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The Light in the Window

September 24, 2016 at 12:00 AM
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
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Rating: 6.6/10 (61 votes cast)

Joan was not in the mood for the early shift. In a sleepy daze, without much (if any) mindfulness of what she was doing, she clutched her cell phone resting on her nightstand, and, after a few failed tries, dismissed the alarm that had been ceaselessly blaring for five minutes straight. Rather than taking heed of the notice “Low Battery,” she focused instead on the phone’s digital clock and moaned at the realization that it was 4:06 and she had less than an hour to get to work. The phone was playing music: it was her custom to fall asleep to a good song. Reluctantly, she closed out the audio, ripped out her earbuds with a sigh, and slowly stood.

She had to go all the way to the largest city in the state, forty-five miles south of her mostly unfurnished, newly-bought house, located in the deserted backwoods of scenic Nowhere, Southern U.S. She flipped the light switch, winced at the brightness, and got dressed without even shutting the door to her room or turning off the light.

Still not quite awake, Joan, in her uniform of a white T-shirt, shorts, and sandals, ambled as a zombie into the unkempt and wild backyard, which really wasn’t anything more than the far-end of the forest of pines behind it. She stepped into her car—or, rather, the ugly old yellow pick-up truck her parents had dumped on her. It was her brother’s first vehicle, the one he was obliged to hand off when his parents surprised him with the newest model as a graduation gift.

The day she was given the thing, not a year into college, was the day she finally moved out and her parents promptly cut off any and all financial support. They called her “ungrateful,” a word that had been reverberating in her head ever since. And here she was now, no longer able to to afford school, and, because she was one with a thirst for revenge, continually attempting to prove her worth to her parents by making her own living.

It wasn’t really working. She just sat there in the truck, considering this, when a loud rustle of leaves from behind caused her to jump and crank the ignition. She suddenly remembered there was a reason she was even able to procure the house so cheaply: it was located in the worst area imaginable, amid forests and on a pale, cracking, unnamed road that was bumpy the whole way you drove on it. No cars ever came down it, and the two or three other houses on the road, Joan suspected, were probably unoccupied—abandoned, even.

Joan began to ease up a little as she felt the road smooth out beneath her and as she caught sight of the lights of gas stations and fast food restaurants. The moon was in view, perfectly round and seeming to direct her path with its light. In a few more miles, there would be hotels and the tiny mall. And right next to them would be the interstate, and the second she was secure and sailing down it, she’d be free to carelessly daydream until her exit.

But, until then, she was on edge. This was not a safe town to live in. She knew it the second she moved there. She couldn’t afford to live in her hometown (where her few friends were), and her house was the only one on the market both cheap and at a reasonable distance from her associates. Needless to say, she hadn’t made friends at her current location, and didn’t know if she even wanted to. Indeed, she had a habit of “escaping” from the town as often as she could spare her money on gas, going to see friends or to the nearest movie theater or restaurant whenever she saved enough to enjoy such luxuries. Who was she kidding? It was a very lonely existence.

Joan also had trouble with what was perhaps her life’s ultimate goal: finding a husband. She dreamed of one day being whisked away by a handsome man who’d solve all her troubles; though she was attractive and many men flocked to her, none of them stayed. Joan remembered bitterly her failed date with Austin, her coworker. Joan was a lifeguard at a community pool, and she needed to make this drive every day to get there. She hated the job, but it was extremely easy, and the only one she was truly qualified for (a certification wasn’t a degree, but was at least something). Naturally, there were no pools anywhere closer to her house.

In addition to working with Joan during her shift, Austin was also the one who normally worked the early shift she was currently headed to. After having a spat with Joan on their date, he unexpectedly called in sick, and Joan was the only one who was free to cover for him. He probably was trying to avoid seeing her, though Austin was “sick” fairly often, maybe every couple of weeks. He had other excuses for his absences, some of them dumb. He once said, for example, that his dog had evidently mauled someone’s cat, and that the cat’s owner had hounded him about it all morning, not letting him leave for work. Joan’s boss had openly called this story and others like it “bullshit,” but he couldn’t fire Austin anytime soon, not when lifeguards were hard to come by in the fall and winter months. It infuriated her, taking this shift, but she couldn’t refuse. This job was the last leg she had to stand on, and she couldn’t risk being fired.

Austin was all she could think about as she continued down the long stretch of road she was on. She wondered if she loved him, if he might return to work after he was over the sting of the failed date, and if they would ever go on another, or even see each other ever again. True, he was the irritable type, and somewhat mysterious, but that seemed to only increase her longing for him. All these things swirled in her mind until she realized that the road had become inexplicably darker, with dark forest on either side instead of streetlamps. She became puzzled, thinking that the ramp onto the interstate was surely near. She drove and drove for what seemed like an eternity, craning her neck to find the turn. She nearly slammed on the brakes at the terrifying realization that she had to have missed it.

Joan felt herself begin to panic. She wanted to pull over, try and find a way out of this, but it was as if the truck was moving her, taking her to where she was evidently meant to go tonight, because it sure as hell wasn’t going to be work. Finally, she worked up the nerve to at least slow down to try and get a better idea of where she was. But that was just it. She had no idea. She’d just moved to this town and she never had any desire to explore it; after all, it was remote and dangerous. She’d never investigated past the interstate, which was something she was now beginning to regret. Then again, she’d probably have no better luck had she ventured down this road in daylight. It was unending, quite literally. There seemed no way to get off of it.

She wondered if she should turn around into the other lane, in spite of the road being one-way, but the dim flicker of headlights behind her indicated people, however sparsely, were driving on this road, and she wasn’t about to risk a head-on collision. She also considered pulling over and flagging down the car behind her to ask for directions back, but then thought it foolish. The people would be coming from town, and, judging by the sorts that typically lived in her town, she decided that they probably wouldn’t be the friendliest or most helpful of folks, to put it mildly. She felt for her phone in her pocket, wondering who she might call if she didn’t find a way out of this on her own. She tensed up upon noticing that the needle on her gas gauge was just hovering over “E” and the road continued on and on, as if it led to the edge of the world.

Joan gripped the steering wheel tightly. For some reason, it made her feel safer. She glanced at the dashboard clock, which now read 4:59. The pool definitely wasn’t opening on time today, and, knowing her luck, she’d be fired for negligence. But none of that mattered if she was stuck on this road for God knew how long. Then, as an oasis might appear in a seemingly endless desert, an exit emerged from over the horizon, and Joan, overcome by amazement and relief, took it. She couldn’t care less where it led, so long as she’d be off this godforsaken road.

Her heart pounded as she sledded down the long, winding ramp onto a new road that appeared at least a tad bit more connected to civilization. In the very least, this road had streetlamps and even small motels and a gas station and eateries, though they all looked run-down and didn’t appear to belong to any major chain. Nonetheless, Joan was comforted, but couldn’t help but feel a bit disheartened. It still didn’t seem she was anywhere close to any major, recognizable city. It was as if these buildings and road had discreetly floated down from the sky into a forest, the rest of the world being unaware of their existence.

It was all still so foreign, but, at the very least, here was a place where she could make human contact. She was beginning to brighten at this idea, but then she faltered. Would stopping here at five in the morning be any less dangerous than stopping back where she’d come from? Not trusting the place, she decided to pull into a large parking lot, and parked directly under a towering, rusty streetlamp. The lot seemed to now be nothing more than an expanse of useless asphalt. Its paint had faded and the building that sat upon it was featureless, with its windows and doors boarded up. It troubled her, and she didn’t want to stay long.

She quickly produced her phone, deciding she’d call her brother, who probably loved her more than Mom and Dad ever did. He would be cranky about having to get up so early to rescue her, and might even call her silly and laugh at her for being frightened for nothing. She searched through her contacts and made ready to call his number, but she hesitated. Would her brother even know how to get to her? She knew she certainly wouldn’t be able to tell him the way if she didn’t know where she was. It was no use. She had to find out her location before she could call anyone to come save her. Finally thinking rationally, she went to pull up Google Maps, but before she could get her location, the phone vibrated…and the screen went black.

She just stared at it, thunderstruck at the very expensive, now very useless hunk of plastic she held in her hand. She tried to power it back on, refusing to believe it. She usually charged her phone to 100% before plugging in her earphones and falling asleep to her music. That way, she would have suitable power for at least the first half of the next day. But last night, she’d neglected to charge the phone at all, being as angry as she was at Austin and covering his stupid shift. She slowly slid the phone back into her pocket, defeated. There was no choice now. She had to get out of the truck, find someone who’d help her back home, and hopefully live to tell this tale to someone who cared and would laugh with her about how silly it was. Maybe her parents, if they actually gave two shits about her? Her more-successful-than-she’d-ever-be brother? Her friends, who were slowly drifting away thanks to her move? Or, if she dared dream, a loving husband?

She was still thinking about all this as her hand went to start the engine, but, as she was about to turn the key, her eyes caught a flicker of movement in her rearview mirror. A shadow dashed across her face. She froze. Then, her survival instincts fully activated, she thrust the truck into drive and sped to the nearest building: a diner across the road.

When she pulled into the diner’s gravel parking lot, she found herself wary to leave the truck, sure there must be a threat outside. What was that she’d see in the rear view mirror? She was shaking, and, to calm herself, reasoned it might have been a stray animal. But…then again…that shadow was awfully big. Then, the inside of the diner suddenly came alive with light, and she was comforted by the sight of an innocent little old lady tottering about inside. The diner, apparently, was opening for breakfast. Joan glanced at the radio clock, which had just switched over to 5:20. She grimaced, truly disturbed by the fact that it was still pitch black, as if dawn had been delayed.

After a few minutes, she finally exited the truck, deciding whatever she’d seen across the street had gone. Nonetheless, she came up to the diner at a very brisk pace and practically ripped the door off its hinges in her anxiousness. The old woman, who’d been sweeping, nearly fell over from surprise.

“I’m sorry!” said Joan hastily. “I didn’t mean to barge in like that. It’s just that I’m lost, and was wondering if you could—?”

“—sit you down with a nice, hot breakfast, sweetheart?” the old woman beamed, speaking in a soothing, mild Southern accent. She tottered up to Joan, smiling and holding menus. Behind her square glasses, her eyes shone with kindness.

Joan suddenly realized just how hungry she was. She hesitated. There really was no rush to get home nor any reason to try to get to work. By now, the lap swimmers who came at five in the morning had all given up on any chance of her coming and had gone home. Soon enough, though, their complaints would reach her boss, and he’d be calling her dead phone and wondering what the hell happened to her. She smiled at the lady, who was already directing her to a table without her even asking for one.

Sitting down, Joan said to the lady: “Thank you very much, ma’am, but I wondered if you had a telephone I could use? I was supposed to be at work, and I should probably call and explain what happened.”

The woman almost looked amused. “Honey,” she laughed, “what need is there for a phone out here? People only come to these parts to get out of ‘em! No one stays for long; they all pass through—and as quick as they can! I don’t know anyone around who bothered to have a telephone put in. I doubt the lines even reach out here.” She snorted and said matter-of-factly: “No service for them newfangled cell-u-lars, neither.” She then took out a pad of paper and clicked a pen, not noticing Joan’s disappointment. “Now what’ll it be, sugar?”

