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The Piano Man

July 9, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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When I graduated from college, my best friend Diana and I embarked upon a grand tour of Europe. Halfway through our trip, we had planned to spend three days in Prague, but had completely failed to account for poor weather hindering all of our sight-seeing plans. As a result of ensuing downpour for our entire time we spent in the city, we found ourselves aimlessly wandering through back alleys and side streets, entering every vaguely interesting shop as an excuse to get out of the rain. On our last day, we found an antique book store. Upon entering, we were blown away by the sheer vastness of the place and the overwhelming stacks of books. An elderly woman behind a desk in the front gave us a little smile and greeted us before we both separated and began exploring.

The store was impressively large for a seemingly unassuming place. I spent over an hour wandering through the aisles, before I found myself in the shop’s basement. Upon entering the basement, my eyes fell upon a beautiful, old piano. As a well practiced pianist and having not seen a piano in over two months, I was thrilled. I looked around excitedly to make sure I wouldn’t be bothering any other shoppers, but there was no one around. Grinning to myself, I strode over to the piano and took a seat on the bench in front of it. The cold of the leather on the seat bit into my skin, but I didn’t care. I ran my hands over the keys. Ivory, most likely, I thought to myself. I could tell the piano was old and therefore expected it to be out of tune, but was delighted when the chords I executed rang with perfect clarity.

“You play very beautiful,” a voice cracked behind me, and I jumped. An old man was standing directly behind me, and I hadn’t heard him approach. Smiling at the complement, I thanked him before he continued in very broken English, “She plays very good, but is missing two keys…Only 86.” I was having a hard time understanding what the man was saying through his accent and was going to ask him to repeat what he meant, but he smiled again and gestured for me to continue playing. After a few minutes, I gave up playing as Diana entered the basement, laughing at the absurdity of the scene in front of her. I had not noticed the old man leave, but was too busy excitedly telling Diana about how beautifully the piano played to put much thought to the matter.

Upon paying for our books back upstairs at the cash, the old woman complimented my playing and surprised me by asking if I would like the piano. At first I laughed, shocked by the offer. However, she went on to explain that the piano had passed through a variety of homes over the years, with no one ever keeping it long enough to enjoy its grandeur. She continued that she had been having difficulty selling it as the body cavity had been glued shut, and therefore could never be tuned. She told me that if I could cover the shipping costs to get the instrument home, I could take it for free, as she was just hoping to pass it on to someone more musical than herself. Seeing as we were travelling with nothing but backpacks, I laughed and told her I’d think it over for the night. However, Diana was ecstatic about the idea. When we returned to the flat we were staying in, we did some searching around on the internet, and placed a few phone calls, before establishing that shipping the piano home would actually be relatively cheap. As I was going to be moving in to my very first apartment upon returning from my trip, the prospect of having my own piano was thrilling.

When I returned from Europe at the end of the summer, my mysterious piano finally arrived. As I began to adjust to my new routine- new job, new apartment, new boyfriend- playing my piano became the part of the day I most looked forward to. I would practically race off the bus after a long day at work, run inside to feed the cat, and then sit down on the warm leather of the bench and begin to create my music. I remember one cold night in March, Peter was over and he was teasing me by insisting he had never heard me play.

“You’ll have to start staying over some more if you want Friday to like you,” I giggled, gesturing to my cat, who was vehemently hissing at him. “She takes about a solid month to warm up to people.” At Pete’s insistence, I sat down on the bench and smiled as the familiar feeling of contentedness washed over me. After about half an hour, I heard my cell phone ring, and answered it to hear Diana talking. She was out of breath and excitedly trying to explain that she had found an old photograph in one of the books she had bought months ago in Prague, and that she was pretty sure it was of a young girl sitting at the very piano in my apartment. I told her to email me the picture, before we started gossiping about the Bachelorette finale that had aired the night before.

When I hung up, Peter was putting on his jacket, saying he needed to go to work early in the morning. I was a bit annoyed he didn’t want to stay the night, but I pretended not to care, so I walked him downstairs. On the way back up to my apartment, I realized I had gotten the email Diana had sent me. Upon opening the picture, I could see right away that she was right about the piano being the same. It was the same leather-bound bench, the same beautiful woodwork, the same porcelain-white keys. However, something about the photo seemed a bit off. As I was trying to decide what was strange about it, Friday ran past me and bolted towards a man at the end of the hallway.

“Friday come here!” I exclaimed loudly. As I ran over the man, I was already apologizing, “I’m sorry she’s not normally like this.” When the man’s eyes met mine, I felt as though I had seen that smile before. Before I could dwell on this, Friday clawed at my leg, and I hoisted her up and carried her back to my apartment. I returned back to my phone and the picture Diana had emailed, and took a seat on the bench on front of the piano to study the picture some more. What was it? Then it occurred to me. The piano in the picture was smaller than the one in front of me right now. As an eerie feeling washed over me, I remembered something I had been told about the instrument months before, and found myself counting the keys of the piano in the photograph. 71. What the fuck, I thought.

