The Burned Photo – Part 2

June 3, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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My aunt took Shane to school the next morning. Mom didn’t want to tell him about Grandma until after he got home, so she’d have some time to sleep and cope with her own emotions and figure out a tactful way to explain death to a five-year-old. She planned and re-planned the speech she’d give her son over and over and still didn’t have it down by the time Shane’s grandfather – my dad’s father – dropped him off at the house at 2:30. So she simply said what she felt, unsuccessfully holding back tears.

Shane stared at her, empty-eyed.

“Oh, okay,” he said. “Artie’s outside. Can we play now?”

Mom lost it.

“Are you kidding me?” she screamed. “Grandma’s dead. And you can seriously think about playing right now?”

Shane frowned. He seemed to grasp that his mother was upset, but not quite understand why. His confused expression calmed her a little bit. He’s processing, she remembered thinking.

“Fine,” she said, more tempered. “But today, tell Artie I’m driving him home and having a talk with his mother. He’s over here a little bit too much, and I’m not sure he’s a good influence on you. We’re going to talk seriously about some time apart.”

Shane didn’t react. If his mother threatening to take his friend away affected him emotionally at all, he didn’t show it. If anything, the look he gave her was one of pity. Not devastation. Just boring, inconvenient pity. The pity inspired by a homeless man begging for change. Wordlessly, he went to the back door and let Artie in. Then, single-file like soldiers, the little boys strode into Shane’s room and closed the door.

Mom sat down on the sofa to cry. But finally, the physical and emotional turmoil of the last 24 hours hit her, and she was too tired to squeeze out tears. So she leaned back and closed her eyes for a minute. For another minute. For…

Her eyes snapped open. The room was dark. She looked at the clock on the VCR; it was past 6:00. She’d been asleep for nearly three hours. Something had woken her – a crash or a thud, some noise from a short distance away. The boys?

She went to Shane’s door and turned the knob, cracking it slightly. She could see Shane sitting cross-legged on his bed, angled away from her. He was talking in a low voice to someone sitting on the other end of the bed, out of her line of sight. She opened the door a little wider, revealing a blue-clad knee. The child giggled. It was Artie, of course. Who else?

CRACK!

She whirled around. There it was again, and it definitely wasn’t being caused by the boys. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the laundry room. She turned around. She heard Shane’s door click shut.

“Jim?” she called out. Though she knew it couldn’t be my dad – he had left for the airport around midnight the night before.

THUD… THUD… THUD…

She was getting scared. She considered calling 911, but didn’t think loud noises possibly coming from the basement would be enough to justify police involvement. Instead, she checked the front door and then the back. Both were locked. There was only one door to the basement and no external entrance, so if anyone was down there they would have had to sneak past her as she slept on the couch. The floorboards creaked; she’d often been awoken in the middle of the night by Jim or Shane getting a glass of water from the kitchen.

She tiptoed to the laundry room door. She took a deep breath, turned the doorknob, and switched on the light.

The room was exactly how she had left it – a basket of her scrubs and Shane’s and Jim’s jeans on the floor by the washer, a detergent bottle on top of the dryer with the lid unscrewed. She looked down at the trapdoor that lead to the basement. It was closed, and the latch was set.

The latch was set. The trapdoor had been locked from the outside.

Mom felt a wave of panic, turned to run, then caught herself. Even if an intruder had managed to sneak past her as she dozed on the couch, he couldn’t possibly have gone down into the basement and latched the door behind himself. So it was probably just rats.

Rolling her eyes at her own baseless fear, she unlatched the door and lowered herself down. When she had both feet on the landing that divided the stairs, she pulled the cord that turned on the light. A dim, piss-yellow glow illuminated the messy cellar.

Artie stood at the foot of the stairs.

Mom cried out and stumbled, managing to catch herself on a railing. Artie’s blue eyes glowed; his iridescent skin seemed to possess its own luminosity. The little boy was staring at her. Staring at her with that same twisted, inhuman, hate-filled glare she’d seen when she followed him home the day before.

“Artie! Sweetie, how did you…” she stammered, her voice high-pitched and quavering.

His glare softened, melted into a smile. The biggest smile she’d ever seen on a little boy. A first day of summer smile. A Christmas morning smile. Except there was nothing angelic about this smile. There was only malice in his eyes.

Then my mom came to a realization that made her legs weaken and her stomach drop.

If Artie was down here, then who was Shane…

Mom ran. Up the stairs, through the open trapdoor, out of the laundry room, to the bedroom of her child. She threw open the door.

The room was empty. Everything was exactly as it had been before Shane came home from school. The only thing that indicated recent occupation was two small, child-sized indents in the comforter.

She threw open the closet door and peered under the bed. She opened the window that overlooked the backyard and screamed her son’s name. Then, trembling and drenched in sweat, she stumbled back to the laundry room. This was a joke. She was seeing things. The boys were playing a trick on her. The basement door was still wide open, and the light was on. She threw herself into the rectangular aperture and whirled around on the landing.

Artie was gone. Or he was hiding. She ran down the steps to the concrete floor. Her foot landed on something small and hard, and she nearly fell headlong. A small wooden cube ricocheted off a molding cardboard box.

One of Shane’s blocks. She knelt down to examine the thing. It was the “U.” Unicorn, umbrella, unicycle, unibrow.

There were more blocks, all scattered around. They may have spelled something before she’d tripped over them. Seven of them in total. E, I, O, N, M, W, U. Like a child playing with Scrabble tiles, my mom sat cross-legged on the floor and stared at the letters.

NO WE… I, N, U
NOW U ME… I
WON ME… I, U
UNEM… W, I, O

Nothing. In frustration, she picked up two blocks – the U and M – and threw them at the ground. They bounced and clattered in opposite directions. Near tears, she rolled onto her stomach and crawled to retrieve them. Then she noticed something.

The U had landed upside down. Like a lower case “n.” The set of blocks had only one of each letter. Shane or Artie or… she shuddered… had turned it over and used it as a second “N.” Shaking like a scared animal, she lined up the blocks and started over.

She figured it out in a second.

MINE nOW.

She screamed. Calling Shane’s name over and over, she destroyed the basement, throwing boxes aside, knocking over furniture, scouring every inch of the space. When that failed to uncover anything, she tore apart the rest of the house. She opened every door, looked under every piece of furniture, ran out the back door and made two rotations around the property, crying out for her child into the darkness.

Finally, she called the police. They sent a patrol car over, and she told them everything. The cops were sympathetic and understanding and, within an hour, five more cars were casing the area for any sign of the boys. They’d find her son, they told her. Two little kids couldn’t have gone that far. When she said she’d never once met Artie’s mother, the cops seemed surprised, but assured her they’d check out the unkempt white house he’d disappeared into.

The officers offered Mom a ride to her mother’s house to stay with her sister. She could rest tonight, then come into the station to answer questions in the morning. In the meantime, they’d continue searching the streets and keep patrol cars outside the house, in case Shane returned. He probably would, they told her. He and his little friend probably had some fantasy of running away to Sesame Street, and would come back as soon as they got hungry or scared of the dark.

The next morning my father, who had been rushed back to Miami, arrived at the house. One patrol car was still there. The two cops assigned to keep watch told him that if he needed anything, grab it now, because in about 30 minutes his home was going to be an active crime scene.

He never came out. The cops didn’t hear him scream.

My mom was sitting in an interrogation room with the sketch artist when she was arrested. The artist had finished a drawing of Artie. It was quite good, but there was… something missing. His eyes weren’t quite right, and she found she could not describe his smile. That evil, twisted smile. They cuffed her right there at the table.

Bonnie Ibanez, you are under arrest for the murder of Shane Ibanez.

The next few hours were a blur. She was booked, fingerprinted, photographed; all while sobbing and screaming and begging for someone to tell her what was going on. Finally, she ended up back in that same interrogation room, this time with her hands cuffed behind her back, across from a stern-looking police officer. He demanded, she cried, he yelled, she – through his threats and attempts to intimidate her – pieced together what had happened to her only child.

Jim Ibanez, her husband, returned home at approximately 10:30am. The police officers there, after checking his ID, allowed him 15 minutes to take what he needed from the house. Thirty minutes later, when he didn’t reappear, they went in after him. The door to the laundry room was open, the basement door was open, and the basement light was on. Jim was on the couch. Blood pooled at his feet, around a sharp kitchen knife. He’d slit his own wrists. He was dead.

The cops, after they’d called the paramedics and radioed for backup, had a look around.

In the family’s basement, half-covered by a patchwork quilt in his old crib, they’d found the stiff, ice-cold body of Shane Ibanez. Ten fingers, ten toes, no cuts, no broken bones, no signs of struggle or trauma at all.

Except for the clean, precise cut that had severed his head.

They never found his head.

Time of death was estimated at approximately 6:30pm the night before. The last person to see him alive, besides Mom, was the boy’s grandfather, who’d dropped him off at the house at around 3. It had just been her and Shane, he’d said.

“But…” my mom had stammered, “There’s no way. I looked everywhere for him. You guys were at the house yesterday. He wasn’t there.”

“Maybe,” the cop had said. “But we weren’t looking around that carefully, were we?”

“Artie,” she whispered.

The cop laughed mirthlessly.

“You keep on saying that,” he mocked. “Yet we have no proof this Artie ever existed.”

“But the house,” Mom said. “I saw him going into that little white house I showed you.”

“You mean the house occupied by a Ms. Myrtle Anderson? Widow, 75 years old, lives alone, doesn’t drive. No grandchildren in the state, has never seen a child matching your description.”

“But he…”

“Two nights ago. You told us. She was watching TV in her room at the time, says no one went in or out.”

“In fact,” the cop continued icily, “none of your neighbors seem to know this kid. According to our records, no one named Artie – or Arthur, or any other name that might be shortened to Artie – lives within a mile of your neighborhood.”

“People saw him!” my mom insisted. “My mother baby-sat them all the time. And my husband met him.”

“Both of whom,” he sneered, “are conveniently dead.”

Days went by. The sketch artist’s drawing of Artie was on every nighttime news show, displayed all around Miami, shown to everyone living within three miles of the house. Neither hide nor hair of him was ever found. My grandmother and grandfather and aunts said they’d heard Shane talking about an Artie, but that he’d described him like an imaginary friend. The cops determined he was a figment of the little boy’s imagination, capitalized on by Mom to cover up his murder.

My two aunts put their dead mother’s house up as collateral to get my mom out on bail. She holed up in her childhood bedroom, sleeping with the light on and the door open and trying to piece together how her son’s decapitated body had magically appeared in her basement.

Had some murderous sociopath kidnapped her child, strangled him right outside the window, then returned his maimed remains as soon as she left? No, that was impossible. There had been cops around all night, no one had gone in or out. And besides, she had seen Shane. In his room. Talking to Artie. But it wasn’t Artie, because Artie was in the basement.

Who had Shane been talking to?

And how had Artie teleported into the basement, bypassing the latch? Why hadn’t anyone but her and her late husband and mother and son seen the kid? Those clothes he always wore. Never stained, never wrinkled. The invisible mother. That house he’d disappeared into. And the message in the blocks.

The blocks. She’d taken photographs of the two boys playing with blocks.

She hurriedly took the film to be developed, thanking God she’d kept the used roll in her camera bag, and her camera bag in the car instead of her house, which was now under the control of the police. She paid extra at Sav-on to have it done in an hour; an hour she spent wandering aimlessly around the outdoor shopping center. She could prove it, she thought. Prove that Artie was real. Prove she wasn’t crazy. When the process was done and she had the envelope of photographs in her hands, she waited until she was at her mother’s house, in her bedroom, before opening her little package of salvation.

They found her eight hours later, curled up in a ball in the backyard, self-inflicted claw marks up and down her arms, a Bic lighter and a pile of ashes at her feet.

Mom told me she doesn’t remember a whole lot of the next six weeks. She was confined to a padded cell in a psychiatric ward, mumbling and giggling. They’d had to place boxing gloves on her hands to keep her from hurting herself. She started improving around week three, remembering her name, and then her sisters’ and husband’s and son’s names, and then finally that her husband and son were both dead.

She never told anyone what she’d seen in the photos she burned.

Upon her release from the psych hospital, my mom found herself a free woman in more ways than one. The police had dropped all charges against her, due to two extremely puzzling circumstances.

Circumstance #1: Shane’s body had disappeared. One day, it was under a tarp in a refrigerator in the coroner’s lab; the next, it was gone. In its place was a small pile of grey dust. Neither the cops nor the coroner’s office could come up with a reasonable explanation. Only three people had ID cards that would open the door to the lab; all three were accounted for. The scanner had not recorded any attempts to access the room, successful or unsuccessful. And security footage showed that no one had been anywhere near the lab the night it happened.

Circumstance #2: Her house burned down. Six weeks earlier, the two police officers tasked with guarding the crime scene had smelled smoke. The basement was burning. The flames moved unnaturally fast, soon engulfing the entire house. The cause of the fire could not be determined, but both arson and electrical failure were ruled out. Luckily, the fire didn’t spread. It was a miracle the houses on either side hadn’t gone up, the fire chief said. Probably thanks to the humidity in the air.

It was only coincidence, it was agreed, that the fire seemed to have started at exactly the same moment my mom burned her photos of Shane and Artie playing with blocks.

With no body, no motive, a questionable time line, and any potential evidence up in smoke, the cops could do nothing but free my mom and hide the case away as an unsolved mystery or an act of God. Of course, this didn’t mean she was off the hook. The cops, fearing mass panic, had kept the more inexplicable elements of the incident from the public, including the missing body. So Mom was crucified by the press. My father’s family wanted nothing to do with her. Her own sisters swore they believed her, yet insisted they sell their mother’s house as soon as possible. When it was sold, way below market price, they split the money three ways. Then, almost immediately, both sisters left the state and changed their numbers. Mom hadn’t spoken to either of them since then.

She couldn’t stay in Miami. Even if she hadn’t been attracting dirty looks and furtive whispers, if not open hostility, every time she set foot outside her dingy hotel room, the city held nothing for her. Everybody she’d cared about was gone. She saw her murdered child’s face whenever she closed her eyes, and the sight of his favorite McDonald’s or the park where he’d played as a toddler just served to twist the knife in her heart. She slept a lot, lost herself in trashy soap operas, never turning off the lamp on her bedside table. Beside the lamp she’d set a bottle of sleeping pills. She’d stare at that bottle as she lay down to sleep and when she woke up, sometimes in the middle of the day, and sometimes for what seemed like hours, wishing she could empty it with a glass of water and lose the ability to remember.

But she couldn’t. When she’d returned to her senses in the psychiatric hospital, the doctor had refused her Tylenol for her drilling headache. Because she was eight weeks pregnant.

Eventually she pulled it together, packed up her car, and drove across the country to Ohio. She paid a man for a fake passport and driver’s license under the name Elizabeth Johnson. She found a small apartment for rent. She invested some of her insurance money into starting a photography business, and then I was born, and then we moved to the little house in Cleveland.

“But Mom,” I asked her, “what was wrong with those photographs? The ones you burned – why didn’t you show them to the cops and prove Artie was real?”

At that, she sighed and closed her eyes. Her crow’s feet darkened as the color drained from her face. She looked helpless, like an old woman and a scared little girl at the same time.

“Artie wasn’t in the photographs,” she said. “The bedroom was there, the blocks were there. Shane was there. But the… thing sitting beside him. It wasn’t Artie. It wasn’t human. It was an abomination that shouldn’t exist. Humanity couldn’t… I couldn’t show anyone… I couldn’t…”

She turned away to wipe her nose, tears running down her face. I couldn’t get any more out of her. Either she thought the description of the thing she’d known as Artie would terrify me, or she couldn’t find the words to describe it. I never brought up the subject again. She didn’t let me out of her sight for weeks, and I slept in her bed for two months, terrified now that I knew what she feared. But the thing didn’t find us in La Puente. I never saw the angelic little girl in the polka-dot frock, or the red-headed teenager who couldn’t feel cold, ever again.

