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Between the Walls

May 23, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I had never been frightened by anything. Sure, I’ve always been fearful of things like terrorism, bankruptcy, drunk drivers… but nothing paranormal. Ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and the like. Not out of any misdirected bravery, but simply because of the fact that I didn’t believe they existed. How can one be afraid of something imaginary? Then I found out how wrong I had been. How very, very wrong.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Allow me to set the scene.

My family and I had recently moved to Indianapolis. We left our home of six years in Texas – the home where we had raised our two children – because of a new job opportunity. It was my job that had been the reason for moving from Ohio to Texas in the first place, but after six years we came to the conclusion that were Yankees through and through. We just weren’t suited to live in the desert of southwestern Texas.

Arriving in Indiana, we opted to rent a house temporarily. That would give us the time to complete the sale of our house in Texas and look around for a new home that our family would like – a forever home. My office was located in downtown Indianapolis, and there was a newly gentrified section of the city located within five miles. We found an old house – very old – that the owner had restored with the help of subsidies from the city council. That’s what he told us over the phone, anyway.

The first time that we arrived to meet the owner and look around, we were impressed. We had beat him to the house so my wife and I parked in the long gravel drive and exited our vehicle, our two young children in tow. We walked around the house in awe. It, like the neighboring homes, was practically a mansion. The entire avenue consisted of large, brick homes with slate roofs and scores of chimneys. Lots of limestone lintels and decorative filigrees, even a gargoyle here and there – none on the home we were looking at, unfortunately. As promised, the house was pristine. From the outside.

The landlord’s name was Lenny. He was a pretty cool guy. A bit cynical, but given the people he probably had to deal with on a daily basis, not too bad. He seemed to take to our children pretty well and didn’t mind that we had a large dog. He pointed out some of the outdoor renovations – repointing of the brick, new slate roof, and newly glazed windows. Then we went around back to enter through one of the rear doors.

When he swung open the door, it quickly became obvious that the exterior of the house was not indicative of the interior. Its beauty was indeed only skin deep. A musty odor wafted through the entryway and the interior hall was dimly lit. All of the sheer curtains had been drawn and only slivers of sunlight filtered through, motes of dust floating about. By the end of our tour, we had determined that the house was definitely in need of a lot of work, but it had a certain charm about it.

The rear entry hall was surfaced with a vintage hex pattern porcelain tile which extended into a small – very small – half bath immediately inside the entryway. At six foot four inches, I couldn’t stand fully upright in the washroom. The hallway extended forward toward the front doors, and at some point about halfway the flooring transitioned to hardwood. As the foyer opened up to the full three story height of the house, we noticed a huge stained glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It was impressive.

Just to the left, a small – and when I say small, I mean normal-sized as the rest of the doorways in the house were almost nine feet in height – swinging door led into a tiny kitchen. The kitchen had absolutely no conveniences save for a sink. It was almost a surprise that there was running water. When we pointed out that our refrigerator would obviously not fit, Lenny offered to bring in a smaller one from another of his rentals. The kitchen had three more doors: one leading into a dining room, one leading out into the backyard, and one leading down into the cellar.

The cellar was a sight! The stairwell was steep. Just one flight leading down about twenty feet to the cellar floor. Bare bulbs lit each of the eight rooms it had been divided into. This basement was one of the creepiest places in the house complete with dripping pipes, chains hanging from the block walls for no apparent reason, and a huge gravity furnace in the farthest room from the stairs. It lurked there like a colossal monster with a multitude of steel arms reaching up into the house above. The floor back there was littered with papers and boxes, and the walls were lined with cabinets that we never did dare to open.

Aside from the kitchen and half bath, the first floor of the home contained a dining room and large living area, both separated from the main hall by pairs of huge arched doorways, and both with large limestone hearths set into the far walls. I supposed that the gravity furnace was either a newer addition or that – like most that I have had experience with – did not do an adequate job of heating a large house. The bedrooms occupied the second and third floors. A niche in the wall housed an old-fashioned servant bell system. Bells on springs attached to chains leading to each of the upstairs rooms. Lenny claimed that they still worked, and we were sure that the kids would test them out.

The upstairs bedrooms were unremarkable, save for the supersized doorways and fireplaces in all of them. The two bathrooms on each floor were also tiled in the hex pattern porcelain we had seen in the entryway and had genuine, honest-to-God claw footed bathtubs.

Lenny made sure to point out another unique feature of the house. At the back of each bedroom closet lay a narrow, almost undetectable doorway. He opened one of them to show us a system of slim passages that ran behind the lathe and plaster walls and connected most of the bedrooms to each other. Why were they there? Probably for no other reason than one would expect to find something like them in a house like that.

So, as I mentioned earlier, the house was perfectly creepy in every way.

“We’ll take it!”

I figured that if I would ever experience anything spine-chilling or uncanny in any way in my lifetime, it would happen in that house. I wasn’t disappointed.

It was late fall and the apple tree in the back yard had started shedding its fruit. There were half rotting apples all over the lawn, so I was raking them up and scooping them into bags for the trash. I stopped to rest for a moment and my eyes fell to rest on the garage. Like the house, it was brick with a slate roof. It had two large carriage-house type doors. Since the drive was large enough and there was a turnaround at the rear of the house, we generally left our vehicles outside. The only time that we had even been inside the garage was when we had moved in. We had instructed the movers to store some things out there – things that we would not be needing for a while until we found our forever home. Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to give the garage a closer inspection.

About forty feet to a side, it – like everything else about the property – was a rather large structure. There were no doors other than the carriage doors, so I eased open one leaf just wide enough to step inside. I felt around and my fingers eventually brushed up against a chain hanging from the ceiling rafters. I yanked and a single bare bulb cast a small pool of light around me. I made my way through the garage pulling more chains and managed to illuminate most of the garage floor. All of our belongings – garden tools, lawnmower, my large shop tools, and boxes of things that we hadn’t planned to use for a while – lay against a wall along one edge of the floor. The only other thing in the garage was a four foot high pile of slate shingles in a back corner. I walked over and took one of the tiles in my hands. Heavy. The garage roof alone probably held tons of weight. I couldn’t imagine roofing the entire house in slate.

I heard a ticking, scratching sound from overhead. The ceiling of the garage was mostly open, with bare rafters through which you could see the underside of the roof sheathing. About one quarter of the rafters had been covered over with wooden planks forming a sort of floor. Probably for extra storage space. I imagined that a house and garage as old as this had been must have mice, at the very least. From the intensity of the sound, though, I could tell that it was something much bigger than a mouse – even bigger than a rat. I groaned at the prospect of having to evict a raccoon or some larger animal from the attic. I considered leaving it alone. We were just temporary visitors anyway. It was probably a more permanent resident than us. My conscience ruled against that thought. With two children who were bound to end up playing out in the garage someday, I couldn’t chance them encountering a wild, possibly rabid, animal.

I peered up into the darkness, allowing my eyes to adjust, looking for some sign of movement. There! I saw it. Quick. Fleeting. It startled me so that I dropped the slate tile I had been holding and it shattered at my feet. I had only caught a short glimpse in my peripheral vision, but it didn’t look like any animal I had ever seen before. An icy chill ran down my spine but I chalked it up to the darkness, an unfamiliar place, and a general feeling of anxiety. We had recently completed our move and moving had always stressed me out. I used a shovel to scoop up the tile shards and took them around the back of the garage, throwing them into a pile of stones and bricks that a previous tenant had heaped back there. Then I went back into the garage, turned out the lights, and closed up the door.

Later that evening, after dinner, after the kids were asleep, my wife and I sat in the living room huddled close to a fire that I had built in the hearth. We had learned that the old house got extremely cold at night, despite running the furnace at full-tilt.

“Hey, Hun. I think we might have an animal problem out in the garage.”

My wife looked up in surprise. “Rats?”

“No, no. Probably a raccoon or something. I really only got a glimpse of it, but it seemed pretty big.”

“What are we going to do? The boys… What if it’s rabid?” She looked alarmed.

“I’ll call an exterminator tomorrow. I’m not going to mess with it. Who knows what might be out there? I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

My wife smiled, and I felt more at ease. I had decided to put the problem in someone else’s capable hands. Whatever it was out there, it would soon be gone. We began to talk about how relieved we were that the move was over. The conversation turned to our next step – finding a forever home – and then led to talk of making the creepy house more livable until such time as we could move out. Painting, maybe? Replacing the carpet runner on the staircase, definitely. Just then, one of the bells in the niche jingled.

“Huh?” I got up and walked over to the front hall. The bell jingled again, and I could see that it was the one labeled “Master bedroom.” I yelled up the staircase. “Boys! Get back to bed, and stay out of Mommy and Daddy’s room!” No answer, but the bell was silent. I assumed that they got the message. When we climbed the staircase a half hour later, we looked in and saw that both boys were tucked in and sawing logs. I imagine that they were excited, but I didn’t want them exploring the house until I could check it out thoroughly. If there was a raccoon (or something) in the garage, there just may have been mice, rats, or worse in the house.

I started a fire in the smaller fireplace in the master bedroom, and we fell asleep as it waned. I was in a sort of twilight when I heard the bell jingle again. “What the..?” I crossed our bedroom and tiptoed down the stairs to the second floor. Looking in their rooms, I discovered that both boys were still tucked in. Jingling again. Now I ran down to the first floor hall just in time to see the “Master Bedroom” bell shake again. Bewildered, I headed back upstairs.

“You rang?” I asked my wife as I walked back into our room.

“What?”

“Why did you pull the bell chain? Are you trying to freak me out? Or did you just miss me?”

She looked puzzled. “Um, I didn’t pull the chain.”

I could tell that she was telling the truth. I had gotten good at reading her over the ten years of our marriage. With irritation and perhaps a bit of denial, I resolved that we did, in fact, have a rodent problem in the house. That was the only explanation, right? I pictured a mouse (or worse) scampering across the bell chain as it ran behind the walls through one of the house’s heating ducts or pipe chases. Lenny would certainly be getting an angry call in the morning. We eventually managed to fall asleep, even though we could hear one or another of the bells ring a few more times during the night.

Lenny grumbled a bit about “No damn mice… ” but he did agree to have someone come out and check. He knew a guy. Lenny knew a guy for just about everything: plumbing, yardwork, and now pest control. The exterminator set and baited a cage trap for the raccoon out in the garage. After checking out the basement and closets, he said that although he didn’t find any signs of mice or rats – scat, nests, etc. – he would set some glue traps under our furniture and near the baseboards. He said that they would be safer than snap traps, which we probably didn’t want around the kids. Both my wife and I thought of the suffering that a mouse would endure if it were caught in the glue to eventually starve to death or die of thirst, so we asked for an alternative.

The “terminator,” as my boys called him, agreed to set some bait stations instead. He said that Lenny wouldn’t be happy about the extra cost but I could see that he was pleased to be upping his sale. He said that the bait stations just held poison – out of reach of children and pets – which the pests would eat and then leave. They would bleed out somewhere within a couple of days. He promised that we would never have to see or smell the dead mice (or whatever they were). Still sounded pretty nasty, but at least we could just leave them and forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind.

We gave it about a week or so, but nothing ever showed up in the cage trap outside, and the bells still jingled all night. Sometimes in our room, other times in the boys’, yet other times in the unoccupied rooms. I called the terminator again, and he said that Lenny had instructed him to “Just put out the damn glue traps,” which he did. He also rearmed the trap in the garage with what he called “special bait,” and warned us to stay away from it.

Another few days passed with no changes. I checked hourly at first, then daily, but nothing appeared in the traps. I was determined to get rid of the varmints myself. So I got on the internet and began looking up homemade solutions. I found a really simple one that involved rubber-banding some paper over a five gallon bucket and cutting a cross in the top. I set the bait, a peanut butter and cheese cracker, carefully near the center of the cross and pushed it to the back of our master bedroom closet. The concept was that when the rodent went for the bait, he would fall through the paper and get stuck in the bucket. Sounded slow – catching them one at a time like that – but at least it would be making some progress.

Nothing happened the first night. The bells still jingled. Midway through the following evening though, I was startled awake by the sound of something falling into the bucket. Something big! Oh God, it must have been a rat! I jumped out of bed, still in my boxers and bare feet, and whipped open the closet door.

“Now I’ve got you, you little fu…”

I’ll never forget what I saw. Thinking back, I still get a chill running down my spine. Tiny hands gripped the lip of the bucket and it pulled itself up over the rim. It was not a mouse. It was not a rat. It was not a raccoon. When it had fully extracted itself from the pail, I could see that it stood about a foot high when erect. It was humanoid in form. Humanoid, but definitely not human. Pale skin hanging over a bony frame. Although it was naked, I could see no genetalia to speak of, yet I got the feeling that it was a “he.” Huge eyes that were black through and through – no irises. Its ears and nose were simply holes in its head. It had no hair, and when it turned toward me it flashed a big toothy smile. Crazy – they looked like human teeth, not enlarged canines or front teeth as one would expect a rodent or small animal to have. For some reason that made it seem even more disturbing. It waved the peanut butter cracker in one tiny hand and ran off. Ran off into the passageway between the walls, the panel snapping shut after it went through.

In a cold sweat, I ran to the bedroom door and switched on the lights.