But then it hit me. And as it did, a chill swept over me. A chill made worst by the fact that the bench I was sitting on was ice cold. The coldness swept through me as it dawned on me that my piano bench was never cold. Ever. This bench is always warm. And that was when I realized where I had seen that smile before. Friday darted towards my apartment door as I heard a soft whisper,

And you will be 87.

Credit: Satine Fenner

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Words In The Dark

July 3, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Ever since I was small I’ve had a fascination with old things, buildings specifically. Something about things that rot and decay is beautiful to me, I don’t really know why.
As a kid I’d get into all the dark, dusty spaces I could. The attic, the crawl space in our roof; I’d hide under my bed and read legends about abandoned houses and the ghosts that lived in them. I told my mother that some day, I was gonna be an urban explorer. I’d fight ghosts and barely escape from crumbling buildings, take creepy pictures of grand stairways and underground tunnels, find the lair of the Phantom Of The Opera under The Paris Opera…and one evening in September I finally got my chance.

I’d been taking a class on architecture in the 18th century, and after a long day creating dust in our local library, I discovered there was a great example of some beautifully classic 18th century architecture right in my own back yard. According to Houses of New Hampshire, the place had been abandoned since the owner, Eric Hunter, had disappeared one night after shutting himself in his library to study an old book he had picked up at an estate sale.

He never came out.

When the house was finally searched, no sign of him was found except his coat, hurriedly thrown on a chair. The book was placed almost perfectly in the center of his desk, as if put there with great care. Strangely, the book had no words. All the pages where completely blank.

The house was never sold, never demolished and eventually all but vanished from the minds of everyone as if nothing had ever happened.

Of course, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity like that without at least poking around a bit, so the next weekend I twisted the arm of my girlfriend, Alex, to come with me to the house. We’d decided it would be best to go at night so there’d be less of a chance of getting caught. I’d packed my new camera and night vision goggles the day before, and had everything laid out and ready to go. I know, now, just how naive I was to think darkness would make me safer.

We drove about ten minutes to the outskirts of town and another fifteen or so to reach the old house. We pulled up and got out of the car. As I walked up the driveway, I stared at the house. It was tall, the windows shuttered and dark, the raspberry bushes in the garden had become wild and overgrown with no one to tend them, growing around the house like a short thorny wall; and there was a large tree in the front yard, one of its branches laying across the pathway leading to the house.

I started breaking branches off of it to make an open area to climb through when I heard Alex laughing. I looked up to see her standing on the other side of the branch watching me and giggling. “What?! How did you get over there?” I asked, snapping a few more branches and climbing through.

She pointed. “You could have just walked around it. It was out of the way a bit, but it was quicker than turning it into part of the pathway.” She continued to giggle.

I glared at her unable to think of a clever retort. “What if I wanted to make it part of the path?”

She smiled and rolled her eyes. “Then you succeeded.”

I laughed and took her hand, walking up the steps to the doors, “They’re pretty old,” I said. “Might take a few good shoves to…” The doors swung open with a slight squeak. The entry was large, with small pillars on either side of the interior doorway. There was a staircase not too far from where we stood that appeared to curve into a hallway, and a fireplace with a few chairs, a couch and coffee table; all the things you’d expect to see in an old house like this. A small chandelier hung from the ceiling, covered in cobwebs. It appeared to have broken years ago; one of its sconces laying on the floor in pieces.

“Wow! Look at this place!” I said, as we walked through the doors.

“Yeah… It’s kinda… run down. Are you sure it’s safe here, Connor?”

“Positive,” I smiled at her.

“Ok, but I could be home reading a good book with a cup of cocoa instead of whatever we’re doing here,” she said, as she rubbed her arms and shivered.

“We’re exploring,” I said, pulling out my camera to snap a few pictures of the entry and chandelier. “Besides, no one’s here anymore. And it’s not like this place is an abandoned Mental Hospital; we’ll be fine.” I wandered further into the room and took some pictures of a dusty mirror and fireplace.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. So, why did you want me here?”

“I don’t know, companionship? Someone to share the adventure with? You are my girlfriend after all,” I laughed.

“Well, that’s true,” she said, and laughed too. “But it’s kinda spooky in here; can we hurry and get out of here?”

“Oh, come on, Alex! Look at the furniture. It’s got so much character; the peeling wallpaper, the layers of dust everywhere….But if it creeps you out that bad, I’ll try and make it quick, k?” I continued walking around the room. I blew the dust off of some boxes on the mantle piece. I opened one.

“Huh, filled with ash. Prolly a long dead aunt or something,” I mumbled to myself, and opened the one beside it. More ash. On impulse, I poked my finger into it and dug around a bit. I touched something metal and pulled it out. It was a ring.

“Hey Alex, look at this!” I turned, still staring at the ring in my hand.
I looked up and started to speak. “It must have belonged to his…wife…” But she wasn’t there.

“Alex?!” I whirled in a circle, straining my eyes to see into the dark corners, but there was no sign of her. “Damn it! How did I forget a flashlight!?”

I looked around the room. Where the moonlight should have illuminated further into the house, there was now a wall of darkness like heavy black fabric that seemed to shift and groan, as if a great weight were being placed slowly on the floorboards. I put on my night vision goggles and continued walking, trying to get a better look into the rooms, but I couldn’t see anything.“What the…?!” I pulled off the goggles, starting to panic. I shook them violently before trying again, but still nothing. No light, no comforting familiar shapes, just black, empty silence.