It was a moment before Joan snapped back to her senses, still in dumbfounded disbelief at her luck. “Oh! Just some eggs and coffee,” she said absently, biting her nails. The woman smiled, taking away the menu that Joan never touched and slipping into the kitchen.

Joan rubbed her neck, now stressing that she’d be fired if her boss didn’t get an explanation soon. She simply couldn’t afford for such a thing to happen. She vividly imagined herself groveling to her parents and them laughing at her. There had to be a phone somewhere around here, she assured herself. There had to be a big, civilized town nearby with businesses (and not little self-run businesses like these out in the boonies) that would have phones. There just had to be people out there who didn’t seem like characters in a dream.

“Mavis! You got raccoons again! Swear I saw one scurrying around that yeller truck parked out there!”

The woman burst through the kitchen doors and slammed a mug of coffee onto Joan’s table, spilling half of it. “Really? Dammit, Luke. That’ll be the fourth time this week those little bastards have been around! Sure you don’t know any way to get rid of them?”

Joan looked up from her drink and, for one thrilling moment, it seemed her nightmare had miraculously turned into her ultimate daydream. A tall young man in a leather jacket, boots, and a baseball cap was walking toward her. “Sure I do,” he laughed at Mavis, who was blushing. “What I don’t know is how to keep ‘em from coming back!” He almost immediately turned to face Joan, smiling and resting his hand on her table. “Well, hey there, miss. Haven’t seen you around these parts.”

Joan could hardly speak, she was so overjoyed to see what she thought a beacon in an eternal darkness. “I-I’m not from here, actually,” she managed. “Lost.”

The man gave a goofy smile. “Shoulda known. Never seen a pretty girl like you wanderin’ around here.” He extended a hand and the tight leather of his jacket crackled. “Name’s Luke!” he beamed, and Joan grasped his hand and shook it gratefully.

“I’m Joan,” she said shyly. She tried to explain what had happened without making herself sound like a fool. “I’m just passing through,” she lied. “On the way to work.”

“Thought you said you was lost?” Luke pointed out.

She reddened. “True,” she admitted. “I’m a little turned around.”

“If anybody come out here, he sho nuff ain’t headed in the right direction,” Luke explained, almost gravely. “Only reason I’m here is ‘cause I come every morning for Mavis’s cooking, usually after hunting.” He laughed. “Much better than Momma’s cooking ever was.”

Joan perked up. Mavis, who’d gone to fry some eggs, came to serve her, but she didn’t even notice. “So, you’re from around here? I-I mean, there’s a town nearby, with phones?”

Luke cocked his head in confused amusement. “What, girl? You ain’t never seen no phone or town before?”

The rational part of Joan’s brain kicked in. This guy, while a contender for Mr. Husband, could more importantly help her get out of this mess. “Please,” she entreated, “you’ll have to let me follow you into town. If I could just use your phone, if-if I could just get some directions back home, I could—”

“Whoa, slow down, girl!” Luke said, holding up his hands. “Now, where is it you’re from?”

He told her, but, not surprisingly, he’d never heard of it.

“Not at all?” she asked desperately. “Not even what direction I’d go in to get back?”

Mavis came up to her and patted her on the shoulder. “Now, now, sugar. Don’t you worry. My momma always told me: ‘Long as you still in the country, you ain’t lost.’”

This idea, though it wasn’t very true, comforted Joan. Mavis added: “Now, to get yourself out of this mess, why don’t you go with good ol’ Luke into town?”

“We could get on my phone or my laptop and look you up directions,” Luke said gently.

Joan considered it. Judging by his good looks alone, Luke seemed trustworthy to her. But she’d been quick to trust good looks many times before, and it always landed her in trouble. Then again, Mavis seemed to be a genuine, caring woman, and if she trusted Luke, why shouldn’t Joan? Mavis seemed to know him well, seeing as he came into this diner every morning. Joan sighed, knowing she couldn’t not go to Luke’s town. She had no phone, and thus no way of knowing where she was nor calling anyone for help. And even if she found someone around here with a phone she could borrow, it wouldn’t get service, as Mavis had said.

Finally, she said to Luke: “All right, I’ll just follow you to your place, then?”

Luke smiled and winked, instructing her in an overly happy tone: “Yeah, pretty girl. Follow me, you’ll be all right!”

She felt a tad bit uneasy about all this, but what other choice did she have? She and Luke walked side by side, Mavis waving at them as they left. “Eggs on me, sweetheart! Good luck to you, sugar!” she said, and Joan looked back at her one last time to give her a thankful smile in return.

Outside, dawn finally seemed to be breaking, though it was still plenty dark. “I really appreciate this,” Joan said, and Luke just kept grinning and saying “It’s all right, pretty little thing. It’s all right.” She ignored him and got into her truck. Once his truck was in position to leave, waiting on her, she cranked the engine. Nothing. She tried again…and again. She glanced up, seeing Luke was tentatively rolling out. She then saw her fuel gauge. The needle was below “E,” and wasn’t moving.

She didn’t even feel deterred. At this point, she expected something like this to happen. She got out and Luke rolled down his windows when she came up to the side of his truck. “What’s wrong?” he asked, and he looked truly concerned.

“I’m out of gas,” said Joan hopelessly.

Luke was quick to make light of it. “No worries, pretty thing!” he said cheerfully. “I have a gas can up at the apartment. Why not hop in with me and once we find out where you need to be headed, we can fill your truck up and send you on your way.”

Joan gulped. Getting into the same truck as Luke was something she’d intentionally avoided by suggesting she follow from behind. After all, she didn’t really know him, and he could take her anywhere and do anything to her once he had her. She felt like she was submitting herself to a kidnapping, but, again, what other plan was there? Her emotions stirred, and she quickly decided that she could accept Luke as her prince charming come to the rescue. Without reservation, she climbed into the truck.

Not surprisingly, Luke’s apartment, along with the rest of civilized society, lay far out from the diner. After driving miles down the main road, which deteriorated into near-rubble as they went farther along, they came to the edge of the encircling forest. It was as if the road pavers had simply given up their work that day and had let nature consume where the road would lead next. Joan’s heart pounded as she wondered if Luke had purposely taken them to a dead end, but then he turned down a small dirt road hidden away behind the trees.

“It’s the only way I know of to get to that diner,” Luke explained. “Found it when I was out hunting one day.” With curiosity, he asked Joan: “By the way, how’d you manage to get yourself over in those parts?”

Joan really didn’t have a clue herself. She told the whole story of how she needed to cover the early shift and how she’d missed her turn onto the interstate. Luke again asked where she was from, and, again, when she told him, he just shook his head in utter confusion. “Well,” he said, “I reckon people got to come by that little patch of nowhere somehow. I’ve seen one or two characters come down to the diner—always shook up—but once they leave, they never come back.” He laughed. “I’m Mavis’s one and only regular, you know.”

“And how did Mavis get there?” Joan asked.

Luke took a deep breath, then sputtered out his mouth, at a loss for an answer. “Been there as long as I’ve been coming. Never talks about home, never seems to leave. I once stayed at that diner till midnight or so to see when her shift ended, and it was like she just had no intention of going, just talking and talking to me till I got tired and went. Never see any car of hers parked out there neither.”

Joan shuddered, positive that Mavis wasn’t at that diner by choice—that something or someone had trapped her there, despite her cheerful demeanor suggesting otherwise. This thought soon left her as the sun (thank God) was at last beginning to rise from behind the trees as they tumbled out from the dirt road and onto a newly-paved street. Straight ahead was a tall wrought-iron gate which led directly into Luke’s apartment complex. Joan felt uneasy at witnessing yet more isolation (this complex was, like everywhere else she’d been lately, out in a secluded location, enclosed by trees). Regardless, the place looked clean, newly-built, and safe, and as Luke politely opened the passenger’s door for her when they parked, she smiled. And it became less and less likely that Luke meant her any harm, even as they were silently walking up a flight of stairs to the door that led into his apartment. She didn’t like how everything was so quiet and still, as if Luke was the only one who lived here (well, she reasoned to calm herself, it was just the break of dawn. Who would be awake?). She watched as he gripped the knob and turned the key, and Joan was then met with the third human face she’d encounter on this unplanned excursion.

“Don’t mind Curtis,” Luke said apologetically as he went into another room and left her alone with him. She could hear Luke rummaging around, searching for the gas can.

Curtis, a thin, pale young man with long black hair, was sitting on the couch. In his lap was an open laptop glowing in the dimly-lit room. He’d been typing vigorously on it until he met Joan’s eyes. He stared hard at her with a countenance difficult for her to ascertain. His face had become pained, scrunched-up, almost like he was concerned or about to vomit.

“Hi,” said Joan with sincere kindness, though she made sure to keep a good distance.

He seemed to ease up at the sound of her voice, cracking a very large smile. “Hi,” he said, practically under his breath. Face relaxing, he asked: “And who might you be, miss?”

Joan grinned. Curtis’s voice was smooth, but not threatening or cold in the least. It also lacked the Southern accent of the others she’d met, which was refreshing. “My name’s Joan,” she introduced. “Sorry to just barge in. I’m lost, you see, and out of gas. Luke was just bringing me by to get his gas can—”

Curtis started laughing a wheezy, high-pitched laugh which was so garbled it sounded as if he were making it below the surface of a murky lake. “Oh!” he said, now hiccupping from his uncontrollable laughter. “I thought you were another one of his girls.” He suddenly stopped laughing, his voice becoming very quiet, almost shy. “He always brings them by, you know.”

Joan felt her whole body stiffen. She definitely didn’t like what she’d just been told. But before she could ask Curtis more, Luke came rolling in with a satisfied smile on his face. “Found it!” he said, holding up the gas can. “Sorry I took so long. Damn thing was buried under all my shit.” He was reaching for the door, and Joan was about to follow him out, when he abruptly turned to Curtis as if it were an obligation. Curtis peered up at him darkly, as if this was something regular that he deeply resented.

“What ya up to, Curtis?” asked Luke loudly in a mocking sort of way. “Still squatchin’ on the web?”

“Yes, if you must know,” Curtis answered. In an almost professional voice, he said: “Hunters and trackers from all over the world are posting daily about setting their sights around here. I wouldn’t doubt it if we had a colony of them. They love areas like this. In fact, I read this very interesting article today—”

“Ain’t no sasquatch, Curtis!” Luke shouted at him. “Would’ve killed one by now, if there was!” And without even so much as a “good-bye,” he slammed the door in Curtis’s face.

Luke was hurrying down the stairs, but Joan was stuck to the spot, almost wanting to go back in and apologize for Luke. He was at the foot of the stairs, beckoning her to come on. She wasn’t quite sure if she wanted to. She finally tentatively started to descend the stairs. “Kind of harsh, don’t you think?” she said flatly.

Luke’s face fell, like most men’s do, at the horrific realization that he’d done something a girl found unimpressive. “Oh, don’t worry too much about Curtis,” he said defensively as he let her into his truck. He got in and cranked the engine. “He’s a bit of a weirdo, and not someone I’d trust. He stays up all night most nights, lookin’ up junk about bigfoots.”

Joan nearly guffawed at this, but stopped herself. “Still,” she said. “No reason to bully people, even if they’re a bit weird.”

Luke cringed. “But Curtis,” he said, almost disgustedly. “Let’s just say I wouldn’t be living with him if I could afford it.” Looking at Joan out of the corner of his eyes, he said, very seriously: “Sorry I left you alone with him. Wouldn’t have had I not been caught up in getting the gas can. We share that laptop too, unfortunately. Gonna have to come back to print you some directions.”