“Holy mother of God! Shit! Fuck me!”

My wife sat up, scared by my reaction. If only she had seen it… I immediately ran to the kids’ rooms and switched their lights on. In fact, within the next five minutes the entire house was alight. Except the cellar, though. That place gave me the creeps on a good day.

The four of us had gathered in the living room. Still shirtless and shaking from the cold or the shock, I said, “That’s it. We’re not spending the night in this house. Get dressed. We’ll find a hotel.”

“Nonsense,” said my wife. “We’re not going anywhere. What the hell happened?”

I pulled her aside, out of earshot of the boys, and told her what I had seen. “Come on,” she pleaded, “think about this rationally. Nothing like that exists. It had to be a rat or something. It was dark. You were half asleep. I mean seriously, honey…”

Once again, I wanted it to be true. Even a rat seemed like a better alternative than what I had seen. What I thought I had seen. I calmed down a bit. My wife got the boys back to sleep while a made a cup of tea and settled into one of the tubs for a hot bath. After a bit, I was calmed down enough to go back to bed. As I fell into sleep, a bell jingled.

Every night after got progressively worse. The bells continued ringing throughout the days and night. I kept hearing bumps in the dark. Panels slamming shut. At times, I heard the closet door creak open – the proverbial “monster-in-the-closet.” I could even swear that a few times I saw it watching me from the darkness beyond the cracked door. The final straw was when I awoke one night, roused by a sound near my bed, and came face to face with it as it stared at me over the edge of the mattress. Once again, I jumped out of bed and flipped the lights on.

“That’s it you little bastard!” I couldn’t see it, but I heard it scampering toward the closet. I gave chase and saw it just as it slipped through the panel at the back of the closet and into the hidden passage. Determined to put an end to the insanity, I grabbed a flashlight from my nightstand drawer. By that time, my wife was looking at me as if I was crazy – and I considered that she may have been right. I threw on a T-shirt and ducked through the panel at the back of the closet. It was the first time I had been back in those passages. Maybe, as a younger man, my curiosity would have made me check them out the first day we had moved in; but over time, the thirst for adventures like that had been quenched by a “too-much-effort” attitude.

The passages had hardwood floors, unfinished planks widely set – not carefully like in the livable areas of the house. I saw only the backs of the walls. Lathes with plaster that had oozed between the seams before hardening. To my surprise, there were no cobwebs, as if someone had been using the passageways; but the floor had a layer of dust and little crumbs of plaster coating it. There were footprints in the dust. Not just one set running away. Not even a set coming toward the bedroom and then away. There were hundreds of footprints running this way and that. Either my little friend had buddies or he had been a busy guy.

I was so fascinated that I had about forgotten why I entered the passage when I heard another bump down the hall. My flashlight only cast its beam a short distance, but I shone it ahead and slowly walked down the hall. I had to hunch over at times, as it seemed to have been built for a man smaller than myself. I supposed that people were shorter back when the house had been built. Of course, I don’t imagine that the passages were built for comfort. I could see that they were built out of some necessity. I was a bit surprised to find that a set of narrow stairs led down to the second floor, another down to the first, and another that must have gone all of the way to the cellar.

I was constantly propelled ahead by a series of bumping noises. Whatever he was, he clearly was not afraid of me. The noises weren’t moving away from me very quickly. It was almost as if he were waiting for me to follow. As much as I wanted to avoid the cellar, I was a man on a mission. I plunged ahead until the passage at last came to an end. It wasn’t closed off at the end, but apparently opened into one of the cellar’s rooms. I noticed an iron flap-type door set high into the wall and realized that I must have ended up in one of the coal bins, built before the gravity furnace had been converted to burn heating oil instead of coal. Lenny had assured us that the door had been permanently sealed, but now I doubted it.

A dim light filled the room – moonlight filtering through the smudged and dirty glass of a high set window – but not enough to see by. I spun slowly around, shining my flashlight ahead as I turned. I was surrounded by dozens of the little creatures. They did not appear to be afraid of me, nor did they appear to be aggressive. I felt safe, even somewhat calm. Relieved to know what it was that I had been pursuing for the past weeks. Calm, that is, until one of them – the bold one that had been in my closet, I believe – “spoke.” In a gravelly, high-pitched voice it raised the peanut butter cracker and questioned, “More?”

That was all it took to send me bolting out of the room and up the cellar stairs. I slammed the door shut behind me and threw the bolt. Pouring myself a glass of water from the kitchen tap, I walked to the living room and sat down on the couch. I was breathing heavy, almost hyperventilating. Even though I knew in the back of my mind that nothing had really changed, and they apparently had the run of the house, I calmed down after a while. I never did fall back asleep that night. Not entirely. I must had nodded off occasionally, but I woke every time I heard something stir. After a fitful night, I returned to the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee once the dawn sunlight began sifting through the house’s windows.

I called the exterminator at precisely 8:05am. I wanted to be the first to get a hold of him, but I didn’t want to leave a message. I needed to talk to him immediately. I was in luck, and he promised to make our house the first stop of the day. While I waited for him to arrive, I drank some coffee. As the caffeine started to kick in, I began to understand the ridiculousness of what I thought that I had experienced during the night. I convinced myself that I had merely dozed off on the couch and had a horrible dream. Yes, that’s what it had been: a dream. Nevertheless, I would have the exterminator check out the basement, as well as the rest of the traps.

I met him out back as he was getting out of his truck. I tried to speak lightheartedly as I related my nightmare. It all sounded so silly when I told the story out loud. He smiled a little, but didn’t seem as amused as I thought he would be. Perhaps the normally jovial man was having a rough start to the day.

He headed for the garage first. He opened the door just a crack and, turning on his flashlight, poked his head inside. Then he turned back to face me – a serious look on his face.

“You had better wait here. Looks like the little buggers are back.”

“What is it?” I asked with excitement. “Raccoons? Rats? Oh, please tell me it’s not rats.”

“No, not that bad.” He shook his head. “You may want to stock up on peanut butter and cheese crackers, though.”

Credit: Kenneth Kohl

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Razor Games

May 21, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Rating: 9.2/10 (215 votes cast)

This pasta was the third place winner of our Gaming Creepypasta Challenge. Congratulations!

The first place winner can be viewed here, and second place is here. Thanks to everyone who participated!

My name is Tom. I am a sound designer for video games. I love my work and I have been doing it for quite some time. I used to work for a small indie game developer called Razor Games LLC.

My friend Jason, who hired me after I quit my last job for personal reasons, owned Razor Games. The company did very well and we had our share of small game development success but mostly did outsourced work for larger clients.

Jason’s brother Max was a producer at one of the largest game developers in the world. He often would outsource smaller projects to our company as a favor to his brother. That is where the bulk of our work came from.

We only had a dozen or so staff members at the company. I was close with several people at the company and considered them my second family. Jason was my friend of several years and was a rugged middle-aged man who had been playing games since he was five. Melissa was this quiet little blonde girl who loved fantasy books, game level design, and had been my best friend of several years. Tanner was this bearded teddy bear of a guy who worked as a game tester and had won my best friend’s heart. Melissa and Tanner had recently gotten engaged and I was elated for the both of them. The last person I was really close to at work was a guy named Nick. He was a character designer and A.I. programmer. He was a dark haired young guy and a prankster. The rest of the team was made up of various programmers, designers, and business-oriented people of whom I knew, but didn’t have as close of a relationship as I did with these four.

These people made my job the best job anyone could ask for. Things were great until two years ago when Max’s company laid off a bunch of employees due to a corporate restructure. Almost all of their development was kept internal, meaning we wouldn’t get any outsourced projects anymore.

I watched Jason stress out about possibly cutting into the company’s emergency fund to keep it afloat while he tried to find more work. Razor Games had received so much work from Max’s company that we were too busy to pick up but a few other clients. In the end, that hurt the company more than it helped.

For almost a year Razor Games survived on the emergency fund that it had built up. We had work here and there but no big projects. Out of the blue late last spring, Jason landed a massive job for us.

I remember being in the conference room when he announced the job. Melissa, Tanner, Nick and I were seated together around the small conference table at our office along with the rest of the employees, eagerly waiting to hear what Jason had to say about this new job.

Jason had hooked up his laptop to the projector on the table and was about to take us through a slide presentation.

“Over this past weekend I accepted a large job from a game developer in Korea,” Jason started. His body energy was higher than it had been in months and the excitement in his voice could not be hidden. “The developer’s name is Violet Edge Digital. The president of development for that company is a woman named Mia Nasta.”

Jason flipped to a slide that showed a screen capture of their website. It looked very professional and sleek. I had never heard of this developer before but with so many different companies around the world, I didn’t give it a second thought.

“She emailed me last week with a proposition and the possibility of a massive payout,” Jason continued as he paced excitedly back and forth at the front of the conference room. “Her company has in the past made VR simulators for military and aviation training purposes and is now developing a VR headset system for commercial use to compete with Oculus, Sony, Samsung, and others. We all know there are rumors of a Star Wars VR game and others floating around the community.”

A series of several slides showed pictures of what was supposed to be their past work. They included everything from pictures of a flight simulator and a VR set hooked up to a military training simulator.

Jason stopped his pacing and put his palms flat on the conference table and leaned in as if he was going to tell us the world’s biggest secret.

“They want us to do something for them before anyone else has the chance to.” Jason paused looking at each of us in the eyes.

“Which is?” Melissa said in a drawn out tone as she leaned into the table mimicking Jason.

Jason slowly stood straight up. “I know we haven’t worked in a VR platform before but they want us to create the world’s first VR horror game. The developer is swamped with finishing their VR headset so they have outsourced the creation of this game to us.”

I wasn’t excited. I personally didn’t like horror games or movies but work was work. Others seemed thrilled to take on the genre or be the first to do so in an emerging technology field.

“The bad news is we only have a few months to make it happen because they want a Halloween release…”

“No way! That’s insane,” Nick said cutting Jason off abruptly. “I’d have to pull insane hours to get that coding done in time as would everyone else.”

Jason raised his hand to silence Nick. “I understand,” he said calmly. “The bad news is we are on a tight schedule and we’ll all have to pull some stupid crazy hours. The good news is that they have concepts and basic designs for us already drafted and have paid us the first 20% of the contract.”

“Which is?” Melissa said mimicking her tone from earlier.

“$9 million,” Jason said with a smirk.

The room started to buzz with chatter with a few of the classic “holy shit” exclamations floating into the air.

“We’re going to have a good year,” Jason stated proudly. “But, we need to start immediately. Let me go over the design concepts with you all.”

Jason took us through the rest of the slide show. The storyboard was already flushed out. The premise was that the main character (or characters since it was to be multiplayer) had woken up in an abandon building that represented something like a psych ward with no memory of getting there. The character(s) would have to fight his or her way through monsters and solve basic puzzles, like finding keys to open doors to escape. There were to be nine levels of increasing difficulty in the game.

The developer even had some pictures of character models they wanted included in the game. There were several monster models they had suggested but two that they absolutely wanted designed and included. They had included well-sketched pictures of the monsters the team was to create.

The first of the two that they absolutely wanted in the game looked like an emaciated man with pale shiny skin. His head was bald and contained no eyes or nose. The only facial feature was an overly wide mouth with thin lips and needle like teeth. The fingers on his hands were replaced by long bone like claws. The creature’s knees bent opposite of ours with the bottom half of the leg being a long bone like spike that it walked on.

The second creature to be included looked like a fat baby with an overly large peanut shaped head and collapsed face. Its eyes sat back in the skull close together. Its mouth was small and puckered with sharp teeth. The hands and feet were replaced by single bone spike like protrusions.

The creatures were very grotesque but I could already hear the sounds I wanted to create for them in my head.

At the end of the meeting each department received a folder with very specific and detailed instructions on what the client wanted. I even received a flash drive of sample sounds the client wanted me to use that Jason had received in an email. Most of the sounds were labeled as monster movement or monster growl. The sounds themselves were very well done and very complex. Sounds like these would have taken me a long time to get something so crisp and unique sounding.

The flash drive had over a hundred different sounds almost all exclusively to be used for the monsters in the game. It seemed strange that they would send already finished sounds to an undeveloped videogame to the developer. At that point, I decided to ask Jason what he wanted me to do.

Nick was standing in Jason’s office when I arrived.

“Am I interrupting something?” I asked as I squeezed around Nick to the side of Jason’s desk.

“Nah,” Nick said. “Violet Edge Digital is asking me to include some weird script in my A.I. code that isn’t needed regardless of whether they have a different operating system for their head set or not.”

“Just include it, Nick,” Jason said with a sigh. “I noticed it too. It’s in the instructions for anyone who is writing code. They stated it was unique to their VR system and insisted it be included. If it doesn’t work or screws up we’ll go with what we know but for now include the script as instructed.”

“Fine,” Nick said sighing and walking slowly out of Jason’s office.

“What can I do for you, Tom?”

“I just wanted to make sure they want to use all these sounds. It makes my job easier but I figured they’d want us to design unique sounds from scratch.”

Jason rubbed his forehead with his thumb and pointer finger. “Yes. I know they’ve given us very specific instructions but at the end of the day they are the client and to make the deadline realistic, they sent us over what they had already started.”

“Alright,” I said as I started to leave. “I’ll group and organize what they sent me and create the rest of what they need according to their instructions.”

