Reading Time: 4 minutesSo, I discovered the meaning of life. Or at least, that’s what my eager customers are led to believe. You see, two or three times a month, I post a listing titled “The Meaning of Life” to various auction sites. I couple it with a sappy picture of a sunset or rainbow and a description that reads “All views are subjective. Results may vary.” Most people wouldn’t bat an eye at such a ridiculous listing, but there are some gullible folks out there that take the bait. When the bidding ends, I usually take home anywhere from $5 to $12.
After I’ve received my money via Paypal, I ship out the item. What is the item, you might ask? Well, I scribble down an inspirational quote or life lesson onto a piece of paper and mail it out in your standard, letter-sized envelope. The quotes are usually from famous writers, historical figures, or the Bible. Some of them include:
“If light is in your heart, you will find your way home.” (quoted from Rumi)
“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But People will never forget how you made them feel.” (quoted from Maya Angelou)
“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” (quoted from George Eliot)
And that’s it. One stamp, a drop in the mailbox and my work is done. It’s as simple as that.
You might call me a scammer or a con-artist, or perhaps even a plagiarist – and in truth, you are correct. I’m taking advantage of the naive people out there who are probably just looking for a sense of purpose in life – all so I can make a quick buck. But I’d like to think most people know it’s bullshit and purchase my listing just to see what I’ll send them. Besides, I’m a bachelor right out of college. So long as I can make a small dent in my phone bill and eat a packet of ramen each night, I’ll sleep just fine.
As you might imagine, I receive quite a bit of hate-mail. I’ve learned to ignore angry emails and private messages on the auction sites. As soon as I see that it’s from one of my customers, it gets deleted. I do, however, receive the occasional snail mail. It’s unavoidable, as my PO Box is listed on all of the envelopes I send out. It would be pretty easy for me to toss these letters in the trash with the rest of my junk mail, but I never can. Something about receiving a physical letter from someone, good or bad, compels me to read it. I feel that anyone who takes the time to write one deserves to have their voice heard, even if I don’t really care for what they have to say.
The more physical letters I receive, the more amused I am by them. To paint a better picture, here are a few of my favorite quotes from the “fan mail” I’ve received over the years:
“You’re nothing but a glorified fortune cookie service.”
“You’ll rot in hell for the sins you’ve committed. Mark my words.”
“You’re a real f***ing piece of shit, you know that?”
It’s reached a point where reading these letters has become the highlight of my week. I’ve even tacked up some of the better ones on a cork board in my bedroom. You might think that’s sick and a little messed up, but I think it’s hilarious.
Not all of the letters I receive are bad. There’s one guy by the name of “Red” (no last name -that’s all he ever writes above his return address) who mails me constantly. He sends me inspirational quotes in exchange for mine. I assume he’s a repeat buyer who enjoys paying for and receiving cheerful messages in his mailbox every now and again. A man of class and dignity; my kind of customer.
The first quote Red ever sent me was “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” from Mark Twain. This was a great first impression, as Mark Twain is one of my favorite authors. The return quote was much appreciated. As such, I hung it up next to the hate-mail on my cork board.
Some of the things Red sends me, however, are not cork board material. Some of the quotes he sends are morbid and depressing, and other times he’ll mail me small packages containing little trinkets that I have no use for. It’s a little weird, but I figure the guy is depressed and just needs a friend. Maybe the quotes he buys from me are the only thing he has to look forward to each morning. Perhaps the things he sends me are his way of saying thanks. To me, it’s validation that what I’m doing isn’t completely sleazy.
But here’s where things get weird. Today, I received another envelope from Red. I smiled when I pulled it out of my PO Box. His letters and gifts, no matter how odd, were just as much, if not more of a highlight to my week than the endlessly entertaining hate-mail. Upon opening the envelope, however, my smile vanished.
Inside was a photograph of me, taken up close through my bedroom window. On the back of the photograph was another one of Red’s quotes:
“You look so alone. Where’s the meaning in your life?”
Reading Time: 14 minutes“Do you ever have thoughts about hurting yourself?”
“Have you ever thought about harming anyone else?”
Doctor Osbourne leaned back in his green leather chair. His slacks slid up and revealed long dress socks with red and blue squares in a checkered pattern. They were pulled all the way up and rising out of black dress shoes. The way the man dressed fit the exact image I held for what a psychiatrist’s wardrobe should look like.
But his dress attire was the only stereotypical thing about him. Everything else was different. That much was clear from just his office space. A simple room with one rectangular window on the second floor of a suburban Chicago plaza. The reception had all but three chairs in the lobby for the empty welcome desk to monitor. Nothing to suggest the man was anything out of ordinary.
“Well, that’s good, Ethan,” he said. “I believe you. And that’s going to save us a lot of time.”
It was the day I had been both dreading and looking forward to for a long time. It was the grand finale. The final hurdle towards reclaiming my personal freedom.
Of course, it was also poised to be the biggest challenge yet. This doctor Osbourne was sharp. It was going to be tough to slip anything by him.
“Before we start,” he said. “Is there anything you would like to ask me?”
I gulped while I held his gaze. He was a young guy. No more than a few years older than me– thirty-five at the most. You could see the intelligence in his facial features. His chiselled jaw was clean-shaven and his deep brown eyes seemed to peer inside you. The guy was a prodigy. He wouldn’t have been assigned the task of clearing me if he wasn’t.