Joan wasn’t quite sure what to think of Luke’s unnervingly serious tone. He definitely didn’t seem bright, so he certainly couldn’t have been that good of a liar. He almost sounded afraid of Curtis, as if he were dangerous. She pondered this as they climbed up the bumpy dirt road and zipped through the forest in the dim glow of the morning sun. They stumbled onto the cracking, pale tar road that led back to the diner and the gas station which were nearby. It all looked so calm in the daylight, Joan thought. Barren, yes, but not threatening as it was a few hours ago.

Luke had his sights set on the gas station adjacent to the diner, for he once filled up there (“Uh, or at least I think I did.”). Joan wasn’t confident. Like everything else around, the station looked abandoned, disheveled, as though some destructive storm had blown past it. As the station approached, Luke squinted, also noticing that it looked torn apart (in a very literal sense, even). “I swear,” he said, “it wasn’t like that a while ago. I swear I filled up there, last week maybe.”

It all gave Joan a weird vibe. She suddenly felt unsafe again. She tried to remember the gas station as it appeared in the dark, but those memories, though they were made not long ago, were blurred by her mad haste to evade whatever had been stalking her in that parking lot. It seemed like the place had been completely intact when she barged into the diner, but there wasn’t any way to be sure. And then Mavis had been attending to her…and Luke came in to tell her she had…raccoons.

Joan felt the truck brake to a sudden halt. She’d been looking at her feet, thinking, and when she looked back up, she expected to be in front of the gas station. But they weren’t. They were in the gravel parking lot of the diner. Joan shot Luke a confused glance, but before she could ask what was going on, he forced the driver door open and sped off. She unbuckled, getting out to see what the matter was. She ran to him as he pulled the diner’s door open and sprinted inside. “Luke!” she yelled after him. But then she stopped in her tracks and saw what his commotion had been about.

The inside of the diner, she could see through the windows, looked like it had been hit by a whirlwind. The lights were swinging from their cords, flickering. Joan quickly ran inside, to find Luke wading through the destruction, calling for Mavis with a trembling, fearful voice. “I can’t find her anywhere!” he told Joan frantically. “Where the hell could she have gone?”

Joan felt sick. She thought her nightmare was over, but it was only just beginning. She took in the soul-crushing sights of the table she’d sat at, now overturned and thrown into the middle of the room…covered in a large, dark stain she hoped was from the coffee Mavis had slammed down (though it was awfully red). They looked at the kitchen. On the greasy grill were the charred remnants of a skillet which was billowing black smoke (Luke quickly turned the grill off before a fire broke out). The coffee maker was overflowing, and then the coffeepot, being overfull, turned over, sending a stream of boiling water to the floor, sizzling. It then rolled off the counter and landed with a crash loud enough to make Joan yelp.

“We-We have to call the cops,” she said, holding her hand to her heart in panic.

“Can’t,” said Luke woefully. “At least not here. No lines, no service, remember?”

Joan felt the strong urge to cry, but ignored it. “Okay,” she said imperatively, “let’s fill up my truck and go to your place to make the call.”

“Girl, there’s no filling it up next door, now is there? Did you see the place? It’s as bad as in here!”

This was Joan’s limit. It looked like she would never go home. Tears began welling up in her eyes and Luke noticed. Sympathetically, he came up and wrapped his arm around her. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Listen, I was swishin’ around that gas can, and there’s still some in it. Won’t be enough to get you home, but will get ya to my place at least.”

Joan sniffed. Pressing herself into Luke’s chest, she felt comforted. She didn’t want to leave him.

“Why don’t we get your truck out to my place so it ain’t sittin’ out here where the…well, the somethin’ that got the gas station and the diner won’t get to it? Then, we can go in my truck into town, fill up the gas can, get you filled up, get you directions, and get you on your way.”

Joan wrapped her arms around Luke and held him in a close hug. He hugged her back. There was nothing that could go wrong in the plan he just proposed (at least not that she could foresee). And yet, she couldn’t help but procrastinate, to just stand there in Luke’s arms and wonder if she’d ever see him again once she was gone. He was better than her lonely home or distant family or friends would ever be. “Actually,” she said. “I think I’ll just stay the night with you.”

He let go of her. Uncertainly, he said: “Well, I personally wouldn’t mind, but Curtis—”

“Luke, please! It’s just I’m hungry and tired and Mavis has gone missing—I couldn’t possibly go without one of us calling the cops. I need to at least know that people are looking for her!”

Luke considered it, then sighed. “I’m worried about her too, pretty girl,” he admitted. “And you have been out late and haven’t eaten a thing, have you?” He made to leave the diner, beckoning Joan to join him. He then tipped what little gas was left in the can into Joan’s truck. It was just enough for her to follow him back to his apartment. When she parked, the needle was again below “E,” and she doubted highly that the truck would start again if she tried. Stepping out, she heard a sudden, loud creak, followed by a crash. Looking behind her, she saw that the tailgate had come unhinged, from a rusted bolt, no doubt. Piece of junk, she thought, and she slammed it back into place and climbed the stairs to Luke’s apartment without a second thought.

Luke opened the door for them and Joan was curious to see that Curtis was not on the couch. He left his laptop behind, shut and thrown carelessly to one side. “Where’s Curtis?” she couldn’t help but ask, thinking cautiously that whatever got Mavis had made a stop here too.

“Out,” Luke said uncaringly. “With his freaky friends, talkin’ ‘bout bigfoots, probably.” He pulled out his phone and dialed 911 to report Mavis’s disappearance, and Joan hardly listened to him as he spoke, describing the scene they’d stumbled upon and trying with great difficulty to explain how to get to the diner. From how long he talked, it seemed like he and the operator were getting nowhere.

Finally, he hung up, and, to Joan’s confusion, was making his way to the door. “She said she dispatched cops here so they could follow me to the diner,” he explained. Says they should be here in two minutes tops. He opened the door. “Might take a while. Curtis doesn’t get back till night—eleven, usually. Till then, help yourself to any food in the fridge or get a nap.” And with that, he shut the door behind him, locked it, and then relocked it for good measure, before finally descending the stairs.

Joan waited until she could no longer hear his footfalls down the steps, then set on finding a place to sleep. She considered the couch, but then her eyes caught the door to Luke’s bedroom. The thought of being in that bed with him on top of her was arousing enough to draw her in. She collapsed onto the bed. On Luke’s nightstand lay an iPod and a pair of earphones. Perfect. Smiling and satisfied, she snuggled under the covers. She’d picked a very loud, very romantic pop song for herself, which blasted in her ears as she sank into a peaceful slumber.

Hours later, the iPod had died, and there sounded a faint thud and rapid pattering that pulled Joan into consciousness (she was, as it goes without saying, a light sleeper without her music). She’d been out cold, but hadn’t any idea of how long. Turning her head to face Luke’s window, she found it was now dark out. She started to lift herself up, but paused when her nose caught a very coppery, musky smell hanging in the air that was so thick it was unbearable.

Confused, Joan stepped out of bed. Her confusion quickly turned to a deep sense of dread as she approached the bedroom door. The smell got stronger as she came closer. Outside, she’d find what it was. Standing in the doorframe to Luke’s bedroom, she saw to her bewilderment that the door to the apartment was wide open, swinging in the strong, cold wind outside. Luke was standing in the doorway, sickly-looking and shivering, staring with horror at the floor.

Heart pounding, eyes bulging, Joan, unable to say anything, glanced down, and what she saw made her jump and scream a terrible, high-pitched shriek. There, in a growing pool of blood, was what was left of Curtis. He had been nearly split in half just above the waist with a very crooked, deep cut. His entrails spilled out into a messy pile beside him. He’d been scalped, his skull exposed and cracked, with blood and meat issuing forth. His scalp and the hair attached was bloody and plastered to the wall and was dropping slowly as if it had been flung there. His left arm had been violently ripped off, it seemed, and his legs were twisted into unnatural positions.

“I-I knew it!” Joan yelled, pointing a quivering, accusatory finger at the horrorstricken Luke. “How could I have been so stupid? I knew I couldn’t trust you!”

“Joan!” Luke cried to her as she fled past him. She was flying down the stairs and Luke was chasing after her. “Joan! No! You think I killed him? You think I did that?” He grabbed her and she struggled fiercely. “Joan, you’ve got to listen!” he pled. “As soon as I got done with the cops, I came home and saw Curtis got here before I did. I meant to get here sooner so this wouldn’t happen, but the cops had all sorts of questions about the diner and Mavis. Anyway, he was going in, laughin’, like he was fixin’ to do somethin’ to ya.”

“You’re blaming this all on him?” shrieked a repulsed Joan as she continued to fight. “What? Killing him wasn’t enough?”

“Joan, listen! I tried to tell ya Curtis wasn’t any good. He ain’t got no girls in that sasquatch club of his. You was probably the first live woman he’d seen since his momma. No way he’d pass you up!”

“Oh, that’s rich! What about all the girls you always have over? He told me everything, Luke! Now, let go, you freak! I can’t believe I ever trusted you!”

He ignored her, looking confused, but continued imperatively: “He was goin’ in and snickerin’ like he does, when all of a sudden somethin’ came up behind me, quiet-like. Curtis got real excited, chased after it. Fool was pullin’ out his phone to take pictures.”

Joan relaxed, but only slightly. “Pictures?” she sputtered, now more scared than angry. “Pictures of-of what?”

“I don’t know! But we need to get out of here, Joan! Whatever it is, it didn’t like the flashes from that dumbass Curtis’s phone, that’s for sure! Curtis tried to run to safety in the apartment, but it caught him in there and did that number on him. Don’t know if he knew you was in there too, but he ran off when he heard me runnin’ up the steps!”

Joan couldn’t bear to hear anymore. She tore her arm away from Luke and sprinted to her truck, ignoring his pleas for her to come back. She fumbled for her keys, but dropped them and fell backward upon seeing a tall, thin, hairy being emerge from the bed of her truck and tower over her. Its eyes were as big as tennis balls, perfectly round, staring down at Joan and glowing yellow. Its snout was like that of a dog’s and was drooling. In its wide mouth were rows of sharp, perfectly white teeth that shone in the light of the full moon. Its hair was gray and sparse, only barely covering its skeletal body. Its head was bald and round, shaped almost like a man’s. It reached down, snagging Joan in its massive paws as she screamed for help. With wide leaps, the monster glided away, leaving Luke standing there, petrified and helpless. Joan fought, trying to escape and run back to him.

The pretty girl flew through the woods as if being pulled through the scariest parts of her psyche that she never wished to visit. She heard nothing but the monster’s breathing and the violent rush of the wind. She could see nothing but the vague, swirling images of trees rushing past her eyes, which, in the dark, appeared as no more than shadowy figures caught up in a deranged, mocking dance which celebrated her being finally brought to her doom—phantoms whose shapes reminded her of her parents, brother, friends, and, for some reason, Austin especially, whose presence seemed to emanate throughout these woods she’d tried so hard to conquer—the woods he’d managed to trap her in, by happening to be somewhere else when he should’ve been at his shift.