The next two weeks were insanely busy. Ms. Nasta sent Jason an email stating she was going to send two prototype VR headsets to us to test the game on. Jason spent some of the initial deposit on a few brand new computers with the fastest processors, largest video cards, and most RAM he could cram into them. Nate, our IT guy, spent the better part of those two weeks setting up the new computers in the testing room, or dungeon as we called it since it had no windows.

I spent those two weeks recording various sounds in my make shift foley stage in my office. I followed the list of sounds that the client required of me, creating various initial sounds that I could later mix into something amazingly creepy and new.

A few days after Nate had installed all the new computers and the entire team was deep into their own portion of the project, the VR headsets arrived. It would be a month or two before we would have anything close to a playable alpha version ready but Jason wanted the headsets up and running in the testing room ASAP.

Jason pulled the packages into the conference room so we could all get a good look at this new VR headset we were designing this game for. Jason opened the first package.

“Well, shit. That’s not what I had imagined,” Jason said sarcastically, spilling foam peanuts everywhere as he lifted this old jet pilot like helmet from the box.

“They want us to fly a plane with that thing or design a game?” Nick said jokingly.

“I don’t see that as a platform for a multi million dollar developed game,” Melissa chimed in.

Jason sat the helmet down on the table and pulled an installation software DVD from the box. “Well,” Jason sighed, “let’s keep in mind that these are prototypes. Either way, I want them installed and ready by the end of the day so we can begin testing as soon as we have something ready. Nate and Tom. Take these down to the dungeon and get the software installed on the PC’s. The rest of you, get back to work so we can get something to test on these bad boys.”

I helped Nate carry the headsets to the dungeon and set them up. Both came with two controllers to manage the movements and actions of the player’s in game character.

Nate ran the installation software on the computers as I connected the controllers to the headsets and the headsets to the computer.

“What the fuck is that?” Nate said suddenly.

“What’s what?” I asked looking up at the screen he was staring at.

“This screen.” Nate pointed to a pop up window that was full of what looked like wingding text scrolling on its own but it clearly wasn’t wingding text. The window suddenly disappeared and was replaced by another that read “Installation Complete!”

“I’ve never seen that before. I’m gonna run a virus scan just in case.” Nate started the virus scan quickly.

“The computer isn’t connected to the internet so we should be ok and I don’t understand why our client would send us a virus if they wanted us to get their work done,” I explained.

The virus scan came back empty. Nate ran the installation software on a second computer and the same window with the same scrolling text appeared before being replaced with an “Installation Complete!” window.

We didn’t think anything of it after that. The rest of the day continued on as normal. For the next month and a half we worked 12-16 hour days constantly with only Sunday off. At the end of that stretch, we had a working alpha of the game.

Melissa and her team had pulled off some amazing level design and were about 5 levels into the game. I had the majority of the important sounds crafted and mixed by that point. The crew working on character models had the essential monsters done including the two that were specifically requested by the client and were now working on the extras.

Tanner could now test the game for bugs and issues that needed fixing. Tanner wanted me to play the game with him on the first test run. He wasn’t fond of anything horror and scared easily. Nick would often play jokes on him at the office and he hated it.

“I’m not looking forward to this so let’s get it over with,” Tanner said nervously as he slipped the large VR helmet over his head.

“Awwww. Don’t cry. I’ll be right here if you get scared,” I said jokingly with a chuckle as I slipped on my VR head set.

We started the game and the first thing I noticed was that the graphics were amazing. The 360-degree view immersed you in a way I had never experienced before.

“Damn the guys killed it on the textures,” Tanner said in awe. “The sound is pretty fucking awesome too.”

“Thanks!” I said dryly. I was so focused on the game before my eyes I wasn’t really paying attention to anything else. Tanner was right. The sounds in the game were almost too good. I guessed I had created better sound bytes than I thought I had. I was pretty damn proud in that moment.

We spent a few minutes in the game’s starting area trying out the basic mechanics and looking for bugs. Tanner noticed some texture tearing that needed to be fixed and I took note that the character run command was spotty. After messing around with the character mechanics we made our way through the first level.

The level was simple. We needed to locate a key to unlock the door to the next area. We spent a few minutes running around the labyrinth of corridors in the abandon psych ward looking for a key. There were several jump scares that involved the little fat baby like monsters dropping in front of you or jumping out from behind something. I screamed a few times and so did Tanner, which helped me loosen up and laugh at the situation.

As we rounded a corner in the game a vent above us dropped down slamming to the ground with a metallic echo.

“Shit!” screamed Tanner.

“Ha ha ha,” I cackled. “It’s just a vent cover.” I paused as the echoing of the vent hitting the floor dissipated. “Wow, I don’t remember programing that sound. Sounds really good though. Perfect reverb and everything.”

I watched as Tanner’s character walked over the exposed vent and looked up into the dark shaft.

“Holy fuck!” Tanner screamed as one of the larger monsters swung down out of the vent rapidly and jumped on his character.

A large thud hit the ground behind me. I couldn’t hear it but I felt the ground shake.

“Tanner?” I asked hoping he was all right. I tried to pause the game but the feature didn’t work. I took quick note of it and slipped my VR headset off.

Tanner was sitting up on the floor with his headset lying next to him rubbing his eyes.

“You ok?” I asked as I set down my own headset.

“Yea, dude,” Tanner replied somberly. “It just seemed so real like I thought I could actually feel the monster’s weight on my body.”

“It’s virtual reality. It messes with your senses.” I extended my hand to my friend to help him up. “You want to take a break?”

“No. We need to get this testing done so we can get the big issues fixed ASAP. I’ll be fine.”

“Ok. I’m going to take what I have to the programmers and make sure they get the ‘pause’ function working then get on creating the rest of the sounds since the ones in the game sound pretty damn good if you ask me.”

“Ok. Just leave the door open for me.”

Tanner genuinely looked frightened and I felt sorry he was the lead tester on this game. I took my notes to the correct departments and brought up the ‘pause’ function of the game not working properly.

It was another month before the game was in a very rough finished shape. The game was far from fully functional but the first several levels were nearly complete.

One afternoon I was sitting in my office mixing some of the sound effects I had created when I heard Tanner in the dungeon scream loudly.

“Who the fuck!” Tanner yelled in an angry tone. He wasn’t an angry type of guy so I knew something had caused him to blow a gasket.

I turned around to see Nick and a red faced Tanner standing in the hall.

“Dude it’s not fucking cool,” Tanner yelled.

“What isn’t?” Nick said with palms raised up and a confused look on his face.

“Dicking with me while I’m testing that game!”

“What are you talking about?”

“I know it was you. You’re the only prankster in this office. You came in and blew on the back of my neck while I had the headset on. I could smell your breath.” Tanner had gotten up into Nick’s face.

Nick backed up to create some space between the two.

“First, I just came from my office and am headed to ask Jason a question. Second, I know I joke around but you know that I know you hate horror anything so I would never mess with you while you were testing the game.”

“It’s true,” I said in Nick’s defense as I got up out of my chair. “My office door has been open the entire time and I didn’t hear anyone go into the testing room. I think the VR is really screwing with your senses.”

By this time Jason had entered the hallway to see what was going on. Tanner’s face was calmer but still red.

“Tanner,” Jason called. “Take the rest of the day off and relax before you have a heart attack.

“Sorry, Nick. I’m just on edge because of the game. I’m sorry, man.” Tanner hung his head down and sighed.

“Forget it,” Nick said calmly with a smile reaching out to grab Tanner’s shoulder. “Go take a break. I’ll do the rest of the testing today since I’m ahead on my work.”

Tanner looked exhausted as he walked off.

“Well, I guess there goes the idea of having a scare video compilation for promo purposes,” Jason said with a defeated tone as Tanner left.

“Promo video?” I asked inquisitively.

“Yea I was trying to convince Ms. Nasta that we should shoot a promo video of our testers getting scared shitless playing the game. I can’t get her to answer her phone during the middle of their day and the only email reply I got back was that they liked the initial alpha version I sent them and that she disapproves of the promo video idea.”

“You should do it anyway so we can watch it as a group for our launch party when this thing is finished,” Nick said smiling.

“I probably will,” Jason said. “What were you going to ask me Nick?”

“I still haven’t solved our A.I. issue,” stated Nick.

“You have an A.I. issue?” I asked him.

“Yea, it’s weird. Most people testing it and myself have noticed that sometimes the monsters won’t attack you and will run away like they want you to progress in the game or something. They should be programmed to run away when they are under 30% health but not while at full health. I just haven’t solved the issue yet.”

“Go hop on the game and see if you can figure it out. As far as I know the other programmers haven’t figured out how to get the game to pause either so you’re not the only one with some issues,” Jason finished.

Nick nodded and headed into the testing room. I went back to working on the last few sounds I needed to create. Before I left that night I asked Melissa to check in on her fiancé and let me know if he was ok. I had never seen Tanner like that before and it worried me. She eventually sent me a text saying he was fine and had calmed down. It was a big relief for me.

A week or two went by and I listened to several other people scream and fall out of their chairs in the dungeon from my office. Everyone seemed to be very pleased with the job we were doing with the game. Most people commented on the excellent sound and graphics. Plenty of people who tested the game also felt as if they could feel the monsters grab them or push them even though we all chalked it up to being immersed in a visually encompassing game.

I was finalizing the last sound in my office and Melissa was testing one of the game’s levels to check for any tears in the texture or glitchy spots in the dungeon next door when I heard her shout.

“Shit!” Melissa screamed.

I whipped around in my chair so fast I nearly flung myself out of it. As I stood up Melissa exited the testing room holding her left arm. A crimson streak of blood was dripping down on the floor.

“You ok? What happened?” I asked as I rushed to her.

Jason had entered the hallway at that point as well as Tanner. Both were speaking over each other asking her if she was ok.

“Yea I’m fine,” Melissa replied looking at her arm.

“You’re bleeding,” Jason mentioned as he pointed to her arm.

“I know. I’m ok.” Melissa was definitely calmer than the others around her.

“It looks bad. I’ll get the first aid kit,” Tanner said as he rushed off.

“What happened?” I asked again.

“Something scratched me. I was playing the game and I was on the 7th level when I was attacked by one of those bigger monsters with the bone like fingers. It swiped at my left side and I swear I could feel it cut me so I grabbed my arm and that’s when I felt the blood and the pain.” Her right hand was covered in blood. Tanner had returned with some paper towels and the first aid kit.

“It’s just a game,” Jason said. “Everyone is falling off chairs and sensing things that aren’t real because it’s a VR game. It’s supposed to immerse you. It’ll mess with your senses. You probably had a knee jerk reaction to what your brain sensed as an attack and when you grabbed your arm you scratched yourself.”

“I guess it’s possible,” Melissa said with a sigh as Tanner began dabbing the blood off her arm.

“You know what?” Jason stated with an exhausted tone. “We all need to take a long weekend off. We’ve all been pulling 12-16 hour shifts and I think we’re all burnt out.”

Jason wasn’t wrong. I was tired. My friends were tired. Jason himself was tired. He had been trying to get a hold of Ms. Nasta for several days voicing concerns over the pause function still not working properly and other business related issues. The only thing he was able to get back from her were a few short emails that said they approved of what we were doing and we should push forward.

We all took a long weekend. When we came back we pushed right back into the thick of things. Around the end of August we had a nearly finished beta. All of the sounds required of me were mixed and incorporated into the game. Since I was available, I ended up helping Tanner with a lot of the testing. Since the VR headset was not commercially available we couldn’t have an open beta so Tanner and I were going to put in some long nights.

The game itself looked amazing and sounded just as good as it looked. Tanner and I had begun to laugh when we were attacked by one of the emaciated man monsters or fat baby things. We knew where all the jump scares were on each level so we could anticipate them and make fun of each other if we jumped. Because the immersion of the headset was so good, we still felt like the creatures were breathing on us or could feel the impact of one of them hitting us. We knew it wasn’t real but our brain didn’t. Testing for several hours became the norm for us. Every now and then we would have to stop, especially after a long session because we would feel queasy. We figured it was because we weren’t used to playing in a 3D immersive game.

One day Tanner was out for a doctor’s appointment so Nick tested the game with me.

“Have you had a consistent experience with the monster A.I. when you’ve tested the game?” Nick asked me before we began.

“The monster’s always seem to be where they should be,” I replied.

“No. Let me show you what I’m talking about.”

We both slipped on our headsets and started to play on level seven. We pushed through the mini puzzles and hordes of monsters until we reached where you were to retrieve a key to open a door to level eight. The key was on a string dangling in the middle of a massive open room full of the baby like monsters and the emaciated man creatures. The creatures patrolled around in groups. We had designed this room to be a wave like boss encounter.

“So every level I’ve completed there is this issue where the first time through the monsters around the key should aggro at 20 yards but they don’t. In fact they’ll actually watch you instead of attacking.” Nick maneuvered his character to the middle of the room and stood by the key.

I watched with my character from the edge of the room.

“Come here,” Nick said.

I walked my character passed several of the monsters to Nick’s character. “What the hell?” I questioned in awe. The monsters let me walk past them. Instead of attacking they faced our characters. We stood in the center of the room with a dozen or so of the grossly disfigured creatures just watching us. They either swayed side-to-side or paced slowly back and forth in a small pattern. Their blank stares and creepy sounds, some of which I couldn’t remember if I had created or not, sent an ice like chill up my spine.