I took them off again, shoved them in my bag, and walked hurriedly toward the stairs. I reached them and looked up. I couldn’t see anything past the top few steps; after that there was nothing but complete darkness.

I started up the stairs, but as I got further into the darkness my head started buzzing, like a crowd of people whispering, then shouting. I shook my head trying to clear my mind, and continued up the stairs, but the words kept getting louder and louder. I reached the top of the stairs and ran along the hall trying to outrun the darkness. At the end of the hall I could see a door. A pulsing, sickly light emanating from beneath it.

Then it started, the screaming.

An awful sobbing scream that went on and on, filling my head and tearing away at my chest…and I realized, it was her scream. Alex was screaming, sobbing; she needed me! I stopped at the door, having reached the end of the hallway, unwilling to run back into the darkness on the stairs.

I reached for the door, turned the handle and pushed. The screaming stopped. It was over; it was ok. I turned my head, looking around the room and saw It. The eyes were white staring orbs, its skin yellowed and cracking like old paper, ink dripping from its mouth, nose and ears.

It was Alex, a book at her feet.

I turned, and reached for the door, but my hand touched smooth wallpaper. I stared at the wall where the door had been; it wasn’t there. How the hell could it be gone?! I turned, panicking and looked around the room; there was the door on the opposite wall. I’d have to get past It to get out.

I ran.

It turned.

The door disappeared. I tried again, running from wall to wall, trying to reach the door before it was gone. Every time I moved, It moved the door. Laughter filled my head and then screaming, that horrible screaming.

My eyes darted round the room looking for some way, any way I could escape. I remembered the book; that had to be it! That had to be what had possessed her. If I could throw the book out a window or something, anything, I’d have her back. I’d have Alex back.

I lunged for the book, sprawling across the floor and snatching it. I turned on the ground and stared at what used to be my girlfriend. There were black inky tears running down Its face now, seeping into the cracks in Its skin; Its face turning gray, pieces of it starting to fall away like a wet paper doll.

I backed against the wall as It inched closer. Using the wall for support, I pulled myself to my feet and felt a handle pressed into my back. I didn’t care where the door led, but it had to be better then here. It might lead somewhere I could get rid of this horrible book. I pushed on what I thought was the door and suddenly air rushed in my ears, the cold night seeped through every inch of my clothing, and moonlight so bright my eyes hurt. Then horrible pain, as if every bone in my body was being broken and bent, then blackness. I could hear whispers, as if by a thousand people, driving me insane. I wanted to tear at my head, scream and run from it, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t see or feel anything except the whispered words in my head as the book pulled me into its pages; and then waited, waited to be seen, examined, trusted. To seep into the mind of anyone who opened it, to take everything; the darkness takes everything.

Don’t. Go. Into. The. Darkness. You won’t be coming back.

Credit: Maihaa Hamend

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The Swamp

April 13, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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It has been exactly a year now since the incident happened… The day that my younger brother, John was killed. I have tried and tried to forget about what happened but it is still burned in my mind. So I know this is rather a cliché but I am recording this and putting it online in hopes that sharing what happened for all to hear will bring me solace.

My brother and I had a very strong bond, beyond what most siblings have because of our isolation from civilization in southern Louisiana. We were raised by our mother who not only assumed the additional position of a father but as our teacher due to the distance from the nearest school, we were forced to be home-schooled. Our father disappeared when we were very young; he left one day and never returned, our mom says he left her for a younger woman but I am pretty sure, now, that that isn’t true.

Last year today, on my brother’s 17th birthday, we decided to take the canoe out through the swamp in hopes of finding an Alligator that we could shoot. John and I always loved hunting Alligators, it is so fulfilling to bag a big gator and get to feed the family. Well, I have wondered off topic; so we were out on the canoe, rowing around. The cold, salty sea air met the hot, humid swamp air, creating a very interesting atmosphere. We had already in past adventures scouted a 3-mile radius around the house but we were determined to reach farther than ever.

Rowing in a canoe isn’t the fastest means of transportation but it works; we had gotten very good at swerving around the protruding stumps, trees, and the occasional rock that poked out of the murky, green water. The sudden rush of water knocked us out of our trance; it was an alligator! The time we had been waiting for was right there! My brother rowed closer as I grabbed my 45. revolver. The alligator wasn’t affected by us, it continued to swim north. The sun was setting as my brother gazed out towards the sea; his voice trailed off. I looked to see what he was looking at and almost couldn’t believe what I saw! Standing on a small island were two people, who appeared to be blankly staring at us-mouths agape. And in between them was a glowing object that neither of us could make out what it was. “Hey!” I yelled to the two men. Strangely there was no response, they didn’t even move, blink, shift, or anything! “Let’s get out of here.” I said to John but he didn’t reply. The canoe was drifting and the only change by the people on the island was their heads gradually turning to keep their blank stares on us. “Hey, let’s go!” I spoke up. He stared blankly back at the small island. “John!” I yelled but again, no response.