After carrying her through everything—past the ruined diner and gas station and the houses in her neighborhood and all else in its path of destruction—the creature stopped and settled in a small clearing in the forest, somewhere that Joan felt was oddly familiar. The monster sat and held Joan tightly in its arms, squeezing her and resting its wet, hairy chin on her head. Shaking to the point of convulsion, Joan’s terrified eyes darted this way and that in desperation until finally looking up and seeing that her own house was right in front of them, her bedroom window (and everything that could be seen through it) perfectly visible from this angle. She’d made it home.

The creature held her closer, bright yellow eyes fixed on the window and the lighted room within as if he was used to staring at it and had been staring at it like this for many, many nights before, just…waiting.

But now he didn’t have to wait anymore. Joan whimpered, cried, and he held her closer and sighed with deep satisfaction, sending a wind of hot breath cascading down her neck. And she begged and begged to anyone who might hear her that she just be able to go back to that room which was streaming its tantalizing light from that window and making the thing’s eyes shimmer.

But she’d only be able to stare at that light, which she’d so thoughtlessly left on when she went to go to work, and that would be the last thing she saw for the rest of this night, until, at last, it (and she) went out.

Credit: Ben Fuller

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How Does the Story End?

September 23, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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The three of us sit together in my backyard, beer bottles spread all around our little triangle. Leftover garbage from the sandwiches we ate earlier accompany those same beer bottles. I personally prefer Modelo, but all Santiago managed to bring us were some lukewarm, probably decade-old, Mexican beers that tasted as awful as they looked. Half-way through drinking my second round, I thought I was chugging down piss. Still, booze is booze.

“This tastes like ass, and not the good kind,” Santiago says, belches, and then spits. “Yuck.”

“Last time you’re providing the beverages,” I say. “God, I rather drink mercury.” I peer over at Elena, and see that she has barely touched her own drink. By the disgusted look on her face, I can tell she feels the same way.

“One of the last nights of summer vacation,” Elena starts, “and I’m spending it with you dorks drinking this crap.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Santi complains. “Why the hell does school have to start next week…”

“I mean, it’s senior year, guys,” I remind them. “Shit is going to be alright, and honestly we should be enjoying these moments right now. God knows when we can all fuck around like this anymore.”

“You have a point,” Santi says. “I’m not looking forward to seeing some of the people there, though. Bitches there just irritate me sometimes, and the guys are just as annoying.”

Once again, Santi finds the perfect words to express my feelings. If anything, high school has brought my cousins and me closer. Since the three of us are practically the same age, and the fact that we all attend the same institution, we’ve grown attached to one another. It was perfect that way.

We spend most of the night chatting and laughing, all while the moon crawls away from my backyard and its light disappears with it. It starts to get too dark for comfort, however, and we know eventually someone would need to make the annoying trip of turning on the lamplight. Neither one of us wants to go, however.

But as always, the darkness eventually becomes menacing.

“Alright, I ain’t getting up to turn on the lights,” Santi states. “Onetwothree, not it!”

Not it!” I hear Elena shout, while my words seem stuck on my tongue.

“Dammit, that ain’t fair,” I say. Elena snorts and laughs. “Whatever.” I stand up, and drag myself towards the lamp. It hangs above Elena like a loose tooth. I flick the switch on, and a dim, yellow light pours all over the backyard.

I return to my seat. “What now, then?”

We all exchange looks of perplexity, unable to think of something to entertain ourselves. We made one simple rule whenever the three of us head downstairs to the backyard, and that is: Absolutely. No. Cellphones. We will not allow our phones to distract ourselves from interacting with one another.

“I mean it is getting late,” I begin. “How about we share some stories.” I stress that last word out with a malicious tone.

My cousins glance at me, and I raise my eyebrows to add more emphasis. They stare at each other for a quick second, and begin to giggle like kids who just broke an expensive vase and are lying about it. “Hey,” I say. “What’s so damn funny? Don’t be excluding me in any insiders, you bastards.”

“It’s nothing really,” Elena says, but continues to giggle whenever she looks at Santi. “Stop looking at me!

“You stop!” Santi laughs.

“You’re both acting like a bunch of bitches,” I grunt. “C’moon. I wanna know what’s going on.”

“Well it’s funny you should mention that,” Santi says. “It just so happens that Elena and I have the scariest story you’ll ever hear.”

I have a story?” Elena nearly screams. Santi and I both shush her, and remind her that we’re outside where the damn neighbors are trying to sleep. “Sorry, sorry. But anyways!” She points at Santi. “You’re the one that told me it.”

Wha? You have a story, and it’s a scary one?” I ask, a bit astonished. “Well then! I can’t wait to hear this.”

I sometimes wonder how we acquired this deep love for the macabre. But when it comes down to it, I know it derives from the way our environment raised us. We grew up with Chucky, The Ring, the Saw series, and that’s just scratching the surface of all the other scary shit our developing minds absorbed over the years.

But we also need to give credit to our folks, of course. Our tradition to pass around horror stories like goodies on Halloween originated from our parents, and their own siblings and cousins. They used to all gather together, just how I’m doing right now, and share whatever imaginative tales plunged out of their minds.

“Yeah man,” Santi says. “And trust me when I say this: It’s really fucking terrifying.”

“You sure about that?” I question my cousin. “I don’t know man. I’ve seen some pretty fucked-up shit.”

“I’m more than positive, dude,” Santi says. “This shit will make you piss yourself.”

“Have you heard this story already, Elena?” I ask. She nods her head while smiling. “Forreal? Whacha think of it, then?”

“I mean…” Elena starts, “Honestly, for someone like Santi who never ever told a good scary story, it’s pretty freaking horrifying.”

“First thing first,” I say. “Is this story real or fake?”

“I don’t know…” Santi snickers. “I guess you have to wait and hear for yourself.”

“Don’t be such an asshole, dude,” I say. “You know you always gotta clarify if what we’re about to hear is either true or not. It prepares us for whatever emotional wreckage we may or may not feel.”

“Well how about this. I’ll tell you my amazing story, if you tell me a real scary story yourself. You must have a new one involving your haunted house.”

Elena twitches in her seat.

“See, why you gotta say that? Now Elena’s all scared and shit.” I nudge her with my elbow, you know, to be the annoying primo she knows and loves. Elena gives off an irritated smile. This time we really pissed her off.

“She has every right to be scared, like, what the fuck? Your house is freaking creepy,” Santi says.

I don’t blame Elena for feeling the way she feels. My house grew a reputation of it being haunted around the time we attended middle school. This was the sort of thing that made me special among my friends at the time. I guess you can say this also added to my overall love for horror, in a weird sort of way. Not just horror, but the absolute emotion that is fear. Some might hate it, but people like my cousins and I are addicted to that feeling. We love the way it crawls deep inside our skin, turns our blood cold, raises the hairs on our arms, and enervate our minds beyond measures.

“You’re still shook after what happened?” I ask my prima.

“Well, no-duh! How can I not be? That was probably the scariest thing that ever happened to me.” Elena shivers, even though earlier in the night she kept on yapping on and on about how hot it was outside.

“I still think you slept-walk,” Santi says. “I mean, what other explanation do you have?”

“I’ve never slept-walk before in my life!” I shush Elena again, and smack her knee as punishment. “Sorry again. But still… Somebody carried me to the guest room, and it wasn’t anyone in the house. I asked eve-ry-body, and they all said they did no such thing. That damn ghost—or demon—in George’s house scooped me up, and now I’m scared thinking about it.”

“Perfect,” I say. “Now that the mood is set, let’s hear that amazing story of yours, bro.”

“Ehh,” Santi mumbles. “Okay, fine.” I throw my hands up in the air, and scream in delight. This time Elena tells me to shut the fuck up.

“Okay. Here’s how it starts-”

Off in the distance we hear the sound of leaves crunching. This noise immediately shuts everyone up. I hold my breath, and gaze around my backyard. Elena and Santi follow my eyes. Although nobody says it, we all feel a bit intimidated by the turn of events.

The noise erupts again. This time Elena gasps and jumps from her seat. I look at Elena, and raise a single finger to my lips. Santi fixes his eyes near one of the entrances to my backyard. “I think it came from over there.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” I say. “But I’m not too sure. You think it’s an animal?”

“Probably,” Santi says. “Who’s going to check it out? Last time some skunks or raccoons or whatever the fuck dug inside your trashcans, and made a complete mess. I doubt your father will let it slide a second time. You know how he can be.”

“Maybe we should send Elena to go,” I tease her, but in a kind-hearted attempt to alleviate everyone’s unreasonable fear.

“Nu-uh.” Elena shakes her head. “Count me out on that.”

“Well I already got up to turn on the lamplight,” I state. “So, I guess that leaves you, huh, Santi?”

“I hate you both,” he mutters as he picks himself up, and moves towards the gate. Santi pulls the small switch open—its rusty hinges squeaking as loud as a pig getting slaughtered—and maunders out of my backyard.

Elena and I sit in silence as we wait for him to return. The wind blows harder as time passes by. Yellow and green leaves rain and billow all over the air. They land on the ground, forming large piles that reminds me of autumn approaching. “We should’ve brought blankets,” I break the quietness.

“What’s taking this kid so long?” Elena asks. We rear closer to where Santi left, and try to listen in on what he’s doing. We hear nothing but the rushing of cars outside. This worries me a bit.

“Okay,” Elena says. “What the hell happened to-”

Boo!” Santi jumps in between Elena and I. I reel back in surprise, a scream of despair caught inside my throat. Elena, on the other hand, unleashes a cry as loud as a jet engine. She stumbles backwards, loses her balance, and falls back on her chair. Santi and I watch in pure hysteria as our cousin lands on the ground with her chair on top of her.

Noo you didn’t!” I yell. Santi and I burst into laughter. We grab each other’s shoulders to support our outburst.

“That was not nice!” Elena interrupts our joy. She struggles to pick herself up from the ground, which only makes us laugh even more. I feel a bit guilty, however, so I go to assist her. She stands up, shoves me away, and proceeds to stomp towards Santi. “You’re an asshole, dude. What if I broke my neck?”

“It was so damn worth it, though,” Santi says, still smiling about it.

“Okay, whatever happened, happened,” I say. “Just go on and tell your story, please.”

“You right,” Santi says, and we all sit back down. Elena still stares at Santi with mild hatred. It’ll pass, though. It always does.

“Here it comes,” Santi begins. He hunches down a bit, and rests his elbows on his thighs. Elena and I lock our eyes with his.

“You guys remember that little girl who died in a car accident near the grocery store?” Santi asks us. A strict look takes over his face, unlike his usual playful expression.

“You mean Cassandra? Cassandra Gutierrez?” I ask. “What about her?”

“Wait a minute…” Elena begins.

Sh! I want zero interruptions,” Santi says. “But yeah, her. You wanna know the true story as to what happened to her?”

“There’s a story involving her death?” I ask.

“Oh there’s a story alright,” Santi says. “It turns out this crazy bitch was well acquainted with the devil. I know what chur thinkin’, but trust me guys when I say it’s true. You know all the stupid shit little kids be doin’ nowadays. Someone in the high school probably influenced her or some shit.

“Anyways, rumors got to her that there was a special type of ritual that will, now get this, ‘transform’ you into a demon or some shit along those lines. I know, it sounds hysterical. As fake as it sounds, however, this ritual might hold some truth after what I’m about to say.

“It isn’t like any other ritual. For starters, this thing needs to last over seven months. Within those seven months, each month you had to perform a different task. What I mean by that is, for example, the first month you had to tell at least ten lies a day. It starts off easy and all, but as you can imagine, it gets worse as time goes on.