My mom died when I was twenty-two. Breast cancer. They caught it late; it had spread, and the chemo didn’t work. I moved all of her stuff into storage. The day after her funeral, I sat on the floor of my storage unit, surrounded by all of her memories, and looked through her photographs. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands.

I rented an apartment, found a job, passed the CPA exam. Four years later, I fell in love with a guy who worked across the hall at an advertising firm. Two years after that, we married and bought a little house in Glendale. And, last February, I became pregnant with our first child. I’m due next month. It’s going to be a little boy.

I’ve never told my husband about my mother’s story, or Shane, or the shape-shifting thing that stalks my family. (Things? Maybe there’s more than one of them.) I’m debating it now, since we’re about to be parents, but… honestly, I don’t even know how I’d go about it. My husband’s not superstitious. He’d probably just assume my mother killed Shane and assure me that homicidal impulses aren’t genetic.

But there’s a reason I’m writing this now. Why I’m putting it out there for strangers to piece through, hopefully strangers who can give me the explanation I’m desperate for. It’s because the thing that took my brother, drove my father to suicide, tormented my mother, and posed as “Katie” and “Zoe” to ensnare me – it’s still here.

Two nights ago, I came home at around nine. My husband was out. As I reached for the light switch, I nearly tripped over something small and hard. Flipping on the light, I saw the unexpected obstacle. Blocks. I knelt down. Alphabet blocks, the sort children play with. The one nearest to me was a “B,” beautifully carved and finished. On four faces were detailed pictures – bananas, a butterfly, flowers, and a little dog (a beagle?).

Holding my breath, I gathered the blocks together. There were eight of them. N, I, U, B, M, A, J, E. All with beautiful pictures, obviously part of a set. Painted blue, red, green, or yellow. Definitely not ours. Thanks to my mom’s story, I figured it out in seconds.

BEnJAMIN.

Benjamin. The name we’d chosen for our son. We hadn’t told anyone yet, not even my in-laws. Heart pounding, I fled, locking the door behind me and locking myself in my car. I sat there for a while, hyperventilating. Racking my brain for a logical explanation. Maybe it was a present from my husband, a surprise. But those blocks. They were exactly like the blocks my mom had described to me. Irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind. Destroyed in a fire thirty years ago.

My phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. I answered, my voice shaking. It was a Sergio from Rent-a-Box storage. My storage unit, where I kept all my mom’s old belongings, had inexplicably caught on fire. Everything had been ruined. Hands drenched, shaking like a leaf, I drove to the facility. A huge fire truck was parked outside, but the building still stood. According to Sergio – a short, balding security guard – the fire had been limited to my unit. The cinderblock dividing walls had done their duty, apparently.

Confused and terrified, I asked to see the unit. All my mother’s photos – her photos of me growing up – had been destroyed. I stared into the charred-black little room, holding back tears. Then, in the far left corner, I saw it. A small sheet of thick paper.

“That’s odd,” Sergio muttered. “That wasn’t here ten minutes ago.”

I picked up the odd little object. It was a photograph. Relatively old, judging by the quality, and burned around the edges. I got the impression I was only looking at half of the photo; the other half had been reduced to ash. It was of a little boy playing with blocks. Blocks identical to the ones scattered on my living room floor. Blocks that, when I returned home hours later, had mysteriously disappeared, though the doors were locked and the rest of the house was untouched.

The boy was about five years old, dressed in high-waist shorts and the sort of t-shirt popular in the early eighties. His mop of curls, coffee-colored skin, square jaw, and large deep-set eyes bore an uncanny resemblance to photos of me at the same age. He was smiling. Laughing. Looking to his right, at another person depicted in the burned-out portion of the picture. An undecipherable shadow fell across him.

I stared at the photo for a long moment. I knew it was Shane, and I knew the unseen entity next to him was the creature who’d posed as “Artie.” What I couldn’t understand was how the photo had ended up here, as my mother had burned it to ashes thirty years ago, after whatever cast that shadow had driven her to insanity.

The last detail I noticed, before the photo crumbled into dust in my hands, was that the blocks laid out in front of Shane spelled out a word. The numerical “0” and the letters “S,” “O,” and “N.”

SO0N.

Credit To – NickyXX

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The Burned Photo – Part 1

June 2, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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When I was a little girl, I lived with my mom in a rented two-bedroom house in Cleveland, Ohio. The paint was chipping and there were stains on the shag carpet that had been there since the 70’s and the heater broke each year, on cue, in the middle of January, but there was a big backyard with a big tree to climb and I thought the dump was a castle.

My mom was a small woman, only about five-foot-one; slender, and pale. Her eyes were large and deep-set, giving her a look of perpetual exhaustion and world-weariness. She had networks of tiny lines extending from the corner of each eye, premature crows-feet, which became more pronounced when she smiled. So even when she was laughing, she looked like she was sad.

She was a professional photographer; weddings and parties mostly; graduations, quincineras, family reunions – any sort of gathering people pay to memorialize. Pictures defined my childhood. Photos in frames on the walls and propped on every flat surface, filling cheap albums stacked in my mom’s closet, sealed in Sav-on envelopes stored in boxes. Sometimes, on rainy Saturdays or mornings when I was too sick to go to school, I’d sit cross-legged on the floor and look through a bunch of them, watching myself grow up, one perfect memory at a time.

One clear-skied, grass-smelling day in May, when I was nine, I was alone in my room, reading a Babysitters Club book on my bed. My mom was in her bedroom, napping after a long night photographing a corporate event. I glanced up and out my window and noticed something out of the ordinary – in the backyard, standing in front of the tree, was a girl about my age. She had olive skin and long, jet-black hair. She wore a lacy green frock with polka-dots. Her eyes caught mine, and she smiled at me. She had a very big, very pretty smile.

I opened the window and called out to her. “Hey! Where did you come from?”

She skipped to the window and looked up at me. Our backyard sloped in such a way that she could have stood on tiptoe and grabbed hold of the ledge.

“Hi!” she chirped. Her voice was kind, comforting. “I’m Katie. What’s your name?”

“Felicia,” I told her. “Why are you in my backyard?”

She shrugged. “I live down the street. I just moved in. Do you want to play with me?”

I frowned. My mom had always insisted she meet my friends and their parents before I invited them into our house. This was a rule she’d imposed when I was in preschool, and one on which she was unrelenting.

“Hold on,” I told Katie. “Lemme ask my mom.”

Katie’s face fell. “Do you have to? Can’t you let me in first? I’m really tired and I have to go to the bathroom.”

“It’ll just take a minute,” I said, and scampered away.

“No, wait!” Katie called after me.

I went into my mom’s room and shook her awake. She rolled onto her back and looked up at me with bloodshot, tired eyes. She smiled groggily.

“Sweetie, are you okay?”

“Mom,” I said, “there’s a girl outside. She says her name is Katie. Can she come in to play?”

Mom sat straight up. Her red eyes widened, and the look she gave me was one of abject terror. Contagious terror. I felt my heartbeat quicken and my palms moisten.

“Where…” she stammered, “where did she come from? Is she at the front door?”

“She’s in the backyard,” I told her. “She just appeared.”

Mom threw herself onto her feet and ran out of the bedroom, towards the back door. I followed close behind her. She kicked open the door and ran into the yard. Katie was gone. I wondered where she had gotten to so fast; I’d only been in my mom’s room for a couple minutes. Mom, apparently, didn’t care.

“STAY AWAY FROM HER!” she screamed, addressing the air around her. “Stay the FUCK AWAY from my child!”

I stared, frozen in place. I’d never heard my mom curse before. She turned back to me, big eyes wild, small body heaving.

“Felicia,” she panted, “get your stuff. We’re going to a hotel.”

We stayed in the hotel for two days, during which time Mom arranged for a U-haul truck and a small rented house in Aspen, Colorado. By the morning of the third day, all of our belongings were packed and we were heading east on the interstate. I skipped school, and every time Mom allowed her eyes to rest anywhere but on me for more than a few seconds, her head would snap back in my direction, her face a mask of horror. It wasn’t until we were on the road that she started to relax.

Aspen was nice. I liked my new school, and Mom was hired as the staff photographer for an upscale banquet hall. I asked her a million times why we had to move – not even move, flee in the dead of night – and I think she gave me a million different answers. She was sick of Cleveland. Aspen had a lower crime rate. Work was steadier here; lots of nice hotels hosting fancy weddings.

Never once did she mention Katie, or her outburst in our backyard.

One windy, ice-cold day in early December, when I was fourteen, I walked home after school. My mom was out photographing a convention at a nearby hotel. I was unlocking my front door when I noticed a girl about my age sitting at the other end of the porch, her back to the house. Upon hearing my keys jingle, she stood and turned to me.

She was very pretty; thin, pale, with freckles and red hair. She wore a black V-neck shirt and skinny jeans. She smiled. Her smile was lovely, as though seeing me was the best thing that had happened to her all day. I grinned back at her, momentarily ignoring the kicks from my fight-or-flight reflex. Something about her threw me off, but I couldn’t quite say what.

“Um, hi,” I said. “Can I help you?”

The girl nodded. “I’m Zoe,” she said. “I’m sorry to impose on you, but can I possibly come in? I live a few houses down, and I forgot my keys. Can I use your phone?”

“I guess,” I said warily. My mom still had her rule about allowing people inside the house she hadn’t met, but it had begun to seen a little ridiculous. This chick looked harmless.

Except she was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and no jacket in below-freezing weather.

Suddenly, I remembered Katie, and the terror the strange little girl had inspired in my mother. Then I noticed how much this girl resembled her. Same big smile and innocent eyes, staring at me expectantly.

I turned and ran. I holed up at a friend’s place a few blocks away, and got a ride from her older brother to the hotel where my mom was taking pictures. Three days later, we were out of the lease, packed up, and on the road. La Puente, California this time.

When we’d gotten home that day, the day I’d found Zoe sitting on the porch, I went inside ahead of my mom while she gathered her equipment. I turned on the light. There was something different on the coffee table, though nothing else had been touched. I walked over to investigate, and found a photograph of a little Black boy. An old photograph, by the looks of it. The boy in the photo was two or three, maybe, giggling while leaning over the edge of what appeared to be a bathtub filled with bubbles. The edges of the picture were charred.

I didn’t notice my mom come up behind me. At the sight of the strange picture, she screamed. Startled, I dropped it.

As soon as the photo hit the ground, it disintegrated into dust.

We stayed in a hotel after that.

The night before we planned to leave for California, Mom and I sat on the couch in our hotel room, watching sitcom re-runs. Our U-haul truck was parked in the lot. When the channel went to commercials, Mom muted the TV. We sat in silence for a moment. She hadn’t given an explanation for our move this time, and I didn’t need one. I knew it had to do with Zoe, or Katie, or whatever was causing these girls to continually seek me out and ask to be invited into the house. And that photo of the little boy.

“Felicia,” she finally said to me, “I don’t want to tell you why we have to keep moving like this. God, I’ve spent the last fourteen years trying to protect you from it. Trying to pretend it’s gone. But it just keeps on finding you and me, no matter how far we run.”

There was a reason, she told me, that I didn’t have a father. Or a grandmother or grandfather, aunts or uncles or cousins. Why all of our acquaintances and her few friends had only known us since I was six months old and we’d moved to Cleveland. Why we lived so far away from her hometown of Miami – the only piece of information she’d ever shared about her past – and why we’d never gone back.

It was all because of the little boy in the picture. Shane. My brother. And another little boy he’d once played with.

Before I was born, my mother lived with my father and Shane in a house just outside of Miami. My mom’s name was Bonnie then. Bonnie Ibanez. She loved taking pictures, but it was just a hobby. Professionally, she was a nurse at a hospital. My father’s name was James Ibanez. He was Dominican; curly-haired and dark-skinned, like me. He worked as a commercial pilot and, due to the nature of his job, was away from home for days at a time. So, most of the time, it was just my mom and Shane.

Shane was the love of her life. Mom’s eyes lit up as she described him to me. He was very smart, she said; always learning, always taking apart appliances and trying to put them back together, exploring, finding his way into and out of things. One memorable evening, while my mom was on the phone, he managed to slip into the laundry room, unlatch the trapdoor that lead to the basement, climb down – then get lost and scared when the door slammed shut and he couldn’t find the light switch. He loved animals, and GI Joe, and books about talking animals or fantasy creatures or witches and wizards. But just nice witches. He didn’t like scary stories.

Though Shane was a sweet child, he was shy, and had difficulty making friends with his kindergarten classmates. My mom did all she could to recruit him a playmate – she organized a carpool with other mothers, arranged play dates, enrolled Shane in karate class. But despite her efforts, as summer became fall, the end of first semester approached, and kindergarten play groups became airtight, her son was still spending recess playing alone on the swings and weekends in his room, with only his toys to keep him company. Mom was frustrated.

One Saturday in mid-November, after dozing off on the couch while watching some gossip show, she was awoken by the sound of an exuberant peal of laughter. She immediately went to check on Shane in his room, where he had been playing with his Legos.

Shane was still there, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Next to him was a small boy with milky-pale skin, blue eyes, and ice-blonde hair, dressed in overalls and a red t-shirt.

Mom nearly screamed.

“Oh!” she managed to stammer. “How the heck did you get in…”

Then she realized she was looking at her son, and that he was interacting happily with a kid his own age. She smiled.

“Shane, why don’t you introduce me to your new friend?”

“His name is Artie,” Shane replied gleefully.

“Well, hi Artie!” Mom said, with the enthusiasm a lost sailor has for land. “Do you live around here?”

Artie nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, aren’t you polite?” she gushed. “You’re welcome to come over any time you want. But, sweetie, do your parents know you’re over here? I’m sure they don’t want you wandering the streets all by yourself.”

“It’s okay,” he told her. His voice was angelically sweet. “I told my mom I was going to play with the kid down the street. She said it’s okay.”

Artie smiled at her. My mom said it was the widest smile she’d ever seen on a little boy. A first day of summer smile. A Christmas morning smile, new puppy smile. Poor kid, she mused. His parents must not be the most attentive adults on the planet, if they unquestioningly allowed their elementary school-aged child to run off to the house of a neighbor they’d never met. And such a sweet little boy! Maybe he, like her son, was lonely and in desperate need of a friend.

So she left them alone for the rest of the afternoon. When dinnertime came around, she told Artie he was welcome to stay. But he insisted he needed to be going home, lest his mom be worried. The minute the front door slammed shut after him, Shane ran to our mom and asked her if please, please, please Artie could come over and play again tomorrow?

Mom was very happy.

“So, sweetie,” she asked Shane over dinner, “how did you even meet Artie? I think I would have heard him come in the front door, the way the floorboards squeak in the living room.”

Shane shook his head. “He was in the backyard. He climbed in through my window.”

“Oh,” Mom replied. “That’s… different. Does he go to your school?”

“Nuh-uh,” Shane said. “He says his mom teaches him at home.”

Home-schooled. So Artie was definitely lonely and desperate for a playmate. And since he wasn’t surrounded by other children all day, Shane had no competition for his friendship. Mom was ashamed of the thought, but also aware her shy, awkward son could use all the handicaps he could get.