It was all about getting him to buy in. If I could somehow convince him that he had it all figured out, he was the guy that could get me out of this mess. He had the leverage to convince everyone that I was sane, that I had nothing to do with any of it and wasn’t a threat to the general public.
Then, I could finally have the pleasure of mourning in peace.
“Not really,” I said. “Do you know how many people I’ve been forced to sit down and talk to?”
“I’m the seventh.”
“That sounds right. And trust me, the routine gets old quickly. So perhaps it’s best we get on with it. Start digging up the same true story I’ve told everyone else.”
He smiled at me. Not a casual smile you would give to humour someone after saying something foolish. But a smile that said he understood and empathized with me. Like he knew exactly where I was coming from.
“Ethan, I need you to understand something,” he said, finally dropping his gaze to the floor. “I’m not here to incriminate you. I’m not here to try and make you slip and say the wrong thing so I can piece together some kind of crime. I believe you are innocent. I just need you to give me enough. Just help me understand so I can put this all behind you.”
I believed him. I straightened my spine and cracked my back on both sides and felt he genuinely wanted to help me.
“So, why don’t you start right at the beginning? Tell me right from when Holly Bridges, Janet Kristo, and Alex Han showed up at your house. It was close to five-thirty in the evening, correct?”
He said their names like he knew them himself. The guy had done his homework.
“Okay. So, tell me what happened. I must know everything.”
“If I do that, will you believe me? Will you finally set me free from all of this? You have no idea how hard this has been.”
“That’s exactly my intention,” he said. “And you need to understand something. This isn’t my first rodeo. You know that. If I hadn’t seen every sick mental illness the human mind is capable of manifesting, then I wouldn’t be here.”
I gripped the wooden handles of the chair. The burning sensation inside my mind ignited momentarily before extinguishing. I readied myself for the performance.
“Okay then, Osbourne. Here’s what happened.”
He grabbed the pen and notepad resting on the wooden slab beside him. He looked very eager to hear me speak.
“Holly came before the other two. Maybe twenty minutes earlier.”
“I see,” he interrupted. “That detail is in all the police reports that I’ve read. I’m sure there’s a reason for that.”
“Yes, there was,” I answered.
“Were you intimate with her?”
My lips twitched before going still. I wasn’t even close to being ready to think about my relationship with Holly.
“And that’s the reason she came over before the others, right? So you would have some alone time to be… intimate.”
“Yes, doc,” I said, trying to sound as if I had regained composure. “We fucked before the other two arrived.”
“Why isn’t that in any of the police reports that I’ve read?”
“Because it’s an irrelevant detail. It has nothing to do with what happened and I don’t like to think about it.”
“Every detail is important in a case like this, Ethan. Even if you think it’s nothing. But, please, continue. What happened after the other two arrived?”
“Janet and Alex showed up together. They had been dating for like three years and I hosted this little dinner party as sort of a couple’s thing.”
I noticed him jot something down quickly on his notepad. He looked up and gestured for me to go on.
“So, they take their shoes off and come inside. They come into the kitchen and I serve them some Australian red wine that I picked up for like thirty bucks earlier in the day. We started chatting while I checked to make sure the potatoes were cooked all the way through.”
“How much did you say the wine was?” he asked.
“Receipt in your apartment says it was eighty-five.”
“Really? Seems crazy I would spend that much. I don’t even drink wine. I only picked that one ‘cause all the Kangaroos on the label caught my eye. But sure, maybe I was trying to impress them. Kinda hard to remember things like that given what happened afterwards.”
“Hard to remember? Or hard to be honest about?” he asked as he cocked an eyebrow at me. I started to feel as if he wasn’t really on my side at all.
“Why would I lie about that?”
“Don’t know. There are a lot of things that don’t make sense in your story about what happened that evening. Just want to be sure you’re telling me exactly what transpired. The wine was eighty-five. And yes, it was Australian.”
Him knowing the little details like that made me nervous. Exactly how much time had this guy spent going through all the reports and case evidence? If he was going to pick up on things like that, then he was sure to pick up on the necessary alterations to the truth I needed to make.
“I’m telling you everything as I remember. And again, the price of the damn wine is irrelevant.”
“I think so, too. Please, continue.”
It was time for the hard part. I was going to try and tell the next sequence of events without actually picturing them inside my head. Thinking about being at the dinner table always brought back the burning sensation inside my mind. If I thought about it for too long, sometimes I would have the dream again.
I shuffled my feet against the wooden floor and braced myself internally.
“So, maybe five minutes later, I decide the potatoes are ready. The steaks were already cooked and left in the pan to stay warm. I started putting the portions together along with some asparagus from the steamer. I told them to sit down and I brought the plates over.”
“Do you think there was something in the food?” He asked. “And, no. I’m not accusing you of putting something in it. But maybe there was something off about it. Maybe by someone else’s doing?”
“That would mean someone at Trader Joe’s was trying to kill us, then. Cause that’s where I picked everything up from. Figure that would have shown up in some kind of toxicology report. And besides, I ate the same food. Nothing happened to me.”
“Of course,” he said while he rose from his chair. “I’m a little parched, Ethan. Can I get you some water while I’m up?”
“Alright, then. Don’t stop telling the story, though.”
“Well, there’s not a whole lot more to tell. It happened just after six. We just sat around the table and ate our meals. The food was good, I even had the lighting looking nice with a few candles on the table. We talked about the new apartment they started leasing. There was literally no warning before it happened. They all just kind of fell flat against the table.”