I was about to start paddling but john unexpectedly leaped out of the canoe and into the murky water. “What are you doing?” I asked him as he swam, then walked, to the island. Before he was out of the water, however, I noticed something. It appeared to be black hair emerging from the sea which was followed by the top of a head, then what I was expecting to be a person but that’s where I went wrong… Walking out of the ocean was something I had never seen before; it was tall- probably seven or eight feet, it had long black hair, its black eyes looked foggy due to what was most likely a film over them. They slanted down its face at an angle. Its face was narrow and sharp like it had been starved. This absolutely terrified me! What are you supposed to do when you see something like that? Anyways! The creature walked up the island and the two people shot one last look at me; this one was different, though- I saw tears and absolute fear suppressed by their blank stares, it was like their human instinct were trying to prevail over whatever trance they were in but that was to no avail, the creature grabbed both the men, one in each arm and turned around, returning to the ocean. I saw bubbles emerging for a little bit when their heads became submerged.

Now I am sure you don’t believe me, but I saw what I saw! If someone had told me this story, I wouldn’t have believed them either. I yelled to John; “we need to get out of here, now!” and his response is still unforgettable… His head slowly turned around as he gave me a blank stare then turned back and approached the glowing object which flashed a red color then returned to its white shine. “John!” I cried but he just stared at me… I fled, I went home and told my mom all about it but she didn’t believe me, she kept telling me to tell her the truth about what happened but it was and still IS the truth… you have to believe me…

After insisting it as the truth, she finally gave in and left to go find the elusive glowing item on the island, she never returned… I have been living by myself for the past year, I just wanted to get the story out.

I am starting to worry, however, I think the light is getting closer because at night if I look just at the right angle, through the trees I can see what appears to be a faint light. I am tired of living in fear, I am going to submit this now, go check out the light, then I’ll update this when I know the truth, goodbye for now.

The OP has also submitted their own video reading of the story, embedded below. If the video does not display for you, please click the link to view it on its YouTube page.

The Swamp by: CreepyQuantum

Credit: CreepyQuantum

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The Mirror

January 19, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I touched the button in the middle of the screen, and a quick blue flash filled the room.

I turned my phone’s screen towards me, and looked at the photo I had just taken. I was smiling, and my new fluffy kitten was nestled into my arm, looking off to one side. I gently placed her onto the bed, where she sat down and curled a thick white tail around delicate black paws and blinked at me slowly with bright green eyes.

She had been the only female in the litter, and instead of being covered in lots of black patches like her siblings, she only had one black patch on her cheek and four matching black paws. Today I was able to bring her home, and was taking lots of pictures to remember the day.

On the bedside table was a little red collar with a bell. I picked it up, tore off the price tag, and fastened it around her neck. I walked over to the bed, and sat as she wandered curiously around the room, and eventually towards the old antique mirror in the corner of the room. I watched amused as she curiously sniffed at her reflection, fogging up the glass briefly with each breath.
I began scrolling through my recent photos, deleting those I was unhappy with.

Meanwhile my tiny cat had begun growling at the mirror, fluffing herself up to twice her size, baring her teeth. Her reflection mimicked her, hissing and spitting right back. I laughed as I watched her reach out a paw to strike at the glass, and then bounce backwards. She made one last snarl at the mirror, before turning and fleeing under the bed. “Silly kitty” I muttered
I sat up to go retrieve her from under the bed, when I noticed a white flash by the mirror.

The kitten’s reflection was still there, frozen in a snarl, staring directly into the room. It slowly reached out one paw, and rested its pink pads on the other side of the glass before it rippled like water. The kitten pressed harder, and the reflection, limb by limb, crawled out of the mirror and stepped delicately, paw by paw into my room. It briefly glanced at me, before it focused its attention under the bed and darted under.
High pitched squealing echoed around the room, and two snarling balls of fur, locked together, rolled out from under the bed, tufts of white fur flying, two collar bells tinkling. One of them started to scrabble away, but the other pounced onto its back, and hammered with its hind paws, causing the pinned Kitten to wail in agony. Teeth dug into her neck, and paws flailed as one of the cats dragged the other by the scruff towards the mirror in the corner. I sat, stunned, positive I was hallucinating.

The two fighting cats sprang apart briefly, and stood panting, tails flicking, fur bristling, staring each other down. I looked from one to the other, trying to work out which cat was which… I desperately tried to remember which side she had her black patch on… One had a black patch on its left cheek, the other on its right. Perfectly mirrored. I panicked, and grabbed my phone, fumbling to turn unlock the screen and see the photos. The most recent picture I had taken popped up, a white kitten in my arms with a black patch on its right cheek. I put my phone down, and crept towards the two cats, on the verge of spring at each other again, and grabbed the kitten with the patch on its left. It’s squirmed and struggled in my arms, sinking its teeth into my skin, and shredding my arm with its thorn sharp claws. I pressed it against the glass as hard as I could. Like water, the glass rippled and the imposter plopped to the carpet on the other side of the glass. It crouched, ready to jump back out.