Artie did come over the next day, and three more days that week after Shane came home from school. The boys got along beautifully. Artie seemed fascinated by Shane’s toys – his die-cast car collection, numerous stuffed puppies, GI Joe and Transformers action figures, Legos. My mom assumed he didn’t have a lot of toys at home, since he never brought any of his own, and seemed fascinated by the existence of such playthings. Maybe his parents didn’t have a lot of money. That would make sense, since every time she saw him he was wearing the same overalls and red t-shirt. Like a cartoon character.

His favorite toy was the same as Mom’s – the beautiful set of blocks her late father had made for Shane. It was a set of forty – letters, numbers, and four blank ones – in a box with handles. The letters and numbers were artfully carved in an Old English font on two sides of each block; the other four faces were decorated with a different object that started with the letter, or were in groups of the appropriate number. A beagle, a butterfly, a bunch of bananas, and a bouquet of buttercups for “B”; a pair of shoes, two eyes, a bride and groom, and salt and pepper shakers for the number “2”; and so on. Each was detailed with a muted red, yellow, blue, or green. The toy was utterly unique. Irreplaceable. Shane, too young to appreciate the fine craftsmanship and all the hours of labor that had gone into its making, had lost interest a year before. But Artie was tickled pink. He amused himself, and Shane, for hours; spelling out different words and giggling.

One day, my mom was off work and in a creative mood. The boys were in Shane’s room, building word towers with the blocks, and they looked particularly sweet for some reason. So mom took out her camera. Quietly, calmly, as though photographing wild animals, she snapped a few shots through the bedroom door. The boys caught on almost immediately, and began striking mock-dramatic poses, arranging the blocks to spell “poop” or “fart” or in random patterns. She finished off the roll and collapsed on the floor with them, all three giggling like toddlers.

Day after day, week after week, the boys spent more and more time together. Artie met my father, once or twice, for a few minutes, as he rushed out the door to the airport or stumbled to his room to sleep off his latest bout of jetlag. He met my maternal grandmother, who stayed with Shane when both my parents were at work, and charmed her with his sweet voice and pleas to teach him how to knit. He began staying over for dinner a few times a week, though he never seemed to eat a whole lot.

Soon, Artie was on the front porch every day, waiting for Shane to get home from school. Always wearing the same red shirt and overalls. Always pale, no matter how much time the boys spent out in the sun. Always angelic.

As the boys grew closer, my mom became increasingly curious about Artie’s family – who, apparently, were invisible. She’d spoken about Artie to several of the other young mothers on the cul-de-sac, gossipy women who made it their duty to know everything about everyone. Yet none of them had seen nor heard of the little boy, let alone his mysterious parents.

Mom had been fully expecting, sooner or later, a pale-skinned, blue-eyed, ice-blonde woman to come knocking at the front door, smiling sheepishly as she asked the whereabouts of her little boy. Maybe she’d be wearing a denim jumper and a red top.

But no such woman ever came.

“Artie, do you want me to drive you home tonight?” Mom asked him sweetly one day, as he and Shane were organizing toy cars in the living room.

He smiled at her and shook his head. “S’okay, ma’am.”

“Are you sure, honey? I’d like to meet your mommy. Let her know her son’s not spending his time with a bunch of crazy people.” She giggled.

Artie’s blue eyes flashed. His smile drooped.

“You can’t, ma’am.” He shook his head exaggeratedly. “My mommy’s sick. She doesn’t like seeing people.”

With that, he turned his attention back to Shane and the cars, and responded to any further inquiries about his mother or offers of a ride home with the same exaggerated shaking of his head. My mom dropped the subject.

Then, day by day, one small adjustment at a time, Shane began to change.

First, he stopped letting Mom touch him. When she’d extend her hand for his to cross the school parking lot, he’d let her take it only reluctantly, and with a pained, nearly vicious look on his face. He’d stiffen like a board when she put her arms around him. The jingling of her keys, which had once summoned Shane like a lonely puppy, now only inspired a languid look towards her direction from whatever unseen point in space he was staring at.

Then, he stopped eating. He and Artie sat side-by-side at the dinner table, stirring their food around their plates, lifting their forks without taking a bite, throwing dull-eyed glances at one another when they thought Mom wasn’t looking. She was sure Shane had been throwing away his sack lunches at school. Whenever she offered him any food, he’d invariably reply, “I’m just not hungry, Mom.”

Finally, he stopped talking. After dinner, he’d retreat to his bedroom to do his homework, where he’d stay until Mom knocked on the door and told him to take a bath. When he finished bathing and putting on his pajamas, he’d shut his bedroom door, turn off the lights, and close his eyes. No story. No kiss goodnight. He only spoke when responding to direct questions, and with as few words as possible. When he didn’t have to wake up for school in the morning, he’d lie in bed until early afternoon. Until Artie came over to play.

And the way Artie and Shane interacted had changed as well. The boys no longer played in the yard or chased each other around the house. Instead, they’d retreat to Shane’s room immediately, and stay there all afternoon with the door closed. When my mom would check in, she’d find them sitting peacefully on the bed. Sometimes, if she listened through the door, she’d hear things being moved about and clinking together, possibly Shane’s cars. But whatever it was they were doing in there, they did it neatly. When Artie would finally leave for the night, the room was always in exactly the same condition it had been before Shane came home from school.

My dad assured Mom that Shane was just going through a phase. And, for the time being, she chose to believe that because she had to. My grandmother was ill. She’d been living quite effectively with diabetes for years; then, out of the blue, her kidneys had failed. One sister moved home to live with her and take her to dialysis, but my mom was left to deal with her bills and legal documents and health insurance.

One day, stressed and tired and getting a headache, she pushed aside the pile of pension documents she’d been analyzing at the kitchen table. Might as well see what the boys were up to. As she approached Shane’s closed door, she heard muted giggles. She pressed her ear to the wood.

“Mumble mumble… maybe, she’d be really mad… giggle giggle giggle.”

The mumbling was definitely Shane’s voice, but my mom couldn’t make out exactly what he was saying. Then Artie spoke.

“Mumble… not like gone forever, but… mumble mumble mumble… no one would ever see … giggle giggle giggle.”

She leaned on her right foot. The floorboards squeaked. The voices behind the door fell silent. Quickly, like a child caught sneaking a cookie before dinner, she scampered back to the kitchen table and made herself look busy. Shane’s door didn’t open; she was in the clear. But something about what she’d heard had unsettled her.

A small part of that unease was due to the odd content of their conversation. It was also strange that she couldn’t understand most of what they were saying, despite being only a few feet away.

But mostly, she was bothered by the fact that she was sure she’d heard more than two voices.

That night, she waited until Artie was out the door, then tried to have a conversation with her son. She caught him in the hallway between the kitchen and his bedroom.

“Shane, sweetie,” she began gently, “what do you and Artie talk about?”

He turned to her and shrugged. “Stuff.”

“I know that,” she said, a little more demanding. “What kind of stuff?”

“Places he likes to go to.”

“Oh!” My mom smiled. “Like Chuck-e-cheese? Or McDonald’s?”

Shane shook his head. “No. Special places. There’s other kids there. He’s going to take me there soon.”

“Oh, okay.”

Mom had no idea how to respond. Shane, done with talking, slipped into his room and closed the door. There was something strange about the way he had said that. ‘He’s going to take me there soon.’ Not ‘can we go there?’ As though he had no choice in the matter. And as though she had no choice in the matter.

The next evening, Mom worked the graveyard shift. Artie left around seven, as she was putting her hair in a bun and grabbing her car keys. She watched his small, red-and-blue clad form stride purposefully out the front door.

And she decided to follow him home.

She waited until he was a few car lengths’ ahead of her, going east, towards where the street dead-ended. Then, she stepped on the gas with her headlights off, driving very slowly, focused on the little boy’s blond head bobbing up and down. He made it to the dead end. Mom braked. He kept on walking, around the circular sidewalk, until he was heading west. That was strange, she thought. Why hadn’t he just crossed the street in front of their house?

Then he stopped. He turned around and saw my mom’s car. He looked her in the eye. Startled, she stepped off the brake pedal and let the car roll forwards. On his angelic face, she said, was the most hate-filled expression she’d ever seen on a living thing.

He turned away, and made a beeline for the house right in front of him – a small white one with an unkempt lawn and empty driveway. The door was embedded in a dark alcove, my mom couldn’t see it from the car. Artie walked into the alcove and was swallowed by the darkness. Mom assumed he’d entered the house, but no lights were turned on.

She considered going in after the little boy. Whatever his living situation was with his unseen mother, it obviously wasn’t ideal for a small child. It was well after dark, and he was coming home to an empty, unlit house. But there was something about that look he gave her. That insipid, ugly glare. She felt nauseous thinking about it. So she made a U-turn and drove to work. It wasn’t until she was in the hospital parking lot that she noticed the goose bumps on her arms and the whiteness of her knuckles from grasping the steering wheel.

An hour into her shift, Mom got the call from her sister. The skin around their mother’s catheter had been reddish and tender for a couple days. She’d thought it was just a rash, but that night my aunt had found my grandma unresponsive on the floor. She’d been rushed to another hospital in town. By the time the ambulance pulled into the ER, Grandma had flat-lined. Septic shock.

It was only coincidence, my mom decided, that her mother seemed to have collapsed at exactly the same moment Artie fixed her with that disgusting glare.

Part two will be posted tomorrow.

Credit To – NickyXX

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The Hold

May 31, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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I’m not sure if this will scare you, but I can tell you that I was genuinely terrified, and that to this day I still have dreams about it.

I started working at an old Marine Museum in my home town as a summer job. It was fairly easy, all that was needed was to take entrance fees, and keep the boats clean, and give the occasional tour to Summer Camp groups.

I was enamored with my town’s history, and these boats were a very big part of it. The main office was located on the oldest boat there, the S.S Keenora. She was 117 years old at the time, and much of the boat was still original from when she was first created, so you were literally walking and touching 117 year old history.

My manager used to poke fun at me with stories and experiences that she had had on the boats when she was working there, and she knew that I was a huge supernatural enthusiast so I was very eager to hear her stories. However, what I didn’t realize was that I would have my own experiences from day one.

My partner that I was working with at the time was showing me how to use the old skeleton key to open up some of the doors on the Keenora, it took me a little bit to put the key in the hole “just so” but eventually I got it to work. Once we finished there, we split up so we could open up the other boats; there was a little bridge that connected the Keenora to the C.G.S Bradbury. As I opened up the first door to the Captain’s quarters I got a very weird feeling that overwhelmed me. I felt like I shouldn’t be in that room. I was determined to get the job done, so I pressed on. The feeling continued to grow as I went about my business, I was just about to step down the stairs, and up onto the other side of the landing when I got a chill that racked my entire body. Every single hair was on end, and I frantically looked around at my surroundings. I walked back to the other side, and the feeling lessened. I pressed on and continued into the boiler room of the Bradbury.

I opened up the door of the boiler room and gave a hard shove, the door groaned loudly almost as if it were in protest. I latched it in place and stepped inside, at this point I had not turned the lights on, so it was pitch black. As I was crossing over the metal grated flooring to unlock the other door from the inside, several very loud bangs sounded from down below and I stood there motionless for a few minutes, wondering if it was simply my own footsteps. Again three loud bangs sounded, this time I was perfectly still. Gaining some sort of courage, I asked if anyone was down there (although it would be impossible to get down there except through the crew quarters which required a key); my response was met with another row of banging, the sound resonating all throughout the metal room, ringing continuously in my ears. I grabbed my phone from my pocket and shone the light down below, all the while that overwhelming feeling of unwanted-ness coming back in full force. I strained my eyes to see better, but there was nothing, just thick dark blackness. Using the adrenaline from being startled I finished opening the rest of the boats and barreled right into the office. My partner looked up at me and smiled.

“That was some pretty good timing.”

I smiled meekly back and sat at the desk, and looked out the window as clouds for a summer rain rolled in. I had regular occurrences such as those almost every day, but none as frightening as I had on my first shift alone.

It was about 8:45 when I arrived at the museum. I opened up the pad lock and stepped inside to put the security code into the keypad. Just as I had finished doing that, I heard a shuffling sound come from downstairs in the hold of the Keenora. My stomach clenched, at this point I hadn’t even turned on a light yet so it was pitch black. I grabbed my keys again, and began turning on the lights and opening up the port holes and doors. I was making my way to the back, and into the galley (the kitchen/ dining area), where I could hear more shuffling, and dragging noises. However these were much louder than before and they sounded as if they were moving more quickly than when I had previously heard them. Determined not to run out of there screaming I put my headphones in and listened to some Marilyn Manson. I flicked on all the lights on the control panel and turned around on my heel. I was just making my way up the grand stair case when I heard a very loud bang come from downstairs in the hold. Keep in mind I had my headphones in, with music playing.

“What the hellwas that…?” I murmured to myself quietly.

Reluctantly I went back into the galley and peeked around the corner. There was a small door to a pantry that was open, I knew for a fact that it was closed when we shut everything down the night before. I took my ear buds out and closed the pantry door. The same dragging and shuffling noise sounded from downstairs. Every part of my being was telling me to run very fast and very far away from this place, but I was curious, and incredibly stupid, and determined to find out who or what might have been causing the noise. So I slowly started to walk down the steps into the hold. When I had reached the bottom of the stairs, the temperature had dropped drastically, I was shivering and I could very faintly see my own breath. This was in the middle of a Canadian summer, which is normally 35oC plus humidity, so it was definitely not cold.

I turned to my right and looked down the long hall of the hold, I couldn’t see anyone, and the dragging sound had stopped. An eerie silence fell all throughout the hold, and I remember the atmosphere being very thick and charged, I could have cut that air with a knife. Slowly I continued to walk through the hall, and just as I was about to go into the engine room I heard shuffling coming from a door that I hadn’t ever opened before. I numbly walked over to it, and placed my left hand on the padlock and turned the key with my right, to my horror the door swung open of its own accord and violently smashed into the wall of the tiny room which I had opened.
All that was in the room was a very large silver boiler, and beside it in the corner of the room was a thick black mass, it was blacker than black and a putrid smell suddenly filled my nostrils. A sudden rush of cold air and the blur of a black mass told me that whatever this thing was it was not pleased with me opening up that door. I tried to cry out in fear and pain, but found my own voice was silenced with spluttering coughs that racked my body. The dragging noise was replaced by loud scratching and heavy footsteps. Fearing for my life, with my face covered I ran to the stairs and clambered my way up. I did not stop running until I was up the grand stair case and onto the second floor of the Keenora. Seriously shaken I took a few minutes to myself in the lounge and slowed my breathing; I grimaced at the thick layers of dust on the furniture and made note to dust them later. After I had calmed down I opened the rest of the boats and had a fairly busy day. At around 4:45 I had finished cash out I began closing up.

I had just finished shutting the lights off and setting the last trip wire when I got that unmistakable feeling from earlier. I got up and began making my way to the entrance of the ship. I tried very hard to avert my eyes as I walked past a staircase to the hold, but something had caught my attention, something that should not have been there.

I turned my face and gasped in sheer terror as I saw peering up at me two very bright and very menacing red eyes, and a massive figure, blacker than black crouched on the bottom steps of the stair case. I sent a quick prayer up to the Creator and ran to the front of the boat, heavy footsteps following after me. I punched in the code, unbolted the door, and quickly shut it once I was outside. I grabbed the bar and wrenched it into place over the double doors and clicked the padlock on. The doors themselves suddenly gave a jolt as if something were trying to get through. I hopped on my bike and rode home straight away; I slipped into a very uneasy sleep that night.

The next day I had told my manager what happened and she had said the same thing had happened to her when she was working there. She had confessed that she had many a spiritual healer and psychic come through to try and get rid of the entity but none had been successful.