The burning inside my head came back strong. The image of us at the dinner table, the one I couldn’t keep out of my mind when forced to explain what happened, started to slip away. And that’s the worst possible thing that could have happened.
After it faded, I started to see the ocean with little waves breaking in the distance.
I pressed my face into my hands and held my breath. Painfully, I pushed the image out of my head before it could develop. If there was one thing I had gotten good at, it was clearing my mind before it had a chance to set in.
“Stay with me here Ethan, I know it’s hard,” I heard him say from across the room. “Tell me in more detail. Three people don’t just fall dead from simultaneous brain aneurysms. It just doesn’t work like that. Something else happened.”
I dropped my elbows to my legs and looked back at him as he approached with water glasses in his hands. It was the face he was giving me. For a moment, I could have sworn that he had somehow peered inside my head while it happened. As if he watched me suffer with the images like they were twisted short horror films.
If only he could have known just how close he was treading.
“There’s nothing else to tell, really,” I said. “We were just talking, laughing, just as people do at casual dinner parties. I saw it happen. They all fell dead, right at the same time.”
“Was there one who looked to fall first? Even if it was just by a millisecond,” he asked as he passed one of the glasses to me.
Images of the dinner party flooded back into my head. I couldn’t hide from it that time.
All three of their faces went blank and expressionless. Their bodies wavered and their heads fell forward into their partially eaten meals, cracking the plates below. Holly’s glass toppled over and red wine poured out and soaked through the white tablecloth.
The burning pain was back in full force. I tried to escape before the image changed to the ocean, but I wasn’t quick enough that time around.
I was standing at the end of the pier. I could feel the wind blowing through my hair and the gulls calling overhead.
“No,” I said while I tried to look him directly in the eyes. “They all fell dead at once. One communal bang against the table. And I’m going to tell you the same thing I’ve told everyone else. I think they must have been fucking around earlier in the day. They must have taken some bad pills from a shady drug dealer or something like that. Yes, I know none of them have a history of being users and yes, I know that drugs don’t just do that to people. I’m fully aware of how far-fetched all of that sounds. But it really is what I believe.”
The bait was on the line. I prayed so much that he would bite.
He sat in his chair again and took a long sip of water. His dark eyes stayed locked on mine while he swished his glass around. He appeared to be thinking over his next words over very carefully. Then, he chuckled.
“Figure if that were the case, then something would have shown up in the toxicology reports you seem to know so much about, huh Ethan? But you know what I find more interesting than that?”
“How you start to scratch your elbow every time you lie to me.”
I looked down and saw that my nail was picking at little shavings of white skin where my arm bent. I dropped it and looked back towards him.
“I don’t know what happened,” I said. “I can only speculate. Just like anyone else, I can’t say for sure. Please, just let me out of here. Give me my freedom. Then I can start to cope.”
I already knew that the nightmare was never really going to end. I was going to be living with the damn thoughts circulating in my subconscious for the rest of my life. But I figured saying something like that would let him take pity on me.
I couldn’t allow him to truly understand it. He didn’t deserve to be dragged into it along with me.
Yet, somehow, he seemed to already know.
“What is that you start to see inside your head, Ethan?” he asked me. “I see it every time you stop to think for more than a couple seconds. There’s something specific that goes through your mind while you pause. And it hurts you. I see two different facial expressions. Two terrible things are rattling around inside there.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do. There are two thoughts inside your head. I’m confident enough to assume one of them is the image of your friends falling dead around your dinner table. But there is something else as well. There’s a second image, thought, or idea that follows it. It’s troubling you deeply. It’s so much worse than anything you’ve ever experienced before.”
I couldn’t understand how he could have possibly deduced that. How could he know about the second image? The incomprehensible thought that burrowed its way inside my head and would never leave.
And that’s all it took to trigger it one more time. Just thinking about it the slightest bit would bring it back. It was always the same.
I was back on the pier. Again, the wind was cool and the birds called from overhead. I saw the sailor standing next to me. He turned in my direction. His weathered face was covered by a long, grey beard that grew down to his collar.
Ships coming to port, he said. That was always his line.
Then, on the horizon, it started to form.
It burned worse than it ever had before. I fell to my knees, pressing as hard against my temples as I possibly could. I pushed out all the snot and phlegm that was forming in my throat. I tried so hard to keep from screaming.
I wrestled with the image for at least a minute, writhing in pain and barely able to keep myself upright. He must have done something to trigger it. He must have understood it in some way to make it burn like that.
I felt his arms grasp around my shoulders and pull me up. He guided me back into the chair. My head rolled back over the edge and my arms flopped over the sides. I was barely able to drink the little bits of water that he drizzled into my mouth.
Finally, things started to cool, and he must have picked up on that as well, because he didn’t speak again until I had fully returned to his office.
“Ethan,” he said. “I know you’re afraid to tell me what it is exactly that you see. I know that you think it will hurt me. That’s what happened to your friends. You told them about whatever you saw inside your head. You tried to explain it to them and they all fell dead when you did. I’m correct, aren’t I?”
I nodded at him. It was comforting thinking that perhaps he did, in fact, understand. Perhaps somehow he did know that some sick, twisted image had invaded the confines of my subconscious the night before the dinner party. I had gone to bed early and somehow ended up sleeping for fourteen hours, eating into the next day’s afternoon. The entire night, I had the same recurring dream. It only lasted seven seconds. And it would just keep playing over and over. Like a broken film reel. Forever stuck replaying the same goddamn scene.
“You’re correct,” I said.