“Dude, this is really creepy,” I told Nick as I shuddered.

“I can’t tell if they’re bugged or what is going on but I didn’t program this. This isn’t anything compared to what I’m about to show you.”

Nick grabbed the key with his character and placed it into his inventory.

“Watch what they do now,” said Nick.

We began to make our way back through the level towards the locked door, which would take us to level eight. As we walked back through, the monsters from the key area followed us through every corridor. They stayed their distance but they were definitely following us.

“They’re just following us,” I gasped in disbelief. “I know these things are just digital images but right now they’re giving me the creeps.”

“They’ll follow us right to the door.” Nick unlocked the door and our screens went black to indicate we were loading into the next level.

“The issue is that I don’t know how to solve this.” Nick slipped off his VR helmet. “The first time through each level the creatures won’t attack you unless you attack them. I’ve tried programming different ways and I just can’t fix it. The second time through a level they’ll act properly with regard to game play.”

Nick restarted level seven to show me. Sure enough, when we reached the area where the key was, the monsters attacked us when we were within their 20 yard range.

After we finished the second session Nick and I got ready to call it a day. We both felt a little motion sick from playing the game.

“You ok?” Nick asked as I leaned forward in my chair after removing the VR headset.

“Yea. I just need to rest for a second. The 360 view makes me feel queasy after I play the game for a while. It’s weird I haven’t gotten used to it yet after doing more testing this past month.” I concentrated hard to get my world to stop spinning.

“Yea, makes me wonder how this whole VR thing will go once it becomes commercially available,” stated Nick as he put away his equipment.

The next two weeks for me were intense. Tanner and I did a lot of testing on the last two levels. Ms. Nasta had emailed Jason asking for push on the delivery so Violet Edge Digital could release some game footage as promotional material. However, they wanted to record the footage and forbid us from doing it. We were almost finished with the game and as strange as that seemed, Jason wanted to push forward to our big payout.

I had started to develop more and more motion sickness as I played the game. It would often be a combination of head spinning followed by a stomachache. The sickness intensified after each session in the final week.

That Friday was the last test session. I stumbled into my office wondering how I was going to make it through the day. To make matters worse it was a cold day. Everyone at the office arrived bundled up in warm jackets and scarves.

“Jesus,” exclaimed Tanner as he stood in my office door way. “You look like shit.”

“Feel like it too,” I said with my head lying on my desk. “We need to complete the last level so Jason can send a final copy Monday morning.”

“My head is spinning and my stomach feels bad too but at least I can still stand. Go home, dude. I can grab one of the other guys to help me with this. Jake in programming is free I think.”

I peeled myself off my desk, drug my half limp body down to Jason’s office to let him know I was going home, and then slept the next few days away in my own bed. I didn’t sleep well Friday or Saturday Night. It felt like my eyes and my stomach were going to explode as if something was ripping at me from the inside. I somehow made it to Sunday where the pain subsided and I could finally rest. Monday morning arrived with no pain or dizziness.

I arrived at the office early at the same time as Jason and Melissa.

“Feeling better?” asked Melissa with smile.

“Way better,” I answered enthusiastically.

Jason turned the door handle to the building and it gave. “Damn it,” he stated in an annoyed tone. “Tanner and Jake left the door open when they left on Friday.”

We entered the building and made our way to our offices.

“Tom, can you look around the offices to make sure everything looks like it’s here and Melissa can you check the dungeon to make sure all the equipment is accounted for?”

“Yea just let me get my stuff put up and my computer turned on,” I shouted back. I hit the power button on my PC tower but no lights or spinning disk confirmation noise happened. I tried again. Still nothing.

I stuck my head out of my office as Melissa walked into the dungeon. “Jason, my computer isn’t turning on, is yours?” I called out.

“Damn it. No!” Jason called out in reply.

I heard the click of the light switch in the testing room.

Melissa’s scream was deafening. Her body tumbled backwards out of the testing room as she backpedaled feverishly nearly crashing into me. She didn’t stop scrambling backwards even as she fell to the floor and hit the wall opposite the door with force.

I stood there stunned as her screams mixed with cries and the sound of her trying to choke back vomit. It felt like an hour had passed before I ran into the testing room without any thought to confront what had frightened my friend.

I covered my mouth as my eyes grew ten times their normal size. I couldn’t comprehend the grotesque bodies before me. Two piles of muscle attached to bone with their entrails pulled from what would have been their stomachs as if they had been gutted lay on the floor. They lay there motionless in pools of what was probably their own blood surrounded by busted equipment. I couldn’t make out if it was Tanner and Jake or these two bodies were completely alien.

Reality hit me like an angry fist. I stumbled back the same as Melissa. I caught myself on the doorframe as Jason came running down the hall. Melissa was still on the floor sobbing her hands covered in vomit.

“What the hell happened?” Jason said as he gasped for breath.

“Tanner… Jake… I think their dead.” I stumbled through my words fighting back my own gagging at what I just saw.

Jason quickly turned from us and looked in the room.

“Oh my God,” Jason said in a sedated voice. “Call 911. I need to lock the door and keep the others out before they arrive. I don’t want them to see this.” Jason moved in a panic. I gathered myself and frantically called 911 before returning to Melissa to get her calmed down and cleaned up.

Jason kept the other employees out of the office until emergency services arrived. Within minutes our office front had become crowded with cops and paramedics. Out side was a sea of blue, red, and white lights. The cops immediately sealed off everything and asked us some questions. Jason offered to pull security footage from the weekend to see if it was possible to catch whoever had done this to Tanner and Jake, if that’s whose bodies were in the testing room.

Our office computers didn’t work but Jason kept the security cameras running on a computer in a supply closet that was hooked up to a separate power supply than the rest of the office.

The footage he pulled from the security hard drive was weirdly disturbing. Even the police were perplexed. Jason pulled footage from Friday night first. Everyone except for Tanner and Jake, the guy who took my spot for the evening, was gone by 5:30pm. There were only two cameras installed in our office. One covered the front door from the outside and the other looked over the main hallway. Jason bought good cameras though. They could zoom in to show explicit detail of anything in their view.

Jake and Tanner could be seen entering the dungeon to finish testing the game with their coats at 6pm. It had been a cold day and the testing room was often kept at a cool temperature because of the amount of consoles and computers inside of it. Two hours passed before any movement was caught on camera.

Almost two hours after the two had entered the testing room, both exited the room. They were both wearing their coats and moving in a strange manner. Tanner was walking as if he couldn’t balance on his own feet. His face looked as if it had been squished from the sides and his right foot was being pulled behind him as if it were completely dislocated from his leg. His knees appeared to be bent slightly backwards but it couldn’t clearly be seen at the angles the camera was filming from. Both his hands were tucked away in the sleeves of his coat. Behind him in his right hand he could clearly be seen dragging one of the prototype VR headsets from Violet Edge Digital carelessly along the ground.

Jake was following behind Tanner half hunched over. He too was walking as if he couldn’t control his own movements. His hands were folded under his arms as he swerved side to side down the hallway as if two different people where driving his legs. In his arms he cradled the second prototype headset.

Jason switched to the outside camera as the two exited the building. As Tanner put his hand up to push the door open gasps of confusion and shock filled the room. The hand that Tanner used to push the door open didn’t have fingers. In their place were long boney looking spikes just like the emaciated man creature in the game had. As the two exited the building the grotesque hand was pulled back into Tanner’s coat sleeve. As they turned to walk away down the street several humps appeared on each of their backs under their coats. The protrusions moved up to the coat necks as if something had scrambled from their butt to their neck.

There was no other person in any footage the rest of the weekend till we arrived that morning. There were several “What the fucks?” floating around the room at this point. The police demanded a copy of the video, to which Jason quickly obliged.

The office remained closed for the next few days as the police continued their investigation. I sat at home in the dark waiting to hear if it was ok to return to work or if I needed to give another statement to the police. I felt numb. I wasn’t sure how to feel. Jason called after the police investigation at the office was over. I could hear the sadness in his voice as he informed me that the office was closing. He had paid everyone his or her portion of the initial deposit from out client and shut down the office. He explained that too many people didn’t feel comfortable working at the office where their coworkers had just been murdered.

The next phone call was from Melissa. She was in tears as she told me that the investigators confirmed the dead bodies to be Tanner and Jake by DNA and dental records. I knew she wasn’t taking it well and I tried to hide the fact that I didn’t take that news well either.

I was numb for a few weeks. Halloween came and went. That was when we were supposed to be celebrating a big payday and having a release party. I took a job at postproduction company creating sound. Melissa and I stayed in touch. I wasn’t going to let my best friend go through something horrible alone. Nick took a teaching job at a tech college and left town. We stay in touch through social media although it’s not the same as hanging out. I didn’t hear from Jason after his phone call to tell me he was shutting the company down until a few weeks before Christmas.

He called me and asked me to meet him for coffee one afternoon. It was a cold day much like the last one I spent at the office before my friends and colleagues were skinned, disemboweled, and murdered.

I found Jason sitting at the designated coffee shop alone. He still had his coat on. There was a laptop sitting on his table and he sipped from a shaky cup. Bangs had formed under his eyes and his hair was disheveled.

“You look like shit,” I said sarcastically as I sat before him.

“Good to see you too,” He replied with a half smile. “I don’t sleep much anymore.”

“Why? What’s going on? I haven’t heard from you since you decided to close down Razor Games.”

Jason shifted around in his seat. He twitched his head side to side as if he was looking for someone.

“I’ve been working for my brother. Long days and nights.” Jason paused and gazed out the window.

I knew he had something else to tell me.

“Remember when Nick said I should tape people testing the game to get some reaction shots for promo or our release party?” Jason quietly stated.

“Yes,” I replied tilting my head down.

“Well, I did. I setup the camera in the room and connected it to the computer in the closet that was recording surveillance footage. I wanted it to be a surprise for our release party. I figured we’d have a drink and share some laughs at everyone getting freaked out and fall off chairs while testing the game. With all that went on and because I had set it up months ago, I forgot it was there until a day or two after the incident. I pulled the footage from the hard drive. You need to watch some of the footage.”

Jason opened up the laptop still twitching around like a paranoid crack addict.

“Remember people saying they felt like the monsters were actually hitting them? Watch this video.”

The first video was of Tanner and me testing the game a few months ago in the beta. We were laughing in the video after just being scared by one of the monsters in the game. Our heads were turning as we were looking around with the headsets on. Suddenly Tanner screamed and an indentation on his shirt by his stomach appeared as if someone had pushed hard on him. Seconds later he could be heard saying he was jumped on by one of the creatures in the game. Jason showed me several more videos of various testers being pushed and pulled by some invisible force. We had always chalked the feeling of something physically touching us to being immersed in a VR experience.

“Do you remember the day that Melissa cut her arm?”

My eyes were wide and my heart was pounding at this point. I shook my head in confirmation.

Jason pulled up a video from that day. Melissa was sitting in the chair. The VR head set covered her face and her hands were moving with the controllers as she tested the game. A small indentation appeared on her arm and quickly moved down her skin followed by a trail of blood as if someone had scraped her hard. Melissa grabbed her arm in pain as she had done that day.

“Something was in the room with everyone,” said Jason. His bloodshot eyes did not blink. “You need to see the video from that last Friday night.”

I was afraid of what I would see but I wanted to know what happened to my friend.

“Play it.” I knew I would regret my decision.

The video started as Tanner and Jake sat down to begin testing after everyone else had left. Jason fast-forwarded 20 minutes into the video. Jake could be heard saying he didn’t understand why the monsters were following them instead of attacking. He made reference to the glitch Nick had showed me where you would have to complete the level before the monsters would act normal on the second play through. Tanner exclaimed that he was going to unlock the last door of the game and then they could run through the level again. Tanner started to say he was finished and that he was going to reset the level before his words were cut short.

Tanner dropped his controllers and grunted in pain gripping at his stomach as he did so. His body slouched back into his chair. His stomach began to bulge. It began to ripple and swell as if something was struggling to get out. His grunts became mixed with wails of pain. His body violently contorted. Jake’s body soon followed in the same contorted motions accompanied by his own screams.

I clasped my mouth in horror and disgust.

“I don’t want to see the rest of this.” I could feel a tear form in my eye as fear began to grip me.

“You need to see it!” Jason said in a stern whisper.

Both bodies writhed violently, their stomachs swelling and collapsing as if something was pushing from within. Finally the bodies came to rest in their chairs, their VR helmets still on, and stomachs swollen to unrealistic proportions. I watched in horror as my friends’ stomachs burst open. I could feel the vomit in my throat as I watched and heard that horrific sound which I’ll never get out of my head. Two large thin membrane sacs emerged from their bodies pulling entrails with them as they fell to the floor. A clawed hand punched through the thin veiny membrane as the screen cut to static.

“That’s it,” Jason said as he closed the laptop.

“What the fuck is this? Why did you make me watch this?” Tears were trickling down my face. I was disgusted and angry at what I had just seen. “Please tell me this shit is fake and that you’re just being a shithead so I can move on.”

“It’s not fake. I didn’t tamper with any of the footage. I saw the same shit you did.”