I decided that I would take a walk down there the other day and just have a look at the place, I lightly brushed my hand on the hull of the Keenora and smiled, but I noticed thick black ooze was staining its beautiful white paint. I stepped closer to see if I could determine what it was, and I swear to you I heard a very loud noise come from the inside of the hold. I placed my ear against the metal of the boat and from the inside I could hear the same shuffling and dragging noises as before. I took my hand off the hull, stepped back and turned around, leaving the Keenora well behind me.

Credit To – Darth Marl

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Everything is Perfect Forever

May 28, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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The monster came right before the end of summer. Nobody knew it was a monster, of course. No one ever does.

The Nettletons used to live in the house it moved into. Dani knew Imogene, their daughter. The two were in the same fifth grade, rode the same bus. They were friends. Sort of.

Dani didn’t really like Imogene, partially because Imogene talked incessantly about bats. That was her only conversational topic. Dani thought bats were nasty. She was happy when the Nettletons moved away and could she stop pretending bats were beautiful or interesting. Dani thought pretending ugly things were beautiful was the saddest thing. She hated to think of people spending their whole lives thinking something was pretty when it just wasn’t.

She may not have missed the bats, but she certainly did miss visiting Imogene because she loved her house. It was beautiful, an old stone Tudor with a gorgeous garden. She worried about what would happen to the garden after the Nettletons moved. Her mom told her not to worry: everything always works out in the end.

But sometimes things don’t.

One day, Dani saw a new car in the driveway. It was a convertible, shiny and new, Granny Smith colored. A few days later, walking past the house with her brother Nick, she saw the monster working on her garden. The lilies she had planted were a shocking white against the deep green of the lawn.

The monster waved and laughed, “Come on over!” she called, “I’m new to this neighborhood. Please, sit down. I have lemonade and cookies.”

She poured lemonade from big glass pitchers with big ice cubes and they laughed along with her big laughs that shook the garden. For someone so small, in her bright blue shirts and white and red gardening gloves, she laughed so big. She showed all her teeth when she smiled.

Her and Nick went over, almost every day. They didn’t tell their parents. Ever since Nick got sick the previous winter, their parents worried about him all the time. That was all they talked about, other than getting into arguments with each other late at night about medical bills and the odds of remission and which oncologist they should believe more.

But the monster didn’t argue loudly and say meant things; the monster was nice. She made you feel electric when you were with her. Everything reminded her of a funny story. Everyday was beautiful outside. Every glass of lemonade tasted sweeter. The sky stayed permanent blue. One day, she had a boxy old, antiquated camera. She took a photo of Nick while he laughed and told her to stop. She took a picture of Dani too, who smiles as big as she could but, she realized later, never heard the click of the shutter.

“She looks like a movie star. Like Julia Roberts,” Dani would whisper to Nick when they were walking home, “Why do you think she lives here, in silly old Greentown?”

“I guess we’re lucky ,” Nick smiled. “She’s so pretty.”

It took Dani a while to hear about the missing children. School had just started, and although her parents tried to keep it quiet, they couldn’t always be around to change the subject or shoot a warning glance at someone. So she found out at recess, from Agnes, the fat faced girl who was always forgetting her homework. Kids had disappeared from the middle school. Two in two weeks. No one knew if it was related or not.

“Why would someone take a kid,” asked Dani, who was ten and very smart but in some ways not very smart at all.

“I don’t know,” admitted fat face Agnes, who wasn’t very smart about most things save gossip, “but whatever it is, it can’t be very good.”

That night, Dani wanted to ask her parents about it, but of course she couldn’t. She decided she would settle on asking Nick instead, but he disappeared to his room after dinner and was no help at all. He hadn’t been recently anyway, she had noticed. Something was bothering him but he wouldn’t say what when she asked. She was worried he was getting sick again and no one was going to tell her. That was why she was trying to worry about the missing kids instead.

After her parents stopped paying attention to her, she was able to slip off and use her dad’s iPad. She had, through trial and error, become fantastic at disabling the blocking software her parents had installed and, once situated, she was able to read up on the vanished children online.

They were boys and both twelve. Same age as Nick. The police weren’t saying it was connected, but the comments section of the local paper was full of hysterical chatter about the boys claiming to have met someone. Someone older. One of the comments said one of the boys told a friend something about a green car.

There was a storm that night, a big awful one. All wind and rain and lightning. Raindrops banged against her windows like fists. Since she couldn’t sleep, Dani found herself thinking about the story. What happened to those boys? Did they know each other? What happened? She could hear the tv in her parent’s room. Some crime procedural show. She heard it click off. She stood up and walked to her window. The rain was still falling, but could see the monster’s house. She could see the car parked in the driveway, emerald and brand new.

The next morning, Nick was gone. Her parents were hysterical, calling everyone he knew, then the police. The police came; it felt like a movie. Dani felt numb, weird, as if she was watching a television show that confused her but she kept watching.

The policemen were nice, but they didn’t really talk to her. Her parents fluttered about, they discussed when they last saw Nick, what he was wearing, what he had been talking about. A girl, his dad said. He said he had been talking to an older girl.

The policeman smelled like cigarettes and paperwork. Did Nick say a name? But no. No one knew a name.

Dani went to her bedroom on the second floor and looked out at the neighborhood, its perfect streets, its perfect trees, its perfect world. She stared at the house where the green car had been parked. But not anymore. The driveway was empty.

Six years later, she was sixteen, riding the bus alone. Her parents were divorced. She lived with her mom. They had an apartment now, instead of a home. House. She meant house.

After Nick vanished, her parents didn’t let her out of their sight. Everywhere she went they followed, becoming tangible shadows on high doses of anxiolytics in the process. But watching her obsessively didn’t bring him back, and so they faded out into arguments with each other. Whose fault was it? Who can I blame? How can a horrible thing happen unless someone allowed it to? How could the world allow that?

Eventually, Dani drifted away from them, into the inchoate simultaneous anger and boredom of adolescence, and they let her go. Perhaps her parents felt, in losing one child, they had committed too grievous of a sin to even deserve the other.

The day she was waiting for happened when she was coming home from her friend Madeline’s house. Madeline wore sailor moon sailor inspired outfits and only watched movies made after 1985. Her dad was teaching summer classes at Artuad College, so the house was always empty. Madeline’s mom was dead. Dani didn’t know the story and Madeline didn’t really volunteer any details so it was one of those Things People Don’t Talk About. It was ok. Dani never talked about Nick. History was just something that happened anyway. Madeline had a koi pond in her backyard. Dani loved to watch the fish swim off into the edges, their giant mouths opening and closing.

“Did you read that book for class?”

“It’s not a book, it’s a story,” responded Dani, “and yeah, I did.”

“Did you like it? I didn’t,” clarified Madeline, “but, full disclosure, I don’t like anything by Henry James.”

“I didn Sort of. Wait, you know what? I liked it. It was pretty messed up,” confessed Dani. She both hated and loved how Madeline had an opinion on Henry James. Madeline was forever someone to envy and despise. “This guy — what was his name?”

“His name is John Marcher. Mar-cher. Why Madeline hates Henry James example one: his character who is always moving is named “Marcher,”” she shook her head, “for the love of Christ.”

“Right, right, so anyway, John Marcher,” continued Dani, undeterred, “waits his whole life for something impossibly awful to happen. He has this feeling of doom his whole life. But in the end? Nothing happens. No ominous event. No tragedy. And that’s the tragedy,” she paused, “if that makes sense. Does that make sense?”

“Sure. Maybe. We all waste our life, tho, don’t we? He takes such a long time to make that point. I asked my dad if it was about repressed gay stuff,” Madeline continued, leaning against the edge of a tree in the backyard. She leaned well, noticed Dani, “and he said if you’re ever in doubt writing about literature, always argue the whole thing is about repressed gay stuff.”

“Good rule. If I go to Artuad College, I’m definitely taking classes with your dad.”

“Just don’t let him sleep with you like he does his other students. That would make things between us sooooo awkward. Come on. Let’s feed these fish.”

Dani thought of the koi the whole bus ride home. She had touched one once. It’s skin felt strange. Alien. She thought of Madeline, and that story. The beast in the jungle. Life’s the jungle.

She almost didn’t see it. Later, thinking about it, she wondered what would have happened if she hadn’t looked out the window that moment. All lives are caused by these tiny accidents everyone pretends were choices.

She could see the dark clouds above the bus. It looked like a storm was coming. Everything had a trembling vitality to it; bent trees released bright green leaves. The pavement seemed to glow. And she gasped, and pulled the bus cord to stop. For there, on a street in the nondescript neighborhood, was a bright green car.

After the bus pulled off, she stood in an astonished daze next to a bench. There was a convenience store across the street, a woman walking a dog. Cars drove by. The green car was parked in front of a nondescript house. Well trimmed hedges. Mowed lawn.

There was no question in her mind if it was the right car. It was, it was, it was. Every little part of it was in her head and had been, for five years. Things can get stuck in you and never leave. And that car was one of them.

Her body felt so abstract, so distant at that moment. What do you do when you spend your whole life waiting for something and it happens?

The monster stepped out of the house. Dani ducked behind a mailbox. Fight or flight, she thought, just like she learned in biology that year. What was it called?

She peered out around the edge of the mailbox. The monster opened the car door. She looked the same. Exactly the same as she had before. Like someone had taken a picture of her and wrapped her up in it. The door closed. The car drove off.

Flight or fight.

As soon as the car was gone she was running. Down the street. Eyes wide. Breathing hard. Her entire body alive, raw and continuing.

Autonomic nervous system reaction. That’s what it was called. Your body tells you that you have to do something. It floods your neurons. You have no choice.

The front of the house was too obvious. She couldn’t go in that way. Besides, it was almost five o’clock. Cars were starting to pull into neighboring houses. Somebody would see her. She ran to the fence and climbed over, tearing a hole in the knee of her jeans.

The backyard was full of lilies. They looked like bones in the green body of the yard. She tried the French door. Locked. Standing there, tremulous, she saw a landscaping rock. She grabbed it and felt the weight of it in her hand. Fight or flight.

The rock shattered the glass. She reached in, carefully but still cut her hand. She unlocked the door and pushed it open. She was in the house. Into the jungle, looking for the beast.

She expected horrors. Dead bodies, gruesome signs of inexplicable evil. Things she would never be able to forget. But instead? Nothing. It was just a suburban home. Nice couches. Tasteful, if non-interesting, paintings on the wall. Hardwood floors. Stainless steel refrigerators. Complete blandness.

She wandered through the kitchen, the living room, upstairs. Everything looked horrible normal. Nothing out of the ordinary.

And then she noticed the closed door.

It was on the first floor. The only door, she realized, that wasn’t open. Inside of her, every nerve was surging, like she was electric cords across a wet sky. She took a deep breath. Fight or flight. She opened the door. And screamed.

There were shelves nailed into the walls. Bright green shelves. And on them, overflowing them, were the jars. And the things inside the jars.

They looked like they might have once been humans, but now they were shrunk down and distorted. A cross between a fetus and a fish on first glance, floating in dirty, brown yellow water the color of leaves in October. On the front of each jar, a photograph was taped, carefully. Each of a boy, twelve years old, smiling at the camera, smiling at their photo being taken.

The thing in the jar she was staring at was pink, malformed, gelatinous. It’s eyes were different colors. And then it pushed against the jar.

She screamed, again. Had she even stopped screaming from the first time? She wasn’t sure. In the face of impossibility, meaning slips away. All these things were alive, in some sort of horrible manner, she realized. Which meant if Nick was here, he was too. Mutated and disgusting and trapped.

She started pawing at all the jars, staring at photos, desperate to see his face. His stupid hair. The things in the jar were jumping, banging against the dirty glass. They let out bubbles from holes that might have been mouths. Their eyes were pale jellies.

She never heard the door open behind her. She was so intent on the jars, she never heard footsteps. She never felt the breath.

“It has been,” said the monster, “utterly too long.”

She didn’t scream. She wasn’t sure how. She turned around. The monster still looked the same.

“I’m disappointed you don’t look scarier,” Dani said. Her body was vibrating, “I thought you’d have, like, a final form or something.” Her heart was pounding.

“Would you like me to have one,” the monster smiled like a movie star. She stepped closer.

“You’re a monster. Why don’t you look like a monster?”

“I’m not a monster.”

Dani looked at the jars, the abominations in glass. Her brother in one, somewhere. The monster watched her. She saw her bemused expression in the reflections of the glass under the bright recessed lighting.

“They don’t know what’s happening,” she said, “they can’t see any of this.”

“You think that makes it ok,” she asked, as one of the things mouthed near the top of the water, near the lid, “that doesn’t make it ok.”

“I didn’t kill them. I made them into what they wanted. They wanted to be with me. They are.”

“This isn’t what he wanted.”

“Your brother didn’t want to grow up, Dani. He didn’t want to get sick again.”

“He didn’t want this!” she screeched. Her voice echoed everywhere. The little blobs floated.

“How do you know? Do you? Do you really? Because I know,” said the monster. “I know everything. I know you. That’s why I came back here. I don’t like to come back to places, you know. People can get ideas. If they recognize me. If they wonder why I look the same. It’s nice, you know, always looking the same. It’s nice always being beautiful. You’re beautiful Dani. You know that. But you know you won’t always be.” She walked to Dani, closer, then said, staring at her, “but it was the worth the risk, coming here, because I knew you. I knew you wouldn’t ever let him go. And I wanted to tell you that you don’t have to let him go. You don’t have to let anyone go.”

Dani didn’t say anything. She couldn’t. Her blood was throbbing.

“You don’t have to let anything go if you don’t want to. You don’t have to let go of you, Dani: you can hold onto yesterday forever. And it can always feel like today.”

“You’re a monster.”

“This world is the monster. The world makes you grow up, makes you get sick, get unhappy, miserable, die. I don’t want them to die. Nether do you. You can make them live forever. You can make them happy. You can be happy. Don’t you want that?”

Dani went to scream, she wanted to scream, she felt like screaming, to tell her as a matter of fact she was a monster. She wanted to kill it and find her brother and set him free and live happily ever after —but when she opened her mouth, she didn’t say that. She didn’t say that at all.

Later, after the house and after the monster, after she got home to the apartment and had an awful and quiet dinner with her mother, she sat in her bedroom and looked out the window. It was a summer night, deep in the lushness of July, and the last dredges of sunshine had yet to cede ground to the inexorable night. Kids rode by on their bikes, happy and laughing. She was holding the old, beautiful camera. She was thinking of the explanations. The rules. She would start taking photos tomorrow. The monster said practice makes perfect. And now she could start to make everything perfect.

Credit To – Kevin Sharp

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The Villages At Parkside

May 27, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Even though there’s been no need to fear it for years, kids in The Villages at Parkside still move pretty quickly past 2227 Indiana Avenue,. Mrs. Yearts still lives there, but DJ got shipped off to a military boarding school years ago, and he graduated a little before me. He stuck with that lifestyle and enlisted, or so my parents told me. DJ and I didn’t keep in touch.

DJ once ruled our neighborhood with an iron fist, at least in terms of the children. Ruled actually seems a little benevolent, a more proper term is terrorized. Terrorized with an iron fist. Built a little bigger and stronger than his peer group, he unfortunately coupled this with an almost sadistic mean streak. My father used to say that his mother treated him terribly, and DJ’s father either left or died, I never found out which. Either way he seemed determined to take it out on the world.

DJ and I actually shared something in common in that we two didn’t go to the local Catholic school just up the street from me. Nearly all the kids in the neighborhood did, and I still played on its church soccer team, so I knew most of the guys that way. But that left DJ as the real odd man out. I don’t want to provide any excuses, because I still hate the kid that he was, but now I can empathize a little better, just due to age and experience.