“Okay. So we’re getting somewhere then,” he said as he returned to his chair one last time. “So what will it take, then? What do I have to do to pry it out of you? I promise you I can help. Tell me and I can start to make your pain go away.”
Once again, I detected that genuine desire to help me. For that, I will always be grateful to him.
“It’s not that simple,” I said while I pulled myself up straight. “It’s not like a normal thought or idea. It’s like an infection. I don’t know how to explain it any better. It burrows into your head, and you can’t get it out.”
“Okay, I believe you. Please, describe it as best you can.”
“It’s dangerous. I saw with my own eyes what it’s capable of. It sort of ground away at my brain while I slept. It stuck itself in there, and it hurt me. I couldn’t get it out. I tried to explain it to them… and you see what’s happened. But it’s weirder than that. For some reason, I can live with it. It doesn’t kill me. Just hurts me horribly. I don’t know if it coming in via the dream made me immune, but somehow I can live with it.”
“So, you think it’s something that can’t be fathomed properly by the human mind– except for yours, that is…”
“That’s exactly it. At least, that’s what I think. It’s like some kind of incomprehensible image that short-circuits the brain. And I swear that it’s using me like a carrier vessel. I’m its fucking host brain and it’s using me to spread to other people. Yes, I know how insane that sounds, but it’s really what I believe.”
“How often does it come back?”
“Once a day at least. More if I think about the dinner party or try to remember how I even slept that night. As you can see, today has been particularly bad for bringing it back. The pain never gets any lighter, either. But, it never kills me. Even though sometimes I really wish it would.”
He wrote something on his notepad then set it down beside him. He leaned forward and used his hand to still my shaking knee.
“I don’t think you’re crazy, Ethan. I’m going to tell you something. I have seen something like this before. In fact, I’ve seen much worse. I’ve seen things that you wouldn’t believe someone could even make up.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Ethan. Believe me when I say that I’ve always been able to help the person dealing with it. So, I beg you. Please tell me exactly what you see inside your head. Before I can help, I must first understand.”
“I’m scared,” I said as I lifted his hand off my knee.
“I’m not,” he responded. “Now, let me in. Tell me every little detail.”
And then I did exactly what he asked me. I closed my eyes and let the scene play out inside my head. I told him everything exactly as I saw it. It was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt.
“It doesn’t last long. Seven seconds. Every single time. I start standing at the end of an ocean pier. It’s a beautiful sunny day. I see directly out over the horizon, right where the blues of the sky and ocean meet. The sun is hot, but the wind cools you as it blows by. It all feels real. Like you’re actually there.”
“Continue,” I heard him say. He sounded further away.
“Then, you see a sailor, just a little to the left. He’s leaning over the railing, looking out over the ocean, too. He turns to you and always says the same thing. “Ships coming to port.” Then, over his shoulder, you see this black blotch forming on the horizon. It’s got these long arms reaching upwards from its center. Kind of like the tentacles of an octopus. You can’t turn away from it, no matter how hard you try. For the rest of the vision, it gets closer to you. But it’s not floating atop the surface of the ocean. It’s more like it’s eating into the frame you’re seeing, slowly making the picture blacker.”
I had to stop talking. I clutched my sides and tried to withstand the pain. It was almost over. It was almost time to start pushing it out again.
“Then, it restarts. And it just keeps playing until you force it out. The longer it’s there, the more it grinds you down. At least, that’s how it works for me. For them, once I told them…”
I could feel tears starting to form at the corners of my eyes.
“Their eyes just rolled back before they died, you know. They got infected by this thing and it’s all my fault. I hate myself for telling them about it every day. So doc, if you are starting to picture exactly what it is I’m saying… you need to force it out right now.”
The seven-second clip played a few more times inside my head. At least, that’s how it seemed to go, but when I opened my eyes, the room was very different than it was before.
Much time had passed. The daylight streaming through the window was gone and replaced by a pale streetlight. I looked at my watch, and at first I was sure that it was lying to me. It said that it was 8:30 PM. At the very least, four hours after he told me to explain the vision to him.
Doctor Osbourne wasn’t sitting in his chair anymore. He wasn’t looking back at me all calm and relaxed, telling me that everything was alright and he was going to make it all go away.
He lay lifeless on the floor. His eyes rolled all the way back. He’d been dead for some time.
Shana lifted her long, white dress over her thin shoulders and dipped under the cool depths of Lake Diamond.
“Don’t be such a baby, Freeman. We didn’t come out here at two AM for nothing.“
She smiled when she spoke. I loved that. After five months of sulking through Stanford High’s senior year, Shana looked so absolutely amazing when she finally just… smiled. It was stupidly simple.
“Not too hot, not too warm. The Goldilocks Zone.” She tilted her tendrils of water logged black hair to the side, attempting to shake some of the fresh lake out of her ears as she floated effortlessly in the waves. “Do you know the reference?“
“They say something lives at the bottom of this lake, have you heard that story?“
She lowered her shy green eyes with a sly grin as she spit some water at me. “Its real deep here. Most people don’t even know how deep.“
I peeled off my shirt and stepped over the missing planks of the old wooden dock.
“Did you know that?” she asked.
“Well, Mr. Freeman. It does appear you knew everything!” Shana replied with a shocked shout.
“I do,” I replied, right before jumping in like a cannonball, shamelessly spraying some water into her eyes. I reached out to grab her, and she played like she was putting up a fight. I kissed her neck softly and it tasted like perfume and sweat.