“So when she first started, she just kept on lying without stopping. Cassandra had no trouble completing that first task. The second month, however, was a bit more challenging. It requires the person to rob something from someone every day.

“She was a bit hesitant to do so, since she wanted proof that the devil will actually come to her right after those seven months. Kids told her that a demon usually arrives during the first or second month, but this hadn’t happen to Cassandra yet. Finally, however, around the middle of the second month, the devil paid her a visit. But again, robbing a store or stealing someone’s wallet ain’t that difficult. We be robbin’ places left and right.” Santi flicks my knee with his hand, and winks at me.

I struggle to offer him a smile back.

“But yeah, the devil came to her dreams, and stated that for now on, she’ll follow his instructions. Now that Cassandra had full proof she was ready to sail. The bitch usually took money from her parents, or once in a while smuggled some food from the same grocery store where she was run over.

“The third month came, and the devil commanded her to commit blasphemy as much as possible within a month. I cannot fully explain to you all the crazy shit this bitch did. Cassandra was a complete mess!” Santi laughs to himself. “Dear god. The girl used the lord’s name in vein, pissed on a number of bibles, went to church late at night and vandalized the entire area. I’ll give her props for being one creative cunt. She makes the three of us look like a bunch of wimps.

“Anyways, the fourth month came, and the devil gave new orders. Every weekend of that month she had to perform a worshiping in honor of Lucifer. I don’t have all the little details on what she did exactly, but you guys can imagine all the crazy shit that went down. So far, in my opinion, most of the stuff she had to do wasn’t that bad.

“But then came the fifth month. Here’s where it gets juicy! The devil told Cassandra she needed to kill an animal every single day. Every damn day! Imagine that? The devil said it doesn’t matter what type of animal, just as long as she progresses as the weeks pass by. She started off with bugs, birds, and all that other shit. Then she started murdering squirrels and raccoons. If you ask me, she did this town a favor slaughtering those animals. They can be annoying as fuck.

“But yeah, then she killed dogs and cats that roamed the streets. At last, this crazy bitch burned down an entire farm. A fucking farm. I’m telling ya, these white people are crazy.

“At this point, the devil already knew she was the one. So that’s why, during the sixth month, he asked her to do some real wicked shit.

“The demon asked her to kill another human being.” A sinister smile curves up Santi’s lips.

Elena sucks in her breath. “No. No, don’t say…”

“Listen to this, guys,” Santi says. “Cassandra doubted herself if she could really do it. I mean that’s some serious shit, you know, to take another person’s life. The devil didn’t give her an exact date, but said it had to be within that sixth month.”

“Well did she do it?” Elena and I ask in unison.

Supposedly, she killed some hobo near our neighborhood,” Santi reveals to us. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s what a lot of people are speculating. Everyone is sure, however, that this bitch definitely murdered another human being. I can tell by your grim faces that this is scary as fuck. I know, trust me.”

“Jesus…” I’m left completely speechless. “I always perceived Cassandra to be an innocent girl. But to kill someone? Holy shit.”

“The story doesn’t end here, guys,” Santi whispers. “This next part is my favorite.

“So yeah, she killed the hobo. The seventh month comes; the final obstacle. Just thinking about it, I can only imagine the pressure and anticipation Cassandra must’ve felt. So what happens was, the devil told her in order for her to complete the ritual, she needed to kill a member of her family.

“And you wanna know what this bitch did? She pussied out last minute. She couldn’t do it. I guess she must’ve loved her family that much. I mean, in my opinion, she’s really stupid. You already killed another human being, and at this point you’re considered a piece of shit. Why not just kill someone in your family. It could’ve been an uncle, an aunt, a sister.

A cousin…

What the fuck did he just say?

“Um,” I begin, “you still haven’t explained how she…died.” Something doesn’t fit right. This fear flowing through my veins feels…demented.

“Oh, that?” Santi says. “Well, I killed her. I ran that bitch over.”

My mind goes blank. Santi shifts his eyes towards mine. A weight of dread unfolds inside me. I don’t see my cousin. I see someone else. I see a monster dwelling inside him.

“What did you just say?” Elena stutters. Santi, in return, provides us with his most doleful expression yet.

“I said, I killed Cassandra. What’s so hard about it? I ran the bitch over. See, what she didn’t know was that I was also completing my seven month trial. The devil informed me on my sixth month that she backed off, so he suggested that I should eliminate her. Bam! That easy. I was able to complete my second to last task.

“But the story doesn’t end there. I guess that leaves me-”

That same crunching noise that interrupted Santi in the begin returns to cut him off again.

“Goddammit!” Santi barks in rage. “I’ll go check that shit out again. I thought I fucking got rid of those damn animals.” Once again he leaves Elena and me all by ourselves in my backyard.

We sit in disturbed silence. This time I feel completely afraid to move a single joint. I try to stop my hands from shaking, but this fright itching deep inside my skin prevents me from maintaining my composure.

“Hey,” Elena says. I’m startled by the sudden sound of her voice. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. I have to tell you something, though.”

Please keep on talking,” I whimper. “Hearing you talk is calming me down.”

“That’s not the story he told me earlier,” Elena says. “He told me something completely different. I- I don’t know what the hell kind of story he just told right-”

“I’m back!” Santi says in his cheerful tone, the one I’ve come to associate my favorite cousin with. Elena and I jump in our seats. “Sorry I took so long, but I wanted to scram away all of those goddamn raccoons. You gotta do something about that, bro-”

Elena and I stare at our cousin with trepidation. “What? Why the solemn faces? Aww, are you guys scared even before I tell my awesome story?”

“Just what the fuck do you mean, dude,” Elena bickers. “What kind of story were you telling before, you sick fuck! That wasn’t very nice of you to just shit on Cassandra’s grave like that.”

“Okay, hold the fuck up,” Santi remarks. “Why the hell are you all up in my shit with that bitchy tone of yours, cuz? What the hell did I do wrong? I just got here. I haven’t even said my story yet. And why do you even bring up Cassandra?”

“Bullshit,” Elena mouths off. “If this is some sick prank, then just stop it, you asshole. You scared George and me pretty badly.”

“You need to calm the hell down,” Santi argues back. “Yo, George! Tell her to chill, bro. What the hell happened that made her all crazy just now?”

I remain quiet. I wait to see if Elena figures it out. But it’s more than that. I can’t help but to stay mute. The realization of it all leaves me stagnant. Dismay takes over my mind.

“Do you hear me?” Santi repeats himself. “Dude, are you…okay? You don’t look too well.” I switch my gaze from the ground, and stare at Elena. It takes her a moment, but she finally gets it. I see her eyes swell, and the first of many tears spill down her ruddy cheeks.

“Santi,” I whisper. “How does the story end? Please tell me you remember a little bit.”

“Bro, I have no idea what you’re talking-”

Santi!” I spring up from my chair, knocking the damn thing down. I march towards my cousin, grab his shoulders, and rattle his goddamn body. “Please, you have to remember! How does the story end? What happens next?!” From behind me I hear Elena sob. She whispers a silent prayer to herself. It’s all useless, however. We’re fucked.

Santi…Don’t do it please,” I cry on his shoulders. “Don’t kill Elena or me.

The sound of leaves breaking comes again. This time, however, I hear the crunch right behind Santi.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “But… I don’t know what I did. The beers…”

What? What do you mean the beers?”

“The poison,” Santi slowly mumbles. “One of us is going to die.

Credit To: TheSplitPersonality

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Campfire

September 20, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Summer camp was a memorable part of my childhood, but most memorable was that summer of ’72. It was my last summer as a kid. I had just turned fifteen and was looking forward to starting high school in the fall with the older teenagers. Camp Tonkawa was located in the thick forest of East Texas, about forty-three miles from my home. There was nothing really exceptional about the camp. It had the standard amenities: a lake, lots of woods to explore, an archery and rifle range, and a nature preserve. The thing that was exceptional were the three leading counselors. Mr. Rivera was a would-be jock and was in charge of organizing sports and running the archery and rifle ranges. Mr. Holloway led arts and crafts and taught camping and outdoorsmanship. But the counselor I remember most was Mr. Blackburn. He was kind of a brainiac and maintained the nature preserve. He also taught us about the flora and fauna around camp, but was particularly interested in bugs. He had been a doctoral candidate several years before and studied insects in the Amazon basin. No one knew why he didn’t finish his doctorate; he was certainly bright enough.

It wasn’t hard to imagine Mr. Blackburn in a khaki outfit and chasing insects with a butterfly net through the rain forest. He was a bespectacled man of about thirty-five with tousled dark hair and the hint of a beard which grew steadily longer as the week progressed. He was far from fastidious in dress, in fact, in other circumstances you might call him a slob. His denim jeans had seen better days, and were often besmeared with mud, while his shirts bore the scars of battles with briars and brambles in the wild.

It was the end of August, and the end of camp. Tradition dictated that we rendezvoused at various campfires in the evening of the last day. Each campfire was supervised by one of the counselors, and it so happened that Mr. Blackburn attended ours. I was in a group of about ten or eleven boys sequestered in a small clearing on the lake shore. We roasted marshmallows and made hot dogs and s’mores as the twilight passed into night. In the bright fire’s glow, we passed the evening with talk of the past and dreams of the future. The campfire crackled and casted a protective circle of light. Above us, an endless number of stars stretched across the heavens, and around us, an endless void of dreary night. We huddled close to the light, for although none would admit it, the surrounding darkness held terrors we could only imagine. In a pretended show of bravery someone suggested telling ghost stories as the night grew darker.

Of course there were the standard tales boys always tell. The “Bloody Hook”, “Tap Tap Tap”, and a gaggle of urban legends we relayed in turn. Soon Mr. Blackburn became the storyteller.
“Well boys, I’ll tell you a true story of what happened to me in the Amazon. I’d been traveling with Carlito, my guide, for three days west out of Manaus on the Amazon River. I heard rumors of a rare butterfly with a habitat along the banks of the lower Amazon and I was anxious to find and catalog one.”

“I tell you boys, the Amazon is a femme fatale, at once beautiful and dangerous, and the heat, oh the heat, is stifling. It is a place of contrast. There are ageless trees that rise on every side and dominate the land. There are magnificent waterfalls and birds and animals found nowhere else in the world. The jungle is often breathtaking, like some magnificent painting elegantly and lovingly created with exquisite strokes on the world canvas. But within the beauty there is also danger. There are things in the jungle no tale of horror could hope to describe. There are man-eating cats that prowl the night, and piranha that devour a man during the day. There are spiders as big as your head and monstrous snakes that are the stuff of nightmares. But the thing even the natives dread; the creature that kills without pity or remorse is the black caiman.”
“What’s that?,” one of the boys hesitantly interrupted.
“A creature from the blackest abyss of hell, son.” Mr. Blackburn continued. “It’s the devil’s blend of alligator and crocodile that prowls the river and kills the unsuspecting. It’s black head is invisible on the water, but it’s dark, lifeless eyes watch you, waiting, floating nearer and nearer, then with a lightning flash of jaws its teeth rip you open and you hear your own terrible screams as the creature swallows you whole. ”

The sudden cry of an owl caused an involuntary scream from us all. Our eyes strained against the darkness and imagined the creature lurking silently in the lake just beyond. Mr. Blackburn paused a moment to let us reflect on his description. We all became a little more aware of the night.