Terrified, I kicked the mirror as hard as I could and left a huge crack running jagged from bottom to top. My own reflection was mirroring my actions. I kicked again and again until shards of glass fell out of the frame and rained onto the carpet. Breathing heavily, I looked back at my kitten, who was staring wide eyed at me. I scooped her up, and carried her to the bed, cuddling her as she trembled. As I was about to place her down, I noticed my phone still lit up with the picture of us. And my stomach flipped as I spotted the poster in the background had the words written backwards. I had used my phone’s front camera and it snapped mirror images…

Credit: Sophie Norris

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Mountain Magic

December 6, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Coming from the Appalachian foothills of West Virginia, where driving to town was a big to-do, I realized at a young age that people tend to lean toward the supernatural for things that they cannot understand. The women in my family were particularly guilty of this kind of superstition – the kind that only festers among neighbors and families deep in the hollers and bottoms of the mountains.

My aunt was a self-proclaimed water witch. She would find a large, forked branch of a specific kind of tree – I can’t remember which kind – and walk out into people’s fields and wooded properties until the end of the tree branch would suddenly gravitate toward the ground, indicating that there was a natural underground spring below her feet. My mother would claim that there were always more people in the house than she could see, but couldn’t explain herself much further but to say, “I just feel them.” My grandmother used to speak of shadows in the corners of her eyes and keys that had been misplaced and replaced to their original spots, piles of small change on windowsills, and the smell of something burning during late summer nights when the stove and heat were off. My great grandmother used to pour salt just inside the threshold of her front door before going to bed each night, and once when I watched her performing her bedtime ritual with what I could only assume to be absolute incredulity on my face, her only response was, “Just in case.”
I became contemptuous of this voodoo-like behavior, and in my mind, I dubbed it “Mountain Magic.” Swinging wedding rings over pregnant bellies and bodily shivers indicating someone had just walked across my grave somewhere – it all seemed so silly to me. I am a very analytical person, and I could make sense of none of these tales, so I dismissed them. And yet, as I reflect on and discuss with loved ones outside of the women in my family the happenings of my life that have come to seem so normal to me, I realize that maybe the things that I have experienced aren’t as normal as I once thought.

My mother used to call me “gifted,” but not in the academically-accelerated sense of the word. I was not really good at math or a quick reader; she used the term to describe what I’ve come to know through some quick Googling as a “highly sensitive person,” or HSP. HSPs, according to my research, are considered to be more prone to experiencing or causing paranormal activity because, through some atypical biological and psychological development, they are more in-tune with the paranormal world. I also read that about 15 to 20 percent of people can be considered highly sensitive and that it is also hereditary. I can’t say that I’m a firm believer yet, but I have experienced some things that I have been unable to explain, and my husband has encouraged me to write them down. So here’s the first one I can remember. It’s a little unrelated to Mountain Magic as I have defined it, but it was the first of many more experiences in my life, and I find that the beginning is usually the best place to start.

My family lived in New Jersey. My father was in the Army and was stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, which is no longer in existence, I don’t think. We lived on Goslin Avenue – a picture of a street, really. Looking back, it reminds me of Maycomb in To Kill A Mockingbird. I was very young when we lived there; I attended kindergarten through second grade and extremely extroverted.

One afternoon after school, a bunch of us went over to my friend Kerry’s house, which was about three or four houses down from mine. Earlier that day, Kerry had informed us that she had a miniature pool table in her basement, so we all decided that’s where we’d be spending that afternoon. I was the first to arrive and had never been inside her house before. Upon entry, I immediately knew why. Kerry lived with her dad who, to me, seemed a million years old. It was dark and cramped in her house, and exceptionally warm, with a huge, glowing fish tank in the living room filled with giant tropical fish crammed in, swimming all over each other. And the entire house smelled like that fish tank. As we walked through the living room to the kitchen, her face turned a slight shade of red, embarrassed, and I quickly removed whatever dumbstruck look I had to avoid any awkwardness.

After the group all showed up, we made our way down the stairs and into the basement. We saw the pool table in the middle of the floor and quickly took up residence in the patio chairs, boxes, washer and dryer – any place that we could find a seat – and claimed our spots for seatbacks. After growing bored of miniature pool and having caught up on all the things that happened at school that day, we eventually ran out of steam and became restless. The only solution at that point, as was logical to us and our childish minds, was to play Truth or Dare. I remember actively avoiding eye contact and communication with the group at that point because I absolutely loathed that game. Why would I want to subject myself to discomfort just because someone else said I “had to”? The premise was dumb, and the kids that thrived on it were dumb too, at least in my mind.

So after a few rounds of Truth or Dare and a good thirty minutes of silence on my part, I was unamused and restless, trying to think of an excuse to go home. My mom hadn’t called, dinner wasn’t ready, my brother was at his friend’s house. . . I was out of ideas. So I sat there discontent for a few more minutes, and again the conversation died down and we began to pick at our fingernails. The room went silent.

Something caught my eye.

My head shot up just in time to see one girl in our group directly across from me, on the other side of the room and long side of the pool table, frozen in fear, her eyes wide in disbelief as she stared at what I thought was right at me. I started to say something – I don’t know what; probably mocking the look on her face because that was my MO at the time – but my own voice caught in my throat as the atmosphere quickly changed from lighthearted to confused. I glanced around at everyone else to see them all staring at the green felt of the mini pool table. I followed suit, wondering why everyone became so solemn so quickly.