“Are you scared to be in here tonight, Mikey?” she asked while staring straight ahead.
As if in response to the words, a weak wind started to pick up in the willow trees surrounding the coast. The branches swung back and forth lazily as a storm started to pass through. Tiny droplets of rain and discarded leaves dotted the lazily drifting waves as we struggled to stay above the surface.
“A little,” I admitted. “My mom used to say I get seasick.“
“You can’t get seasick on a lake, Michael,” Shana said in a daze as she stared at something beyond the shore. “Did you know people have died here?“
I didn’t. It was never in the papers.
“So you don’t know everything?” Her tone turned cold and lonely. “My great-grandfather did. In 1875. He was swimming here, in the middle of the night. The same as he had done a million times before. Same as we are doing now.” She paused. “This shitty dock is ours, after all. His wife always said he needed to get more use out of it.“
“Sounds like a good reason to get out of the lake, Shana.” I said, insistent and confused. “Let’s fucking go.“
She stared at me from the bottom of the ladder and shook her head. She was soaking wet and stunned by the significance of something I could not see beyond the trees. “He drowned. I was with him.”
“What are you talking about?“
“Grandpa told me he could do it. We saw a bright light under the waves. It was so warm. It was… it was beautiful, and comforting, and perfect all at the same time. But so strange. Where did it come from? What did it want? It was like somebody turned on a heater on the lake floor.“
It didn’t make any sense. Nothing she said was making sense anymore. I was just an innocent seventeen-year-old kid, hoping to score with the hottest girl in school.
“I wanted to touch it. The light. Grandpa said he would swim to the bottom to get it for me. He held his breath real big and went to look. Like this.” Shana disappeared.
“Motherfucker… this is not funny! I screamed to the empty night.
I looked around and no one was nearby. I reached underwater and caught a flailing foot. She surfaced with entangled limbs and hopeful screams.
“Can you see it?” She slapped me in the face as I tried to pull her away from the waves. “LOOK!”
A bright luminescence lit up underneath the surface. It was absurd… and exactly as she described. The light encompassed every inch of the storm fused lake. I leaped onto the deck and grabbed Shana by the arm. As I started to pull her towards me, she pulled back with surprising force. I landed back in the water with a belly flop.
She wrapped her thin arms around my shoulders. “Grandpa never came back. I hope you do.“
Shana kissed me. The same as she had done a thousand times. But something was different. Her lips were dry and crackled. A warm and sticky liquid flooded over her teeth and into my mouth. I opened my eyes and spit out the liquid. It was blood; redder than her underwear.
Then she dunked my head without any explanation.
The light was pulsating at that point. I could see it even through closed eyes. I screamed, but water filled my lungs. After it felt like there was no fight in me left, something relented as I broke the surface.
But the face in front of mine was not the one I recognized.
She still wore the same bikini top. It was crimson red, with tiny little hearts rounding the corners. But the skin behind it was old and grey. Layers of it raised up to form complicated wrinkles on her chest and arms. Her teeth were decaying and that illustrious black hair was falling out by the root.
As I looked into her eyes, they were still the same color green.
“I need the light, Mike. Go get me that fucking light,” even her voice was different. It was tired, old, and angry.
A neighbor must have heard the commotion. He opened his door from a few hundred feet away and called out into the dark.
“Are you kids alright? It is too late for swimming!“
“NO!” I shouted back. “PLEASE HELP ME.“
When I turned to face Shana, she was gone. The lake was dark again.
A dive crew searched Diamond’s grounds for hours. They never found my girlfriend, or anything that suggested an electrical source.
The body of a deceased senior citizen washed up on shore the next morning. I kept my mouth shut, even though the reveal answered my own haunting question for sure.
It 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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This is roughly a true story. True in that it was told to me by my father, rough in that his memory had decayed with age, leaving his recollection of the year 1975 a bit scarred. He asked me to write it down a few years back, but I never wanted to. I’m not much of a writer, and in all honesty his story disturbed me deeply. He died last month (though his death is unrelated to this story), but I wouldn’t feel right if I did not honor what he had asked of me. What follows is his story in his own words. Again, I have no real way to determine the veracity of any of it, but I know my father believed it. Whether or not you do is your decision.
Your great grandfather built the railroad. There was a piece of it that ran behind our house, and if you followed it far enough, you would find The Oracle – if you believed in that sort of thing. No one I knew personally had met him, but everyone’s cousin’s best friend’s boyfriend had their own story to tell. Accounts varied wildly –he was either a man or something much worse, either in a decaying old house or an abandoned train car, or perhaps standing in the middle of the tracks, bathed in a halo of sunlight that shot out from his body like lightning. There was no coherent version of him, which may have been his doing; a way of getting people to search for him if only to figure out the truth.
One afternoon, my good friend and I were walking along the railroad tracks. We both knew the legend, of course, but neither of us were looking to find him. We were in our twenties at the time, home from college for the summer. There wasn’t that much to do in small towns back then, so one afternoon, we decided to see where the old railroad, which had been quiet for years, went. We figured that as long as we stayed close to the tracks, we couldn’t get lost, because they would lead us right back to town.
We had been walking for a while when the horizon bent around in an odd shape that cast unnatural shadows against the afternoon sky. As we approached, the shape in the distance grew into an old wooden table draped in a white lace cloth, unmoving despite the breeze. A man sat facing us. His face was sheathed in the shadows of an strangely deepening evening. It seemed as though the sun went down faster the closer we got, and that if we turned and walked the other way, it would rise again. My friend and I exchanged a glance, remembering the old stories.