“We stopped at one of the local villages to trade for food and water and heard the stories of
a monstrous black caiman the natives call ‘Riomorte’: it means ‘river death’. Few have seen the creature and lived.”
“You know, boys”, he added, “the River People say the jungle keeps its own. They believe that when the jungle takes a life it leaves Hanatu. That means ‘the Ghost Who Walks’. They are spirits who have neither grave for rest nor fulfillment of earthly purpose and so they wander the earth for all time. They are drawn to the living, for they feel the energy of life that has been denied them. They long for the warmth of another human being but feel only the cold of premature destruction. The River People respect Hanatu; they fear only Riomorte.”

“Loaded with supplies and information, we set out again on our journey down the Amazon. Carlito and I fruitlessly searched the river banks for the elusive butterflies, then continued downriver. It was late afternoon and the sun had already disappeared behind the forest canopy. Dark shadows fell across the river as daylight surrendered to the encroaching night. As we slowly paddled our inflatable launch, we had the vague, uneasy feeling of being watched. The dark Amazon waters meandered through the jungle and we became acutely aware of the sounds of the approaching night. Suddenly behind us there was a splash. We both looked but only saw turbulent water near the river bank. Then Carlito saw the thing in the dim afternoon twilight. That huge dark head, and black eyes protruding from the river. ‘Riomorte!’, Carlito cried. ‘Riomorte!’ I drew my pistol and fired at the beast, but the bullet glanced off his thick hide and the creature disappeared beneath the water. We searched the inky river in vain when suddenly a vicious blow struck our boat from beneath, and Carlito was thrown overboard. He frantically struggled to climb into the boat and I grabbed his arm and began to pull. With a sudden thrash of water, Carlito was pulled from my grasp. The beast rolled over and over in the water. I heard Carlito scream in terror and agony as the river turned crimson and the creature disappeared once more. I paddled feverously toward the river bank, but I could see that black head follow fast and faster. With a great splash of water, those huge jaws suddenly ripped into the boat. I was thrown into that murky water and began to swim harder than I ever did before. My heart pounded and I panicked as I clawed at the precipitous river bank. That black monster from hell swam closer and closer. I suddenly felt a crushing pain on my ankle. I was struggling, helpless as I was pulled under the river and breathed its water into my lungs.”

The storyteller paused, then said, “Maybe this is too scary. Let’s finish the story later.”
There was a cry of protest from the boys, “No, tell us now! What happened next? ”
“Well,” our narrator continued, “then he ate me, of course.”
Mr. Blackburn smiled and faded away into the dying campfire glow.

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For Posterity

September 19, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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“As the Wolf keeps count of the Deer so there is one that keeps count of Man.”

– the Repokan

In the winter of 1683, a frontiersman of Swedish descent sits in the light of a tallow candle, a raven feather dipped in ink quivering in his axe-hand above the open pages of his journal.

His winter home is warm with firelight. The wet hide bootprints on the cabin floor track the broken routine of a lone black-powder huntsman, his flintlock musket at hand leans poised against the sill-timber of a window. His bear skin coat, from a charging adult male, hangs from the eye-teeth of its staring trophy head.

A brooding old man of forty odd, he had ditched the boat of homestead, good woman and heir to travel inland on foot and steed, many years ago, heeding the call of a solitary life.

He reads the last of his entries, reacquainting himself with the life he knew only a season before, but he no longer recognises in it the tone, the God-fearing faith or the hope:


October 21st, 1682.

I have scouted the area for the better part of 2 months now and have settled on building a permanent shelter here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on a somewhat narrow plateau, roughly 600 metres from the crest line and a 2 day trek east down to the trading post of Foeblood on the Delaware River. I pray this is a wise decision. I share the bounty of these mountains with the Repokan, the native people of these areas. Though we respect each other from a distance I have had opportunities to learn a little of their language and have no reason to think they are not appreciative.

Let me apologise now if I am a little lax with my journaling in the forthcoming days. There is much work to be done and these moments are a guilty pleasure.

December 30th, 1682.

Hallelujah! Exhausted.

January 1st, 1683.

Lord, I pray this year will be a good year and the Winter will pass without incident.

January 6th, 1683.

The storm has been unrelenting for 4 days now. I am thankful I finished the cabin and had 3 days of peace in which to enjoy my labours before it set in. I am still hopeful this year will be good to me and Sleipnir.

January 13th 1683.

Nothing sleeps this Winter, Not even the black bear.

January 16th, 1683.

I now truly understand why the Repokan call the winter winds The Hungry Wolves. Mauling and wiry, they twist and turn their snowy coats over all the fat of this land. I have dug out my traps from 3 feet of snow and reset them. The deadfalls can wait, I will see to them upon my return. Though they are getting bolder, there will be nothing here for the black bear but my stink. Yes, I have decided to venture down to Foeblood for supplies and a hot soak in the bath house, even a splash in the river if i dare!

In his head, he sees and hears another story. A story he does not want to tell but needs to. Hesitating at first, he exercises the stiffening reluctance from his hand and begins:


January 21st, 1683.

If I am to read this, far in the future, then let this be a happy reminder but if you are reading this now then let it be your warning.

I have returned from Foeblood, more tired than I ever expected. My stores are intact, my cabin as I left it. I will log what I have earned and spent after this entry, if sleep allows but suffice it to say that it has been a worthwhile trip, at least in this regard.

I should be more elated but I have sat heavy in the saddle for 2 days, weighed down by something more, it seems, than the load poor Sleipnir has carried back.

Nothing out of the ordinary happened on our way to Foeblood. Laden with 13 beaver and 19 otter skins from the southern and northern tributaries of last Summer, we camped on the first night under a moonless sky, at our usual spot above the lowland trail. The insects were biting but the fire kept most of them away and any lurking predators. We slept well, refreshed for the journey onward which started at first light. Making good time, we entered Foeblood as night fell, our first visit in 5 months and that was when I first registered an uncanny feeling of unease. I could not be sure whether it was a consequence of my isolation or if the icy stares I received would have made anyone nervous but I did not let it distract me from my mission, and I sold all my skins within the hour to my compatriot Mans Fleming. It was during that hour that he told me a story I would even now dismiss as incredible if not for the proceeding events of that night and the following day.

He would connect, into an eloquent tale, a number of rumours and opinions that attempted to explain strange happenings in Foeblood in recent months. I had initially thought he must have had a great deal of practice refining the story by regaling the many trappers and hunters with cruder versions over the many weeks I had been away but it transpired that I was the first he had seen in more than 2 months. I was about to joke that it may have had something to do with his miserly rates for skins before he offered me an astonishing 90 florins for my coat and three times the price I was expecting for my beaver pelts and otter skins. I thought he was fooling me but his surprising weight-loss since I had last seen him and his sickly complexion drew a deathly sincerity from the eager tones of his voice.

He saw my awakened curiosity and turned to a pile of ragged clothes in the corner and shouted at it sharply in something other than Swedish and to my amazement it shuddered before scurrying through the door of a closed backroom. As it shut the door it turned to me, my eyes finding the narrow opening in the hooded cloth as the shadows from the meagre light made more hideous the deformity of a face i had seen before. It belonged to the Repokan woman I was already aware he employed from my previous visits but she had been so quiet and still I had not noticed her.

He then explained that last Summer was his best season so far with the arrival of new settlers from Europe. But in the Autumn the Repokan hunters and trackers disappeared overnight, decimating his business. The land on which their settlements had been were reclaimed by herds of rutting deer, as if they had never been. We have known of a horrific disease called the small Pox which has ravaged their numbers over the years but this could not explain this mass vanishing and it dawned on me that I too could vouch for not having seen even a single Repokan man, woman or child in over half a year, dead or alive.

What was more disconcerting was that he went into great detail about how, around the same time, many Dutch, Finnish and Swedish huntsman went missing on their expeditions; how some were found dead but untouched, eyes bulging from their sockets around the charred remains of their campfires, their dinners burnt to a crisp in their cooking pots; and others, even women, eviscerated for sport and mere bloodlust rather than food. I asked him what he meant by that and I then learned of reports that told of how the spilled organs, limbs, head and torso of each of those mutilated bodies were all accounted for but some were skinned from head to toe, their skins missing. I cannot forget how his face crumpled with unresolved concern when he mentioned that, from the tracks around the bodies, the wolves had circled the carnage widely, seemingly too afraid to get any closer but the black bears had crossed right through, bloodying the earth and snow with their paws.

From the black bears’ behaviour and with no other plausible reasons for it, many people, he said, had begun to believe the Repokan were using black magic to take the form of bears bent on killing settlers and older heads did nothing to discourage these rumours, stoking up fears by suggesting the black bear numbers in the surrounding areas had doubled in a day and that their natural instincts had changed.

I suggested it could be a rogue bear, a freak of nature in size and temperament which had somehow lost its fear of man. A killer that roamed while others of its kind slept their winter sleeps. It was not unheard of, after all I’d killed one similar only a month back, but my compatriot’s initial interest seemed to wane into a noncommittal silence.

I must admit, though they seemed far fetched, these purported facts, if any are indeed facts, began to have an effect on me. I started to feel, what I consider, my open mind gradually withdraw into darker recesses for an explanation until, I was again sitting by my campfire on that previous night in the rocky outcrop looking down on the valley and, without warning, I began to experience a tingling at the notion that the lurking predators I believed my fire had protected me from had actually been using its solitary light to watch me.

I dismissed it believing I was more tired than I knew and it was time for me to have a decent meal with my windfall and a long indulgent visit to the bathhouse.

However, like a good salesman, Mister Fleming must have spotted the subtle change in my disposition as I buckled under the burden of my imagination and, suspecting I had one foot out of the door already, offered me a parting temptation. He asked me if I wanted to know the name the townspeople had given this being they believed the Repokan had transformed themselves into. He asked me to promise not to speak of it to anyone. Intrigued, I promised him on pain of death and as he paused first in the paranoid hush that followed I readied myself to hear him whisper its name. But instead, he held me captivate a moment longer, confessing that the foolish Repokan woman in his employ had said her people were not to blame, that they stayed away to survive.

From what, I asked. From the one that hides but has no fear, he said. The one of ten thousand names of ten thousand lost lives. She says the bear is only part of the story, she says it hides in the bear not because it’s a bear but because it’s black.

It is strange how I still remember his feverish words. “Naked like a breath in all things, it is clothed in black. It comes from the black, from the darkest shadows,” he said. “Waiting in the black, in your black powder flasks, knowing who you are, disappearing into the blackness of spent campfires, biding its time, moving through the moonless night, until you call it and it comes for you.”

How do you summon it, I demanded. But he could not tell me. What does she call it, I asked. I wanted to know. I needed to know whether the settlers and the Repokan spoke of the same thing. Then with his quill he secreted the names on a scrap of paper he tore from the back of his ledger, telling me only to read it in the sunlight before stressing that I was to burn it afterwards without fail. This paper, I still carry in pocket now, unread.

I feel guilt for acknowledging this here but it was good to make my excuse and bid Mister Fleming an abrupt goodbye, leaving him to the worry that had eaten away at him and walk into the open air, its breeze seeming instantly to clear my mind.