On the way back from one of those soccer practices a group of us left the park together and started scattering back to our respective homes. A fall sport, soccer practices often run until nearly dark, especially later in the year. We were still in middle school then, but our coach worked us as hard as any high school coach I would later play under and we didn’t go home until our water bottles lightened to empty and our legs sagged beneath us. Even though he pushed us hard, our coach remained as adamant about leaving the park before dusk, just as our parents did.
“Park closes at dusk, boys. It’s illegal for us to stay any later.” he would tell us, and even though it made no sense that a group of twelve year olds would get arrested for playing soccer in a public place designated for that purpose, we scurried home anyway and made sure not to come back, not that we wanted to.

On this particular evening we stayed right to the brink before the coach told us to pack it in, and five of us, exhausted and the last group to leave, trudged back, knocking our cleats against the curb occasionally to try and kick a little mud off. We generally accepted our neighborhood to consist of ten blocks that ran perpendicular to Bracey Avenue, which we walked down with a red sliver of a sun still at our backs. Bracey formed a kind of spine for the neighborhood with five vertebral blocks branching off, and up at the third vertebrae we could see a dark outline throwing things at trees and lampposts, a favored pastime of our old nemesis. We all nervously looked at each other. DJ was a couple years older than us, already in high school, and big on top of that. Because our soccer league grouped us by two years, the team consisted of mainly sixth and seventh graders with a couple of young eighth graders thrown in, which made us now the oldest cohort. A couple of years ago we might have waited for the kids his age to finish practice and come up behind us, but those days were gone, they all went to high school and practiced with their high school teams, no longer in our local park. DJ didn’t practice at all; we’d heard he was kicked off his school’s football team for starting fights, but no one knew any specifics or really worried about it. We did worry, though, about the large figure up ahead that we didn’t want to run into.

The other four looked to me. I, too, ranged a little above average for my age, though not big enough to stand chin to chin with DJ. Perhaps chin to nose. I scuffed my cleat against the ground. I didn’t really have any skin in this fight; DJ patrolled the space between the third and fourth streets just now and my house sat on the second. So did Ben’s, and while DJ currently occupied the left side of Bracey Avenue, Harry and Pat lived on the third street, but on the right side. Only Jake, out on the fifth street, showed open fear.

“He’s not gonna do anything.” I said. “He’s too busy throwing rocks.”

Ben, Harry, and Pat all looked relieved, but Jake surely did not. “Guys, I have to walk past him all by myself. Last time I did he ripped my soccer jersey. Plus he took one of my cleats and my dad had to go get it back.” The fear and pleading in Jake’s voice made us all uncomfortable.

“It’s not that bad.” I muttered and focused on my cleats.

“Guys…” Jake said, his eyes looking around at each of us in turn, but we all saw much more interesting things in other directions. No one moved off though, all of us knowing we needed to look out for our own.

Inspired by the classic fox-rabbit-carrot puzzle, I came up with a plan. “Guys, let’s all walk with Jake down to his house, and then the four of us can walk to Indiana, so Harry and Pat, you guys can go up your street, and then Ben and I will walk back to McClellan together. I looked around and got nods from everyone except Ben.

“I live further up McClellan than you. I’ll be the last one out on the street.” He sounded legitimately scared and I sighed, knowing I would need to bite the bullet on this.

“Fine.” I replied. “I can run faster than you, so I’ll walk up to your place with you and then run back home.”

“Ok.” Ben agreed. I swallowed, knowing that this might put me in a bad spot, but I was the biggest; maybe DJ would think twice about going for me, and I thought I could outrun him anyway.

The five of us stayed on the right side of Bracey Avenue and held our breath as we walked past DJ, but he paid us no mind, focusing his ire instead on a lamppost that showed quite a few dings already. None of us spoke the entire way to Jake’s house, but when he got there he gave us a relieved look and said “Thanks guys.” He sprinted up the steps and ran in his front door as we walked away, back down the street.

In retrospect, I know exactly what we should have done, gone up to the main road that ran past our neighborhood. It ran parallel to Bracey and could take us all safely home without ever setting foot anywhere near DJ. But that road, Hartford, was crowded and busy, and our parents instructed us to use Bracey. Neighborhood bullies scared them less than possible abductors on the main roads, and we remained blindly obedient.

“Wait.” said Harry. “Let’s cut through here.” Two yards without fences lay to our left, so we snuck through in the growing dark, over to the fourth street.
“Let’s find another yard to cut through. If the MacKenzies took Chester inside, we can go through their yard, and the house behind them doesn’t have a fence.” said Pat.
“Wait.” I said. The streets were silent except for the dull roar of cars coming from the main drag. Staying low, I crept down the street a little so I could see Bracey again. I came back and told them “DJ’s gone. I think he went home. Let’s just use Bracey.”

Pat looked doubtful, but the other two readily agreed. We got to Indiana without incident, and Pat and Harry turned off and headed up their street. “See you Thursday.” Ben called after them, and they waved their acknowledgement back.
“Maybe we can get Pat’s brother to come down to the park on Thursday.” I said hopefully to Ben.

“Pat said he doesn’t get home until after seven from football practice…” Ben replied. Pat’s brother, Chris, once ranked as our best defense against DJ. Now a junior in high school and a JV footballer he could still ward of DJ easily, but no longer had the time.

“Damn.” I said glumly. “I wish his mother would send him to military school. Everyone keeps saying she’s going too.”

Ben nodded his agreement, but didn’t say anything. That rumor circulated every couple of months, but we first heard it two years ago. DJ didn’t seem to be going anywhere. We arrived at McClellan and made a left, then stopped dead. Here came DJ, walking right towards us, maybe twenty feet away. I restarted my stride, and after a second, Ben did too, but too late. DJ smelled the fear and stopped and stared at us from three feet away on the sidewalk. We didn’t even bother to try and walk past him.

By now a pattern stood long since established, so DJ didn’t feel the need to taunt us or provoke us. “Gimme that ball.” He demanded of Ben.

Ben couldn’t help but stare at him as he handed his dingy soccer ball over to DJ. DJ took it and threw it over our heads so that it landed on Bracey. “Go get it.” he said to me.

“You don’t throw a soccer ball.” I said disdainfully. “You kick it.”

DJ faked throwing his shoulders at me like he was going to tackle me, but held back. I jumped back about three feet anyway. “Go get it.” he snarled, laughing now.

I turned and jogged towards the ball. It wasn’t terribly far away, but I could feel Ben’s eyes on my back, accusing me for abandoning him. I guess I stopped feeling them at some point because I heard Ben yell “Hey!” I kept going and grabbed the ball about ten seconds later and started running back, but too late. DJ knocked Ben to the ground the second I left and pulled off his cleats, apparently a tactic he was growing to favor. This time though, he had the cleats in hand, a clumsy knot tied between two of the laces. Ben got off the ground and ran into him full steam. It knocked DJ back a step, but he quickly recovered and shoved Ben back to the ground easily. Now Ben watched with tears in his eyes as DJ threw the cleats up in the air. They revolved around and around, nearly became tangled in a tree branch, and thudded back to earth right in front of DJ.

I got back right as DJ released the cleats and, ignoring my former admonition of him for throwing the soccer ball with his hands, heaved the ball with all my might right at him. I aimed for his torso, thinking it the easiest to hit, but I played soccer for a reason. My throw went high and hit him right in the face, then bounced upwards. Surprised at this show of defiance, he still managed to catch the ball before it hit the ground and made as if to sling it right back at me. I went up on my toes and prepared to dodge, but he pulled it down with a growl and laughed at us.
“Now I’ve got your ball too, you little dumbasses.” He threw it up towards the tree a couple times, but it failed to catch either. He recovered it each time it bounced back down, though Ben and I each made an attempt for it.

“Alright, well I’m keeping it, then.” he said, and started trotting past us, towards Bracey. For good measure, he grabbed Ben’s shoes.

“HEY!” I screamed at him, as angry and upset as I’d ever been. “That’s not yours!”

“It is now. I’m gonna throw it in the forest.”

That set me back on my heels. “You can’t. It’s after dark. You’re not allowed in the park after dark.” That simple rule defined a large part of my life.

“I go in the park after dark all the time.” bragged DJ.

“No you don’t.” I said. “No one does.”

“I do. Watch me.” DJ started back the way we came from earlier.

Ben stood behind me. “Did he say he was throwing those in the park?” The fright was apparent.

“I don’t know. C’mon. Let’s stay behind him and watch. Be ready to run.” I warned. I didn’t want to lose my cleats any more than Ben wanted to lose his.

We were only about a block from the park, but DJ went over a little further, up the street that bordered the park, away from me and Ben’s houses. I saw what he planned. The fields where we played soccer sat in a low spot, surrounded on three sides by hills, and the fourth side by a creek. Two of the hills had roads built on top of them that created the edge of the fields. But the high side was covered by thick trees and brush and abutted the road. DJ didn’t intend to go in the park. He would just stand in the road and throw the gear into the forest. When I saw this, I made a run at him, but I got there way too late. He threw the ball into the forest and laughed at me. The cleats followed, revolving around and around, before wrapping around a tree branch.

“Go get it.” he teased.

Ben and I looked at each other. We didn’t want to go in there, we weren’t supposed to, not by any means, but how could we let DJ walk away having disposed of Ben’s cleats and his ball? I trudged towards the forest determinedly. At the street there was a steep dropoff into the forest, but it was late fall and most of the brush was dead, so I thought I could see where I was going. A street lamp burned behind me, and with its help I thought I could just see the ball. DJ was big and had a good arm, but the forest was pretty thick. I turned around to find DJ looking at me expectantly and Ben right behind me.

“You don’t have to go in.” I said. “You don’t have cleats on.”

“No.” he replied. “It’s my ball.”

We went to the steep edge and started inching down it on our butts. We recognized it would be tough to get back up, but lots of dead shrubs and roots protruded around us, and in the worst case we could pick our way back down to the field and come up the same slope we used to leave soccer practice. Some of the shrubs were thorny, and we when we got to the bottom, Ben stepped on one with stocking feet. “Ow!” he exclaimed. I looked back. I could see DJs silhouette at the top of the slope behind us.

“C’mon” I said. “Let’s get this and go home.”

We started picking our way over to where DJ threw the ball when we both heard a twig snap to our left. We both froze.

“What was that?” asked Ben in a whisper. I suddenly realized how dark it was in here and how little that street lamp helped.

“Nothing.” I said, as my heart raced. “Just a dead branch falling.”

I took a step forward and snapped a twig myself, and Ben’s arm came shooting out to grab mine. I yelped at this and he shushed me. “You grabbed me.” I groused.
“Arthur, I think we should go back.” he whispered, clearly very fearful.
I felt inclined to agree. “Ok. We’ll get it tomorrow. Or get your dad to come down.”

We turned around to get back to the slope. We were only maybe fifteen feet in, but we both suddenly thought that was too far. The hill was steep and the street looked unreachable. Ben started running before I did, but he stepped on another thorn bush and came up lame. I took two steps past him before I turned around to see him limping along, maybe five feet ahead of two glowing red eyes and a pair of shiny white teeth illuminated by the street lamp.

I didn’t even yell. I just ran straight for the hill with all my strength, two hour soccer practice forgotten. Ben must have seen the fear in my eyes, must have known something was wrong. I heard his footsteps behind me until I reached the hill. My cleats dug into the same wet clay that had stuck to them so well earlier that day and I scampered up the hill, tree roots and thorns alike tearing into my suddenly bloody hands. I don’t know what happened to Ben. I don’t know if cleats might have saved him that day or if he never even made it to the hill, but I ran as fast as I could back to where we first encountered DJ before I realized what I’d done. Horrified, I ran back the other way, slowing as I approached the border street. I didn’t see DJ anywhere. I approached the edge of the park, slowly, listening for any sound. I heard one. A dull crunching sound came from below me, coupled with occasional growling. It was too much for me I turned tail and ran again, never even looking down the slope properly.

I arrived home a nervous wreck, shaking and crying, but I got my story out quickly, or at least the important part. The second my father heard we’d been in the park after dark he left me in the care of my mother and strode towards the door, pulling a sturdy walking stick out of the umbrella stand as he left. I knew that walking stick. My father bought it when he visited Great Britain, and when he came back he showed me the sharp metal tip and sheathed axe head, all designed to ward off or kill any wild animals a hiker might come across in the rural areas of Scotland, where my family was from.

The fallout from this episode was tremendous. The news services made an ungodly amount of noise about animal control. My mother didn’t let me leave the house for a month on account of their hounding. The coroner’s report came out about the first time that I went back to school, and though the coroner noted that whatever killed Ben necessarily must be the biggest feral dog ever seen, the bites and such were consistent with such an attack. Forest rangers called in from national parks combed the park for weeks, never finding so much as a track. Finally, they called the search off, claiming the thing must have moved on.

I quit the soccer team after that, and stopped seeing my neighborhood friends. They didn’t mind; I scared them all almost as much as the park now. I told my story to the police and my mother told me that a few days later DJ got shipped off to military school. A couple years later high school signaled a general return to normalcy for me, as my notoriety wore off. My neighborhood friends all went to the Catholic institutions that usually followed a career at the local Catholic school, while I continued in the public school system. I picked soccer back up in high school, and when we occasionally played their teams, my old friends didn’t acknowledge me. I returned the favor, not wanting to dredge up what happened, not wanting my new high school friends to think of me differently. I went to college, joined a frat, got a degree, and put the whole thing behind me. I moved out of my parents’ house as soon as I graduated and lived too far away to visit frequently.

But last year I drove home to the old neighborhood, the day before Thanksgiving, and as I got out of the car I saw a short, muscular figure come out from behind a large bush to greet me. DJ, it turned out, wasn’t that big, he’d been held back a couple times and I now towered over him, but that didn’t bother him. While I tried to forget that night, he spent the last decade plus trying to piece it together.

“What do you want?” I asked sharply. I didn’t know what kind of grudges DJ might harbor.

“McClellan.” He said to me. “Do you know where your street gets its name?”

I shrugged. “The civil war general, I would guess.”

He nodded gravely. “That’s right. He fought battles all along this area, trading blows with Lee. But unlike Lee, a large part of his army was made up of immigrants.”

“Irish.” I said. “Running from English laws and some earlier ones from the potato famine.” I doubted DJ could outflank me on history.

“Exactly, but not all of them. Scotsmen and Englishmen came here too, and some joined up with the army. Some of them died here.”

I shook my head. “I’ll give you that.”

He took a deep breath. “What did you see the night Ben died?”

I looked at him hard-eyed. “A bully who tormented children until he got one killed.” My voice came out cold and flinty.

DJ took a step back. He must have known that was coming, but the pain on his face still showed. “I know that. I understand that now. But I haven’t come to make amends, not yet. There’s still something else I need to do.”

“What?” I asked, my voice still frosty.

“Have you ever heard of a Barghest?” I flinched, and he knew he could continue. “Some legends say that a Barghest comes about when a Scots or Englishman is killed unjustly, or his remains go unburied, and the Barghest roams the forests and hills near his body, seeking vengeance.”

Over the past years I mostly released my memories of that night, but the demonic red eyes and glinting ivory mouth still haunted my dreams from time to time. A morbid curiosity and unlimited access to the internet told me what I didn’t want to know.

“That’s ridiculous.” I snapped. “Don’t try to blame this on some dead soldier from a bygone era. You killed Ben, by way of some animal. You just feel guilty”

“I didn’t kill Ben.” DJ intoned slowly. “I made a mistake, but I didn’t kill him. But I am going to find whatever did.”

“The rangers searched that place for weeks. They never found a thing.”

DJ shook his head. “They never looked at night. And they never went when it was hungry.”

“Hungry?”