A ball on the table had begun to spin in place. I don’t know if this has any significance or not, but I can still remember what number it was: 9, with a yellow stripe.

We all sat in icy silence, unable to move. I, at least, was unable to breathe. I can still remember the cold aluminum of the lawn chair I was sitting in against my thigh, slight condensation from my own sweat gathering and becoming slick. After what seemed like only a few seconds, the ball began to roll.
It rolled from my side of the table, away from me and towards my friend. Slowly at first, almost like it was a struggle, and then it picked up more and more momentum. And as it rolled to the other side of the table, the balls in its path would move themselves out of the way and into the pockets on the sides.

When the 9 reached the far side of the table, it stopped abruptly, just short of the ledge. By that point, all the other balls had moved into the pockets, and all of our eyes were fixated on the last remaining ball. It paused for a long moment, and I let out a nervous sigh. I hadn’t realized I had been holding my breath and immediately felt a little silly.

But almost as if someone had flipped an off/on switch, the ball reanimated. Only this time, it moved straight up. It was almost as if someone had wrapped a piece of fishing line around the ball that I couldn’t see and was reeling it up from some secret hole in the upstairs floor. But we had all played at least one round on that table, and a string would have been quickly discovered during gameplay. I watched the ball slowly gain height until it was at eye level with my friend across the room. It then moved directly toward her face, still very slowly, with what seemed to be calculated intention. It crossed over the edge of the pool table, traveled another six inches or so in the air toward my friend, paused, and then just dropped to the ground with a light crack and rolled away under some shelves by the cellar.

The air changed – cool but chokingly humid – and I suddenly had a very metallic taste in my mouth. And without a word, I walked as fast as I could to the stairs, through that cramped, fishy living room, and back into outdoors. I didn’t stop, but I didn’t run. I walked with a purpose straight from that basement through my front door and onto the couch where my mother was sitting watching TV. I didn’t say a word. I went over it and over it again in my mind, trying with all my eight-year-old might to make sense of it. I wasn’t able to say a word about it for a lot of years because I wasn’t quite sure of what I had actually seen.

It wasn’t until I was 13 and we had moved back to West Virginia to be with family that I told my mom about it. We were sitting around the kitchen table with my aunt and grandma peeling potatoes, and not one of them laughed. She then told me of the history of that street and of the field behind it, Greeley Field, and of her own ghost stories at Fort Monmouth, which I may put on paper at a later date. Each woman took her turn explaining to me the first time they realized they were “sensitive,” and they congratulated me on inheriting their “special gift.” My aunt offhandedly suggested that it could have been my disdain for the current game of Truth or Dare that could have even sparked it, similar to a psychokinetic poltergeist-type of event.

But even now, at the age of 28, I still dream of that event and often think of my aunt’s explanation. The precision of the balls on that table falling straight into the pockets – I can still hear the muted thunks of each one. The slow and deliberate movement of the 9 ball as it moved first laterally, and then through the third dimension, into midair . . . But mostly, it’s the thick air of that basement and the metallic taste in my mouth, the thought that it could have been me all along, that haunts me.

Credit: Shery

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One Mile

December 1, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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JayJay suspected herself of having a mild form of ADHD to balance out her high IQ. It was undiagnosed, if so; she had better things to spend her money on than psychoanalysis. Still, there were the occasional days like today, when her concentration was shot, and whatever was in her peripheral vision seemed more important than whatever was in front of her face.

As she stood, fiddling with her phone in the convenience store parking lot, she found herself struggling with the simplistic task of downloading and installing an app. She was distracted by the dry wind blowing dust and leaves into her hair. She was irritated by the wail of a crying child denied candy by her stoic mother. She was creeped out by the ragged homeless woman idly eyeing her from the bus stop.

The app was a relatively simple thing. It would allow her to determine the make and model of a shoe via a simple photograph, automatically locating a nearby store and a current price. It was a silly thing, but her college roommates loved it, and so she had decided to give it a try.

Somehow, it was a hassle. She was momentarily blinded by sunlight reflecting from a passing car. She was jostled by a rude store customer with a dour look on his face and burly shoulders. She was startled when someone called her name from nearby, only to soon find out it was a different Jennifer they were calling out to.

Annoyed, she jabbed her finger at the shoe icon as soon as it came up, likewise clicking through the EULA without reading it (had it actually contained the word “soul”?) and chose INSTALL, anxious to get through the minor task.

After a moment, the phone’s camera activated, and she was looking at a closeup of her own finger on the other side of the phone. She brought the phone up so she could sweep the view around and paused, momentarily puzzled. The name of the app, sharply written in black letters resembling an old typewriter style font on a greyish white background read “One Mile”. Next to and slightly below the title was a green counter, set to 5280. Had she downloaded a pedometer by mistake? If so, why the camera function?

As she swept the camera around, however, she noticed that a green rectangle was appearing around the feet of people in the camera’s field of view. She hesitated momentarily on the shiny Mary Janes of a tiny schoolgirl, then the dilapidated and untied sneakers of a guy whose gait and facial expression screamed ‘stoner’. She was irritated, however that a display with the pertinent information was not automatically appearing. Did she have to frame the shoes for longer? Did she have to actually take a photo?