After sating my appetite on turkey and potatoes, I quenched a nagging thirst with brandy and walked sluggishly to the bath-house, increasingly softened in demeanour and strength. If ever there was a hellish place that was so welcoming for my wretched soul then this was it. The hot stones glowed orange beneath the timbers, steam hissing from the gaps and rising in plumes, engulfing the glistening bodies, the dim light hinting at the nakedness. The hollows of my body burned with each breath and I felt alive.

The darkness seemed to shift around me and i sensed an emptiness open up on the bench to my left. I could not see who vacated their place though I braced myself for the sudden chill of someone leaving the room but no one did. I sat down, the backs of my limbs and body instantly branded by the narrow planks of pine. I had begun to feel the itch and tickle of perspiration as it beaded and dripped down my body and I leaned my head back, succumbing to the seduction when I felt a breath in my ear, hotter than any current of air before it. ‘So strong to the touch,’ it said, the voice assured and assertive. It shocked me but not nearly as much as the shock that seized me when i realised it was not sweat but fingertips that had been running down my body.

Before I knew it, I was straddled by what my heightened self sensed was a woman and we began to consummate an irresistible passion. From the reflected glow I saw her eyes, wide like open mouths devouring, their glinting whites like bloodied teeth. She tore at my flesh as if she had claws. I had no will to stop her but as suddenly as she possessed the gloom before me, she vanished.

I left the bath house confused and agitated but waited as long as I could to see who would follow me out. No one did. The chilling air offered no relief and hardened my muscle and mind to one thought: to return to my cabin and the isolation of the mountains. Forgoing sleep, I departed immediately.

No sooner had i left the outer limits of town that I heard the terrifying screams, of a voice at once familiar but one I remain unable to assign a name to. Not willing to find out, I kept riding.

There were eyes in the darkness escorting us as the distant fires of the settlement were eventually swallowed up by the silent night. As dawn broke the presence slipped among the pines and Sleipnir reared up as a stirring wind swept past us. I guided him on foot through the deep snow and progress was slow. And as the sun climbed, we climbed, until by chance I took a look behind us and my eye caught a grotesque silhouette birth movement in the tree line. Then I saw something extraordinary. A woman, raven haired, with eyes sunken into shadow and naked, her skin as pale as the snow around us. She stood as if frozen but as i skirted the very clearing her eerie stillness occupied she seemed to turn imperceptibly, tracking me. Had my eyes deceived me? We were half a day from the settlement. There was no way on earth she could have followed us on foot and survived these temperatures. Was she Repokan? Was she alone? I approached to get a clearer look but as I leaned around a tree that only interrupted my vision for the briefest of moments she was gone and only the snowy bark of a slender tree cast in shadow remained.

This was the first of three similar sightings before I reached the cabin. And as I sit here now I cannot know for certain if I really saw what I saw or if they were the tricks of shadow and light.

So here I am. A man still standing when my father’s Gods have fallen. I am settling this new world. I am a hunter. If the Repokan want me dead and this creature is real then it has had ample opportunity to attack. This fell creature? I almost forgot it has a name. I must open the piece of paper Mans Fleming gave me and know it before it is lost.

Its names, for posterity, are: the Foeblood Berserker, The Beast in Bare skin.

A noise, out in the wilderness, disrupts his thoughts, disappearing into the vacuum of silence it leaves behind. He flashes through his memory trying to match the source but he can’t. Weary, he takes a swig of brandy, pausing in the moment, as if to draw from it something more than its intoxicating spirit. A warmth spills over his tongue and trickles down into the pit of his stomach, diffusing through the emptiness of his body.

Eventually, he makes of it what he will so he can carry on. But the more he pushes the noise to the back of his mind, laying it bare, the more he pulls it closer, cloaking the hollowed night more darkly until the thickening air rushes in to fill the void; creaking the timbers around him, darting his eyes about the room. He doesn’t know it but something bad is coming.

He hangs his gaze on the empty hook idling among the tools of his survival suspended from the hewn timbers of his cabin wall; to its left the peavey, the draw knife and the adze; to its right the double-bitted axe, the felling axe and the timber carrier. If he knew what was coming he would never have left his broadaxe outside, out of reach, wedged in the bloody stump amid the splinters of young life he has chopped down.

A shadow grows on the carved handle but slips off, it has no use for an axe. It is itself a heartless killer. Unknowingly he conjures in the dark side of his mind a creature not wholly human nor wholly of this world because he can’t help himself. If he could, he would run. Now.

But instead, the only death he is concerned with is the death of his fire. He stokes the smouldering pit with an iron and places fresh logs on the flames. The fire crackles, the popping firewood masking the snapping twig that cracks under its advancing limbs.

If he could hear it now, he would have bolted the door and looked out of his window, finger on the trigger, for beyond the aperture he daydreams through, a nightmare comes.

But it’s too late. His head heavy with hopes of tomorrow, he goes to his bed and closes his eyes, hoping a short nap will stave off sleep, but he lies on his final resting place.

The clock’s hands clasp in prayer, worried for what is to come and the lament of midnight’s chimes wallow through his cabin, accompanying the steps already in his home.

If only he knew what he had done, he would have tried to turn back time, back to the moment he wrote down it’s name, summoning it through the inky black. But how could he have known? None of the dead knew in time, not even you.

If you did, you would not have begun this, you would not have ignored the warnings and carried on, saying it’s name, guiding it into your midnight home, inviting it to hide in that darkest of places, waiting for you.

Credit: Ahaa Jan

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Rainman

September 18, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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THE DEATH OF WILLIAM MCLOUGHLIN

“It’s like something out of The X-Files,” I said, aghast. It was close to midnight and to my horror I’d been called out to investigate the death of a child, a seven-year-old boy by the name of William McLoughlin.

The boy’s father, Patrick, had discovered the body after his son had failed to respond to his shouts following the preparation of supper. Concerned, Mr McLoughlin approached William’s room tentatively. Rain was lashing down outside, making it difficult for him to focus on anything but the sound of it. He knocked and placed his ear against the door, but still, his son failed to respond.

Finally, he had flung the door open, hastily flicking the light switch. There on the floor in the centre of the room lay his son. William’s face was pale, and there was no movement. In a panic, Patrick rushed over and attempted to resuscitate him. His attempts were unsuccessful.

Bizarrely, William’s body was soaked, head to toe.

Mr McLoughlin had searched frantically for his mobile phone and proceeded to call the emergency services. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, he noticed another oddity: a number of sodden indentations in the carpet next to William’s body. The depressions seemed to lead to the window, though it didn’t appear as though it had been opened.

The ambulance had arrived some minutes later, and the paramedics pronounced William dead at the scene.

I was called shortly afterwards.

The McLoughlins lived in a detached mid-seventeenth-century cottage at the end of a quiet street in the coastal village of Wren in the Scottish Highlands.

Me, a city detective for more than a decade, had earlier that month relocated to Wren from Aberdeen, having reached the grand old age of fifty.

After what I saw that evening, I wish I’d stayed in the city.

It was so very strange. The cause of his death, I mean. One of the paramedics, James Turner, had called to inform me the boy had drowned.

“In the bathtub?” I queried.

“Well, that’s the odd thing detective, though he isn’t anywhere near the bathtub, or any body of water, he’s totally sodden.”

“Where was the boy found?” I insisted.

“On the bedroom floor.”

“No signs of a struggle?”

“No.”

I hesitated before responding.

“I’ll be right there.”

It wasn’t worth continuing over the telephone; I needed to see the body for myself.

And so there I was, trying to put the pieces together. A young boy drowned in his bedroom; unusual indentations on the carpet; and a father who claimed to have heard nothing out of the ordinary.

Andrea Nelson, a forensic investigator known throughout the region, was called to the scene due to the bizarre nature of the case. She was keenly analysing the indentations on the carpet.

“Jack, take a look at this,” she said.

I approached and took a closer look at the depressions.

“Judging by the distance between these impressions – the general shape and distribution – I think we’re looking at footprints.”

I frowned, echoing, “Footprints?”

“Yes, footprints,” she repeated. “Bare feet actually. I’d say whoever it was exited via the window there.” Nelson motioned towards the window across the room. The trail of footprints led directly to it from William’s body.

“There’s just one thing though,” she added. “The indentations move in one direction only: towards the window. Which means the perpetrator was probably already in the house. It was raining heavily around the time of the boy’s death, which precludes a window entry, as the perpetrator’s sodden footprints would be visible in both directions.”

She paused.

“And then of course there’s the method of drowning. It was incredibly localised; no spills, sprays or drips.”

I shook my head dismissively, returning, “So what are you saying? Some bare-footed killer hid in the boy’s cupboard waiting to inexplicably drown him using some method unknown to us before slipping out of a second story window and disappearing into the night?”

Nelson shrugged.

“Well, I’m not saying that exactly, but the evidence seems to suggest as much.”

“Christ,” I returned.

I wasn’t having any of it. As a result, I ordered a thorough search of the cottage. I was convinced the perpetrator was still inside, hiding somewhere, clutching his ‘drowning paraphernalia’ and a sodden towel.

But the search of the McLoughlin cottage yielded nothing at all.

Patrick and Matilda McLoughlin were questioned regarding their activities: queries relating to places they might have visited, or company they might have kept. Patrick fleetingly referenced a recent trip to the Isle of Skye, though nothing about the family excursion had been particularly noteworthy, just your typical, sightseeing affair.

The death of William McLoughlin was quite the mystery.

THE LEGEND OF RAINMAN

Back at the station I discussed the situation further with Nelson, firm in my convictions that her forensic knowledge was second to none. Unfortunately, she had nothing else to add.

Not long after my conversation with Nelson ended, I received a telephone call. Still to this day I don’t know who it was. The connection was poor and there was a lot of interference, which is always the case up in Wren following a thunderstorm. The individual – who sounded local – was a young male, rambling endlessly about Loch Coruisk – one of the larger lochs on the nearby Isle of Skye – and something he referred to as Rainman. The call cut off mid-conversation, leaving the questions I had for him unasked.

The Isle of Skye… Hadn’t Mr McLoughlin visited the island recently?

I called Mr McLoughlin immediately, asking what he knew of Loch Coruisk. His answer was simple: he, Matilda and young William had visited the lake, along with a number of other tourists two days prior to his son’s death. Unfortunately, the tour had been cut short due to rain, and that was as much as he had to say on the subject.

Following my conversation with Mr McLoughlin, I spoke to my deputy, Andy, who had grown up on the Isle of Skye; the island itself part of the Inner Hebrides, some ten miles from Wren, across the Kyle Akin. He was familiar with Rainman, stating it was local folklore, going back decades.

According to the legend, centuries earlier, a nomadic Norseman roamed the Highlands. The stranger was in search of a mythical elixir said to belong to the elusive dwellers of certain mountainous regions. Eventually acquiring that which he sought, it was said he retreated to a quiet lake he’d discovered some years earlier: Loch Coruisk, shrouded by the Black Cuillin Mountains on the Isle of Skye.

There, on the banks of the hidden lake, the Norseman remained, sustained by the strange medicine he so fervently coveted.

The legend insists he lives there still, calm in his solitude. Those who disturb his quietude, are said to pay with their lives.

“They say he’s a Kelpie, you know? A Neck, or water ghost.”

I nodded reluctantly, remaining silent.

He continued, “It isn’t just Nessie we got up here you know!”

Andy told the tale with such fervour, that I felt any disbelief on my part would be offensive to him.