“No… we saw them walk out of that room.”

“The hell we did. Think about it. They were skinned alive. The coroner confirmed it was their bodies. You know damn well that whatever looked like Tanner and Jake leaving that office wasn’t them. The distorted face… The clawed hand on the glass door… The dislocated feet… the strange movement under their coats!”

I threw myself back in my seat and stared at the ceiling for a few seconds as I sighed.

“What are you suggesting?”

“This is going to sound crazy. I have been doing some thinking. What if we did exactly what the client wanted us to do?”

“What do you mean?” I asked in confusion.

“Violet Edge Digital doesn’t exist. Their equipment got ‘stolen’ so I tried to do a follow up with them from my home computer to let them know what happened. All of Mia Nasta’s emails to me are gone. If I send an email to what I remember was her email, it gets kicked back as not being able to be delivered. The police were also trying to do a follow up with them to find out exactly what the VR headsets were labeled or a serial number or something so they could report the equipment as stolen and they couldn’t locate any company anywhere named Violet Edge Digital that was based in Korea. They couldn’t find anyone named Mia Nasta either. They checked my emails and my phone calls to her office. There is no record of any of it regardless of how sure I am that I had those conversations with her. Their website is none existent. There is absolutely no trace of our client except our word.”

Jason took another nervous sip from his drink.

“All of our equipment that was in the testing room that was hooked up to the headsets was burnt from the inside out. All the game data and software was lost. All of our computers were wiped clean except for the one in the closet with the surveillance footage. It was the only one not connected to the internet. All of those folders containing instructions are gone as is the flash drive that had the sounds on it I gave you.”

“So? What does all this mean? We worked for a nonexistent company?” I was getting impatient at this point.

“Before I closed the company’s bank account the rest of the money promised to us was deposited. I had someone trace the money to see where it came from. It had passed through so many bank accounts both here in the US and off shore that it was impossible to tell. That money probably passed through 1000s of accounts.”

“What did you do with it?”

“I gave it to charity. I want nothing to do with it. I was already freaked out by that point. The morning I called you to meet me I got this in the mail. It’s a letter with no return address.”

Jason slid an envelope with his home address on the front across the table. Inside was a letter. It was on a plain piece of paper. The letter read:

Thank you. This is everything we needed.
See you soon.

– Mia Nasta

“What if…” Jason started before pausing. “What if we weren’t actually programing a VR video game? What if those creatures weren’t made up?”

“You can’t be serious,” I stated sternly.

“Think about it. The weird script they wanted us to include in the code that no one recognized. The feeling of people being physically touched while playing. You saw the video! What if we weren’t programming a game where a player escapes but in reality programing a way for those creatures to escape? Remember the pause feature not working? You can’t pause what’s real. People always said the visuals and the sounds were too good and contained things they didn’t remember programing. What if we weren’t looking at a game but a real world with our game overlaid on it?”

I sat in silence.

“Nick said the creatures wouldn’t attack you until you had opened the door to the next level right? You ever read Dante’s Inferno? There are nine levels of hell. The client wanted nine levels that looked like an abandon psych ward. Mia Nasta… Think about it. That name is an anagram.”

Jason’s ideas up this point seemed possibly valid but he was reaching for straws to me with his last statement. He was mocking our friends’ death at this point.

“Jason, enough!” I shouted as I pounded my fist into the table in anger. I stood up quickly. “I don’t want to hear this mockery of our friends’ death. Yea some strange shit happened. Yea maybe you have some good points but you can’t seriously believe that we programed a way for imaginary monsters to enter our reality. If that is the way you want to cope with their death fine but I won’t entertain that idea because it’s insane.”

I stormed out of the coffee shop.

“We made a way for them to come into our world!” Jason shouted as I walked away.

I walked the whole way home without stopping, furious at the thought of what Jason was suggesting. It was a complete fairy tale and probably his stupid way of coping with things. I wanted none of it.

His idea seemed stupid at the time but the reason I’m writing this now is because I believe him. Everything he said. It makes sense to me now. I’m writing this and posting it anywhere I can to warn people.

That night I was on Facebook looking at old photos of my friends reflecting on good times at Razor Games. Then I noticed it. In the suggested ad column on the right side was an advertisement for Razor Edge Incorporated’s new VR headset system. It looked strangely like the prototypes we had from our client.

I clicked on the ad. The VR system came complete with the world’s first horror VR game guaranteed to be the most realistic horror simulator ever. The game was titled ‘Ascent from the Abyss.’ There were screenshots of the game. The monsters, the graphics, and the premise were exactly the same. There was a demo video available. The game play was exactly the same and so was the level that was demonstrated. It was an exact carbon copy of our game.

We never titled the game. We never gave our client a final copy either. I don’t know what is going on but if Jason is even close to being right, we need to warn as many people as possible.

It’s the holiday season and if this VR set and game catches any traction, God only knows what will happen.

Credit: Tom

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Willow Creek

May 19, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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This pasta was the first place winner of our Gaming Creepypasta Challenge. Congratulations to moonlit_cove!

The second and third placed winners will have their stories uploaded on the 20th and 21st. Thanks to everyone who participated!

A small orb of orange light quickly illuminated then faded back into the darkness as Paul Donovan took a draw from his cigarette. He sat slouched in a plush chair in his living room, the hand that held the cigarette now dangling over the armrest. When he exhaled, the smoke rose and hovered near the ceiling, though it was impossible to see it in the darkness.

After a brief moment of questioning his willingness to continue, he picked up the TV remote in his free hand and pressed the power button. The solid blue screen initially caused his dilated pupils to ache – so much so that he winced and glanced away from the screen for a few seconds.

Once his eyes adjusted, Paul swapped the TV remote for his wireless game controller. He pressed and held the start button until the system booted up. After taking one final draw of his cigarette, he snuffed it out in an ash tray that was resting on a nearby end table. The disc reader inside his console whirred as it spun up to load the game data.

Continue to Level 3? The dialogue box gave him one last chance to change his mind. He initially used the controller stick to highlight the “No” response, and lingered there while contemplating the possible consequences of playing on. But he had to finish what he’d started, and he hoped that by completing the game he could put an end to this madness. More importantly, he wanted his son back, and he was prepared to do whatever was necessary in order to get him home safely. He returned the cursor to the “Yes” option and confirmed his choice.

– – – – –

Being an avid lover of horror and survival games, it was only natural that Paul would accept the challenge to play this game. He had learned of it quite by accident two weeks ago as he was browsing the discussion forum of his favorite gaming site. Someone had posted a topic requesting recommendations for the scariest games. Paul opened the thread with the intention of providing a long list of his favorites, but as he read through the responses he saw how the conversation had turned in a much different direction, beginning with a reply from a user he’d never seen before:

Chameleon01: If you guys are looking for a scary game, I’ve got one for you. I’ll bet no one on this board could even finish it.

GamerGabe: PFFFFFT!! Yeah right! We’ve played everything there is. What’s the name of it then, newbie?

Dark-Shadow957: Low post count + outrageous claim = troll.

00Raven00: Well, what game is it?

RevengeofSephiroth: Let me guess, a Pokemon game?

GamerGabe: (@RevengeofSephiroth) BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

Dark-Shadows957: TROLL! Come on guys, don’t feed the troll!

Chameleon01: It’s called Willow Creek.

GamerGabe: Sounds lame.

00Raven00: I googled your little game. It doesn’t exist. Nice try though. Buh-bye now.

Chameleon01: It’s a pre-production bootleg. It’s not supposed to be out until next year.

00Raven00: We still would’ve heard of it as an upcoming release. Besides that, how would you even get a hold of such a thing? Geez, some people!

Chameleon01: I work for the developer. That’s all I can say. Do you want to play it or not?

00Raven00: What system?

Chameleon01: PM me. I’ll get you the version for whatever system you need.

The more Paul read into the depth of the thread, the more his interest was piqued. He wondered whether or not 00Raven00 had gone on to request the game from this stranger. He hovered his mouse over the link to Chameleon01’s profile, then clicked it and began composing his own private message to the unknown user. He was hesitant at first to give out his home address, but he rationalized it away by telling himself it wasn’t any different than the hundreds of random strangers using eBay that had already obtained his personal information over the years.

A yellow padded envelope with no return address arrived in Paul’s mailbox four days after he sent the private message. Inside was the game disc in a paper sleeve. On the disc, crudely written in ink, was: Willow Creek: beta v. 1.0.

“Ah, so this Chameleon guy is in charge of beta testing. That makes a little more sense,” Paul mumbled to himself. His mouth then broadened into a partial smile. “Well, he didn’t have to be so cryptic about it.”

A young boy came running into the kitchen where Paul stood looking over the rest of the day’s mail.

“Who you talkin’ to, dad?” the boy asked.

“Oh, no one, Scotty. Just myself.” He shuffled through the bills and junk mail.

Scotty was ten years old, an above average student, but a typical boy all around. He loved playing the seemingly endless stream of video games that his father was constantly bringing home. They had partnered up for many adventures on most of the multiplayer games (unless Paul deemed the game to be too mature for Scotty), and even when games were single player, Scotty loved to watch as his father solved all the puzzles and defeated the toughest bosses. Paul knew that Scotty’s mother would probably not approve of all of the games that they’d played together, but she hadn’t had a say in the matter for nearly a year now.

“We got a new game,” Paul announced to his son, holding the disc out toward Scotty.

Scotty took it from him. “It looks fake,” he said.

“Well, it’s a beta test. We’ll be among the first players.”

Scotty’s eyes lit up. “Cool! Can we play it tonight?”

“Sure, if we have time. You make sure you get all your homework done first though. Okay?”

Scotty hung his head as he placed the game disc on the kitchen table. “Alright,” he replied in a resigned voice, remembering how much homework awaited him that evening.

It was getting late when Scotty finally finished his school work and came barreling into the living room, begging his father to play the new game.

“It’s already 9:30, bud. You need to be getting to bed soon.”

“Can we at least start it?”

Paul hesitated for a moment. “Okay. But you’re not staying up past ten.”

Scotty’s excitement boiled over as he grabbed the game disc and booted up the console. He handed his father the first player controller. After a brief title screen, there were three level options listed from top to bottom. The only option that was active was “Level One”. The remaining two levels were grayed-out. In the background, behind the text, was the still image of a closed door depicted from inside a dark room with light radiating from the gaps at its edges.

“What’s this about?” Scotty asked.

“I don’t know exactly. But it’s supposed to be scary so I may be sending you to bed if it gets too bad.”

Scotty groaned. Paul confirmed the selection of level one and sat back as the game loaded. “It looks like it’s only one player so you’ll just have to watch me play for a while.”

“That’s okay.”

After a few seconds of load time, a cut scene appeared. Paul and his son watched the animated footage – a first-person perspective as the protagonist entered a door with a frosted glass window into an antiquated office environment. On the window, decaled in thick black lettering, was “Detective Charleston”. Somber ambient music droned in the background. The scene reminded Paul of the way many of the classic film noirs he’d seen over the years had begun. Right away he realized that this would be more of a puzzle solving game. An intellectual’s game.

Paul caught on to the gist of the game relatively quickly. He played as Detective Charleston, traveling all around the virtual town of Willow Creek and finding clues that could be pieced together to advance the storyline. In level one’s mystery he was introduced to the story of James Braxton, a man that worked the third shift at the Willow Creek Steel Mill. One night while having an argument with a coworker, James was pushed into the blast furnace. The perpetrator left the scene and there were no other witnesses. It was up to Paul to find all of the evidence and have the murderer convicted.

During one particularly realistic cut scene of the murder, Paul had ordered Scotty off to bed. Scotty protested at first, but soon relented. Paul finished solving the case by himself, and was pleased with his work when the police finally slapped the handcuffs on the murderer in the final cut scene of level one. The game automatically saved his progress.

Paul’s phone rang. He looked at his watch – 12:37.

“C’mon, you’re going to wake up Scotty,” he whispered as he reached for the phone. He answered it.

“Hello?”

“Thank you for setting me free.”

Paul pulled the phone away from his ear to glance at the screen – unknown caller. “Who is this?” he demanded.

“James Braxton.”

“Who?”

“James. From Willow Creek. You solved my case.”

Paul was taken aback. He glanced at the television screen which now displayed a dialogue box, beaconing: Continue to Level 2?

“Who is this really? And where did you get my number?”

“I told you – I’m James from Willow Creek. I just wanted to thank you for solving my case. Now I’m free. I only had about six weeks left before reaching the dreaded one year mark. Thank God you came along. No one else had solved my case yet. I even-”

“Where did you get my number?” Paul interrupted.

“From Chameleon, of course.”

“What the…” Paul trailed off as the phone slipped from his hand and landed with a thud on the carpet. His mouth slacked open in disbelief. He looked down at the phone. The illuminated screen stared back up at him. He could still hear the muffled voice at the other end. He grabbed the phone and shut it off as quickly as he could.

Paul’s heart was racing and drops of sweat began to form on his brow as he switched off the game console and the TV set. He was bathed in silence and in the darkness of his living room. After a long moment to gather his thoughts and to allow his pulse to settle, he quietly snuck into Scotty’s room where he watched his son sleep peacefully for several minutes. Paul was not able to fall asleep himself until nearly 4:00AM. He could not shake the uneasy feeling of the phone call. His last thought before finally drifting off into slumber was how useless he was going to be at work later that day.