She considered taking a photo of her own feet, but the rectangle framing them was red for some reason: maybe the angle was bad, or her feet too close to the camera? She raised her gaze, and there was the homeless woman at the bus stop, pouting and staring steadily. Creepy. Defiant of the rush of fear tingling at her spine, she focused on the camera and aimed at the woman’s shoes.

The (presumably) homeless woman’s shoes were of course, old, unfashionable, dirty and worn. She figured that if the app could identify these canvas-topped rubber soled ancient artifacts, it could likewise handle any shoe she would actually be interested in.

They came up green. Since the woman was just standing and staring, she herself stayed still, and sure enough, after a moment, a green button appeared with a camera icon on it. She poked the icon.

The image froze, then zoomed to show the woman’s shoes (and swollen, greasy ankles emerging from torn, soiled socks) in more detail. The words “Are You Sure?” appeared in black typeface at the top of the app, with accompanying yes and no buttons. JayJay snorted a bit in irritation; of course she was sure! The thought occurred to her that the app might try to charge her credit card or something if she said yes, but she did not recall the app requesting access to her data. So it was probably safe? Shrugging, she pressed yes.

The disorientation was instantaneous and absolute. She felt like throwing up, but instead of pitching forward, she reeled backward, very nearly into …traffic?

Somehow, she was standing at the bus stop where the homeless woman had been. An irritated driver honked and swerved a bit, while still accelerating. She wrenched herself forward, skinning her knees on the bus stop bench. Scanning, she realized that she was looking at the front of the 7-11, where she had been standing a moment ago. She was annoyed to see a gawky blonde wearing the twin of her own outfit staring back at her.

The world seemed to spin and weave. She felt drunk. She was in fact drunk; she smelled like a brewery and reeked of old sweat. Her hair felt matted and tangled, and her clothes …she was wearing tattered, dirty, threadbare layers of mismatched clothing. She was dressed like a homeless woman. An instant later, more facts fell upon her like monolithic dominoes: she was shorter, heavier. Her skin was wrinkled, older. Her fingernails were longer. She was the homeless woman!

On the brink of madness, a dozen horrendous possibilities rushed at her, drowned her. Maybe she really was a homeless woman who had been enjoying a delusion of being a young pretty girl? Maybe she was simply dreaming? Maybe the application had somehow caused them to switch places, even bodies?

It didn’t matter. Dream or no dream, she needed that phone. Right now. She fixed her gaze on the gawky girl. Was that how she looked? Too skinny, hair the color of straw, showing too much skin, wearing too much makeup? It didn’t matter; it was better than what she had now. The gawky girl met her gaze and blanched. She looked quickly from side to side. Was she going to run? Crap, she was going to run.

The girl turned, stumbling and falling headlong, spilling the contents of her purse everywhere. Sitting up quickly, she started to scoop up the scattered papers and mascara and other items as if by instinct before she remembered her situation. Tearing off the high heeled shoes with something like regret, she stumbled to her feet and made for a narrow alleyway near the store.

JayJay was in no better shape. The old shoes were much better for running, but the body above them was not. She was heavier all over, especially in the hips and bust, and everything tried to go in different directions, throwing off her center of balance and making her want to vomit even more. She was grimy everywhere. Her heart was slamming like a jackhammer. She could not breathe. Her head was pounding.

She knew she looked like a monster, with her arms outstretched, lumbering forward. Her voice was moaning and unfamiliar even to her own ears, “My phoooone! That’s my phoone! Give it here!” The girl –JayJay’s real body– squealed and backpedaled, wheeled and ran. JayJay knew she looked like an utter lunatic to everyone around. But hopefully, that wouldn’t matter if she could simply get her hands on that phone.

If the app had somehow switched them, she could use it to switch back. She hoped. The only other choices were that the change was somehow permanent …in which case she would cry, and likely fling herself into traffic… or that it was a dream or otherwise temporary, in which case it didn’t matter. She needed that phone.

Into the narrow alley they plunged, the girl still awkward, but moving with an assuredness that JayJay did not feel. The alley was familiar territory to whoever was in that girl’s hed. JayJay seemed to stumble over every bit of trash scattered on the cracked pavement, while the girl’s steps were swifter and more sure. She was pulling away.

JayJay, already gasping and dizzy, pushed herself harder. This was it, she was sure; she’d have a heart attack and die in this alley, while that homeless woman walked off with her body and enjoyed an extra 20 years of young, fit life with it. It wasn’t fair! She had done nothing to deserve this! She was a good person!

It was at that moment that the girl, that JayJay’s body, died. As she had exited the alley into the street on the opposite side, she had cast a last glance back at the monster stumbling behind her. A fast, expensive white car, it’s stereo loud and it’s owner texting, plowed into her without slowing down.

The girl’s face smashed into the windshield, her own body a fulcrum, like a small wet wrecking ball. It was instantly destroyed: bits of glass drove into her eyes, her nose flattened, her lips were torn away by her own teeth as they tore loose from her mouth, scattering into the afternoon along with autumn leaves. Within her now fractured skull, her brain flattened and ruptured.