“I looked up the records. Animal attacks and missing persons are not uncommon near that park. Don’t you remember how we were warned to stay out of it after dark? Even me, by my neighbors. Everyone knows, but no one knows why or does anything to find out. In the past century and a half since the Civil war, records indicate 16 people killed by feral animals or missing in that park. No other park in a similar setting can even match half of that. Maybe a couple of those missing people aren’t victims of the Barghest. That’s 14. That’s one every decade, except this one.” DJ looked me dead in the eye. “The Barghest is hungry. It’s out to kill. But this time, it’s getting more than it bargained for.” DJ handed me a package. “Open this if I don’t come back.”

I grimaced. “DJ….”

He turned, but I found I had nothing to say. “Good luck.” I finished.

He gave a curt nod. “Thanks.”

When daylight broke three days later and stories of an AWOL infantry man found savaged near his childhood home started appearing on the news, I went for a walk. I’d opened DJ’s package and found his years of meticulous notes and research. I could see why he thought he’d stood a chance. I stood at the same spot where he’d decreed Ben’s fate, and yes, his own and stared blankly into the woods; blankly at a pair of child’s soccer cleats, swinging in the wind on a tree branch. A scrap of DJ’s research came back to me “Barghest are meticulous hunters, never forgetting a scent, never forgetting a potential prey.”

I stared blankly at my future.

I stared blankly at a pair of white cleats stained red with blood.

Credit To – Dan M Winters

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Lost Tombs and Those Lost Within Them

May 24, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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I could barely keep from collapsing as I ran through what seemed to be the never-ending darkness of the godforsaken catacombs. When I’d first signed on to serve as Professor Nickel’s field assistant, I’d assumed that the shrunken old man and I would spend days standing over a blanket of dirt, sifting through broken vases and old bones in search of some lost relic that the old fart would be hunting for.

He was always ranting about the “lost civilizations” and “how they need to be better explored by those with vision!”

All I’d cared about was walking away with a passing grade.

Now all I cared about was living to tell the tale!

We’d gotten separated some time ago, the old loon hopping down from a leaning column to the top of what he claimed to be a Sumerian tomb, telling me to keep up. How the old man moved like he did, I had no idea, but the jump was easily a twenty-foot drop.

Yeah, not doing that. I’d thought with disdain, having thought of the horrors my knees would face from such a height had I made a similar jump.

Now I was running for my life from some ancient Sumerian creatures that had crawled from the cracked awning of some ionic pillars, great shark-like maws wide in anticipation for what I could only assume to be dinner.

Namely me.

It didn’t matter as the creatures chasing me through the utter darkness were outright terrifying. From what I’d seen, the creatures were essentially unwrapped mummies that had replaced their funerary wrappings in place of moving along the walls like spiders. Hissing in their ancient language innumerable insults at me as they chased me around the catacombs, howling with laughter like sadistic chimps as they swung from high above, their aged claws scraping away bits of ancient plaster as they hurried after me.

Running with the two satchels of archaeologist’s tools, I quickly roll under a fallen column and soldier-crawl my way beneath a toppled statue, doing my best not to hack and cough at the dust I was kicking up.

I almost hack when I feel one of them land on top of the toppled statue, the other landing on all fours some distance away, prowling just within the light of my dropped flashlight, giving me a decent look at them.

They were obviously once human, but centuries of decay had changed that, turning them into something far worse. What funerary bindings they still possessed seemed only to exist to hold the carrion beetles that crawled all about their yellowed bones held together by the lightest of pink tendrils, thin strands of decayed sinew perhaps. Their mouths were no longer even comparable to what I possessed, being cracked down the middle and held aloft by the same pink tendrils, giving them a wide, toothy maw that nevertheless looked as if it could break stone. Their arms were covered in faded tattoos, highly intricate looking dark ink work that had probably meant something at one time. Now all I could do was stare at the bare-boned hands, the sharpened finger bones…

The one on top gave a great leap, causing more dust to rain down on me, landing next to its compatriot. This one held an old sword awkwardly with its left hand, handling the cracked leather-hilt as if it were poison.

Whatever this Ghoul had been in life, it was obviously not a soldier. It held the sword awkwardly, offering it to the other with a shrug, the two speaking in their gibberish language.

Oh, good lord, they’re thinking…

I fish into my satchel, as quietly as possible, for something that I could actually use as a weapon for when I eventually bump into one of them and can’t run. One satchel is nothing but books and brushes, so I look into the other, finding my great savior!

A steel trowel.

Six inches of sharpened steel connected to a wooden handle. That was all I had to separate me from death.

I shuffle about beneath the collapsed statue, like a sleepy turtle trying to find a comfortable spot, crawling the way I came in, squatting behind several tons of rubble in hopes of keeping the creatures far enough away from me actually to make a break for it. I slink around the corner as best I can, trying to figure out where the hell I actually am in the damned ruins. Pulling a compass and a smaller flashlight, I frown as I notice North is in the exact opposite direction I wanted it to be.

The map of the supposed “Tomb of the Ubaid Princes” that Professor Nickel had traded his watch for was worth its weight in lead in my eyes, but Nickel had been hopping with joy over the idea of a set of Ubaid tombs as of yet untapped.

I’d merely rolled my eyes.

Now I could just wring his damn neck for getting me into this deathtrap.

A crumbling of mortar tumbles over my shoulder, a hissing cadaver perched atop a column just above me, wielding the ancient looking sword within its cracked leather casing, its eyeless sockets filled with an unholy green light as it opened its mouth to an unholy size. It howls at me in anger or hunger.

Or happiness?

I have no idea, so I respond by ramming the trowel up into the creature’s chest, the steel cracking through the creatures sternum with the sound of dry timber snapping. It doesn’t seem to mind as it swings its sword at me with clumsy fumbling, falling off of the pillar as I yank the creature down with me into a wrestling match, stabbing at the creature madly as it howls in agony, its weak claws scratching at my shirt feebly as I vent my frustrations out on the unholy being.

Two more come bounding around the corner, caterwauling like a pair of mated tigers after the people who stole their cubs. The creature beneath me is barely grasping at my boots as I stand, feeling a little more empowered seeing as the damn things obviously can’t fight worth a damn. I scoop up the leather ensconced sword from the creatures twitching talons. The two creatures run at me, moving more like wolves than men, hissing their greeting as they leap over the rubble. I raise the sword more like a mallet, bringing it down to the crown of one of the mad beasts, hammering its skull more than cleaving it.

The leather cracks away more than any damage I did to the screeching corpse beneath me. This one is far stronger than the other, giving me a rather painful sense of anger at myself for being made to believe I could effectively fight these things. My leather-clad sword serves some healthy justice snapping the wrist of the second howling creature as it pounces onto my back, the thin pink veins doing little to keep the fractured bone connected to the body. The creature on my back encapsulates my head within its engorged mouth, the separated lower jaws forming a tight noose around my neck as the creature beneath me grabs hold of my wrists, their unholy shrieking becoming profane laughter as, rather than the intense pressure of a bite or the serrated edges of teeth, I feel a sudden pressure against the back of my head like I’d blocked off a water pipe. The one on my back pulls up slightly, allowing room for whatever its vomiting to move over me, and thousands of scarabs and carrion beetles begin scuttling over and under my clothes, their feathered legs leaving long shallow cuts wherever they fall.

I throw my weight back, slamming my insect-filled foe into a column behind me, a disgusting squelching noise similar to the sound of rotting pumpkins being thrown from an overpass rising from its chest, along with a series of audible snaps as I cave in its torso. It falls to the ground in a heap, wheezing out a steady stream of insects that seem to have decided to turn on him rather than me.

Thank God, because I can feel a few dozen finding spots all over my body and beginning to claw through my epidermis, seeking the warmth of the womb that my body would provide. The leering undead still grasping my wrists expands his mouth out, his hollow throat beginning to bulge as it seems he feels like sharing his personal wealth of flesh-eating insects.

Bang!

Bang!

Two shots fired from Professor Nickel’s personal hunting rifle tag the creature, once in the temple and again in the right shoulder, effectively blowing it to pieces in my very hands. While old, senile and eccentric, Professor Nickels always carries two guns with him at all times, something he’d suggested I do as well, once I actually earn some money to buy something. Slinging his Sharps Buffalo Rifle back over his back, you can just barely make out the holster to his M1911 pistol, something he tells me “one should always keep loaded when on an expedition, just in case.”

I’d assumed he’d meant bandits!

“Joshua!” He calls out from half way across the rubble-strewn room, hopping to and fro like a bullfrog after a fat firefly. “Did they get any on you?”

“Yes!” I all but screech as I feel three particularly large beetles begin wriggling their way into my skin, pushing a hole through my flesh. Three red blotches begin to form over my clothes, two over my stomach and one over my right thigh.

“Quickly, drink this!” He says, shoving a glass bottle into my hand that I happily begin fumbling with the cap. After several seconds of nervous fumbling, I growl and slam the top end of the bottle across an old mosaic next to me, breaking the bottle open wide enough for me to begin guzzling the foul smelling liquor held within.

“The larvae will die quickly enough if you’re sauced to the gills,” Nickels explains, his wrinkled face crinkling further as he smiles at me as I continue to drain the bottle, a faded paper label bearing the words “Ever” before being too rubbed out to see. With my throat on fire and my insides wriggling with parasites that were continually burrowing into me, I drop to the ground gasping for air, dropping the empty bottle into the sand.

“It will hurt like hell in the morning, let me tell you,” Nickels says with a smile, patting me on the shoulder with a gnarled hand. “The alcohol will drive them out of your body, or kill them. You’ll have to pay a nice doctor to drain your infected wounds once we get back to Baghdad in a few weeks.”

I sputter at the thought, my head spinning. “A few weeks? Did you not just see what we had to deal with?”

The old man waves his hand in the air at me as if a foul odor was passing. “Merely temple guardians, looters that fell prey to the traps around here and found themselves as guards for tombs and the like. But I have a good feeling on this one lad, a good feeling!”

“However so?” I ask, moving to my feet rather shakily, leaning heavily on my newest acquisition, the sword reaching an easy four feet in length.

“Well, that sword for one thing!” Nickels says with a wide, toothless grin. “The Ubaid weren’t known for their iron-working abilities, merely their domestic advancements; I’ve long since held belief that there was a civilization here before the Ubaid, based on their legends of metal men and the like, and that sword is quite a piece of history if I do say so myself.”

“Well at the moment it’s my cane because I can feel a goddamned roach burrowing deeper into my gut!” I hiss at him, but he pays it no mind.

“The tomb I found, the one that you wandered away from, well it is just what I was hoping for when I saw it and the great seal over it!” He crows, dancing about me like a mad little leprechaun. “The seal predates the Ubaid by at least five hundred years, and it has markings similar to the ones the Sumer used to mark royalty. I think I found myself the crypt of a King of an Empire not yet recorded!”

“Bully for you…” I grumble, limping alongside him.

He looks up at me with a discouraging glare. “Don’t tell me you’re going to be this much of a whiner the whole expedition, are you? Because if you think those petty guardians were anything worth talking about than you don’t even want to know what is probably lurking down in that tomb we’re going to be breaching in the morning.”

I could barely keep from collapsing as I felt the first of my burrowing playmates begin to spasm from the strong grain alcohol I’d ingested. My head swimming with drunken vigor and mild blood loss, all I could do was glare at the old man as we settled into our campsite, twin pair of tents and several large chests scattered about the sandy cavern we’d climbed down into, our camels left at a small oasis some two miles East of here with a tribe of nomads that Nickels seemed to be on good terms with.

Drunkenly leaning back, I decide to take a solid look at my walking blade, brushing away the flaking leather to take a better gander at the iron beneath it. It was in near pristine condition, a few touches of age here and there, but no actual structural damage to the frame of the blade. I knew for a fact that the museum back in London would pay me an easy ten thousand quid for the thing more than enough to pay off any outstanding loans I have hovering about my head at the local gambling houses.

Despite the crazed dead and demented midget, this dig might not is so bad at all.

***

I awake to the sounds of scraping stone and the grinding of dried mortar, giving my sleep-addled mind a sharp spike of adrenaline, considering all that has happened to me so far. I push my way up, wincing at the numerous bruises and scratches that are littered over my thin frame. The fire we’d assembled atop the tomb still burned bright, shining slivers of starlight peering through the narrow crevice we’d climbed through to get to this hellish dig.

I find Professor Nickels crouched over the tomb’s seal, hammer and chisel in hand as he is lightly tapping away at the edges of the four-foot circular disk of stone. Hunched over in the darkness, the old man makes me think of the stories of gremlins, incomprehensible creatures that would come into your home at night and hide your shoes, or take your socks. The old man is goofy looking not because of his wild mane of hair sprouting from the side and back of his head instead of the top, nor because he wore glasses that had adjustable nobs on them to move lenses in and out of the frame, allowing him to examine things “in better detail”, while essentially looking like the King of the Insane Beetles.

He was goofy because he didn’t care what everyone else thought of him, and despite his low social standing amidst the Historical community, he churned out peer-reviewed research like clockwork every six months that furthered our knowledge of ancient cultures. So the eccentric midget was tolerated, and asked only to teach two classes a year, when the icy chill of winter would spread over England and him would remain cloistered within his quarters, writing and compiling notes in between classes.

“Professor, what are you going?” I ask tiredly, leaning heavily on my shining sword, which had taken quite a bit of work to get to this poor level of shine let me tell you. The Professor, after looking it over, had declared it to be from the same time period of the Ubaid people, but not of their make (metallurgy was beyond them), theorizing it came from a group that “displaced” the Ubaid through warfare, eventually creating the Sumerian culture some five to seven hundred years later, depending on who you were talking to.

“Joshua, my boy, come down and help me move the seal!” He calls to me, still squatting impossibly low for a man of his advanced age. “The mind is willing, but the flesh is withered and old; I need a young strong back to move the seal so that we can continue our explorations!”

I sigh and walk over next to him, dropping to my knees and taking as firm a grip as I could at this awkward angle and begin to shove with all my might, slowly moving the three to four hundred pound slab inch by inch. After moving it halfway open, he orders me to halt, giddy at the smell of the musty old air rising from the crypt below us.

“Why didn’t you just break the damn seal so we could just go down? Now my back feels like it’s been run through a sausage grinder.”

“Call it vanity on my part, but once we’ve cataloged what’s in the primitive tomb, I’ll want to bring that seal with me, as a souvenir.” He said with a grin. “Don’t worry; you won’t have to be my porter for that one. Plus, if we discover something down there that could be called ‘The Mother of All Evil,’ I’ll be wanting that seal intact to cover it back up.”

“The Mother of All Evil?” I repeat, looking at the spry little dwarf of a man as he flipped between lenses on his glasses, peering into the darkness beneath the seal.

“Oh my, it looks like we’ll need some rope… perhaps a hundred or so feet of it.”

“What’s down there that’s so important that we need to go deeper into this crypt Professor?” I ask, curious to what he can see with his steam-powered headgear. He looks up at me, all of his additional lenses flipping back at once, rolling back into their separate compartments.

“What I’ve been looking for my boy, what I’ve been looking for.” He says with a grin, hopping from foot to foot gleefully at the discovery. Rolling my eyes, I climb back up to our campsite to retrieve the rope and the climbers gear. Hammering in three pitons (safety first!) I loop the knotted silk rope around them and tie as harness about myself, as well as a smaller backpack rigging that I planned on tucking the good Professor into, the twisted little bastard. He happily tucks himself into the makeshift backpack, jabbering on about how important this find was, and other such nonsense.

I just wanted to live through this now, like I said.

“Professor, mind if I take your Pistol, for the time being? I feel a little… unsafe walking around with just a sword.” I ask, trying not to sound too desperate in my plea.