– – – – –

Paul awoke in a fog at first, but then jolted upright when he saw the time on his bedside clock – 10:23. The room was washed in dim shades of gray as a heavy rain beat steadily at the roof and windows. Apparently Paul had forgotten to set his alarm amidst the chaos that followed his completion of level one. After the utterance of a few choice profanities and throwing off the bed sheets, he darted into Scotty’s room. His empty bed was neatly made. In the kitchen Paul found a note:

You were sleeping so well, I made my own breakfast. I have to catch the bus soon. Love, Scotty

Paul sighed and felt like such a failure as a father. It was in moments like these that he wished Laura were still there. He missed her in so many ways, and her penchant for organization, though annoying at times, was something he undeniably needed in his life. Paul stared into blank space as he relived in his mind the accident that took her. Once he snapped out of the vision he decided to call in sick to work. Afraid to turn on his cell phone, he made the call from his land line.

After a quick breakfast, Paul debated with himself about whether or not to continue the game. He finished off a cigarette as he rehashed the events of the previous night. As unnerving as it had been for him at the time, it now seemed like nothing more than a strange coincidence with a wrong number. A very strange coincidence, but how else could it be explained? Besides, Paul was never one to back away from a challenge. He had to finish the game.

The console booted up, the disc spun, and the title screen gave way to the dialogue box: Continue to Level 2? Paul confirmed the “Yes” selection.

The second case for Detective Charleston was that of a housing developer who had dug up human remains while leveling a lot for construction. The site of the discovery was roped off and it was the objective of the player to properly collect all of the evidence and determine who the remains belonged to and what had happened to them. Paul was meticulous in his actions and was careful to think of every possible piece of evidence. He collected samples for DNA testing. He interviewed the former landowner, the construction foreman, and the equipment operator who had made the discovery. He pored over photographs of the crime scene.

Little by little he pieced together the story of a woman that had been kidnapped and murdered. She had been carjacked and a fiery accident was staged to cover up the disappearance. She was then held captive by her abductor until he finally did away with her and buried the remains. The case was solved in its entirety when the DNA test results came back. There were two DNA profiles in the samples – one for the perpetrator, who turned out to be a known troublemaker in Willow Creek – and the other for the victim, Laura Donovan.

Paul threw the controller aside. His pulse immediately increased to the point that he could feel his neck throbbing. His ears rang and he began shaking.

“There’s….no way.” He choked on the words. Tears welled up in his eyes as he recalled the circumstances surrounding Laura’s death. The car had burned beyond recognition. The funeral was closed casket. Had something more happened to her? Had she not died at the scene as this game was suggesting?

“What are you?” he screamed at the television, his face dark red. There was no answer, just the ever-increasing throbbing of his pulse, now audible in his ears, and the prompt on the screen: Continue to Level 3?

Paul rushed over and unplugged the game system. The TV screen shone solid blue. With the exception of the pounding rain outside, silence enveloped the house. He paced around the living room, wrestling in his own mind for answers. How was this possible? There’s no way it was all a coincidence!

The wall phone rang.

The sound of the mechanical bell was jolting, threatening to split Paul’s head in two. He agonized at the thought of the caller’s identity. Most people did not have his home phone number.

“No! Please, no! Don’t do this to me!” His initial reaction was one of terror, but what if it really was Laura calling? What if he’d somehow released her from the clutches of the game just as James claimed that he’d done in his case? Ridiculous! Paul thought, She’s dead! He made his way over to the phone mounted on the kitchen wall.

“Hello?” Paul said this with great caution, the way an intimidated child would approach an angry parent.

“Paul Donovan?” It was a woman’s voice.

“Yes.”

“This is Janice Pendleton from Roosevelt Elementary School. We were just calling to check on your son, Scotty, since he was absent today.”

Paul was at a loss for words.

Janice continued, “We couldn’t reach you on your cell phone, but we found this alternate number in Scotty’s file.”

“You’re telling me he didn’t show up today?”

There was a pause of confusion before Janice delicately replied, “Yes sir, we found it odd since he rarely misses a day. So we wanted to check…” She trailed off.

“He left for school as usual this morning,” Paul said, “I mean, I was sleeping, but…” He realized that no matter what he said next it would make him sound like a negligent parent. He began to weep and tried his best to hide this from Janice, but she was able to pick up on it.

“Mr. Donovan, if you’re saying you don’t know where he is either… Do you want us to notify the authorities?”

No longer attempting to hide his sobbing he managed to blurt out, “Yes. Please!” then wept uncontrollably, dropping the phone receiver. It hit the kitchen wall with a hard thud and swung there by its cord as Paul sank to the floor.

– – – – –

Paul spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening at the police station. He answered a barrage of questions from multiple officers and detectives. He filled out endless amounts of paperwork. He pleaded with everyone he encountered to stop wasting time and find his son. The officers convinced Paul that they would do everything in their power and then persuaded him to go home in case Scotty returned. “That’s how many of these cases resolve themselves in the early stages,” one officer had told him.

The rain had subsided by the time Paul returned home, leaving wet streets and walkways. He unlocked his front door and entered the darkness. The house was silent.

“Scotty?” he called, standing in the doorway. “Are you here?” But there was no response.

Paul knew that if he were to simply sit around the house waiting he would go insane, so he booted up his computer to revisit the message board thread about the game – and to give this Chameleon guy a piece of his mind. As the computer was starting up he gazed at a framed photo on the desktop. The picture was of himself, Laura and Scotty taken at a family reunion during a much happier time in their lives. He fought tears again and then turned the photo face down on the desk. The computer was ready.

He navigated to the message board and found the thread. He noticed two things that had happened since he had last been there. First, the user Chameleon01 was no longer listed. Everywhere he had posted, his username was replaced by an icon with the text No Longer A Registered User. The other item of interest was that the tread had been locked by moderators after the argument about the mysterious game grew much more intense. As Paul was reading the heated exchange he heard the front door open. A sigh of relief washed over him and an impossibly large smile crossed his face.

“Scotty!” he yelled. He ran down the hallway. “Scotty, you’re home! Thank God! You had me so worr-”

Paul stopped dead in his tracks when he turned the corner to face the front door. Scotty had not come home. But Laura had.

– – – – –

Even though she had lost weight and appeared sickly, Laura’s embrace felt like home. It was comfortable and familiar, although it had been almost a year since Paul had experienced it. They lingered in the doorway in that position before either of them spoke.

Finally, Paul pulled back, his hands remaining on her shoulders, and asked, “Laura, is it really you? How is this possible?”

“It’s really me! You freed me! It’s so good to be home.” Paul was awestruck as they resumed the embrace. They kissed passionately for several minutes. Once the disbelief of her presence lessened, Paul led Laura over to the couch to question her about all that had happened.

“I don’t even know where to start, Laura. I was playing this video game and I-”

“I know, Paul. I know. Let me tell you everything that happened to me.”

Paul nodded and listened intently.

“I didn’t die in the car crash,” Laura began. “He took me.”

“Who took you?”

“This ‘thing’ that calls himself The Chameleon.”

Paul’s stomach sank and his brow creased as he tried to make sense of this.

“Took you where, exactly?”

“After he abducted me and burned my car, I woke up in a holding cell. There were hundreds of us in there, stacked in cages lining the walls. I don’t think the place is even in this realm. He told us that if someone solved our case in the game he would send us back to ‘the real world’. And when I was released, I passed through some sort of portal and wound up in the sewer tunnels under Hamilton Square.”

“What in the world? That sounds crazy, Laura!”

“I know it does, Paul. But you’ve got to believe me. It’s happening.”

“But what is he getting out of this? I mean, why not just make a game without the human collateral?”

“I think the human collateral is the point. It’s some kind of a sick game to him. The cages are stacked around the perimeter of a very large warehouse-like room. In the center of the room is a stage where people whose cases aren’t solved within one year are creatively…” she began crying, “…dispatched in gruesome ways.” Laura leaned over to embrace Paul again, her tears dampening his shoulder. “I saw terrible things, Paul. And my time on the stage was only two weeks away.”

The gravity of this hit Paul like a ton of bricks. He rubbed her back.

“You saved me, Paul. Thank you.”

“I have to tell you something, Laura,” he said after a contemplative pause, “Scotty is missing.”

“I know,” Laura replied somberly, “he’s in the game.”

– – – – –

Paul sat in the dark living room and stared at the prompt on the screen. Continue to Level 3? After selecting “Yes” and while waiting for the case to load, he closed his eyes and hoped beyond measure that the case he would be presented with was Scotty’s. Laura watched silently from the couch. The familiar cut scene played showing the entrance into Detective Charleston’s office. Once Paul had control of the game, he opened the last case file and began reading.

He nearly burst into tears of joy when he read about a missing ten year old boy. His objective was to find the boy and have the kidnapper brought to justice.

“It must update through the internet connection,” Paul said to Laura. “The disc is just a gateway into the game. I’ll bet if I went back to level one again it would not be James’ case, but something new – one of Chameleon’s latest victims.” As Paul was saying this, he had the sudden realization that this would never end. He would be compelled from then on to spend every waking moment of his life playing this game, lest someone experience a gruesome death that he might have prevented. His conscience would never let him put it down.

Paul refocused on the task at hand. He worked the level three case as diligently as he knew how, talking to possible witnesses in Willow Creek and collecting evidence from the playground where the boy was last seen. Soon, he was at an impasse. He did not have enough evidence to figure out what had happened and he had no further ideas on how to proceed.

“What’s that store next to the playground?” Laura asked.

“I think it’s like a convenience store,” Paul replied.

“Can you go talk to them? Maybe there’s a security camera or something.”

“Brilliant!” Paul navigated Detective Charleston into the store and spoke with the manager. Moments later he was able to obtain the security camera footage from the time of the disappearance which showed the boy being stuffed into a car with a clear license number. Back at his office Detective Charleston ran the plate number and located the kidnapper. After the handcuffing scene, Paul was treated to a congratulatory message for having solved the case in level 3.

And they waited.

The house remained quiet, and it did not take long for Paul to become frustrated. He paced nervously in the living room.

“Where is he? I solved his case.”

“Give it more time, Paul. Remember, it took me several hours to make it back here after being released.”

Paul nodded, but it did not calm him. He stepped out onto the front porch for another cigarette and to watch for a boy to come running toward him in the distance. When this did not happen, he darted out into the middle of the front yard, gazed out into the darkness with his arms outstretched and yelled, “Give me my son back! Take me instead! You hear me? You come take me instead!”

Dogs barked in the distance. Paul collapsed onto the lawn. When he finally looked up, he saw Scotty moving toward him. He wasn’t running, but walking slowly. He was reaching up with his left hand as if being led by a much taller adult, but Paul did not see anyone walking next to him. As Scotty approached, Paul could barely make out the vague outline of a tall cloaked figure holding Scotty’s hand.

In a moment, Scotty was in Paul’s arms. The outlined figure stood over them. It was not translucent, but entirely solid, yet it took on the perfect semblance of the surroundings behind it. If Paul were to reach out and touch it, his hand would not pass through it, but meet resistance as real as any other body. It stood motionless and silent – and waited.

Laura burst from the front door and off the porch into the yard.

“Scotty!” she called to him.

“Momma?”

“It’s me, baby! It’s really me!”

As they hugged and wept together, Paul turned his attention toward the nearly indiscernible cloaked figure. It was at least eight feet tall by his best estimation. Paul was still kneeling when the figure’s cloak parted at the bottom, revealing a blackness that could only be rivaled by the deepest, darkest cave. The entity stepped forward and absorbed Paul. The edges of the cloak reunited and all was silent.

“No!” Laura’s scream was drawn out and ended with hysterical wailing as she realized that only she and Scotty remained in the front yard.

– – – – –

Somewhere in an inaccessible nether world Paul slowly awoke in his fourth-storey cage. He heard the wailing of all the other occupants in their cells, though he could not see them. On the wall in his small dark cage was a placard with two dates written on it. The first was the date of his imprisonment, and the second was the date exactly one year from then. Suddenly there was commotion below as a slightly overweight man was led by the cloaked figure onto the spot-lit stage in the center of the arena below. The man was manacled to a post with a sinister-looking mechanical device positioned behind him. Paul had already closed his eyes by the time the machine was started up. He did not want to see what it was or what was going to happen to the man. However, the screams he heard would never leave his mind.

– – – – –

Seven hundred fifty miles away from Paul Donovan’s earthly home, a middle-aged man known in certain internet gaming circles as 00Raven00 opened a padded envelope that had been sitting on his kitchen counter for several days. He inserted the plain disc into his gaming system and watched the opening sequence. Once he had control of the game he opened the file folder on Detective Charleston’s desk. Apparently a man named Paul had been pushed in front of a subway train by another person who then fled the station, according to witness statements in the file.

Being primarily an action-based gamer 00Raven00’s patience wore thin quickly, and he spent only fifteen minutes exploring for clues before giving up.

“Psssshh. This isn’t even scary,” he declared, and switched the system off.

