouthing these words.  But the void is faceless, nameless, and probably the avatar of my mind, projecting the dissolution of hope.  The void bubbled like water and its glowing accents washed over it in an elegant cascade of iridescence.

It spoke again.

“You are ghost… true self. Self-less. Self-lost.” The rolling void reversed and upended, turning over into itself. It was like watching storm-clouds implode in a duotone kaleidoscope. It was magnificent and majestic, and if not for its ominous overtones, I would be enraptured. Instead, I turned to run, only to find myself facing the thing once again.

Everywhere I turned, it was there, in all directions, surrounding me. With tears in my eyes, I could only collapse to my knees and watch the thing in the alley, hypnotized.

“Where are you, self?”, it asked with a voice like a dying bonfire. “You are ghost. Phantom. Lost man.”

I looked up, awestruck. “What do you mean? I don’t understand.” My voice cracked, and I felt no one could have heard such a weak plea. It heard me, nonetheless, and rolled like clouds roll, inverting and exploding in on itself, rapidly. The speed seemed tremendous and grew blurry until I felt the rush of wind around me. Then, when I was nearly overcome by the onslaught, it stopped, like someone hit pause on a game. And it slammed into me, engulfing me in coal-black mist. Even as I collapsed, pummeled into immobility, I heard the thing crying in that old, broken warble:

“Seeeeeeellllllfffff.”

Many visions came, but I dare not mention them. I couldn’t possibly. The terror that it sparked was incomprehensible. All nightmares. Somehow I knew them like they were forgotten pieces of my own puzzle. I do not know. I did not know what they meant, then. I did know that when I awoke, I was in the middle of that stinking alley, staring into a blue sky, with the light of the sun warming my grimy face.

I looked into the end of that alley and all I saw was a mirror.  It was a huge, rectangular mirror, framed in charred wood and the size of a door. In that mirror, I saw only myself, blurred, and sadly haunting. For a long time, I sat there staring into it, and then I finally understood.

I remembered. All my life is all my fault. My Self is less because I am so much less than I could be. The thing in the alley was that which I can’t face. The death of ambition. A cowardly soul. It was just my reflection. A lost man blaming the world for his fears. Projection.

I wept. Not for pity. But for futility. Because I had been told what would become of me, and there is no escape. Only darkness.

Walking away from that alley, that day, I wanted to smash that mirror. To burn it. Reduce it to microscopic particles. Yet, I knew that I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. Deep down I knew it only existed when needed, and I was sure it would call to someone else, in some other way. It would be there to project their ugliness in pure cinematic, hi-def magnificence.

I want to leave you with something that will save you, so you don’t have to run from yourself. So that it won’t come looking for you in the night. Don’t listen to people talk about fear as if they have conquered the world. They lie.

Fear is real. It is dangerous. And when you are alone in the dark with nothing to comfort you but your thoughts, you might see that the fear is you.

 

CREDIT: Marcelle D. Ward

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