The man was tall and thin, with a prominent brow and jawline, both of which were accentuated by deep-set eyes and sunken cheeks. He wore an old man’s suit, crisp and fitted, of the kind that were only dusted off for special occasions. It reminded me of the one my cousin was buried in two years before.
“Sit,” he gestured to the two empty chairs across from him, “please.” His voice was smooth, inviting yet commanding. There was a hidden power beneath its surface. Against my better judgment, I felt compelled to take a seat. I made a mental note that the way home was behind us. He smiled as we joined him and turned to me, “Would you like a consult or a vision?”
I glanced toward my friend, who was seated next to me, to confirm that this was really happening. He looked just as confused as I felt.
The Oracle snapped his fingers, “Don’t look at him. Look at me.”
“Would you like a consult or a vision?” His voice was firmer this time. I knew that I would have to choose.
“A vision,” I told him.
“Excellent!” The Oracle grinned. He cupped my face in his hands, and at his touch, I felt an electric, buzzing energy radiating from his fingertips. He pulled that energy from the air around him and directed it into my body. Though I felt like I was convulsing, I was rigid in my seat, paralyzed by the Oracle’s touch. Then, I felt my eyes roll back as I slipped under.
I awoke in a stairwell, walking downward. My footsteps echoed hollowly, and my lungs were clogged with the thick scent of copper. I walked down several floors, but the stairs continued with no end in sight. Peering over the handrail, I stared down an infinite depth and shuddered at the sudden thought of myself pitching forward, over the railing and into the darkness below. As I walked down, a man walked up past me. The next level down, he passed me again. I recognized him from his suit –it was the Oracle. This went on for several floors. I began to walk faster, but he matched my pace. We continued to pass each other. Eventually, I was sprinting down the stairwell, and he was running up at me, our steps creating a cacophony of clangs on the metal stairs.
I must have traveled dozens of floors down when I turned and began to run up the stairs in an attempt to throw him off my trail. It was like he had planned every move I made. He had built this stage and directed every action; perhaps he even chose my own thoughts. As I ran up, he ran in the opposite direction. It was much more unsettling to see him running down. His menacing figure loomed taller than before. Suddenly, the Oracle launched forward and pinned me against the railing, threatening to push me over the edge. Again, I was paralyzed. He held me tightly, like a paper airplane crushed in the unyielding fist of a toddler. A loud clanging shadowed every movement, even the slightest of breaths; it overwhelmed me –steel-toed shoes drumming on metal stairs, a molten gaze so hot it burned my eyes to meet it, the grim assurance of a metal handrail against my back that the metal ground was far below, the frantic words reverberating off metal walls, the gnashing of metallic teeth, and the wailing of a quicksilver tongue.
“Two days from now,” his words seemed to come from somewhere else, like they had traveled a long way before reaching his mouth. “Two days from now, are you listening?”
I could not move. I could not speak.
“Two days from now –that’s June 27th– will be a very important day.”
“What’s going to happen?” I asked.
“This is just a vision. I can’t tell you. You should have asked for a consult.”
The Oracle tightened his grip and brought his face mere inches from mine. I still could not move. The railing bowed beneath our weight and as if at his command, snapped. I fell headfirst into the darkness. As I fell, the air became thicker, heavier almost, and at some point, I was no longer falling downward but upward. The cold ground became an unattainable sky.
I was suspended in midair. The Oracle was gone. I dared to take a breath, but my lungs filled with water. Beneath me was an infinite darkness; above me hung the sun, a pinprick in the swirling surface of the water. It cast a single spotlight that illuminated me.
Beneath me, the ghostly white figure of the Oracle appeared, his arms outstretched toward my dangling feet. I scrambled for the surface. It was like climbing a mountain. The weight of the water held me in place like a writhing ant under a forceful thumb.
My ascent was slow and agonizing, but I escaped before he could grab me. The moment I broke the surface was accompanied by the blaring of a car horn, so loud it shook the water. I returned to my body, which I had left slumped over the table. I began to cough up water in between each gasping breath.
The sun had almost disappeared entirely in the time I was inside that twisted dream world. How long had we been gone? Surely someone will come looking for us, I told myself. All they would have to do is follow the tracks. A troubling thought occurred to me. Would anyone be able to find us? Was this reality, or just another trick of the mind like the stairwell? Had we left the real world for good?
Leaping up from the table, I went to grab my friend and pull him away when the Oracle pointed at me.
“Sit down!” he commanded. Every muscle in his body tensed, coiled like a cobra poised to strike.
Reluctantly, I sank back into my chair. Satisfied, the Oracle turned to my friend, “Would you like a consult or a vision?”
“Don’t!” I warned.
“It’s not your turn!” The Oracle hissed.
He returned his venomous eyes to my friend and repeated, “Would you like a consult or a vision?”
I shook my head, pleading him not to answer, to just get up and run home, but I think we both knew that would be no use. “A consult,” he said.
Just like he had done with me, the Oracle placed his hands on either side of my friend’s face. When he pulled him away, his eyes stared straight ahead as if he were in a trance.
The Oracle stared at him intently for a few moments. I wanted so badly to get up and run, but I couldn’t leave my friend. It was dark now, darker than I had ever seen the night. I could not see the moon or any stars. Part of me worried that I was still asleep and that this was more of my vision. My friend’s mouth moved as if he were speaking, but no sound came out. The Oracle seemed to understand what he was saying. He nodded solemnly and brought his hands to his face once again.