Continuing, he referred to Loch Coruisk as The Dread Lake, and spoke from experience about the eerie silence there prior to the onslaught of malevolent storms.

“Rain is his warning,” Andy said, almost nonchalantly.

“Warning?” I repeated.

“Aye,” he nodded, his face stony and severe.

In the short time I’d been in Wren, I had yet to visit the Isle of Skye, let alone Loch Coruisk. There was something about the name Dread Lake that really put me off. And the isolation of the place was off-putting too. You had two options if you wanted to pay it a visit: a boat from Port Elgol; or a two-day hike from the bay of Camasunary.

But, considering the McLoughlin’s trip, Andy’s story and the strange call I’d received, I felt the need to head out there.

THE DREAD LAKE

The following morning, Andy and I drove out to Port Elgol. We’d arranged passage aboard a small fishing boat, having absolutely no desire to accompany the tourists on a Misty Isle Boat Trip.

The old fisherman, Deckard, took us out.

I can feel the chill now: 7:00 a.m. on a late October morning; mist clinging to the dark waters; heading into what appeared to be a vast assembly of black, cragged towers under blankets of fog.

The old fella Deckard was sure to share his two pennies’ worth regarding the legend of Rainman.

“Oh aye, Rainman, aye. Coruisk’s ‘is home. Aye it is. Lived there many a moon. Strays out from time to time.” His words were less than encouraging as we plunged into the mist.

“So what exactly is Rainman?” I asked tentatively, looking for an alternative explanation.

“Who knows laddie? Best not to ask.”

Choosing to acknowledge the man silently, I raised my eyebrows and nodded.

Andy climbed to his feet and wandered across the small deck. The fine, morning drizzle had soaked his raincoat.

Deckard gazed ahead.

“She’s preparin’ for winter the ol’ loch so she is,” he said wistfully. “Doesn’t really like visitors this time o’ year. Just be thankful it’s October. Wouldn’t ne be doin’ a trip like this November through February.”

I joined Andy as we approached a rocky outcrop full of seals. The things looked playful enough, flapping and yapping like dogs on the rocks, but I couldn’t help thinking they were trying to tell us to turn back.

Deckard docked at a small wooden pier.

“I’ll be stayin’ on board lads. Be back by eleven.”

I nodded.

“Watch your backs,” he added. “Thee doesn’t ee know what that there dread lake ‘as in ‘er belly.”

I can’t say I was particularly fearful of water, but there was something inherently creepy about isolated bodies of water: their untold depths, the secrets lurking beneath.

“It’s just a lake!” I returned with a grin.

“Never just a lake, laddie.” Deckard winked before reaching for a flask.

Andy and I climbed the rough banking and made our way upwards along an old trail. The trail crisscrossed several small pools before leading us to an area of large boulders and flat rocks. We traversed the length of a babbling brook and were soon met by The Dread Lake herself.

Under the early morning fog, she was haunting, but beautiful. Surrounded almost entirely by craggy peaks and the Black Cuillin, Coruisk appeared as though she was supposed to be a secret. She spoke to me in ways Mother Earth never had before: hinting at an untold history; misfortunes she may have witnessed over the centuries.

We hiked along the easternmost edge towards the northern shore, where the eerie loch fell into shadow beneath the tallest of the black mountains. I jestingly remarked how on a clear, sunny day, the loch would be an absolute joy to traverse, whilst secretly harbouring an irrational fear of the place.

I was convinced there were eyes on me.

And no wildlife. Where were the gulls? Clearly the loch was beyond the reach of the seals too. The sense of isolation was strong as we hiked. No sounds other than the drizzle of rain on the water and a low, incorrigible wind.

Still to this day I’m not entirely sure what my plan was. Had it been just to get a feel for the place? Or had I secretly known that there was more to the lake than just water? Even if that was the case, what on Earth did it have to do with a seven-year-old boy from Wren?

Andy held a map – nothing more than a scrap of paper really – detailing a rough outline of the loch. On the map he’d marked the location of a campground, an area from which a lone hiker had allegedly disappeared some years earlier. We found the area with relative ease, noting evidence of usage: the vague remnants of a pit fire. Had the McLoughlins ventured this far? Had the boy stumbled upon something?

I doubted it. The loch was after all a tourist spot. Although it looked bleak and totally unexplored that morning, Andy reminded me that there had been visitors all summer long.

“What if this Rainman is nothing more than a hermit, you know, an old fella living up in the mountains during the summer months?” I ventured. “Perhaps he uses this pit fire here on the colder winter nights.”

Andy shook his head. “Jack, do you know how harsh winters get around these parts?” There was scepticism in his voice. “A mountain man living out here?” he continued, motioning towards what was assuredly a barren, challenging environment.

I had to agree with him.

Even if there was a mountain man, the thought occurred to me again: what possible connection would this hypothetical hermit have to a seven-year-old boy from Wren?

And just as the thought crossed my mind, Andy and I saw something.

“Is that … a person out there?” Andy asked, squinting.

“Surely not,” I returned.

Unsettled, we studied what appeared to be a figure bobbing up and down out on the dark water. From where I stood I could have sworn it was a man. It’s hard to mistake the tell-tale characteristics: the head; the limbs; the torso…

We watched as the strange shape slowly swam towards us. The mist above intensified, blurring our vision. We could hear the splashes – the distinctive clapping of human hands on the surface of water – but the overall impression visually was that of transparency. A trick of the light.

And then it was gone. The fog lifted, revealing nothing but the black waters of The Dread Lake.

The sense of solitude I experienced in the moments that followed was truly magnificent, though unfortunately, it was short lived.

I felt Andy’s eyes on me, and so I turned to meet his gaze. The colour had drained from his face, leaving a pale shadow of the young deputy behind. His eyes were lifeless – glazed and bloodshot – like maraschino cherries.

“Andy,” I said, coaxing absolutely no reaction out of him.

I approached, concerned.

“Andy!” I repeated.

Nothing.

As I neared him, his mouth slowly began to open, forming a perfect circle.

I hesitated, and whispered, “Andy?”

He returned a low, despairing groan. Coughing and spluttering, he produced several mouthfuls of water.

I lunged forwards to intervene, but I couldn’t reach him. Something unseen blocked my path.

My instincts told me to flee, but I couldn’t. Have to save Andy, I thought.

Andy collapsed to the sandy shore. I raced to his aid and attempted to resuscitate him. But to my relief, the young deputy opened his eyes and looked at me.

“What happened?” he muttered.

“I’m not really sure, are you ok?”

He nodded.

Pulling Andy to his feet, we turned and made our way back to Deckard’s boat. Whatever had happened that morning, we were eager to get as far away from the cause of it as possible.

THE BURDEN OF MEMORY

We returned to Wren.

The old man Deckard had been appalled to learn of Andy’s mysterious collapse. I explained it away as a lack of food and water, not wanting to further insight the old man’s already inflated belief in the supernatural.

Back at the station, I discussed Andy and I’s visit to the loch with several officers, as the thunderstorm that had so battered Wren the previous evening returned to hammer us a second time.

It was around that time, that Andy Gordon’s lifeless body was discovered in the men’s room.

I couldn’t believe it.

Just as the case had been with the McLoughlin boy, Andy was saturated, and a bizarre series of wet footprints led across the tiled floor of the men’s room towards an open window.

The post-mortem revealed the cause of death as ‘drowning’, just like young William, despite the fact Andy had been discovered alone, lying face up in the middle of the men’s room, away from the toilets, away from running water. I felt it pertinent to mention Andy’s collapse up at the loch to the medical examiner, who simply – and unsurprisingly – responded with a frown.

I decided to visit the McLoughlins.

It turned out Patrick McLoughlin was aware of the Rainman legend, claiming his father had introduced him to the idea some thirty-five years earlier. Patrick told a peculiar tale, of how he and
a group of friends, on a stormy afternoon, had watched in horror as a neighbour – an elderly gentleman by the name of Clifford – had fallen to his knees on the corner of Harbour Street, coughed up a massive quantity of water and drowned before their very eyes.

I could tell there was more, and the man hesitated before adding, “I saw Rainman that day. He spilled out of the old man and just disappeared.”

“Did you ever tell William this story?” I asked. I didn’t want to ask, but it was my duty.

Again, Mr McLoughlin hesitated before answering.

“Yes,” he said, quietly, “just as my father had told me a similar story.”

And so it seemed the legend went back generation after generation: townsfolk inexplicably drowning.

In the middle of town.

In their beds.

Always drowning.

Always Rainman.

I told Patrick of my visit to Loch Coruisk, and I caught a glimpse of anxiety in his eyes as the words left my mouth.

“The Dread Lake,” I added, and proceeded to relate the circumstances surrounding the visit, and the events as they transpired on the northern shore.

Patrick heaved.

“What happened to you up there?” I probed, locking eyes with the man.

“Not to me,” Mr McLoughlin responded, his voice barely a whisper, “to William.”

He paused.

“What happened to your deputy … happened to William.”

After several moments he regained his composure and asked, quite sincerely, “Will it ever be over?”

I had no answer for him.

THE END OF THE LINE

That same evening, around 7:45 p.m., I sat at home, scotch in hand, gazing out of the window, watching the rain as it bounced off the windowsill.

I felt unsafe.

The rain used to calm me.

But the death of the boy and Andy had changed all that.

I stared intently at a tree out back. It jittered under the weight of the rain, almost as though it was trying to alert me.

And then I saw it.

A shape passed in front of the window – almost imperceptible – but there nonetheless. Then above the sound of the rain I heard a faint trickle: water seeping into the room somewhere.

I panicked.

I switched the overhead light on and searched frantically for the source of the trickle.

The front door!

A steady stream of water was flowing into my living room!

The capacity for rational thought left me, and I fled towards the back door. Unlocking it, I ran out into the garden and gazed back towards the house.

It was the strangest thing.

There in the doorway, stood a … person?

No. It couldn’t have been a person. It was more like a silhouette. The shadow of a person, inexplicably cast into the doorway.

But no, that wasn’t it either.

It had substance. And it was aware of me.

Though I could see right through the figure, it blurred the objects behind it. The shape refracted them, like observing things at the bottom of a swimming pool. Something really was standing in my doorway, and it was composed entirely, of water.

I stood in the pouring rain, glued to the grass, my eyes fixed upon what I so desperately wanted to believe was nothing more than a trick of the light: a hallucination.

But I knew better. The previous day had taught me that I had to know better.

And then it stepped out into the rain with me, and I lost sight of it for a moment.

Then I saw it again, its queer extremities illuminated by nearby street lamps.

It walked away from me, out onto the street.

I followed it, watching as its watery legs ambled and its aquatic arms swung.

Eyes wide, I watched as the strange entity approached the kerb and slowly poured itself into a drain, disappearing into the hidden underworld of Wren’s sewers, returning to the dark, secret depths of that Dread Lake.

Had it come to drown me like it had the McLoughlin kid? Like Andy, and countless others over the long years? Or had it come to warn me of something else? Something worse, waiting to take the lives of those who mutter its name in the company of strangers and loved ones?

I left Wren.

I quit the force.

I moved overseas to a warmer climate: the south of Spain.

I check the weather forecast often.

If there’s a storm on the horizon, I seek out the company of friends.

And I leave mention of Rainman on these pages, and these pages alone.

Credit: Muted Vocal

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