Credit: moonlit_cove

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Roommate Troubles

May 15, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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This actually happened to me a few years back at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

My sophomore year, I roomed with a girl named Kara. She was a jazz vocalist, but her main interest was opera. We had a small room on the sixth floor of a dormitory called Juniper Hall. The walls were thin, and her late night singing and voice practices would keep me up late. After a month or so of lost sleep, I convinced her to move her late night practices to the music studios in the Merriam theater building a block away.

Around eight o’clock one evening, Kara announced that she would be practicing late for an upcoming recital and probably wouldn’t be home until around midnight. Great, I thought, that means I can go to bed early (I was beat… I had a horrible day in acting studio, and was ready to pass out as soon as I had dinner). She said goodnight and left, coffee and sheet music in hand.

I made some grilled cheese and soup, gobbled it down, and immediately began to prepare for bed. By the time I got out of the shower, my eyelids were so heavy I could hardly brush my teeth. I pulled on my PJ’s and crawled into the top bunk of our bunk bed. I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow.

I should take a second to describe the layout of our apartment. When entering the apartment, the bedroom was through a door immediately to the left. Our bathroom was inside the bedroom, just past the bunk beds (UArts is nice in the sense that you don’t have to share bathrooms).

Anyway, I woke up to the sound of the apartment door closing. I opened my eyes, and groggily checked my phone: midnight on the dot. I rolled back over and closed my eyes. I heard Kara enter the room and stop in front of the bunk bed. Checking to see if I’m actually asleep, I thought. She flopped down on the bed below me, which was strange, as she was a stickler for brushing her teeth and washing up before bed. Then again, exams were just around the corner, and we were all exhausted. The mattress below me creaked, and then was silent. I couldn’t even hear her breathing.

I started to drift off again. I was just on the edge of deep sleep when I was startled awake again by a noise.

A key in the lock. The door opening.

And Kara entering our apartment, humming an opera tune.

The mattress below me creaked.

Credit: Jessi Cosgrove

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The Monster in the Pantry

May 11, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I have found many times in my life that strange occurrences are a staple in human culture. Ghostly apparitions, UFOs, Bigfoot, and others are all prominent in our lives, one way or another. You may not think of them all that often, but eventually there is a story in the news, or a tidbit of information from a friend or a passerby that makes you recall such oddities. At some point or another, no matter how many times you forget about the subject, you will think of it again. I had forgotten all about the monster living in my mom’s pantry for several years. I had forgotten all about it, that is, until now.

I was only ten years old when I had first been told about the monster. It was a normal evening at my house – my mom and I awaited my father’s arrival and I helped her cook dinner. I look back on these memories fondly as I enjoyed my mother’s company and was delighted whenever my father came home each night. I had a picture-perfect childhood, save one peculiarity. Whatever resided in the pantry would reveal itself, if only audibly, that very night.

I was cutting vegetables up for my mom’s famous beef and barley soup when I heard a scratching at the pantry door. I jumped and nearly cut off one of my fingers in the process. My mom looked over at the pantry and then looked at me with a concerned smile. I looked to her for an answer, seeing as I had no private theories on the matter. We had just come from the pantry and shut the door. There was nothing in there at the time, and nothing could have made its way in after. Rats maybe? No, no. The noise was far too loud to be such a small animal. My thoughts were put to rest when my mom spoke.

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

“What is ‘it’, mom?” I asked, still confused.

“I can’t be certain, sweetie, but it’s been here ever since we moved in. Sometimes it scratches at the door, other times it knocks food off of the shelves. Some nights it doesn’t make a sound at all.”

I was bewildered and scared at the same time. My mother noticed this.

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

“Is it…a monster?” Though my mother’s words were comforting, I could not be certain that they were true.

“No, of course not.”

Just then, the scratching started up again. I jumped for a second time. My mother then walked over to the pantry door. I was scared for her life.

“Here. Look…”

She opened the door as the scratching continued. Just as the door became ajar, the noise ceased.

“See, sweetie. It’s just as scared of you as you are of it. There is nothing to be frightened of.”

No matter what she said, my ten year old heart couldn’t help but race. I was afraid and couldn’t help it. For years, I continued to help my mother cook, but I never once set foot back in that pantry. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was convinced that the thing living in there was a monster. The fear was kept alive by the occasional sounds of whatever was in there. I would try to ignore it, but sometimes I would have to leave the kitchen. Eventually, the noises stopped all together.

It has now been many years since then, and both of my parents have passed away. My mother died of a heart attack and my father died just weeks later of lung cancer (He always did have a bad habit of smoking, even in the house). It was expected, as I had been in and out of hospitals for many months, visiting the two of them. In their wills, I was left the house, as I was their only child.

It took me quite a while to come to terms with their deaths, especially living in the house that we had spent so much time together in. Although difficult, I did eventually accept the situation, and it became a whole lot easier to cope. The house itself no longer reminded me of their deaths, but instead reminded me of little memories here and there that would put a small smile on my face. Sometimes I would walk into the living room and see my dad sitting on his chair, smoking a cigarette, and watching TV. I would sometimes still see my mom cooking in the kitchen and getting ready for dinner. These were the little things that kept me going each day. I actually enjoyed living in that house again…until one day.

I had just gotten home from work when it happened. I sat down on my dad’s chair and flipped on the TV to unwind. A thought then crossed my mind – aside from the tobacco, I had actually become my father. Thinking of that actually made me smile. This is when I heard an all too familiar, scratching noise coming from the pantry door in the kitchen. My smile quickly vanished.

I jumped up and walked out to the kitchen to investigate. The scratching continued and became louder. I looked at the pantry door, hoping an answer would jump out at me, but also hoping that whatever was in there wouldn’t do the same. Of course, neither of these things happened, forcing me to actually open the door. I hesitantly did so as the scratching went on.

Much to my anticipation, the noises ceased and I found nothing behind the door but empty shelves and an old broom. This is exactly what happened when my mom opened the door years ago. She, however, had the shelves fully stocked. I think I subliminally stayed away from the pantry, having been so scared of it as a child. My food remained in the cabinets and fridge, with absolutely nothing in the pantry itself.

I was no longer a frightened child, but the return of the scratching noises was still unsettling, not to mention bothersome. I didn’t hear it for years before this, but now it happened everyday, like clockwork. As soon as I got home from work, there was scratching. Sometimes I would even wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of it. It would not stop until I opened the pantry door. Then of course the noise would cease, and I would find nothing behind the door. This routine continued for almost a year, but one night something changed.

I was lying in bed, trying to sleep when the scratching sound started up once more. I groaned in anger, not wishing to leave the comfort of my bed for anything, much less that damned noise. Because of this, I did not get up right away to open the pantry door. I just laid there, as tired as ever. After a few minutes, something odd happened. The sound of scratching had stopped. Now don’t get me wrong, this was great. I didn’t want to leave my bed anyhow, but the noise had never done this before. I was curious as to why.

I got up out of bed and ventured down to the kitchen, on the hunt for answers. What I saw alarmed me. The pantry door…it was wide open. This could not be, I had shut it earlier that night when I got home from work, the first time I heard the noise that day. I quickly turned the pantry light on to reveal absolutely nothing. For the first time since I was a child, I was frightened of the “monster” living in the pantry. Whatever it actually was, I think it had escaped.

I scoured the house in fear for almost an hour, looking for whatever it was that had gotten loose. I was scared – actually scared. After going through every last room in the house, I took a deep breath and collected my thoughts. What was I doing? This was ridiculous. I was on the hunt for something imaginary. Sure, there was scratching on the door every night, but maybe it was a large rat, or a raccoon. Maybe I actually did leave the door open the last time I heard the noise. Who knows? I managed to calm myself down as I made my way back to the kitchen to close the pantry door. That’s when I noticed something that I had not seen previously. There were deep scratch marks on the inside of the door. Those were never there before. Even as a child my mom had checked for any markings in the wood and there were none. What was happening here?

I backed up into the living room in awe, keeping my eyes on the pantry door and its mysterious scratch marks. I rubbed my eyes a few times to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. I even pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Surely enough, it was all too real and I had no explanation for it. After a few more seconds of private confusion, I watched as a figure ran into the pantry at high speed and the door shut behind it. I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t make out what the figure was, but I ran over to the pantry and opened the door to find out.

With my heart racing, I opened the door and turned the light on. Once again, I found nothing. I quickly shut off the light, shut the door, and piled a bunch of stuff in front of it, including my dad’s chair. I ran up to my bed, and hid under my covers as if I were a kid again, scared shitless of the monster living in my mom’s pantry. My late night adventure had come to an end.

After the adrenaline and fear tapered off, I was able to get some sleep. I woke up and pretended that nothing had happened the night previous. I just did what I usually did; put my clothes on, brushed my teeth, ate some breakfast, and headed off to work. I tried to keep the pantry and its resident as far from my thoughts as possible.

Throughout the day, I found it hard to focus. I could barely function properly, let alone get any work done. My boss noticed this and asked me if I wanted to leave early and get some rest. I almost shouted the word “no” at him, begging him to let me stay. I wanted to be nowhere near my house. Luckily, he obliged.

Even though I was able to stay at work, I had to clock out eventually. Despite my tiredness, the day went by too quickly, and I found myself home once again. I dreaded it. Even the memories of my parents could not help me now. I wanted nothing to do with this cursed house anymore. Despite my inner outburst, I still opened the front door and walked in.

I was greeted with the sound of scratching, but this time it was louder than it had ever been before. The scratching quickly turned into a thunderous banging at the pantry door. The things I had piled in front of it were actually moving a bit. Whatever it was that was in there really wanted to get out this time.

I was as scared as I had been the night before, but I was also sick of the ordeal. I was being pushed beyond my means and I needed it all to stop. I walked over to the pantry and removed the items I had piled in front of it. The banging continued. I took a moment to mentally prepare myself. After a few seconds, I swung the door open.

There, sitting behind the door, was a dog. It just sat there and looked up at me in confusion. I looked at it in the same manner. How could this be? After giving me a once over, the dog walked over to me and nuzzled up against my leg. Naturally, I reached down and pet it, just like I would a normal dog – but this dog was not normal. After a few minutes of getting to know each other, the dog walked back into the pantry and vanished before my very eyes. It… it was a ghost.

My fear was no longer existent. I would come home to the sound of scratching at the pantry door and I would smile. I now opened the door not to see nothing behind it, but instead to let my new friend out. He would walk around the house and explore like a normal dog, and he would even sit down and watch television with me from time to time. Whenever someone came over, however, he would vanish. He seemed to be the shy type. The house was pretty old and had quite a few owners before my parents, so I assumed this little guy was the ghost of a dog that previously lived here. I guess he just couldn’t let go of the place. Neither could I; especially now.

After a few weeks of playing and bonding with the dog, I realized that I had nothing to call him. I walked over to him and began petting him on the neck. That was his favorite spot. I thought about it for a moment and then came up with the perfect name.

“I will call you… Monster.”

Credit: Christopher Maxim

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Eustace

May 9, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I was always terrified of doctors above all else, so by the time I finally steeled myself enough to go, the cancer had metastasized in both breasts. I sat numbly in Dr. Kerden’s office, as she droned on about my options. She never berated me for my stupidity. She didn’t have to; her bewilderment and restrained contempt bled through the sympathetic tones she spoke about chemotherapy in.

The bottom line was suffocatingly simple: if the treatments and surgeries were successful (Dr. Kerden could not have stressed the “if” more if she had scrawled it in lipstick on the desk)my chance of surviving more than five years was about twenty two percent.

I was only twenty four and all my plans – marriage to my fiance,future children, a full-fledged career in travel photography – had just been yanked from my feet and placed on a high shelf I had a seventy-eight percent chance of never reaching.

Oddly, out of all those bricks that had just crashed down on my head, the one that broke the dam and spilled my tears was the realization that even if -if!- I survived, married Ben, had children, I would never breast feed them. There was no chance of saving my breasts at that point. To this day, I’ve never figured out why that was what hit me hardest.

Normally I would have argued every inch of a medical procedure. Not this time. I signed papers numbly, barely glancing at the black print that swam in and out of focus. Waivers. Insurance proof. Next of kin. Emergency contacts.

I don’t even remember going home and packing my bag for the hospital that night. I must have talked to Ben, I know, because he was in that sterile room late into the night before the nurses finally kicked him out.

Dr. Kerden, as it turned out, was my polar opposite when it came to medical procrastination; chemo started within the next few days. Let me tell you right now, the chemo patients you see on tv shows and movies don’t tell half the story of the suffering you really go through.

When I looked in the mirror after the first treatment, I saw the most exhausted woman I’d ever seen looking back at me. By the third treatment, she looked more dead than alive. Yellowing skin, hollowed eyes, thin, cracked lips in spite of all the clinical chapstick the nurses gave me. Ben used to tease me for my “baby face” (because he was too sweet to straight up admit that my round face was a tad bit pudgy) and now that face was lined, the round cheeks sunken in. I looked forty.

I would feel dead if I wasn’t hobbling to the bathroom every day, the retching of my stomach gleefully proclaiming: “Yes! Yes we are alive! Ain’t it just fucking grand?!”

Four months. I caved and had Ben bring his electric razor. I was past crying at that point, watching shreds of black hair, once so soft and shiny, fall into a hospital trashcan. Ben hadn’t reached that point just yet, I noticed as he quietly sniffled. He would, I knew.