Suddenly, my friend snapped awake and began screaming. He shot up from the table and sprinted away. I followed closely behind him, not looking back. We ran for what felt like hours and did not stop until we reached my house. We raced inside, slammed the door behind us, and locked it. My heart still racing, I peeked out of the window. The train tracks were empty. The Oracle had not followed.
I told my friend what I saw during my turn and then asked him what happened in his.
“It was weird, man. When I went under, I woke up, like… outside of my body. I was like a ghost or something. I could move around, but I wasn’t really there. I couldn’t interact with anything. I tried to touch the table, but my hand went right through.” He was silent for a moment, probably wondering whether or not he wanted to tell me the rest.
“I saw my mother, but I… I don’t think it was my mother, if that makes sense. She looked just like her, but you met my mom. She was a nice lady.”
My friend’s mom had died when he was a child. I couldn’t help but wonder how the Oracle knew. My vision was something that he could have shown anyone, but how did he manage to create an experience that was so specific to my friend?
“She looked like my mom and sounded just like her, though she was translucent, much like me. But the things she said weren’t things my mother would ever say. They were cruel. She told me that she hated me and that she was glad about what was going to happen.”
“What’s going to happen?” I asked.
“She said I’m going to die.” My friend looked terrified.
“Did she say when? Or how?”
“No. I tried to ask, but then the Oracle brought me back.” Again, he was quiet. Then, he leaned closer to me, afraid that someone could be listening in on our conversation, and asked, “Do you think it’s true?”
“No,” I said. “I mean, it can’t be. He was just some freak that messed with our heads. Maybe he drugged us or something.” I wanted to believe what I had said, but I couldn’t shake the dread that still lingered in the pit of my stomach.
I drove my friend home and went to bed. I felt better in the morning, but not totally normal. I was still freaked out. We decided not to tell anyone about what had happened because we knew no one would believe it. It would be better for us to just ride this thing out and get on with our lives.
June 27th finally came. I didn’t leave my house. I was determined to prove the Oracle wrong. This was not going to be a big day; it was going to be as boring as I could make it. That evening, my friend called and asked if I wanted to catch a movie. I said I wasn’t feeling up to it and went to bed early, eager to get the day over with. If nothing happened on June 27th, the Oracle was wrong.
I was relieved when I woke up on June 28th. My life was back to normal again, and I felt like I could finally forget about what happened that day out on the train tracks. But when I went down to get breakfast, my mom was sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for me. She told me that my friend was in a car accident last night. On his way home from the movies, another driver fell asleep at the wheel and drifted into the wrong lane. He swerved to avoid a head-on collision, but his car broke through the guard rail and fell into the lake. He drowned.
A wave of dread passed over me, and I felt like I was going to throw up. The memories of our encounter with the Oracle flooded back to me all at once. Even all these years later, I still think about that summer. I don’t know if the Oracle told use those things because they were going to happen or if he made them happen himself. I still wonder if everything would have turned out the same way if we hadn’t sat down at that table.
Reading Time: 7 minutesIt was an overcast and dull Saturday afternoon when I was attacked. I was twelve years old at the time and despite the threat of rain, we took to the streets as my friends usually did on the weekends. The neighborhood always seemed safe and, looking back, it was a wonderful place to grow up; living in the vibrant shadow of the city center (only a 15 minute train journey away) while the parks and quiet streets of our suburb, on the outskirts of that urban madness, provided plenty of places to explore.
That day, it was my two friends Andy and Stewart who had knocked on my door, asking if I wanted to join them and head out for a while on our bikes. Both lived on the same street as me and for that reason we had been as thick as thieves since we were toddlers. We took to the pavements at first in plain sight of our parents before turning a corner and showing off to one another on the roads, pulling wheelies and unimpressive bunny hops as most kids that age often do – I say most kids, but I was pretty timid at the time, and while I loved hanging out with my friends, I never had the same sense of abandonment or recklessness which they thrived on. They would quite happily bomb down the highest, steepest hills without a care in the world while I would stutter behind, scuffing my feet on the ground to slow my own descent.
After buying some sweets, chocolate, and a pack of trading cards complete with cheap and brittle bubble gum from Jackie’s shop, we intended to head to King’s Drift; one of our favorite places to ride around on our bikes. But just as we exited the shop, Stewart noticed someone from his class. His name was Ricky, and he had moved to our school the year previous. We didn’t know him all that well, but we had hung out with him once or twice before. Stewart walked over and struck up a conversation with him for a few minutes before coming back over and picking up his bike. We turned to leave but, there was something that bothered me about that boy Ricky. He seemed… lost somehow. Stewart said that he was waiting on his mum coming out of a shop, but I could see that look in his eyes, something which I’m sure I had worn many times before myself. It simply said: “I want to hang around with you guys”. We all got on our bikes and, just as we left, I shouted over to him.
“Ricky, do you know King’s Drift?”
“Yeah, I do.” He replied.
“We’ll be up there for the next few hours. Why don’t you get your bike and come meet us after you’ve helped your mum?”
Ricky seemed pleased to be asked, and while he wasn’t certain how long he would be, he did say that he’d try and meet up with us at some point.
We said goodbye carrying our provisions from the shop in stuffed pockets and cycled off towards our destination. King’s Drift was where we were heading, and I couldn’t wait to get there. It was perfect. The street was long and straight, the road surface was uncommonly smooth, and it ended in a small cul-de-sac which resulted in little traffic, if any, to speak of. We could ride up and down all day without being disturbed, except on the few occasions that one of the grown-ups who lived there would get tired of us hanging around or sneaking into their gardens, playing tag or one man hunt.