“You’re a young strapping buck, Joshua,” He said from his safety harness on my back, patting my kidneys to reassure me. “A sword should be fine enough for you. I never lend anything, my boy, anything at all! That’s how you lose your favorite books or good pens, you know.”

I ignore the urge to just throw the little man down the hole and just make my final adjustments with the rope and the pitons, ensuring their driven deep into a solid section of stone and not just some piece of loose tile. Strange, there are several other holes in the stone similar to the ones I’m hammering in, almost a ring of them surrounding this pit. I pay them no mind as Professor Nickels urges me to move forward.

“The ropes seem fine Joshua, just fine! Now let’s get a move on!” Professor Nickels whined from my back.

“Hey, I’m just making sure this will work alright? Whatever’s been down there had been down there since before the pyramids, according to you, it can wait another five minutes.” I snap at him, still trying to figure out how to carry my sword (which is essentially the same size and weight as the good Professor) while shimmying down a rope into a darkened tomb. I reach in my side satchel and pull out a flare, cracking it against the stone floor to ignite the magnesium and sawdust held within it, the foot long rod now glowing as brightly as the sun.

“What’s that?” Professor Nickels asks, sounding somewhat worried. “Are we being attacked?”

I can feel him pulling his rifle closer to his chest and quickly snag the butt of it with my armpit. “No, I’m just throwing a flare down in the hole, relax.”

“What? Why on earth are you wasting a flare when I already told you it was perfectly safe?” He demands hotly, struggling to break my ironclad grip on his rifle.

“Because I can’t see in the dark as you can you old loon.” I curse and, before he can reply, tuck the flare into the rope about my waist (the fiery bright end up against a boiled strip of leather I used to protect my kidneys whenever I practice boxing in between classes) before jumping down into the hole, feeling the roughened silk rope slide through my leather clad glove as the two of us scream at our rapid descent.

I ditch my sword when I see the ground is coming too quickly and grab the rope with all my might, turning us into a swinging pendulum a good ten feet from the dusty ground. My hands sting from the sudden friction, and I thank God for the fact I’d brought along all of my fighters gear, just in case.

The palms of my gloves are forever ruined, but at least I had hands.

Professor Nickels undoes his rigging, dropping to the floor lightly with a fit of giggles. “Good God, what a rush! It’s a shame we can’t do it again, eh?”

I give him a sour look that I know he ignores and pull the flare from my belt, holding it up high to take a look at what this chamber held. It was built in the shape of a bell, the base much wide than the top, with flaring buttresses and smooth stone sloping up the walls. A surprising lack of murals for such a wide chamber, but as I approach one of the walls I can tell why: hundreds of slats running along the walls, perhaps a foot deep and a foot wide, are filled to the brim with human bones.

Professor Nickels wasn’t joking when he called this a tomb.

He hobbles up next to me, studying the architecture with glee as he jots down note after note in his small moleskin journal. “Very nice, very nice indeed!” He said happily. Looking around at the vast collection of bones. “This must be a room where those sacrificed were to be placed.”

“Wait, how do you know that?” I ask, looking around for any sign of writing or any indication that this was a religious room.

“Well the only entrance is nearly a hundred foot drop, and while you may not have noticed, the center stone directly beneath the hole is made of much more durable granite, polished to a fine shine.” He said with a carefree smile. “The bones were placed into the walls after the victim had been thrown down here. I would also like to note, just to keep you alert, that none of these skeletons, no matter how incomplete, seem to have suffered any major broken bones.”

“That means something was down here to, what, sort the dead?” I ask hesitantly, looking down at Professor Nickels.

“No, I believe this is just a hobby for whatever it is they trapped down here some few thousand years ago.” Professor Nickels replied while eyeing the varying states of decomposition between the bones. “Grab your sword Joshua… we might still have need of it.”
***

The entire room was indeed built like a bell, tapered at the top, with curving walls flowing downward in a wavy pattern that suggested the site was originally a naturally existing cavern that some primitive culture had chosen to alter. The entire room is roughly two hundred feet in diameter, with four pillars acting as support for the structure forming a square some fifty feet apart from each other, and seventy-five feet or so from the Charnel-lined walls. Everything was carved from smooth granite, with few actual etchings marring in the stone, indicating the tools used to fashion the tile, and the columns were metal, not stone.

Professor Nickels was ecstatic, having pulled an oil lantern from his prodigious satchel, creating a wreath of comforting light around us. He did this not for comfort, but to study the pillars, and the drawings ever so carefully carved into them. I chose to shoulder merely my sword and stay by the old man, watching for whatever could be down here that enjoyed sorting bones.

Scribbling furiously in his journal, Professor Nickels was blathering on about how this was supposed to be the antechamber to the “River of Continued Life,” which would either represent a belief in reincarnation or a belief in an underworld reachable only by waterway. Both of these beliefs existed in this area at a later date, the rocky hills and mountains of Iraq having played host to Roman and Hindu alike. But from what little Sanskrit and hieroglyphs I knew, damned if I could say they were similar to the writings on the pillars.

My flare, slowly dying out, left a large black mark on my leather bodice, and so I chose to use it as an exploratory tool, mostly by throwing it as far as I could.

Bouncing off the wall (and narrowly flying into a slot full of femurs), the flare drops down with a clatter and rolls for a few moments, illuminating a passage by just the barest shred of shadow. I immediately break out another flare, cracking it to life with a sizzling twist and hurl it into the gaping maw of the passage, its landing kicking up a small cloud of dust and grim as it rolls about, hissing and spitting sparks. For the briefest of moments, I thought I saw the flicker of movement within the flares fluorescent glow, but thankfully it was just a cloud of detritus that had been stirred up.

“Well now this is strange,” Professor Nickels says aloud, a phrase that I can safely say is never safe to hear when you are hundreds of feet beneath the ground. “It keeps referring to a symbol that could either mean ‘Keeper Of’ or ‘Keeper from’.”

“Those are two big distinctions Professor, and I’d rather not die fighting whatever the hell acts as a Keeper to this place, only to find your supposed ‘Mother of all Evils; down here.” I reply, eyeing the passage and the two sets of light keeping it illuminated. “Check another Pillar, see if they have a different reference, a different story.”

“That might be best, as now all I am finding are references to something that I shouldn’t be reading here of all places,” Professor Nickels said with a grunt, walking over to the next pillar, the one furthest from the passage. “The symbol… it can’t be what I think it means, as that would prove this to be a very dangerous place.”

“What symbol? Maybe I’ve seen it somewhere.” I offer, thinking it worth a shot. After all, I am an archaeologist in training.

He looks at me oddly as if not looking at the man he knew me to be but with a sudden, distrusting glint. “You’ve never studied at Miskatonic University, have you?”

“Miskatonic? No, I tried to get in but my application was rejected. Their standards are too high for me to attain for now. Why?” I ask, confused. What did the infamous Arkham University have to do with knowing an ancient symbol?

“Then thank whatever God you believe in that you can’t confirm that symbol for me.” Professor Nickels utters as he pushes past me and to the next column, dropping his bag to serve as a seat as he begins scribbling notes from the pillar, his translations slow and steady.

I chose to crack open another flare and follow along the walls to make certain I wasn’t missing any other passages, slowly running my hand along the centuries old stone as I go. Cool to the touch, yet oddly bereft of any dust, or soot. The passage has been full of such debris, but it seemed as if a maid had come through just before us, tidying everything up.

I make a discovery that nearly kills me as I stumble upon a sudden drop-off, just opposite of the passage. The wall opens and goes back about twenty feet, for about thirty feet of wall space. A small stone bridge, barely three feet in width, crosses over to an alcove on the other side, where the most bizarre statue I’ve ever seen sits atop a fountain.

A creature that looks aquatic by nature, with fins and frills sprouting from its three tentacle appendages that it is using to rise from the fountain, with carved from what I could only guess to be marble. The tentacles themselves reared up, showing off what any normal squid would have but instead revealing a row of carved eyes, each set with a small faded emerald. The tentacles connected with the main body, a bulbous center followed by a long serpentine tail that it was resting upon, like a cobra raised up.

The head of the beast was lowered and shaped like a bell, with a three-foot wide lamprey mouth slowly spewing water into the fountain beneath it. One great eye, shut for reasons I could never guess, sat atop the head, but from where I stood I could see spacing for the eyelids to move, probably if a lever were turned or something.

The rest of the fountain was nothing but a great piece of art depicting a city, embossed figures running away from the great beast while smaller versions of the creature seemed to be chasing them.

“I’d say early ninth century BC,” Professor Nickels says from my elbow, eyeing the disturbing piece as well.

“What the hell is that?” I ask, waving my flare at it. “I’ve never heard of any tales of giant sea beasts that resemble that.”

To say its name is said to garner its attention, but to ease this conversation, we shall call it by the title it earned: Darkness Given Hunger.” The Professor said with a sigh, staring at the statue with the look of a man lost in a terrible, terrible memory. “If this is this far south… what this is isn’t what I was looking for.”

“Well, you were looking for evidence of older civilizations Professor.”

“Not this kind, and certainly not here of all places.” Professor Nickels grouses, moving over to his pack in a sudden hurry.

From deep below our feet the entire complex quaked with the churning of some unwholesome howl, along with the groaning of the very stone around us. Whatever Nickels feared could be down here, it sounded as if it just now took note of us.

How that would play out, I couldn’t say.
***

Professor Nickels had decided to drop finally his mammoth backpack to the temple floor, a sudden cloud of dust bursting up from the floor in a choking miasma that left both of us coughing. Flipping over the seal of his bag, he rooted within its cavernous interior until he yanked free two cartridges of ammunition for his M1911, pulling back the safety and checking over the heavy pistol before tossing it to me.

“While the sword’s a nice touch, I’ve got a feeling that we’ll need a bit more arms than that to deal with what we’re going to find down here.” Professor Nickels says with a wry chuckle, carefully loading his Sharp’s rifle with the inch long bullets as he spoke. “A good deal of trouble should be heading our way if my guess is right.”

“Guess? What guess? And shouldn’t we be leaving if you think we’re going to be in trouble?” I ask, fumbling with the heavy pistol before getting a good feel for it, sheathing my sword in the crumbling scabbard as I watch him pull out small green orbs, a metallic sheen glinting from the flare’s bright glow.

Grenades? “What are we going to need those for? To cover our escape?”

“We stood in front of the statue lad, shed blood over the top soil of the creature’s tomb,” Professor Nickels calmly explains. “If I’d but known this was a sight where one of these blasted things dwelt, I’d never have of brought you here. For that, I’m deeply sorry.”

“What things? This Darkness Given Hunger thing?” I ask, growing slightly annoyed at how little the dear professor was sharing. I snap my head to the side, looking down the tunnel opposite of the statue leading down, down deeper into the cold womb of the earth. A distant echo was coming from the tunnel, a wet noise… like the sound of mud dropping from the hide of an elephant, plopping to the ground in great sickly splats.

“The Darkness Given Hunger is something put to sleep thousands of years ago by ancient man, and kept in a tomb under lock and key.” The Professor begins to explain, moving away from his pack with a surprising amount of speed, back straight for the first time that I’d ever seen. “Legend’s tell of creatures made from the blood and dreams of the slumbering beast, creatures that act as both its wardens and its servants.”

“Servants? What the hell are you talking about?”

“The creature and its ilk are as close to damned gods as mankind have ever seen! They ruled over the ancient civilizations as monstrous tyrants while others merely reveled in slaughtering entire empires, feasting on our flesh and drinking our blood!” Professor Nickels all but shouts, sliding the bolt of his rifle into place. “We’re going to need to do something about this… an unholy site like this must be sealed up, locked away from people who would stumble blindly into it.”

“So the grenades?” I ask, watching as he slings a smaller pack (pulled from his larger one) over his shoulder, filling it with the small cylindrical grenades and sticks of dynamite. “And the dynamite?”

“We’re going deeper, deep enough to where the tunnel is narrow and beneath several tons of earth.” The good professor replied, shouldering his rifle. “And then we’re going to coax out some of these creatures out and kill them so I can have a look at them before blowing this place back to the bowels of Hell where it belongs.”

A horrid, gurgling screech echoes from the depths of the tunnel before us, a scrabbling of steel upon stone as… something is coming up from the unknown. “Here comes the first wave… this should tell us what we’re dealing with.”

I look at him like he’s a madman (which isn’t unusual) before moving behind a pillar, putting my back to the cool stone as I pull a new flare from my satchel, cracking it to life before spinning around the pillar and throwing it into the dimly lit tunnel, my previous flare having begun to peter out.

The thrown flare collides solidly with a wet slap against the chest if you could call it that, of unholy terror torn from the brainchild of Dr. Seuss and Escher. Two legs rising from the top of the creature’s body, multiple joints visible beneath the gelatinous skin moving in tandem as the creature shuffles awkwardly towards us, my flare seemingly stuck to its hide by viscous ooze seeping from its pores.

The main torso is nothing but a lone, unblinking eye and a series of snake-like tentacles, all ending in three pronged mouths that writhe and hiss. Its feet are boneless, shapeless blobs of protoplasm that it used to balance upon, merely sliding along the ground with its leg movements rather than lifting its feet like any other creature would. The crackling flare stuck just above its eye created a corona of light that illuminated the rest of the hall, revealing another three such creatures shambling up the hall towards us.

Professor Nickels breaks me from my horrified stupor with the loud crack of his rifle, echoing across the chamber as the high caliber round lances through the gelatinous hide of the first creature, passing through it and through another still, all without slowing them down. Cursing, he fires two more shots, blasting away large globs of their green flesh, spattering it against the walls around them as he begins firing at their legs.

But still they push on, onward into the chamber, their tentacles stretched out towards us hissing, hissing in a language that seemed too alien for me to understand, yet I understood all too well. Words of pain and suffering, of my eternal agony and of their eternal suffering flitted through my mind, images of men being torn asunder by armies of these creatures, of how the oceans would grow dark with their passing, consuming anything and everything in their path.

And of how they dreamed of doing it again.

“Focus damn it!” Professor Nickels shouts at me, reloading his Sharps as quickly as his arthritic hands can. “They get in your mind unless you focus!”

Seeing what little effect his bullets seemed to have on these gelatinous horrors before us, I move from behind the pillar, focusing on the creature with the smoldering flare charring it’s quivering mass. I fire three rounds as I calmly walk up to it, one going wide and striking the floor a few yards behind it, but the other two piercing deep into the creatures eye, a spray of writhing maggots erupting from the two holes made over the sensitive flesh. The snake-like tentacles screech in agony, growing louder in pitch as I lunge forward with my blade, hacking into the writhing mass with vigor I never knew I possessed.

The multiple maws all shriek with fury untold as I hack and tear them away from the creature’s bobbing form, firing bullets into the center of its bulbous, now deflated, eye as I slash and jab away at its tentacles as if they were mere weeds. Prof. Nickels, watching the effect of shooting them in the eye, unloads a single round into the remaining threes’ large eyes, the floor now smeared with trampled maggots and green blood.

It takes me but a moment to realize, as I’m rending into the beast, that I’m slowly growing taller than it. Looking down, I see several of the severed tendrils, now mawless but still quite flexible, wrapped around my legs and waist, lifting me high into the air above it. Confused, I drop my gun and grip my sword tightly with both hands, swinging in wide arcs to tear away the strands holding me aloft.

With mounting horror and a moment of realization, I saw the bones within the gelatinous beast, the ones that seemed to be there to grant the beast legs and a torso, begin to realign within the central mass of the blob.

Realigning into a humanoid shape.