That night, after Ben had been kicked out by the night nurse, I gave up trying to sleep, and snatched my current forget-I’m-dying-of-cancer book off my bedside table. I had been limping through the book only a few minutes when it dawned on me that I wasn’t alone in my hospital room anymore; a small man in a patchwork coat and a battered top hat was sitting in Ben’s vacated chair.

I stared at him stupidly above the edge of the book, instinctively hiding my young-old face as much as I could. He smiled encouragingly and offered a little wave. His hair was all hidden beneath that oversized hat, but his curly beard was a very bright ginger.

“Um, visiting hours are over,” I offered after a moment.

His smile widened into a grin and he doffed his hat in acknowledgment. “True enough, lass, but visiting hours are only for visitors.”

I blinked in surprise. For his small frame – he didn’t look much bigger than my thirteen-year-old nephew – his voice was surprisingly deep.

“Can I help you with something?” I fumbled for the remote with the nurse call button. “Are you looking for someone? The nurse should help…”

He stilled me with a dismissive wave and a laugh. “Oh no need for that, lass. I was looking for you, as it happened.”

I squinted at him, less alarmed by his potential stalking than the fact that he seemed to be flickering in and out like a candle flame – now solid, now faint as a ghost. Relief washed over me as I finally figured it out.

“I’m hallucinating,” I explained out loud. “The pain killers are kicking in, and I’m hallucinating a homeless leprechaun in my room.”

The walls shook with his laughter, as he kicked his feet in glee. He wiped tears from the corners of his eyes.

“If I had known you would be this delightful, I probably would have come to you a lot sooner.”

Had I been in any normal, non-drugged state of mind, I would have summoned the nurse then and there. Instead I unconsciously loosened my grip dropped the remote on the floor.

“Who are you?” I finally thought to ask. “What do you want from me? I don’t have a lot of money to spare at the moment….”

He flapped his hand in good-natured dismissal again.

“I don’t want anything from you, Anna. If anything I’m here for your benefit. I’ve brought you a gift of sorts.”

The short bark of laughter that escaped me was nothing like the frequent belly laughs I had had four months ago.

“What? You’re going to cure my cancer?”

He raised an eyebrow silently. Abruptly, my laughter dried up and I felt my cynical smile slide off my face. All of my family’s sworn to be true tales about demons and spirits came crashing down around me at once.

“You’re the devil and you want my soul,” I accused him.

He sniffed as though offended. “I’m Eustace, not a demon,” he countered, “and YOU summoned ME. I’m just here to give you what you want.”

Eustace? “I didn’t summon you.”

He sighed. “You read the fifth word of the third paragraph on the twenty-sixth page of ‘Prince Caspian’ at exactly forty-five seconds past one o’clock in the morning on April the fourteenth. You summoned me.”

I gaped at him. “What the hell kind of ritual is that??”

He winked. “The kind I change about every five minutes or so. Makes the odds of someone actually calling me to them microcosmic.”

I paused. “You don’t want people to summon you? Why?”

He chuckled. “By now with all of your social media, all of you humans should have learned a long time ago – the biggest pricks are the ones who come seeking you out. The best people you ever meet will fall into your life by accident.”

I raised my hands in a warding off gesture. “Look, if I summoned you, I seriously did not mean to. I don’t want three wishes, or wealth or any of that crap. I don’t want to give up my soul or my first-born or whatever it is you trade in. Please go away.”

He peered at me earnestly, actually clasping his little hands together like one of Dickens’ orphans. “I told you, Anna, I don’t want your soul. There is no trade to be made; beating the odds enough to summon me seals the bargain. You have earned my luck, and I’m afraid it is yours whether you want it or not.”

“Your…luck?”

He nodded seriously and hopped up out of the chair. Standing, he would barely have come up to where my breasts had once been. He crossed over to my bedside and took my shock-limp hand in his own.

I realized with a start that behind his roguish grin and humor, his eyes were incredibly lonely. His hands held mine with deference, even gentleness.

“Yes, Anna. From this day onward, you will have my luck – however high the odds are stacked, you will always beat them.”

“And what do I have to give up in return?” The words fell nearly inaudibly from my trembling lips.

He smiled almost sadly. “A few minutes spent talking to a lonely old spirit that no one has summoned in a long, long time.”

I had no words left. There we were, a dying woman and an impossible spirit in the ICU at Mercy Hospital. Almost unconsciously, I felt myself squeeze his hand. I swear, a look of naked startlement flitted across his face.

Then the cheery, careless grin was back on his face and the moment was over. He patted my hand distantly and stepped back.

“One word of warning I must offer,” he said. “You humans rely on luck much less than you really know. This gift will change your life, and you must be prepared to change with it.”

He straightened his coat, doffed his hat, and winked out of my room.

The shrill beeping of my empty IV bag woke me up the next morning. I groaned. I felt like I had been hit with a truck; another unfortunate side effect of coming down off the painkiller cushion between you and the chemo.

The morning nurse came in swiftly and shut off the beeping and busied herself replacing the bag. I glanced at the clock. It was five-thirty, and time for my morning blood draw to see if I was dying any faster today than yesterday.

I pushed my encounter with Eustace to the back of my brain until a week later. I was spooning up the last of my jello cup when my current Doctor came in.

He smiled at me automatically over his clipboard as he flipped through the pages.

“Good morning, Miss Hall. How are you feeling today?”

I didn’t respond. He wasn’t offended. We both knew how I was doing. Suddenly he stopped flipping, gave the clipboard a hard look, and then, wonder of wonders, actually raised his eyes and looked me in the face.

“You’re in remission.”

“What?”

He shook himself, recovering from his slip. “According to your recent blood work and biopsy, the spread of the cancerous cells has stopped. It also appears that the existent cells seem to be dying at an increasing rate.”

I could feel my lips trembling. “The cancer is dying? So I … I beat it?”

He offered me a sympathetic smile. “It’s a little early to tell, Miss Hall. We are definitely going to be monitoring this closely, but things are looking up.”

As it turned out, things were more than looking up; I went home two weeks later. I would still be getting regular scheduled blood work, of course, and a whole score of other tests to make sure that my cancer was actually gone. There was a fair chance that in the next few years the cancer could reoccur.

You might be thinking that I’d be drinking champagne, eating all the food I couldn’t have at the hospital, and having celebratory I’m-not-dead sex with Ben for days. Honestly, all I really wanted was a Tim Horton’s ham and swiss sandwich, and then to sleep in my own bed, in my own apartment for as long as possible.

Ben swung us by Tim’s on the way home. Turned out they were having a mini-event; we were the thousandth customers that day, so our meal was half off, with extra donuts thrown in with no charge.

Eating that vanilla creme, chocolate-iced donut after four months of peach jello was barely short of orgasmic. I think I actually moaned as I ate it, melting chocolate smeared on my cheek.

We managed to beat every rush-hour clog and hit every green light on the way home. Ben punched the air in triumph as we pulled into the driveway. That asshole in 2B who always took my parking spot wasn’t there yet.

Ben parked the car, ran around the front, and opened my door for me. I was still a bit wobbly on my feet, so he offered his arm like a true gentleman. Leaning heavily on him, I stepped into our apartment for the first time in almost five months.

The next few weeks blurred by. I hadn’t expended all my medical leave at Harnon’s Travel agency, but they still allowed me to come back to work a bit early. My hands fairly itched to hold my camera again.

Out of respect for the in-town doctors visits that I would still need for at least another month, my boss kindly set me on largely local assignments.

My photos and article on Alden Park, the local arboretum, actually generated enough interest to bring in a fair handful of tourists. No one marked it as their sole destination, of course, but a fair number of people nonetheless vacationing higher in the mountains read my article and thought it worth a detour to check it out.

As it happened, one of the tourists was the head editor of an internationally famous travel magazine. I found this out when I came in to work and he was sitting in my dinky cubicle, my complete portfolio already picked up from my office manager.

He seemed a little off-put by my appearance: my hair had only just started growing back, and the lines remained etched on my face, even though I had begun to gain some weight back. Nonetheless, he greeted me warmly and shook my hand, shifting my portfolio under his arm.

“Miss Hall? I’m George Mann, Editor in Chief at World Travels.”

I froze. World Travels was a legitimate, big time magazine. “Of course, Mr. Mann. What can I do for you today?”

Turned out he had taken an interest in my photos – he felt that lately most of the photographers working for World Travels were overlooking what he called the “smaller gems” (read anything nature heavy) choosing to focus on growing high-scale restaurants and developing up-town regions in various cities.

To cut a long story short, within ten days of getting back to work, I was offered a position that could legitimately spark off a career as a photographer. What are the odds?

I would have been an idiot not to have started connecting the dots at this point. It was becoming increasingly obvious that Eustace had not been a painkiller hallucination after all.

Still, I have always tried to take a logical, sensible approach to every mystery I’ve ever encountered, so I came up with an experiment that would make or break my theory.

I played the lottery. Not the small-prize scratch cards. I mean the BIG one, the multi-million dollar jackpot. Ben and I watched, slack-jawed, later that week when the powerball numbers were announced, watching as one by one, they matched up with my ticket.

Of course I never mentioned Eustace to Ben. It was enough that I knew he’d been real.

The next five years passed by like a dream. Despite the high risk I was at for a recurrence of cancer, it never struck. My hair grew back in it’s original color, without so much of a sprinkling of the expected gray. Ben and I were married and immediately found our dream house, paid for with a chunk of the lottery money. I privately blessed Eustace, at least at first.

I was on my lunch break, deciding to mix business with pleasure and cover a new soul-food style restaurant downtown. The barbeque ribs were spicy, balanced with just the right amount of sweetness. I took a large bite, and immediately felt a glass-shattering pain in my mouth.

One emergency trip to the dentist later revealed that as an unfortunate side effect of both the chemo and some of the drugs I had been on for cancer treatment years earlier, all of my teeth were slightly more brittle than they had been before.

I had shattered a back molar down to the root. Fortunately, the dentist peering at my outraged tooth informed me that it was actually one of my wisdom teeth, and not a true molar. That was the good news.

The worse news was that given the damage dealt, an extraction was the only real option on the table. I hate dental procedures worse than standard medical.

The doctor prescribed a penicillin derived antibiotic for after the extraction. The extraction itself actually went alright; it was after I had been taking the pills for two days that a quick ER trip revealed that I had apparently developed an allergy to all drugs in the penicillin family.

One full-body rash and a antibiotic switch later, I was back to work. Mr. Mann had become a pretty big fan of my work, and was giving me regular assignments now. The assignment folder on my desk today was for a piece on a section of the Appalachian trail and the small town in Vermont it opened up in. Full expense for air travel paid of course.

Since Ben was mainly freelance writing at this time, and could work anywhere he had access to wifi, I convinced him to come with me. We could try some maple candy and do a little hiking ourselves.

The odds of a plane crashing are actually pretty small, as are the odds of surviving it. When the plane went down over Pennsylvania, I survived. Ben didn’t.

When I stood at the foot of his coffin during his burial, I held an umbrella against the rain. I got struck by lightning. Twice. The photographs I took of the scars it left down my left arm and leg, alongside the entire story of how they came to be there fully cemented my career as a respected photographic journalist.

Looking at how my life has fallen in and out of pieces since Eustace stepped into it, I can’t hate him. I can’t say he cheated me, because I never gave him anything. I can’t say he lied to me, because he never once promised that the luck would be good.

There will always be odds stacked, but sometimes they are naturally stacked against you. Sometimes they are stacked in your favor. Eustace never promised I would only win; he just promised I would always manage to beat the odds. I can only say that he’s right on that count.

So I learned to stagger the odds against myself now and then. Now when it’s raining, I wear as much metal jewelry as I can decently fit on my body. When I go swimming, I only do it after a full meal. I do all of my jogging through dark alleyway late at night with my headphones cranked all the way up. If I have to be somewhere in a hurry, I stall for as long as possible and go through the highest traffic areas I can. I even under-cook all of my meat and fish just a little bit.

So far I’ve never been mugged, my health has been fairly steady, my career is wonderful, and I have enough money for a very comfortable life. On the other hand, my bed is empty every morning. Ben’s cologne never seems to wash out of his pillow. I still have the list of the names we wanted to give our children.

I can’t even really talk to a therapist about this because of how crazy it all sounds. Although I do suspect that given my luck, I would end up with the one doctor who happens to hold an un-confessed belief in the supernatural. I can’t even talk to a priest to bless away Eustace’s gift because I know deep down he told the truth when he said he was no demon.

Like it or not, the gift will be mine forever. And as Eustace advised, I’ve learned to cope with it. I don’t take high-reward risks anymore, learning to take pleasure in the small things. No fewer than fourteen times I have managed to catch perfect pictures of mother deer milking their fawns in wildflower fields. I can always find some small gem in the grimiest second hand stores.

As much as I miss Ben, I can’t be truly lonely either. I think the true gift Eustace gave me was this; since I met him, I have encountered some of the wildest, freest, and brightest minded people in the most unlikely places. They are the best people I’ve ever met, and they all found me by accident.

If there is one thing I still can take control of here, it is this; the odds are split even fifty-fifty on whether I will live a happy life.

What can I say? When all other odds are stacked, life has a funny way of evening out.

Credit: MJ

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