But for the most part, that long secluded street was a fantastic place to get away from rules and complaining adults, even if it was only ten minutes away from our homes. We weren’t a gang or anything close to it, but that place was ours, and while many of the other kids in the neighborhood hung around at parks or at the shops, we quite happily clung on to that perfect stretch of quiet tarmac that no one could take away from us.
Tearing up and down the road, cycling as fast as we could, Andy enjoyed showing off, pedaling quickly while putting both hands behind his head as if relaxing on a sun lounger. Stewart was no slouch himself and would dart about off curbs and back on again, occasionally mimicking a character from an Australian soap opera that we often laughed at. The clouds knitted together tightly above, brooding menacingly, but the afternoon was not over yet as we continued to play and enjoy our patch.
After receiving an earful from one woman who just hated us sitting on her garden wall – especially when my other friend Stewart pushed Andy over it into her garden as a joke during her red-faced, ranting rage -, we finally traipsed along the street with our bikes by our side, cursing the woman under our breaths. A loud crash bellowed from the clouds above, and the hazed smell of ozone climbed up through the air. When I was a kid, thunder storms always held a real fascination for me, and to this day they still do, but no matter how much I understand why it happens, when the sky opens up and a torrid torrential downpour threatens to drown all around, it still seems surreal to me, almost unearthly.
The rain streamed down in thick sheets, and within a minute, a thin layer of water began to flow along the street into the drains on either side. The complaining woman ran indoors quickly, her anger at us soon replaced by a desire to avoid being drenched. The noise of millions of rain drops smashing on the parked cars and concrete below became deafening as we were instantly soaked to the bone. It was clear that the day was over, and while Andy seemed keen to stay and pull a variety of skidding stunts in the water, Stewart just laughed, challenging us both to a race home. Off he sped at a rate I could never hope to equal, the water spraying out from under his wheels. Andy followed instantly, damned sure that he wouldn’t be beaten.
The crescendo of thumping water was now deafening, and as both my friends pulled away into the distance, I clumsily climbed aboard my bike and pedaled as fast as I could. With each panting breath the rain fell harder until it streamed at such a rate down my face that I could barely see ahead. I shivered in the increasing cold, and as I continued on, I could no longer tell if my friends were near or far.
I cannot explain the feeling I had at that moment; perhaps it is hindsight which has bound it to my memory, but there in that horrid downpour, I felt isolated. Anyone with any sense would have run for cover and locked themselves away, happily inside their houses; and at the speed my friends had darted away, I was sure they had left the street, or at least reached its end. An intense feeling of fear drove me on, because for me King’s Drift may have appeared remote, isolated in the blinding rain, but it did not feel empty.
In my panic, my wild pedaling shook the bike from side to side, and just as I lifted one hand from the handlebars to wipe the rain from my eyes, something walked out from between two parked cars right in front of me. I swerved, squeezed the breaks, and as the bike screeched to a halt, I was thrown forward, tumbling on the ground, smashing my face and jaw on the road’s surface in the process.
The rain poured into my mouth, carrying with it the metallic taste of my own blood. I let out a cry as I reached up with my tongue to feel nothing but exposed gum and broken shards of teeth that were surely sprayed across the ground. My injuries left me confused and disorientated, but as I screamed for my friends, it became clear that no one would hear me over the immense roar of the rain.
Then, the sky darkened, and that strange alarming sensation that I was not alone, proved correct. Someone was standing over me. A combination of tears, blood, and rain stung my eyes, and though I couldn’t make out his face, I could tell it was a man. He was broad and stocky, wearing denims and a dark brown coat, and while he wasn’t exceptionally tall, his rain battered frame gave the impression of immense strength.
Despite the pain, despite the shock of losing teeth and cracking my head open, every fiber of my being told me to run, to get away. But I couldn’t. With the first movement of my leg, the man pressed his foot down on top of my knee with such force that bursts of excruciating pain shot up through my body; my screams of both agony and terror drowned out by the still-falling, torrential rain. Why was he doing this to me? A grown man? He leaned over and grabbed my bleeding head by the hair, yanking it forcefully upwards. No one can know the feeling of an adult exerting their full strength upon a child, unless you have been through it yourself. The fear, the utter helplessness, the feeling of resentment and betrayal at a person who should protect but instead harms. No matter how much I struggled, no matter how much I flailed, my puny twelve year old body could provide no amount of strength to free me from his foul, overpowering grip.
But a bike thrown as hard as possible by two dear friends square at his face was more than enough to make him stumble backwards, causing him to slip in the rain and batter his back and body against the solid street surface. As the man staggered to his feet once more, Andy and Stewart grabbed me by the arms and forced me to run faster than I ever had.
We dared not look back for fear of our pursuer being close, we panted and heaved, and as the adrenaline surged through my veins, I forgot my injuries for a moment, and fled as quickly as any child ever had. As we reached the end of King’s Drift, Andy and Stewart ran round the corner without looking back. But not me. For curiosity has always been my sin, and perhaps my punishment. The rain calmed at that moment, easing off to nothing but the most subtle of droplets, and as I squinted through blood and tears, I saw at the end of the road the brutal figure of the man who had attacked me, disappearing forever out of sight, with the bloodied, motionless body of poor Ricky over his shoulder.