The creature let loose a horrid squelching noise as the skeletal remains of what was once a living, breathing man burst from the gelatinous walking tomb, sharpened fingers curled into talons as it lashes out, tearing four wide strips in my jerkin with its razor sharp talons. A wet, hollow laughter fills the corridor as the maggots still spewing from the central eye began to swarm back into the creature’s feet, swimming through their host to slowly writhe and contort over the skeletal torso sticking out of the top of the stoop creature.

“Fleshlings… for the master…” The skeleton rasps with a dark voice, the maggots swarming over him, flattening out until they were bursting from the pressure to form a semi-solid paste over the skeletons body. The other three were doing the same, skeletons climbing out of the gelatinous beasts as the writhing streams of maggots fueled a horrid transformation granting them a taut skin coat as pale as the moon. “All will kneel… within his shadow…”

“Kneel to this!” I shout swinging my blade in a heavy-handed arc down into the fragile looking frame as it was climbing from its roost.

Clang!

I stare in shock as the skeleton, now more of a pasty-colored emaciated monster, writhing maggots peeking out from its empty eye sockets, stands there with both hands held high, a thin staff of green slime having jutted out from the quivering mass to block my strike, it’s hardness now equal to that of my ancient blade. As the laughing dead takes a firm grip of the staff, a wicked curved blade grows from the end of it, turning the staff into a scythe. A sickening noise akin to vomit hitting the floor echoes across the chamber as my foe tears his new weapon from his former host, his comrades creating the same weapons from their symbiotic graves.

“The Darkness… feeds… needs to awaken…” The skeletal creature rasps, limping forward towards me, dragging its heavy ended weapon along the stone floor beside it, the scratching of iron on stone grating in my ears. “Bleed… bleed for Qas!”

Bang!

Bang!

Bang!

Professor Nickels quickly begins to reload his rifle as his three shots blast away great chunks of my foes body, rending off an arm at the shoulder socket and blowing away its left lower leg from the knee down.

Undaunted, two of the other undead warriors (the third stumbling from the Professors second shot, which blew away a good portion of its upper body), scythes raised high in the air with screams on their lipless mouths’. I pull my ancient saber back, stepping to the side as a heavy ended scythe came crashing down into the stone with a heavy cracking noise. Before the creature could pull back, I swing my blade in imitation of the abominations maneuver, severing its arms at their elbows, the skeletal forearms still wriggling on the shaft of the scythe wedged into the stone floor.

“Qas… hungers for yo-urk!” The creature hisses at me before I ram the full length of my blade into its skull, the hilt shattering its aged teeth with a sickening crunch. Putting a boot to the creatures face, I hop to the left to put the wriggling undead between me and his last dangerous friend and kick him free from my blade, sending the armless body tumbling into its colleague, who mercilessly twirls its weapon and bisects its allies broken form.

“Flesh… blood… spirit…” The creature hisses as it advances on me, holding the deadly curved blade high before it, a guard flawless against anything I can do.

Bang!

… but not anything Professor Nickels can do. His rifle shot blasts the last skeletons head into disjointed fragments, a rancid green slime exploding outward from the sudden implosion caused by the .50 caliber round. The body stumbles for a moment before the eldritch energies holding it together collapse, the skeletal being falling to pieces as its composite bones are reduced to ash and grit.

The various scythes that the undead abominations had been wielding, as well as their pasty flesh that was drawn taut over their emaciated frames, began to bubble and dissolve as their evil spirits finally lose the battle to remain coherent.

“Good work,” Nickels says as he walks up behind me, reloading his rifle. He scoops up his pistol from the ground and holsters it again, giving me a wary eye. “That sword of yours better pack a wallop, because they confirmed what I feared was down here.”

“You mean…?”

“Darkness Given Hunger,” He interrupts, looking at me pointedly. “Never say his name, or his eye will be cast upon you. Even now he sleeps… hopefully.”

“Than what were those?” I ask, pointing my sword at the bubbling green muck at my feet.

“I’m no expert on the Elder Gods, but those were clearly fractured pieces of the Darkness that serve as guardians for him.” Professor Nickels says as he kneels by one of the steaming puddles, pulling a flask and a spoon from his satchel and ladling in a fair amount of the muck. “Each God has beings that serve them, which are a part of them. The followers of the Christian God call them Angels, the followers of the Yellow King have the Byakhee. If I recall, Darkness Given Hunger has the Dreamless Nightmares, or Quan-gao.”

“Yeah, I can see where they’d get that name.” I say, toeing one of the puddles with my boot. “That sounds somewhat Asiatic in nature.”

“That’s because it is,” Professor Nickels replied from his place on the goo slathered ground. “The Darkness Given Hunger was originally sealed by the Uruk, the Sumerians. How do you think they overcame the vast Ubaid empire history claims they toppled?

“I’ve never thought about it.” I admit, wincing as the Professor pulls a slicked shard of bone from the quivering mass.

“Nobody ever does. Every time a great empire fell, it was because one of these… these things awoke or arrived from beyond time and space, and undid all that man had labored so many years to create. The Sumerians buried this creature after it gorged itself upon their civilization, merely renaming themselves afterward to the Sumerians thanks to the hero who led the battles against the Quan-gao.”

“So why didn’t the Sumerians deal with all of the Quan-gao when they had the chance?” I ask, looking at the bubbling remains of the foul beasts.

“Each man slain in the Darkness’s name, or under his gaze, are pulled into his dreams and made into one of the beasts we just fought.” Professor Nickels says with a distinct shudder. “What you just did was release the souls of three men or women that had spoken his name and died by the hand of one of his agents.”

“Oh… that’s disheartening. And we’re going to go deeper into the tunnels where these things came from?” I ask a tad incredulously, pulling a pit of cloth free from my ruined shirt and wiping away the gunk from my blade.

“Just to blow the narrowest point of the tunnel closed, so that none of this can ever surface. If the Darkness awakens, the world as we know it could fade into a living nightmare.”

“Well if the world is at stake,” I say with a sigh, looking around the tunnel in search of something to plunder. “I’m going to need a shield. I can’t use a gun to save my life.”

“I know,” Professor Nickels said with a smile as he cracked his rifle into the ready position, “I saw. You do well with a blade, and if my eyes don’t deceive me, there’s a round shield just under that debris over there.”

Looking to where he was pointing, I indeed see a battered iron round shield, one that would have been used by virtually a dozen civilizations that had ruled over this area in the last thousand years, pinned beneath a large slab from the mosaic. Moving over, I wedge my blade into a crack in the detritus and heave my weight forward, breaking away the crumbling remains pinning my new prize to the ground.

Covered in verdigris and dents, the leather arm straps within the shield are surprisingly sound, with very little rot to them that I can see. The dented shields surface bears a wolf’s head symbol, perhaps linking it to one of the numerous barbarian tribes that had ravaged the lands above over the past thousand years.

How it got down here when it took the Professor and me over three days of spelunking is beyond me, but I’m thankful for it. I quickly tie the shield off on my left arm, freeing the hand to hold a flare.

While I busy myself with that, the Professor has been busy studying the remaining sections of mosaic with intense scrutiny, jotting down notes in his ever-present journal. “A group of people native to this land dedicated their entire civilization to worshiping the Darkness,” he says aloud as I’m adjusting the straps, “according to this for over five hundred years they lived in the caverns above, building this great complex to house the ancient horror while it lay dormant. Of course, they revered it as a God… and according to this it gave them blessings in return.”

“How? It’s asleep, right?”

The Professor snorts and shoots me a derisive glare. “A being like this is never fully asleep, nor fully awake. It neither lives nor is dead, it just is. Those ghouls up top we encountered were the caretakers of these sacred grounds, blessed with eternal life to serve better their God.”

“Oh…” And we’d killed them. “Then we better hurry, or the rest of them will notice those guards are missing and come looking for us.”

The Professor remains silent as he finished the mosaic, clearing his throat every few moments as he had to stoop to the pieces I had broken away to get a clearer view of what the pictographs read. From his face, they weren’t anything pleasant.

“Anything else I should know about?” I ask as I tighten the last arm brace over my bicep.

“Just that the Darkness slumbers so long as it is regularly fed warriors. If it goes too long without eating, it sends out the Quan-gao. If it goes even longer than it wakes up.”

“Lovely,” I grumble, adjusting my satchel along my hip to have a better sense of balance in the inevitable case of having another fight, “Well then let’s hurry and blow the tunnel closed so that it can’t get out.”
***

I move deeper down the dank tunnel, trying to ignore the saccharine scent of the dead that seems to pervade through the porous stone tunnel we’d begun descending about half an hour ago. The Professor has been unusually quiet as I move ahead of him, my tarnished shield and gleaming sword glinting softly in the light of the flare the good professor has dangled from an extended wooden rod from his satchel, held in place by the straps of his backpack and creating a peaceful glow that chased away the overwhelming gloom of the strange tunnels design.

“It’s like the stone wasn’t carved,” I muse as I slowly make my way down the smooth slope, the tunnel walls, and floor slick with the same green slime the Quan-gao had been comprised of.

“It wasn’t,” Professor Nickels said with authority, pulling a scroll from his side satchel as he spoke. “The Quan-gao are formed primarily of a weak mineral acid, something akin to Boric acid I believe, which allows the slumbering Darkness to guide his guardians in creating new tunnels for it to travel should it ever awaken.”

“Lovely,” I deadpan; slowly learning that the more I heard of this forgotten Elder God, the more I wished it remained forgotten.

“Look! Just up ahead, it looks like an opening!” The Professor says, a gnarled hand grasping my shoulder, shaking me excitedly. “Let’s go, we have much to do!”

“Shouldn’t we just set the charges here and blow the cavern closed?” I ask somewhat hesitantly as the good professor shuffles ahead of me. He shakes his head, sputtering on excitedly.

“No no no, that just won’t do! What if there are other tunnels?” He asked without looking back. “We need to ensure that we’re sealing the Darkness away for good, not just closing one of its many doors.”

I sigh at his usual impeccable logic, moving onward past his shuffling form to look to the edge of the darkened chamber, a sense of vertigo overcoming me as I stare into the vacuous void before me. A few moments later the dangling flare hanging above my diminutive professor allow me a greater chance to peer into the cavernous hollow, great pillars of stone lining the walls to hold the ceiling too high to see aloft. The floor of the cavern, a mere thirty feet from the tunnel they stood in, bubbled with darkened slime, the ooze shifting and swirling, moving like the slimy fried eggs, pushing and pulling against one another in an endless struggle for dominance.

“Well… this sure slows things down.” I say with a sigh, looking at my crazy Professor for an answer, one that he seems to have already ready as he is rooting through his satchel. The toothless man gives a cry of glee as he pulls a tightly wound orange rectangle from his bag, shoving it into my hands as he fishes out a pair of collapsible oars.

“You can’t be serious… we came to a dig in the desert, and you have an inflatable raft?” I nearly shout before he shushes me, looking across the cavern with concern. “What?”

“Nothing… I… I just don’t want to alert anything to our position.” Professor Nickels says, scratching at his neck idly as he set to extending the oars. “Roll out some rope and some pitons so we can have a safe drop down onto those waters, I want to make sure we don’t have anything else to worry about.”

“Are you serious?” I cry, pointing my sword out into the darkness, a low groan echoing through the cavern, waves of slime splashing against the rocks beneath us as if something titanic had just breached the surface of the small sea. “This right here is a big thing to worry about!”

“Now my young warrior, you have no reason to worry. Between your blade and shield and my gun, we’ll be fine.” Professor Nickels says with a smile as he slides the last piece of the oar into position. “I know you’re worried, but you must ask yourself: are you prepared to defend humanity from the otherworldly evil that lurks here, even if it may cost you your life?”

Taken aback by the strange question, I stare at my Professor with a measure of caution. “Well… of course, I mean… who wouldn’t be willing to save humanity?”

Professor Nickels serious demeanor melts away to his normally cheerful expression. “Well then, get to it! We need to be down there seeing what we need to do, not standing about like a couple of bumps on a log!”

***

After we’d scaled the slick wall to the crashing waves of darkened slime beneath us, the good Professor had pulled the ripcord on the raft, unfurling the great orange life raft in an awkward moment of sheer panic as the great boat almost overtook us and comedy as we fell from our tenuous grip on sanity and into the raft, the waves rocking us back and forth as Professor Nickels fastened the collapsible oars to the raft, moving to the helm of our teetering vessel and adjusting his glasses, peering off into the darkness.

“Full steam ahead my boy!” He says with a hearty chuckle, nodding to the oars as he moved past me towards the rudder. “It’ll take more than these withered old bones are capable of to battle these raging waters.”

“That is not water…” I grumble as a jellied glob splashes over the side, seemingly trying to stretch out in search of open skin. Taking the oars, I begin rowing as best I can against the swirling currents of the underground sea as Professor Nickels steers us along. Several times my oars slide between greasy ovoid’s, pushing them apart.

We drift for what feels like hours as my arms go numb from the strain of battling the turbulent currents, sweat pouring from my lean frame in buckets as I desperately tried to keep us on the Professors desired course. The entire time he praises me, telling me we were almost there, that we were only a few dozen yards from it.

Gasping for breath, I never thought to ask what it was.

Just as I felt my arms giving out from exhaustion, I was lucky enough to see the wicked grin the cracked across my scholarly advisers face as he lunges across the raft with his rifle held firmly between his white-knuckled hands, the butt of the gun making a shuddering snap as he beat me across my brow with the butt of the gun, dropping me back from the force of the blow, my vision swimming as I struggle to understand what had just happened.

I struggle even further when he brings the butt of the rifle down onto my face, breaking my nose and shattering my front teeth in a sickening crunch, tears streaming from my eyes as I watched him slowly pull the weapon from my face, a fractured piece of one of my front incisors sticking to the butt by a thin coating of my blood. He steps over me, shucking off his heavy satchel onto my chest, I suppose to pin me in case I had any fight left within me, as he moves to stand at the bow of our miniature raft, hands held high overhead.

“Qas!” He intones, a low moan akin to the call of a whale rising up from beneath us as he lowers his arms once more, jumping from the raft and landing on something hard just out of my sight… something made of stone? “I’ve brought you the blood of a tested warrior, one who will allow you to slumber still. Come to your servant and grant me my boon and I will render unto you the supple flesh of the young and the brave!”

This can’t be good. I struggle to move the massive pack off of me, but with between my swimming vision and my numb arms I can only flail uselessly as he hops back onto the raft with the dexterity of a man a tenth his age, rolling the bag off of me and hoisting me up onto his shoulder.

Coughing up blood and a few teeth, I look at him through the one eye that can see. “No expert, eh?” I laugh, hacking up a lungful of blood onto the back of his khaki jacket. He merely pats my aching back with a gnarled hand as he jumps from the raft, landing on a large stained stone, rounded along the edges, before dumping me onto the ground with the care of a man dropping a bag of gravel.

“What can I say boy,” He says with a smile and a genial shrug, “I’m a man who figured out a way to stay young forever while keeping mankind safe from the things that go bump in the night. I’m a bloody hero!”

As he’s saying these rivulets of blackened slime are trailing up along ridges carved into the stone, seeping and searching for my spilled blood. I wince as I feel, and hear, the caustic hiss of the ooze lashing to my leg, and then my arm, pulling me taut along the rock. I let out a wail of agony as the slime begins to suffuse over my body, eating away at my clothes and skin with a sound akin to the sizzling of a slab of meat on a grill. Just as my head begins to submerge beneath the malevolent muck, I see Professor Nickels leap back to the raft, my sword in his hand, calling out to me over his shoulder.

“Don’t worry m’ boy!” He shouts cheerfully as he begins to row away, leaving me to my horrid demise. “You’ll see me again in another fifty years!”

Credit To – Nicholas Paschall

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