No. JayJay halted, unable to even speak. She wanted to scream, wanted to beat up the careless driver, wanted to ironically kill and re-kill her own body for both dying and being ruined. Instead, she threw up. In fact, she almost passed out, but as her consciousness descended into a grey well of denial, she shook her head (earning a spike of pain in doing so) and made herself stand.

The phone. Where was the phone?

Had it been crushed beneath the tires of the car, along with the girl’s twisted tangle of limbs? She did not see it there, just a widening pool of blood and some thick black liquid. The driver was emerging from the car, pale and texting frantically.

Could it still be with her purse?

JayJay vanished back into the alleyway just as the driver piped up with a “Did you see what happened?” and she moved to the opposite end as fast as her grimy but unbroken legs would carry her. Emerging from the alley, she looked toward the front of the store, where an employee, dustpan in hand, was procrastinating before cleaning up the scattered purse.

“Mine!” she hissed, kneeling in the spill of her belongings. The employee looked dubious, but did not protest. He seemed distracted by a growing group of people wandering toward the far corner of the building.

It was there! JayJay picked up the phone, holding her breath in the eternity between hitting the power button and the screen brightening into life. She swiped her finger in a familiar pattern to unlock the phone (she inwardly sighed; a part of her had been worried she had been delusional. Now she was just horrified). The app was still there, and opening it showed a simple blank screen with a counter currently at 5008.

She was puzzled, but she had no time to ponder. Soon, people would think that a homeless woman was stealing the belongings of a tragically killed girl, and she did not want to be here when that happened. She quickly located her wallet, her keys, and with that and the phone, she left. Somehow, her cosmetics did not seem so important now.

As she strode quickly and purposefully away from the convenience store, her mind continued to swim with a dozen warring implications. How had the app done this, if it had? What was the counter for? How many people had this app? How would she explain that some older woman was now living in JayJay’s apartment? What about her friends and family?

Back at her apartment, JayJay collapsed into a chair. Her phone pulsed, then started up in her mother’s familiar ringtone. She almost answered instinctively, but then she caught herself and ignored it; her mother would not recognize the voice on the other end. She let it go to voicemail, as tears streamed from unfamiliar eyes. Her mother would be so heartbroken when she found out…

JayJay looked at the app again, desperate for answers. Obviously, this was not the app her friends had been using, although the icons were similar. The counter had changed again, to 1237. That felt …ominous. She waited, holding her breath, for nearly two minutes. The counter did not change. Puzzled, she went to her refrigerator, grabbed an iced coffee, returned to the chair.

The counter was at 1231.

“What the fuck!?” With effort, she resisted hurling the phone at the wall. Calming herself with deep ragged breaths (that smelled sickeningly of onions and beer), she began to take off her shoes, desperate for a shower, although she was petrified of what she would find beneath the dirty ragged cloth and grime.

Her phone sounded a short, sharp alarm. The app, clearly visible on the glowing screen, read “Are you sure you want to quit?” With big red yes and no buttons. She grabbed the phone, eager to escape the nightmare.

But she stopped. If she quit, what then? Would she go back to her old body? Her destroyed, wrecked, ruined body? Her eyes glued to the screen, she clicked NO. The bland typewriter font returned: “Error: replace shoe.” With deliberate, slow movements, she ran a finger between the shoe and her foot, pulling it snug against her heel once more. The app returned to the green counter, back at 1231.

One mile. She was going to walk one mile in this woman’s shoes, literally. And then…

Her mind skipped across several scenarios: quit her job, become a hermit, work from home via her computer to somehow never walk a full mile for the rest of her life? What about her friends and family that could drop by at any time? What about when she was reported dead or missing and some strange woman was found in her apartment? What effect would using a car or a wheelchair have? If she took it back to the error screen and left it there, could she live out her life? Could she live forever?

Her heart stopped as a knock sounded through her door. It returned several times as she crept slowly up to the peephole and peered. It was no one she knew; a slightly plump young woman wearing conservative clothes. In one hand was clutched some brightly colored paper.

JayJay, feeling a reptillian cold creep down her spine, opened the door, refusing to allow herself to think; only to act. She forced herself to smile; something that probably looked ghoulish in her new hard, lined face with likely horrible teeth. She opened the door.

The young visitor kept her expression open and cheerful, although she hesitated for a telling moment upon first sight of the disheveled woman inside the apartment. “Might I have a moment of your time?”

“Jehovah’s Witness,” JayJay guessed in an unfamiliar voice.

The woman nodded. Cheerful and resigned, but hopeful. In white stockings. With black, polished Mary Janes.

JayJay opened the door wide and swept her hand in a magnanimous gesture. “Come on in! I’ll get us some tea.”

The woman hesitated, no doubt reciting a silent prayer, then stepped across the threshold. JayJay ushered her to an empty seat, taking her phone from the armrest as she did so. “This is going to sound weird,” she said. “But your shoes are darling! Do you mind if I take a picture of them?”

A few hours later, a young woman exited the apartment. She was dressed differently than when she had entered, except for her white stockings and black shoes. She was wearing a stuffed backpack and towing an equally overfilled wheeled luggage case, her large purse heavy on one arm. She had a phone in her hand, and a distracted yet determined expression on her face…

Credit: Kitsune9tails

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